"I guess it sells newspapers and magazines," said Smith, while watching a game between Houston Hoops and Metro Hawks of New York at the Nike Peach Jam Friday morning. "But if these guys really knew what they are talking about, then explain Florida wins the national championship, LSU gets to the Final Four and South Carolina wins the NIT and those weren't the only good teams in our league."
When the preseason magazines came out last fall, Kentucky was predicted to win the SEC and Florida was predicted either second or third in the SEC East. Tennessee, which ended up winning the SEC East, was predicted fifth in the six-team division. Florida had to beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena on the final Sunday of the regular season to earn the first round bye in the SEC Tournament as the number two team from the division.
In defense of the prognoticators, Kentucky did begin last season with center Randolph Morris suspended for a few games because he had tried to bolt to the NBA in the spring of 2005 and the Wildcats were missing their best two players in Chuck Hayes (graduation) and Kelenna Azubuike (left early for the NBA draft). Florida was without David Lee (graduation), a first round NBA draft pick, and top two scorers Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, who left early for the NBA but were both undrafted.
"They picked us number one and considering we lost Chuck Hayes and Azubuike and we didn't know what was going to happen with Randolph Morris that was a joke," said Smith, "but there were a lot of great players in the league. Florida won the national championship and they lost six games. If they don't beat us at Rupp there at the end of the regular season they go to the SEC Tournament 9-7 and we get second at 10-6. That should tell you how balanced the league was and how good it was. Maybe the people who guess what's going to happen didn't see it, but the league really was good."
Smith doesn't think the prognosticators ever give the league enough respect. Since 1994, the SEC has produced four NCAA champions (Arkansas 1994, Kentucky 1996, Kentucky 1998 and Florida 2006) compared to three for the ACC (Duke 2001, Maryland 2002 and North Carolina 2005) and three for the Big East (Connecticut 1999, Syracuse 2003, Connecticut 2004).
"I think the SEC has always been and always will be as competitive a league top to bottom as there is in the country," he said. "Consistently we've got good teams and good players and the coaching is excellent. I don't think our coaches were given enough credit for bringing in outstanding players. You look at our league over the years. We always lose great players to the NBA and we always bring in great players to replace them."
While Smith is justly proud of the success the SEC has had in basketball, he's equally proud of the success the league has had in all sports. He thinks that the perception that it's a football conference is wrong.
""Everybody thinks it's a football conference and football has been very successful," he said, "but the SEC isn't just football. It's great on football Saturdays to see our stadiums all across the league packed and outside the stadium you see all the colors flying and all the tailgating, but the SEC is an all-sports league. It's the best league in the country all across the board in all sports, men and women. There isn't another conference in the country that has the success that the SEC has across the board in all sports, whether it's football or basketball or baseball or track and field, swimming, golf … our teams compete for national championships in every single sport."
* * *
For Florida commitment Nick Calathes, it was just another day at the office Friday morning. Calathes and Chandler Parsons scored the first 16 points of the game and from there, it was a cruise control win for Nike Team Florida as they hammered out a 79-57 win over Alabama Lasers.
Calathes finished the game with 24 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, hitting 9-12 shots overall and 1-2 on three-pointers. Calathes was 12-17 from the field (5-8 on three-pointers) Thursday night when he scaled The Family for 36 points. He was 9-15 (5-11 on three-pointers) Thursday morning in the loss to Mean Streets Express.
Parsons, whose stock continues to rise dramatically, had 23 points and 11 rebounds Friday morning. He had games of 34, 27, 27, 21 and 23 points in the tournament. He's expected to get at least two or three more big-time offers this week but the teams to beat are still Arizona State and LSU.
Team Florida finished the tournament with a 3-2 record and didn't advance to the tournament playoffs. Mean Streets Express and Team Final advanced to the eight-team playoffs from the pool that Team Florida played in.
* * *
A name to watch from Team Florida is Lance Kearse, a 6-7 forward from Fort Myers. Kearse has been overshadowed all summer by the presence of 7-1 Solomon Alibi and 6-11 Joseph Kautuka. With Alibi back in his native Nigeria to play for the national 19-and-under team and Kautuka sidelined the rest of the summer with a torn meniscus, Kearse has had to play center for Team Florida but he's proven to be a warrior. He had 20 points and 15 rebounds against Alabama Lasers while holding 7-0 Bawa Maniru to a six-point, three-rebound game. He impressed the scouts on three occasions by staying with a tipped ball until he controlled the ball and put it in. On all three occasions, he had to jump three consecutive times before he got a controlling tip. Scouts were impressed with how quickly he gets off the floor.
Kearse has grown two inches since January and looks like he might grow another inch or two in the next year. He's likely to receive some offers from Missouri Valley Conference schools like Creighton in the next week or two. If he has two good tournaments in Orlando (AAU Super Showcase and AAU Nationals) in the next three weeks, he could get some big time offers.
And yes, if the name sounds familiar there's a good reason. Combine the name (Kearse) with the smile (identical) and you think you're seeing a clone of ex-Gator football All-American Jevon Kearse.
"He's my cousin," said Lance Kearse.
* * *
Patrick Patterson continues to impress although the numbers aren't big. He only had six points and four rebounds Friday morning in an 81-51 Boo Williams win over Charlotte Royals but he didn't play for long stretches in the game. All 11 players on the Boo Williams roster scored and everybody played nearly equal minutes. More and more this looks like it could come down to a Florida-Kentucky battle for Patterson's commitment.
Jai Lucas is getting some looks from Florida Coach Billy Donovan. Lucas is a bit on the small side (listed 5-10 but more like 5-9 … and that might be generous) but he is an extraordinary ball handler that can't be pressed, a good distributor and enough of a threat with his jumper that defenders can't lay off him. There is a lot of talk that he will be a package deal to Kentucky along with Patterson but according to his dad, there are a couple of other schools that could become real players.
"He loves LSU and John Brady," said John Lucas, the former All-American at Maryland who is also a former NBA coach. "He loves the Florida Gators. He always has. He really loves Billy Donovan. It might be hard for him to say no if Florida offered him."
Asked if a Jai Lucas commitment to Florida would sway Patterson to also choose the Gators, John Lucas said, "It might. He [Patterson] loves to play with Nick Calathes and Jai. Calathes could lead the league in scoring if he played the two with Jai at the point."
Devin Ebanks, the 6-8 New Yorker who plays for Metro Hawks, is a familiar face for the Florida coaching staff. The talented but skinny forward/shooting guard who plays high school ball for The Patterson School in North Carolina, attended the Billy Donovan camp back in June. Ebanks is rated the number 11 player in the nation in the recruiting class of 2008. He's got a lot of Corey Brewer-like qualities on the court in that he's a slasher capable of getting to the rack, has a streaky jump shot and is a tremendous defender in the open court.
Another name to remember off the same Metro Hawks team is Jamine Peterson of Brooklyn's Boys and Girls High School. He will be spending next year at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Peterson is a 6-6 wing with a nice touch from beyond the arc and a certain fearlessness when he goes inside. If he gets his academic house in order at Notre Dame Prep, he'll be somebody's big time recruit for the class of 2007.