KNOXVILLE, Tenn. —
Maybe, but the league will likely have to overcome its unimpressive nonconference play. The SEC had three schools ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in the preseason: No. 3 Kentucky, No. 10 Florida and No. 15 Missouri.
Not only have SEC schools lost the majority of their games against other major-conference teams, they've struggled against teams from traditional one-bid leagues.
Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State fell to Alabama A&M. Texas A&M couldn't handle Southern. Youngstown State defeated Georgia. Mercer beat Alabama.
"If you want to say at this point in time, the SEC's maybe had some difficult, challenging, tough losses... I think that's a fair assessment," Donovan said. "But to say the league is down or bad, I don't think that would be fair until we've seen the whole thing play out."
Not even defending national champion Kentucky has been immune. Kentucky (9-4) already has doubled its loss total from last season as it attempts to replace six draft picks. The Wildcats have won five of six since losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Baylor.
"We've lost some games, but those teams that we've lost to haven't lost many games," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "And we weren't ready — when you're playing four freshmen — to beat those kind of guys."
Defending conference tournament champion Vanderbilt has made a steeper decline after losing first-round draft picks John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli plus second-round selection Jeffery Taylor. In its fourth game of the season, Vanderbilt lost 50-33 to Marist, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference program with a 4-11 record.
Stallings is hopeful his young team will turn the corner. He also believes his conference will bounce back soon. Noting that Florida nearly gave the SEC two Final Four teams last season, Stallings attributed the conference's early-season struggles to college basketball's cyclical nature.
"Whether it's cyclical or transitional or whatever you want to call it, it won't last long," Stallings said. "Trust me, it won't. Our league's too good for that. Historically, if we have a down year, we never stay down. That's just not the nature of our league."