Another checkpoint on the road to the Final Four will be marked off this weekend, as SEC basketball will tip-off yet another season on Saturday. A league that saw a record eight teams make the NCAA Tournament last season is looking to see if it can repeat history or possibly top it. In the process they’re trying to prove once and for all that the SEC Basketball Revolution is in fact real my friends.
So with the league tipping things off with Kentucky at Alabama at 1 p.m. ET tomorrow, and four more conference games to follow, what do you need to know?
Here’s your SEC season review heading into conference play.
The Favorite: Tennessee
If you want to make the case that there should be co-favorites between Tennessee and Kentucky or even tri-favorites with the Vols, Wildcats and Auburn, I will hear no objection. But right now the Vols are both playing as well as anyone in the conference, with the wins to back to it up. They have beaten both Gonzaga and Louisville on a neutral court, and destroyed everyone else on their schedule, with their only loss coming in overtime to Kansas, in a game where their best player Grant Williams fouled out.
What’s most interesting to me about Tennessee however, is this: Despite splitting the SEC regular season title with Auburn last year, it appears as though just about everyone has gotten better for the Vols. Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year has actually seen his numbers jump in every major category (he’s averaging an absurd, 20 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two blocks per game) and Admiral Schofield is dropping a cool 18 points a game on 51 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent shooting from three.
And when you add in that Jordan Bone, Kyle Alexander and Lamonte Turner are all averaging double-figures as well, it means that the Vols aren’t just the favorite to win the SEC, but a threat to cut down the nets in Minneapolis as well.
Coming on Strong: Kentucky
Again, if you want to make the case that based on what we’ve seen the last two weeks from Kentucky they’ll end up winning the regular season title I’m not going to argue with you. Quietly all the pieces have come together for the Wildcats in wins over North Carolina and Louisville the last two weeks, with Ashton Hagans taking over at point guard, Tyler Herro hitting his threes and everything else falling into place. I especially like the fact that the Louisville win came on the road. It will prepare them for life on the road in the SEC, where every game is the opponent’s Super Bowl.
Considering I’ve written a ton about Kentucky the last few weeks, I won’t bore you with too much more here.
But if you told me that the Wildcats eventually took home the SEC regular season title, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
They’re riiiiiiiight there, but we need to see a little more: Auburn and Mississippi State
The Tigers and Bulldogs basically have the same resume at that point: Two teams that we all thought were legit, Top 15-20ish teams coming into the season and have done nothing to dispel that theory. They also don’t have that one, signature win on their resume that makes us say “Oh, OK. They’ve arrived!”
Auburn of course feels the realer of the two, mainly because they’ve been there before. They are the reigning SEC co-champs after all. But when you really look at the Tigers schedule, they have played one real game since the end of the Maui Invitational and lost it in ugly fashion (at NC State). Their best wins (against Washington and Arizona) also don’t look nearly as impressive as when they happened. You know, since the Pac-12 is terrible and all.
It’s kind of the same with Mississippi State. The Bulldogs actually enter SEC play with the best record overall in conference (12-1) and to their credit, have racked up a slew of B- to B+ wins (Cincinnati, Clemson, BYU, at Dayton). But they just don’t have that one win that jumps off the page and says “Oh, they’re legit.”
Ultimately, this isn’t a knock on either team. Both will be in the NCAA Tournament and both will be threats once they get there. Right now, it’s just tough to say whether either is really a threat to win the SEC regular season title or not.
Young and Still Figuring It Out: LSU
LSU might just be the hardest team to peg in this league. If I’m being 100 percent honest, it’s kind of hard for me to tell if they’ve overachieved early in the season, underachieved or are right where they’re supposed to be.
What a world, huh?
On the “overachieved” side, they are still one of the youngest teams in college basketball, with basically their entire rotation made up of freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors and still sit at 10-3 overall entering league play. On the “underachieved” side, it doesn’t feel like anyone is really playing particularly well except Skylar Mays right now, and you could argue Tremont Waters has been one of the most disappointing players in all of college basketball this season. Waters was by far this team’s best player last year and was supposed to be helped by all the additional talent that arrived in Baton Rouge. Instead, he’s seen regression in basically every meaningful stat including points, assists and field goal percentage, while his turnovers have risen.
Then there is the “right where they’re supposed to be” side of things, and if I’d told any LSU fan they’d be 10-3 entering league play I’m guessing all of them would have taken it.
Still, something doesn’t seem totally right with this team. And therefore, anything ranging from an NCAA Tournament bid to “missing the NIT” wouldn’t surprise me with this group.
The Pleasant Surprise: Ole Miss
So, I’d like to take a poll of the room. Can I get a quick show of hands: How many of you had any idea that Ole Miss 10-2 entering SEC play?
That’s what I thought.
That’s also why it isn’t a stretch to say that the Rebels have been a pleasant surprise in Kermit Davis’ first season in Oxford. They’re playing hard and together and to their credit are winning.
Of course if you look at their schedule, they still haven’t beaten a power conference team and even some of the traditionally strong mid-majors they’ve beaten (Middle Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast) aren’t particularly strong this year.
The Rebels are a good story… for now. I wouldn’t expect it to last long.
Coming on Strong: Florida
Coming out of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament over Thanksgiving weekend, Florida was 3-3 overall and appeared headed to the NIT. But if history has told us anything it’s that Mike White always seems to figure it out, and it appears he’s done it again this season. Maybe all that sun got to the Florida players in the Bahamas, but they’ve been a completely different team since they’ve returned to the mainland with four wins in their last five games. That includes dominant victories over West Virginia and Butler, with their only loss coming to a Michigan State team which is ranked in the Top 10 right now.
The Gators do come with a Surgeon General’s Warning however: Watching them might be hazardous for your health. They rank 261st nationally in offense and are averaging just 71 points per game.
It might not be pretty basketball, but to their credit, the Gators are winning.
Wait and See Mode: Alabama and Arkansas
Entering the season, I had Alabama in my preseason Field of 68 and Arkansas just outside it. Now entering SEC play both are 9-3 but have gotten there in two completely different ways. And I’m not entirely sure what to make of either.
Let’s start with Bama who – to be blunt – was abysmal early in the season. They opened the year with an early loss to Northeastern in a Thanksgiving tournament and were left for dead after back-to-back losses to Central Florida and Georgia State. Both those schools are actually pretty good (UCF could potentially get an at-large out of the AAC and Georgia State is the favorite in their league as well) but still, those are not teams that a good, competitive, NCAA Tourney caliber SEC squad school lose to. Yet since those losses, the Tide has turned (bad pun, forgive me) and they have won four straight, knocking off both Arizona and Penn State at home.
Arkansas is the exact opposite. They rode the hot play of a couple young guys early and picked up a monumental win over Indiana back in November, and at one point were 7-1. Then the Hogs lost games to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech (neither team is particularly good) and now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to make of them.
Actually, I don’t know what to make of Arkansas or Alabama. If either one made the NCAA Tournament, I wouldn’t be totally shocked. If they were sent to the NIT I wouldn’t be surprised either.
Playing well, but the injuries will pick up late: Vanderbilt and Missouri
I won’t bore you with too many details on either, because the bottom line is this: While both are playing well, each has lost its best player to a season-ending injury (Darius Garland at Vandy and Jontay Porter at Missouri). Since neither player is expected back this season, it makes it hard to take either one seriously as a realistic threat to make a run in the SEC.
Different coach, basically the same team: Georgia
Let me go ahead and give Tom Crean a little credit here. I crushed his hire when it happened, and I still don’t believe he is going to work at Georgia long-term. But he does have the Bulldogs playing hard. They are currently 8-4 overall and actually rank in the Top 20 nationally in field goal percentage defense. Defense is often about effort, meaning that again, to Crean’s credit, he does appear to be getting effort out of his guys.
AT the same time, Georgia is just 8-4 overall with 24-point loss to Georgia State on their resume (whoof) and a 15-point loss to Clemson. And their best win is against who exactly? Georgia Tech, who is the worst team in the ACC?
Tom Crean might have the ‘Dawgs playing hard. But they’re going to run into real talent soon. And it’s going to get ugly.
Oh, they bad: South Carolina and Texas A&M
Man, was it really just two seasons ago that South Carolina made the Final Four? It might as well have been 100 years ago with the way the Gamecocks are playing. South Carolina already has losses to Wofford, St. Bonaventure and at Wyoming. Not to mention that they’ve also lost to all the legitimately good teams on their schedule as well (Michigan, Virginia, Clemson etc.). The Gamecocks are the only team that will enter SEC play under .500.
Then there’s Texas A&M who is just above .500, but also a complete mess, just one season after making the Sweet 16 (although in defense of the Aggies, they were basically a mess all season last year as well, even if they did eventually make that Sweet 16 run). The Aggies have losses to UC-Irvine and Texas Southern on the schedule, with their best win coming against… Oregon State? Woof.
There’s got to be a basement in every major conference. And it looks like the Aggies and Gamecocks will be occupying it for most of the season.