SEC Conference Preview
by Rainer Sabin
It should be another fun and exciting year in the SEC, as a balance between the East and West divisions has finally been established. Alabama, Mississippi State, Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky should be locks for the NCAA Tournament, but look for LSU to make some noise, as well. Certainly, there will be plenty of stories to follow throughout the year in the SEC. It will be interesting to see how Stan Heath handles his first season as Arkansas’ head coach, and if Tennessee can respond positively to the losses of Vincent Yarbrough and Marcus Haislip. By March, when the final whistles have blown and the plot has been written, there will likely be surprises and disappointments, because anything and everything is possible in the SEC.
Here are the SEC team capsules, in projected order of finish.
1. Florida (22-9, 10-6)
It didn’t end the way coach Billy Donovan had hoped. A Florida team that had the potential to go deep in the NCAA Tournament last March crashed out of the first round after losing to the Creighton Blue Jays 83-82 in double overtime. In the 2001-2002 season, the Gators featured a talented line-up that included Udonis Haslem, Matt Bonner, David Lee, and Brett Nelson. However, the Gators regularly struggled with bouts of inconsistency and mental errors that usually proved costly. Never was that more apparent than in the loss to Creighton, when Florida was called for a five-second violation after failing to in-bound the ball. The mistake led to Terrell Taylor’s winning three-pointer that sent the Blue Jay nation into pandemonium. Donovan hopes to correct the problems that existed last season, despite losing Haslem, who was a tour de force at center last year. A mixture of youth and experience should help the Gators in their effort to recapture a share of the Eastern Division crown.
2. Georgia (22-10, 10-6)
For the first time since he arrived in 1999, Coach Jim Harrick was finally able to establish a level of excellence for Georgia basketball–something he was able to do with relative ease and rapidity at both UCLA and the University of Rhode Island. Along with Kentucky and Florida, the Bulldogs grabbed a piece of SEC Eastern Division crown, which was their first ever since the conference was split into two divisions. Led by Ezra Williams and twins, Jarvis and Jonas Hayes, the Bulldogs featured a formidable offense, whose core will return this year. Nevertheless, despite the team’s success, last season was not without its problems. A rape investigation that targeted forwards Tony Cole and Steven Thomas overshadowed the Georgia’s accomplishments. With both having been cleared of all charges and the NCAA having overturned suspensions of Williams and Damien Wilkins, who were punished for playing in an unsanctioned summer league, it seems Harrick and his team can focus on the upcoming season.
3. Kentucky (22-10, 10-6)
The 2002-2003 season was one to forget for Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith. Despite the fact that the Wildcats shared the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division regular season championship with the Florida Gators and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last March, Kentucky was beset by distractions that were unrelated to basketball. Dubbed “Team Turmoil” by the local media, several off-the-court incidents created a tense atmosphere in Lexington. Not only did Smith deal with a well-publicized fistfight between teammates, but he also was forced to discipline Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels after the local police caught them with fake Ids in February. Things did not get any better when Smith dismissed sophomore center Jason Parker in late August for violating athletic department policy. It should be an interesting year for Smith as he tries to turn Kentucky back into “Team Stability,” even with the loss of gangly superstar Tayshaun Prince, who graduated and moved on to the NBA.
4. South Carolina (22-15, 6-10)
South Carolina coach Dave Odom will try to recapture the mojo that gave the Gamecocks a boost last March. After a disappointing regular season, South Carolina made it all the way to the championship game of the NIT before losing to Memphis. However, if Odom wants to continue the turnaround that began in the last weeks of winter, he will have to find a way to replace his backcourt. Jamel Bradley and Aaron Lucas, who were the two leading scorers on the team, graduated and have left a huge void at both guard positions. As a result, expect Odom to rely heavily on Chuck Eidson, a sharp-shooting forward that can handle the ball. Center Tony Kitchings and forward Roland Howell, who helped ignite South Carolina’s run last season, will also be counted on to contribute more offensively. However, with inexperienced junior Michael Boynton manning the point, it could be a long season in Columbia.
5. Tennessee (15-16, 7-9)
Last season, injuries, a lack of a true point guard, and buzzer-beater losses transformed a team that seemed destined to succeed into one that earned a 14-15 record and missed the postseason when it was all said and done. While Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson can’t do much about injuries and nail-biters, he has made sure that the Volunteers have somebody who can bring the ball up the court. Last year, senior guard Jon Higgins, senior forward Thaydeus Holden, and the oft-injured departed senior Jenis Grindstaff were the only true ball handlers. But this year, Peterson has brought in guard C.J. Watson, guard John Winchester, and guard/forward Stanley Asumnu to take over those duties. Even with bulky forward Ron Slay returning from a season-ending knee injury that occurred last January, expect Peterson to implement a full-court strategy and spread the floor. Coupled with the losses of forwards Vincent Yarbrough and Marcus Haislip, the addition of guards will make Tennessee a smaller, quicker, and more perimeter-oriented team. Nevertheless, the changes in style and the influx of five new freshmen may transform the 2002-2003 season into a learning experience for the Volunteers.
6. Vanderbilt (17-15, 6-10)
After achieving a 17-14 record and making an appearance in the NIT last season, the future seemed to look brighter for Vanderbilt basketball. However, a cloud quickly moved in to block the horizon line when three of their top four scorers moved on to different places. Chuck Moore and Sam Howard graduated, while Brendan Plavich, the SEC’s most accurate three-point shooter during the 2001-2002 campaign, transferred to UNC Charlotte. Commodores coach Kevin Stallings will count on forward Matt Frieje, who scored 15.1 points per game last season, and point guard Russell Lakey to carry the team. Frieje will be helped by a frontcourt whose biggest asset is depth. Forward Brian Thornton, an All-SEC freshman, 6-11 center David Przybyszewski, and 6-10 forward/center Martin Schnedlitz will give Vanderbilt a size advantage in the SEC. However, Vanderbilt still does not know where their production is going to come from, and that is why the media picked them last in the Eastern Division at SEC Media Days in Birmingham. It is a position with which the Commodores have become quite familiar.
1. Alabama (27-8, 12-4)
Up until March, the Alabama Crimson Tide was enjoying life at the summit of the college basketball mountain after having won the regular season SEC Championship-its first since 1987. However, a slaughtering administered by Kent State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament sent Bama crashing back down. Despite the setback, the Crimson Tide, which was ranked as high as fifth last season, is expected to recapture the magic it experienced before the encounter with Stan Heath’s Golden Flashes. Mark Gottfried’s team is once again stacked with talent, even without the services of guard Rod Grizzard, who declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft. Led by SEC Player of the Year Erwin Dudley and sophomore sensation Maurice Williams, the Crimson Tide will once again present a formidable inside-out game. Dudley, a forward/center, is the best low post player in the conference, and Williams, who plays the point, may be the SEC’s most adept guard. With this powerful duo combined with senior center Kenny Walker, who has supposedly made great strides, the Crimson Tide are once again primed to grab the Conference crown and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
2. Mississippi State (27-8, 10-6)
Mississippi State is back. After six years of mediocrity since they earned a berth in the 1996 Final Four, Coach Rick Stansbury led the Bulldogs to an SEC Tournament championship over favored Alabama last March. However, like the Crimson Tide, the Bulldogs could not translate their regular season success into an elongated NCAA Tournament run, as they waved goodbye in the second round. But don’t think the early exit shows that Mississippi State does not have what it takes to have a jolly time at the Big Dance. With three starters returning, including All-SEC forward Mario Austin, the ‘Dogs will be looking to take more of a bite out of the teams in the Western division and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Joined with consistent point guard Derrick Zimmerman and forward Michael Ignersiki, who is one of the best inside-outside players in the league, Austin and Mississippi State will present the biggest challenge to Alabama in the West and will likely be invited back to March Madness.
3. LSU (19-15, 6-10)
When this season is over, Louisiana State coach John Brady may be hated even more than he is now. The often petulant and combustible coach has made his share of enemies since he took over for Dale Brown in 1997, but since the Tigers are now a legitimate force in the conference, opponents will have one more reason to dislike Brady. The Tigers are expected to improve on last season’s 19-15 record and NIT appearance, because LSU returns all its key players from the 2001-2002 campaign. Smooth forward Ronald Dupree, speedy guard Torris Bright, and sharp-shooting guard Collis Temple III are all back to make a little noise in the Wild West. But, that is not the only positive for LSU. The Tigers no longer have to deal with the NCAA sanctions that have beset the program and will finally have a full roster after having their scholarships reduced in recent years. With everything falling into place for LSU, the Tigers will give Alabama and Mississippi State a run for the title and simultaneously invoke more hatred towards Brady.
4. Ole Miss (20-11, 9-7)
After earning a six-year contract extension, Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes can sit back, but can’t relax. With diminutive point Jason Harrison having graduated after last season, Barnes has been looking for someone to fill the void at the point. David Sanders will likely be picked to take the role and will be asked to convert from the off-guard position. This leaves Emmanuel Wade and Justin Johnson to play the two. While this is not an ideal situation, Barnes is hoping that a nucleus of four returning starters will make the Rebels a force in the West. Last season’s leading scorer for Ole Miss, forward Justin Reed, will be counted on to be the Rebels’ main low post threat and compensate for the confusion in the backcourt. Along with Reed, the return of 6-10 junior center John Gunn, who missed all of last year with a kidney ailment, and the addition of 6-10 transfer Shaun Holtz will give Ole Miss some leverage in the frontcourt. That bodes well for a team, which will take what it can get against a trio of stout intra-divisional foes.
5. Arkansas (14-15, 6-10)
Last season was one full of bad memories for Arkansas, as a 14-15 overall record prevented the Razorbacks from making the postseason for the first time since 1986-the first season Nolan Richardson coached in Fayetteville. Coincidentally, the dismal 2001-2002 campaign was also his last, as he was fired in the days following a public outburst. Twenty-seven days after his dismissal, former Kent State coach Stan Heath was brought in to pick up all the pieces and put them back together again. However, Heath will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to enjoy some success in his first year. While four seniors return for Arkansas, each one served as a marginal player under Richardson. Forward Dionisio Gomez, forward Alonzo Lane, guard Blake Eddins, and forward Carl Baker will be counted on to score more than they ever have before. This coupled with the fact that Heath will likely employ a freshman guard tandem of Eric Ferguson and Kendrick Davis makes Arkansas very vulnerable on all fronts. However, Heath is known for catching lightning in a bottle, as he brought Kent State to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last March. Arkansas fans hope he can recapture the magic of yesteryear and make this season one to remember-for all the right reasons.
6. Auburn (12-16, 4-12)
Life did not get any easier for Auburn coach Cliff Ellis after the Tigers finished with their worst record in 13 years. An NCAA investigation in the off-season cast a pall over hapless Auburn, which, remarkably, is only two years removed from its appearance in the 2000 SEC Championship game. However, it seems like eons since Auburn fielded a competitive team, and that is not likely to change in the upcoming season. Led by 6-6 senior point guard Marquis Daniels, who led the Auburn in every major statistical category in 2001-2002, the Tigers do not look very formidable on paper. Besides the return of sophomore sensations Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson at the forward positions, the Tigers are rather inexperienced in just about every area. Last season, Auburn started four freshmen and won only four conference games. In 2002-2003, the Tigers hope to improve on that mark, but will have to contend with a powerful Alabama team, a rejuvenated Mississippi State squad, and an improved LSU in the SEC West. As a result, it could be a long season on the plains of Alabama.
Coach of the Year
John Brady, LSU
Player of the Year
Maurice Williams, Alabama
Newcomer of the Year
Eric Ferguson, Arkansas
G Maurice Williams, Alabama
G Brett Nelson, Florida
F Erwin Dudley, Alabama
F Matt Bonner, Florida
C Mario Austin, Mississippi State