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.

Men’s Basketball SEC Power Rankings: The journey to the dance commences

As a new season begins, the Southeastern Conference starts out of conference play with mixed performances across the board.
Ezra+Manjon+shoots+a+3-pointer+during+Vanderbilts+game+against+Presbyterian%2C+as+photographed+on+Nov.+7%2C+2023.+%28Hustler+Multimedia%2FJosh+Rehders%29
Josh Rehders
Ezra Manjon shoots a 3-pointer during Vanderbilt’s game against Presbyterian, as photographed on Nov. 7, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)

College basketball is here once again. With the beginnings of nonconference play, the members of the Southeastern Conference will get the opportunity to secure some early victories and get a gander at weaknesses through tough defeats. The first few games of the young season offer a glimpse at the potential of budding stars and fresh rosters on the hardwood. While some teams like Alabama and Tennessee have shone, others like Vanderbilt and LSU find themselves with early season blemishes on their résumés. 

1. Tennessee (3-0)

The odds-on preseason favorite to win the SEC, the Volunteers have earned themselves a No. 7 AP ranking in the country and have lived up to expectations thus far. Through three games, the team that made the Sweet Sixteen a year ago somehow looks even better, dominating Tennessee Tech and cruising to wins over Wisconsin and Wofford. Improved shooting and an increase in their defensive intensity has Tennessee looking fantastic to start the season. The biggest standout immediately has been Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht, a 6’6 guard who has displayed exceptional skill as a three-level scorer,averaging 19.7 points per game on 54.1% shooting. These prompt performances, especially a 24-point outing in Tennessee’s road victory at Wisconsin, have started rumblings of conversation about Knecht not being just one of the best players in the conference, but one of the best in the nation. However, Knoxville’s finest have a rocky road ahead of them as they’ll tip off the Maui Invitational against a scrappy Syracuse team, along with plenty of the nation’s best teams like Kansas, Gonzaga, Marquette and Purdue, which are also taking part in the tournament. Following that up with a late November showdown in Chapel Hill against No. 20 North Carolina, the ceiling of this season’s Volunteers will certainly be tested. 

2. Texas A&M (3-0)

The Aggies are rolling. Under head coach Buzz Williams, Texas A&M has won 52 games over its last two seasons, and a conference record of 15-3 last year marked the Aggies’ best since 2015. While many of the other programs on this list have found firepower by rebuilding their ranks through transfers, Texas A&M has had the luxury of having many of its star athletes return, allowing them to already start quickly. Powered by a dynamic duo of Wade Taylor IV and Tyrece Radford in the backcourt and supported by the force that is Henry Coleman III in the frontcourt, this seasoned and experienced Texas A&M team has breezed through three games. Their last two wins are extremely impressive, as they took down Ohio State and SMU both on the road. In an SEC that looks deep this year, having such touted experience and established chemistry could take this roster a long way. 

3. Arkansas (3-0)

Three straight tournament appearances and consistent 20-win seasons have the hopes and expectations rising ever-so-higher in Fayetteville. Particularly when it comes to the Razorbacks place in the conference, they are itching to get over the hump and assert themselves as a top squad after going 8-10 in SEC play a year ago. But, before it gets to that slate, Arkansas is focused on the non-conference. The Razorbacks have churned out high-scoring, dominant performances in non-conference play, washing over Alcorn State, Gardner-Webb and Old Dominion with ease. Even then, Arkansas will get tested to see if it has that upper echelon caliber when it hosts No. 9 Duke after a return from the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. The explosive offensive play of the Razorbacks can give some teams a struggle as their efficiency through the start of the year has been remarkable. Shooting 50% from the field and 40% from three as a team, Arkansas will surely be a challenge for a Blue Devils team that has already faced off against two ranked opponents. Head coach Eric Musselman thinks very highly of this team, meaning this season will be a defining factor of where this program is and what Arkansas is going to be in relation to the rest of the SEC contenders.

4. Alabama (3-0)

Last season, Alabama told the world it wasn’t just a football school. Despite having the most off-court drama of any team in the NCAA, it earned its first ever one seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, even that dominant team couldn’t make it out of the sweet sixteen in the most unpredictable NCAA tournament in recent history. It’s hard to improve upon being the No. 1 seed, so don’t expect a better season out of the Crimson Tide. However, Alabama still had an excellent off-season, even when taking into account the departure of star player Brandon Miller. This year’s Tide haven’t played any tough opponents yet, but they did just win by 56 in Tuesday’s game against South Alabama. 

5. Kentucky (2-1)

A perennial basketball powerhouse, Kentucky is going to — once again — be good this season. The Wildcats have the number one recruiting class in the nation, according to 247Sports. Kentucky almost beat the no. 1 team in the country, Kansas.  There’s no doubt the Wildcats will be a force to be reckoned with, It’s just a matter of how good they’ll really be. They’ve got two more big non-conference games in the coming weeks: the Miami Hurricanes and the UNC Tarheels. If they can pull off a win in both of those, there shouldn’t be much to worry about this season. But if they drop either, or both, of these games, there might be reason for worry. For now though, the Kentucky Wildcats are going to be good this season.

6. Mississippi State (3-0)

The Mississippi State Bulldogs didn’t even make it out of the play-in game of the NCAA Tournament last year. It’s hard to tell exactly where their newfound swagger has come from. It didn’t come from  recruiting, or from the transfer portal, where they ended pretty middle of the line. This is a similar team from last year, but the Bulldogs are just playing at a higher level. They started the season with a bang, dominating Arizona State 71-56 at the Barstool Sports Invitational. And that was their worst game so far, as they’ve won both of their last two games by over twenty. This team is hot right now, and could stay hot for a while, maybe even long enough to make it out of the play-in come March.

7. Auburn (1-1)

Perhaps Auburn is slowly gearing up to take a jump this season. A tight loss to No. 15 Baylor and a 15-point victory against Southeastern Louisiana has this Tigers team gathering some votes to be placed into the nation’s AP Top 25. Being the only SEC team to even take on a ranked opponent in its season opener, Auburn had an impressive showing, leading the Big-12 powerhouse for most of the contest up until the game found itself tied with 2:59 to go. A win would then slip out of the Tigers’ grasp, as the Ja’Kobe Walter-led Bears rolled to an 88-82 win. Through two games though, Auburn has shown some flashes of the potential it has. Junior forward Johni Broome has started the season off with two double-doubles, averaging 17 points and 11 rebounds. First-year point guard Aden Holloway, a former five-star recruit, is proving himself to be a serious threat as well for the Tigers, as he’s averaging 15 points per game off the bench in his first two performances. Following that up with phenomenal defensive presences in K.D Johnson and Dylan Cardwell, Auburn could be a feisty squad to keep an eye on going forward.

8. Florida (2-1)

Last year’s Florida Gators were a pretty good team, but not quite great. They made the NIT, but not March Madness. They didn’t have a winning record, but they didn’t really have a losing record either (if their NIT loss is ignored). The Gators’ offseason was pretty polar as well, with rather abysmal recruiting (just two three-star recruits), countered by a much better performance in the transfer portal, placing 12th in 247Sports’ transfer rankings. Thanks to these transfers, this year’s Florida team is looking a lot hotter, dominating Loyola to start the season and almost beating a very talented Virginia in their second game. These are not last year’s Florida Gators, and the SEC is going to have to take notice.

9. Missouri (2-1)

Missouri’s 2022-2023 season ended in embarrassing fashion with a loss to Princeton in the round of 32. But, at least they made the tournament. With star senior Kobe Brown gone to the NBA, it’s hard to tell right now if this team will be able to muster a tournament run this season. After losing at home to Memphis by 15 in a game which was supposed to be their one big win of their non-conference slate, this Mizzou team is looking quite a bit less impressive than last year’s. They’ve got a lot left to prove if they want to make it back to the postseason, but they’ve also got almost thirty games to prove it.

10. Georgia (2-1)

When Mike White inherited this program fresh off of a 6-26 record in the 2021-22 season —  including a 1-17 record in the SEC — the only way to go was up. Even though they finished the season on a six-game losing streak that was topped off by an SEC Tournament loss to 14th seeded LSU, a .500 record was significant progress. In gutsy fashion, Georgia gave themselves two Power Five opponents in Oregon and Wake Forest alongside the consistent MEAC contender North Carolina Central. Losing the first matchup against Oregon before winning their next two is an ideal start for the Bulldogs. Even with a roster largely built through the transfer portal this past offseason, senior guard Jabri Abdur-Rahim has taken an advanced role after only averaging 18.8 minutes per game off the bench a season prior. Now, averaging nearly 30 minutes a game throughout his first three games, he’s led the team in scoring twice and has become one of the lead guys for this Georgia group. Look for Abdur-Rahim and the Bulldogs to attempt to continue their momentum as they take on another strong challenge in No. 12 Miami next. 

11. South Carolina (3-0)

In 2017, Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to their best record of all time, as well as their best NCAA tournament appearance of all time, making it all the way to the Final Four. Since then, the team has failed to make an NCAA tournament again. Appropriately, they fired Martin after the 2021-2022 season, replacing him with Lamont Paris. Last season — Paris’s first — showed severe growing pains: the Gamecocks put up their worst record in a non-shortened season since that Final Four appearance. This year though, things are looking better. With an upset win over Virginia Tech in their second game, South Carolina is showing some serious signs of promise, and if things keep going their way, this program might be on the rise.

12. Ole Miss (3-0)

Ole Miss is coming off of a pretty bad season, one which ended in an overhaul of their entire coaching staff, led now by Chris Beard. Beard had been an excellent coach at Texas Tech and then Texas, making the NCAA tournament five years in a row, and even taking Tech to the finals. This tenure was cut short when Beard was arrested on domestic violence charges, which have since been dismissed but still loom over his legacy. Beard’s personal reputation aside, this team’s freshmen were recruited by a different coach than its transfers, and it shows. 247Sports ranked Ole Miss as having the 9th best transfer class in the country, despite an incredibly weak recruiting class. Expect to see these transfers steal the show, and if all goes according to his plan, Beard might have himself a sixth straight tournament appearance.

13. Vanderbilt (2-1)

Going into the end of last season, Vanderbilt was arguably the hottest team in the country. Even after losing eight key pieces like Jordan Wright and Liam Robbins to a blend of transfers and graduation, the Commodores have been revamped and reloaded, hoping to capitalize on the growing expectations of a program seeking their first tournament bid since the 2016-17 season. That was until the hiccup of all hiccups occurred when Vanderbilt was toppled at home by Presbyterian, a team that went 5-27 the year prior and finished last place in the Big South. With star guard Tyrin Lawrence and key pieces in Lee Dort and Ven-Allen Lubin still nursing various injuries, the Commodores have shown resilience after that devastating loss, knocking off USC Upstate and scraping by a tough UNC Greensboro squad. In the massive holes left by injury and a relatively inexperienced depth, senior guard Ezra Manjon has taken an even bigger leap as a leader and player in all facets of play, averaging 19.7 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.3 steals per game. In his best performance so far, he spearheaded the effort to fend off UNCG, posting 24 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, while shooting 45.5% from the field and making two threes, an area he struggled in last season. Without a timetable on any of the injuries, Manjon and Co. will have to keep winning to silence their doubters.

14. LSU (1-1)

Although LSU started off strong with a 100-point outing against Mississippi Valley State, a devastating loss shocked the Tigers in their second game of the season. Facing Nicholls State, a team that went 16-15 as a member of the Southland Conference last season and currently stands at No. 275 in the KenPom rankings, LSU fell 68-66. Even though they lost by two points, LSU trailed by as much as 24 in the first half and trailed by 19 at halftime. A spirited rally that spanned much of the second half gave the Tigers a late lead until a game-winning 3-pointer by Nicholls State guard Jalen White with 1.2 seconds left sealed the deal. Head coach Matt McMahon publicly showed a mass amount of frustration in his post-game press conference, which reflects a bit of where this program is at. After a massively rough season the year prior, where the Tigers went 2-16 in the conference, a defeat like this is even more aggravating. A hope to start the year off on a steady rise has already taken a hiccup, deepening the hole from which this team has to climb.

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About the Contributors
David Hernandez, Lead Sports Analyst
David Hernandez (‘26) is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences double majoring in political science and law, history and society with a minor in communication studies. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can find him playing basketball, catching up on his favorite shows and mourning the tragedy that is New York sports. He can be reached at [email protected].
Josh Rehders, Photography Director
Josh Rehders ('24) is from Houston and is studying computer science in the School of Engineering. When he is not shooting for The Hustler, Vanderbilt Athletics or freelancing, he enjoys finding new music and good food. He can be reached at [email protected].
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