One man’s attempt to decipher the ongoing chaos that defines the SEC in 2012-13:
1. Florida. The Gators were questioned following a surprising road loss to Arkansas last week. But they revealed their prowess in recent lopsided wins against Mississippi State and Kentucky. Florida’s greatest quandary is its competition. When it looks good (second in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), many suggest that it's not facing premier opposition. When it loses? Panic and “I told you so.” But the Gators are still one of America’s best teams. There shouldn’t be any debate about that.
2. Missouri. I don’t know if the Missouri squad that stomped Ole Miss in Columbia on Saturday (98-79) is the real Missouri. The Tigers, however, proved what they’re capable of when they smashed the Rebels last weekend. Three players topped 20 points. They shot 52 percent from the 3-point line. They followed that with a 42-point road win against Mississippi State on Wednesday night. But I’m still evaluating those road losses to Texas A&M and LSU. You should do the same. I have no doubt that Frank Haith possesses a roster that has the potential to contend with any team in the league. Even Florida. But only at home. If Haith’s squad can get its act together once it leaves campus, then Missouri could finally become the team we thought it would be entering the 2012-13 season.
3. Alabama. After Florida, the SEC becomes a confusing assortment of squads that are difficult to assess because of their collective inconsistency. So you have to reward a team -- for the purposes of these rankings -- when it hits its stride. Bama’s offense is what it is (58.1 ppg, 12th in the league). It’s been that way all year. The Crimson Tide scored 37 in a 12-point road loss to Auburn on Feb. 6. I’m still digesting that. But, Anthony Grant’s program has won four of five to secure a third-place slot in the SEC. It won three of those games by four points or less. You can look at that multiple ways. Either Bama is just an average SEC team that is squeezed by other mediocre teams, or Trevor Releford (14.6 ppg) leads a gritty squad that is winning with an aggressive defense (55.5 ppg allowed) that has masked its offensive challenges.
4. Arkansas. I think Florida is really good. So I’m still impressed by the Razorbacks’ win against the Gators last week. Yes, they followed it up with a loss at Vanderbilt. But they’ve won three out of four. And Mike Anderson commands an offensive unit that is as potent as it is inconsistent. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell? That is serious talent. The Razorbacks have struggled on the road. So has the rest of the league, the rest of America. But they’ve demonstrated their ceiling in this four-game stretch. Arkansas could finish the season strong.
5. Texas A&M. Oh, Texas A&M. Your ability to baffle is quite baffling. The Aggies beat Ole Miss on Wednesday night because Elston Turner scored 37 and went 7-for-10 from the 3-point line. The Aggies are not a good 3-point shooting team (32.3 percent, ninth in the league). Yet they shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in their past two wins (against Ole Miss, Missouri). With so many single-digit losses and wins (every game in February), Texas A&M’s free throw shooting (71.8 percent, second in the SEC) and rebounding (39th nationally in offensive rebounding rate) position the Aggies to win those tight games. But there is danger every night for the Aggies. They seem to embrace it.
6. Ole Miss. The Marshall Henderson (19.5 ppg) buzz has decreased in recent weeks. And the Rebels have revealed their flaws. They are an offensive gem (74.8 ppg, No. 1 in the SEC). Four of their past five opponents, however, have shot 46 percent or better from the field. That’s why they have lost four of their past five. Andy Kennedy’s offensive tools are fluid and potent. Yet his defense (71.8 ppg, 13th in the SEC) has been absent in recent weeks. Really, all year (2013). The good news for the Rebels is that they will not play Missouri or Florida in their last seven SEC games. The bad news is that their defense is so uncertain, they could still finish the season in the bottom of the standings.
7. Kentucky. I hate what happened to Nerlens Noel. As Dana O’Neil pointed out this week, it’s a devastating injury for him and his experience as a young man. Surgeons will repair the ACL. And Noel will probably enter the NBA draft and make millions in the coming months. But the program is obviously hurt by the loss. The Wildcats had not orchestrated a convincing argument for an at-large bid even when they had Noel. What now? John Calipari’s youngsters must dig deep. The selection committee will likely consider Noel’s injury. But I think the next seven games (and whatever happens in the SEC tournament) will dictate Kentucky’s fate on Selection Sunday, since it has not really justified at-large status to date. It’s unfortunate that the Wildcats won’t have Noel down the stretch, because they were improving with him, especially on defense.
8. Georgia. Billy Donovan will probably win it. But perhaps Mark Fox will ultimately be the SEC’s coach of the year. The Bulldogs endured one stretch that included losing seven of eight in November and December. However, the Bulldogs have won five of six. Fox has one double-figure scorer (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is averaging 17.7 ppg). The Bulldogs have the worst scoring offense in the league (57.2 ppg), but they have enhanced their defense, which is fourth in the conference (60.6 ppg allowed). And they are second only to Florida in 3-point shooting (37.3 percent). Overall, it’s a major improvement for the program. The Bulldogs are still fighting after losing four of their first five SEC games.
9. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin’s crew scored a win against rival Vanderbilt on Wednesday night in Nashville. Yes, the Commodores have struggled all season. But an Arkansas team that defeated Florida couldn’t win there last weekend. The Vols are just 5-6 in league play. Jarnell Stokes, however, can lead Martin’s squad up the SEC standings. He’s a bully right now. And I’m not surprised. Stokes has finally accepted his leadership role with the team. The Vols will go as far as he takes them. That’s a lot of pressure for a sophomore, but it’s the reality. After that 58-46 win against Vandy, (Stokes finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and a steal), Martin said, “Jarnell has really stepped us as our guy. Now our offense flows through Jarnell.” Stokes has recorded double-doubles in seven of eight games. In Stokes the Vols should trust.
10. LSU. Johnny Jones’ team has won four of five. Sophomore Johnny O'Bryant III has rivaled Stokes in recent games. He finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and a block in a 64-46 win at South Carolina on Thursday, and he has double-doubles in seven of the past eight games. The Tigers defend the 3-point line better than any team in the league (opponents are shooting just 26 percent). This is a good example of the challenges I face each week with these rankings. On Jan. 30, the Tigers defeated Missouri. They are 10th right now, but they could be fourth in these power rankings. That is the scenario each week when you have so many teams with similar records, resumes and struggles.
11-12. Vanderbilt/Auburn. Last weekend, the Commodores beat Arkansas by 18. It was just the second time Vandy scored 67 or more in regulation in SEC play. The Commodores, however, are in the top half of the league in scoring defense. Tony Barbee’s program won its first two SEC games. But the Tigers have lost eight of their past nine.
13-14. South Carolina/Mississippi State. These schools have won four games combined in the SEC. South Carolina and Mississippi State are 13th and 14th, respectively, in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense in the SEC.