Thursday, January 8, 2004
UK repeat won't be an easy task
League appears to be as deep as ever
By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Don't expect another 19-0.
When Kentucky (9-1) opens Southeastern Conference play Saturday against Vanderbilt, it does so with two fewer losses than it did entering league play last season. Reason for optimism, sure.
But there's a reason its unbeaten run through the league's regular season and tournament last winter hadn't happened in 51 years. So with a surprisingly deep SEC lining up for payback, UK should be happy simply to repeat.
Entering Wednesday, six of the 12 SEC teams had either one or no losses. Though only UK and Florida appeared in the polls the first six weeks of the season, they since have been joined by Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
The league is 111-20 overall (84.7) in nonconference play and ranks a close second to the Atlantic Coast Conference in the Ratings Percentage Index. The league's previous best nonconference winning percentage the past 10 years was 78.1 (125-35) in 1997-98.
League play began Tuesday with Louisiana State's victory over Arkansas, and four more games were played Wednesday.
How the SEC is shaping up:
Favorites: UK and Florida figure to battle for the East Division crown. If they do, it might not be settled until the final day of the regular season - March 7 - when they meet in Lexington. Vanderbilt could make a statement about contending with an upset Saturday in Rupp Arena.
LSU (10-1) remains the favorite in the West. Its senior center, Jaime Lloreda, leads the league in both scoring (19.1 avg.) and rebounding (11.9). Mississippi State (11-0) has been helped greatly by 6-foot-9, 235-pound center Lawrence Roberts, who was eligible immediately after transferring from Baylor and averages 16.3 points and 11.0 rebounds.
Alabama and Auburn also could contend in the West.
Biggest surprises: Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The Commodores were the SEC's worst team last season, but jack-of-all-trades Matt Freije (19.1 ppg) has led their resurgence. Vandy ranks fourth nationally in rebounding margin at plus-11.5 a game.
The Gamecocks, 13-1 entering Wednesday, were picked last in the SEC East but have eclipsed their victory total of last season. They are holding opponents to fewer than 55 points a game.
Biggest disappointments: It's hard to fault any team thus far, though Florida blew its short-lived No. 1 ranking with back-to-back losses to Maryland and Louisville.
Best win for the league: Florida beating Arizona 78-77 on a neutral court Nov. 28. Center Bonell Colas made the winning layup with 7.3 seconds left.
Worst loss for the league: Georgia being thumped 80-60 at home by Winthrop, which is 4-6 against other Division I teams and stands 174th in the RPI. Runner-up is Arkansas' home loss to Western Carolina.
Statistically speaking: Every SEC team is in the RPI's top 100, with six in the top 40. Interestingly, the lowest-rated team is one-loss South Carolina, at No. 91. . . . Alabama, rated No. 16 by the RPI, has played the nation's fifth-toughest schedule. . . . The SEC is 6-5 against ranked teams.
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