Nationals

Poor start has SEC staggering into league play

Poor start has SEC staggering into league play

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Southeastern Conference figured to take a step backward this season after being home of the national champions and having the most NBA draft picks of any league last year.

Still, few expected the SEC to get knocked around like it has during its nonconference schedule.

``I do think there are some teams going through some transitions just like we are,'' Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. ``That's probably made for a little lesser performance in nonconference play.''

That has translated into mounting losses.

SEC teams have gone 3-6 against the Atlantic Coast Conference, 2-5 against the Big 12, 2-4 against the Big Ten, 4-13 against the Big East and 4-5 against the Pac-12. SEC teams also are just 3-11 against the Top 25. Missouri's 82-73 victory over No. 10 Illinois on Dec. 22 is the SEC's lone win over a top-10 team in eight attempts.

The SEC's nonconference performance could mean that going slightly above .500 in conference play may not be enough to reach the NCAA tournament.

Alabama visits No. 10 Missouri on Tuesday in the season's first conference game.

SEC coaches say it's too early to panic - or to write the conference off.

Florida's Billy Donovan believes it's unfair to base a league's reputation solely on its November or December performance.

``I never really agreed with that,'' Donovan said. ``I think teams get better. I think the one thing that's happened in our league is a lot of teams in our league have lost a lot of people. Kentucky's lost a lot. Vanderbilt's lost a lot. Mississippi State's got a new coach. South Carolina's got a new coach. There's been a lot of turnover in personnel of key guys.''

Florida guard Kenny Boynton is the lone first-team or second-team all-SEC performer from last season who has played at all this year. The only other 2011-12 all-conference player to return to school was Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, who is redshirting this season because of an injured left knee.

Each of the top three picks in the 2012 draft came from SEC programs: Kentucky teammates Anthony Davis and Michael-Kidd Gilchrist and Florida guard Bradley Beal. The SEC had 12 players drafted overall. That figure moves up to 15 if you include Missouri teammates Kim English and Marcus Denmon and Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, who went to college while their schools still belonged to the Big 12.

All those departures have made an impact.

Only two SEC teams are ranked in the Top 25: Missouri and No. 11 Florida. Every school in the conference already has at least two losses. Vanderbilt (6-6), Auburn (6-7), Georgia (5-7) and Mississippi State (5-7) are all at .500 or below.

``If we're going to start judging teams on who we are in November or December... let's have the tournament Jan. 1,'' South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. ``But if the tournament's going to be in March and April, let the season play out and let coaches do their job.''

Donovan cited last year's Tennessee team as evidence of how a team can improve over the course of a season. After losing six of its first nine games last year in Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin's debut season, the Volunteers went 10-6 in conference play.

``You cannot argue that Tennessee in February and March was totally different than Tennessee in November and December,'' Donovan said. ``I think that's what you're going to see inside of our league.''

Tennessee's 10-6 conference record still wasn't good enough to reach the NCAA tournament because of its subpar non-conference resume. SEC teams are crossing their fingers that the conference's poor early-season performance won't cause problems with the NCAA tournament selection committee this year.

``I think the SEC's a solid conference no matter what,'' Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. ``You've still got Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, teams like that. ... If you win those games, that should be enough to get you to the tournament.''

Maybe, but the league will likely have to overcome its unimpressive nonconference play. The SEC had three schools ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in the preseason: No. 3 Kentucky, No. 10 Florida and No. 15 Missouri.

Not only have SEC schools lost the majority of their games against other major-conference teams, they've struggled against teams from traditional one-bid leagues.

Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State fell to Alabama A&M. Texas A&M couldn't handle Southern. Youngstown State defeated Georgia. Mercer beat Alabama.

``If you want to say at this point in time, the SEC's maybe had some difficult, challenging, tough losses... I think that's a fair assessment,'' Donovan said. ``But to say the league is down or bad, I don't think that would be fair until we've seen the whole thing play out.''

Not even defending national champion Kentucky has been immune. Kentucky (9-4) already has doubled its loss total from last season as it attempts to replace six draft picks. The Wildcats have won five of six since losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Baylor.

``We've lost some games, but those teams that we've lost to haven't lost many games,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ``And we weren't ready - when you're playing four freshmen - to beat those kind of guys.''

Defending conference tournament champion Vanderbilt has made a steeper decline after losing first-round draft picks John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli plus second-round selection Jeffery Taylor. In its fourth game of the season, Vanderbilt lost 50-33 to Marist, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference program with a 4-11 record.

Stallings is hopeful his young team will turn the corner. He also believes his conference will bounce back soon. Noting that Florida nearly gave the SEC two Final Four teams last season, Stallings attributed the conference's early-season struggles to college basketball's cyclical nature.

``Whether it's cyclical or transitional or whatever you want to call it, it won't last long,'' Stallings said. ``Trust me, it won't. Our league's too good for that. Historically, if we have a down year, we never stay down. That's just not the nature of our league.''

---

AP Sports Writers David Brandt in Oxford, Miss., and Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.

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Sean Doolittle on recent pitching woes: 'It was kind of of a helpless feeling'

Sean Doolittle on recent pitching woes: 'It was kind of of a helpless feeling'

When Sean Doolittle pitched Friday evening against the Milwaukee Brewers, he thought he'd made huge progress on his mechanics and felt good heading into Saturday's game.

But when things fell apart after Christian Yelich helped the Brewers rally to a 15-14 win in extra innings, Doolittle knew something was wrong.

"I thought I was every bit good enough to grind this out," Doolittle explained on Grant & Danny on 106.7 The Fan Tuesday morning.  "It was kind of a helpless feeling coming off the mound."

That helplessness led to him being placed on the injured list with a knee injury.

"I kinda battle a little bit of knee tendonitis regularly. It's something I've managed throughout my career," Doolittle said.

He thinks he tweaked it playing in San Diego early June. Since then, he believes his mechanics have suffered trying to alleviate the pain.

"Trying to compensate for it maybe favoring it a little bit subconsciously, my mechanics eroded," Doolittle noted. "It's just this beautiful chaotic circle we have to just pause, get the knee right."

Doolittle says he's going to take the time off to re-work his mechanics. Specifically, he wants to work on a toe-tap and slight hitch he has in his throwing motion, which he described as a subtler version of Clayton Kershaw's famous leg kick.

"I think there's some things I can do mechanically to get my body in a better position," Doolittle said. "This is an opportunity to get it right."

His big goal is to get his body in "better position over the rubber before the kick."

That way, he can have more momentum over the baseball, especially with a powerful four-seam fastball. "You're basically falling down the mound rather than driving and getting behind the ball." 

Throughout the season, he noted he's had good communication with manager Davey Martinez, and that blaming anybody would be a waste of time.

Since being placed on the IL, he's had a few days to rest before he started some light pitching activities Tuesday.

"It'll be a good break to get my body ready for September and October," he noted. "I'm throwing myself into this process and I'm not hanging my head."

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Former Penn State stars Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders catch up after joint practice

Former Penn State stars Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders catch up after joint practice

Things this time last year were a lot different for Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley and Eagles running back Miles Sanders.

McSorley was entering his final year at Penn State, and not highly sought after as an NFL QB prospect. Many draft 'experts' predicted McSorley would have to change positions in order to play at the highest level of the game.

But McSorley, was profiled in NBC Sports Washingtons' I Am The Prospect' series, stuck with quarterback, and early on, it's paid off. The Ravens selected Penn State's all-time passing yards and touchdown passes leader in the sixth-round, and thus far, McSorley has shown promise. 

Sanders, a rising junior at the time, had just 56 career carries and less than 400 rushing yards in his first two seasons with Penn State. While that was not a reflection on Sanders (after all, he was the backup to some guy named Saquon Barkley), the junior had little film to indicate to pro scouts that he would be ready for the jump just a year later.

But after being the Nittany Lions workhorse in 2018, where he rushed for just under 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns, Sanders immediately became on the league's radar. The 22-year-old earned his way to All-Big 10 second-team honors and showed enough at the combine for the Eagles to invest their second-round pick in him.

The Ravens are set to face the Eagles in their third preseason game on Thursday, but Baltimore has been in the City of Brotherly Love for the past two days, competing in joint practices with the Eagles. These practices have given the former Penn State teammates time to catch up before they play each other in a couple of days.

"I think it's cool, just thinking that we were at Penn State a year ago," Sanders said. "Now we're all living our dream, just on different teams. When we get together for times like this, it's pretty cool."

"It's really cool. Spending years together in college, now we're all on separate teams now, but it's cool," McSorley said, echoing his former running back. "We're rooting for these guys. Turning on one of [Miles] games and watch him run, rooting him on. it's cool to come out and be on the practice field with him again. Haven't seen him in a while, being able to say 'what's up,' it's pretty cool."

Very few people know each other's skillsets the way McSorley and Sanders do of one another. So who better to ask than each of them as to what their respective team can expect out of each?

"They're getting a dawg, man, " McSorley said on his former teammate. "They're starting to figure that out now. He's a special player and Philly is going to love him."

"Same with Baltimore. They got a dawg," Sanders said on McSorley. "He's been showing it in the preseason games. They said he's not a quarterback, but he's proving everybody wrong. That's just how Trace is."

Besides checking in regularly to see how Sanders is doing, McSorley has found another way to follow his former running back's rookie season.

"[I'm going to] try and get him on my fantasy team," McSorley said, getting quite the chuckle out of Sanders.

Besides the loyalty aspect, McSorley could end up getting significant production from Sanders on his fantasy squad. After an impressive performance in the Eagles second preseason game, NJ.com reported that "it is increasingly hard to project him as anything less than this team’s No. 1 running back." 

Sanders may be a more than viable fantasy option as a rookie, but he doesn't play the popular game himself. But if he did, he knows one player he would snag.

"I don't do the fantasy stuff, but if I did, I would definitely put my boy on there," Sanders said on McSorley. "Watching everyone I played with in college, looking at their stats each week and seeing them. Just grow and be better players each week. The way we do it here, it's the same mentality because we all went to the same school."

The two will get to see each other in person for the first time at the NFL level on Thursday. 

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