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November 19, 2008

Mailbag: What's happening in the SEC

Got a question? Click here to send it to Skwara's Mailbag

The SEC already wishes it could start this season over.

Kentucky and Alabama suffered shocking home losses in their openers. The Wildcats fell 111-103 to VMI, while Mercer took out the Crimson Tide 72-69. Then Georgia was crushed by Loyola (Ill.) 74-53 in its second game. The score was even more embarrassing considering that Loyola lost to Division II Rockhurst College (Mo.) in its season opener.

So, what do all those stunning defeats mean for the SEC? We explore that question in this week's mailbag.

SECond tier?

Franklin from Memphis : With the SEC off to an unusual start with Kentucky, Alabama and Georgia losing to mid-major teams, will this be the season the SEC doesn't get its normal five or six teams into the Big Dance? At this point, Tennessee is the only real lock I see, with Florida not far behind. I've also been telling people not to sleep on South Carolina, as I think they could sneak up into second or third place in the SEC East. Who do you think outside of Tennessee and Florida will have real shots at the tourney come March?

I wouldn't be surprised if the SEC sends three or four teams to the NCAA tournament. This has been shaping up to be a down season for the 12-team league, which we ranked sixth in the preseason conference rankings the lowest among the "Big Six" conferences.

While LSU and Ole Miss have the potential to be top-25 teams, there isn't an SEC West team that can be called a lock for the NCAA tournament. Mississippi State will be fortunate to get into the NIT. The Bulldogs lost the best all-around player in the league (Jamont Gordon), one of the league's top big men (Charles Rhodes) and a 3-point specialist (Ben Hansbrough). The only hope for Arkansas, whose leading scorer (Stefan Welsh) averaged 5.3 points per game last season, getting into postseason play may be the College Basketball Invitational, which unlike the NIT will invite teams with losing records.

The SEC East certainly is stronger. Tennessee has legitimate Final Four potential. I think Florida will be much improved and could go as far as the Sweet 16. But that division doesn't have anyone else that could be considered an NCAA lock.

You could make the argument that with all that mediocrity, wins will be easier to come by and that some sleeper(s) will emerge from the pack. But losing non-conference games to low and mid-majors is going to drag down the SEC's ranking in the all-important RPI. Going 10-6 in league play won't mean as much as it usually does, and it may not guarantee an SEC team an NCAA bid.

Hall monitor

Alex from New York City :Will Seton Hall make any noise in the Big East this season?

If by "noise" you mean being in position to land an NCAA bid, then I'd say if and only if Missouri transfer guard Keon Lawrence becomes eligible soon. That looks unlikely because the NCAA didn't grant Lawrence's initial attempt at a hardship waiver and now is listening to an appeal.

The NCAA already turned down a similar appeal from Seton Hall forward Herb Pope, who will have to sit out the season after transferring from New Mexico State.

The Pirates could use Lawrence's offensive firepower he averaged 11 points per game for Mizzou last season but more than anything, they just need another capable body.

The Pirates are down to eight scholarship players. The lack of depth is so severe that coach Bobby Gonzalez recently held an open tryout for walk-ons and four were accepted. Gonzalez didn't take any walk-ons during his first two seasons at Seton Hall or during his previous seven seasons as the coach at Manhattan.

I do think the Pirates will finish 10th or 11th in the Big East and get into NIT with or without Lawrence. They have a solid trio in guards Eugene Harvey and Jeremy Hazell and small forward Robert Mitchell, a transfer from Duquesne who was eligible at the start of this season. All three should average double figures in scoring. Mitchell, Rivals.com's No. 1 impact transfer in the nation, was the Atlantic-10's Rookie of the Year two seasons ago.

A relatively soft non-conference schedule will help rack up some easy wins. Outside of a tournament in Puerto Rico that includes a first-round game with USC and a possible matchup with Memphis, the Pirates play a slew of low-major opponents before Big East play begins.

But without Lawrence, they simply don't have the depth to be a real contender in the Big East or snag an NCAA bid.

Kentucky blue

Jim from Omaha, Neb. :What was the biggest surprise to you in the first week of the season?

Kentucky's loss to VMI.

I've heard others mention that we should have seen it coming since Kentucky suffered a shocking loss at home to Gardner-Webb around this time last season. But it was how Kentucky lost that was so shocking. The 111 points VMI scored were the most anyone has scored on the Wildcats since 1989. Their defense was embarrassingly bad. They fell for harmless fakes. They struggled to get back in time. They gave up way too many open shots.

Moreover, UK guard Jodie Meeks played the game of his life. Meeks finished with a career-high 39 points. If he plays like that and the Wildcats still lose, even the most optimistic Wildcats fans know that is a sign of trouble.

Early tests

Mike from Tampa : It doesn't look as if there are many good matchups this week; too many of the big schools are playing cupcakes. Do you see any competitive games for the big schools coming up?

Actually, there may be two in my backyard here in Nashville, where Rivals.com is located.

Illinois is traveling to Nashville to face Vanderbilt on Thursday in a game that either team could win. But the real storyline is on the sidelines. Illinois coach Bruce Weber and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings used to work on the same staff at Purdue in the 1980s, which actually puts the story on the baselines since teams sit underneath the basket in the unusual setup at Vandy's Memorial Gymnasium. Stallings played for Weber at Purdue before becoming a graduate assistant at the school. Stallings said he considers Weber his best friend in the coaching business and that he roots for him to win every game unless they are playing the Commodores.

On Friday night, Tennessee travels to play Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, which is about a 30-mile drive from Nashville. It could be a significant test for the Vols. The Blue Raiders have an experienced squad and are the favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference. MTSU players know this is a chance to put their program on the map. They also are getting to face Tennessee at an opportune time since this will be just the Vols' second game and the first road trip for inexperienced guards Bobby Maze and Scotty Hopson.

Andrew Skwara is a national college basketball writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com. Got a question for Andrew's Mailbag? Click here to drop him a note.

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