And The Winner Is...

Man, the Most Valuable Player race for Southeastern Conference baseketball is getting hotter by the day. Coming up fast on the outside is Alabama point guard Ronald Steele. It's true, a full discussion of the league's most valuable player candidates would not be complete without the Crimson Tide iron man.

It is no surprise that Alabama has a candidate for the honor, but it had been expected to be Chuck Davis. Unfortunately, the Crimson Tide senior was lost for the year with a knee injury in the first half of the first game of the SEC season.

Throw in the recent play of Tennessee sniper Chris Lofton and the opinion here is that there are six legitimate candidates for the award.

My nominations would include Lofton and senior point guard C.J. Watson of resurgent Tennessee, guard Darrel Mitchell and big boy Glen "Big Baby'' Davis of LSU, Bama's Ron Steele and Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer.

I throw Brewer into the mix because he leads the league in scoring at 18.5 points per game, but I throw out his candidacy based on several factors. Brewer's Razorbacks have failed to achieve at the levels expected of a team with that much talent; Brewer's play is still nearly as erratic as it was during his freshman year; and finally Brewer and clutch shots have not been a winning pair until a mishandled rebound by Evan Brock wound up in his hands for a gimme putback on Tuesday in Fayetteville.

Lofton is clearly the league's premier marksman. He hits 3-pointers at a 47.5 percent clip, and an even more outrageous 50.5 percent in SEC games. Lofton's average of 4.15 3-pointers made per conference game is one full trey per game better than second-place Shan Foster in the SEC.

However, a coach in good conscience cannot vote for Lofton based simply on his shooting stats. He's viewed as an average defender, though UT's pressing has helped him average 2.13 steals per game, tied for second in the league. Lofton's perfect 28-of-28 free-throw shooting in league games would be the SEC leader, but he's five made free throws shy of qualifying, whereas Alabama's Steele, the league leader at .938 in SEC games, has 61 successful shots at the line, or nearly 30 above the qualifying standard.

Lofton, the SEC's fourth-leading scorer at 17.7 points per game, should make a strong MVP candidate next year, if he's still around.

The candidacy of his teammate, Watson, is intriguing. He ranks eighth in league scoring (15.1), seventh in assists (4.21), second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.24), tied for second in steals (2.31) behind Brewer, and second in free-throw percentage (.878). It's hard to imagine the Vols' revival without Watson's steady influence at the point. But I still could not bestow MVP honors on him.

How about Ron Steele?

Tuesday's 9-of-14 shooting spree at Arkansas got his percentage up to .433, a sight low for an MVP candidate, but considerably better than the 30-something percent he was at in pre-conference play when his back was spazzing out.

Steele outscored teammate Jermareo Davidson by 19 points on Davidson's foul-plagued evening at Walton, allowing the sophomore guard to take over the team scoring lead at 14.1 points per game.

You have to admire Steele's pluck, with his 40-minutes plus per game in conference play, his nerves-of-steel free-throw shooting and the new take-charge attitude he had to adopt this season. His MVP status is strong. Envision this Crimson Tide team without him and you get the picture. But I think he comes up a little short.

I believe SEC coaches will choose LSU's Davis. It's hard to ignore his 17.9 points per game (3rd in the SEC), his league-leading 9.8 rebounds per game, his effervescent baby face and his ample trunk. Davis would not be a bad choice.

But my pick is Mitchell, the coach's son and, in Mark Gottfried parlance, ninth-year guard for John Brady. Mitchell switched from shooting guard to the point after Tack Minor's season-ending injury and the Tigers never missed a beat.

Mitchell scores (18.2 ppg), creates (4.7 assists per game), hits big-time shots (a bunch) and leads. Also, Mitchell's 47.3 percent field goal shooting is not that far off from Big Baby's 50.6 percent, which is low for a big man.

Plus, Brady considers Mitchell his team MVP and that's good enough for me.

Hardball nugget: Have you seen the stellar .233 batting average and 2.50 earned run average Alabama pitchers have posted through eight games?

It's got to be hard to hit in 40-degree weather, when a connection on a fastball can send a jolt right through that metal bat and into a batter's bones.

Just ask the Crimson Tide players, who have combined for an appalling .231 batting average. Only Kody Valverde (.357) and Emeel Salem (.333) among the regulars are hitting better than .300 against these non-conference opponents.

Bama better find its bats or they won't be scaring anybody in the SEC.

Thomas Murphy is Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register and contributes to 'BAMA Magazine and

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