Why is it that when an American refers to "the South" we know immediately that they are not referring to New Mexico, Arizona, west Texas, or even Miami, Florida? No, the South is more than a geographical region in the United States. It is a culture, an identity, and arguably an ethnic group. Where is the South? How does one know if they are in it? Well, John Shelton Reed, professor of sociology emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill, once summarized the many methods for determining the boundaries of the South in a book called My Tears Spoiled My Aim. Some of the more interesting ones include:
1. Where kudzu grows. And that does not include west Texas, southern Florida, Louisville, or northern Virginia. Not a bad definition. Kudzu is that thick and sprawling vine that will cover barns, telephone poles, abandoned vehicles, and any other stationary object (maybe humans?) if no effort is made to stop it. If you are not sure what kudzu is, just take a drive on a rural road in southern Kentucky, Tennessee, or Alabama. It's the green stuff covering everything. You can't miss it.
2. "It's not the heat, it's the humidity." This phrase rivals, "I'm a Southern Baptist," and, "The SEC is the best football conference in the country," as the most uttered sentences in the South. It sure does get hot and sticky down here; and this is coming from a "border South" Kentuckian. In July, the asphalt liquefies in lower Mississippi.
3. Beverages. If you order tea in a restaurant and it comes presweetened with sugar, you are most likely in the South. The farther South you go, the sweeter the tea gets. In southern Alabama, it's more like tea marmalade. Also, if you order "a Coke" in the South, you are most likely going to get a blank, yet kindly, stare. All carbonated drinks are "cokes" here. What kind of "coke" do you want? Sprite? Mountain Dew? Shasta? Tab?
Well, hopefully the point has been made. Things are a little different south of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi. So, what kind of hoops exists in this land of kudzu-fighting, sweet tea-drinking, humidity-hating folk?
The SEC is the most beloved of the southern conferences because it has maintained its purity. While the ACC plays better basketball, it has been debauched by Yankee intruders. (Boston College in a southern conference? Surely you jest.) Most SEC fans are football-first types, but everyone fills their arena when Kentucky comes to town. There is this odd understanding that Kentucky will be supreme ruler of SEC hoops as long as they agree to get destroyed on a weekly basis during football season. That relationship has held up almost without fail for decades.
This season, the SEC power is heavily tilted toward the East Division. Florida has stormed out of the gate with a 13-0 record, including wins over Wake Forest and Syracuse. Most thought that the Gators would be rebuilding after losing Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, and David Lee, but the Gators have thrived with young players and a freewheeling style. They have not scored less than 74 points in any game this season and have topped 80 points in eight of their games. They are the clear cut favorite going into the conference season. Kentucky (10-3) would be the logical pick to finish second, but Tennessee (8-1), Georgia (10-3), and Vanderbilt (9-2) have all had strong non-conference seasons. South Carolina (8-4) will not be a pushover, either.
For all of the East's strength, the West Division looks that weak. Preseason favorite Alabama has greatly underachieved, as has LSU. Mississippi State is in rebuilding mode. Auburn and Ole Miss have improved, but they were so poor last year that regressing was nearly impossible. Arkansas is the hope of the West. They are 11-2 with their losses coming in Maui to UConn and Maryland. They have wins over Kansas and a solid Missouri State squad. This could be the year that Arkansas regains supremacy in the West.
As we approach mid-season, it looks like Florida and Kentucky will be surefire NCAA Tournament teams. Arkansas and Tennessee have put themselves in good position, but need good conference showings. Everyone else has work to do. Georgia is my dark horse pick.
The conference loses southern etiquette points by adding Miami-FL and BC to the league. Still, the best team in the southern region is Duke. Usually the ACC is a lot better than the SEC, but with North Carolina and Wake Forest a little down from last year, the gap is not as wide as it has been for the last couple of seasons. NC State has been a nice surprise early, and Maryland looks to be back on track. While Boston College might not pass the sweet tea test, they are another strong team.
Look for Duke, NC State, Boston College, Wake Forest, Maryland, and North Carolina to head back to the NCAA Tourney. None of the remaining six have looked particularly strong in the non-conference. Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Florida State have nice records, but lack quality wins. Miami-FL, Virginia, and Georgia Tech all have much work to do in conference to garner serious attention. Outside of those top six, Georgia Tech is my sleeper team.
This conference is just a little over half-Southern. But with seven of twelve teams below the Mason-Dixon Line, it deserves some attention. Currently ranked 11th in Conference RPI, the CAA is having its best season in years. Preseason favorite Old Dominion is 9-4 (35 RPI) with wins over Georgia and DePaul. Drexel failed to break through with a big win in five tough games, but played Penn, UCLA, Saint Joseph's, LaSalle, and Duke competitively. Plus, the Dragons beat ODU in their first conference game. They currently have sole possession of first place at 2-0, and are the only CAA team without a conference loss.
VCU, George Mason, Hofstra, and UNC-Wilmington all have RPI's better than 80 and have all had shining moments in the non-conference season. It is shaping up to be a banner year for the CAA. When it is said and done, I like ODU in the CAA.
After a strong 2005, the Belt looks to be a little down this season. UL-Lafayette, Denver (not quite in the South, eh?), and Arkansas-Little Rock all sustained massive losses and simply are not as good as last year. South Alabama is improved, as is North Texas. Everyone is still waiting on a talented Florida International to hit their stride. But, Western Kentucky is clearly the class of the league this season. The Hilltoppers have wins over UAB and Virginia, and took Arizona to overtime before losing in Tucson. The 'Toppers have been inconsistent, however, losing at home to Pacific and Georgia, and on the road to Bradley. Those are not bad losses, but this squad had higher expectations than 8-4 to start the year. Middle Tennessee has performed well in the early going despite nine new players. The Blue Raiders also host the Sun Belt tournament, so that will give them a leg up come postseason. I think the smart money is still on WKU in the East, but Middle Tennessee is not a bad dark horse pick.
The West looks to be wide open. The yearly constant is UL-Lafayette, but this is clearly their worst team in several years. Non-conference play indicates that South Alabama will win it. Maybe Yemi Nicholson will carry Denver to enough wins to grab the West crown. It truly is wide open. Keep an eye on North Texas as a dark horse. They have improved every year under coach Johnny Jones and have matched the school's best start ever with a 7-4 record this season. They won at Tulsa last weekend, and they start with four straight conference home games.
Memphis is a legitimate top five team. UAB and Houston will likely be bubble-types come NCAA selection time. Outside of that, it looks pretty bleak for the gutted CUSA. None of the other nine teams are currently better than 200 in the RPI. And as a famous Alabaman once said, "That's all I have to say about that."
The Southland Conference has toiled in obscurity for years. It usually finishes in the mid-to-low 20s out of 31 conferences in the RPI. But, this year the conference is 17th, and much of that success is on the back of Northwestern State. The Demons have played a brutal schedule, losing to Hawaii, Iowa State, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Wichita State. They have beaten Oklahoma State, Mississippi State, and Oregon State. The most amazing part of all this is that all of those games were on the road - every single one! They are the favorite heading into conference play, although Sam Houston has played pretty well, too.
Much like Northwestern State in the Southland, Davidson has played a monster schedule in the non-conference. They are 7-5, with losses to Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Charlotte, and Illinois-Chicago. They have wins over Missouri, UMass, and Saint Joseph's. The Wildcats are the clear favorite.
Almost always relegated to the play-in game, the SWAC has no super team to carry the banner. Jackson State looks to be the early favorite with a 2-0 conference start. Preseason fave Alabama A&M has struggled early.
All that writing about southern hoops has made me thirsty. I need a coke. That's a Dr. Pepper for you northern folks.