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College Basketball - Madness on the Horizon

By Eric Williams
Wednesday, February 5th, 2003
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Soon, the airwaves will be filled with talks of bubble teams, No. 1 seeds, and RPI ratings. One other thing that garners a lot of attention around this time is the controversy over how many teams the so-called "power" conferences will get in the tournament.

With teams from the mid-major conferences doing so well recently in the tournament, there will once again be a lot of chatter that those conferences ought to get more bids than what they normally receive. And while no one can argue the fact that there is much more parity in the game than ever before, there is no doubt that one of the "power" conferences has proven that it is the best conference in the country and worthy of every bid that they receive. That conference is the Southeastern Conference.

Before this season began, most experts agreed that the two toughest conferences were the SEC and the Big 12. The Big 12, top-heavy with championship contenders like preseason No. 1 Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, received the majority of the votes from the experts. The SEC, while arguably stronger from top to bottom, supposedly didn't have the powerhouse teams, save for maybe Florida and Alabama, that the Big 12 boasted. However, as this season has unfolded, it has been SEC teams like Florida and Kentucky which have supplanted the Big 12 schools as the favorites to reach New Orleans and the Final Four.

The Florida Gators, led by seniors Matt Bonner, Justin Hamilton, and Brett Nelson, entered February on a roll, having won 14 straight games before losing to Kentucky, with tough road victories over Top-25 teams Kansas, Maryland, and Mississippi State included in the streak. The outside shooting that coach Donovan's team lacked last year is in abundance this year, with Bonner, along with freshmen Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson, and Christian Drejer, bombing away from the perimeter.

Their proficiency from the arc has allowed the Gators to fully execute their frenetic full-court style of play, which is a trademark of Donovan-coached teams and reminiscent of the 2000 team which lost in the title game to Michigan State. The Gators were undefeated in conference play before Tuesday night, but they got soundly beaten in probably their toughest challenge of the year when they traveled to Kentucky to play the red-hot Wildcats on February 4.

The Kentucky Wildcats are a team that was flying under many people's radar to start the season. However, they too are catching the attention of the nation, by virtue of their 11-game winning streak, which stretches back to December 30. Coach Tubby Smith's team is playing suffocating defense, and led by a more confident Keith Bogans, are playing some of the best ball in the country. The battle between Kentucky and Florida on Tuesday was for bragging rights and also first-place in the Eastern Division, which now belongs to the Big Blue.

Amazingly, these two teams are ranked in the top-seven in the country, and they reside in the same division of the conference. That division is also home to the Georgia Bulldogs, who just happen to be ranked 18th in the country, the Tennessee Volunteers, Vanderbilt Commodores, and South Carolina Gamecocks. Every team in that division, except for the Gamecocks, sports winning records, which just speaks to the quality of the programs in this division.

Meanwhile, over in the Western Division, the Alabama Crimson Tide are slumping. They were a sexy preseason pick by some to reach the Final Four, and looked good during pre-conference play. They started off the season by beating Oklahoma in their season-opener and used that momentum to string together eight consecutive victories.

However, as they soon found out, conference play is an altogether different animal, especially when playing on the road. But the Tide are the defending regular season champions and have the reigning SEC Player of the Year, Erwin Dudley, still roaming the paint. They have the experience to turn this thing around quickly, which will make things even more interesting in the West.

Mississippi State is another team that was projected to be very good this year, but as with Alabama, have struggled just a bit. Not having their big guy, Mario Austin, at the beginning of the season disrupted the team, but as soon as he returned, they went on a roll. However, just like Alabama, once conference play began, things got a little tougher, as they lost their first three conference games. The Bulldogs were an NCAA Tournament team last year, and are expected to be there again this year. But, just like Alabama, they must pick up their level of play to get there.

What's difficult about the SEC is that although the Florida's, Kentucky's, and Georgia's are recognized as the teams to beat, the supposed weaker teams like Vanderbilt and LSU cannot be taken lightly. Even teams that were picked to finish in the lower-tier of a division, like Auburn, may surprise some teams.

Just ask the big, bad Arizona Wildcats. They swaggered into LSU's Maravich Center as the No. 1 team in the country, only to leave with a loss, humbled by the inspired play of the Tigers and rattled by the crazed purple-and-gold clad fans.

Life on the road in the SEC is not for the weak of heart. Except for Florida and Kentucky, most of the teams in the SEC are finding that you must bring your "A-game" every night, and often times that may not even be good enough. Mississippi State and Alabama have both found out that the road is difficult, as they have gone a combined 1-6 away from the friendly confines of their respective home arenas.

When the NCAA Tournament selection committee reviews the bubble teams, one of the things that they look at is the strength of schedule and how well a team does in its own conference. If there are any teams on the fence from the SEC, the committee only has to look at how well the conference as a whole has done against foes from the other "power" conferences to determine whether or not a team should get a bid.

The league has an overall winning record against the other marquee conferences, with some high-profile wins against Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Maryland thrown in. And while there will be some mid-major teams with gaudy records at the end of the season, the level of competition that those teams play will pale in comparison to the wars that the teams from the SEC engage in every night. There are but two teams in the entire conference with losing records and one of those teams, LSU, has a win over the No. 1 ranked team in the country to its credit.

The Big 12 and ACC boast a few elite teams. But if you're looking for the conference that has the most number of quality teams, look no further than the conference that only a few years ago mostly considered basketball as something that kept the students and boosters occupied until spring football practice.

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