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SEC Notebook

February 19, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

This past Sunday was an absolute great day to be a sports fan. Everywhere you turned, there was compelling action that left me absolutely glued to my seat.

In NASCAR, the Daytona 500 produced a compelling race, complete with big crashes and high drama, resulting in an emotional win for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the track that had previously taken his father’s life. Baseball gave us one of the biggest trades in the history of the game with Alex Rodriguez leaving Texas and joining the New York Yankees. The deal cemented the Yankees’ status as baseball’s “Evil Empire” and gave us the joy of watching pathetic Red Sox fans everywhere whine into the night.

The NBA All Star Game from Los Angeles saw former All-SEC big men, Shaquille O’Neal and Jamaal Magloire, lead both the West and the East. The PGA Tour gave us the wonderful comeback of John Daly, who has thankfully given up his alcohol and pain killer addictions for M&Ms and Twinkies, on his way to rediscovering his golf swing and winning his first tournament since 1995. And finally our beloved college basketball gave us a great upset with the loveable No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack bringing down college basketball’s version of the “Evil Empire,” No. 3 Duke.

At the end of that night of action, I began to evaluate exactly where the SEC stood next to all of this great action. For some reason, something has seemed missing to me in conference play this season. Although there have been a host of great games, led by the trifecta involving No. 23 South Carolina, No. 9 Kentucky and No. 4 Mississippi State, the action does not seem quite as riveting as in years past.

One could argue that there are 10 teams that still have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. However, the storylines that seemed to dominate the headlines in past years are missing. Mississippi State is the top team in the conference but does not look the part of a traditional national power. Kentucky is once again solid, but their series of great escapes has left their prominence a bit diminished. Florida’s continued struggles have had a negative effect on the conference and have provided it with one less marquee team.

However, just when I was about to permanently lament the state of the SEC, I asked myself: Would I rather be following any other conference? The Big Ten and Pac 10 are absolutely horrible this season and I could make the case that only 3 teams deserve a bid between the two conferences.

The Big East is its usual hack fest and the Big 12’s marquee team is Oklahoma State, which has all the sex appeal of a Super Bowl halftime performance starring Bob and Elizabeth Dole. The ACC is strong, but I refuse to become enamored with the conference because I do not want to make Dick Vitale jealous. Yes, the SEC may be in a down year, but it is still better than most and we can console ourselves with the realization that it is almost tournament time.

Tournament Projections

With three weeks remaining in the season, the SEC has 4 teams which are mortal locks to make the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State will likely continue to compete with Oklahoma State for the fourth No. 1 seed and is now in the position that it controls its own destiny for that fight. If they can win out, which I believe is likely, they will get their first ever No. 1 seed in school history, regardless of how they finish in the SEC tournament. Kentucky is now on pace for a strong No. 2 seed. They can likely afford one more regular season loss to stay on pace for a No. 2, but any more than that would move them down into the No. 3 to No. 4 range. LSU and South Carolina are hovering around the No. 4 to No. 6 seed area, with their final result dependent on how they handle their big closing tests. If LSU can beat Mississippi State or South Carolina can steal a win against Kentucky, they could even possibly vault themselves up to a No. 3 seed.

Two other SEC teams are likely in the tournament, barring a late season collapse. This has been an absolutely horrific few weeks for Florida, but they still have the nation’s toughest schedule and were at one point ranked No. 1 in the country. At this point they project to a No. 7 or No. 8 seed, and I am sure that the top teams in America do not want to see the Gators in their bracket. The Vanderbilt hype has certainly cooled down recently, and they do have huge games this week (at Alabama, LSU), but their win over Kentucky put them solidly in the field. If they can keep from self-destructing in the final weeks, they will likely be a classic No. 8 to No. 9 seed.

In any other year, the notion that Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss or Georgia could make the tournament would have been absurd. However, it is likely that one of them will be the seventh SEC team in, mainly because there are so few other candidates throughout the country. Whichever of these teams can win the majority of their final games and then steal a few in the SEC Tournament will likely find themselves dancing as a No. 11 seed. Predictions amongst this group border on folly, but I see Tennessee getting hot and taking the last spot. As for Auburn and Arkansas, spring practice begins soon.

Now on to the notebooks. Special emphasis is given this week to tournament projections. For many teams, this is a huge week and they must play accordingly.

No. 4 Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-1, 10-1)

The season continues to be special in Starkville, Miss. Last Wednesday night, in front of a capacity crowd in Columbia, S.C., Mississippi State defeated South Carolina 79-75, gaining permanent control of the SEC and putting themselves in a position to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for fans all over the South, Jefferson Pilot chose to show Alabama versus Tennessee, thus depriving the nation of the chance to see one of the best games of the conference season.

Lawrence Roberts showed once again why he is one of the nation’s best players, controlling the play on both sides of the floor and producing another in his array of amazing performances. At this point, the Bulldogs must focus on finishing the season strong. They are ranked 4th in the country in the latest Hoopville poll, their highest such ranking since 1963. The key for coach Rick Stansbury is to keep the team playing with the same level of hunger and to prevent them from believing their ever-increasing hype. Every game from this point forward is imminently winnable, but Stansbury must convince them otherwise. This week the Bulldogs play at home against Alabama.

LSU Tigers (17-4, 7-3)

Don’t look now, but the Tigers may be the hottest team in the conference at this point. On Saturday they went on the road, outscored Florida 15-4 in the final four minutes of the game and came away with an impressive come-from-behind victory against the Gators.

Coming into the game, coach John Brady’s team had won four straight games, but many in the conference thought the Tigers were taking advantage of a relatively easy part of their schedule and were not at the level of the top teams. LSU put a lot of those concerns away with their win in Gainesville, but now face two important games this week. First up is a skirmish with Auburn in Baton Rouge, La., where LSU will be heavily favored. But then comes Saturday’s crucial contest with Vanderbilt in the SEC Game of the Week. LSU needs this win for seeding purposes in the NCAA and to set up their big showdown with rival Mississippi State next week. If the Tigers win in Nashville, which I believe they won’t, no one can any longer say LSU is not for real.

Alabama Crimson Tide (12-9, 4-6)

I have been watching a great deal of the preliminary rounds of American Idol this year and have noticed a disturbing trend. There are a few performers on the show that have the potential to be true stars, but for the most part the rest of the 32 semi-finalists are all just average, with no differentiating characteristics.

Such is the case this year on the NCAA bubble. With the struggles of the Pac 10 and the Big Ten and the generally mediocre play throughout the nation, it becomes hard to project who should be in the NCAA field. Against this backdrop, Alabama must begin to find itself. After beating Tennessee this past week, the Crimson Tide now find themselves with a home game against Vanderbilt and road tests at Mississippi State and Auburn. They must come out of this stretch 2-1 to secure an NCAA berth. Coach Mark Gottfried’s team has the advantage of a strong RPI rating, but Gottfried must implore the team to put it all on the line this week, because if they come up short, the NIT will be calling.

Ole Miss Rebels (12-9, 4-6)

It is hard to believe that the words “Ole Miss” and “NCAA Tournament bid” could be used in the same sentence this season, but there is still a chance that the Rebels could find themselves backing into a bid. In order for that to happen however, they must come close to winning out, and that does not look probable.

At this point, this particular Ole Miss team looks a bit like its NBA neighbor to the South, the Orlando Magic. They have a star (Justin Reed) and a good group of role players, but just are not able to put all of the pieces together on a consistent basis. Coach Rod Barnes has to get frustrated with the performance of the non-Reed players, as they bounce from having a great game one night to completely disappearing the next. This is one of the few teams in the country that can reasonably be put on both the NCAA and the NIT bubble because the Rebels could end up below .500. Their road test at Tennessee and home game with Florida will determine which bubble they will sit upon.

Auburn Tigers (12-9, 3-7)

Regardless of how the next three weeks play out, Auburn must be considered the biggest disappointment of the SEC season. This is a team coming off an impressive NCAA Tournament run, and even though they lost some of their best players from last season, they were picked by many to contend for the SEC West title.

After the Tigers finished off the appetizer portion of their schedule, it has been nothing but a disaster for coach Cliff Ellis’s team. They often look completely lost on the court and have shown signs in recent weeks of being a team on the verge of giving up. With this team’s weak strength of schedule, it is not realistic to think that this team has any NCAA Tournament aspirations left. However one would hope they still do have a level of pride in the performances they will put on the court. This week they play at LSU and then at home against Kentucky. Keeping these games close, and even pulling one of them out, would be an impressive accomplishment for this team.

Arkansas Razorbacks (11-11, 3-8)

When a team is struggling through a rebuilding year, it attempts to make positives out of things that would not necessarily have been considered successes in previous years.

Such is the case for the Arkansas Razorbacks after their 77-70 loss to Mississippi State Saturday. Arkansas put together one of its best performances of the season, giving the Bulldogs all they could handle, but ultimately succumbing to their lack of talent at the end of the game. Jonathan Modica showcased why many see him as a star of the future, as he put in a career-high 33 points in the losing effort.

Arkansas would love to finish the season strong, end up with a winning record and secure an NIT bid so as to continue to help build the program. However, with the schedule in front of Arkansas, this may be unlikely. Nevertheless, if the Razorbacks can continue to build on performances such as the one Saturday, the “pig suey” chants may soon be returning to prominence in the SEC.

No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats (17-4, 7-3)

Kentucky is fortunate that the Georgia Bulldogs’ NCAA Tournament hopes are slim, because it’s becoming clear that the Wildcats have no answer for Georgia, or their coach Dennis Felton. After Saturday’s loss in Athens, Ga., Felton now has a 3-0 career record against Kentucky, all in games where his teams have found a way to shut down Kentucky’s offense.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of Kentucky’s performance in Athens. Like in the previous two games, the Cats were without their leading scorer Gerald Fitch, who has been out with a sprained finger. For much of the game, Kentucky looked to be fine without him, even finding an unexpected boost of offense from sophomore Kelenna Azubuike. However as the game came down the stretch, the Cats looked intimidated, with no player seeming to want to make the big play. Most of the final possessions seemed to be designed for walk-on Ravi Moss, who seemed like the only player comfortable taking a big shot.

The loss may have ended Kentucky’s shot at a No. 1 seed, but they are still in the mix for a No. 2 seed, if the team finishes strong. Fitch returns this week, and Kentucky fans hope that his return sparks what has become a somewhat dormant offense. The Cats play Arkansas and then travel to Auburn Saturday.

No. 23 South Carolina Gamecocks (20-5, 7-4)

It was a week of mixed emotions for the Gamecocks as they had their hearts broken again at the end of a game against Mississippi State, but then followed it up with a big win against Vanderbilt Saturday.

As I stated here last week, I thought it was extremely important that South Carolina at least get a split in these two games, which they did, but one could forgive South Carolina fans if they were disappointed with the results. The Gamecocks believe they had a win over Mississippi State in their grasps, only to let the game slip away at the end, similar to their defeat against Kentucky. There is no doubt that this season has been an amazing success for South Carolina, however it is easy to feel as if they are just a couple of steps from having a truly special season.

I believe this team needs at least one big win to truly vault to the top. Next Wednesday the Gamecocks play at Florida, a game I think could be important in establishing the team as a postseason contender.

Florida Gators (14-8, 5-6)

The wheels are quickly coming off the wagon for the Florida Gators. Their loss Saturday at home to LSU led them to drop out of the Top 25 for the first time in the past 98 weeks. They then followed that up by laying an egg Tuesday against Georgia and are slowly moving toward the possibility of being on the NCAA bubble.

To stop the bleeding, coach Billy Donovan must find a way to improve the Gators defense in the clutch. In the past three games, Florida has allowed baskets on 31 of the 36 possessions in the final six minutes. Donovan must also find a way to put the clamps on Anthony Roberson, who has the talent to be as good as any point guard in the country but seems to shoot his team out of games down the stretch. Florida now has lost four out of their last five and must cope with the loss of Christian Drejer to a European professional team. Donovan has three weeks to right the ship, but from my standpoint, the future does not look bright.

Georgia Bulldogs (13-10, 5-7)

There is no team in the country that has put their fans on more of a wild ride than the Georgia Bulldogs. The past two years for this program have been a lot like the golfing career of John Daly, with ups and downs that are almost unbelievable to imagine. They had the high of being a potential NCAA Tournament contender last year turn into the low of losing their coach and voluntarily missing postseason play.

Then there is this season, in which new coach Dennis Felton saw his team lose to Winthrop by 20 but also become the first team to sweep the Kentucky Wildcats in three years, when Georgia last did it. This past week has been a huge high for this program, as they have two nationally televised wins over Kentucky and Florida and now potentially are in the mix for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

At the heart of this turnaround is Rashad Wright, who went from missing his first 10 shots against Kentucky in the first half to hitting key buckets down the stretch to get that victory and then dominating the game Tuesday against the Gators. Wright has developed into the scoring guard that Georgia needed to compliment Jonas Hayes and Dhamian Wilkens, and he has given them tremendous amounts of energy that have carried over into wins.

The Bulldogs have an important home game Saturday against Tennessee, and if they win there, are in position to make NCAA Tournament noise.

Vanderbilt Commodores (15-6, 4-6)

Simply put, this is the most important week of the season for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Matt Freije and company have games at Alabama Wednesday and at home Saturday in Memorial Gym, thanks to Vandy fan Tillman Finley for that correction, against LSU.

If Vanderbilt can win these two games, the team’s NCAA Tournament ticket is punched. However if they lose both of the games, which is certainly possible, they move from a certain NCAA team to one that is distinctly on the bubble. For coach Kevin Stallings to ensure victory in at least one of the contests, and thereby ensure his seat on the bench next year, there must be some form of an inside presence beyond Matt Freije.

When that occurs, such as in the Kentucky game, Vandy wins. When it does not, the Commodores can look downright pitiful. The spotlight is on, and we will see how the Dores handle it.

Tennessee Volunteers (12-9, 4-6)

This weekend I was reading “A Misfortune,” a short story by Anton Chekhov that dealt with a woman attempting to salvage her marriage while confronting her feelings toward another man. In the story, she attempts to reinvigorate her marriage by trying to find something new and interesting in the same old monotony of her daily life with her husband.

Something similar may be going on for Tennessee fans, who must be growing weary of their teams’ continued abysmal performance on the road. This team is still in contention for an NCAA berth, yet has only won one game all season away from Thompson-Boling Arena. It often looks as if a different team has put on the bright orange uniforms away from Knoxville as the disciplined, fundamentally sound Tennessee team is replaced by a gunning group of three-point shooters who forget that there is no “I” in team.

For Tennessee to have any chance at a bid to the Big Dance, they must sweep their games this week, including a road test at Georgia. In some ways that game Saturday in Athens, Ga., is an elimination game for the tournament, and thus Buzz Peterson must pray that the right group of Vols make the trip.

That is all for now. Enjoy what promises to be an important week of SEC basketball!


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