Reports Of SEC's Demise Premature?

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- To hear Southeastern Conference basketball coaches tell it, reports of the league's hoops decline have been greatly exaggerated.

Never mind that only league favorite Kentucky has gotten much national love this preseason.

"Yes, the league lost heavily after last season," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom. "But I don't think there's a league in the country that regroups as quickly as the SEC. Guys will come of age by January or February."

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith agreed.

"Every time somebody leaves, we believe it's an opportunity to improve," Smith said. "It's like at Arkansas -- Olu Famutimi left, but I think Jonathon Modica is an excellent player. I listened to what he said (Wednesday) and it sounds like he'll step up and be productive."

Florida had two players leave early -- Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh -- yet the Gators are still picked to finish second in the SEC East.

"Last year at this time, people talked about how there would be eight new point guards in the SEC," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "But look at two of them now: (sophomores) Rajon Rondo at Kentucky and Ronald Steele at Alabama. They're a big reason their teams are picked to win their divisions."

Although Arkansas was picked third in the SEC West behind Alabama and LSU, Tide coach Mark Gottfried anticipated a breakout year for the Razorbacks.

"When I look at the West, I look at Arkansas and I like their team," Gottfried said. "They've got the most pieces in place to win."

LSU coach John Brady was more inclined to let the bee buzz around Alabama.

"Let's see what the experts said," Brady mused as he perused the preseason voting results. "Alabama by a wide margin. I agree, based on their experience in the front line and a sophomore point guard (Steele) who started every game."

Brady likes LSU's young talent and camaraderie, but he said, "Like Arkansas, we have a question at point guard. Sometimes you don't know what you're gonna get there on a consistent basis."

Brady termed LSU's front line "young, athletic, long and talented," spiced by 6-foot-9, 308-pound center Glen Davis and 6-7 freshman Tasmin Mitchell.

"Tasmin is like coaching a junior," Brady said. "He played with Glen in AAU and they're good friends. Tasmin is farther along than Stromile Swift or Davis at that age."

Davis, looking svelte and spiffy on Thursday, said, "You've gotta dress nice. You never know when you might meet your wife."

Neither Steele nor Ole Miss guard Todd Abernethy shared Brady's concern about the Arkansas point guard situation.

"All of Arkansas' guards are really good and quick," Steele said. "They're aggressive with the ball and they all play a similar style -- they look to penetrate."

Abernethy was surprised to learn that Arkansas hoped to play Eric Ferguson more at shooting guard than point guard.

"I love Ferguson at point guard," he said. "I think he's a really good leader. He brought energy, confidence and aggressiveness. I think Arkansas will be the team to beat."

Though Ole Miss is picked just fifth in the SEC West, Abernethy said, "I definitely think we can surprise some people. It seems like the SEC is wide open this year."

Rebels coach Rod Barnes promised, "We have the makings to get back up there. We're gonna get back -- it's just how soon."

It could be sooner than many think if Dwight Curtis, a 6-8 transfer from Auburn, fills the bill at power forward for Ole Miss.

"He's our big man down low," Abernethy said.

In the SEC East, new Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl attracted lots of attention Thursday despite UT's fifth-place designation, because of his run-run style of offense, his sense of humor and his orange tie.

"Our style is controlled chaos," Pearl said. "We're not run-and-stun, we're not Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of hell, because it will be hell if we try to play that way. But we will go up-tempo."

Pearl's Wisconsin-Milwaukee team reached the Sweet 16 last season with no starter taller than 6-6, beating Alabama along the way.

"I told Bruce before the game I hoped he would get a coaching opportunity at our level," Gottfried recalled. "I didn't realize it was going to be at our expense."

Smith, told that Pearl wanted to establish a rivalry with Kentucky, said, "I thought we already had one."

Smith did say Pearl's style could be very effective in the SEC.

"If I could play that way the whole game, I would," Smith said. "Either I'm not that smart or I don't have the talent to play that way. It usually has to do with the opposing team. They get the rebound or stop your fast break."

Vanderbilt, often an underrated team, received a third-place ranking in the East and a nice compliment from Donovan.

"Kevin Stallings' teams are the toughest for us to prepare for," Donovan said. "He runs that Princeton offense, which you don't see a lot."

Pearl tabbed Illinois coach Bruce Weber as the best he's gone against -- when Weber was at Southern Illinois.

Pearl said this about his Vols assistant Scott Edgar: "He was a good hire, because he was with Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson at Arkansas, he had been in the SEC, he was a head coach and he could challenge my thinking."

Always looking for pointers, Pearl said he once asked Lou Holtz for some advice at a clinic.

"He said not a lot of basketball coaches had asked him for advice," Pearl recalled. "But he said when it came to basketball, he'd rather throw the ball up than throw it away."

Shoot it before you can turn it over, in other words.

Smith, in a recent one-on-one talk with Rondo, encouraged him to do just that -- take more shots when he's open.

Patrick Sparks, Rondo's ultra-confident backcourt mate at Kentucky, sounded like Rondo's press agent Thursday.

"He really knows the game," Sparks said. "He's so athletic and smart. We had like an instant chemistry last year. I can see on opposing guards' faces, before the game sometimes, when they look at him -- they know what they're gonna be up against it."

The SEC has felt that way about Kentucky for decades.

Smith, who has directed seven division titles and four outright SEC crowns in eight years (plus five SEC Tournament titles) at Kentucky, had fun with the media's picks Thursday.

"This is the second time you've picked us," he claimed. (Actually, the third year in a row). "It took eight years. I'm excited for our players. We're gonna say, 'We want to make the media look good!'"

Eleven other teams would rather the media look bad.

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