HOOPS: An Expert Look at the Gators

I don't think anyone on the planet has seen more SEC Basketball than television commentator Larry Conley. The former Kentucky standout of the mid-sixties has been analyzing SEC games virtually his entire professional life. For my money, he tops the list when it comes to those who evaluate conference teams every year. So I grabbed him after Florida's win over Vanderbilt to get his thoughts on the game and this Florida team.

LV: Larry, what stood out about this Florida/Vanderbilt matchup?

LC: Well, it was important for the Gators to pick up the win, because they didn't want to lose three in a row in the conference. They come back home against a Vandy team that I think is pretty good. The first half I thought they were in trouble the way that Vanderbilt was playing and the way they were running their offense. Then in the second half I don't know what Billy said at halftime but he better bottle it because they came out a different team. They came out with more defensive intensity, they forced Vanderbilt into a lot of bad shots and they were much quicker to the ball.

LV: Lets look at this Florida team with four sophomores in the starting lineup, with youth often comes inconsistency. Al Horford, for example has had some really good games and others not so good. I don't know that he can play a whole lot better than he did in this one.

LC: Larry, he played outstanding today. His performance was as good as I've seen all year. When you get 16 points and 16 rebounds to go with it, and then you throw in six assists. I thought he was by far the best player on the floor today. I'll tell you another thing about him; he gives you a lift because he does a lot of the dirty work. Not that he's a dirty player, but he gets in there and gets it done. At one point he offensive rebounded three straight balls, and you just don't see that. Normally a guy will go up one time and that's it. He went back two more times and that gives your club a big lift. You see a guy working that hard and it makes everybody else want to work.

LV: We're a week shy of the mid-point of the SEC race. What is your opinion of the league and who are the teams to beat as you see it?

LC: My feeling at the beginning of the season was that the Eastern Division was going to be a toss-up; I didn't know who could win it. And I actually had Tennessee at the bottom. I didn't think they had a chance to finish in the upper half. They have proven me just totally wrong, Bruce Pearl has them playing so well right now. Now it's just a toss-up, anyone can win this Eastern Division. In the West, I think it will come down to LSU and Arkansas. I thought at first that Alabama might have a chance, but when they lost Chuck Davis they kind of lost everything they needed on the inside.

As far as the overall Conference Championship, I think it's LSU, I think it's Florida and then maybe one or two other of the Eastern teams. But I have no idea who that's going to be right now. From what I've seen that LSU team is playing very well. They've got Glen Davis back there in the middle and they probably have the best freshman in the conference in Tyrus Thomas. And they're young, but they are both solid performers.

(Aside to readers--- this was before Kentucky beat Arkansas on Sunday)

LV: To agree with those who insist the league is "down" so to speak?

LC: I think it's young. I'm not sure it's down I'd have to see another week or two. I've seen a lot of games around the country and as far as League's are concerned I think the Big East has the best conference. I think from a player standpoint, the talent in the Big East is the best. The SEC talent is very young. You have a lot of very good freshmen and sophomores and maybe by the end of the year those guys will be really solid. If they can get six SEC teams into the NCAA Tournament it would not surprise me to see a number of them advance because there's some pretty good young talent.

LV: Is that what makes the SEC hard to project, because there are so many young teams and young players it's difficult to forecast the growth chart to them?

LC: Sure, that's a lot of it. You just don't know for surer what you're going to get from freshmen and sophomores. But by the end of the year the SEC is going to be very, very tough because they'll be an experienced group.

LV: What's your overall assessment of this Gator team?

LC: I think they are excellent. The one thing I liked about them when I saw them earlier in the year was their unselfishness. They really pass the ball. They have to continue to defend. I thought they really came out and defended Vanderbilt in the second half (20 points) and that's a pretty good offensive team. Vanderbilt can score and shoot the three and they run that motion offense, but Florida came out and defended. I think the key to that was Taurean Green and Corey Brewer coming out and playing harder in the second half. Brewer played a lot more minutes in the second half and it looks like he might be over that ankle injury. If he is, then they can make a real run at the championship.

LV: Is Joakim Noah as improved a player as there is out there?

LC: Yes. He still makes some fouls that are questionable. You've got to stay away from that, because you have to be able to stay on the floor. But he'll learn to do that. Billy will teach him that. He is vastly improved from where he was last year. His ability to put the ball on the floor and get it to the rim for a guy his size is second to none. He is outstanding doing that.

Larry Conley is an excellent college basketball analyst and I think he hit the nail right on the head. The East is better than the West, and as a result LSU is the favorite for the overall SEC title. I believe the top four in the East would all finish in the top two of the West, which is going to make the final five weeks of the conference season very interesting.

That begins Tuesday night when the Gators travel to Oxford to take on Ole Miss. The Rebels gave LSU a tough game Saturday and Florida traditionally has not played all that well in Tad Smith Coliseum. A true SEC contender would overcome that history and post the win.

Keep those emails coming!

Don't forget to email me your questions and comments, but please do not include attachments! My email address is: vettel@gatorcountry.com .

I look forward to you joining me on the radio, Sunday nights from 6:00-to-8:00 on Gainesville's WSKY-FM 97.3 (877/975-9825 toll free)

Have a great week.

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