The public should be forgiven if it can't seem to get a fix on the Southeastern Conference. The SEC seems to be constantly changing its coordinates. Only two years ago it was a forwards' league from which four—Kenny Walker, Buck Johnson, John Williams and Chuck Person—went in the NBA's first round. Last season it was brimming with backcourtmen: Tony White, Terry Coner and Frank Ford, who are gone; standouts Vernon Maxwell (Florida), Willie Anderson (Georgia) and Rex Chapman and Ed Davender (Kentucky), who return. So what will it be this season? That's right: Hello, centers.
To be sure, these are off-center centers: Vanderbilt's Will Perdue wears size 21½ AAAAAAA sneakers; Florida's Dwayne Schintzius (see box) whistles theme songs from '60s TV shows; Kentucky's LeRon Ellis has award-winning baking skills; Georgia's Elmore Spencer spent a month this summer under psychiatric care and LSU's Jose Vargas has an unfailing ability to miss at least one dunk a game. If Alabama's Derrick McKey hadn't buddied up with agent Norby Walters, this league would be an even more curious arboretum.
A center is all Kentucky lacked last season. The Cats, wedded to the three-point shot, were awesome (UK 85, Louisville 51) or awful (LSU 76, UK 41), depending on whether the ball was dropping. Ellis, who won a baking contest in a high school home-ec class by building a two-story gingerbread house, is a 6'11" freshman whom teammates call, of course, the Gingerbread Man. But whether Kentucky now has the right ingredients will depend on two other factors: how forward Winston Bennett comes back after missing last season with a blown-out knee and how the Wildcat guards react to newcomer Eric Manuel, who could leapfrog over them into the starting lineup.
Though the 7'2" Schintzius improved mightily last season, he's not an in-the-trenches center. The fortunes of Florida will be determined by the beefy front-court of senior Kenny McClary (254 pounds) and frosh Livingston Chatman (242), as well as by the amply keistered Dwayne Davis, a Bylaw 5-1-(j) sitout, and Tony Williams, who used to play football at Pitt. Ronnie Montgomery moves alongside Maxwell on the back-line, which must make up for the 125 three-pointers lost with the departures of Andrew Moten and Joe Lawrence.
As promised, Georgia coach Hugh Durham affixed TMW—for The Miracle Workers—to the NCAA banner marking the accomplishments of last season's Dawgs. Forward Toney Mack and ball-hawk Patrick Hamilton, two of the three starters whom Georgia lost to Bylaw 5-1-(j) on one fateful day in January, are back and join Anderson, the 6'7" guard who blossomed in their absence. Keep an eye on shooter Alec Kessler and the 6'11", 260-pound Spencer, who will say anything to anybody at any time.
Dale Brown of LSU went up the Amazon in Brazil last summer, pushing to 50 the number of countries he has visited (no planets—yet). On one of his detours Brown netted 6'11" Hernan Montenegro, center for the Argentine national team. The problem is that Hernan doesn't speak English, which, though it may help him communicate with Brown, will delay his eligibility until he passes a language course. By mid-December, Montenegro should move alongside Ricky Blanton, Bernard Woodside, Bylaw 5-1-(j) sitout Wayne Sims and Vargas, whose every muscle twitch is an adventure. The guards, Darryl Joe and Fess Irvin, are solid.
Auburn has its usual frontcourt lard—Jeff Moore, Mike Jones and Chris Morris weigh a total of 680 pounds and do more than take up space—but coach Sonny Smith must find replacements for Ford and Gerald White, a four-year backcourt. Vanderbilt beat seven NCAA-bound teams last season with an inside-out game that's still intact. The all-Barry backcourt of Barry Booker and Barry Goheen scores long, while the 7-foot Perdue, who improved markedly last season, scores short. Vandy's game, though well suited to the three-point rule, suffers against the coast-to-coast quickness of the SEC.
Tennessee has a new arena with 25,000 seats and a team that may not fill them. Dyron Nix has recovered from an autumn car accident and should score as much as Tony White did last season. Big (6'11") disappointment Doug Roth, now a junior, must come around. Alabama was counting on Gary Waites and Craig Dudley in this season A.D.—After Derrick—but both are out with knee problems. Look for coach Wimp Sanderson to devote his newspaper columns to his secretary's cat.
Mississippi made the NIT in coach Ed Murphy's rookie year, but the Rebs are rebuilding now, probably around 6'10" Sean Murphy, the coach's son, who's in from Stanford. Juco transfer Mike Paul and Roderick Barnes, who's all elbows and knees, should score. At Mississippi State the numbers are grim: four coaches in 10 seasons, seven freshmen and zero seniors for this one. Putative leaders Hubert Henderson and Anthony Blakley have quit.
As good as the SEC is, Kentucky and Florida are two cuts above the rest. With Schintzius saying things like, "We'll definitely win a national championship," and the Cats' Derrick Miller parrying with, "We definitely feel we'll be in Kansas City," they seem to know it.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Chapman is top Cat on a Kentucky team that may be overloaded with talent.