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    • SEC "Fast Break": February 26

      Apparently, eight Southeastern Conference teams were having so much fun last Saturday they didn’t want it to end.
    • SEC Fast Break with Chris Dortch

      The first month of the season was largely forgettable for the Southeastern Conference by almost any barometer. Where to start?
    • November Offers Challenges for SEC Teams

      It seems like only yesterday Kentucky players were cutting down the nets in the New Orleans Superdome after winning the Southeastern Conference’s third national championship in a seven-year span. But that was more than seven months ago, and now it’s time for college basketball to crank up again.
    • One on One with Chris Dortch: Marquis Teague

      Was there ever a question Marquis Teague could take his place among the elite point guards coached the last four seasons by Kentucky’s John Calipari? We profile Teague, a likely first round pick in this week's NBA Draft.
    • Instant Reaction: Kentucky Claims Title

      About a month ago, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari asked a question of his team.

    SEC "Fast Break" With Chris Dortch

    SEC Fast Break With Chris Dortch

    A quick look around the SEC, by the numbers:

    1. Kentucky (13-1).
    So far:
    Were it not for a heroic 3-pointer by Indiana forward Christian Watford, this would be the No. 1-ranked team in the country. Sophomore guard Doron Lamb has picked up where he left off last season, and freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis have been brilliant. The word “warrior” is overused in sports, but there’s no better way to describe MKG. Few freshmen come into college basketball with his competitive fire. Davis is going to shatter Kentucky’s all-time blocked shot record, and he’s averaging a double-double (12.1 ppg, 10.2 rpg).

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: Kentucky will be hard to beat in league play if sophomore Terrence Jones, the preseason All-America, rediscovers his mojo, which he lost in the Indiana game, and freshman point guard Marquis Teague continues to fine-tune his game and improves his assist-to-turnover ratio.

    2. Mississippi State (13-2).
    So far:
    Last week the Bulldogs were an ill-timed technical foul away from a win over Baylor and ascension into the Top 10 in both major polls. Still, things are going well in Starkville, so well that State could survive a 1-for-10 shooting night from star guard Dee Bost and still manage to beat a traditionally strong mid-major, Utah State, to put the finishing touches on its non-conference season.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: The Bulldogs need the occasionally achy knees of junior forward Arnett Moultrie to hang in there. It would help if junior post Renardo Sidney, to whom the aforementioned technical was assessed against Baylor, commits himself mentally and physically to the cause. When he does, Sidney is a weapon few teams in the country can match.

    3. Florida (11-3).
    So far:
    Except for a double-overtime loss at Rutgers last week, the Gators are just about where they need to be. Their only other losses came at No. 7 Ohio State and No. 1 Syracuse, hard places for any team to win.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: The Gators produced some excellent numbers across the board in their non-conference games as their guard corps, as expected, produced abundant firepower. The only nitpick is free-throw percentage (.663). That included a 13-of-21 effort in the loss at Ohio State. But Florida also shot 95 percent in the loss at Rutgers, so the ability is there. Can freshman Brad Beal continues to emerge the way he did in the Gators’ first 14 games, during which he was second on the team in scoring and rebounding? The guess here is he can and will.

    4. Arkansas (10-3).
    So far:
    The Razorbacks have won their last four non-conference games and play another winnable home game against Savannah State on Jan. 3, but their progress has been hard to quantify, given that their non-conference schedule strength is 237. Arkansas lost to Houston (RPI: 248) at North Little Rock, Ark. and on the road to the two best teams on their schedule, Connecticut and Oklahoma.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: 40 Minutes of Hell returns to the SEC at an arena near you. First-year coach Mike Anderson, a protégé of the original 40MOH mastermind, former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, has made the frenetic pressing defense work at previous head-coaching stops (UAB, Missouri), and the stats indicate the Razorbacks are learning it. They lead the SEC in steals (8.8 spg) and turnover margin (+5.23) and are third in defensive field-goal percentage (.379). The question is whether the Razorbacks, especially without injured forward Marshawn Powell, can rebound and score when SEC teams slow games down into half-court slugfests.

    5. Auburn (10-3).
    So far:
    The good news: Auburn has won 10 games. The bad news: The Tigers’ non-conference schedule strength is 339. Opportunities to show just how much they’ve improved in coach Tony Barbee’s second season have been limited, and they lost to the three best teams they’ve played (Seton Hall, Long Beach State, UTEP). But clearly, some good things are happening.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: Can Kenny Gabriel, who recently pulled off the first triple-double in Auburn’s 106-year hoops history (24 points, 13 boards, 10 blocked shots against Bethune-Cookman) continue his impressive ascension? He leads the Tigers in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Frankie Sullivan’s return to league play after missing last season with a knee injury will help. Texas transfer Varez Ward, the sophomore point guard, has competed at the highest level in the Big 12 and should help if he improves his shooting percentages. Post man Robb Chub has, like Gabriel, also made strides under Barbee’s tutelage.

    6. Alabama (10-3).
    So far:
    Alabama lost to Georgetown and Kansas State, both better than preseason prognosticators expected. No shame there. A loss at Dayton was unexpected, but the Crimson Tide has beaten four good mid-majors (Oakland, Wichita State, VCU, Detroit) along with Maryland, Purdue and Oklahoma State, big names all, but none as good as they were in previous seasons.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: There’s no doubt Alabama will continue to play the aggressive defense it has won with the last two years. The Tide is limiting its opponents to 36.1 percent shooting from the field (sixth in Division I) and 25.7 percent from 3 (fifth in the country). The problem is Alabama isn’t shooting too much better from behind the arc. Freshmen guards Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper were expected to provide some perimeter firepower, but they shot a collective .260 from 3 in Alabama’s first 13 games. That will have to improve.

    7. Vanderbilt (10-4).
    So far:
    The Commodores have been singled out by some pundits as among the most disappointing teams in the country, given their preseason Top 10 ranking and subsequent four non-conference losses, three of them at home. But that’s not a fair assessment, given that Festus Ezeli, the fifth-year senior center, has played only four games because of an NCAA suspension and knee trouble. Clearly Vanderbilt is a better team with Ezeli, an NBA prospect who draws double coverage in the post, which frees up one of the Commodores’ deadly three-point shooters. In their last four non-conference games, they shot 45 percent from the 3-point line.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: Ezeli, who is also handy on the defensive end — he became Vanderbilt’s all-time blocked shots leader with four rejections against Miami (Ohio) on Jan. 2 — is slowly regaining top form, which bodes well for league games. Another good sign: senior wing Jeffrey Taylor went on a scoring rampage in December. If Taylor and John Jenkins, the SEC’s leading scorer, are playing well in the same game, Vanderbilt is tough to stop. Defense, especially on the perimeter, still needs shoring up.

    8. LSU (10-4).
    So far:
    After a disappointing loss at Coastal Carolina on Nov. 15 and a follow-up loss to Northwestern in the Carolina Classic, the Tigers put things together and won nine of their next 10, including an impressive beat down of Marquette. A narrow home-court loss to a ranked Virginia team on Jan. 2 broke a seven-game winning streak, but the Tigers are nevertheless improved, as SEC defensive statistics show; they’re third in the league in scoring defense (60.1 ppg) and fourth in field-goal defense (.388).

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: Can big men Justin Hamilton, the transfer from Iowa State, and freshman Johnny O’Bryant III do battle with the league’s best post players? If they can, LSU will rebound from last season’s 3-13 record that left it last in the Western Division.

    9. Ole Miss (9-4).
    So far:
    Save for a 30-bashing bashing at the hands of Marquette, things were going pretty well for the Rebels, until a difficult three-game stretch in late December against three good major teams (at Southern Miss; Middle Tennessee in Southaven, Miss; at Dayton) that resulted in three losses. It didn’t help that junior forward Murphy Holloway, the SEC’s third-leading rebounder (9.6 rpg), suffered a high ankle sprain in the Middle Tennessee game and didn’t play at Dayton.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: The Rebels have an experienced frontcourt that needs to lead the way until a young group of guards acclimates to the rigors of league play. In order to let Terrence Henry, Holloway and Reginald Buckner do their thing in the paint, though, Ole Miss has to shoot better from the perimeter (.284 from 3, 11th in the SEC).

    10. Georgia (9-5).
    So far:
    The Bulldogs suffered through a late-November, early-December four-game losing streak against tough competition (at Xavier, at Colorado Cincinnati, Georgia Tech). But a win at USC, during which it ripped up Trojan coach Kevin O’Neill’s sticky defense, gave Georgia a lift and started a five-game winning streak.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: The Bulldogs have to find some offense, which isn’t going to be easy because they don’t have a big man to throw the ball to in the post and get an easy basket. Georgia is shooting .409 from the field, evidence that points in the paint have been hard to come by.

    11. Tennessee (7-6).
    So far:
    The Vols of first-year coach Cuonzo Martin have struggled at times against a schedule that included some ill-advised trips to talented mid-major teams (Oakland, College of Charleston). Those are confidence-sapping trap games for veteran teams, let alone one that’s learning a new system and relying on four new starters and several sophomores and freshmen. A four-game winning streak has given Tennessee a much-needed dose of confidence, but the schedule ahead is brutal. If the SEC weren’t tough enough, the Vols still have to play at Memphis and home against Connecticut.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: Home against Florida, at Mississippi State, home to Kentucky, at Georgia, home to UConn, at Vanderbilt in the first two weeks. If the Vols are still standing after running that gauntlet, perhaps they’ll be battle toughened for a stretch run. The key to this team is point guard Trae Golden, who continues to learn how to walk the fine line that all scoring points do: When to score? When to pass? It’s a tough gig made tougher by all the great guards he’ll face in the first week of SEC play alone. Tennessee still needs to commit on the defensive end.

    12. South Carolina (7-6).
    So far:
    After a 2-5 start that included losses to Elon and Tennessee State, the Gamecocks rallied to win five of their next six, including a confidence builder at Clemson. The only loss in that stretch was at Ohio State. No surprise: the improvement came after South Carolina regained the services of point guard Bruce Ellington, who jumped over to the football team and missed weeks of preseason drills and practice.

    Looking ahead to the SEC season: It’ll help to have Ellington back full-time; he fulfilled his football duties Jan. 2 in the Gamecocks’ Capital One Bowl victory over Nebraska. South Carolina needs to find some firepower and also needs to be less generous to its opponents’ outside shooters. The Gamecocks are surrendering .386 shooting from behind the 3-point line, 316th among 338 Division I teams.



     
     

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    Chris Dortch Bio

    Chris Dortch estimates he’s covered close to 1,500 college basketball games since he was sports editor of his college student newspaper back in the late ’70s. “And it never gets old,” he says. “I always get pumped up to watch college hoops.”

    Dortch came to love basketball growing up in the basketball crazy state of Illinois, watching Missouri Valley Conference and Big Ten games every Saturday and pouring over the sports section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think I learned how to read a box score before I learned how to read,” he says.

    In college, first at George Mason and later at East Tennessee State, he came under the influence of two coaches that gave him a behind-the-scenes look at basketball from a coaching perspective. “After that I was hooked,” he says. “I knew I wanted to cover college basketball for a living.”

    And so he did, focusing on the Southeastern Conference at four newspapers and then for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, the famed “bible” of college basketball which Dortch began editing in 1996.

    In a 30-year career, Dortch has written for numerous publications and websites, served as a college basketball correspondent for Sports Illustrated, appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows and written five books, including String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball.

    Dortch has provided commentary for CSS, Fox Sports South, NBA TV and the Big Ten Network and also taught sports writing at East Tennessee State and Tennessee-Chattanooga, where his students call him “Professor D.”