The college sports world made the complete segueway from football to basketball tonight, so perhaps it was appropriate that Alabama was in action and going down to defeat. The SEC began conference play and Missouri knocked off the Tide 84-68. Mizzou is one of three teams with a legitimate shot at the conference crown, as we lay out the landscape for the coming two months in SEC basketball.
THE BIG THREE
Missouri is the highest-ranked team in the polls right now at #10, and Florida is right behind at #11. And you can’t rule out Kentucky, even though a series of non-conference losses have left the Wildcats unranked.
Missouri: Just as they were last year, the Tigers are oriented to the backcourt, but unlike last year there’s a little more muscle up front to back up the guard play. Alex Oriakhi, the UConn transfer is averaging eight rebounds a game, and senior forward Laurence Bowers does it all—scores 17 a night, rebounds and hits better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Phil Pressey leads up the guards, scoring 14 and dishing seven assists per game with Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell all combining to produce nearly thirty points a game, and all three go 6’4” or 6’5”, giving the Tigers a good size matchup in the backcourt.
The Tigers have only lost to Louisville and in overtime on the road at UCLA, while Stanford and Illinois are their best wins. There will be a lot more wins ahead of them, and if Oriakhi keeps hitting the boards, the rest of the team will stay consistent.
Florida: The Gators had great expectations coming into the year and there’s still every chance to fulfill them. Losses at Arizona and to Kansas State have slowed them down, though Florida has blown out Florida State, Marquette and Wisconsin. While none of those three are Top 16-caliber teams this season, Florida’s ability to blow them out at least establishes that Billy Donovan’s team is still several cuts above the standard NCAA bubble team.
It’s an experienced group, with Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario providing the senior leadership and scoring in the backcourt, with Erik Murphy and Patric Young up front. Young is also the team’s best three-point shooter. The problem Donovan has had is that forward Will Yeguete or two-guard Scottie Wilbekin haven’t really stepped up. My concern about Florida from the start has been their ability to improve beyond their core veterans and so far that’s not in evidence.
Kentucky: John Calipari has to like where he’s sitting. The media pressure is off and the Wildcats are unranked, even though their four losses are to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor and Louisville, a quartet that would make a very credible Final Four. Kentucky’s also got a win over Maryland, another young team that’s on the rise.
UK is big across the front line, with Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wittjen all at least 6’10” and all of them rebound. So does freshman forward Alex Poythess, who averages 14 points/7 rebounds. Poythess and Noel join Archie Goodwin as the great Calipari freshmen this year. Goodwin leads up the backcourt with 16 points per game. Kentucky’s most recent loss was a competitive 80-77 defeat to Louisville and I think UK is coming on. My chits are on the ‘Cats to grab the SEC title before it’s over, with Missouri in second and Florida rolling in third. All three teams will be threats to go deep into the NCAA Tournament.
THE X-FACTOR TEAMS
All of these teams either have red flags on their non-conference resume, but intriguing talent, or have piled up a string of non-descript wins that leave us in wait-and-see mode.
Ole Miss: Murphy Holloway averages a 16/11 each night, but the 6’7” forward needs to be banned from the three-point shot where he’s hitting 14 percent. Reginald Buckner is another talented forward, and this duo is joined by explosive junior Marshall Henderson in the backcourt, who’s averaging 18 ppg. Jarvis Summers does a credible job running the floor. The Rebels are hindered by the lack of a center, although in today’s game that’s not a killer problem. More concerning are the losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State, with no notable wins.
LSU: Another two-loss team, with the defeats to Boise State and Marquette, and Seton Hall being the best win. LSU is heavily guard-dependent, with sophomore Johnny O’Bryan being the only player taller than 6’5” that gets regular minutes. Fortunately, 6’5” Shavon Coleman can rebound and block shots, and a three-guard offense is well-balanced, with Charles Carmouche running the show and Andre Stringer the best three-point shooter. How far can they get relying exclusively on the guards?
Tennessee: They’ve got four losses, including ones to Georgetown and Oklahoma State, but the Vols have also beaten Wichita and Xavier in a non-conference run that will have them toughened for league play. Tennessee gets good backcourt play from Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, and they have a group of four forwards that go to the glass. If the Vols get a little frontcourt scoring, they’ll move up. Pencil them in as the most likely team in this group to break the ceiling and get to the next level.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have two explosive scorers in sophomore guard B.J. Young and forward Marshawn Powell. The post players are respectable in Hunter Mickelson and Coty Clarke, though both need to be a little tougher on the boards if the Hogs are going to move up. While there are no notable wins, none of the four losses—Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan are anything to be ashamed of.
Auburn: I’m pushing my luck putting them this high, since the Tigers are 6-7. But they have a great scorer in Frankie Sullivan at the guard spot, and he’s ably supported by running mate Chris Denson. 6’10” Rob Chubb does a good job rebounding. Most important, the Tigers are improving. In the last two games, they took Illinois to overtime on the road and beat Florida State. Look for Auburn to at least be midlevel in SEC play.
THE DOUBLE X-FACTOR TEAMS
Another group of teams with similar resumes to the ones above, but just enough problems to warrant dropping them a tier.
South Carolina: They are similar to LSU with the heavy reliance on the guards, only the Gamecocks are even smaller, with 6’5” Lakeem Jackson being the tallest player to get regular time. And the non-conference record, though 10-3, includes a loss to Elon and an overtime win over UW-Milwaukee, who is terrible this year.
Texas A&M: Another 10-3 team and the Aggies lost to Southern. You have to like Elston Turner and his 16 ppg, and senior forward Ray Turner who averages a 12/7. But unless Johnny Football can suit it up and play basketball, the NIT is the best hope this team has.
Alabama: The loss to Missouri tonight was a harbinger of things to come. The Tide aren’t strong enough up front, and they rely heavily on Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey to score from the perimeter. Both are good enough shooting the three that they, along with 6’6” sophomore Rodney Cooper, can have some magical nights, but eventually someone has to score and rebound down low.
Vanderbilt: A program that’s enjoyed its share of success is on a major rebuilding project, though at least 17 ppg Kedren Johnson gives the Commodores something to build around.
Georgia: Another case of a team with one good player, in this case Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, with his 18/7 each night.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have nothing. A loss to Alabama A&M on December 30 is the harbinger of a long year ahead.