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SEC hoopsters look best as conference play starts

Jan 9, 2001 6:53 AM

We continue our look at the top teams in some of the top conferences with a preview of the SEC contenders. Historically, the league has had some of the best talent in the nation. It seems as deep as it is powerful, if non-conference records are any indication.

Heading into league play, every team in the SEC has a winning record. Two teams that spent time in the Top 25 this year, Kentucky and Georgia, have the worst records in the league. Both were one game under .500 in "pre-season," while every other team in the conference was at least five games over .500.

The top teams in the Eastern Division, Tennessee and Florida, have Final Four aspirations and talent. Tennessee has just one loss, a thrashing at the hands of Virginia, but they’ve played a tough schedule and have one of the deepest rosters in the country. The backcourt is better than solid, led by Tony Harris, and with Ron Slay, Isiah Victor and swingman Vincent Yarbrough. Their frontline has plenty of athleticism and tenaciousness. The Vols lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament after holding a seemingly insurmountable lead. Questions linger as to their mental toughness, but as a regular season team, Tennessee is a squad to be reckoned with.

Florida made it to the Final Four last season, although one of the youngest teams in the country. They’ve played outstanding basketball this season, losing only to Michigan State in a rematch of last year’s Final. Big man Udonis Haslem has led the way for the Gators, averaging over 17 points and seven rebounds per game, and shooting nearly 60% along the way. He leads the team in all three of those categories, with forward Brent Wright a close second. Those two, along with Matt Bonner and Major Parker provide Florida with a deep talented frontline. The Gators have small guards, but Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson are very talented, do a great job of shooting from the perimeter and make good decisions with the ball.

While the two best teams in the conference may be in the Eastern Division, the Western Division of the SEC is the deeper of the two. Mississippi State has already beaten Arizona in Arizona. LSU and Auburn have been much tougher than anybody thought.

Every team in the division has a legitimate chance at capturing the Western title, but the most talented teams are probably Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas. Ole Miss has done the job with defense and depth. Ten players have played in every game for the Rebels, with only one player averaging more than 10 points per game. That’s forward Rahim Lockhart, who leads the team, averaging 14 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game.

Freshman swingman Justin Reed has been huge for Ole Miss. He is tied for second on the team in scoring, and trails only Lockhart in rebounding. He has also been a fine defender throughout the early part of the season. Another freshman, Aaron Harper, is tied with Reed in scoring, and has been the Rebels’ most prolific three-point shooter.

Most thought Alabama would be solid this season, but the Tide has just one loss on the season, and has to be considered one of the better teams in the nation. Small forward Rod Grizzard has been outstanding, averaging over 19 points and five rebounds per game. He’s scoring well, but he’s not a great shooter, hitting around 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range.

Grizzard, Gerald Wallace and Erwin Dudley give the Tide one of the best front-courts in the nation. Wallace and Dudley are both averaging over 14 points per game. Dudley leads the team in rebounding, with Wallace second and Grizzard third. The backcourt of Terrance Meade and senior point guard Tarik London gives Alabama solid ball-handling and enough scoring to keep on winning.

Arkansas has the worst non-conference record of any team in the Western Division, 9-3. Last season was very disappointing for the Razorbacks — until the SEC tournament. Arkansas returned almost everybody from last year’s team, which won the conference tournament in startling fashion.

Sophomore swingman Joe Johnson, once again leads the way for Arkansas. He’s a fine scorer and leads the team in rebounding. At 6-9, he’s a player who can do everything, and may be the best all-around player in the SEC. In the backcourt, Brandon Dean and transfer student Jannero Pargo are the team’s best three-point shooters, and do a fine job spearheading Arkansas’ famous defensive style. Pargo is also the team’s best passer and ball-handler, as well as hitting almost 50 percent of his three-point shots so far this season. Arkansas also has great depth. Twelve players play big minutes for the team, which certainly helps the team play at a fast pace.

The Southeastern Conference is as deep and talented as any conference in the country. Any one of its teams can go a long way come tournament time. Don’t be surprised if teams like Kentucky, Mississippi State or Auburn make some noise, as well.