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December 14, 2010

Looking at the League: December

As the calendar continues to turn, creeping closer to the Jan. 8 start of the SEC schedule, the basketball teams of the league are seeing what they'll have when the games really start to count. A league expected to return to elite status has been thus far rather quiet, No. 7 Tennessee flying high with a 7-0 record but only one other team (No. 17 Kentucky) in the Top 25.

With a handful of games between now and the conference opener, also taking time for the holidays and exams, each team will attempt to pull everything together. The Jan. 8 opener will be a six-game marathon of inter-SEC hoops.

Breaking down the league thus far:

SEC EAST

FLORIDA has lined up its typically easy non-conference schedule, but hasn't rolled through it. A team expected to be dominant with so many returning experienced starters has struggled to find a go-to scorer, although the Gators are much more balanced than they previously have been. An early loss to No. 2 Ohio State (even at home) wasn't that debilitating, but Florida barely topped Morehead State (61-55) and Florida State (55-51) before losing 57-54 to UCF. They'll have a lot of room to get better, jamming six games in before the SEC opener, led by No. 6 Kansas State on Saturday.

GEORGIA should be a handful in the SEC season, led by bruiser Trey Thompkins and the acrobatic Travis Leslie, but right now is still finding its way. The Bulldogs haven't played a difficult schedule, losing at a Florida tournament to a good Notre Dame team and then losing to Temple the next day. Georgia has otherwise won the games it was supposed to win, including the rivalry matchup over Georgia Tech, and is filling the rest of its non-SEC slate with easy marks. Arkansas State, High Point, at Mercer, Charleston Southern and Eastern Kentucky don't reckon to challenge the Bulldogs much, but their first SEC game, Kentucky, just might.

KENTUCKY has found out what Brandon Knight can do, and is still waiting to see if returnee Darius Miller will ever break out, but should be formidable as always once the league schedule begins. The Wildcats' losses have each been on the road, at Connecticut and North Carolina, but they've beaten Oklahoma, Washington, Notre Dame and Indiana. They should be very well-tested by the time they get to the SEC, with the annual rivalry game at Louisville sandwiched between four schedule-stuffers.

SOUTH CAROLINA has beaten some nice names, but no one who has really proven itself to be a threatening team -- yet. It may be that Clemson and Wofford return to their NCAA tournament ways come March, but right now, USC is enjoying a confident attitude among its young players and a six-game winning streak. The Gamecocks' only loss was on the road at Michigan State, and they won a very big game in double overtime at Western Kentucky. They'll at least be rested for their next opponent, but the winning streak will be severely tested -- on the road at No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday, the start of two straight road games for USC (at Furman, Nov. 22).

TENNESSEE won a huge game at Pitt the last time out, staying undefeated with a rousing victory, and also has nice wins over Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth. The Volunteers have also scheduled several more good teams before the SEC, with Charlotte, Southern Cal, College of Charleston and Memphis dotting the slate. What remains to be seen is how Tennessee will react once the conference games begin. Coach Bruce Pearl will be absent from the sidelines for UT's first eight SEC games (although Pearl will be allowed to coach for a Jan. 22 game against Connecticut, after the first four SEC games). It hasn't been a distraction so far, but Pearl has been around so far. He won't be there to depend on throughout the majority of January and early February.

VANDERBILT has struggled to find consistent play at point guard, but has won some impressive games. The Commodores beat North Carolina and Western Kentucky, but lost at West Virginia and at Missouri. The other wins have been over teams they were supposed to beat. Vandy will play two more stuffers before two crucial games before SEC play -- Marquette and Davidson, each at home -- before going on the road to USC for the SEC opener. Still a work in progress, but the talent is there to win quite a few games. Not as much of an NCAA lock as Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee should be, but in the picture.

SEC WEST

ALABAMA has started in a sour, yet sort-of predictable, trend. The Crimson Tide are beating the teams they are supposed to beat, and losing to the teams they are supposed to lose to. Bama has lost to Seton Hall, Iowa, Purdue and Providence, but also lost on the road to St. Peter's, a 5-4 team. Anthony Grant is a good coach, but the antics of game-changing forward JaMychal Green are hurting the team. Green was suspended for the second time in less than a year for conduct detrimental to the team, missing three games. Green can be dominant, but obviously only if he's on the court.

ARKANSAS In a make-or-break year for coach John Pelphrey, the Razorbacks have only lost one game (UAB) and beat Oklahoma and Seton Hall. They'll play two more tough opponents (Texas A&M and Texas) before SEC play and then see where they can finish in the league. Arkansas isn't a dominant team, but it's certainly capable of winning the West, as bad as the East is good. There has been no dominant team thus far, and with Auburn and LSU having early-but-pitiful returns thus far, it should be a battle of the top four.

AUBURN The Tigers knew it would be like this, losing so many seniors, and are having to greet every result with a “Wait till next year.” They have a good coach and a beautiful arena, but this year has begun roughly and will continue to get rougher. The Tigers began 0-3, with losses to UNC Asheville, Samford and Campbell, before beating Middle Tennessee. Then they lost to Jacksonville and Rutgers before beating Georgia Southwestern and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The good thing is the next four games all appear to be winnable (but then again, so did the first three), before Florida State visits on Jan. 3. The bad thing is Auburn has lost its only road game so far, has another at South Florida on Wednesday, and will play at Kentucky and at Mississippi State as its first two SEC road games. The new stadium is nice to show off, but it surely isn't going to help on the road.

LSU is fresh off an overtime loss to Coastal Carolina, which is excusable in terms of talent level (the Chanticleers won 28 games last year and, buoyed by two former USC players, were picked to win the Big South) but probably not in terms of prestige. It was the first win over an SEC team for Coastal since 1993. The Tigers have also fallen to Nicholls State and Memphis, while beating Northwestern State, Centenary and the like. The rest of their non-conference slate is filled with no one of significance, save for a game at Virginia on Jan. 2, so a true read on LSU may not come until the SEC begins. As it looks now, though, it may be a fight with Auburn to see who can avoid the cellar.

MISSISSIPPI STATE should still win the West, because it has the talent -- or at least will have the talent. The Bulldogs are struggling right now, losing back-to-back games to Florida Atlantic and East Tennessee State, but once they get two players cleared, they should be back on top. Forward Renardo Sidney, docked all of last season and nine games of this year, will be cleared to play by Dec. 18. Guard Dee Bost had to sit out the first semester because of academics and will be out the first nine games after that because of violating the NBA's early withdrawal rule. Coach Rick Stansbury took advantage of the amount of games in the suspensions, cramming as many as possible in the early season so he could get his players eligible, but playing on four consecutive nights didn't help anybody. This isn't the same MSU team that will be around in March, but while it's down is time for others to take advantage.

OLE MISS again scheduled a soft non-conference slate, building up its wins so it can hopefully equal them in March and get to the NCAA tournament. The Rebels also lost the two big games they had on the early schedule, to Dayton and Miami. Through coach Andy Kennedy's tenure, it's always been wise to wait to judge Ole Miss until halfway through the SEC slate, and this year is no different. Guard Chris Warren is an elite player, and Terrance Henry will be very good, but until the Rebels beat somebody of significance, hold off on the judgment.



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