SCOTT: SEC Hoops on The Decline in 08

When Tulane left the SEC in 1966, it had more to do with football than any other sport, including basketball.

Too bad for the Green Wave. It would probably like a shot at the rest of the SEC after beating LSU, Auburn and Georgia so far this season.

(Note to LSU athletic director Skip Bertman: Just in case you'll be looking for a new basketball coach – and it looks like you might – think about Tulane head coach and former Maryland assistant Dave Dickerson. The Green Wave is getting better and Maryland hasn't been the same since he left).

Then again, beating LSU, Auburn and Georgia isn't exactly the equivalent of beating North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas, is it? If the non-conference season provides any indication, this won't be one of the SEC's better years in basketball.

"I think it's obvious that we're not as powerful as we've been the last couple of years," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "The last few years we've been dominant relative to the national level."

The SEC has held its own against the rest of the college basketball world in recent seasons, with Florida winning the two national championships the past two seasons and seven SEC programs combining to reach the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 20 times over the past 10 seasons.

This season, however, the SEC is 1-9 against nationally ranked teams. The only victory came when Ole Miss beat Clemson at the San Juan Shootout. Even Kentucky, the SEC's traditional national power since the beginning of time, completed its non-conference schedule with a 6-7 record that included no victories over a major conference and losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego.

"To a large extent, the SEC has ridden the success of Kentucky," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "In some years, we've been pulled along by Kentucky. To have (Kentucky) not be ranked in the top 10 does affect our league, there's no question about that. It is important for Kentucky to be good, just as it is for Florida and Arkansas. It's important all the marquee teams in the league do well."

Kentucky's losses aren't the only scars the SEC is wearing from the past two months. Alabama lost to Belmont; Georgia lost to East Tennessee State; Arkansas lost to Appalachian State; and South Carolina lost to North Carolina-Asheville. Meanwhile, Florida has played a soft schedule to protect a young team in transition after losing the nucleus of its national championship teams.

The SEC still ranks sixth in the RPI, thanks to some challenging schedules, but its trails the other five major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Big East).

Tennessee still looks like one of the nation's better teams, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss are off to encouraging starts, and Arkansas has the makings of a good team if its guards grow up. But the conference as a whole? If the NCAA Tournament selection committee met today, the SEC would probably be fortunate to get four teams in the tournament.

"I don't think we can dispute that assessment," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Our league didn't perform as well in the non-conference as we did in other years."

The good news is that it appears to be more of a transition season than a sign of things to come in the SEC. The conference seems to be filled with future stars to replace all the outstanding players who completed their careers last season.

"I don't think they're quite what they've been, but how could you expect them to be with all the people they lost?" Felton said. "Our league is probably reloading a little bit."

That's why some SEC coaches refuse to see this as a down time for the SEC.

"Not one bit. I don't buy it at all," said Alabama's Mark Gottfried, who is now in his ninth season as an SEC head coach. "Those people that say (the SEC is down) have never competed in this league. At the end of the season, come tournament time, we'll kind of hang our hat on either being a really good league or a league that was down, but I don't think at this point in the year you can start to figure that out. It's all judged on how you finish. I think our league is going to do fine, and I think we have a great league."

Instead of Kentucky or Florida, perhaps people should be focusing on Tennessee, which went 12-1 in November and December and still has non-conference games against Ohio State and Memphis on its schedule.

"I don't think Tennessee is getting enough credit," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I really believe (the Vols) have enough pieces and a style of play to make a long, long run in March."

As for the rest of the conference: "I think the league is still full of quality teams from top to bottom, and I think the rest of the season will bear that out," Kennedy said. "I think there are still a number of teams in our league that are still finding their way, but there's not an easy out in this league, and each night you better come ready to play or it could be a long evening."


The struggles of some teams are somewhat understandable. At least LSU, Auburn, Mississippi State and Kentucky can explain some of their struggles. LSU and Auburn are down to seven scholarship players because of injuries and academics, and Mississippi State has been without Charles Rhodes in recent games.

"Injuries have set a lot of teams back," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "But that's part of it. No one is going to cancel the games."

New Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie probably wishes he could have cancelled a game or two along the way, especially when injuries started taking a toll. Entering this past weekend, eight different players had missed games or significant practice times with a variety of injuries.

"I'm not an excuse maker, but the injuries have been devastating for us," Gillispie said. "But we've got plenty of players here who can play much better."

Of course, with Gillispie being the new guy on the block it's easy to question his demanding practices in light of the injuries and early losses. But those same practices helped forge winning programs at UTEP and Texas A&M, and Gillespie isn't about to back down.

"I'm not ever going to get into dialing down intensity," Gillispie said. "You can shorten the length of practices. That's what you normally do this time of year as you get into conference play."

It's easy to criticize Gillispie now and look for every possible fault. But one of the nation's best college basketball writers, Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, made a good point in a notes column last week when he pointed out the early struggles of some of the nation's most successful coaches: Mike Krzyzewski went 38-46 in his first three seasons at Duke; Billy Donovan had losing records (13-17 and 14-15) in his first two seasons at Florida; Lute Olson went 10-16 in his first season at Iowa and 11-17 in his first season at Arizona; Ben Howland went 16-36 in his first two seasons at Northern Arizona, 13-15 in his first season at Pitt, and 11-17 in his first season at UCLA.

And Gillispie himself went 6-24 in his first season at UTEP and 24-8 the next season. He went 21-10 in his first season at Texas A&M, but the Aggies got even better the next two seasons.

The Wildcats took a big step in the right direction last Saturday against Vanderbilt, handing the Commodores their first loss of the season and making a statement of their own with a 79-73 win.

"There's a lot of basketball left," Gillispie said. "Not one time have I heard anyone make an excuse for them, and not one time have I heard them make an excuse."

Kentucky blew a 16-point lead and appeared to be on the ropes several times before winning in double overtime.

"When you win a game like that it says a lot about the toughness of your team," Gillispie said. "They didn't give up and we wouldn't give up either. That's what made me most proud."


When Ole Miss played at Tennessee last week, the game was supposed to expose the Rebels as a fluke, despite their 13-0 record at the time. Instead, an 85-83 loss in Knoxville suggests that Ole Miss might be for real.

It was easy to dismiss the Rebels, who lost their perimeter nucleus of Clarence Sanders, Bam Doyne and steady point guard Todd Abernethy from a team that won 21 games last season and played in the NIT. That explains why many preseason polls picked the Rebels to finish last in the SEC West.

However, the Rebels returned a foundation built on forwards Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams and Jermey Parnell and added the next step by bringing in freshman point guard Chris Warren and shooting David Huertas, a sophomore transfer from Florida.

College basketball welcomed some fantastic freshmen this season, particularly Kansas State's Michael Beasley, USC's O.J. Mayo, and Memphis' Derrick Rose, but Warren's name is starting to be mentioned in the same sentence. Warren entered the week averaging 15.2 points and 5.7 assists per game and helped his cause – and his team – by scoring 24 points at Tennessee.

"Chris Warren is a great scoring point guard," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "What a talent."

It always helps to have big men like Curtis in the middle, but it's hard to remember the last time a team got very far in March without quality guards, especially at the point. It's still hard to see how far the Rebels can get this season. But with his mix of talent, ball handling skills and unusual maturity for his age, Warren gives them the potential to surprise a few folks down the stretch.

"Chris for our team may have had as big an impact on our program as any freshman in the country," Kennedy said. "We are sitting here at (16th) in the country and we certainly would not be anywhere close to that if Chris Warren hadn't had the start that he has."


Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. Reach him at

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