SEC teams enjoying plenty of success

Originally Published: January 7, 2004
By Pat Forde | Special to ESPN.com

To the rest of the nation, the ACC is the eternal snobby country-club conference. It's the old-money elite and knows it. And if you should happen to lose sight of that fact, Billy Packer and a conga line of Tobacco Roadies are always ready to remind you.

That's why the Southeastern Conference is so fired up. Because the league with a football pedigree took everything but the blueblood basketball league's trust fund last Saturday.

The pertinent scores:

  • Georgia 83, No. 3 Georgia Tech 80.
  • Kentucky 61, No. 9 North Carolina 56.
  • Florida 87, No. 25 Florida State 73.

    (LSU 21, Oklahoma 14 was a fairly popular recent score in Dixie as well. But that's with the pointed ball.)

    It's true that all three games were played on SEC home courts. And it's true that neither the SEC nor any other league wants any part of the two highest-ranked ACC teams -- Duke and Wake Forest. But a three-game sweep of quality ACC teams on any given Saturday is cause for celebration among arrivistes -- especially when the SEC was doubted from coast to coast before the season.

    "That made our league look a lot better than people are giving it credit for," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "Head-to-head pairings are what you want to look at. From that standpoint I think the SEC has done very, very well.

    Tim Bowers
    Timmy Bowers and the Dawgs are unbeaten, but still somewhat untested entering SEC action.

    "You started the season and maybe said the SEC is a little bit down. I'm not sure it is. It might turn out to be better than last year, I don't know yet."

    Right now the records are sparkling.The SEC is the only league in the land with two unbeatens: Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, both at 11-0. And until Arkansas lost to LSU Tuesday night, every league team had three or fewer defeats. None has a losing record. General pessimism has been replaced by glowing optimism.

    "I think everyone has tried to declare that this is a down year for the SEC, and you continually see our teams keep beating teams at the top or picked for the top of other conferences," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team is among the early highlights, with every win coming by at least 13 points.

    Among the other non-conference results that are making Mike Slive smile: Florida beat Arizona on a neutral court; Alabama beat Oregon on a neutral court and routed Wisconsin in Tuscaloosa; Auburn smoked College of Charleston, Colorado State and Western Kentucky; Mississippi State beat Xavier at home and ended Western Kentucky's 39-game home winning streak; South Carolina went 2-0 against the ACC and Vandy went 2-0 against the Big Ten; and old standby Kentucky rolled UCLA, Michigan State and Indiana on successive Saturdays away from home.

    "Just look at the quality wins that have occurred," Auburn's Cliff Ellis said. "The wins show up. I see it as one of the top three leagues."

    Certainly, there have been pratfalls.

    There have been ugly home upsets: Arkansas lost to Western Carolina, Auburn to Georgia State, Mississippi to Arkansas State, Georgia to Winthrop (by 20!) and Kentucky to Louisville while ranked No. 1.

    There have been ugly road losses: Tennessee by 15 at Nebraska, Alabama by 21 at Xavier, LSU at Houston.

    And there have been walkover wins against weak competition too numerous to recite. So, the debate is legitimate about whether this is a really good league or just a collection of really good records puffed up by timid scheduling.

    Which is what league play will be all about: separating the contenders from the cupcake eaters.

    The two teams that have proven themselves so far are the two everyone thought would dominate the league: Kentucky and Florida.

    The Wildcats are 9-1 after playing a slew of big names (admittedly, some of them are big in name only at present) and remain the conference favorite. Their defense is the constant that will keep them in every game, and if teams don't keep them out of the lane, they'll carve them up with solid execution. The questions remain whether Kentucky has enough perimeter firepower and depth to make a national championship run.

    Florida is in the process of regaining the credibility it lost with a miserable two-game run with the No. 1 ranking in December. The Gators lost at home to Maryland and were undressed at Louisville, refusing to share the ball on offense or dig in on defense. Since then Florida seems to have gotten at least part of the message, dishing out 30 assists against Northeastern. But the Gators also let Florida State shoot 52 percent from the field (while shooting a scorching 59 percent themselves).

    The first road test since being run out of Freedom Hall comes Wednesday night at South Carolina, a place that's never been easy for Billy Donovan. He's 4-3 in Columbia as coach of the Gators, with only one win by more than nine points. Last year Florida won by a basket.

    Separating the next tier of SEC teams is the tricky part. Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and LSU would appear to head the list, but another four teams might not be far behind.

    Each of those three teams is powered by at least one legitimate all-conference contender. State has the inside-outside duo of Lawrence Roberts and Timmy Bowers, Vandy has all-court menace Matt Freije, and LSU has the powerful inside tandem of Jaime Lloreda and freshman Brandon Bass.

    LSU got its first road win in Fayetteville, with Bass showing his potential. The Tigers figure to challenge State for the SEC West title. Vanderbilt played its first 10 games in Nashville, then beat TCU by a whopping 35 in its first real road game.

    "That just tells me we're better," Stallings said. "We've gotten better and we're confident. Our confidence is real; it's not imagined. It's not just a function of us playing at home and building up a good record. That's a gratifying thing."

    Auburn, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia might not be far behind those three. The Tigers and Gamecocks have to beat some better opponents to gain respect: Auburn is 0-1 against teams ranked in the RPI top 65; 10 of South Carolina's 13 wins are against teams ranked 99th or lower in the RPI. For his part, Odom isn't apologizing for any of it.

    "I would not change how we've gotten our team to where it is today," Odom said. "Maybe the media would prefer we played an all-comers schedule and be 8-6 right now. I've been through that, and I know that nothing builds confidence like winning. ... Our kids feel they have some hope right now. Our fans feel like we have a chance."

    Alabama and Georgia have played tough schedules and shown promise at times, but the dreadfully thin Bulldogs are 0-2 on the road and the Crimson Tide must overcome a recent history of offensive flameouts in conference play.

    That leaves Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas -- none of whom figure to roll over on their home courts, but all of whom might be overmatched on the road. The Volunteers are 8-1, but have played only one team in the RPI top 70 -- and lost by 15. Ole Miss will probably play the legs off of Mississippi State on Wednesday night in Oxford as usual, but the Rebels lack firepower: they average just 66 points a game, easily last in the league. The young and athletic Razorbacks appear at least a year away, given some of their frightful decision-making on offense Tuesday night in losing at home to LSU. The Hogs haven't beaten anyone in the RPI top 100, and have beaten only one team in the top 150.

    Taken as a whole, the league looks capable of a sixth straight season with at least six NCAA bids. At the very least, the SEC looks better in early January than it did in early November. Just ask the ACC.

    Games to Watch
    Mississippi State at Mississippi, Wednesday
    Last five meetings in this contentious series have been decided by seven points or less, and the Bulldogs have won just two of the last eight in Oxford -- by a total of three points. Last year it was a one-point State win.
    Vanderbilt at Kentucky, Saturday
    Commodores won their last road game by 35, but this is an entirely different story. Vandy hasn't won in Lexington since 1974, when the Wildcats' home gym was Memorial Coliseum. Last year Kentucky tortured the Commodores 106-44 in Rupp Arena.
    DePaul at Cincinnati, Saturday
    Blue Demons get no breaks to open C-USA play, starting with Charlotte, Cincy, Memphis and UAB. And the Bearcats' home turf has not been kind: DePaul has lost the last 12 by an average margin of 20 points.
    Around the South

  • Charlotte has positioned itself to chase Conference USA's lead pack of Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and Memphis -- winning its league opener over DePaul after going 8-3 in non-conference, while playing a league-high six road games. Bobby Lutz's quest for an inside game to complement the backcourt bombers has paid off in the form of Curtis Withers, a 6-8 sophomore who has already posted seven double-doubles. Withers had 20 points and 10 rebounds against Delaware State and followed that with 16 and 11 against Southern Illinois.

  • Memphis began the week second in the nation in 3-point field goals per game, averaging more than 10. But the Tigers cranked up the defense Tuesday night in Philadelphia, holding Villanova to 31-percent shooting to win by 16 points and improve to 9-2. Even more impressive was the fact that Memphis did it without Rodney Carney (15 ppg), who fractured a bone above his eye in the Tigers' victory over Missouri. Point guard Antonio Burks is playing well, but the real spark in Memphis' five-game winning streak is freshman forward Sean Banks. He's averaged 21.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 37 minutes the last two games.

  • How has Louisville risen into the AP Top 10? By crushing opponents in the second half. A combination of quality depth, superior conditioning and a withering style of play has left the Cardinals fresher than their opponents in the final 20 minutes, and the results are in the numbers. Louisville is outscoring opponents by nearly 13 points a game in the second half. Its shooting rises from 41.2 percent in the first half to 52 percent in the second. Its 3-point shooting soars from 32.6 percent in the first half to 48.2 in the second. And its rebound margin goes from a minus-0.8 in the first half to a plus-3.2 in the second. "The other team is not as sharp in the second half because they've gone against a lot of pressure in the first half," coach Rick Pitino said. "We play the same. It's just whether the other team is physically up to the challenge." The Cardinals have also continued to get All-America-caliber play from swingman Francisco Garcia. Last week he broke a 27-year-old school record by handing out 15 assists against Murray State -- equalling the best single-game total in the country this season.

  • UAB coach Mike Anderson pronounced the Blazers, who beat South Alabama 90-75 to be a "totally different team" than the one which lost to Marshall on Dec. 30. The Blazers are only 7-4, but only the Thundering Herd loss could qualify as a bad defeat, according to RPI. UAB's other losses are to Mississippi State by two, Western Michigan by seven and LSU by 16.

  • Kentucky has averaged just 59.3 points in its last three games, in part because the Wildcats aren't getting as many easy baskets -- or getting to the free throw line. Kentucky is last in the SEC in free throws attempted, at just 16.7 attempts per game. The past three games the Cats have averaged just 12 free-throw attempts.

  • Georgia doesn't have many players, but it's getting high-level production from its starting five. Forward Jonas Hayes and point guard Rashad Wright have stepped up their scoring to a team-high 14.8 and 14.6 points per game, respectively, and post man Chris Daniels is eating glass. He's averaging 10.8 rebounds per game, including an SEC-high 51 offensive rebounds in 11 games.

  • Arkansas freshman Ronnie Brewer has considerable talent, but he needs to work harder getting open without the ball. Against LSU, Brewer spent much of the night coasting off screens, making it easier for the tenacious Tigers to stay in his face and limit him to a season-low six points and eight shots. Coach Stan Heath should show Brewer some old Steve Alford tape to learn how hard a player can work to get open.

    Quote to note

    "We've had some chemistry-killers on our team. We don't have any of those (this season). I think that's made a huge difference."
    -- Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose had a few players transfer in recent years -- and isn't missing them now.

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

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