ATHENS, Ga. - Dick Vitale says the SEC is the nation's toughest basketball
The conference RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) provides statistical support for Vitale's claim on ESPN this week. Guess what team is leading the Southeastern Conference's RPI charge?
Unranked in the two major polls, Georgia (13-2 overall, 2-0 in the SEC) is No. 6 in the latest RPI, thanks to its 88-84 win at No. 8 Kentucky Wednesday night. That is the highest RPI of any SEC team.
Including an early season win over then-No. 14 Georgetown, the Bulldogs are 2-0 against Top 25 teams this year.
The reason Georgia coach Jim Harrick also believes the SEC is the nation's toughest league is the fact there are no easy games in the conference. "There are no nights off, no easy games,'' Harrick says.
Consider tonight's visit from Tennessee. At 6-7 overall, Tennessee is the only SEC team with a losing record. The Vols (1-1 in the SEC) have lost four of their last five games, yet the record may be deceiving. Tennessee has lost five games by a total of 12 points.
Tennessee should provide a huge challenge for Georgia, even though the Bulldogs will have the benefit of a sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum. Picked to finish much higher in the SEC East than Georgia, Tennessee boasts one of the top players in the nation in senior forward Vincent Yarbrough, the SEC's leading scorer with 19.5 points per game.
Yarbrough is only part of a high-scoring front line that is averaging almost 50 points per game. The Bulldogs survived against Kentucky even after forward Chris Daniels landed in early foul trouble, but a lack of depth inside is the weakness that could hurt Georgia against such teams as Tennessee and Florida.
Yarbrough scored 26 points in Tennessee's 104-100 overtime loss to No. 3 Florida Wednesday night, while forwards Ron Slay and Marcus Haislip each added 20 points.
"They're monsters,'' Harrick said.
"In both league games, the Tennessee front court has scored 66 points. That is a tremendous stat to try to coach your team against and figure out what you are going to do to try to defend them. They have two future NBA players in Slay and Yarbrough. They are a good team.''
Despite lacking a center and boasting only one player bigger than 6-foot-7, Georgia is winning with the outside shooting of Ezra Williams and Jarvis Hayes and the solid floor leadership of point guard Rashad Wright and Daniels.
"I guess I hear some people say they are surprised (that Georgia is 13-2), but I'm not,'' said Tennessee first-year coach Buzz Peterson, who as the Appalachian State head coach was a leading candidate for the Georgia job three years ago when Harrick was hired.
Peterson said he knew twins Jarvis and Jonas Hayes would make a big impact, and he says no one should be surprised by Harrick having good teams.
"Coach Harrick does a tremendous job,'' Peterson said. "His team is playing with a lot of confidence. I enjoy watching them on tape because they have a lot of young talent and they play extremely hard. They are well coached and have some great young talent. We are going to have our hands full.''
Since Georgia was welcomed back to the Athens airport by its pep band and a group of fans still celebrating the win over Kentucky at close to midnight Wednesday night, the challenge has been to move past the big win and focus on Tennessee.
"I think we're mature enough to leave that behind and go on and play well against Tennessee,'' said Jarvis Hayes. "If you can win road games in this conference and take care of your home games, you'll go to the NCAA tournament. Winning at Kentucky, that puts us on the right track.''
The RPI agrees. If Georgia can beat Tennessee, the polls should join in next week.