The post-Pearl era in Tennessee has certainly hurt the conference as a whole. With him, the SEC is probably one of, if not the top conference in the nation, or at least one of the deepest. The SEC has three legitimate Final Four contenders in Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt, all capable of beating each other up during conference play. Behind the frontrunners is a very talented defensive squad in Alabama which may fly under the radar until late in the season. Mark Fox at Georgia and Mike Anderson at Arkansas both have a team of young talent ready to make a move.
Now that out of conference play has completely wrapped up, the Kentucky Wildcats will head into league play with only a single blemish on the resume. The Cats are without a doubt the finest the Southeastern Conference has to offer, and might be the only team without a loss that makes you scratch your head. In all, the conference struggled through the first two months of the season, much more than expected. The SEC is currently ranked as the sixth best conference according to RPI, with an average team RPI of 93. The Big East is tops with an average of 61.
Take a look at the twelve SEC teams and how they fared in out of conference play.
Head of the class
— Kentucky: Everyone knows the premier talent Kentucky has, with only a single loss coming on the road in Bloomington. There is hardly a better team in the country, much less the conference. It’s the Cats to lose this year, but will certainly be challenged on the road at Florida, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. You don’t need me to tell you John Calipari has a National Championship contender. The Cats just need to avoid dropping six on the road like they did last season. That hurts!
— Florida: The Gators suffered some early season losses on the road to Ohio State and Syracuse – two understandable losses. But last week they traveled to and lost at 8-6 Rutgers; a team with losses to Illinois State, Richmond and Princeton. It’s mystifying, but plenty of teams have questionable losses and go on to big things. Can’t write the Gators off with a single game, they still have plenty of talent on that roster. UF is still poised as the biggest threat to UK in the conference with a fantastic duo of guards Bradley Beal and Kenny Boynton.
— Mississippi State: MSU lost the second game of the season to the Akron Zips, which probably had Bulldog fans on edge about how this season might pan out. It looks to be okay as the only other out of conference loss came to Baylor last week in an overtime thriller. Renardo Sydney continues to underperform as he constantly gasps for oxygen, but Dee Bost could make a run for SEC Player of the Year.
— Vanderbilt: Cleveland State and Indiana State are two huge losses on Vanderbilt’s early season. Without Festus Ezeli the Commodores and a completely different team, but he’s back in the lineup and Kevin Stallings looks to have a very solid team to compete in the SEC. The real Vandy seems to be a little closer to the team which completely manhandled Marquette, setting them down by 17 points, not the one which lost to the Missouri Valley and Horizon League. The ever-bizarre Memorial Gym will not be friendly to the Cats when they visit on February 11.
Middle of the pack
— Alabama: Bama was sort of the darling of the conference last season, rising from the ashes under Anthony Grant, and 2012 should be a solid year for the Crimson Tide; a run to national prominence looks to continue. Three losses to Georgetown, Dayton and Kansas State are all understandable to legitimate tournament-worthy teams, but it bumped them out of the Top-25 for the time being. The Cats won’t travel to Tuscaloosa this season, which is a good thing because road games in the SEC can always be unpredictable for the Cats against physical teams. And we won’t have to see the circus tent looking roof of Coleman Coliseum (It’s my second least-favorite thing in SEC basketball arenas behind Vandy’s entire building).
— Arkansas: Razorback fans may be pleased with the start first-year coach Mike Anderson has them off to. It’s not flawless, but it’s not a horrific start like our man John Pelphrey had them at a couple of season ago; Arkansas has “just one” bad loss to Houston so far. And with star players named Julysses and Mardracus things have got to go well, don’t they? They Cats wont travel to Arkansas either, but will see the Razorbacks in Rupp in a couple of weeks.
— Auburn: The Tigers certainly loaded up on the cupcakes this season, perhaps in an effort to pad the record a little more than usual. The toughest opponent faced is a toss-up between Seton Hall and Long Beach State. Still, losses came against those two and Texas El-Paso. There isn’t such thing as a statement win with this schedule, so we’ll probably see Auburn fall apart in SEC play like they usually do. AU is a fairly poor shooting team against some very weak competition, just barely scoring 70 points per game. The Tigers will probably drop to the bottom of the league very quickly.
— LSU: Several ugly losses came early in the year for LSU to Costal Carolina, Northwestern and South Alabama, but that was followed by a lengthy winning streak and a big victory over Marquette, which quickly erased the thought of the Tigers being the doormat of the SEC. The Cats will travel to the Pete Maravich Center on January 28, but LSU will likely have several additional losses under their belt before then with Florida and Alabama both on the schedule first. Regardless, things are looking up from the three-win SEC season a year ago.
Bottom of the barrel
— Georgia: The Bulldogs should have a decent season in conference play, but struggled against some less-than-stellar competition out of conference. A loss at Xavier is acceptable, and even California and Cincinnati aren’t bad losses. But Colorado and Georgia Tech are games UGA should have won. It resulted in a pretty rocky start to the season for a coach already on the hot seat. Mark Fox needs to produce this season with a roster filled with talent, or at least showcase the program is on the rise. Georgia won’t be a player in the conference race, but grooming young talent will be a priority. Improving on the 9-7 conference standings will be a challenge for the Bulldogs.
— Ole Miss: The Rebels ended their three-game losing streak, squeaking by Southern Methodist on Tuesday by two points. Ole Miss started the season surprisingly well, even though the wins aren’t exactly resume-building. Marquette continues to be a measuring stick for a few SEC teams, and Ole Miss comes up well short of how LSU and Vanderbilt handled the Golden Eagles, 30 points short to be exact. Andy Kennedy is another coach who may find himself on the hot seat if he doesn’t produce. And it really doesn’t look positive in Oxford.
— South Carolina: Elon, Tennessee State and Providence are a few bad losses USC took early in the year and at the time it made the national audience question the entire conference. This is not the same Gamecocks team we saw hand John Wall and company its first loss. If there is a now-defunct SEC East team worthy of concern, it’s not South Carolina. Could it be a trap game? Maybe; especially if the Cats are looking forward to a big showdown with Florida a few days later. But it seems more likely a road loss will come at a rival’s arena first.
— Tennessee: Bringing up the rear, everyone’s favorite: Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols played an early-season tournament in Hawaii where they faced then-No. 6 Duke and No. 8 Memphis. Both games resulted in a loss, but the Vols were competitive to the end. My, how times have changed. Oakland, Austin Peay, College of Charleston, and in-state rival Memphis twice are just some of the losses Tennessee has racked up while they struggled just to say at .500 in the first 14 games. Kentucky will travel to Knoxville a week from Saturday, and have the potential to really put a hurting on Ole’ Rocky Top.