After years in which arenas were built and programs nurtured to the point where basketball in the SEC really mattered—rather than being a mere diversion between football seasons—the conference is suddenly in such disarray that its Rock of Gibraltar has become LSU and coach, Dale Brown, if you can believe that.
Let's start with KENTUCKY, the league's premier program—its only program, really—from 1930, Adolph Rupp's first year, until the early 1960s and a perennial national championship contender. Now the Wildcats find themselves in horrendous shape, the result of an NCAA crackdown that stopped just a whisker short of the death penalty. New coach Rick Pitino, late of Providence and the Knicks, has a team that can't play in the NCAA tournament, can't appear on TV and, most significant, can't win more than, oh, eight games.
Pitino has only one of last season's starters, 6'5" shooting guard Derrick Miller. The point guards, Sean Woods and Richie Farmer, are really shooting guards. The small forward, 6'5" freshman Jeff Brassow, is really a big guard. The power forward, 6'7" John Pelphrey, is really a small forward or a big guard. The center, 6'7" Reggie Hanson, is really a forward. "And the walk-ons will have to play too," says Pitino.
Still, Kentucky doesn't have the worst problems in the league. That distinction belongs to FLORIDA, whose coach, Don DeVoe, resigned from Tennessee and was hired on an interim basis after Norm Sloan was forced to retire on Oct. 31. DeVoe isn't bereft of talent—7'2" center Dwayne Schintzius and 6'7" forward Livingston Chatman are back—but the program is Turmoil City. The Gators will play before the backdrop of an NCAA investigation. DeVoe's big challenge will be to develop concentration on a team that never had much.
Tennessee will also take its lumps, although the future looks bright under new coach Wade Houston, who came to Knoxville after 13 successful years as an assistant to Denny Crum at Louisville. Houston got a bonus when the NCAA allowed his son, Allan, a willowy 6'5" guard, to renege on his commitment to Louisville and join his father.
New coaches are also in place at VANDERBILT ( Eddie Fogler, moving from Wichita State to replace CM. Newton) and AUBURN (Tommy Joe Eagles, coming from Louisiana Tech to replace Sonny Smith). The Commodores are too slow and too small to contend for the title, and the weaponless War Eagles will challenge Kentucky for the cellar.
Mississippi State should wind up somewhere in the middle of the pack, despite having four returning starters. MISSISSIPPI could have its first 20-win season since 1938. In 6'6" Gerald Glass the Rebels have the conference's best player, after LSU's Chris Jackson.
Both ALABAMA and GEORGIA will be decent. The Tide will be tough to stop, thanks to 6'8" David Benoit and 6'9" Robert Horry. The Bulldogs will also be strong inside, anchored by 6'11" Alec Kessler, the main target for point guard Litterial Green.