Is the SEC down?

Because the Kentucky Wildcats are down, a lot of folks think SEC basketball is down. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl tends to disagree.

The Big Blue is staggering along at 6-7 and already has accumulated four home-floor losses. Florida, minus all five starters from last year's NCAA championship team, is 13-2 but has lost to the two quality opponents it has faced, Ohio State and Florida State.

While this year's Wildcats and Gators may not be as good as their recent predecessors, Vanderbilt (15-0) and Ole Miss (13-0) appear far better than they have been in recent years. And Tennessee (12-1) is cruising along with a No. 8 national ranking.

"There are five teams in the country that are undefeated, and two of them live in the SEC," Pearl said this week. "It's just that they're not Kentucky and Florida. If Kentucky and Florida were undefeated and Tennessee was ranked wherever we're ranked, the SEC would be (considered) up. But, because it's Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (the perception is different)."

Vanderbilt may be the surprise team of college basketball. The Commodores are smoking hot at present.

"Offensively, Vanderbilt might be the best team in the country," Pearl said. "Offensively, they are terrific. They have an Olympian in (6-10 Australian A.J.) Ogilvy. They have an Olympian in (Shan) Foster. Foster did make the Pan-Am team, the one Chris Lofton didn't make."

Even with Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Tennessee off to torrid starts, the Vol coach notes that the SEC outlook could change dramatically once league play starts this week.

"What's going to make this league so interesting is that I don't see anybody being terrifically dominant," Pearl said. "That's not a criticism of Ole Miss, Vanderbilt or Tennessee – which right now would be the top three, as far as records are concerned. I just think it's wide open and I think there's a lot of parity in the league."

Even with Kentucky off to a terrible start, Pearl says it would be unwise to write off the Big Blue at this point.

"Kentucky is dangerous because they've got no losses in the SEC," the Vol coach said. "What a breath of fresh air the start of conference (play) is going to be for them."

In spite of its youth and inexperience, Florida could be a factor in the SEC East race, as well.

"Florida is a young team, a deep team, a talented team," Pearl said. "I think Florida and Kentucky are both still very dangerous. Those teams both have expectations for winning in the SEC."

Like Kentucky, LSU has really struggled out of the starting gate. The Tigers are 7-7, including 1-4 on the road and 0-2 on neutral sites. South Carolina (8-6) isn't exactly rolling,either.

"LSU has played a real tough schedule," Pearl noted. "South Carolina has played a real tough schedule. I think the league has tried to really step its schedule up, maybe taking a page out of our formula. But you've got to win enough of those games ..."

Although Tennessee returned eight of its top nine players from 2006-07, the Vols are relying heavily on three newcomers – Arizona transfer J.P. Prince, Iowa transfer Tyler Smith and 6-foot-10 freshman Brian Williams. Pearl believes newcomers are having similar impact throughout the SEC.

"Look at how important recruiting is," the Vol coach noted. "Where would we be without J.P., Tyler and Brian? Where would Vanderbilt be without Ogilvy? Where would Ole Miss be without (Chris) Warren? Florida's playing a bunch of young guys. You've got to do it (add talent) every year."

With Kentucky short on talent and Florida short on experience, the SEC does not appear to be quite as powerful as last year, even with Vandy, Ole Miss and Tennessee off to sizzling starts. Pearl grudgingly conceded the point.

"It might be a little down," he said, "but I think you've got to give Vanderbilt and Ole Miss credit for their wins. We've had the one loss to Texas and represented well so far."


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