"It amazes me when people beat each other in other leagues it shows how strong their league is," Coach Cal said back in February. "When we beat each other in our league, then the league is not very good. What?"
Reasonably, with the way the league performed against some lesser opponents out of conference, those words sounded hollow then. Now, in late March, with the SEC rolling through the NCAA Tournament, they're carrying a lot more weight.
The league only got three teams into the field of 68, but all three are still dancing in the Sweet 16. Combined, UK, Florida and Tennessee are 7-0, with the Volunteers forced to win three games because of a first-round draw.
Not only is the league the only unbeaten conference in the tournament, according to ESPN Stats & Info, the SEC is the first conference to go 7-0 or better in the NCAA Tournament entering the Sweet 16 since the Big East went 8-0 in 2003.
The Big 10 and Pac-12 also have three teams in the Sweet 16, but they also had more teams in the field to begin with. The Big East is gone. The Atlantic Coast Conference has just one.
Maybe there's some truth to the belief that UK and Tennessee were under-seeded after all.
"Someone's got to find out when you have a strength of schedule of two and that's all they keep talking about, what did you use to make that team an eight?" Calipari said last week. "What did you use? And they can use anything. 'Well, it was a cloudy day that day and we decided they were an eight.' And that's what it is and you go and as coach that's fine. Put me where you want, let's go. But as a league, we got to figure (it) out."
UK finished the season with an RPI of 17 and the second-toughest schedule in the country and got a No. 8 seed (the Cats have played seven games against five of the 16 teams in the Sweet 16). Tennessee's RPI wasn't nearly as good as UK, but the Volunteers won five in a row before narrowly losing to top-ranked Florida just before the NCAA Tournament, and three of those victories were by 27 points or more. Tennessee was regarded as one of the best teams in the country in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and that was before Selection Sunday and the Sweet 16 run.
LSU and Arkansas are also still alive in the NIT and both were on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Missouri and Georgia also won their opening-round games in the NIT.
"Tennessee played as well as any team in the country down the stretch," Coach Cal said last week. "Are you taking how teams are playing at the end or how we were playing at the end? 'Not in your case.' Well, what did you take in our case? And you really got to go down and find out what it was. 'Well, you didn't beat enough people.' Did everybody else? I mean, so compared to who? And so that's the kind of stuff that our league - not me, not the ADs -- our league needs to find out who in that room, what were we basing this on because you can't keep moving the goalposts. 'It's strength of schedule.' Really? Then move the goalposts. 'It's how you finish.' Really? 'No, it's you didn't beat enough people.' Really? I mean, which one (is it)? And moving the goalposts makes it easy. But you know what? At the end of the day in this thing, you just got to go play now."
The SEC has done just that and backed up the league's beliefs.
Nobody could hear -- or perhaps wanted to hear -- those "S-E-C, S-E-C" chants before, but they ringing as loud as ever.
We're so proud to be representing the @SEC in the NCAA Tournament. Having three teams in the Sweet 16 shows the strength of our league.-- Mitch Barnhart (@UKMitchBarnhart) March 24, 2014