With non-conference play wrapped up outside of two big tests on January 24 with Memphis at Tennessee and Xavier at LSU, plus a stray date with Texas Pan-American for the Auburn Tigers, we take a quick look at all 12 SEC schools and where they stand coming into the sixteen game conference season.
It's a down year for the SEC, with Tennessee the only team able to stay in the Top 25 consistently and bumps in the road early for every team. Following the events of this week, the Vols may exit the polls while Arkansas should almost certainly enter. The SEC traditionally gets half of its teams in the tournament, but that's taken a hit the last two seasons with five teams qualifying in 2007 and Georgia making six in 2008 only on the strength of their SEC Tournament win.
When you look around the SEC right now, it's tough to imagine six teams qualifying this year. Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology projection has only three SEC teams in it, with the Vols the highest seed...at a seven. The Gators fall just behind them at an eight, and Kentucky makes Lunardi's last four in at an eleven. Again, his next projection will include Arkansas I'm sure.
But nonetheless, times are tough.
As conference play opens this weekend with all 12 teams in action against each other, here's a quick glance around the conference at each team and their chances going forward this season:
Quality Wins: Washington, NC State
Losses: Syracuse, Florida State
Key Players: G Nick Calathes (17.0 PPG, 6.7 APG), F Dan Werner (10.2 PPG), G Walter Hodge (42.4% 3PT), F Alex Tyus (12.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG)
No Speights, no Lucas, and a non-conference schedule with only two losses but no real elite wins either...Florida has young experience and talent, and while there are still questions, if their youth matures faster than Tennessee's, and if Kentucky can't find a third way behind Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson...look out. This is a team playing with confidence after rallying to beat NC State 68-66 last weekend.
Calathes is the unquestioned leader of this team, and even though he hasn't put up numbers like Meeks or Devan Downey, he's got a lot more to fall back on. Walter Hodge is still walking around with a ring on his finger, while Werner has been in key situations in SEC play before. And Alex Tyus is putting up nice numbers on the stat sheet.
Even in a down year for the SEC where you can't quite pinpoint one team and call them an absolute clear-cut favorite, maybe it's fair to say that the Gators look to be the least vulnerable of the contenders - this may not be a team built to go to the Final Four, but if they stay consistent throughout SEC play, I wouldn't be shocked if they won the division or the conference.
Quality Wins: Virginia Tech
Losses: Loyola-Chicago, Western Kentucky, Illinois, Corpus Christi, Missouri, Georgia Tech
Key Players: F Howard Thompkins (14.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG), G Terrance Woodbury (13.8 PPG)
With only two senior contributors between Woodbury and Corey Butler, the veteran leadership that carried this team to a magical week in Atlanta last season is gone, and a team that's posted six losses already will be extremely hard pressed to even make the NIT.
Thompkins is a freshman who's shown promise, and beating Virginia Tech was perhaps a sign of potential down the road. The early losses to lesser foes were certainly discouraging, but the Dawgs were game with Missouri and Georgia Tech, and opening SEC play with the Vols on Saturday at home will give them another opportunity to get a big win. It would take something miraculous for this team to all of a sudden become tournament-worthy...and Georgia probably used all their miracles last March in Atlanta.
Quality Wins: West Virginia
Losses: VMI, North Carolina, Miami, Louisville
Key Players: G Jodie Meeks (24.4 PPG), C Patrick Patterson (19.5 PPG, 9.8 RPG)
UK could be playing the same song again; last season the Cats overcame the slow non-conference start (which was much uglier than this year's) to make the field of 65 on the strength of a 12-4 SEC mark. It may not take 12 wins to go dancing again, but it should take at least 9. UK's non-conference schedule is impressive as usual, but with only one quality win among the marquee opponents they may not get as much help there come selection Sunday.
Jodie Meeks should continue to stake his claim as the best guard in the conference, if not its best player (especially if he keeps buring it up from three, currently at 42.5%), and if Patterson can stay healthy and continue to approach 20-10 nights, Kentucky could easily take advantage of the down teams in the conference and make another run. Ken Howlett at A Sea of Blue thinks the Cats are "within arms reach of once again being a national player."
To move forward, they need the rest of the roster to step up - Perry Stevenson has been okay on the boards, but he's the team's third leading scorer at only 6.9 PPG. Meeks and Patterson are each playing 32+ minutes per night, and then a rotation of five-to-seven other guys are way behind across the board. The two man show may still run effectively against the lesser parts of the SEC schedule, but if Kentucky has dreams of advancing in March, they need somebody else to step up.
At the end of the day, they're still Kentucky, so they'll still make the dance. What seed they come in on and how long they stay depends on the health of their superstars and the continued growth of the rest of the team.
Quality Wins: Baylor
Losses: College of Charleston, Clemson
Key Players: G Devan Downey (20.5 PPG, 4.5 APG), G Zam Frederick II (15.2 PPG), F Mike Holmes (12.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG)
Carolina is an interesting team to try and figure out - they went 11-2 against a non-conference slate that included a lot of teams that used to be good (Winthrop, Princeton, Gardner-Webb), lost a two point heartbreaker at Charleston and were fairly game against a good Clemson team. Then they went to Waco and beat Baylor 85-84 to make you really sit up and take notice.
If Jodie Meeks isn't the best guard in the conference, it's Downey, who's having to carry a lot less weight this season. You have to put the Cocks in a group slightly behind the SEC's most talented teams, but in a crowded mix of teams who could, with a great SEC season, sneak into the tournament. You might see all of those teams go 8-8 and all make the NIT while only the top tier goes dancing, but you might also see one of them pull off something like 11-5. The win over Baylor proves that Carolina is at least capable of being in that mix.
Over at Garnet and Black Attack, they accentuate the positive around the South Carolina program:
"As I said yesterday, Darrin Horn's team is going to please a lot of sad Gamecocks this year. It's time to put the disappointment of the football season behind us and get behind this team. They're everything the football team isn't: they have fire, they've found an identity, and they're maximizing their potential. Last night (at Baylor) was our first indication of what they're capable of."
Quality Wins: Georgetown, Marquette
Lossses: Gonzaga (twice), Temple, Kansas
Key Players: F Tyler Smith (17.2 PPG, 6.0 RPG), F Wayne Chism (12.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG)
Depending on your opinion of the Big East vs. the Big 12, either Tennessee or Arkansas has the best non-conference pair of wins, with the Vols' coming at neutral sites. Around those wins, however, have been two frustrating affairs with Gonzaga and games against Temple and Kansas that the Vols never really gave themselves a chance to win.
Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism continue to carry the Vols inside and have the experience in Pearl's system, and as defending SEC Champions, to help the Vols think about repeating. But it will continue to be the maturation of the young perimeter players, on both the offensive and defensive end, that determines how far the Vols can go. Eight or nine wins, depending on what the Vols do with their Memphis opportunity, should be enough to go dancing. But it's the maturation that'll determine if it's an 8-8 bubble year or another SEC Championship.
Quality Wins: Drake
Losses: Illinois, Ill-Chicago, Georgia Tech
Key Players: C AJ Ogilvy (16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG), F Jeffery Taylor (12.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG), G Jermaine Beal (11.8 PPG, 47.1% 3PT)
It might be generous to give the 'Dores a quality win for beating Drake, who's rebuilding after last year's season that ended as a five seed...but since that's the only one out there, we went with it. Vandy's maybe not quite in full rebuilding mode without Shan Foster, but they haven't shown any solid evidence of being a tournament team thus far either.
The schedule is very unkind to them early, dealing Vandy Kentucky at Rupp in the SEC opener, plus the Vols and Gators among their first five SEC contests. Kevin Stallings has his work cut out for him to keep them in play early, and hopefully find continued growth throughout the rest of the schedule. Aside from Ogilvy, Taylor and Beal, Brad Tinsley has played well early and is also averaging double figures in scoring. Put Vandy in that group with South Carolina - with a little less evidence so far - as teams who might have enough to make some noise and separate themselves from the dredges of the SEC, but may ultimately end up bound for the NIT.
Quality Wins: none
Losses: Mercer, Oregon, Texas A&M, Clemson
Key Players: G Ronald Steele (13.4 PPG), F Alonzo Gee (14.5 PPG, 7.4 RPG)
Times are tough for what could ultimately still be a talented Alabama team. Mark Gottfried is starting to hear the chatter, Steele is fragile, and JaMychal Green hasn't been a savior.
There's still opportunity for this team to put together a good SEC run and make the tournament, but it might take winning the SEC West to get there. Even if they get to 20 wins by finishing 10-6 in conference play, if the conference is as down as expected the committee may not look so favorably on that. If you're Alabama you still have to believe that there's a chance to be good, but if not the clock may be ticking on Gottfried.
Quality Wins: Oklahoma, Texas
Loss: Missouri State
Key Players: F Michael Washington (17.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG), G Courtney Fortson (15.1 PPG, 7.1 APG), G Stefan Welsh (14.0 PPG)
By now you've probably heard that Arkansas lost their top five scorers from last year's tournament team...but that hasn't mattered.
When they lost to Missouri State in the third game of the season, I think the rest of the conference and maybe even some Arkansas people put them on the backburner - maybe they'd grow up and make the NIT later on, but it was a realization that this was a rebuilding year. Running off a bunch of wins against lesser opponents didn't really change that.
But it's not just impressive that they've beaten Oklahoma and Texas - it's that they almost scored 100 points in beating the Sooners, then won a defensive affair against the Longhorns 67-61.
The crowds in Fayetteville have always been hostile, and that's no different now. What is interesting is that the Hogs have played ten straight home games - make that eleven when they open SEC play Saturday with Mississippi State - and only two road games all year, one the loss to Missouri State.
If this team proves they can win on the road, then you can really start talking. But either way, with the non-conference wins in their pocket, like the Vols they need 8 or 9 wins to go dancing. We'll see if they can continue to play at a Top 25 level beyond that.
Quality Wins: none
Losses: Mercer, Dayton, Northern Iowa, Xavier
Key Players: F Korvotney Barber (13.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG), G DeWayne Reed (12.5 PPG, 3.9 APG)
Say this for Auburn - it could've gone much worse after losing three straight earlier this year, but the Tigers fought back and have now won seven straight heading into conference play. They haven't beaten anyone great, though they did beat Virginia in Charlottesville. Still, I'm not sure you can seriously entertain March for these guys.
They have a hard time scoring, with Barber leading the team at 13 a game; the Tigers have cracked 80 only twice this season. Quantez Robertson shares senior leadership with Barber, but his stat line hasn't been overly impressive so far this year.
Not sure when it's going to get better for Jeff Lebo...but hey, they're building a new arena.
Quality Wins: none
Losses: Texas A&M, Utah
Key Players: F Marcus Thornton (18.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG), F Tasmin Mitchell (14.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG)
So, the Tigers have a new head coach and were game in an earlier loss to Texas A&M, and built nice momentum for themselves with a 12-1 start, even with some close wins over less than quality opponents.
Then they went to Utah, and took a 91-61 beating.
The Tigers are a lot like the team they'll start with, at Alabama on Sunday, with some talent and experience but some questions based on performance against a weaker schedule. And both teams belong in that mid-group of SEC teams where someone might have a breakthrough, or they might all be headed to the NIT. The Tigers need a fast start in conference play to give themselves a chance - thanks to the weaker non-conference they'll have a chance to put up 20+ wins. We'll see.
Quality Wins: none
Losses: Utah, West Virginia, New Mexico, Louisville, Southern Miss
Key Players: G David Huertas (20.1 PPG), F Murphy Holloway (8.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG)
The Rebels have faced enough bad news through the non-conference portion for the entire conference, from Andy Kennedy's altercation with a cab driver to the ACL tear of star Chris Warren. What could've been a promising season has turned into a real disaster - credit Kennedy and the Rebels for their record not being worse than what it is.
Holloway recently won SEC Freshman of the Week, and there's room for growth in the future with this team with no key senior contributors. But it looks like Kennedy and the Rebels are going to have to just survive the rest of this season - making the NIT with this depleted roster would be an accomplishment.
Quality Wins: Houston
Losses: Washington State, Texas Tech, Charlotte, Cincinnati, San Diego
Key Players: C Jarvis Varnado (12.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG), F Ravern Johnson (12.5 PPG)
Varnardo continues to be a force inside for the Bulldogs, but there's just really nothing else here to write home about. They don't have punch offensively without JaMont Gordon.
The SEC West is a mess that, if Alabama doesn't get healthy and LSU turns out to be a paper record, will be a dartboard experience once again...State could land some punches, but like their in-state brothers, the NIT seems like it would be an accomplishment at this point.
So, who gets in?
As far as conference champion, you still have to start with that group of Tennessee, Florida and Kentucky. And now you have to include Arkansas in that mix until they prove otherwise. Those four teams have a head start towards March on the rest of the conference.
From there, it seems that Auburn, Georgia and the Mississippi schools just don't have enough right now to seriously think about including them in the March conversation.
That leaves another third of the conference - Alabama, LSU, South Carolina and Vanderbilt - who again may all ultimately end up NIT bound, but if one of them can get hot and separate themselves from the rest of that group or challenge someone in the upper echelon, they may sneak into March as well.
I think four teams is a safe estimate for March, but wouldn't go more than five, with either three or four additional teams making the NIT field. There's so much youth at play with a lot of these teams that it's all going to depend on who grows up the fastest.
And even if the Gators are least vulnerable to me, I still don't think you can point to one team and say "they're the favorite" for the conference crown right now...not even with Arkansas in the SEC West until they win on the road. That question must be answered, along with youth for Tennessee and Florida and additional help for Meeks and Patterson in Lexington.
The answers begin Saturday:
- Tennessee at Georgia (12:00 PM - Raycom)
- Vanderbilt at Kentucky (2:00 PM - Raycom)
- Ole Miss at Florida (6:00 PM - Fox Sports South)
- Auburn at South Carolina (7:00 PM)
- Mississippi State at Arkansas (8:00 PM - Fox Sports South)
- LSU at Alabama (Sunday 12:30 PM - Raycom)