Every week we will be taking a gander around the SEC to see how the competition is doing. This is a football conference no doubt, but the basketball side of things are really starting to come along. While there might not be many elite teams at the top of the standings, the depth is improved from past years. It's no Pac 16 or Big 12, but it's nothing to scoff at either. If there are specific teams/players that people have particular interest in, feel free to comment below and I'll add them in the mix.
While there is certainly some mass media cooking with their ranking (Kenpom has them at 16), Kentucky is Kentucky, BBN is BBN, and Rupp Arena is one of the hardest places to get a road win in the wide-world of sports. By the end of the season, this team will be humming, and should be a top 5, maybe even compete for a 1 seed. This is yet another great year in the Calipari Dynasty, with the only major difference from other Wildcat-monsters of the past is that the big name (Skal Labissiere) has failed to meet expectations and insert himself into the conversation for #1 overall in this years NBA draft (Simmons has cemented himself as the consensus top pick, regardless of the team that gets the pick.) The Wildcat roster is loaded with lottery talent as usual, though, and Skal will likely still find a way into a high draft postition. The Cats enter tonight's match-up with the Tigers at 11-2, with the only blemishes being at UCLA and against Ohio State (one of many excellent teams in the Big Ten.) They followed the loss against the Buckeyes first with an impressive win over Louisville and then blew out upstart Ole Miss last Saturday.
Texas A&M (#21)
Coach Billy Kennedy has his team locked in on the defensive end of the floor, and at 11-2 they've got great wins against Texas and Gonzaga, with close losses to Syracuse and ASU (closer than the scores indicate, certainly.) They don't necessarily have the name recognition of some of the other schools in the conference, but they do have a pair of senior studs in Jalen Jones and Danuel House (House, especially, is a gamer.) This would be a great opportunity for LSU to get a signature win on the road against a tournament ready team.
South Carolina (#22)
Frank Martin has this team streaking on both ends of the court early in the season, though it's their defense that has earned them a 13-0 mark thus far. While they don't have a signature win yet, they have a steady stream of appetizer SEC opponents before getting the big boys in February (including back-to-back home games against LSU and Kentucky.) The Gamecocks are a well rounded and deep team, with 6 players averaging 20 minutes a game and 5 players averaging double digits in scoring. We'll see how they hold-up throughout conference play, but as of now, this Gamecock squad looks like it could make some noise come tournament time.
Florida has been off to a up and down start under new HC Mike White, with a 9-4 mark on the season so far (losses to Purdue, Miami and Michigan St.) Purdue is a solid club, Michigan State is obviously a top 5 team in the nation, so the Gators have done a solid job of getting things going under the new regime. They'll see Tennessee Wednesday before taking on the Tigers in Gainesville on Saturday, Jan 9. While I would take a competitive game with Kentucky as a semi-moral victory tonight, this game with Florida is a must win to continue to build steam within the SEC and getting into the meat of the schedule.
The Rebels are 10-3 so far on the season, with a relatively soft schedule and loss to Kentucky to open their conference schedule. Kenpom has them ranked higher than expected (currently 80) and they should put up a decent fight to the Tigers, as they hung with the Wildcats for a stretch during their game. But, because of the talent on the Tigers side, this is the type of team LSU needs to be able to dispose of with regularity if they are to have any hopes at making a run in the tournament.
It's interesting the effort the two big Alabama football schools have taken to bringing in big names to try and turn around struggling basketball programs, but that's exactly what Avery Johnson is (he's an NBA coach, and a good one at that, so I'm not sure how long he'll last in Tuscaloosa.) He's faired better than Bruce Pearl, so far, as the Crimson Tide have a 9-3 record on the season, though playing a much weaker schedule. A stingy defensive team, Alabama will be a force to be reckoned with in the SEC once Johnson gets in a couple studs.
At 7-5, Bruce Pearl's Tigers are a program on the rise. While it may take a recruiting cycle or two, it surely wont be too long before Pearl has the team as a power in the SEC. After tough losses to Harvard and Hawaii back-to-back, AU righted the ship against Pearl's former employer, Tennessee. Next they get a match-up with South Carolina at home, before continuing on a tough SEC stretch and a matchup with Oklahoma State before they play LSU next month. Regardless of how they fair during that stretch, it's going to be a challenging environment for Simmons' and company to go into and get a win. This is a team to keep your eye on.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: Oklahoma (#2)
The Tigers get the Sooners in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and last night they battled Kansas for the top spot in the nation. Hield looked incredible (46, 8 and 6 on 22 shots) and Head Coach Lon Kruger coached an incredible game where the Sooners fell 109-106 in triple overtime, falling just short of overtaking the number 1 overall ranking in the country (Lawrence Field House is also virtually impossible to get a win in.) A victory over the Sooners in the SEC/Big 12 challenge could be huge for the Tigers' seeding (should they make the tournament, and no we aren't out of the woods yet), and that match-up is certainly one to circle on your calendars in terms of two of the country's best in Hield and Simmons going head-to-head.
That's all for this week. Again, if there are specific teams/players that people have particular interest in, feel free to comment below and I'll add them in the mix.