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SEC trying to rebound from poor NCAA

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - With Kentucky once again leading the way, the football powerhouse Southeastern Conference is trying to reclaim that status in hoops after a mostly desolate postseason.

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The Wildcats - and 10 other SEC teams - were shut out of the NCAA tournament last season. Now, the coaches are predicting a resurgence, and John Calipari's newest crop of highly touted recruits appear to be at the forefront.

It can't get much worse for either the league or Kentucky, thanks to that program's unforgiving standards.

Florida was the only one of the three SEC participants to survive the NCAA tournament's first weekend. That poor performance came four years after SEC teams went 1-3 in the tournament but was still unusual.

Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings said history proves the league won't stay down.

``All conferences have ebbs and flows to them,'' Stallings said. ``Last year might not have been our best year, but don't be surprised if this year is dramatically, dramatically different than that. If we get six or seven teams in the tournament this year, which will not surprise me in the least, nobody will be talking about that any more.

``Every league has years to where they get less teams in the tournament than they're accustomed to getting because every league tends to go through an adjustment year from time to time. Last year was it for us, but it won't stay that way and everybody knows it.''

The SEC had at least five NCAA participants 12 years running starting in 1997, but has had three last year and in 2009. Florida has won two national titles and Kentucky one in the last eight years, though.

Missouri and Mississippi joined Florida in the NCAA field last season. The Gators made the regional finals for the third straight year.

Missouri coach Frank Haith said last year was a transition in the league with his program and Texas A&M joining and youngsters sprinkled throughout.

He predicts at least five teams to make the NCAA tournament this season.

``We had a lot of teams like Vanderbilt that lost a lot of players to the league,'' Haith said. ``It wasn't just Kentucky. It was a young league.''

Youth isn't always bad - particularly for Kentucky.

Calipari brought in eight freshmen, including preseason SEC player of the year Julius Randle. A repeat one-and-done trip to the NIT appears less likely than an NCAA run.

The SEC is more known for football programs that have collected seven straight national titles. Haith thinks calling it a football league would be wrong.

``I think a lot of times because football's so doggoned good, it takes away from how good our basketball is in this league,'' he said. ``Traditionally you go back this last decade, we've won a couple of national championships in this league. I think there's really good tradition in this league basketball-wise.''

Avoiding a repeat of that embarrassing performance was a priority for the SEC in the offseason. Schools had to run their nonconference schedules by the league offices to make sure they passed muster.

SEC teams lost to the likes of Mercer, Tulane, Wintrhop, Youngstown State, Alabama A&M, Elon, Southern and Marist.

The season ended with six SEC teams ranked 100th or lower in the Ratings Percentage Index, and Arkansas 99th. That left Texas A&M (105), Vanderbilt (111), Georgia (143), South Carolina (228), Mississippi State (230) and Auburn (250) trying to return to respectability.

Stallings said bad teams will be bad no matter how strong their nonconference schedule is, but that coaches needed to remember that a weak strength of schedule can impact the rest of the league's power ratings.

``I think that Commissioner (Mike) Slive, and rightfully so, is demanding that we be a little bit more aware of that,'' Stallings said.

AP NEWS
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The Associated Press
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