It’s early January, and while for most of America that means doing things like “promising yourself you’ll go to the gym more this year” and “committing to eating right… at least for a week” for the rest of us, it means something much more important: The start of league play in college hoops.
That’s right, as fun as the Champion’s Classic and Maui Invitational were, now is where things start to get serious across college hoops. It’s the meat of the season, where you’re playing good teams every night, that know you inside and out, and sometimes for a second or third time. It really is where we separate the good teams from the real contenders.
So with non-conference play basically over, and with conference playing heating up, I thought it’d be fun to do an SEC regular season reset, and tell you where the league stands heading into conference play.
Who are the real contenders, the tourney teams and the walkovers in SEC hoops in 2020? Let’s take a look:
The Contenders: Auburn and Kentucky
It’s early and a lot can happen between now and the first week of March. Heck, who had LSU winning the SEC regular season crown at this time last year? Still, while a lot can happen, it really does feel like Auburn and Kentucky have separated themselves at the top.
Starting with Auburn, they really are one of the great surprises in college basketball to start the season. After we spent all summer talking about the losses of Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke, Samir Doughty has stepped up as a certified star and Isaac Okoro has been one of the biggest freshmen surprises in all of college hoops. The Tigers didn’t exactly play the toughest out of conference schedule (Bruce Pearl even admitted as much when he joined my podcast a few weeks ago) but took care of business against a slew of good, but not great teams, including NC State, Saint Louis, Richmond and New Mexico. In a season where good teams have lost to bad ones since opening night, we shouldn’t discredit the Tigers for taking care of business every time they’ve stepped on the floor, even if the competition hasn’t been great.
Then there is Kentucky, and at this point, I’ve discussed them so much (both in writing and podcast) that we really don’t need to go too deep here. Despite some frustrating losses early, they still own two of the league’s best out of conference wins (Michigan State and Louisville), and with so many conference teams playing so poorly in non-league play there is no reason to think the Wildcats won’t again be a factor all season long.
Much of their success will of course rely on whether Kentucky can get Michigan State/Louisville level performances from Tyrese Maxey all season long, if Ashton Hagans can continue to play at the level he has, and if they can get some production down low similar to what Nick Richards provided against Louisville.
Still, even with questions, the Wildcats and Tigers look like the teams to beat in this league.
Not Quite a Contender but Darn Good: Arkansas
Coming into the season I thought there was a legit chance Arkansas could overachieve and make the NCAA Tournament. What I did not think is that they would do what they’ve done so far though, which is jump out to an 11-1 start, highlighted last weekend by a win at Indiana.
Thanks to many holdovers from the Mike Anderson era, the Hogs are darn good. And in a strange twist, their biggest weakness (a lack of size down low) has turned into their greatest strength, as Arkansas has four guys who can get you 15-20 on any night, and two – Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe – who can get you 30 if need be. Heck, if we were basing it off the early portion of the season, Jones would have to be SEC Player of the Year, right?
Now admittedly, even with the hot start this team isn’t wholly complete, and again, the lack of size down low could cost them some games. Still, they feel like a “Top 4” type SEC team and one that could get a double-bye in Nashville. And one that should comfortably make the NCAA Tournament.
Probably an NCAA Tournament Team, But Something’s Not Right: Florida and LSU
When I look at both Florida and LSU, I see the same thing: Two teams that just feel too talented to miss the NCAA Tournament. But two teams that just don’t look nearly as good as we expected coming into the season.
In Gainesville, Mike White is starting to feel like “Shaka Smart of the Deep South” a coach whose reputation is overinflated off one big tournament run (in White’s case, a trip to the Elite Eight in 2017). The Gators are simply too good to be as bad as they are, as they sit at 8-4 with a couple decent wins on their resume (Xavier and Providence on neutral courts) but a couple losses that are unexplainable. Specifically, there was a loss a few weeks ago to Utah State. The Aggies are certainly a good team. But if you really are a Final Four contender like Florida was supposed to be, how the heck do you go 0-14 to start the game and lose to the Aggies in your home state?
Then there is LSU, and as I’ve written before, this team really does miss Tremont Waters. On the season, the Tigers are currently averaging more assists than turnovers, and while they have good individual talent, they don’t have the one guy who is the glue who holds it all together. Looking at LSU’s schedule, their best wins are Rhode Island and Liberty (who was undefeated when they played), two wins that don’t exactly feel like a precursor to a major, in-season turnaround.
Each of these two should get to the NCAA Tournament. It’s hard to see them staying there too long.
Sorry, But It’s Just Not Their Season: Tennessee
The Vols notched one of the SEC’s signature wins in the out of conference slate against Washington… and then saw their season to turn shambles with the news that Lamonte Turner, their leading returning scorer, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
And in the Vols first big game without Turner the other day we saw just how much they missed him. Tennessee lost to Wisconsin 68-48 and shot 34 percent from the field against a Badgers team that was just 6-5 entering the afternoon, and hadn’t won a single game away from home to that point in the season.
It has been a special couple seasons the last few years in Knoxville, and with some key returnees and a Top 5 recruiting class set to enroll, could be a special season next year as well.
But 2019-2020? It just ain’t the Vols year.
I’ll Believe It When I See It: Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina
The Bulldogs and Rebels essentially have the exact same profile entering league play: They have good records, and to their credit, beat everyone on the schedule they were supposed to. They also lost to all the good teams they played.
At Georgia, Tom Crean’s resume is highlighted by wins against… umm… SMU and Georgia Tech, with their losses coming to Michigan State, Dayton and Arizona State. And for those scoring at home, they lost to Arizona State by 20, Dayton by 19, and needed 37 points from Anthony Edwards to keep things close against Michigan State. In other words, unless Anthony Edwards goes “Incredible Hulk” in league play, does this feel like the kind of team that can get the wins needed to truly compete for a tourney berth? We’ll find out in the next week, as Georgia’s next three games are at Memphis, Kentucky and at Auburn. Good, freaking, luck.
And honestly it’s almost exactly the same with Ole Miss. Same 9-3 record entering league play, with one quality win (Penn State), and three losses to the three best teams on its schedule (Memphis, Butler and Oklahoma State).
As for South Carolina, yes, I know they beat Virginia a week ago. They also lost to something called Stetson – STETSON – a week later.
Could all three of these teams make a run? It’s absolutely conceivable. But I’ll believe it when I see it.
Total Wildcards: Mississippi State, Alabama and Missouri
Three teams, who have truly been head scratching, for three totally different reasons.
Starting with Mississippi State, I watched them early against Villanova, and they looked the part of a legit NCAA Tournament contender, keeping things close against a good Wildcats team until late. Of course, they then followed it up with losses to Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State, so yeah, umm, I really just don’t know what to think. The good news for the Bulldogs is that suspended point guard Nick Weatherspoon just returned, and should bring stability to the backcourt. But can they overcome those early season losses which will likely drag down their resume?
It’s the same at Alabama. Nate Oats told me in the preseason that he expected to make the NCAA Tournament – but then followed it up with losses to Penn and Rhode Island to start the season. Neither is a terrible loss. But it will take a lot for the Tide to make up ground in league play.
And finally, there’s Missouri.
I mean, what do we make of a team that lost to Charleston Southern, but has since beaten Illinois and Temple? And what do we make of that same team when its coached by Cuonzo Martin?
Better Luck Next Year: Vanderbilt and Texas A&M
And finally we wrap with Vanderbilt and Tennessee, where all there really is to say is “Better Luck next year.”
At Vandy, Aaron Nesmith is an NBA type player, and Jerry Stackhouse has quietly upgraded the talent on his roster. Unfortunately, while that talent is “improved from a season ago” it isn’t “ready to compete in the SEC.” With a couple key transfers sitting out, Vanderbilt is a year away from being interesting, and at least two years away from being a real factor in this league.
As for Texas A&M, well let me put it this way: I had someone who saw Texas A&M in person in November tell me, and this is a direct quote: “That is the worst team in Power 5 basketball. It has to be.” And then, when the first NET rankings came out… Texas A&M was ranked the worst team in Power 5 basketball.
Like Vandy, this team has improved the last few weeks, and they will win some games that they shouldn’t by the end of the year.
But they are a long, long way from competing at the top of this conference.