SEC: Strong Enough Conference?

    
December 15th, 2008
I'll admit it - I'm biased toward the SEC. I grew up rooting for Florida, thanks to my Dad, who is a Gator alum. I myself went to UK, and I have friends who attended Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. It's been embedded into me my entire life that the SEC is simply the greatest conference in the country, and no one else measures up.

That's why it's so painful for me to admit that maybe, just maybe, if I take a step back and look objectively, if I just allow myself to say it, if I want to be truthful.... than I just have to admit that the SEC is just really not that great this year.

I look at many of the other top conferences and see national contenders rounding into form. There's Duke and North Carolina leading the charge for the ACC. There's Texas and Oklahoma looking very stout for the Big 12. UCLA is once again loaded in the Pac 10. And don't even get me started on the Big East, where UConn, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pitt lead what could be the deepest conference ever.

Then there's the SEC, where frontrunner Tennessee just dropped a game to unranked Temple. There's Florida, who has squandered chances for signature victories in losses to Syracuse and Florida State. There's Kentucky, who has losses to UNC and Miami (Fla), not to mention VMI. There's Alabama, with losses to Oregon and Texas A&M, Georgia with a loss to Illinois, Mississippi State with losses to Texas Tech and Washington State, and Vandy with losses to Illinois and Georgia Tech (who couldn't even beat UIC). Ole Miss has losses to Utah and West Virginia, while Arkansas has losses to Dayton and Xavier.

That's a ton of opportunities that the conference - from top to bottom- missed out on. The best wins by the SEC to date are Tennessee's win over Georgetown (which was followed by a loss to Gonzaga), Florida's win over Washington, or UK's win over West Virginia. Relatively solid wins, but nothing to make anyone think this conference could have anyone make a deep run through the postseason.

So after watching yet another SEC disappointment (Tim Tebow losing the Heisman) this weekend, I got to wondering if there is any team in the SEC capable of making a Final Four run this year?

Tennessee, the most talented team in the league, hasn't been able to fully mesh their players yet. They're loaded with athletic wing players, but PG play has been inconsistent (again), and they're frantic pace can work against them when they're trying to dig out of a hole, as they often force the action and rush shots. With so many young players, the future for the Vols certainly looks bright, but they haven't yet shown the toughness and discipline needed to advance in the postseason.

Beyond that, the league is a crapshoot. Kentucky, as I've noted many times before, is impossible to figure out yet, as they continue to alternate moments of brilliance with moments where fans are forced to cover their eyes. Florida, who many thought would take a step forward this season, is leaning far too heavily on sophomore guard Nick Calathes, who is doing everything for the team. Unless they find a reliable second and third option, the Gators could be watching the Dance from home again.

Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia and South Carolina have enough pieces on their roster to throw the occasional scare into someone, but barring a run through the SEC Tournament like last year's Georgia team, all of these guys will probably be watching from home.

Mississippi State is trying to replace their leading rebounder (Charles Rhodes), one of their best shooters (Ben Hansbrough, and their best all-around player (Jamont Gordon). Rick Stansbury always has his teams ready to play, but even the most optimistic of Bulldogs fans can't expect this team to make any kind of run this year.

Alabama and Vanderbilt both return some solid players (Jermaine Beal, AJ Ogilvy, Ronald Steele, Alonzo Gee), but they also lost significant pieces in Richard Hendrix and Shan Foster that are proving hard to replace. The best wins for each team so far are a victory over St. Josephs for the Tide and a win over Virginia Commonwealth for Vandy. Yikes.

LSU has a surprising amount of talent, and they actually lead the conference with a 7-0 record. However, wins over Centenary, Grambling State and Alcorn State just don't impress me that much. How will the Tigers respond when they play a team that can match their athleticism and size? Upcoming games against Texas A&M, Washington State and Utah could be a indicator of how good this team actually is, and whether they've just taken advantage of a cupcake schedule so far.

So here we are...about two months into the season and more questions than answers for the SEC so far. There doesn't appear to be a team in the conference deserving of a top-15 ranking, yet alone a team who is a serious title threat. So far, the conference has failed many of their early tests against other big name opponents, and each team has major flaws to address.

But why is that? Granted the league lost a ton of great players after last year, including Gordon, Rhodes, Hendrix, Foster, Marresse Speights, Ramel Bradley, Chris Lofton, Joe Crawford, JuJuan Smith, Anthony Randolph, Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverly. Only a handful of them landed in the NBA, but there's still a lot of talent on that list for the college level.

But more than the talent, and perhaps the reason for the downward trend this year, is the experience lost. The SEC hasn't attracted as many one-and-dones in the last few years as other leagues, so it appears that the coaches are going more for the players who will stick around and develop. While that can lead to great results (Florida's veteran-laden back-to-back national championship teams), it also can mean a quick fall from grace when those players finally exhaust their time on campus.

It means young players are being thrust into roles they may not be prepared for. It means impatient fan bases with high expectations based on past successes. It means more pressure on coaches to rebuild quickly, rather than looking at the long-term picture. And so far, it means inferior teams as compared to some of the other BCS leagues.

But perhaps all is not lost. Tennessee will likely lose Tyler Smith after this year, but Coach Bruce Pearl has established the Vols as a player on the recruiting scene, and he's got a great thing brewing in Knoxville. The Vols don't appear to be ready this year, but it's very possible they'll be special by next year. Florida and Kentucky are also stocked with young talent, and with aggressive recruiters like Billy Gillispie and Billy Donovan out there, there's no reason to think that will change anytime soon. South Carolina should improve dramatically with new coach Darrin Horn's energy, and LSU, who always has talent, will certainly benefit from the discipline of new coach Trent Johnson. Alabama has nice foundation in JaMychal Green, while Arkansas has a roster loaded with possibilities if the players develop some chemistry.

So maybe a couple down years aren't the end of the world. Maybe, after a run of two straight football and basketball champions, they were due for a little letdown. Maybe by this time next season, we'll be looking at two or three teams with legit Final Four aspirations.

So we'll let the Big 12, Big East and ACC enjoy the spotlight this year. I just hope they don't get too attached to it.