by Rainer Sabin
The Southeastern Conference has picked up where it left off last season, as the 12 schools seem to be conspiring to recreate the 2001-2002 storyline. In a matter of weeks, eerie similarities are surfacing. Alabama and Florida already look formidable. Kentucky is a mess so far, and another university, Mississippi State, is embroiled in controversy
In the self-proclaimed Mecca of sports arenas, Alabama opened its season Nov. 14 with much fanfare, as it outlasted one of the nation’s elite teams. At Madison Square Garden, sophomore sensation Mo Williams led the eighth-ranked Crimson Tide to a 68-62 victory over No. 3 Oklahoma in the “Coaches vs. Cancer” classic. Williams had 25 points, as he helped prevent Oklahoma from chipping away at an 18-point lead that Alabama had established early in the second half. The point guard from Jackson, Miss. hit several key buckets that preserved the advantage, which never dwindled below five points.
As a result, Alabama climbed to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, which is the highest ranking the Crimson Tide has attained since the 1977 season. But, more importantly, the win over the Sooners put to rest any notion that Alabama may be vulnerable.
After the Crimson Tide snuck by Athletes in Action 72-71 in an exhibition game on Nov. 7, people began to wonder if the Crimson Tide really was as good as the experts predicted. It is, and Alabama’s impressive display against Oklahoma proved as much. However, the Crimson Tide has a difficult non-conference schedule with a game at Utah and match-ups with Xavier and Providence in Tuscaloosa. As a result, by the time the SEC campaign starts in January, Mark Gottfried’s team will be battle testedâ€¦
On Nov. 22, the Crimson Tide returned to Tuscaloosa and easily beat Alabama State 82-56, as Williams scored a game-high 20 points and dished out five assists, while senior Terrance Meade chipped in seventeen points and six rebounds.
Led by freshman forward Matt Walsh, the Florida Gators opened their season with a bang. Walsh had 26 points, while senior Justin Hamilton added 21, as the Gators knocked off Louisiana Tech Nov. 19 at 76-55 in Gainesville. Because of injuries suffered by All-SEC candidate Brett Nelson and freshman sensation Christian Drejer, Walsh and fellow newcomer Anthony Roberson, who scored 13 points, were asked to start. It didn’t take long for them to make the most of their opportunities, as they shut down Louisiana Tech’s backcourt and contributed offensively. Two days later, Roberson and Walsh struck again, as they scored 20 apiece in a 99-65 rout of Eastern Illinois.
Last season, the Wildcats earned the nickname “Team Turmoil” after a series of off-the-court incidents blended in with several sub-par performances. So far, in the 2002-2003 campaign, Kentucky has shown it is not about to give up its well-deserved moniker. The Wildcats suffered an ignominious 84-75 defeat to Team Nike, and, days later, learned that Erik Daniels had been suspended four games by the NCAA for playing in two summer leagues-one more than is allowed by the collegiate athletics governing board. As a result, all is not well in Lexington. The exhibition defeat, the first for Kentucky since it lost to the Australian National Team in 1993, comes on the heels of a lackluster 83-82 win over Athletes in Action. Coach Tubby Smith and the Wildcats hope a trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational will restore some confidence in a team that needs some.
The season didn’t start the way the Bulldogs wanted it to, but then again this wasn’t a typical non-conference opener. Georgia, the other SEC team to make a trip to New York for the “Coaches vs. Cancer” classic, lost to No. 5 Texas 77-71 on Nov. 15. Nevertheless, Georgia was without two of its best players-forwards Chris Daniels and Steve Thomas, who were suspended for the game by the NCAA and university, respectively. Despite the setback, Georgia was able to enjoy the fruits of victory days after it suffered a defeat, as it downed EA Sports 118-79 in an exhibition game. Guard Jarvis Hayes led the team with 24 points, as the Bulldogs finished off its atypical “preseason” schedule, which included a game that counted (the loss to the Longhorns).
The Gamecocks celebrated the closing of Frank McGuire Arena with a 105-67 win over Unibanka Cesis of Latvia Nov. 13, and then said hello to their new digs eight days later. More than a week after junior forward and JUCO transfer Kerbrell Forward scored 19 points and sophomore forward Carlos Powell added 16 in the win over the Latvia outpost, South Carolina opened its new arena, the Carolina Center, in exciting fashion. The “Godfather of Soul” James Brown performed at a ceremony that luckily did not bring the house down, as South Carolina got acquainted with its new pad.
One day after the Gamecocks disposed of Unibanka Cesis, Tennessee got its shot to beat up on the team from Latvia. Forwards Ron Slay and Brandon Crump combined for 56 points as the Volunteers willingly routed their foreign foes 108-80. Meanwhile, as Tennessee was continuing to prepare for its season, “Star Wars” filmmaker George Lucas made it clear that he was not happy with a recent Tennessee promotion campaign-“Buzz Ball Episode II: Attack of the Vols.” Lucasfilm Ltd. expressed its displeasure with the Tennessee marketing office and told them that the Volunteers’ slogan for the 2002-2003 campaign violated copyright laws. As a result, Tennessee changed the new campaign to simply “Buzz Ball.” Oh well.
The Commodores finished off their preseason with a bang by beating Upstate New York 91-70 Nov.15. The win came four days after Vanderbilt received a scare from the Harlem Globetrotters, who fell to the Commodores 70-68. Junior forward Matt Frieje was the star of both games, as he scored a total of 45 points in the two contests and hit a buzzer-beating fade-away jumpshot to give the Commodores the win over the Globetrotters. In other Vanderbilt news, Dan Muller was promoted to an assistant by head coach Kevin Stallings after Tim Jankovich left the Commodores to take an assistant coaching position at Illinois.
Despite the absences of two of their best players, the Ole Miss Rebels defeated Athletes in Action 70-67 to close out its exhibition season Nov. 16. Coach Rod Barnes suspended both guard Emmanuel Wade and forward Justin Reed, who are both facing assault charges after getting into a fight at a skating rink in September. Nevertheless, forwards Derrick Allen and Aaron Harper were able to pick up the slack, as they each netted 16 points in the victory. Meanwhile, David Sanders has continued to make progress as he adapts to his new role as point guard-a position that was left vacant when Jason Harrison graduated last spring. Sanders, who used to play at the off-guard spot, has been on a fast learning curve since Rod Barnes asked him to make the transition in the backcourt.
Before the season started, everything was rosy for Coach Rick Stansbury and the Bulldogs. But, that all changed when the NCAA began looking in to Center Mario Austin’s high school academic records. The investigation centers on whether some of the classes Austin enrolled in at Sumter County High School in York, Ala. should be counted among the 13 core courses that are required for freshman eligibility. The collegiate athletics governing board said that it erroneously declared Austin eligible to play as a freshman when he first began attending Mississippi State two years ago. While the NCAA has not yet said that Austin will not be able to play this season, university officials have decided not to allow the junior center to play in any games before the matter is resolved. This may be a decision they regret, as the absence of Austin contributed to a 79-76 upset loss to the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns Nov. 23.
While Auburn’s football team ripped through rival Alabama 17-7 in the Iron Bowl at Tuscaloosa, the Tigers’ basketball team quietly beat Wofford 81-63 at home Nov. 23. Marquis Daniels scored 15 points and Marco Killingsworth added 13, as Auburn’s two forwards helped Coach Cliff Ellis earn his 499th victory. The victory over Wofford came seven days after Auburn’s 72-56 trouncing of the EA Sports All-Stars.
An impenetrable defense helped yield LSU a 68-24 victory over Nicholls State Nov. 22 in the 2002 Hispanic College Fund Classic. The Tigers held the Colonels to the fewest points allowed by an LSU opponent in 56 years. Shawnson Johnson was the only Tiger in double figures, as he scored ten points. However, a total of nine Tigers scored and all 15 played in the game. The win over Nicholls State was LSU coach John Brady’s sixth consecutive victory in an opener since he has been in Baton Rouge.
Stan Heath wasted little time in leaving his mark on the program. In his first game as the Arkansas’ head coach, the Razorbacks set a school record for rebounds in an 81-44 demolition of Jackson State. The Hogs crashed the glass and retrieved 77 boards, breaking the old mark of 75 set against Fort Chaffee in 1956. Freshman guard Jonathan “Pookie Modica,” who scored 11 points and amassed 13 rebounds, led the Hogs. The Razorbacks seem to have already been indoctrinated into Heath’s half court philosophy, which is a far cry from the full-court, “40 minutes of Hell” style Nolan Richardson implemented during his 17-year tenure at Arkansas.