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SEC nears end of a season of letdowns
The tournament begins for a league whose star power has lost some luster.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published March 8, 2007
Before the season, many believed this might be one of the best in recent history for SEC men's basketball.
In an era when big-name, talented players generally bolt for the NBA as quickly as possible, the conference's big names were back.
All five starters from Florida's national title team returned. Alabama retained four, most notably All-SEC guard Ronald Steele and all-conference forward Jermareo Davidson, and Glen "Big Baby" Davis stayed at LSU, to name a few.
But as the conference tournament begins today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, many of those players are nearing the end of disappointing seasons.
Some coaches believe the varied levels of success of marquee players and their teams just two teams in the West had a .500 record in conference play has led to a negative perception of the league by outsiders.
"I definitely think so," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "But I really try to look at it in a different way. I think it's really interesting when you go back to (the days of) Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson, Kelenna Azubuike and all those guys left, everybody thought the expectation of the league was so low. And I do think the pressure around these kids plays a role. So what happens is our league went in with no respect. ... Then South Carolina wins the NIT, two teams in the league get to the Final Four, we win the national championship. Now what happens is there's a level of living up to these expectations. ... It's impossible to live up to it."
That has turned out to be true for Davis.
The 6-foot-9, 295-pound forward was the SEC player of the year last season as a sophomore and a media darling during the Tigers' run to the Final Four. Many were shocked when he returned, and though his numbers are comparable (he averages a double double), his team has to win the SEC tournament to get an NCAA berth.
"It's been tough," LSU coach John Brady said. "Glen's probably had a difficult time handling it a little bit. If I had to do it all over again, I would have probably locked him down pretty tight. Depending on what he does about next year, we're going to approach it all differently. I allowed him to be pretty accessible early on and we didn't do a good enough job managing it, or helping him manage it. He didn't handle it as well as I thought, and it kind of affected us there for a while. Then he got injured and that complicated things for another couple of weeks."
Florida's "big four" of center Al Horford, forwards Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer and guard Taurean Green, all juniors, have matched their success of last season; all but Green were named Tuesday to the AP All-SEC first or second team. But the Gators lost three of their last five games, and all struggled during that stretch.
Entering the season, Steele was named by CBSsportsline.com as the nation's No. 1 point guard. He was a 2006 AP All-SEC honorable mention as a sophomore, averaging 14.3 points and 4.3 assists.
For Steele, the biggest disappointment is that he has never had a chance to live up to the lofty expectations. Injuries have ruined his season, and quite possibly the Tide's.
"It's been a very tough year mentally for him because he's really never been healthy from the start," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "This goes back to October, and those that don't really know, it's three different injuries; he's had issues with his right knee, then left ankle, then left knee. It's just one of those years that has been very tiring for him mentally, he never can get healthy."
To keep Steele's spirits up, Gottfried and his staff have compiled a highlight reel of some of his best games.
"He's fought through it pretty well," Gottfried said. "But everybody that knows him well knows it's been a hard year."