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Steve Megargee | The Associated Press | October 20, 2016

Coaches learning it takes time to win in SEC

  Mississippi State coach Ben Howland discussed the difficulty of winning in the competitive SEC conference at media day.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The increased star power of the Southeastern Conference men's basketball coaching fraternity hasn't made an immediate impact.

Those high-profile coaches have discovered this isn't a conference conducive to quick turnarounds.

One year ago, Mississippi State's Ben Howland, Tennessee's Rick Barnes and Alabama's Avery Johnson arrived in the SEC while Florida began the post-Billy Donovan era with Mike White arriving from Louisiana Tech. Howland and Barnes had combined for four Final Fours and 32 NCAA tournament berths, while Johnson had coached the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals.

None of the four new coaches led their teams to the NCAA tournament in their opening seasons. Florida and Alabama reached the NIT, while Mississippi State and Tennessee had losing seasons.

"I think it's really hard anywhere," Howland said Wednesday at the SEC Tipoff media days event. "It's very rare that you're going to take over a program that's got the cupboard loaded and you're ready to just come in and win from Day One. We're in a building process right now."

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Auburn's Bruce Pearl and South Carolina's Frank Martin can attest to the notion that it takes time to build a winner in this league nowadays.

Pearl reached the NCAA tournament each of his six seasons at Tennessee, but he's 26-40 in two years at Auburn. Martin, who earned NCAA bids each of his last three years at Kansas State, hasn't reached the NCAA tournament in five years at South Carolina.

"For all the so-called very intelligent experts who think this league stinks, there are a lot of coaches in this league who've been in Final Fours, Elite Eights and so forth that get to this league and they don't finish in the upper half of the league," Martin said. "This league's very good. This league's very unforgiving."

All those coaches had tough assignments.

Howland, who made three straight Final Fours at UCLA from 2006-08, inherited a Mississippi State program that hasn't earned an NCAA bid since 2009. Barnes was Tennessee's third coach in as many seasons. Alabama has reached the NCAA tournament once in the last 10 seasons.



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"I can't speak for the other coaches, but I know based on what we inherited, we were just trying to survive," said Johnson, who went 18-15 in his debut season. "I was hoping we'd win five games. I didn't think we would win 18."

White had to replace the most successful coach in Florida history while taking over a program that was coming off a losing season.

"Our culture over the last couple of years isn't where it obviously was when Coach Donovan was winning a million games and going to Final Fours and winning championships," White said. "We're trying to get back to that culture - or even three-quarters of that culture, baby steps - to get back to some of the personalities of some of the best teams he ever had."

That doesn't necessarily mean all these coaches are adjusting expectations or declaring themselves years away.

Barnes set the NCAA tournament as a goal last season and is doing the same this year, even though his team was picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC preseason media poll that came out Wednesday.

"I don't think you do this with the idea that there's a timetable," Barnes said. "I think every day you've got to be ready to do it. You've got to get your guys to understand. They all think they're good enough anyway. Then you've got to make sure they understand what it takes for us to win as a team."

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But it could take time for each of these coaches.

Barnes said he could have four or five freshmen on the floor at once this season, as his roster includes nine newcomers (seven true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and a graduate transfer). Howland said he could end up starting two or three freshmen.

"We're going to have a lot of adversity because we're going to have ups and downs," Howland said. "We've got to try to get our guys to learn from their mistakes and continue to improve and get better, because we're all going to make mistakes."

These coaches' track records suggest that improvement eventually will come.

"Having those guys in the league is good for us top to bottom," Martin said. "I know Rick's going to build Tennessee into what he's done everywhere he's been before. Bruce is going to do what he does at Auburn. He's proven that he wins everywhere he's been. Ben won big at Pitt, won big at UCLA. He's going to win big at Mississippi State.

"Avery's dynamic — you watch his teams play last year. Our league's good. Mike White, the same thing. Mike's a winner."


This article was written by Steve Megargee from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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