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: Highlighting Every Team’s Most Valuable Player

The SEC is a wild rat-race of a conference where up is down and down is up; accordingly, we decided to focus on the best players instead of the head-scratching results.
Geena Han
Jordan Wright rises for a 3-pointer against Loyola Chicago on Dec. 10, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Geena Han)

Alabama lost as a 14-point favorite against Missouri. Arkansas has started SEC play with three losses despite starting December at No. 10 in the AP Top 25. LSU is actually good. Nothing makes sense.

In a time when only the top and bottom teams in the conference seem to play with consistency, we thought it would be constructive to outline the most valuable players—with a few exceptions—for each program. Some of them are obvious NBA draft talents, while others are just happy to be playing in the SEC instead of the Big West. Regardless, each of these players is either a “bucket,” a “problem,” or a “force” depending on where you fall on the ESPN-Barstool axis. These are the best players in the Southeastern Conference.

1. Auburn 14-1 (3-0)

Team MVP: F Jabari Smith

There’s really no question about who the best player is for Auburn. The 6’10” power forward was the second prospect off the board in Bleacher Report’s most recent 2022 NBA mock draft, with most outlets placing him somewhere in the top three picks. Smith’s multidimensional scoring touch is what makes him so potent—he’s shooting 45.3% from beyond the 3-point line and getting to the rim enough to attempt almost four free throws per game. Through three conference games, the Georgia native’s averages have slowed to 13 points and just over three rebounds, a significant reduction from the 6.5 he’s put up over the course of the season. The sample size is small, and Smith seemed to play his best basketball against LSU—the best team he’s faced all year—so there’s no doubt he’ll continue to be a dominating presence for the Tigers going forward. Alabama and Kentucky await over the next two weeks; Auburn, winners of 11-straight games, should be ready for the challenge.

2. LSU 14-1 (2-1)

Team MVP: F Tari Eason

Eason has been dominant all season, especially in December. The sophomore is averaging 16.2 points and adds 7.6 rebounds per game as well. Additionally, he’s been a defensive stalwart for the Tigers’ SEC-leading defense, averaging 1.4 blocks and steals per game. After struggling in LSU’s road loss to No. 9 Auburn, Eason led the Tigers to victories over No. 16 Kentucky and No. 18 Tennessee, putting up 24 points and 12 rebounds in the latter, marking his fourth double-double this season. LSU certainly quieted any doubters they may have had this past week: the question of whether or not they could continue to win against higher levels of competition was answered after going 2-1 against three ranked teams. Looking forward, LSU is going to need Eason to continue to perform at Florida on Wednesday.

3. Alabama 11-4 (2-1)

Team MVP: Not the Defense

Alabama would merit enough respect to have its own true MVP if it took care of business against its lesser and more apt opponents alike. Unfortunately, the Crimson Tide were mauled by Missouri, and there is absolutely no reason they should be allowed to live it down. Georgia—the worst team in the conference in virtually every category—is the only SEC team allowing more points per game than Alabama. Missouri and Memphis put up 92; Houston and Gonzaga were felled despite dropping 82; South Dakota State had 88. Alabama should be happy Air Bud already crossed the rainbow bridge, otherwise it can only be assumed that he would be dropping an easy 30 on their heads while spouting the most stupendous trash talk this world has ever seen. Both Auburn and LSU are on the docket for the next two weeks, so coach Nate Oats will need to have a quick fix for the defense before the blood of the Crimson Tide becomes internal bleeding.

4. Kentucky 12-3 (2-1)

Team MVP: F Oscar Tshiebwe

When it’s all said and done, Tshiebwe could win a lot more than the Vanderbilt Hustler Midseason Team MVP award. If he continues to dominate through the second half of the season, he could make a case for the SEC’s Player of the Year. The junior is averaging 16.1 points per game and 15.2 rebounds per game, including an SEC-best 11 double-doubles, five more than any other player in the conference. Tshiebwe put up a career-high 29 points while adding 17 rebounds—a common occurrence, but impressive nonetheless—in Saturday’s 92-77 victory against Georgia. He’ll look to continue his success on the offensive glass (5.5 offensive rebounds per game) on Tuesday against a Vanderbult team that averages 36.1 rebounds per game, third worst in the SEC.

5. Tennessee 10-4 (1-2)

Team MVP: G Kennedy Chandler

The former five-star recruit has certainly lived up to expectations thus far. Chandler is likely a one-and-done player, and for good reason. Averaging 13.8 points per game while adding 5.2 assists per game and 2.3 steals per game is respectable for any player, but for a freshman it’s exceptional. Consistency has been Chandler’s biggest issue this season. He’s had seven games where he’s scored 15 or more points, but five games where he’s contributed nine points or less. Chandler’s contributions go beyond points though, as seen in Tennessee’s 86-44 victory against Presbyterian back in November. Chandler scored 15 points, but he also added seven assists and seven steals. Chandler’s ability to help Tennessee win with his playmaking and defensive prowess when he struggles to score makes him that much more valuable. The Volunteers will look for Chandler to continue his stellar play on Tuesday against South Carolina.

6. Texas A&M 13-2 (2-0)

Team MVP: The 3-point Line

The Aggies are a balanced team, so it’s hard to pick a specific player. Senior Quenton Jackson is their leading scorer, but they don’t have any bona fide superstars on their team. What they do have, however, is a collection of stellar 3-point shooters that have carried Texas A&M to a percentage of 38.7 from downtown, best in the SEC and three full percentage points better than any other team in the conference. Three is worth more than two, so it isn’t surprising that the Aggies offense has been so successful this season, averaging 77.2 points per game, fifth in the SEC. In their 81-79 victory over Georgia, Texas A&M shot 47.8% from three, and in their 86-81 victory over Arkansas, they shot 42.1% from behind the arc. The Aggies’ offense is scorching hot right now: They’ve scored 80 or more points in their last six games. They’ll hope to keep it going against Ole Miss on Tuesday.

7. Ole Miss 9-5 (1-1)

Team MVP: G Jarkel Joiner

The undersized guard gets bonus points for being a native of Oxford, Mississippi, who returned home as the prodigal son after two solid seasons at CSU Bakersfield. Things are looking a bit dicey at present, with Joiner missing most of the Rebels’ last two games due to a back injury; however, before that, he was leading the team in points per game with 13.6 and setting career-bests in assists (2.8 per game) and turnovers (0.9 per game). Fellow guard Matthew Murrell will be the one best set to step up in Joiner’s absence. At 6’4”, 200 pounds, Murrell boasts a superior athletic frame along with an incredible shooting ability—he’s shot 9 of 11 from beyond the arc to start SEC play. If Joiner is able to return and Murrell can continue shooting the lights out, Ole Miss will have a chance to make the noise it so desperately attempted to generate by taking Tennessee to overtime. 

8. Florida 9-5 (0-2)

Team MVP: F Colin Castleton

Another easy one. Enough praise can’t be bestowed upon Castelton, who’s averaging 15.6 points per game, 9.2 rebounds per game and 2.4 blocks per game.  Unfortunately for Florida, no one else can do much to help Castleton out, and it’s led to a disastrous start to theirSEC season. They suffered double-digit losses to both No. 15 Alabama and No. 9 Auburn. In their 83-70 loss against the Crimson Tide, The Gators entered the half with a three-point lead, only to squander it after allowing Alabama to go on a 14-0 run in the middle of the second half. Florida turned the ball over 20 times, a far cry from their season average of 13.4 turnovers per game. The Gators also left a lot at the line, shooting just 64.3% from the charity stripe. It was a winnable game, and a game that Florida really could have used, but they’ll have plenty more opportunities, starting with their matchup against LSU on Wednesday. 

9. Mississippi State 10-4 (1-1)

Team MVP: G Iverson Molinar

Before the return of Tolu Smith in mid-December, Iverson Molinar was the only thing keeping this Mississippi State team competitive against good teams like Minnesota and Colorado State. The 6’3” junior is currently third in the SEC in points per game with 16.8 on 46.2% field goal shooting and 89.2% from the line. Molinar’s primary limitation is his lackluster perimeter shooting ability, as he’s knocking down 3-point shots at a rate of roughly once every three games. Regardless of his woes from range, Molinar’s 16 points, five assists, four rebounds and eight free throws were critical in the Bulldogs’ conference-opening win over Arkansas. With Georgia on the horizon, expect Molinar to continue balling out alongside his newly healthy duo partner.

10. South Carolina 10-4 (1-1)

Team MVP: G Erik Stevenson

Despite coach Frank Martin running a successful share-the-wealth program in Columbia, Stevenson has proven to be the veteran presence needed to stay in games with a decided talent disadvantage. The senior’s 25 points on 53% shooting was the only thing keeping the Gamecocks from being run completely out of the building against Auburn to start SEC play, while his six rebounds led the team in a down-to-the-wire victory against Vanderbilt. Stevenson is having the best season of a long career that has included stops at Wichita State and Washington, but both his perimeter shooting and ability to get to the free-throw line—where he shoots an astounding 93.3%—could use some work. Expect Stevenson to be featured heavily as the Gamecocks attempt to steal victories against Florida, Georgia and Arkansas in the coming weeks; maybe, just maybe, they’ll make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their Final Four run in 2017.

11. Vanderbilt 9-5 (1-1)

Team MVP: G Scotty Pippen Jr. 

It’s tempting to go in another direction with this award, maybe Jordan Wright for originality, but the stark reality is that Pippen Jr. is the heart and soul of this basketball team. Everything goes through him. He leads the team in points per game, assists per game and steals per game, with 18.3, 2.8 and 1.6, respectively. It goes deeper than simply scoring when it comes to Pippen Jr. though, he needs to get the rest of his teammates involved. He has struggled mightily with playmaking since the SEC season started, averaging 4.5 assists per game, but 7 turnovers per game. Pippen Jr. had a really hard time in the Commodores’ 72-70 loss against South Carolina, as he shot just 4 of 11 from the field and 0 of 3 from behind the arc. The loss was a rude awakening for Vanderbilt as it ended a four-game winning streak just four days after opening SEC play with a road win at Arkansas. Pippen Jr. and the rest of the team will have their work cut out for them on Tuesday as they’ll face No. 16 Kentucky at home. 

12. Missouri 7-7 (1-1)

Team MVP: F Kobe Brown

The Vanderbilt Hustler would like to officially honor Kobe Brown with the Largest Carry-Job Award for the Southeastern Conference. Missouri may be the worst scoring offense in the SEC, and they may only hit one out of every four 3-point shots, but they would be so, so much worse without the 255-pound tank that leads them in points, rebounds, steals and blocks. The upset victory over Alabama was—and most likely will be—the high point of the season and a game in which Brown played some of the best basketball of his entire life. Dropping 30 points on 69% field goal and 91% free-throw shooting, on top of 13 rebounds, Brown single-handedly bled the Crimson Tide in a game ESPN gave them a 13.6% chance of winning. If the Alabama native can continue balling out of his absolute mind against conference opponents, perhaps the Tigers can finish above .500 and clinch an appearance in the NIT; anything more than that would be almost as surprising as their upset victory.

13. Arkansas 10-5 (0-3)

Team MVP: Coach Eric Musselman

Once again, the “better luck next year” mentality has started early in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks are hands-down the biggest disappointment in the SEC this season, as they’ve fallen from the grace of an Elite Eight berth to the abyss of an 0-3 conference record. However, there might be a real grain of truth to the fatalistic mindset this time—the lord and savior of the Razorbacks Eric Musselman has constructed what 247 Sports ranks as the second-best recruiting class in the nation for the 2022 cycle. Behind only Duke and ahead of every team in the SEC, Arkansas has commits from five-stars Nick Smith—an offensively-minded combo-guard—and Jordan Walsh—a lanky forward with astounding abilities on the defensive end. Smith would be the highest-ranked recruit on 247 to sign with the Razorbacks in over a decade, eclipsing the NBA championship-level talent of Milwaukee Bucks starter Bobby Portis. The best days may truly be ahead for Musselman and the Razorbacks; unfortunately, they still have to play through this season to get there.

14. Georgia 5-10 (0-2)

Team MVP: G Kario Oquendo  

Georgia is an absolute dumpster fire right now. They are one of three teams in the SEC that have yet to win a game, and they are the only team in the conference that’s below .500. They are undeniably the worst team in the conference. Oquendo has been a bright spot, averaging 12.9 points per game, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. The sophomore has given some hope for the future for Bulldog fans, but it’s truly a lost season. To add insult to injury, outside of Oquendo, the rest of Georgia’s starting five are all seniors. So, as bleak as the present is, the future is just as, if not more, bleak. Georgia, in desperate need of a win, will travel to Mississippi State on Wednesday to take on their fellow Bulldogs. 

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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].
Geena Han
Geena Han, Former Staff Photographer
Geena Han (‘24) is double majoring in environmental sociology and earth and environmental science in the College of Arts and Science. One of her favorite pastimes is crocheting clothes for her dog. You can reach her at [email protected].
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