Checking in on the… SECPosted by rtmsf on December 3rd, 2008
Kurt of SEC Hoops: The Good, The Bad, The Dirty is the RTC correspondent for the Southeastern Conference.
The misery continues for the Southeastern Conference. Only one unbeaten remains after MSU, South Carolina and Tennessee dropped games, with only LSU keeping their heads above water. The Wildcats from Kentucky met a couple of high-profile-conference foes and matched up well, while Mississippi State dropped two close ones in their matchups against power-conference squads. As a whole, the conference is wallowing badly at the moment, but Tennessee – powered by All-American Tyler Smith – is looking like the perennial powerhouse they have become in the past few years under Bruce Pearl and set to take the SEC regular-season title once again.
Here’s the Week Two Power Rankings, with records and changes from last week.
#10 Tennessee (5-1, same)
LSU (5-0, +1)
#23 Florida (5-1, +1)
Kentucky (4-2, +5)
Mississippi State (5-2, -3)
Vanderbilt (5-1, same)
Ole Miss (5-1, +3)
Arkansas (4-1, +4)
Alabama (4-2, -1)
South Carolina (4-1, -5)
Georgia (5-2, same)
Auburn (3-3, -5)
I’m going to shift this week’s list to separating the teams based upon which tier they seem to be settling into early on. While these certainly aren’t early-season predictions on where these squads will end up in the postseason, it’s more of a snapshot of where they stand at the moment.
#10 Tennessee – Despite a loss to a top-ten Gonzaga squad, the Vols look to be the SEC’s only truly elite squad this season, and the conference’s only real chance at a Final Four run. In true UT fashion, the Vols are leading the SEC in scoring at 87.2 ppg, but placing dead last in scoring defense at 71.7 ppg. The orange-clad are also faltering in some key areas such as rebounding and free-throw shooting, which should concern the UT-faithful. As previously mentioned, junior big-man Tyler Smith has truly had a breakout season as expected, averaging over 18 points and five rebounds per game, while some other players like sophomore Brian Williams and Wayne Chism have really surprised for UT and made for a solid post presence. Pearl’s bunch is deep and dynamic.
LSU – It’s tough to place the Tigers on too high a pedestal, because they simply haven’t played anyone at all, and won’t throughout the entire non-conference slate. With that said, I must mention LSU first here simply because they haven’t lost a game. The squad is dominating the stats in the SEC, as they should be, leading in scoring and rebounding margin. The team also is impressing in the defensive categories thus far, and might try to unseat MSU as the top defensive squad in the conference. The conference’s leading returning scorer, senior Marcus Thornton, has actually slowed his pace drastically but still averages over 15 points per game. Another senior, Chris Johnson, is a long and lanky post-man who is quite similar to MSU’s Jarvis Varnado in stature and talent as he trails Varnado only slightly in rebounding and is second in blocks per game. The Tigers have a bunch of questions to answer, but tons of time to answer them.
#23 Florida – Florida is one of many SEC squads with an embarrassing schedule, although their only loss thus far is to a surprising Syracuse team. Donovan’s squad is full of youth, and it’s still showing in their offensive efficiency but lack of defensive pressure. In fact, the Gators rank dead last in the conference in field-goal percentage defense. The loss of Marreese Speights to the NBA has really reared its ugly head, as grabbing rebounds has evolved into a massive challenge for this team, ranking last in rebounding and second-to-last in rebounding margin. With superstar sophomore point guard Nick Calathes in the driver’s seat, however, the Gators rank second in assist-to-turnover ratio and turnover margin as Calathes is pacing the conference with 6.3 assists per game on top of leading the squad with 16.0 ppg. Calathes won’t be able to do it all, though, and I suspect the Gators will have their issues in the conference.
Kentucky – Billy Gillispie made an effort to reclaim some dignity he lost after dropping his second-straight early home game to a lowly mid-major this week by defeating two solid BCS programs in Kansas State and West Virginia. The team, however, still remains ranked near mid-pack in almost every single statistical category except for two – the Wildcats lead in field goal percentage on the hot hands of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson and rank last in turnover margin. The risk you take when you’re left without any true point guard on the roster, I suppose. Meeks, a junior, has become the surprise of the SEC by leading the entire league with 25.5 ppg, although he’s also attempted more shots from the field than any other player as well. Patterson has played outstandingly (15.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg) but his minutes have trailed off in favor of an increase for talented junior Perry Stevenson. Not the smartest thing in my opinion, considering Patterson is the returning SEC Co-Freshman of the Year. The Wildcats could have their weak moments due to poor ball-handling, but overall seem to be a minimal NCAA squad much like a year ago.
On the Bubble
Mississippi State – This has been a rough week for Bulldog fans. After a promising 4-0 start, State struggled on the road at St. Bonaventure and then dropped two-straight to big-conference programs Washington State and Texas Tech. Both games were competitive, but the ‘Dawgs simply showed their youth in poor ball handling and suffered from weak outings by their top shooters. Possibly the SEC Player of the Year leader at the moment, junior Jarvis Varnado has been double-teamed at every turn and is still averaging a double-double with 10.4 ppg and an SEC-topping 11.3 rpg along with a NCAA-leading 6.1 bpg. While Varnado has been simply amazing under the basket, the MSU guards have been fickle and unreliable, effectively spurning the offense by double-teaming Varnado. If those guards can step up and catch a rhythm, this could be a very good team. If not, the ‘Dawgs could miss the NCAAs.
Vanderbilt – The Commodores are winning, but much like the rest of the SEC, they’re squeaking by against lesser opponents at home. The squad has faced little real competition other than Illinois (a loss) and are still struggling offensively in the wake of SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster’s departure. Someone who could challenge for that spot this season, sophomore A.J. Ogilvy, hasn’t seen the touches he needs to truly dominate games and has also slacked on his rebounding, resulting in the team struggling on the boards. Freshman Jeffrey Taylor looks to be the future for the ‘Dores, as he averages 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in just 27 minutes. I’ve got to question Kevin Stallings’ decision-making thus far, as his top three scorers are averaging just 28.2 minutes per contest. If the team can get their difference-makers some minutes and develop a solid rotation, the Commodores could win enough games to make the NCAA’s once again.
Ole Miss – The early season has been decent for the Rebels, who likely weren’t expected to defeat South Alabama on a near-home court for USA but still managed the victory, and dropped a road game against a very experienced Utah squad. The wins have been ugly, though, as the Rebs rank near the bottom of the conference in points allowed and mid-pack in the offensive numbers. After losing two key guards early-on to injury, star sophomore point guard Chris Warren is being relied upon very heavily to produce points both through distribution and shooting, and he is responding in a big way. Warren averages 19.0 ppg, although his assist numbers have declined now that most of his assists are to himself. He also leads the league in free throw percentage (31of 34 for 91.2%) and steals per game. With David Huertas watching from the bench for the season due to injury, this squad will really struggle against solid competition, big and physical teams in particular.
Arkansas – Pelphrey’s ultra-young squad is one gigantic question mark so far. The ‘Backs are epitomizing the SEC’s struggles with cupcakes, but logged a decent/good win on the road against South Alabama and gave Missouri Valley standout Missouri State a run for their money on the road. My gut tells me this squad will end up much worse than this category at the end of the season, as the team is abysmal in nearly every offensive and defensive measure and only competes on the boards due to junior Michael Washington, who is one of only three SEC players (South Carolina’s Mike Holmes and MSU’s Jarvis Varnado the others) to average a double-double thus far. Washington is recording 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in dominating the paint thus far for Arkansas. Freshman point guard Courtney Fortson is leading the squad with 16.4 points and 4.6 assists per game, although he’s also turning the ball over 4.6 times a game. Fortson currently ranks with the highest field-goal percentage for a guard in the conference at 54.7% and is fourth in three-point percentage – if Arkansas can find another reliable offensive threat and increased pressure on defense, they might squeeze a postseason out of this rebuilding season.
Alabama – The Tide have looked horrendous in every outing thus far. After an embarrassing season-opening home loss to Mercer, the Tide were absolutely blown out by a very inexperienced Oregon squad and then recently squeaked by winless Alabama A&M in the final seconds. The offensive movement has been atrocious, largely due to the return of former All-American Ronald Steele. Because of him, you say? Yes – he’s leading the team with 14.2 points per game but is attempting over 10 shots from the field and hitting less than 40% of them. In addition, he’s handing out just 2.8 assists per game and turning the ball over 2.4 times. This isn’t the Steele of old. Other role-players are also struggling to fill their shoes, as sophomore shooting guard Senario Hillman is falling short of 12 points per game due to just a 26.7% mark from behind the arc. The Tide just don’t seem to have the efficiency or coaching to put together a respectable season, and if the Tide miss the NCAA’s expect Mark Gottfried to be out the door in Tuscaloosa.
South Carolina – USC is the opposite of Arkansas. As the Razorbacks should fall from their current ranking, the Gamecocks should rank higher than this. However, a loss to the College of Charleston despite being the most experienced team in the SEC gets you dropped like a rock. Despite this, USC ranks near the top of the league in offense and near mid-pack defensively and is putting up some decent stats despite some god-awful competition. Sophomore Mike Holmes has evolved into a superstar for this team, averaging a double-double with 12.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Junior Devan Downey is possibly the most difficult-to-guard player in the conference, and it shows in his 19.2 points per game and fourth-place ranking in the SEC in both steals and assists. The Gamecocks have little opportunity to prove their worth, and can’t afford any more losses to lower-tier programs before SEC play if they hope to make the NCAA’s.
Georgia – Dennis Felton has been floundering at Georgia, and this season is no exception. The Bulldogs were blown out on the road against Loyola Chicago, and defeated Eastern Michigan, Presbyterian and Santa Clara by a combined 15 points. Georgia’s offense is laughably terrible, and their rebounding and ball-sharing isn’t much better – all of this against very weak competition. Star freshman Howard Thompkins is the only remote sense of talent on the thin roster for Felton, and he’s been producing heavily with 16.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Further evidence of Felton’s inferior coaching is that these numbers have been achieved in just 19.5 minutes per contest. Georgia must find some balance and talent to compete in the SEC, and this won’t happen until Felton is replaced.
Auburn – The Tigers have limped out to a 3-3 start, with road losses to Dayton and Northern Illinois and a home loss to Mercer. Not much to say about the Tigers except to emphasize just how horrible their early-season averages are and how utterly empty this roster has become under Jeff Lebo. Some players have a bit of potential, as junior DeWayne Reed and senior point guard Quantez Robertson are averaging a combined 7.7 assists and just 4.4 turnovers, and former All-American candidate Korvotney Barber is hitting 55.0% from the field. Past that, Lebo might as well suit up himself. Expect him to be replaced at season’s end.
The SEC seemingly can’t stop the bleeding. Too many losses in too many key positions. A handful of teams look to dominate the league and struggle through the non-conference, and my confidence in the league’s chances in the postseason continue to dwindle. Florida will see another test this week at Florida State, Vanderbilt faces Georgia Tech, Kentucky hosts #21 Miami and Alabama hosts West Virginia – so this week provides ample opportunity for the SEC to begin to regain some respect.