- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The Southeastern Conference’s efforts to upgrade men’s basketball remain a work in progress.

The SEC took steps to make teams upgrade nonconference schedules starting this season. The goal is to boost power ratings and land more than last year’s three teams in the NCAA tournament.

Anthony Grant and Alabama played No. 4 Wichita State and No. 8 Duke and visited UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion - but lost all three games. Most other SEC teams have also heeded the call from Commissioner Mike Slive.

Still, just past the halfway point of the league schedule, not a whole lot has changed for the SEC.

Two teams - No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky - seem like shoo-ins for the NCAA field, and no one else can feel the least bit comfortable.

Alabama, which was 9-14 going into Tuesday night’s game with Mississippi, has been the strongest example that a beefed-up slate isn’t a cure-all for a league that is a powerhouse in football but gets less respect in hoops.

“This is probably the toughest nonconference schedule we’ve put together, and we put it together for a reason,” said Grant, whose team lost several players during the offseason. “To try to position ourselves, if we were fortunate enough to win some of those games, to have a chance at the postseason, and also to help strengthen our league in terms of RPI.

“Unfortunately for us it didn’t work out that way with our nonconference.”

Alabama had the ninth-toughest nonconference schedule nationally, up 69 spots from last season, according to CBSSports.com’s rankings. Kentucky (59th to 14th), Mississippi (271st to 103rd) and LSU (234th to 137th) are also among the teams who made big leaps in strength of nonconference schedule.

The NCAA’s latest official power ratings released Monday had Florida at No. 5 and Kentucky at No. 12. The next SEC teams are Tennessee (47th) and Missouri (50th).

League athletic directors agreed last May to submit their men’s basketball nonconference schedules for approval and hired former NCAA tournament guru Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant.

That came after only Florida, Mississippi and Missouri advanced to the NCAA tournament last March, only the second time in 23 years just three teams got in. The Gators were the only ones to survive the opening weekend.

Slive, a former chair of the NCAA selection committee, wanted a change.

“He was very clear in saying that the three NCAA bids that the league received last year was just - ‘simply unacceptable’, was his term,” said associate commissioner Mark Whitworth, who was placed in charge of men’s basketball.

Whitworth said the new policy was implemented when it was too late for some teams to get out of contracts for nonconference games. He expects more of an impact next season. He said scheduling is an important piece of the endeavor, but creating a league where more top prospects want to play is the long-term ambition.

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