Another attempt, my final attempt to rank the SEC. … It’s been real.
Florida. The Gators are still the kings of the SEC. Yes, they’ve fallen a few times this season. But they’ve been the most dominant team in the conference. They’ve suffered three SEC losses, all on the road, against Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. But they’ve also achieved the league’s top scoring margin (plus-18.8 points per game). The Gators already have won the SEC crown, but a win at Kentucky on Saturday would truly stamp their supremacy within the league.
Missouri. I can’t tell you whether Mizzou will make a run in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers are just too inconsistent. But they’re 4-1 in their past five games. And Tuesday’s 93-63 win against Arkansas -- in Columbia, of course -- allowed the Tigers to display their potential. Phil Pressey has become a more efficient distributor. He has finished with eight or more assists in Mizzou’s past four games. He also has recorded 14 turnovers combined in the same stretch. Saturday’s road game at Tennessee is a serious test for a Missouri squad that has been shaky off campus. But its ceiling is high, especially if Pressey continues to play maestro and limits his mishaps.
Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin’s team faces Missouri on Saturday in a critical game. A loss to the Tigers won’t destroy its NCAA tourney hopes. But a win might seal an at-large bid. The Vols lost to Georgia this past weekend, but that didn’t nullify the momentum they have amassed in the past month. They have won seven of their past eight entering the weekend. Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden anchor a team that has outplayed most of America’s bubble teams in recent weeks.
LSU. The SEC tournament is wide open. Any team could reach the final, it seems. And in a league with so many bubble squads vying for an at-large bid, the tournament's action should reflect the stakes. Johnny Jones’ program is not one of the SEC’s bubble teams. But it’s certainly a sleeper to make a run and spoil the postseason plans of its conference colleagues. The Tigers have won three of their past four and are 8-3 since Jan. 30. With Johnny O'Bryant III (13.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG) inside and its ability to defend the perimeter (SEC squads are shooting just 28.9 percent from the perimeter against LSU, second in the conference), LSU could shock the field in Nashville next week.
Kentucky. Still talented. Still a mess. Still on the bubble. Somehow. After Thursday night’s 72-62 loss at Georgia, John Calipari blamed himself for the loss. "I've done a crap job with this team," he said. Well, it’s not completely Cal’s fault, but it’s refreshing to hear a coach accept blame. The Wildcats are young. The Wildcats lack veteran leadership. The Wildcats lost their best player during the most important stretch of the year. But they’ve had so many chances to play their way off the bubble and they’ve stumbled. Taking that L at Georgia hurt their NCAA tournament hopes and might have guaranteed an NIT berth. But a win against Florida on Saturday could lead Kentucky to the Big Dance.
Alabama. Let me say this. Trevor Releford (15.5 PPG, 2.1 SPG) could carry Bama to the SEC championship. At this point, I’m convinced any team could win that thing. But Anthony Grant’s program also could lose its first game and go home with nothing more than an NIT berth. There’s just nothing about the Crimson Tide that makes me a believer. They have lost three of their past four matchups (all road games). This lukewarm stretch sums up Alabama’s entire season. So-so. Defense has helped Bama stay alive all year (59.8 PPG allowed in SEC play, No. 2 in the conference). But the team is so inconsistent everywhere else that it has reached the end of the season with minimal mojo.
Georgia. So … Mark Fox’s team is 8-4 since Jan. 26. The Bulldogs have knocked off Kentucky and Tennessee in their past two games. Fox’s young squad has matured in recent weeks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (18.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.1 SPG) is a star. But without an offensively astute crew around him, the Bulldogs have focused on defense (56th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). Georgia hasn’t even cracked the RPI’s top 100. This is not a bubble team. But it’s certainly a dream killer right now.
Ole Miss. Last week, a few Ole Miss fans told me they didn’t like my placement of the Rebels in the most recent rankings. They were justified in their frustration. Ole Miss should have been lower. This is an average team (at best). We were all blinded by the Marshall Henderson Show earlier this season. For once, Ole Miss was fascinating. Then Andy Kennedy’s program caught an allergy to defense (71.2 PPG allowed in SEC play, 12th in the league). Sure, the Rebels are a bubble team. But they’re not playing like a tournament team (see Saturday’s inexplicable 73-67 road loss to rival Mississippi State).
Arkansas. The Razorbacks aren’t that different from the rest of the conference. They’re a dazzling spectacle at home. Just bad whenever they’re on the road. That’s the story of the entire conference -- the nation, really. But Saturday’s 30-point loss at Missouri was enough to send any bandwagon into a ditch. Arkansas has lost three of its past four. Not exactly the kind of convincing conclusion to the regular season that the selection committee would like to see from a bubble squad. But … this is Arkansas. A lot of teams have lost on the road this season. Few, however, have matched the extremes of Arkansas’ Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde routine.
Texas A&M. I wanted to trust the Aggies. Really, I did. That January road win against Kentucky and an early February victory against Missouri convinced me that Elston Turner (17.7 PPG) & Co. would end the season on a high note. Didn’t happen. Things fell apart for this program.
Vanderbilt. The bad news is that Kevin Stallings’ program sits at the bottom of the SEC. The good news is that his top five scorers should return next season. And incoming four-star recruit Damian Jones should help in his first season with the squad.
South Carolina. Can Frank Martin build something special with the Gamecocks? We’ll see. His first year was a rough one.
Auburn. Bottom line is that Auburn’s administration will soon decide whether it’s going to give Tony Barbee more time to rebuild after another tough season.
Mississippi State. Last night, Rick Ray sent me a text message that simply said, “Can’t make this up. Jalen Steele tore his ACL last night. That’s FOUR season ending knee injuries.” I know you think your favorite team has endured tough times in 2012-13. But I don’t think any team in the country has matched Mississippi State’s situation. Still, MSU’s fan base will feast on last weekend’s win against Ole Miss for months.