If you want to annoy a college basketball fan, tell him or her that the season doesn't really start until February.
To a college hoops fan, "the season doesn't really start until February" is code for "I am an NFL fan, and I only pay attention to college basketball between the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft." Because what happens in November and December matters.
In fact, if you pay enough attention in the first month and a half of the season, you pretty much know how the rest of the season is going to go. On January 1, we basically know who's good and who isn't. We can tell which teams are going to the NCAA Tournament -- for the most part, if you look like a tournament team early on, you're probably going to stay that way unless things fall apart. We know who's headed for the bubble, and we can usually tell who's going to play on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament. Now obviously nothing is set in stone, but I'll be surprised if any of the top teams miss the tournament or if any of the bottom teams are a factor in the SEC race.
On to the rankings!
1. Kentucky (10-2)
Pomeroy: 15; Sagarin: 19; RPI: 8
This week: vs. Ole Miss (6 PM Saturday, SECN); at LSU (8 PM Tuesday, ESPN)
Perhaps the biggest development in the SEC early this year has been Kentucky looking not-elite, but "not elite" is relative here. The Wildcats have rarely looked like a top 5 team or a national title contender, but they're still going to get into the NCAA Tournament, and they're still (if slightly) the favorite in the SEC. But unlike last year, the Wildcats are probably less than even money to win the conference, and there are several teams that could knock them off their perch.
2. Texas A&M (10-2)
Pomeroy: 20; Sagarin: 25; RPI: 13
This week: vs. Arkansas (3:30 PM Saturday, SECN); at Mississippi State (7:30 PM Wednesday, SECN)
Like the Aggies, but really, the top four teams in the conference are all probably similarly likely to win the conference. Unsurprisingly, Texas A&M, which returned four starters from last year and added a bunch of talented newcomers, are one of the best teams in the conference. If there's a negative here, A&M only has ten scholarship players after the defection of top freshman Elijah Thomas a couple of weeks ago, along with the preseason departure of sophomore Alex Robinson. And that's counting freshman Kobie Eubanks, who joined the team at semester break and hasn't played a game yet. So the margin for error here is pretty slim; an injury or some other mishap could send them into a tailspin.
3. South Carolina (12-0)
Pomeroy: 23; Sagarin: 27; RPI: 38
This week: vs. Memphis (5 PM Saturday, ESPNU); at Auburn (6 PM Tuesday, SECN)
There are dueling issues with the Gamecocks. On the one hand, they haven't played anybody yet; Ken Pomeroy has their schedule so far ranked #310 in the country, and the toughest game they've played was either Tulsa on a neutral court or Clemson on the road. On the other hand, they haven't lost, making them one of just three undefeated teams remaining in Division I, and they pass the eye test. South Carolina hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2004, and that drought looks like it will end this year. Will the Gamecocks be able to win a tournament game, something they haven't done since 1973?
4. Vanderbilt (8-4)
Pomeroy: 17; Sagarin: 22; RPI: 42
This week: vs. LSU (8 PM Saturday, ESPN2); at Arkansas (8 PM Tuesday, SECN)
And like South Carolina, Vanderbilt has dueling issues. On the one hand, they've lost four games; on the other hand, those four losses all came against likely tournament teams, and yet they also have the largest per-possession margin (0.25) of any team in the SEC. That suggests that this is a real contender for the SEC title, and there really isn't much of a difference between #4 Vanderbilt and #1 Kentucky.
5. Florida (8-4)
Pomeroy: 24; Sagarin: 31; RPI: 11
This week: vs. Georgia (7 PM Saturday, ESPNU); at Tennessee (6 PM Wednesday, ESPN2)
Like Vanderbilt, the Gators have four losses to likely tournament teams. Unlike Vanderbilt, Florida has a readily identifiable flaw: while they can score inside, they rank #342 in the country in three-point shooting (and #317 in free throw shooting, so this seems to be more of an issue of them just not being very good at shooting the ball rather than something fixable.) That means that Florida can't keep defenses honest; you know they're not going to beat you from inside, so why not pack the paint? That said, Florida's defense is good enough that they can survive cold shooting nights, and their RPI is high enough that they should wind up in the tournament regardless. But it's hard to see them as much more than a one-and-out team.
6. Ole Miss (10-2)
Pomeroy: 70; Sagarin: 57; RPI: 49
This week: at Kentucky (6 PM Saturday, SECN); vs. Alabama (8 PM Thursday, ESPNU)
There's a pretty clear gap between 5 and 6; Ole Miss is probably going to spend most of January and February squarely on the bubble, and there's a greater chance they'll fall apart than wind up in the tournament. They enter January having won seven in a row, but the last one was an overtime win over a terrible Troy team to close out the Tad Pad. Stefan Moody leads the SEC in scoring, but he's really not getting much help, and the Rebels don't have a good enough defense to survive off nights. So they're hanging on by a string here. Still, the RPI is decent enough and they didn't do much damage to their profile other than a neutral-court loss to George Mason.
7. Georgia (7-3)
Pomeroy: 57; Sagarin: 53; RPI: 41
This week: at Florida (7 PM Saturday, ESPNU); vs. Missouri (5:30 PM Wednesday, SECN)
Georgia got off to a slow start with losses to Chattanooga, Seton Hall, and Kansas State; but none of those losses are really bad (do your homework on Chattanooga), and they've since won four in a row, including relatively easy wins over Georgia Tech and Clemson. Sophomore Yante Maten is developing into an All-SEC type of player, and the guard play is decent enough that they're a real threat to make it back to the tournament. And that would be a real positive step for them: Georgia hasn't made back-to-back tournaments since 2001-02.
8. Alabama (8-3)
Pomeroy: 100; Sagarin: 90; RPI: 35
This week: vs. Norfolk State (1 PM Saturday, SECN); at Ole Miss (8 PM Thursday, ESPNU)
Somehow, this team is 8-3. In spite of the fact that they've been outscored overall in their first 11 games, Alabama won eight of those, including wins over Wichita State and Notre Dame. They also needed overtime to beat Jacksonville State, and beat a bad Southern Miss team by three points. Still, that's all skewed by early blowout losses to Dayton and Xavier, and the RPI means that if they manage to get hot enough in SEC play, they could wind up in the tournament. Even if it's not particularly deserved.
9. Arkansas (6-6)
Pomeroy: 79; Sagarin: 82; RPI: 116
This week: at Texas A&M (3:30 PM Saturday, SECN); vs. Vanderbilt (8 PM Tuesday, SECN)
The 6-6 record is misleading: five of the six losses were to decent teams, and the worst loss in terms of margin was by 10 points. The lack of depth is going to be a concern all year, but the Razorbacks rank 8th in the country in three-point shooting and it's easy to imagine them sinking good teams when they're shooting the ball well. But unusual for a Mike Anderson team, they are not elite at forcing turnovers. They're just mediocre enough that the NCAA Tournament is a long shot, but that doesn't mean they won't ruin your tournament plans.
10. LSU (7-5)
Pomeroy: 96; Sagarin: 99; RPI: 168
This week: at LSU (8 PM Saturday, ESPN2); vs. Kentucky (8 PM Tuesday, ESPN)
Ben Simmons might be the best player in the country, and the players around him aren't stiffs. So what exactly is going on here? Well, they're not very good at shooting from the perimeter, though Keith Hornsby's return after missing the first seven games has remedied that a bit. The bigger problem has been defensive breakdowns; five of their last eight opponents have scored over a point per possession. But the talent level is high enough that they should be better than this; I'm just not sure they can undo the damage they've already done enough to get in the tournament.
11. Auburn (6-5)
Pomeroy: 150; Sagarin: 128; RPI: 77
This week: vs. Tennessee (1 PM Saturday, CBS); vs. South Carolina (6 PM Tuesday, SECN)
The Tigers are better than last year, but by how much? They're much better at shooting the ball -- largely because of the additions of Kareem Canty, Tyler Harris, and T.J. Dunans. But they still have the same defensive issues that they had last year; namely, they still can't really defend the rim, and Horace Spencer has potential but isn't there yet in terms of being the defensive stopper they need. Top freshman Danjel Purifoy should be joining them soon, but how much of a difference will he make?
12. Tennessee (7-5)
Pomeroy: 92; Sagarin: 97; RPI: 87
This week: at Auburn (1 PM Saturday, CBS); vs. Florida (6 PM Wednesday, ESPN2)
The Vols really aren't that bad; their ranking is a reflection of the fact that there aren't that many bad teams in the SEC (those would be, well, the two below them.) There really isn't that big of a difference between #6 and #12. The Vols rank 10th in the country in offensive turnover percentage, which masks a lot of other flaws: aside from Kevin Punter, they don't have a lot of offensive weapons, but at least they're not hurting themselves with silly turnovers. And other than an aversion to forcing turnovers, the defense is actually decent. It's hard to imagine them being good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but they could be an NIT team.
13. Mississippi State (7-5)
Pomeroy: 116; Sagarin: 126; RPI: 171
This week: vs. Texas A&M (7:30 PM Wednesday, SECN)
Ugh. Bringing in Malik Newman and Ben Howland was supposed to improve things; instead, the Bulldogs have simply forgotten how to play defense. Which is a shame, because after finishing last year #255 in offensive efficiency, the Bulldogs are up to #87 this year. If the defense had merely stayed where it was last year, this team would actually be decent, but their inability to get stops will limit their potential.
14. Missouri (6-6)
Pomeroy: 178; Sagarin: 157; RPI: 126
This week: vs. Savannah State (2 PM Saturday, SECN+); at Georgia (5:30 PM Wednesday, SECN)
They're actually better than last year, which isn't saying much, and there's potential for the future: Missouri ranks #339 in D-1 in experience (per Ken Pomeroy), and they're basically playing four freshmen and three sophomores. So they're probably going to take their lumps this year, but unlike in 2015 nobody in the SEC can pencil them in as an automatic win.