Star coaches, impact freshmen give SEC basketball a brand new look _lowres

Avery Johnson (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Southeastern Conference men’s basketball coaches are confident their league won’t take a step back in the post-Billy Donovan era.

Donovan left for the Oklahoma City Thunder in April after leading Florida to two national titles and four Final Four appearances in his 19-year tenure. Donovan was replaced by Louisiana Tech’s Michael White, one of four new coaches in the league.

The other newcomers are Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland and Alabama’s Avery Johnson, the New Orleans native and former Southern standout.

Barnes reached the NCAA tournament 16 times in his 17 seasons at Texas, Howland reached three straight Final Fours at UCLA and Johnson coached in an NBA Finals with the Dallas Mavericks.

Their star power has SEC coaches bullish on the future.

“I think it’s certainly enhanced the profile of SEC basketball, which is obviously a good thing for our league,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said Monday during the coaches’ summer teleconference.

There are also plenty of high-profile new faces dotting rosters across the league after signing six of the nation’s top 16 prospects for the class of 2015 as rated by the 247Sports composite, which takes all the major recruiting services into account. The SEC landed the top two overall recruits with forward Ben Simmons choosing LSU and forward/center Skal Labissiere picking Kentucky.

The SEC is trying to build on the momentum it established last season by earning five NCAA bids, its highest total since 2011, with Kentucky reaching the Final Four before its bid for a perfect season ended in the national semifinals against Wisconsin.

“There are not a lot of programs in our conference that are rebuilding,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said.

Other things to keep an eye on with three months to go before practice starts:

CONFEDERATE FLAG TALK: South Carolina coach Frank Martin stood by his comments last week that the confederate flag flying above the South Carolina statehouse should be flown somewhere else.

In his statement, Martin said he believes the flag “should be displayed at a museum and not at a public place which represents all the members of our incredible state.” A state that Martin insists is not racially split.

“The unfortunate part is that everyone on the outside — people that have no idea what living in South Carolina is about — thinks that this is a divided state,” Martin said. “This might be the most unified state that I’ve lived in as far as the amount of love people have for one another here regardless of background, race. The way we’ve been welcomed here from day one has been incredible.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari joined Martin and others in calling for the flag’s removal.

“Obviously, (the Confederate flag) offends a portion of our society, so people are deciding to take them down,” Calipari said. “That’s how I feel.”

KENTUCKY RELOADING AGAIN: Kentucky had six players selected in last week’s NBA draft, matching the record the Wildcats set in 2012 for most selections from a single school. Still, Calipari remains confident about his team’s chances of reaching a third straight Final Four after signing the nation’s top-rated recruiting class.

“I hate to say it, but it could be crazy again,” Calipari said.

WHITE’S CHALLENGE: White said he’s noticed a common thread in the advice he’s received about following Donovan.

“All of my mentors and people that I respect in the business have all given pretty similar advice — and that’s including (Athletic Director Jeremy Foley) and Billy Donovan — and that’s just (to) be yourself,” White said.

CONCERN FOR QUALLS: Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said it “hurt my heart” to learn that Razorbacks forward Michael Qualls tore his ACL in one of his knees in a pre-draft workout. Qualls, a junior this past season, went undrafted.

“He will bounce back,” Anderson said. “Sometimes a setback, it puts you on track for a great comeback.”