SCOTT: SEC struggling on the hardwood

For all the doubts and questions surrounding the SEC's position on the national basketball landscape at this point, at least one coach would like to think that things are better than they appear.

"Can you tell me who does not make the tournament or who hasn't put themselves in position at this point?" first-year Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "I don't see anybody.

 

"Anybody that wants to talk to me about how down the SEC is isn't really studying what we've done in our conference, particularly in the East. It's going to be challenging. I don't know who's going to falter."

 

For all of Pearl's optimism, consider this: if the NCAA Tournament selection committee met today, who would it pick from the SEC? Florida? Definitely. Tennessee? Certainly. Kentucky? In, even after Saturday's ugly loss at Kansas. Who else? Arkansas? Probably. Vanderbilt? Maybe. LSU? We'll see.

 

That's three sure spots and three possibilities. That means the SEC has three or four teams that need to play there way in over the next three months, and as Pearl pointed out, that's not going to be easy.

 

The best example of a team with a tough road to travel is Alabama. The Crimson Tide approached its SEC schedule with 7-5 record and ranked 110th in the latest RPI.

 

The Tide is also winless against three top-25 teams, having lost to No. 4 Memphis, No. 12 Oklahoma and No. 13 North Carolina State. Alabama also 1-3 against teams rated in the top 65 in the latest RPI and 0-2 on the road. Its other losses came against Temple and Notre Dame.

 

"I don't want to play a soft schedule, and the kids don't, either," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "I want to play a national schedule that gets national exposure. It's going to make our team better.

 

"At the same time, we needed to win some of those games. You have to get some quality wins, and so far, we haven't done that."

 

Yet, in a story published last Saturday in the Birmingham News, before Alabama played Ole Miss that day, Gottfried remained adamant about his team's chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

 

"We feel like we have a real good chance to be in the NCAA Tournament," Gottfried said. "If we take care of business."

 

How does he figure? Gottfried says it's a matter of finishing the SEC schedule with a winning record, then winning a game or two in the SEC Tournament and then hoping the NCAA selection committee will continue to favor strength of schedule or inflated records against weaker schedules.

 

Alabama has benefited from tough schedules before but the Tide must dig its way out of a deep hole that got a lot deeper on Saturday when it lost 71-61 to Ole Miss at home.

 

In the long run, the Tide suffered an even bigger loss with when All-SEC senior forward Chuck Davis suffered a knee injury that will likely end his season – and his college career.

 

"My heart goes out to Chuck Davis," Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes said. "It's something you definitely don't want to see happen to a young man that carried himself with so much character for our league and his university. He always showed himself to be one of the most classiest guys in the league."

 

Davis has been Alabama's veteran leader as well as its leading scorer. Now the Tide faces the difficult challenge of trying to replace him and restore its NCAA Tournament credibility at the same time.

 

"On one hand, I'm not going to sit here and create excuses," Gottfried said. "On the other hand, Chuck's been the heart and soul for this particular team. Playing without him is hard."

     

 

 

OK, so we all just seem to "assume" Kentucky is on its way to another NCAA Tournament, but where would the tournament selection committee seed a team with a Kentucky team with a 10-4 record, a No. 19 ranking in the polls, a No. 27 RPI, wins over Louisville and West Virginia and losses to North Carolina and Indiana?

 

Now, throw in Saturday's ugly 73-46 loss at Kansas, one of the ugliest losses in recent Kentucky history.

 

Coach Tubby Smith's explanation? "We're just not very good," Smith said.

 

How did the team that beat Louisville 73-61 on Dec. 17 accomplish both a one-sided loss to an unranked Kansas team and its lowest-scoring game since a 46-45 loss to Michigan State on Dec. 16, 2000?

 

"You saw what I saw," said Smith, whose team produced only five assists. "Nobody was screening. No one was passing. Dribble, dribble, dribble. They pushed us out of our offense. You can't win at all like that. You have no chance of competing if you don't pass the ball."

 

Kansas also set a physical tone early when center C.J. Giles put a brick wall screen that slammed Kentucky star Rajon Rondo to the court.

 

"I think we were just manhandled," Smith said. "By that I mean they were physically stronger than we were. We talked of being more aggressive, more physical this year. That was our whole challenge to our team."

 

The Jayhawks also focused their defense on stopping Rondo and held him to nine points and three assists, his second-lowest total of the season in both categories.

 

"We did a great job of cutting off the head," Kansas guard Russell Robinson said. "He's the guy who gets them going. When the head's cut off, the body kind of runs wildly."

 

That's not all. Kansas also became only the third Kentucky opponent in the past 80 games to shoot at least 50 percent from the floor.

 

"It disappoints me that we did not defend very well," Smith said. "Not scoring is one thing. When you don't defend at the other end ... So many easy baskets. Layups. Dunks. It wasn't just Kansas today. It's been happening all season long. So it's a whole smorgasbord of things."

 

Even worse, the Wildcats didn't act like they wanted to be there, especially in the second half.

 

"I was surprised Kentucky didn't get a run going," said Kansas guard Brandon Rush said. "Maybe they gave up a little."

 

           

 

Now that Florida is 14-0 and ranked fifth following a 90-72 victory at Georgia in its SEC opener, look for the Gators to improve to 17-0 with home victories over Mississippi State, Auburn and Savannah State before things get serious with a Jan. 21 road game at Tennessee.

 

In the meantime, the Gators continue to improve as a team investing in chemistry and balance.

 

"That's the thing about this team," sophomore post Joakim Noah said. "Everybody scores pretty equally, and everybody gets after it defensively. We have so many weapons on this team. That makes it hard on the opponent. Who are you going to stop?"

 

So far the Gators have done a good handling their surprising success. They're not next challenge will be dealing with the No. 3 national ranking that is almost certain to come when the next polls are released this week.

 

"That's great," Noah said, "but at the same time we have to be humble because we know anything can happen."

 

 

 

It's always football season in the SEC and even as we turn the page on another season it's already time to consider the possibilities for another season. That includes taking a look at the underclassmen leaving early for the NFL draft.

 

No SEC team has benefited more from juniors returning for their senior season in recent years than Auburn, which had four seniors taken in the first round of last year's draft. Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill will likely join them in the first round this time around.

 

That's why it's so surprising to see Auburn defensive end Stanley McClover pass up his senior season for the 2006 NFL Draft. McClover spent most of the 2005 season limping around on a high ankle sprain and really only had one big game, when he recorded 3½ sacks against Alabama, and is far from being a sure thing in the first two rounds at this point.

 

By the end of this week the SEC could lose as many as eight underclassmen to the draft, which is actually a relatively small number and a good sign for the SEC in 2006.

 

Florida receiver Chad Jackson has declared for the draft and cornerback Dee Webb is expected to follow him to the draft.          

 

At Georgia, Leonard Pope has hired an agent after receiving information that he will be a likely second-round pick, so he's gone. Meanwhile, defensive end Quentin Moses is still weighing his options.

At South Carolina, rover Ko Simpson and cornerback Johnathan Joseph are still pondering their decisions, while at Tennessee, offensive lineman Rob Smith said he will enter the draft while another offensive lineman, Arron Sears, said he is still seriously considering joining him in the draft. At least while defensive tackle Justin Harrell said he will definitely return to the Vols for his senior season.


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