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SEC Hoops Review: Non-Conference Play Ends

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The non-conference schedule is over. How does the SEC stack up as we start conference play?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With the non-conference portion of the schedule now finished, the SEC looks at least slightly better than last season.  How that translates in terms of tournament bids remains to be seen.  Kentucky is a clear-cut number one, but after that you can make the case for a few teams being potential tournament teams.  Chances are that not all of them will make it, but there's a good chance that three or four will.

But, the other thing that's clear is that there isn't a whole lot separating number 2 from number 10, or even number 11, in the conference.  There's a good chance that the middle of the conference will beat each other up, and perhaps the lack of separation will limit the number of tournament bids the SEC can get.  Pomeroy and Sagarin numbers are as of Sunday afternoon; RPI numbers are also as of Sunday and are from Jerry Palm at cbssports.com.

1.  Kentucky (13-0)

Last two weeks: W 58-50 at Louisville

This week: vs. Ole Miss (Tuesday); at Texas A&M (Saturday)

RPI: 1; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1

What else is there to say about this team?  After the Wildcats beat Louisville, the general consensus is that they are probably going to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.  Ken Pomeroy gives Kentucky a 27.2% chance of being unbeaten entering the SECT; in fact, there are only three of 18 games in SEC play (road trips to South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia) in which Pomeroy gives the Wildcats less than a 90% chance of winning.  Those numbers are pretty similar to Wichita State's at this time last season, and those Shockers did make it to the tournament unscathed.  But we will see.

2.  South Carolina (9-3)

Last two weeks: W 91-54 vs. North Carolina A&T; W 64-60 vs. Iowa State (neutral court)

This week: vs. Florida (Wednesday); at Ole Miss (Saturday)

RPI: 86; Pomeroy: 28; Sagarin: 26

Yes, South Carolina lost to Charlotte and Akron back in November.  But right now, on a seven-game winning streak and with a neutral-court win over Iowa State (who's probably better than anyone in the SEC not named Kentucky), you can make a very strong case that the Gamecocks are the second-best team in the league.  What was especially impressive about the Iowa State win was how the Gamecocks did it: this wasn't an example of a team winning because of a hot shooting night.  South Carolina beat Iowa State by shutting down the Cyclones' offense (Georges Niang went 3-13 from the floor) and killing them on the boards.  In other words, South Carolina won by being South Carolina.  The scarier thing is that Sindarius Thornwell still hasn't gotten it going like most people think he's capable of; if that happens, the Gamecocks could be even better than this.

3.  Arkansas (11-2)

Last two weeks: W 84-54 vs. Milwaukee; W 100-92 vs. Northwestern State; W 79-46 vs. Utah Valley

This week: at Georgia (Tuesday); vs. Vanderbilt (Saturday)

RPI: 33; Pomeroy: 35; Sagarin: 28

When teams take care of the ball against Arkansas, they're going to have some success against the Razorbacks.  Arkansas's defense isn't like, say, Tennessee or Auburn, but it's still a defense that's going to rely on forcing turnovers, and when opposing teams do take care of the ball, that leads to a team like Northwestern State scoring 92.  Arkansas still won, of course, but look out for the Georgia game on Tuesday.  (On the other hand, Vanderbilt comes to town on Saturday, and we all know about this Vanderbilt team and turnovers.)

4.  Georgia (9-3)

Last two weeks: W 86-77 (3OT) vs. Mercer; W 50-46 at Kansas State; W 63-50 vs. Norfolk State

This week: vs. Arkansas (Tuesday); at LSU (Saturday)

RPI: 20; Pomeroy: 32; Sagarin: 38

If there's a thing Georgia's offense is good at, that thing is getting to the free throw line.  So when the Bulldogs are shooting 21-37 at the line, like they did against Mercer, there are going to be some problems.  Actually, Georgia struggled to take care of the ball against both Mercer and K-State, though they won both of those games (but let's not hesitate to point out that Tennessee beat both of those teams as well.)  That will need to get fixed in a hurry, or it's very possible that the Bulldogs will be 0-2 to start SEC play with Arkansas coming to town on Tuesday before the road trip to Baton Rouge.

5.  LSU (11-2)

Last two weeks: W 71-47 vs. Charleston; W 87-67 vs. Southern Miss; W 75-59 vs. Savannah State

This week: at Missouri (Thursday); vs. Georgia (Saturday)

RPI: 36; Pomeroy: 55; Sagarin: 63

The main concern with LSU, aside from depth, is that the Bayou Bengals have a maddening tendency to play down to their competition.  LSU struggled way too much with Savannah State on Saturday, falling behind by 10 points early, though they ultimately won pretty comfortably.  But it's a bad sign that Johnny Jones has to ride his starters hard to beat the Savannah States of the world, and I suspect that LSU may wear down during SEC play.  The potential of this team is very good, but the lack of quality players around the core may limit how much this team can do.  Missouri isn't all that good, but they're good enough to beat LSU if LSU plays like they tend to do against inferior competition; and much like Georgia, there's the potential for an 0-2 start in conference play.

6.  Florida (7-6)

Last two weeks: L 63-65 at Florida State; L 59-63 vs. Connecticut

This week: at South Carolina (Wednesday); vs. Mississippi State (Saturday)

RPI: 144; Pomeroy: 23; Sagarin: 60

With South Carolina, I was holding off on moving them up in the rankings because I was having a hard time believing they were that good.  With Florida, I was having a hard time moving them down because I didn't want to believe they were this average.  No more.  Yes, the Florida State game was on the road, but should I point out that Florida State went out and lost to Mississippi State a few days later?  Yes, yes I should.  The Gators then fell victim to a hot-shooting UConn team on Saturday.  The potential is there for this team, but right now, it's not happening.  In spite of his press clippings, Chris Walker isn't providing much inside production, so the Gators rely a lot on getting jump shots to fall.  It's not as big of a problem as it is for, say, Ole Miss because Florida actually has a good defense, but it doesn't appear to be an elite defense like South Carolina's.  This is not an NCAA Tournament team right now, and it probably won't be with the Gators currently having an RPI of 144 (and now saddled with a damaging loss to Florida State paired with a best win over Yale.)

7.  Vanderbilt (10-3)

Last two weeks: W 79-50 vs. Penn; W 70-55 at St. Louis; W 79-74 (2OT) vs. Yale

This week: vs. Auburn (Tuesday); at Arkansas (Saturday)

RPI: 82; Pomeroy: 53; Sagarin: 58

I may actually be slightly pessimistic about the Commodores, with Pomeroy seeing us as the #6 team in the SEC and Sagarin seeing us as the #5 team.  Turnovers continue to be a problem for the offense, with hot-shooting performances papering over that a bit; but on a cold shooting night, Vanderbilt struggles to beat Yale.  On the other hand, it's a good sign that in all three games over the last two weeks, Vandy's defense kept the opposition below a point per possession (granted, Penn and St. Louis are not very good.)  But SEC play opens with two teams that can really take advantage of Vandy's tendency to cough the ball up, although at least one of those will have no answer for Damian Jones when Vandy isn't turning it over.

8.  Alabama (10-3)

Last two weeks: W 56-50 vs. UCLA; W 76-61 vs. North Florida

This week: vs. Texas A&M (Tuesday); at Tennessee (Saturday)

RPI: 53; Pomeroy: 72; Sagarin: 68

I really can't draw much distinction between the next three teams.  No, UCLA isn't very good, so that win doesn't look as good as you think.  Alabama's defense got the job done in both games, and while the competition wasn't all that great, North Florida can at least shoot the ball so the Tide shutting them down is actually some solid work.  At the same time, Alabama gets to the free throw line a lot and is a good shooting team at the line; it will be interesting to see if this offense still works if the refs are swallowing their whistles.

9.  Ole MIss (9-4)

Last two weeks: W 82-51 vs. SE Missouri State; L 74-78 at Dayton; W 92-63 vs. Austin Peay

This week: at Kentucky (Tuesday); vs. South Carolina (Saturday)

RPI: 93; Pomeroy: 69; Sagarin: 66

Ole Miss is typically a hot/cold team that won't win when the shots aren't falling, so it was a positive sign to see the Rebels competitive with Dayton while not shooting particularly well; basically, Ole Miss got to the offensive glass and generated extra possessions to stay in the game.  On the other hand, the defense isn't really going to stop the better offenses (also known as how they still lost to Dayton even with that offensive performance), so Ole Miss will mostly only be a threat to the better SEC teams on nights when the shots are falling.  I can say with some degree of certainty that the Rebels will start SEC play 0-1, so that makes the South Carolina game extremely important.

10.  Texas A&M (9-3)

Last two weeks: W 65-50 vs. Mercer; W 58-49 vs. Hartford

This week: at Alabama (Tuesday); vs. Kentucky (Saturday)

RPI: 48; Pomeroy: 61; Sagarin: 64

The Aggies' defense was looking like a problem for a few weeks, so it's good to see a pair of strong defensive performances... but, well, let's not hesitate to point out that Mercer and Hartford both have pretty putrid offenses.  And now, suddenly, the offense is looking decidedly average.  A&M isn't a great three-point shooting team, but going 0-for-13 from three against Hartford?  That kind of performance doesn't exactly scream confidence, and neither does Danuel House's 3-12 shooting from the floor in that game.  Billy Kennedy can't seem to buy a break at Texas A&M; it seems that whenever his team's offense gets better, the defense gets worse, and vice versa.

11.  Tennessee (8-4)

Last two weeks: W 64-54 vs. Mercer; W 67-46 vs. Tennessee State; W 71-61 vs. East Tennessee State

This week: at Mississippi State (Wednesday); vs. Alabama (Saturday)

RPI: 75; Pomeroy: 93; Sagarin: 105

While the Vols' offense is actually fairly decent, the defense... One of the strange things about Tennessee is that even with no regular taller than 6'8", the Vols manage to defend two-pointers pretty well, only allowing a 44.1 percent clip; Armani Moore, at 6'5", is averaging 1.2 blocks per game.  The big question mark is how exactly that holds up in SEC play: there are some SEC teams that don't have much inside, but are you really expecting Moore to be able to handle 6'10" or 6'11" bigs?  It means that even Mississippi State, with 6'9" Gavin Ware, might have some success against the Vols' defense.

12.  Auburn (8-5)

Last two weeks: W 61-60 vs. Texas Southern; W 64-48 vs. Middle Tennessee State; W 82-61 vs. North Alabama

This week: at Vanderbilt (Tuesday); vs. Missouri (Saturday)

RPI: 120; Pomeroy: 139; Sagarin: 151

Before you question the close shave against Texas Southern, for Texas Southern, that loss was sandwiched between wins over Michigan State and Kansas State.  Yeah, Texas Southern is (somewhat) legit.  The presence of Trayvon Reed and Alex Thompson to go alongside Cinmeon Bowers means that, at least, the MTSU's and North Alabamas of the world aren't able to score so many easy buckets against Auburn, but we'll have to see how those young bigs do against the likes of Damian Jones.  Given Auburn's propensity to force turnovers and Vandy's tendency to cough it up, I wouldn't be that shocked by a 2-0 start in SEC play.  Of course, 0-2 would not surprise me, either.

13.  Missouri (6-7)

Last two weeks: L 59-62 vs. Illinois; L 72-74 (OT) vs. Oklahoma State; W 72-60 vs. Lipscomb

This week: vs. LSU (Thursday); at Auburn (Saturday)

RPI: 177; Pomeroy: 157; Sagarin: 168

While Missouri looked pretty bad over the first few weeks of the season, at least recently, they've started to look more or less like last year's South Carolina team: a young squad with some talent that hasn't quite figured out how to win.  If that's the case, expect the Tigers to take their lumps in SEC play, but there are teams in the league worse than Illinois and Oklahoma State, and Mizzou had their chances to win in both of those games.  In fact, both of those teams might be better than LSU, whom Missouri welcomes on Thursday night.

14.  Mississippi State (7-6)

Last two weeks: W 70-47 vs. Jacksonville; L 47-66 vs. McNeese State; W 62-55 vs. Florida State

This week: vs. Tennessee (Wednesday); at Florida (Saturday)

RPI: 219; Pomeroy: 184; Sagarin: 189

It's never a good look to be losing to McNeese State by 19, but at least that comes with the caveat that Gavin Ware (Mississippi State's best player, clearly) missed that game with an injury.  Between Ware's injury, and before that, Craig Sword's injury (and subsequent apparent struggles to get back up to speed after missing the entire preseason), the Florida State game might have been the first time all season that the Bulldogs were truly at full strength.  No, Mississippi State isn't good (even a 19-year-old Shaquille O'Neal would not be the difference between a good team and a team that loses to McNeese by 20), but the rather limited evidence suggests that this is actually an okay team when it's at full strength.  Tennessee is beatable, so we'll find out fairly quickly if this team is ready to compete in the SEC.