SEC Basketball Not So Strong

With some fanfare, the SEC announced the Big East-SEC Invitational this season. It was supposed to be the kind of showdown series between big-time conferences that fans enjoy seeing in non-conference play.

It turns out the SEC not only didn't handle the Big East too well, it can't even completely handle the Big South. (North Carolina - Asheville beat South Carolina 61-58 Saturday.) The non-conference season has been embarrassing for the majority of the league, with plenty of high profile losses. It's hard to imagine a league that's seen Florida claim back-to-back national championships and LSU reach the Final Four as well in 2006 is so disappointing this year.

Conference play in SEC basketball begins this week, and it's not a moment too soon. Now, at least half the teams have to win on any given night. Only three teams were able to put together some impressive victories outside the conference without some stunning defeats to go with them. Vanderbilt's unbeaten, and Tennessee has only a road loss against Texas on its ledger. Ole Miss has faced a paper thin schedule but has won all 13 of its games including a nice win against Clemson.

After that, it's anyone's guess who the SEC's other potential NCAA tournament teams will turn out to be. Here's a look at the other nine teams in the conference and the issues they face right now.

SEC EAST

Florida's 13-2 record looks solid, but the foundation is rather soft. The Gators have played a schedule largely comprised of nobodies as Billy Donovan has worked to refine his nine scholarship players into the best possible team. Having played some of their best basketball in their last two wins against decent Temple and High Point squads, the Gators may have found a groove. With their only losses coming to FSU and Ohio State, UF has avoided the humiliating moments so many other teams in the conference have suffered this season. Because of the weak schedule, nine wins is likely a minimum in conference for an NCAA trip.

Georgia has lost four games, but also three players. The most recent Bulldog to bail out is center Rashaad Singleton. Like the dismissed Mike Mercer and Takais Brown, he had been a starter. Without them, Georgia's down to ten scholarship players and missing considerable experience. Losses for Georgia include East Tennessee State and Tulane, while Wake Forest is the closest thing to a quality win.

South Carolina is in trouble. Aside from the UNC-Asheville loss, the Gamecocks had to rally late to squeeze past Charleston and UC-Irvine in Columbia. With an 8-6 mark heading into conference play and an opening stretch that sees them go to Vanderbilt, host Tennessee and then travel to Arkansas, things look rather bleak for Dave Odom's team. With fan pressure already high coming into the season, Odom appears to be on the hottest seat of anyone in the conference outside of the inferno in Lexington.

Kentucky is the only team in the conference with a losing record. The once proud Wildcats are 6-7, and these are the six teams Billy Gillispie's team has been able to handle: Central Arkansas, Liberty, Texas Southern, Stony Brook, Tennessee Tech and Florida International. Eleven of those 13 games were at home, meaning UK fans have seen the likes of Gardner-Webb, UAB and San Diego celebrate in Rupp Arena. Departed coach Tubby Smith still catches plenty of blame, but Gillispie has been shredded for his curious player rotations and strategy multiple times by fans and prominent media members. Think there will be any pressure on Gillispie to win the ESPN featured Saturday night game at the O'Connell Center against Florida on the 19th?

SEC WEST

Arkansas still is likely the class of the SEC West thanks to its abundance of experienced talent, but they've had their stumbles in year one under former Gator assistant John Pelphrey. The real puzzler was a home loss to Appalachian State, but double digit road losses to Providence and Oklahoma stung as well. Wins over Missouri and VCU are the best the Razorbacks have to offer so far.

Auburn has nine wins to just three losses, but the Tigers have major depth issues. They're down to just six scholarship players thanks to leading scorer and rebounder Korvotney Barber breaking his hand. That combined with the loss of Josh Dollard earlier in the season means Auburn has to use an extremely small lineup and is vulnerable to wearing down in SEC play. Auburn's best win is against 4-6 George Washington - they were thrashed by Tulane, West Virginia and Xavier.

Alabama felt like they were on track after an early season loss to Belmont, but a 26-point New Year's Day beatdown by Clemson ended that thinking quickly. The Crimson Tide has lost to every quality team they've faced and has very little to tout other than a neutral court victory against Iowa State. Without senior point guard Ronald Steele, who's taking an injury redshirt, Alabama hasn't run their offense too smoothly. Florida faces them in Tuscaloosa January 8 for both schools' SEC opener.

Mississippi State heads into conference play with their key senior forward Chris Rhodes missing time with an ankle injury. As a result, Rick Stansbury's guys have been using four guard lineups. The Bulldogs are 9-5 and have the rare matching set of losses to both Miamis (Florida and Ohio) as well as South Alabama. Like Arkansas, their most credible win is over Missouri.

Two years after their Final Four appearance, LSU enters conference play as a 7-7 basketball team. Injuries and eligibility questions have become a major issue for them, as the Tigers were down to eight players for their most recent game and will be for at least the next few games. John Brady gave his team a non-SEC schedule with a number of road tests, all of which they failed. Losses to Villanova and Arizona State were competitive while Texas A&M and Wichita State each beat the Tigers by at least twenty. A home win over 6-8 Oregon State is the highest quality victory LSU has this season.

The Heath Cline Show airs daily from 11-1 on Gainesville's Star 99.5


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