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January 12, 2007

SEC Breakdown: UT freshmen get a challenge

Weekly SEC Update
Eastern Division Conf. Overall
Florida 2-0 15-2
Kentucky 2-0 13-3
Tennessee 1-1 13-3
Vanderbilt 1-1 11-5
Georgia 1-1 9-5
South Carolina 0-1 10-4
Western Division Conf. Overall
Alabama 1-1 14-2
Arkansas 1-1 12-4
Auburn 1-0 11-6
Mississippi State 1-1 10-5
LSU 0-1 11-4
Ole Miss 0-2 11-5
Standings as of 1/11

Best matchup: Tennessee freshmen vs. Ohio State freshmen. Ohio State and Tennessee compiled two of the nation's top recruiting hauls last year, and neither freshman class has disappointed. Ohio State has freshmen leading the team in scoring (Daequan Cook), rebounding (Greg Oden), assists (Mike Conley Jr.) and blocks (Oden). Tennessee's two top rebounders are freshmen Duke Crews and Wayne Chism, while freshman guard Ramar Smith has scored in double figures in six of his last seven games. This game could come down to whether Crews and Chism can establish any kind of inside presence against Oden, who already has earned a reputation as arguably the nation's top defensive player.

Worst matchup: Florida inside game vs. South Carolina inside game: South Carolina sorely misses Renaldo Balkman, the tenacious rebounder who left school early to enter the NBA. Without Balkman in the lineup, the Gamecocks have been outrebounded in three of their last four games. Georgia, known primarily as a guard-oriented team, outrebounded South Carolina 43-32 on its way to whipping the Gamecocks 80-56 on Wednesday. That could spell trouble against a Florida team that ranks sixth in the nation in rebounding margin and averages 11.5 offensive boards per game. South Carolina swept its regular-season meetings with Florida last year, but that trend won't continue unless the Gamecocks do a better job on the glass.

The pressure is on: LSU's perimeter attack: Reigning SEC player of the year Glen "Big Baby" Davis is playing as well as ever, but he could use a bit more help. LSU is making just 6.1 shots from 3-point range per game the fewest in the SEC and ranks ninth in the league in turnover margin. Starting guards Dameon Mason and Garrett Temple shot a combined 3-of-16 overall and 0-of-6 from 3-point land Tuesday in a 71-61 loss to Alabama. They ought to improve on that performance Saturday in the Tigers' SEC home opener against Auburn.

Upset alert: Florida at South Carolina: We already mentioned Florida's matchup advantage in the paint and understand that the Gators are clearly playing better than the Gamecocks right now. But we also know that South Carolina is playing at home and is absolutely desperate for a win after getting buried by Georgia in its SEC opener. The Gamecocks won't be intimidated by the defending national champions after beating Florida twice in the regular season and nearly knocking them off again in the SEC tournament final. Is an upset likely? No. But is it possible? Definitely.

Who's hot: Arkansas guard Gary Ervin has 26 assists and just two turnovers in his last three games. Tennessee guard Chris Lofton shot 6-of-7 from 3-point range Wednesday in an 82-81 loss to Vanderbilt. He's averaging 26 points per game in his last three contests. Kentucky G Ramel Bradley has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games since moving from point guard to shooting guard. Kentucky G Joe Crawford has scored a total of 44 points in the Wildcats' last two games. LSU F Glen "Big Baby" Davis leads the conference with nine double-doubles. Davis collected 24 points and 17 rebounds Tuesday in a 71-61 loss to Alabama. Alabama F Richard Hendrix is shooting 38-of-61 from the floor (62.2 percent) in his last six games. Florida F Corey Brewer is averaging 16.3 points per game in his last six contests. He was averaging only 10.6 points per game before that stretch.

Who's not: LSU guard Dameon Mason has shot 2-of-15 in his last two games. Ole Miss guard Clarence Sanders has shot 16-of-53 during the Rebels' three-game losing streak. Ole Miss guard Bam Doyne is 6-of-27 in his last two games.

Must see TV: Tennessee at Ohio State (CBS, 1 p.m.): Tennessee's loss to Vanderbilt and Ohio State's loss to Wisconsin may have made this game less attractive from a national standpoint, but it should only make the two teams that much hungrier to prove they belong among the nation's elite programs.

Key stat: Florida is shooting 53.9 percent from the floor to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Bench bonus: After being suspended for the first 12 games of the season, Mississippi State's Dietric Slater has come off the bench to average 7.7 points per game in his first three contests. Slater collected 16 points and a game-high 12 rebounds Wednesday in a 77-67 triumph over Ole Miss. Auburn guard Kelvin Lewis came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points Wednesday in an 86-57 loss to Kentucky.

They said it: "This is the SEC. It's the best conference in the country. There's definitely improved competition and tougher play. I'm feeling it, too."- Kentucky forward Perry Stevenson after an 86-57 victory over Auburn on Wednesday.

Injury update: Glen "Big Baby" Davis was involved in a car wreck Saturday after a 66-49 victory over Connecticut, but it obviously didn't bother his play. Davis came back three days later and collected 24 points and 17 rebounds in a 71-61 loss to Alabama. A sprained left ankle has limited Alabama guard Ronald Steele's effectiveness, though the preseason All-America candidate continues to play. South Carolina G Tre Kelley has been playing with a sprained left knee. The injury isn't Kelley's only problem. Kelley was arrested Monday on charges of driving with a suspended license.

Worth noting: Now that every SEC team has played at least one conference game, a look at the conference leaders finds many familiar suspects atop the charts. Tennessee guard Chris Lofton leads the league in scoring with 22.6 points per game. The leading rebounder is LSU's Glen "Big Baby" Davis with 10.9 rebounds per game. Arkansas guard Gary Ervin has a league-high 5.4 assists per game. Florida entered the week leading the nation in scoring margin. The Gators were winning by an average margin of 26.6 points per game at the time. The margin has since fallen to 25.4. Ervin was the most recent SEC Player of the Week, while Tennessee guard Ramar Smith was the conference's freshman of the week. Tennessee's 82-81 loss to Vanderbilt on Wednesday began a stretch in which the Vols play five of six games on the road. Tennessee has only two home games in January. Florida's game with South Carolina on Saturday will mark only the Gators' second road game that wasn't on a neutral site. The Gators lost 70-66 at Florida State on Dec. 3. Mississippi State's 77-67 victory over Ole Miss on Wednesday marked the Bulldogs' 10th consecutive home win over the Rebels.

Freshman to watch: Tennessee guard Ramar Smith: The former five-star prospect has been playing his best basketball of the season recently. He has averaged 14 points, three rebounds and five assists per game in his last five contests. Smith has an assist-turnover ratio of 3.6-1 during that stretch.

Something you may have missed: Although Shan Foster's tip-in at the buzzer stole the headlines, teammate Derrick Byars was the guy who sparked Vanderbilt's 82-81 victory over Tennessee on Wednesday. Byars scored 20 second-half points 10 in the first 4 minutes after the intermission and finished with 25 points. Byars had scored just eight points Saturday in a 68-65 loss to Auburn that opened the Commodores' SEC schedule.

RPI watch: Florida may be the reigning national champion and the owner of an eight-game winning streak, but those facts haven't helped the Gators' RPI. Florida is ranked second in the Associated Press and the USA Today/ESPN polls, but the Gators are 31st in the RPI index. Kentucky (No. 5), Arkansas (No. 11) and Tennessee (No. 17) all have higher RPI ratings, even though Florida beat Arkansas 79-72 on Tuesday. Gators fans shouldn't fret about their team's RPI this early in the season. The ratings tend to sort themselves out once teams have played more conference games. Until then, you're likely to see some quirks - such as Appalachian State of the Southern Conference having the ninth-best RPI rating.

More Conference Breakdowns: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Big East | Pac-10

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