We've had a couple of weeks of action in college hoops, and while solid conclusions are tough to come by this early in the season, thanks to the tough competition afforded from early-season tournaments I can make a couple of general observations at this point in the season.
- This year, there are no truly bad teams in the league. The league's worst teams this season are going to be tough outs at home, which couldn't be said for the league the past couple of years when one or two teams would not have been safe bets to win the SWAC.
- At the same time, this isn't a great development for the league's mid-tier teams, which still don't seem to have a lot of separation among them. The vagaries of the RPI mean that at least a couple, maybe more, of the teams in the league will have triple-digit RPIs at the end of the year, but the fact that they probably won't be that bad means that they'll be capable of saddling tournament contenders with a bad loss.
- The gulf between Kentucky and the rest of the league is wide enough that I will be surprised if the Wildcats lose a conference game, but in fairness, part of this has to do with the vagaries of the unbalanced conference schedule. I might think twice about that statement if the Wildcats had to go to Bud Walton Arena, but they don't.
- At least from the looks of things after two weeks, the SEC will not be a three-bid league this year. A lot can change between now and March, but at this moment there are enough pretty good (or better) teams in the league that the SEC should do no worse than four bids.
1. Kentucky (7-0)
Last week: W 92-44 vs. Texas-Arlington, W 58-38 vs. Providence
We didn't really learn anything new about Kentucky this week. Even when the offense is having an off day (as it was, at times, in the game against Providence), Kentucky's offensive rebounding is going to generate extra opportunities, and the defense is such that there's no such thing as an easy basket against Kentucky. The Wildcats are allowing opponents to shoot 28.8 percent on twos. It's conceivable that an opponent could get hot from three and catch Kentucky on an off night, but otherwise it's difficult to see this team going down. Even the rather average defensive rebounding is possibly a result of Kentucky blocking so many shots.
2. Arkansas (6-0)
Last week: W 78-72 at SMU, W 89-73 vs. North Texas, W 94-77 vs. Iona
Against SMU, Arkansas picked up one of just two true road wins for the SEC this season. Let that sink into your head for a moment; the Razorbacks have typically been an extremely poor road team, but if they can win on the road, this is going to be an NCAA team, and not really even a bubble team. North Texas hung around by taking care of the ball and hitting 50 percent from three, but the Razorbacks still won by killing them on the glass. The Iona win will also wind up helping the Razorbacks' tournament chances; they're the favorite to win the MAAC.
3. Florida (3-3)
Last week: L 65-66 vs. Georgetown, W 56-47 vs. UAB, L 64-75 vs. North Carolina
The Gators slogged through the tough Battle 4 Atlantis field while picked up just one win against UAB. Florida has a solid defense and they can rebound the ball, but right now, the shots aren't falling. They don't have much of an inside game -- Jon Horford is an efficient low-post scorer but doesn't assert himself enough on the offensive end, while Chris Walker remains an enigma -- and when the threes aren't falling, as they weren't against Georgetown or North Carolina (or UAB, really) this offense is going to stink. The good news, I guess, is that they aren't going to see many more teams the quality of Miami, Georgetown, and North Carolina: there's a game against Kansas on Friday, but after that, the only teams in the SEC remotely in that league are Kentucky (duh) and Arkansas.
4. Texas A&M (4-1)
Last week: W 87-65 vs. New Orleans
There's nothing really to take away from a beatdown of one of the worst teams in Division 1; A&M led by 31 midway through the second half before laying off the gas. From all appearances, the defense is of an elite level; no team has broken a point per possession against the Aggies. Meanwhile, the offense is improved quite a bit from last season: the Aggies have a deadeye shooter in freshman Peyton Allen, one of the more underrated pickups this season, while transfers Jalen Jones and Danuel House give the Aggies some talent on the wings.
5. Alabama (4-1)
Last week: L 74-84 vs. Iowa State, W 76-71 vs. Arizona State
At first glance, the Tide passed the eye test even in a loss to Iowa State, though a look at the stats reveals a red flag: the Cyclones shot 69 percent on twos. Alabama has some bodies in the post with varying degrees of skill, but they're apparently not good enough to slow down a player the caliber of Georges Niang -- the good news, though, is that there are not many Niangs in college hoops. What's more, Alabama is currently shooting 81.5 percent at the line and this hardly seems sustainable, particularly since a good chunk of that has to do with Levi Randolph suddenly morphing from a 70 percent foul shooter to a, well, 100 percent foul shooter (35-35 on the season.) But as long as Alabama is taking care of the ball and making shots, this is going to be a pretty good offense; whether the defense comes around is a bit of a question mark though.
6. Georgia (3-3)
Last week: L 76-88 vs. Gonzaga, L 62-66 vs. Minnesota
The Bulldogs aren't a good shooting team, but they can get some buckets in close to the basket and get to the foul line a lot. The bad news in that approach is that it's not exactly the best approach for beating teams like Gonzaga and Minnesota that have the bodies to slow them down in the paint, but the good news is that Georgia should pretty reliably dispatch teams that are worse than them. But basically, the early conclusion is that Georgia hasn't really built on last season in spite of returning basically everyone and adding a nice piece in Yante Maten. Still, this should be one of the better teams once SEC play starts.
7. LSU (4-2)
Last week: L 61-64 vs. Clemson, W 83-72 vs. McNeese State
I'll give LSU a bit of a pass for slogging through a win over McNeese State since Jordan Mickey didn't play, but that wasn't the case against Clemson and LSU lost anyway. So far, the inside combination of Mickey and Jarell Martin looks very good (when both are healthy, anyway), but the guard play is sketchy: the Bayou Bengals are shooting an awful 25.5 percent from three and committing turnovers on 20 percent of their possessions.
8. Ole Miss (5-1)
Last week: W 75-68 vs. Creighton, W 66-54 vs. Cincinnati
I've mentioned before that Ole Miss doesn't have much of an inside presence, but that's not really true on the defensive end; the Rebels are allowing opponents to shoot just 39.1 percent on twos, and bigs Sebastian Saiz and M.J. Rhett have a lot to do with that. Offense is a different matter, though, and Ole Miss's offense is dependent a lot on getting jump shots to fall. When they're falling, as they were against Creighton and Cincinnati, this is actually a pretty good offense; but when they're not, the lack of a post game and a rather high number of turnovers mean that this offense will struggle. And this isn't a particularly good rebounding team, either: Cincinnati killed the Rebels on the glass but just couldn't get shots to fall.
9. South Carolina (3-3)
Last week: W 89-75 vs. UNC Asheville
The Gamecocks basically dominated UNC Asheville, but the Bulldogs kept it respectable only by hitting 15-29 from three. Nights like that are going to happen, but it's important to note that even on a hot shooting night like that Asheville still lost by 14. On the other hand, the Gamecocks did commit 20 turnovers (albeit in a fast-paced game), and that's been a problem for them so far and could put a cap on how high they can go in the SEC standings.
10. Vanderbilt (5-1)
Last week: L 65-68 vs. Rutgers, W 68-55 vs. La Salle
The guards, all freshmen, are going to be much more hit-or-miss. When Vandy is committing a lot of turnovers, as they were against Rutgers, it's going to be hard to win (though granted, James Siakam was the worst offender in the turnover department and he's neither a freshman nor a guard.) The good news is that the combination of Damian Jones and Luke Kornet is going to pose a lot of matchup problems for opposing defenses, and probably will be good enough to keep the Commodores in most games.
11. Mississippi State (5-1)
Last week: W 59-46 vs. Clayton State, W 75-50 vs. St. Louis, L 52-61 vs. TCU
Craig Sword was back, but still apparently not 100 percent, playing just 22 minutes combined and taking a grand total of three shots in two games. TCU is apparently vastly improved, and Mississippi State struggled shooting the ball in that game; on the other hand, the St. Louis game shows how much this team has improved. That's what happens when the shots are falling, and even when the shots weren't falling against TCU, the Bulldogs at least aren't getting killed on the glass (though they are turnover-prone.)
12. Tennessee (2-3)
Last week: W 64-57 vs. Santa Clara, L 67-82 vs. Kansas, L 59-67 vs. Marquette
Tennessee's defense is good at one thing: forcing turnovers. But it's saying something about the overall quality of this defense that Kansas turned the ball over on a quarter of their possessions and still scored 1.28 points per possession. The Jayhawks accomplished that by shooting well inside and murdering the Vols on the glass. This wasn't as much of a problem against an undersized Marquette team (no player taller than 6'7" got minutes), but Tennessee lost because Marquette took better care of the ball and the Vols couldn't get shots to fall. And that sums up the problems with this team: to beat decent or better teams, Tennessee has to have a lot of things go right.
13. Missouri (3-3)
Last week: L 53-72 vs. Arizona, L 61-82 vs. Purdue, W 74-60 vs. Chaminade
Blah. It's one thing to look bad against Arizona; it's another to look this bad against a middling Big Ten team. Right now, Missouri's offense is an ugly combination of poor shooting and a lot of turnovers, which kind of goes with the territory when you're playing a bunch of freshmen. Even against Chaminade, Missouri shot better but still coughed the ball up too much. There's really nothing to indicate that this is even a decent SEC team right now.
14. Auburn (3-2)
Last week: L 35-53 vs. Tulsa, W 71-69 vs. Oregon State
Even against Oregon State, Auburn had to shoot 52.5 percent from the floor to (just barely) eke out a win; Oregon State shot 60.6 percent on twos and outrebounded Auburn. Auburn's post defense wasn't as much of an issue against an undersized Tulsa team, but, well, you're not going to win many games when you commit turnovers on 36.5 percent of possessions and shoot 2-22 from three. That might have been the ugliest offensive performance of the season.