SEC: Good, better, best? Who knows?
Feb. 21, 2002
There are a number of good teams in the Southeastern Conference this year but no one great team. Or maybe there are a number of great teams in the SEC but no one in the just good class.
Who knows? This is perhaps the most topsy turvy year ever.
Kentucky, the preseason favorite, has lost only seven games out of 24 but five of those losses have been in league play. Florida which was streaking like a nude college freshman has been beaten just five times but four of those times were from fellow SEC teams, including that landslide 68-51 loss to Ole Miss last week.
Mississippi State is 13-1 against non-conference competition but only 7-6 inside the SEC. South Carolina has posted a not spectacular 7-7 record against its fellow SEC members. Put them up against strangers and the Gamecocks have gone an impressive 10-3.
As for Ole Miss, they have won 8 and lost 5 in the conference, good for second place in the SEC West but 11-2 when they ventured to the outside.
To carry on, Auburn is in last place in the West with only 3 conference wins and nine losses. But against non-conference opposition the Tigers sport a 8-3 mark. In the other half, Vanderbilt's league record of 4-9 has put them in the Eastern Division basement. But against outsiders Vandy shows 10 wins and just three losses.
Now which is it? To borrow from the old Sears axiom that made the company both famous and successful, "we offer good, better and best."
So what do we have? Good? Better? Best? Your guess is as good as anyone elses.
Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes said recently he has never seen the league as well balanced. And it is true that anyone can beat anyone else on a given night as Ole Miss learned against Auburn and Mississippi State learned at LSU recently. South Carolina has had a season in which it looked like a champion one night and an also-ran the next time out. But then, except for Alabama, who hasn't? Bama is 10-3 in conference play and 12-2 outside of it.
What it adds up to is an upcoming SEC Tournament that has 12 teams capable of winning and, for six of them, receiving an invitation to the NCAA. Six SEC teams are a lock to be invited to the big dance but if one of the other six sneaks in via the conference tournament route, it would make seven. Either way the SEC will be a real force in the NCAA. Since the conference season started, game after game has been life or death, a constant struggle to win. No breathers. No coasting. No gimmees;
That makes a difference when you start playing one and out. Remember, the teams play two games over three nights. If you win an exhausting game on Thursday there's no time to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labors. Friday morning there is a scouting report to discuss, a game plan to decide and practice, then mental preparation to go out there on Saturday and do it all over again. If that's a snapshot of how life has been during your regular season you're far more ready than if you've been playing one good team, one bad team and then another good one.
The draw will determine how many teams the SEC will have move along from one elimination round to the next. If the league gets seven teams selected, two league teams will have to face each other sooner or later and probably sooner. The same is true if six are selected. With only four regionals, at least two SEC teams will be in the same one.
But this could be a very important year for the conference. Good, better or best?
Better. I think, with the possibility of best. Alabama is loaded with experienced talent. Ole Miss plays defense the way it must be played to progress in any tournament. The Rebels are the best defensive team in the league. Mississippi State has speed and plays never-let-the-other-guy-up basketball. Florida also has tremendous talent and is capable of shooting the lights out when they get hot. Kentucky is still Kentucky, a team with faith in themselves, vast tournament experience and the expectation that they are better than the other guy. Georgia has shown the ability to rise to the occasion when they play strong opposition even thought they do slump at times against teams they don't consider to be in the same caliber as themselves. These six should win a lot of games in the upcoming competition.
Then there's the NIT. We expect South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and either Arkansas or Auburn to receive invitations, depending on what happens in the tail end of this season. Here too the league's level of regular season competition should pay won-lost dividends.
Many NIT level schools haven't had to go to war game-in and game-out. The SEC representatives will have an advantage because that's all they have known.
This tournament season should be, and will be, one to remember. Goodness knows the regular season already is.