The current state of SEC basketball in two sentences: before the Vols took down South Carolina on Saturday they had lost just one other game, a 23 point beat down in Tuscaloosa. It is Alabama's only conference win.
Texas A&M has become your clear leader early, 7-0 in league play and now seventh overall in KenPom. Kentucky, Florida, and LSU are all next at 5-2, with South Carolina at 4-2. And then it's a mess in the middle: Georgia at 4-3, with Arkansas, Auburn, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt all 3-4.
Bama's presence in the cellar at 1-5 is surprising not just because they blew out Carolina, but because Avery Johnson's first team put together one of the most impressive streaks of any SEC team in non-conference play. After losing November dates with Dayton and Xavier by a combined 51 points, Alabama beat Wichita State and Notre Dame in Orlando, then won at Clemson two weeks later. Thanks to that run their RPI is still 65 despite the 1-5 start in league play. By contrast, 5-2 LSU is just 91 in RPI (worse than Tennessee's 85) thanks to their early season stumbles.
We're still 12 games from the finish line, so things are a little fuzzy. But I continue to believe 9-9 in league play is a great goal for the Vols, and should be enough to get them in the NIT even if championship week gets a little crazy. To do that, with two against Kentucky and a road trip to Nashville still forthcoming, the Vols are going to have to win some away from Knoxville. Winning in Starkville was a nice start. Winning in Tuscaloosa would be progress.
This could come down to who sets the pace. Tennessee is playing the third fastest pace in the SEC (48th nationally). Alabama is the slowest team in the league by a comfortable margin: 306th nationally in possessions per 40 minutes, with the next slowest SEC team checking in at 226 (Missouri). Faster teams have given them problems in the last week: the only team SEC teams playing quicker than the Vols are LSU and Auburn, which means Bama will have played the three fastest teams in the league in a row. Bruce Pearl's team sped them up via the three ball, shooting 11 of 30 from the arc and scoring a season high 83 points against the Tide in a six point win. Alabama almost did the exact same thing to LSU, shooting 10 of 25 from the arc but ultimately getting Ben Simmonsed via a 23-8-5 from the big fella and a late score by Tim Quarterman to give the Tigers a 72-70 win.
Bama is slow and they emphasize defense, giving up just a hair over 40% from the floor this season and 32nd in KenPom's defensive ratings. The good news for the Vols: as was the case with South Carolina over the weekend, the Tide may be really good defensively, but they won't be the best team the Vols have faced. You might be surprised to know Texas A&M and Florida are fifth and sixth, respectively, in KenPom defense the way the Vols torched them. Tennessee wasn't so fortunate against Vanderbilt (19th) and Georgia (21st), then got red hot against South Carolina (who is now 24th). There's a sneaky argument here about Tennessee being even better offensively than we realize as we've played an unusual number of good defensive teams in the front end of league play. Alabama will be in that group, but we've seen better.
This is also a more guard oriented lineup, good news for Tennessee's small ball. 6'8" Johnson City native Shannon Hale is a factor, but Bama is led by 6'1" guard Retin Obasohan and also gets solid production from 6'6" Arthur Edwards on the perimeter.
Rick Barnes talks about defense and rebounding needing to travel well for Tennessee to win. But Saturday's win over South Carolina also highlighted Tennessee's free throw shooting: 30 of 32 against the Gamecocks moved the Vols to 73.9% on the year, 35th nationally, and an impressive 81.5% in league play, best in the SEC. Free throws can travel well too, and a Tennessee team playing with such a small margin of error can use every point.
It's a big chance to build momentum and get back to .500 in the SEC before taking a break for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge at TCU this weekend, then welcoming Kentucky next Tuesday. This would be a big step of maturity to follow up a great ranked win at home by beating Alabama on the road. Late shift again: 9:00 PM ET on the SEC Network.