Plenty of success in SEC, but ...

Originally Published: December 10, 2003
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

When the season began, the Southeastern Conference was almost universally viewed as Florida, Kentucky and 10 schmoes.

You couldn't find another SEC team in anyone's top 25. You couldn't find an SEC player on anyone's All-America team. You couldn't find any reason to think this league would match up at all with the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten or Big East.

Only commissioner Mike Slive was bullish on SEC basketball when the clock struck Midnight Madness.

Today? Pollsters admire Florida (No. 1 in both polls before losing at home to Maryland 69-68 in OT on Wednesday) and Kentucky (No. 2 ESPN/USA Today) more than ever. They still have not shown the rest of the league much love, but SchmoeBall is getting harder to ignore every week. There appears to be more depth here than anyone suspected.

All the SEC has to do now to feel the love: beat a few name teams -- especially on the road.

Marco Killingsworth
A Sweet 16 team last season and unbeaten so far this year, Marco Killingsworth and Auburn aren't getting any national love.

The league has taken care of the first order of business: Win the early games you're supposed to win. Sounds easy, but that isn't always the case.

If it were so simple, Villanova wouldn't lose to Chaminade, Ohio State wouldn't lose to San Francisco, Notre Dame wouldn't lose to Central Michigan, Syracuse wouldn't lose to Charlotte and Maryland wouldn't lose to West Virginia. Pratfalls happen, but not often so far in the SEC.

The league has had just two head-scratcher specials: Arkansas State over Mississippi back on Nov. 21 and Winthrop busting Georgia by 20 in Athens on Tuesday night. (Blame the latter on L'Affair Harrick, which has stripped the Bulldogs' roster to the bone.) Through Monday, the SEC was 55-7 in non-conference play, best in the country. Eight teams are unbeaten.

The gaudy numbers are largely a product of timid scheduling. Forty-five of the league's first 62 games were at home, and the record in those games was 43-2. As of Tuesday, nobody in the SEC had played a schedule that ranked tougher than 124th in the Sagarin Ratings. So far, the SEC is a courageous 35-0 against teams from the Atlantic Sun, Southland, Ohio Valley, Southern, Southwestern, Mid-Continent and Mid-Eastern Atlantic conferences. (Apparently the Washington Generals were booked.)

But amid the cupcakes there have been some serve-notice victories:

  • Florida (5-1) over Arizona in Tucson. (And if you saw the Wildcats melt Texas on Tuesday with their running game, that win looks better all the time.)
  • Vanderbilt (6-0) at home over the Big Ten, beating Indiana by 13 and Michigan by 20.
  • South Carolina (8-0) by 15 at Clemson.
  • Kentucky (4-0) over UCLA in Los Angeles. (Not pretty by any stretch, but Tubby Smith's team is still avoiding the usual early-season losses.)
  • Mississippi State (6-0) nudged underrated UAB at home and ended Western Kentucky's 39-game home winning streak.
  • Auburn (7-0) beat perennial early-season upset king College of Charleston and ripped 2003 NCAA Tournament team Colorado State by 30.

    Along the way, a league lacking in name players has found a few new ones.

  • Vanderbilt's Matt Freije has more than lived up to his preseason SEC player of the year billing, averaging 21 points and eight rebounds in only 27.4 minutes per game going into Wednesday's game against Tennessee State.
  • Baylor transfer Lawrence Roberts is making everyone forget Mario Austin's bad decision to go pro early, already recording four double-doubles.
  • Relentless LSU center Jaime Lloreda has improved greatly and leads the league in scoring (26.3 points) and rebounding (12.7), while hyped freshman forward Brandon Bass (12.2 points, 9 rebounds, 4.3 blocks) looks legit as well.
  • Auburn's frontline of Marco Killingsworth, Brandon Robinson and Kyle Davis has stepped forward impressively.
  • Tennessee (3-0) is led by Memphis transfer Scooter McFadgon, who is scoring 22 points per game and playing well enough that Texas A&M threw a box-and-one at him. And defense-oriented South Carolina is getting quality play from junior forward Carlos Powell, who leads the team in scoring (14.9) and rebounding (8.1).

    Simply put: the all-conference team doesn't look like it will be solely Kentucky's savvy seniors and Florida's hamburger All-Americans.

    "I think our league has done a good job," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "Vanderbilt has had some good wins, and so has South Carolina. I don't think a lot of people were talking about those teams.

    "It's early. It may not be the best league, or in the top two, but it's always going to be in the top three or four."

    "There's been some good wins," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "This league will be right up there again. This league is not down by any means."

    Ellis' team will be among the best of the schmoes -- though he's befuddled as to why Auburn wound up in schmoe territory to begin with. Coming off a 22-win season and Sweet 16 berth, Ellis figured Auburn would at least be ranked in the neighborhood of the schools in beat in the Big Dance -- St. Joseph's and Wake Forest.

    Those two have been in the top 25 all season. Auburn, winning its games by an average margin of nearly 25 points while starting point guard Lewis Monroe sits out with a broken foot, has never left Schmoeville city limits.

    "Having beaten St. Joe's and beaten Wake, and look and see where they are and we're not ..." Ellis said, trailing off. "Well, nobody expected us to be there last year and gave us any credit. I guess we kind of like it like that.

    "We did it on the court, but we're way down on the radar screen. I like it, but I don't understand it."

    In a departure from its past, Alabama is one SEC team that's not afraid of aggressive scheduling. The Crimson Tide (4-2) already has played Pittsburgh, Providence and Charlotte, with Oregon, Wisconsin and Xavier still to come before starting league play.

    "The NCAA selection committee told me loud and clear what to do," Gottfried said, referring to his team's snub from the tournament a few years ago after playing a weak schedule. "There's some teams out there that can play with one hand tied behind their back and still go 10-1 entering their leagues."

    Alabama won't be one of them.

    And, soon enough, most of the schmoes will play improved non-conference competition and the radar screen will get a better fix on the league. Those days are coming soon for some SEC schools: Tennessee, which benefitted from a fall trip to the Dominican Republic to get a jump on the season, plays its first road game Saturday at Nebraska. LSU hosts Utah next week. Xavier visits Mississippi State.

    By the time January rolls around, the SEC will have a better idea where it stands nationally. But for now, the league's schmoe subdivision has done a better job taking care of the business than many people expected.

    C-USA right on schedule

    If you're looking for early-season intrigue or surprise, C-USA is not the league for you.

    The teams expected to be at the forefront -- Cincinnati, Marquette, Louisville, Memphis, UAB, Charlotte and DePaul -- are all there. And the bottom half -- Saint Louis, South Florida, East Carolina, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, TCU, Houston -- is playing catchup as anticipated.

    This is one reason why C-USA has never truly worked: the disparity between haves and have-nots is too wide. The top half of the league all ranks between 11 and 70 in the Sagarin Ratings. Then there's a 38-point drop to South Florida, and another 35-point drop to the rest of the pack -- except Houston, loitering at an abysmal 277th.

    The two attention-grabbing results so far have come from schools ticketed for the Atlantic 10 in 2005: Charlotte, which shot down defending national champion Syracuse in the Carrier Dome in the Orangemen's opener; and Saint Louis, whose grinding, slow-down, frustration-inducing style produced a near-upset at home of Arizona. (The Billikens led by eight at halftime and lost by one, 68-67.)

    The 49ers bookended their upset of Syracuse with losses to George Washington and Alabama, which diminished the potential momentum from that win. But with Vanderbilt transfer Brendan Plavich and senior point guard Demon Brown, Charlotte might have the best-shooting backcourt in America.

    The biggest negative result was Southern Mississippi losing by 40 points to Murray State. As surprisingly good as this Racers team is, that's hard to justify.

    Games to Watch
    Marquette at Arizona, Saturday
    The Golden Eagles have quietly gone unbeaten, but this is easily their biggest challenge to date. They might not have the athleticism to run up and down with the Wildcats, but Tom Crean's team backs down from nobody.
    Memphis at Illinois, Saturday
    Two super-quick perimeter teams square off. Question is whether the Tigers have enough inside to hang with the inconsistent Illini on the backboard.
    Florida at Louisville, Saturday
    Gators host Maryland Wednesday night, then make what should be an emotional visit to Freedom Hall. Billy Donovan helped Rick Pitino get to two Final Fours, one as his point guard at Providence and one as his assistant coach at Kentucky. At noon Pitino will try to make Donovan 0-2 in trips to the state of Kentucky when ranked No. 1.
    Kentucky at Michigan State, Saturday
    75,000 people can't be wrong: they'll make history at Ford Field with what could be the largest crowd in basketball history.
    Xavier at Mississippi State, Saturday
    One of the Bulldogs' biggest wins last year was over the Musketeers. This might be State's best opportunity to boost its non-conference RPI.
    Around the South

  • He's just a freshman, and his stats aren't even that spectacular: 6 points per game, 2.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists. But Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson is calling guard Dane Bradshaw his glue. "He's a hustler and he's a winner," Peterson said. "He's almost starting fights in practice, because he just makes you compete." Peterson said that he plans to play Bradshaw with C.J. Watson, essentially giving him two point guards on the floor at the same time.

  • DePaul is getting a well-timed lift from freshman point guard Sammy Mejia. The Bronx product had 15 points, six rebounds and four assists to bail out the Blue Demons on the road at Ohio, in a game where double-double man Andre Brown fouled out with just two points and seven rebounds. It was Mejia's second consecutive productive game for DePaul.

  • Western Kentucky continues to grope for momentum. The killer combination of a coaching change, the transfer of star point guard Patrick Sparks and a positively penal schedule has left the Hilltoppers 0-5. The combined record of Western's first five opponents: 24-2. And with difficult mid-major opponents Austin Peay, Evansville, Ball State and Fordham still ahead in December, new coach Darrin Horn will be up against it right into the Sun Belt Conference season. Talk about a tough way to make your debut.

  • Austin Peay has been puzzling so far. The Governors returned five starters from a 23-8 NCAA Tournament team, but they're just 2-3 so far -- including a loss to Belmont. They're winless on the road and not shooting the ball particularly well so far.

  • Jeff Lebo has them running and gunning at Chattanooga. The 4-1 Mocs are scoring 99.8 points per game so far, with the lone loss coming at Kansas. Chattanooga only plays one more high-profile opponent -- Alabama on Dec. 16 -- so it obviously would have to win the Southern Conference tournament to play in the NCAAs.

  • Don't get in a shooting contest with Memphis. The Tigers are hitting 43 percent of their 3-point shots and are averaging 10.6 threes per game. Similarly, don't get in a foul-shooting contest with Louisville. The Cardinals are making 78 percent of their free throws, easily the best in CUSA.

    Quote to note

    "I have been on the sidelines a long time, but I have never witnessed a gutsier comeback than I did today."
    -- DePaul coach Dave Leitao, after the Blue Demons erased a 20-point second-half deficit to beat Bradley 77-74.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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