January 15, 2010 10:59:00 AM
Danny P Smith -
The positive effect the University of Tennessee''s upset of top-ranked Kansas on Sunday had on the Southeastern Conference was obvious.
As University of Kentucky coach John Calipari observed the events of the first SEC weekend unfold, he has no doubt the league is on the way back.
Calipari spent his entire opening statement Monday on the SEC teleconference praising the Volunteers for their 76-68 victory against Kansas and spoke about the impact it has had in the conference.
Calipari didn''t see all of the game because his Wildcats were practicing, but he saw the last couple of minutes. He called it "a terrific win for their program and for the SEC," and went on to provide a checklist as to why the league is stronger than ever.
"You can look at Mississippi State going into Mississippi and winning because Mississippi is good being a top-20 team," Calipari said. "When you talk about Arkansas, they are just getting guys back and went nose-to-nose with Texas. We just played Georgia and my comment is real simple. I don''t know if there''s a more improved team in the whole country and Mark (Fox) would probably get my mid-season vote for (SEC) Coach of the Year with his team doing the things they are doing. I watched the Florida-Vandy game and Vandy, wow, are they good.
"You go right down the line with other teams that are really getting it done within the league, so this is turning out to be the league we thought it''s going to be."
Although he admits beating Kansas was nice, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl knows what he''s about to get himself into.
The Volunteers continue their homestand this week by played host to Auburn University on Thursday and will play host to the University of Mississippi on Saturday.
Pearl knows his squad didn''t have long to celebrate the upset against the Jayhawks. Besides, his team still only has six scholarship players and six walk-ons to work with because of last week''s suspensions for off-the-court legal issues.
"When conference play starts, the level of intensity goes up a notch," Pearl said. "We''re still short-handed, but we have to regroup and find a way to be a competitive basketball team."
Pearl said players like sophomore Renaldo Woolridge, freshman Steven Pearl, freshman Kenny Hall, and junior Josh Bone have to be ready to contribute.
"Those guys are being put in situations where more is being asked of them," Pearl said. "They deserve credit and so does our coaching staff to keep them ready."
Tennessee will stay busy after this weekend, traveling Tuesday to Alabama to complete a stretch of three games in six days.
Pearl wanted to get a hard practice in Tuesday before the game against Auburn, but he also had to be cautious.
"You really have to hold your breath so you don''t lose another one (to an injury)," Pearl said.
Two games in three days and playing on the road? SEC coaches understand that focusing on those issues can lead to disaster.
The most important thing is playing the game when it''s time to tip it off.
"It''s still about executing your game plan better than the other team," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
The early leader
South Carolina senior point guard Devan Downey has the early lead in the SEC Player of the Year race.
Downey leads the league in scoring at 19.5 points per game and steals with 46.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said Downey is playing much more efficiently, especially on defense.
"He''s concentrated on being a more solid defender," Horn said. "He''s still getting the same number of steals, but he''s not gambling as much."
Horn said Downey also has matured as a fifth-year senior and doesn''t let other areas of his game suffer when one lets him down.
Auburn coach Jeff Lebo was impressed with Downey''s 33-point effort in an 80-71 win against the Tigers.
"I love him," Lebo said. "With loss of their two inside guys, they are giving him the ball even more. We couldn''t stop him, and there''s no one in the country that can stop him when he''s shooting the ball well."
University of Alabama coach Anthony Grant said the school''s recent national championship in football is something the entire athletic department and university take pride in.
The handicap basketball teams have this time of the year is they are preparing for the beginning of conference play and might not be able to support football like they want. That was the case for the Crimson Tide as they were getting ready for LSU.
Even though he was busy preparing his team, Grant noticed what the football team accomplished.
"We''re happy for coach (Nick) Saban, the staff and the players," Grant said. "I know what a great deal that means to this state and to the university. Having been a part of winning a (basketball) national championship at the University of Florida, I can really appreciate the hard work that went into that with everyone involved."