Thanks to the SEC/Big 12 Challenge moving to the last weekend of January, league play begins a few days earlier this year. The Vols will actually have the honors on Saturday, January 2 as Rick Barnes takes the Big Orange to Auburn, facing Bruce Pearl at 2:00 PM on CBS in the first conference game of the year.
Last year Kentucky's run at perfection dominated the narrative from beginning to end, which in part helped cover up the weakness of the league at the top. The Cats were safely atop Ken Pomeroy's ratings at the end of the season, but the next best SEC squad was Arkansas at #29. In 2014 Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky were all in KenPom's Top 11, but the fourth best SEC squad was Arkansas at #52.
This time there's no juggernaut, Kentucky or otherwise, coming into league play, but the field has grown quite a bit at the top. Five SEC teams are in the KenPom Top 30, clearly separating themselves in non-conference play as the top tier of the league. Another six teams find themselves between 59-98 in KenPom, a middle tier which includes the Vols but will still send at least one team to Wednesday in the SEC Tournament as the 11th best team in the league. Mississippi State, Auburn, and Missouri bring up the rear at the moment, but even the rear is stronger with all 14 teams currently in the KenPom Top 200. If the basement can stay there it would be the first time since expansion the entire SEC finished north of 200. And if the ceiling continues to contain five teams in the Top 30 it will be the first time since 2006 that happened for the SEC. The Christmas Eve edition of the Bracket Matrix puts five SEC teams in the field, all seeded eight or higher, with Alabama in the first four out.
Much can change between now and Selection Sunday, but the level of competitiveness and interest in SEC basketball should be higher than anything we've seen in a while. Here's a quick look at each of the 14 teams as we prepare for league play, with a few thoughts from our friend Volundore and myself:
Kentucky 10-2 - KenPom 15 - RPI 11 - Projected RPI 20 (from RPI Forecast) - Bracket Matrix 2 seed
WS: I joked earlier that John Calipari and even some Kentucky fans might enjoy getting an early loss out of the way so as not to have to carry the weight of perfection for another year. Then they beat Duke, and I thought, well, okay. Then they got blitzed at UCLA 87-77 and have since followed up with a 74-67 loss vs Ohio State. But they turned it back in the right direction with a two point win over Louisville the day after Christmas. They're more straightforward this year in a sense: freshman guard Jamal Murray leads comfortably with 17.1 points per game, the diminutive Tyler Ulis is rocking a 5.3-to-2.0 assist/turnover ratio, and freshman third guard Isaiah Briscoe averages 11.5 per game. Having their top three scorers all be 6'5" and under is a big change from last year (and good news for Tennessee), but the posts are probably still the most famous players on the team. Haitian sensation Skal Labissiere and senior Alex Poythress both average nine points and seven rebounds. Poythress was in the same recruiting class as Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Archie Goodwin. Being a senior at Kentucky these days is like being a seventh-year graduate assistant anywhere else. They're more beatable by default, but they're still Kentucky.
Volundore: For starters, happy to be here.
Next up, it's a testament to Cal's run that UK's current KenPom ranking of 15th would be the 2nd worst of his tenure (67th during the ill-fated 2012-13 season that ended with a first round NIT loss). Wins over Duke and Louisville are certainly nothing to sneeze at, but this team doesn't look like the Big Blue juggernaut that we've come to expect. That Ohio State team they lost to is mediocre at best, currently sitting at 50th in KenPom. TOSU played a solid game, hitting 9 of 18 from deep, but it wasn't an otherworldly effort. Is there still time for UK to pull it all together and make a deep run when it counts? Sure. They certainly have the talent and the STARZZZZ to make it happen, and early lackluster results don't necessarily portend doom for them: they've made the Final Four seeded 4th and 8th under Cal, after all. I still think they're the class of the conference, but I'm less bullish on them running roughshod over everyone than in previous years.
Vanderbilt 7-4 - KenPom 18 - RPI 45 - Projected RPI 15 - Bracket Matrix 7 seed
WS: Vandy's four losses are to Kansas on a neutral floor by seven, at Baylor by two, vs Dayton by five, and then a tough day at Purdue by 13. They don't have a standout win (though Stony Brook is better than advertised), but still, I love this roster. It's basically the same team Tennessee somehow beat twice last season, which still won 19 games. Wade Baldwin is shooting 50% from three, Damian Jones is doing his thing in the post, and I think the group of Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, and Jeff Roberson gives them the best third-sixth best players in the league. They shoot threes well, and when those aren't falling they play plenty good enough defense to still give themselves a chance. Despite the second half struggles at Purdue (who's #4 in KenPom), I love this team. They will break my bracket's heart, no doubt, but I love this team.
Volundore: This team may break Will's bracket's heart in March, but it's breaking my actual one right now. Through the first two games in Maui (a 37-point drubbing of St. John's and a 22-point demolition of Wake Forest), it felt like this team was different from the 2012 Vandy squad with 3 NBA players that never quite lived up to the hype. Since then, though, it's been a struggle. Some of that can be attributed to injuries to Camron Justice (2015's Mr. Basketball in Kentucky) and Kornet, who are both out until some time in January, at least. Some of it can be attributed to schedule, which has included tough tests of late, as Will mentioned. Perhaps when Kornet and Justice come back and they get into the meat of the SEC slate, Vanderbilt will be able to justify the preseason chatter that had them as a legitimate UK challenger. Until then, Vandy fans will have to find their jollies in continued debate about whether or not the coach should be fired, a skill they've been honing since early in the football season.
Florida 8-4 - KenPom 26 - RPI 19 - Projected RPI 21 - Bracket Matrix 8 seed
WS: Last year the Gators lost a thousand close games in the non-conference, the weight of which seemed to eventually smother them in an 8-10 SEC finish and a 16-17 record overall. Billy Donovan went to OKC, Mike White came up from Louisiana Tech, and despite losing Michael Frazier II and Eli Carter the Gators are off to a great start this season. Their four losses: Purdue on a neutral floor by 15 (SEC teams don't want none of Purdue, apparently), at Miami by 11, at #1 Michigan State by just six, and last night against Florida State by two. They bounced back after the MSU loss to beat Oklahoma State by a deuce. White came in with a reputation for jacking threes, but the Gators have excelled on the defensive end: fourth in KenPom's defensive ratings, 11th in opponent field goal percentage. Dorian Finney-Smith leads this bunch with 14.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
Volundore: You can count me in the crowd that dismissed UF out of hand without Eddie Munster on the bench. The back-to-back titles with Horford, Noah, Brewer, and Roberson seem like a long time ago (which, 9 years is a long time, I guess), and I kind of expected them to fade to the middle of the pack without Donovan. That hasn't happened. Yet. As Will notes, they're getting it done on defense which has endeared them to the advanced metrics (RPI forecast projects them to end up at 17 after going 13-5 in conference). That said, I'm not sold. They've pulled some RPI strings by going away/neutral heavy against some heavies to date, and that will continue in the coming months as they draw WVU in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and have only 1 game against Mizzou. This is probably a tournament team, but we'll have to see if the potential for Cuonzo Ball (they're ranked 98th on offense in KenPom, 10th in the league) drags them down.
South Carolina 11-0 - KenPom 25 - RPI 36 - Projected RPI 42 - Bracket Matrix 8 seed
WS: South Carolina's best win is your choice of Tulsa or Hofstra. But this team starts three seniors and two juniors, and is once again very strong defensively. They played this game last year to a degree, going 9-3 in the non-conference including a win over #9 Iowa State. But they started 2-8 in conference play before finishing the year 17-16 (6-12). Their SEC schedule is fairly back-loaded, so they could build a strong case for themselves in the bracket on face value before we get real answers to whether or not this is a Top 25 team.
Volundore: If a team goes undefeated against the 235th rated non-conference schedule, does anybody notice? That answer is, apparently, "sort of." USCe's unbesmirched beginning has elevated them to "oh, I guess we should rank them" status in both polls. Are they actually any good? I'll give that a definitive ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. They're balanced, with 12th year seniors Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, and Mindaugus Kacinas; and juniors Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell averaging between 11 and 13 points, so there's that. With only 8 games total against teams predicted to end the year in the RPI top 100, they might need a gaudy conference record to pair with the gaudy non-conference record to get Frank Martin to his first NCAA tournament at South Carolina.
Texas A&M 10-2 - KenPom 23 - RPI 15 - Projected RPI 22 - Bracket Matrix 5 seed
WS: So, they lost to a pair of Top 50ish teams in Syracuse and Arizona State. But these dudes have smoked everyone else, including #16 Baylor 80-61 in what is probably the SEC's best win this year. Their nine wins have come by an average of 20.2 points, and that includes a one point win over Gonzaga and an 11 point win over Texas in the Battle 4 Atlantis. These guys are flirting with being a Top 50 team in both shooting percentage and shooting percentage allowed. I think they will be legit contenders for the SEC title. Danuel House and Jalen Jones both average more than 15 points per game.
Volundore: If the Transitive Property of Sports was actually a thing, then I'd probably elevate TAMU to presumptive second in the conference over Vandy based on the former's aforementioned demolition of Baylor and the latter's close loss. Thankfully, it's not, but I agree with Will that the early returns are positive for the Aggies. They've been effective both inside (53.4%) and outside (38.7%) the arc, but dreadful at the free throw line (65.2%). Their conference slate is light on chances for quality wins as they get Vandy twice, but then just one shot each at UK, Florida, and South Carolina. They've got six games against the dregs of the SEC in Mizzou, Mississippi State, and LSU which can only hurt them when it comes to seeding conversations.
Georgia 7-3 - KenPom 59 - RPI 47 - Projected RPI 78 - Bracket Matrix receiving votes
WS: In RPI Georgia has played the nation's toughest schedule to this point, which is impressive considering they haven't played a ranked team. But they have played a who's who of mid-majors: Chattanooga, Murray State, High Point, Oakland, and Winthrop. That's going to serve them well on Selection Sunday if they can get enough wins to get on the bubble. Chattanooga's overtime win in Athens in the season opener probably sounded some alarms, but the Mocs are 10-2. Seton Hall and Kansas State (their other two losses) are Top 75 KenPom teams. The Dawgs have won three straight including a pair of ACC beat downs over Georgia Tech 75-61 and Clemson 71-48. 6'8" sophomore Yante Maten appears to have made the leap, tripling his production and leading the team with 15.9 points per game surrounded by much of the same cast from last year's 10 seed. I don't know how they'll do against the very best teams in this league, but they look steady and experienced enough to win a bunch of games against everyone else.
Volundore: Another team nailing that whole "Change your non-conference schedule to improve your RPI, or else!" mandate from the league, UGA hasn't really done anything to write home about so far (it's worth noting that KenPom has their NC SOS at 170). The 3 losses aren't bad, but there's no great win in there, either. Like Florida and South Carolina above, they're doing it with defense as KenPom has them ranked 25th on that end. On offense, Frazier, Gaines, and Mann are all upperclassmen supporting Maten by averaging double figures on a nightly basis. They only draw UK, Vandy, and TAMU once, so they might need to do some work against their Florida/South Carolina doppelgangers in league or against Baylor in the Big 12 Challenge to go dancing again.
Ole Miss 10-2 - KenPom 69 - RPI 56 - Projected RPI 107 - Bracket Matrix receiving votes
WS: The Stefan Moody show is in Lexington opening night. There was a nice little, "okay, haven't beaten anybody though" narrative building with this team until ten days before Christmas, when they trounced Louisiana Tech by 19 then won at Memphis by six. Moody gets 23.8 points per game as Oxford has become the SEC's destination for signature scorers. He's sixth nationally in scoring average, eighth nationally in shots and free throws attempted. I'm curious to see how far he can take them.
Volundore: If you like balanced scoring and well-rounded teams, I'd suggest not watching Ole Miss. After Moody, you've got Sebastian Saiz at 11.7 points (and 10.2 rebounds) per game, and that's it for double digit scorers. Moody also jacks shots at a downright Hendersonian rate, with his 17.7 attempts per game more than the next two guys combined. Can Moody's one man show carry the Rebels into March? They get Florida and Georgia twice, but are otherwise stuck with 1 shot at the other presumptive top teams. They feel like part of the Mushy Middle to me, but somebody from this tier might be capable of making a run.
LSU 7-5 - KenPom 93 - RPI 182 - Projected RPI 162 - Bracket Matrix receiving votes
WS: Ben Simmons' numbers are ridiculous to look at: 19.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. He leads LSU in every single one of those categories. Perhaps just as ridiculous: LSU is just 7-5 with losses to Marquette, NC State, Charleston, Houston, and Wake Forest. Things could be getting better for the Tigers: Arizona transfer Craig Victor is now eligible with the fall semester over. And Keith Hornsby could be what they missed: after sitting out the first seven games recovering from surgery, he dropped 32 on Houston in his 2015-16 debut. As you can see, LSU has an RPI problem and will need a big number in SEC play to get on the dance floor. It's where Simmons deserves to be, but it remains to be seen if they can be consistent enough to get there.
Volundore: Thus far, the most entertaining part of LSU's season has been Bill Simmons lamenting every Nets' win and celebrating every Nets' loss because they hurt the Celtics' chances of drafting Ben Simmons. Last I checked, Will is a Celtics fan, so remember that if he seems unreasonably interested in LSU (note from Will: worth pointing out the Kobe Bryant retirement tour is out-tanking almost everyone right now.) In spite of having the presumptive top pick, LSU has a problem: they're still coached by Johnny Jones. They play fast (22nd in tempo per KenPom), they score a lot (21st in the nation at 84.9 per), and yet they've still dropped 4 already. Tim Quarterman and Antonio Blakeney average in double figures, and Hornsby and Victor have been big contributors in the handful of games they've played. They've got the talent, but Jones knows how to underachieve. They'll have to get some big wins in SEC play to dig out of that RPI hole.
Arkansas 6-5 - KenPom 80 - RPI 142 - Projected RPI 94
WS: Still running and gunning with the 30th fastest pace in college basketball, but struggling to find the same results with losses to Akron, Georgia Tech, Stanford, Wake Forest, and Mercer. Another post player making the leap: sophomore Moses Kingsley, averaging a double-double to join guards Anthlon Bell and Texas Tech transfer Dusty Hannahs as a double figure scorer. Arkansas has a big test at Dayton on December 30.
Volundore: Last year, Arkansas got 17.5 points per game from Bobby Portis, 15.9 from Michael Qualls, and 9.6 from Rashad Madden on their way to a 5 seed and a Round of 32 appearance. This year, none of those guys are on the roster, and it kind of shows. None of their losses are atrocious, but Wake and Mercer are both predicted to be outside the RPI top 100, which is probably where this team is going to stay, too. Their defense is bad, and a couple of tough stretches on the schedule (Dayton, Vandy, TAMU starting 12/30; UK, UGA, TAMU, Texas Tech, Florida from 1/21 to 2/3) will probably be too much for them to overcome.
Tennessee 7-5 - KenPom 91 - RPI 106 - Projected RPI 112
WS: Can this team get to 9-9 in the SEC? If they can, I think we're in the NIT and celebrating a successful first year for Rick Barnes. I find myself having a difficult time explaining Tennessee to fans of other teams. We have no true point guard but are great at not turning it over. Our only true post players are brand new but we're excellent at blocking shots. You feel good at this point about what you're going to get from Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, and Robert Hubbs. Is there a who else on this team, or will it be someone different every night? I like the progression we're seeing from Detrick Mostella and, in obviously smaller steps, Kyle Alexander. Whether they progress enough to truly be better in March than they are in December, or if they hit the wall and fall off late in the season as they did last year is the big question.
Volundore: Going into the season, I thought this was going to be a team that played a classic underdog strategy, going fast and shooting a lot of 3's in hopes that they'd hit the high variance jackpot enough to occasionally compete. They've played quick (73rd in tempo), but not blazing. They're actually in the bottom half of 3's attempted and made, though in the top third in percentage hit. The blocks and the turnovers have come as a surprise. Can the Punter, Moore, Baulkman, Hubbs quartet keep putting up 60+ every night? Will Mostella, Schofield, and Alexander develop enough to allow those 4 to rest occasionally? The new SEC rotation means two games against UK, Vandy, and USCe, so the team could improve but the record may not show it. I think Barnes has done a good job with the hand he's been dealt, and I'm curious to see how the SEC slate goes.
Alabama 8-3 - KenPom 98 - RPI 35 - Projected RPI 109 - Bracket Matrix First Four Out
WS: So in November they get destroyed by Dayton and Xavier by a combined 51 points, and you write them off. Six weeks later Dayton is 9-2 and Xavier is 12-0, and Alabama has wins over Wichita State, Notre Dame, Clemson, and Winthrop before a four point loss to Oregon on a neutral floor. The Tide have the 18th toughest schedule by RPI and, as you can see, a very good looking ranking in that metric so far. How long it holds up for Avery Johnson remains to be seen. Senior guard Retin Obasohan has been transformed under Johnson from a bit player to the team's leading scorer. Their opening quartet of SEC games: at Ole Miss, Kentucky, South Carolina, at Vanderbilt. It'll be educational.
Volundore: The stench of Anthony Grant seems to still be on this team as they are excelling on defense (35th in KenPom), but really struggling on offense (180th in KenPom). They've also mastered the RPI game (note to self: schedule some "neutral" site games in Nashville or Chattanooga to get the bump that Alabama got for playing in Birmingham), but you wonder how much of it is sustainable. On the one hand, their current RPI means they might be around in March if they can take care of business against what looks like a relatively easy conference schedule (UK and USCe twice, but just once against Vandy, Florida, and Georgia). On the other hand, KenPom has them as the 2nd luckiest team which may mean their ripe for a little regression to the mean.
Mississippi State 6-5 - KenPom 122 - RPI 192 - Projected RPI 165
WS: Ben Howland has help on the way, but right now he's got a team that's eaten a 26 point loss to Miami, a 24 point loss to Florida State, and additional setbacks to Texas Tech, Missouri Kansas City, and Southern. There's a low ceiling on this bunch.
Volundore: Man...Will wasn't kidding about help being on the way. MSU is currently sitting at 6th in next year's recruiting rankings with five 4* players coming in. That's good. Being ranked 200th in defense and taking losses to Southern and UMKC...that's bad. Gavin Ware and Craig Sword have been solid, but there's really not much hope for this group as RPI Forecast has them favored in only 4 of 18 conference games. Yikes.
Auburn 6-5 - KenPom 152 - RPI 87 - Projected RPI 122
WS: Bruce Pearl's team has been inconsistent. Having played a Top 40 schedule, they have wins over UAB and New Mexico but have lost to Colorado, Middle Tennessee in overtime, and got thrashed at Xavier. The win over New Mexico came in a holiday tournament in Hawaii, but they followed it up with an 18 point loss to Harvard the next day, then a 12 point loss to Hawaii (don't assume: they're 9-2 and 66th in KenPom). Pearl is an RPI master and that schedule has given them a chance, but they'll have to clean it up in conference play. Getting the chemistry to ignite may be part of the problem: Marshall transfer guard Kareem Canty leads the team in scoring, Providence transfer forward Tyler Harris is second and nearly averages a double-double along with Cinmeon Bowers. T.J. Dunans, the top-ranked junior college transfer, is fourth in scoring, and freshman Bryce Brown is fifth. The pieces are newer and probably nicer, but so far they haven't consistently come together.
Volundore: Bruce has Auburn playing fast (26th in tempo), but he does not have them playing particularly efficiently at either end (126th in offensive efficiency, 194th in defensive efficiency). After the 5 players that Will mentioned, there appears to be...well, not much. I'm not sure Bruce was ever going to be able to capture lightning in a bottle the way he did in Knoxville, but 2 years in, I can't quite see the end game here. As Will laid out, this team is kind of a random assortment of pieces. Next year, they've got a solid, but not spectacular, recruiting class coming in. What is Bruce's vision? We'll have to wait and see how things play out on The Plains.
Missouri 6-6 - KenPom 177 - RPI 136 - Projected RPI 175
WS: I like stories like Kim Anderson's and want them to work out badly. But Missouri has been non-competitive in four of its six losses to SEC-caliber teams.
Volundore: Can I say anything nice about Missouri? Umm...none of their losses are to terrible competition? Their remarkably consistent in KenPom (194th on O, 195th on D, 193rd overall)? Maybe Pinkel told Anderson his Coach 'Em Up secrets? The Frank Haith Era left a smoking crater in Columbia North, and it may take some time to put the pieces back together.