When it was Ben Howland’s turn to speak at the SEC Media Day in Birmingham, Ala., I figured it would be a good time to work on some other stories why he talked. Mississippi State will likely be a tournament team, but there’s not too much sexy about the Bulldogs. I almost even forgot to set my recorder in the off chance that he said something newsworthy.
I’m happy I didn’t forget.
The way the SEC Media Day event works is usually you have different media members covering their respective teams asking the same questions to help drive home quotes for their stories. One guy from Arkansas asked nearly every coach about the Razorbacks’ Daniel Gafford. Another wanted to hear what folks thought about Chris Silva at South Carolina. There were more.
One media member is likely doing a story on Rick Barnes’ success at Tennessee, so he asked the Mississippi State head coach what he thought about Barnes’ time in Knoxville.
“Phenomenal,” Howland said. “To win the league in three years, to have the whole team returning for his fourth year is nothing short of phenomenal. They’re gonna be really, really tough.”
Fair enough. The Vols were picked to finish second in the SEC behind UK, but as Howland was finishing up his thoughts on Barnes he said something that will certainly rile up Kentucky fans.
“They’re the best team in the league heading into the season in my opinion because they have all that experience returning,” Howland said. “There’s no doubt they’re the team to beat in our conference.
“… They’re gonna be the team to be reckoned with throughout the entire year for everybody that plays them.”
Most polls have Kentucky as the No. 1 team in the country, let alone the SEC, so it was interesting to hear Howland so matter-of-factly say that the Vols, not the Cats, were the team to beat heading into the season.
So, when asked about UK not being the favorite in his opinion, Howland doubled down.
“They return everybody from the team that won the championship last year in the regular season,” Howland said. “They have everybody back. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re the team to beat. No question that Kentucky is right there with them and so is Auburn, but when you talk about returning teams that returns everybody that won our conference a year ago. I think they beat Kentucky both times last year if I’m not mistaken, is that correct? How are they not the favorite?”
Oh, boy. I asked both Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman if they agreed with their coach. Weatherspoon thought MSU was the team to beat, and you can’t knock his confidence, but Holman did agree.
“I’d probably say Tennessee,” Holman said. “They’re bringing everybody back. They have the experience, they have the talent and they have the leadership, I guess from their inside guy. They’re the team to beat.”
Well, if UK needed any motivation heading into the season, they may have found it from an unlikely source. Ben frickin Howland.