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SEC Notebook

January 15, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments



SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

For those of you who have been asking yourselves where the new SEC
basketball column is, I come today to tell you, it is back and more
informative than ever (not that this is a great accomplishment). Due to the
holiday season and the residual effect of the football season, the notebook
took a bit of a backseat, but just like the prodigal son I have returned,
and hopefully better than ever. While I was gone a great deal has happened
in the SEC, much of which we will attempt to address in this column.

First and foremost, the non-conference season ended with a strong showing by
the conference and some recognition from the national media that the SEC
once again is for real. For years now, the SEC has been given little of the
national respect it deserves, but this year there seemed to be a
particularly dismal outlook going into the season. If you listened to the
talking heads, the SEC was only going to be one step above the MEAC this
season and only three above Conference USA (I kid because I love). Kentucky
would never be able to match their run from last year; Florida did not have
the senior leadership necessary to be a top team and the league had a level
of depth so low it was being compared to a Delta Delta Delta all night
philosophy study session. However the conference persevered, and lo and
behold, the SEC is in the mix with the ACC and Big 12 as the best leagues in
the nation. If the media was smart (and anyone who watches Fox News knows
they are not) they would shine the “overrated” spotlight on the Big 10, but
we know that will not happen, so lets move forward onto this week’s big
stories.

SEC 3, ACC 0

Yes this happened over a week ago, but it needs special mention here. On
Saturday January 3rd, there existed one of the best opportunities of the
year to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of two of America’s
best conferences. On this day, three ACC powerhouses got in their buses
made of tobacco and hauled west to take on three of the top programs in the
SEC. Yes it was a mini SEC-ACC challenge when Georgia Tech went up against
Georgia, Florida St. battled the Gators and North Carolina (come on and
raise up) took on the Kentucky Wildcats. While it must be remembered that
all of these games were on the SEC home floors, it nevertheless signaled the
possibility of some sort of comparison between the conferences not based on
the mythical RPI or Sagarin ratings, but on the hardwood itself.

So what was the result? While Dicky V and “Nattering Nabob” Billy Packer
might not have liked it, the SEC came away with three HUGE victories.
First, Georgia continued its streak of playing top teams well, and this
timed pulled away an impressive 83-80 win in double overtime over then
previously unbeaten Georgia Tech. The Ramblin Wreck – the media darlings of
the previous week – were caught off guard by the strong shooting of Jonas
Hayes and were never able to match the Bulldogs’ intensity. This was
followed by the Gators’ impressive 87-73 defeat of their cross state rivals,
the Seminoles. Leonard Hamilton is building a recruiting dynasty in
Tallahassee, but on Saturday looked like a little brother to Billy D’s group
of Burger Boys. Finally Kentucky won the battle of the two winningest teams
in Division I history 61-56, in a game that was possibly the most
unwatchable contest between national powerhouses that one can imagine.
North Carolina’s roster of immense talents seemed completely uninterested
throughout the contest and the ‘Cats won on a late off-balance shot by
Senior sensation Gerald Fitch.

Now these three victories do not necessarily suggest that the SEC is the
pre-eminent basketball conference in the nation this season. However when
couple with their 28-13 record against the top 8 RPI conferences (best in
the nation), it is prima facie evidence of a conference that should be given
significantly more credit than it now receives. In a college basketball
world where Cameron Indoor, the Dean Dome, College Park and Winston-Salem
are always mentioned as the Meccas of the sport, it may be time to change
the thought and say that if you want real top notch basketball, Rupp Arena,
Memorial Coliseum, Gainesville and Starkville are the places to go.

Vanderbilt comes down a notch

Saturday night in Rupp Arena had all the potential to be a truly historic
night. The Vanderbilt Commodores, they of a then 12-0 record, were coming
into Lexington to attempt to knock off the high flying ‘Cats for the first
time since 1974. Yes you read that correctly. Nixon was in the White House
and Laugh-In passed for legitimate entertainment the last time that Kentucky
went down in defeat to the band of intellectual cagers. In addition the
last meeting in Lexington was nearly as ugly as the thought of David Gest
naked with Vanderbilt getting beat by 62 points in a game that many thought
could end Kevin Stallings’ career in Nashville. However this was a
different Vanderbilt team. Undefeated and slowly beginning to get some of
the national respect they deserved, Vandy came in confident and ready to
prove that the SEC hierarchy could be shaken up. The stage was set.

Unfortunately the game did not live up to the hype and ended in a fairly
routine 75-63 victory by the Wildcats. Vanderbilt ultimately could not
overcome the poor early play of their All-American candidate Matt Frieje,
who the Wildcats held scoreless for the first 28 minutes the game. The
Commodores fought valiantly and closed the game up to 57-55 with just under
seven minutes remaining, but ultimately the balanced attack of Kentucky was
too much for them to overcome.

We will get to Kentucky later, but the main storyline after the game was to
what degree we can now qualify the Commodores as “for real”. Their
performance throughout most of the game Saturday was solid, but they could
not ever really get over the hump and were never able to even take a lead in
the game. While losing to Kentucky in Lexington involves no shame, one
still cannot classify Vanderbilt as a contender for the SEC throne after the
contest. The real test will come this week as they go on the road to
Tennessee and play at home to Florida. The old Vanderbilt would likely lose
both of those games. The nationally ranked version of the team needs to
step up and show the world they are ready for the main stage. Are they Clay
Aiken or Justin Guarnini? This week will let us know.

Is that a David Lee sighting?

For fans of Florida basketball, it is very difficult to ever be sure what to
make of a player on their roster. Billy Donovan is without a doubt, one of
the top recruiters in the nation and has the ability to bring in more talent
than just about anyone in the profession. However when one looks at his
roster and list of recruits, it is always puzzling. Some head to the NBA
quickly like Mike Miller and Kwame Brown, some take a longer time than
believed to develop such as Mohammad Abukar and Christian Dreijer and some
just never seem to have consistent careers such as Brett Nelson and Adrian
Moss. And then there is the case of David Lee. Coming into Gainesville
three seasons ago, Lee was rightfully touted as the “next big thing.” He
had the talent, charisma and looks of a young Wally Sczerbiak, without the
hindrance of having an unpronouncable last name. The sky was the limit.

But then things never really got off the ground. His first two seasons were
fine, but did not produce the big numbers or dazzling plays that people
expected of such a highly ranked athlete. Still yet, many thought big
things were sure to happen and some writers went as far as to vote him
preseason SEC player of the year, over those who had produced much more such
as Jamie Lloreda, Matt Freije and Gerald Fitch. Would he produce, or simply
be another Charles Nelson Reilly? (Actually Lee has nothing in common with
Charles Nelson Reilly, but today is his 73rd birthday and I think he is one
of the most interesting and odd people ever to exist. And yes, I did go to
a Halloween party as him a couple of years ago, but I am of the belief that
if you don’t like Match Game ’75, then I don’t like you).

Well last week things finally came together for Reilly. He helped the
Gators to an early 2-0 start in conference play by scoring 21 against South
Carolina and 17 versus Tennessee and being named SEC player of the Week.
Through the two games, Lee shot 68% from the field and displayed the immense
talent, combined with a team-first attitude that Florida fans have been
praying for in recent years. Donovan once again has an assemblage of
potential all stars on his team, but I believe as Lee goes this season, so
go the Gators. He has the potential to step into the Matt Bonner role and
be the solid rock in the midst of other flashy, more inconsistent teammates.
For Florida to be in the Final 4, Lee must become a bona fide superstar, a
role Gators fans have been expecting for some time.

Team Reports

Before we get into the team reports, one piece of advice. As an expert on
reality shows, I ask you to make sure and catch “The Surreal Life” and stay
away from “My Big, Fat Obnoxious Fiance”. We need quality control in this
important genre and it is only by acting collectively that we can continue
to reach the heights of “Survivor”, “American Idol” and “Average Joe”.
Moving forward….

No. 5 Kentucky (10-1) (1-0)

The drama continues in Lexington. There is no doubt that this is not one of
the most talented teams in Kentucky history, but it may ver well be the most
interesting. The ‘Cats held off a valiant challenge from Vanderbilt
Saturday to continue their winning streak and raise the number to 21
consecutive victories over SEC opponents. For the second straight week,
Kentucky got valuable minutes from little used Bernard Cote, possibly
providing the needed size and depth that could keep this Wildcat team from
the promised land.

Size and depth are only two of the problems that Kentucky fans continue to
harp on, in an attempt to understand how it is this team is so good. When
one looks at the roster, nothing sticks out. There are no McDonald’s All
Americans, no high-flying athletes, no sure-fire NBA draft picks. However
they just keep winning, even if it is hard to explain. There has likely
never been a time in the school’s illustrious history when a Kentucky team
has been this good, but with this little obvious talent. The reason for
this is two-fold. First there is the coaching genius of Tubby Smith. But a
second reason is one that many in the media forget. In a college basketball
world where many of the top talents go quickly to the NBA, a group of
hard-working individuals committed to the concept of team basketball can
succeed. This team at Kentucky embodies that theory at its highest level
and it is this mindset that makes the SEC championship still run through the
Bluegrass.

No. 11 Florida (11-2) (2-0)

There is an old adage that is held dear by those in the college basketball
aristocracy. They believe that in order to succeed in conference play, you
must win your games at home and then try to steal a few on the road. If
this is the case, then Florida did exactly what it was supposed to last
week, by narrowly defeating South Carolina 65-62 in Columbia and crushing
Tennessee 95-57 in Gainesville.

Things are starting to come together for Billy Donovan’s boys as they have
begun to regroup from their pair of embarrassing early season losses to
Maryland and Louisville and are starting to resemble the team that many
thought was a top contender nationally. The best news of all for Donovan is
that he is finally getting production from the mystery man, Christian
Drejer. Drejer came to Gainesville last year, heralded as the next Dirk
Nowitski (as are all good Europeans), but struggled to adjust to the college
game. Against South Carolina, Drejer showed his maturity with 16 points and
12 rebounds, helping the Gators squeak out their important road win. If
Drejer can join David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson as a consistent
scoring option, the rest of the SEC may be in trouble.

No. 23 Vanderbilt (12-1) (1-1)

There was more to the Commodores week than simply losing at Kentucky on
Saturday. Vanderbilt held serve on Wednesday, beating Auburn 59-53 in
Nashville, thus beginning the conference season with an important home win.
There is absolutely no shame in losing to Kentucky in Rupp Arena, but the
week ahead serves as an important measuring stick for Vanderbilt. Kentucky
showed that Matt Freije can be stopped when a defense is keyed towards him
and other players are forced to make plays. Vanderbilt must show in the
weeks ahead that this form of defense – which they will now see game after
game – can be overcome by their supposedly dead-eye outside shooters.

Kevin Stallings has made a big deal recently about how this senior-laden
team is having success because a number of the supposed “bad eggs” in the
program have been extracted. Leaving aside the question as to what a bad
egg at Vanderbilt is – possibly someone that does not know that lead is Pb
on the periodic chart – one has to wonder what exactly Stallings is talking
about. There has never even been a hint that Vanderbilt had any problems
inside the program and with the exception of the dismissal of former player
Rick Jones, disciplinary actions are few and far between. I am intrigued by
this as discipline problems at Vanderbilt is a bit like an academic All
American at Cincinnati….you just don’t expect it. The well-mannered
version of the ‘Dores plays at Tennessee and at home against Florida this
week.

Georgia (8-5) (0-2)

The beginning of conference play was not kind to Dennis Felton as the
Bulldogs were spanked twice last week against Tennessee and South Carolina.
Georgia was never really competitive in either contest and could be accused
of not putting forth the necessary degree of effort. This team continues to
be a mystery, beating Georgia Tech one week and being blown out by Winthrop
in another. Part of the problem for Felton is that he has three solid
players (Jonas Hayes, Dhamian Wilkens and Chris Daniels) who do not
particularly compliment each other and then a bench that provides little to
no support.

Things do not get any easier for Georgia in the coming weeks as they have
road contests against Kentucky, LSU and Mississippi State in three of their
next four games. Georgia will have a bit of rest, something that is crucial
to the success of a team that Felton himself describes as “tired”. If the
season continues on the same path, expect them to pull an upset in one of
these games, and put forth an embarrassing performance in another.

South Carolina (14-2) (1-1)

Going into this week, You could have forgiven a person for being skeptical
as to the quality of then 13-1 South Carolina and their schedule of
no-names. The Gamecocks had really beaten no one of note except North
Carolina State and also had lost to a Temple team that is showing signs of
being the Penn State of college basketball (I love both Joe Paterno and John
Chaney and thus will not elaborate). However even though South Carolina
only split their games this week, they showed that it is very likely that
they will be a potential thorn in the side of many SEC teams this season.

The Gamecocks opened the week with a heartbreaking 65-62 loss to Florida in
Columbia. For many people around the nation, this game was to be a test to
evaluate Dave Odom’s squad, and even though they did not get the victory,
the test was passed. South Carolina fought tooth and nail with the Gators
until the very end. It was the kind of loss that could dismantle the
confidence of a team, but later in the week the Gamecocks showed that would
not happen. On Saturday they bounced back, going to Athens and defeating
Georgia 84-63. The Gamecocks had a fourteen point halftime and never
looked back, putting together one of the most complete performances of the
Dave Odom era. Now comes another serious set of tests as they go on the
road to play Auburn and then play insurgent Tennessee at home. If South
Carolina finished the week 3-1 in conference play – a very distinct
possibility – it may be time to put them on your NCAA radar screen.

Tennessee (9-2) (1-1)

Tennessee fans would like to forget the 95-57 shellacking they received at
the hands of Florida on Saturday. The Vols looked completely overmatched
and showed that their early season proclamations that they would be
competitive in the SEC East were a bit shortsighted. However all is not
gloomy in Knoxville as the past couple of weeks have seen the arrival of a
true star in Big Orange company.

It has been almost ten years since Allan Houston roamed the Tennessee
sidelines as one of the best shooters in SEC history. Since then many
players with immense amounts of talent have come through the Vols program,
but none have been able to take it to the next level. Scooter McFagdon may
be just the player to change that. The former Memphis transfer is currently
leading the SEC in scoring (19.0 ppg) and free throw percentage (93.0%) and
is playing himself into a potential NBA prospect. He scored 31 in the Vols’
SEC opening 89-65 win over Georgia on Wednesday and has quietly taken over
the position of team leader on this ball club. Buzz Peterson has to find a
way to get Brandon Crump going if the Vols are to be a tournament team, but
until then Scooter (which along with Rams’ defensive coordinator Lovie
Smith) has one of the best names in all of sports, a trait that will no
doubt lead to a great deal of Vol success and coverage in this notebook.

No. 20 Mississippi State (13-1)(2-1)

The Mississippi State entry in this notebook is a late one, as I stayed up
late Tuesday night to provide up to the minute information on the last
unbeaten team in the SEC. Tuesday’s game against Kentucky represented the
Bulldogs’ coming out party (as all games against the Cats seem to) and was
likely the most anticipated event in Starkville since the night Hank
Williams came to town. Mississippi State fought back from an early 18 point
deficit, only to fall by one on a last second layup by Eric Daniels. It was
a heartbreaking defeat for Rick Stansbury’s club, who now must regroup in
the weeks ahead.

It is imperative that Stansbury help his team focus on the many positives
that came out of Tuesday night’s game. It is likely the case that the
Bulldogs have not gotten this degree of national attention since they made
the Final 4 in 1996. “Big Game” Dick Vitale made his first appearance at
the Hump in many years and was truly excited and complimentary towards the
Bulldogs team. Mississippi State got tremendous production from previously
unknown, Gary Ervin and saw their team leader Timmy Bowers hit clutch shot
after clutch shot. They showed a great deal of heart in fighting back to
get into the game and were simply beaten on a fluke play that would likely
never happen in another 20 attempts. The Bulldogs have a huge game coming
up on Saturday with LSU for initial supremacy in the SEC West. How they
respond to this adversity will likely tell a great deal about this team and
its future this season.

LSU (11-1) (2-0)

With recent losses by Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, LSU now takes on the
mantle as the most mysterious team in the SEC. The Tigers got off to a
strong conference start last week by defeating Arkansas and Alabama, the
latter game a close 70-66 victory in front of the home faithful in Baton
Rouge. John Brady has to be pleased with his team’s performance of late,
especially considering that all-world Jamie Lloreda has had some difficulty
scoring in recent weeks. Lloreda has impressed all who have watched him
with his hustle and he currently is 3rd in the nation in rebounds with 11.8
per game. However the Tigers have had to rely on freshman like Brandon Bass
for a good deal of their scoring, a trend that John Brady would like to see
end quickly.

The game this week at home against Mississippi State represents a key moment
for the Tigers. If they win, they take a two game lead in the SEC West and
position themselves for a possible strong run towards the NCAA tournament.
However if they lose, it could be the same old questions about whether LSU’s
weak early season schedule has hidden the fact that they actually have a
number of holes in their lineup. I expect to see LSU win this game and
garner a bit of attention nationally. If they are to do it however, the
name Jamie Lloreda better be called multiple times.

Auburn (10-3)(1-1)

The Tigers started the conference season this week with a loss at Vanderbilt
(no shame in that) and a home win versus Ole Miss. They have two tough
encounters this week with South Carolina and on the road against Alabama.
Continuing my boycott of the team until they win a game against a team with
any credibility, I will reserve comment on the Tigers until next week, when
I believe they will finally have a quality win.

However I will use this space to make one case. ESPN is now in the process
of doing the “All ESPN” team for the years that they have been on the air,
conference by conference. I am of the belief that for the SEC, the roster
should look like this: Chris Jackson, Allan Houston, Chuck Person, Jamal
Mashburn and Kenny Walker. I would be interested to hear what any of you
think, but the only player that is beyond debate to me is Chuck Person.
Underrated and often completely overlooked, Person was a true college star.
Unless Andy Katz and Jay Bilas want to see my wrath, Chuck Person better
make the list.

Arkansas (8-5)(0-2)

It was a tough week for the Razorbacks as the perils of conference play were
made clear in two losses to LSU and Mississippi State. There is nothing for
Stan Heath and his team to hold their heads down about however, because
their losses were to two of the best teams in the conference. Yet Heath
needs a win over a top opponent to give this team some confidence and show
it that it can compete with the big boys. As the season has progressed, the
offense is no longer simply the Jonathan Modica show and others have begun
to become more involved, specifically senior Billy Pharis. Yet anytime they
have met a top opponent, the result has been a pretty resounding defeat.
This week involves games at Alabama and at home against Ole Miss. The
Razorbacks really need a win in one of these two contests, to get back on
track and get the Pig Sooey chant flying in Fayetteville.

In other important Arkansas news, my good friend Darrin will be at the game
on Saturday reporting for Sanford affiliates. It is his first true foray
into the South, so please welcome him and show him a fine atmosphere.

Alabama (8-4)(0-1)

It was a tough start to the conference season for Alabama as they blew an
early lead and lost on the road to LSU 70-66. While normally losing to LSU
on the road would not be disappointing in the least, the Tide had chance
after chance to pull the game out and simply faltered down the stretch. It
has to be difficult for Mark Gottfried to figure his team out, as they
completely dominated the class of the Big Ten (although that is not saying
much) in Wisconsin 71-56 and then were completely embarrassed on the road at
Xavier. The only real constants for Mark Gottfried have been Earnest
Shelton and Kennedy Winston, both players who have produced big numbers for
the Tide. This is a HUGE week for Alabama as they have home games against
Arkansas and Auburn, both must-win games for a team that has any intention
on making a run at the NCAA tournament. The selection committee will like
what it sees on the Alabama record with victories over Oregon and Wisconsin,
but if the Tide do not take care of business at home during the conference
season, it will be another long off-season in Tuscaloosa.

Ole Miss (8-5)(0-2)

Still waiting for someone to give me help with my weekly Ole Miss roundup.
This week saw losses to Mississippi State and Auburn with neither game being
very competitive. Things could get very ugly in the coming weeks with games
against LSU, Alabama and Kentucky on the horizon. They play at Arkansas on
Saturday in a game where the ultimate reward might be staying out of the SEC
West cellar. Either way, Ole Miss fans should celebrate the career of
Justin Reed, because next year may be even worse.

Game of the Week

LSU and Mississippi State on Saturday. This will be for first place in the
SEC West and early primacy in the “Best team outside of Kentucky and
Florida” race. Watch the Lawrence Roberts/Jamie Lloreda matchup. Whoever
wins that, wins the game.

That is all for now. Until next time America……

     

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