2014 SEC Basketball Preview

USA TODAY Sports

A look at all 14 teams as league play begins tomorrow.

SEC Basketball tips off tomorrow night, and the Vols are the opener in Baton Rouge at 7:00 PM. Tennessee/LSU is a huge game with both teams looking for another quality win to help end an NCAA Tournament drought; we'll have a full preview of that game tomorrow morning.

But first, here's an overview of all 14 teams as league play begins. Teams are ranked according to their current RPI.

FLORIDA (11-2)

  • RPI 14 - KenPom 17 - Bracket Matrix 4
  • Quality Wins: Kansas, vs Memphis
  • Losses: at Wisconsin, at UConn
Since John Calipari and the one-and-done arrived in Lexington, Florida has become the SEC's surest bet. The Gators have made the Elite Eight three years in a row and won the SEC in 2011 and 2013. Many of the names are familiar - Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete - while sophomore guard Michael Frazier has made the leap with 11.4 points per game and is currently hitting 50% of his threes, and Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith has added 10.6 points and 7.2 rebounds to the mix. Florida has been an excellent defensive team thus far as well, 19th nationally in points per possession allowed and 11th in points per game allowed at just 58.8. They're also a Top 50 rebounding team.

It may lack the NBA lottery power of Billy Donovan's previous teams, but this could be one of the most well-rounded teams the Gators have put on the floor during his time, which is really saying something given his accomplishments. Florida lost at the buzzer at UConn and lost by six at Wisconsin way back on November 12. But this is a team who had an 18 point lead on Kansas in an eventual 67-61 win and beat Memphis on a neutral floor. Kentucky is more talented, but Florida at the moment is the best team in the league.

KENTUCKY (10-3)
  • RPI 18 - KenPom 12 - Bracket Matrix 4
  • Quality Wins: Boise State, Belmont, Louisville
  • Losses: vs Michigan State, vs Baylor, at North Carolina
Kentucky's losses are nothing to worry about, all to Top 20 teams and all away from Rupp Arena. The win over Louisville certainly proved this team is capable of beating the elite teams it had competed with in earlier losses. This team is exceedingly good at getting to the free throw line, second in the nation in free throw rate. And Kentucky is currently the nation's best offensive rebounding team, getting it back on 45.3% of its misses. It adds up to 1.17 points per possession (20th nationally) and points on 61.5% of their possessions (2nd nationally). Kentucky also averages 7.2 blocks per game, fifth nationally, with 4.1 of those belonging to Willie Cauley-Stein, also fifth nationally. On defense the Cats are 17th nationally in effective FG% allowed. So yeah, they're good. Along with WCS the other four freshmen all lead the team in scoring, paced by Julius Randle at 18.1/10.6. Aaron Harrison averages 14.7 points per game, James Young is at 13.8, and Andrew Harrison is at 11.2. This means Alex Poythress is in a sixth man role, adding in 4.8/5.9 in 18 minutes.

Flaws? They don't shoot threes very well, 31%, but they're not built to score that way. And in true Calipari fashion, they're not a great free throw shooting team at just under 67%, negating at least some of their advantage in getting to the line so often. Since they've played just one true road game and lost it at North Carolina, if they stumble early at Vanderbilt or at Arkansas there will again be some noise about young teams like this winning on the road when everyone throws their A game at Kentucky. Still, the folks at A Sea of Blue believe Kentucky is just baby steps away from greatness, and I can certainly buy that argument. We'll find out for ourselves on January 18 in Rupp for our only meeting this season.

MISSOURI (12-1)
  • RPI 19 - KenPom 41 - Bracket Matrix 6
  • Quality Wins: West Virginia, UCLA, NC State
  • Losses: vs Illinois
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, Missouri is one point away from being undefeated. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson is averaging 20 points per game to lead SEC players entering league play. Missouri has been hot, shooting 48.6% from the floor for the nation's 31st best average. They've also been good getting to the line.

Despite their hot start and their name recognition value, Mizzou has few believers. They're only the sixth best SEC team in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and they're projected to finish with the league's fifth best RPI. Their early SEC schedule allows them to continue the run they've been on: the Tigers don't play Florida, Kentucky, or us until February. If they continue to show such consistency they'll be in the SEC title chase until the end.

LSU (9-3)
  • RPI 52 - KenPom 49 - Bracket Matrix 10
  • Quality Wins: vs Butler
  • Losses: at UMass, vs Memphis, Rhode Island
UMass is currently #3 in RPI, and the Tigers lost to them in the season opener by a deuce. Outside of that one and a seven point loss to Memphis, LSU has been ripping through the bulk of its schedule...until Saturday, when Rhode Island came into Baton Rouge and beat LSU 74-70. The Tigers beat Butler in overtime and won at Texas Tech by two. LSU has seven wins of 13+ points.

LSU was 19-12 (9-9) last year, but in one of the best examples of the changing landscape of SEC basketball, that wasn't even good enough to make the NIT. But most of those pieces returned, including Johnny O'Bryant III who leads the Tigers in scoring at 14.9 plus 7.9 rebounds, as well as Andre Stringer, Anthony Hickey, and Shavon Coleman, who combine with freshman Jordan Mickey to give the Tigers five players averaging 9+ points per game. Pomeroy believes in LSU more than Missouri; the Tigers don't excel in scoring but are strong in rebounding, 28th in offensive rebounding percentage and 14th in defensive rebounding percentage. It'll be an interesting stat to watch as conference play unfolds; most of the good teams in the league are dominant rebounders coming in, but that means not everyone will be a dominant rebounding team come March. LSU also shares the basketball well, second in the league in assists per game, but LSU is also the most turnover-prone team in the league at 15.6 per game. If this league is going to get more than four teams on the dance floor, it needs a team like this to keep winning. A late January stretch of Missouri, at Alabama, Kentucky will tell us a lot overall, but the opener with Tennessee will offer immediate answers.

TENNESSEE (9-4)
  • RPI 55 - KenPom 25 - Bracket Matrix First Four Out
  • Quality Wins: vs Xavier, Virginia
  • Losses: at Xavier, vs UTEP, at Wichita State, NC State
Sometimes things look better with time, and Tennessee's two performances against Xavier certainly belong in that category at the moment. The Vols lost by four in the Cintas Center in the season opener thanks to abysmal free throw shooting, but bounced back to beat the Musketeers in the Bahamas. As it turns out, Xavier's o-for-Thanksgiving Bahamas trip represents their only losses of the season, and that includes an overtime defeat to a very strong Iowa team. Since returning to the states the Musketeers have hammered Cincinnati, won at Alabama and beat Butler, making them a Top 50 RPI squad all of a sudden. The UTEP loss is probably going to go down as a bad one, but this schedule can look really good by year's end.

We know UT's early struggles, but we've also seen their surprising offensive potential. But the narrative of this team is likely to be written in the next four weeks: the Vols open at LSU then get Texas A&M and Auburn in Knoxville. But check out this stretch from January 18-February 1: at Kentucky, vs Arkansas, at Florida, vs Ole Miss, at Alabama. On February 2 we're going to be talking about the bubble, Bruce Pearl, or the SEC Championship, and there won't be much chance to change the conversation the rest of the way: only three of our last ten games come against teams with projected RPIs in the Top 100. Tennessee's time is now.

OLE MISS (9-4)
  • RPI 74 - KenPom 78
  • Quality Wins: Penn State, MTSU
  • Losses: at Kansas State, Oregon, Mercer, Dayton
Two of the Rebels' losses came in overtime and all four are currently to Top 100 RPI teams, but Ole Miss will need Penn State and MTSU to have big years in conference play for those two wins to hold up. They'll get some help in league play with two games against Kentucky, but Ole Miss will need a big number to get back on the dance floor. Marshall Henderson has been doing his thing, 18.8 points per game, but it's come at a Kobe-esque pace: Henderson takes 36.3% of Ole Miss's shots, the sixth-highest percentage in the nation. He's still only a 38.4% three point shooter, good but not great. Jarvis Summers returns with 17.8 points per game of his own, but Ole Miss has badly missed the inside presence of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner.

This is still a volume three point shooting team with Summers and Derrick Millinghaus supporting Henderson; the Rebels lead the SEC in threes attempted, made, and percentage (37.8%). They're also surprisingly good at blocking shots, 4th nationally. But they're at the bottom of the league in rebounding and turnovers. And defensively they're a train wreck, last in the league in threes allowed, points per game allowed (skewed by a pair of overtime games, but they're 11th in points per possession allowed), and rebounding percentage. The three ball will probably win and lose them some games they shouldn't, but they'll need a ton of consistency from here to earn an at-large bid.

ARKANSAS (11-2)
  • RPI 77 - KenPom 37 - Bracket Matrix 11
  • Quality Wins: SMU, vs Minnesota, Clemson
  • Losses: vs California, vs Gonzaga
Here's a great case study for RPI: Arkansas has wins over four RPI Top 100 teams, including a Top 50 win over Minnesota on a neutral floor, and Pomeroy's rankings clearly like them. But they've also got wins over SIU Edwardsville (which is a real thing, I promise), Southeastern Louisiana, Savannah State, Tennessee-Martin, High Point, and Texas-San Antonio. Their RPIs, respectively: 342, 244, 316, 304, 253, 343. That's out of 351. Arkansas has six wins over teams with an RPI between 244 and 343. They can still pass the eyeball test with the quickness: after opening at Texas A&M on Wednesday they've got Florida and Kentucky in their place back-to-back.

Inside the numbers this team certainly has some real strengths. They're the best shooting team in the conference and 19th in the nation at 49.4%. They're just behind Ole Miss in three point shooting, second in the league in threes attempted, made, and percentage, making them the best effective FG shooting team in the SEC. This bunch will get up and go, playing the 27th fastest pace in the country (though again, consider the competition) and also lead the conference in assists. Like LSU they were pretty decent last year at 19-13 (10-8) but were also left out of the NIT. Mike Anderson's team has gotten a boost from sophomore Michael Qualls tripling his average to 13.7 per night, 6'10" freshman Bobby Portis adding 12.8, and Houston transfer Alandise Harris also scoring double figures. I'm really intrigued by this team; as stated we'll see what they've got in league play right away.

VANDERBILT (8-4)
  • RPI 96 - KenPom 89
  • Quality Wins: Georgia Tech
  • Losses: at Butler, vs Providence, at Texas, Saint Louis
Vanderbilt is heavy on quality losses and blown leads, while the resume is a little thin on quality wins. The Commodores lead the league in assist percentage but are last in the league in offensive rebounding. Tulsa transfer Eric McClellan and 6'10" freshman Damian Jones have joined seniors Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller as Kevin Stallings works through the second year of a rebuild after going 16-17 (8-10) last year.

SOUTH CAROLINA (7-6)
  • RPI 100 - KenPom 108
  • Quality Wins: St. Mary's
  • Losses: at Baylor, at Clemson, at Oklahoma State, Manhattan, USC Upstate, vs Boise State
South Carolina, the anti-Arkansas. Six losses, five to teams with an RPI between 11-68, plus a better-than-expected USC Upstate squad. The St. Mary's win was a nice little bonus too. The Gamecocks have certainly played a tough slate under Frank Martin, and they open SEC play at Florida Wednesday night, the first of two against the Gators. Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson leads the way.

ALABAMA (6-7)
  • RPI 119 - KenPom 69
  • Quality Wins: none
  • Losses: vs Oklahoma, vs Duke, vs Drexel, at South Florida, Wichita State, Xavier, at UCLA
I'd like to nominate Anthony Grant for the hard luck coach of the year. Last year 21-12 (12-6), left out. Year before, 21-11 (9-7), 9 seed, lost by a point in round one. Year before, 21-11 (12-4), left out. So you figure, hey, we can't dance even with a dozen SEC wins? Let's schedule up. Here's the problem with scheduling up: you have to win some of them. Or at least one of them. Bama has been close - three overtimes against Drexel, two points at South Florida, three points against Xavier - but losing has become a habit Anthony Grant and the Tide are finding difficult to break. The Tide get an easy entry to SEC play (Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Mississippi State) before a Missouri/Florida back-to-back, so there's still time to build momentum. However, consider that according to RPI Forecast, Alabama would need to go 13-5 in SEC play to have a Top 50 RPI heading to the SEC Tournament. Their early stretch may have toughened them up, but they'll need an incredible run in league play to dance.

AUBURN (8-3)
  • RPI 162 - KenPom 159
  • Quality Wins: Clemson
  • Losses: Northwestern State, at Iowa State, vs Illinois
The losses aren't pretty: 19 points at home to Northwestern State, 29 points at Iowa State, 19 on a neutral floor to Illinois. Their wins, other than the surprise over Clemson, are all over teams with an RPI between 196 and 299. Fortunately no one is paying attention to them right now thanks to Gus Malzahn. But once they do start paying attention it could be trouble for Tony Barbee after going 11-20, 15-16, and 9-23 his first three years. This is a two man show: Virginia transfer K.T. Harrell and senior Chris Denson both average 19 points per game.

TEXAS A&M (9-4)
  • RPI 172 - KenPom 155
  • Quality Wins: none
  • Losses: vs Missouri State, vs SMU, vs Oklahoma, North Texas
A&M lost their three leading scorers from an 18-15 (7-11) team last year. A 6-0 start this year quickly gave way to tougher competition, though their SEC schedule doesn't include two games against Kentucky, Florida, or Missouri. Billy Kennedy was a game under .500 in two years at Texas A&M coming into this season after five seasons at Murray State.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (10-3)
  • RPI 197 - KenPom 205
  • Quality Wins: none
  • Losses: at Utah State, TCU, vs UNLV
The Bulldogs scheduled only two tough non-conference games and lost both of them by double digits, 19 at Utah State and 16 against UNLV. In addition TCU is an RPI 150+ squad. It's year two for Rick Ray after a 10-22 (4-14) start. No decline has hurt the SEC more than Mississippi State's; the Bulldogs went to the NCAA Tournament six times from 2002-09 but haven't been back since.

GEORGIA (6-6)
  • RPI 258 - KenPom 171
  • Quality Wins: none
  • Losses: Georgia Tech, vs Davidson, vs Temple, vs Nebraska, at Colorado, at George Washington
It's surprising to find Mark Fox's Bulldogs at the bottom of the SEC's RPI entering conference play (and 13th of 14 in KenPom). This team was all Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last year, and it shows in his absence. The Temple loss was by two points, but almost everything else has been ugly including double digit setbacks against Davidson and in their last two at Colorado and at George Washington (who are both tournament hopefuls, to be fair). Mark Fox may still be riding the waves of a 2011 NCAA Tournament appearance, which was UGA's first at-large bid in nine years. But Georgia has gone 15-17 in both 2012 and 2013, and they're obviously not off to a good start in 2014.

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