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SEC Notebook

December 24, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

Before I begin my review of a surprisingly riveting week of SEC basketball, I wanted to take the opportunity to salute one of the best early season games that we have seen in a number of years. I spent most of Saturday afternoon seeing “In America” at the movie theater, an extremely strong film that you should go and see if you live in one of the “selected cities,” and came home only to find an early ACC clash between No. 8 Wake Forest and No. 9 North Carolina on my television screen.

Now as I have made clear in this very column many times, I believe the national media, which if you listen to the multitude of Auburn fans, apparently now I am a part, consistently overrates the ACC. We hear ad nauseum about the history of Dean Smith, Coach K, Tobacco road and all the other grand mythologies that make up much of national basketball coverage. However having said that, when the ACC is good, it can be really good, and on Saturday we saw just such a performance.

The Demon Deacons and the Tar Heels engaged in a classic triple overtime matchup to begin the ACC season that left me riveted and reminded me that when college basketball is at its best, nothing comes close to matching it for excitement. You count me amongst those who think that both of these teams will be challenging for the all the marbles at the end of the year, and the addition of Roy Williams and Skip Prosser to the coaching ranks of the conference has only strengthened its position. Although I do think the SEC and Big 12 get the shaft nationally, games like the one on Saturday do show that there is at least some small grain of truth to the ACC mystique.

Now on to the conference that we all know and love, to the land where Ricky Blanton and Steve Hamer have roamed, yes this is our SEC news.

Cat Scratch Fever

You can forgive most observers if they believed that Kentucky as the newly crowned No. 1 team in the nation would lay an egg in their encounter with their storied rival, the Indiana Hoosiers. I mean after all, Connecticut, Kansas and Florida had all produced mediocre to awful performances after being blessed with the top spot, and if you listen to the talking heads, they all have more talent than this Kentucky team. In addition, this was Indiana. This a program that has in its history, the General, Quinn Buckner, Isaiah Thomas, Steve Alford, Keith Smart, Uwe Blab and the last undefeated team in college basketball history.

The game was in Indianapolis, so surely the ‘Cats would be ripe for defeat, right? Well, not exactly. Kentucky came out rolling and never looked back, embarrassing their rival 80-41. In many ways the game was not as close as the score indicated. Only two Indiana players scored more than two points, and only four scored at all.

The Hoosiers kept the game close in the first half, only because the Cats committed 12 turnovers, but in the second half Kentucky put on a clinic of team basketball that should be watched by all new coaches. This Wildcat team plays better team basketball than any other program in the country and although their starting five may not be full of “Rolls Roycers,” and many would be unable to name even one of them, they represent the best of what college basketball should be about. Gerald Fitch, Cliff Hawkins, Chuck Hayes, Kelenna Azubuike, Eric Daniels and Antwain Barbour (yes I know that is six) play completely unselfish basketball and live out the mantra that the most important name on the jersey is the one on the front, not on the back.

With upcoming home games against No. 20 Louisville and North Carolina, it very well could be the case that Kentucky will slip up in the next couple of weeks and drop from the top spot. However, regardless of what results occur in the future, Saturday represented a crowning moment for Wildcat fans, as they thoroughly embarrassed their rival, not because of their overwhelming talent, but because of their overwhelming heart and desire.

Henry Kissinger he is not

LSU freshman Tack Minor this week did very little for the world of sportsmanship but a great deal for the world of comedy when he told the Baton Rouge Advocate of his assessment of upcoming opponent Utah. He said, “There is no doubt that I can run past all of them because they’re kind of a slow team. That’s why they run good offense and set good picks. But we can blow by them pretty quick.”

He then said he didn’t have anything against Mormons, he just wished they would not go around marrying everybody. Actually he didn’t say that last part, but the initial quote created quite a stir around the game this week between the Bayou Bengals and the Utes. Although Minor’s quotes may not have been the most appropriate, he and his teammates play was, as they knocked off Majerus’ Magical Men, 65-51. LSU played well and controlled the game throughout, picking up a big win for coach John Brady as he tries to develop his young team.

LSU, like most teams in the SEC West, is a difficult team to figure out. They have the SEC West communicable disease wedontplayanybody-itis, and thus it can be difficult to judge the Tigers’ ability on a national level. However there is no doubt Brady has the talent to win the Western division this season.

Much has been made in this column, and is beginning to be mentioned elsewhere, about the exploits of superstar Jamie Lloreda, who has replaced current media darling Vanderbilt senior forward Matt Frieje as the most underrated player in the league.

Tack Minor’s quotes notwithstanding, Brady has had his freshman play like grownups this season and has taken care of the early season games he was supposed to win, and now is ready for the meat of his non-conference and conference schedule. As their win Wednesday night displayed, this team has the potential to make waves, and opponents should be on the lookout. In addition, if Tack Minor continues to produce such great quotes prior to games, he could replace Ron Slay as the player most likely to get love letters from SEC reporters.

“I Don’t mean to brag, I don’t mean to boast….but Auburn needs some sugar on their breakfast toast”

Well, I was told by Tiger fans to watch out. It was to be a day of national reckoning, a day that the earth would move, the mountains would crumble and all God’s children would finally recognize that the Auburn Tigers were players on the national scene. Yes, ladies and gentleman, as a favor to you my readers, I stayed up from 12:30 to 2:30 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning to see the new and improved Auburn Tigers play their one non-home game on their non-conference schedule against the Gamblin’ Guys from UNLV.

Knowing that ESPN saves only the best matchups for such a prime time slot, I was excited. I got out my chips and salsa, put another log on the fire and sat back for what was sure to be a game to thrill my soul. I saw that game, and it lived up to the hype. Unfortunately it was the early contest between Alabama and Oregon.

Auburn, however, gave little to get excited about.

UNLV defeated our beloved Tigers, 82-69, in a game that went exactly as anyone who had followed both teams during the season would have predicted. Between Nov. 17 and Jan. 7, Auburn was set to leave home only once to play anyone outside their friendly confines. It did not then take a genius to realize that they likely would come out flat, have a difficult time adjusting to the surroundings and might possibly have some difficulty shooting in this new and scary environment. After watching the game, it was not clear that UNLV was a better team, but they certainly looked more prepared for the national stage and thus pulled out the victory.

As we get into the conference season, I do not want to continue to berate the schedule makers at Auburn (although likely I will). I just want to point out that it was exactly the type of performance I saw Saturday night, while the rest of the world was out having fun, that shows why the mode of thought that is so prevalent throughout the SEC, but especially at Auburn, is so destructive. UNLV is not a top team. They are not a team that will throw shivers into anyone’s spine, and once they stopped cheating, they quit gathering any type of national attention. I freely admit I am an SEC guy. I want to see the entire conference do well and show the world that we play a little basketball south of the Mason-Dixon line. However in order to show that, we do need to occasionally defeat teams that don’t represent the “Eastern Shore” of the state, but actually are the school of the entire state.

Now on to the main course. An interesting week in the SEC as the separation that is inevitable in a conference of this size began to occur. Going into the holidays and league play, it seems that the conference can be divided into two levels. First there are the likely tournament teams, Kentucky, No. 14 Florida, No. 24 Vanderbilt, LSU and Mississippi State. The jury is still out on Tennessee, South Carolina and Auburn, while Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss seem headed for a season of struggle. But without further ado….

No. 1 Kentucky (6-0)

When one looks back into the history of Kentucky basketball, it’s hard to find a better year for the program than 2003.

During this time period, the Cats have had a combined record of 30-1, an achievement virtually unheard of in contemporary college basketball. However, what may be even more amazing than the actual record is the way in which this team has continued to defy the odds and puzzle the experts who wonder how this collection of players can be so successful.

Playing last year without their All-American, Tayshaun Prince, and coming off a humiliating defeat by Louisville, Kentucky showed there still was a place for dominant big men in college basketball (Marquis Estill and Jules Camara), and sometimes a great player waits to develop in his senior year (Keith Bogans).

Now we fastforward to this team, one of the smallest in college basketball, with a collection of players that likely will not contain one first-round NBA selection, and yet still ranks number one and defies the experts again.

Coming off impressive wins over Michigan State and Indiana, the Cats have come full circle as they welcome to town this week the Cardinals and Rick Pitino.

Pitino (the mastermind behind the “Fundamentals of College Basketball” DVD, now on sale for only $29.99, makes a GREAT gift!) has the Cards playing well and thus Rupp Arena will be rocking this weekend. Cats fans know that their team’s 32-game regular season winning streak is bound to come to a close, but they hope it will not be against their dreaded rivals from up north. In order for Louisville to compete, they need to hit a flurry of three-point shots and call on the ghost of Denny Crum past.

However anyone who has watched a Pitino-coached team knows, when the Armani suit is pressed, the hair is freshly dyed and the Gucci shoes are shined, magic is possible. I expect a nail-biter on Saturday.

No.14 Florida (6-2)

There will likely not be a bigger win this season for the Gators than their 70-57 victory at West Virginia this past Saturday. Coach Billy Donovan was faced for the first time with the possibility of his team losing confidence and going on an embarrassing three-game losing streak after getting the No. 1 ranking just two weeks ago. No. 25 Maryland and Louisville have both exposed Florida as a team not only capable of being beaten, but capable of completely folding up their tent and going home if things are not going well for them.

Yet they withstood their initial downward swoop and went on the road and beat a good Mountaineers team. The hip thing to do recently has been to criticize the Gators and argue that they will never be a top team and that Donovan is not a big game coach. I will leave that criticism to others, but will note just one interesting statistic. In the past four years, Billy Donovan has brought in a consensus top 5 class, every year. At some point one has to wonder when that will translate effectively on the court.

Georgia (6-2)

It must be odd to be a Georgia fan. You are coming off a wonderful performance on the road against the extremely talented No. 15 Gonzaga Bulldogs and you think, “We are going to be a good team and capable of making a decent showing in the SEC.” Then you come home and get absolutely waxed by Winthrop 80-60. Now you are certain that the sky is falling, and you are wondering if it would not be so bad to have Jim Harrick back for a few more years. I mean, if you only cheat a little bit, can’t you go to confession and everything will be ok?

But just when you are ready to give up, then your team goes and beats a decent Clemson team, 61-56, and you think, “Maybe this team has some potential yet.” But right before you begin to make plans for the celebration of an SEC championship, your team only squeaks out a 65-63 victory over a rebuilding South Alabama team.

What to make of all of this?

Well first of all this is exactly the type of season that Dennis Felton had to expect in his debut year in Athens, Ga. There is talent on this Bulldog team, but they are not deep and are more inconsistent than a Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Christopher Walken. It is easy to look at this team and wonder, “How are they not a top 25 team?” one minute, and, “This team will not win a game”, the next.

Yet, Felton is doing a fine job so far, and the Winthrop game aside, his team is giving him solid efforts. This week they have Charleston Southern coming to town – set your TIVO now – followed by a huge test on the road at Pittsburgh. If the early season is any indication, expect them to win a close one against Charleston and then upset Pitt. Either way Georgia fans, do not ever, EVER wish for Jim Harrick.

No. 24 Vanderbilt (8-0)

My bandwagon team of the century from Nashville kept rolling this week, only playing on Saturdays because of the pressure of finals, and defeated Tennessee Tech 98-79 and Wofford 90-59. As the country continues to take notice of the Commodores, the team continues to play within themselves (one of the best cliches in sports) and has not lost sight of what has gotten them this far (the second best). The offense begins and ends with Matt Freije, who has gone from consensus First Team All-SEC to a possible First Team All American.

In this column I have for weeks been pressing for Vanderbilt to be ranked, and if it does not happen this week, this may very well be the last straw. I don’t know what these players have to do to get national attention. Maybe if Kevin Stallings would be like a certain coach up north and hawk a basketball coaching DVD instead of his “101 Ways to love the Magic of Bromine and Yterbium” DVD, ESPN and the other networks would notice.

Editor’s note: Article written before the release of this week’s Hoopville rankings. So yes, Matt and Vandy can claim vindication and celebrate their arrival in the rankings.

Vanderbilt has Appalachian State and Lehigh coming to town this week and should continue the winning streak. On a side note, if you have never been to Boone, N.C., the home of Appalachian State, you should go. Not only is it a pretty little town with ski slopes and many antique shops, it also was the setting for an MTV show. Not too many places can assert that mighty triumverate of awesomeness.

Tennessee (5-1)

There likely could be little in this world that would be more uncomfortable than watching Joe Namath last Saturday night tell Suzy Kolber on ESPN NFL Football, “You are cute….I want to kiss you.” Well, except of course if you are counting the egg Tennessee laid last week at Nebraska.

Along with the Commodores, I had tapped Tennessee as my surprise team of the conference and was ready to sing their praises from the top of Lookout Mountain after they went to Lincoln, Neb., and showed those Cornhuskers a thing or two. Unfortunately someone forgot to tell Tennessee that the game was important as they lost 77-62. They followed that up with two victories over Georgia State and the Citadel, but ultimately the damage was done. Nebraska is not a top team, even though they are much improved, and like the Auburn game at UNLV, this was a chance for the Vols to show that they were for real.

But like Michael Jackson’s nose, they deflated, and left Coach Buzz Peterson puzzled about where his team stands. They play this week at home against Tennessee Tech and UNC-Asheville, apparently Halls High School was booked, before heading out on the road against Massachusetts Jan. 3. That is a crucial game for the Vols and will give them another chance to make a national statement.

South Carolina (10-1)

It was a week of self-evaluation for the Gamecocks as they went up against their two toughest opponents of the season, Temple and North Carolina State. When the dust settled, the verdict was mixed. The Gamecocks went on the road to Temple on Monday and produced a mediocre performance that led to a 71-61 defeat.

Although a John Chaney coached team is always dangerous (just ask Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators about the spanking the Owls gave them in the 2002 NCAA Tournament), it must be admitted that this is not one of his better squads. Thus it is easy to see the score of this game and dismiss this as another South Carolina team that has a gaudy record, but ultimately is all hat and no cow.

But then along came Saturday and the Gamecocks’ 58-55 defeat of North Carolina State. Coach Dave Odom used his experience from his years at Wake Forest to produce an effective game plan that basically shut down North Carolina State’s vaunted “Princeton” offense.

So what to make of this team? With upcoming games against South Carolina State, Yale and Appalachian State, there is little that can be told in the next three contests. But then they have a home showdown with Florida to open conference play. Circle your calendars for Jan. 7, because the story of the Gamecocks’ season may be told on that day.

Mississippi State (9-0)

Another year, another Mississippi State team that gets absolutely no respect on the national or even the regional level but continues to put up victories and impress. The Bulldogs were given a scare this week by Santa Clara, winning 66-61 in overtime. It was yet another strong road win for coach Rick Stansbury’s team and shows yet again that this will be a difficult team to deal with in the conference season.

Stansbury wanted to use the non-conference schedule to get his relatively young team acclimated to playing without former Bulldog superstar Mario Austin, and as of now they seem to be responding. The heaven-sent Lawrence Roberts is playing like a potential All-American and Timmy Bowers continues to provide the leadership that all expected him to show. They have shown an ability to win on the road (over Western Kentucky and Santa Clara) and to eke out close games when things are not going well for them, such as against Alabama-Birmingham.

The Bulldogs play Tulane and Arkansas-Little Rock this week, before beginning conference play. They are currently one of five undefeated SEC teams, an amazing feat considering that there are only seventeen such schools nationally. Some of the explanation for the amount of unbeaten teams in the SEC is the now legendary scheduling and some part of it has to do with the way other teams get distracted by our beautiful cheerleaders. However at some point, teams like Mississippi State deserve a bit of credit as well.

LSU (6-0)

As stated earlier, the Tigers showed a great deal in their win over Utah, and now face the task of playing a revitalized Tulane team and then going on the road for two tougher-than-meets-the-eye road games at Houston and Centenary.

Ultimately the success of this team will continue to depend on Jamie Lloreda, a fact that must ultimately make coach John Brady comfortable. When LSU takes the floor for a nationally televised game at Arkansas Jan. 6, if the Tigers are undefeated, which is likely, expect a major coming out party for Lloreda.

Also look for Digger Phelps, Andy Katz, Jay Bilas and others to talk about how “no one is talking about Lloreda.” When that happens remember the old saying, “nothing is discovered, only realized at a later time.”

Auburn (7-2)

Georgia State 77 Auburn 72. There is nothing I can really add to that.

Arkansas (6-2)

In the past week Arkansas beat Louisiana Tech 68-56 and lost to Oklahoma State 73-58. These results are consistent with the Arkansas season and represent an improvement over the last couple of seasons for the Razorbacks. They are beating the teams they are supposed to but not competing well with the higher caliber teams.

Seeing the results of these games reminded me of a conversation I had with former Razorback Todd Day last March at the SEC tournament. Day had made the trip to New Orleans with his alma mater and told me that he had been doing some work with the team and was attempting to begin the process of becoming a coach on the collegiate level. We talked for a little about the glory days under former coach Nolan Richardson in the 1990s and about how the situation in Fayetteville, Ark., has changed over the years.

Although still being extremely respectful of his team, he mentioned that the urgency that once existed for the Hogs just didn’t seem to be there anymore. Talking about the battles with the top teams he said, “we never went into any game feeling like we were going to lose. This team often seems to perform only to expectations.” As any athlete can tell you, when things are not going well for a program, there is often a culture of complacency. You do just as well as expected, often times because you simply play to expectations.

Few believe that coach Stan Heath’s team will challenge for the top of the conference this season, but it will be interesting to see if he can get the team over the hump, and have them win some games that they are not expected to win. If they do, it would mark a major improvement for this team.

This week they play Western Carolina (Kevin Martin alert!) and go on the road to Tulsa.

Alabama (6-2)

A huge amount of kudos should go out to the Crimson Tide for putting together the performance of the year in defeating Oregon 87-86 in Las Vegas on Saturday. Kennedy Winston had 27 points including hitting the game winning shot with just three seconds left, as the Tide pulled off another early season upset.

It is looking as if this will be a season of ups and downs for coach Mark Gottfried and his team. Their only two losses have come to good teams in Providence and No. 16 Pittsburgh, and they have upset the Ducks and Charlotte. However they have also produced mediocre performances in barely beating Louisiana Tech and Chattanooga.

Winston’s performance had been a bit of a sore spot for Gottfried as he had struggled early in the year with an inconsistent jump shot and at times had seemed to be drifting in and out of the games. However, against Oregon on Saturday, he put together a complete performance, and there was no doubt that when the last shot came, Winston was the man to take it.

Bama has another interesting week with a game against Mercer and then another true test as No. 17 Wisconsin comes to town, fresh off the heels of a huge victory over their rival Marquette. Along with Georgia, Alabama may be the most difficult team in the conference to project, but after their performance on Saturday, they have shown they will have the potential to make some noise.

Ole Miss (4-3)

In 1945, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill began a project that would consume the next ten years of his life. After leading the Allies to victory in World War II and thereby arguably saving the notion of freedom and democracy in Western Civilization, Churchill was unceremoniously dumped from power by his countrymen.

Thus he decided to focus the last years of his life on producing a complete history of all English speaking people. The result was a four volume history, covering the history of Western man from 55 B.C. until the end of the Second World War. Churchill was understandably proud of his accomplishment, but often talked about how producing it could be overwhelming.

I am sure there are few of my readers out there who would argue that my SEC notebooks are of the same quality as Churchill’s history, but there is at least one similarity. When I sit down to write this column every week, it can at times seem daunting. Week after week, I look at the space on my computer under the name “Ole Miss” and think to myself, “What am I going to write about these guys this week?” I have tried to come up with interesting anecdotes or in-depth game summaries, but ultimately nothing about this team has been able to strike my fancy. Thus I am asking for help from you, my readers.

If you are an Ole Miss fan, I would like to ask you to help me come up with interesting things to say about your beloved Rebels. Please click on the email length at the bottom of this column, and together maybe we can make Ole Miss basketball fascinating for the Hoopville readers.

If not, I will just have to tell Jason Harrison stories over and over. The Rebels play Nicholls State and Alabama State and Serbia State this week.

Game of the Week

The only game of real interest is the Bluegrass Battle between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 20 Louisville. I expect a closer game than many of the experts believe and think ultimately it will come down to whether the Cats can hold Pitino’s Bombinos under 50 percent from behind the arc.

That is all I have, but look for a commentary from me this week on the unexpected link between Saddam Hussein, Paris Hilton and Anthony Roberson.

     

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