True or not, there's often a fine line between the two worlds and several SEC teams are dancing dangerously on that line just two weeks into the conference schedule.
At a point in the season when SEC teams need to be cognizant of their own record and RPI, as well as that of the conference as a whole, some SEC teams are doing their part to elevate their status and others are falling alarmingly short.
Ideally, six or seven SEC teams would step up and emerge as serious NCAA contenders sometime this month, and the rest of the teams would play their roles by falling quietly to the bottom of the standings.
So far, only Florida, LSU and Auburn seem to be playing their parts while the other 10 SEC teams are still figuring out where they stand.
"We've got a guy who probably could be national coach of the year at this point in (Florida coach) Billy Donovan because nobody expected what they're doing, and his team is ranked No. 2 in the country," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We've got a lot of teams that have done well. We've had some near misses ... It'll be a blood bath in the league. Our game (57-52 win at Kentucky) was very physical, and that's how it's going to be: a physical tough grind and nine weeks of the best. ... If you don't bring your best, you're going to lose."
As far as SEC coaches are concerned, the conference is exceeding the low national expectations that accompanied this season.
"I never had any doubt that the league would continue to be strong," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "I said that the league would be a little unpredictable, but I knew it would be strong because we have a lot of talent and good coaching. I never bought into that it would be a down year."
For all their positive spin, the coaches tell only half of the story. The truth is, for every pleasant surprise there's an equally disturbing negative.
That's particularly true when you consider Ole Miss and Kentucky, the two most glaring examples of a chaotic conference.
No team is more surprising than Ole Miss, with a 3-0 SEC record that includes road victories at Alabama and South Carolina and Saturday's 75-65 home win over Mississippi State, the Rebels' first win in nine games against the Bulldogs.
"That's huge," Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes said. "One thing about this league is that it's so tough when you get off to a bad start."
Barnes entered his eighth season at Ole Miss with his backside firmly planted on the hot seat after three consecutive losing seasons. A 10-3 non-conference record inflated with several wins over questionable opponents didn't inspire a lot of realistic optimism. That changed when Ole Miss won its SEC opener at Alabama.
"If we lost that first game at Alabama, our kids would be questioning themselves," Barnes said. "We accomplished that. To come back and play an experienced team like South Carolina and win, it helps with our confidence."
Now the Rebels are off to their best start since 2001-02, when they earned their most recent NCAA tournament berth. As surprising as all this is, it's no accident.
The Rebels are getting strong inside play from Dwayne Curtis, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound sophomore transfer from Auburn who sat out last season. In the win over Mississippi State Curtis produced 17 points and eight rebounds just one day after returning to Oxford following a visit home to Illinois, where Curtis' 22-year-old brother, Jarrod, is in a coma after being involved in a car accident on Wednesday. Curtis traveled to Illinois Thursday to be with his family and then returned in time for a Friday afternoon practice.
"My level of respect for him just took a whole different level, to make that trip and then drive back and then practice and then play today and then fight in a rival game," Barnes said.
One year after playing 6-7 Tommy Eddie in the post, the Rebels now turn to Curtis and 6-8 sophomore forward Jeremy Parnell. At the point, junior Todd Abernathy is developing into a solid floor leader. At forward, senior Londrick Nolen has responded to a two-game suspension in December by showing signs of new maturity.
"I think from the day he got back, I've seen improvement," Barnes said. "He's starting to gain confidence. I think he's taken the responsibility a little more and is back to being a leader."
Add guards Bam Doyne and Clarence Sanders and a host of role players, and
"Ole Miss is a better basketball team because they have better players," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "They have greater depth, are quicker in faster in all areas. They haven't changed in terms of their style of play. They are just doing it better."
In a wide-open West Division where injuries have sidelined two key players – LSU's Tack Minor and Alabama's Chuck Davis – Ole Miss suddenly looks like a contender. Just don't tell that to the Rebels.
"It's still early," Doyne said. "If we go 8-0, then, I'll be ready to talk about it. We still have a lot of games left to play, but it's great to be 3-0."
And then there's Kentucky. That's 10-6, 0-2 in the SEC Kentucky. That's unranked Kentucky. That's Kentucky with three consecutive losses, including an ugly one-sided road loss against a Kansas team that lost to Kansas State at home on Saturday. That's Kentucky with two consecutive home losses, to Vanderbilt on Wednesday and Alabama on Saturday.
Yeah, that Kentucky. As if "Glory Road" wasn't enough, Adolph Rupp must be rolling over his grave.
The Wildcats must have thought their problems were over when sophomore center Randolph Morris returned from a 14-game suspension for his relationship with an agent prior to the 2005 NBA draft. While Morris has been productive offensively in his return, with 29 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in two games, his defense is lacking and the Wildcats aren't doing many things as a team.
"We don't really practice hard enough," senior walk-on Ravi Moss told the Cincinnati Post last week. "I think the biggest problem is we don't take a mature approach to practice.
"We don't come out focused every day and work hard like we need to and it shows during the games. We're just immature. We're not serious minded enough."
Embattled Kentucky coach Tubby Smith couldn't argue with Moss's assessment.
"In a two-hour session, you have to have some serious-mindedness," Smith said. "We haven't had that in all of our practices. Ravi is one of those guys who is serious minded. It comes down to maturity, leadership, being able to get everyone in line."
Those problems were once again in evidence on Saturday in a 68-64 loss to Alabama, giving the Wildcats a three-game losing streak for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
"It's a gut-wrenching thing and it will continue to snowball if we don't get it under control," Smith said.
OK, Vanderbilt wins at Kentucky to go 2-0 in the SEC, and Arkansas loses at home to LSU to fall to 0-2. Then Stallings warns his team, the media, the fans – anyone who will listen – about the dangers of getting overconfident.
"As I told them right after the game last night, we won our first two conference games last year, then we proceeded to lose four of six," Stallings said the day after the Kentucky game. "Our response to that game is more important than the game itself."
Does anyone listen? Apparently not, because a desperate Arkansas team beat Vanderbilt 78-66 on Saturday.
"I don't know if this was a must win, but it was a real important win," Heath said. "I know my prayers were answered."
Now the SEC prays that one of those teams will get hot and make a run instead of finishing with a bunch of 8-8 teams. Will it happen? It's hard to imagine many SEC fans betting on the Razorbacks or Commodores to make it happen.
At this last week Alabama appeared to be a sure bet to sink to the bottom of the SEC standings following non-conference losses to Memphis, Oklahoma, North Carolina State, Temple and Notre Dame, a home loss to Ole Miss in its SEC opener and the loss of star forward Chuck Davis to a season-ending knee injury.
Instead of falling apart, the Tide rose up to win consecutive games at Auburn and Kentucky and served notice that it is not yet ready to give up on the season.
"Everybody counted us out and said we probably wouldn't have a chance now," said 6-10 center Jermareo Davidson, who scored 18 of his career-high 28 points in the second half against Kentucky. "We wanted to prove them wrong."
A hungry, wounded team with a lot to prove can often be the most dangerous team – and a team capable of tossing the SEC standings into total bedlam. Could Alabama be that team?
"We never really doubted ourselves," said sophomore point guard Ronald Steele, who played the entire 40 minutes for the fifth consecutive game. "We're starting to play as a team. We beat a really good team at home."
A really good team? Kentucky? That's debatable at this point, but this point is not: Alabama is once again a concern for SEC teams.
"This gives us more confidence than ever," freshman guard Brandon Hollinger said. "If we can beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, where hardly no one can beat them, we can beat almost anybody we play against."
While Alabama appears to be pulling together and rallying around a cause, Mississippi State appears to be imploding. The most obvious cause is the behavior of sophomore Walter Sharpe, who has already been suspended for 10 games this season because of academic and discipline issues. Sharpe also missed 11 of 24 games in 2004-05, mostly due to suspensions.
Last week the Bulldogs held a team meeting to address their problems with Sharpe, a talented-but-enigmatic player who appears to lack any real respect for his teammates when it comes to being accountable and dependable.
"We pretty much got tired of it," junior guard Dietric Slater told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Because (Sharpe) can play, and he's good. But he can't keep doing this all the time."
What the Bulldogs didn't say may be more important than what they did say to the media. According to the Clarion-Ledger, some Mississippi State players declined to be interviewed about him. After Sharpe played 17 minutes against Florida last week and finished with six points and seven rebounds, Stansbury appeared unwilling to discuss Sharpe's performance or status.
For now, Sharpe's availability remains game to game, depending on his own choices and the wavering patience of his teammates.
"You either act right, or we just tell Coach he has to let you go," Slater said. "He promised us he was going to act right, be on time, and he has been — to practice, meetings."
SCOTT: Conference Hoops Update
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