Guerry Clegg commentary: SEC basketball slogging through lackluster year

sports@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 12, 2013 

Before building Columbus State basketball into a Peach Belt Conference force, Herbert Greene helped Sonny Smith build Auburn into a national player as Smith's top assistant coach.

Greene has been out of the game for four years, a disclaimer he issued several times. But he has watched a lot of college basketball this year, including Auburn, Georgia and Alabama. He doesn't have to break down video tapes to see why the college game in general -- and those programs in particular -- are becoming increasingly hard to watch.

"They don't have good enough players," Greene said. "Now, how to get them, I don't have a clue. Where they are at, I don't have a clue. But they are not good enough."

The SEC men's basketball tournament opens today in Nashville, Tenn. Auburn plays Texas A&M today. Georgia opens Thursday against LSU. Alabama, by virtue of finishing in a three-way tie for second in the watered-down league, opens Friday against Tennessee or the A&M/Auburn winner.

There was a time when that bit of news would raise the pulse of college basketball fans in the area. But judging by the records of Auburn, Georgia and Alabama this year -- not to mention the number of empty seats -- there's some question as to whether those programs still have much of a pulse at all.

Auburn finished at the bottom of the SEC with a 3-15 conference record. Georgia treaded water at 9-9. Alabama fared better at 12-6, but that record was deceptively inflated in a league awash with mediocrity.

Smith has been out of coaching longer than Greene but has a closer seat now as a broadcaster. He agreed with Greene's assessment and has a few theories.

"The coaches are good. I don't think it's coaching," Smith said. "I think it's more of a players' game than a coaches' game. The coaches used to hold summer camps and have clinics on fundamentals. Now, kids go to camps and just play all the time. They don't work on fundamentals."

Fundamentals such as shooting and passing drills.

The game has degenerated into driving to the basket, shooting off the dribble or passing back out for 3-pointers, many of which are rushed but fired up anyway. Defense resembles MMA fighting.

"The officials let them get away with anything," Smith said.

That accounts how the college game as a whole has deteriorated. But that doesn't explain why the SEC has fallen off, and the area schools in particular.

It starts with recruiting, and recruiting starts with coaches. Georgia's Mark Fox draws universal praise for how he prepares his teams. But the bottom line is recruiting, and Fox has been unable to land many of the top in-state prospects. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from Greenville has been outstanding, but he doesn't have much help. Tony Barbee came to Auburn three years ago as a coach with a reputation for running an up-tempo game. But Barbee's SEC record is just 12-38.

Alabama's Anthony Grant has fared better, with a 37-24 SEC record. But despite tying for second in the league, Bama is no lock to gain an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

It doesn't help that the coaches don't have the personalities that they did 20 years ago. Smith, Georgia's Hugh Durham and Bama's Wimp Sanderson were standup comedians.

"They don't have the personalities that they had," Greene said. "There's not a Wimp Sanderson. There's not a Hugh Durham. There's not a Sonny Smith. Those guys had a lot of personality."

Change may be coming. Greene thinks the NCAA's looser recruiting regulations could favor the schools that lack rich tradition.

"That means you can out-work somebody now," Greene said. "If Auburn gets three visits and Kentucky gets three visits, where's he going? That's a no-brainer. But now you can out-work them."

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. Write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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