With three weeks to go, we have a pair of really interesting storylines: can Kentucky go 16-0, and which teams will emerge from the total gridlock behind them? Since conference play began, the assumption has been that this was a five bid league. But right now I could see as few as four or as many as six making the dance, and nine teams have to still be entertaining being among that group in the front or the back of their minds. With an amazing seven teams between 7-3 and 5-5, this is an especially difficult ballot, so as always your comments are appreciated. Read on and watch me stunningly resist the temptation to rank the Vols ahead of Florida.
1. Kentucky - 25-1 (11-0) - RPI 3 - KenPom 2 - BPI 1
Here's the thing with this bunch: they don't feel like it because Calipari's first UK team had so much flash with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who were both more unique than anyone on this current team, and that 2010 team had all the Year One newness and hype...but this is Cal's best Kentucky team, and it may not be close. The last UK team to go 16-0 in 2003, with Bogans and Fitch? This team would embarrass them. Anthony Davis is a destroyer of worlds in the paint, but you can't say, "Well, we'll just shoot threes", because they're so long with Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones they block those too. How you get consistently unaffected shots against this team is beyond me. Semi-serious question: at what point does Cal decide to throw a game because he's worried his guys got bored? I could see them losing a second round tournament game because they weren't focused (like Princeton in the first round last year), but otherwise this should absolutely be a Final Four team at worst.
2. Florida - 19-6 (7-3) - RPI 26 - KenPom 19 - BPI 12
The Head to Head Police Department has no comment on the fact that the Gators are ranked above Tennessee. The Gators are still alone in second place in the standings, and are still in second in all three of the metrics listed on our ballot, so they hold at two despite getting dominated by the Big Orange for the second time this season. Before Saturday, we could say that the Gators simply did not lose at home. But in the light of Saturday's loss, the fact that Florida's only road wins this season are South Carolina and Ole Miss is a little more interesting, especially for a team that's getting ready to spend the week in Tuscaloosa and Fayetteville. Good time to catch Alabama without its four best players, eh?
3. Mississippi State - 19-6 (6-4) - RPI 44 - KenPom 72 - BPI 44
I'm glad I'm not a Mississippi State fan, because they would drive me completely insane. One week ago they gave up 88 points at home to an Auburn team that averages 63.6, barely escaping by three points. Not so lucky the next time in a 70-68 overtime loss to Georgia, also in Starkville. When they show up and actually decide to play defense, they've got the best chance to beat Kentucky (February 21 in Starkville). But that's certainly no guarantee on any night with this team, who will play four of their next five on the road with UK the only home date. Tennessee really could pass this team.
4. Vanderbilt - 17-8 (6-4) - RPI 30 - KenPom 30 - BPI 28
Apparently everyone agrees on this team's national worth, who threw some good punches in battling back against the Cats on Saturday night but still didn't have enough in the end like everyone else. Everyone involved with this team knows it will lose its six best players, so now has to be the time. They're at Ole Miss, at Georgia, and home against South Carolina in their next three before the tough finish: at Kentucky, Florida, at Tennessee.
5. Tennessee - 13-12 (5-5) - RPI 110 - KenPom 81 - BPI 84
With Alabama's four best players suspended and Arkansas incapable of winning on the road, the Vols move into the top five on our ballot. Tennessee is still suffering from their non-conference woes with losses to Charleston (RPI 116), Oakland (133), and especially Austin Peay (192). So despite UT's RPI being up 163 spots in that ranking since conference play began, the Vols are still a long, long way from an at-large bid. Still, Tennessee's two dominant wins over Florida are better than anything anyone else after the first four teams on our ballot has done this year. The Vols are 6-5 since conference play began and had their chances to win at Mississippi State and at home against Kentucky, as well as in a costly overtime loss in Athens. Tennessee's next three games are against the other three teams in that four-way tie at 5-5. No fate but what we make.
6. LSU - 14-10 (4-6) - RPI 75 - KenPom 80 - BPI 93
Here's where we play, "Who has the best losses?" The Tigers win that game among their former SEC West competition in the middle here, because their conference losses are at Alabama, at Arkansas, at Florida, at Mississippi State, vs Kentucky, and at Vanderbilt. They then got revenge on both Bama and Arkansas in Baton Rouge, and still own that 26 point win over Ole Miss. This is a team that could get on a serious run if they can beat Mississippi State in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, because after that it's at South Carolina, Georgia, at Ole Miss, Tennessee, at Auburn, and they could win every one of those games. The Tigers have just two wins against the RPI Top 100, but a strong run could boost them from the edge of the bubble conversation to the edge of the tournament itself. We'll see.
7. Alabama - 16-8 (5-5) - RPI 32 - KenPom 28 - BPI 27
They've got strong numbers across the board, but now without their four best players the week they host Florida and Tennessee, where do the Tide go from here? They bounced back nicely in the second half in Baton Rouge after their backups scored just 15 points in the first half, but still failed to get the win. They also lost at South Carolina earlier in the year, which is the Gamecocks' only SEC win. It's hanging by a thread in Tuscaloosa - very curious to see how Anthony Grant continues to handle this.
8. Arkansas - 17-8 (5-5) - RPI 64 - KenPom 93 - BPI 80
At home, they've beaten Mississippi State, Michigan, and Vanderbilt. On the road, they've beaten no one. In their latest effort, they were destroyed by Georgia - the worst scoring team in the league - 81-59. That's good news for the Vols, who will call the Hogs on Wednesday night. They do follow up with Florida and Alabama at home, if they can keep up their strong play there. 17-0 in Fayetteville, 0-8 elsewhere. Don't see that every day.
9. Ole Miss - 15-9 (5-5) - RPI 53 - KenPom 111 - BPI 81
The anti-Vanderbilt, no one can agree on them. I'm leaving them at nine, where we've had them for the last month, until they do something to separate themselves. The Rebels did beat Mississippi State in Oxford. Their other four SEC wins are Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn, and Arkansas (who loses to everyone on the road). They've also lost to Auburn and in that blowout in Baton Rouge. Their RPI gets a huge boost from non-conference games against Marquette, Southern Miss, MTSU, and Dayton. They lost all four of those games, three of them by double figures. Impress me.
10. Georgia - 12-12 (3-7) - RPI 98 - KenPom 120 - BPI 110
Dawgs are riding high off back-to-back wins over Arkansas and at Mississippi State, and they're at South Carolina next. Finding ways to get it done recently despite very little offense.
11. Auburn - 13-12 (3-8) - RPI 132 - KenPom 172 - BPI 142
Losers of three straight, they're off midweek before hosting Mississippi State on Saturday.
12. South Carolina - 9-15 (1-9) - RPI 177 - KenPom 148 - BPI 157
Nine SEC losses, seven by double digits. Yikes.