Kentucky is the national favorite, but Florida’s dominant play at Arkansas and Vanderbilt’s complete game at Ole Miss should give hope that the SEC has three teams with the potential of Elite Eight appearances.
1. Kentucky: The Wildcats had one game last week and got off to a sluggish start against Ole Miss. But that was over quickly in the second half. Seeing Terrence Jones and Darius Miller star for the Wildcats is yet another indication of the talent depth of this squad. So much has been made, and rightfully so, of freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as well as the development of Marquis Teague. But the play of veterans (yes, sophomores qualify as veterans at UK) will ultimately decide Kentucky’s title fate.
2. Florida: The Gators absolutely obliterated Arkansas by 30 on the road. It was Florida’s most complete performance, home or road, this season. The Gators can’t figure out how to play Tennessee and they couldn’t handle Kentucky in the second half. But if UF shoots, runs and rebounds as well as it did in Fayetteville, it will finish second in the SEC. And there's no shame in that this season.
3. Vanderbilt: The Commodores had their most dominant SEC effort with a 102-76 win at Ole Miss, followed up by a nine-point road win at Georgia. The play of Vandy in that first game is exactly what everyone expected in the preseason. Watch the Commodores’ offense in that game and you’ll see a team that can win multiple games in the NCAA tournament. Vandy still has the talent to win the SEC tournament if Kentucky loses focus.
4. LSU: The Tigers are suddenly back to .500 in league play, which puts them in a four-way tie for fourth. So why not have them leading that pack? Trent Johnson has taken advantage of a depleted Alabama and a Mississippi State team that continues not to close late in games. LSU’s schedule down the stretch is so favorable that it’s not out of the question that the Tigers could win four of the next five games and finish with 10 SEC wins.
5. Alabama: The Tide still are without suspended players JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, but Alabama has reconstituted itself, and the 12-point win over Tennessee is a strong indication that Bama may still be a factor down the stretch. The Tide defense was as solid as it has been this season in allowing the Vols to score only 50 points. If Mitchell and Green do return and buy into Grant, then Alabama will be in play down the stretch in the SEC.
6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have top-two talent, but they have not played that way of late. Mississippi State has inexplicably lost three games in a row. The loss at home in overtime to Georgia was a clear sign something was off. The road loss in overtime at LSU is acceptable. The Tigers at home are more than formidable. But losing by 10 at Auburn, even without Renardo Sidney (back spasms), signifies some serious issues. The Bulldogs have a tough slate ahead in the next two games in hosting Kentucky and going to Alabama. Losing five in a row is a realistic scenario that will have MSU right on the bubble.
7. Tennessee: The Vols had been one of the hottest teams in the SEC with a four-game win streak. But then they ran into Alabama’s defense and went cold on 3s by going 4-of-20. Tennessee still has a chance to finish in the top half of the SEC. The schedule of hosting Ole Miss and going to South Carolina this week puts UT in a favorable position. The final two (at LSU, hosting rival Vandy) could decide this team's SEC fate.
8. Auburn: The Tigers jump up to No. 8 above Ole Miss and Arkansas simply because they played the most efficient game of the week. The win over Mississippi State was one of Auburn’s best of the season. Of course, the next game for the Tigers is at Florida, and Auburn still has to go to Alabama, so the good vibe could be short-lived. But Auburn’s defense was on lockdown against the Bulldogs, and that’s a positive sign.
9. Arkansas: The Hogs had their worst performance at home against Florida. Arkansas headed into the game as a team that had an unbeaten home résumé, but nothing to show for itself on the road. But the complete meltdown at Bud Walton essentially eliminates the Hogs from contention for an at-large bid. It’s hard to justify Arkansas, barring a run through the SEC, after losing by 30 to Florida for its fourth loss in five games.
10. Ole Miss: The Rebels were blitzed at home by Vanderbilt in embarrassing nature. Ole Miss then found a way and mustered up a solid effort in the first half against Kentucky. And then reality hit. The Wildcats ran past the Rebs. Credit Andy Kennedy for trying to keep this team together in the short term, but it has been an exceedingly difficult season for Ole Miss and it looks like it will only get more difficult.
11. South Carolina: The Gamecocks get the nod over Georgia with a win over the Bulldogs in Columbia. This has been a humbling season for South Carolina and it will likely get worse over the final couple of weeks. The next three are against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mississippi State.
12. Georgia: The Bulldogs are in the infancy stages of a major rebuild and while the Mississippi State road win was a high, losing to South Carolina was another setback for a team that's now 3-9 in the SEC.