|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.
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).
"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."
Stone Cold, But Cardinals Still Hot
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
Quotes To Note
"Why he does that, I don't know. That's Ron Slay. I always tell people, I pick and choose my battles with him."
"They might have, but my head was down, too. I mean, you're getting your ass kicked."
Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com