This is normally the time of year when the SEC starts to slide off the radar. Football season is in the books and national signing day for incoming recruits wrapped up earlier this week, with the conference again pulling in a haul. SEC basketball is a display in mediocrity, but in this case, it’s mediocrity with a lot of consequence for fans across the nation.
There are four teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and with anywhere from 0-4 possibly qualifying, this is the league to watch if you root for another team whose March fate is uncertain. As a basic primer, we’ll run through our Notebook Nine, nine basic points to know for understanding the state of SEC basketball…
*According to the bracket projections of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi—whose application of the exact criteria the Selection Committee uses has been amazingly accurate over the years—Tennessee, LSU and Missouri would all sneak into the tournament, along lock teams in Kentucky and Florida. But the Vols, LSU and Mizzou are all seeded in the 11/12 range, meaning they are one loss—or just natural margin of error for Lunardi—from missing the field.
*One team not in that group is Ole Miss, but the Rebels are 6-3 in the conference and in third place. They are also 15-7 overall with a ranking of #57 in the RPI. I’m not sure why they haven’t made it onto Lunardi’s radar yet (he includes the first eight teams to miss the field, which the Rebs also miss), but there’s a lot of season left.
*The Rebels are intriguing, not just because of their uncertainty, but their talent. They reached the NCAA field a year ago and beat Wisconsin in the first round. Ole Miss again has an explosive backcourt, with Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers combining for 37 ppg. Henderson gets the ink for his bizarre on-court antics, but Summers is the more efficient basketball player, getting his points on 50 percent-plus shooting, but within and behind the arc.
*LSU’s status looks shakier. They still have visits to Kentucky and Florida, and recent losses to woeful Alabama and mediocre Georgia suggest the Tigers are being exposed. They’ve got two solid frontcourt players in Johnny O’Bryant III and Jordan Mickey, the league’s best shotblocker, but no one to get them the ball.
*Tennessee is the team that looks ready to explode off the bubble and into lock category. At 14-8 overall, the worst of the league schedule is behind them. They’ve already lost at Kentucky, Florida and a competitive Vanderbilt. The Vols have the SEC’s best rebounder in Darnell Stokes and a great offensive threat in Jordan McRae. A soft schedule ahead affords the opportunity for a big run.
*Missouri is another interesting team, and we could probably do a separate nine-point feature just on the Tigers. For now, let’s just focus on the fact they have the SEC’s leading scorer in Jabari Brown, two more very good threats in Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross, losses to Kentucky and Florida behind them and a basketball tradition that suggests we’re going to see them in March.
*Vanderbilt is not on the radar, but the Commodores could still make it interesting. Their four non-conference losses are to Butler, Providence, Texas and St. Louis, none of which are awful. After a 1-4 start in SEC play, Vandy beat up on the conference’s underbelly for four straight wins to get to 5-4. This won’t catch anyone’s attention, but it also clearly suggests Vanderbilt is more on a par with the NCAA bubble teams we’re discussing.
*There are a lot of big-time scorers in this league, but if you’re looking for a Player of the Year candidate, don’t overlook Vanderbilt’s 6’9” senior Rod Odom. He leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 15/6, and also steps out and shoots a lot of threes, and does it well. Is he the best player in the SEC? No, but if he carries Vanderbilt to the NCAA Tournament, his resume would be MVP-worthy.
*We’ll wrap it up with Florida and Kentucky. The Gators are just a well-balanced team with no obvious stars, and that’s gotten them to 9-0 in the league and projected #1 seed. Kentucky is 7-2 and getting great play inside from hyped freshman Julius Randle (16 points/10 rebounds). The Wildcats have been let down by questionable guard play, with no one getting consistent assists or hitting the three-ball. Think what Randle might do if someone either got him the ball or loosened up a defense.