So football season isn’t quite over yet, but for everyone but Alabama fans it has now been completed. The Crimson Tide will probably go on to win another national championship on the gridiron, but they should enjoy it, because so far it doesn’t look like a lot is going to happen on the basketball court.
For the rest of you, you’re probably just now starting to tune into college basketball games now that football season is completed. I’ve tried to tell people not to miss out on non-conference college basketball, but in the SEC, that’s pretty much a lost cause. You’re in luck though, because once again I’m going to try and summarize some of the major things that have happened around the country and then give a summary of what each SEC school has done up until this point. Having missed almost half the season, this post could get long, so as Avery Johnson would say, #BuckleUp.
Now that every league is starting their conference play, there are just three undefeated teams remaining: Villanova, Baylor, and Gonzaga and each are in the AP Top 5. Each team is well worth mentioning in this post as well. Villanova has been the best team in my eyes so far this season after coming off a National Championship this season. Baylor has come out of nowhere to with one of the most impressive non-conference resumes I’ve seen from a team that was unranked all the way until week 3. Mark Few has Gonzaga off to their best start and the Bulldogs have a legit shot at making it to March as the lone remaining undefeated team as they’ll likely steamroll through the WCC minus two matchups against Saint Mary’s.
Along with those three teams, Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky, West Virginia, Duke, Louisville, and Creighton round out the AP Top 10. Duke has had injury issues so far this season and haven’t quite lived up to the preseason hype, but even with Coach K missing the next month or so due to back surgery, there is still plenty of time for the Blue Devils to reach their potential and still be one of the most talented teams we’ve seen in awhile come March. Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, and Bryce Alford have UCLA off to a fantastic start and one of the best teams in the Pac-12. Kansas and West Virginia are just two more teams from the Big 12 that make up another deep league this season. Kentucky is by and far the best team in the SEC, but I’ll get more into that in a little bit.
I could keep going on about college basketball around the country, but what most of you will probably care about most is the SEC, which hasn’t been quite as good like usual, but conference play is looking like it will be just as exciting this year.
Around the SEC
The league as a whole struggled to win key matchups in the non-conference portion of the season, but in my opinion there are still a handful of teams that did enough to potentially set up a trip to the NCAA Tournament if they can do the right things in SEC play. I’ve been releasing SEC Power Rankings each week of the season, so if you want a really detailed look at how teams have progressed throughout the season, feel free to go and check out any of those posts linked in the sidebar.
Alabama sits at just 7-5 after their non-conference schedule with no notable wins and all of their losses coming to decent teams. The Crimson Tide have struggled on offense and in my opinion really need to find a go to scorer if they are going to do much in the SEC. The defense has kept them in games like is has for the past couple of years. As the football team has excelled, the few basketball fans that have managed to follow the Tide don’t seem to be pleased and are already looking forward to the top recruiting class that comes in next season. All is not lost for Alabama if Avery Johnson can get the team to find an identity on offense and get their wins over other struggling teams in the SEC and potentially win a game or two that they shouldn’t.
Arkansas finished non-conference play with the best record out of all the SEC teams sitting at 11-1. The Razorbacks had pretty good wins over UT-Arlington, Houston, and Texas with their only loss coming to a good Minnesota team on the road. Like usual, Arkansas benefitted from playing almost all of their games at Bud Walton Arena in the non-conference slate before dropping their first SEC game against Florida at home. With a team loaded with top JUCO talent and returning players like Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, the Razorbacks certainly have the talent to compete at the top of the SEC, but they’ll need up their game in conference play more than how they’ve started.
Auburn has started their season almost exactly how you would expect a young, talented team like the Tigers to start. Auburn has a good win over Texas Tech at a neutral site as well as decent wins over Oklahoma and at UConn that aren’t quite as good as some expected but still great wins for the program. Auburn dropped the Cancun Challenge championship game to Purdue and then suffered an ugly loss at the hands to Boston College on a last second layup. Auburn rolled into SEC play with an impressive 10-2 record that almost no one predicted. After leading Georgia for 30 minutes in Auburn Arena, a late game shooting slump for the Tigers and the takeover of J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten allowed Bulldogs to hand Auburn a loss in their first SEC game. Auburn is a young team that will only get better as the season goes along, especially with Austin Wiley now on the team, and the Tigers could give almost any team in the league a fight on any given night.
The Gators faced some tough competition and played the majority of their non-conference games away from home as the renovations to the O-Dome were completed but still managed to come into SEC play with a 9-3 record and have looked like the second best team in the conference behind Kentucky. Florida opened up league play with a nice road win over Arkansas and have started to find their offense over the recent games. If Florida can continue to excel on both sides of the ball, they should have the ability to stay right behind Kentucky for the rest of the year and hopefully serve as a good SEC representative when March Madness rolls around.
Georgia has two of the best players in the SEC in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten, but when one or both aren’t playing well, Georgia can struggle as they did at times which led to a 8-4 non-conference record. Georgia had each of their losses come at the hands of pretty good teams, and all but one on the road as they lost to Clemson, Marquette, Kansas, and Oakland. The Bulldogs left all of that behind them when they traveled to Auburn Arena and walked out with an impressive win in a hostile environment. As SEC play goes along, J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten are surely good enough to carry Georgia, but Mark Fox will need some others to step up consistently if the Bulldogs are going to remain as one of the better teams in the league.
After losing to UCLA at home and Louisville on the road, about the worst thing I can say about Kentucky is that they might not be a 1-seed when March Madness rolls around. The Wildcats once again have an extremely talented young team led by Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, and Bam Adebayo. They’ve struggled at time, but if Coach Cal can get this team to improve all year like almost all of his teams do, this Kentucky squad could be one of the best in the country when March rolls around. Kentucky started off SEC play with a beatdown of Ole Miss in Oxford and that probably won’t be the last one. Kentucky has a good shot of running the table in the SEC and I would be surprised if the Wildcats finish with more than two losses in league play.
Johnny Jones is still the coach of the LSU Tigers, and that’s about all I should have to say to let LSU and SEC fans know how LSU has been so far this season. Admittedly though, LSU didn’t drop any non-conference games to terrible teams but did suffer two separate beatdowns against Wichita State and on the road at Wake Forest. Antonio Blakeney will do his best to drag the Tigers to a respectable finish in the SEC, but after losing their home opener against a struggling Vandy team despite making 17 threes, things aren’t looking great for LSU. The Tigers did manage to beat Houston in the non-conference schedule and get to face Missouri next in SEC play, so things aren’t all bad.
The Bulldogs started the season off with an early scare as Quinndary Weatherspoon was originally supposed to be out for the year. Instead, he has opted to try and play the rest of the season and postpone surgery until the end of the year. Even with Weatherspoon still playing, Mississippi State finished non-conference play with a 9-3 record against pretty bad teams. Ben Howland has a lot of talent on his roster, but it will likely be another rebuilding year for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State has upside in the SEC, but I still think at this point they’ll find themselves at the bottom of the SEC standing when all is said and done.
Missouri is bad, like, really bad. Missouri started the year by taking Xavier to overtime, but then managed to finish non-conference play with 7 losses, including 4 straight, and have even lost to teams such as North Carolina Central, Eastern Illinois, and Lipscomb. Maybe Kim Anderson will be given the opportunity to stay and turn around Missouri, but it certainly won’t be this year. The Tigers are bad, and it’s hard to find a game on their SEC schedule where they’ll be favored to win or even have a shot at an upset.
Ole Miss has been one of the teams to surpass my preseason expectations so far this season. The Rebels finished non-conference play 9-3 with a win over Memphis and just losses to Creighton, Middle Tennessee State (who is the best team in Conference USA), and Virginia Tech. DeAndre Burnett has been the main player to step up for Andy Kennedy so far this season and Sebastian Saiz has already been averaging a double-double. Unfortunately, the Rebels had to start with a games against Kentucky and Florida which resulted in big losses, but things aren’t over for Ole Miss. Andy Kennedy could once again surprise people and lead this team to surpass expectations once again.
Before the suspension of Sindarius Thornwell, the Gamecocks looked like the second or third best team in the SEC and a top 25 team in the country. Over the last six games while Thornwell was suspended, USC lost to Seton Hall, Clemson, and Memphis to finish non-conference play 10-3. After getting wins over Monmouth, Michigan, and Syracuse, South Carolina might have done enough to earn a bid in March, but they’ll have to play well in SEC games now that Thornwell is back. The Gamecocks SEC schedule starts with a tough matchup against Georgia in Stegeman Coliseum. Hopefully with Thornwell back, South Carolina will return to the tough team it was and Frank Martin and his squad can make up for last season with a trip to the NCAA Tournament this time around.
Tennessee played one of the toughest non-conference schedules and as a result finished with a 7-5 record. However, the Vols played both North Carolina and Gonzaga tight and suffered two more losses to Oregon and Wisconsin. To make up for their 7-5 record, Tennessee started SEC play off with a pretty big upset over Texas A&M on the road. Rick Barnes may have gotten his team figured out just at the right time. Despite a close loss to Arkansas in their home opener, the Tennessee Volunteers don’t look like the bottom feeder that many expected them to be in the SEC this season. If Robert Hubbs III can keep up the good play, I like Tennessee as a dark horse candidate to give teams trouble all season long.
Coming into the year I picked Texas A&M to be the second best team in the SEC as they have probably the second most talented team other than Kentucky. The Aggies haven’t quite played up to those expectations, but they still finished non-conference play with an 8-3 record after only losing to USC, UCLA, and Arizona. The real concern comes when the Aggies dropped their home SEC opener to Tennessee. The Aggies have one of the best front courts in the country, but they’ll need to start playing like it and get help from their guards if they want to remain a top team in the SEC for the rest of the season. Again, a lot of teams will be beaten badly by Kentucky in Lexington this season, but I didn’t think Texas A&M would be one of those teams.
Vanderbilt lost considerable talent coming into this season, but I thought the returning talent would be enough to keep this team competitive. I may have been wrong. Vanderbilt struggled in non-conference play and finished 6-6 including a loss to Bucknell at home. Vandy’s best win after conference play was just a home win over Chattanooga on a last second three by Luke Kornet. Fortunately for the Dores, the shooting showed up on the road against LSU to start SEC play and they got to walk away 1-0 to start it off in conference play. Vanderbilt has enough talent to find their rhythm and surprise some people in the SEC, but after their start, the expectations have certainly been lowered in Nashville.
Through Tuesday’s games, the away team is 7-2 with just Kentucky and Florida winning their home openers. This is just yet another sign that the league will be another crazy ride this season. Between the lack of dominant teams outside of Kentucky and a handful of young, talented teams that will get better, the SEC is going to be hard to predict, even at this point. Football season is awhile away, so sit back and enjoy my favorite sport in the Southeastern Conference.