I really thought that I was starting to be confident in where each SEC team stood as we got the start of conference play this week. I expected the first games to answer some questions and provide some good matchups. Well, #SECBasketballFever had other plans.
Tennessee looked like a top team nationally when they went on the road and destroyed Missouri. That caused me to question Missouri and wonder if they’d start 0-2 when they had to travel to Arkansas who got a big win at Auburn. Nope. Missouri then beat the Razorbacks and Tennessee was the questionable one with a home loss to a hot shooting Alabama team.
The only thing I am willing to claim confidence in at this point is that there is a split between the top-6 teams in the conference and the rest of the league. I think that as it stands now, the best team in the league is one of Tennessee, Florida, LSU, Missouri, Alabama, or Arkansas. If Kentucky can keep playing Dontaie Allen and shoot as well as they did against Mississippi State and/or Auburn can figure out their point guard play to limit the turnovers one of them might be able to join the top group.
While I still think it is too early to totally scrap the idea of homecourt advantage this season, the first week of SEC play has shown that it won’t be near as big of a factor as it would be with fans in the stands. Through the first 11 SEC games, the road team won 7 of them.
In setting my rankings, I kept winding up in pretty circular thought processes, and in finalizing my list I’d like to emphasize the point from below: I’m ranking teams based on whom I think would win a series on a neutral court if the game was played next week.
My method for power rankings is whom I think will win a game between two teams on a neutral court if the game was played at the time of the rankings. For instance, I would pick the number one team to beat every team ranked below it on a neutral court and the fourth-ranked team would be favored over everyone other than the top three teams. I consider the entire season as a basis for how good I think the team is, but if a team is missing key players or is in a slump, that can weigh more in my current power rankings, even if a team is better overall for the season.
14. South Carolina Gamecocks
Last Week: Won vs Florida A&M 78-71
The Gamecocks took almost an entire month off between their last game against Houston and their win over Florida A&M. Without playing any SEC games this week and barely squeaking by a bad Florida A&M team at home, I have the least confidence in South Carolina right now. With Frank Martin as the coach, and a few talented players such as AJ Lawson, Jermaine Couisnard, and Justin Minaya, I don’t think South Carolina will be the worst team all year, but someone has to hold that spot for now and the Gamecocks appear to be the most deserving at the moment.
13. Vanderbilt Commodores
Last Week: Lost vs Florida 72-91
Against my better judgment, I thought that Vanderbilt might have a chance at home against Florida in the Gators’ first game back after a long break and playing their first game without Keyontae Johnson. Instead, Florida left with a big 19-point road win that wasn’t ever close. Scotty Pippen Jr. had himself another good game, and there are some potential stars in Nashville once again, but it looks more like they’ll be a team with one or two good players that can’t get enough wins to finish outside of the SEC basement again.
12. Ole Miss Rebels
Last Week: Lost at Alabama 64-82, Lost vs Wichita State 79-83
Going into SEC play, I had Ole Miss as the 5th best team in my power rankings. I was really buying into their defense and thought that Romello White and Luis Rodriguez would be perfect additions to Devontae Shuler. However, the Rebels instead got run out of the gym in Tuscaloosa and then followed it up with a home loss to Wichita State. The close road loss at Dayton is I guess worth something as a data point, but it seems that all the other wins might have had more to do with the fact that those teams were all closer to the bottom in college basketball.
That being said, Romello White and Luis Rodriguez are currently 9th and 10th in my SEC player rankings and then KJ Buffen and Devontae Shuler are also at 16th and 22nd respectively. This could also be because of padded stats from the weak non-conference schedule, but I also expect Kermit Davis to figure something out with one of the most talented teams he’s had in Oxford.
11. Georgia Bulldogs
Last Week: Lost vs Mississippi State 73-83
Similar to Ole Miss, I might have put too much value in Georgia’s non-conference performance. I was cautious with my expectations for the Bulldogs since they started undefeated against some pretty bad teams but then started to question if I was underrating them when they beat a decent Cincinnati team by 15.
After their first showing in the SEC, a double-digit home loss against Mississippi State, I think they’ll slide back closer to where I originally expected them to be in the preseason. Sahvir Wheeler still has the opportunity to be one of the best point guards in the SEC, but even he has cooled off a bit as the competition has gotten tougher. Toumani Camara could be a counter presence down low for the Bulldogs as he has 3rd most rebounds per game, has 7th best defensive rating, and is currently my 8th overall player in the SEC.
10. Kentucky Wildcats
Last Week: Won at Mississippi State 78-73 (2OT)
Kentucky snapped their 6-game losing streak, and it was a road game against an improved Mississippi State team, none the less. However, after struggling almost all non-conference play and needing two overtimes and over 50% shooting from three, including a heroic performance from Dontaie Allen, I’m not quite ready to shoot Kentucky up my power rankings quite yet.
It took Dontaie Allen finally playing and Calipari getting ejected for Kentucky to come back and eventually win in Starkville. I don’t expect the Wildcats to totally figure everything out and make a run for the league title quite yet, but John Calipari will hopefully figure out how to make this team competitive, even if he has to make more adjustments to his typical ways than he would like.
Kentucky hosts Vanderbilt this week and then travels to Florida. A game against one of the worst teams and one of the best teams will at least allow the Wildcats to show exactly what they’re going to be in conference play this year. Is Dontaie Allen all the Cats needed? Will they be able to keep shooting well enough and keep up their defensive effort? We’ll see.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
Last Week: Lost at LSU 54-77, Won vs Auburn 68-66
I was prepared to keep Texas A&M near the bottom of the rankings when they managed to score just 54 points against LSU, but the Aggies bounced back well and led Auburn almost the entire game despite plenty of sloppy play from both teams. It took an impressive layup in the final seconds by Andre Gordon for A&M to hold on in the win against Auburn, and with the game being in College Station and essentially being a toss-up, I’m going to keep the Aggies one spot below Auburn for now. I’ll address more of the issues for Auburn next, but in a game where Auburn shot just 33.3% from deep and turned the ball over 18 times, I’d expect A&M to win by more than 2 at home if they’re the better team.
The win over Auburn win was nice, and Buzz Williams knows you take SEC wins no matter how close they are, but I think the loss at LSU was more representative of what Texas A&M will be this season. The Aggies are just a poor offensive team this season, and while they currently have the best play in my statistical rankings, Emanuel Miller, even he isn’t a very efficient offensive threat. The next best players for A&M are all the way down at 51st, 52nd, and 53rd in my player rankings.
8. Auburn Tigers
Last Week: Lost vs Arkansas 85-97, Lost at Texas A&M 66-68
Justin Powell picked a bad time to start cooling off for Auburn as the freshman was looking like one of the best surprises for the Tigers but is now just 1-13 from the field and hasn’t made a three in the first two SEC games. Auburn also has still not figured out their turnovers and is averaging 18.5 giveaways in SEC play so far. Despite Sharife Cooper still not being eligible and Tyrell Jones opting to transfer, Allen Flanigan has stepped in and shown that he can also be an asset in the backcourt. Bruce Pearl will obviously want his team to clean up the turnovers, but they’re still leading the SEC with 17 assists per game in league play so far and also lead the league in assist rate at both 59.4% for the year and 65.4% in the first two SEC games.
This is by no means an accurate way to rank teams, but by just taking the average of each team’s ranking in various basic stats and advanced stats, Auburn is 10th overall for basic stats and 5th overall in advanced stats while somehow being 7th overall in basic stats and 2nd overall in advanced stats in league play, despite being 0-2 to start. The advanced stats in particular could move back down to better reflect Auburn’s record or it could be a slight sign that the Tigers are closer to figuring things out.
As I mentioned at the top, if Auburn can figure out their point guard play, they might have a chance to still compete in the top half of the league. Without it, they will likely continue to just look like a team with lots of potential and no way to put it together this season. Sharife Cooper being cleared would obviously be the ideal scenario, but even Justin Powell going back to playing like he was at the beginning of the year or Allen Flanigan continuing to contribute with the ball in his hands might be enough for Auburn to not fall towards the bottom.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last Week: Won at Georgia 83-73, Lost vs Kentucky 73-78 (2OT)
The fairly convincing win at Georgia shocked me a little bit, but then Mississippi State followed it up by leading Kentucky most of the game and still only falling in double-overtime despite the Wildcats finally having an excellent night from downtown. Since Iverson Molinar has been playing, Mississippi State’s only losses have both come in double-overtime games. Molinar is currently my 6th best player in the SEC and Tolu Smith and DJ Stewart Jr. are also in my top-30.
If Georgia and Kentucky both wind up actually being some of the worse teams in the SEC, maybe these performances shouldn’t count for as much credit as I’m giving them now, but Ben Howland has almost always had the Bulldogs as a competitive team in the SEC since he joined. This might be the ceiling for the team because I don’t see a path for them to get much better, but holding steady in the middle of the pack in conference play would surpass my preseason expectations for the Bulldogs.
6. Arkansas Razorbacks
Last Week: Won at Auburn 97-85, Lost vs Missouri 68-81
The Razorbacks seemed to put all my doubts about their weak non-conference schedule aside when they started SEC play off with an impressive 12-point win in Auburn Arena against an Auburn team that usually doesn’t lose when they shoot that well. After that Wednesday night result and watching Missouri get blown out at home against Tennessee, I thought Arkansas was about to easily handle the other Tigers as well and sit convincingly at the top as one of the better teams in the league.
However, Saturday made a lot of things interesting and Arkansas started the day by losing by 13 in Bud Walton Arena. That game would be a sign of what was to come for the rest of the day in the SEC, and this is just the beginning of where things get really difficult in my power rankings. I certainly still think that Arkansas is one of the best teams in the SEC, and there is a sizable gap between them and Mississippi State who holds the 7th spot. However, the weak non-conference schedule, and then the inability to slow down an inside presence like Jeremiah Tilmon while Justin Smith is out with an injury has me concerned about how the Razorbacks will fare against the good teams in the league.
Maybe the Missouri loss was just an off game and the Tigers are actually the second-best team in the league like they seemed to be before this week. If that’s the case, Arkansas could be right back in the top-4. But for now, I’d take each of the five teams ahead of them in my rankings if a series was played next week on a neutral court. So to stick to my method, the Hogs landing as the worst of the best for now.
5. Alabama Crimson Tide
Last Week: Won vs Ole Miss 82-64, Won at Tennessee 71-63
Yes, I am fully aware that this seems low for an Alabama team that just had good wins, including a very impressive win in Knoxville to bring the Volunteers back down to earth with the rest of the SEC. Yes, it is very promising that Alabama is continuing to get better shooting the three, and players like John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford are beginning to look like I expected them to in the preseason. It’s also even more impressive that Alabama is the early leader in defensive rating during league play at just 86 points giving up per 100 possessions.
Because of all of those things, I’ve moved Alabama all the way up from 9th last week and I do think they’ve shown that they are one of the top teams like I and others expected in the preseason. However, I am going to wait just a little bit longer to fully dive in because I’ve seen Alabama have great games early in the season before only to come back down to earth quickly after. If Alabama shoots the ball as well as they did in Knoxville on Saturday, they’re probably going to beat just about any team in the SEC. But if that game were played again, or a game against any of the four teams currently above them, I think I’d be only tempted to take Alabama over Missouri in a multi-game series right now.
Alabama’s best game of the year and one of Tennessee’s worst meant an 8-point win for the Tide. I think it would take a similar situation against each of the teams currently above them. But if Josh Primo and Jahvon Quinerly continue to play well and Alabama can continue to rebound with bigger teams consistently, they might have a shot to move higher up amongst the teams comfortably in the top half of the league. If Alabama is going to compete for a regular-season championship, this 2-0 start, and especially the road win at Tennessee, will be a major boost.
4. Missouri Tigers
Last Week: Lost vs Tennessee 53-73, Won at Arkansas 81-68
It was quite the roller coaster the past few weeks for Missouri. The Tigers came into SEC play with one of the most impressive non-conference resumes and the matchup with Tennessee looked like it would be a battle of the two best teams in the SEC in game one. Then Missouri put up a dud at home and managed to only score 53 points and lost to the Vols by 20. This caused me to consider a bunch of things, but I convinced myself that Tennessee was just far and away better than everyone else in the SEC and maybe Missouri’s experience advantage would wear off a little as the season went on. But then Missouri bounced back with a nice road win and Tennessee lost at home to Alabama.
I’m still not exactly sure what to think about Missouri, but because they do still have one of the most experienced teams in the SEC, I have more faith in them to bounce back from losses and their non-conference resume is still impressive. Florida and LSU both look a little better overall, but I think Cuonzo Martin’s squad has enough talent to maintain a low floor in league play. These Tigers will be able to test my current theory when they host LSU on Saturday after traveling to Mississippi State during the week.
3. LSU Tigers
Last Week: Won vs Texas A&M 77-54, Lost at Florida 79-83
Coming into conference play, it looked like Trendon Watford was the best player in the SEC, especially with Keyontae Johnson, unfortunately, being out for the year. Watford has had a slower start to the conference schedule, but he should get it rolling again soon. Whether Watford is the best overall player of not this year, I think I’ve already seen enough to be confident in saying that LSU freshman Cameron Thomas is definitely the best scorer in the league, and might be one of the best scorers in the country. Thomas hasn’t scored less than 16 points in any game, has 28, 32, and 29 points in each of his last three games, and averages 24.6 on the year so far.
Along with Watford and Thomas, LSU also still has other offensive weapons like Javonte Smart and Darius Days. Even LSU’s defense has looked better lately as they held Texas A&M to just 54 points and currently have the 6th best defensive rating in SEC play (that will do when they have the most efficient offense by quite the margin so far this season). Without Shareef O’Neal, LSU did struggle to slow down Florida’s bigs, but as long as he gets back, LSU should remain as one of the favorites right below Tennessee to win the SEC title this year.
2. Florida Gators
Last Week: Won at Vanderbilt 91-72, Won vs LSU 83-79
I moved Florida down to 6th in my power rankings last week because I thought that surely the loss of Keyontae Johnson and the break that the team took due to his horrible injury would have the Gators taking a step back. However, after just two games back, it seems I was completely wrong. Obviously, as the season progresses, there will be games where Florida wishes they had their preseason SEC Player of the Year, but so far Scottie Lewis, Colin Castleton, and other guys have stepped up quite well to fill in.
After their road win at Vanderbilt and a home win over LSU, Florida currently leads the SEC in offensive rating (121.2), effective field goal percentage (61.1%), true shooting percentage (69.9%), and rebounding rate (54.6%). They also have the best average ranking across all advanced stats in SEC play and 2nd in the same category for the full season so far. The Gators are one of just two teams to start 2-0 and they happen to travel to face the other, Alabama, on Tuesday. After the Alabama game, the Gators get to host Kentucky and Ole Miss, then go to Mississippi State before returning home to face Tennessee on January 19th. A lot could change over the next two weeks, but after just beating LSU, regardless of how the Alabama game goes, the matchup with Tennessee will be pivotal for the Gators SEC title opportunities.
1. Tennessee Volunteers
Last Week: Won at Missouri 73-53, Lost vs Alabama 63-71
As I’ve mentioned at least once in this post, after the Missouri game, I really thought Tennessee had separated themselves from the rest of the league and were certainly the best team in the conference. By leaving them in the top spot of my power rankings, I still clearly think that they’re still the best team in the SEC, but Alabama did show that they’re not flawless and maybe closer to the rest of the top half than the first game showed.
The defense didn’t totally fail against Alabama, as the Volunteers still held a very good Alabama offensive night to just 1.026 points per possession, but it seems that Tennessee’s offense could be a slight concern in the future. Although if you told most SEC teams that they could shoot 31.8% from the field, 19% from three, and just 65.4% from the FT line and still only lose by 8, they’d probably take it. Yves Pons only played one minute in the first half against Alabama due to foul trouble, and when he returned to play the entire second half, he managed to get five blocks and limit Alabama mostly just threes. Most teams are not going to shoot 50% from three against the Vols, and I don’t think even Alabama would do it over the course of a neutral court series.
Maybe Arkansas will highlight similar weaknesses when they come to Knoxville this week, but for now, I still think that Tennessee is the best team in the SEC, even if they’re not as far ahead as I was starting to think. After the first two games in SEC play, I think Tennessee just fell from Final Four team just SEC favorite with still a good shot to go deep in March Madness.