SEC continues to raise basketball profile with new coaches

DESTIN, Fla. (AP) When Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings first stepped into the meeting room this week in Destin, he immediately noticed four new faces.

And one familiar one missing.

With longtime Florida coach Billy Donovan leaving college for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this month, Stallings has become the dean of Southeastern Conference basketball coaches.

The elder statesman felt the void at the league's annual spring meetings. But with new and experienced coaches Rick Barnes, Ben Howland and Avery Johnson in the room, Stallings also sensed that the league could be better positioned for bigger things.

''I think our league is so well positioned going forward that we're going to see some really incredible things,'' Stallings said. ''The best of the SEC is getting ready to happen in men's basketball. We've got very proven, good, successful coaches and we have arguably the best program in the country in our league. Obviously some other people can make a similar claim. No many, not very many.''

Of course, Stallings was referring to Kentucky. The Wildcats, with coach John Calipari on the sideline and several NBA lottery picks on the court, went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Wisconsin in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky lost seven players to the NBA draft, but is expected to reload with a few key returners and another stout recruiting class.

''The thing we have to do is we don't need to talk about the coaches,'' Calipari said. ''We have to talk about the kids and the players and what they are, what they are about.''

Maybe, but it all starts with coaches in college.

And the SEC filled its four openings with three veterans and an up-and-comer.

Barnes, who reached the NCAA Tournament in 16 of his 17 years at Texas, replaced Donnie Tyndall at Tennessee. Tyndall was fired after one season because of unethical conduct at his former school, Southern Mississippi.

Howland, who led UCLA to three straight Final Fours and the Pac-12 regular-season title last season, replaced Rick Ray at Mississippi State. Ray was fired after three losing seasons. And Howland already signed one of the nation's top recruits in guard Malik Newman. The Jackson, Mississippi, standout chose the Bulldogs over Kentucky.

Johnson, who spent more than two decades playing and coaching in the NBA and led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006, replaced Anthony Grant at Alabama. Grant was fired after six seasons, the last one an 18-14 campaign that was filled with injuries.

Florida went in a different direction, hiring little-known Mike White from Louisiana Tech. White has never been to the NCAA Tournament or played in the NBA, but he's widely considered a rising star in the college ranks.

''Those guys will do great things for the league,'' Stallings said.

The SEC has spent the last three years working to improve its men's basketball profile. Commissioner Mike Slive mandated better non-conference scheduling in hopes of getting more teams in the NCAA Tournament, and the results are starting to show. The SEC sent five teams to the tournament last season, with Kentucky getting to the Final Four. The football powerhouse went 12-3 in the tournament in 2014 and had two teams advance to the Final Four.

Now, the league has four new coaches eager to raise the bar.

''Ben Howland went to three consecutive Final Fours at UCLA. Rick Barnes is a guy who's had incredible amount of success. Avery Johnson has been an NBA champion as a player, has coached in an NBA final, so he brings a different perspective,'' Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. ''So the strength of our league, as it relates to the people that are in that room, I think it will increase the profile of basketball in the SEC.''

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