CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings believes the Southeastern Conference can play with any of the so-called best basketball leagues in the country.
Leading the way once again this season will be the SEC's Final Four teams of Kentucky and Florida.
The star-filled Wildcats and defending champion Gators were picked by the media to finish 1-2 in the league in voting released Wednesday.
"It's a great league. Anybody that wants to say we're a two-team league, they can say it, but at least our two teams are in the Final Four," Stallings said Wednesday at the league's media day.
The SEC has taken its share of hits for its lack of depth behind Kentucky and Florida.
Tennessee, which advanced to the final eight, was the only other SEC team that qualified for the NCAA tournament. It was the second straight season — and third time in the past six years — that only three teams from the conference were chosen for the NCAA field.
Florida won the SEC regular-season and tournament crowns last year, winning 30 straight games and becoming the first team to go 18-0 in league play. The Gators fell in national semifinals to champion Connecticut, which defeated Kentucky in the title game.
Stallings said Florida and Kentucky's NCAA success helped gain attention for all league teams.
"Success breeds success, but it's the responsibility of the rest of us to close up some of that gap," he said. "The rest of us have to make it interesting and make it where it's not those two and the rest of us."
Preseason voting did little to shake that view.
Kentucky got all 20 first-place votes from the media panel for 280 points with Florida just behind at 258.
Arkansas was third, followed by LSU, Georgia, Mississippi and Missouri. Auburn and new coach Bruce Pearl was eighth, followed by Texas A&M, Alabama, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State.
Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison was selected the preseason player of the year and made the all-SEC first team along with Florida guard Michael Frazier II, Mississippi guard Jarvis Summers, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis and LSU forward Jordan Mickey.
The SEC second team looked more like Kentucky coach John Calipari's planned five-man platoons he insisted he'll use — four of the five players were Wildcats, including Harrison's twin brother Andrew. Seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, forward Alex Poythress and 6-11 freshman Karl-Anthony Towns from Kentucky were also on the second team. Georgia guard Charles Mann was the only non-Wildcat in that group.
"It's pretty cool," Aaron Harrison said. "I'm just happy for my teammates. It's an honor to be picked for player of the year, I guess. But it doesn't really mean anything because we haven't played a game yet."
Once league games start, Donovan expects to be challenged by all SEC teams. He believes the SEC is hurt when teams lose nonconference matchups in November and December.
Alabama lost games to Drexel and South Florida last season. Auburn fell to Northwestern State. Georgia started 1-4 a year ago with losses to rival Georgia Tech, then Davidson, Temple and Nebraska in the Charleston Classic.
"What's happened is you go into league games and the league gets labeled," Donovan said. "One of the things we've talked about as a league is we're going to start measuring our nonconference schedule in terms of strength of schedule where there's almost this thought process now where we want to play the most challenging non-conference schedule."
South Carolina has gotten that message with games against Big 12 opponents Baylor, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. Gamecocks coach Frank Martin, in his third year, said his program is ready for games like that.
What Martin's not ready for are those who brand the league lacking because the SEC doesn't get half its teams in the NCAA tournament.
"There are 11 coaches in this league that have coached teams to the round of 32 or won national championships," he said. "I think it's a little insulting when you continue to tell coaches that have that on their side that their teams and their league isn't any good."
Martin's first two teams at South Carolina were 14-18 and 14-20, his only losing seasons in seven years as a college head coach.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, whose Rebels won the SEC tournament title in 2013, said the league went through a period of instability with the recent additions of Missouri and Texas A&M and several other member schools changing coaches. Now, he said it's realistic for the SEC to have six teams in the tournament.
"As coaches, we've got to schedule strong" nonconference games, Kennedy said. "We've got to win basketball games and then once we get to league play we've got to show everybody the strength of our league top to bottom."
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