FanTastic or Fanatics?
The Cult of the SEC
By Jeff Zurcher

Kentucky basketball fans deserve credit; they (you/we) possess a passion for their team unmatched by fans of any other college program. And from that passion, naturally, springs strong opinions on everything to do with their

team, including how to best coach it.

"UK fans consider themselves some of the most knowledgeable fans in the country, which is partly true and partly dangerous," says Drew Deener, a man who should know.

Deener gets paid to have strong opinions and to listen to others who do. He co-hosts the talk show "Cross and Deener on Sports" on Sports Radio 1300 AM weeknights. "Basketball is a part of the culture in Kentucky - I grew up in this state. I cried all the way back from Knoxville as a 10-year-old in 1983 when Kentucky lost to Louisville (in the Mideast Regional final of the NCAA tournament), so I know how people feel about this team," says Deener, who also moonlights as the Saturday evening host of "Sports Spectrum" for WKYT-TV. "When there are no other pro sports in the region, it's understandable the level of involvement the fans have."

And that involvement, that love, can become so intense that many Cat fans forget about, or neglect somewhat/somehow, following the rest of the college hoop universe - or if they do follow along, they usually don't do it objectively.

This is true even about keeping up, or the lack thereof, with Kentucky's regularly-scheduled opponents, those other members of the SEC. Since they started playing in the conference in 1933, the Wildcats have won so many SEC titles (40 - the next closest, er, farthest rather, are LSU and Tennessee with eight each) it's understandable that several UK fans perceive the SEC to be merely a bunch of teams located in the same region of the country that the Cats should beat each year. And most years, that's the case.

But not this year. As South Carolina head coach Eddie Fogler has hypothesized, the SEC has 12 teams with a realistic chance of making the NCAA tournament.

At the beginning of the conference season, the SEC led all other conferences in the country with a non-conference record of 114-28 (.803), an all-time high for the league; this mark was 18 percentage points better than the second-place conference (the Big East). Further, all SEC schools were playing at .500 or above in the conference preseason. (Only Georgia was even, at 7-7.)

"You could take the [worst] team in the conference, and I have no idea who that team is," Fogler has been quoted, "but whoever that is could be the best team on any given night."

Fogler's right. And the SEC will be, as it has been so far in 2001, a tumultuously fun treat - almost impossible to predict.

Yet, any preview page would be incomplete without a prediction of some sorts. So, by consulting Deener and other expert sources, and by analyzing those SEC games that have occurred so far (which, in the world of predicting, is cheating, but so what, the below educated guesses are offered:

SEC East: 1. Tennessee, 2. Kentucky, 3. South Carolina, 4. Florida, 5. Vanderbilt, 6. Georgia

SEC West: 1. Alabama, 2. Ole Miss, 3. Mississippi State, 4. Auburn, 5. Arkansas, 6. LSU

Of course, Kentucky fans (3-0 in SEC play) will have their own fervent feelings, and should. But in order to help inform them of something they may be ignoring, also included in this issue are 150-word (and exactly 150 words each, no favoritism here) synopses of every conference opponent the Cats will face. Each team's SEC record is as of Wednesday, January 17.

Alabama (2-1)

Team Theme: Road Kill or Killers?

Many prognosticators are picking 'Bama to win the West. But those (we) folks are putting the cart before the elephant, because Alabama hasn't proven it can defeat a good SEC team away. Last year, the Tide was rolled over whenever it rolled into an SEC town, going 0-10 away, losing by an average of 16 points. Thus far this year, Alabama is 1-1 on the road in conference play. However, that one win was against lowly LSU and that one loss was a 86-69 humiliation at the hands of Tennessee on January 9.

Tide freshman Gerald Wallace is the school's highest profile recruit ever, as he was ranked the nation's top high school senior by several publications last year. So far, Wallace has done well and is among four 'Bama players averaging more than 13 points. This balance gives Alabama more stability than last year, when it was decimated by injury.

Arkansas (0-3)

Team Theme: More Sophomores

Full-court pressure is precisely what won the Razorbacks the SEC tournament last year; the Hogs were like flies, buzzing about the floor and biting in swarms. And this year, coach Nolan Richardson will have even more minions geared up to give opponents "40 minutes of hell." Arkansas sports the deepest backcourt in the conference with seven players - five guards and two guard/forwards - playing on the perimeter .

Joe Johnson is one of the two players listed at the G/F position(s). Simply stated, he's simply magic, just pull out the 2000 SEC tourney tape. He received 24 of the 28 votes as the conference's preseason player of the year. And he's only a sophomore.

So he fits right in. Seven of the 13 players on the Arkansas roster are sophomores. From the start of the year through the first two SEC games, this group has accounted for 55 percent of the Hogs scoring.

Auburn (1-2)

Team Theme: Choir Boy

Nobody's picking Auburn to do much of anything this year because everybody picked them to do everything last year and they did nothing (championship-wise). Plus this year, gone are Chris Porter, Mamadu N'diaye, and Doc Robinson; gone is 57 percent of Auburn's scoring and 52 percent of its rebounding.

But baby-faced Scott Pohlman remains.

Pohlman, hard nosed and a great shooter, is the one guy returning who started last year, the year before, and the year before that. So you know he's good. Plus, he's deceptively athletic.

Pohlman won't surprise anyone this season; he's been around too long. However, his team might; Auburn almost snuck up on UT through two overtimes on January 6. Cliff Ellis is a quality coach - only four other D-I programs (none in the SEC) have won more games than the Tigers going into this season. Look for them to be the conference dark horse this year.

Georgia (2-1)

Team Theme: Baker's Dozen

The Bulldogs averaged nearly 19 turnovers a game last year, which prompted coach Jim Harrick to say about the 1999-2000 season, "I thought it was a bakery all year we had so many turnovers."

Clever wit coach but crummy job teaching your guys how to dribble and pass.

Heading into conference play, the problem appeared alleviated, as UGA was averaging only 7.3 giveaways. Then in Georgia's first SEC game on January 6, in which it gave Kentucky all it could handle at Rupp Arena, the Dogs slobbered, turning it over to the Cats 18 times. That's why Georgia lost, and if it can't keep the turnover count under lucky 13 in SEC play, it will keep losing close games. And all the games in the SEC will be relatively close.

Still, even if Georgia can control the ball, look for the Dogs to dwell in the basement of the conference.

Florida (1-1)

Team Theme: Rebounding Year

After making the NCAA championship game last year, the propensity to mentally let up may hold the Gators down. Example: the loss at South Carolina on January 7. (Yet, the Gators haven't won an opening SEC game away since 1993.)

But what will hold Florida down even more is not getting off the floor - the Gators lost their two top rebounders from last year, and rebounding was key to their success, as they improved from seventh in the conference to second in that stat last year.

And thanks to injury, Florida also loses guard Teddy Dupay and another good rebounder, forward Brent Wright, for at least three weeks. UF's got depth, but these injuries may knock it from conference contention. Example 2: without Dupay and Wright, Florida needed a buzzer beater to hold off Mississippi St. on January 10.

Incidentally, not one Gator missed time last year because of injury.

Louisiana State (0-3)

Team Theme: Five Card Stud

Feel sorry, for once, for LSU. The Tigers have been caught by the tail a lot lately.

Tough: LSU's scholarship count was reduced to seven for the illegal recruitment of Lester Earl several years back. John Brady, the 2000 SEC Coach of the Year, had nothing to do with that mistake, but he has to deal with its consequence daily this year.

Tougher: the Tiger's electric, would-be junior forward Stromile Swift is now a Bear, leaving school early to sign with the Vancouver Grizzlies. He was the SEC's best defender, and LSU will miss his scoring.

Toughest: guard Lamont Roland tore his ACL on a breakaway against Alabama on January 6. Now the defending SEC West champs have only five scholarship players.

One bright spot, though, is Bright, as in Torris Bright. A safe bet is that the sophomore will be one of the conference's best point guards this year.

Mississippi (2-1)

Team Theme: David and Goliath

Ole Miss won twelve conference games in 1998. It won eight in 1999. Last year it won five. How far back will Ole Miss slide this season?

The answer is probably none; in fact, expect Ole Miss to reverse the trend.

A large reason for their success is a little man. Point guard Jason Harrison stands only 5'5," and returns for his third year after being named 3rd team All SEC last season. Complementing him, and certainly contrasting him, is 6'8", 250-lb. (power) forward Rahim Lockhart, who's among the tops in the conference in scoring and rebounding.

The Rebels are off to their best start since beginning the 1925-26 season 15-1. What's more, Ole Miss has won its first two conference games on the road. And winning the conference starts with winning away from home.

Ole Miss is the only SEC team never to win a regular season conference title.

Mississippi State (1-2)

Team Theme: Old Bones, New Dogs

Much of the conference will rely on youth - and very talented youth at that - to produce wins this year. MSU is the exception, though, returning five seniors, four of which were starters last year.

Therefore lofty expectations, and demands, are high in Starkville. And that means that failure to produce a large quantity of wins will send coach Rick Stansbury shopping for a job next year.

Ironically, however, four newcomers could be instrumental in determining the fate of this senior-laden club. Included among them is postman Mario Austin, a McDonald's All American who almost jumped to the NBA, guard Timmy Bowers was Mississippi's number one prep player in 2000, and forward Ontario Harper, a top-75 recruit.

The Dogs haven't made the NCAA tournament in four years, when they went to the Final Four. They're doing okay in conference so far, defeating Arkansas and losing by one to Florida.

South Carolina (1-2)

Team Theme: TBA

Determining how USC will fare in conference play this year is difficult. Even South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler has said he doesn't know how good his team will be. Why?

Well, USC certainly has enough inexperience to cause worry. Plus, their dead-beat pre-SEC schedule, in which, among others, they played pushovers VMI, Wofford, and Mercer, inflates their win column; therefore, South Carolina's record cannot be used to give indication on the quality of the club.

However, Fogler knows that the Gamecocks have enough talent to be dangerous - every time they take the court. For instance, they toppled one of the SEC East's powers, Florida, on January 7 and almost did the same to another one, Kentucky, three nights later.

That said, the best way to forecast USC's chances for success on a given night is monitoring how well Fogler manages the team. Wonder if he knows how good he will be?

Tennessee (3-1)

Team Theme: Team Scheme

Tennessee easily has the most talented roster, which begs this question: who is UT's best player? Answer: The best player in the SEC.

UT has the luxury of Tony Harris, Vincent Yarbrough, or Isiah Victor stepping it up on any given night. What's scary is when all three do, especially when one considers that UT has still another guy, Ron Slay, averaging better than 13 points per game.

But with its power and position comes a bunch of pressure. And in the past, pressure has prompted UT individual players to play individually.

If the Vols ascribe to the principle of synergy - and they have thus far this season, they should have few difficulties (being only Florida and Kentucky) winning the conference. The only way (save injuries) UT will struggle is if the guys play for the name on the back of their jersey and not the one on the front.

Vanderbilt (2-1)

Team Theme: Nothing New

In 2000-2001, Vanderbilt will once again be the other SEC team (besides your own) that you pull for. Because in 2000-2001, Vanderbilt will once again not be a threat to win the conference.

In fact, Vandy has never been a consistent threat, winning only a single conference championship (1974). And likely, it will never be. Because, simply, Vandy's academic standards either scare off many high profile recruits or keep them from getting in.

Good for Vanderbilt. The school has its priorities straight.

Still, this doesn't mean the Commodores won't be a good team. They've got skilled players (i.e., center Greg LaPointe was chosen as second team preseason All SEC), and Kevin Stallings is a fine, feisty coach. Vandy will play hard, like usual, and sneak up on some teams, like usual.

And it will graduate its players, and they will go and be successful in the (non-NBA) world.

Like usual.

Player of the Year

As written above, Arkansas' Joe Johnson was the unanimous vote getter for preseason player of the year. No argument here. Expect the same in the postseason voting.

Tennessee certainly has three guys as good, or almost, as Johnson, but because of their total team talent, none of them will likely be singled out. Which should prove beneficial for the Vols.

Coach of the Year

It is easy to be coach of the year, you might say, when you have as much talent as Billy Donovan has at Florida. But how do you think he got all that talent? He's an excellent recruiter, which is becoming as big a part of coaching as X's and O's.

But Donovan's also smart, which is often overlooked because he has so many athletes. And he'll prove his prowess this year - and win top coach recognition - as he keeps the Gators in conference contention despite losing two starters (and 30 points per game) due to injury at the onset of the SEC season.

SEC Tournament Champs

Winning the SEC tournament permits a team all-important automatic admission to the NCAA tournament, and such access will prove extra significant this year - since, despite what Eddie Fogler says, some very good SEC teams won't be asked to the Big Dance because they were brutalized by their formidable conference foes.

That said, here at the close of this little exploration into the SEC, the following is something that should make Cat fans happy - if nothing else has yet:

Kentucky will win the conference tournament.

Why? Because they play, and are seasoned by, the toughest pre-conference schedule. And also, basically, because they know how to win it and have made it a habit, producing 22 victories in 39 tries.

But, of course, most Kentucky fans already knew that.

Happy SEC-ing.