Vaught's Views: SEC not down after all

January 07, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

This was supposed to be a down year for the Southeastern Conference. Or at least that's what most of the preseason predictions forecast for the SEC.

Kentucky and Florida were highly regarded in preseason polls and by national college basketball analysts, but the general conclusion was that the league would be down.

However, with league play starting this week, the SEC has four teams ranked in the top 25 - Kentucky (7), Florida (14), Vanderbilt (20) and Mississippi State (22).

"I think we should have more teams ranked, too," said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "I was never one that thought our league was down. I thought this league would be as strong as it ever has. Everybody has improved and that's indicative of how this league is."


He might be right. Even though both UK and Florida lost to Louisville, the SEC has had its best non-conference winning percentage since the league expanded to 12 teams for the 1991-92 season.

"It seems like the ACC seems to be in more favor than the SEC in basketball, but the numbers certainly don't bear that out and how you change that I don't know," said LSU coach John Brady.

"The last six, eight, 10 years the SEC has done more than the ACC. There are outstanding coaches in this league who have done outstanding recruiting. So even though we have new players, the new players are going to get better, the coaches can coach and the SEC will again establish itself and build respect for itself as it does every year."

The SEC is 111-20 against non-league opponents this year. That's an 84.7 winning percentage. Granted, some teams have piled up wins against patsies. But there have also been eye-opening victories like Georgia's win over then third-ranked Georgia Tech last week.

The SEC scheduling is not that different this year than past seasons when the best non-league mark was 78.1 percent for the 1997-98 year.

"Everybody has tried to declare it a down year and yet you continually see our teams beat teams picked at the top or near the top of other leagues," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.

Vanderbilt has home wins over Indiana and Michigan, but it also went on the road last week and won by 35 points at Texas Christian.

Conference coaches continue to put together impressive numbers. LSU's John Brady got his 200th career win last week. Smith needs three more wins to reach 300 overall and is 173-48 at Kentucky.

Billy Donovan is 199-96 overall, including 158-76 at Florida. Even Stallings needs just four more wins to reach the 200-victory plateau.

"Who could have done a better coaching job this year than Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt? He's been phenomenal, just like this league usually is," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said.

Vanderbilt is 11-0, the same mark as Mississippi State.

"Once you get into conference play, it brings out the best in people," Smith said. "The SEC is the best in the country, and we prove it year in and year out. I know this league is extremely strong again. We have a lot of potential pro players in this league. Once you get into conference play, you better play well or you are going to get beat."

While Kentucky and Florida are again considered the teams to beat for the league title, the league's balance should make it impossible for any team to do what Kentucky did last year when the Wildcats went 16-0 in league play.

The SEC is the only conference since 1997-98 to have had all of its teams ranked at least one week in The Associated Press top 20. That's an impressive accomplishment for a league many still consider a "football conference."

That's why a coach like Odom can warn not to overlook teams such as Auburn, Georgia or Tennessee when league play starts and why Donovan was warning not to look at South Carolina as a certain win, either.

"As coaches, we know there are good teams in this league no matter who they have played or who they are going to play," Smith said. "That's why anyone who thought this was going to be a down year for the SEC just doesn't understand how good this league has been and how good it is going to continue to be every year. But if you coach in this league, you certainly know this is no down year."

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