As we passed the time this offseason, a consensus was forged about the SEC. The league’s stratigraphy broke the conference into four, clearly delineated tiers.
- Tier 1: Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn
- Tier 2: Mississippi State, LSU, Florida, Alabama
- Tier 3: Vanderbilt, Missouri, South Carolina, Arkansas
- Tier 4: Texas A&M, Georgia, Ole Miss
Over the season’s first seven weeks, the upper crust has proven mostly static. Tennessee and Auburn’s losses came to top-five teams on neutral floors, while Mississippi State appears to have steady its perimeter shooting enough to make a move. In Lexington, news of Quade Green’s amicable split from Kentucky might be a boon, an exit that allows John Calipari to pare down his rotation. As we stand here today, there’s little reason to think all four will be chewing cuticles on Selection Sunday.
What about Tier 2 and Tier 3?
Early evidence suggests those barriers are far more permeable. Florida and LSU aren’t sniffing the bubble at the moment — the byproduct of going 0-5 in showdowns against teams likely to land in Quadrant 1 of team sheets. Right now, the Tigers’ best win came late Saturday in Las Vegas against Saint Mary’s, which is 53rd in KenPom and might be the third best team in the West Coast Conference. Florida owns a win against West Virginia (No. 40 in KenPom), but there’s little else of note.
At the same time, KenPom’s model has just about flushed any data that held over from last season.
By now, profiles should be more reflective of how teams have performed this season, and that’s where you can see the potential congestion forming in the middle of the standings. A quartet of teams in LSU (No. 45), Arkansas (No. 49), Ole Miss (No. 57) and Vanderbilt (No. 64) compacted in the same space, while Alabama (No. 76) is trying to keep pace.
That clutch of teams is certainly a mixed bag. Elite recruiting classes in Baton Rouge and Nashville made LSU and Vandy potential tournament teams. Then there’s Arkansas and Ole Miss, both of whom were expected to bring up the rear.
To see those teams in the same company raises questions. Will LSU underwhelm? Can Vanderbilt survive Darius Garland’s season-ending knee injury? Has Mike Anderson cobbled together enough production around Daniel Gafford? And is Ole Miss getting a first-year boost from Kermit Davis?
Let’s take a quick look at each.
LSU Tigers (8-3)
Assessment: When the tempo cranks up and games are played in transition, LSU finds it element — at least offensively. Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Ja’vonte Smart and Darius Days are able to generate turnovers that get the Tigers’ plethora of athletes going up and down. Generating offense from defense, though, has — ironically — made it hard to get stops. Only Arkansas has had more possessions in transition defense than LSU, which ranks 11th among SEC teams for efficiency (1.012 PPP) on those possessions. When LSU manages to matchup in the halfcourt, its backline swats shots but, in aggregate, Days (1.03 PPP), Naz Reid (0.944) and Kavell Bigby-Williams (0.959) have graded out poorly. On top of that, LSU’s been foul prone and gives up far too many offensive rebounds. Perceptions matter, too. In Baton Rouge, these might be ominous tremors, while at Ole Miss, which has a similar profile, they’re a cause for optimism.
Arkansas Razorbacks (7-2)
Assessment: Doubt Mike Anderson at your own peril. The exodus out of Fayetteville left Gafford as the only known quantity on the roster, but Anderson’s culture, system and the ability to instill both are proven. Need proof? The nation’s 13th youngest roster is currently playing top-50 defense. Even if the schedule is tissue-paper soft, early returns suggest buy-in has been swift on the Hill. The bigger question was whether the Hogs could get enough perimeter production to punish teams for doubling Gafford. So far, freshman Isaiah Joe (49.4 3FG%) and highly touted JUCO transfer Mason Jones (42.9 3FG%) have delivered that commodity. Replacing Daryl Macon wasn’t going to be plug-and-play, but Jalen Harris (7.6 assist-to-turnover ratio) is piloting the offense with little turbulence. Reaching the NCAA tournament might be too lofty an expectation, but Arkansas isn’t tacking toward the bottom of the SEC standings.
Ole Miss Rebels (7-2)
Assessment: The cupboard Davis inherited in Oxford wasn’t barren. Terence Davis, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler comprise a trio of perimeter talent, while Bruce Stevens is steady on the interior. The early emergence of freshmen Blake Hinson — a familiar name for Missouri fans — and KJ Buffen solidified a six-man rotation that gives the Rebels diversity. Tyree, Shuler and Hinson stretch defenses, while Davis optimizes high ball screens as a scorer (1.357 PPP) and as a passer (1.111 PPP) — all while remaining a potent threat in the open floor. With Davis and Tyree splitting ballhandling duties, the Rebels can utilize Stevens athleticism as a roll man and cutter in ball-screen situations, opening up the floor in the process. Sure, the Rebels need to tighten up defensively — and find some depth — but they can score effectively to be competitive against almost any SEC foe.
Vanderbilt Commodores (6-2)
Assessment: The Commodores’ fate hinges on how smoothly they adapt to life with Saben Lee running the show. Where Garland was wired to score, Lee is the offense’s middleman and facilitator. So far Shittu’s lived up to his billing as a fluid athlete in transition and agile enough to score off touches as a cutter, roller and rebounder without needing traditional post touches. Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan is shooting 39.6 percent behind the arc and doing his best imitation of Luke Kornet. Freshman guard Aaron Nesmith’s been stellar on breaks, and Joe Toye remains a steady jack of all trades. Defensively, Vandy’s been better than their overall efficiency ranking indicates, weighted down by struggles generating turnovers and being average on the defensive backboards. With a 12-day layoff ending Monday, it’ll be interesting to see whether Bryce Drew’s group is genuinely acclimated to its new circumstance.
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.
No. 19 Kentucky vs. No. 9 North Carolina | 4:15 p.m. CT Saturday, CBS
We’ve grown so accustomed to John Calipari’s spring ritual of roster revitalization that we often assume the seeds planted in April and May will yield a bumper crop come November.
This year was no exception. The perpetually youthful Wildcats returned three McDonald’s All-Americans, imported a Pac-12 Player of the Year contender and topped it off with the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class. On paper, the moves leavened the roster with experience, bolstered perimeter shooting and gave Kentucky the flexibility of playing with multiple ball-handlers on the floor.
Running roughshod over opponents in four offseason exhibition games seemed to confirm the idea that any growing pains would be short-lived. Then Duke’s own youth brigade napalmed UK by 24 points on the season’s opening night. How did Cal’s group respond? Well, they muddled through against Southern Illinois, VMI and Winthrop at Rupp Arena. When they set out away from home to face Seton Hall, the Wildcats lost in overtime after trading buzzer beaters.
Sure, the Wildcats shellacked Utah over the weekend, but in mid-December, they own precisely zero quality wins. If you were seeding Kentucky, it might be appropriate to slot them as a seven- or eight-seed. And now comes a neutral floor clash with the Tar Heels, followed by an in-state brawl against Louisville.
We’ve lumped Kentucky in as an SEC contender mostly out of deference and history. (Until last season, UK had won the conference’s regular season and conference titles three years in a row.) Yet we’ve seen that improvement isn’t linear and doesn’t work in tandem with age. Case in point: Quade Green’s transfer last week.
Meanwhile, PJ Washington’s production still remains inconsistent. And Nick Richards? The sophomore hasn’t played more than 12 minutes — or scored more than 10 points — in the past seven games. The only evidence he played against the Utes were the mere two rebounds he logged.
If Washington is the lone returner making contributions, which can fluctuate wildly, then Calipari’s task is much the same as it has been in prior years: quickly pushing freshmen along the developmental curve.
Granted, Reid Travis, who is putting up 14.6 points and 6.4 rebounds, has panned out. Tyler Herro made more 3-pointers than Green — even if his 28.0-percent clip from deep lagged behind the sophomore — and grades out better defensively. And Keldon Johnson’s pro-ready game has more than translated at the collegiate level. Now, if Ashton Hagans’ passing and his improving numbers as a defender hold up, Calipari might also have a clear-cut option at lead guard.
Critiques aside, Kentucky’s a terror when they play in the open floor and just behind Tennessee, who has been a joy to watch, when working against a set defense. As usual, the more pressing question is how quickly Calipari can get his team in sync on the defensive end of the floor. For example, when Washington and Montgomery move to the perimeter, they’ve struggled to contest open jumpers and opposing big men can still have their way with Richards inside.
Juggling demands for minutes and parsing out roles, though, becomes easier with Green’s departure and a commitment to role with Montgomery over Richards. Facing North Carolina could also help validate whether this tightened rotation is one that can live up to Final Four aspirations.
THE CONFERENCE CALL
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 implications for the league race.
No. 18 Arizona State at Vanderbilt | 6 p.m. CT Monday, SEC Network
The last time Vanderbilt faced a high-major opponent without Darius Garland, they were run out of the gym by 15 points.
“This team has been built for a long time around a certain lineup, and now we’re having to change that lineup,” coach Bryce Drew said afterward. “Not just the lineup but also what our identity is as a team. To change your identity in a short amount of time is really hard.”
A 12-day layoff carves out time to self-scout, make requisite tweaks and carry some of those changes to the floor. What awaits the Commodores this week are is a pair of games that will apply the kind of stress to see whether those modifications and welds hold up.
The Sun Devils put up 83 points a night, and freshman Luguentz Dort crams the stat sheet with 20.9 points. 6.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.0 steals per game. Yet ASU’s offense, which is 47th nationally in efficiency, per KenPom, doesn’t always hum efficiently. As of Sunday, coach Bobby Hurley’s squad ranked 182nd for efficiency in the halfcourt and was 100 spots lower when it comes to transition, according to Synergy Sports.
ASU offsets those pedestrian rankings by generating second possessions on the offensive glass and wearing a path to the free-throw line. Nobody embodies this tendency more than Dort. The freshman, a potential one-and-done prospect, only converts 46.4 percent of the time at the rim, but he’s among the nation’s best at drawing fouls on those plays. The same goes for forward Zylan Cheatham and guard Remy Martin.
Yet the Commodores have managed to play sound defense without running up a high foul count. For example, Simisola Shittu swats shots (3.5 block percentage) and crashes the glass (22.9 DR%) but only averages. 4.3 fouls per 40 minutes.
Without free throws, players like Martin struggle offensively, shooting just 18.6 percent from 3-point range during halfcourt possessions and only 37.5 percent when he gets to the tin. Forcing the Sun Devils to make one (and only one) shot each time the floor makes this a game where Vandy can linger and hope its reconstructed rotation has found a rhythm.
Drew knows what he has in Saben Lee, who is more keen on driving the ball and serving as a distributor. Shittu’s lived up to his lofty billing as an athletic big who can score without needing to be the focal point of a possession, while Matt Ryan’s 3-point shooting makes him an ideal stretch big for Vandy’s system.
Whether it’s Vegas, Sagarin or KenPom, the line slightly favors Vandy (-1.5) on its home floor. If the ’Dores prevail, the result might indicate their built to withstand Garland’s absence and inject confidence before hitting the road to face Kansas State.
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?
Montana at South Dakota State | 6 p.m. CT Wednesday, ESPN+
Mike Daum stuck around.
First, South Dakota State’s do-everything combo forward passed on the option to use the NCAA’s grad-transfer provision and move on to a higher-profile program. Second, he pulled his name from the NBA draft after scouts told him he needed to sculpt his body and improve his footspeed.
Instead, he adopted a vegan diet, initially shed 30 pounds and ultimately settled out at 240 when preseason workouts started. Ideally, the middle ground will still help him move defenders when works in the post, but improve his lateral agility when pulled to the perimeter as a defender.
What Daum hasn’t lost, though, is his ruthlessly efficient ability to score, posting 24.5 points and grabbing 10.5 rebounds per game. He’s also on track to finish among the nation’s top 30 players in usage, according to KenPom, and posting a true shooting percentage better than 63 percent. And that’s with his perimeter shooting — he’s only hitting 33.8 percent of his jumpers — lagging behind previous campaigns.
The tradeoff is Daum’s overall defensive efficiency (0.77 PPP) has improved compared to his handiwork last season.
|Play Type||2017-18 Poss/Gm||2017-18 PPP||2018-19 Poss/Gm||2018-19 PPP|
|Play Type||2017-18 Poss/Gm||2017-18 PPP||2018-19 Poss/Gm||2018-19 PPP|
|P&R Roll Man||1.1||0.895||0.7||0.444|
|P&R Ball Handler||0.1||2||0.2||0.667|
Should those gains stick, it makes it easier for an NBA front office to bet on Daum’s polished inside-out forte. There’s not much he can’t do on that end of the floor, and a long-limbed big who can legitimately stretch defenses can carve out a niche at the next level as a floor-spacer.
In a sport where up-transfers are quickly becoming the norm, it’s a nice change of pace to see a player of Daum’s caliber remain with the program he’s helped build. The Jackrabbits are far-and-away the Summit League favorite, and it’s worth tuning in to see them face another potential mid-major darling in Montana, who should come out of the Big Sky Conference.
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.
Dec. 17 to Dec. 23
|Dec. 17||No. 18 Arizona State at Vanderbilt||6 p.m.||SEC Network||63.5|
|Dec. 18||Xavier at Missouri||6 p.m.||ESPNU||54.9|
|Dec. 18||Radford at UNC-Greensboro||6 p.m.||ESPN+||40.4|
|Dec. 18||No. 14 Buffalo at Syracuse||7 p.m.||ESPN2||66.1|
|Dec. 18||Liberty vs. Alabama||7 p.m.||SEC Network||53.4|
|Dec. 18||Creighton at Oklahoma||8 p.m.||ESPNU||64.2|
|Dec. 19||No. 7 Auburn at North Carolina State||6 p.m.||ESPN2||79.6|
|Dec. 19||Western Kentucky at Belmont||6:30 p.m.||ESPN+||47.7|
|Dec. 19||Wofford at No. 17 Mississippi State||7 p.m.||SEC Network||44.9|
|Dec. 19||Montana at Arizona||7:30 p.m.||Pac-12 Network||42.5|
|Dec. 19||UCLA at Cincinnati||8 p.m.||ESPN2||56.6|
|Dec. 19||Georgia Tech at Arkansas||8 p.m.||SEC Network||51.3|
|Dec. 20||No. 12 Texas Tech vs. No. 2 Duke||6 p.m.||ESPN2||77.2|
|Dec. 20||Utah State at No. 21 Houston||7 p.m.||ESPN3||55.6|
|Dec. 21||UC Irvine at Butler||5:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||42.5|
|Dec. 21||Oregon at Baylor||6 p.m.||ESPN2||64.8|
|Dec. 21||No. 24 Furman at LSU||7 p.m.||SEC Network||44.8|
|Dec. 21||Vermont at Lipscomb||7:15 p.m.||ESPN+||45.6|
|Dec. 21||No. 14 Buffalo at No. 20 Marquette||7:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||68.1|
|Dec. 21||Oklahoma at Northwestern||8 p.m.||Big Ten Network||67.7|
|Dec. 21||Providence at Texas||8 p.m.||ESPN2||45.5|
|Dec. 21||Penn State at Alabama||8 p.m.||SEC Network||60.4|
|Dec. 22||Georgia at Georgia Tech||11 a.m.||ESPNU||39.3|
|Dec. 22||UConn vs. Villanova||11:30 a.m.||CBS||53|
|Dec. 22||Clemson at South Carolina||1 p.m.||ESPN2||59.1|
|Dec. 22||Saint Louis vs. No. 11 Florida State||1:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 2||52.7|
|Dec. 22||No. 15 Ohio State vs. UCLA||2 p.m.||CBS||66.5|
|Dec. 22||Murray State at No. 7 Auburn||3:30 p.m.||SEC Network||42.5|
|Dec. 22||Stanford at San Francisco||4 p.m.||Pac-12 Network||43.5|
|Dec. 22||No. 19 Kentucky vs. No. 9 North Carolina||4:15 p.m.||CBS||80.2|
|Dec. 22||Seton Hall at Maryland||4:30 p.m.||Fox Sports 1||51.3|
|Dec. 22||BYU at San Diego State||6 p.m.||CBS Sports Network||55.6|
|Dec. 22||Vanderbilt vs. Kansas State||6 p.m.||ESPN2||53.1|
|Dec. 22||Missouri vs. Illinois||7 p.m.||Big Ten Network||53.3|
|Dec. 22||Montana at South Dakota State||7 p.m.||ESPN+||45.9|
|Dec. 22||No. 1 Kansas at No. 18 Arizona State||8 p.m.||ESPN2||72.6|