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SEC Notebook

February 9, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

I must admit that I have been a bit distracted this week. So much has been going on in our world that at times it becomes difficult to focus solely on SEC basketball, as we all should be doing.

We have the Democratic primaries, where John Kerry, “the Botox Bomber,” is close to securing the final nomination. We have the Bush Administration finally admitting what everyone knew all along, mainly that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. American Idol has narrowed the field down to 32 and thus cut all of those singers with no talent and making the show significantly less interesting. Rudy was voted off “Survivor-All Stars” in a move that not only has left me sad but questioning the morality of all humankind.

And of course we have the Janet Jackson scandal, which has left all of the self-righteous talking heads on television in mock outrage, asking “what will we tell our children?” when they see and hear significantly more shocking things every day at school. It is with this backdrop that we must examine the SEC news of the week, and I for one am ready for the distraction.

The New Center of the Basketball Universe: Starkville, Mississippi

Ok world, it is now time to officially notice. There is something special going on in Starkville, Miss. Now I know that many would never have thought that those words could ever be uttered in a serious journalistic article, but yes it is true. The Mississippi State Bulldogs have established themselves as one of the five best teams in the country. Yes, you read that correctly. Along with Duke, Connecticut, Stanford and Louisville, I place this Mississippi State team. They have taken on all comers and were it not for one fluke Eric Daniels layup, this team would be undefeated and ranked in the top three in the country.

The story of this team begins with the amazing story of Lawrence Roberts. I don’t care who you are, if you like college basketball and like the individuals that make it great, the Roberts story should be one that you applaud. After the terrible tragedy that occurred at Baylor University this summer, the NCAA made the correct choice in allowing the players on that team to transfer without having to sit out the normal one-year waiting period. Roberts’ performance has shown why that was such a good move. Roberts is 11th in the country in rebounds and one of only nine players, LSU’s Jamie Lloreda is another, in the country to average a double-double.

Roberts has come onto this team and by making up for Mario Austin, he has established an inside presence with which few teams in the country can compete. In addition, he has become a leader, rallying his teammates and becoming a vocal presence both on and off the court. When combined with Timmy Bowers, Winsome Frazier and the other talented players on the Bulldog rosters, Roberts’ presence has taken a good team and turned them into an immediate national title contender.

Mississippi State is now in the driver’s seat to win the regular season title. Playing in the SEC West, their schedule is not quite as difficult as their two main rivals to the throne, South Carolina and Kentucky. Kentucky does hold the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs due to their win in Starkville earlier this season, but at this point the Bulldogs control their own destiny. It may be a bit unrealistic to think that Mississippi State will win out for the rest of the season, but it is likely that they will be favored in every contest, and there are no games coming up where I would even pick against them. If they do win out, it is likely they will get a No. 1 seed and could be a true force come tournament time.

Whatever the result, this has been a season that Mississippi State fans will always remember, and it is time that the nation take notice of all the sweet goings on down in Starkville.

“Lucy, Please Don’t Pull the Ball Away this Time!”

This is really starting to get ridiculous. On Tuesday night No. 9 Kentucky defeated No. 21 Florida 68-65 to win its fifth straight and seventh of the last eight games against the Gators. Rarely has a legitimate rivalry between two top programs been so lopsided. It was not long ago – two seasons ago in fact – that an Orlando newspaper columnist reported that Florida had “surpassed Kentucky as the dominant program in the SEC,” putting all of the Big Blue Nation into a frenzy and causing the poor columnist’s email inbox to be flooded. One thing all columnists learn is that it is dangerous to criticize the Big Blue.

However, at the time, this theory certainly seemed plausible. The Gators were destroying the Wildcats on the recruiting trail, and it looked as if coach Billy Donovan was stockpiling the best assemblage of talent this side of Durham, N.C. Although Kentucky coach Tubby Smith’s mixture of nice, hard-working players made purists smile, it was hard to see how they could compete long term against the force in Gainesville.

That is why the play the games. The past five Kentucky victories have been portraits in team basketball and have illustrated a few differences between the programs:

1. You can defeat talent if you have players willing to sacrifice for team goals. Since the infamous “Team Turmoil” debacle that Smith endured, he has focused on recruiting quality guys that don’t make recruiting headlines but whose blue-collar work ethic wins games. Tell me if any coach in the country would not like to have a Gerald Fitch, Eric Daniels, Cliff Hawkins or Chuck Hayes on their roster.

2. Donovan has not yet adjusted to the problems associated with early entry into the NBA. Guys like Kwame Brown, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem make a splash when they commit to the program but ultimately offer little longevity, as they don’t stay for enough time to truly build a dynasty.

3. Smith simply has Donovan’s number. Watching these five games, it has become clear that down the stretch, when the game is on the line, Smith’s teams excel and Donovan’s falter. Whether it is Hawkins being in the right place defensively to make a steal or Tayshaun Prince hitting a big shot with time running down, Kentucky players know how to win.

The success that Donovan has had at Florida is remarkable. They are a top-caliber program at this point, and the credit should fall directly on Donovan’s shoulders. However, if one is to do that, we must also point out that their inability to take the next step into the Duke-Kentucky-Arizona stratosphere must also fall on Donovan’s shoulders as well. As the game Tuesday night showed, Florida is a nice team, but ultimately you must go through Lexington, Ky., to find the dominant program in the SEC.

Now on to the notebooks…

No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats (15-3, 5-2)

Kentucky fans have to be pleased with the recent stretch that the Wildcats have been on. Actually Kentucky fans are rarely, if ever pleased, but they nevertheless should be. Their past five games have involved four road contests with Tennessee, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and Florida and a home game with ever-improving Ole Miss. They ran that gauntlet with a 4-1 record and have positioned themselves to once again have a shot at the SEC championship.

At the center of this run has been the continued excellent play of center Eric Daniels. Daniels has quietly become the most consistent scorer on the team and often is the focus of the offense at the end of games. With Chuck Hayes being a bit too small, Gerald Fitch a bit too inconsistent and Cliff Hawkins a bit too excitable, Eric Daniels has been Mr. Smooth for the Wildcats and has provided the stability they have needed for the recent run.

Naysayers will rightly point out that every game for Kentucky in recent weeks has been a struggle and that they are only a fluke basket by Daniels at Mississippi State, a long three by Hawkins at Tennessee and a Gator meltdown in Gainesville, Fla., from being a team in turmoil. However they have won those games, and with the season still so wide-open, coach Smith has to like his chances. The Cats welcome South Carolina and Alabama to Rupp Arena this week.

No. 25 South Carolina Gamecocks (19-3, 6-2)

There will be no bigger win this season for the Gamecocks than their 90-82 overtime victory against Alabama Wednesday. For South Carolina detractors – and you know who you are – the showdown against the Crimson Tide represented the chance to finally show that this team was not for real. They were coming off a loss to Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., and were beginning to look like a nice team that did not have the chutzpah to hang with the big boys.

Alabama held a three-point lead with less than a minute to play in regulation, but South Carolina persevered by hitting multiple big shots and playing tight defense when they had to in the end. However, the SEC never lets one rest, and South Carolina must follow up this victory with a trip to Rupp Arena Saturday. The Gamecocks will not be favored and likely will not pull out a victory. But they will remain in the conference race and have a chance at stealing the SEC East title because of their win on Wednesday.

In addition to the Wildcats, South Carolina sees Mississippi State coming to Columbia, S.C, Wednesday in the game of the week. A split of these two games would spark a celebration for coach Dave Odom and his staff.

No. 23 Vanderbilt Commodores (14-4, 3-4)

It was a roller coaster week for the Commodores as they lived out Charles Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” mantra. The week began with a tough home loss to South Carolina, which put the Gamecocks in the driver’s seat in the SEC East and the Commodores closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble.

However, the most embarrassing thing for Vandy fans was the behavior of coach Kevin Stallings after the game. His thinly veiled remark that a South Carolina player might have to watch out in future games was an embarrassment to his team and the university, a fact he acknowledged in a future apology. I was amazed at the lack of publicity this entire affair garnered, especially when compared with the Bobby Knight “Showdown at the Upscale Lubbock Salad Bar” coverage. Knight has a level of fame that transcends college basketball, and if he had made the same comment as Stallings, he may have been fired.

Yet Stallings survived unscathed and moved forward to help his Commodores defeat Kentucky 66-60 in Nashville Jan. 31. This nationally televised victory makes a tournament appearance likely and helped them stay in the Hoopville Top 25. However the week upcoming is crucial as they play at Florida and at home against Georgia. The latter game is a must-win and if the Commodores go 0-2 during this stretch, it could get ugly in Memorial Coliseum.

No. 21 Florida Gators (13-6, 4-4)

What can you really say about Florida at this point in the season? As discussed above, the Kentucky loss highlighted all that has been driving Gators fans crazy over the past few seasons, and it looks as if there is little relief in sight. These coaches and players must decide that they are going to sacrifice a bit in the show department, with fewer behind-the-back passes, three-point heaves and cutesy defenses, and become a top-notch basketball team through hard-work and emphasis on the fundamentals. Without that switch, it will only be more of the same. The Gators try to get back on track with a season-making game against Vanderbilt Saturday.

Tennessee Volunteers (11-7, 3-5)

I must say that for my dollar, Tennessee has been the most disappointing team in the conference this season. As I stated in my very first column for Hoopville, coach Buzz Peterson has this program on the right track, and they have all the pieces necessary to leap to the second tier of the SEC. They continue to bring in top-level recruits, they have high quality facilities, and Peterson is one of the best young coaches in the country.

Nevertheless, they have been the same old Volunteers lately, losing all the games where they are not heavy favorites, and being embarrassed when they venture out of Knoxville, Tenn. This past week saw losses at Mississippi State and LSU that gave little indication that this team has NCAA Tournament potential. Tennessee was impressive in its win over Florida. However as mentioned before, the Gators are struggling this season and Tennessee SHOULD have won that game.

This team seems to coast along, with little to get excited about and much about which to wring your hands in disappointment. I am interested to see what they do this week against Georgia Tech in Knoxville. Tech is certainly beatable, but like Kentucky and Mississippi State, the Yellow Jackets always put forth a great deal of effort. Tennessee not only needs to win this game for its NCAA prospects, but it also needs to win it to show its detractors, like myself, that they are a team to pay attention to at all.

Georgia Bulldogs (11-8, 3-5)

Sometimes when I write this column, I reach a team’s description and I think to myself, “I have very little, if anything to say about this team.” Such was my predicament this week with Georgia. Ultimately that is a shame because this week brought a level of consistency from the Bulldogs that has not been reached at any point previous in the system.

Coach Dennis Felton’s team handily won a pair of games against SEC West opponents, Arkansas and Ole Miss, getting two huge home-court wins and proving that Kentucky is not the only team in the conference against whom they can compete. Georgia’s problem all season has been producing on the offensive end, as seen by the fact that their 71 points against Arkansas was their highest total since Dec. 22. It is hard to win many games in this conference, or any other not named the Big Ten, with that level of production.

The most exciting part of the week for this team may have come at the end of the LSU game when Jonas Hayes hit an 84-foot heave. Even though the shot was after the buzzer, it made me so excited I considered getting up off of my couch and dancing…but I ended up just watching “My Wife and Kids” instead. The Bulldogs go to Auburn and Vanderbilt this week.

No. 8 Mississippi State Bulldogs (18-1, 7-1)

I already expressed my undying adulation for this team earlier, but it needs to be repeated that yes, Virginia, there is a national title contender in Starkville this year. The Bulldogs are in the midst of a five-game conference winning streak, their longest such run in nearly three years, and are likely in the driver’s seat for the regular season championship.

The question now for the Bulldogs becomes: How will they handle the success? They are ranked in the top 10 for the first time in a number of years and have the chance to go into the postseason as one of the favorites for a top seed. This week sees a home game against Ole Miss and then a huge road contest at South Carolina. The game in Columbia, S.C., will, in this author’s humble opinion, be a true test for Mississippi State. If they can win that game against one of the up-and-coming teams in nation on the road, it may be time to ring the folks at Duke, Connecticut and Stanford and tell them to make room for another Bulldog Final Four run.

LSU Tigers (15-4, 5-3)

Quietly once again, coach John Brady has his LSU Tigers headed for the NCAA Tournament and playing at a high level. This past week saw a revelation of a bright star that – if he stays in school – will shine brightly in the SEC for years to come. Freshman Brandon Bass played the best basketball of his young career this week, getting a double-double in two consecutive games and helping his team to big wins over Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

We have talked a great deal in this column about Brady’s magnificent freshman class, and it has long been thought that they had the potential to take this program to another level. However more than a few folks had been disappointed at the results shown on the court early in the season. Well that was until this past week when Brandon Bass had the biggest coming out party this side of Janet Jackson with his series of fine performances. It is hard to know exactly what to make of this LSU team. With Jamie Lloreda in his last year in Baton Rouge, this would be a perfect time to make a tournament run. Although it is unclear if the Tigers have the firepower for such a move, Brady has them in second place in the SEC West and headed for an NCAA berth, a position that he likes just fine.

Alabama Crimson Tide (11-8, 3-5)

It was a tough week for the Crimson Tide as they lost three straight games against Florida, LSU and South Carolina, all of which were close until the end and at least one of which they truly needed to win to keep their slipping NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The common wisdom is that the SEC will get seven teams into the Big Dance and at this point in the season, Alabama stands at number eight. Coach Mark Gottfried has to hope that his troops begin to understand how to win and to take better shots down the stretch. Star Kennedy Winston has played well in all three contests but has made mental errors at the end of the games that have hurt his team.

Things don’t get any easier for the Tide as they travel into Rupp Arena Tuesday night for another important showdown against Kentucky.

Ole Miss Rebels (11-8, 3-5)

In evaluating the week for the Ole Miss Rebels, one could choose to focus on either of their two games. Their loss to Georgia Wednesday was one of their worst performances of the year and represented a regression from the improvement that had been shown in recent weeks. However their victory Saturday over South Carolina was their first victory in two seasons over a ranked opponent and represented their best effort of the season.

Being the positive person that I am, we will focus on the latter. All-everything Justin Reed had a career-high 32 points in the victory over the Gamecocks and continued to show NBA scouts that there will be a late first-round steal available who can contribute to any team in the league. The Rebels have shown so much improvement in the past few weeks that coach Rod Barnes’ team is still not completely eliminated from NCAA consideration. However, if they are to have any chance whatsoever, they have to win Saturday in Starkville against Mississippi State, a task that borders on the impossible. Yet if Barnes can get the Rebels to play as they did on the road in Lexington, they will be in contention and give Reed the chance to make big plays down the stretch.

Auburn Tigers (11-8, 2-6)

Nothing seems to be going right for Auburn at this point in the season, and there is very little that coach Cliff Ellis can likely do about it.

The Tigers came into the season with some expectations after their NCAA run last season. In addition, they started strong, preying on their weak schedule to establish a gaudy record that had Tigers fans once again proclaiming that they were a national power.

However, after their miserable performance in Fayetteville, Ark., Wednesday, which resulted in the team’s third straight conference loss, there seems to be little that can be done to salvage the season. To understand just how far this team has fallen, consider this: People were legitimately sending me emails at the beginning of the season asking how Kentucky was going to be able to handle losing the conference to the folks from Auburn, Ala.

This week the Tigers have Georgia at home and then a road game against Ole Miss.

Arkansas Razorbacks (11-8, 3-5)

The up and down roller coaster of a season for Arkansas continued this past week with a horrible loss on the road at Georgia and then a solid beating of Auburn in Fayetteville. More than any other team in the floundering SEC West, the struggles this season in Arkansas can be written off to a young team, a new coach and a fresh system that will simply take some time to gel. Guard Ronnie Brewer has produced a solid set of performances in recent weeks and along with Jonathan Modica, has provide much of the Razorbacks’ offense.

The main goal for this team right now is to stay above .500 and make some form of postseason play. They have road games this week against LSU and Tennessee, and if they could pull out either of these, they would be in position to make a postseason run.


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