The challenge starts at the top, with the coach and player of the year honors.
Among the choices for SEC player of the year, you could make a valid argument for several players, including LSU center Glen Davis, LSU guard Darrel Mitchell, Tennessee guard Chris Lofton, Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer, Florida guard Taurean Green and Alabama guard Ronald Steele.
Davis entered last weekend leading the SEC in scoring and rebounding with 18.5 point and 10.0 rebounds per game, even though opponents focus their defensive plans on him.
"It's been a consistent performance," LSU coach John Brady said. "Everyone knows that you have to stop Glen Davis and there haven't been too many that have been able to do that."
Mitchell moved from shooting guard to point guard when LSU lost Tack \ and entered the weekend averaging 4.47 assists per game (fifth in the SEC) while still managing to score 17.3 points per game (third in the SEC) making him the only SEC player to rank in the conference's top six in scoring and assists. He also ranks second in the SEC in minutes played with 36.57 minutes per game.
"He's been hampered by that a little bit," Brady said of Mitchell's nagging ankle problem. "But there's no question that we wouldn't be where we're at now without Darrell Mitchell."
Lofton, a native of Kentucky who continues to haunt the Wildcats, leads the SEC in 3-pointers attempted (214), made (103) and percentage (.457). He entered the weekend ranked fourth in the SEC with 17.4 points per game.
Brewer has emerged among the SEC's key players, ranking second with 18.4 points per game and fourth with 34.71 minutes per game, but even more important he's become Arkansas' floor leader and primary ballhandler during its late-season resurgence.
Green leads a balanced Florida team with 13.8 points per game and leads the SEC with 5.14 assists per game. He's also second in the SEC free-throw percentage at .882, sixth in 3-point percentage at .400 and sixth in 3-pointers made with 2.34 per game.
Steele may be a sophomore, but he's become Alabama floor leader and key player since the loss of senior forward Chuck Davis in early January, averaging 14.1 points and 4.04 assists per game. He also leads the SEC in free-throw percentage at .892. Most important, he leads the SEC in minutes played, with 38.33 minutes per game for a team that can't afford to have him on the bench.
Yet, for all he's done to turn an uncertain Alabama team into a likely NCAA Tournament team, Steele isn't even one of 16 finalists for the Cousy Award, presented to the nation's top point guard.
If SEC coaches were giving out the award, things would be different.
"If his team is in first place or on national TV all the time, or if he's playing with a Duke uniform on, they're talking about this guy being a lottery pick," Heath said.
Steele's stats or style might not be as sexy as some of his fellow point guards. All he does is play the whole game, play hard, play smart, keep his team pointed in the right direction and take over in the later stages of games when the Crimson Tide needs the ball in his hands.
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "Ron Steele is definitely in the category of great point guards at Alabama."
With all due respect to Davis, Mitchell, Lofton, Brewer and Green, no SEC player has done more to elevate his team to a higher level this season.
"He means everything," Gottfried said. "We would really struggle without him."
For the same reasons Steele is a good choice for SEC player of the year, Gottfried would also make a good choice for SEC coach of the year. But the same could also be said for Tennessee's Bruce Pearl, Florida's Billy Donovan, Arkansas' Heath and LSU's Brady.
Gottfried has taken a team hit hard by injuries, defections recruiting mistakes and a difficult non-conference season and pointed them toward the program's fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
Donovan took a team depleted by the loss of three players who chose the NBA draft last spring and led a more balanced Florida team to a 17-0 start and a No. 2 ranking. However, the Gators have been inconsistent in the SEC, beating LSU and Kentucky but losing to South Carolina twice.
Pearl took a moribund Tennessee program and breathed new life into the Vols with high-pressure defense and fullcourt offense. In the process, Pearl's first Tennessee team has generated more excitement than the program has experienced since the Ray Mears era. Like Florida, though, some late-season losses have dimmed his star a bit.
Unlike Donovan and Peal, Heath's fourth Arkansas team has been at its best down the stretch, winning three consecutive games against Florida, Alabama and Tennessee just when it seemed like Heath wouldn't survive the season. Instead of losing his job, Heath has done one of the SEC's better jobs in recent weeks and has the Razorbacks pointed toward the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
And then there's Brady. To be honest, it would be all too easy to pick Davis and Brady for their respective awards and appease the readers of Tiger Rag. It would also be easy for LSU outsiders to assume such a pick would be the product of just another subjective so-called "journalist" favoring the home team. It's case of danged if you, danged if you don't.
We could also be nice to Brady simply because he recently said, "I think writers are more inclined to know what's going on than coaches. Coaches can get a little jaded. I think some (coaches) vote for some guys (for All-Conference) so this guy won't make it. I've never done that."
More seriously, Brady deserves consideration for the success LSU has experienced with Minor on the sideline, Mitchell out of his natural position and inside presence Tyrus Thomas sidelined by a recent high ankle sprain. The Tigers have started three freshmen and one sophomore most of the season, and LSU is, after all, the SEC regular-season champion.
Put it all together and Brady is the SEC coach of the year, just ahead of Gottfried in second place.
For the rest of the picks, how about a tie between LSU's Thomas and Alabama forward Richard Hendrix for freshman of the year. Our all-conference team would be comprised of LSU's Davis and Mitchell, Arkansas' Brewer, Alabama's Steele, Tennessee's Lofton, Florida's Joakim Noah and Green and Vanderbilt's Shan Foster. That's not five, it's eight. But if the coaches get to list eight players, so do we ... cuz John Brady said so.
OK, so Brady isn't right all the time. He also said the SEC could get more than six teams in the NCAA Tournament. "We may get seven, with Vanderbilt," Brady said. "Early in the year, people said the SEC was a three-team league."
It's not a three-team league anymore. It's six. Without Vanderbilt. Especially after the Commodores blew a 16-point second-half lead in a 68-59 loss to Tennessee on Saturday.
In what may be the most accurate quote of the year, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said, "If we had gotten what we needed to done, we would have had a great year."
The most inconsistent SEC team of the year? You could pick Kentucky, Florida or Tennessee, but they're still going to the SEC Tournament. Instead, the vote goes to a South Carolina team that beat Florida twice and then got swept by Georgia. The Gamecocks may have earned a trip to the NIT on Saturday with a win at Auburn, but they still short of their potential this season.
"I think they're athletic. They are an athletic team. Sometimes the consistency is not there," Brady said after LSU won 64-61 at South Carolina last week. "It's difficult to coach when you can't get consistent play from your players."
While South Carolina and Vanderbilt will likely play in the NIT, don't expect much more from the SEC due to the new NIT format.
With the NCAA taking control of the NIT the standards have changed, with a 6-page document laying out the rules for selection, seeding and hosting. Among those rules: a .500 record is no longer required; regular-season conference champs receive automatic bids to the NIT if they don't reach the NCAA Tournament; the higher-seeded team always hosts, unless circumstances force a change; and the team's will be selected by their current prowess, not their tradition, reputation, media interest or geography.
That makes less room for SEC teams that fall short of the SEC Tournament with an average record.
"The objective of the NIT is to restore its heritage as a meaningful postseason tournament," NIT president Greg Shaheen told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
Another change in the NIT means teams will no longer be concerned about finances. Expenses will now be paid by the NCAA, including per diems for the players, so teams will no longer have to pay to play.
When Tennessee fired Buzz Peterson after three lackluster seasons and Pearl turned the Vols into an NCAA Tournament team in one season, it only turned the heat up a little higher under struggling SEC coaches.
Last week that heat finally got too hot for Ole Miss, where athletic director Pete Boone made the decision to dismiss coach Rod Barnes after eight seasons as the Rebels' head coach.
It wasn't long before a list of names started circulating, including UAB's Mike Anderson, Indiana's Mike Davis, Charlotte's Bobby Lutz, Cincinnati's Andy Kennedy, Florida Atlantic's Matt Doherty, VCU's Jeff Capel and former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, but Boone said he wasn't ready to immediately hire a replacement.
"We don't feel like we have to just rush in and start making phone calls," Boone said. "We'll be diligent and develop a process. We'll probably know a lot more next week. It's a good program in a good conference. It's just a matter of finding the right person that fits."
Boone is convinced the success of women's basketball coach Carol Ross proves that Ole Miss is still capable of producing winning basketball teams. Ross inherited a team that won one SEC game the season before she took over and his first Ole Miss team reached the NCAA Tournament.
Still, Ole Miss remains the only SEC school to never win an outright SEC men's basketball regular-season championship.
"It can be done if the situation is right," Boone said. "That's kind of what we're looking for."
During Sunday's Kentucky-Florida game, Kentucky honored Brad Davis, the associate commissioner of the SEC who lost a battle with cancer last week. Davis, a former Sports Information Director at Kentucky, was diagnosed in late December with intestinal cancer. He was undergoing chemotherapy when he passed away at 49.
To honor Davis, the SEC will place an empty chair with a black ribbon at the scorer's table during this week's SEC Tournament, Media members around the SEC will remember Davis as a kind, considerate and committed professional who went out of his way to help us with our work.
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