Upcoming games give SEC chance to ascend


Published: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

During Southeastern Conference media days, coaches trumpeted the league as the best in college basketball.

Facts

SEC power ratings

A weekly look at how teams stand in the Southeastern Conference

By Sun Sports writer Kevin Brockway

1. Florida (13-2)

With five starters back healthy, defending national champs still the team to beat.

2. Alabama (13-1)

Sophomores Richard Hendrix (15.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and Alonzo Gee (14.8 ppg) have made big leaps.

3. LSU (10-3)

Still seeking a defensive presence in the post to complement Glen Davis.

4. Tennessee (12-2)

Bruce Pearl's first season wasn't a fluke.

5. Kentucky (11-3)

Winning ugly, but winning nonetheless

6. Arkansas (11-3)

Guard Patrick Beverly (13.9 ppg) early pick for SEC freshman of the year.

7. Mississippi State (9-4)

Road-tested Bulldogs have played at Clemson, Missouri, George Mason and Miami.

8. Georgia (8-4)

Takais Brown (14.7 ppg) finally gives Bulldogs a scorer inside.

9. South Carolina (10-2)

Will miss Renaldo Balkman more than people think.

10. Vanderbilt (10-4)

Forward Shan Foster coming off season-high 29 points against Rice.

11. Ole Miss (11-3)

Rookie coach Andy Kennedy has Rebels going in right direction.

12. Auburn (10-3)

Injuries and suspensions have made rebuilding harder for Jeff Lebo.

Reigning national champion Florida had all five starters back. LSU, coming off a Final Four appearance, had conference player of the year Glen Davis returning.

Alabama was loaded. Tennessee was an up-and-coming national power. And Kentucky, we were told, would be better.

Then November came. Tennessee lost back-to-back games to Butler and North Carolina at the preseason NIT. The aptly named Shockers of Wichita State surprised LSU at home. And Florida followed up an overtime loss to Kansas in Las Vegas with a puzzling loss to Florida State on the road.

But the league rebounded nicely in December, enough to where the SEC ranks fourth among conferences in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), ahead of the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East.

The Pac 10 is currently the country's leader in RPI. The ACC is next, followed by the mid-major laden Missouri Valley Conference, where Wichita State resides.

"I still think that this is the best league in the country," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "I know some people say the Pac 10 is the best, but top to bottom, when you look at the teams, the quality of the players that are returning, the league will again prove itself."

Entering the season, five SEC teams were ranked in the AP Top 25. Four remain, with Kentucky knocking back at the door with a seven-game winning streak.

The league will get a chance to add to its credentials in the coming weeks. LSU hosts Connecticut this week. Tennessee will travel to Ohio State in a couple of weeks.

South Carolina hosts Kansas on Sunday in the second-game of a home-and-home series.

"You owe it not only to your fans to schedule those kinds of games, but to your players," Odom said. "They come into college basketball wanting a chance to compete at the highest level."

Man of Steele

Alabama point guard Ronald Steele averaged 38.4 minutes per game last season, rarely taking a breather while running the Tide offense.

This year, coach Mark Gottfried is taking a more cautious approach with the junior preseason All-American. Steele, who missed two games earlier this season with tendinitis in his knee, is averaging 31 minutes a game.

"Part of it is the injury and part of it is by design," Gottfried said. "Last year, we felt like he played too much. Our teammates are a lot more comfortable with Brandon Hollinger, our backup point guard."

Tiger tale

Clemson has downed SEC teams Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina on its way to a perfect 15-0 start.

Florida assistant coach Larry Shyatt has followed Clemson with interest. Shyatt coached the Tigers from 1998-2003 before being replaced by Oliver Purnell.

Senior point guard Vernon Hamilton, who in 15 starts is averaging 11.5 points and 4.1 assists, is the lone Shyatt recruit remaining on the roster.

Shyatt said he hasn't seen Clemson play this season, but has received reports from his youngest son, Philip, a junior at the school. His middle son Geoffrey, an assistant coach at Wofford, faced Clemson last month. The Tigers cruised to a 90-66 win.

"From what Geoff told me, they are a quick team on the perimeter that's difficult to guard," Shyatt said. "I'm happy to see them having success."

Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at brockwk@gvillesun.com

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