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SEC Notebook

March 11, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Notebook

by Matt Jones

And just like that, the season is over. Mississippi State, the team so unknown that even their coach needs a roster to name any of the players, finished with a stunning come-from-behind win on Saturday against Alabama to take the SEC regular season title. The win capped off one of the most balanced years in the conference in recent memory, as the league had two top-tier teams, Mississippi State and Kentucky, and another solid pack of eight clubs, all of whom played each other close throughout the season. This makes the SEC tournament take on a greater importance than any year in recent memory as the Wildcats and Bulldogs attempt to get a national No. 1 seed and the other teams try to make a case for an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

However you could get that kind of information from any Web site and any two-bit sportswriter’s column. What you came here for was a review of the season that is in-depth and hits on the stories behind the stories. Therefore I give you the true SEC Season in Review and Awards.

Best Team

It is likely the case that the best team in the conference every year is the one that wins the most games. Thus many of you may be saying, “Matt, why would you waste our time telling us about Mississippi State and how they are the best team when we can get the record book and see it for ourselves?” The reason is very simple…many of you still do not believe it.

All season long the Bulldogs have had the most balanced offense in the conference, led by one of the premier big men in the nation, Lawrence Roberts, and a sharp-shooting guard who has perplexed SEC coaches for years, Timmy Bowers. Yet most of America, heck, most of the SEC can tell you very little about what is going on in Starkville, Miss.

It is time for us to all pay attention. Bob Ryan, substituting on the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, said that he gave little credence to the fact that the Bulldogs did well during the season because he believes what goes on in Starkville is shady. Although Dhante Jones and his 36 junior college credits in one summer in 1996 did make me raise an eyebrow, nothing should take away from what this team has accomplished. I do not believe they will win the SEC Tournament, but nothing can take away from the fact that they were the most consistent force in the conference this season.

Player of the Year

My controversial pick for this award is Matt Freije. Many will say that Lawrence Roberts should be the shoo-in as he has led the Bulldogs to the regular season title and will be on many All-American teams, but the simple fact is that he did not have the season that Freije did.

We should be honest here and note that without Freije, Vanderbilt would be HORRID, as we will see next year. He provides leadership, scoring and a degree of athleticism that is absolutely crucial for a jump-shooting team such as the Commodores. In addition, he has saved coach Kevin Stallings’s job, something that may have been unimaginable to anyone who sat in Rupp Arena last year and saw the Commodores lose by 62 points in the season finale. Vandy will be in the NCAA this year, and Freije deserves not only some but all of the credit. There is a reason why NBA scouts call him the best prospect in the conference, and this season he showed it to the nation, or at least central and western Tennessee.

All Conference Team

Matt Freije, Vanderbilt
Lawrence Roberts, Mississippi State
Jaime Lloreda, LSU
David Lee, Florida
Justin Reed, Mississippi

These picks should be fairly uncontroversial. Roberts and Lloreda are two of only a handful of players in the entire nation to average a double-double. David Lee has rebounded from what has to be considered a disappointing opening to his college career to have a great junior season and provide the only semblance of leadership on a disappointing Florida team. Justin Reed is known by few and cared about by fewer, but he will leave Ole Miss as one of the top scorers in school history.

I always hate to see players like Reed, who play for schools where the team goes unnoticed, not only not get their due but also get no attention whatsoever. However, like Ansu Seasy before him, I will remember Reed and write about him in future columns next year when there is nothing else to say about the Rebels.

The only other controversy that could exist over this team is the exclusion of any players from Kentucky. Although I believe that Eric Daniels, Cliff Hawkins, Gerald Fitch and Chuck Hayes all could be legitimate second team all-conference players, I cannot replace on this list. Their unselfishness causes none of them to stand out for all-conference honors, but it also allows them to be a consistent winner.

Coach of the Year

Once again many will say that Mississippi State’s Rick Stansbury deserves this honor, and although I sympathize with that view, I will have to go with Tubby Smith at Kentucky.

Stansbury has done an amazing job and were it not for St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli and Stanford’s Mike Montgomery, he may have been awarded the national coach of the year. However, much of the Bulldogs’ success comes from the fortuity of the Lawrence Roberts transfer and thus he loses just slightly to the Tubster.

It is truly amazing what this Kentucky team has accomplished with their 23-4 record. This is a team with less visible talent than any since the early days of the Rick Pitino years, but they nevertheless have confronted one of the hardest schedules in the country head-on and had a stunning season. They are in the running for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and are some, including me, people’s darkhorse pick for a shot at the national title. All with a team that has not one sure-fire NBA player or even an all-conference selection. At that point, credit has to go to the coach.

So those are the more traditional awards that you would expect. I am sure that all of these individuals will be excited to have the Hoopville trophies on their mantle for years to come. However, the season was about more than just these usual honors. Much more occurred, and we must give these stories their due as well.

Most Overrated Player in Conference History

Can we all agree that there is nothing better for a college basketball fan than the end of the Christian Drejer era at Florida? Has there ever been any player who has done less and received more accolades than this flying Dutchman?

When Drejer first arrived in Gainesville, Fla., the media hyped him as the second-coming of Dwayne Schintzus, with the possibility of producing all the star-power without the burden of a mullet. There were talks of his sure-fire lottery status and his potential to set the SEC on fire. However, I never once watched a game and thought that Drejer was anything but a marginal player. He looked lost and a step slow too many times to mention and had a knack for making the big turnover.

When he left for Europe to pursue his professional dreams – running into other legends such as God Shammgod, Trajan Langdon and Jess Settles on the way – some announcers acted as if this had ruined an otherwise promising Florida team. One announcer went so far as to say that Florida would have to “learn to win without their star.” I do not know which Florida team these guys were watching but what has been clear is that this Florida team is the same as it was before, meaning that they are unable to play with Kentucky. The league is better off without Christian “I put the pan in flash-in-the-pan” Drejer.

The Jerry Stackhouse Award

It pains me to give this award, as I like the player a great deal, but he has left me no choice. It is rare for a college coach to spend the waning weeks of his best player’s senior year questioning his heart, but coach John Brady may have been justified in wondering out loud if Jaime Lloreda’s season-ending foot injury was legitimate.

Lloreda has been a joy to watch since his freshman year with the Tigers, looking like Craig Mack and playing like a skinny Charles Barkley. Before his injury, he was second in the country in rebounds, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a player who is not a center and is also his team’s primary scorer. Nevertheless, his decision to pull himself out of the lineup at the end of the year and then skip his Senior Day to go to a doctor in Florida leaves one wondering if the NBA Draft became more important in Lloreda’s waning days than the SEC and NCAA Tournament.

The “That’s Coach Stansbury to you Son” Award

I have often lamented in recent years that the coaching profession is losing some of its more colorful characters. This is a conference that once featured Wimp Sanderson, Sonny Smith, Dale Brown and Nolan Richardson, who should still be upset that someone shot his horse, on the sidelines and now has the more, to put it politely, sedated figures of Buzz Peterson, Stan Heath and Cliff Ellis.

However, Rick Stansbury did his best to change that this season, showing animation on the sidelines that would have even made the late Dick Fick proud. When one looks at Stansbury, it is easy to only focus on his pretty eyes, but after this season we have learned that, if given the right situation, such as an inadvertent three second call, he can be quite the intimidator.

Kentucky Fan Complaint of the Year

There is no doubt that Kentucky fans are the best in the country. They support their team rabidly and live and die with each game that the Wildcats play. However, these same qualities that make them the best group in the nation also lead them to occasionally get a bit out of hand in their expectations and their complaints.

This year, this undying – and sometimes blinding – devotion could be seen best after the Wildcats’ huge road victory over then-undefeated Mississippi State. After Eric Daniels had picked up a deflected game-ending pass and made a layup at the buzzer, one Kentucky fan complained on a radio show that “if the Cats do not execute better on last second plays, they will not make it anywhere.” This after the Cats had made the last basket.

At 23-4 Kentucky fans have had little to complain about, but luckily for those of us that love them, it still does not stop a small minority of them from trying.

The It’s Alright to Gloat Award

I have to present this award to myself this season. When I first began writing this column, I quickly realized that it was a great deal of fun to make light of the absolutely absurd non-conference schedule that many SEC teams play. With all of the directions, states, techs and A& Ms, it was always fun to play the, “where in the world is that school” game. Most teams and fans were fine with this criticism because their coaches admitted that the schedule was weak but justified it because the team was young.

That is except the Auburn fans. They were convinced that the team was an NCAA contender and told me that I would realize it once the conference season started. E-mails came in promising that Auburn would prove to the nation on national television, in that prime midnight eastern time slot, that they were for real. Not only were they destroyed in that game, but they put together another subpar year and never seemed to click as a group. I will not say that their inability to perform was due to their weak non-conference schedule, but they certainly did seem unprepared when the big boys came around.

Jason Moore Award

This is in honor of my good friend from college who never likes to leave his house and can go for literally days without moving from a spot on the couch. Tennessee was forced this season to leave the friendly confines of Thompson Boling Arena (motto: Enough empty seats to house all of J-Lo’s ex-husbands!) numerous times and managed to find a way to not win one conference game on these trips.

This has to be considered a huge disappointment for Volunteer fans who, like me, thought that this team had the potential to not only make but also make noise in the NCAA Tournament. I have to say that I actually really enjoy this team and said in this very column that Buzz Peterson will bring a winner to Knoxville. However until he can take that winner and achieve success in arenas where fans do not show up dressed as empty seats, there will continue to be frustrating years ahead for the Vol faithful.

Mike Tyson vs Lennox Lewis Award

Is there any fight in America that you want to see more than the Matt Walsh vs. Josh Carrier bout? If you watched the Florida-Kentucky game on Sunday, you would realized that these two gladiators have the potential to change the way we not only look at the three-point shot but also the world of fist-a-cuffs.

Florida’s Matt Walsh, the one with the hair, and Kentucky’s Josh Carrier, the one on the bench, have both had up-and-down careers but may have had their defining moments last week. Walsh is a true scorer but played one of his worst games of his Florida career while allowing the UK student section to get inside of his head. Carrier has never exactly been a UK fan favorite, but his tossing of the ball in Walsh’s direction may have finally won over the UK faithful.

Either way I will remember Sunday’s game as having narrowly averted a true tragedy. In the same way that one’s spirit is broken when he hears that the only two contestants in a bikini contest are Rosie O’Donnell and Sally Struthers, a basketball fight with Walsh and Carrier would surely have only led to disappointment.

The “Your Degree Now Means Nothing” Award

This award goes to anyone who has ever attended the University of Georgia. The news was released last week that former assistant basketball coach Jim Harrick Jr. – all the corruption of his dad with only half of the age! – produced a final exam for a coaching class he taught at the university that included the questions how many points for a 3 pointer and draw a picture of a free throw line.

Because this class was given for actual credit by the university for its students, most of whom were, surprisingly, athletes, there should be a requirement that all Georgia alums must report to Athens, Ga., and immediately return their diplomas. Until then, we can only hope that like UCLA, Rhode Island and Georgia, another proud state university will look past its educational mission and its academic purpose and hire the Harricks to dismantle their basketball program as well.

That is all I have for now. Be sure and check back for the individual team season reviews and SEC Tournament predictions. Until next time, say a prayer for Martha Stewart and be careful who you go duck hunting with.


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