SEC hoops writers tab UT No. 1

With eight of the top nine players back from last year's NCAA Sweet 16 team, it's no surprise that the Tennessee Vols were the overwhelming pick to win the SEC basketball title in balloting earlier today at SEC Media Days in Birmingham.

Bruce Pearl's troops garnered 28 of a possible 30 first-place votes, with Mississippi State getting the other two. Moreover, the Vols were a unanimous choice to win the Eastern Division, being tabbed No. 1 on all 30 ballots for 180 points. Kentucky (142 points) was a distant second. The rest of the East shapes up like this: 3-Florida, 4-Vanderbilt, 5-Georgia, 6-South Carolina.

Arkansas was the pick in the SEC West with 168 total points and 18 first-place votes. Mississippi State was second with 148 points and 10 first-place votes. After them, the projection is: 3-Alabama, 4-Auburn, 5-LSU, 6-Ole Miss.

Tennessee guard Chris Lofton was a near-unanimous choice as SEC Player of the Year with 27 votes. Mississippi State's Jamont Gordon picked up two votes and Vol forward Tyler Smith got the other one. The rest of the preseason first-team All-SEC squad consists of Alabama forward Richard Hendrix, Arkansas guard Patrick Beverly and Vanderbilt forward Shan Foster.

Tyler Smith, a transfer from Iowa, was a second-team pick, along with Arkansas center Steven Hill, LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell, Ole Miss center Dwayne Curtis and Mississippi State center Charles Rhodes.

With many observers projecting the Vols as a serious contender for this season's Final Four, some UT fans are concerned that Tennessee might be overconfident. Based on the way the 2006-07 season ended, Pearl says there is absolutely no basis for overconfidence.

"We had a 17-point lead at halftime of the last game we played to go to the Elite Eight, and we lost it," Pearl said recently. "It's not difficult to keep these guys humble and hungry."

The reference, of course, was to the Tennessee-Ohio State game in the NCAA Tournament's Round of 16 last March. Playing their best basketball of the season, the Vols raced to a 49-32 halftime lead against the top-ranked Buckeyes. Tennessee's shooting percentage dropped from 55.9 in the first half to 39.3 in the second half, however, and OSU's rose from 38.1 to 58.3 during the same span.

As a result, the Buckeyes were able to rally for an 85-84 victory en route to a berth in the national title game. In spite of squandering a 17-point lead, Pearl prefers to view the second-half turnaround as a credit to OSU, rather than an indictment of the Vols.

"Our last half of basketball, we didn't blow it because Ohio State had a lot to do with it," the coach said. "They were a very good team."

Although the 2006-07 Vols went 24-11 and matched the deepest NCAA Tournament advance in program history, Pearl says the loss to Ohio State left Tennessee's players and coaches with a feeling of dissatisfaction. He's counting on that dissatisfaction to keep the Vols focused and motivated in the months to come.

"We certainly appreciate what we did last year with a young basketball team that wasn't predicted to do as well," Pearl said. "At the same time, that left a really bad taste in our mouths. I think for the most part the guys have really trained well leading up to this point of the year."

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