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October 26, 2006

Is basketball now king in the SEC?

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - South Carolina basketball coach Dave Odom understands his statement might seem like heresy to many Southeastern Conference fans, but that doesn't stop him from making his case.

"Forgive me for saying it (because) I know I'll get all kinds of letters," Odom said Thursday at the SEC basketball media days at the Birmingham Marriott. "Everybody says the football in this league is far and away above everyone else in the country. It probably is. I wouldn't argue with that. But I would say the basketball is as good as the football is in this league.

"The basketball, without getting credit, is every bit as good as the football is in this league. And that says nothing bad about football. It says everything good about basketball."

At least this year, the facts support Odom's argument.

Florida earned its first national title, LSU reached the Final Four and South Carolina captured the NIT last season. The SEC won 13 NCAA Tournament games, one shy of the conference record set a decade earlier.

And most of the league's top underclassmen returned to school instead of turning pro.

"It kind of surprised me a little bit, but it's going to be fun seeing all those guys come back," Alabama point guard Ronald Steele said. "I think we can be the toughest conference in America."

The national opinion of SEC basketball has shifted 180 degrees in the past 12 months. Florida coach Billy Donovan still remembers the skepticism that surrounded the SEC one year ago.

A flurry of early entries into the NBA Draft had left the conference without many star players or marquee teams. The league looked devoid of Final Four contenders.

Donovan's team appeared particularly vulnerable.

"The total perception about our league going into this a year ago today was that the league is down," Donovan said. "Too many young players, not enough experience. (The perception was) it's probably the fourth or fifth best league in the country."

Nobody's saying that anymore. A remarkable sequence of events has made SEC basketball the envy of every league in the country.

First came a surprisingly successful regular season.

Then came a dream postseason.

And an even better offseason.

No team reflects this era of good feeling better than Florida.

One year ago, the Gators appeared in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the firs time since 1998. Florida instead won its first national championship with a roster full of underclassmen who decided to return to school this season.

Now the conference that included a bunch of relatively anonymous players a year ago features more stars than an Alabama sky.

Florida forward Corey Brewer, LSU forward/center Glen Davis, Florida guard Taurean Green, Florida forward Al Horford, Tennessee guard Chris Lofton and Florida center Joakim Noah all have appeared on at least one preseason All-America team.

Davis, Horford, Noah, Mississippi State's Charles Rhodes, Kentucky's Randolph Morris and Alabama's frontcourt duo of Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix give the SEC arguably the nation's best collection of post players. Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury counted 11 big men in the conference who are potential first-round draft picks.

"The front line across the board in our league is a whole other level above everyone else," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "I know there are other great players out there, but you just go down the list. Randolph Morris. The Florida guys. The guy at Mississippi State, Rhodes, is terrific. Davis. Davidson. It's unbelievable. A lot of teams sometimes have one guy. A lot of teams in our league have multiple guys. That's what's so unique."

These guys continued their college careers after learning that leaving school early doesn't necessarily result in fame and fortune.

The list of SEC players who had entered the 2004-05 NBA Draft included Morris, Florida's Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson, Alabama's Kennedy Winston, LSU's Brandon Bass and Arkansas' Olu Famutimi. The SEC also lost high-profile recruits Louis Williams (Georgia) and Monta Ellis (Mississippi State) to the draft.

Bass, Williams and Ellis were the only players from that list to get drafted. None of them went in the first round, though Morris at least got a chance to return to school.

Those draft-day disappointments influenced the decisions of the underclassmen who stayed in school this year.

"To see (Bass) go through that, knowing the NBA is something he wants, it put me in deep thought," said Davis, the SEC player of the year last season. "Do I want to go through that? Is my character strong enough to go through that? I didn't think at the time my character was ready to go through that."

Stansbury considers this change of heart by many of the league's top players a dramatic change in course for the SEC.

"There was a trend and a tendency where it seemed like more players in this league would leave the Southeastern Conference to enter the draft, whether they were ready or not, than in any other league," Stansbury said. "Last year, we had some guys who were ready to enter and came back."

The SEC's talent pool could have been even greater.

Although most of the league's top underclassmen returned to school, there were a few notable exceptions. LSU forward Tyrus Thomas, Kentucky guard Rajon Rondo, South Carolina forward Renaldo Balkman and Arkansas guard Ronnie Brewer all went in the first round and left their respective college teams scrambling to fill huge holes.

In a conference historically as deep as the SEC, the loss of one key player could make the difference between an NCAA invitation and a last-place finish for some teams.

"If you look from top to bottom, any team can beat any team on a given night," Steele said. "There aren't too many conferences that can say that."

Every SEC program has made at least one appearance in the last five NCAA Tournaments. All the SEC representatives have shown up in the Associated Press Top 25 poll at some point since the 1999-2000 season.

Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Mississippi State all have reached the Final Four since 1995. Only the Atlantic Coast Conference has won more NCAA Tournament games since 1994.

So why doesn't SEC basketball receive more nationwide attention? Coaches around the league frequently respond by invoking the "F" word.


"It's always been a quality league with quality coaches," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who spent last year coaching in the Big East at Cincinnati. "I think now the rest of the nation is understanding that. I think because of the fact it's been so dominant in football, at times basketball flies under the radar a little bit till it gets into tournament play. That's not going to change.

"I don't think you have to be mutually exclusive - good at football or good at basketball. I think Billy just showed that and (LSU coach) John (Brady) just showed that."

LSU coach John Brady offers a blunt take on the matter.

"The leagues where football isn't as prominent, those leagues seem to think they play better basketball because the coverage is there," Brady said. "ACC football? Who cares? Big East? Who really cares? Pac-10? They got one team."

The SEC's reputation as a football conference overshadows the fact that the league actually has produced more national champions in men's basketball since 1994.

Arkansas captured a national title in 1994, then Kentucky won the tournament in 1996 and 1998 before Florida cut down the nets last year. The only SEC football teams to win titles during that time frame are Florida in 1996, Tennessee in 1998 and LSU in 2003.

"Maybe there's more of a tradition in football than there is in basketball," Donovan said, "but we're building that. I think if you look at this league over the last 10-12 years, this conference has been as good as any conference in the country. It really has been."

And it figures to stay that way for at least one more season.

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