Five observations from the past week:
1. The SEC is beginning to take shape. If Kentucky had beaten Florida on Saturday night, the SEC East picture would have continued to look bunched and muddled. In many ways, it still does. Tennessee is 5-3, Georgia is 5-4 and Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina are all tied at 4-4 halfway through the SEC schedule. But we are beginning to figure a few things out. For one, Florida is now in the driver’s seat. At 7-2, the Gators have created that all-important sliver of daylight between them and the rest of their divisional foes. Billy Donovan’s team is now the obvious favorite to win the conference going forward. If anyone else -- Kentucky, Tennessee, Vandy or UGA -- is going to break away from the pack, it will have to start winning road games against fellow members of that group.
2. Speaking of the SEC, how about Alabama? There’s at least one other thing we know about the SEC: Alabama is making a legitimate run at an at-large tournament berth. After the Crimson Tide’s 65-60 win at Tennessee over the weekend, Anthony Grant’s team is now 7-1 in conference play and 15-7 overall. Alabama has been winning with its defense, which is the best in the SEC and one of the best in the country -- No. 5 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings -- on a per-possession basis. The Tide didn’t impress in the nonconference season, but they’ve been very good in league play and, thanks to the otherwise putrid SEC West, their remaining schedule includes games against Ole Miss (home and away), LSU, Auburn and Arkansas. They also have two more chances to get big road wins at Vanderbilt (Feb. 10) and Florida (March 1). Depending on what the Tide do the rest of the way, they could very well earn themselves a way into the NCAA tournament on the strength of their conference performance alone. How many wins will that take? We’re about to find out.
3. Ohio State just keeps on rolling. That’s the easiest observation of the day. On Sunday, the Buckeyes easily handled a hobbled Minnesota team in the Barn and moved to 24-0 overall and 11-0 in the Big Ten. What’s interesting about this team -- beyond its ongoing and comprehensive brilliance, of course -- is that even at 24-0, most people aren’t wondering whether or not it could maybe, just maybe, go undefeated. There are a few arguments to be made here. One is that no one should be talking about an undefeated season, because undefeated seasons never happen. The other is that this team specifically doesn’t warrant that kind of talk, because a) the Buckeyes have nearly lost a handful of close games, and it’s only a matter of time until one of those late finishes goes the opposite way, and b) Ohio State will play the meat of its conference schedule in the coming weeks.
All fair points. Still, though, this team is 24-0. In a season that saw college hoops observers far and wide casually consider the possibility that Duke could go unbeaten, you’d think we’d be having a similar conversation about Ohio State. Let’s just say this: If OSU manages to win at Wisconsin next Saturday, expect the “Could they really do it?” talk to dial up in a major way.
4. But is Ohio State even the best team in the country? I’d say yes. (Again: 24-0!) But you can make a pretty good case that Texas is playing the best basketball of any team in the nation. After late January wins at Kansas and Oklahoma State, Texas beat Missouri by 13 Saturday and utterly throttled Texas A&M -- in College Station, no less -- on Monday. The Longhorns are 8-0 in conference play with an average margin of victory of 18 points. They’re holding opposing offenses to .84 points per trip in conference play. They’re scoring 1.11 points per possession on offense. In other words, the Horns are shredding everything in their path, and they’re doing it with the kind of cohesive team effort Rick Barnes and company so sorely lacked during last season’s miserable slide. With the possible exception of Ohio State, there isn’t a team in the country you’d take over Texas on a neutral court right now. They’ve just been that good.
5. North Carolina doesn’t seem to miss Larry Drew II. Drew’s surprising decision to leave UNC -- smack-dab in the middle of North Carolina’s impressive February resurgence -- caused no small amount of intrigue this week. Would his departure cost UNC a valuable bench contributor and perimeter defender? Or would the transfer be addition by subtraction? How would Roy Williams handle the team going forward? And why would Drew quit on his team now? It’s far too early to draw major conclusions, but if Sunday’s 89-69 win over Florida State is any indication, the Tar Heels are going to be just fine without Drew in the fold. Carolina continued its remarkable offensive improvement Sunday. When you score 89 points against Florida State’s vaunted defense, you deserve a gold star. The sudden offensive awesomeness is in large part a function of freshman Kendall Marshall, Drew’s midseason starting replacement at point guard. He had a mere 16 assists in Sunday’s win. Marshall doesn’t deserve all of the credit for UNC’s improved play any more than Drew deserved all the blame. (Harrison Barnes has found his shot recently, and that certainly helps.) But there’s no question Marshall is a more capable facilitator than Drew ever was, and while UNC might miss Drew’s defense off the bench in the coming weeks, they probably won’t miss him too much.