published Friday, January 14th, 2011

Early SEC games unlike last season

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    Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins (23) slaps hands with students after Vanderbilt beat Georgia 73-66 on Wednesday in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

It did not take long for Southeastern Conference men's basketball to develop a different look from a year ago.

Kentucky, which won four straight games to open SEC play last season and 12 of its first 13, stumbled out of the gate with a 77-70 loss at Georgia last Saturday. Vanderbilt won its first five league games a year ago but lost at South Carolina last weekend in overtime, while Tennessee started out 3-0 in conference play a year ago but is 0-2 now with coach Bruce Pearl serving an eight-game league suspension.

Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt went 24-0 against SEC West teams last year on their way to NCAA tournament bids, but that stat won't be repeated. UT's Volunteers opened with a loss at Arkansas.

"Some of the teams might have had slow starts or performed poorly in the nonconference portion of the season, but now is an opportunity for them to jump back up into the fray," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said. "Everybody sort of gets new life when the conference season starts."

Just ask LSU.

Trent Johnson's Tigers lost their first 13 league games last season, nearly becoming the first team to go winless in SEC play since Georgia Tech in 1954, before winning two of their last three. They are 2-0 this season after upsetting Arkansas 56-53 on Wednesday night.

"It sounds a lot better than 0-2," Johnson said. "It's a game-by-game thing. What I like about this group is that they listen, they care and they try to do the best they can. They're aware this is short-lived if we don't play with a sense of urgency and do those things that we talk about -- rebounding, defending and taking care of the ball."

Alabama also is off to a 2-0 start in the West after finishing 6-10 in league play last season.

The one program that could suffer the biggest drop from a year ago is Mississippi State, which won the league tournament in 2009 and won the West last year but had to settle for an NIT invitation. The Bulldogs have been hindered by junior guard Dee Bost's suspension for the nonconference portion of their schedule for his failure to withdraw properly before the NBA draft deadline and for not maintaining his academic work last spring.

Then came Dec. 23, when MSU sophomore forward Renardo Sidney and junior forward Elgin Bailey fought in the bleachers at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. Both players were suspended, Bailey has since asked for and received his release, and the Bulldogs lost their next three games by double digits entering Thursday night's late game at Ole Miss.

"If we can stay together, I think we can be a good team before the season is over," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "I'm trying to forget that road trip. There is nothing on that road trip worth looking back at. There wasn't anything positive about it, not one thing that happened."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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