SEC: It’s still Kentucky

Feb 15, 2005 10:26 AM

The SEC has a bunch of teams that play great defense and are loaded with talent, depth and athleticism. Kentucky won the national championship in 1998 and Florida knocked on the door in 2000, getting to the title game against Michigan State.

Here’s a look at some of college basketball’s best teams in the SEC that hope to knock on the door again.

KENTUCKY: Coach Tubby Smith likes tough defense. The Wildcats allow 39 percent shooting by opponents and 59 points per game — both tops in the SEC. The Wildcats have a physical front line led by 6-foot-7 senior Chuck Hayes, 6-5 Kelenna Azubuike and 6-11, 260-lb freshman Randolph Morris.

The strong frontcourt play allows 6-3 junior playmaker Patrick Sparks to strut his stuff in the backcourt. Kentucky recently finished an impressive three-game SEC road trip 3-0, ripping Vanderbilt and Tennessee, and winning at Arkansas by a point. This week Kentucky plays at South Carolina (Tuesday) then a home showdown with Mississippi State (Saturday).

ALABAMA: It’s clear that rolling to the Elite 8 last season was no fluke. Bama is rolling again, averaging 77 points per game (second in the SEC) behind 6-7 junior Kennedy Winston (17 ppg) and senior guard Ernest Shelton (17 ppg). Alabama shoots 48 percent from the field, second in the SEC. Even their road play has been strong, starting 7-3 SU/5-4 ATS. Their defense has been strong, as well. Eight of the Tide’s first nine SEC games went "under" the total.

Alabama can also bang the boards with 6-7 junior Chuck Davis (14 ppg, 7 rpg) and 6-10 sophomore Jermareo Davidson, who leads the Tide in rebounding with eight per game. Alabama is No. 2 in the SEC in rebounding. The Tide offense cooks at home, but notice they started 8-1 "under" the total on the road.

FLORIDA: Coach Bill Donovan likes the up-tempo game and he has another strong group. The Gators have a talented Big Three of 6-8 senior David Lee (12 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-6 junior Matt Walsh and sparkplug junior guard Anthony Roberson (18 ppg). Florida can shoot the three-pointer (hitting 39 percent, second in the SEC), with Walsh and Roberson outstanding from long range.

The Gators play good defense when their minds are into it. This was evident in an 85-54 rout of Alabama, holding the Tide to just shot 39 percent accuracy. In that game, Florida’s 6-8 freshman Al Horford grabbed 18 rebounds in 26 minutes! Florida shoots 50 percent from the floor and scores 81 points per game, both tops in the SEC. The Gators play five of their final eight games on the road, but do get the regular season finale against Kentucky at home.

S. CAROLINA: So how does South Carolina survive in this rugged conference? DEE-FENSE! The Gamecocks are No. 3 in the SEC in points allowed (62 ppg) and hold opponents to 41 percent shooting. The frontcourt is tough with 6-7 Carlos Powell and 6-7 sophomore Renaldo Balkman, while 6-6 junior guard Tarence Kinsey handles the backcourt.

The Gamecocks have been doing their damage in front of the home fans, however. Notice that South Carolina allows 58 ppg at home, but 71 on the road. That’s why they started 11-1 at home and 1-6 on the road! Another weakness is that the Gamecocks shoot just 63 percent from free throw line — second worst in the SEC.

MISS ST: Thank you, Baylor! Mississippi State has gotten a huge lift the last two years from Baylor transfer senior Lawrence Roberts. The 6-9 forward averages 18 points and 11 rebounds. Teamed with 7-foot senior Marcus Campbell, the Bulldogs have a terrific frontcourt that leads the SEC in rebounding and rebounding margin (+9 edge per contest).

State is also strong defensively, allowing 40 percent shooting (second best in the SEC). However, the recent loss of guard Winsome Frazier (13 ppg) was a big blow. This puts more pressure on sophomore guard and assists leader Gary Ervin. The Bulldogs were very strong on the road a year ago, but started 3-6 SU/ATS this season.

ARKANSAS: The young Razorbacks have made some waves this season and it starts with defense. Arkansas allows 61 ppg, No. 2 in the SEC, and holds opponents to 40.3 percent — third best in the conference. This is a young team with 6-7 sophomore Ronnie Brewer (16 ppg) and 6-5 sophomore Olu Famutimi up front.

Junior guard Eric Ferguson runs the backcourt, though like many young teams the Hogs play far better at home than on the road. Arkansas averages 79 ppg at home, but just 62 away. The Razorbacks have struggled since SEC play began, starting 2-4 SU and 1-5 ATS on the road. Arkansas is perhaps a year away.