SEC: Head East to find league’s strength

February 05, 2002 7:08 AM
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As we continue to focus on the major conference races in college basketball, we look at, maybe, the deepest and most athletic league in the country, the Southeastern Conference.

Every year the SEC contains a number of the top teams on the college basketball landscape, and this year is no different. The league’s strength resides in the East. Florida, Kentucky and Georgia were tied atop that division heading into the weekend. Alabama sat alone atop the West ahead of the two Mississippi schools.

Without question Georgia is the most pleasant surprise in the SEC this season. The Bulldogs were picked for last in the division by some publications, but Jim Harrick continues to put a solid team on the floor. Georgia’s head coach has had plenty of success, clouded with some controversy, during his career, but there is little doubt he is one of the nation’s best.

Ezra Williams has led the way in the backcourt, but versatile forward Chris Daniels may be the Bulldogs’ top all-around player at this point in the season. Daniels leads the team in rebounding, and ranks among the leaders in points and assists. Georgia still has a very tough schedule, with seven games left after Saturday’s contest against Ole Miss. Four of those contests are on the road and two of those home games are against Florida and Kentucky on Feb. 12 and 16.

The Gators looked like the best team in the SEC for some time, but a three-game losing streak heading into the weekend has cooled them down. Still, few teams have the athletes that the Gators possess to go with the dynamic post-presence of Udonis Haslem.

One thing that may bother Florida backers is seeing the Gators look so average at home. Before Saturday’s game versus Mississippi State, Florida was just 2-6 against the spread in Gainesville, despite a 9-2 overall record. The Gators also lost home games to Georgia and Kentucky this season.

While Florida faces some questions, the other, Kentucky, seems to have found some answers.

The Wildcats were pretty inconsistent early on, but now they have hit on a solid rotation of players, and might be playing their best basketball of the season. They have as good a one-two punch as there is in the nation in Teyshaun Prince up front and Keith Bogans in the backcourt.

Kentucky has been getting very solid play out of point guard Cliff Hawkins. Power forward Marquis Estill gives the Wildcats big numbers in limited minutes, more than making up for the losses of Jason Parker and Marvin Stone. This may be the deepest, and most experienced Kentucky team since the 1997-98 National Champions and, if they continue to get solid play from the point, this could be a very big season in Lexington.

The Western Division isn’t quite as muddled, or competitive, as the East. Alabama has played very well this season, and they seem to be in control of the division. Very quietly, Mississippi has slipped into contention, considering the Rebels have two games left against the Crimson Tide.

Mississippi State is the other team in the SEC West that has   stayed above the .500 level in conference play. But the Bulldogs haven’t proven they can beat quality teams, at least not on a regular basis.

There is a reason that teams go to the post-season NIT, rather than sitting at home. They hope to build on the experience, and make themselves stronger for the upcoming season. Alabama made it all the way to the NIT Final before losing to Tulsa last season, but the experience and disappointment of an NCAA snub has spurred the Tide to an outstanding, and consistent season.

Alabama has won despite losing some important pieces from last year’s edition. Forwards Ron Grizzard and Erwin Dudley have been the stars for Bama, but freshman point guard Maurice Williams has done an outstanding job running the team and keeping everybody involved. The Tide are undefeated at home this season with the big showdown in Tuscaloosa figuring to come when Florida visits on Feb. 23.

Alabama’s strongest challenge figures to come from Ole Miss, but the Rebels face a much tougher schedule. The stretch drive includes three tough road games inside the division. There are two matchups with Alabama and one with Florida, all following Saturday’s game at Georgia.

Forward Justin Reed is Mississippi’s best player, but the Rebels also have some quality depth in the backcourt. Ole Miss got to the Sweet 16 last year, so the Rebs do have some experience. Outside of Reed, however, they have little star power and aren’t overwhelmingly nimble in an athletic conference.

Mississippi State has the toughest stretch of games facing them they’ve had all season. After playing at Florida on Saturday, they host Georgia and Alabama in consecutive games before heading to LSU. One loss over their next few games should keep the Bulldogs out of the regular season title hunt, but they could be dangerous come conference tournament time.

Few conferences can boast the quality that the SEC can. All six of the teams mentioned should get invitations to the NCAA Tournament. Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Arkansas and even LSU and Tennessee could all be playing somewhere during the month of March, after completing another grueling conference schedule.

SEC

East

Team  

ATS

Georgia  

14-6

Kentucky  

12-7

Tennessee  

12-7

Vanderbilt  

8-8

S. Carolina  

8-9

Florida  

6-10

Top record  

SU

Georgia (17-5)  

6-3

West

Team  

ATS

Alabama  

10-6

Ole Miss  

7-7

Auburn  

7-9

Arkansas  

6-10-1

LSU  

5-9

Miss State  

5-11

Top record  

SU

Alabama (19-3)  

7-1