As we reach the midway point of the college basketball season, there have been no shortage of stunning results so far. Villanova lost to Furman. New Mexico walloped Nevada the other night. Texas Southern, coached by the immortal Johnny Jones, has beaten Baylor, Oregon and Texas A&M.
Wait… WHAT????? Yes, that actually happened. And the list goes on and on.
Yet I can genuinely say that one of the most stunning results that I’ve personally seen this season came Wednesday night when Auburn traveled to Ole Miss. The Tigers came into the game ranked No. 11 in the country and had won eight of their previous nine entering the game. They walked out with an 82-67 loss to an Ole Miss team that was picked to finish last in the SEC preseason polls. Yes, the team that was picked to finish last in the SEC standings, just kicked the #&#*%&$ out of a team that many (or at least me) thought was capable of going to the Final Four.
And as I look at that result, I realize that it might be a reflection of something I could have never seen coming, even as recently as last week. Understand, I’m the guy who just seven days ago said that the SEC had a clear Top 4 of Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn and Mississippi State and then a big drop-off after that.
Now, one week into SEC play I can say I was definitively wrong. The SEC is way deeper than I imagined. And since this is a Kentucky fan site, it brings me to this: If Kentucky doesn’t come out focused and ready to play in just about every conference game they play, they are capable of being beaten.
Again, this isn’t something I envisioned, and to be blunt, there were reasons to doubt some of these teams just a week or two ago. Beyond the clear-cut Top 4 (Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn, Mississippi State) everybody else looked wishy-washy at various points throughout the preseason. Some, like Alabama took bizarre losses (in their case, Northeastern and Georgia State). Others, like Ole Miss just didn’t have any good wins (outside of Baylor, nothing moved the needle). And still others were just bad. Yeah, I’m looking at you, South Carolina.
Only fast-forward to the beginning of conference play and it’s clear that the rising tide of conference play has lifted all boats. Again, the stats back me up on this. Of the 14 teams in the league, 10 have already taken at least one loss through one or two games in league play. Only three teams who have played two games have started 2-0. They include Tennessee, the preseason favorite, but also South Carolina (which was picked to finish 12th in the league) and Ole Miss (picked to finish 14th).
Yes, the teams that were picked to finish 12th and 14th are a combined 4-0 in league play. Meanwhile, three of the four teams who were ranked in this week’s AP Poll (Kentucky, Auburn and Mississippi State) have already taken at least one loss in league play.
Welcome to the SEC, where it just means more. And where no one is safe.
(By the way, one quick random side note and I’ll get back to Kentucky. But let me start by saying: Shout out to Kermit Davis and Ole Miss. Look, we all thought that the Rebels would be improved this year… but nobody thought it would be like this. Ole Miss finished last season at 12-20 overall and in last place in the SEC. They have already matched that win total and thanks to the Auburn win and now sit at 12-2 overall. I still don’t think that Ole Miss will end up in the NCAA Tournament, but if they do, just hand Kermit Davis National Coach of the Year. Because NOBODY saw this coming)
Ole Miss went 12-20 last year and finished in last place in the SEC. They are now 12-2 and just upset No. 11 Auburn. I'll just say this: If the Rebels somehow make the NCAA Tourney just give Kermit Davis National Coach of the Year. It's early, but NO ONE saw this coming
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 10, 2019
Ok, now back to Kentucky, and why I am bringing this all up: It’s because if the Wildcats take the court with the intensity they have against Alabama and early against Texas A&M (before they got right) they will be beat on most nights.
Again, it was hard to see this coming. Entering into SEC play, I really did think that outside Tennessee and maybe Auburn, LSU and Mississippi State, Kentucky could basically “out-talent” anyone in the league.
Now? Not so much.
We’ve already seen the Wildcats lose to Alabama, LSU is really good and all of a sudden, Ole Miss is no pushover. Missouri played Tennessee tough at home the other day, and Kentucky will have to travel to Columbia to face the Tigers on the road. Florida is one of the top defensive teams in college basketball (not the SEC, college basketball) and Kentucky will play them twice, which is no easy feat. The Wildcats will also play Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State twice as well, a sign that maybe the SEC office cares more about making marquee TV matchups than what’s best for its leagues teams (seriously, sticking Kentucky in home-and-homes with the league’s three top teams including non-traditional rivals will almost certainly only hurt the Wildcats and their seeding come March).
It also means that Kentucky needs to bring their best game every night, because realistically there don’t appear to be a ton of wins if the Wildcats don’t show up ready to go. Here are the teams that are just plain bad in the SEC: Texas A&M (who Kentucky has already played for the only time this season, Vanderbilt (who Kentucky plays this weekend. They then travel to Memorial Gym later in the year), Georgia (the Wildcats travel to Athens next week) and maybe Arkansas. That’s really it. And I’m not even totally sure Arkansas is bad at that point.
So that’s basically five games that should be no-doubt-about-it, roll-out-the-ball-and-do-your-thing wins. Every other game will likely be an absolute dog fight.
On a positive note, the schedule does open favorably for UK. Of those five seemingly winnable games, three will come in the first four games of SEC play. Kentucky should take care of Vanderbilt and Georgia in the next two days, and should enter Auburn at 3-1 in league play next Saturday.
But after that…. Man do things get hard, and they don’t really get any easier at any point going forward.
The good news is that I still believe Kentucky is talented enough to beat anyone left on the schedule (yes, even Tennessee).
But they also better buckle their chinstraps, because if they’re serious about winning an SEC title, the road won’t be easy.