SCOTT: SEC UPDATE

No SEC team had a bigger week than Florida, and it's possible no SEC team needed it more.

Sure, the Auburns, Mississippi States and Georgias of the world could always use two big wins in one week, but let's be realistic. Those teams aren't going anymore, while the SEC needs Florida to go as far as it can.

The Gators opened the season with 17 consecutive victories and climbed to No. 2 in the national polls before losing at Tennessee and South Carolina in the same week.

With sophomore forward Corey Brewer less than 100 percent because of an ankle injury and the Gators no longer playing the cohesive basketball that led to their outstanding start, they suddenly looked vulnerable heading into the final five weeks of the SEC season.

Since then the Gators have won three consecutive games and they've done it in impressive. After beating Vanderbilt 81-58 on Jan. 28, the Gators won 69-58 at Ole Miss last week. Then, with a record crowd of 12,606 at the O'Connell Center and a national television audience, they used an 18-1 run over a 5-minute span and turned a close second-half game into a 95-80 blowout of Kentucky.

"We really got rattled," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "They really had another gear; they turned it up."

They didn't turn it up with their offense. Instead, the Gators did it with defense and tough inside play.

"They key was our defense in the second half," Taurean Green said. "We were able to force them into bad shots and get baskets in transition."

Florida also played with an unselfishness reminiscent of its 17-game winning streak, finishing with 20 assists.

"We just worked off each other," said Green, who scored a career-high 29 points. "We got back to the style that we like to play."

It also helped to have Brewer back in the starting lineup and playing his best game since suffering his injury against Tennessee, with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists.

"I was able to play my game," Brewer said. "My ankle wasn't bothering me when I woke up. I wasn't stiff, wasn't sore. I felt back to being myself out there."

If the Gators keep playing like this, they could re-emerge as the SEC team most likely to make a significant run in the NCAA Tournament. The key, however, is for Florida to keep its focus on the next game and not get caught up in rankings, tournaments, seeds and all the other things it can't control.

"It's just one game," Green said. "We're 1-0 against Kentucky, that's the way we look at it. Last season was last season. We know we have to play them at least one more time, so we have to be ready when we see them again."

Kentucky is a better team on paper, but Alabama beat the Wildcats in Lexington. LSU is a better team, too, but just try telling that to the Crimson Tide after a 67-62 home win over the No. 24 Tigers last Saturday.

While you're it, just try telling Alabama its season is over and its postseason are filed somewhere between slim and none. Go ahead. Try it. You'll just be wasting your time, because the Crimson Tide keeps refusing to fall apart and go away.

Alabama opened the season with non-conference losses to Memphis, Notre Dame, Temple, N.C. State and Oklahoma. Then the Crimson Tide opened its SEC season with a home loss to Ole Miss and lost star forward Chuck Davis to a season-ending knee injury in that game.

Alabama responded by winning its next three games, including a 68-64 win at Kentucky.

After losing two of their next three games at LSU and Georgia and seeing their roster shrink down to seven available scholarship players when sophomore guard Justin Jonus quit the team over playing time, the Tide found itself on the brink of disaster once again.

Then the Tide beat LSU on Saturday, breathing new life into an SEC West Division race that was starting to look like it had been bought, paid for and branded by the Tigers.

At 5-3 in the SEC, Alabama still has a lot of work to do to catch LSU (7-1), but the Tide made it look possible on Saturday.

"LSU is the team that we're all going to be chasing, it's no question," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "We're going to put ourselves back in the discussion of whether we're a postseason team a little bit."

At 12-8 overall and ranked No. 52 by collegerpi.com entering the weekend, the Tide faces a steep, uphill climb to reach the NCAA Tournament.

But with the way point guard Ronald Steele played against LSU down the stretch, Alabama might be the scariest team in the SEC. Not the best – not by a long shot. Florida, LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky are all better, but the Tide just might be that angry, wounded team that nobody wants to play in February.

Is there a more confusing team in the SEC than Arkansas? Is there a team with ups and downs than the Razorbacks? The same team that lost to Mississippi State 69-67 but beat Ole Miss 71-58, then had Kentucky down by 15 points before losing 78-76 and then whipped South Carolina 73-59 on Saturday.

"You can see that the league race is heating up now," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "I think this next week and a half there's going to be some separation. There's going to be some upsets. There's going to be some teams that gain a lot of momentum and we want to be one of those teams."

Which one will Arkansas be? The one that puts it all together and makes a run, or the one that trips over its own inconsistency? Even loyal Razorback fans want to know.

As Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Wally Hall has written several times in the past, Arkansas fans want coach Stan Heath to do well. They want to like him. They think he's a nice guy, a good guy. But they also want to win and he's not doing that often enough to satisfy them at this stage.

Four years into Heath's tenure at Arkansas, those fans thought the Razorbacks would be further along than they are. Instead, the Hogs seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

"We're right there," Heath said. "I'm not sure anybody has played as consistent as we've played in terms of sometimes you'll have like a 15-point loss or a 10-point loss. Our losses are 12 points in four games, an average of three points. So I'm very much pleased with the way we've played.

"Unfortunately, the bottom line in this business is winning those games, and that's what we've got to get to."

At 15-6, 4-4 in the SEC and ranked No. 59 by collegerpi.com, Arkansas appears to be running out of time to save it season – and Heath's job. This week the Razorbacks have got to do it on the road at LSU. On Feb. 15, they play at Ole Miss. On Feb. 18 and 21, it's Florida and Alabama at home.

"There is no feel sorry for yourself," Heath said. "There is no, ‘Man, the breaks aren't going my way.' That's out the door. We've got to create our own breaks, and we've got to get to the point where we're greedy with leads."

Ole Miss no longer bears much of a resemblance to the team that opened the SEC schedule with a surprising 3-0 record. Since then, the Rebels have lost five consecutive games and practically disappeared from the SEC West race.

The Rebels (13-8, 3-5 SEC) don't have to look very far for answers. After averaging 12 turnovers per game in their three SEC wins they averaged 17.5 turnovers in losses to Georgia, Arkansas, LSU and Florida.

"I think the big thing is the snowball effect," guard Todd Abernethy told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "We get one or two and it just keeps going. It's not like people are just playing great defense. We're really just doing it to ourselves."

It got to the point where last week Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes decided to stop repeating himself.

"I'm not even telling them anymore," Barnes said. "It's not going to be in the scouting report. We're going to talk about being aggressive and being strong with the basketball, but we're not talking about being careless. We're trying to get it out of their heads."

That was easier said than done, thanks to a schedule that brought cruel irony directly into the path of the backsliding Rebels. The one team they could not afford to play on Saturday was Tennessee – the same Tennessee team leading the SEC with 10.61 steals and 19.4 takeaways per game.

When Ole Miss played at Tennessee on Saturday, the combination was like gas and fire. The Vols applied the pressure and the Rebels imploded under the weight of 22 turnovers in an 86-72 loss.

"Bruce Pearl has done a great job of getting those guys to buy into what he is doing," Barnes said. "If we had responded with some intensity and aggressiveness early on, it would have been a much better basketball game. But they caused that. Their style is hard to prepare for. ...

"They are a team that creates turnovers. For teams to have 16 turnovers against this team is normal. We had 22, which is more than we needed, but if we had been around 16, I would not have been disappointed."

Reversing field to football ... LSU fans surely noticed Auburn's new defensive coordinator and wondered how and why Will Muschamp would leave the Miami Dolphins and the NFL to become the defensive coordinator at Auburn.

LSU fans know Muschamp as a 34-year-old rising star in the coaching ranks who worked at LSU from 2001 to January 2005, first as a linebacker coach in 2001 and then as the defensive coordinator from 2002-04.

The problem was, Muschamp never had full control of the LSU defense. The defense was designed, implemented and, essentially, run by former LSU Nick Saban. With the Dolphins, Muschamp was the assistant head coach in charge of defense, which meant, once again, he was working under Saban, rather than working with Saban.

So why go to Auburn and work for coach Tommy Tuberville? He made often life difficult for his past two defensive coordinators, Gene Chizik (who left for Texas in January 2005, where he won a national championship in his first year on the job) and David Gibbs, who returned to the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs after one year on the job.

The answer is threefold: Muschamp wants to be a college head coach someday and believes he will have a better chance by returning to a major college program; Muschamp is ready to work his way out from under Saban's immense shadow and run his own defense; Tuberville finally appears ready to get his hands off the defense after making the mistake of saying he was the one responsible for the defense following Chizik's departure. Thus, when Auburn struggled at times on defense in 2005, it was Tuberville who took most of the heat, not Gibbs.

Muschamp, a former Georgia safety and Auburn graduate assistant coach, inherits a defense that must replace some key leaders and players from the past two seasons. He must also work quickly to establish himself, because Auburn opens spring practice on Feb. 28.

"Auburn is a special place," Muschamp said. "Playing at Georgia and playing Auburn every year, you understand a little bit more about the place. They were a team that always played hard. In my time there, I understood a little bit what the Auburn family is about, what it's like to coach in the Iron Bowl and be a part of that great tradition. It's just a special place."

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