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SEC Notebook

November 26, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

Well after a long and arduous wait, the college basketball season is back upon us. We have had to wade through a week and a half of garbage games (thank you NCAA and the 2-4 rule), but now it is time to get to the real action. Many of the experts seem to believe that this will be a down year for the SEC, and to some extent they have a point. The conference did itself no favors in the NCAA tournament last year with a hideous performance (Kentucky and Auburn not included), and many of the stars of the conference have gone on to greener pastures (Hello NBDL!). Yet I think some may incorrectly be sleeping on the conference. This will not be a season like last year when three different teams hit the number 1 ranking, but the conference has a depth that still makes it a top contender. Kentucky and Florida may take a while to get rolling, but by the end of the season they should be as good as anyone. Tennessee, LSU and Auburn may also surprise some folks. Either way it is time to get the season under way, which for much of the conference means Cupcake City until January.

Here Come the Vols

No program in the conference has shown more potential upside (thank you Hubie!) in the last couple of weeks than Tennessee. First they rewarded Buzz Peterson with a contract extension through 2009 that puts him 3rd in the conference in salary (behind the Tubby Smith and Billy Donovan mega-deals) and showed a commitment to the young coach that should surely pay strong dividends in the future. The Vols have been everyone’s pick for “program on the rise” now for about the past fifteen years. Whether it was the star power of Allan Houston, the recruiting prowess of Kevin O’Neill or the sheer talent load of Jerry Green, this has been a program that has been this close to reaching elite status for quite some time. However the Vols have never been able to get over the hump, partly because of a lack of bench coaching and team discipline.

Enter Buzz Peterson, the best thing to arrive in Tennessee since the King (Elvis or Jerry Lawler whichever you prefer). Peterson is a great young talent from the Dean Smith pedigree who lives and breathes coaching and has shown a commitment to the long-term building process that leads to great programs. He was blessed his first couple of years with a tremendous talent in Ron Slay (one of the more underrated SEC players in recent memory) and he has shown steady improvement over the past two seasons. Tennessee’s decision to lock him down for a number of years now, cements their opportunity to rise as an SEC basketball power, and not just a permanent underachiever.

This season the team has already started strong with a 81-70 win over Wofford. While Wofford may not necessarily get the blood flowing, the performance of Scooter McFagdon might. This junior transfer from Memphis opened his UT career with 31 points in the victory. True Vols fans know that the last debut performance that matched Scooter’s was that of Bernard King who began his Tennessee career with 41 points. In addition the Vols got strong performances from their Sophomore sensation CJ Watson and the core of the team, Brandon Crump. The Vols may not look on paper to be an SEC contender this year, and the team will certainly suffer without Slay, but look for Tennessee to open some people’s eyes this season. Regardless of what happens however, the move of the season occurred this week with the extension for Peterson, making this a week that Vols fans in the future may look to as the turning point for the program.

The Barbour returns

Tubby Smith gets a welcome addition this Friday against Tennessee Tech when Antwain Barbour returns to the lineup. Barbour, who was out the first game of the season against Winthrop on a discipline-related suspension, could very well be the key to this season for the Cats. With Kentucky’s lack of a real presence on the inside, Tubby will very often go with three and at times even four, natural guards in the lineup. Barbour’s athleticism and explosiveness are much needed for Tubby’s disciplined team and the Wildcats need him to find his shooting form. Last year was a rough one for Barbour, who came out of junior college highly regarded and struggled to find his role as a backup to Keith Bogans. Now however he must take a leadership role and many close to the program see a new man emerging. All signs are that Antwain could be the Barbour of old and if that happens, the SEC may look like a Kentucky caravan once again.

Vandy flexes its muscle

No coach may be on more of a hot seat this season than Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt. Stallings has a career 62-59 record, but has to deal with an increasingly grumbling fan base who wonders why a tournament bid has not been forthcoming in quite some time. However with pre-season SEC player of the year Matt Freije leading the Commodores, good things could be on the horizon. Such possibilities were seen Monday night as the Dores took out Indiana 73-60 in Nashville. While Indiana is undoubtedly down this year, this is still a team a mere two years removed from the national title game and Vanderbilt can take comfort in the fact that they thoroughly dominated the game. Freije had 32 points and was 18-18 from the free throw line. The Dores showed poise and executed a coherent game plan in limiting Indiana to only contested shots as they showed a bit of the old “Memorial Magic”. If Stallings can get two or three more upsets such as this one during the season, he may be able to breath a little easier, and Vandy could be knocking on the NCAA tournament door.

Not again

Georgia fans have to wonder when it will end, as freshman Corey Gibbs was suspended this for 9 games this week after selling his school books in violation of NCAA rules. Gibbs, a freshman who was expected to have a great impact on the young team, sold the books which were part of his scholarship to the university and will miss all the games in this calender year. New coach Dennis Felton has to wonder when the next shoe will fall, as he continues to experience bad news in his new program. We will see whether the news gets any better this week, as the Bulldogs play Gonzaga on Saturday.

Player and Newcomer of the Week

Only one answer to this question and it is Scooter McFagdon. Many Memphis fans believed that John Calipari never really knew how to use McFagdon during his years playing for the Tigers, and their fears were realized with his opening night performance. It will be up to Scooter to continue this throughout the season, but the Calipari talent drain seems to continue to rear its ugly head.

Team Reports

No. 10 Kentucky (1-0)

Kentucky opened the season with a 65-44 win over Winthrop in Rupp Arena on Friday. The Cats were led in scoring by Eric Daniels with 15 points and showcased once again what it is that will take them to the top of the SEC this season. Their suffocating defense created chaos for Winthrop and allowed the Cats to overcome a mediocre offensive performance. Winthrop’s coach Gregg Marshall spoke of the team’s outstanding defensive effort and opined that there is no simulation for the defensive pressure that the Cats bring in every game. Kentucky is next in action Friday against Tennessee Tech, before beginning the “Saturday Gauntlet” that will define the team early in the season. Beginning on December 6th, the Cats have five straight games on CBS against UCLA, Michigan St., Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina. This will give the team a tremendous amount of national exposure and will provide a true test of the team’s ability to do without Keith Bogans, Marquis Estill and Jules Camara.

No. 9 Florida (0-0)

An off-season that Billy Donovan would rather forget will finally come to an end on Tuesday night as the Gators open up the season with the powerhouse from Big Sky country, Montana St. After spending recent weeks dealing with the controversy created when Mike Montgomery made a thinly veiled reference to possible cheating allegations in the program, Donovan must be glad to focus primarily on court-related issues. He has once again attempted to do something that many SEC coaches would never fathom, mainly scheduling a good non-conference slate. The Gators will see Arizona, Maryland, Louisville and West Virginia in the coming weeks and Billy D’s team will be have its strength tested. Look for this to be the year of the Sophomore in Gainesville as this team will rise or fall based on the play of Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh. Walsh snuck up on some teams last year, but that wont happen again. Look for defenses to key on these guys and force the Gators to develop some type of inside presence. If that happens, the Gators will be tough.

Tennessee (1-0)

The Vols see Tennessee St on their schedule this week, before welcoming the Aggies of Texas A&M next week into Thompson Boling Arena. The Vols have a non conference schedule that includes games at Nebraska and UMASS, but all of the games are winnable. Look for Peterson to use this time to get his stud freshman Major Wingate going in the right direction and to attempt to develop a solid rotation with his lineup. Do not be surprised if we look up at the turn of the new year and this team is undefeated. It could happen.

Vanderbilt (2-0)

It has been a long time since Vanderbilt had a win like the one on Monday night. Things are looking up for this program and with Tennessee-Martin and IUPUI (ooey-pooey) next up on the schedule, things could continue to be positive into the future. As a matter of fact, Vandy does not play a single road game until a January 3rd trip to TCU. Considering their schedule and the fact that their only opponent from a major conference is Michigan, this team could also be undefeated beginning conference play. Matt Freije is of course the key to their success, and he has thus far shown that the talk of him being a legitimate Division 1 prospect may have been correct.

Georgia (1-0)

The team of turmoil known as the Georgia Bulldogs has begun what has to be a refreshing season. As all teams that deal with Jim Harrick find out, having him in your program is like becoming a celebrity tiger tamer in Las Vegas: for a while it will seem successful, but ultimately it is going to come back and bite you in the neck. Dennis Felton has begun the long, hard slog towards respectability for this program and the beginning of the season was a success. They held off a pesky Western Carolina team 78-67 to begin the season with a victory. The Bulldogs defense did however leave a bit to be desired as Kevin Martin (K-Mart to you uninitiated Western Carolina followers) went for 44 points against the young Bulldogs. Ultimately they prevailed thanks to the play of the enigma Dhamian Wilkens, who went for 19 points and showed the senior leadership that Georgia is praying he will offer this season. As Wilkens goes, so go the Bulldogs and he helped them get off to a resounding start. They face Florida Atlantic this week before making the trip to Gonzaga in what will be a test for the young team, and our SEC game of the week.

South Carolina (4-0)

The Gamecocks opened up the post-Chuck Edison era (did any player anywhere in the country play for his team longer than Edison?) by winning a host of early season games, defeating Gardner-Webb 83-74, Idaho 76-66, Navy 73-40 and Southwest Missouri St 77-64. While this does not exactly resemble a murderer’s row, Dave Odom is glad to begin this season with victories, as he attempts to replace a team that was led last year by four seniors. The Odom era has been a mixed back in Columbia, as he led the team to the NIT championship game in his first year and then followed it up with a disappointing 12-16 season last year. This team will be led by Junior Carlos Powell who must provide offense for a group that expects to be low in the shooting department. The hits keep on coming for the Gamecocks this week as they play Campbell on Saturday.

Alabama (1-1)

Alabama began its season with a loss, but showcased a tremendous amount of potential in falling to Pittsburgh 71-62 in the Coaches vs Cancer Classic in New York. The Tide expected to be led this season by Kennedy Winston, who had a strong performance, but have been pleasantly surprised by another of the SEC’s Super Sophomores in Chuck Davis who had 20 points in the losing effort. After the game, Davis showed that he lacked nothing in the way of confidence, predicting that due to Pittsburgh’s high ranking, “if they’re one of the best in the country, we think we are too.” While Coach Gottfried may not necessarily agree with that statement, he has to love the talent level shown by his young team. They followed up this strong performance with a 69-63 win against Louisiana Tech on Saturday night. Mark Gottfried won his 100th game as Alabama head coach and Winston had a career high 24 points in the victory. The Tide blew a series of leads throughout the game, but held off the hard-fighting Tech team with key baskets down the stretch. Alabama has games this week against SE Louisiana and Providence as they prepare for their December 3rd showdown with Martin Iti and the Charlotte 49ers.

Auburn (3-0)

You know it must be late fall when the Auburn Tigers start off the season with a strong record, a schedule that includes teams with multiple directions in their names and Cliff Ellis upset at how the media says they play an easy schedule. Auburn began the season with a 66-62 defeat of College of Charleston, an 86-64 whipping of Western Kentucky and an 85-61 spanking of Maryland-Eastern Shore. These three teams actually represent a marked improvement over the normal Auburn competition level, but nevertheless illustrate a problem with the Tigers. Cliff Ellis is an underrated coach who gets the most out of his players and at times, has had teams that were legitimate contenders on the national level (anyone remember the Chris Porter era?). However they get almost no respect nationally and the constant harassment of Dick Vitale due to their continued insistence on playing a non-conference schedule that would put Transylvania University to shame. This season Ellis seems to be attempting to schedule a few better teams (games upcoming with Colorado St and Air Force), but it will be a day where you see no beautiful women on the Auburn campus before they play any national power. Grambling comes to town this week.

Arkansas (1-0)

Stan Heath and the Arkansas Razorbacks got off to a strong start this week as they defeated Nicholls St. 89-60 in Fayetteville. Jonathan Modica began what many to believe a potential all-SEC season with 26 points in just 25 minutes of action. While the “40 Minutes of Hell” which Arkansas fans cut their teeth on may never return, this group of Razorbacks seems poised to potentially put up big numbers. A lot will depend on the emergence of newcomer Olu Fatumani. Many amongst the Razorback faithful see Fatumani as the next great star in Fayetteville and he could very well be the beginning of a swarm of great recruits brought in by Heath. Arkansas fans, who are amongst the most consistently underappreciated and best in college basketball, are looking at this season with great anticipation. They face Grambling (as does everyone) and Jacksonville this week, as they prepare for coming tests against Illinois, Tulsa and Oklahoma St. Take that Cliff Ellis!

Mississippi State (1-0)

There were a host of questions coming into the season about the Mississippi St. Bulldogs. How would they react to the ill-advised decision of Mario Austin and Travis Outlaw to go to the NBA? Could they replace the consistency of Derrick Zimmerman and underappreciated Michael Ignerski? Could this team match the level of play that has led them to two straight SEC Tournament finals and made them a consistent contender on the national landscape? Well after the 90-74 win against Tennessee-Martin, many of these questions are still unanswered, but what is clear is that Lawrence Roberts was an absolute steal for Rick Stansbury. Roberts, who was granted special permission by the NCAA to transfer from Baylor after the tragic events there last summer, had 26 points in the victory and showcased why he has the potential to be a truly special player. Stansbury was a bit upset at his team’s early defense, but ultimately the game was a solid effort by the Bulldogs. This week they have matchups with South Alabama (coached by SEC alum John Pelphrey) and Western Kentucky.

LSU (2-0)

Coming into the season, the news around Bayou country concerning the basketball team, was the recruiting class that John Brady had brought in and how the future looked bright for the Tigers. While Brandon Bass, Tack Minor and Regis Koundja certainly do make the Tigers seem like a team who is destined for success, some people may not want to look past this year as the time that LSU can make some noise. After an early 70-59 win against Southern, Jamie Lloreda went for 30 big ones in a 87-77 victory over McNeese St. Lloreda, a former Junior College National Player of the Year, has openly said that this is his team and that he wants to lead the Tigers to the promised land. It is arguable that the Tigers, who last year beat number 1. Arizona on their home floor, have the most raw talent of any team in the league. Their success however will depend on how well they adjust to the new freshman and how they can handle their brutal schedule…..oh never mind. They play Utah in Baton Rouge, but before that the basketball Tigers should be fine and dandy until after the football Tigers come home from their BCS bowl.

Mississippi (0-1)

Then there is Ole Miss. If you were reading this notebook and thinking to yourself, “boy it seems like this new SEC guy thinks every team is on the rise”, well now is your time to see that is not the case. The Rebels began the season with a humiliating home loss to Arkansas St. 74-69. Ole Miss is the team with the best record in the SEC West since 1996 and Rod Barnes has produced a consistent winner in his time in Oxford. However this season has the potential to be rough. The Rebels do have a star in Justin Reed, but it looks as if little else is in the cupboard and the potential is there for a huge letdown. One hates to read too much into an early season defeat, but it is Arkansas St., so we should read something into it. Things don’t look much better for the Rebels as they welcome the powerhouses Centenary and SE Louisiana (who plays everyone in the SEC) this week. With Louisiana-Monroe, Jacksonville St. and Nicholls St. On the horizon, Barnes better get his ship righted or things will be gloomy in Oxford.

Game of the Week

Watch out for the November 29th game between Georgia and Gonzaga. This will certainly be a test for the new-look Bulldogs, but it will also be an interesting measuring stick for the Zags. After a tough opening loss to St. Joseph’s this game might be indicative as to whether Gonzaga is truly for real. And kudos to Georgia for agreeing to play this road game. Some other coaches in the league should stand and recognize.


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