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SEC Notebook

March 11, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Rainer Sabin

If there were one word to describe the Southeastern Conference this season, it would be strange. In a league that was defined by parity and saw the emergence of schools that don’t claim a rich basketball tradition, it was Kentucky, ironically, that swept through its 16 SEC games with an undefeated record and maintained its position as king of the hill.

Despite receiving challenges from Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi State, the Wildcats proved that they are still the team to beat in a conference that is considered by many analysts as the best in the nation. Using a suffocating defense and an offense that was predicated on unselfishness and the timely pass, Kentucky showed how far they had come from last season when it earned the moniker, “Team Turmoil.” Now, the Wildcats are one of the favorites to win the NCAA Championship.

SEC East

While Kentucky (26-3, 16-0 SEC) was nothing short of dominant during the conference campaign, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee were also able to establish comfortable niches in a difficult SEC Eastern Division. The Gators, who were projected to flourish this season, did just that. The freshman backcourt tandem of Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson teamed well with senior forwards Matt Bonner and Justin Hamilton–giving Florida (24-6, 12-4 SEC) the necessary firepower to win 12 league games and earn a favorable seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

Georgia (19-8, 11-5 SEC), meanwhile, enjoyed a successful campaign despite being besieged by distractions as Championship Week approached. As the Tony Cole episode began to develop, and Coach Jim Harrick was placed under the spotlight, the Bulldogs were putting their finishing touches on a solid 11-5 conference record and an at-large berth to the Big Dance. But that all changed Monday, when Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley and university president Michael Adams declared the Bulldogs ineligible for the SEC and NCAA tournaments. The decision to end the Bulldogs’ season will increase the opportunity for bubble teams like Tennessee (17-10, 9-7 SEC) to make the Big Dance.

The streaky Volunteers, who recovered from a freefall in the final week by winning its last two games, were expected to finish near the bottom of the SEC East. However, after 16 league games, Tennessee is on the cusp of locking up an invitation to the Big Dance. Led by the conference’s top scorer, Ron Slay, the Volunteers were able reestablish itself as a tournament-worthy team. Slay, who recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee that he suffered last season, came back strong and scored 21.1 points per game in conference play.

While the SEC East had its share of surprises, it also featured two disappointments-Vanderbilt (10-17, 3-13 SEC) and South Carolina (12-15, 5-11 SEC). The Commodores, who have traditionally been cellar dwellers, faded as the season came to a close and returned to its familiar position at the bottom of the division. Despite the fact that forward Matt Frieje was the second leading scorer in the conference, Vanderbilt could not tally more points than its league-worst defense gave up.

Meanwhile South Carolina had an atypically poor season, because it was beset by injuries, could not rebound, and was forced to play Florida, Georgia, and Kentucky twice. Like Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks can only make the postseason if they win the conference tournament.

SEC West

While the SEC East standings had stabilized by the fourth week, its Western counterpart remained volatile throughout the conference campaign. In fact the division title was not decided until the final week, when Mississippi State (19-8, 9-7 SEC) defeated Auburn 67-45 Saturday and claimed the championship outright with an unimpressive 9-7 record.

The Bulldogs, who began the conference play with an 0-3 record, took advantage of the other teams’ inconsistency to take the top spot. As Auburn, LSU, and Alabama each experienced their peaks and valleys, Mississippi State climbed all the way to the summit and virtually ensured itself of a tournament bid.

While Mississippi State steadily improved, Auburn (19-10, 8-8 SEC) and LSU (19-9, 8-8 SEC) were a study in contrast during the last eight weeks of their seasons. Auburn, which began conference play with a 4-0 record, struggled the rest of the way and only beat four of the remaining twelve opponents it faced.

The Bayou Bengals, on the other hand, lost five of their first six league games, and were mired in last place in the SEC West in February. However, behind its trio of seniors-Ronald Dupree, Torris Bright, and Collis Temple III–LSU came back to win six of its last seven, earn an 8-8 record, and finish tied with Auburn.

As it made its run for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, LSU leapfrogged Alabama (9-18, 4-12 SEC) in the standings. The Crimson Tide, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation back in December, began its slide in conference play and has not been able to win consistently ever since. An erratic offense led by Maurice Williams and Erwin Dudley, contributed to Alabama’s strange conference campaign, which included a loss to Arkansas (9-18, 4-12 SEC) and wins over Mississippi State, LSU, and Auburn.

The Razorbacks, meanwhile, endured their worst regular season since 1986–Nolan Richardson’s first year at Arkansas. Under rookie coach Stan Heath, the Hogs fell to the bottom of the division. Plagued by an inexperienced freshman backcourt, a senior class with limited offensive skills, and the second toughest schedule in the nation, the Hogs were placed in a disadvantageous position from the outset. While Heath refused to admit that the 2002-2003 campaign would be a rebuilding season, it, in fact, was.

However, as bad as Arkansas’ season was, Ole Miss (13-14, 4-12 SEC) saved the Hogs from occupying the basement of the division alone. After jumping out to a 3-2 start in the SEC, the Rebels were unable to maintain any momentum. Ole Miss endured a 10-game losing streak before winning the season finale against Arkansas 64-54 on Saturday. The decline in Aaron Harper’s output contributed to Ole Miss’ decay and magnified the disappointing seasons of the other members of the Provine Posse-Justin Reed and David Sanders. While Reed was the leading scorer for the team, he averaged just 14.8 points per game and was unable to carry the load for the Rebels.

SEC Honors

After reviewing both divisions, it is time to hand out this season’s awards:

Player of the Year: Ron Slay, Tennessee

It is hard to argue that Slay does not deserve this honor. Without the 6-8 center, Tennessee would be nestled at the bottom of the SEC East standings and only dreaming of a tournament bid. Kentucky has Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill, and Jules Camara. Georgia has Ezra Williams and Jarvis Hayes. Mississippi State has Mario Austin and Derrick Zimmerman. Tennessee has Ron Slay.

Coach of the Year: Tubby Smith, Kentucky

After last year’s tumultuous campaign, Tubby Smith has established an esprit de corps like no other at Kentucky this season. A well-orchestrated offense, a stifling defense, and players who are unselfish—Tubby has it all and it shows. The Wildcats won all 16 of their conference games and have not lost since December. This pick was easy.

Freshman of the Year: (Tie) Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson, Florida

One of the best backcourts in the conference was comprised of two freshmen. Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson were brilliant from the outset and were the main reason why Florida’s inside-outside attack was so formidable. Both players finished the season averaging 12.8 points per game, second on the team in scoring, and first among SEC freshmen in point production. If not for them, Florida would not appear as dangerous going into the Big Dance.

2002-2003 All-SEC Team

G Marquis Daniels, Auburn
G Jarvis Hayes, Georgia
F Matt Frieje, Vanderbilt
F Matt Bonner, Florida
C Ron Slay, Tennessee

SEC Tournament Preview

For the first time since 1991, 12 teams will not be competing in the Southeastern Conference Tournament in New Orleans. On Monday, Georgia declared itself ineligible for the four-day event, when an internal investigation conducted by the university uncovered academic violations that occurred under Coach Jim Harrick’s stewardship. As a result, the SEC main office adjusted the tournament brackets Monday to account for the Bulldogs’ absence—something it had to do when Auburn was ruled ineligible 12 years ago.

With Georgia no longer participating, the tournament changes drastically and teams that previously had no shot of winning the conference championship now have a glimmer of hope. The Bulldogs, who assumed the No. 6 seed in the SEC East division after it withdrew itself from the postseason event, allowed Auburn and Tennessee to join Florida, Kentucky, and Mississippi State as teams that receive first-round byes. Moreover, Ole Miss and South Carolina-two teams that had dismal campaigns in conference play-will have the opportunity to play each other, and hence, better odds of moving on to the second round. After originally having to battle with Tennessee and Alabama, respectively, South Carolina and Ole Miss were given somewhat of a reprieve in the first round.

“While it is hard to say that I am surprised by today’s announcements released out of the SEC office and the University of Georgia, it is still very difficult to digest given the fact that I do not have all the details that went into the decision.” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “Thus, we will turn our attention immediately to Ole Miss and hope that we can focus only on that assignment. I have total confidence that our team will make the adjustment quickly.”

While Odom refrained from expressing his excitement at the turn of events, Alabama’s Mark Gottfried expressed concern when he learned that the Crimson Tide will meet Vanderbilt, instead of South Carolina, in the opening round. “We literally switched in the middle of practice, changing notes, changing preparations,” Gottfried said. “That’s the first time in my career that that’s ever happened. But again, Vanderbilt always poses problems. They beat us the only time they played us this year, so obviously our guys have a lot of respect for them.”

Like the Crimson Tide, Arkansas did not receive any benefit from the changes when the new seeds were announced. The Razorbacks, who were originally supposed to play Georgia on the opening day of the tournament, will now be pitted against LSU-a team that has won five consecutive games and split the season series with the Hogs.

“We’re playing a team that beat us convincingly (75-56 at Baton Rouge on Feb. 22), but we did split with them, Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. “They’ve put themselves in a position where it looks like they’re an NCAA Tournament team. We have to get ourselves mentally prepared to play. They’re playing awfully well. It’s to their advantage that we’re playing in the Superdome.”

So what do all these changes mean? Not a whole lot. Mississippi State, Florida, and Kentucky will still be the teams to beat. The Wildcats, who have a 20-game winning streak, went undefeated in the conference campaign and will have a clear path to the championship game now that Georgia is gone. Auburn or Tennessee will provide the biggest challenge for the Wildcats, who have won 23 SEC Tournament titles. Meanwhile, Florida or Mississippi State will likely move on from their side of the bracket, which remained virtually unaffected by Georgia’s ineligibility.

With the absence of the Bulldogs, the SEC Tournament has been presented with a new twist. But what else is new in a conference that has seen it all this season?


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