Jared Quillen is the RTC correspondent for the Southeastern Conference
A Look Back
Now that non-conference play is all but over, I thought we should take a look at the biggest surprises and disappointments thus far, as well as a couple other notes from around the conference.
Biggest Surprise – Vanderbilt
Having lost AJ Ogilvy and leading scorer Jermaine Beal, Vanderbilt looked to be a team that would have a tough time in the stacked SEC East, but the holdovers from last year have stepped up and made this Vanderbilt team even better than last year’s. No one has improved more than junior Festus Ezeli, who has gone from 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game last year to 13.1 and 7.1 respectively. Vanderbilt finished the pre-conference season 11-2 with quality wins over Nebraska, North Carolina and Marquette and losing only to West Virginia and Missouri. Even more impressively, the Commodores outscored opponents by 16 points per game. Look for the ‘Dores to finish second in the SEC.
Biggest Disappointment – Tie, Tennessee/Mississippi State
Both of these teams leave me shaking my head. Tennessee started the season 7-0 against teams that are a combined 65-27 including Big East powers Villanova and Pittsburgh. Since that time, Tennessee has gone 2-4 against teams that are a combined 48-37, and Bruce Pearl hasn’t even started his suspension yet. They have all the same players they started with and the schedule has gotten easier. I just do not get it.
As far as Mississippi State, this is a team that started the season as a possible SEC championship contender once Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost became eligible. Then Sidney was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team after playing only one game and suspended again after his second game in a Bulldogs uniform for a fight with Bulldogs senior Elgin Bailey. In Sidney’s defense, the other players say it was mostly Bailey’s fault. But mostly doesn’t help Mississippi State, who desperately needs Sidney on the court if they are to salvage this season and have any chance at making the NCAA tournament.
- It appears that the NCAA delights in antagonizing Wildcat fans by dragging their feet through the procuess surrounding the appeal of Enes Kanter’s ineligibility ruling. The NCAA was able to declare Cam Newton eligible in a day, but has been considering the Enes Kanter case for the better part of seven months now. The NCAA declared Kanter permanently ineligible for receiving benefits over and above actual expenses while playing for a Turkish professional team as a teenager but has allowed Kentucky to resubmit their case in light of the Cam Newton case as a precedent. There were some that thought a decision would come quickly, but after two weeks of standing around and patting themselves on the back for its near endless display of inconsistency, the NCAA announced this week that no decision would come before the New Year. In the meantime, Enes Kanter’s father, stated that if declared ineligible for this season but allowed to play next year, a la Renardo Sidney, Enes Kanter would indeed return to school next year and play, rather than declare for the NBA, again making the case that Kanter’s desire all along has been to play “amateur” college basketball in the United States under coach John Calipari.
- You will perhaps recall that I previously lamented the lack of quality matchups in the SEC/Big East Invitational which this year involved Arkansas, Kentucky, Auburn, Tennessee, Seton Hall, Notre Dame, Auburn and Pittsburgh. It was announced around the holidays that beginning in 2011, six SEC teams and six Big East teams will participate in an annual event whose title will alternate between the BIG EAST/SEC Challenge and SEC/BIG EAST Challenge. I for one can’t wait to see the matchups. Cross your fingers for Kentucky/Syracuse, Tennessee/Georgetown, Vanderbilt/Louisville, Mississippi State/Pittsburgh.
- Kentucky (11-2) Kentucky is winning games by a league-leading 17.5 points per game, including 23.3 over the last six which includes wins over Notre Dame and in-state rival Louisville. Speaking of Kentucky’s win over Louisville, senior center Josh Harrellson scored a career high 23 points and 14 rebounds in 37 minutes of play. Contrast that with last year, when he played a total of 88 minutes and scored 28 points and pulled down 27 rebounds in 22 games. Kudos are also in order for Doron Lamb, who led the Cats with 32 points making seven of eight threes and setting the freshman scoring record for Kentucky against Winthrop. That record was previously held by Jamal Mashburn, who on February 3, 1991 set the previous record at 31 against Georgia.
- Vanderbilt (10-2) Vanderbilt scored a good win over Marquette and then an easy 80-52 win over Davidson without leading scorer John Jenkins (concussion) and starting forward Andre Walker (twisted ankle). Vanderbilt has played a tough early schedule with multiple injuries and come out of it very well. I expect a great SEC season for the Commodores.
- Florida (10-3) In hindsight, Florida’s loss to Central Florida doesn’t look so bad as Central Florida is now 13-0 with wins against Florida, Miami and likely Southern Conference challenger Furman. Florida is playing well, having gotten a tough road win over Xavier this week, but they still need better shooting out of Kenny Boynton and a better assist to turnover ratio out of Erving Walker.
- Georgia (11-2) Georgia is 11-2, but they’re not winning by much, only 6.7 points per game. That said, they are on an eight-game winning streak, the longest in the conference, albeit against decidedly weak competition. What can be said about the Bulldogs however is that they’re beating the teams that they should and not losing to the teams that they shouldn’t. Dustin Ware (7 points in his last three games) and Gerald Robinson (18 in the same span) are sputtering badly.
- Arkansas (10-2) While the Razorbacks don’t yet have a big win, they do have a 14.3 point per game scoring margin in their favor, meaning that when they win, they win decisively and they currently have the best record in the SEC West.
- Mississippi (11-3) Like Georgia, Mississippi hasn’t really lost to anyone bad, but they haven’t really beaten anyone good, either. Mississippi is going to need at least 10 SEC wins to get to the NCAA Tournament and maybe 11.
- Alabama (7-6) Alabama had five players in double figures in an easy 83-60 win over Pepperdine in the Tide’s only game this week. While not as disappointing as Tennessee’s and Mississippi State’s preseason, the Tide has certainly underperformed with losses to St. Peter’s and Iowa. This was supposed to be a better team than last year, but they played an easier preseason schedule and came out with a worse record than last year when the Tide was 11-4 going into conference play. Senior Charvez Davis, who came off the bench to score 22 points on 5-6 from deep against Lipscomb, had a night to remember while his team has had a lot of them to forget.
- Tennessee (9-4) I usually like to say you can throw out the first seven games of the season because teams aren’t yet in a rhythm and they’re still getting used to new personnel or coaches. It looks like Tennessee literally “threw out the first seven games.” After getting great wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh, the Volunteers have been terrible, losing to Oakland, Charlotte and Southern California and then barely beating Belmont and Tennessee-Martin before losing to College of Charleston.
- South Carolina (8-4) The Gamecocks are in free fall mode after starting 7-1. A loss to Ohio State may be understandable, but not losing to Furman for the first time in 30 years. Poor shooting (37 percent) and 19 turnovers led to a weak seven-point victory over 2-12 Jacksonville State. Follow that with a home loss to Boston College and the Cocks are losers of three of four. Now comes the hard part, conference play.
- LSU (8-7) The Tigers have lost five of seven and not necessarily to stellar competition either (no disrespect to North Texas, who thumped LSU by 20). Let’s run down the list here: College of Charleston, Wichita State, North Texas, Rice and Virginia. Trent Johnson has no seniors, four freshmen, and five sophomores, so we can hope that with experience and a good recruiting class, the Tigers will be better next year.
- Mississippi State (8-6) To recap a little of what I said earlier, this team has been a serious disappointment. The Bulldogs have lost two straight including four of five. That’s their third two game losing streak in their first 14 games. Not exactly what we expected when this season started.
- Auburn (6-7) Auburn is on a three-game win streak, its longest so far this season, but even with that short streak and Mississippi State’s woes, I still say the Bulldogs beat Auburn handily, so here Auburn sits, at the bottom of the heap.
A Look Ahead
- Arkansas @ Texas, Jan. 4. This is the Razorbacks’ chance to get a quality win over a non-conference foe on the road. Do that and an NCAA berth is very likely in a weak Western division.
- Tennessee @ Arkansas Jan. 8. I want to see how the Volunteers do without Coach Pearl at the helm. In the preseason, it appeared that wins against Eastern division teams would be hard to come by; as Tennessee has been disappointing of late, this a prime opportunity for Arkansas to score one.
- Mississippi @ Florida Jan. 8. Well, Mississippi kind of walked through the non-con portion, but may be the best team in the West. Florida was tabbed as the preseason favorite in the East. This will be a good game to gauge where these two teams really are.
- Georgia @ Kentucky, Jan. 8. Last year, an overachieving Bulldog team led by first year head coach Mark Fox ran with the Cats for a half. I’m interested to see what this improved Georgia team can do against a new litter of Cats led by freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.