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SEC Hoops Review: Week 1 of Conference Play

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Two games into SEC play... and, whoa, what's up with Kentucky?

Wait a minute... you guys can play basketball?
Wait a minute... you guys can play basketball?
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

You might notice some changes in the rankings (some of them pretty big) in this week's review.  There are a couple of reasons for that.

The first reason is fairly obvious.  We're into conference play now, and we now have 14 games between SEC teams in the books.  Before last week, how the teams compared to one another was almost entirely speculation (and maybe a transitive property here and there among common opponents.)  Now, they're playing each other.

The second reason might be less obvious, but it's been covered before.  Going into conference play, there really didn't appear to be a whole lot of difference between the teams after Kentucky until you got to around 11 or 12.  That much hasn't changed a whole lot (other than one team seeming to establish itself as a pretty clear #2 this week), but particularly now that we're in conference play, a good week can lead to a significant move... and an unimpressive week can do the same.

Also, I'll get to this in a minute, but there are a couple of teams I seem to have simply misjudged in light of a bad (or good) performance or two.  RPI ratings are from Jerry Palm at cbssports.com; ratings are current as of Sunday afternoon.

1.  Kentucky (15-0, 2-0)

RPI: 1; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1

Last week: W 89-86 (OT) vs. Ole Miss; W 70-64 (2OT) at Texas A&M

This week: vs. Missouri, at Alabama

It was sort of fun to look at Twitter while Kentucky was struggling in their two games this week and see college basketball writers... I won't say they were openly rooting for Kentucky, but I think there were at least a few people who realized that Kentucky losing to the likes of Ole Miss or Texas A&M would have made them look pretty dumb.  I don't think that sportswriters so much were overrating Kentucky (okay, maybe slightly) as I think that they mistook the rest of the SEC for the Sun Belt Conference.

Kentucky opened SEC play by having its worst defensive performance of the season (and it wasn't close) as well as its worst offensive performance of the season (that one was at least close) on a per-possession basis.  More on Ole Miss in a bit, but that one can be explained away by the fact that Ole Miss was hitting everything.  It got to the point that Calipari was sending Willie Cauley-Stein out to the perimeter in an attempt to stop the Ole Miss guards.

The Texas A&M game was more disturbing for a lot of reasons.  Ole Miss might have won if they had hit a couple more shots, but again, they were already hitting everything.  A&M shot 33 percent for the game, 2-15 from three, and 16-30 from the line and still almost came away with a win.  It was disturbing to see the Wildcats look completely baffled by a simple 2-3 zone, and it was disturbing to see A&M repeatedly rebounding their own misses on the offensive end.  How does a team with as much size as Kentucky have that big of an issue with defensive rebounding?  This week exposed a few issues, and also showed why it's still more likely than not that Kentucky will lose a game at some point.

2.  Arkansas (13-2, 2-0)

RPI: 14; Pomeroy: 25; Sagarin: 20

Last week: W 79-75 at Georgia; W 82-70 vs. Vanderbilt

This week: at Tennessee, vs. Ole Miss

With three top 50 wins under their belt (two on the road) and a 2-0 start in SEC play, and looking at the rest of their schedule, the Razorbacks are in the enviable position of basically just needing to win the games they're supposed to in order to make the tournament.  They might even be able to afford a slip-up on the road.

The Razorbacks rely a lot on being able to set up their press, so when they weren't hitting shots early on against Georgia, the Bulldogs built a 13-point lead shortly before halftime.  That evaporated in the second half when Arkansas started going inside to Bobby Portis (who finished with 21) and Georgia started coughing the ball up against the press.  Forcing turnovers allowed Arkansas to weather getting murdered on the boards against Georgia and a hot shooting performance by Vanderbilt to go 2-0 on the week.  This week, one matchup favors the Hogs -- even on the road -- against a turnover-prone Tennessee team that has no answer for Portis.  The Ole Miss matchup could be interesting, however, with the Rebels sporting an experienced backcourt that won't be fazed by the Arkansas press and a raucous home crowd.

3.  Florida (9-6, 2-0)

RPI: 79; Pomeroy: 22; Sagarin: 37

Last week: W 72-68 at South Carolina; W 72-47 vs. Mississippi State

This week: vs. Auburn, at Georgia

Ironically, the Gators getting things turned around in SEC play might ultimately be bad for the SEC: Florida's rather weak OOC performance (RPI-wise, anyway) means that they have a ton of work to do to get a tournament bid, and right now they're just hurting the chances of a team like South Carolina.

Keeping the Gamecocks off the glass is a win in and of itself, but the Gators also scored inside against a good defense and that was enough to overcome a lot of turnovers by the guards.  There's not really a whole lot to say about the Mississippi State game other than that Florida did what you'd expect them to do against a bad team.  Right now, this still isn't a tournament team (even if it looks like the third-best team in the conference), but with road games against Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama and a home game against Arkansas coming up, Florida has plenty of chances to add to its resume.

4.  Alabama (12-3, 2-0)

RPI: 33; Pomeroy: 41; Sagarin: 49

Last week: W 65-44 vs. Texas A&M; W 56-38 at Tennessee

This week: at South Carolina, vs. Kentucky

It's not that I am overly impressed by the fact that the Tide shut down a marginal Texas A&M offense that was without its leading scorer, and a decidedly average Tennessee team.  Okay, yeah, it's partly that, because holding any pair of teams to 82 points in two games is pretty impressive.

No, this is one of those instances that I mentioned above, where I looked at a single outlier performance and was missing the forest for the trees.  Alabama's defense seemed to struggle early and then gave up 97 points against Xavier a month ago; but since then, the Tide have held eight straight opponents under a point per possession and were a late collapse in Wichita away from winning all eight games.  This defense isn't a question mark (although it does seem to struggle against teams like Xavier and Iowa State who have bigs that can score.)

But it's the next three games that will define Alabama's season, with road trips to South Carolina and Arkansas sandwiched around Kentucky coming to town.  Win even one of those, and we can seriously talk about the Tide as a potential tournament team.  Until then, even after a strong opening week, this is a team that still hasn't beaten anybody that will impress the Selection Committee.

5.  Georgia (9-5, 0-2)

RPI: 38; Pomeroy: 34; Sagarin: 46

Last week: L 75-79 vs. Arkansas; L 84-87 (2OT) at LSU

This week: at Vanderbilt, vs. Florida

While it might seem a bit strange to have an 0-2 team this high, Georgia is also a few plays away from being 2-0.  Against Arkansas, the Bulldogs led for the first 31 minutes before Arkansas's press got them.  Georgia handled the press in the first half -- it helped that Arkansas was missing shots and couldn't set up the press -- and led by seven at the break before committing 11 turnovers in the second half.

In Baton Rouge on Saturday, the Bulldogs needed a late comeback and a Marcus Thornton basket at the buzzer to send it to overtime, but built a 9-point lead in the first overtime before watching it evaporate.  Georgia couldn't close out in either game, but it's hard to think that this is suddenly a bad or even average team after they lost to the second-best team in the conference and then lost a road game against a tough opponent.  While these losses don't directly hurt the Bulldogs' tournament profile, the Arkansas game in particular is a missed opportunity; it remains the case that the only things Georgia have to hang their hats on are a win over Seton Hall and a top-ten strength of schedule.

The real issue now is avoiding an 0-4 start to conference play; with a road trip to Vanderbilt followed by a home game against Florida, that's very possible, and Georgia could sure use a win in either or both games.

6.  Ole Miss (10-5, 1-1)

RPI: 60; Pomeroy: 47; Sagarin: 53

Last week: L 86-89 (OT) at Kentucky; W 65-49 vs. South Carolina

This week: vs. LSU, at Arkansas

Close, but no cigar.  Ole Miss played about as well as humanly possible in Rupp Arena on Tuesday, and while you might think they passed the eye test in that one (they did), the Selection Committee doesn't see a win there.  That would have done a great deal of help to a sketchy tournament profile, though Ole Miss is helped by the fact that Cincinnati (whom the Rebels beat earlier) is now #32 in the RPI and Western Kentucky (an earlier loss) has crept into the top 100 -- on the other hand, TCU has fallen out.  Ole Miss followed that up with a strong performance at home against South Carolina in which the Rebels kept South Carolina off the glass and defended well.

This is another instance in which a couple of bad performances (against Charleston Southern in the season opener and the second half against Western) weighed heavily in my mind.  I had thought Ole Miss was a hot/cold team, but the Rebels haven't had a bad offensive performance in over a month and just took apart two of the best defensive teams in the league.  The defense leaves a lot to be desired, but this is a very good offensive team that should do well in the SEC.

7.  LSU (12-3, 1-1)

RPI: 43; Pomeroy: 60; Sagarin: 68

Last week: L 67-74 (OT) at Missouri; W 87-84 (2OT) vs. Georgia

This week: at Ole Miss, vs. Texas A&M

As I suspected, the Bayou Bengals did their usual jig of playing down to the competition in Columbia and the result was an overtime loss in a game that LSU led for 35 minutes before allowing Missouri to catch up.  Still, there were positive signs: the Tigers' defense did a good job and they killed Missouri on the glass, but the combination of poor shooting and turnovers were too much to overcome.

The turnovers have been an issue all season, but LSU normally isn't going to shoot 36 percent from the floor.  On a more "normal" shooting night against Georgia at home, against a solid defensive team, it was just enough for LSU to prevail in double overtime.  Sophomore Tim Quarterman's 27 points were huge on a night when Jarell Martin was not playing well.  I still suspect that the "stars-and-scrubs" model -- an impressive core of talent surrounded by an apparent collection of stiffs whom Johnny Jones rarely uses -- ultimately won't hold up, but for now this looks like at least a decent team.  Sadly, though, the Missouri loss (even on the road) will hurt LSU's tournament chances.

8.  Vanderbilt (11-4, 1-1)

RPI: 75; Pomeroy: 54; Sagarin: 55

Last week: W 64-52 vs. Auburn; L 70-82 at Arkansas

This week: vs. Georgia, at Mississippi State

You can make a credible case for the Commodores being a couple of spots higher than this and I wouldn't really argue with you, because again, there isn't a whole lot of separation in the middle of the SEC.  If you're being charitable, Vandy handled Auburn at home (though they did make everybody sweat a bit in the second half) and gave the Razorbacks a tough game in Fayetteville.

If you're not being charitable, Vandy looked like it was auditioning for Turnovers! The Musical this week.  19 turnovers didn't hurt too much against a cold-shooting Auburn team, but Vandy needed to shoot the lights out in Fayetteville (52 percent) just to stay within 15.  That and a career day by Bobby Portis were enough to hand the Commodores their first conference loss.  Fortunately for Vanderbilt, Georgia is not particularly adept at forcing turnovers and Mississippi State kind of is, but is otherwise a terrible team.  So starting conference play 3-1 is a good possibility.

9.  South Carolina (9-5, 0-2)

RPI: 112; Pomeroy: 36; Sagarin: 47

Last week: L 68-72 vs. Florida; L 49-65 at Ole Miss

This week: vs. Alabama, at Auburn

A pretty blah week for the Gamecocks.  A home loss to Florida isn't embarrassing, but it's the kind of game the Gamecocks had to have: unlike a team like Georgia, the Gamecocks' middling non-conference SOS (136) and a bad loss to Akron (balanced out by wins over Oklahoma State and Iowa State, but still) doesn't leave them a whole lot of margin for error in conference play.  That was followed up by traveling to Ole Miss and losing, when the Rebels didn't have a letdown after the near-miss against Kentucky.

You can make a case for South Carolina being higher than this, and indeed, I actually had them #2 in the league last week.  What happened?  It wasn't so much that the Gamecocks started conference play 0-2 as it was how it happened.  For a team that makes its living off defense and rebounding, it's simply not going to work when they're getting hammered on the glass like they were against Florida.  The defense was okay against Ole Miss, but not nearly good enough to win on a day when the shots weren't falling.  I'm not about to give up on South Carolina, but let's just say that this week needs to go better than last or else the Gamecocks could be looking at 0-4.

10.  Texas A&M (9-5, 0-2)

RPI: 54; Pomeroy: 69; Sagarin: 65

Last week: L 44-65 at Alabama; L 64-70 (2OT) vs. Kentucky

This week: vs. Mississippi State, at LSU

Yeah, the Aggies very nearly took down Kentucky on Saturday.  So why are they here?

For one thing, the near-miss against Kentucky seemed to have a lot more to do with Kentucky's own issues than with anything Texas A&M was doing.  Really, the Aggies didn't play well against Kentucky; you're simply not going to beat the #1 team in the country while shooting 16-30 from the free throw line and also shooting 33 percent from the floor.  Kentucky just couldn't hit shots themselves and that allowed A&M to hang around far longer than they should have.  The Alabama game -- in which A&M scored 17 points in the second half and also committed 14 turnovers in a low-possession game -- seems to be more indicative of where this team is right now.

While this team can't score at the moment, that does come with the caveat that Jalen Jones, the Aggies' leading scorer, missed both games this week.  So perhaps with a healthy Jones, this team will be better, but I still don't really see this team having a good offense even with Jones available.

11.  Tennessee (9-5, 1-1)

RPI: 71; Pomeroy: 108; Sagarin: 107

Last week: W 61-47 at Mississippi State; L 38-56 vs. Alabama

This week: vs. Arkansas, at Missouri

I'm really not going to give Tennessee any credit for the Mississippi State win, because one, it's Mississippi State; and two, the Vols committed 18 turnovers and 32 fouls in that game.  It's actually really difficult to argue that Tennessee played well in that game; Mississippi State simply played worse (because, again, Mississippi State.)

In the Alabama game, Tennessee shot 31 percent from the floor and went scoreless for 14 minutes in the second half, missing 15 straight shots in the process.  That's a special level of offensive suck.  I don't really have a whole lot to say about the Vols, who are going to struggle in SEC play, but I can't really move them down at the moment because the three teams below them haven't really shown anything.

12.  Auburn (9-6, 1-1)

RPI: 105; Pomeroy: 136; Sagarin: 138

Last week: L 52-64 at Vanderbilt; W 85-79 vs. Missouri

This week: at Florida, vs. South Carolina

Cinmeon Bowers is averaging 11.3 rebounds per game this season, but in spite of his presence, Auburn ranks as probably the worst rebounding team in the SEC.  Neither Vandy nor Missouri is a very good rebounding team, and yet Auburn lost the rebounding battle, badly, in both games.

The defense did manage to hold Vanderbilt under a point per possession, mostly because of turnovers, but did no such thing against Missouri: not only was Missouri having a good shooting night, but they were also rebounding a lot of their own misses.  Only a hot shooting night from three (those will happen on a team that has KT Harrell) kept Auburn from starting SEC play 0-2.  But there still are not going to be very many wins in conference play for this team.  Bruce Pearl is going to get this program turned around, but it's not going to happen this year with this roster.

13.  Missouri (7-8, 1-1)

RPI: 156; Pomeroy: 148; Sagarin: 150

Last week: W 74-67 (OT) vs. LSU; L 79-85 at Auburn

This week: at Kentucky, vs. Tennessee

A team like Missouri presents a problem for the SEC in terms of NCAA Tournament bids: the Tigers are good enough to pick off the middle-of-the-pack SEC teams at home, but they're also a mediocre team according to the RPI (and, well, reality.)  Mizzou really didn't play that well against LSU, with Missouri prevailing in large part because of LSU's turnovers and 13-23 performance at the free throw line.  What was more surprising was that against a team with a couple of NBA bigs, Missouri's bigs Johnathan Williams and Keanau Post came up big (Williams had 21 and 10.)

The Auburn game is a bit more indicative of where this team is right now: there's some talent here, but most of it is young and Mizzou is going to struggle at times.  The offense played well, but then Auburn's defense isn't anything special, and Auburn's Cinmeon Bowers got to the foul line 18 times.  Of course, Missouri also played shorthanded this week with starter Montaque Gill-Caesar out with back issues.

14.  Mississippi State (7-8, 0-2)

RPI: 245; Pomeroy: 245; Sagarin: 232

Last week: L 47-61 vs. Tennessee; L 47-72 at Florida

This week: at Texas A&M, vs. Vanderbilt

I really don't have much more to say about this team, because there are few positives about this team right now and I don't have enough ink to cover all the negatives.  I.J. Ready is a decent point guard and Gavin Ware is a good big, and that's the entirety of the positives.  Instead, I'll just point out that against Tennessee, Mississippi State managed to score 47 points in a game in which they attempted 44 free throws.  Now that's ineptitude.  I thought this might be a decent team once it got healthy, but now?  I won't be surprised if this team goes 0-18 in SEC play.