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February 6, 2009
Around the Rim
The SEC's Down Year

by John Perrotto

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The SEC is clearly the weakest of the six BCS conferences this season.

The Pomeroy Ratings have the SEC ranked behind the ACC, Big East, Pac-10, Big 12 and Big Ten, with Kentucky being the conference's highest-ranked team at No. 31. None of the SEC's 12 members are currently in the Associated Press' Top 25.

"I knew the conference was going to be a little bit down when we were picked at the top in the preseason because I knew we weren't nearly as good at that point as we were last season," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.

That truly is a pearl of wisdom from the Volunteers' coach as Tennessee is 14-7 overall and 5-2 in the SEC East going into Saturday's game with Auburn. Tennessee was 31-5 last year and has also lost three home games this season after losing no more than two in any of the previous three seasons.

The Volunteers are a half-game behind Florida (19-4, 6-2) in the division race. Two teams in the SEC West also have as good or better conference marks than Tennessee: Louisiana State (18-4, 6-1) and Mississippi State (15-7, 5-2).

"I think there are a lot of reasons why the league is a little down this year," Pearl said. "You have a lot of lineups featuring young players and you have new coaches in some programs. Then you have a big uptick in the Big East, an uptick in the ACC, you have the top teams in the Big Ten and Pac-10 and even the West Coast Conference has had a couple of ranked teams. That doesn't leave a lot of room in the top 25.

"That being said, I've seen Kentucky, LSU, Florida and South Carolina this season and I believe those are four NCAA tournament teams in our conference. We may not have that one high-profile team this season but we still have a lot of very good teams."

Tennessee seems to be putting itself back into that category after rolling to a 79-63 home win over Florida last Saturday, then posting a 74-72 win at Arkansas on Wednesday. Pearl hopes the Volunteers are settling into a groove after trying nine different lineup combinations this season.

"That's not typical for me," he said. "We're obviously still searching for combinations and finding out ways to put our best players on the floor. This was a team I knew was going to get a lot better throughout the season, especially given our schedule. We've had mixed results and we were reeling a little bit earlier but I'm proud of our guys for battling back. They've really battled those demons that can get in your head when you lose some games and cause you to lose confidence."

Tennessee's non-conference strength of schedule is 20th in the country according to the Pomeroy Ratings, and no wonder as the Volunteers played Gonzaga twice while also facing Siena, Georgetown, Temple, Marquette, Kansas and Memphis. That in a season after losing star guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith to graduation.

Much of the scoring and leadership load has fallen on junior power forward Tyler Smith, who is 204th nationally in percentage of possessions (26.6) and 379th in percentage of shots (25.6). He has responded with a 111.2 offensive rating that is 383rd nationally, and he is 53rd in fouls drawn per 40 minutes at 6.4.

Junior forward Wayne Chism has been strong on the boards as he is 12th in the country in defensive rebounding percentage (27.2) and 100th in offensive rebounding percentage (12.6).

"Tyler was our third option last year behind Chris and JaJuan and the lane was wide open for him to roam, drive, post up and do all the things he did because of the way they extended the defense to cover our guards," Pearl said. "Now, they aren't extending the defense so much and he gets the focus of a lot of double-teams down on the blocks. Still, his productivity is up a bit from a year again while assuming a much, much greater role of leadership. Last year, he didn't have to lead, just play. That additional responsibility could potentially take things away from his game but I don't think it has."

The General Went Down to Georgia?

There has been a groundswell of support for Georgia to hire Bob Knight to replace the fired Dennis Felton as coach, including a student petition circulating that urges Bulldogs AD Damon Evans to interview the former Army, Indiana and Texas Tech coaching legend. Georgia's players certainly seem intrigued by the idea of Knight being their next coach.

Guard Corey Butler won't play for the next coach, whoever that is, because this is his senior season. Yet, he is intrigued by Knight bringing his 902 career victories to Athens.

"That'd be big time for the program, just knowing he's the legendary Bobby Knight," Butler told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That would be big for bringing in fans and getting the job done."

Freshman Trey Tompkins agreed with his veteran teammate.

"Coach Knight is a legend," Thompkins said. "I'd love to have him coach here and I feel like he'd make me even better than I am now. That would honestly be a tremendous thing to me. I'd be really happy."

Georgia officials are not commenting on the coaching search but figure to get plenty of calls from people in basketball wanting to recommend Knight. Among them would be Mike Woodson, coach of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. He played at Indiana under Knight and remains in regular contact.

"I think it's a great idea for Georgia to hire Bobby Knight," Woodson said. "I think he's the greatest college coach to ever coach the game. The bottom line is they're going to sell out. He's going to get quality student athletes to come in there and play and get a great education while also winning at a high level. And at the end of the day, that's what it's all about."

Terrapin Trouble

Maryland has a 14-8 overall record but is 3-5 in the ACC and has been to the NCAA tournament just once in the last four years, leading to speculation coach Gary Williams could be on the way out. Williams has also been under fire in the media for his inability to lure top-notch recruits and did not help his cause by shifting the blame for that by saying school officials have set the standards too high for prospective players.

To quell speculation, Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow decided to take part in Williams' weekly session with the local media this week. She lavished praise on Williams and said he was in no danger of being fired with three years remaining on his ten-year contract.

"I really want to lay to rest any of these crazy rumors that are floating around related to the job security of Coach Williams," Yow said. "He has my personal full support, as he does from the department and from the university."

Yow also said that she not gotten a sense from Williams that his hands have been tied when it comes to recruiting. She also said the school supports Williams' recruiting efforts.

"If we ever get to the place where [the support is] not enough and he needs more in recruiting, we'll deal with it," Yow said. "He'll tell me what he needs and we'll take care of it then." Williams said he did not believe his job was in jeopardy, even before Yow's comments.

"I've never felt threatened by anything," he said. "I know what I've done, just this decade. Very few programs have done what we've done this decade. I'm secure in what I've done." Despite the recent drought, Maryland has been to the NCAAs six times in nine years in the 2000s, including Final Four appearances in 2001 and 2002.

Jackson Sets CUSA Mark

Texas-El Paso senior guard Stefon Jackson became the leading scorer in Conference USA history last Saturday, breaking the record of 2,017 set by South Florida's Altron Jackson.

Stefon Jackson had a 29-point effort against Southern Mississippi to raise his career total to 2,035. The Philadelphia native was quite thrilled to break the record.

"It's a great feeling," Jackson told the El Paso Times. "A historic school like UTEP, a lot of names came through here and Conference USA, too. It's a great honor and it's definitely a relief, too. People have been talking about it, really, since early in the season."

Games to Watch

Five games to watch in the next week, according to the Pomeroy Ratings, with all times Eastern:

No. 9 West Virginia (15-7) at No. 4 Pittsburgh (20-2), Monday, Feb. 9, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 15 Kansas (18-4) at No. 10 Missouri (19-4), Monday, Feb. 9, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 3 North Carolina (20-2) at No. 1 Duke (19-3), Wednesday, Feb. 11, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 6 UCLA (18-4) at No. 14 Arizona State (17-5), Thursday, Feb. 12, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 17 Villanova (18-4) at No. 9 West Virginia (15-7), Friday, Feb. 13, 9 p.m., ESPN

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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