The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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: First Degree Auburn

The Tigers of Auburn and LSU reign supreme as the SEC heads into conference play.
Scotty+Pippen+Jr.+fights+for+a+contested+layup+in+Vanderbilts+loss+to+Auburn.+in+Feb.%2C+2021.
Truman McDaniel
Scotty Pippen Jr. fights for a contested layup in Vanderbilt’s loss to Auburn. in Feb., 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel)

As the first half of the season comes to a close, the fog still hasn’t cleared at the top of the metaphorical SEC mountain. It’s become apparent that the only way to determine the real conference heavyweights is to match them up against each other. 

Wednesday night should yield answers quickly, as No. 16 LSU will face No. 11 Auburn and No. 14 Tennessee will clash with No. 19 Alabama. That’s assuming the surging Omicron COVID-19 variant will allow for it. New conference rules allow for games to be played so long as seven scholarship players and one coach are available. Let’s hope every team is able to maintain those numbers.

While each SEC team has its strengths, they all have glaring weaknesses. This week’s edition of The Hustler Power Rankings will address these weaknesses in the form of New Year’s Resolutions for each team.

1. Auburn: 11-1

Despite having lost coach Bruce Pearl to a two-game suspension, missed starting-caliber wing Allen Flanigan for the first 11 games of the season and trailed Saint Louis by 13 with under 10 minutes left in a game, Auburn finds itself atop the SEC in both the AP Top 25 and The Hustler’s Power Rankings. The Tigers had three players drafted to the NBA last season, and this year might not be any different. Freshman forward Jabari Smith has the build and scoring versatility to be a top-five pick. Walker Kessler is a 7-foot-1 demi-god who’s third in the nation in blocks per game. K.D. Johnson is undersized but an absolute menace on the perimeter for both the offense—his 13.2 ppg is the second highest on the team—and defense—he’s one of seven SEC players averaging more than two steals per game. New Year’s Resolution: Find more ways to get to the charity stripe. The Tigers are fourth-worst in the conference in free throw attempts per game.

2. LSU: 12-0

LSU stands alone as the final undefeated team in the SEC, and is one of only four schools in the nation (USC, Baylor and Iowa State) that has yet to lose a game. The one knock on the Tigers, which is sure to be made apparent in the coming weeks, is the lack of competition that they’ve faced. They have had some respectable victories against Penn State and Wake Forest, but nothing like the caliber of SEC opponents that they’ll face in January: They’ll face five ranked opponents in their first seven conference games. They’ll need emerging star Tari Eason—who’s averaging 20.5 points and 2.3 steals per game in his past four games—to continue his hot streak. His defensive contributions aren’t the only ones, however, as LSU is allowing an SEC-best 54.1 points per game. In addition, they average 12.8 steals per game, the most in all of Division I. New Year’s Resolution: Get better at shooting the 3-pointer. They started the season hot but have since cooled off, averaging a measly 32 percent from behind the arc. If they want to prove they are a top team during the second half of the season, they’ll need to improve on that front. 

3. Tennessee: 9-2

Tennessee is rolling. They’ll enter the SEC portion of their schedule with unmatched confidence after a 77-73 victory over the previously undefeated Arizona Wildcats. In a game where leading scorer Kennedy Chandler, who’s shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from 3 on the season, struggled, the rest of the Volunteers—especially John Fulkerson— stepped up. The sixth-year senior had one of his best games in a Tennessee uniform, putting up 24 points and 10 rebounds. Justin Powell provided a spark off the bench with 11 points, including a last-second free throw to extend the Volunteers lead to four and win the game. Tennessee is one of the most well-rounded teams in the nation. They allow a mere 59.3 points per game while scoring 78.4 points per game, giving them a scoring margin of 19.1, third best in the SEC. New Year’s Resolution: Consistent offense. Looking back at Tennessee’s two losses against Villanova and Texas Tech, the team shot 17.9 percent and 15.0 percent from 3, respectively. The team’s identity is built around shooting the ball well, so when they struggle, it translates to losses. If they can remain consistent, they’ll be a hard team to beat. 

4. Kentucky: 9-2

Kentucky is a polarizing team this year. In their wins, they’ve been dominant, winning every game by double digits, and eight of their nine by 20-plus points. They average an SEC-best 83.3 points per game on offense, but their defense is uninspiring, allowing 62 points per game. The real story for the Wildcats, though, is Oscar Tshiebwe. The junior is averaging 16.1 points and 15.5 rebounds per game, and is on track to break Shaquille O’Neal’s SEC record of 14.7 rebounds per game. Most recently, Tshiebwe stuffed the stat sheet with a 14-point, 28-rebound, 3-steal performance, bolstering his case for SEC defensive player of the year. Another standout for the Wildcats has been Sahvir Wheeler, who is leading the SEC and is second nationally in assists per game with 7.7. New Year’s Resolution: All championship teams are dominant on both sides of the basketball. Kentucky has all of the pieces to improve defensively, and if they want to contend for an SEC championship, then they must progress on that end. 

5. Alabama: 9-3

In the last edition of The Hustler’s Power Rankings, it was claimed that Alabama “can lose to pretty much anyone” due to its reliance upon student-athletes consistently hitting shots from Desmond Bane range. Perhaps no hot take in the history of this newspaper has proven so true so quickly. The Crimson Tide has ebbed in the last two weeks with head-scratching losses to Davidson and a Memphis team that had already lost to Georgia and Ole Miss. These defeats speak to an inability for Nate Oats and company to generate stops or turnovers at any level. There is no Herb Jones to anchor the defense or inspire intensity in the locker room, and the result is an Alabama team that has allowed two of its last three opponents to shoot above 50 percent. New Year’s Resolution: Emphasize perimeter defense. The Crimson Tide have the talent and offensive explosiveness to compete for a national championship if they can just play competently on the other side of the ball.

6. Arkansas: 10-2

The Razorbacks are the most disappointing team in the conference thus far. Last year’s team made it to the Elite Eight—further than any other SEC team—and played Baylor to within single digits, something no other team in the NCAA Tournament was able to do. This year’s team trailed wire to wire against Oklahoma and lost to Hofstra, a team led by a double-double performance from a player who transferred away from Arkansas in search of more playing time. Senior guard JD Notae—who is second in the conference in points and first in steals per game—is making a valiant attempt to hold the team together. Eric Musselman at least has the opportunity to overhaul the rotation and defensive scheme with an easy start to the conference slate, as the Razorbacks’ first four opponents in SEC play fall in the back half of The Hustler’s Power Rankings. New Year’s Resolution: Find a perimeter defensive identity. Veteran players like Chris Lykes and Au’Diese Toney will need to apply defensive pressure on par with Notae if this team is to turn it around.

7. Florida: 9-3

Florida, after starting the season 6-0, has lost three of their last six, dropping them out of the national rankings, and down to No. 7 in the Hustler’s rankings for two straight weeks. The Gators, despite their commitment to shooting the 3 (fifth most attempts in the SEC), struggle mightily on offense. They are ninth in the SEC in points per game (74.0) and 10th in the SEC in 3-point percentage (31.2 percent). Colin Castleton, although a fantastic player, cannot do it all (he currently leads the team in points, rebounds and blocks per game). Senior Tyree Appleby has been disappointing all season, averaging the least points and shooting the worst from both the field and 3 of his four years at Florida. New Year’s Resolution: Find replacements for the seniors. The Gators’ six leading scorers are all seniors, so it’s time for Mike White to start recruiting heavily.

8. Texas A&M: 10-2 

Texas A&M is another one of those teams that is difficult to gauge properly. They’re 10-2, but they have yet to play any ranked opponents, and have only played four Power Five teams, losing two of them. They average 75.5 points per game, good for sixth-best in the SEC. The Aggies have a stout defense, as they allow only 61.2 points per game to opponents. These numbers translate into a scoring margin of 14.2 points, fifth in the SEC. It’s hard to believe in a team whose leading scorer, Quenton Jackson, averages just 12.2 points per game. On top of that, the Aggies are the worst rebounding team in the SEC, averaging a meager 35.9 boards per contest. The Aggies, despite their record, give very little reason to believe in them: They don’t do anything particularly well, and their inconsistency on offense is incredibly concerning. New Year’s resolution: Move Quenton Jackson to the starting lineup. Despite averaging the most points per game on the team, Jackson averages just 23.3 minutes per game, only the fourth most on the team.

9. South Carolina: 9-3

Though suffering bad beats to middling teams and lacking a signature win, the Gamecocks exit nonconference play with a welcome record for a team that wasn’t expected to make much noise. Florida State and Georgetown, though not very good this year, are at least programs with big names that should, in theory, be better than South Carolina yet were felled by coach Frank Martin’s squad. A 14-point loss to Clemson—which Joe Lunardi’s most recent Bracketology projects as one of the first eight teams out of the NCAA Tournament field—is likely indicative of how the Gamecocks will fare in conference play. South Carolina failed to generate meaningful perimeter scoring or playmaking in that game, shooting a horrendous 25 percent and only logging four assists. This isn’t the first instance of inferior guard play, as the team boasts a middle-of-the-SEC 3-point shooting percentage and the fourth-worst assist-per-game numbers in the conference. New Year’s Resolution: Stress the importance of team basketball. South Carolina’s guard-heavy rotation desperately needs to improve its playmaking ability as it faces Auburn and Tennessee in the opening weeks of January.

10. Mississippi State: 9-3

Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology may have Mississippi State as one of its last four teams in the NCAA Tournament field, but a prestigious postseason appearance should probably be a stretch goal for this team. The Bulldogs lack a compelling win and had to battle for victories against the likes of Richmond and Furman; on the bright side, none of their losses are particularly embarrassing. Junior guard Iverson Molinar, who ranks third in the SEC with 16.9 points per game, remains this team’s primary claim to relevance. The return of in-state big man Tolu Smith from foot surgery is a promising development for the Bulldogs, as he has averaged 13 points and eight rebounds through four games. Defensive intensity has also been ramped up since Smith’s return—their last four opponents have all been held below 70 points. New Year’s Resolution: Fully integrate the 6-foot-11 Smith into the lineup as a two-way big. Molinar needs help carrying the offensive load, and the Bulldogs’ defense has seen immediate improvements with the junior on the floor.

11. Vanderbilt: 8-4

Last week, Vanderbilt fell victim to the biggest villain of the 2020s: COVID-19. After reaching the finals of the Diamond Head Classic with wins over Hawaii and BYU, Vanderbilt’s matchup against Stanford was canceled due to health and safety protocols within the Stanford Program. While Vanderbilt was declared the de-facto champs of the tournament, the red-hot Commodores would’ve still liked to face Stanford in the hopes of getting another respectable win before heading into their SEC schedule. Regardless, Vanderbilt will have plenty of opportunities to prove whether or not they deserve to be looked at for an NCAA Tournament berth in the coming weeks. Junior Scotty Pippen Jr. has been excellent, as expected, averaging an SEC-high 18.1 points and 1.8 steals per game. New Year’s Resolution: Get Liam Robbins back. The Minnesota transfer was supposed to serve as a replacement for Dylan Disu after he transferred to Texas, but Robbins has been sidelined with a foot injury all year. Getting Robbins back would provide some key depth at the center position for the Commodores.  

12. Ole Miss: 8-4 

Ole Miss basketball is effectively the opposite of Ole Miss football: the defense keeps them in games, while the offense consistently comes up short. Since the last Hustler Power Rankings, the Rebels have gone 2-2 with close wins against Middle Tennessee State and Dayton but a blowout loss to Western Kentucky and a heartbreaker against Samford—again, that’s Samford, not Stanford. None of these teams are bad, but they’re also not the kinds of teams Ole Miss should be playing closely or losing to if it wants to make a push for the NCAA Tournament. No opponent has scored more than 80 points on the Rebels all season, but they average a mere 70.4 points per game—the third worst in the SEC. Hometown hero Jarkel Joiner is trying desperately to keep this team relevant by playing over 33 minutes per night, but 15 points and three assists per game from the senior guard have produced middling results thus far. New Year’s Resolution: Bring freshman guard Daeshaun Ruffin back into the fold. The undersized Mississippian missed a month with a hand injury, but is now healthy and ready to ease both the scoring and defensive burden upon Joiner.

13. Missouri: 6-6

Forward Kobe Brown had his best performance of the year, with 27 points on 73 percent shooting to pull the Tigers away from Utah in the final three minutes of their mid-December matchup. Revel in it while you can, Missouri fans, because it’s probably the high point of the season. The Tigers’ other two games since the last Power Rankings were 20-plus-point losses to Kansas and Illinois, which fit nicely next to double-digit losses against UMKC, Florida State and Liberty. On the bright side, they played Wichita State close! Nothing is going right for Missouri outside of a career year for Brown, who leads the team in points, rebounds, steals and blocks. The Tigers are last in the SEC in points per game, defensive rebounds per game and 3-point shooting percentage. New Year’s Resolution: Go all in on scoring down low. Missouri doesn’t take that many 3s to begin with, but making them at below a 25-percent clip means that any shot beyond the arc is a statistical albatross.

14. Georgia: 5-7

Georgia remains at the bottom of the SEC and the bottom of the Hustler’s power rankings for yet another week. There’s little to be optimistic about when it comes to the Bulldogs, who rank 11th in the SEC in points per game with 70.8 and 13th in the SEC in opponent points per game with 72.1. They are one of only two teams in the SEC with a negative scoring margin, at -1.3. One positive takeaway from Georgia’s first 12 games is their balanced offense. The Bulldogs have four players that average more than 10 points per game. Georgia has shown flashes, specifically their 82-79 comeback victory against Memphis, but they have been too few and far between. New Year’s Resolution: Focus on recruiting. Similar to Florida, three of Georgia’s four leading scorers are seniors. The only problem for the Bulldogs? They have yet to receive a single commitment in the Class of 2022. Unless things change soon, the future is looking just as bleak as the present for Georgia.

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About the Contributors
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Truman McDaniel
Truman McDaniel, Former Multimedia Sports Specialist
Truman McDaniel (2023) is a student in the College of Arts & Science majoring in Environmental and Ecological Biology and Political Science. In his free time, he enjoys taking pictures, drinking coffee and watching movies. He can be reached at [email protected].    
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