SEC is quietly proving it's no one-trick pony

Football-intensive league has 6 teams among Top 25

National notebook

January 17, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Which is the best league in college basketball this season?

Here's a hint: Many of its fans still view this time of year as an interlude between bowl games and spring practice, and are counting the days until Feb. 5, the national signing date for high school football players.

The Southeastern Conference has become the reigning power of college basketball this winter.

Among the league's most significant victories this year: LSU giving second-ranked Arizona its only defeat to date; Georgia beating then-No. 2 Pittsburgh; and No. 9 Alabama holding, albeit briefly, its first basketball No. 1 ranking and winning over highly ranked Oklahoma.

Only Florida and Mississippi State rank in the Top 10 this week, but the SEC has become strong from top to nearly bottom and six SEC teams are currently in the Top 25.

The SEC doesn't rank at the top in one significant category.

"I'm not sure we're as good as the ACC or the Big East in promoting ourselves or beating our own drum," said Georgia coach Jim Harrick. "We've talked about that as a league. I guess we let our play do our talking."

Harrick, who coached UCLA to a national championship in 1995, is among several who have worked at schools in other high-profile leagues.

"This league right now is where [the ACC was] during that '84 to '94 time," said Cliff Ellis, now in his ninth year with Auburn after 10 seasons at Clemson. "I feel like I'm back [in the ACC]."

The SEC doesn't have many high-profile stars. Perhaps the biggest splash nationally this season has been made by Gators freshmen Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh.

"Coming in, I knew the SEC had great athletes," said Dave Odom, who came to South Carolina (7-2) last year after 12 seasons at Wake Forest. "I didn't know they had great athletes with great talent."

Staying or going?

There has been widespread speculation that UCLA coach Steve Lavin was going to resign before the end of the season, possibly as early as this week. Under siege during a 4-7 start for the Bruins, Lavin said Tuesday that he plans to stick it out.

Amid reports that he talked with friends about resigning in the aftermath of last Saturday's home loss to St. John's, Lavin, 38, said, "[I] was not soul-searching or even considering resigning, just concerned that we weren't playing better basketball.

"If I was considering it, I'd have discussions with the chancellor, with [athletic director] Dan Guerrero, with [Hall of Famer] Pete Newell, with John Wooden, with [Purdue coach and former boss] Gene Keady. I don't know who these friends and confidants are."

The rumors of his imminent departure have happened throughout his tumultuous yet successful six-year tenure, but they have been even more rampant since UCLA lost at home to the likes of San Diego and Northern Arizona.

Lavin fueled the fodder by canceling practice and leaving campus on the day last month that Guerrero fired football coach Bob Toledo.

Asked whether a coach whose previous teams have overcome shaky starts with five Sweet 16 appearances can hold onto his job with another strong finish, Guerrero said, "I never say never to anything."

It reportedly would cost UCLA as much as $1.3 million to buy out Lavin's contract should he get fired.

"They've positioned themselves as a steppingstone program because they refuse to pay," said Harrick, who was fired before the 1996-97 season by former AD Pete Dalis for falsifying an expense account.

"Walter O'Malley once made the statement, `You pay peanuts, you get a monkey.' If you're going to be UCLA, you've got to pay the going rate if you want to be at the top of the heap."


The announcement that Jason Conley, who last year led Division I in scoring, had transferred from VMI to Missouri, could pave the way for players looking to step up from a lower-echelon school.

While it's too late for this year's leading scorer, 6-foot-4 senior Henry Domercant (26.9) of Eastern Illinois, Conley's move might give some ideas to St. Peter's freshman Keydren Clark. The 5-7 guard ranks third (26.2) this season.

"I thought I could play, but I never thought this would happen," Clark told USA Today. "I thought I'd just be an average freshman playing about 20 minutes a game."

Clark scored 48 points against Northern Arizona and then 44 against St. Francis (N.Y.). St. Francis coach Ron Ganulin decided he would try to limit Clark's three-point shooting.

"He was one of eight, but he beat us with twos," said Ganulin. "He not only has a long-range game, but he has a mid-range game, which is kind of unusual. He's quick, not a jet, but very deceptive on his moves."

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