BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- For a conference accustomed to hosting thousands of media for its football events, and for a blueblood program obsessively tracked by one of the largest hordes in the country, the first day of the SEC's 2013 media days almost felt like a friends and family affair.
You could blame it on basketball's second-fiddle status in SEC country, or the down 2013-14 expectations for many teams. But the more likely cause -- Kentucky having its own media day earlier this week -- kept most of the Wildcats faction home.
Don't let the cognitive dissonance fool you. All eyes remain very much focused on Kentucky.
This is usually the case, but never more so than this season. Just a few months after a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, and two seasons after a dominant national title run, Kentucky coach John Calipari has reloaded with what most believe is the best group of freshmen ever. Nor is Calipari interested in keeping expectations in check. Many coaches would never come close to mentioning even the remote thought of the possibility of the inkling of going undefeated. On Tuesday in Lexington, Ky., Calipari was happy to discuss it.
"The other option is to go into the season with no expectations," Calipari said. "I'm not sure I'd prefer that."
But that doesn't mean he's predicting an undefeated season. Indeed, the outsized hype surrounding the Wildcats was belied by many of Calipari's comments Wednesday. Though he cited the huge number of NBA scouts at UK practices this fall -- over 40 to date, he said -- he just as quickly admitted that he is still installing the bare-bones basics of his offensive scheme. Forward Julius Randle, selected by the SEC media as the preseason player of the year, is playing slightly out of position in practice; the whole team is still adjusting to the system's improvisational imperatives. The process is intense enough that the topic of defense -- where Calipari has been the most consistently effective with his young teams in the past decade -- hasn't even been broached.
"The practices have been pretty good," Calipari said. "Very competitive. High energy ... We're not a good defensive team right now. We're not a good rebounding team. We haven't worked on it.
"We're scrimmaging three-quarters of our practices right now. It's controlled, but it's scrimmaging. What I'm saying is 'fail fast.' It means, play uncomfortable. Go harder, so we can correct you, so you can feel what works and doesn't work now. ... We're all offense, because I'm trying to build their confidence. No defense. And it shows. No rebounding stuff right now, and it shows. But they pick [things] up."
The result of Calipari's unconventional developmental process is almost as much of a question as what kind of league the Cats will be attempting to win when SEC play begins in January.
The 2012-13 season was nobody's idea of a banner season. Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency metric tracks and ranks conferences based on overall, pound-for-pound strength; last season the SEC ranked seventh, behind its traditional power conference brethren and the Mountain West. It earned just three tournament bids.
Those struggles caused no small measure of soul-searching in the league's Birmingham offices this offseason. When Wednesday's media day queries didn't revolve around Kentucky's incoming class or Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson (which was rare), they focused on the current state of the SEC.
One measure designed to alleviate the SEC's at-large issues last season is this summer's collective agreement, spearheaded by commissioner Mike Slive and consulted on with former NCAA basketball operations VP Greg Shaheen, on nonconference scheduling. Collectively, the league is working with coaches and administrators on scheduling tougher in November and December in the hopes of boosting everyone's RPI come March.
"It's a responsibility for all of us," Calipari said. "We can all be about our own programs and we'll all go down one by one. Or we can be about each other. You gotta bury the jealousy. Let's go."
Most coaches seem to be in favor of the effort, at least where applicable. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said it's important that members realize the impact they have on each other, but wasn't totally convinced SEC coaches needed to start scheduling like Long Beach State.
"I told this to an administrator the other day: 'If your team is bad, you're bad,'" Stallings said. "All conferences have ebbs and flows to them. Last year might not have been our best year, but don't be surprised if this year is dramatically, dramatically different than that. If we get six or seven teams in the tournament this year, which will not surprise me in the least, nobody will be talking about that anymore."
However strong the rest of the SEC ends up being, Kentucky is sure to improve. The question is how much better the Wildcats will be, whether Calipari's high expectations -- his "dream" of coaching an undefeated team before he retires -- make the man at the center of it all look prescient, or silly.