On Tuesday night, Billy Donovan unleashed Chris Walker, the much-hyped, potential month-and-done NBA prospect. The freshman had finally gained clearance from the men and women behind the curtain in Indianapolis to compete after missing the first semester due to academic issues.
He was the No. 12 recruit in America, according to RecruitingNation’s Class of 2013 rankings. And even though he hadn’t played for the first three months of the season, NBA draft expert Chad Ford still listed him as a first-round pick in his latest mock draft.
Walker wasn’t the best player on the floor during his debut in No. 3 Florida’s 68-58 win over Missouri in Gainesville. But he helped. And if he continues to progress, the addition could be significant for a Florida team that can compete for the national championship without him.
He didn’t force things. He tried to blend in -- as much as one who hovers above the cylinder can realistically blend. He caught a few lobs. He blocked a few shots. But he essentially watched his teammates maintain Florida’s spot atop the SEC and extend its winning streak to 14 games from the bench.
Still, the rich got richer on Tuesday.
Scottie Wilbekin had 19 points, mostly on free throws (13-for-16). Michael Frazier II's 3-point barrage in the second half helped, as he finished with 14 points and made four of his 11 3-point attempts. Patric Young added 13 points and six rebounds.
Oh, and Donovan brought a 2013 McDonald’s All-American off the bench.
That’s not fair. And it’s also not representative of the crumbling terrain known as the SEC.
Florida’s win over Missouri -- and Kentucky’s 80-64 victory over Ole Miss hours earlier -- simply solidified the widely recognized truth about the SEC: the Gators and Wildcats are the only noteworthy programs in this 14-team quagmire of a conference.
The Gators don’t have much company. Perhaps the Wildcats will beat them in their Jan. 15 meeting in Lexington and close the gap in the race.
The rest, however, continue to trail.
The strength of a league is assigned according to its depth and quality. And the SEC has neither right now.
There are six teams in the conference with sub-100 RPIs. Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida are the only SEC schools in the top 50, although Mizzou (51), LSU (55) and Ole Miss (56) are all near that mark.
But the reality is that the SEC might be a league that sends just two teams to the NCAA tournament. The Vols, Rebels, and both versions of Tigers can all obtain spots via strong finishes in the final month of the regular season and during the postseason tournament.
Victories over Kentucky and Florida, however, are the only prizes in this conference.
It’s hard to trust any of the SEC’s aforementioned borderline tourney teams right now. They’ve all been inconsistent -- and even Kentucky is short of what its potential appeared to be entering the year.
Mizzou, now 4-5 in the SEC, played a solid first half against the Gators on Tuesday. Frank Haith’s team led by three points at halftime, but then the Tigers were outscored 43-30 in the second half.
It’s the same storyline with so many teams in the SEC that aren’t named Florida and Kentucky. So close. And that’s all.
The same LSU team that beat Kentucky Jan. 28 lost at 9-12 Alabama six days prior to that.
Their struggles put the Gators in a difficult spot. They can’t climb much in a conference littered with mediocrity. But they’ll fall far if they suffer a loss to any team other than Kentucky.
John Gasaway put it this way in his latest riveting “Tuesday Truths” column: “Good SEC teams have no choice but to play a bunch of road games against struggling opponents. That’s what the SEC is: Florida, Kentucky, and a bunch of struggling teams. I’m oversimplifying, but you get the gist.”
The beauty of both the Big Ten and the Big 12, arguably the top two leagues in America, is that their internal carnage is generally viewed as proof of their substance. Texas is not surging in the Big 12 because the top tier was overrated as conference play approached. It’s surging because it’s a talented team. Nebraska and Northwestern have pulled off upsets in the Big Ten because there aren’t any easy wins in that league.
The SEC’s plotline thus far is more aligned with Mike Tyson’s “Punch-Out!!”
One behemoth knocking out everyone in its way. And a few unimposing contenders collectively posing a minimal threat.