BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Every year each SEC school provides to the conference office two "players to watch" and bios for each for inclusion in the SEC Men's Basketball Media guide.
One of the players Georgia deemed to watch is senior point guard Sundiata Gaines. His bio reads, in part, that he is "the team's most indispensable player." Turns out that's a very good thing.
The other player under "Bulldogs to Watch" – forward Takais Brown, the team's leading scorer – has been suspended for the first nine games, and second-leading scorer Mike Mercer has been suspended for 15 games. A third player, backup center Albert Jackson, got hit with six games. The players were cited for violating Georgia's new athletic-department policy regarding class and academic-counseling attendance.
"It's definitely disappointing," Gaines said. "But they're also my teammates."
They're also critical to Georgia's chances for success, which clearly have been jeopardized, at least early. Brown, a junior college transfer, averaged 14.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg and shot 56.6 percent from the floor. Mercer, who's returning from a torn ACL, started the first 23 games and averaged 13.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.3 apg and 1.7 spg.
Looking at the Bulldogs' schedule, Brown could be eligible to return while the team is at the Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, while Mercer won't be available until a couple of games into SEC play. Both players will miss games against Wisconsin and Wake Forest, and Mercer will miss games against Gonzaga and Georgia Tech.
"It will be the most critical time for us," Gaines said. "We have to stay together early, we have to bond and build our team chemistry. It's not as bad as if it had happened during the conference season.
"The challenging part will be when they guys are coming off their suspensions back into the rotation. They'll have to come in and abide by the rules, ease into the flow."
If the Bulldogs can hold up without Brown and Mercer they could emerge as a stronger team. Obviously a lot of their inexperienced players, including a five-man freshman class, will have ample opportunity to play over the first nine games. Coach Dennis Felton will get to see everyone on his roster in game situations, and that will help immensely during the grind of the conference slate.
Big Blue TV
Kentucky already is ahead on one scoreboard – the CBS schedule.
The Wildcats have seven national games on CBS. Florida is next in the SEC with three, and Tennessee, the team picked unanimously by the media to win the East, has only two.
"Certainly Kentucky is a premier team around the country," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "But I think the league is better off when we're not promoting just Kentucky. Besides, who wouldn't want to see me sweat on national TV?"
South Carolina coach Dave Odom said he doesn't blame the discrepancy in network appearances on the conference or the network.
"What bothers me is that the public continues to call for more of the same," Odom said. "It's not the networks and it's not the league, it's them giving the public what they want. In the SEC that's Kentucky. In the ACC that's North Carolina. In the Pac-10 it's UCLA. In the Big Ten it's Indiana. In the Big East it's Syracuse and Georgetown. In the Big 12 it's Kansas.
"If anybody has a real beef it might be Florida. I halfway understand Kentucky (being on seven times) because they have a new coach and renewed enthusiasm in a state that never suffers for lack of enthusiasm about basketball."
So how do the other teams get their fair share of air time?
"Tell the people in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi to start getting in front of the TV and start calling people and asking for their teams' games," Odom said.
Vanderbilt's Foster takes aim
With the kind of season his coach and the media that made him a first-team preseason all-conference pick expect, Vanderbilt's Shan Foster will become the school's all-time leading scorer. He's 572 points from moving into second place.
The senior swingman looks like he's ready to make a run. He had an outstanding summer, averaging 9.4 ppg and 4.4 rpg as the only SEC player to make the U.S. Pan-Am team. He was the second-leading scorer, third-leading rebounder and hit a team-high 10 3-pointers.
"It was a great experience," said Foster, who roomed with Georgetown center Roy Hibbert. "I met a lot of great guys, great coaches, and being amongst those guys taught me how to be a better leader. It gave me a great deal of confidence."
With fellow swingman and SEC coaches' player of the year Derrick Byars gone, Foster will be the focal point of the offense. He'll have every opportunity to break the scoring record. As far as coach Kevin Stallings is concerned, Foster is deserving of it.
"He has great character and a great work ethic," Stallings said. "He's not just driven as an individual, but he's driven team-wise.
"Most guys practice better than they play in games. They have game slippage. He's one of those rare guys whose output increases in games."
Stallings said Foster's attitude permeates his team.
"He sets the pace for how hard you have to work," Stallings said. "We're very fortunate that our best player is one of our hardest workers."
Foster probably will need to average 18-19 ppg to break the record, depending on how far Vanderbilt goes in the postseason. He averaged 15.6 ppg last year.
During Wednesday's media session Arkansas guard Patrick Beverley said the toughest player to guard in the SEC is Mississippi State guard Jamont Gordon.
Gordon, the only SEC player to rank among the top 10 in the league in scoring, rebounding and assists, seemed almost embarrassed when he heard the compliment.
"Patrick is a great player," Gordon said. "I got to know him a lot this summer. We were at a camp down in Houston together. He's a great defender. I'm honored to think he thinks I'm No. 1."
So does Rivals.com, which has Gordon atop its preseason power rankings at the point-guard spot. The word is getting out. Teammate Charles Rhodes brought a soft drink into the media room to Gordon and said, "This is for you, Mr. No. 1 point guard in the nation."
Eye on the Big Apple
Brooklyn native Ramel Bradley is trying not to get too far ahead of himself, but the Kentucky point guard can't help himself. Should the Wildcats win a pair of home games in the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic they'll be headed to the semifinals in Madison Square Garden.
Bradley has never played in the Garden. He said he has been to a few games there, and he believes he would have played there in his senior year of high school in the state tournament had he not left New York after his junior year to attend prep school in Florida.
"It would be the best thing that ever happened to me (to play in the Garden)," Bradley said. "I'm trying not to focus on it too much. Hopefully we can win and get there. It's too emotional even thinking about it."
Kentucky plays Central Arkansas in Lexington in its 2K opener on Nov. 6 then plays the winner of the Gardner Webb-Alabama A&M game the next night for the right to go to New York.
Points of emphasis
There has been a great deal of talk at the SEC Media Days about officials enforcing the coach's box and cracking down on swearing. Those are NCAA directives designed to clean up sideline behavior.
The coaches say they'll adjust, but they do have some concern over the enforcement of the rules.
"If an official is running away from me back up the court and I say something like, 'Shoot!' is he going to think I said something else and 'T' me up?' " Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.
Some coaches are known for their "colorful" language. But they realize that's something that probably will be more easily controlled and easy to understand where the line is than staying in the coaching box.
"I hope they're reasonable about the box rule," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "I tend to wander. My coaches will have to be more mindful to remind me to stay in the box.
"I don't think the rules are broken and if it's not broke don't fix it, but if it's a point of emphasis I'll pay attention to it."
SEC Supervisor of Officials Gerald Boudreaux said as long as a coach is in the box and coaching his team everything will be fine.
"If he is berating officials or there is profanity coming out of his mouth, then that deserves discipline, in most cases a technical foul," Boudreaux said. "Coaches that leave the box and are coaching their team will be warned.
"If a coach is out of the box and doing the wrong things, which are listed in the rulebook, it's an automatic technical foul. There are some situations where the coach can leave the box by rule (scoring or timing errors, scoreboard errors, during a fight on the floor). … Only a small percentage of coaches actually stray from the box."
Tide Steeles for season ahead
At least the drama already has ended. Alabama has known since the start of practice that it will be without point guard Ronald Steele, who announced in September that he would redshirt this season.
The junior point guard hadn't recovered sufficiently from his latest knee surgery to be ready to go when the season started, and he consulted with Tide coach Mark Gottfried before making his decision.
"Last year's indecision affected us more than anything else," Gottfried said Thursday at SEC Media Day. "He was in and out, in and out, and it was a neverending story."
Gottfried said the players competing to replace Steele are sophomore Mikhail Torrence and freshman Rico Pickett, though the coach said both have a ways to go.