Commentary

Drama never far away in SEC

Originally Published: January 7, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Welcome to the Land of Melodrama. If your team isn't in some sort of upheaval, it's in the wrong place (that's you, Vanderbilt).

The SEC has been one crazy bit of news after the other.

To recap: Tennessee is under investigation and its coach is facing suspension.

[+] EnlargeRenardo Sidney and Elgin Bailey
AP Photo/Eugene TannerRenardo Sydney and Elgin Bailey's fight in the stands was a low point for Mississippi State this season.

Mississippi State started the year with two guys suspended (Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost), dropped it back to one (when Sidney was reinstated), upped it to three (when Elgin Bailey joined the fracas) and now is back at one, with Sidney back in, Bailey transferring and Bost about to debut. Oh, by the way, Twany Beckham is transferring.

In Kentucky fans have been treated to a 12-2 team but still care more about Freeing Enes.

At Florida, Billy Donovan was so frustrated with his team earlier this season that he lambasted the players in the media, criticizing his Gators' selfishness.

And just when we thought we could hang our hat on one sure thing -- Auburn as the worst BCS team in the country -- the Tigers went and beat Florida State, the second-best team in the ACC.

So with all of that as the backdrop, here's what we know for sure: Kentucky is, once again, the team to beat.

To find out what happens beyond that, you're going to have to wait for the season finale.

Team to beat: Kentucky

Player of the year: Brandon Knight

For now. Good all season, the Kentucky freshman is starting to become phenomenal, showing why he was such a highly recruited player. Knight is scoring at an 18-point-a-night clip, but also has cut down his turnovers and upped his assists. He will likely be the best player on the best team in the conference and that's usually the guy who wins the honors.

But … Chris Warren and Trey Thompkins, two guys whose teams would be lost in the water without them, could make things interesting (see below for more on them).

Rookie of the year: Someone from Kentucky

Could be Terrence Jones, could be Doron Lamb, could be Brandon Knight sweeping both awards. All are worthy candidates right now. It's just a matter of who pushes to the front of the Cats' bumper crop by season's end.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Jones and Brandon Knight
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesKentucky freshmen Terrence Jones, left, and Brandon Knight have been as good as advertised.

Early surprise: Josh Harrellson

Since August the entire commonwealth of Kentucky has had but one mission: to Free Enes. Desperate for a post presence, Cat fans have begun a grassroots mission to beg the NCAA to clear the Turkish big man.

But while the NCAA dithers on Kanter's status, Harrellson has been an absolute revelation. The senior is averaging 7.1 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, rock solid numbers for anyone. That Harrellson averaged 1.3 and 1.2 last season as he cooled his heels behind DeMarcus Cousins makes his production downright eye-popping.

There's no doubt that Kanter, a lottery pick regardless whether he ever suits up in a college uniform, would make a very good Kentucky team even better, but Harrellson's steady, reliable play has been a fantastic substitute.

The big unknown: Mississippi State

Rick Stansbury has rolled the dice by electing to keep Renardo Sidney while Elgin Bailey walks. All that's at stake is his own reputation and his team's stability this season.

If Sidney reins in his behavior and simply delivers on the court, Stansbury's reward could be a decent Bulldog team. In two games, Sidney scored 12 and 19.

But if Sidney doesn't behave -- and two run-ins in two days after sitting out a season and a half waiting to play doesn't exactly put the odds in Stansbury's favor -- coach and team could find themselves in a season-ruining melodrama.

Oh and don't forget, Dee Bost also is returning to the team. A good addition, but another potential combustible situation.

Early dud: Tennessee

The Vols were the frontrunners for early surprise after taking it to Pitt in Pittsburgh. Instead of signaling the signs of good things to come, that win ended up being the harbinger of doom.

Tennessee is 3-4 since that Pitt game, losing to teams further and further down the hoops hierarchy each time -- from Oakland, to USC to College of Charleston

The Vols' win over Memphis, a much-needed shot in the arm, is a start but it doesn't forgive Tennessee for its other early-season sins.

Scrappiest team: Georgia

Aside from a blowout against High Point and a walkover against Charleston Southern, the Bulldogs have had to battle in every single game. That the team still trying to become a player in the league won all but two of them -- and the losses were honorable: by six in double overtime to Notre Dame and seven to Temple -- speaks volumes for where Georgia is going.

A sleeper pick early, the Dawgs have won eight in a row since their last loss at Walt Disney World in November and with Trey Thompkins fully recovered from his early-season ankle injury, Mark Fox has Georgia steered in the right direction.

Best of the rest: Florida, Vanderbilt

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBilly Donovan publicly chastised his team for what he deemed was selfish play this season.

Everyone hopped off the Gators bandwagon after Florida lost at home to Jacksonville, but Billy Donovan's squad has put that misery behind it lately. The Gators ended Xavier's 30-game home win streak and shellacked what many thought could be a decent Rhode Island team.

Against URI, Florida finally put together an offensive head-turner, perhaps a good omen for the Gators as the conference season looms.

Also worth watching: Vanderbilt. The Commodores have been quietly steady amid the bedlam within their league, losing just twice -- on a neutral court to West Virginia and at Missouri.

Presuming John Jenkins (concussion) and Andre Walker (sprained ankle) aren't out too long, Vandy could make a push and challenge Kentucky.

Grading the preseason picks (based on media poll)

East

1. Florida: A nice out-of-the-box pick that won't look God-awful at season's end but perhaps the love affair for the Gators was a bit too premature.
2. Kentucky: I get the pick -- this freshman class isn't as good as last season's -- but this class is still pretty darned good. Silly to bet against the Wildcats.
3. Georgia: Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie are talented enough to make this risky pick look smart.
4. Tennessee: For a while, pollsters looked silly for putting the Vols so low. Now? Not so much.
5. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were clearly underestimated.
6. South Carolina: Logical -- and perhaps accurate -- pick for a young team for Darrin Horn.

West

1. Mississippi State: This one was based on Renardo Sidney sliding nicely into the mix. That hasn't happened.
2. Mississippi: Thanks to resurgent Chris Warren, Andy Kennedy's team could win this division.
3. Alabama: Little surprised to see Anthony Grant's squad here. Should have been flip-flopped with Arkansas.
4. Arkansas: The abomination at Texas makes this pick look just about right.
5. LSU: Keep waiting for the Tigers to get good again. Hasn't happened. They'll battle the other Tigers for last place.
6. Auburn: Um, yeah. This one makes sense.

Best place to watch a game this season

For atmosphere, it has to be Rupp Arena. There are no fans quite like Cat fans, who pack the building, proffer entertaining signs and support their team unlike any university in the nation. The building itself may not have a ton of bells and whistles, but the people make up for it.

For quirkiness, go with Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium. Benches are on the baselines and the court floor is elevated a la a stage. I remember watching an NCAA tournament game there in 1993, amazed that no one flew off the court and that coaches weren't knocked over like bowling pins when players dove for loose balls.

Worst venue: Mississippi's Tad C. Smith Coliseum.

The Tad Pad has had a few things cleaned up here and there -- a new video board, sound system and court -- but when your athletic director calls the arena "the most evident void" in his facilities landscape, as Pete Boone told Kyle Veazey of the Clarion-Ledger, well, that's about guarantees you a last-place finish in the venue competition.

[+] EnlargeTrey Thompkins
Paul Abell/US PresswireGeorgia can be a player in the SEC thanks in large part to Trey Thompkins' contributions.

Best player toiling in obscurity: Trey Thompkins

The Georgia junior is averaging 17.4 points per game and 7.1 rebounds, and is projected as a lottery pick. Trouble is, people are just starting to recognize that they play basketball at Georgia.

(B) Chris Warren, Ole Miss. This could change if Warren keeps Ole Miss in the hunt, but right now the guard -- who is second in the league in scoring, averaging 18.5 points per game -- has been lost in this drama-filled league.

Coach you want drawing up a last-second play

Kevin Stallings. Chronically undervalued, the Vanderbilt coach gets good but not crazy good talent every season. Yet every season his team is in the thick of things. Vandy has made four NCAA tourney appearances under Stallings and twice their head coach has been named league coach of the year. Good enough for me.

Best mascot

If only Mike VI sat courtside … perhaps then LSU would intimidate a few people. Alas, the tiger is kept in his lush, 15,000-square-foot home during hoops season.

Ole Miss retired Colonel Reb in favor of a black bear, so he's out.

If the Commodores used Lionel Richie, they'd win in a landslide but the creepy pirate is just another student with an enlarged head.

Don't get why the Vol is a dog.

And so the winner is Arkansas. Tusk III, taking over for the recently departed Tusk II, actually attends some basketball games.

And live mascots always win.

Most entertaining team

Tennessee. Kentucky and Vanderbilt score more points, but there is nothing more entertaining right now than watching the all-over-the-map Vols. And their head coach's eight-game suspension hasn't even started yet! It's like a season-long soap-opera cliffhanger: Will Tennessee rediscover its early-season mojo? Can the Vols succeed when their coach isn't on the sidelines? When will the NCAA drop the bomb on the program? Tune in tomorrow …

Must-see games

Jan. 8: Kentucky at Georgia
Jan. 13: Mississippi State at Ole Miss
Jan. 22: Tennessee at Connecticut
Feb. 8: Tennessee at Kentucky (Bruce Pearl's first game back from suspension)
Feb. 12: Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Feb. 26: Florida at Kentucky
March 5: Florida at Vanderbilt

Predictions

NCAA: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, longshot Georgia
NIT: Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball