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The bottom of the SEC is a problem—in a good way

The mark of a quality conference is its depth, and the lower half of the SEC is filled by programs who could give contenders fits each night.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri opens up SEC action on Wednesday night at South Carolina, and now is as good a time as any to give the league a checkup.

Sam Snelling assessed at the upper half of the conference on Monday, and so it falls to me to assess the league’s lower reaches. Like Sam, I think it’s important to start with a preseason baseline:

  1. Kentucky 14-4
  2. Texas A&M 12-6
  3. Florida 12-6
  4. Missouri 11-7
  5. Alabama 11-7
  6. Vanderbilt 11-7
  7. Ole Miss 9-9
  8. Auburn 9-9
  9. Mississippi State 8-10
  10. Arkansas 8-10
  11. Tennessee 7-11
  12. Georgia 6-12
  13. South Carolina 5-13
  14. LSU 3-15

Last week, Sam and I used a pretty short Google chat to formulate our current standings. The only point of contention, and it’s small, is what to make of Georgia’s start, and we didn’t get a clearer picture on Sunday against Kentucky. The Bulldogs have been a thorn in UK’s side, but the Wildcats have shown they can overcome 30 minutes of mild annoyance with a solid 10-minute closing stretch. That being said, here’s where we think the field stands:

  1. Texas A&M
  2. Kentucky
  3. Tennessee
  4. Arkansas
  5. Auburn
  6. Alabama
  7. Florida
  8. Missouri
  9. Georgia
  10. Mississippi State
  11. South Carolina
  12. Ole Miss
  13. Vanderbilt
  14. LSU

No. 8: Missouri Tigers

  • Current KenPom Rating: 51
  • Non-conference record: 10-3

Broadly speaking, Mizzou’s remained on course, and that’s a testament to Cuonzo Martin and this roster. Losing Michael Porter Jr. didn’t send them spinning off into the ditch. Canisius transfer Kassius Robertson’s acclimation has been better than expected. Jordan Barnett’s also emerged as a reliable scoring threat, even if he tends to settle for jumpers too often. Inside, Jeremiah Tilmon’s cut down his fouls and started to tap into his potential. Jontay Porter found a way to make an impact as a ball mover and post defender--even if his scoring comes and goes.

Are there questions at point guard? Yes. Is Missouri reliant on outside shooting? Indeed. But the Tigers are sound enough defensively and compete well on the backboards. The promised uptick in tempo hasn’t taken place, but Mizzou’s still been fluid offensively. In the preseason, I had Mizzou dropping games to Utah and West Virginia, and the loss to Illinois wasn’t surprising given how MU has evolved this season.

Mizzou may not be darkhorse to contend for a top-four finish, but they’ve got the personnel to be a solid bubble team as we move toward March.

So far they’ve: exceeded exceptions. Mizzou had a nice recruiting class and a couple solid returners, but MPJ was supposed to be the straw that stirred the drink. That MU is still on pace for a tournament bid without him is nothing short of a win.

No. 9: Georgia Bulldogs

  • Current KenPom Rating: 63
  • Non-conference record: 9-2

The central question I have about UGA remains: who will help Yante Maten out? Derek Ogbeide is a low-post banger. Junior guard William Jackson II has settled the point guard position but won’t dictate the flow of a game. Juwan Parker is mired in a season-long shooting slump. And Rayshaun Hammonds has been about as effective as you can expect a freshman to be.

Mark Fox’s tenure has been defined by player development and schematic diversity. His teams defend—they’ve finished inside the top-50 for effective field-goal percentage allowed the last six seasons—and grind you down defensively. Over the past five seasons, it’s been enough to finish .500 or better. But the league’s depth is better than its been in a decade, and it's reasonable to wonder how tenable it is moving forward.

While the Bulldogs own quality wins over Saint Mary’s, Marquette and Temple, they were blown out at UMass, and they’ve squeaked by the likes of Cal State-Fullerton and Texas A&M Corpus-Christi. For now, though, those wins slightly outweigh doubts we have about this team moving into SEC play.

So far they’ve: exceeded expectations. Over the course of SEC play, Georgia could regress back to our preseason prediction, but you have to reward the Bulldogs’ resume so far. In the event they finish .500 or better, the Bulldogs’ non-con resume could give them a solid case for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

No. 10: Mississippi State Bulldogs

  • Current KenPom Rating: 68
  • Non-conference record: 12-1

Listen, I understand Ben Howland’s rationale. With a young roster, you schedule lightly to insulate them. However, there’s a point of diminishing marginal return when your non-conference schedule is rated No. 345 nationally. The Bulldogs lone quality opponent, Cincinnati, largely put them in a chokehold, too. Last season, State lost a slew of close games, but it’s hard for me to see how this slate remedies the problem.

Quinndary Weatherspoon has been as good as we expected, but what do we make of it in light of MSU’s soft slate? And that’s if you ignore his poor outside shooting. Junior post Aric Holman has been a load in the post, and young wings in Nick Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter could grow into nice pieces down the road.

Still, the Bulldogs enter SEC play sitting at No. 132 in offensive efficiency, and the defenses they’ll see will only get better. Aside from poor outside shooting, the Bulldogs have been turnover prone. If Weatherspoon can’t slash, Holman has to fight through a clogged paint and Lamar Peters keeps coughing the ball up, it won’t matter how well Mississippi State defends.

So far they’ve: been what we thought. Howland has upgraded talent stashed in his cupboard, but it’s hard to see how another young team finds a way to push its way up the standings.

No. 11: South Carolina Gamecocks

  • Current KenPom Rating: 62
  • Non-conference record: 9-3

We expected South Carolina to undergo a bit of a rebuild this season, and nothing I’ve seen so far dissuades me from that notion. It’s no surprise the Gamecocks are feisty defensively, but our concerns about the offense, currently sitting at No. 151 in KenPom, have borne themselves out. Forward Chris Silva has been able to be productive—13.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game—and energetic while also curbing his tendency to foul. Florida Atlantic transfer Frank Booker, who is putting up 11.8 points a night, has been more efficient than expected, but after Booker the collective approach falls flat.

Hassani Gravett, Justin Minaya and Maik Kotsar combine for just 26 points a night and are shooting just 42.2 percent. Meanwhile, Delaware transfer Kory Holden, who was expected to be Carolina’s primary wing threat, has been a bust so far. Losses to Illinois State, Temple and Clemson—the only top-150 KenPom teams on the non-con slate—are dark omens, too. In those games, Martin’s crew posted just 0.84 points per possession.

All signs point to a team who will try to turn each game into a slugfest, landing enough body blows to prevail. How sustainable that strategy can remains in question.

So far they’ve: met expectations. We knew Martin’s team was starting from scratch and would have to cobble together a competent rotation as it scavenged for offensive production. Leaning on transfers and freshmen has gone about as expected.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Mississippi Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12: Ole Miss Rebels

  • Current KenPom Rating: 82
  • Non-conference record: 7-5

The Rebels’ non-conference slate was tougher than the casual fan might expect. Illinois State could contend in the Missouri Valley Conference. South Dakota State will be a factor in The Summit League. Middle Tennessee State is the prohibitive favorite in the Conference USA. That being said, taking losses to all three doesn’t build buzz at an institution that is decidedly not a basketball school. Then toss in a neutral floor loss to Utah and an overtime loss to Virginia Tech—a game where the Rebels blew a 15-point lead.

At Rock M Nation, we love Andy Kennedy and the job he’s done at a high-major with little history of sustained success. Yet the Rebels look like a disjointed unit at times. They’re on track to be Kennedy’s worst defensive team in seven seasons, potentially wasting one of the better wing trios in Terence Davis, Deandre Burnett and Memphis transfer Markel Crawford.

Digging into the numbers, though, Ole Miss’ issues stem from poor 3-point defense and a tendency to give up second possessions on the glass. Opponents only take 29.6 percent of their shots at the rim, and a front line led by Marcanvis Hymon and Justas Furmanavicius swats almost one-third of those attempts. Tightening up rotations and closeouts could do wonders to help make Kennedy’s crew better, along with improved team rebounding.

So far they’ve: disappointed Sam. I say that in jest. Ole Miss has all the components to bounce back as SEC play unfolds, too. Its backcourt is as good as any in the conference, and the Rebels roll nine deep, featuring enough size to conceivably protect the paint and win on the backboards.

No. 13: Vanderbilt Commodores

  • Current KenPom Rating: 74
  • Non-conference record: 5-7

Bryce Drew should be commended. Not many coaches would load up their non-conference schedule with seven KenPom top-100 teams, including top-50 foes in Virginia, USC, Arizona State and Kansas State. Or schedule elite mid-majors Belmont and Middle Tennessee. Now, you need to win some of those matchups—a task the Commodores failed to achieve.

Compared to last season, Vandy’s offense is dramatically different in one critical area: 3-point shooting. Last season, almost 49 percent of the ’Dores’ shots were from long distance—a formula that works when you knock almost 38 percent of them. This year? Well, Vandy’s tailed off 32.5 percent, ranking 258th in the country.

Sure, Riley LaChance is still connecting on 44 percent of his attempts, but that’s about it. Matthew Fisher-Davis continues to be defined by inconsistency. And while Joe Toye has a high motor and brings defensive flexibility, but he’s not exactly a key cog offensively. Every team could use a senior like Jeff Roberson, a sound defender, aggressive rebounder and efficient shot-taker.

Meanwhile, there’s been enough slippage defensively to magnify the dropoff offensively. The Commodores were calloused by their non-conference schedule, but a path to the dance is all but closed off. Still, there’s enough wing depth and toughness in the post to pose problems if they catch a conference contender on the right day.

So far they’ve: brutalized. The non-conference slate proved too daunting. But as we saw last season, it’s a mistake to leave Vandy for dead.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

No. 14: LSU Tigers

  • current KenPom Rating: 81
  • Non-conference record: 9-3

Evaluating LSU requires taking a long view. Will Wade has been clear throughout the preseason and in non-conference: the Tigers are not a good defensive team. And it was an issue he anticipated coming through the door.

Most of the session focuses, however, on defense – and with good reason. LSU couldn’t guard its shadow in 2016-17, finishing, per Wade’s research, as the second-worst in-conference defense in all of college basketball since 2002. There were, of course, schematic issues Wade is still ironing out. Closeouts were imprecise. Passing lanes were un-denied. Rotations were non-existent. Bad habits were rampant. Most of Wade’s LSU practices are designed to fix those flaws, starting from the individual and building to the collective. Players guard each other one-on-one, full court, coaches demanding stops of the defenders every trip. Soon, they’re drilling outnumbered defenses, four attackers taking on three defenders who must get three consecutive stops to get off the floor.

What LSU can do is score the ball efficiently, ranking sixth nationally in effective field goal percentage and fourth in 2-point shooting, including 71.3 percent at the rim. And it’s not just bigs like Duop Reath. The bulk of shots taken by wings Skylar Mays Mays and Wade Sims are point blank. Then toss in freshman point guard Tremont Waters, who is posting 17.1 points per game, dealing out 6.4 assists and shooting nearly 45 percent behind the 3-point line. Oh, and the Tigers just got Brandon Sampson back from injury.

Against Michigan and Houston, we saw a snapshot of what LSU can be under Wade’s direction, but that has to be balanced against blowouts by Notre Dame and Marquette. The Tigers also succumbed to the cumulative pressure applied by Stephen F. Austin.

LSU might finish in the SEC cellar, but they’ll be entertaining in doing so. Fans in Baton Rouge can also look forward to next season when Wade has a top-10 recruiting class arriving on campus.

So far they’ve: on schedule. Everyone in Baton Rouge knew Johnny Jones’ replacement would be starting from scratch. LSU won by wooing Wade from VCU, and he’s done good work by landing a cornerstone in Waters and trying to import immediate help via transfers. It’s early, but the Tigers’ struggles this season could be short-term pain for long-term returns.

Think about the coaches leading teams on this list. Cuonzo Martin, Frank Martin, Ben Howland and Will Wade are experienced and have stellar experience at prior stops. Meanwhile, Mark Fox and Andy Kennedy are keeping programs competitive at schools where making the tournament every fourth year is an achievement.

And as you read through each summary, you can see a way forward for each program. And that’s the difference between the SEC today and five years ago. Schools have followed former commissioner Mike Slive’s imperative to dump money—thanks, SEC Network—into facilities, coaches and recruiting budgets. While the lag time has dragged longer than some expected, the SEC is a legitimately good basketball conference.

Just look at recruiting as an indicator. It’s not just Kentucky and Florida landing highly-touted prospects. Consider LSU and Vanderbilt. Both sit at the bottom of our list, BUT each program is set to welcome top-10 recruiting classes in 2018. And last week, Georgia coach Mark Fox, who has struggled to get traction with elite in-state prospects, scored a crucial pledge from five-star point guard Ashton Hagans and another from Elias King in the 2019 class. Oh, and Missouri’s rebuild has been expedited under Martin.

We’re seeing the gains manifested in a what is shaping up to be a hotly-contested conference race. In the past, a muddled league race was a sign of mediocrity. This season, however, it’s evidence that the SEC may have finally achieved parity.