Saturday, December 24, 2016

The State of the SEC

Merry Christmas! I hope everyone's holiday weekend is off to a good start.

With SEC conference play beginning on Thursday, I wanted to give my thoughts on the state of the conference, power rankings, etc.

Based on non-conference play, the league is, once again, going to struggle to put more than four teams in the tournament field. Non-conference scheduling has been better, but SEC teams still have to win some of those games. Alabama is a great example of this. Avery Johnson put together a solid non-conference schedule, but Alabama has been unable to win the higher profile games. As a result, their NCAA Tournament hopes are practically on life support before January.

Here are my rankings for the SEC as we look ahead to conference play.

1. Kentucky - Not quite the defensive juggernaut we've come to expect under Calipari, but this team can still overwhelm opponents with their talent. De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk have been a dynamic backcourt, "Bam" Adebayo is a physical presence in the post, and the experience of Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries rounds the team into shape. I'll be shocked if this Kentucky team loses more than twice in conference play.

2. Florida - Not a team that really jumps out at you, but the Gators have played good, solid basketball. They could be the only team in the league with a realistic shot at denying Kentucky the league title. At the very least, this should be a tournament team.

3. South Carolina - The suspension of Sindarious Thornwell has complicated matters for this South Carolina team. In the stretch that Thornwell has been out, the Gamecocks have lost close games to Seton Hall and Clemson, two games that could loom large for this team on Selection Sunday. I expect Thornwell will return for the conference opener, but the margin for error is thinner for the Gamecocks due to the time he missed.

4. Arkansas - The Razorbacks have some solid wins (UT Arlington has been a great mid-major team so far, Houston and a neutral floor win vs Texas), but will probably need to win at least 11 games in conference to feel good about their tournament chances. That means winning some on the road. The one true road game they played this season, at Minnesota, they lost by 20. 

5. Texas A&M - The Aggies have one of the better front lines in college basketball with Tyler Davis, Tonny Trocha-Morelos and star freshman Robert Williams, but it's the production of their guards that will determine their season. A&M needs to stockpile some wins for their resume after near misses against UCLA, Arizona and USC in the non-conference.

6. Auburn - It pains me to write this, but the Auburn Tigers have been one of the better SEC teams in non-conference play with quality wins vs Texas Tech, at UAB, at Uconn and a neutral floor win vs Oklahoma. None of those teams are locked into the NCAA tournament, but it's hard to find four other teams in the league that have similar wins over a 12 game stretch. Pearl also added the talents of 5 star big man Austin Wiley for the second semester. I'm still not convinced this is a tournament team, but they're better than I thought they would be at this point. Have to give credit where credit is due. 

7. Georgia - The Bulldogs as a whole have been a bit disappointing (their best win so far is on a neutral floor vs George Washington), but they do have Yante Maten, arguably the best player in the league up to this point. JJ Frazier is also a very capable player. For Georgia, they need a third guy to emerge as a playmaker if they're going to make a run for a tournament bid. Even without a third option, Maten and Frazier should be enough to keep this Georgia afloat in the middle of the SEC pack.

8. Ole Miss - The Rebels have a nice home win over Memphis, close losses to Creighton and Virginia Tech, and were crushed at home by Middle Tennessee, a good mid-major program. Hard to get a read on Ole Miss. They look the part when you watch them, but the results don't suggest this team is anything more than a solid mid-pack team.

9. Tennessee - The Vols are 7-5, but they've been extremely competitive in their losses against power programs (Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga). The assumption is that will carry over well in an SEC conference that once again is struggling to assert a power structure. Some thought Tennessee was a basement dweller in the preseason (guilty as charged), but they don't look the part so far.

10. LSU - A 34-point loss at Wake Forest this past week isn't likely the last beatdown the Tigers will take this year on the road. Once again, mental toughness and chemistry appear to be lacking in a Johnny Jones team. The biggest question moving forward is will Jones survive another mediocre campaign?

11. Alabama - You could make an argument for Alabama being a spot higher on this list (they don't have any 34-point losses on the ol' resume), but I'll stick with this ranking. Offense continues to be lacking, and even the strength of the team (defense) is inconsistent. I underappreciated the impact of Retin and Arthur to last year's team, and expected too much from the returning upperclassmen.

12. Vanderbilt - The Dores haven't looked good in Bryce Drew's first season, despite some holdover talent from the Stallings tenure. Similar to Alabama, they have been competitive against quality opponents, but have no wins to show for it. The two teams will face off in the conference home opener for Bama.

13. Mississippi State - Despite the presence of Quinndary Weatherspoon, this is a very young team. Howland put together a manageable schedule for this squad, but I think conference play will lay bare just how young this team is. The program is moving in the right direction, but it could be another year before State fans will really have something to cheer about. The game vs Alabama in the conference opener will be big for both teams.

14. Missouri - Remember when Missouri's addition to the league was supposed to raise the basketball profile? The Tigers already have home losses to sub-200 KenPom North Carolina Central and Eastern Illinois. Once again, this looks like the last-place team in the league. You have to think if that is the case, Missouri will be making a coaching change.  

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