#SECBasketballFever season approaching, y'all. Yes, the Fever is back and ready to decimate the basketball population in full force, starting tonight.
What, you think I'm joking? Like the league didn't have two Final Four teams and three Sweet 16 teams last year. Elite conference, right?
That's preposterous to suggest of course, and while the league is improved basically from top-to-bottom, this is still the no-doubt worst conference among the "Power 5," with only the Big 10 even close after some truly horrid OOC losses. However, four teams in the NCAA Tournament should absolutely be the goal for the league. It's not a murder's row, but rather a minefield of potential pitfalls when the focus isn't there for LSU or any of the other contenders in the SEC's non-Kentucky division.
Let's take a look at each team, with their RPI (who you've played, their record and their opponents' record, etc), their KenPom rating (offensive/defensive efficiency, SOS, luck rating, adjusted tempo, etc), key wins and losses and a player to watch. With LSU finally entering the SEC as a truly viable NCAA threat, get familiar with the rest of the league so you know what to expect.
RPI: 53, KenPom: 69
KEY WINS: Arizona State (N), UCLA
KEY LOSS: @Wichita State
KEY PLAYER: G Levi Randolph (16.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 21 steals)
The Tide have looked solid all season, but just haven't been able to get over the hump at crucial moments. Whether it was the late struggles against Iowa State or the absolute collapse at Wichita State, Alabama has yet to finish like an upper-tier league team. They're on a bit of a roll heading into league play, though, and will be difficult to beat in the cavernous Coleman Coliseum, where they're 9-0 this season. We'll know a lot about the Tide by the end of January, as they play Kentucky twice, Florida, Arkansas, Texas A&M and South Carolina in the next 3+ weeks.
RPI: 33, KenPom: 35
KEY WINS: @SMU, Dayton
KEY LOSS: @Clemson
KEY PLAYER: F Bobby Portis (16.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 56.8 FG%)
Count me among those still hesitant about the Hogs, even though they crept into the top 25 this week. The Clemson loss still appears to signal some road struggles ahead for Arkansas, a notorious bugaboo for the program in recent years. With Portis and Michael Qualls as one of the SEC's best duos and a humongous homecourt advantage, there's little excuse for this team. It should be NCAA Tournament or bust, though the defense, at 253rd in the game in points allowed, may have to support this top-10 offense at some point for that to be a reality.
RPI: 120, KenPom: 138
KEY WINS: Oregon State (N), Xavier
KEY LOSSES: @Texas Tech, Coastal Carolina
KEY PLAYER: F Cinmeon Bowers (13.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg)
It was a slow start in Bruce Pearl's first season, including some brutal offensive outings against Colorado and Tulsa. But all appears well on the Plains with a five-game winning streak in tow and Cinmeon Bowers mauling foes down low. Auburn is certainly not ready to compete for anything more than a spot in the top half of the conference (that's the ceiling) but they should score an upset or two along the way. Any positive vibes this season should make SEC fans wary of this program going forward, because we know Pearl can have the Tigers rocking, and soon.
RPI: 144, KenPom: 23
KEY WINS: Yale, Wake Forest
KEY LOSSES: Florida State, Miami, Kansas (N)
KEY PLAYER: F Dorian Finney-Smith (13.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 41.3 3-pt %)
Take a look at those RPI/Ken Pom numbers and notice the discrepancy. Nowhere is the difference in the formulas more obvious than with the Gators. Florida's W/L record is horrid by its standards heading into league play but don't let that fool you. Almost every significant contributor has been injured for an extended stretch - Billy Donovan said the team's first stretch of three healthy practices came last week! Even more than that, UF has played a daunting, national OOC schedule and more often than not, controlled the games it lost to strong teams like Georgetown, Miami and Kansas. If this team starts finishing games, it's an instant favorite for the No. 2 spot in the conference table.
RPI: 20, KenPom: 31
KEY WINS: Seton Hall, @Kansas State
KEY LOSS: @Georgia Tech
KEY PLAYERS: G Charles Mann (12.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.8 apg)
Georgia has been the quiet and steady team in non-conference play. Since somewhat shockingly falling to Georgia Tech in the season opener, the Dawgs only losses came against Gonzaga and Minnesota in well-contested neutral-site contests in New York. While they haven't always looked pretty doing it, UGA has reeled off six straight and KenPom even likes them, with a defense that ranks among the nation's 20 best in points/100 possessions. With Charles Mann and Marcus Thornton forming an experienced core, the Bulldogs are an NCAA contender in a conference that desperately needs them to be one.
RPI: 1, KenPom: 1
KEY WINS: Kansas (N), Texas, UNC, @Louisville
KEY LOSSES: None
KEY PLAYER: F Willie Cauley-Stein (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 60.7 FG%)
What more can you say about Kentucky? A juggernaut of juggernauts, the Wildcats are practically favorites not just to win the SEC, but to sweep straight through it. It's not a typical juggernaut, either, despite the massive talent across the roster. There's no one dominant stud or even a no-doubt top-5 pick. Instead, the Cats swarm you with two elite lineups, bludgeoning you with defense and a lack of weak links.
RPI: 36, KenPom: 55
KEY WINS: UMass, @West Virginia
KEY LOSS: Clemson (N)
KEY PLAYER: F Jordan Mickey (16.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 43 blocks)
Our beloved Tigers really looked lost out of the gate, but as conference play approaches, the early woes are largely forgotten in favor of a squad that has only improved, in tangible ways and mentally as well. Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey are almost inarguably the best pair in the league, and LSU seems to get what it needs on offense from any number of ways otherwise. The schedule is tougher than anticipated but the Tigers are certainly in the cluster of teams that could easily win the league's non-Kentucky division. Look out for scoring lulls and depth issues to be the problems that sprout up in SEC play. We'll see just how NBA-ready Martin and Mickey really are.
RPI: 219, KenPom: 189
KEY WINS: Saint Louis (N), Florida State
KEY LOSSES: Arkansas St., SC Upstate, McNeese
KEY PLAYER: F Roquez Johnson (10.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 58.2 FG%)
Yikes. Even though State scored a home win over Florida State last week, it's been an ugly start for the Bulldogs. They've suffered losses to Atlantic Sun, Sun Belt and Southland Conference teams at home. After Arkansas St. cruised to a win in The Hump, former LSU coach John Brady declared that Mississippi State's shooting is "just not very good." Indeed, the Bulldogs are 304th in the nation in scoring and play six of their first 10 conference games on the road. This could get ugly.
RPI: 177, KenPom: 157
KEY "WIN": Valparaiso
KEY LOSSES: UM-Kansas City, Illinois (N), Oklahoma St
KEY PLAYER: F Jonathan Williams III (13.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 48.3 FG%)
Missouri has Florida syndrome, but don't expect the Tigers to suddenly start looking like a contender. Despite some tough defeats late to Oklahoma State and Illinois, this is a team that looks like it has a first-year coach. And that's nothing to be ashamed of, but I'd be stunned to see Mizzou avoid 12 losses in league play. They don't do anything particularly well and the offense is stagnant to a fault, with the team accounting for just 10.2 assists per game, 313th in the country. Now that I've said all this, I still fully expect LSU's game Thursday against these Tigers to go right down to the wire.
RPI: 93, KenPom: 67
KEY WINS: Creighton, Cincy, @Oregon
KEY LOSSES: Charleston Southern, Western Kentucky
KEY PLAYER: G Jarvis Summers (12.2 ppg, 45 assists)
Ole Miss is gonna catch some teams off guard, because the Rebels have been nothing if not inconsistent. No team in the SEC has proven itself to be capable of such lows while also producing some very nice performances. You can't scrub off those bad losses (both at home), but beating Creighton and Cincinnati? It's hard to ignore those highs. Ultimately, the Rebels are good enough to look like the hot team down the stretch but playing the potential top half of the SEC in the first six league games could be too much to overcome.
RPI: 86, KenPom: 28
KEY WINS: Oklahoma St, Iowa St
KEY LOSSES: Charlotte (N), Akron (N)
KEY PLAYER: G Sindarius Thornwell (11.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 22 steals)
The Gamecocks are LSU's only competition for the hottest team in the conference, non-UK division. Since stumbling out the gate at 2-3, South Carolina is beating good teams and handling anybody who isn't. They've toppled Oklahoma State, Clemson and Iowa State and won the other four games in this winning streak by 23 points per contest. Remember, this team was good enough to beat Kentucky mere weeks before the Wildcats went on that epic March run. Frank Martin's got it working in Columbia after all.
RPI: 75, KenPom: 93
KEY WINS: Kansas St, Butler
KEY LOSS: Marquette (N)
KEY PLAYER: G Josh Richardson (16.5 ppg, 3.6 apg, 35 mins/game)
Tennessee seems mighty unimpressive, but the Vols may be more solid than you think. There's no truly bad loss in the mix and they were competitive against Kansas and VCU before scoring a great win against Butler. After that team with with McRae and Stokes last year, this year's version is a drag to watch though. There's no organization offensively and Josh Richardson is about the only significant holdover from that Sweet 16 squad. The Vols could be feisty in some home games. Still, it's hard to think this team can even make the NIT.
RPI: 48, KenPom: 59
KEY WINS: Arizona State, New Mexico
KEY LOSS: Kansas St (N)
KEY PLAYER: G Jalen Jones (13.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 46.2 3-pt %)
Get your kicks in now, SEC, because the Aggies have a very nice recruiting class joining a solid roster next year. For now, though, A&M seems to be a bit overrated, especially by the RPI. They blew a couple neutral-site games and got handled by Baylor. There just aren't very many good resume wins and I can't see the Aggies scoring too many more in league play. An NIT berth should be more than in play, though, and that's enough to get the program building some momentum for a brighter future.
RPI: 82, KenPom: 53
KEY WINS: Yale, Purdue
KEY LOSSES: @Georgia Tech, Rutgers (N)
KEY PLAYER: C Damian Jones (16.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 blocks/game)
Vanderbilt is such an enigma after a nondescript OOC slate. Competitive in all their losses but also with some unnecessarily close calls at home, I just don't know what to make of the Dores. Despite a couple down years, I tend to trust Kevin Stallings to make the pieces fit. Therefore, I totally expect Vanderbilt to come out of nowhere and finish with a .500 record in league play. Or lose every game by 3 points. Don't trust this team.
- LSU will go 13-5 in SEC play, turning on the jets after a 3-loss January start to league action. The Tigers will go 8-1 at home and 5-4 on the road, earning the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament, where they make the Finals before losing to Kentucky. Anywhere between a 6 and a 10 seed is in play for a potential NCAA Tournament berth.
- Arkansas will finish second in the SEC, also at 13-5 but win the head-to-head tiebreaker due to a win over LSU in Bud Walton arena — the teams' only meeting in the regular season. They are awarded a trophy because Kentucky is playing on another realm this year.
- Florida will finish 4th, at 12-6. Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M will round out the top half of the league.
- Kentucky will drop a game somewhere. Their half-court offense will be the reason why.
- Bruce Pearl will have Auburn looking more than competent come March. It will look a lot like Johnny Jones' first year at LSU.
- Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will both be First Team All-SEC selections.
- Alabama will fire head coach Anthony Grant after a second straight sub-.500 season in SEC play.
- #SECBasketballFever will start our next plague, wiping out the remaining crowds from already sparsely-filled SEC arenas.