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SEC Basketball Preview & Power Rankings

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Conference play begins with more depth and more certainty at the top. How will Tennessee fare in league play this season?

Hand jive.
Hand jive.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of narratives have been brewing for the last few weeks in SEC Basketball.  Both of them revolve around the league's across-the-board strength of schedule in the non-conference, mandated by the SEC office.  On the one hand, after Kentucky there are currently no SEC teams ranked and none really making national noise.  The other power conferences have nine teams who are undefeated or have only one loss entering league play.  The SEC has only Kentucky.  This perception is especially damaging because the league's most reliable program over the last decade has had a terrible time so far:  Florida is 7-6, losing again over the weekend to UConn.  All of their losses are of the quality variety, but there are six of them.

So the league scheduled up, but didn't get a significant number of the really big wins along the way.  Outside the Wildcats the SEC has only four ranked wins:  Ole Miss over #23 Creighton, LSU over #16 West Virginia, Tennessee over #15 Butler, and Saturday's win for South Carolina over #9 Iowa State.

However, as you'll see SEC teams did get a significant number of "good wins" against the second-best out-of-conference schedule overall based on RPI.  It's unclear how many of these wins will stand up on Selection Sunday, or how much of the league's negative perception from the past will carry over without any significant non-conference breakthrough.  The SEC has put just three teams in the last two NCAA Tournaments and just four in the 2012 dance.  But as we have hammered home the last three seasons with the Vols living on the bubble, if you're an RPI Top 50 team from a major conference, you always get in.  And thanks to better scheduling, fewer bad losses, and a number of good wins, the vast majority of the league can enter conference play at least entertaining the idea of making the NCAA Tournament.

The first Bracket Matrix of 2015 puts four SEC teams in the field:  Kentucky at the top, of course, then Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia smack dab in the middle as 7, 8, and 9 seeds respectively.  The Gators are among the first four out, and four other SEC teams are appearing in at least one projection, including the Vols.  Nine teams showing up somewhere in the matrix gives the SEC the third most teams on the page, behind the ACC & Big Ten with eleven each.  This all carries no tangible weight, of course, but it's an outside indicator of how many teams are in the mix.

And then there's this:  entering league play last year the SEC's average KenPom rating was 86.7.  Right now it's 71.2.  Last year the SEC had just three teams in the KenPom Top 35 entering league play.  Right now it has five.  Last year the SEC had nine teams in the KenPom Top 100 entering league play.  Right now it has eleven.

This also means there could be that many teams which ultimately end up on the bubble, where league perception as a whole will come largely into play.  How the committee will view a league with so few A+ wins but so many B+ wins (which should make this a league with one A++ team and a bunch of B+ to B- teams) will be very, very interesting.  But between now and then, all of those nine teams currently in the matrix (plus a few others) will have their chance to make their own case and earn their own way in.  Thus the beauty of the start of conference play this year, which should make for more exciting and meaningful games than we've seen recently:  almost no one has played their way out of it, meaning almost anyone can play their way into it.

"It", of course, being the NCAA Tournament.  The SEC itself appears to belong to Kentucky, along with, so far, the rest of college basketball.

This year we're unveiling the SB Nation SEC Basketball Power Poll - check out last week's results here.  What follows is the Rocky Top Talk ballot entering league play, offered as a preview for the next nine weeks when all this will be sorted out.  The Vols have played themselves into the conversation, so far looking stronger than 13th place where they were picked at media days.  How far can the Vols climb?  Here's how we view the league as SEC play is set to open tomorrow night:

1. Kentucky - 13-0 - KenPom 1 - RPI 1

I'm not sure who to compare this team to.  They have the kind of absolute favorite status of the 2007 Florida Gators, but their dominance goes far beyond the SEC.  #4 Louisville was the first team to play them to single digits, losing 58-50.  Along the way they've beaten Kansas by 32, Providence by 20, Texas by a dozen, North Carolina by 14, and UCLA by 39.  Since mid-November, Carolina is the only team to score more than 51 points on them. Eight players average between six and ten points per game, nine before Alex Poythress was lost for the year.  You can't talk about one or two players, you have to talk about all ten who average 14+ minutes.

And you have to talk about defense.  Teams shoot 29.7% against them, making Kentucky's defense the best in the nation in this stat.  They block 14.9% of an opponent's shots, best in the nation.  They give up 0.73 points per possession, best in the nation.  They play defense better than Virginia, and then they come down on the other end of the floor with McDonald's All-Americans everywhere.  Everyone shares, everyone scores.

Obviously, they'll be expected to win every game this season, and this time not just by their own fanbase.  This team could be something historic.  It's already something unique.

So here's the ten or ten thousand dollar question, depending on your opinion of the league:  who's the second best team?

2. South Carolina - 9-3 - KenPom 28 - RPI 86

With so much traffic after Kentucky's solo tier, I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to the team with the biggest win and the hottest streak.  Carolina's 64-60 win over #9 Iowa State on a neutral floor was their seventh in a row after a 2-3 start with losses to Baylor, then Charlotte and Akron on a neutral floor.  They lost those three by a combined 11 points.  Since then?  They blasted 11-2 Oklahoma State 75-49.  Clemson was 3-0 against the SEC, then Carolina beat them 68-45.  This makes their win over Iowa State seem a long way from a fluke.

Frank Martin's crew is also doing it with defense:  fourth in the country allowing opponents to shoot just 33.7% from the floor.  They're also fifth in points per possession allowed, and they have the second best defensive assist/turnover ratio in the nation, turning teams over more than two to one.  These are Frank Martin recruits coming to life:  sophomore guard Duane Notice has emerged as the team's leading scorer with fellow soph Sindarius Thornwell and junior Laimonas Chatkevicius also getting double figures.  After nine combined wins in his first two years in the league, Martin and his troops are playing the kind of defense that can put up a big number this season.  For those bemoaning UT's in-conference strength of schedule, getting Kentucky and Florida just once each, the Vols do get South Carolina twice, as well as...

3. Arkansas - 11-2 - KenPom 35 - RPI 34

If you're more inclined to offense, you can certainly make the case for this as the second best team in the league.  The Razorbacks lost back-to-back games on December 4 at Iowa State and December 7 at Clemson in overtime.  Otherwise they've been perfect, a stretch that included an all-important road win at SMU on November 25 to exorcise whatever road demons were left for Arkansas.  They also put a beating on Dayton 69-55.

This too is an experienced bunch - Bobby Portis, Michael Qualls, and Rashad Madden are all back - and they can still get up and go under Mike Anderson.  The Razorbacks are currently the 25th fastest team in college basketball, tops in the SEC.  They're the best three point shooting team in the league at 40.7%.  And they are 13th nationally in points per possession, averaging 84.9 points per game.  They also share the ball, with 19.6 assists per game good for an assist on 65.1% of their baskets, 15th nationally.  We'll see this bunch in Knoxville on January 13.

4. LSU - 11-2 - KenPom 55 - RPI 36

Hey guess what?  We also play this team twice.  Things were a little bumpy early, as LSU started 3-2 with an overtime win over Texas Tech and neutral site losses to Old Dominion and Clemson.  But then they beat #16 West Virginia on the road on December 4, and since then life has been pretty good:  eight straight wins, and they haven't been challenged in their last five.

Following the same blueprint of youthful experience, the Tigers have five players averaging double figures and 30+ minutes, including returning sophomores Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey, and Tim Quarterman.  They've also been bolstered by UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby and Texas Tech transfer Josh Gray.

5. Georgia - 9-3 - KenPom 32 - RPI 20

Here's how you work the RPI formula:  UGA's losses have been on the road at Georgia Tech and at a neutral site against Gonzaga and Minnesota.  Combined W-L of the teams to have beaten them:  34-9, bolstered by Gonzaga's 14-1 mark that should only get better.  Meanwhile they won at Kansas State 50-46 and have a pair of nice home wins over Colorado and an impressive one over Seton Hall 65-47; the Pirates are 12-2 with their only other loss to Wichita State.  They narrowly avoided disaster with a triple overtime win over Mercer, but wins are wins in college basketball.

One of the most experienced teams in the league, Georgia's top four scorers are upperclassmen:  Marcus Thornton, Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines, and Nemanja Djurisic are all double figure scorers.  They are eighth in the country in free throw rate, one of the four factors, and teams are shooting just 28.4% from the arc against them.  This is the sixth year for Mark Fox, who's looking to get the Dawgs in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

Right now, I feel like those four teams - South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia - are in the league's second tier.  The next few teams could certainly join them, and soon, but so far their results aren't quite on the same level.

6. Alabama - 10-3 - KenPom 72 - RPI 51

Anthony Grant and company have to feel like they had some kind of non-conference breakthrough against UCLA on December 28 after swinging and missing against a brutal schedule last season and coming up just short at Wichita State this year.  The Tide also have a 97-84 loss at Xavier and a neutral floor loss to Iowa State, but did get a nice neutral win over Arizona State.

Like Georgia this is a junior/senior team, with Levi Randolph getting 16.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and Rodney Cooper adding 10.7 and 3.9.  Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant is also giving them double figures.  This is also year six for Anthony Grant, who is looking to get the Tide to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

7. Florida - 7-6 - KenPom 23 - RPI 144

The Gators have played Miami, Georgetown, North Carolina, Kansas, Florida State, and UConn.  Five of those teams are in the KenPom Top 75.  All of them beat Florida.  The sixth, Florida State, won on a crazy own goal buzzer beater.  At Alligator Army, desperation has turned to despair.

Mr. Pomeroy still loves the Gators, who still have Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith but lost significant production from last year's juggernaut with Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, and Patric Young all gone.  Supposed stud freshman-turned-sophomore Chris Walker has been meh, averaging just 6.4 points in just 16 minutes of action per game.  Florida has been good defensively and strong against the three ball, giving up just 56.3 points per game and 0.87 points per possession, 22nd nationally.  But their scoring has been pedestrian, and that's not getting it done against the schedule they've played.

Still, other than North Carolina's 11 point win, all of their losses are by six points or less.  It's not something Gator fans are used to, but Florida has still been right there, and could use a strong in-league number to move from the bubble back to their usual, comfortable spot in the field.

8. Tennessee - 8-4 - KenPom 93 - RPI 74

The win over Kansas State has lost much of its shine; the Wildcats are 7-7 and have lost three straight, including home games to Texas Southern and Georgia.  The Butler win still looks good; the Bulldogs are 11-4 and ranked 31st in KenPom.  Tennessee's strength of schedule is rated 51st in RPI, and would be higher without the presence of Tennessee State, currently rocking an RPI of 338.

What is Tennessee really good at?  Steals, as you'd expect:  the Vols take the ball away on 13% of opponent possessions, best in the SEC.  Tennessee also leads the nation in percentage of points allowed from two point baskets, though this is in part because we put everyone on the free throw line and in part because our zone is designed to give up open threes.  So, likewise, the Vols are last in the country in percentage of points allowed from three point baskets; teams have drained 107 threes on Tennessee in a dozen games, shooting 39.1% along the way.  But I don't feel like this is the reason we lost any of our games except NC State.

As long as Jabari McGhee is still recovering from his foot injury the Vols will be especially thin in the post, at times playing Armani Moore and Derek Reese at the four and five.  But Josh Richardson is scoring 16.5 points per game, fourth best in the league heading into conference play, and Kevin Punter and Armani Moore are also giving Tennessee consistent production.  UT will continue to need fourth and fifth options to emerge from the pack to get them over the hump against most of the league.  But if they continue to be strong in the game's final ten minutes, they can give themselves a chance to make real noise in this conference.

By the way, if you need to make a run in the SEC Tournament, you don't want to finish 8th or 9th, because you're almost certainly going to see Kentucky on Friday.

9. Ole Miss - 9-4 - KenPom 69 - RPI 92

This team, I don't even know.  Season opening loss to Charleston Southern in Oxford in overtime.  Then five straight wins including neutral site contests over #23 Creighton and Cincinnati.  Then lost to TCU in Oxford by a dozen (though no one knew TCU was going to start 13-1).  Then they won at Oregon, who's 11-3.  In their last five they've beaten three cupcakes and lost to Western Kentucky (again, in Oxford) and at Dayton.

Florida Atlantic transfer Stefan Moody has taken over the volume three ball role, leading the team with 13.9 points and six threes attempted per game.  Seniors Ladarius White and Jarvis Summers are also still in the fold.  To be so inconsistent overall, it's impressive that they lead the nation in free throw percentage, hitting 78.4% from the line.  And like Tennessee, they're also giving up a ton of threes, though like us some of that is who they've played.  I have no doubt this team is more talented than at least Tennessee and probably a couple other teams who I have ranked above them right now.  If they can play more consistent basketball, they can move into that second tier easily.  But if this back-and-forth keeps up, they'll be looking at Andy Kennedy's seventh NIT appearance instead of his second NCAA Tournament.

10. Vanderbilt - 10-3 - KenPom 53 - RPI 82

Here's another example of the SEC narrative this season.  Vanderbilt's two most difficult games were Baylor in Nashville and at Georgia Tech.  They lost both, barely.  They also lost to Rutgers on a neutral floor.  But then they have some fairly nice wins over teams who are just a little further down the ladder, like La Salle, Purdue, and Yale in double overtime.

They may not be familiar names just yet, but Vandy once again has some guys who can put the ball in the basket with great efficiency:  sophomore center Damian Jones is getting 16.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and freshman Riley LaChance is getting 13.1 points behind 41.5% from the arc and 90% from the line.  As a team Vanderbilt shoots 51.4% from the floor, fifth best in the nation.  And they share it well, picking up an assist on 66.1% of their made baskets, sixth best in the nation.  They may not have the quality wins to show for it just yet, but I think this team has the most room for upward mobility in these rankings.

11. Texas A&M - 9-3 - KenPom 61 - RPI 59

The Aggies also fit the overall SEC narrative with neutral site losses to Dayton and Kansas State, plus a loss at Baylor.  A&M did handle New Mexico on a neutral floor and beat Arizona State in College Station.

Texas A&M also shoots and shares it well: 48.7% from the floor, second best in the league at the moment, and assists on 62.6% of its made baskets, 32nd nationally.  SMU transfer Jalen Jones leads the way at 13.3 points and 6.0 rebounds.  He's backed by Houston transfer Danuel House, putting in 12.1 per game.  And they returned a lot of experience as well, including Alex Caruso, Kourtney Roberson, and our old friend Antwan Space.

These eleven teams all have a reasonable chance to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.  Kentucky is Kentucky, Florida has to be trying to figure out what's gone wrong, but the other nine in this group have to look at everyone else and say, "Hey, why not us?"

Rounding out the league at the moment...

12. Auburn - 8-5 - KenPom 139 - RPI 120

Bruce's team has won five in a row after a tough start.  They got blasted by Colorado 90-59 in game two, scored just 35 in a loss to Tulsa, then lost 48-44 to Texas Tech, 58-54 to Coastal Carolina, and 72-61 to Clemson in a row.  They got a big double overtime win over Xavier, then beat Texas Southern by a point.  In their last two they've rolled Middle Tennessee 64-48 and Division II North Alabama 82-61.

KT Harrell is doing his thing, 17.9 points per game.  Transfer Antoine Mason started playing the last seven games and has made an immediate impact, scoring 15.4 per contest.  And Cinmeon Bowers averages a double double, 13.7 points and 11.6 rebounds.  Auburn has been great at getting to the line but terrible once they're there:  51st nationally in free throw rate, but shooting just 63.2% at the stripe.  They've also been good defending the three, first in the league in percentage of points allowed from the arc.  I'm sure someone said this about Pearl's first team in Knoxville at some point - though that team had a win at Texas in the non-conference, of course, to set the tone - but Auburn just doesn't seem to have the horses just yet.  But I would expect nothing easy when playing Pearl.  I'd also expect nothing easy for them:  Bruce's return to the SEC comes in Memorial Gymnasium tomorrow night.

13. Missouri - 6-7 - KenPom 153 - RPI 177

Frank Haith left an unsteady situation at Mizzou to go to Tulsa, and the Tigers turned to Kim Anderson, who won last year's Division II National Championship at Central Missouri.  Other than a season opening stunner in a 69-61 loss to Missouri-Kansas City, the Tigers' season has gone about the way you'd expect for a first year coach against this kind of schedule. Their strength of schedule ranks 26th nationally, with losses to Arizona, Purdue, Oklahoma, Xavier, Illinois, and Oklahoma State.  The good news:  while they did get blasted early, they've been knocking on the door:  Illinois won by three, and Oklahoma State needed overtime.

The Tigers' leading scorers are a freshman and a sophomore who was clearly asked to make a leap.  They've been decent at getting to the free throw line, but don't really stand out in any other statistical categories.  That could change if things do indeed get easier for them in SEC play.

14. Mississippi State - 7-6 - KenPom 184 - RPI 218

And just when you think you've got a clear cut basement, Mississippi State beats Florida State on Friday.

Before that, the Bulldogs lost at home to McNeese State by 19.  After a 5-0 start they met a tougher portion of their schedule and then lost five straight to TCU, Tulane, Oregon State, Arkansas State, and USC Upstate.  All of those other than Arkansas State were by ten points or less.  Look, Florida State may or may not end up to be decent; they're 8-6 right now.  But MSU's only other win over a team projected to finish in the RPI Top 200 was against Utah State on November 22. This team lost its last 12 regular season games last year in league play.  There's still a long way to go to the top.  Much more on the Bulldogs this week:  the Vols open SEC play in Starkville Wednesday night.

Agree or disagree with our rankings coming into league play?  Let us know in the comments.  SEC play opens tomorrow night, and the Vols and Mississippi State will tip Wednesday at 9:00 PM ET.