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SEC Basketball: At the First Turn

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A little more than a quarter of the way into the 2009 SEC Basketball season, a few of our ideas have been validated:

  • Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee will once again lead the way
  • Ole Miss can't recover from their injury situation
  • Georgia used up all their good karma in the SEC Tournament last year

Meanwhile, the middle of the pack group that looked to determine whether the SEC would get only three teams to the dance or as many as five has separated itself into two tiers.

Out West, the pace has been set by LSU, starting hot at 3-1 in conference play, and blasting Mississippi State 81-57, which is the only loss the Bulldogs have suffered in the SEC.  Those two are joined by South Carolina, who rebounded from back to back losses to LSU and the Vols to upset Florida at the buzzer, and at 3-2 and a marquee win at Baylor in their back pocket, find themselves suddenly in the bubble conversation.

Right now, those three teams have reason to look toward March with optimism.  Though it's highly doubtful that all three will get in, you have to think that the team that emerges as Western Division champion will have a solid argument and a solid record.  South Carolina has the blessing and the curse of playing UK, UF and UT twice...so there will be more opportunities for the Gamecocks to make a name for themselves, but plenty of potential pitfalls along the way too.

Other teams that thought they could've been competitive have hit the wall hard early:  Vanderbilt is 1-4 in conference thanks to a brutal schedule that's handed them losses to Kentucky, MSU, Tennessee and Florida.  And Alabama is 2-3 and reports are surfacing that they've fired Mark Gottfried (via RollBamaRoll) in his eleventh season, this coming after Ronald Steele announced his collegiate career was over last week.

And then there's Arkansas.

Wins over top ten heavies Texas and Oklahoma looked to show that this inexperienced bunch was ready for prime time.  It gave Arkansas a pair of marquee wins rivaled only by Tennessee over Georgetown and Marquette, and should've given them enough to make the NCAA Tournament by just getting above .500 in SEC play.

But Arkansas hasn't just gotten beat in SEC play, they've gotten blown out.  Every time.

14 points against Mississippi State.  9 at depleted Ole Miss.  15 at Florida.  And 22 at home against lowly Auburn.

Arkansas could still theoretically turn it around, but it has to be now, and it has to stay consistent; the Pigs need something akin to a 9-3/10-2 finish to play themselves back into the conversation, and the schedule won't be as kind as the first four games.

ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi has three teams - the Florida/Kentucky/Tennessee trifecta - in this week's edition of Bracketology, and puts the current struggles of the conference in perspective.  He includes Mississippi State and South Carolina as bubble teams, a group that almost certainly has to include LSU as well on the outside. 

It's an especially big week in the Eastern Division as we close out January - LSU gets a chance to pad their resume when they visit Knoxville on Wednesday night, while Saturday showcases South Carolina at Kentucky and Florida at Tennessee, as these four teams try and separate themselves.  Kentucky is the only unbeaten team in the SEC right now, and until proven otherwise at 5-0 they have to be considered the frontrunner.  So the game between the Gators and Vols will give one team the inside track on the other first round bye in the SEC Tournament, at the very least.

There's still plenty of time left for most of these teams; if the frontrunners can navigate the lesser portions of the schedule without stubbing their toes, look for UF/UK/UT to lock up their bids sooner than later.  Meanwhile, we'll probably be going to the wire for three or maybe four bubble teams trying to squeeze their way into one or two spots.  The league may be down this year, but the battle for the East Division and the chase for the bubble should still provide plenty of drama.