SCOTT: The teams to beat on the SEC hardwood

When Kentucky coach Tubby Smith spoke at a preseason tip-off luncheon last fall, he told the audience that the Wildcats would be the team to beat in the SEC this season.

When the Lexington Herald-Leader reminded him of those comments last week, Smith was quick to amend his comments.

 

"I think every team is the team to beat in the SEC," Smith said. "I'm sure every coach would say that or they probably shouldn't be playing in the SEC, to put that in perspective."

 

In reality, there really isn't one team to beat in the SEC this season. And if there was, that team would be Florida. That's a status the Gators have earned after winning the national championship last April and then returning all five starters.

 

Even then, the Gators are human. They proved that last season by finishing 10-6 in the SEC, and they've shown it once again this season by losing to Kansas and Florida State in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Illnesses limited junior forward Corey Brewer and junior post Joakim Noah, while junior center Al Horford missed two games with a high ankle sprain and saw limited time in other games.

 

"I think the first thing is once you move into January, everybody's starting from scratch," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "The slate's been wiped clean. Everyone's kind of starting over.

 

"Everything that took place in November and December was hopefully to get you prepared for what you're about to see the next 9-10 weeks in the SEC," said Donovan.

 

That said, here's a rundown (in no particular order) of the teams to beat in the SEC this season:

 

 

Kentucky:  Kentucky caught a lot of heat last season by finishing 22-13 and 9-7 in the SEC, and it carries losses to UCLA, Memphis and North Carolina into the conference season, but Kentucky is still Kentucky.

 

"No disrespect to Billy," first-year Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "They're still the standard-bearer in the Southeastern Conference. To have the opportunity to open with them at home to start off SEC play is something that has our guys excited."

 

Yet, in a conference with No. 3 Florida, No. 8 Alabama, No. 14 LSU and No. 19 Tennessee, Kentucky is unranked and 13-3 with no victories over currently ranked teams.

 

"I know this: Because of expectations in Big Blue Nation, at times, they don't appreciate what they've got," Kennedy said. "I think Coach Smith is a great coach. I think he has really good players. And I think they do the things that they need to do to be successful. How good this team is going to be in relative terms to the past is still yet to be determined."

 

 

 

Florida: Brewer and Noah are back, Horford is getting better, and Florida is the king of the mountain until someone proves otherwise. Ohio State found out the hard way in an 86-60 loss to the Gators on Dec. 23, and Georgia saw it up close and personal in a 67-51 loss to Florida on Saturday.

 

"We're all certainly aware of Kentucky's dominance over the years," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Now, Billy has just taken Florida to a whole new place. We're all staring up at Florida at this point."

 

Still, the Gators have a lot to prove, even at 14-2. Their scheduled is ranked 192nd by collegeRPI.com, and they've spent a lot of time in the non-conference season loading up on too many Stetsons, Prairie View A&Ms and North Floridas.

 

"We've had some good tests," Donovan said. "We've had a chance to go on the road. Kansas in Las Vegas was essentially a road game, and FSU was a road game. I think it's been good for us. We've seen that there is room for improvement in our team."

 

 

 

Tennessee: While Florida took a relatively easy path to its SEC schedule, Tennessee traveled a rocky road in November and December with losses to Butler and North Carolina in the NIT Season Tip-Off and impressive victories against Memphis, Oklahoma State and Texas. The Vols are also scheduled to play at Ohio State on Jan. 13.

 

"You try to set the non-conference schedule up to prepare you for conference play," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said, "and to try to get the things exposed that you need exposed early on before you get exposed in January."

 

Then again, as Pearl admitted, the schedule "was probably too ambitious for such a young basketball team."

 

On the plus side, the Vols are 16th in the RPI and 26th in strength of schedule rating.

 

Now all they have to do is ratchet their game up a few more notches for the SEC season.

 

"The purpose and the way it was set up, we're trying to get our basketball program to be a national program," Pearl said. "And one of the ways you have to do it is you have to schedule that way. And as far as what I was trying to do with it? Just survive it."

 

 

 

Alabama:  Alabama entered the season ranked in the national top 10 by some season preview polls. But first-team preseason All-American point guard Ronald Steele has been slowed by knee and ankle injuries, and center Jermareo Davidson has been beset by personal tragedy, including the death of his girlfriend in a car accident and the death of his brother from a gunshot wound.

 

"I don't think we've played nearly as well as we can yet," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "That's the good news for us. We've won some games, but we can get a lot better."

 

Players such as Alonzo Gee, Richard Hendrix and Mykal Riley have done their part to keep the Crimson Tide from falling apart. However, less than a week after beating Oklahoma 70-55, Alabama was obviously less than its best on Saturday in an 88-61 loss at Arkansas in the SEC opener for both teams.

 

"It's all disturbing," Gottfried said. "We weren't very good. We can go through about 12-15 parts of the game and we were pretty crappy at all of them."

 

 

 

LSU: Sure, the Tigers miss Tyrus Thomas, but who wouldn't? Yet, despite Thomas' decision to enter the 2006 NBA Draft following his freshman season, the Tigers are still 11-3 after an impressive 66-49 victory over No. 18 UConn on Saturday.

 

The Tigers will lost their SEC opener on Tuesday at Alabama 71-61

 

"We beat a good team coached by a great coach," LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell said after the Tigers beat UConn last weekend. "I think we're prepared to start playing in the SEC."

 

For all Thomas brought to the team, the player the Tigers truly miss is guard Darrel Mitchell, who brought a steady leadership to the team before completing his eligibility.

 

Tack Minor has the talent to be an outstanding point guard, but his inconsistency and lack of self-discipline has often forced coach John Brady to go with wing Garrett Temple and backup Ben Voogd at the point.

 

That may have changed in the UConn game. Brady isn't about to turn the reins of this team over to the unpredictable Minor, but Minor did provide a driving force in the win over the Huskies.

 

That said, this is still Glen Davis' team. The Tigers have other weapons in Dameon Mason, Tasmin Mitchell and Temple, but this team will go as far as Davis can take it this season. The ride, however, would be a lot smoother if Minor could help with the steering, but the Tigers showed a lot of poise and purpose with the way they handled a large crowd, national television attention and UConn.

 

"LSU's been front and center on ESPN all day long," Brady said. "To cap that off with a lopsided win was great. Hopefully, all our fans saw something they like, and they should expect the same effort in SEC play. I would rather Alabama gone into Fayetteville (Ark.) and won. So they'll be ready to play. Our team will be ready to play, too. I don't think there will be any reason why we won't play well."

 

 

 

Arkansas: As late as last week, the Razorbacks would not have made this list. That changed Saturday when the Hogs ripped through Alabama for a 20-2 lead on their way to Arkansas' largest margin of victory ever over a top-10 team and the second-largest victory over an SEC team in Stan Heath's five seasons.

 

"The defense was outstanding," Heath said. "We got the game going up and down the court, which was good for us and fed off our defense. Twenty-five assists and seven turnovers is outstanding. Their starting five is as good as you are going to find in college basketball."

 

The Razorbacks never let Steele take control of the game and held Davidson and Hendrix, who had been averaging a combined 30 points, to a total of 12 points.

 

"I don't think we've faced athletes like that who played so hard," Steele said.

 

Still, it's only one win. And as any experienced SEC coach will tell you, there's a lot of basketball left to be played in the conference season and a lot of chapters still to be written. Remember, Florida lost three consecutive SEC games at one point late in the conference season last season and beat South Carolina by two to win the SEC Tournament.

 

 

As for the rest of the SEC:  South Carolina should have a chance at a third consecutive NIT title, for what it's worth, while Georgia and Ole Miss have improved and should be more competitive in a tough conference. Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are a bit tough to read at this point but could cause some problems along the way, further proof of the SEC's depth. Auburn is, well ... Auburn.

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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