Florida, Kentucky rise above SEC elite

Feb 18, 2003 1:45 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 may knock on the door again.

Florida: Coach Bill Donovan is a remarkable recruiter and has a young group that may be ready to roll deep into March. Donovan likes the up-
tempo game and has plenty of depth alongside a talented Big Three of 6-foot-10 Matt Bonner, 6-8 sophomore David Lee and 6-6 freshman Matt Walsh. Lee has been a solid role player under the boards. The Gators leads the SEC in three-point shooting at 39 percent.

Seniors Brett Nelson and Justin Hamilton handle the backcourt, while freshman guard Anthony Roberson has quietly stepped forward as a productive scorer. Florida is one of the top teams in rebounding margin in the SEC and plays unselfish ball. Bonner, Roberson and Walsh chip in roughly 14 points per game. The Gators, one of the league’s top free throw shooting teams (70 percent), get a chance to avenge a 70-55 defeat to Kentucky when they host the Wildcats in the Mar. 8 regular season finale.

Kentucky: If you like depth and height under the boards, Kentucky is your team. The Wildcats lead the SEC in shooting (49 percent) and blocks because of a front line of 6-7 Chuck Hayes, 6-9 Erik Daniels, 6-11 Souleymane Camara and 6-9 Marquis Estill. This allows senior guard Keith Bogans (16 ppg) to strut his stuff for the Wildcats, which began the season 8-1 SU and 7-2 ATS on the road.

Kentucky started 8-0 in SEC play during a recent 12-game winning streak. In a showdown with Florida for first-place in the SEC East, the Wildcats held the Gators to 34 percent shooting. Four players had between 9-and-15 points in the win, showing the team’s balance. Kentucky leads the SEC in turnover margin (over 3 per game). The only weakness is defending the 3-pointer, where the Cats rank last in the league at 35 percent. That hasn’t hurt yet, but it could surface in the tourney against strong three-point teams or in the rematch with Florida.

Tennessee: The Volunteers rely on a strong one-two punch in the frontcourt with 6-8, 240-lb senior Ron Slay (21 ppg, 7 rpg) and 6-10 sophomore Brandon Crump clogging the low post. Tennessee is one of the top teams in rebounding margin per game and defense (holding opponents to 40 percent shooting). Crump hits over 70 percent from the line while Slay hits over 80, which helps explain why the Vols top the league in that category.

Freshman guard C.J. Watson leads the team in assists and is third in scoring, but the backcourt is thin. Tennessee is last in steals and has allowed an average of 70 points on the road, nine more than at home. The Vols have been a surprise, starting 8-0 as a dog, including 5-0 ATS on the road. However, Tennessee is 0-2 ATS as a road favorite. The Vols will make things tough on teams lacking height, but may struggle against explosive backcourts.

Auburn: The Tigers have been getting it done with tough defense, allowing 39 percent from the floor to rank second in the SEC. Marquis Daniels, a 6-6 senior, averages 18 per game and teams with sophomore Marco Killingsworth to form a strong duo. Both average nearly seven rebounds per game. Kyle Davis, a 6-10 junior, is a good shot blocker and combines with 6-8 sophomore Brandon Robinson to make Auburn one of the top rebounding teams in the conference.

Auburn’s strong start might be a bit deceptive due to a relatively easy schedule. The Tigers recently suffered a three-game losing skid against Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee. The next week will be a good test to see if the Tigers can hold on to first place in the SEC West: Auburn hosts Mississippi State this Wednesday, then travels to Ole Miss on Saturday and LSU on Feb. 26.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have a dynamic star in 6-9 Mario Austin (17 ppg, 8 rpg), veteran leadership in guard Derrick Zimmerman. Defensively, Mississippi State leads the SEC in field goal stoppage (39 percent) and steals (over 9 per game). The Bulldogs are also second in scoring defense (61 ppg).

State also tops the league in rebounding and produced its most impressive defensive showing in an early-season upset of Oklahoma, 54-45. The Dogs shrugged off a three-game losing streak in January, going 5-1 SU and 4-1-1 ATS after the slump to challenge Auburn for the SEC West lead. The defense held Arkansas to 25 percent in taking a whopping 52-18 halftime advantage. This is a big week for the Bulldogs with games at Auburn this Wednesday and at Kentucky on Sunday.