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SEC Hoops Review: Halfway Home

We've reached the turn in SEC play. How's everybody looking now?

Smile, Kevin, the losing streak's over!
Smile, Kevin, the losing streak's over!
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it's because I watch too much basketball, but it does seem a little weird that the SEC is already halfway through conference play.  And... well... we still have a lot of confusion.

Even though right now, ten teams have between three and six wins in conference play, there's beginning to be something resembling a pecking order after Kentucky.  In one group, you have the four bona fide NCAA Tournament teams in Ole Miss, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas A&M.  No, they might not all actually make it -- for a variety of reasons, Ole Miss and Texas A&M have bubblicious profiles while Georgia might have problems if they can't start getting healthy -- but these four all have pretty good chances of making it in.

After that, you have the confusing middle.  Two teams -- LSU and Florida -- I can't get a read on.  LSU has managed to lose to Missouri, Mississippi State, and Auburn -- and yet, they also beat Ole Miss and Florida on the road, and won at West Virginia in December.  The hell?  Florida has a lot of potential, but seems disinterested and it frequently isn't working.  But they're still coached by Billy Donovan.  Joining them in this group is Alabama, who isn't all that confusing -- the Tide are just, well, average.  LSU has tournament hopes if they stop losing to bad teams, Alabama has tournament hopes if they start beating good teams, Florida... well, they'd have to come close to winning out the regular season, but I guess they could do that.

Below that, you have five teams that aren't going to the tournament but are still interesting -- either because they still could get into the NIT, or because they're building for next year, or because they could ruin somebody's NCAA Tournament chances.  These teams would be Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Auburn.  Yes, Tennessee is 5-4 in conference play -- but I would not be surprised if they're 5-13 after the back nine.  Three of these teams -- Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt -- are losing only one player of real consequence (assuming there aren't any transfers) and going on a run could build confidence for next year, especially if any of them get to the NIT.  Auburn isn't, but they're capable of pulling off an occasional upset as we saw this week.

And then you have Missouri, who is to the bottom of the league what Kentucky is to the top of the league -- there's no real question about this ranking, either.

1.  Kentucky (22-0, 9-0)

RPI: 2; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1

Last week and a half: W 69-53 at Missouri; W 70-55 vs. Alabama; W 69-58 vs. Georgia

This week: at Florida; at LSU

Kentucky won three games by an average of "only" 14 points, which has some people (cough ESPN) freaking out that maybe the Wildcats are vulnerable.  And, yes, perhaps we should be a little concerned that Kentucky allowed Alabama to shoot 13-21 on twos, or that they lost the rebounding battle, badly, against a Georgia team that was without its best player.  But, really, these guys are human.  And even Ken Pomeroy still gives Kentucky a 50-50 shot at getting through the regular season unbeaten, and that's not even counting the SEC Tournament.  So it's still a better than even shot that Kentucky enters the NCAA Tournament with a loss on its record.

In fact, the two-game stretch over the next week could be the best chance for Kentucky to take a loss until a rematch with Georgia in the last week of the regular season.  I'm still not sold on Florida (mostly because I've, you know, watched them play) but the Gators are at least talented.  So is LSU, and both of those games are on the road.  Then again, Kentucky's closest call of the season came at Rupp Arena.  Who knows, really?

2.  Ole Miss (15-7, 6-3)

RPI: 44; Pomeroy: 30; Sagarin: 40

Last week and a half: W 79-73 vs. Mississippi State; W 67-47 at Missouri; W 69-59 vs. Texas A&M

This week: at Auburn; at Florida

The Rebels are the latest team to occupy the "who's the best team after Kentucky" spot, thanks to a four-game winning streak that's seen the team put together four strong offensive performances.  And in the most recent outing, Ole Miss was able to shut down Texas A&M's big guns (Danuel House and Jalen Jones), holding the two to a combined 14 points on a combined 5-for-19 from the floor.

Aside from a Division 1-leading 79.9 percent from the free throw line (82.1 percent in SEC play), the Rebels' experienced backcourt takes very good care of the ball.  That allows an offense that's otherwise fairly average in terms of shooting percentages (from the floor) and hitting the offensive glass to thrive.  While the guards (Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody) get all the press, the Rebels' rotating cast of bigs (Sebastian Saiz, M.J. Rhett, and Dwight Coleby) has become highly effective on both ends of the floor, and the better news is that only Rhett is graduating after this season.

3.  Arkansas (17-5, 6-3)

RPI: 22; Pomeroy: 35; Sagarin: 30

Last week and a half: W 69-64 vs. Tennessee; L 56-57 at Florida; W 75-55 vs. South Carolina

This week: vs. Mississippi State; at Auburn

The Razorbacks' defense has picked things up over the last three games, holding all three opponents below a point per possession and under 50 percent shooting.  That's key, because while the turnovers are (almost) always going to be there, Arkansas hadn't been defending well in the halfcourt.  Some teams like Iowa State and Ole Miss have been able to avoid turnovers and shoot high percentages, but even in the Missouri game a couple of weeks ago Arkansas was able to survive because Missouri didn't shoot well.  Only an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance themselves against Florida kept this from being a five-game winning streak.

Of course, none of the teams the Razorbacks faced over the last four games are particularly good at shooting the ball on most nights.  A suddenly-hot Mississippi State team and an Auburn team that can get hot from the field will provide a different kind of test, and those are two games the Razorbacks absolutely have to have.

4.  Georgia (14-7, 5-4)

RPI: 25; Pomeroy: 31; Sagarin: 33

Last week and a half: W 70-62 vs. Vanderbilt; L 50-67 at South Carolina; L 58-69 at Kentucky

This week: vs. Tennessee; at Texas A&M

It's probably a bit of a stretch to say the Bulldogs' tournament hopes are on life support: exactly no one was expecting them to win at Rupp Arena, and while South Carolina technically counts as a "bad loss," that game (and the Kentucky game, for that matter) came without Marcus Thornton in the lineup.  So perhaps the Bulldogs should get a mulligan for the last two games; most teams, if you took away their leading scorer and rebounder, would look bad.  (Imagine Vandy without Damian Jones, for example.)  How the Bulldogs lost the South Carolina game (by shooting 22 percent from the floor) is a bit disturbing, but after a rather uncharacteristic hot-shooting stretch it seemed like the Bulldogs were due for a cold shooting night.  I guess when they have a cold-shooting night, they don't play around.

Thornton joins Juwan Parker and Kenny Paul Geno on the bench, and while Thornton should be back soon, the other two are unknowns.  Mark Fox has built a roster with the depth to weather injuries, but right now the Dogs are really pushing the limits of that; walk-on Taylor Echols has played 39 minutes over the last three games.

5.  Texas A&M (15-6, 6-3)

RPI: 33; Pomeroy: 48; Sagarin: 55

Last week and a half: W 71-61 at Auburn; W 69-58 vs. Vanderbilt; L 59-69 at Ole Miss

This week: at Missouri; vs. Georgia

The last week and a half roughly sum up Texas A&M: the Aggies reliably dispatch the teams they should beat, and have nothing even remotely resembling a bad loss.  But other than a road win at LSU (and even that is questionable now; we'll get to that in a minute), the Aggies don't have any impressive wins, either.  The defense is pretty good, and in SEC play the Aggies have held opponents to a lower percentage on two-pointers than anybody in the conference -- and yes, that includes Kentucky.

But the defense sometimes isn't going to be good enough to cover for an iffy offense.  In Oxford on Wednesday night, Danuel House (6 points, 2-11 shooting) and Jalen Jones (8 points, 3-8 shooting) both decided to have a bad night, and only some unusually solid offensive work by Kourtney Roberson and Tavario Miller prevented the Aggies from getting blown out.  Now comes the season-defining stretch, with a very winnable road game at Mizzou followed by home games against Georgia, Florida, and LSU.  A&M doesn't have to get through that stretch unbeaten, but that would certainly allow the Aggies to breathe easy going into a tough final five games.

6.  LSU (16-6, 5-4)

RPI: 39; Pomeroy: 47; Sagarin: 49

Last week and a half: W 64-58 vs. South Carolina; L 67-73 at Mississippi State; L 77-81 vs. Auburn

This week: vs. Alabama; vs. Kentucky

Before SEC play started, I wrote that LSU was basically in "don't screw up" mode.  Just win the games you're supposed to, and you'll get to the NCAA Tournament.  Well, I would say Mississippi State (even on the road) and Auburn (at home!) are games LSU is supposed to win.  And... they didn't.  Just what the hell happened here?  Well, in Starkville, the offense was the problem -- and more specifically, shooting was the problem.  LSU shot 26-for-69 from the floor (including 4-of-17 from three) and 11-for-21 from the foul line.  Even against Mississippi State, you're lucky to win if you shoot like that, although it didn't really help things that the Tigers were settling for jump shots: Josh Gray took 14 shots, Keith Hornsby took 17 shots, and Jarell Martin took 4 shots.  Gray and Hornsby aren't bad players, but if Martin is taking four shots, something is wrong here.

Against Auburn, the defense was the problem -- LSU couldn't stop KT Harrell (28 points) or Antoine Mason (24 points) and couldn't keep Cinmeon Bowers off the offensive glass.  It's going to happen that a team like Auburn will get hot from three, but when that's happening you absolutely can't afford to allow them to get second chances when they do miss.  LSU did a lot of damage to themselves over the past week and now absolutely has to beat Alabama on Saturday to stop the bleeding -- because after that, Kentucky comes to town and then the Bayou Bengals go to Tennessee and Texas A&M.  A two-game losing streak is bad, but a six-game losing streak would be even worse.

7.  Alabama (14-8, 4-5)

RPI: 69; Pomeroy: 40; Sagarin: 52

Last week and a half: L 50-52 vs. Florida; L 55-70 at Kentucky; W 62-49 vs. Missouri

This week: at LSU; at Mississippi State

Alabama being seventh (a.k.a. right in the middle) seems fitting, because the Tide just seem average all the way around.  Both their offense and defense are right around the league average.  They shoot well inside the arc and stink at shooting outside the arc -- and yet, for some reason, they shoot more threes than anybody.  (When your team shoots 54.3 percent on twos and 31.8 percent on threes and you tell them to shoot a ton of threes -- this is why you probably won't be coaching at Alabama next year, Anthony Grant.)  Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper are nice players, but nobody is confusing them for All-Americans.

I'll grant that numbers-wise, a lot of Alabama looking average has to do with them having played Kentucky twice already, but they didn't look like anything special in the Florida and Missouri games.  Both games involved late runs by the Tide -- they dug a big hole against Florida and the comeback came up just short, while it was disturbingly late in the game that they put away Missouri.  Yet the Tide still have some NCAA hopes because like Texas A&M, while they haven't beaten anybody (their best win is over... well... Texas A&M) and they've lost eight games, none of those losses look bad at all.  The key now is to clean up over the back nine; the Tide only have four home games but the toughest games left are road trips to LSU and Texas A&M.  Oh yeah, and playing Kentucky twice gives the RPI a nice boost...

8.  Florida (12-10, 5-4)

RPI: 70; Pomeroy: 36; Sagarin: 38

Last week and a half: W 52-50 at Alabama; W 57-56 vs. Arkansas; L 61-67 at Vanderbilt

This week: vs. Kentucky; vs. Ole Miss

A lot of bracketologists view Florida as being squarely on the bubble.  The line usually goes something like: "well, their profile isn't very good, but they've played a tough schedule and just maybe if they can get hot down the stretch and pick up a win over Kentucky..."  Ken Pomeroy views Florida as a "bad luck" team.  Are we even watching the same team here?  Since a 3-0 start in SEC play that had sportswriters saying "hey, maybe Florida is about to get things going" (evidently nobody noticed that those wins came against South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn), the Gators have gotten run out of the gym by Georgia and LSU, and probably should have been at Vandy were it not for Vandy's own sloppy play (now there's something new.)  They came close to winning at Ole Miss, but that was on a day when everything was falling, and they still came up short.

That chorus started again when Florida nearly blew a big lead at Alabama -- and on a day when the Tide were shooting poorly and giving away the ball, Florida just barely came through -- and when they squeaked by Arkansas on a day when the Hogs happened to shoot 3-16 from three.  But Bobby Portis still got his against the Gators' so-called interior defense, and then that defense got completely owned by Vanderbilt's frontcourt.  Are you noticing a trend here?  And what part of this trend makes you look at the NBA frontcourt at Kentucky and think, "yeah, this team can stop those guys."  Just cut it out.  This team is not going to the tournament.

9.  Mississippi State (10-11, 4-5)

RPI: 174; Pomeroy: 161; Sagarin: 147

Last week and a half: L 79-73 at Ole Miss; W 73-67 vs. LSU; W 71-66 at Tennessee

This week: at Arkansas; vs. Alabama

So this is what Mississippi State looks like when they're shooting well.  The Bulldogs shot over 50 percent from the floor against both Ole Miss and Tennessee, and the result was an offense that actually... works.  True, they still commit too many turnovers, but with Craig Sword and Fred Thomas finally finding their shooting stroke, Mississippi State suddenly looks like a dangerous team.  The question is: will this keep up?  Thomas's 78.9 percent from the foul line suggests that his three-point shooting is sustainable, but I'm not that sure Sword can keep it up.  But in all fairness, this three-game stretch has come with Gavin Ware being rather quiet on the offensive end.

Mississippi State also illustrates some of the problems with the RPI (as well as other computer rankings like Sagarin and Pomeroy.)  This is a far better team than what it looked like in December, yet the computers are still seeing this as the same team that lost to McNeese State by 19.  It's not, but the Selection Committee sees LSU and Tennessee as having just taken a horrendous loss.  With five home games in the second half of the schedule (granted, one of those is against Kentucky), and two games against Missouri, it's not completely insane to think Mississippi State could finish .500 in the SEC.  And that would be a huge step forward for this program.

10.  South Carolina (11-10, 2-7)

RPI: 100; Pomeroy: 44; Sagarin: 62

Last week and a half: L 58-64 at LSU; W 67-50 vs. Georgia; L 55-75 at Arkansas

This week: at Vanderbilt; vs. Missouri

What's there to say about the Gamecocks?  South Carolina's offense can (and usually does) look plenty ugly: 34 percent shooting at LSU, 28 percent shooting at Arkansas.  Even in a win over Georgia, the Gamecocks only shot 40 percent from the floor.  They turn the ball over quite a bit and while they can generate extra possessions with offensive rebounds, that's not nearly enough to save this offense.  But the defense... South Carolina does have a tendency to foul a lot; Georgia went to the line 32 times.  But the Bulldogs only shot 22 percent -- 22 percent! -- from the floor.

With all that said, the Gamecocks aren't going to win very many games if they can't score the ball, but the relatively high free throw percentage suggests that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with their shooting.  South Carolina entered SEC play with the NCAA Tournament being a realistic goal; but with that pretty much shot, the back nine is about gaining momentum for next season.  Tyrone Johnson is the only senior on the roster, but the youngsters need to get their confidence back.  The schedule only includes four home games, though, so avoiding Wednesday at the SEC Tournament could be a tough task.

11.  Tennessee (13-8, 5-4)

RPI: 80; Pomeroy: 100; Sagarin; 93

Last week and a half: L 64-69 at Arkansas; W 71-63 vs. Auburn; L 66-71 vs. Mississippi State

This week: at Georgia; at Vanderbilt

After getting out to a 4-1 start in conference play with wins over Mississippi State (when State was still figuring things out and bricking shots), road Arkansas, Missouri, and road South Carolina, the Vols have come back down to earth.  The big difference has been shooting percentages, and the reasons are entirely predictable: while the Vols are still turning people over, they don't have the size to do anything about a player like Bobby Portis (who went 6-8 from the floor in an Arkansas win) and playing a zone constantly leaves them vulnerable when the opposition is catching fire from three (Mississippi State shot 8-11 from three.)  Basically meaning the Vols' defense can be fairly effective against teams like Missouri and South Carolina that can't shoot regardless, but the Vols don't have the personnel to stop good bigs from scoring or hitting the offensive glass.

And, after playing the SEC's weakest schedule (according to Pomeroy) in the first half, Tennessee's schedule will get significantly tougher over the back nine: there doesn't appear to be a sure win left on the schedule (the "easy" games are home games against Vandy and South Carolina), while road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss, Florida, and LSU, and a home game against Kentucky, look like sure losses.  Given that remaining schedule, finishing at .500 in SEC play is going to be a major accomplishment.

12.  Vanderbilt (12-10, 2-7)

RPI: 109; Pomeroy: 60; Sagarin: 73

Last week and a half: L 62-70 at Georgia; L 58-69 at Texas A&M; W 67-61 vs. Florida

This week: vs. South Carolina; vs. Tennessee

While there was certainly a lot of panic during that seven-game losing streak (bookended by wins over Auburn and Florida), other than the Mississippi State game, those were all games that Vanderbilt should have lost on paper.  It's not to make excuses, but given the schedule in the first half of SEC play, just being 5-4 would have been a major accomplishment -- and with a pair of three-point losses and an overtime loss, Vandy wasn't that far away from making it happen.

And if the Florida game is any indication, this team looks like it may have just turned a corner.  The turnover problems are still there, but Vandy dominated in pretty much every other aspect of the game.  It was strange to see a Billy Donovan team look overmatched like that.  But the bigger reason to be optimistic is the schedule: over the back nine, Vandy draws five home games against South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, and Mississippi State and should be favored in all five.  If Vandy can just hold serve against beatable teams at home and maybe steal a road win or two, this team could avoid playing on Wednesday in the SECT -- and really, they don't have to play that much better than they did during the seven-game losing streak to make it happen.

13.  Auburn (11-11, 3-6)

RPI: 166; Pomeroy: 133; Sagarin: 148

Last week and a half: L 61-71 vs. Texas A&M; L 63-71 at Tennessee; W 81-77 at LSU

This week: vs. Ole Miss; vs. Arkansas

Auburn is very paradoxical.  They have a pair of guards who can shoot the ball in KT Harrell and Antoine Mason -- yet they rank among the worst-shooting teams in the SEC.  They might have the best individual rebounder in Cinmeon Bowers -- yet they're the worst rebounding team in the league.  But at least for one night, everything came together as the Tigers went into Baton Rouge and came away with a win.  They hit jump shots (9-20 from three) and against a team with a size advantage, they didn't lose the rebounding battle that badly.

Whether Auburn can build on that is an open question, though.  They do get three of their next four games at home, but they're against Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Alabama, none of which can be called an easy win.  They play Georgia twice and also have road trips to Kentucky (sure loss) and Texas A&M.  Ironically, Ken Pomeroy gives them their best chance of winning a game over the back nine in a road game (at Missouri), but even that one is only a 45% chance of winning.  All of that is to say that if the LSU game really does represent a team that's coming together at the right time, Auburn could pick up another couple of wins -- but if they revert to the form they showed before, that could have just been their last win of the season.

14.  Missouri (7-15, 1-8)

RPI: 165; Pomeroy: 183; Sagarin: 177

Last week and a half: L 53-69 vs. Kentucky; L 47-67 vs. Ole Miss; L 49-62 at Alabama

This week: vs. Texas A&M; at South Carolina

You expect to see struggles with a young team -- among SEC teams, only Kentucky and Vandy have less experience, and the Tigers have five freshmen and two sophomores playing significant minutes.  But you also expect to see a young team improve over the course of the season, and at least on the surface, that doesn't appear to be happening.  If anything, Mizzou's freshmen seem to be regressing right now.  Montaque Gill-Caesar hasn't looked quite the same since coming back from an injury.  D'Angelo Allen has scored a grand total of three points over the last seven games.  Tramaine Isabell has suddenly found his way into Kim Anderson's doghouse, and as usual the reasons aren't entirely clear.  Missouri has only cracked a point per possession twice in SEC play, and lost both games -- because they've paired the worst offense in the SEC with the worst defense in the SEC as well.

Mizzou does draw Auburn at home and also gets Mississippi State twice over the back nine (though suddenly Mississippi State doesn't look like an easy win.)  So Mizzou will probably pick up another win or two before the end of the season -- but I would be very surprised if this team doesn't finish in the basement.  The real key is starting to become more competitive and getting more confidence going into next season.