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SEC Notebook

January 30, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

It is coming to the point that I am beginning to hear the shrieking sounds of Chris Matthews and Simon Cowell in my sleep. It has now become common for me to pick out one night out of a week to watch Democratic primary returns and another to watch the American Idol auditions. Last week both of these programs brought me examples of human meltdown, with the infamous Howard Dean speech on Monday and the rather odd stylings of Huang and his Ricky Martin impersonation on Tuesday. We have now reached the points in both shows (and I realize that the Democratic Primary does not really qualify as a “show” but you folks have to work with me here) where we have begun to ignore the no-talents (adios Dennis Kucinich!) and are now moving on to the frontrunners. In some sense that is exactly what is also happening in the SEC as well.

This conference has rightly been criticized by many (including yours truly) for its woeful non-conference scheduling that produces teams that are not sufficiently battle-tested to do well in the NCAA tournament. However an often forgotten side effect of this scheduling trend is that it makes it virtually impossible to tell during the non-conference season, what teams are truly talented. But separation is slowly beginning to occur. The proverbial cream is rising to the top and the conference hierarchy is starting to take shape. With that, I will make my mid-season predictions. Look for John Kerry, Ryan and Kentucky to win the big contests, but watch out for John Edwards, Sarah and Mississippi State to keep things interesting. Now on to the news……

South Carolina on My Mind

There is no state currently hotter in the country than South Carolina. All of the Presidential candidates and the media that wants to overexpose them are about to engulf the state in a week-long orgy of democratic politics that could leave even the most heartened American cynical. But while there, you can bet that the national media might take notice of an even bigger story than the unexplained phenomenon of Al Sharpton’s hair. Yes the South Carolina Gamecocks are currently in first place in the SEC East! With wins this week over Tennessee and LSU, the Gamecocks moved to 4-1 in conference play, their second best start in school history. Carlos Powell has emerged as the dominant star that many in South Carolina have believed he could be, and found himself hitting the team’s only three point shot of the game against LSU, a jumper with 1:38 left that placed the Gamecocks on top. This game marked an important moment for this program as it was seen by the first ever sell out in the new Colonial Center and the 17,927 fans who attended represented the largest crowd to ever see a basketball game in the state of South Carolina.

The Gamecocks hope to build in the weeks ahead on these successes, but it is important to take a moment to realize what this team has accomplished. The SEC East is possibly the best sub-division in basketball with two of the top 10 programs in America (Kentucky and Florida), two teams who have been ranked in the top 10 within the last three years (Tennessee and Georgia) and the resident national media darling of surprise teams (Vanderbilt). South Carolina has often been the forgotten red-headed stepchild of the division (the Brian Dunkleman of the SEC East) and has now finally emerged as a legitimate conference title contender. South Carolina still must play Kentucky twice and Florida and Mississippi State once. However if they continue at the level of this past week, Dave Odom may join Lou Holtz and Hootie and the Blowfish as the toast of Columbia.

With only one true story this week, we will move on to the team notebooks quickly. However before we do that, one comment. Digger Phelps and Dick Vitale’s recent comment that JJ Redick may be the best shooter in NCAA history might go down as the most ridiculous statement in the history of mankind. I will remind folks that JJ is 23rd in the country in 3 point field goal percentage. That begs the question, if he is the best shooter in NCAA history, what are the 22 guys ahead of him? Now to the news…..

No. 5 Kentucky (13-2)(3-1)

One could have been forgiven for wondering after Kentucky’s 65-57 loss to Georgia at home on January 17th, if the wheels were about to fall off Tubby Smith’s caravan. For two seasons, Smith’s Wildcats have defied all of the experts by winning with a level of talent that many considered suspect. However the Cats loss to the Bulldogs was unlike any game during that stretch. The team looked sloppy, unmotivated and inexperienced, qualities that are inexplicable on such a Senior-laden team. However as usual, just when the pundits were ready to count out Tubby’s Troopers, the Cats scored a pair of impressive road wins against Tennessee and Notre Dame. Both games followed a familiar script for Kentucky as they raced out to large early leads, only to lose them and be involved in a tight battle at the end. Because of the relative normalcy of the games themselves, the most interesting moment of the week involved the Howard Dean-esque rant by former Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps. After accepting an award commemorating his 1974 victory that ended UCLA’s 88 game winning streak, Phelps showcased his objectivity by encouraging the Notre Dame faithful to “kick Kentucky’s a**”. While so such kicking was forthcoming, Kentucky’s Chuck Hayes did produce a clinic on hustle basketball with 19 points and 6 rebounds. The Cats play at home this week against Ole Miss and on the road at Vanderbilt, where Barry Goheen is sure to implore the crowd to “Drop Your Chemistry Sets and Wish a Negative Result on Kentucky!”

No. 24 South Carolina (17-2)(4-1)

After the great week produced by the Gamecocks, it is imperative that Dave Odom focus his team and prepare them for the tough week ahead. They must go on the road and face Vanderbilt, followed by another test at ever-improving Ole Miss. These games are of great importance to the future of the team this season and the program in general. With their recent entry into the Top 25, the program faces its greatest success of the Dave Odom era and has proven that it was able to succeed even without 23-year starter Chuck Edison. The Gamecocks are now tied for first in the SEC East, but must win games such as those forthcoming this week in order to stake claim as a legitimate title contender. While much has gone right recently for Odom’s team, its 0-22 (yes you read that correctly) three point performance against LSU was its worst in school, conference, country, world and galaxy history. Nevertheless, the Gamecocks are beginning to get the national attention that represents the fruits of Dave Odom’s labor. This week will be key in continuing that success. As Reba McEntire would say, “Here is your one chance Fancy (aka South Carolina), Don’t let me down.”

No. 20 Florida (12-4) (9-2)

If you had given up the Florida Gators for dead last Wednesday night, you would have been more than justified. They had just come off an embarrassing 79-68 loss at home to Mississippi State, which followed a complete manhandling by Vanderbilt 86-72. Rumors of team turmoil were circulating throughout Gainesville and many believed that the team was extremely close to completely unraveling. A national television game with Auburn was on the horizon and there were many within the Gator faithful simply hoping that they would not be embarrassed during that game. But like Nick Lachey’s career, they made an impressive comeback and produced a solid 68-52 win. Anthony Roberson’s up and down season moved towards a positive note as he had 21 points, hitting three pointers from all over the court, even while being guarded well by the Tigers. At this point there is very little that Billy Donovan can say to explain this team’s performance. An important week is upcoming with road games against Alabama and Tennessee. Two victories here would do a lot to set the team back on track and look for increased production from Adrian Moss who Donovan seems more comfortable with, starting him last week for only the second time this season.

Georgia (9-7)(1-4)

There are certain events that occur in our world that are beyond rational explanation. The Julia Roberts/Lyle Lovett marriage, the popularity of Clay Aiken and the entire Jackson family are all examples of situations that are so beyond the comprehension of mere mortals that we are often left explaining their occurrence with something akin to the chaos theory. At first glance, Georgia’s 1-4 start in SEC play would not seem to qualify. The Bulldogs are a young team, graduated their best player and NBA lottery pick Jarvis Hayes, and have a new coach in Dennis Felton. However what if I told you that their only conference victory was on the road….against No. 5 Kentucky. Such is the case for this bizarre Georgia conference season. After such a win, Georgia has nothing to be ashamed about in their 71-58 loss at No. 12 Mississippi State, but their abysmal performance in a 45-52 loss at home against Alabama is troubling. It is hard to understand where this team is or where it is going. Their inconsistency makes any prognostication about future games as silly as if it were made by Digger Phelps. This week they play on the road at LSU and then at home against Arkansas, which is close to a must-win. While no one is sure what performance Georgia will give, Coach Dennis Felton can take some solace in the fact that he received commitments this week from two of the nation’s most highly-touted recruits in next year’s class. He now hopes some of that good luck rubs off on the court.

Tennessee (10-5)(2-3)

In Ancient Rome, a politician named Cato gained great fame and popularity by declaring that the neighboring state of Carthage was Rome’s permanent enemy. Cato used to end all of his public speeches with the line, “Carthage must be destroyed!” After the week that he just went through, one could forgive Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson if he found himself ending every press conference with the line, “Kentucky should be destroyed!” Last week the Vols lost two heartbreakers to schools from the Bluegrass state, falling at the end of the game to both the Wildcats and Louisville. The lesson from these games for the Vols is that they can compete favorably against two of the best teams in the nation, but also that they must learn how to finish games with authority if they want to compete on the national stage. Kentucky guard Cliff Hawkins drained a three pointer to send the game into overtime, even as Tennessee was attempting to foul and place him on the line. Similarly the Vols seemed to forget about Louisville players Taquan Dean and Otis George at the end of the game, giving them easy baskets in crunch time. There is so much to be positive about in Knoxville concerning the men’s team (it is always great in Lady Vol land), as Major Wingate, CJ Watson and most impressively Scooter McFadgon have shown themselves to be top-notch competitors. This week finds them at Mississippi State and at home against Florida, finishing up a brutal stretch of four straight games against ranked opponents. Expect to see them pull out a surprise in one of these.

Vanderbilt (13-3)(2-3)

There are those that questioned this Vanderbilt team throughout the non-conference season, saying that they had not proven that they could win outside the confines of Memorial Gymnasium and that their strength, or lack thereof would be exposed come conference play. Vanderbilt may have given some ammunition to these critics this week, as they had an embarrassing 70-62 loss at Arkansas. The Razorbacks are one of the worst teams in the conference and represent the type of program that the Commodores must defeat if they are to reach their lofty goals. Matt Frieje continues to provide large amounts of points and leads the team in all forms of hustle plays, but no one else in the lineup is stepping up and hitting the big shots for the Commodores on the road. Kevin Stallings must be frustrated, as their 13-3 record is still impressive, but they do not have that one win away from home to impress the NCAA selection committee. This week sees them with an important home contest against fellow SEC East contender South Carolina and then a huge game with Kentucky on Saturday. They must win one of these to stay without shouting distance of the conference title.

No. 12 Mississippi State (16-1)(5-1)

The statement win of the SEC season occurred Wednesday night in Gainesville when Mississippi State dismantled the Florida Gators 78-67. Lawrence Roberts continued his dominating season and his quest to become an unexpected All-American candidate with 21 points. Roberts is now one of only two players in the conference to average a double-double and stands as the leader of this rising program. Like R.Kelly’s career, Mississippi State had dropped off of the national radar after their loss three weeks ago to Kentucky on a fluke buzzer beating layup by Eric Daniels. Pundits predicted that the Bulldogs were headed to mediocrity and deserved little to no attention. At least that was the thought process until the win last Wednesday. What Rick Stansbury has done with this team is truly unbelievable. Reeling from the early loss of Mario Austin and recruit Travis Outlaw’s decision to go from high school to the NBA, few thought this team would even win the SEC West. Now they are just one shot away from being 17-0 and the toast of the SEC. This week they play Tennessee and have an important test with Western Division rival Auburn.

LSU (12-4)(2-3)

After getting many commentators excited (including this one) with their early conference play, LSU has come back to earth with three consecutive losses, including two on the road this week to Ole Miss and South Carolina. Both of these games were well played by the Tigers and can be chalked up to the usual difficulty that occurs when one travels on the road in the SEC. One thing that these games have shown however is that LSU must play a faster paced game if they are to have a shot at pulling out a victory. The Tigers have been held under 60 points only four times this season, and have left each of these contests with a loss. Coach John Brady likely has the best collection of athletes in the conference, yet he seems to be pulling back in every contest and preferring a slower-paced game. Important games await this week against Georgia and Alabama, two teams who seem to prefer to run up and down the court. It will be interesting to see if John Brady encourages his team to participate in a track meet, or if he still holds true to the slower-paced style seen in recent games. One bright spot of the last couple of games is still Jamie Lloreda. He remains the best player in the country that no one knows.

Auburn (11-6)(2-4)

It was a mixed bag for Auburn this week as they won an important home game against Arkansas to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive and then followed that up with a decent performance at Florida before falling 68-52 after a late Gators run. Cliff Ellis has changed up the lineup in recent weeks to various results, but seems to have found a keeper in Lewis Monroe. The Tigers seem to just play better when he is on the floor and it is likely that he has found a permanent place in the Auburn starting lineup. Like LSU, Cliff Ellis’s team needs to force the action much more than they have recently in order to be successful. They are 9-1 when scoring over 70 points, yet at some points in the Florida game they looked tentative and more like a Wisconsin-style slowdown team than is necessary. Many in Auburn are still reeling from being called a campus full of “farm people” by football recruit in his running journal on the recruiting process that is currently being posted on the Miami Herald website (an absolute must-read if you are a fan of high-comedy). On the basketball front, Auburn has an important home game this week against Mississippi State, a game in which this columnist sees a possible upset.

Ole Miss (10-6)(2-3)

The Ole Miss Rebels quietly had a strong week with victories at home against LSU and Alabama. Justin Reed tied his career high with 28 points in the 71-60 win over Alabama and was named the SEC Player of the Week for his efforts. We have talked a great deal in this column about SEC stars who do not get enough national attention such as Matt Freije and Jamie Lloreda, but Reed is a player that gets very little publicity even in the SEC. He has the opportunity to be elected to the All-Conference team each of his four years and will finish his career at Ole Miss as one of the top players in school history. Rod Barnes also has to be pleased with the recent emergence of Aaron Harper, who had 22 big points in the game against LSU. Ole Miss still has a great deal to improve upon, such as their top 10 national ranking in turnovers, but the wins of this past week stand as proof that this team has the ability to hold its ground in the conference. This week they go on the road to Kentucky and have South Carolina in Oxford.

Arkansas (10-7)(2-4)

While Arkansas lost early in the week to Auburn, it was sweet redemption on Saturday when the Razorbacks pulled off an important upset of Vanderbilt 70-62. The Jones Brothers, Michael and Matt (not the handsome version that writes this column) both played huge roles, with Michael getting a career high 18 points and Matt pulling down a career high 8 rebounds. This team reminds one of a quote from the great Shakespeare play “Antony and Cleopatra.” In that play, one of Antony’s friends insinuates that real cause of Cleopatra’s appeal is not her beauty but her unpredictability. He states, “Age cannot wither her, not custom stale / her infinite variety.” In many ways therein lies the appeal of this Arkansas team. Every week you are not sure what team will show up, or who will provide the leadership and scoring. Yet they do manage to entertain nevertheless. This week sees them on the road against Georgia.

Alabama (11-5)(3-2)

Two road games this week by the Crimson Tide produced one victory and one defeat, but two miserable performances as they defeated Georgia and lost to Ole Miss. The Georgia win was a particularly horrific game to watch and in some ways is the more disappointing of the two performances. In the shot clock era that we now are a part of, there is absolutely no excuse for a college basketball game between two major college teams to end in a 45-42 score. I considered boycotting writing columns about these two teams as a protest, but I felt I owed it to you, the readers. Mark Gottfried’s team has been inconsistent all year, but he must find a way to get this team on one page in the next few games or the season has the potential to slip away. The schedule gets much tougher now beginning with home games this week against Florida and LSU.

Game of the Week

Watch for this weekend’s contest between Kentucky and Vanderbilt. It is close to a must-win game for the Commodores and the Vandy faithful will be motivated to extract revenge on the early loss. One has to think that Kentucky’s habit of playing continued close games will catch up on them, and this may be the week.

Until we meet again……


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