The top remains the same. Yes, the Gators suffered a tough road loss at Arizona Saturday, their first of the season. But I can’t elevate Missouri over the Gators yet. If the Tigers beat Illinois this weekend, let’s talk.
1. Florida. The Gators were one of the nation’s most dominant teams until the final minutes of its 65-64 loss at Arizona Saturday. The McKale Center was booming just hours after the Wildcats’ football squad had defeated Nevada in a crazy, come-from-behind win in the New Mexico Bowl. The place came alive as Arizona made its final, game-turning run. Florida made critical mistakes down the stretch. But I’ll still take the Gators over the rest of the league.
2. Missouri. The Jabari Brown Experiment began with a so-so showing in Monday’s 102-51 win over South Carolina State (12 points, 1-for-7 from the 3-point line). But he hadn’t played a regulated game since Nov. 17, 2011. So the rust was expected. The bottom line is that Frank Haith has access to another high-level wing. And that Missouri backcourt will need more depth to win the SEC crown. Saturday’s matchup against Illinois will be a good test for the Tigers’ (new) guard rotation.
3. Kentucky. No, this season's Wildcats aren’t last year’s Wildcats. But what team in 2012-13 is comparable to that group? They are, however, a group of talented players that has jelled in recent weeks -- albeit against mediocre competition. They’re still one of the nation’s best offensive (26th in efficiency) and defensive (12th) units. How much better is this group compared to a few weeks ago when it lost back-to-back games at Notre Dame and against Baylor in Rupp Arena? We probably won’t know until they’ve played a solid number of SEC games unless they pull off the upset at Louisville Dec. 29.
4. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin told govolsextra.com Thursday that the team is close to a decision on the status of Jeronne Maymon. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound senior is clearly a missing piece for a Vols squad that could use his size and talent (12.7 ppg, 8.1 ppg). Yet he’s still a question mark for the program. The Vols have picked up a pair of wins, including one against Wichita State, since losing two in a row to Georgetown and Virginia. Maymon’s situation, however, could play a role in whether the program can sustain that success, especially as SEC play approaches.
5. Ole Miss. From Jan. 9 through Jan. 15, Ole Miss will play at Tennessee, versus Missouri and at Vanderbilt. If they’re legit, the Rebels must prove it during that stretch. Their nonconference schedule has been so subpar that they’ve been difficult to assess. Yes, they’re averaging 81.6 ppg, 10th in the nation, and they’re 16th in defensive efficiency, but whom have they played? In their toughest matchup thus far, they registered only 62 points in a three-point loss at Middle Tennessee.
6. LSU. The Tigers suffered their first loss of the season on the road against a solid Boise State team Friday. The 89-70 margin was the result of the Tigers finally facing a team that made them pay for their turnover issues (20 at Boise State). They’d gotten away with that sloppiness throughout the nonconference slate. But Boise State was just the second team that Jonny Jones’ program had faced with a top-100 rating on KenPom.com.
7. Texas A&M. The Aggies’ 64-54 loss at former Big 12 adversary Oklahoma Saturday was the result of poor ballhandling (19 turnovers) and the Sooners’ 18-for-19 clip from the charity stripe. But the Aggies are as capable as any second-tier squad in the SEC. To rise above middle-of-the-pack status, however, they’ll have to improve their inconsistent defense (159th in efficiency).
8. Alabama. The injury bug reached Tuscaloosa at a bad time. Carl Engstrom is out for the year with a torn ACL. Andrew Steele could miss the next month with a sports hernia. Anthony Grant’s depth has taken a serious hit as a result of those injuries. But at least the Crimson Tide ended their three-game losing streak with Wednesday’s 66-62 victory at Texas Tech. Yes, it’s Texas Tech, but this program needs any victory it can get right now. With its short rotation, they might hit more hurdles once SEC play begins.
9. Arkansas. Arkansas can roll with the top offenses in the country (81.8 ppg). The Razorbacks, however, have struggled to neutralize opponents. And until they clean up their defense, they’ll remain in the bottom tier of the league. B.J. Young (17.1 ppg) and Marshawn Powell (16.1. ppg) will keep them alive in many games. But unless the Razorbacks clamp down (190th in efficiency), they’ll continue to struggle in meaningful matchups.
10. Vanderbilt. On Friday, the Commodores will face mid-major standout Middle Tennessee at home. In past years, Kevin Stallings’ squad had the advantage. But this year’s unit, one that relies on youth (a dozen underclassmen), is not in the same position. The 5-4 Commodores, however, have developed some momentum in December. They’ve won three in a row, including a 66-64 win at Xavier in overtime Dec. 6. Let’s see if that momentum continues against Middle Tennessee.
11. South Carolina. There’s certainly no verdict on South Carolina yet. Frank Martin has a veteran core of Brenton Williams, LaShay Page, Lakeem Jackson and Bruce Ellington. That’s one plus for the program. But the Gamecocks are still 7-3 against an average schedule. So in some ways, they’re tough to gauge right now, which is the story of this conference so far. But clearly their defense needs work (269th in efficiency per KenPom.com).
12. Auburn. Another SEC squad that won’t get much credit because of its subpar nonconference schedule and the 5-5 record it has amassed against it. But the Tigers have won three consecutive games. And 6-2 guard Chris Denson (16.7 ppg) has emerged during this streak. That’s a good sign for an Auburn team that’s going to face disadvantages at most positions when SEC play begins.
13. Georgia. Mark Fox’s squad ended a three-game losing streak (the Bulldogs had lost seven of eight) with Tuesday’s 58-49 victory over Mercer. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, one of the league’s top talents, scored 17 points. Georgia needs every win it can muster right now because its SEC slate begins with this tough stretch: at Florida, vs. MSU, at Mizzou, vs. LSU and vs. Florida.
14. Mississippi State. Rick Ray is doing what he can right now with this Mississippi State team. At some point, as he builds this program, he’ll have to identify more capable offensive players because that's the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness right now (288th in offensive efficiency). He has two players (Roquez Johnson and Fred Thomas) who are averaging double figures. But he needs more.