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SEC questions: Is Kentucky the team to beat?


Dec. 10, 2003
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As a new season dawns, I've been identifying three key questions for each of the eight major conferences. We've gone in alphabetical order, and now it's time for the final conference, the SEC:

Tubby Smith
Tubby Smith

Kentucky's fortunes lie in the hands of their two 7-foot-2 freshmen, Shagari Alleyne and Lukasz Obrzut. One of them has to give the Wildcats a post presence. They certainly have enough winning experience with junior Chuck Hayes and seniors Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins.

I love the toughness of Hayes inside. Fitch is outstanding on the perimeter. Daniels gives Kentucky versatility, and Hawkins has such tremendous quickness. Look for a big year from sophomore Kelenna Azubuike, and senior Antowain Barbour has lots of potential after he returns from his suspension. They both should have breakout seasons.

Coach Tubby Smith and Kentucky know about one thing: winning. What the 'Cats did last year was amazing. To win 26 in a row, to go undefeated in the SEC (16-0) and win the conference tournament, those are special accomplishments. Yes, they were blown out by Marquette in the Elite Eight, but the bottom line is that 2002-03 was a special season for the 'Cats.

And remember, Tubby won a national title in 1998 in his first season as Kentucky's head coach. Expect more big things this season.

The Gators will rely on their post presence as well. Coach Billy Donovan has told me that freshman forward Chris Richard could be a surprise, giving Florida a big body inside.

Sophomore Christian Drejer could have a coming-out party after a freshman season that was plagued by injuries and illnesses. Drejer will be a major factor. Super sophomores Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson will provide scoring, and junior David Lee might be the best inside player in the SEC.

Yes, the Gators will miss the presence of Matt Bonner (who graduated). But Florida can be a very dangerous squad with lots of different options on offense.

Looking at other SEC clubs, keep an eye on LSU. Coach John Brady has some new talent, and his squad will create lots of excitement. The schedule has been favorable early -- LSU is 4-0 -- which will give the Tigers a winning feeling entering league play. Freshman forward Brandon Bass is one of the nation's intriguing diaper dandies.

Don't forget Mississippi State, with senior guard Timmy Bowers returning and junior forward Lawrence Roberts coming aboard. Roberts transferred from the troubled Baylor program.

Auburn made a run to the Sweet 16 last March but suffered a tough break when point guard Lewis Monroe went down with an injury. Coach Cliff Ellis' team can create problems. Alabama played better than expected at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Georgia is rebuilding under new coach Dennis Felton, who took over following the departure of Jim Harrick.

If you're looking for a surprise SEC team, watch out for Vanderbilt, which is 5-0 (including a big 83-63 win over Michigan). Senior forward Matt Freije is one of the SEC's top performers. The Commodores also have an experienced supporting cast.

Still, Kentucky and Florida are the teams to beat.

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