Three games in, and only Kentucky and Vanderbilt are undefeated in conference play. Vandy has played three of the bottom four teams on our ballot this week, and we almost got Kentucky on Saturday. The league is strong this year, boys and girls, with three Top 15 teams in the coaches' poll and Vandy first among those also receiving votes. The league's top five teams are all seeded 8 or higher in this week's bracket matrix; last time that happened in the actual tournament draw was 2006. And with several teams in the lower half still feisty enough to make a run and/or beat you on any given night, we appear to be in for the best regular season we've seen in a long time. With divisional seeding for the SEC Tournament thrown out, every game matters and the more chaos, the better.
Here's our ballot for this week - we'll post a link to this week's results when they become available:
1. Kentucky - 17-1 (3-0) - AP #2 - RPI #9 - KenPom #5
We talked about this when it happened, but last year's Kentucky team doesn't win that game in Knoxville in mid-January. And last year's Kentucky team matured their way to the Final Four. If this team follows a similar path, they'll be there in the end; there's not a team in college basketball that looks or feels better than them right now. But they also don't have the feel of the 2010 NBA All-Rookie Team that you had to pray missed threes all night to have a chance to beat. They're the best, but the rest of the league is good enough to make them earn it.
2. Mississippi State - 15-3 (2-1) - AP #18 - RPI #40 - KenPom #56
Having seen both them and Florida, we're obviously going to give them the nod. On their best day, I think they're better than the Gators. But I also think you're going to see Florida's best day more often than you see Mississippi State's. Their post players would drive me crazy - so much potential that doesn't always materialize.
3. Florida - 14-4 (2-1) - AP #17 - RPI #42 - KenPom #12
Continuing to make the Vols' win over them sound impressive: Florida's 14 wins have come by an average of 23.3 points. They followed that script once they left Knoxville, beating Georgia by 22 and South Carolina by 14. They play mostly lower tier teams the next two weeks, but check out February 4-18: Vanderbilt, at Kentucky, Tennessee, at Alabama, at Arkansas. Remember, other than the weird Rutgers overtime loss and what we did to them in Knoxville, their only other losses are single digit affairs at #1 Syracuse and #6 Ohio State.
4. Vanderbilt - 13-4 (3-0) - RPI #31 - KenPom #36
Vandy holds at four simply because they haven't played anyone in the league yet, with double digit wins over Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia. That's getting ready to change, as they're at Alabama Thursday night, then home against Mississippi State and Tennessee.
5. Alabama - 13-4 (2-1) - RPI #20 - KenPom #14
Though Bama doesn't have an elite win yet, they've solved their previous problems with the selection committee by scheduling a bunch of good-but-not-great teams and beating most of them. Mississippi State denied them their first elite win last week by four points. This week they get the turnaround screwjob: home against Vandy at 7:00 PM Thursday, at Rupp Arena Saturday at high noon. When we play them it's first one to 50.
6. Arkansas - 13-4 (2-1) - RPI #80 - KenPom #79
Stunned Mississippi State by dropping 98 on them in regulation to open conference play, then lost at Ole Miss before rebounding with a nice win over LSU. They're at Rupp tonight, followed by an important non-conference home date with Michigan. Win one of those, and the tournament talk can truly begin.
7. Tennessee - 8-9 (1-2) - RPI #174 - KenPom #100
Since our preseason ballot two weeks ago, Tennessee is up 99 spots in RPI and 21 in KenPom. It's the best you could possibly feel having gone 1-2 to open conference play, with a dominant tone-setter victory against Florida that led to a pair of almosts against the top two teams on our ballot. Factor in the Jarnell Stokes bump, which first impression suggests will be a significant one, and the Vols move into the middle tier with high hopes for the future. This team will be in every game every night.
8. LSU - 11-6 (1-2) - RPI #74 - KenPom #77
Blew out Ole Miss 81-55 to open conference play, but didn't play so well on the road, losing at Alabama and Arkansas by 25 combined points. Another team in search of quality wins, a list that right now includes only Marquette. Home against Auburn tonight, then back to the brutal: at Florida, at Mississippi State, home to Kentucky. We'll see.
9. Auburn - 11-6 (1-2) - RPI #142 - KenPom #207
Pomeroy hates Auburn with a passion compared to the rest of the league. The Tigers were 10-3 two weeks ago with a soft schedule. Then they lost to Florida State by 29, Vanderbilt by 30 (which almost matched their point total of 35), and Kentucky by 15. But they found a pulse against...
10. Ole Miss - 11-6 (1-2) - RPI #54 - KenPom #124
...who lost in double overtime on The Plains, so we give Auburn the slight nod this week. The Rebels did beat Arkansas in Oxford, but again, were crushed by LSU. They host Mississippi State tomorrow night. Their losses - including Marquette, 17-2 MTSU, 16-3 Southern Miss, Dayton, and LSU - didn't look bad until Auburn got them. They've got work to do.
11. Georgia - 9-8 (0-3) - RPI #116 - KenPom #135
See, you think, "No way man, no way Georgia is the next-to-worst team in the SEC." But the Dawgs appear to be the latest SEC team to ride a core group of players to postseason success, then crash and burn when those players leave. Take away Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, and you've got a team that can't score: Georgia averages just 62.2 points per game, dead last in the SEC and 292nd out of 344 in the nation (fun fact: true to form, Kevin O'Neill's team is 341st in that stat). The Dawgs have faced Alabama, Florida, and Vanderbilt to open, which ain't easy, but they lost all three by double figures. Tennessee's lockdown defense should have its way tomorrow night. Kyle says:
Obviously, the team must be given considerable credit for hanging tough with a quality conference foe (Vanderbilt) on the road. At the same time, the usual issues of on-court discipline, poor shot selection, and lack of an inside presence continue to hound this team. It’s unfair to call this the same old stuff on a different day, but progress is slow and time is short. With four of the next six games in Athens and the next road game at Auburn, the Red and Black had better get to winning soon if they plan to do any winning at all.
12. South Carolina - 8-9 (0-3) - RPI #192 - KenPom #130
We had them at the bottom in our preseason ballot, and they've done nothing to change my mind. Granted, playing Kentucky, Vandy, and Florida isn't the easiest path, but this remains a team with no quality wins that plays hard but runs out of gas in big games, and also loses to the Elons and Tennessee States of the world. If there's a silver lining, it's that the better they get at football, the less they care about this part like the rest of we non-Kentucky folk in this league.