SCOTT: SEC West on the rise?

When Arkansas broke through with a 63-57 victory at Alabama the previous Saturday, the win gave the SEC West a 1-18 road record in conference games through the weekend.

After Auburn won 80-75 at South Carolina and Alabama won 73-70 at LSU on Wednesday, the SEC West entered this past weekend with a 3-19 record in SEC road games. Up to that point, however, Auburn's victory at South Carolina stood as the only SEC West road win against an SEC East team.

 

That begs the question: Is the SEC East really that much better than the SEC West?

On both of last week's SEC coaches' teleconferences, coaches on both sides were careful about where they stepped in that messy question. SEC West coaches downplayed the significance of the stat, and SEC East coaches weren't about to rip their SEC West counterparts.

 

"I don't think there's any question that the West has some outstanding teams and the East has some outstanding teams," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators are ranked No. 1 in the nation. "I think this is the best conference in the country from top to bottom, and to sit there and draw a line down the middle and say which side is better at this point would be a mistake.

 

"There's no one team in the West that could not beat (any team) from the East, and I think the same thing could be said of the East. I think that's just the way the league has been this year – with incredible parity and competitiveness."

 

Wouldn't you know it, but Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings won the SEC coaches vocabulary contest last week when asked about the situation.

 

"I don't know if it's an anomaly," Stallings said. "I don't know what it is."

 

While most of us in the SEC media probably think an anomaly is something you see on a wildlife documentary, it does appear the SEC East might have an edge over the West, but only because of the team at the top.

 

"Obviously, Florida is the class of the league, so that would give the East an advantage right there," Stallings said. "If you put Florida in the West, those numbers might look entirely different."

 

Florida does tip the balance in the SEC toward the East, but look at the rest of the teams: Kentucky seems to be improving slowly but surely; Vanderbilt and Georgia are considerably better this season; Tennessee is talented but young and still waiting for guard Chris Lofton to get healthy; and South Carolina is much better than its conference record of 2-5 entering the weekend.

 

Now look at the West: Alabama and LSU aren't living up to preseason expectations at this point, but both teams are capable of making a run in February and earning a place in the NCAA Tournament, while the other four teams are all better than they were a year ago.

 

"Obviously, Florida is at another level. I think Billy's got a very special group," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I think with everyone else, you can finish second in this league or eighth in this league in the span of one weekend. I think there's good people on both sides, and things are very, very tight right now."

 

So tight that the road is likely the factor that will continue to separate teams in the month of February.

 

"Road games are the separators," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "Our road record last year was what enabled us to win the East last year. I think the teams that are having success this year on the road, like Florida, are going to do very well this year. Playing well at home is also very important. The top three teams in the East are all very good."

 

South Carolina coach Dave Odom added, "I've got a lot of respect for the Western teams. Maybe they've gone through a period of two weeks where they weren't playing good, and maybe they'll flip it around.

 

"Who knows? Over the next two weeks maybe they'll play very well and the Eastern teams will struggle."

     

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Those who focus on the East vs. West debate might be missing out on two more interesting and important factors.

 

First, the race for the top seed and the division title in the West is going to be exciting for the fans.

 

Second, it will be interesting to see how the parity and quality depth from top to bottom affects the SEC West when the NCAA Tournament selection committee sends out its invitations.

 

While winning the West in and of itself is nice, it's not as important as winning the SEC West in football and playing in the SEC championship game. With every team qualifying for the SEC Tournament in Atlanta, almost every team has a chance to make a run and reach the championship game.

 

Still, there's a lot to be said for winning the West or at least finishing second because those two teams receive a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament.

 

If the first month of the SEC season is any indication, the race for those two spots in the West is likely to come down to the last weekend of the regular season.

 

"It's the wacky West," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "It's wide open right now. I guess technically we are in first place, but 3-4 is not anything you want to brag about in your conference."

 

Sub-par conference records might be the West's biggest problem right now, at least in terms of national perception and the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

 

Auburn entered this past weekend in first place in the SEC West at just 4-4, with Alabama and Arkansas at 3-4, Ole Miss at 3-5 and LSU and Mississippi State at 2-5. By the end of Saturday, Alabama was in first place at 4-4, followed by Auburn and Ole Miss at 4-5, Arkansas and Mississippi State at 3-5 and LSU at 2-6.

 

Despite its suspect record, LSU remains a dangerous team in the SEC and is capable of getting hot this month, but it's not going to be easy for LSU and its SEC West cohorts to finish the regular season at .500 or better.

 

"The good news is for whatever reason in the West, we've all just fumbled and bumbled around a little bit, and nobody has really separated themselves from the pack," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "For us, that's a positive. We can turn it around and a lot of great things can happen."

 

Still, it remains to be seen how that will affect the SEC's total number of invitations to the NCAA Tournament.

 

In the NCAA's official RPI, all 12 SEC teams are listed in the nation's top 101, with six in the top 40, including Kentucky seventh, Florida 19th, Tennessee 21st, Arkansas 23rd, Alabama 34th and Georgia 38th.

 

On Collegerpi.com, the SEC has seven teams included in the projected bracket, with spots for Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Vanderbilt from the East and Arkansas and Alabama from the West.

 

CBSSportsline.com has seven SEC teams in its projections, with LSU listed on the bubble.

 

ESPN.com has six SEC teams in its bracket, with Alabama listed among the last four teams out.

 

Meanwhile, even though his team remains a clear No. 1 seed, Donovan continues to use his national status to push for the rest of the SEC, saying the conference is "by far" the best in the nation, and "it clearly does not get enough respect."

 

After his Gators were nearly upset by Mississippi State recently, Donovan pointed out just how improved the so-called "bottom" SEC teams have become this season. The quality of play and the intensity of the competition in the SEC this season back him up.

 

"These are teams that have really closed the gap from the teams that are supposed to be ranked and upper echelon," Donovan said.

 

Now the question remains: Will the SEC be able to prove that to the Selection Committee?

 

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Did you see the video of a shirtless Bruce Pearl, covered in orange body paint and dashing through the stands at a Lady Vols game recently? Several SEC coaches did, and his actions provoked a variety of responses.

 

"Those things fit him," (first name)Odom(of school) said. "I have nothing but respect for Bruce."

 

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said, "It was wonderful to see," before adding, "not to see his body painted, but to see the excitement he has for Tennessee basketball."

 

Is Smith next? Will we see him shirtless, painted blue, at a Kentucky women's game?

 

"I wouldn't count on it," Kentucky women's coach Mickie DeMoss said with a laugh. "I wouldn't even ask him to do it. That was a little unusual to say the least."

 

Pearl's actions brought some criticism, but not from Tennessee women's coach Pat Summit.

 

"It's interesting that anyone could criticize what Bruce did because I thought it was great," Summitt said. "It shows his passion not only for his own program but for our program, and we work really well together. We got great exposure, too. I told him I need to think of something, but I'm not as creative as Bruce is.

 

"I don't know how many coaches have the courage that Bruce has. He is all about generating excitement with the students and showing his support for our team. He's not worried about the critics, and I don't know how many coaches would be that comfortable to paint their bodies and sit in the student section. I thought it was awesome."

 

The final word on this subject comes from Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who didn't seem very happy when someone asked him whether or not he had seen Pearl's run through the Tennessee student section.

 

"We do have cable down in Mississippi," Kennedy said. "I did have the opportunity to see that. I applaud his courage."

 

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A sign of the times: Some imaginative Alabama students created a sign for Arkansas 7-footer Steven Hill, reading "Playing for Arkansas, so easy even a caveman can do it" alongside a photo of Hill.

 

Hill didn't seem to mind.

 

"They spent some money printing that sign," Hill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Hopefully that shows I've worked on my game."

 

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If you're a Southern white male, or even if you're not, you might be interested in the recent statements of ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd. If you've ever been hurt or had someone you love killed or injured by a tornado, you'll definitely want to know what Cowherd said.

 

In the wake of Alabama coach Nick Saban's controversial use of a slang name for Cajuns, Cowherd first suggested that all Southern white males are bigots. That, of course, would be a bigoted, prejudicial generalization of an entire group of people, but apparently it's acceptable for Cowherd to be bigoted and prejudicial and it's fine for him to stereotype every single Southern white male. He also used several other bigoted generalizations about Southerners, especially regarding certain professions, level of education and alcohol abuse.

 

"All you Southern white guys hate the stereotype that deep down you're all kind of closet bigots," Cowherd said. "You are rationalizing. Everybody."

 

Makes you wonder if Cowherd's actually met every single Southern white male?

 

Wait, it got a whole lot worse. Cowherd also called Southerners "tornado bait."

 

This just happened to come in the same 24-hour period in which deadly tornados ripped through the South, particularly central Florida. It's difficult to find more painfully offensive words. Imagine if he had called a particular group of people "hurricane bait,"  "earthquake bait" or "tsunami bait."

 

So far, Cowherd has refused to apologize to the storm victims. Just in case you wanted to express your own opinion, Cowherd's e-mail is: theherd@espnradio.com.

 

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


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