We thought we knew before the season that Grant Williams would have serious breakout-sophomore potential for Tennessee in 2017-18. That, however, is pretty much the only thing we got right in the preseason about the Volunteers. Williams is indeed having an excellent season. So, too, are his teammates. So, indeed, is the SEC.
Here we are, one month and change into the season, and Tennessee's 7-1 and ranked No. 20. Better still, the Volunteers have some familiar in-league company in the rankings: Kentucky is No. 8, Texas A&M is No. 9 and Florida checks in at No. 22.
Meanwhile, Arkansas is coming off a 16-point thrashing of Minnesota in Fayetteville, Alabama only happens to have one of the best players in the country in Collin Sexton and, at Missouri, the persistent urban legends saying that Michael Porter Jr. will come back for the Tigers this season refuse to go away. These are the best of basketball times for the SEC.
Tennessee has been a big part of this burgeoning hoops renaissance in the conference better known for another rather prominent American college-revenue sport. With luck, Rick Barnes might prove once and for all this season that great rim defense need not necessarily depend on sheer size and amazing shot-blocking. The Vols actually aren't all that big, and, in fact, when 6-foot-11 junior Kyle Alexander takes a breather, Barnes has been perfectly content to play long stretches with no one taller than 6-foot-7 on the floor.
Yet UT's opponents have converted a measly 40 percent of their 2-point attempts thus far this season. Williams is a fair shot-blocker, and the Vols have also been adept at forcing turnovers. That, plus the small matter of Jordan Bowden shooting 59.3 percent on his 3s at a moderate volume, has brought Barnes' team to this point much sooner than expected.
North Carolina will want to be cognizant of all the above. The No. 7 Tar Heels arrive in Knoxville on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) having won their only true road game thus far, at Stanford, 96-72. Luke Maye is proving, if any evidence were required, that his March heroics were the real deal, as the junior has played at a level that would earn him first-team All-ACC status if it continues. Speaking of all-conference honors, Kenny Williams will be in line for some kind of recognition if he continues to hit anything close to 55 percent of his 3s.
UNC will need Maye, Williams and Joel Berry all at the tops of their games to prevail against a resurgent Tennessee. The SEC's best outside the traditional big two of Kentucky and Florida can no longer be regarded as afterthoughts -- nor is it at all clear that the league's big two still operates as an unchallenged duopoly. To all the skeptics who said basketball could never really happen in the SEC, the grounds for skepticism are fading fast.
No. 17 Purdue vs. Butler, Saturday, noon ET
Here's your Crossroads Classic trivia fun fact of the day: Purdue finally got off an 0-5 schneid last season and won a game at this annual four-team event. Now the Boilermakers will try to keep that momentum going against Butler at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (In the second game, Notre Dame will face Indiana.) With Minnesota struggling and Northwestern improving but still 7-4, Matt Painter's group appears to be the Big Ten's last best hope for an honest-to-goodness dangerous team not named Michigan State. Carsen Edwards has had a statistical start to the season that would be worthy of Big Ten POY consideration (crowded field, that), and 7-foot-3 freshman Matt Haarms has been a shot-blocking beast off the bench. The Boilers will have to contend with Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin and a Bulldogs defense that excels at both forcing turnovers and at limiting opponents to one shot.
Virginia Tech at No. 8 Kentucky, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN
John Calipari's young team is about to get a good test. Virginia Tech is one (rather inexplicable) neutral-floor loss to Saint Louis away from being undefeated right now. Buzz Williams' team beat Washington by 24 at Madison Square Garden and defeated Iowa by an identical margin in Blacksburg. The Hokies are fast-paced and uncannily accurate in their shooting, but UK is far and away the best defense that Williams' players will have seen this season. When Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and company play D, watch for Virginia Tech to pack the paint. No team in the country shoots fewer 3s than the Wildcats. Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo mostly get their scoring done inside the arc, where the freshman duo's shooting a combined 52 percent on their 2s. That number might sound so-so, but -- factoring in youth, volume and a very good UK defense -- it'll do.
No. 25 Cincinnati at UCLA, Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where would our college hoops conversations be without the drama already provided to us this season by both Cincinnati (that whole postgame contretemps with Xavier) and UCLA (how does one even begin)? Can it be that this will just be a nice, normal basketball game with no extenuating controversies? Possibly! Having watched Bryce Alford and then Lonzo Ball cycle through the position, Aaron Holiday is the Bruins' third point guard in as many seasons. The junior's been steady in that role, though his 3s have yet to fall this season and, as chance would have it, he's coming off a seven-turnover outing in UCLA's overtime loss at Michigan. Holding serve at home against the Bearcats will be no easy task for Holiday and his teammates: Jacob Evans, Gary Clark and Kyle Washington are again making their shots (and Sacred Heart transfer Cane Broome has joined this party), and the UC defense is formidable.
Oklahoma at No. 3 Wichita State, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN
Well, let's see. In one corner we have OU's Trae Young, a freshman who, if the season ended today, would be able to make a very, very good case as the national player of the year. In the other corner we have the third-ranked Shockers, who are 66-2 at home since the beginning of the 2013-14 season. The collision will be spectacular. Young is pushing the performance horizon for what we thought a 6-foot-1 scoring point guard could do, let alone a freshman 6-foot-1 scoring point guard. Carrying a workload on offense not terribly dissimilar to what we saw Steph Curry handle for Davidson a decade ago, Young has mastered every responsibility in his vast portfolio, including scoring from both sides of the arc, keeping turnovers to a bare minimum, distributing the ball and defense. Now, in the first true road game of his career, he'll tangle with 6-foot-4 Landry Shamet and a WSU defense that can best be described as relentless. This is going to be good.