After some down years, SEC is back on top
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- For a basketball writer, Southeastern Conference media days last month were the equivalent of having 90 minutes with the bunnies in the Playboy Mansion.
At one table was the reigning national champion coach, Billy Donovan of Florida. You can't come to this event and not talk to Billy The King, can you? Especially when the entire starting five from the title team is back. (Luckily -- albeit strangely -- he left megawatt star Joakim Noah at home for this event. Otherwise, this would have been hopeless.)
Two tables away, there was LSU strongman Big Baby Davis -- a top-five player nationally and a top-one interview internationally. Miss five minutes with Big Baby and you might miss something Hoopsworld is still talking about in March.
Lost in the shadow of those klieg-light attractions was Alabama's Ronald Steele. He's merely the Associated Press preseason first-team All-America point guard -- one of three SEC players voted to America's starting five, along with Noah and Davis.
After those guys cleared out, in came Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. Few coaches can fill a notebook like Pearl, who is a candidate to become the league's Dale Brown of the 21st century -- without the obvious lunacy.
But while Pearl was purring, there were several writers talking to Tubby Smith about why nobody was talking about Kentucky. Rarely has a national champion coach from Kentucky been interviewed about not being interviewed sufficiently.
This is the giddy reality in the SEC: The league is good and interesting -- so good and so interesting it doesn't need standard-bearer Kentucky leading the way for once.
"That's life, man," philosopher Davis said of the Wildcats' more modest place in the league pecking order. "Things happen. You're the big dog, and next thing you know, you're a puppy."
Jay Bilas' yearly All-Access tour landed in Gainesville. He takes a look at the expectations for defending champion Florida. Story
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With five ranked teams and 43 returning starters mixed among its 12 teams, the South has risen again.
"The SEC is loaded," Pearl said. "We might have a dozen NBA players in the league -- and maybe eight or nine could come out this year."
That's because the SEC junior class is just loaded. Even in the midst of some hard times, this league recruited its brains out back in 2003-04. All these players came into the conference the following season:
Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Taurean Green of Florida; Davis and Tyrus Thomas of LSU; Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley of Kentucky; Steele of Alabama; Chris Lofton of Tennessee; Shan Foster of Vanderbilt; Charles Thomas and Darian Townes of Arkansas; Frank Tolbert of Auburn; and Sundiata Gaines of Georgia.
If you're scoring at home, that's two first-round NBA picks (Thomas and Rondo) so far, and several more to come. The surprise is that guys such as Noah, Davis and Horford came back to play a third year.
"I'm shocked," Davis said. "Joakim Noah? I'd have been gone. He has his reasons; I wish the best for him.
"For me, I want to be one of those guys that when you leave, you know. People say, 'Oh yeah, Glen Davis, he's going to get drafted.'
"Draft night, I was crying. 'Oh my, what am I doing?' I'm over that."
With Davis and Noah back and plenty of talent elsewhere, the SEC hasn't had this kind of buzz in a while. From 1994 to 2000 the league had eight Final Four teams and a representative in every national championship game but one, winning three of them. That's when Nolan Richardson was playing 40 Minutes of Hell and stalking the sideline in cowboy boots and Rick Pitino was stomping his Gucci loafers and stomping opponents.
That was fun. From 2001 to '05? Not so much fun.
Pitino went pro. Richardson raged his way out of a job at Arkansas. Donovan's empire building ebbed after the Gators made the 2000 title game. Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU couldn't sustain regular-season success deep into March.
Final Four visits during that dark five-year period? Zero.
The league was hit hard by early entry -- including a ton of Southern players who turned pro straight out of high school (Kwame Brown, Al Jefferson, James Lang, Monta Ellis, Louis Williams). Even in 2005, there was a flood of ill-advised early entries from the SEC that figured to cripple the league's development.
Turns out it might have helped. Florida flourished without Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson. LSU rose higher without Brandon Bass. Alabama did fine without Kennedy Winston.
The result was unpredictable yet unequivocal success. The SEC won 13 games in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, just one fewer than its record set in '96.
LSU joined Florida in the Final Four. The Tigers eliminated glamour boys Duke and Texas along the way. The Gators snuffed out two Big East powers (Georgetown and Villanova), Cinderella (George Mason) and Banner Central (UCLA) to win the title in an absolute walk.
The only place Florida wasn't invincible last season was within its own league. The Gators were 20-0 out of conference, 13-6 within -- including a sweep by Tennessee that kept Florida from even winning its own division.
Watching the Gators laugh last was difficult for the Volunteers.
"I wasn't rooting against them, but it really was a sick feeling [watching the Final Four]," Tennessee forward Dane Bradshaw said. "It shows that it really is all about playing your best at the end of the season."
This year, everyone will be expecting Florida to play its best all season. The Gators are as heavy a preseason title pick as we've seen in years -- but once again, they won't have it easy within their own league.
"Things change, just like the weather," Davis said of the shifting hoops landscape in the league. "One day it's sunshine, next day it's cold as hell."
And the weather forecast for Lexington?
"It's 90 percent rain and thunderstorms," Davis said.
"Sunshine, baby. It's a nice 75, cool breeze. Wind's blowing right now, feeling good."
"Hot. Got five of 'em coming back. Hot. Whew!"
If only the football hard-core will look up from their tailgate parties and feel the heat.
The only drawback to what should be a Southern-fried bacchanalia of basketball is that you don't know how many fans truly care. This is football country beyond a doubt, but you'd mostly think this is winning country: Put a great team on the floor and the fans will follow.
Yet here are some of the pertinent facts and figures from exhibition season in the SEC:
Alabama, ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP Top 25, had a butts-in-seats attendance of 4,240 for its first exhibition game.
Tennessee, newly competitive and newly entertaining with Pearl's manic playing style, drew an average of 7,045 for its two exhibitions.
LSU played its first exhibition Thursday night, sans radio or television coverage. Fans were granted $1 admission with a canned good. The Tigers managed to lure just 3,476 actual attendees to the Maravich Assembly Center, according to local news reports (the school reported attendance was 8,309).
Even Florida barely cracked five figures for its two exhibitions. The Gators averaged 10,679.
Contrast that with Kentucky, which is coming off its worst season under Smith and does not have huge expectations for a turnaround this season. The Wildcats, epitome of a miscast basketball culture amid a football region, averaged 16,885 for their two practice games -- both of which were televised.
That's one of the reasons Donovan doesn't want to hear anyone saying Florida has surpassed Kentucky as a program.
"You can't say we're a better program when Kentucky's been doing it for 100 years and we've had a couple good years," he said.
That's a natural coach's reaction. These guys break out in hives when expectations grow too large and evaluations become too grandiose. They know every season could fall apart if the perfect combination of bad events takes place. The SEC is no different.
Florida must guard against NBA agendas upsetting what was a beautiful team chemistry. And it must be vigilant about ego inflation, perhaps with Noah most of all. He seemed to morph from refreshing to cocky to arrogant during the NCAA Tournament, and you wonder what kind of attitude he'll take into this year.
LSU must deal with the loss of Thomas and the return of injured Tack Minor, who has been a point guard in name but not game. It doesn't seem coincidental that the Tigers made their Final Four run without shoot-first, feed-the-post-second Minor. Davis says Minor has gotten religion. We'll see.
Tennessee must prepare itself for no longer sneaking up on opponents and surprising them with its manic style of play. And with wearing a target as the reigning SEC East champ.
Kentucky must simply prove that it's better than last year's 22-13 train wreck, that its talented junior class is finally ready to take over, and that Smith has the stuff to end the school's longest Final Four drought at nine seasons.
At least one of those five probably won't live up to all the hype. But expect the SEC as a whole to build convincingly on last season's success.
"It's a tough league, man," Horford said. "Probably the toughest league in the country."
Probably the most interesting, too. That's a pretty cool hoops double for a football conference.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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