SEC: Mid-Season Review

January 12th, 2009
Thank goodness for Tim Tebow.


The legend-in-the-making Florida QB led the Gators to the national championship last Thursday, their second in three years and the third straight title for an SEC school. Tebow’s performance erased much of a mediocre SEC season in most people’s minds, and gave the conference bragging rights once again. The only bad thing is…Tebow doesn’t play basketball as well.


Heading into conference play, SEC schools boasted a 127-42 record in non-conference play, a winning percentage of .751, last among the BCS conferences. The ACC, not surprisingly, leads the way with a .831 winning percentage, followed by the Big 10 at .812, the Big East at .788, the Big 12 at .786 and the Pac 10 at  .752.


To make matters worse, the SEC has a losing record to each of the other BCS conferences in head-to head play. They’re 4-7 against the ACC, 1-2 against the Big 10, 4-5 against the Big East, 4-5 against the Big 12 and 1-3 against the Pac 10. Altogether, that’s 14-22 against the “big boys”…something the selection committee might take notice of this March.


The problem is that one or two teams who dropped a number of high-profile games aren’t skewing these numbers. Every team, with the exception of Arkansas, has lost at least once to a team from one of the other BCS conferences, and in many cases, they’ve lost multiple times.


Tennessee, the conference favorite, has three losses not even reflected in the above numbers, dropping two to Gonzaga and another to Temple to go along with their loss to Kansas. Kentucky has losses to North Carolina, Miami (Fla.) and Louisville. Florida has losses to Syracuse and Florida State. Ole Miss has losses to West Virginia and Louisville. Alabama has losses to Oregon and Clemson. On and on down the line it goes.


In an earlier column, I suggested that these numbers reflect a youthful league, one that has avoided the one-and-done elite recruits and tried to build solid veteran teams through cohesion and experience. A quick look back at some of the most successful SEC teams in the last 20 years reveals veteran rosters, like the 2005-06-07 Florida Gators and the 1996-97-98 Kentucky Wildcats- teams that stayed together and grew over time. That’s a proven approach to success, but that also leaves the door open for transition years, when those veterans leave.


Veteran players like Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford, Chris Lofton, JuJuan Smith, Sonny Weems, Patrick Beverly, Darien Townes, Shan Foster, Jamont Gordon, Charles Rhodes, Sundiata Gaines and Richard Hendrix all departed after last season, leaving a number of players to step up and play bigger roles. Since the SEC has avoided for the most part going after the instant impact players like Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose and OJ Mayo, all of whom left after one year, they’ve got a bunch of young kids who will surely get better, but who need time to adjust.


The one exception to this rule so far has been Arkansas, a team picked to finish dead last after losing six seniors and standout guard Patrick Beverly last year. What the young Hogs lack in experience, they more than make up for in swagger and athleticism, two traits that have led to their surprising upsets of Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas. John Pelphrey has a great young team that should only get better as the season wears on, and they could end up being the team to beat in the topsy-turvy SEC West.


Of course, Arkansas isn’t the only team to post a couple impressive victories. Tennessee has dropped Georgetown and Marquette from the mighty Big East, while Kentucky has beaten West Virginia and Kansas State, Florida has knocked off Washington and North Carolina State, and South Carolina has an impressive win over Baylor. The problem is that these wins have seemed few and far between, especially when it seems that every other conference boasts a legit national title contender, while the SEC appears mired in mediocrity.


The ACC has Duke and North Carolina, as well as an upstart Wake Forest squad. The Big 10 had Purdue and Michigan State, who are rounding into form as conference play begins. The Big East, easily the deepest conference in the country, is led by Pitt and UConn, while Georgetown, Notre Dame and Louisville could make some noise as well. The Big 12 has Oklahoma and Texas, while UCLA and Arizona State are solid bets to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament from the Pac 10.


Tennessee is likely the team to beat in the conference, but they’re far from unbeatable. With a number of young players and a frenetic pace that borders on chaos, the Vols are prime upset fodder on any given night. Kentucky has a great scoring combo in Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson, but their point guard play has been spotty all year, and turnovers continue to hurt them in big games. Florida hasn’t found a reliable weapon to pair with Nick Calathes, while Vandy clearly misses the shooting and confidence of Foster. LSU and South Carolina, a combined 23-4 in non-conference play, have padded their record with a ton of cupcake victories and they may come crashing back to Earth during conference play. Ole Miss is now without the services of Chris Warren, while Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State just don’t have the talent available this year. Alabama is as unpredictable as any team in the country, while Arkansas may begin to act their age once they start the grind of SEC play.


So while the future looks plenty bright for some SEC teams, the present might have some road bumps. The key is for coaches, and fans, to be patient and stick to the plan. All of that young talent will eventually gain experience, and in a year or two, the SEC could be sending multiple teams on Final Four runs, as they did in 2006, 1996, and 1994. It’s just going to take a little patience.


Of course, a little Tebow wouldn’t hurt either.