Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play LoomsPosted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016
Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.
- Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
The NCAA Tournament Contenders
- Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
- … Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
- Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
- Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.
- As usual, Georgia is a tough team to figure out. Despite two very good players in forward Yante Maten and guard JJ Frazier, the Bulldogs are only off to an 8-4 start with no quality wins on their resume. Those wins will be hard to come by in SEC play, and it’s a stretch to think Mark Fox’s club can do enough to make it back to the Big Dance.
- Despite some setbacks, Auburn has fared reasonably well against a moderately tough schedule. While this probably is not an NCAA Tournament team, look for the Tigers to become postseason mainstays in the very near future with the young talent Bruce Pearl has in place along with what’s coming in next season, .
- It is a stretch to think that Tennessee has a chance to make it to March Madness, but the Volunteers, who were picked to finish 13th in the league, have been quite a bit better than anyone expected. Their 7-5 record includes several close losses to quality teams like Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina, and Gonzaga, with each of those games coming away from Knoxville.
Wait Until Next Year
- Vanderbilt has been disappointing in Bryce Drew’s first year in Nashville, but it is clear that the roster he inherited from Kevin Stallings was not equipped to play his favored style. Reinforcements are on the way, which means things should improve in Music City in the coming years.
- The same can be said for Alabama, which has a top-five recruiting class on the way. The Crimson Tide have looked bad at times on their way to a 6-5 record, but the future is very bright for Avery Johnson in Tuscaloosa.
- Andy Kennedy, in his 11th year at Ole Miss, is the dean of SEC coaches. The Rebels enter league play at 9-3, but they have only one win over a top-100 opponent. They’ll face a very tough test in Oxford tonight with Kentucky visiting. If they can pull off the upset, perhaps they can appropriately adjust expectations for where this season is heading.
- Mississippi State supposedly lost Quindarry Weatherspoon for the season in late November, before surprisingly getting him back a couple of weeks later. Ben Howland has brought in a lot of talent to Starkville in his two years, but the Bulldogs appear to be another year away before they contend for an NCAA Tournament bid.
- For LSU and Missouri, things have gone as poorly as expected. While LSU stands at 8-3 with a win against a solid Houston team, it was embarrassed by VCU, Wichita State and Wake Forest. Johnny Jones has done nothing to change the belief of many observers that he is simply in over his head. At Mizzou, the Tigers have shown no real signs of progress, and there is a good chance that Kim Anderson’s fate will be sealed before February is over.