October 21, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) New Tennessee coach Rick Barnes shook hands with Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey on his way out of the hotel in downtown Charlotte.

''Long media day, really long,'' Barnes said with smile.

The SEC got a huge infusion of personality in first-year conference coaches Barnes, Alabama's Avery Johnson and Mississippi State's Ben Howland. The trio add spice to a league with high-profile coaches capable of making an impact on the court - and on YouTube.

There was Barnes earlier this month, slapping a cream pie into the face of Vols sophomore guard Detrick Mostella on his birthday while teammates cackled and cheered.

When Howland was asked about the change in lifestyle going from Pittsburgh and UCLA to Starkville, Mississippi, the self-professed small-town guy cracked, ''I didn't make many operas in LA.''

Johnson was the San Antonio Spurs' all-time assists leader who spent six years as an NBA coach with Dallas and Brooklyn. To his players, Johnson's the target of comedian Kevin Hart who does a short, dead-on impersonation of the high-pitched coach.

''That's the first thing I looked up after I heard he was going to be our coach,'' Alabama forward Shannon Hale quipped.

And while they have the personalities to go toe-to-toe with the gregarious John Calipari, their goal is to challenge his Kentucky Wildcats for conference supremacy.

The SEC is counting on the three, plus new Florida coach Mike White, to increase the league profile and presence in the NCAA Tournament.

Barnes reached the tournament 22 times in 27 combined seasons at Providence, Clemson and Texas, which he led to the Final Four in 2003. Howland has had 10 NCAA Tournament trips, including three straight Final Fours at UCLA. Along with his NBA playing and coaching career, Johnson was an ESPN analyst on TV almost every night.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, now has the most longevity as an SEC head coach with 16 years with the Commodores, said the league has put an emphasis on improving its basketball and schools have taken that to heart.

''We've added some great coaches, some guys with track records of tremendous success, and I think that will continue to enhance the quality of the league,'' he said. ''But I don't want to act like we have quality coaches coming into the league for the first time because we always have quality coaches.''

Top-notch showman Bruce Pearl returned to the SEC as Auburn's coach last year after serving an NCAA show cause order for infractions while at Tennessee, including excessive text messages to recruits.

Barnes, now in Pearl's old office, saw Pearl on the phone walking through the hotel and couldn't resist, ''Get off the phone. Definitely get off the phone.''

When Pearl said he was texting his son, Barnes said, ''That's acceptable.''

Pearl, who famously painted himself in orange for a Lady Vols game, has done his part at Auburn to fire up the campus. He took over a marketing class last fall to promote the Tigers' first practice, dubbed ''Pearl Jam.''

Yes, there is no question the SEC has upped its personality quotient in the past decade. And if the new coaches can compete with Calipari on the court, they'll up the league's profile on the court.

Calipari led Kentucky to four Final Fours and the 2012 championship in his seven seasons with the Wildcats. His team was selected as SEC preseason favorites again this year in the league media poll released Wednesday, despite losing six NBA draft picks off of last year's team that reached the national semifinals.

The Kentucky said SEC schools have worked to improve all aspects of men's basketball, from facilities to scheduling to recruiting. A main piece of the puzzle, he said, is attracting talented, successful coaches to league schools.

''We're doing that across the board,'' he said.

Barnes' style seems to be a good fit with the Volunteers, who have their third coach in as many years after Cuonzo Martin left for Cal two years and Donnie Tyndall was fired after one season for NCAA violations at his former school, Southern Miss.

Alabama's Johnson said he came to college to teach young players, including his son Crimson Tide guard Avery Jr. And Johnson pledged not to back down from anyone, even his pal LSU coach Johnny Jones.

When told Jones wished him luck but warned him to stay on his side of the border recruiting, Johnson flashed a wide grin, ''You know what, I'm beginning to regret my friendship with Johnny.''

Let the gamesmanship begin.

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