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    SEC "Fast Break": January 29

    By: Chris Dortch
    Twitter: @CDortch
    SEC Digital Network

    Short of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, there’s no better authority on the process of bracket building than ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. His take on the Southeastern Conference: four bids.

    It’s important to remember that Lunardi’s predictions aren’t intended to try and figure out what’s going to happen by March. Rather, as he likes to say, only “if the season ended today.”

    Given that, Lunardi believes that Florida (16-2, 6-0, No. 5 RPI), which has dispatched league opponents by an average of 26.5 points per game, has done enough to earn a No. 1 seed.

    Missouri is Lunardi’s second highest rated SEC team (No. 25 in his top 100), and Ole Miss (17-2, 6-0, No. 26 RPI) is right behind at No. 28, even though the Rebels defeated the Tigers two weeks ago. In Lunardi’s system, teams ranked No. 21 through 36 have the potential, when they’re mixed with automatic qualifiers, to draw anywhere from a six through nine seeding. In his latest bracket, both are No. 7 seeds.

    Kentucky (13-6, 4-2, No. 62 RPI) is ranked a distant fourth among league schools at No. 42, and in Lunardi’s estimation is currently a 10 seed. Finally, Alabama (12-7, 4-2, No. 63 RPI) and Arkansas (12-7, 3-3 No. 94 RPI) are rated No. 51 and No. 69, respectively, territory where, as Lunardi puts it, “the bubble bursts and the projected NIT field begins.”

    There are no other SEC schools rated in his top 100.

    STOKES STEPS UP: SEC play seems to have shaken Tennessee sophomore Jarnell Stokes out of a nearly two-month rut that saw him average 6.5 points and 6.8 rebounds against Oklahoma State, Georgetown, Virginia, Wichita State, Xavier and Memphis. Yes, those were the best teams on the Vols’ non-conference schedule, and it gave rise to some concern whether Stokes’ play had been hampered by the loss of Jeronne Maymon, his equally bruising frontcourt cohort who will redshirt this season after his surgically repaired knee suffered a setback in late summer or early fall.

    Stokes’ energy level may have been called into question, too, but not after his 15-point, 18-rebound effort against Alabama, his third double-double in six league games.

    "Eighteen rebounds in the game, 15 points, and he was able to stay out of foul trouble today,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said after that game. “If he can do that for his team on a consistent basis—obviously this was a physical game today—he's a huge factor when he's able to do that. He had his handprints all over the game today."

    A quick glance at the box score supported that statement. Stokes grabbed nearly as many rebounds as the Crimson Tide (22).

    “He was an absolute beast in that game,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team gets to tangle with Stokes on Tuesday night. “He was awesome in that game. He’s a great low-post presence with great hands and strength and understanding for position and angles. He had almost as many rebounds as the entire Alabama team did on Saturday. You can’t say that about a guy very often.”

    HICKEY NATION’S NO. 1 THIEF: Perhaps lost amid LSU’s 1-5 start in conference games is the fact that junior guard Anthony Hickey is leading the nation in steals per game (3.80 spg). Other players have more steals (Oakland’s Duke Mondy has 72 and VCU’s Briante Weber 66), but Hickey’s 57 have come in just 15 games.

    Appropriately enough for an SEC basketball coach, LSU’s Johnny Jones uses a football analogy to describe what makes Hickey so good at nabbing basketballs away from unsuspecting defenders.

    “He’s got something of a defensive back mentality,” Jones said, “in terms of reading eyes and shoulders.”

    Hickey is one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference, in part because he’s quick enough to stay in front of his opponent, but in part because he’s got quick hands.



     
     

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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.”