Vanderbilt basketball faces its SEC opener on Saturday as the Ole Miss Rebels come to town. The Commodores have a 9-3 record after beating Tennessee State and UNC Asheville over the weekend.
Last year, the conference got a record eight NCAA Tournament bids, and there was some talk going into this season that the SEC might even pass that mark in 2018-19. But early returns don’t indicate that’s particularly likely, in spite of five teams — Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, and Mississippi State — ranked in the Top 25 of KenPom. Among that group, Tennessee and Auburn were the conference co-champs last year and appear to be just as good this season. Kentucky was hyped as a preseason Top 5 team and national title contender; so far, that hasn’t appeared to be the case, though things are coming together for the Wildcats after beating North Carolina and Louisville to close 2018. Florida’s offense has been inconsistent, but the Gators are ranked #6 nationally in defensive efficiency. Mississippi State is 12-1 and looks to be in good position to break a ten-year drought since its last tournament appearance.
So that’s five bids. But things have been dicey in the middle of the conference. LSU was hyped as a preseason Top 25 team, but has fallen out of the polls after early losses to Florida State and Oklahoma State, and the Tigers also blew a 15-point second-half lead in a loss at Houston. The talent is there but things aren’t quite clicking in Will Wade’s second year.
Missouri and Texas A&M, like Vanderbilt, have to deal with the loss of their best players — Jontay Porter and Admon Gilder, respectively — for the entire season. Missouri appears to be getting things together with a six-game winning streak; Texas A&M, on the other hand, just lost by 15 to Texas Southern.
Arkansas and Alabama have talent, but neither has looked particularly sharp early on. Alabama dropped a home game against Georgia State in which they held a 22-point lead, and seven of its nine wins have come by 10 points or less — granted, some of those have been against decent competition. Arkansas started 6-1 but since has lost to Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech, both at home.
Georgia and South Carolina are probably the league’s two worst teams; Georgia is having an expected rebuilding year after the loss of Yante Maten, while South Carolina enters SEC play at 5-7 with no win over a team ranked higher than 169 in KenPom (and a road loss to #258 Wyoming.)
And then there’s Ole Miss, Vanderbilt’s opponent to open conference play. The Rebels finished in last place in 2018, but the talent left over in Kermit Davis’s first year is a bit better than last year’s 12-20 record reflected. In the comments the other day, westboundnup remarked that the first two games of conference play (this one, followed by a road trip to Georgia on Wednesday) are crucial, and I happen to agree with this. KenPom gives Vanderbilt a 57% chance of beating Ole Miss and a 48% chance of beating Georgia; starting 2-0 would be extremely helpful. After that, Vanderbilt has a likely loss at Kentucky followed by a home game it should win against South Carolina — and then come two prime opportunities for resume-building wins, with visits from Mississippi State and Tennessee. A 5-1 start to conference play would be excellent, if a bit unlikely; even 4-2, though, should put Vanderbilt in pretty strong position.
The women’s basketball team, by the way, opened SEC play with a 77-55 loss at Kentucky, dropping their record to 5-9 on the season. Yes, Vanderbilt shot 55.6 percent from the field and lost by 22. How do you do that? Committing 29 turnovers will do it. Again, I think we know how this one ends.
Bruno Reagan is podcasting, folks:
Tweet of the Day
BILL WALTON IS TRASHING LIBERTY UNIVERSITY'S HISTORY, SAYING THAT UCLA'S DECISION TO SCHEDULE THEM IS "A STAIN ON THE UNIVERSITY."— Cam Newton (@morrisoncrying) January 4, 2019
GET THEIR ASSES, BILL
There is never a bad time for Bill Walton-themed content.
Off the West End
Yeah, when you sit out when your team’s doctors said you were healthy enough to play and then demanded a trade, you’ll probably get booed when you return to your old team’s home arena.
The SEC’s top rusher is off to the NFL Draft.
Why is Butch Jones appearing on anybody’s coaching search list?