After slogging through a lot of games against overmatched teams from low- to mid-major conferences that told us relatively little, this week the competition stepped up in a big way. The SEC/Big 12 Challenge had a lot to do with that, but even the four SEC teams that didn't participate -- Georgia, Alabama, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State -- each played a major conference opponent (okay, okay, calling Tulane a major-conference team is probably a stretch, but at least Mississippi State played them on the road.)
The 4-6 record the SEC put up in the Challenge doesn't look too great on the surface, but that mark is somewhat misleading. Three of the SEC's better teams (in my view, anyway) didn't participate, while three of the SEC's worst did, although one of those three came away with a win.
This week, I've added the RPI, Pomeroy, and Sagarin ratings for each team, which I'll continue until the end of the season. These ratings are fun to look at, but right now the RPI isn't particularly meaningful since conference play hasn't started, while Pomeroy and Sagarin are still relying quite a bit on their preseason ratings so there's a bit of circular logic (Florida is good, because Florida is good) to them. And Pomeroy can be especially jumpy at this point in the season: South Carolina, for example, has gone up 30 spots since Saturday morning. (Also note: I'm writing this on Sunday evening, so the ratings may have changed by the time you read this article. RPI numbers are according to ESPN.com.)
1. Kentucky (9-0)
Last week: W 63-51 vs. Texas; W 82-49 vs. Eastern Kentucky
RPI: 2; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1
While Kentucky ultimately prevailed against Texas, that game did reveal a couple of chinks in the armor. For one thing, facing a team that's at least somewhat in their league in terms of size, Kentucky's rebounding advantage largely vanished: the 'Horns grabbed 16 offensive boards. Of course, much of that was a result of Texas simply out-hustling Kentucky on the glass, and also the fact that Texas largely eschewed the inside game; 20 of their 47 field goal attempts were threes, and Texas only made 4 (while missing some open ones.) Basically -- Texas would have won that game if they had shot better and also turned it over less -- the 'Horns had 22 turnovers, and a lot of those were unforced. But again, the point stands that even a top 10 team would have had to be near perfect to take down the Wildcats.
2. Florida (3-4)
Last week: L 65-71 at Kansas
RPI: 117; Pomeroy: 19; Sagarin: 27
Florida moving back up to 2 has more to do with what other teams (cough, Arkansas) did this week than them, though at least for a half against Kansas the Gators looked like the team we expected them to be. But then, they went cold (10-29 in the second half) and allowed Kansas to erase a 15-point halftime deficit. Chris Walker had 12 points and 5 boards in just 15 minutes and finally resembled the player who NBA scouts see as a first-round pick. In any case, the schedule eases up a bit over the next few weeks (though Florida will see a dangerous Yale team on Monday) and Alex Murphy will become eligible after finals, so Florida should be able to build some momentum going into SEC play.
3. Arkansas (6-2)
Last week: L 77-95 at Iowa State, L 65-68 at Clemson
RPI: 11; Pomeroy: 34; Sagarin: 18
After a strong start, the Razorbacks' old bugaboo (playing away from Bud Walton Arena) reared its ugly head in a week that saw Arkansas lose twice, both times on the road. The Iowa State game is what happens when you take care of the ball against Arkansas; the Cyclones only committed 11 turnovers and the result was a 64 percent shooting night (including 71 percent on twos) that deflated a lot of Arkansas's early-season success. But at least Iowa State is a good team. Clemson is not, and yet the Razorbacks still couldn't come away with a win; here, the culprit was rebounding, which Arkansas couldn't do enough of. I still think this is a good team, though, and Arkansas doesn't leave home again until SEC play starts.
4. LSU (6-2)
Last week: W 82-60 vs. UMass; W 74-73 at West Virginia
RPI: 20; Pomeroy: 78; Sagarin: 74
For the past couple of weeks, I've been splitting the difference between LSU's potential (excellent) and their actual performance (pretty bad, all things considered). This week, the Bayou Bengals finally started playing to their potential. Johnny Jones made the wise decision to move 6'10" John Odo into the starting lineup; playing him alongside Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin adds an extra degree of difficulty for opposing offenses while not sacrificing too much on the offensive end. The result of that is that LSU's defense is good enough that even in a game in which the Tigers committed 24 turnovers, they still came away with a road win against a Top 25 team. LSU is actually quite good at shooting the ball and offensive rebounding, so this offense could be scary good if they ever stopped coughing it up.
5. Georgia (5-3)
Last week: W 86-55 at Chattanooga; W 64-57 vs. Colorado
RPI: 100; Pomeroy: 46; Sagarin: 52
Georgia played something close to a perfect game in an easy road win at Chattanooga, but Chattanooga is a bad team, so we probably shouldn't read much into that. Colorado is a pretty good team with a strong front line, so it's a good sign that Georgia was able to limit them to 45.2 percent on twos -- although the Bulldogs couldn't really keep them off the offensive glass, and they did have an unusually good day shooting the ball (7-16 on threes.) Still, coming away with a win over a quality opponent should give the resume a nice boost come March.
6. Texas A&M (6-1)
Last week: W 66-63 vs. Sam Houston State; W 72-71 vs. Arizona State
RPI: 61; Pomeroy: 63; Sagarin: 66
Strange week for the Aggies. If you're from the "a win is a win" school, they did pick up two wins -- one over a Southland team, albeit one of the better ones, and one over a pretty decent Pac-12 team -- but both games raised some issues. In the Sam Houston game, A&M shot the ball fairly well and didn't turn it over, and yet they only managed to win by three. Poor foul shooting (11-22) had something to do with that, but A&M also got outrebounded with 6'11", 270-pound Michael Holyfield grabbing 9 boards in 12 minutes. Arizona State shot the living crap out of the ball and also got a good chunk of their rare misses, but A&M won that one by forcing a lot of turnovers and shooting pretty well themselves. It's at least somewhat excusable since Arizona State is normally a very good shooting team, but it still doesn't really reflect well on A&M's vaunted defense.
7. South Carolina (5-3)
Last week: W 77-59 at Marshall; W 75-49 vs. Oklahoma State
RPI: 62; Pomeroy: 43; Sagarin: 72
Marshall is pretty bad, so view that one like the Georgia-Chattanooga game: yeah, it's always good to win on the road, but you should beat teams like that. On the other hand, Oklahoma State is a pretty good team. The Cowboys shot 11-41 on twos against the Gamecocks, and eight of those shots were rejected. I believe that qualifies as defensive dominance. Like Johnny Jones, Frank Martin recently made a change to his lineup with 6'11" Laimonas Chatkevicius getting more minutes, though this one was forced on him due to an injury to Michael Carrera. But after Chatkevicius' performance over the past few games has been such that he should continue getting big minutes even when Carrera returns.
8. Alabama (5-2)
Last week: W 82-71 vs. South Florida; L 84-97 at Xavier
RPI: 22; Pomeroy: 72; Sagarin: 73
Alabama's offensive performance continues to be impressive, but the defense? That's supposed to be Anthony Grant's strong suit, so to see the Tide give up 97 points against Xavier is pretty damn disturbing. In spite of having some size up front, Alabama is actually pretty weak at defending the paint; that became magnified against Xavier when their bigs got in foul trouble. Even against South Florida, this was a problem, but the Bulls bailed Alabama out by not making their free throws. Without any real ability to lock down opponents in the half court, Alabama will either have to force a lot of turnovers (which they can do at times) or they're going to have to keep up this level of offensive performance against better opponents.
9. Ole Miss (6-2)
Last week: L 54-66 vs. TCU; W 79-73 at Oregon
RPI: 72; Pomeroy: 78; Sagarin: 75
Against TCU, the Rebels had a cold shooting night and lost as a result; no, you're not going to win many games when you shoot 30 percent from the floor. But TCU, which is currently allowing opponents to shoot just 34.3 percent on twos, is apparently going to do that to people. The Oregon game was interesting not merely because the Rebels got a road win against a decent opponent, but also because of how they did it: Jarvis Summers only attempted four shots (and missed all of them), but bigs Sebastian Saiz, Aaron Jones, and Dwight Coleby combined for 37 points on 11-19 from the floor (Coleby and Jones did a lot of their damage at the line.) What remains to be seen is whether Ole Miss will continue to get them the ball or whether Andy Kennedy simply saw a matchup he could exploit (Oregon didn't play anyone taller than 6'7") and will go back to having the guards fire up a ton of jump shots.
10. Vanderbilt (5-2)
Last week: L 63-66 vs. Baylor
RPI: 184; Pomeroy: 84; Sagarin: 76
Vandy came away with a loss against Baylor, but that doesn't mean there were no positives to take away. While Vandy struggled to shoot from the perimeter against the Baylor zone, Damian Jones, James Siakam, and Luke Kornet are going to provide plenty of inside scoring options even when the threes aren't falling. And it took Baylor shooting over 50 percent from three for them to come away with a narrow win. If you had told me that Vandy was going to play sloppy and shoot 3-17 from three, I'd have thought we would have lost by a lot more than that.
11. Tennessee (3-3)
Last week: W 65-64 vs. Kansas State
RPI: 173; Pomeroy: 103; Sagarin: 106
It's fairly amazing that other than Kansas, Tennessee continues to manage to play good teams that can't take advantage of the Vols' lack of height. K-State didn't start anyone taller than 6'7". Combine that with 22 turnovers, and it was enough for Tennessee to eke out a win. Still, though, the Vols got murdered on the glass and it's becoming rather obvious that this team doesn't stand a chance if they're not forcing turnovers. But at least early on, they're forcing enough turnovers to give themselves a chance.
12. Mississippi State (5-2)
Last week: L 54-59 at Tulane
RPI: 67; Pomeroy: 89; Sagarin: 124
Yeah, Tulane is 7-1, but that's mostly the result of a steady diet of SWAC teams and they still aren't a team that an SEC team should be losing to, even on the road. This loss still comes with the asterisk that Craig Sword only played two minutes and clearly still isn't 100 percent, but Sword's continued absence doesn't really explain how Tulane grabbed 12 offensive boards (on 34 chances) or how Mississippi State shot 2-13 from three. As I've said before, it's fairly obvious that this team has improved, but the Tulane loss says that it hasn't improved that much.
13. Missouri (4-4)
Last week: W 65-61 vs. SE Missouri State; L 63-82 at Oklahoma
RPI: 162; Pomeroy: 142; Sagarin: 134
Here's why you shouldn't take too much away from the SEC's struggles against the Big 12. Here you had an SEC team that's clearly struggling, needing a late comeback to beat SE Missouri State, facing one of the Big 12's better squads on the road, and the result was quite predictable. The Oklahoma loss came with Mizzou shooting 9-16 from three, but the Tigers couldn't do a damn thing to stop the Sooners from scoring at will. And that actually was the case with SEMO as well, with Missouri only prevailing because SEMO couldn't hit their free throws. If there are reasons for hope, it's that so far freshmen and sophomores have played 62 percent of Missouri's minutes and top recruit JaKeenan Gant hasn't played at all due to an eligibility issue, so this team might get better as the year goes on.
14. Auburn (3-4)
Last week: L 44-46 at Texas Tech; L 54-58 vs. Coastal Carolina
RPI: 129; Pomeroy: 164; Sagarin: 156
The Texas Tech game was the Karl Dorrell of basketball games, a crapfest of missed shots, turnovers, and fouls, and none of these things seemed to be the result of good defense but rather the sheer force of bad offense on both ends. Even your loyal AOG basketball diehard could barely make it through the first half before reaching for a bottle of rat poison. Kill it. Kill it with fire. James Naismith is spinning in his grave over that one.
Auburn followed that up with another craptastic offensive performance, shooting 34 percent from the floor, 9-19 from the line and committing 15 turnovers in Cliff Ellis's triumphant return to the Plains, reminding Auburn that they were dumb for firing him so they could have Jeff Lebo and then Tony Barbee coach the team. (I kid. Ellis got fired because for once Auburn discovered that the NCAA rulebook is actually a thing and that they should follow it. Their most recent coaching hire suggests that they have gone back to ignoring it if it means not losing.) Seriously, there's very little positive to take away from this team right now.