Start to SEC season very difficult for Dawgs

ATHENS – Somebody played a nasty trick on Georgia's basketball team.

The Bulldogs spent all preseason answering questions centered around the premise that they could look forward to being competitive in a Southeastern Conference that was going to struggle in 2006. It seemed like sound thinking at the time. The league lost the likes of Lawrence Roberts, Brandon Bass, Kennedy Winston, Kelenna Azubuike, Matt Walsh, David Lee and Anthony Roberson.

The widespread talent drain was supposed to mean that a young team like the Bulldogs could compete better than they did last year, when they finished 2-14 in the league. So far, no good.

Georgia opened its conference schedule Saturday with a 90-72 loss to Florida, which moved to No. 2 in the country this week. Today, the 10-4 Bulldogs play 10-1 Tennessee, which whipped then-No. 2 Texas in Austin, Texas, earlier this season and is on a roll under first-year coach Bruce Pearl.

"It's the same every year," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "People want to seem to pick us to be down, but it never really seems like we are. We lost some great players last year, but I think year-after-year you are going to have great players in this league. I'm not surprised in the least."

The Bulldogs' first two opponents aren't the only SEC teams with some bite. The league's non-conference winning percentage is 76.5, which is better than last year and the fourth-best mark since 1991. The conference is ranked the nation's fourth-strongest in the most recent list and is one of three conferences to have at least five teams in the top 40 of the RPI.

The SEC would be even better if Kentucky weren't struggling and Alabama hadn't lost its best player, Chuck Davis, to a season-ending knee injury. Those teams were the preseason picks to win their divisions.

"I never had any doubt that the league would continue to be very, very strong," Georgia's Dennis Felton said. "I said the league would be a little unpredictable, and it's playing out just that way, but I knew it would be very strong because we have so much talent in the conference and such good coaching. I never bought into the idea that it would be a down year."

Outsiders thought the league would struggle because they didn't know how good last year's departed star's backups were, Felton said.

"Coaches notice better than media because coaches know the players," he said. "A guy like (Florida's Joakim) Noah. We all knew Noah was a tremendous player last year, he just didn't get to play as much as he plays this year."

This may actually be a rebuilding year for the SEC, South Carolina coach Dave Odom said, but rebuilding is easier in the South than it is most places.

"There is no league that can refurbish its rosters as quickly as this league, and I think the coaches have done that once again," Odom said. "The Southeast is as talent laden as there is in the country. Coaches can go out and get (good) players rather quickly so it does not surprise me that our league is strong this year."

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