Here we go again. My latest attempt to rank the incomparable enigma known as the Southeastern Conference. Deep breaths. We’ll get through this. I hope.
Florida. The lopsided win over Air Force in Sunrise, Fla., over the weekend was as refreshing as the losses to Arizona and Kansas State earlier in the season were sobering. This is a good team with a lot of weapons. But until the Gators face Missouri Jan. 19, they won’t necessarily have an opportunity to prove that they’re the best team in the struggling SEC. If there’s one concern about the Gators, it’s the inconsistency in its backcourt. Kenny Boynton (12.5 points per game) is the team’s leading scorer but he’s also its most erratic performer (17-for-61 in past six games) and Mike Rosario has scored 12 points total (3-for-15) in Florida’s past two outings.
Kentucky. I get it. Whom have the Wildcats beaten? What have they done to earn this? Well, they were a few free throws and a possession or two away from upsetting Louisville on the road last Saturday. These are power rankings. Who’s the best? I truly believe this Kentucky team, especially with Ryan Harrow elevating his game in recent weeks, could beat any team in this league. The Wildcats are just beginning to understand how good they can and will be in the next two months. Now they have to prove it in the SEC.
Missouri. This is a Tigers team that has a lot of weapons but down the stretch of its overtime loss to UCLA last week, it displayed some of its challenges. The Tigers had 17 turnovers and blew a nine-point lead in the final minutes against a young UCLA team. This is still a team seeking more rhythm after adding many new faces this season. It’s also a team that needs more crunch-time options than Phil Pressey. Pressey is a very talented player but Missouri has too many contributors to rely on one man in those scenarios.
Tennessee. The Vols have won four in a row. And their 51-47 victory over Xavier Saturday was the first time they’d failed to register at least 66 points since their back-to-back road losses to Georgetown and Virginia (36 and 38 points, respectively). Tennessee’s offense (13th in efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), however, is still a concern. That’s why Jarnell Stokes (11.4 ppg, 7.4 rebounds per gme) has to be more consistent for coach Cuonzo Martin, especially with all signs pointing to Jeronne Maymon not returning because of a knee injury.
Ole Miss. Murphy Holloway (15.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg) and Marshall Henderson (17.9 ppg) lead a Rebels program that’s averaging 82.1 ppg. But Ole Miss has achieved that mark against one of the league’s worst nonconference slates. So don’t be surprised if the team suffers a significant drop in its offensive production in the coming months. Then again, the SEC doesn’t have a lot of star power right now. So maybe that success will continue, and the Rebels will maintain their up-tempo attack (23rd in Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings).
Arkansas. The Razorbacks have won four in row. And that’s all that matters in this conference. Sure, two of those opponents have losing records (3-13 Alcorn State, 5-7 Alabama A&M). But the Razorbacks, who’ve won five of their past six, have as much momentum as any team in the middle of the SEC pack. And if they can just find a way to play respectable defense (173rd in Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings), they could actually spring a few surprise upsets in the SEC because they have two of the league’s most talented players in B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell.
LSU. Coach Johnny Jones’ team hasn’t suffered any bad losses this season. Road losses to Boise State and Marquette won’t crush their at-large résumé. Their nonconference strength of schedule (252nd per ESPN.com’s RPI ratings) will. The bottom line is that the Tigers (8-2) haven’t proved a thing yet. Matchups against Florida, Kentucky and Missouri in January? Well, that’s a good start.
South Carolina. Coach Frank Martin’s team has won four games in a row. But it’s hard to get excited about the Gamecocks. They’ve played the worst nonconference schedule in the league (324th per ESPN.com’s RPI ratings). I hate to play the same old song. But until Martin’s squad gets deep into SEC play, we really won’t know what it’s made of. Giving up 69.1 ppg (13th in the SEC) during its lackluster nonconference schedule and averaging 18.0 turnovers per game, however, are not good signs for the near future.
Texas A&M. I don’t care that they have 10 wins. The aroma of that Dec. 22 loss to Southern remains. Maybe they deserve a higher slot. But the Aggies have succeeded mostly against mediocre teams. They’ll play at Kentucky (Jan. 12) and versus Florida (Jan. 19) in the coming weeks, so we’ll know more about the Aggies soon. Right now, however, it looks like another SEC program with an inflated record that says more about the teams it has faced to date than its own potential.
Auburn. Let me get this straight: The same Auburn team that couldn’t crack 50 points against Boston College, lost to a Rhode Island squad that’s 4-8, and fell at home to Winthrop nearly pulled off an upset against Illinois on Saturday and then knocked off Florida State on Wednesday? OK, that makes sense. I can’t say that coach Tony Barbee has started a revival. But the past week has been promising for the program.
Alabama. It’s bad in Tuscaloosa right now. Anthony Grant’s squad has lost five of the past six. In their last outing, the Crimson Tide registered only 50 points in a three-point loss to Tulane. It’s not just the injuries (Carl Engstrom and Andrew Steele) that are hurting Alabama. Its offense has really struggled in recent weeks (65.6 ppg, ninth in the SEC). And its two best players, Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey, have been inconsistent during this rough stretch.
Georgia. Mark Fox’s program lost seven of its first nine games. But the Bulldogs have won their past three games. Georgia won’t throw a party simply because it defeated Mercer, USC and Florida A&M. But it needs the momentum with a Jan. 13 matchup against Florida in Gainesville looming. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17.5 ppg) is still carrying the bulk of the scoring load. But the Bulldogs have been a better defensive unit and that has been crucial to its recent success.
Vanderbilt. These young Commodores appeared to be improving during a recent three-game winning streak, but they followed that up with two losses in three games. Butler and Middle Tennessee, their two opponents in those losses, are legit. My bigger concern is coach Kevin Stallings’ struggling offense. This is a Vandy squad that scored 33 points in a loss to Marist. It has failed to top 52 points five times this season. The SEC has a lot of issues. But it also has some of the top offensive units in the country. I’m just not sure how Vandy will keep up in conference play. They won’t have to wait long to see. They’ll face Kentucky Jan. 10.
Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have similar concerns. Rick Ray’s squad is ranked 289th in Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency ratings. That’s not good. But this isn’t very surprising. MSU is playing with a short rotation in Ray’s first year with the program. He doesn’t appear to have the players he needs to compete in the SEC. But he’s also playing in a league with few proven commodities. The Bulldogs’ 17.5 turnovers per game, however, are one of their biggest concerns.