Dee Bost and Mississippi State have been the SEC's surprise team so far.
SEC basketball play doesn't begin for another week and a half, but since the Tide is in the middle of an 8-day break for the holidays, now seems like a good time to assess the SEC as we near the start of conference play. Below we'll rank all 12 teams based on the strength of their collective performances in non-conference play. Sure, most teams still have another two or three non-conference games left, but at this point we're about 90% finished with non-conference play, so we know more or less where teams stand as we near SEC action.
1) Kentucky -- Yeah, they lost on a miraculous buzzer-beater at Indiana, but they also have wins over top-10 teams Kansas and North Carolina and they've dominated everyone else they've played. They're currently projected to be a #1 seed in the Dance, and no question they are the favorites to win the SEC championship this season. Calipari is rolling with an eight-man rotation, four of whom are freshmen. The 'Cats aren't relying on any one player to date, either. Six players are averaging between 10.2 and 16.1 points/game. Freshman point guard Marquis Teague hasn't been a John Wall or Brandon Knight type scorer, but he's been effective enough with studs like Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis around him. What makes Kentucky so scary is that those two studs in the post aren't even their leading scorers. Those would be guard Doron Lamb and freshman wing player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Kentucky still has three non-conference games left, including a huge rivalry showdown with Louisville on Saturday in Rupp Arena. The 'Cats' focus will be on winning yet another SEC title as they look to continue developing as a team intent on competing for a naitonal championship in March. They certainly have the pieces to do it, and their on-court performances so far have indicated they are more than up for the task. The question is whether any team in the SEC is up to the task of stopping them from claiming yet another SEC championship.
2) Florida -- Billy Donovan and the Gators entered the season with lofty top-ten expectations. For the most part, they've lived up to them. They battled the nation's #1 and #2 teams (Ohio State and Syracuse) impressively on the road before falling in close games. Aside from that, they've been flawless, with nice wins over Arizona, Texas A&M, and Florida State to bolster what has been a good non-conference performance. As expected, the star backcourt of Kenny Boynton, Brad Beal, and Erving Walker has led the way, but the frontcourt, led by Patric Young, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario has been able to hold its own as well.
The Gators are 10-2 with games left at Rutgers and home against Yale and UAB. None will be automatic (the Ivy League has some solid squads this year), but if Donovan and company take care of business as expected they'll be in position for a very high NCAA tournament seed heading into conference play. They'll likely be Kentucky's primary competition for the league crown as they pursue their second straight SEC championship.
3) Mississippi State -- The surprise of the league thus far has been Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs. Sure, many expected them to be a tournament team, but at 12-1 with wins over Texas A&M, Arizona, and West Virginia, the Bullies are in prime position to not only make the Dance, but actually do so with a very good seed. As expected, Dee Bost has led the way from the point guard position, but transfer forward Arnett Moultrie and freshman wing player Rodney Hood have easily been two of the SEC's breakout stars thus far, giving Stansbury the most balanced roster to work with after Kentucky and Florida.
Time will tell if State is really as good as their top-15 ranking indicates, but they'll see plenty of tests soon enough, beginning with a game at Baylor (who look like a legit national championship contender) tomorrow night before one final non-conference home test against a very good Utah State team. At the very least, at this point the Bulldogs look like a sure thing to finish in the top third of the league and return to the Dance. The question is whether they can build off their early season success and compete with the likes of Kentucky and Florida, or rather if they will struggle to handle some of the middling teams in the league and battle the bubble as March nears.
4) Alabama -- The Tide has faced a very good non-conference slate, and along the way has seen its ups and downs. We've seen enough from the defense--which has been surprisingly good given that 45% of the team's minutes have gone to true freshmen--and the team generally in wins over solid-to-good teams like Oklahoma State, VCU, Wichita State, and Purdue to know that this should at least be a tournament team. But we've also seen enough struggles from the offense and the team generally in a home loss to #12 Georgetown and road losses to #25 Kansas State and Dayton to know that the team also has a long way to go to live up to its preseason top-15 expectations. As expected, forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell have been the stars with point guard Trevor Releford leading the way in the backcourt. However, the only other offensive threats are a group of four freshmen, and they have been at best inconsistent on that end.
The Tide is 9-3 and has a home game against mid-major Jacksonville and a road game at Georgia Tech remaining to wrap up non-conference play. Fortunately for Anthony Grant and Bama fans everywhere, the non-conference schedule looks really good on paper--good enough that the Tide is ranked 20th in the RPI despite enduring a rocky stretch already. Alabama is on solid footing for a tournament bid heading toward conference play, but needs to improve and get more consistent production from some of its players if the Tide wants to finish near the top of the league and avoid the dreaded bubble come March. Given the offensive limitations, it's hard to see the Tide competing for a conference championship, but with some offensive development and continued focus on defense the team has the ability to secure a decent seed in the Dance and separate itself as one of the top teams in the SEC.
5) Vanderbilt -- The 'Dores have easily been the SEC's most disappointing team in non-conference play. Coming off a top-20 season in which literally every single player returned to the team, it was easy to see why Vandy was ranked in the preseason top 10. To be fair, Kevin Stallings's squad was missing star center Festus Ezeli for the first ten games, but home losses to decent-but-not-great mid-majors like Cleveland State and Indiana State are not what you expect from top-10 caliber teams. Back-to-back overtime losses to Xavier and Louisville weren't shameful by any means, but won't help the resume either. The good news is that the 'Dores did gets wins over some solid major teams like N.C. State and Oregon State as well as some other solid wins to move to 8-4 and keep them afloat for a tournament bid. As expected, guard John Jenkins has been the star of the team and mostly lived up to extremely lofty expectations, with wing player Jeffrey Taylor likewise making good on his superstar expectations. The return of Ezeli will help fortify the roster, but defensive improvements have to be made in order to avoid more bad losses.
We know how good this group can be (after all, it's the same group as last year), so it's still easy to feel good about them making the Dance and at least finishing in the top half of the SEC. However, after watching their struggles early on, it's much harder to feel good about their chances of competing for the SEC title and moving beyond their top-20 finish from a year ago. However, with the talent and experience they have, perhaps they will see a reverse of their recent seasons and have their regular season troubles countered with a very strong postseason run rather than vice versa.
Four-way tie: tried really, really hard but just couldn't separate teams 6-9 based on what they've done so far. The four are hence listed in alphabetical order below.
Arkansas -- Aside from a home loss to a very mediocre Houston team, they don't really have any bad marks on their resume (road losses to UConn and Oklahoma are their only other setbacks, though neither was close). However, there's really no wins here to brag about either. Their best win was at home against Oakland, ranked 145th in the Pomeroy ratings. No other win came against anyone ranked higher than 197th. So while the Hogs are 8-3 under first year coach Mike Anderson, they really haven't done anything for their resume or otherwise shown anything to indicate they will compete for a tournament bid or place any higher than the middle of the pack in the SEC. But on the other hand, they haven't embarrassed themselves either, and for now that's enough to keep them in this grouping. Sadly, the Hogs' star player, Marshawn Powell, who looked poised for a breakout year, was lost for the season thanks to a knee injury after only two games. His absence leaves a big void that is being filled by a collection of very young guards.
Arkansas wraps up what will be a very weak non-conference schedule with three more home games: Charlotte, Texas Southern, Savannah State. If they can avoid an upset in those three games, they can head into SEC play in a good spot to nab an NIT bid with a decent conference performance. Anderson's team is mostly still a work in progress, and could be dangerous on a given night or in postseason play given their style. However, given their lack of a star player it's hard to see them being much more than a dangerous NIT contender, but again, we just can't say all that much about them or how they will fare later in the season just yet.
Georgia -- The 'Dawgs have a not-so-sexy-looking 7-5 record at the moment, but they've played one of the toughest non-conference slates in the league. They have decent wins over Notre Dame, USC and solid mid-majors South Dakota State and Mercer. A road loss to an unimpressive Colorado team is a major blemish, but at least the other four losses (Cal, at Xavier, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech) are all respectable. Just as expected, explosive guard Gerald Robinson and freshman stud Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been the go-to guys offensively, but there simply just isn't much else behind them to get excited about right now.
Two winnable home games (Winthrop, Delaware State) are next on the agenda before SEC play begins. Like Arkansas, they really haven't instilled much confidence or built a resume that leads one to believe they will be returning to the Dance again this year. However they have shown signs of life and the ability to beat some solid teams, so an NIT bid and winning conference record would seem to be their goal as they near SEC play.
LSU -- If Mississippi State has been the most pleasant surprise so far in the SEC, LSU would be a close second. RBR had them pegged as 11th in the SEC preview, but they've exceeded those expectations so far. Let's remember, though, those were some low expectations. In fact, the Tigers have bad losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama on their resume, with a third loss coming to projected bubble team Northwestern. The good news is that all three of the losses came in very close games, and they all came very early in the season. Since then, the Tigers have added decent wins over Houston, Rutgers, and Boise State and then followed those with a stunning win over #13 Marquette. At this stage it's unclear if the recent success is a mirage, but at the very least it's more than was expected. Iowa State transfer center Justin Hamilton and freshmen Anthony Hickey and Johnny O'Bryant have been a positive addition to the nucleus of point guard Andre Stringer, guard Ralston Turner, and forward Storm Warren.
LSU wraps up their non-conference slate with a cupcake in Grambling followed by a tough visit from Virginia. A win against the Cavs would provide further evidence that the Marquette win wasn't a fluke, and might actually give folks on the Bayou a reason to hope heading into SEC play. Still, with the two bad losses sticking out on the resume, the Tigers would really need to shatter expectations in conference action to get into any serious tournament conversation. Realistically, they would be and should be happy if Trent Johnson's squad manages to finish in the middle of the league this year. That would be tremendous improvement over their abysmal season last year.
Ole Miss -- After winning a string of three consecutive nail-biter games against a trio of major-conference (but not really tournament-caliber) teams in Miami, DePaul, and Penn State, it looked as though Andy Kennedy's team just might be piecing together a pretty good non-conference resume. By mid-December, they were sitting at 9-1, with the three aforementioned wins in their pockets and their only loss to coming to #13 Marquette. However, back-to-back losses to Southern Miss and Middle Tennessee State have since dampened the talk of a possible NCAA run, though still the Rebels have a respectable set of results on which to build. Dundrecus Nelson and freshman Jarvis Williams have done a pretty good job stepping in for the departed Chris Warren in the backcourt, but as expected the strength of the team has been in the frontcourt with veterans Terrance Henry, Murphy Holloway, and Nick Williams.
The Rebels will finish up non-conference play with a road trip to Dayton (let us know how that goes) and a home game with SMU. They are grouped with these other three teams for a reason: like Arkansas, Georgia, and LSU, they've shown some life and the ability to win games against SEC-caliber teams. However, also like those other teams, they really haven't done enough to warrant being placed with the five serious tournament contenders yet. Anything could change of course (see Alabama last year), but this looks to be a typical Andy Kennedy squad: tough, gritty, well-coached, but perhaps a player or two short of being a legit tournament-caliber team.
10) Auburn -- We knew Auburn would be much better this year, and they are. They have avoided any real embarrassing losses, the kind that come to sub-200-ranked teams and the like. That alone is a vast improvement over last year (and enough to keep them ranked above the two teams below for now). Sure, they don't have any wins over anyone in the top 130 in the Pomeroy ratings, and they were blown out by 20+ in their only two games against teams ranked in the top 100 (Seton Hall and Long Beach State), but then again they don't have any losses to anyone outside the top 140 either and their 8-3 record will be enough to keep them from being RPI poison to the rest of the SEC like they were last year. Improvement: this is it. As expected, guard Frankie Sullivan, returning after missing last season due to injury, is leading the way, along with last year's leading scorer, Kenny Gabriel, and transfer point guard Varez Ward. The additions of Sullivan and Ward alone are enough to markedly improve this team, but after those three players, it's mostly the same cast as last year's embarrasingly bad team.
The Tigers will close non-conference play with a pair of cupcakes (Georgia Southern and Bethune-Cookman) before a tough road trip to Florida State. Barring a miraculous upset of the Seminoles in Tallahassee, Auburn will enter SEC play with a decent-looking record that masks a really a threadbare resume. Furthermore, they've done nothing to indicate they can even compete with tournament-caliber teams. While they may be improved from last year and probably have just enough firepower with Sullivan, Gabriel, and Ward to upset some teams in SEC play, a tournament bid looks out of the question and even an NIT bid seems pretty unlikely.
11) South Carolina -- The 'Cocks might actually be a better team than Auburn, but they have failed at doing the one thing we complimented Auburn for: avoiding embarrassing losses. Right out of the gate in November, Darren Horn's squad dropped back-to-back games to sub-200 teams Elon and Tennessee State. Their other four losses all came to major conference teams (#6 North Carolina, USC, Providence, and #2 Ohio State), but USC and Providence are both sub-100 teams and they were not even competitive against North Carolina. On the bright side, they did knock off Clemson (albeit a "down" Clemson team) and they stayed relatively competitive at home in their loss to #2 Ohio State. Not having their best player in point guard Bruce Ellington for the first several games really hurt, but even now he hasn't been fully integrated into the squad. Without Ellington leading the way, Malik Cooke has been the only double-digit scorer, and after that, there's not much to be hopeful about.
The Gamecocks have a chance to right the ship a bit before SEC play starts with three home games against in-state cupcakes (Wofford, South Carolina Upstate, South Carolina State). The awful-looking resume wil make it tough to go anywhere in the postseason, but if Ellington can get back into the swing of things, the 'Cocks at least have the potential to do enough to avoid the very bottom of the SEC cellar and save Horn's job for another year.
12) Tennessee -- Well, we got this one right: Tennessee comes in bringing up the rear. The Vols, under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, started things off respectably enough, beginning the year 3-2 with three cupcake wins and the two losses coming in fairly competitive games against Duke and Memphis. However, since then the highlight has been staying close with Pitt in a home loss. The other five games since have all come against sub-100 mid-major opponents, and all have been very close games that came down to one or two possessions. The Vols dropped three of them (Oakland, Austin Peay, College of Charleston), winning the other two (UNC-Asheville, East Tennessee State), dropping their record to 5-6. The Vols lack a true star player, instead relying on mostly little-used leftovers from the Bruce Perl regime like Cameron Tatum, Trae Golden, Jordan McCrae, and Jeronne Maymon to carry them as far as they can go.
The Vols can pad the win column in their next games at home against the Citadel and Chattanooga before heading across the state for a rematch with Memphis. Regardless of what happens, this is and always was a bridge season to just get the program through the turmoil surrounding the fallout from Pearl's departure and the ensuing departure of pretty much all of Tennessee's key players. To their credit, they've probably shown more in terms of being competitive with major teams than either Auburn or South Carolina, being that they've stayed within 10 points against all three of their major opponents (Duke, Memphis, and Pitt). However, their resume thus far puts them at the bottom of the SEC, and with nothing to play for they'll have to prove on the court in conference play that they don't deserve the very last spot.