This is no typical year in SEC basketball. On the backs of an impressive showing in the NCAA Tournament as a last year, the Southeastern Conference is beginning to stake its claim for the top conference in college hoops. Joe Lunardi of ESPN projects eight SEC teams in the tournament field this year, just one team behind the ACC for the most by a conference. If you’re looking for a reason why, it’s the level of parity that is unprecedented. While the SEC is usually a conference characterized by teams chasing the Kentucky Wildcats, the narrative has changed. Every team but one is above .500, and every game feels ever-so important in trying to weed out the pretenders from the contenders. Here are the Vanderbilt Hustler’s SEC power rankings just a few games into conference play:
The Gators already had a very strong backcourt returning from an Elite Eight run a year ago, but it’s not Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen leading the way scoring the basketball. That distinction goes to transfer guards Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov, who combine to average nearly 32 points per game for this electric Florida backcourt. Mike White’s group took the top spot in our early season power rankings, and after a slight fall from grace in the form of a three-game losing skid, the Gators are back on top of the ranks with the best record in SEC play. Behind one of the top all-around point guards in the nation in Chiozza, elite shooters, and center John Egbunu on his way back from injury, Florida could make a splash in San Antonio come April.
Make no mistake about it, the Tennessee Volunteers are for real. Rick Barnes coaches a battle tested team that has faced off against Purdue, Villanova, North Carolina, and Kentucky this season, winning two of those four. The last of which, a double-digit victory at home over Kentucky, solidified Tennessee’s standing as a legitimate top contender in the SEC. The Volunteers are led by Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, two forwards who are undersized in the height department, but more than make up for it with muscular frames that allow them to bully taller defenders. Grant Williams proved that en route to 37 points against Vanderbilt just last week. Those two are surrounded by shooters on the perimeter that give Tennessee the balanced attack necessary to win the conference title.
There are three certainties in life. Death, taxes, and a Kentucky basketball team dominated by freshman. John Calipari has not shied away from his ways, starting five freshman routinely for his team. With that, however, comes growing pains, perhaps more than we’re used to seeing in Lexington. Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox have played up to par, but have yet to break out into the players that usually shoulder the load and carry this team (i.e. De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, etc.) Freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like he might be ready to step into that role, but even if he does, don’t expect Kentucky to break away from the pack. The Wildcats have proved to be mortal in the SEC this season, dropping conference games to Tennessee and South Carolina.
Is there any team in the nation more surprising than the Auburn Tigers right now. Bruce Pearl has turned a team that hasn’t been in the conversation for best team in the conference since 1999 into a legitimate contender. Auburn lost just its second game of the season Wednesday night, snapping a 14-game win streak. A high-flying offense that ranks 16th in the nation in scoring with just under 86 points per game, the Tigers look to junior guard Bryce Brown and freshman guard Mustapha Heron to push the tempo and score in bunches. Perhaps the most impressive part of this surprise surge for Auburn is the fact that this team might not have even tapped into its ability to shoot the basketball at a high clip yet. Brown shoots just 39.5% from the field, while Heron shoots 43%, including 28% from beyond the arc. If Pearl’s two stars can really find their stroke, Auburn could become even more dangerous than it already is.
5. Texas A&M
The Aggies looked like one of the best teams in college basketball after an opening night destruction of West Virginia in Germany. Now however, A&M is tied for the worst conference record, dropping its first five SEC games and falling out of the AP top 25 for the first time all season. In order for Billy Kennedy to turn things around in College Station, he has to go back to the basics. The Aggies sport arguably the best frontcourt in the country, with D.J. Hogg, Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, and Tony Trocha-Morelos giving this team NBA size with the talent to match. With a win over Ole Miss on Tuesday night, Texas A&M will look to go back to the dominating brand of basketball that had this team looking like a powerhouse less than a month ago.
The Razorbacks have a rare combination that makes them scary to any opponent: A trio of senior guards that can all defend. Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon, and Anton Beard are SEC veterans at this point, and understand what it takes to win big games, and in particular, close games. Arkansas’s comeback win against Tennessee proved that Mike Anderson’s guys play 100% until that final whistle. Barford is the leader of the group, and likely an All-SEC first-team selection at the end of this season with his proficiency at both ends of the floor. The one caveat for the Razorbacks is that they have yet to win a true road game all season. This is a team that thrives off the crowd in the Bud Walton Arena, and unless the SEC and NCAA Tournaments are going to move all their games to Fayetteville, something has to change.
While Tua Tagovailoa might be the hottest name in Alabama athletics right now, Collin Sexton isn’t far behind. The 6’3 freshman point guard out of Mableton, Georgia is averaging upwards of 19 points per game and is in full control of coach Avery Johnson’s offense. Sexton is a lottery pick waiting to happen, as evident by his 40-point performance against Minnesota in a wacky 3-on-5 game that almost completed an epic comeback. While Sexton has made this team go all season, the Tide has showed in likely its most important game thus far that it’s not just a one-man show. With Sexton sidelined, Alabama pulled off the upset against Auburn, ending the Tigers’ win streak. With Braxton Key working his way back into the lineup and John Petty starting to become a force offensively, Alabama is proving that this is a well-rounded team that deserves a place in the field come March.
This is about where people thought Missouri would sit just over halfway through the season. 13-5 with a 3-2 conference record seemed feasible with the addition of Michael Porter Jr., the second-ranked freshman in the class with NBA star written all over him. However, when Porter Jr. went down just a couple minutes into the team’s season opener against Iowa State with a back injury, all those lofty expectations went out the window, deeming the season a lost cause. Instead, the Tigers haven’t broken stride, winning ten of their first twelve games without Porter Jr. This looks to be the best team Missouri has had since the days of Marcus Denmon and the Pressey brothers, and Cuonzo Martin will look to continue silencing the doubters.
Everything discussion about Georgia basketball starts and ends with Yante Maten. The 6’8 senior has established himself as one of the best big men in the nation, and he is the primary reason why the Bulldogs sit at 12-5 heading into the thick of conference play. Maten sets the tone on both ends of the floor with his 19.7 and 9.1 line that will no doubt earn him a first-team nod. Georgia wins games by controlling the pace of play, making teams play a halfcourt game that favors a very deliberate Bulldog offense. With Maten in the middle, Georgia ranks 18th in the country in rebounds per game and 28th in points allowed. The Bulldogs likely aren’t good enough to compete for an SEC title without help for Maten, but if William Jackson or Juwan Parker can shoulder a little more of the load, Georgia has a real shot to surprise people and sneak into the dance.
It’s funny how basketball works out in Baton Rouge. First the Tigers make the tournament as a nine seed, then they land the top player in the nation in Ben Simmons and miss out on the tournament. Then they fall to the very bottom of the SEC in 2017, and now this team is 11-6 and knocking on the door for a tournament bid. LSU may be tenth in our power rankings, but Will Wade has done a tremendous job with this program in his first year as head coach. The Tigers have quality wins over Michigan and Texas A&M, and are in every game, losing to Kentucky by just three points. Tiger fans can thank Tremont Waters for their success. The freshman point guard is a very skinny 5’11, but he possesses the ability to score from anywhere on the floor, making him a one-man highlight reel. Among these jaw-dropping shots is a 30-footer with under a second to play against Texas A&M to give LSU an enormous victory.
11. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are 14-4 on the season, coming off an 18-point home win against Vanderbilt. So how come this team couldn’t crack our top ten? Probably for the same reason that they aren’t in the projected tournament field despite a strong record. Mississppi State just hasn’t played anybody. In the Bulldogs’ 13 non-conference games, they played zero power five teams, and just one top 25 team, 25th ranked Cincinnati, who beat them by 15 points. A 1-3 start to conference play didn’t help quell the critiques. Ben Howland’s bunch did just come off a big home win, however, and led by junior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, the Bulldogs will look to knock off a few tough conference foes to throw their hat in the ring.
12. South Carolina
South Carolina is another team with a quality record, but an incredibly weak non-conference schedule. The Gamecocks lost their only non-conference game against an RPI Top 50 team, a 64-48 loss to Clemson. Frank Martin has faced a tall task trying to live up to the surprise Final Four season a year ago, especially after losing his top four guards from last year to the NBA, graduation, and suspension. Still, South Carolina was able to pull off an impressive home win over the Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday, highlighted by 27 points from Chris Silva. The win was the epitome of the parity of the conference this season. The 12th ranked team in our power rankings was able to knock off the 3rd ranked team by eight points. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, one quality win isn’t enough to vault this team into contention.
13. Ole Miss
Mississippi has seen all too well what happens when a team loses its best player two years in a row. The departure of Stefan Moody in 2016 turned a tournament team into an SEC cellar-dweller, and the departure of Sebastian Saiz last season hasn’t helped. Having said that, Ole Miss still sports a 10-8 record and a signature victory over our top-ranked Florida Gators. If that’s not enough, the Rebels have the best names in the conference locked up. Just ask Marcanvis Hymon, Justas Furmanavicius, Dominik Olejniczak, Illya Tyrtyshnik, and Breein Tyree, all featured on the team’s 14-man roster.
Oh how the mighty have fallen. After two straight tournament appearances, and an impressive run in conference play last season that featured three wins against the Florida Gators, Vanderbilt now finds itself in last place in the SEC. The loss of Luke Kornet appears to be too much of a burden to bury, as the Commodores find themselves sitting at 6-12, on the outside looking in to any form of a postseason berth. If Commodore fans have anything to hold their hat on, however, it’s the possibility of a complete turnaround next season, as top-ranked recruits Simi Shittu, Darius Garland, and potentially Romeo Langford will don black and gold and attempt to rejuvenate this program.