Harris: SEC’s funk in basketball continues

Associated Press photo by Wade PayneMercer guard Travis Smith drives against Tennessee guard Skylar McBee during the second half of the first-round game in the NIT. Mercer won 75-67.
Associated Press photo by Wade PayneMercer guard Travis Smith drives against Tennessee guard Skylar McBee during the second half of the first-round game in the NIT. Mercer won 75-67.

BY MATTHEW HARRIS

Advocate sportswriter

All apologies to Cuonzo Martin, but the Tennessee basketball coach can shush his gripes about scorn heaped on the Southeastern Conference.

You forfeit whining about the Volunteers being robbed of a NCAA tournament berth when your chief evidence is losing at home to Mercer in the National Invitation Tournament.

At Kentucky, coach John Calipari’s fatalism was on display before the ‘Cats lost Tuesday in the NIT to Robert Morris, school named after a fellow whose claim to fame is loaning the Continental Army roughly $15,000 during the American Revolution.

Meanwhile, Missouri’s Frank Haith’s assessment of an 84-72 loss to Colorado State during the Round of 64 at NCAA tournament occupied the other end of the spectrum.

It was a total disconnect.

“I’m very proud of what this team accomplished,” said Haith after the eighth-seeded Tigers allowed the Rams to shoot 58 percent in the first half and were slammed 42-19 on the boards.

Sadly, not many of the quickly diminishing SEC basketball fans not from Kentucky would agree.

On Friday, Ole Miss, which needed to win the SEC tournament to get in as a No. 12 seed, dispatched Wisconsin to quell the furor.

The SEC’s laments are trumped by its laughable displays in the early days of postseason play.

Honesty is the only policy now.

The SEC is in a funk, and, save a deep run from Florida, the conference should bite its tongue in response to criticism.

Yes, roughly half of the coaching positions have turned over in the past two seasons.

Yes, rosters are rife with youth and inexperience.

Yes, it’s wrong to draw conclusions in December when those programs are still trying to find cohesion.

But in March, for better or worse, a conference’s reputation can be buffed or scuffed over the next three weeks.

Until then, any spin from the conference must be recognized as solely that - no matter how Martin tries to spin its woes.

“I would say a lack of respect more than anything,” Martin said. “It’s almost like a mid-major mentality … This is one of the best leagues in America. It just shouldn’t happen.”

Well, when SEC squads lose to Mercer, Robert Morris, Tulane, Dayton, Marist, Iona, Loyola Chicago, Southern and Alabama A&M, the degree of respect tends to resemble that doled out to the Missouri Valley Conference, Conference USA and the West Coast Conference.

And it for bubble teams such as Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Ole Miss, there’s another scary reality: The SEC tournament became a make or break experience, a fact eerily familiar to mid-major programs.

“It shouldn’t be that way,” Martin said. “ If that’s the case, then we need to schedule like a mid-major league. Then, maybe we can get eight or nine teams in the tournament.”

Right now, the SEC should consider any solution.