It's that time again. The calendar's turned to a brand new year, and as always, that year brings with it the promise of that most special of sporting experiences: SEC Basketball Fever! Yes, a fresh new slate of 18 delectable matchups brimming with the best basketball the SEC has to offer! Plus the games Kentucky isn't playing in!
As the start of the conference season makes for a convenient halfway point, we here at #SECBF headquarters thought it would be a good time to check in on how everybody's been doing. Impressing national observers and building up the foundations of a nice resume come tournament time? Bumbling about and making the conference look bad? We've got all the answers here: the perfect prescription for all your SEC basketball-related knowledge gaps.
Non-conference Record: 10-2
Rankings: #9 (AP), #8 (Coaches), #16 (Pomeroy)
Best win: 74-63 over Duke (Honorable mention: 75-73 over Louisville)
Worst loss: 74-67 to Ohio State (Dishonorable mention: 87-77 to UCLA)
Kentucky, as usual, topped our preseason rankings. And they have done...OK. They still appear to be the best the conference has to offer, but this isn't last year's juggernaut by a long shot. That 3-2 record against power conference teams isn't scaring anyone. To be fair, that's about what most people expected, given what the Wildcats lost from last year's team. Not even John Calipari can reload perfectly every year. That said, Skal Labissiere has been a bit of a disappointment so far, looking more like a freshman than a #1 NBA draft pick, which has to be worrying the Rupp Arena faithful. For their part, A Sea Of Blue is hunting for some consistency.
First things first, Kentucky needs consistent play from everybody on the team. Every other game has consisted of someone different contributing big time, which is nice.
However, when one game Jamal Murray puts up 33 points, then doesn't get to 10 the next game it doesn't help. Kentucky's most consistent player has been Marcus Lee, and he can only do so much.
Kentucky looks like a good team, but one with definite potential for a lousy game at any given moment. If a middle-of-the pack B1G team like OSU can hold a double-digit lead for most of the game against UK in Lexington, it's not hard to imagine Kentucky taking a few lumps in conference play. (Pretty sure they still win the SEC, though. Let's not get carried away here.)
Non-conference Record: 7-5
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #76 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 119-108 over North Florida (Yes, that's right.)
Worst Loss: 70-58 to College of Charleston (!)
Of course, Kentucky looks fantastic compared to the non-conference play of LSU. Picked #2 in our preseason rankings, the Bayou Bengals have fallen flat on their face to start the season. Not a single power conference win, plus a 12 point loss to College of Charleston (Pomeroy #120, for those keeping score at home). Yes, it was on the road, but...a team with the services of Ben Simmons (who has been just as good as advertised, which just raises further questions) shouldn't be getting straight up beat by about the sixth best team in the CAA. Yeesh. This is why #SECBASKETBALLFEVER is a thing, people.
Most commenters are putting the blame for this on the shoulders of head coach Johnny Jones, who does have a bit of a reputation for this kind of reverse alchemy. Sam called it in his preview:
My Take: The masses are far more optimistic about LSU than I am. It's not that they aren't talented, the Tigers have what amounts to the second most talented roster in the league. It's not that Ben Simmons isn't what he's cracked up to be either. It amounts to my trust in Johnny Jones, who hasn't proven to this point that he can mold a talented roster into a consistent winner. This is going to be the tell-all year for Jones. He's brought a great roster to Baton Rouge and the Tigers could be a sleeper for a Final Four with the roster they have. The biggest question mark comes with the head coach.
It's been awful. You have the best player in the country, and you've chained him in a mundane, predictable, and ineffective iso/high pick and roll heavy system. The offense has no flow, and there's very little (if not zero) off-ball action. Wayyy too much dribbling from the primary ball handlers. Multiple games where the team has come out not prepared to play and given up big leads early that they couldn't work their way out of (that's definitely a two-way street, but as the only one getting paid millions, let alone at all, the blame falls on you). Defensive effort varies from possession to possession, which is not acceptable for a team that has aspirations of making the tournament, and making some noise while they're there. There's something missing with this team right now. And it doesn't exactly seem like Jones is overly worried.
Whoever's responsible, LSU has plummeted from perhaps Kentucky's top challenger to not even a tournament team. Jones has quite the mess to clean up come conference play.
(Tuesday night edit: And it seems SEC games were just what the doctor ordered.)
Non-conference Record: 10-2
Rankings: #21 (AP), #17 (Coaches), #20 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 80-61 over Baylor
Worst Loss: 67-54 to Arizona State
While UK and LSU have both failed to meet expectations thus far, our preseason #3 is looking pretty good. The Aggies made a run to the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game with a win over Gonzaga, but fell to Syracuse. A loss to Arizona State in A&M's first true road game dampened spirits a bit, but a win over Kansas State and an absolute crushing of Baylor brought them right back up. Plus, beating Texas is always a good time. (And it's a good thing too, as I gather things on the football side are a bit of a mess at the moment.)
Side note: Throw in an upcoming game with Iowa State in the SEC/Big 12 challenge, and the Aggies play 40% of the Big Integer this season. Huh.
Things aren't perfect in Aggieland, but the season has played out pretty well so far. TAMU looks set to make a strong run through the SEC. Who knows, maybe we're seeing the transformation of A&M into a basketball school.
(Okay, maybe not.)
Non-conference Record: 8-4
Rankings: NR (AP), #33 (Coaches), #26 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 79-72 over Stony Brook (Honorable Mention: 86-64 over Wake Forest)
Worst Loss: 72-67 to Dayton
Vanderbilt looked pretty solid in the preseason, returning almost everyone from last year's NIT squad. If you bought into the concepts of foundation and experience (plus the steady if unspectacular coaching of Kevin Stallings), they looked like a solid pick to make some noise in the SEC. Well, the non-conference's down, and while that outcome's not impossible, it looks a bit less likely.
The narrative for Vandy so far is missed opportunities. The Commodores have played 4 Kenpom top 50 teams so far this season (#2 Kansas, #6 Purdue, #37 Baylor, and #42 Dayton) and gone 0-4. Now, every game except Purdue was within 10 points, but still, that's four chances for a big resume builder and four whiffs. Their own #26 ranking implies VU is better than their record, which is believable, but close isn't going to count for much come tournament time.
Our friends at Anchor of Gold are frustrated (but not without optimism):
The good news is the team's problems are fixable. The bad news is they are multiple. [...]
There's still time to recover. Vanderbilt's problems are mostly fundamental-related rather than tied to a lack of talent. The Commodores have the shooters and the size to ruin anyone's March. Unless they can fix the mental side of their game, the only postseason they'll spoil will be their own.
The season's far from over, and Vanderbilt is well positioned to recover, but they need some of these big games to start going their way. Nobody wants to be a bubble team come March without a signature win.
Non-conference Record: 7-3
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #68 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 75-61 over Georgia Tech (Honorable Mention: 71-48 over Clemson)
Worst Loss: 92-90 to Chattanooga
Georgia provided us with our very first #SECBASKETBALLFEVER moment of the season by falling 92-90 to Chattanooga in overtime in their season opener. Not the best start for a team that has been pretty dang solid the last two seasons, making the dance last year. After that resounding thud to start the season, results have been inconclusive for the Dawgs, who took out the rest of their non-power opponents and split their power matchups, falling to Seton Hall and Kansas State but bouncing back to convincingly beat Georgia Tech and Clemson. The loss to the Mocs could be written off as a fluke, but much like Vanderbilt, Georgia could really use a signature win.
Georgia has upside: Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann have the talent and experience to make up one of the better guard tandems in the SEC, Mark Fox is a certifiably solid coach, and momentum was picking up at the end of the noncon. I just don't know if Georgia can make the leap, though. This feels like a team that beats the bad SEC teams and loses to the good ones, which is a recipe for a NIT berth. Admittedly, it wouldn't be the first time if UGA surprises me again.
Non-conference Record: 7-5
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #121 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 69-59 over Tulane (eeh?)
Worst Loss: 76-72 to Southern (Dishonorable Mention: 72-67 to UMKC)
Sam thought this ranking was a bit high, and it's looking like the Ben Howland/Malik Newman hype was indeed premature. MSU's season so far has been a disaster, with just a single win over KenPom top 200 teams (and just barely, at that: Tulane is #194) and not one, but two frontrunners for worst loss in the whole league. Howland has a pretty good track record, and Newman is undeniably talented, but it's looking like it's going to be a long season in Starkville. There is a soft underbelly in this conference, and MSU can pick up wins, but the postseason looks like a long shot.
Non-conference Record: 8-4
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #21 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 74-63 over St. Joseph's
Worst Loss: 73-71 to Florida State
Florida has to be college basketball's biggest disconnect between reputation and stats. The Gators are an impressive #21 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings (buoyed by a stingy D), but aren't even a "also receiving votes" blip in the media polls. To some extent, this can be attributed to missing chances. The respect is probably there if Florida knocks off Purdue, Miami, or Michigan State, but
Billy Don sorry, Mike White's guys went 0-3 in those games. Still, Florida has claimed two impressive A-10 scalps in St. Joe's and Richmond, plus a win over decent-looking Oklahoma State. Even the FSU loss wasn't that bad (top 50 team, throw out the record books) even if it did result in Florida's first non-conference home loss in 6 years. (Flashback to the lovely days when Missouri had a streak like that.) Plus, Zach Hodskins doesn't need a second hand to score.
Early returns are positive, if not perfect, for the Gators. They have whiffed 3 times trying to bring home a really impressive win, but it's possible they don't face another team that good all season (with the possible exception of Kentucky). Florida will try to ride an elite defense all the way to a top SEC finish. Now where have I heard that before?
Non-conference Record: 10-2
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #79 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 85-79 over Memphis
Worst Loss: 68-62 to George Mason
The Rebels' record looks gaudy, but it's a bit of a mirage. Just 3 of Ole Miss's non-conference opponents rank in the Kenpom top 100 (4 if you want to give Louisiana Tech the benefit of the doubt), and that loss to a sub-.500 George Mason team sticks out like a sore thumb (adding insult to injury, it dropped them into the loser's bracket of the Charleston Classic, which hurt the schedule strength even more). Still, beating Memphis on the road is a nice win, even if Memphis isn't what it once was. Stefan Moody is picking up where he left off last year, and they have that nice new arena opening up just in time for SEC play. Life is good in Oxford, Mississippi.
What remains to be seen is whether that momentum can transfer over to the conference schedule. The SEC isn't overflowing with top 100 teams, but there are more than 3. My prediction: Moody blows up and wins a few games all by himself, but it doesn't happen quite often enough.
Non-conference Record: 6-5
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #150 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 83-78 over New Mexico (Honorable Mention: 75-74 over UAB)
Worst Loss: 69-51 to Harvard
BRUCE PEARL! BRUCE PEARL! BRUCE PEARL! Sounds great, but unfortunately for Auburn, it hasn't brought in a bunch of wins just yet. The ace recruiter's first season on the Plains was unimpressive, and his second hasn't had a great start. A couple of wins over fringe top 100 teams are the highlights, with the Tigers picking up a come-from-behind victory over UAB in the opener and a solid win over the Lobos in the Diamond Head Classic. Unfortunately, Auburn followed up that win with a clunker against Harvard and a loss to Hawaii. Bad luck hasn't helped, either: Tajh Shamsid-Deen has missed much of the season with multiple shoulder injuries and guard T.J. Dunans is out for about a month with a knee injury, in addition to 4-star freshman Danjel Purifoy's continued lack of clearance to play from the NCAA. Marshall transfer Kareem Canty has been a revelation, but it's shaping up to be another rough season. Auburn is going to be one of those teams that the SEC's upper division feasts on.
Non-conference Record: 13-0
Rankings: #22 (AP), #20 (Coaches), #23 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 65-59 over Clemson
Worst Loss: NONE!
The biggest surprise of the season to date comes courtesy of Frank Martin's murderballers, who remain one of just two remaining unbeatens in D-1. Who saw this coming? None other than our own Sam Snelling:
My Take: Maybe I'm the only one, but I think the Gamecocks are going to be good. They were so close last year, they lost so little, and they're adding a McDonalds All American. So I fully expect South Carolina to be a borderline NCAA tournament team this year.
Seriously, Sam's been nailing the predictions so far. They don't call him the best SEC basketball blogger in the business for nothing, folks.
Admittedly, SC's run hasn't come against a murderer's row: they haven't seen a top 50 team yet, and they are definitely more unbeaten than unbeatable. Still, there are some decent wins here, highlighted by Clemson, Memphis, Tulsa, and Hofstra. Even if some of those games had gone the other way, we'd still be talking about South Carolina's great start. This is no mirage: Martin's put together a team that plays Frank Martin Basketball very, very well.
That said, I'm not quite ready to put the Gamecocks among the upper crust of the SEC just yet. South Carolina could very well go on a run into the NCAA tournament, but there's a big difference between them and Kentucky (or even Texas A&M). The undefeated run could go on for a while yet, though. The only games this month that look like a real threat to SC are Vanderbilt, who the Gamecocks get in Columbia, and a trip to Ole Miss. We could easily see this streak stretch to February.
Non-conference Record: 6-6
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #84 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 89-76 over Evansville
Worst Loss: 69-66 to Mercer
It's difficult to have a worse offseason than Mike Anderson's Razorbacks did. As a result, not many people were thinking much of them in the preseason, and expectations were pretty low. Through the noncon, results were...not as bad as expected? Plenty of losses, yes, but none by more than ten, and all to top 100 teams save Mercer. No wins over major conference foes, but Evansville is a quality mid-major. This doesn't look like a good team, but it's not a disaster. Anton Beard is back on the team, having served his suspension, and there's still enough talent on this team to make for a tough out in Bud Walton Arena, if not on the road. Arkansas Fight has a good recap of what's gone wrong (and right) so far.
Non-conference Record: 9-3
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #98 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 64-60 over Wichita State (Honorable Mention: 74-73 over Notre Dame)
Worst Loss: 80-48 to Dayton
Alabama made a splashy hire in former NBA head man Avery Johnson to replace Anthony Grant, and so far, the results look good for a low-expectation team. There was that early clobbering vs. Dayton, but since then things have been looking up: a trip to Orlando for the AdvoCare Invitational resulted in an understandable loss to Xavier followed by two big wins over ranked opponents (the biggest ones anyone in the SEC not named Kentucky has picked up this year, in fact). Since then, the Tide have picked up a solid win over Clemson, lost a close game to Oregon, and scooped up some wins over lesser competition. Unfortunately, they also lost freshman guard Dazon Ingram, who was off to a promising start to his college career, to a broken foot in practice. He's done for the year, which means the likes of Justin Coleman and Retin Obasohan are going to have to step up. It remains to be seen whether Bama can turn what most thought would be a rebuilding year into postseason gold.
Non-conference Record: 7-5
Rankings: NR (AP & Coaches), #104 (Pomeroy)
Best Win: 82-78 over UNC Asheville
Worst Loss: 82-71 to Nebraska
Conventional wisdom was that Rick Barnes would be in for a tough time initially at one of the SEC's least stable basketball programs. Things haven't been terrible, but they haven't been great either. On the bright side, the Vols took care of business against lesser opponents. There's not a really embarrassing loss on their schedule. On the other hand, they have been unable to break through against power conference competition. Most of those losses were on the road by relatively small margins, to be fair, but the fact remains: when the most impressive win you can offer is a decent Big South team, you've got some problems to fix. It's hard to imagine Tennessee making much noise in the SEC, but it looks like they are going to be at least competitive in most games, and that's probably enough for Barnes in year 1.