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SEC Notebook

December 4, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

The season is now fully upon us and we have learned a few initial things. First, regardless of what any preseason magazine said, there is no dominant team in college basketball. No. 4 Connecticut has the most potential to become a runaway favorite, but as long as junior forward Emeka Okafor’s back acts up and junior guard Ben Gordon is the only consistent scorer, they will always will be ripe for an upset.

No. 7 Duke also has the talent to become a force in the ACC, but they have not shown an ability to fully utilize the team’s eight McDonald’s All-Americans. It has become treason to suggest this, but it is quite possible that Coach Mike Krzyzewski has underachieved with this squad the last couple of years. Granted, it is an amazing thing to say about any program that only loses seven games and comes off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, but this is a disappointment at a school that expects Final Fours and championships. But no team in the country can match the talent anywhere that the Blue Devils bring in each year. Losing to Purdue is not the end of the world, but it does make you wonder.

Finally, this is the last year that we have to deal with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for three days of coverage on ESPN. The Big Ten has been overrated for years, and the ACC, while helped with the resurgence of No. 6 North Carolina, is no longer the best conference in basketball. Thank goodness that the network had the good sense to begin a challenge between the real two best conferences in America, the SEC and the Big 12, next year.

The Best Walsh since Brenda and Brandon

From the moment sophomore guard Matt Walsh stepped on the floor for No 3 Florida, opposing teams’ fans knew that he would be a thorn in their side for years to come. With his uncanny ability to shoot the three, a never-say-die attitude and hair straight from an N’Sync video, Walsh served notice that he was coming to take over the SEC.

Walsh showcased Nov. 28 why he is a potential First Team All-SEC player this season. Walsh, with his Playboy centerfold girlfriend in the stands – life truly is not fair – drained threes out the wazoo and got ESPN commentator Dick Vitale so excited that his head nearly exploded in their 78-77 win over No. 5 Arizona.

Entering the game, Arizona was believed to have the edge because of their experience and their record in early season games under Lute Olson. But Florida became the second SEC team in as many years, LSU being the other, to knock off Arizona and provide a boost to their early season fortunes.

Coach Billy Donovan’s Gators cemented their status as the team with the best hair in the country – you should run, not walk, to see freshman guard Ryan Appleby’s “Fraggle Rock” doo in the near future – and as a potential challenger to No. 9 Kentucky’s SEC throne this season. Donovan has always had talent in Gainesville, but this game showed something that Florida has sorely lacked for many years: an ability to excel in the clutch. Walsh has become what Brett Nelson was early in his career for the Gators, a person who has the guts to take the big shot and who can handle the ramifications of missing the shot. He may be similar to Dewayne Schintzus and Demetri Hill in the way he rubs opposing fans the wrong way, but he also has the potential to be a truly great player for years to come.

Fitch betta have my money

From the beginning of his freshman season, Kentucky senior guard Gerald Fitch’s career has had its share of ups and downs. Some see him as the embodiment of the transformation that has occurred in the program since its days in the 2001-’02 season as “Team Turmoil” to its newfound status as a cohesive team.

Fitch fought off discipline problems, including being benched for part of the 2002 postseason, to become a leader for Kentucky. Coach Tubby Smith, who seriously considered showing Fitch the door following his last discipline-related suspension, points to Fitch as the team leader.

Fitch displayed his skills in a big way last week. He came through with 36 points against Tennessee Tech and 24 more, including some big shots down the stretch, in a surprisingly close game with Marshall. When Fitch is not getting more tattoos of the Magna Carta on his arm, he is quietly becoming one of the most dominant scorers in the country, albeit one that the majority of basketball fans could not name.

In years past, Fitch has been able to play second fiddle to the leadership of Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans, but now Kentucky fans are expecting him to become their beloved team leader who will take the Wildcats deep into March. The Cats have shown very little ability to get scoring contributions from their bench, and at times during the season, may subsist on a six-man rotation. If that is the case, Fitch will have even more pressure on him, a role he seems to embrace.

It will be interesting to watch in the next five weeks how Fitch does against the “Murderer’s Row” of UCLA, Michigan State, Indiana, Louisville and North Carolina. If the Cats win all of those games, Fitch will be a household name throughout college basketball and his place in Kentucky basketball history may become entrenched.

On the Road Again

Two teams in the SEC showed a great deal of strength this weekend by producing strong performances on the road against good teams from non-major conferences. Mid-major Teams constantly struggle to make their schedules.

They can choose to either sacrifice themselves on the road against top teams, or they can schedule teams from the lower conferences and then get killed when the RPI rankings come out. The option that they almost never have is the one given to them by two SEC teams this week. Mississippi State made the difficult trip to Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky., to play the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and escaped with an 81-75 victory.

Meanwhile, Georgia made the long flight to Spokane, Wash., although they were lucky not to have to play inside “The Kennel,” to take on No. 18 Gonzaga. Although Georgia lost in overtime, 82-76, the team proved they can play with one of the top teams in the nation on the road.

Mississippi State was taken to the end by Western Kentucky, and the Bulldogs won in the clutch, due in large part to the continued stellar play of senior guard Timmy Bowers. Both of these teams should be commended, not only for their solid play, but for having the guts to challenge these upstart programs and not to look at them as “no-win” games. Now if we could only get Auburn coach Cliff Ellis to take a break from the jazz music to play a road game…

Charles Barkley would not approve

One of Auburn’s most famous alumni is of course, the “Round Mound of Rebound” himself, Charles Barkley. Barkley, who once famously told a young Dirk Nowitski that he could “pull some strings” and get him admitted to Auburn, often talks about how the NBA should only put good games on television and that we should not praise a team until they beat a top team.

Thus he would not be happy with the pitiful state of affairs that exists in the Auburn scheduling office. It has become almost cliche to make fun of Auburn’s non-conference schedule, but it is also cliche to make fun of Carrot Top as well and that has never stopped me. This season the Tigers play one, yes that is right, ONE non-conference game away from home. And when the Tigers are at home, it is not exactly a fearsome group they are meeting. Air Force, Colorado State, Southern Mississippi and New Orleans are a bit better than the Southeastern Arkansas State Tech that they usually play but still are a far cry from major conference competition.

The truth of the matter is that I like Auburn. Ellis is one of the true gentlemen in college coaching and because of his diverse set of interests apart from basketball, he is one of the more engaging and thoughtful coaches around. However, until the Tigers go out on a limb and play someone of worth, they will never be considered a top program. Unfortunately, you have a better chance of seeing Trent Lott at the new 2Pac documentary than you do of hearing of a classic match up involving Auburn.

Player of the Week

The slight nod goes to Matt Walsh. His scoring prowess helped Florida defeat Arizona, and he had 15 in the victory over Florida A&M. The SEC better get used to the notion of hearing the term “Walsh for three!”

Team Reports

No. 3 Florida (3-0)

The boys from Gainesville had a big week, defeating Montana State 112-73, Arizona 78-77 and Florida A&M 102-78. Donovan must be pleased with the beginning of the season, in which five different players average double digits in scoring and nine players showing significant contribution along the way. However he came out after the Florida A&M game and blasted his team’s intensity and lack of defensive pressure. Donovan said, “I don’t know why it’s the third game of the season and I’m not getting it. Our perimeter players refuse to guard anybody. They get too wrapped up in scoring.”

Donovan specifically pointed out the play of sophomore point guard Anthony Roberson, who the coach believes has played too selfishly in the early part of the season. One can understand Donovan’s impatience with selfish play because many outside observers have pointed to this trait as the downfall of past Florida teams. There is a growing sense around the Florida campus that this year’s team is different. Much of the animosity that existed in past year’s is gone from this group, and Donovan is finally ready to take “the leap.”

Although that remains to be seen, what is not in question is what Florida will accomplish this week, mainly two victories over Central Florida and Stetson.

No. 9 Kentucky (3-0)

On the surface, the two scores looked like classic Kentucky early season contests. First was a 108-81 victory over Tennessee Tech, followed by an 89-76 win over the Thundering Herd of Marshall. But for the Big Blue Nation, where every game brings a possibility for hand-wringing and worry, there was a lot to fear.

Throughout the first three games, one could hear up and down the state the calls of guarded concern. “We have no bench and that will get us come March. “Antwain Barbour just doesn’t have it, and I am not sure if he will be able to give us anything this year. I don’t know who this Lukask Orzbut and Shagari Alleyneare, but if I were 7-feet tall I would stand under the basket and dunk it every time!”

All of these calls show real weaknesses that the Wildcats must address. However they also showcase how far this program has come since this point last year. After Kentucky had been beaten by Virginia and Michigan State and blown out by Louisville, some fans wondered if the descent into mediocrity had begun.

However, after winning 31 of the past 32 games, the sounds of complaints about the backup point guard and the freshman seven-footers sound like sweet music. As long as Kentucky’s starting five continues to play like one of the best in the country, the Cats will stay among the nation’s elite and be ready for a run to San Antonio.

The two programs with the most national championships in all of college basketball meet on Sunday in Anaheim when the Cats come acallin’ on the UCLA Bruins.

Vanderbilt (3-0)

Vanderbilt continued on its mission to enter the Top 25 this week – come on Hoopville, only two teams from the SEC? – by defeating Tennessee-Martin 94-60. The Commodores, buoyed by their somewhat lackluster future schedule, in the past week have become the pick du jour of college basketball experts as the surprise team of the SEC.

True Hoopville.com readers know that, in this very column, we expressed those sentiments a mere eight days ago. Nevertheless, Commodore fans will not complain that they, and their star senior forward Matt Freije, continue to get more national attention. Their victory last week over Indiana has lost some of its shine, especially after the Hoosiers were blown out by No. 19 Wake Forest 100-67, but nothing has diminished the rising star of Matt Freije. I know that is a mixed metaphor, but it is my column and I can do what I want.

The Commodores have the suddenly insurgent Michigan Wolverines coming to town on Saturday night, in a game that will say a lot about the seasons of both programs. Look for Vandy to hold on to a close win and for Dick Vitale to reference the ‘Dores as a “sleeper” within the week.

Tennessee (3-0)

The Vols continued their early winning ways this week by beating Tennessee State 81-56 and the Aggies of Texas A&M 108-84 in Thompson-Boling Arena. Junior guard Scooter McFagdon, the biggest celebrity to hit Knoxville since Peyton Manning left for Indianapolis, led the Vols with 23 points in their win over Texas A&M and cemented his status as the team leader.

The influence that McFagdon has had on the Vols cannot be understated. On a team that has for years wasted more talent than a Jackson family reunion, the leadership and overall calm demeanor of McFagdon is refreshing and has the potential to completely change the fortunes of the team.

The Vols continue their run of Big 12 teams on Dec. 13 with a trip to Nebraska. Although traditionally this game would have the networks salivating, albeit in football, it is a key game for Tennessee that represents the only potential stumbling block that would prevent Tennessee from entering a Jan. 3 game at Massachusetts undefeated.

Georgia (2-1)

The record may show a mixed week for the Georgia Bulldogs as they split a pair of games, losing at Gonzaga 82-76 in overtime and then defeating Towson 81-51 in Athens, Ga.

However new coach Dennis Felton likely sees little to complain about in this stretch. Georgia presented a strong showing in Spokane Nov. 29 and came within a couple of missed baskets from pulling off a thrilling early season upset. The Bulldogs had no answer for the rebounding, defensive presence or hair of Gonzaga forward Ronny Turiaf, who had a huge game against the Bulldogs.

With so much turmoil throughout the program and the constant distraction of the university’s continued search for a new athletic director, the Bulldogs could have been forgiven for not putting for their best effort after the cross-country journey to play the Zags. Yet they responded with a tremendous performance and followed that up with a spanking of Towson.

The Bulldogs only have two true scorers in senior forwards Damien Wilkens and Chris Daniels, but as of yet the two of them have shown that they could be enough, if they play up to their tremendous potential.

The Bulldogs have that famous 1-2 punch of Florida A&M and Winthrop coming to town this week.

South Carolina (6-0)

South Carolina extended their gaudy undefeated record to 6-0 after defeating Richmond 67-61 and Campbell 77-48 this week. The more impressive of the two victories was the defeat of the Spiders as South Carolina showed that even with this young team, they have the potential to go on the road and escape with victories.

Coach Dave Odom understands that being 6-0 against the schedule that the Gamecocks have played is not necessarily the most impressive accomplishment. He said, “nobody has to tell me that the teams we are going to play later in December, and certainly in January, are certainly much, much better than what we have played so far.” Because Odom recognizes this obvious point, I will not pound it home.

However, South Carolina does not deserve the derision of, say Auburn, because they at least travel away from home, playing Southwest Missouri State, Richmond, The Citadel, Temple and Clemson on the road. If you are going to play less than stellar teams, at least play a few in their gyms, and South Carolina does that. Although this early positive start is not cause for celebration in Columbia, S.C., which would no doubt take place at Harper’s restaurant, neither is it to be dismissed either.

Alabama (2-2)

The mystery of the Alabama Crimson Tide continues this new season, as the team has gotten off to a shaky start and accounts for half of the conference’s four early season losses. The Tide began the week by eeking out a victory, 83-76, over Southeast Louisiana and then ended the week by losing on the road to Providence 76-71.

Although the Providence loss is not an embarrassing one for the Tide, it is symptomatic of what has been a continual problem for this team. Alabama has not beaten a quality opponent in quite some time, and while they show glimpses of brilliance against lesser teams, they never seem able to put together a complete game against an opponent from a major conference.

Coach Mark Gottfried continually mentions that his team is young and that it will take time for them to adjust to their roles. Although this is true, this was also the mantra of the team last year as it had one of the greatest falls from grace for a Division I program in quite some time. The Tide play Charlotte, and considering the 49ers beat Syracuse earlier in the season, much will be learned about this Tide team as they try to stay about .500.

Arkansas (3-0)

It was a boring week for the Arkansas Razorbacks this week, and that is likely exactly how coach Stan Heath would want it. They began the week by defeating Jacksonville 85-65, but have spent the rest of the time getting the valuable practice time that is so necessary for the success of a young team.

Much more interesting, however, to the greater picture of the Arkansas basketball program was the news this week that Arkansas was putting season tickets on sale to the general public for the first time in 27 years. The Nov. 21 win against Nicholls State marked the first time in 334 regular season games that the Razorbacks had failed to sell out their arena. Although most within the program are celebrating the longevity of the streak and noting that there is a much bigger arena to fill now, it would have been unthinkable in the 1990s that a game involving the Razorbacks would not sell out.

Heath has this program on the rise, but one wonders why the fans, who this columnist praised last week, are not following with the same fervor. Regardless of the fans however, Arkansas will need all the help it can get this week as they play Oral Roberts – Jimmy Swaggart was unavailable – and then make the difficult trip to Illinois.

Auburn (5-0)

For reasons stated above, I refuse to write about Auburn until they play someone worthy of speaking about. They did defeat Colorado State, minus quarterback Bradley Van Pelt, 84-54 Dec. 1. This week they play Air Force and get ready for their arduous Dec. 10 encounter with Montana.

LSU (4-0)

LSU continued their run through the bad teams of the Deep South by beating Troy State 78-69 and Louisiana-Monroe 96-65 this week. Senior forward Jamie Lloreda continued his quest for the title of the best player in the country that absolutely no one knows about with 26 points in the win over Monroe – the Louisiana kind not the president kind. Some would say that the lack of attention for Lloreda, and for Matt Freije for that matter, is part of a greater national lack of respect for the quality of talent in the SEC. However that is for another commentary.

Lloreda may be one of the best five inside-out players in the country and his sweet mid-range jumper, the “Amol Mujamdar” shot, is a refreshing throwback to another time in basketball. The Tigers have also gotten some strong contributions early in the year from their freshman class. As a matter of fact, the Baton Rouge newspaper had as its headline after the Monroe game “LSU’s Koundjia has career day in win over ULM.” Now I could take the time here to make fun of a newspaper for asserting that a freshman who has played only four games has a “Career day,” but I will let it pass by simply saying that if any of the big three freshman for LSU – Koudjia, Brandon Bass or Tack Minor – produce big this season, the Tigers could move to the top of the SEC West.

Mississippi State (4-0)

Mississippi State continued their early season winning ways by defeating South Alabama 71-62, going on the road to beat Western Kentucky 81-75 and then putting a 92-69 beatdown on McNeese State. Although all of these accomplishments are impressive, I would be remiss if I did not focus the Mississippi State part of this notebook on its important hire of Sylvester Croom as the head football coach.

Newspaper columnists and television reporters have been celebrating Croom alternatively as both a historic hire and an extremely well-qualified one. However I wonder if nationally it has still not sunk in how big a moment this truly is. Unlike anywhere else in the country, college sports at the state university level, especially football, is of immense importance in the South. Although individuals have long felt that the South has been ignored economically, socially and politically, sports has provided an outlet for people and given them a sense of pride and community that is far more important than the game itself.

Unfortunately the schools in the SEC were slow to embrace the change in the country’s race relations, and thus they remain a symbol for many African-Americans of the difficult legacy of the Civil Rights struggle.

Although basketball was quicker to accept a diverse group of coaches – the legacy of Nolan Richardson, Rod Barnes and Tubby Smith is extremely important – football has lagged behind. Alabama and Kentucky both had a chance to make a historic hire last year but ended up passing on Croom and Doug Williams. Mississippi State did not, and thus should be commended. There is nothing that Rick Stansbury’s team could have done this week that is of the same level of importance and I stand up and salute the Mississippi State administration for helping to continue to knock down the wall of racism in the South. I wish Sylvester Croom all the luck in the world in the coming years.

Mississippi (2-1)

Well after that, what could I possibly say about Ole Miss this week? The answer: very little.

The Rebels defeated Centenary 72-60 and Southeast Louisiana 52-48. Senior forward Justin Reed continues to showcase his talents, but the lack of athletes and scorers in Oxford will continue to plague this team. They play the suddenly rising Florida State Seminoles Dec. 3, whose motto is we get every recruit in the country. Hopefully the Seminoles will not dance on the Rebels mascot if they win, unlike the football team that celebrated a win at Florida by gettin’ jiggy with it in the middle of the field.

Mississippi follows that up with their traditional rivalry against Memphis, which hopes to have one last good season in Conference USA, before the lights are turned out and they realize that all they have to look forward to are consistent trips to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Game of the Week

It is a pretty dismal set of choices this week, but I will go with Vanderbilt and Michigan on Saturday night. Memorial should be rocking, and a win could leave Vandy ranked and knocking on the door of an undefeated non-conference season.

     

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