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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

SEC basketball power rankings: January 5


With conference play well under way, we’re overdue for another batch of SEC basketball power rankings. Unsurprisingly, the league as a whole didn’t fare well against top non-conference competition. A pair of defensive-minded teams near the top of the league, however, have asserted themselves as clear NCAA tournament teams to go along with Kentucky.

1. Kentucky (12-2, 2-0 SEC)

Behind a pair of impressive blowouts against Ole Miss and Texas A&M to start conference play, Kentucky has surged all the way to No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings. UK’s only losses are to projected top-four NCAA tournament seeds UCLA and Louisville, but a closer look at its resume suggests coach John Calipari’s squad could struggle to match up with its top-10 competition in terms of signature wins. The Wildcats have an excellent neutral-site win over North Carolina, and a nice win over Michigan State. But they might need to beat Kansas at the end of January, sweep Florida and win the SEC tournament to lock up a No. 1 seed. ACC, Big East and Big 12 teams have many more opportunities for elite wins, and UCLA holds a small advantage with its head-to-head victory in Lexington. However, Kentucky’s seed won’t matter if it can rectify its mediocre three-point shooting. This is clearly the top team in the SEC.

2. Florida (11-3, 2-0)

Florida’s resume falls a bit behind its KenPom ranking, as the system rates the Gators as the nation’s 13th-best team even though their best win was likely a road victory over Arkansas, a bubble team. UF’s No. 24 ranking in both major polls feels more accurate, which nonetheless represents major improvement from last year’s 21-15 showing. The Gators have the tough defense everyone expected them to have, and the offense has improved. However, the team’s 34.8 three-point percentage isn’t good enough for me to accept it as a top-15 team. A 13-5 SEC record sounds about right for Florida, but that may have more to do with the relative lack of top-end competition in the league than anything.  

3. South Carolina (11-3, 1-0)

The Gamecocks haven’t lost once this season when Sindarius Thornwell, the team’s best player and senior leader, has suited up. Thornwell missed six games due to a suspension but returned in time to lead South Carolina to a nice road win against Georgia. USC played a fairly difficult non-conference schedule, and the NCAA tournament committee will likely end up giving coach Frank Martin’s squad a break for its losses without Thornwell. South Carolina might have a slightly better resume than Florida at this point, but its much weaker KenPom rating (34 compared to 13) means these two teams could be in a deadlock if the tournament started today. In the meantime, the Gamecocks’ weak SEC schedule means they should run up an impressive record in the league. Their only two games against Kentucky and Florida both come on the road; if they strike out in those two, they’re unlikely to receive the seed they want without beating one of those two in the SEC tournament.

4. Arkansas (12-2, 1-1)

Arkansas is 12-2, has top-50 RPI and KenPom rankings and doesn’t have a bad loss. The problem is that the Razorbacks don’t have any wins that stand out. Home victories over Houston and UT-Arlington are nice, but Arkansas’ best win away from home came against a 7-7 Texas team in Houston. Arkansas has remaining chances for big wins at Oklahoma State, South Carolina and Florida, so there’s plenty of hope. This is your typical Mike Anderson-coached team in that the offense is good, the defense is okay and the pace is fast, but the Razorbacks haven’t forced turnovers this year — their 18.5 percent turnover rate ranks only 206th nationally, according to Pomeroy. Getting that number up to 20 or 21 percent could be what Arkansas needs to take the next step and assert itself as a clear NCAA tournament team. As of right now, the Hogs are on the bubble, albeit on the right side of it.

5. Georgia (9-5, 1-1)

The all-powerful Bracket Matrix lists Georgia as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA tournament right now, and that surprises me. UGA feels like a bubble team, but once you look at its resume it’s easy to see that the Dawgs have done very little. Coach Mark Fox’s team touts “key” wins over the likes of Auburn, George Washington and Louisiana Lafayette. That’s an objectively terrible portfolio of wins for a team that hopes to compete for an NCAA bid. The story in Athens is almost exactly what everyone expected: Stars Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier lead the team, and no one else averages within seven points per game of either. UGA’s star power should help keep it in the top half of the SEC, and its difficult schedule should facilitate its quest to pick up resume-building wins. But the Dawgs are essentially just a good defensive team that will beat the teams they’re supposed to while also losing to the teams they’re supposed to.

6. Texas A&M (8-5, 0-2)

You could not have envisioned a worse start to SEC play for Texas A&M. The Aggies began with a home loss to a mediocre Tennessee team before getting absolutely wiped out at Kentucky by 42. A&M most now head to South Carolina on Saturday facing an 0-3 start in the league, as noted Aggie hater Luke Kornet chuckles to himself in the dark bowels of Memorial Gym. Both A&M’s offense and defense have been disappointing this year, and it’s only shooting 32.5 percent from three as a team. The team doesn’t have enough quality guard play — sophomore Admon Gilder is having a nice year, but Lipscomb transfer (a friendly reminder that the plural form of “Bison” is “Bison,” not “Bisons”) point guard J.C. Hampton has proved incapable of creating offense, as shown by his 30 percent shooting on two-pointers and his weak 13.3 percent assist rate. This spot is where one of the big drop-offs in the SEC comes, as UGA is a clear NCAA at-large contender while A&M is out of the picture at the moment.

7. Vanderbilt (8-6, 2-0)

The ‘Dores have had quite the week. Vanderbilt showed meager improvement in a competitive road loss at Dayton before Christmas, but it’s taken good step forward in the first two SEC games, wins at LSU and at home against Auburn. As you can tell from this list, those two wins aren’t particularly impressive. But the way in which Vanderbilt won those two games was; coach Bryce Drew’s team ran up 20-point leads in the second half of each game. The ‘Dores lead the league in both three-point and free-thow shooting percent, and Kornet looks healthier now than he has all season. The defense needs work — it’s rated only 100th nationally in schedule-adjusted efficiency per Pomeroy — but holding Auburn to 0.82 points per possession represented a nice start there. If Jeff Roberson can get out of a season-long offensive slump, then the Commodores could fight their way back into bubble contention due to the plethora of opportunities for good wins on their schedule. Vanderbilt is playing some of the best ball in the SEC right now, but its weak wins and earlier struggles keep it in the middle of the league for now.

8. Tennessee (8-6, 1-1)

Tennessee has surprisingly put together a decent season so far. All of UT’s losses are to good teams, while the Vols have also earned road wins over Texas A&M and a strong East Tennessee State team. One could make the argument that UT deserves to be ahead of Vanderbilt in these rankings (I do think it’s had the better overall season), but Vanderbilt’s recent play gives it a slight edge. Tennessee has tough games against Florida and South Carolina before heading to Nashville for a rivalry matchup with VU, and earning one win out of that stretch could be a challenge. UT is second in the SEC in free throws attempted this year, and it will need to continue that trend if it hopes to come out of its next three games with a 1-2 record or better.

9. Auburn (10-4, 0-2)

Nothing in SEC basketball amuses me more than the Auburn basketball hype train. The Tigers ran up a good record by beating bad teams, and wins away from home against Oklahoma (which was missing star Jordan Woodard) and a bad UConn team supposedly meant something (*Ron Howard voice*: they didn’t). The surprising early enrollment of highly rated big man Austin Wiley was, in some circles, seen as a big boost despite the fact that scouts describe him as raw and needing more development before he becomes a consistent contributor, much less a one-and-done candidate. Through all of this, Pomeroy kept Auburn no higher than No. 90 in his rankings, a clear sign that the one-time 10-2 record was fool’s gold. Don’t get me wrong; the neutral-site win over Texas Tech was nice. But overall, Auburn doesn’t have enough shooting and overall offense to contend for the NCAA tournament. We’ll see if the Tigers make the NIT, but I’d be surprised if they don’t finish with a losing record in SEC play.

10. Ole Miss (9-5, 0-2)

Much like Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M, Ole Miss has no losses to teams outside the top 100 in the country. Continuing the trend of a general lack of quality wins around the league, however, Ole Miss’ best win came at home against Memphis, a likely NIT team. A road trip to Auburn this Saturday represents a highly intriguing matchup, as the loser could easily collapse with its 0-3 SEC record, while the winner will get some new life. Nothing really stands out to me about Ole Miss except for senior big man Sebastian Saiz, who will be in the conversation for a spot on the All-SEC First Team.

11. Alabama (8-5, 1-0)

Here’s a great stat, possibly my favorite in the SEC: As of right now, Alabama has zero double-digit scorers. That’s right, redshirt freshman guard Dazon Ingram leads the Tide with 9.9 points per game. Yeesh. Alabama’s 23rd-ranked defense in adjusted efficiency is impressive, led by likely SEC All-Defensive team member Jimmie Taylor anchoring the paint. The Tide’s 31.4 percent three-point shooting kills the offense, and it also ranks 12th in the league in free-throw percentage. It will be difficult for Alabama to climb much higher than this unless its shooting woes miraculously disappear.

12. LSU (9-4, 1-1)

I don’t really have thoughts on LSU. The Tigers will likely fire coach Johnny Jones after this year, after which they’ll have delusions about hiring a big name and ultimately have to “settle” for a B-list option. The players are fairly talented, but the team isn’t any good.

13. Mississippi State (9-4, 0-1)

Mississippi State announced star guard Quinndary Weatherspoon would miss the remainder of the season back in November due to a torn ligament in his wrist. Instead, Weatherspoon decided to put off surgery and return. He hasn’t missed a beat since, and as a result MSU isn’t absolutely terrible. Good for Weatherspoon, as while I have no idea whether this was a good medical decision or not, it suggests that MSU’s team culture is probably better than what most would expect from an SEC cellar-dweller.

14. Missouri (5-8, 0-1)

Mizzou is bad. In fact, the Tigers have dropped five games in a row, including home losses to Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb. Currently, Pomeroy lists Mizzou as underdogs in each one of its 17 remaining SEC games. Most impressively of all, coach Kim Anderson’s offense ranks 306th nationally in adjusted efficiency, according to Pomeroy. This is largely due to the Tigers’ ghastly 27.1 percent three-point shooting, which ranks 342nd out of 351 Division I teams. Sad!

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