Chance to bash SEC has likely passed

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Surely, there was a part of South Carolina coach Darrin Horn that wanted to scream, "Are you absolutely insane?!?"

How else would you react when your 5-foot-8 shooting guard comes to you and says he wants to enter the NBA draft? Or your 6-7 forward who averaged 10.9 points per game tells you the same thing?

But the screaming, scoffing part of Horn never got control of his mouth. Instead, he was calm, measured and -- most importantly -- encouraging.

"You can't tell a young person who's chasing a dream and checking their viable options not to explore it," Horn said. "That would be self-serving."

So Horn fought whatever impulse he felt to do what's best for his own career -- namely, to do everything possible to discourage guard Devan Downey and forward Dominique Archie from turning pro. He swallowed whatever incredulity he felt at their long-shot odds of being drafted. And he tried to help.

Horn flew to Portsmouth, Va., for the annual pre-draft invitational -- not to watch his players, who were not there, but to gather information for Downey and Archey. He talked to NBA scouts and general managers there, and on the phone as well.

"I don't have the answers," Horn said. "I'm not drafting."

Those who do the drafting passed along their advice: stay in school. And thanks in part to the manner in which Horn handled the situation, the two Gamecocks were happy to do so.

"He was so supportive," said Downey, the tiny guard. "We talked throughout the process. If you've got your head coach supporting you, how can you not want to come back?"

That, in a nutshell, could be the reason for a bounce-back season in Southeastern Conference basketball. Horn and other league coaches with players who flirted with the NBA managed to shepherd their talent back to campus for at least one more year.

Tyler Smith tested the waters and returned to Tennessee. Patrick Patterson did the same at Kentucky (though teammate Jodie Meeks stayed in the draft). So did LSU's Tasmin Mitchell, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado and Arkansas' Michael Washington.

With all those borderline prospects returning for another year of seasoning, a league that was awful last season should be powerful this season.

The SEC put a paltry three teams into the 2009 NCAA tournament. That was the lowest total for the league since 1979 -- and there were only 48 teams in the Dance then, and 10 teams in the league.

Only one SEC team was seeded in the top half of last season's tournament (8-seed LSU). None made it past the second round.

"We weren't as good [as a league] last year," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. "Let's not try to trick anybody. We weren't."

This season, with five teams returning all five starters and three others returning four -- not to mention coaching upgrades at Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia -- the SEC will again compete with the best leagues in the land.

"It's loaded," said Georgia coach Mark Fox.

"Seven or eight NCAA tournament teams," said Kentucky coach John Calipari.

"Most of the premier guys," said Stallings, "came back."

The premier guys largely made sound business and educational decisions by coming back -- they're largely a collection of hard-trying tweeners who needed to diversify their games to fit NBA positions. But it didn't hurt that their coaches handled the process in a generous fashion.

"We told Michael, 'Let's make sure we do it the right way, but we're going to support you whatever way you want to go,'" Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said. "That's these guys' decisions, and you just want to make sure they make the best one for them and you keep the lines of communication open.

"You can screw the thing up if you don't handle these guys with a sense of responsibility and an understanding of what they want."

Mitchell said LSU coach Trent Johnson consistently encouraged him before he worked out for NBA general managers and scouts to do his best.

"He told me, 'I don't want you to do this one foot in, one foot out. I want you two feet in,'" Mitchell said. "He cared about what's best for me. He's just a great guy. A lot of people think he's mean, but he's not."

This is the modern reality of coaching in college basketball: Championships and NCAA bids often are won and lost in the spring, based on who goes pro and who does not. And coaches must walk a fine line between naked self-interest in retaining young talent and at least giving the convincing appearance of full support.

Consider it re-recruiting, to a degree. Players like to believe their coaches are behind them no matter what.

"It's very important to be supportive," Tennessee's Bruce Pearl said.

Being supportive, combined with players' being realistic, should lead to an SEC renaissance. It will be especially evident in the East, which is stacked with five potential NCAA teams. (Only Georgia is excluded, and Fox rather liked the fact that his first Bulldogs team received every last-place vote in the preseason media poll.)

The return to prominence could happen without significant input from recent standard-bearer Florida. The Gators, winners of the 2006 and '07 national titles, are picked to finish fifth in the East.

The other oddity is the fact that, in a conference awash in experience, the youngest team might be the best.

That would be landslide preseason favorite Kentucky. The Wildcats could start three freshmen (John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins), a sophomore (Darius Miller) and a junior (Patterson).

"This is a tough league for freshmen, I can tell [Calipari] that from experience," Stallings said. "Not that he needs me to tell him anything.

"We started three freshmen a year ago. If he can win the league starting three freshmen, then he's as good a coach as I think he is and those freshmen are as good as advertised."

The SEC as a whole might again be as good as advertised. Thanks to the compassionate retention efforts of several coaches.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.