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Wednesday, January 15
 
Survival a week-to-week task for SEC teams

By Pat Forde
Special to ESPN.com

You don't have to be Bela Karolyi to know great balance when you see it, and the Southeastern Conference has it.

When the egghead school in the league (Vanderbilt) takes out the defending champ (Alabama) one week removed from said champ being ranked No. 1 in America, you have balance.

When a team widely picked fifth or sixth in the Western Division (Auburn) starts league play 2-0, and the team that reached No. 7 in the AP poll (Mississippi State) starts 0-2, you have balance.

Adrian Moss
Adrian Moss and MSU lost its home-court battle with Florida and faces a possible 0-3 SEC start with a game Wednesday night at Alabama.

When five of the first 12 SEC games are decided by three or fewer points, when eight of those 12 are decided by single digits, when the average margin of that dozen is eight points, you have -- you guessed it -- balance. Olga Korbut would be proud.

And when your league has beaten Oklahoma, Xavier (twice), North Carolina, Indiana, Pittsburgh, Maryland, Arizona, Gonzaga (twice), Kansas and Ohio State, you have high-quality balance -- not rampant mediocrity.

"From top to bottom it's the best league in the country," said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings. "As you look at other leagues, they have teams in any given year where it's kind of a night off. I don't think that exists much in this league."

Right now the only potential pigeon appears to be Arkansas, which has been on the wrong end of two double-digit decisions. But nobody thinks that visiting Bud Walton Arena is a blowoff assignment. Memories of those ear-splitting lunatics with plastic pigs on their heads -- and the accompanying defeats -- don't wash away easily.

But that's about it. Outside of Arkansas, Jeff Sagarin's computer rates the other 11 SEC schools in the top 90. The RPI puts 11 of 12 in the top 75. More significantly, both rankings formulas have a whopping seven SEC teams in their top 40: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU and Auburn.

If the season ended today, they would be well within the NCAA Tournament argument and several would deserve very high seeds. The SEC has never put seven in The Dance (only two leagues have, the Big Ten and the Big East). Of course, the season doesn't end today. Count on wire jobs and upsets from here into March in what could well become a Flavor of the Week league.

Anyone who puts together a 2-0 week will look pretty good. Win four in a row and you're absolutely incendiary. First team to 12 league wins could be the regular-season champ.

That's why Florida coach Billy Donovan refers to SEC play as "nine weeks of a physical, mental and emotional grind."

Billy D's Gators have clearly gotten the jump on everyone else. Not only are the Gators 2-0, they've done it against top-25 opponents Georgia and Mississippi State. And not only have they beaten quality competition, they've done it without hotshot freshman Christian Drejer (who may finally debut Wednesday against Tennessee) and with next to nothing from senior point guard Brett Nelson (eight points on 3-for-16 shooting in the two games, extending a season-long slump).

Billy Donovan
We were very, very fortunate to win at Mississippi State and win against Georgia. It always comes down to the last week or two. You can't embrace anything.
Billy Donovan

"I've just got to continually show Brett confidence," Donovan said. "He's the type of kid, just coaching him, if he can make a couple in a row, he may not miss for a long time. With Christian Drejer healthy and Brett playing well, that would certainly help our team.

"We were very, very fortunate to win at Mississippi State and win against Georgia. It always comes down to the last week or two. You can't embrace anything."

Perhaps the only thing embraceable right now in the SEC is guaranteed ebb and flow. It figures to be largely schedule-specific.

Right now Mississippi State is the team laboring against brutal competition. The Bulldogs lost to Florida, then lost at LSU and now face an early showdown game Wednesday in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. (As if avoiding an 0-3 start weren't enough motivation for the Bulldogs, there have been a few fingers pointed back and forth across the state line in recruiting battles between Rick Stansbury and Mark Gottfried.)

LSU hits the griddle in late January with games at Mississippi State, home against Florida and at Alabama. So far the Tigers look like a classic home-road split personality, beating State by 13 in Baton Rouge but losing by 26 at Georgia.

Georgia plays four road games in February, including visits to Kentucky and Alabama. But as of right now, the Bulldogs are clearly the best four-loss team in the land. Donovan insists they're top-10 caliber, maybe top five.

Auburn's fast start is nice, but it has come against soft competition (Vandy at home, Arkansas on the road). After the Tigers' next four games (at South Carolina, home against Alabama, at Kentucky, at Georgia) they'll be fortunate to be .500 in league play.

Kentucky, which has won two road games on its way to 3-0, including a defense-initiated rout at Vandy on Tuesday, doesn't have it truly tough until March. That's when two of its final three games are on the road against Georgia and Florida.

From Jan. 25 through Feb. 26, Alabama plays the other top six RPI teams in the league -- plus road games at Arkansas (the Tide has lost five of the last six in Fayetteville) and Tennessee (the Tide has lost the last three in Knoxville). So far this season, 'Bama is 0-2 on the road against a less-than-vintage Utah team and middle-of-the-pack Vandy.

"When you go on the road," Georgia coach Jim Harrick said, "you better bring your game or you're gonna get beat."

Games of the Week
Notre Dame at Kentucky
Saturday

Sexy non-conference matchup. Chris Thomas struggled last year against the quickness of Wildcats point guard Cliff Hawkins. So far this year, Hawkins has been coming off the bench, but don't be surprised if he's a starter Saturday.
Louisville at East Carolina
Thursday

A team undefeated on the road takes on the toughest home-court advantage in C-USA. The Cardinals lost here last year in a court-stormer.
Marquette at Charlotte
Saturday

Two hot teams meet up. Loser could well drop two games behind Louisville and/or Cincinnati in the highly competitive American Division.

Stone Cold, But Cardinals Still Hot
Until Marvin Stone finally took the floor for Louisville on Dec. 18, all you heard from Rick Pitino was how much better his team would get with the big man in the middle.

That proved true in Stone's first three games, including a startling rout of Kentucky. But in the three that have followed, the transfer from Kentucky has had little impact -- and it hasn't slowed the Cards one bit.

Stone went scoreless at Ohio State. Louisville won anyway. Stone scored two at Charlotte. Louisville won in a walk. Stone scored a few late hoops to finish with 10 against Saint Louis. Louisville won by 19.

That's 12 points in three games -- all three victories. The Cardinals, who have won nine straight, didn't get the typical scoring punch from Reece Gaines until the second half against the Billikens. Simply put, this team has a ton of weapons it can turn to.

Reserve guard Bryant Northern had a team-high 18 against the Buckeyes. Senior forward Erik Brown, who had slipped in the rotation, reappeared with 17 points and nine rebounds at Charlotte. Freshman Francisco Garcia chipped in 13 off the bench against Saint Louis.

In junior Luke Whitehead and freshmen Garcia and Taquan Dean, Louisville has found third, fourth and fifth offensive options capable of scoring 20 each on any given night. Whitehead is averaging 11 points in 23 minutes per game, Garcia 9.1 ppg in 19.5 minutes and Dean 8.8 ppg in 17.2 minutes.

Around the South

  • Just when you thought Charlotte was going to recuse itself from the American Division race in Conference USA, the 49ers started their usual January rally. After losing by 21 at home to Louisville, Charlotte responded by beating East Carolina by 21 and then whomping a hot UAB team on the road by 20. Never ever count Bobby Lutz's crew out of it.

  • Marquette has peeled off three straight league wins after the opening road upset against East Carolina and a subsequent non-conference road loss to Dayton. The Golden Eagles are finally getting junior power forward Scott Merritt to assert himself; he has averaged 13 points and eight rebounds over the last four games and is getting to the foul line. He made 20 of 27 free throws in that stretch.

  • South Florida appeared to be in complete disarray when the week began. Sophomore guard Marlyn Bryant was lost for the year with a torn ACL, leading a long list of injuries. Senior Greg Brittian had been dismissed for academic fraud. Freshman Raphael Toren was fighting the NCAA for eligibility. But at least Jimmy Baxter was back after a one-game suspension for, as coach Seth Greenberg told the Tampa Tribune, "not being a good teammate." (Baxter actually was pressed into service in the second half of a 33-point loss to Marquette when fouls and injuries left Greenberg with six players. The Bulls finished the game with five.) An apparently penitent Baxter, who had been honored by the city for helping save two men in a car accident during the offseason, had 20 points and 10 rebounds in South Florida's upset of UAB Tuesday.

  • The point guards getting the most pub in the SEC begin with Mo Williams of Alabama and Derrick Zimmerman of Mississippi State, but LSU coach John Brady requests that you not forget about his guy, Torris Bright. The hard-edged senior made every shot he took -- seven field goals, two 3s and a free throw -- and dished out 10 assists in the Tigers' win over State, prompting Brady to say, "That's pretty good when a lot of you -- you meaning the media -- think Derrick Zimmerman is one of the best point guards in the league. I think (Bright) outplayed (Jason) Gardner when we beat Arizona here and I think he outplayed Zimmerman here Saturday."

  • Alabama is still working on its chemistry with freshman forward Kennedy Winston in the lineup. In the Crimson Tide's loss to Vandy, Winston jacked up 18 shots while reigning SEC Player of the Year Erwin Dudley took just seven in 37 minutes of play. It's true that the Commodores aggressively double-teamed Dudley, but Winston was playing just his second college game and first on the road since the NCAA restored his eligibility. Hoisting 18 shots (and making six) is a bit much.

    Who's Hot
    Demon Brown: The Charlotte bomber had a gruesome night against Louisville -- 2-for-10, including 1-of-6 on 3's -- but since then has lit it up. He has hit 14 of 30 3's and all nine free throws, scoring 53 points in two easy 49ers victories.

    Who's Not
    Houston: You have a problem. Make that plural. A year after making the NIT, the Cougars are 2-10 and have lost seven straight, six of them by double digits. It has been four games since anybody had more than two assists.

    Quotes To Note
    "It was a game for the ages -- 15-13 at halftime."
    -- South Carolina coach Dave Odom, on the truly grim defensive struggle between his Gamecocks and Mississippi.

    "Why he does that, I don't know. That's Ron Slay. I always tell people, I pick and choose my battles with him."
    -- Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson, on the voluble and volatile Slay's habit of shaking hands with the opposing coach before every game.

    "They might have, but my head was down, too. I mean, you're getting your ass kicked."
    -- Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, when asked if his players got their heads down while being routed 46-16 in the second half against Kentucky on Tuesday.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com









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