Today we are in for a special treat. We have our debut post from our SEC expert out of Lexington, Mr. Matt Murray.
Matt is the Editor in Chief for the University of Kentucky’s student run newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. You can follow him on twitter @MurrNation
Six weeks into the college basketball season, teams are gearing up for conference play, and their non-conference schedule has helped provide a litmus test for just how good they are, while other teams still haven’t quite figured it out. While the SEC hasn’t been the best league from top to bottom the decade or so, it has produced the second most Final Four teams over the last five years, and ties the ACC for the most national championships over the last five years.
The SEC has surprised many critics in the early stages of this season, but it’s the lopsidedness of the conference that is glaring. The East appears to have 6 teams that could rightfully make their way into the NCAA tournament, while you’d be hard-pressed to find a single team from the west that could legitimately find themselves in the field in March.
1. Mississippi- Ranking the teams in the SEC West is like playing pin the tail on the donkey. You are just as likely to nail it as you are to accidentally stick the pin in your great aunt Edna’s ass. The Rebels are 7-2, but they have yet to play a ranked opponent. However, the Rebels have an experienced squad and are able to put up points. Senior guard Chris Warren averages more than 19 points a game and shoots nearly 92% from the free throw line. The Rebels average almost 80 points per game, but that offense is yet to be tested by a worthy opponent. The Rebels first real test comes in their SEC opener at #19 Florida. This team will have a better feel of how good they are after they see how they play on the road in Gainesville.
2. Arkansas Razorbacks– Arkansas is currently 7-2, and each of their two losses has come in overtime. However, head coach John Pelphrey has much to prove. He has only won 14 games in each of his first two seasons at Arkansas. Arkansas’ rich basketball history will have Pelphrey on the hot seat if he can’t push his team above a .500 record this season, and there’s reason to believe he finally has the pieces to do so. Sharp-shooter Rotnei Clark has another year of experience under his belt and is currently the Razorback’s leading scorer. The good (and bad) news for the Razorbacks is that they have no real star. Clark is the leading scorer with a mere 13.8 a game, while their second leading scorer is senior Delvon Johnson with 11.1 per game. The Razorbacks have an even scoring distribution and get decent production out of their bench. The problem is that unlike many of the marquee teams in the SEC, they lack playmakers that can get them out of a bind, but if their squad continues to gain experience and play smart, they can become one of the deeper teams in the division.
3. Mississippi State- Sitting at 7-3 after finishing last season with an eye-opening deep run in the SEC tourny taking a stellar Kentucky team into overtime in the SEC Championship game last season, the Bulldogs are working on rebuilding, particularly after losing swat machine Jarvis Varnado. However, like most of their SEC West counterparts, this team has yet to face a ranked opponent, and thus has no real way of knowing exactly what they are capable of. In fact, all they know as of now is that they’ve lost to a 4-5 East Tennessee State and ACC bottom-feeder Virginia Tech. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, they kick off SEC play against three straight SEC West opponents, which might give them a chance to get their feet under them before facing a surprising Georgia team in Athens, kicking off a stretch against three straight tough SEC East opponents. However, if senior guard Ravern Johnson continues his outstanding play, which has him averaging 22 points per game, this team has reason to believe they can rise to the top of the SEC West.
4. LSU Tigers- Unlike the others in their division, the Tigers have faced a top 25 team, and held their own, losing to #19 Memphis by nine. The problem is that the 7-4 Tigers have posted three additional losses to teams that won’t be dancing in March and that they have the daunting task of playing their games against SEC East leaders Kentucky and Tennessee on their home floors. This LSU team will most likely stumble their way through SEC play, and would be lucky to finish out their season at .500.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide- The Tide has a faced a host of respectable opponents. The problem is that they are 5-6 as a result. The Tide puts up a measly 64 points a game, and has no real leadership. The young squad is led in scoring by a sophomore and junior, and find two freshman in their starting lineup. In a conference full of teams boasting rosters that are either full of experience or freshman that are far more talented than those on Alabama, the Tide are going to find themselves outmatched in the majority of their SEC match-ups this season.
6. Auburn Tigers- The Tigers are bad. In fact, they’ve been bad for quite some time, and there’s no reason to expect any change this season. They rank in the 200s in almost every major statistic and already find themselves in a 4-7 hole, despite having yet to play a ranked opponent. They barely average 60 points a game, and their latest recruiting class was lackluster at best. The Tigers would be lucky to post 14 wins this season.
1. Kentucky Wildcats- The fight for the top of the SEC East should be a slugfest. Tennessee and Florida find themselves at the bottom of the division with three losses a piece, while every other team has only two losses to their name. So far, the East has collectively knocked off opponents like Pitt, Notre Dame, Villanova, Washington and Kansas State. The Wildcats sitting at 9 and 2, are responsible for two of those wins, and their only two losses have come to ranked opponents away from Rupp Arena. Kentucky is young, and there is no doubt this class lacks the talent of last year’s highlight reel squad. But what the Cats do have is an intelligent team that has come off as very coachable so far this season, as well as one of the top NBA prospects in freshman forward Terrance Jones. Jones is averaging a double double this season, with 19.8 points and 10 rebounds a game as a freshman. Additionally, Calipari has reloaded yet again in the point guard position, as Brandon Knight has replaced John Wall, who replaced Tyreke Evans, who replaced Derrick Rose. Knight averages 17.2 points per game, but the problem is that he only averages about four assists per game. Unlike Wall, Knight isn’t a true point guard, but also unlike wall, Knight is a much better shooter. In fact, this Kentucky team is in many ways the polar opposite of last year’s team, which was the tallest team in the NCAA. With Cousins, Patterson and Orton, the Cats could push the ball and earn points in the paint. This year’s team lacks a big man, as Josh Harrellson is its starting center. However, now the Cats are a real threat from behind the arc. The Cats are likely to finish about 12-4 in the SEC, which would likely put Calipari in position to post yet another 30-win season. Lucky for the Cats, no team in the SEC has a dominant big man, which is the only real kryptonite for this team and Calipari has the Cats playing the kind of defense he is known for, and their length has proven to be a big challenge for opponents.
2. Tennessee Volunteers- Of those marquee wins listed for the SEC, the Volunteers are responsible for some of the biggest as Tennessee has already knocked off Big East powerhouses Pitt and Nova. Had I written this preview 10 days ago, Tennessee would’ve been my hands-down favorite to finish at the top of the SEC East. However, after starting 7-0 and knocking off two top 10 teams, the Volunteers have dropped two straight to non-BCS conference teams Oakland and Charlotte, and a third straight to USC. Two-faced Tennessee is capable of beating any team in the NCAA by double digits, but they’re just as capable of losing to anyone. More than likely, these early loses will bring the naysayers back out of the woodwork, but there’s no reason to expect this Tennessee team won’t get back on track and make a serious run for the top of the conference and an equally deep run into the NCAA tournament. Their match-ups against Kentucky and Florida could likely determine who comes out on top of the conference, but then again, every SEC East matchup could be that pivotal this season. What will be interesting to see is whether or not Bruce Pearl’s eight-game SEC suspension will really affect his team. During that stretch, Tennessee will have to face Florida and Vanderbilt, outcomes which could very well effect the SEC East standings for the season.
3. Florida Gators- Florida may be just as two-faced as Tennessee, posting wins against top 10 Kansas State, and turning around to lose to the Jacksonville Dolphins that very same week. At 8-3 Florida has no reason to panic, especially as one of their losses came from a very realistic title contender in Ohio State in the early stages of the season. Donovan has yet to recapture the talent he had in his back-to-to back title teams 3 years ago, but the addition of Kenny Boynton last year was a good first step. The sophomore averages 12.4 points per game, and in tandem with Erving Walker, Florida is finally building a team that could be a real threat in the NCAA tournament. The Gators have built up a great deal of depth, which will make them tough to beat due to their ability to give guys ample rest. The Gators should win the rest of their non-conference schedule and enter SEC play at 12-3, and pick up an SEC-opening win against Mississippi before having to travel to Knoxville to face Tennessee in one of the first big SEC clashes of the season.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores- The Commodores have found a way to put themselves in the mix for the past four years, and head coach Kevin Stallings has been the primary reason. He finds ways to put his team in position to win games, and while the ‘Dores have never been outstanding, no one plays them expecting an easy win. Playing in Nashville is always a nightmare and the team plays equally well on the road. However, there’s reason to believe that the strength of the SEC East this season could see the Commodores having a less-than-stellar season. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, they face rival Tennessee during Pearl’s suspension, and any help is welcome. If Stallings can keep his team on their current pace of scoring, which has them at 24th in the country with 80.1 points per game, he can likely get his team into the NCAA tournament, but the graduation of center A.J. Ogilvy is going to be his biggest road block. However, like Kentucky, Vanderbilt too can benefit from existing in a league that lacks a dominant big man.
5. Georgia Bulldogs- Georgia is on the upswing. Junior Trey Thompkins stormed onto the scene last season with a posterizing dunk on Kentucky’s Demarcus Cousins and he’s never slowed down since. He averages 16.2 points per game, and fellow junior, guard Travis Leslie, adds 14 a game. The duo has led the Bulldogs to a 8-2 start, their best start since 2006, and their only losses have been at the hand of now-ranked opponents. There’s no reason to believe this Georgia team won’t enter SEC play at 11-2, and contend for a spot at the top of the conference. The only thing working against them is the strength of the other teams in the East, but if they can win the games they’re supposed to win, and stack that with some surprises, this team could find itself back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since their surprise SEC tournament-winning run in 2008.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks- The loss of Devon Downey is the primary reason for the Gamecocks likely slide to the bottom of the east this season. Yet, somehow South Carolina has earned a 7-2 start, losing only to top 10 teams. This is the biggest question mark in the SEC East, as this team has no reason to finish better than 8-8 in the SEC, but their play against teams like Michigan State has shown the talent and ability that could be extracted from this team if head coach Darren Horn can pull it out of them. Despite any true big man presence, South Carolina is 9th in the NCAA in rebounding, and in a league with no truly talented big man, the Gamecocks’ ability to crash the board could earn them invaluable second chance opportunities if they can stay on that pace. Their biggest problem will be finding offensive production in a league full of a tenacious defense. If the Gamecocks play to their potential, they could get to 10 wins in the SEC, but there are only so many wins to be divided among the conference, and its more than likely a host of talented SEC East teams will be taking a fair share of them from South Carolina.
Only time will tell whether or not this fast start for the SEC East is the real deal, but so far their games against big-time opponents seem to show there’s reason to believe it could be. College basketball as a whole is down this season, and so far, the SEC seems to be capitalizing on this fact.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.