Ten months after canceling its postseason tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) will begin its 2020-2021 regular season on Tuesday night.
While teams have completed their respective non-conference schedules, many have already had their seasons interrupted due to COVID-19 outbreaks within their programs or their opponents’, leading to a different number of games played for each team.
In what has looked like a mixed bag of a conference so far, there have been many surprising squads, along with a few disappointing ones.
Here are your power rankings for the start of SEC play:
The Tennessee Volunteers are the best team in the conference. In what looks like a bounce-back year for Rick Barnes’ squad after finishing eighth in last year’s regular season, the Volunteers have won every game they have played by at least nine points. Currently the seventh-ranked team in the country, they are loaded with an amount of talent that will likely overwhelm the rest of the conference. Tennessee’s elite combination of experienced upperclassmen and talented freshmen should not only make them the conference favorites, but maybe even Final Four contenders.
With four players averaging double-figure points and multiple first-round prospects, the Volunteers’ biggest strength is their depth. Tennessee relies on a roster that has a balanced offensive attack and multiple versatile defenders. They open the season on the road against another top team, Missouri, on Dec. 30.
Missouri’s 6-0 record has certainly surprised media members, who projected them to finish tenth in the preseason SEC media poll. Now ranked 12th in the country, they boast two impressive wins over a then-No.21-ranked Oregon team and a No.6-ranked Illinois team. The Tigers are driven by Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson and Mark Smith, who form one of the best three-guard tandems in the country. With their first conference game against Tennessee, Missouri has an opportunity to take the top spot in the rankings and prove to the rest of the conference that they are legitimate title contenders.
The Razorbacks will put their conference-leading 8-0 record to the test on Wednesday night when they visit the Auburn Tigers for their first game of SEC play. Arkansas is another one of this year’s most surprising teams, especially after losing the reigning co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones and second-round NBA Draft pick Isaiah Joe. Freshman Moses Moody is the team’s top scorer, while three other players are also averaging double-figure points. In his second season as head coach, Eric Musselman is laying the foundation for what he hopes to turn into a top-tier SEC program. Arkansas was just outside of the top-25 in the latest coaches poll.
After Keyontae Johnson’s scary collapse on December 12th, the Gators postponed their three most recent games, leaving them at only four games played. The SEC preseason Player of the Year is likely out for the season, but he was fortunately released from hospital this past Tuesday.
Florida entered the year as one of the teams expected to compete for the conference title, but that will certainly be more difficult without their best player. Head coach Mike White will have to lean even more heavily on guards Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis, who have both been outstanding so far. The team will return to the hardwood for their first conference game of the season in Nashville against the Commodores on Dec. 30.
The LSU Tigers have adapted well so far to the loss of guard Skylar Mays, a first-team All-SEC player last season. Three of their top five scorers have returned, and they brought in freshman guard Cameron Thomas, who is currently second in the league in scoring at 22.8 points per game. LSU is also relying on Trendon Watford this season—a former five-star recruit who disappointed last year—as the sophomore has improved significantly and is currently third on the SEC scoring leaderboard and first in field goal percentage with a ridiculous 65.2%.
Despite numerous distractions and controversies throughout the past few years, head coach Will Wade has kept his program steadily competitive. The Tigers will open their conference schedule at home against Texas A&M on Tuesday.
Bruce Pearl’s squad has an opportunity to ruin Arkansas’ undefeated season when they begin their conference slate. After starting the season 1-2—with their win coming against St. Joseph’s in overtime—the Tigers have rattled off five-straight wins.
As last year’s second-place finishers, Auburn lost their five starters and sixth man, leaving their roster depleted. They were able to recruit five-star point guard Sharife Cooper, who has not been cleared to play due toeligibility concerns but has started practicing with the team recently, giving the Tigers hope that he will suit up soon. In his absence, freshman guard Justin Powell has stepped up to the challenge of being the lead playmaker. Powell is currently the team’s top scorer, rebounder and passer, while also being the conference’s best three-point shooter.
Despite being one of the four undefeated teams in the conference, Georgia’s low ranking is due to their unimpressive wins and lack of star talent on the roster. The Bulldogs have a balanced scoring attack boosted by three transfers who are all among their top six scorers. Sophomore guard Sahvir Wheeler currently leads the conference in assists per game by a significant margin with 7.4. After two straight 13th-place finishes in his first seasons, head coach Tom Crean is hoping to build on the team’s hot start. They will face Mississippi State on Wednesday night.
8. Ole Miss
Ole Miss will open their conference schedule at Alabama on Dec. 29. The Rebels were the last SEC team to start their season because of cancelled games, but they were able to compile a 5-1 record in the span of 13 days, with their only loss being against a solid Dayton team away from home. Senior guard Devontae Shuler is the team’s leading scorer and creator, as he has been tasked with replacing guard Breein Tyree’s Second Team All-SEC production from last season.
9. Texas A&M
In his second season, Buzz Williams has gotten off to a much better start than he did in his first. Having only lost to TCU, they were able to take care of the rest of their non-conference slate to reach a 5-1 mark. Emanuel Miller has taken major strides in his sophomore season, as he is the team’s top scorer, while also leading the conference with 9.4 rebounds per game. At the same time, senior Savion Flagg is having the best all-around season of his career. The Aggies will open their season at LSU.
For the second straight year, Nate Oats’ team has gotten off to a slow start. The loss of Kira Lewis Jr., one of the best players in the conference last season, has certainly been felt in the program. Senior guard John Petty Jr. is just one of three returning players from the 2019-2020 Coaches All-Conference teams, yet he is currently averaging fewer points and rebounds, and a lower field goal percentage than when he was a junior. Similarly, the roster’s leading scorer—sophomore Jaden Shackelford—is also averaging fewer points while scoring less efficiently than he did last season. The Crimson Tide’s first conference game will be at home against the Ole Miss Rebels.
If the Wildcats lose their conference opener, they will extend their longest losing streak ever under coach John Calipari. Kentucky has arguably been the most disappointing college basketball team in the country this season. The reigning SEC regular season champions have been an absolute disaster on several levels, resulting in a 1-6 record. Calipari was able to recruit his usual elite freshmen class (this year’s was the No.1 rated class), while also adding talent through the transfer portal, but the roster has not clicked.
The Wildcats have yet to play like a team that was expected to compete for the conference title. Yet, if one roster has the talent to completely turn their season around, it’s Kentucky. Their first conference game against South Carolina was postponed due to COVID-19 issues; they will likely begin their conference play against Mississippi State.
It has been a strange season for the Commodores. After winning their first game of the season, Vanderbilt had their next three scheduled games canceled due to COVID-19 complications within the program. Even after returning to play five more games, the team has had multiple players miss several games and practices due to continued complications.
Throughout their four wins and two losses, Vanderbilt has been inconsistent. Sophomores Scotty Pippen Jr., the country’s ninth-leading scorer at 23.3 points per game, and Dylan Disu,the SEC’s second-leading rebounder, have been the brightest spots on the roster. In his second year at the helm, coach Jerry Stackhouse will try to build on momentum from last year’s regular season, where they won two of their last three games. The Commodores’ first regular season game will be against the Florida Gators in Memorial Gymnasium at 8:00pm CT on Wednesday.
13. Mississippi State
The Mississippi State Bulldogs will try to upset the undefeated Georgia Bulldogs when they visit Athens as they look to start the conference season on the right foot. After a surprising fourth-place finish in the regular season last year, the Bulldogs lost their top four scorers, including co-SEC Player of the Year Reggie Perry. Expectations for Mississippi St. were low entering the year with so much talent to replace, but both D.J. Steward Jr. and Iverson Molinar have stepped in the scorer’s role and are averaging over 17.5ppg. After three straight 20+ win seasons, this may be a down year for Ben Howland’s program.
14. South Carolina
After outplaying their projections last season, it seems that the Gamecocks are headed toward a down year. While South Carolina has only played three games so far, they are currently just one of two teams in the SEC with sub-.500 records. Despite breaking out as a freshman two seasons ago and entering the year as a preseason First Team All-SEC player, AJ Lawson’s game has seemingly plateaued. With their conference opener against Kentucky postponed, Texas A&M will likely be South Carolina’s first opponent on Jan. 6th.