Just when we thought we understood the enigma known as the SEC -- just when I’d felt comfortable with my weekly rankings -- SEC play began. And the madness continued. We’ll get through this together.
1. Florida -- The Gators have the most complete team in the SEC right now. They opened up SEC play with a 33-point win against Georgia on Wednesday night. They’re balanced, experienced and talented. Few teams in this league can say that. Their losses (Arizona, Kansas State) weren’t bad losses. And I still think that this team is growing. Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Patric Young anchor Florida’s core, but they’re also assisted by talented reserves such as Will Yeguete.
2. Missouri -- The Tigers were more efficient in their Tuesday victory against Alabama than they were in a nail-biter against Bucknell over the weekend. But they lost Laurence Bowers to a knee injury in that game. That’s clearly a concern as they prepare for an Ole Miss team that is more than capable of pulling off the upset, especially at home. I still think that the Tigers rely on Phil Pressey too much, and that’s going to cost them at times this season, possibly as soon as Saturday when they face the Rebels without Bowers.
3. Ole Miss -- The Rebels had such a poor nonconference strength of schedule (No. 241 per ESPN.com’s RPI rankings) that their impressive stats (top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) have been difficult to trust. But Ole Miss opened up SEC play with a dominant win at Tennessee. No, the Vols aren’t the crème de la crème of the conference. But they’re definitely better than Mississippi Valley State and East Tennessee State, two teams the Rebels faced during their nonconference slate.
4. Kentucky -- As I watched the Wildcats on Thursday night, I realized that I’d given the hype more credit than it deserved. Yes, I still believe Kentucky could be the best team in the conference by the end of the season. But what evidence do I really have to assume that the Wildcats will come anywhere close to their potential? They blew a 47-31 lead at Vanderbilt, a team that lost to Marist by 17 points. So I’m still waiting for Kentucky to prove that it’s more than a bunch of NBA prospects that can’t play together.
5. Tennessee -- Tennessee’s offense has been a concern all season. But in its past two games, its defense has been the issue. The Vols gave up 85 points to Memphis and 92 points to Ole Miss in back-to-back losses. I still think Tennessee is one of those squads that could give any team in the conference trouble. But the Vols haven’t put together a run that has showcased their potential. This pattern will lead to an average finish in the SEC if Cuonzo Martin can’t find a way to reverse it.
6. Auburn –- So, I’m surprised, too. But I think Auburn deserves a slot in the top half of the league. Why not? Tony Barbee’s program knocked off LSU in its SEC opener Wednesday night, even though leading scorer Frankie Sullivan (17.2 ppg) fouled out after scoring 10 points. Junior Allen Payne has played well during a stretch that’s featured five wins in seven games (the Tigers suffered a two-point loss at Illinois on Dec. 29).
7. Texas A&M – Elston Turner (15.5 ppg) and Co. have won three in a row since a 53-51 home loss to … Southern on Dec. 22. The Aggies crushed Arkansas 69-51 in their SEC opener Wednesday night. So perhaps that loss to Southern won’t define their season. The Aggies have held their opponents to 58.6 ppg, second in the conference. But like so many teams in this league, they amassed that sexy stat against a lukewarm nonconference slate. Their dominance Wednesday night, however, suggests that they might be one of the best average teams in the conference. A road win against Kentucky on Saturday would send a message to the league.
8. Alabama -- I was searching for signs of progress on Tuesday night. I mean, Bama has to do something. Fast. And the Crimson Tide had their chance in Columbia. The team was down 40-36 at halftime. And then, Bama arrived. Anthony Grant’s squad was outscored 44-32 in the second half. Alabama finished with 16 turnovers and shot 5-for-17 from the 3-point line. This isn’t an issue with injuries. This is just a team that apparently can’t complete games. They’re talented enough to play with any team in the conference in stretches. Winning, however, is still a problem.
9. LSU -- Johnny Jones’ squad didn’t commence SEC play with a bang. Instead, the Tigers lost on the road to Auburn. They didn’t accrue any meaningful wins during a weak nonconference slate. So I never believed the 9-2 record that they took into that game. I figured if they couldn’t handle the ball against McNeese State (19 turnovers) and Houston Baptist (15 turnovers), then they’d probably have trouble in the SEC. Their 12 turnovers in the Auburn loss were costly. They missed 6 of 10 free throws. LSU’s inflated nonconference record might have been debunked in the SEC opener.
10. Arkansas -- The Razorbacks average 80.6 ppg, ranked 11th nationally. That offense is their only ticket to any respectable finish in the SEC. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell average 31.4 ppg for Mike Anderson. So how did Arkansas end up with 51 points at Texas A&M? Well, Powell’s foul trouble and zero points certainly didn’t help. This squad had won five in a row against a lackluster assembly of nonconference opponents entering the game. Meaningless. They barely cracked 50 points against a midlevel SEC squad. It’s not the end of the world for the Razorbacks. But Anderson has to figure out what’s up with Powell (17 points combined in past three games) going forward.
11. Mississippi State -- Speaking of effort, how about the Bulldogs winning their SEC opener against South Carolina 56-54? After the win, Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray tweeted, “Thank you to the Bulldog fan base for all of the congratulatory tweets. I appreciate it. Prepping for Georgia now. Grindin' for my State!” He should be pumped for his program, which has struggled all season. The Bulldogs have won three of four.
12. Vanderbilt -- Kudos to Kevin Stallings’ squad for nearly knocking off Kentucky at home Thursday night. The Commodores overcame a 16-point deficit and put themselves in a position to pull off the upset. But they fell short. Now, it should be noted that the finish was corrupted by an obvious shot-clock violation on a Nerlens Noel bucket with 17.3 seconds to go. But the true moral of the story is that you should always avoid a 16-point deficit when possible. Vandy’s effort in the second half was commendable. But the SEC standings don’t have an “effort” column.
13. South Carolina -- Frank Martin, this is your team. The Gamecocks, like most of the league, grabbed 10 nonconference wins against a poor schedule. So they entered SEC play as a mystery. They hadn’t proven anything. What did they do in their first conference test? They committed 24 turnovers. The Gamecocks have been fumbling all season against lesser programs. And that weakness affected the outcome in their conference opener. Check the box scores. Turnovers have plagued this program all season. And it will be its biggest issue in SEC play.
14. Georgia -- Mark Fox has a really, really good player named Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17.0 ppg). He’s a star. But he doesn’t have much to put around him. So the Bulldogs are averaging just 59.4 ppg, No. 321 in Division I. In their 33-point loss to Florida on Wednesday night, Caldwell-Pope (11 points) was the only player who cracked double figures. Now, the loss did stop a four-game winning streak. But it’s just difficult to see how Fox’s program will avoid the league’s basement if it expects one player to carry the load every night.