SEC Reset: Kentucky and Florida tussle at top of weaker league
The SEC will easily get at least three teams into the NCAA tournament, but after that it's a wide open chase -- and not in a good way. Who can we count on?
This is the final midseason catchup of the 11 biggest leagues in college basketball. We’ve run these on the day leagues start conference play, and so with the Southeastern Conference beginning tonight in earnest, it's time to look at what this league has to offer in what's become something of a down season. But it's not all bad!
Here’s the SEC reset:
Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri
Teams with work to do: Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State
Teams already out, barring a miracle: Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas A&M
Most memorable moment to date: Kentucky beats out Louisville at Louisville, getting its first big win of the season. Looking through the SEC, you kind of don't want to be forced to pick a UK moment as the choice here, but it's been fairly bland through the past eight-ish weeks. The win for John Calipari's team was pretty significant; it was the first victory this season for the Wildcats over an NCAA tournament team, and it released some pressure on what is statistically the youngest roster college basketball has seen in more than five years.
Storyline you were too busy to notice: Ole Miss isn't the team it was a year ago, and Marshall Henderson's no longer a big-time attraction in college hoops. That's not to say Henderson still isn't polarizing, can't put up 30 and won't give this team a chance at making the NCAA tournament. All of that is true. But he was college hoops' biggest star last season, and now he's not even among the top 10 must-see players in the sport this year. The Rebels are 9-4, their best win coming against Penn State at the Barclays Center in front of approximately 97 people. There is much work to be done.
Coach feeling the heat: Alas, it is the personable Mark Fox, who has a 6-6 record in a hot-hot-hot seat season. The Bulldogs' best win is against Western Carolina. Fox is in his fifth season at the school with just one NCAA tourney appearance to his name. It could be tough for him to make it to next season at this post.
Player who needs to step up: Let's encourage LSU to be nice and relevant again! The Bayou Bengals are my top sleeper pick to win an NCAA tournament game this season. Jordan Mickey is the best freshman most don't know anything about. Mickey's averaging 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 -- 3.6! -- blocks. It's not he who needs to step up, rather, senior guard Shavon Coleman, who's production has dipped noticeably this season. Get good guard play from him, and LSU is top-four-good in this league.
Team better than its record: Absolutely it's Alabama. The Crimson Tide have actually fallen below .500, are now 6-7, but I think some positive progression to the mean is coming. Don't believe this group is making the field of 68, but the NIT is a possibility. Offense needs to get in gear, and Trevor Releford (18.5 PPG) needs to show he's one of the 10 best players in this league by finishing his career with a bang in league play.
Team not as good as its record: Nice to see the Hogs at 11-2, but that's an .846 win percentage, and I don't believe this team will be above .700 by Selection Sunday. Good group, but a very weak schedule to this point. More on Anthony Grant's team below.
Three must-see games:
- Missouri at LSU (Jan. 21)
- Florida at Tennessee (Feb. 11)
- Florida at Kentucky (Feb. 15)
Player of the Year favorite: Julius Randle, Kentucky. The power forward has met his hype. He's nearly unstoppable on the block, handles the ball well, is capable of carrying this team for long stretches, and in general has become one of the most versatile big men to play in college hoops in recent memory. It's interesting to see him do it in a year where there's an even more versatile guy playing a similar position in Jabari Parker. Randle's averaging 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds.
Freshman of the Year favorite: Randle. For more reason, check the above paragraph again. And watch this.
Probable all-league team:
Julius Randle (Kentucky); Jordan Clarkson (Missouri); Casey Prather (Florida); Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee); Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky).
Ranking the teams from first to worst:
1. Kentucky: I'm listing this as my projected end-of-regular-season standings in this league. So give me Kentucky, a group with tremendous pressure to erase the memories from a year ago -- something this team had nothing to do with, I remind you. Kentucky's got to get more consistent play from the Harrison twins in the back court. They're so athletic, well-built and aggressive, it's been surprising to see them not be better. Andrew Harrison even more than Aaron. I really like Cauley-Stein's game, and I think James Young can turn into a late-game shot-maker.
2. Florida: Chris Walker's ability to be a factor on the floor will probably determine the regular-season champ. Walker missed the first semester due to academics from his pre-Florida days. If he's able to contribute, and do what coaches believe he can do right away, then I'd take Florida to win the league. But I have to see it first. Casey Prather's been the most surprising player in the country so far this season. The senior is averaging 17.3 points -- nearly three times his average from a year ago, which was the highest of his career. Gators have tools to win it all. Can they dodge losing a fourth straight season in the Elite Eight?
3. Missouri: Jordan Clarkson might be getting less love than any player nationally who's putting up the kind of stats he's putting up 19.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. The Tigers have Jabari Brown as a workhorse and senior guard Earnest Ross putting up double digits. They've beaten UCLA, West Virginia and N.C. State. Not a great slate, but overall 12-1 and capable of getting 24 wins this year. And Ryan Rosburg is a reserve few other teams have in this league.
4. LSU: Been optimistic on the Tigers since the preseason. Told you about Jordan Mickey above. This team plays terrific man-to-man defense. The shooting is the issue. They've got a pair of kids who can hit from deep, but overall it's got to be a team that gets better from the paint and keeps on rebounding the way it has. I'm higher on LSU than most, but if Mickey and fellow frosh Jarell Martin keep ascending, this is an NCAA tournament team.
5. Tennessee: Fascinating team. Its triad of J-named ballers -- Jordan McRare, Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon -- have all been putting up consistent numbers. I can't look at any of those guys and say they haven't done their job. But as a team, 9-4 Tennessee has shown defensive lapses at times and been woeful in certain spots. The defense is able to make teams bleed clock, but if often can't get a stop. I believe the Vols will just squeak into the NCAAs.
6. Arkansas: Has the best offense in the league, scoring 1.157 points per possession, but playing the 315th-toughest schedule in the country so far. So that rate is a bit misleading. Good offense, and by playing 45.3 percent of its minutes to guys off the bench, Arkansas has the deepest assault of 6-10 guys in the nation. That rate is the highest (according to KenPom.com). The Hogs will have a comedown, but if the first half of the season gave them confidence in that offense, they should be able to make a run at an 11 or 12 seed.
7. Ole Miss: Marshall Henderson has jacked up 138 3-pointers this year, which I believe is among the five most in the country. But the thing is, he's taken 175 shots total. That means 78.6 percent of the shots Henderson tosses up are from beyond 20 feet. Crazy. Not sure how good it is for Ole Miss, as he's shooting 38 percent from 3. The rest of the team is decently balanced. Honestly, I think sophomore point guard Derrick Millinghaus is the team MVP.
8. Alabama: Spoke a bit about them above. Secret weapon is Retin Obasohan, who steals it away 2.2 times per game. The group doesn't pass it too well, and I think Trevor Releford will have to put up an amazing set of performances in order to catapult the Tide into contention.
9. Vanderbilt: Commodores are 8-4 and lack any nice wins, but have the defense and bodies down low to put them into the mix of the middle group here in the SEC. Will be a better team next year. For now, staying above .500 is the goal. Best player is a guy named Rod Odom, a senior power forward who deserves more touches.
10. Texas A&M: Like most of the teams in this league, the Aggies lack even one respectable win. The best have come against Buffalo and Houston. A&M's issue is a lack in scoring, something that could prevent this group from even finishing in the top 10, but I see what's below aTm here and I have to take a flier on this group. Junior power forward Kourtney Roberson (11.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG) is a dark horse to earn SEC Second Team.
11. South Carolina: I do wonder what it must be like to be part of a Frank Martin rebuilding job. South Carolina isn't very watchable. This is a tough challenge for the former K-State coach, who essentially left that school when things were rolling due to a bad relationship with his former athletic director. The Gamecocks are ranked in the top 10 in rebound rate on the offensive glass, but outside of that there's not too much to be inspired about. They've played a tough schedule and sit at 7-6, winners of four straight, but a game at Florida is next.
12. Mississippi State: Few coaches -- maybe none outside of Pat Skerry at Towson -- have dealt with as much roster instability/injury in the past two season as Rick Ray. It's a work of patience down there in Starkville. The Bulldogs have improved on defense but still don't have the scorers to keep up the chase in the average SEC. They've got a sophomore guard with great name, Craig Sword, who leads the team in scoring. MSU is 10-3, but I do wonder if it can finish the season above .500. SOS overall comes in at 351 -- that is dead last in the country.
13. Auburn: Tony Barbee's team has a win against Clemson, a better W than half the league can claim. Maybe most. But without a defense, and playing against one of the worst slates in the nation (ranked 339 overall), the Tigers are suspect until they prove otherwise. Currently at 8-3, four of the next seven are on the road, so a dip is in store.
14. Georgia: And we get to Georgia, a club I didn't think would be on the top half of the standings, but I did believe Mark Fox could get this group to 11 or 10 this season. Doesn't seem feasible. Against the halfway-decent teams it's faced, UGA's lost big, lost close, hasn't really mattered. At 6-6, it's got more losses than any SEC team.
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