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The Watch: A breakthrough year for the SEC is off to a bumpy start

The conference has struggled markedly against quality opponents, and it raises early questions about LSU, Mississippi State, Florida, Alabama and Vanderbilt.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Florida vs Butler Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The problem is one that usually tugs at the mind of bench researchers: Is my sample adequate? At what point can you say — somewhat confidently — that an observation is a trend? And when does it become something more entrenched?

Now, we’re not talking about genomic analysis, either.

Instead, it’s whether or preseason preconception of a stronger SEC holds up once we start seeing results filter into the columns of KenPom and Synergy profiles. And even if you leave out reams of data, do the conference’s teams look like they belong among the nation’s top firmament.

In October, five teams — Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU — landed in the AP’s opening rankings, while Florida and Alabama collected enough votes that it was reasonable to assert half the league found itself among the top 35 nationally. ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi projected the SEC as a seven-bid league come March, the same allotment as the Big Ten and one more than the Big 12. Lastly, KenPom’s preseason projections slotted eight teams among the top 50, which is still a healthy number when you account for those initial rankings incorporating residual data from last season.

All in all, humans and computers seemed to be lockstep in their appraisal: The SEC was stronger than its been in at least a dozen years.

A month later, however, that hypothesis is taking an early beating. So far, the SEC’s been smacked around, going 8-19 against high-major opponents, a mark that includes a grisly 2-17 mark against KenPom top-50 teams. It’s not enough that SEC teams are losing high-profile games, it’s the manner in which they’ve piled up those defeats, getting bludgeoned by an average of 11.1 points and dropping seven by 15-plus points.

Five years ago, the SEC rolled out a mandate for tougher scheduling, a move the conference’s brass would help boost its members in the Ratings Percentage Index and inject team sheets with some juice. At the same time, athletic directors started flowing revenues from the SEC Network into hiring proven coaches, increasing recruiting budgets and overhauling facilities. The conference’s commitment seemingly sbegan to pay off last season, when a record eight teams earned bids in the NCAA tournament and was expected to reap a further windfall this season.

More resources and more daunting schedule naturally demand better results, returns that — at least so far — raise questions about how fruitful those investments might be.

Again, KenPom is still using some of last season’s data as grist for milling, but as that stock depletes and results from this year take its place, we’re seeing the model recalibrate as it churns.

Reshuffling the SEC’s Deck

Team Current KP Preseason KP Margin
Team Current KP Preseason KP Margin
Auburn 9 17 8
Tennessee 10 11 1
Kentucky 19 6 -13
Mississippi State 25 22 -3
Florida 30 20 -10
LSU 47 48 1
Arkansas 50 64 14
South Carolina 55 41 -14
Alabama 61 50 -11
Vanderbilt 64 65 1
Texas A&M 70 48 -22
Ole Miss 76 97 21
Missouri 87 68 -19
Georgia 120 104 -16
KenPom

When you sort the table by changes in ranking, some observations pop out:

  • Ole Miss and Arkansas have been better than expected. For the Rebels, the improvement makes some sense. The roster Kermit Davis inherited didn’t hemorrhage all its talent. Instead, swapping coaches — and the voice and system that comes with it — may be maximizing it more than Andy Kennedy did during his swan song. As for the Razorbacks, Adrio Bailey has stepped up to help Daniel Gafford inside, while newcomers Mason Jones and Isiah Joe are supplying enough 3-point shooting to balance out Mike Anderson’s offense. While the Hogs are youthful and lack depth, they knocked off Indiana and were a Courtney Ramey bank shot away from topping Texas.
  • LSU’s recruiting and roster appeared to have early traction. The buzz around the Tigers may continue but at a lower volume after the Advocare Invitational. On Sunday, LSU was handed a 13-point loss by Oklahoma State, which is picked near the bottom of the Big 12. That defeat came on the heels of an overtime loss to No. 15 Florida State, one where the Tigers lost track of a shooter in the waning seconds. Before venturing to Orlando, though, Will Wade’s bunch managed to avoid stubbing their toe during an early slate that had some potential traps against UNC-Greensboro, Memphis and Charleston. Keep an eye on how well the Bayou Bengals evolve defensively. So far, they’re allowing just 0.812 points per possession in the halfcourt, which ranks eighth in the SEC. No doubt, Wade wants that number to shrink, but his offense more than makes up for being middle of the pack defensively.
  • Vanderbilt needs to be skittish with Darius Garland out. The Commodores freshman is out indefinitely with a meniscus injury in his left knee, which he suffered just two minutes into a loss against Kent State on Friday. When the top-15 recruit was on the floor, the Commodores offense hums, putting 1.06 PPP, according to HoopLens, which would likely rank among the top 65 nationally. Without Garland, the ‘Dores’ efficiency plummets to 0.96 PPP — or around 250th in the country. Saben Lee isn’t an atrocious backup option, and Bryce Drew can still call on freshman Simi Shittu and transfer Matt Ryan. However, fellow newcomers Yanni Wetzel and Matthew Moyer have struggled out of the chute. This roster now bears Drew’s imprint, but the question is whether it’s durable enough to endure Garland’s absence.
  • Rebuilds have started in College Station, Athens and CoMO. The Aggies backcourt-centric attack has hit the skids early. Coach Billy Kennedy’s team is shooting an anemic 24.2 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 345th nationally, per KenPom. The Ags’ fate hinges on whether T.J. Starks (21.6%), Savion Flagg (29.2%) and Jay Jay Chandler (22.2%) start seeing their shots drop. Similar scoring woes were expected at Georgia, which lost Yante Maten from a roster where guard production was already scattershot. That being said, coach Tom Crean has seemingly coaxed improvement from sophomores Rayshaun Hammonds and Nicolas Claxton, while Derek Ogbeide is a still a bruising presence in the paint. The Bulldogs simply lack depth. Finally, Missouri is grinding through life without Jontay Porter, leaning on defense, rebounding and different scorers each night to make each game a scrum.

None of those tidbits, though, are shocking. And none of those teams have seen the trajectory of their season radically altered. Even if Porter and Garland weren’t hampered with knee injuries, the Commodores and Tigers were still likely to find themselves scampering to stay on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. If anything, Mizzou is now likely ushering in the transition year it managed to avoid.

But the perception of the SEC nationally doesn’t hinge on Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Missouri or South Carolina. And while No. 10 Kentucky getting lambasted by 34 points was brutal, the Wildcats’ season-opening loss to Duke — and its band of marauding freshmen — looks (only slightly) less embarrassing in hindsight. Meanwhile, No. 8 Auburn and sixth-ranked Tennessee are living up to their respective billings. If not for Grant Williams fouling out, the Volunteers may have held on for a victory Friday night against Kansas, which fought back to win in overtime.

The top and bottom of the SEC pecking order already stratified.

It’s the middle — LSU, No. 25 Mississippi State, Florida and Alabama — that will likely dictate whether the conference cements itself among the nation’s elite. In every locale but Baton Rouge, different versions of the same question linger: Is the current coach — and the program — he’s built poised for a breakthrough?

At State, Ben Howland’s is in his fourth year and built a roster’s aged and cured long enough to expect a return to the NCAA tournament. Mike White’s Gators have enough depth in the backcourt overcome lingering doubts about his big men. Finally, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s overall roster and returning production shouldn’t make life after Collin Sexton all that dismal Avery Johnson and the Crimson Tide.

Facing Arizona State, Bulldogs’ ongoing inaccuracy from 3-point range — they shot just 26.7 percent — doomed them in a loss where the Sun Devils’ new grit-and-grind style sanded down Howland’s group. As for the Crimson Tide, they were waxed by 16 points in a loss to Northeastern, the preseason favorite in the Colonial Athletic Association, and haven’t faced a team rated higher than No. 92 in KenPom. Given that Bama currently sits at 94th in adjusted offensive efficiency, the questions about that have dogged Johnson about whether production will match his talent aren’t likely to be silenced.

Alarms might be wailing in Gainesville, too. Getting poleaxed by rival Florida State is an inauspicious beginning, but they fumbled away a winnable game against Oklahoma and were doomed when KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson had sluggish shooting days versus Butler. You can still mash Florida’s bigs on the glass, but the more vexing problem is offsetting inefficient starts by Allen (99.5 ORTG) and Hudson (92.9 ORTG) coming out of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

None of this is to say Mississippi State, Alabama and Florida are doomed, but, as you’ll see, we’ll amass a few more data points to plot this week. Until then, it’s worth wondering, at least for a moment, whether the SEC’s presumed depth is an assumption worth keeping.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We know you have competing demand for your time and attention span. No, you won’t have ESPN+ called up watching mid-week Atlantic Sun games. But if you want college hoops in your life, make sure to have your eyes on this game.

UT-Arlington v Indiana Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Indiana at No. 3 Duke | 8:30 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN

I caved.

The best overall matchup on the ACC-Big Ten Challenge is No. 11 North Carolina traveling to No. 7 Michigan. But I couldn’t escape the allure of watching Romeo Langford try to slay the hyrda that is Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson.

Duke’s offense is rightly billed as a death machine, but Indiana ranks 23rd nationally in offensive efficiency. It’s a balanced attack that takes as many shots at the rim (20) per game as they do from 3-point range and put up 1.3 PPP when they get there. Yet when the Hoosiers do launch from deep, IU knocks in 3-pointers at a 37.8-percent clip.

Juwan Morgan’s off to a faboulous start to his senior season, post 17.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a night. Sophomore Justin Smith can finish plays in transition and survive on putbacks in the halfcourt, while freshman Rob Phinisee provides stellar spot-up shooting and passing ability out of pick-and-rolls. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers might be at full strength after early injuries nicked up guard Al Durham and post De’Ron Davis. Adding Zach McRoberts and Devonte Green would only boost coach Archie Miller’s depth.

Having more reserves matters on the defensive end, where IU ranks 28th in adjusted efficiency but has been average at protecting the tin. Stopping Reddish, Barrett, Williamson and Tre Jones before they mount an assault is advisable, but having some ramparts at the rim never hurts.

Ultimately, though, you’re tuning in to see whether Langford, who is putting 18.5 points per game and sporting a 55.3 eFG%, catapults his team past a fellow blue blood. Next to Barrett, no other freshman owns the same kind of preternatural scoring ability or plays at such a refined pace. He’s a natural knockdown shooter (1.037 PPP) and relies on exceptional body control in balance to drill step-backs in mid-range spots (1.182 PPP) on the floor.

As a driver, Langford plays with speeds instead of bolting by you off the bounce, which is worth monitoring against the Blue Devils, who have the kind of athletic wings to stick with him. He’s also slightly more prone to settle for jumpers when attacking close outs, which produces contested jumpers — shots where the degree of difficulty goes up when it’s Barrett or Reddish putting a hand in his face.

While it’s foolhardy to expect Langford to hoist IU on his shoulders and lug them to a win, it’s certainly worth watching how much the load he picks up.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

Don’t look now, but the SEC is among the deepest conferences in the country. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia Tech vs Alabama Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama at UCF | 6 p.m. CT Thursday, ESPNU

In a day and time when high-majors often duck plucky mid-majors, Avery Johnson deserves credit for dotting his schedule with the likes of Northeastern, Murray State and Georgia State.

However, none of those matchups is in a hostile gym.

The exception is the Tide’s visit to Orlando to take on the preseason favorite in the American Athletic Conference. With Arizona in a bit of a lull, prevailing over the Knights (No. 42 in KenPom) could wind up as the best non-conference victory on Bama’s resume come March and redeem the Tide for a loss in Tuscaloosa last season.

So what’s holding the Tide back?

John Petty is hitting shots (43.3 3FG%), regardless of where the gym is located. Freshman point guard Kira Lewis is getting to the rim and amassing buckets in Sexton-like fashion. Dazon Ingram, who is sporting a 130.3 offensive rating, looks like the player we saw two years ago, and Donta Hall is still a foul-drawing, rim-protecting monster on the interior.

The short answer: Texas transfers Tevin Mack’s shooting stroke left his shooting stroke in baggage claim, Herbert Jones’ offensive evolution stalled, and Daniel Giddens keeps mugging people in the lane. Those three need to solve their respective woes and give Johnson the kind of depth we thought was possible in the preseason.

The Tide value the ball, rebound and get to the line. They have a pair of solid scoring options on the perimeter and in the paint. Extracting every bit of efficiency from the rest of the lineup is the pressing concern moving forward.

Fortunately, Johnny Dawkins and UCF cut a similar profile, ranking 22nd in defensive efficiency and 95th on the offensive end of the floor. What helps, though, is the Knights have Tacko Fall (11.9 ppg) and B.J. Taylor (15.9 ppg)— an event that only took place once last season. Meanwhile, Terrell Allen (88 assists and 43 steals) is back to add a playmaking element, while there’s a solid bench mob in Dayon Griffin, Chance McSpadden and Ceasar DeJesus in support.

What’s dragging down UCF’s attack, though, is clanking free throws. The Knights’ rank ahead of Bama in effective field goal percentage, turnover rate and free-throw rate. They’re shooting a better clip from 3-point range, too. It’s an efficiency gap that could prove the difference.


THE DEEP CUT

At Rock M Nation, we believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. Let’s get off the grid, shall we?

2018 Continental Tire Las Vegas Holiday Invitational - Massachusetts v Nevada Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

No. 5 Nevada at Loyola Chicago | 7 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN News

Expectations for Nevada have national implications, but the Wolf Pack’s non-conference schedule is mostly bereft of marquee games.

A rematch of last season’s Sweet 16 showdown, though, will suffice, even if the Ramblers saw Ben Richardson, Donte Ingram, and Aundre Jackson move on after Loyola’s miraculous run to San Antonio.

Sure, Clayton Custer is still running the show, and Cameron Krutwig anchors the middle of coach Porter Moser’s motion. Custer is likely to see more attention from opposing defenses, and Krutwig won’t have Jackson there to spell him. Loyola is also leaning on Lucas Williamson to replace Richardson as a dogged defender on the wing.

The Wolf Pack, however, not only retained crucial components — Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, and Jordan Caroline — but they added depth and size. True to his template, coach Eric Musselman has a quartet of transfers available in Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Tre’Shawn Thurman, and Nisre Zouzoua. Oh, and they added one of the best grad transfers on the market when post Trey Porter decamped from Old Dominion.

After ranking below 300th nationally in bench minutes during his first three years on the job, Musselman’s rotation now stretches nine deep. With that flexibility comes easing pressure on the Martin twins to pack the stat sheet. So far, Caleb Martin’s production hasn’t ebbed -- 21.0 points per game and 36.8-percent 3-point shooting — but Cody has ceded some of his scoring Caroline, all while Johnson (13.8 ppg) has slid in seamlessly on the wing and stretched defenses with a 56.3-percent clip from behind the arc. Inside, Thurman’s yanking down 6.0 rebounds per game.

The result is the nation’s top offense, which is cranking out 1.207 points each trip down the floor. Loyola’s defense ranks in the top 40, but the question is whether Moser’s four-out can keep pace.

With Nevada’s size advantage across the front line, jump shooting is at a premium for Loyola, but so far, they’ve only connected on 31.7 percent of their 3-point attempts — well behind the 39.8-percent mark they put up last season. Add in low offensive rebound percentage, and it’s hard to see Loyola creating second opportunities for quality looks.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 match-ups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other games that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

The Watch | Nov. 26-Dec. 2

Date Game Time Network Thrill Score
Date Game Time Network Thrill Score
Nov. 26 Nebraska at Clemson 6 p.m. ESPN2 66.9
Nov. 26 Wofford at South Carolina 6 p.m. SEC Network 39.5
Nov. 26 Murray State at Alabama 8 p.m. SEC Network 41
Nov. 27 No. 13 Virginia Tech at Penn State 6 p.m. ESPN2 73.8
Nov. 27 No. 9 Michigan State at Louisville 6:30 p.m. ESPN 68.5
Nov. 27 No. 5 Nevada at Loyola Chicago 7 p.m. ESPN News 61.8
Nov. 27 North Carolina State at No. 22 Wisconsin 8 p.m. ESPN2 59.4
Nov. 27 Indiana at No. 3 Duke 8:30 p.m. ESPN2 48.7
Nov. 28 Syracuse at No. 16 Ohio State 6 p.m. ESPN 72
Nov. 28 No. 4 Virginia at No. 24 Maryland 6:30 p.m. ESPN 75.3
Nov. 28 Montana at Creighton 7:30 p.m. Fox Sports 1 46.9
Nov. 28 No. 11 North Carolina at No. 7 Michigan 8 p.m. ESPN 82.2
Nov. 28 No. 19 Purdue at No. 15 Florida State 8 p.m. ESPN2 75.6
Nov. 29 Alabama at UCF 6 p.m. ESPNU 51.9
Nov. 30 No. 25 Mississippi State at Dayton 6 p.m. CBS Sports Network 60
Nov. 30 No. 22 Wisconsin at No. 14 Iowa 7 p.m. Big Ten Network 76
Dec. 1 Louisville at Seton Hall 11 a.m. Fox 57.3
Dec. 1 Northwestern at Indiana Noon Big Ten Network 48.3
Dec. 1 No. 1 Gonzaga at Creighton 1 p.m. Fox 78.1
Dec. 1 No. 12 Kansas State at Marquette 1:30 p.m. Fox Sports 1 72.6
Dec. 1 No. 16 Purdue at No. 7 Michigan 2:30 p.m. ESPN 71.9
Dec. 1 UNC Greensboro at No. 10 Kentucky 3 p.m. SEC Network 43.2
Dec. 1 No. 5 Nevada at USC 3:30 p.m. Fox 66.4
Dec. 1 Penn State at No. 24 Maryland 4 p.m. Big Ten Network 63.5
Dec. 1 No. 18 Oregon at Houston 8 p.m. ESPN2 70.6
Dec. 2 Arizona at UConn Noon ESPN2 57.1
Dec. 2 UCF at Missouri 2 p.m. ESPNU 57.1
Dec. 2 Minnesota at No. 16 Ohio State 6 p.m. Big Ten Network 56.2
KenPom

The Replay