Entering this season the conference was clearly down. At least that was the perspective because so many talented players left league schools with eligibility still remaining. Those departures left the perception that the league was down in talent, when in reality it was down in experience.
As the season has evolved the SEC has conveniently split into six NCAA-bound squads and six others that still have the potential of earning an NIT invite. The six headed to the big dance could go out early, but you could also see two or three SEC squads advance to the second weekend depending on how the brackets line up.
But if the present looks a lot better league-wide than it did six months ago, the future could not look brighter. IF the players who have eligibility remaining return to college for another year, the SEC will be loaded.
Sophomore Class Is Incredible
If you put together an "All" team in the SEC for each academic class there would be no argument that the sophomores would crush the juniors or seniors. That wouldn't be news to Gator fans whose team is dominated by the year-two quartet of Noah, Horford, Green and Brewer. But it's true throughout the league. Let me offer some proof.
What do LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Georgia all have in common? The best all-around player on each team is a sophomore! Only Arkansas (Jr. Ronnie Brewer) South Carolina (Sr. Tarence Kinsey) and Auburn (Sr. Ronny LeMelle) clearly have a non-sophomore topping their roster.
Six of the top ten scorers in conference play are sophs compared to just two seniors and two juniors. Five of the top ten rebounders are second-year guys with just one senior and one junior in that group. Top ten shot blockers include six sophomores, a junior and three freshmen.
The SEC Player of the year is likely to be LSU sophomore Glen Davis who averages 18.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in SEC action. He's the only guy in the league bringing in a double-double every night. The best shooting guard in the conference is Tennessee sophomore Chris Lofton and the best point guard is also a sophomore, Ronald Steele from Alabama. The top field goal percentage belongs to Joakim Noah; the assist leader is Taurean Green. The top three-point shooter is Lofton. All are guys in their second year.
Who are the two best kept secrets among the top players in the SEC? I would say power forwards Charles Rhodes (17.6/8.8) of Mississippi State and Ole Miss' Dwayne Curtis (13.4/8.2). You guessed it, they are both sophomores. Wednesday night you'll see another super soph. in Georgia's Sundiata Gaines who is Georgia's #2 scorer and leads the team in rebounds and assists in conference play.
I haven't even mentioned Rajan Rondo and Randolph Morris of Kentucky, or Vanderbilt's Shan Foster and DeMarre Carroll. Well, I have now.
NBA Needs To Stay Away
For the SEC to generate some national respect most, if not all of those guys need to be juniors and seniors over the next two years. That will give them time to build reputations outside the league itself. It will also make SEC teams a lot better in November and December when conferences build their reputations. The SEC took a lot of bad losses in the pre-conference schedule this season and that needs to change. Returning talent is always the key to early season success. Well, that and scheduling.
Many of these youngsters are generating attention from the NBA, which is good and agents which is not. Davis, Rondo, Morris and Al Horford are among those who various lists have positioned as potential first rounder picks. Lofton may wonder how much of a better shooter he can become in college while scouts drool over Joakim Noah's energy and athleticism.
I'd love to see them all in the SEC next season which would make the conference as good as any in 2006-07. That's selfish on my part, but like Gordon Gecko said in the movie Wall Street, "Greed is good". Hopefully those of us greedy for great basketball in the SEC will get to see these sophomores grow into a senior class for the ages.