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SEC East Basketball Preview - The Young and The Restless

Tennessee's win over Memphis gives the Vols a chance to leave both the highs and lows of non-conerence play behind them, and give conference play the full attention it deserves. At 10-4 (with UConn still to play), the Vols' postseason fate and seeding will be determined by what they do in sixteen SEC games, as they should be.

A good benchmark for this team is 10 conference wins - even if we lose to UConn, it would get the Vols to 20 on the season, and playing in the superior SEC East, should be more than enough to go dancing. The good news is, Bruce Pearl's teams have hit that mark in each of his first five seasons:

  • 2006: 12-4 - 1st
  • 2007: 10-6 - 3rd
  • 2008: 14-2 - 1st
  • 2009: 10-6 - 1st
  • 2010: 11-5 - 3rd

As you can see, some years 10 wins are enough to win the division, and some years 11 get you third place. If the division has a truly dominant team in its ranks, like Kentucky last year or the Vols in '08, then 10 wins will still get you in. The division had no great teams in 2009...but this year, we could see three or four really good teams that beat each other up all season, and 10 wins could earn a bye in the SEC Tournament.

Tennessee's best basketball is capable of something better than 10-6...but here at the start, I think it's a fair expectation (as in, 9-7 would be a disappointment...but if we stay inconsistent, especially without Pearl, I'll take anything that gets us in the dance.)

If you haven't already, fasten your seatbelt and brace for the roller coaster; we've been "The Restless" plenty this year already, and with our coach I'm not sure that's going to change anytime this season. The Vols have already proved they can blow out the best teams in college basketball (Pitt and Nova's combined record: 26-2), and have already proved they can be blown out at home by SoCon teams. And this could be the deepest East Division in Pearl's six years here.

Here's a quick primer on the other five teams in the mix after the jump, as we brace for conference play - we're also voting in the SEC Basketball Power Poll again this season, which opens on Sunday, so give us your thoughts both this week and throughout the season on how you think it should shake out and why:

Kentucky - 12-2

  • Losses: 84-67 vs UConn (Maui), 75-73 at North Carolina
  • Quality Wins: 74-67 vs Washington (Maui), 72-58 vs Notre Dame (Louisville), 78-63 at Louisville

Though these Cats have a couple of losses that last year's version did not in non-conference play, they also have zero close wins. Of UK's 12 wins, only Washington was by less than ten points. The 2010 Cats were able to survive a number of close games against teams like Miami (OH) and Sam Houston State, a trend that followed them into conference play. The 2011 Cats are already better at dropping the hammer.

The boys at A Sea of Blue believe one of the reasons UK is playing such good basketball is because Calipari significantly shortened the rotation - the Cats play seven guys in what's really a glorified six-man rotation, with Eloy Vargas getting only 11.4 minutes off the bench. The rest of the work is being done by three freshmen and three upperclassmen.

The freshmen, to no surprise, do the majority of the scoring. 6'3" guard Brandon Knight leads the way at 18.3 points per game, the leading scorer in the East Division. That whole "they can't shoot the three" thing we enjoyed so much last year? Not this time: Knight shoots 39.8% from the arc, and has hit 61.1% in his last three games. His freshman backcourt partner in crime, Doron Lamb, shoots 52.6%. As freshmen do, Knight turns the ball over more than UK would like, but he's still the guy that makes their backcourt go.

6'8" Terrence Jones makes the frontcourt go, averaging 17.1 points and 9.1 rebounds. That whole bigtime players in bigtime games thing? Jones had a 27-17 against Notre Dame and a 16-17 against Washington. It's a different feel than John Wall & DeMarcus Cousins, but Knight & Jones are going to give Kentucky just as many opportunities to win games.

Filling out the rotation are DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, and Josh Harrellson, all guys who've been around and are being counted on more this season. The freshmen get the flash, but Kentucky doesn't go without these guys - Harrellson in particular teams with Jones to give UK two guys who can pull down double-digit boards every night.

As noted by ASOB, the shorter rotation has given these 6-7 guys a ton of experience playing together. I'd say that when you rely on so many freshmen, you're going to hit a wall sooner or later or have some games you lose due to inexperience...but that never really happened to UK last year. Those Cats had one obvious weakness, and against West Virginia it cost them. These Cats may not have five first round draft picks on the floor, but if they have weaknesses, they're less obvious.

So is this Kentucky team better than last year's? Well, they're different...but even if they don't go 14-2 in the SEC, if they stay healthy they're going to have just as much of an opportunity to do well in March. It's going to get overshadowed by the NFL Playoffs, but Saturday's SEC opener for UK at Georgia should be fascinating. The Vols and Cats will both play eight conference games before we see each other (in Pearl's return in Lexington), but if UK gets off to a fast start again, Tennessee will have to keep the pace to make that game mean what we want it to mean.

Vanderbilt - 11-2

  • Losses: 74-71 vs West Virginia (San Juan), 85-82 OT at Missouri
  • Quality Wins: 72-64 vs North Carolina (San Juan), 77-76 vs Marquette

The anti-Kentucky: you know all of these names from last season, and I'd argue that they're actually better with Festus Ezeli instead of A.J. Ogilvy. The 6'11" Nigerian averaged just 3.8 points per game in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, but has come alive this year with 13.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game (including 6 against Missouri).

Ezeli combines with the triple threat of John Jenkins, Jeff Taylor, and Brad Tinsley in the backcourt. Jenkins leads the way at 17.8 ppg, Taylor adds 14.5 and 42.1% from the arc, and Tinsley runs the point at better than 2-to-1 assist-turnover. The Vols couldn't guard these guys last year, and I'm not exactly sure how that's going to be different this time around.

The other guys have also been around - Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang most notably - and Vanderbilt could very easily be undefeated right now. The win over UNC was a huge one for this program, and while Anchor of Gold laments some inconsistency that still exists with Taylor, they call this the best defensive team Kevin Stallings has had in Nashville. While their flameout in postseason play left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, it's been true for at least two years now that this is a very good basketball team. Vanderbilt is fully capable of winning the SEC, something they haven't done since 1993.

Florida - 11-3

  • Losses: 93-75 vs Ohio State, 57-54 at Central Florida, 71-68 OT vs Jacksonville
  • Quality Wins: 55-51 at Florida State, 57-44 vs Kansas State (Sunrise, FL), 71-67 at Xavier

Okay...Ohio State is really good, and Michael Jordan's son plays for Central Florida, who's now 14-0. The Jacksonville loss didn't do them any favors, but it came on the heels of the Gators' most impressive performance of the season, a 57-44 win over then-#6 Kansas State. The Gators held the Wildcats to just 27% from the floor in that one, and the Gators lead the SEC East in points per game allowed with a very impressive 59.5.

Like Vanderbilt, you'll know all of these names. Florida's returning starters created the assumption that they were the best team in the league, which Ohio State quickly proved false in the season's second game. But the Gators' experience is paying off on the defensive end: since the Buckeyes lit them up for 93, no team has hit 70 (in regulation) against Florida. That's very impressive.

Like Kentucky, Florida gets the vast majority of their points from the starting five. The Gators have five players who average 9+ points per game, led by Erving Walker's 13.9. Kenny Boynton and Chandler Parsons contribute 12.3 and 9.9 in the backcourt, while Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus add 10.5 and 9.3 in the post. It's a very good starting five, but off the bench only Erik Murphy averages more than 2 points per game.

The Gators made the dance last year but were bounced immediately. Having rebounded from the embarrassment against Ohio State, if Florida keeps playing defense this well, they'll compete for the league title.

Georgia - 11-2

  • Losses: 89-83 2 OT vs Notre Dame (Lake Buena Vista, FL), 65-58 vs Temple (Lake Buena Vista, FL)
  • Quality Wins: 83-74 vs Colorado, 66-64 vs UAB, 73-72 at Georgia Tech

Georgia's quality wins aren't as strong as Tennessee's, Florida's, or Kentucky's, but they've also won eight straight after the near misses Thanksgiving weekend. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie are both first round draft picks, and Thompkins could be a lottery pick - in his third year, he's averaging 17.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, and has been very, very consistent. Leslie adds another 7.6 rebounds and 13.8 points - this team manhandled the Vols in Athens last season, and it'll take a big boy performance from anyone that faces them in the post to come out victorious.

Like Kentucky and Florida, all the punch is in the starting lineup: Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware join Thompkins and Leslie in playing 30 minutes a night, and Jeremy Price adds another 9.0 points and 4.6 rebounds. After those five though, Georgia gets very little from their bench. And this is not a good three point shooting team - as in, they're the only team worse than the Vols in the SEC, 30.9% from the arc.

Guard play wins in March, so it'll be interesting to see how far a young team with two great inside players can go. But in conference play, Georgia could dominate anyone who doesn't have the size and skill to matchup with Thompkins and Leslie.

South Carolina - 9-4

  • Losses: 82-73 at Michigan State, 79-57 at Ohio State, 91-75 at Furman, 85-70 vs Boston College
  • Quality Wins: 64-60 vs Clemson

Credit the Gamecocks for scheduling up, but as you can tell, defense has been an issue. That's compounded by the fact that Devan Downey is no longer around - 5'9" freshman Bruce Ellington has been trying to pick up the slack, averaging a 14-4-4 and shooting 40.6% from the arc. The problem is, Carolina has no one else that averages double figures.

Four of Carolina's top five scorers are freshmen or sophomores (with Sam Muldrow still around in the post), so this team has room to grow and I think Darrin Horn is a good coach that will eventually get them there. But in the East, this could be a rough year for them. The top five could go in a number of different ways, but most agree that the basement will belong to Carolina.