Can Kentucky Be Caught In The SEC Basketball Race?

The SEC gave the country a good Saturday of college basketball. Tennessee upset UConn and within conference play Kentucky survived Alabama 77-71, and Mississippi State won an overtime thriller over Vanderbilt, with all three games on national television. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a look at the race for the conference championship and how the contenders compare.

Kentucky leads the league with a 5-0 record and will almost surely ascend to #1 nationally after Syracuse’s loss at Notre Dame. Vanderbilt and Florida each have one conference loss, while Mississippi State’s win Saturday kept them in the mix at 3-2 in SEC games. Since the Bulldogs are ranked #15 in the country, and probably going to move up when the new polls come out, I’m going to include them in this discussion, something that’s not being accorded to other two-loss teams in Ole Miss and Arkansas. Why? I think only Mississippi State, Florida or Vandy have a puncher’s chance of stealing this league from the Wildcats this year and that’s what this article is aimed at. Here’s a breakdown of the SEC’s top four…

Kentucky (19-1 5-0): Only a last-second three-pointer at Indiana is keeping John Calipari’s team from undefeated status, but being a typically young Calipari outfit, there’s reason to think they can get better. Six players get most of the action, and three are freshman while two more are sophomores. And the one senior, guard Darius Miller is the least productive of the bunch.

Freshman Marquis Teague runs the show and I would like to see better play from him. He’s doing a decent job in distributing the ball, but he’s not a great shooter and I’d like to see his assists shoot up close to double-digits, along the lines of Kendall Marshall at North Carolina. That’s a high expectation to put on a freshman, but when you’re a Calipari recruit you’re probably only around for two years at most anyway. Doron Lamb is the sharpshooter in the backcourt, equally adept in hitting from in front of the arc or behind it. The frontcourt is led by 6’10” freshman Anthony Jones, averaging 14 points/10 rebounds per game right now, while fellow frosh Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and sophomore Terrence Jones each score in double digits and kick in some rebounding help. The frontline is already playing at national championship level, Lamb can make defenses pay for collapsing down, so all that’s left is for Teague to raise his game a little bit. One of the country’s highly touted recruits coming into the year, I think there’s every reason to think he can do that, and it’s why I believe this team is the best in the nation right now.

Vanderbilt (14-5, 4-1): Vandy opened the season with hopes of challenging Kentucky and being a legitimate Final Four threat. After a tough December they briefly fell off the radar, but they now seem to be settling back in. The Commodores can beat you outside with the three-ball and they go hard to the glass with a balanced frontcourt. That’s a nice combination to have working for you, and while they don’t have the raw talent of UK, they do have experience.

The backcourt is led by senior Brad Tinsley and junior John Jenkins, a duo in its third straight year of starting together. Both are solid shooters from the floor and good from downtown. Jenkins is the pure scorer of the two averaging 20 ppg. At forward Jeffrey Taylor averages a 17/6 line and can step out hit the three himself. Lance Goulborne and Festus Ezeli fill the roles well, providing modest offense and solid rebounding help. If Ezeli, at 6’11”, can start grabbing 11-12 rebounds a game, up from his current 7-8, Vandy can win the SEC, which means they could also be the nation’s best.

Florida (15-4, 3-1): Billy Donovan has an experienced backcourt and a rebuilt frontcourt, which perhaps explains why his team is very dependent on shooting the ball to win. In Florida’s three SEC wins they’ve shot better than 50 percent from the floor. The one time they didn’t, they lost to Tennessee. That’s a tough way to make a living if you’ve got designs on a championship, since eventually you have to survive games when the shots aren’t falling.

Florida’s guards are Kenny Boynton and Ervin Walker. Like Vandy’s backcourt, the Gator pair has been together for several years now. Walker is a pure point guard, who distributes very well and shoots well enough to make you respect his jumper. Boynton is a lights-out two-guard who averages 18 ppg. Freshman Bradley Beal has been inserted into what’s become a three-guard offense, and Beal has made his mark by hitting the boards, even though he’s only 6’3”. That’s a nice intangible for the Gators to have, but it also underscores why the post men of Patric Young and Erik Murphy need to develop. Young is the only pure rebounder on this team right now, as Murphy is a finesse big man who can step out and hit the outside shot. Overall, Florida looks like a fun team that can play spoiler, but it’s tough to see them competing for an SEC title when a 6’3” guard is your second-best rebounder.

Mississippi State (16-4, 3-2): The Bulldogs haven’t played great in SEC games, winning an ugly game against Alabama and losing to Arkansas. They rely on getting to the free throw line, which can be an iffy proposition in road arenas come late January and February. But senior guard Dee Bost is a solid leader who scores 16 ppg, and the front court has three quality contributors in Arnetti Moultrie, Rodney Hood and Renardo Sidney. Moultrie is a tough rebounder and good scorer, giving MSU a good inside-out combo, while hood and Sidney provide reliable support. If the Bulldogs want to stay in this race, they need sophomore Jalen Steele to step up and provide Bost some help in the backcourt.

The SEC’s been as down in basketball lately as they have been up in football, something that can be obscured by the presence of Kentucky, but not since Florida’s back-to-back national champions of 2006-07, has the league been deep and provided several quality teams in its conference title race. In other years, the current Florida and Mississippi State teams would have been live contenders. This year I’d see both of them a notch behind Vanderbilt and Kentucky, with the young and talented Wildcats living up to the press clippings of their recruitment, at least for the rest of the regular season.

For the coming week, the games to keep an eye on are Vandy’s trip to Tennessee tomorrow night. The Vols are 9-10, but with the recent wins over Florida and UConn, we have to think this young team may be coming on. And on Saturday it’s Mississippi State going to Florida. Feburary is the real sweeps month, when Kentucky plays Vanderbilt twice, along with Florida and Mississippi State.