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Resetting the SEC: League Opener

SEC basketball starts league play this weekend.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Auburn Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It’s January 3, and you know what that means? SEC basketball starts conference play this weekend.

(Okay, most of the SEC starts conference play this weekend. The four teams that aren’t participating in the Big 12/SEC Challenge later this month start on Tuesday and Wednesday.)

I realize I never completely got around to finishing my preview series, so most of these rankings are... well, a new thing. But let’s take a look around the rest of the league!

(1) Auburn

Record: 12-0

KenPom ranking: 14

It’s a bit telling that Auburn is 12-0 and yet is ranked 14th in KenPom (and 8th in the AP poll, the place where being undefeated in January is usually good for being, well, higher than 8th.) What gives? Well, for one thing, the Tigers have had a couple of close calls against teams that a top-10 team shouldn’t really be having close calls against: they needed a last-second shot to beat South Alabama on November 12, and they needed overtime to beat Furman on December 5. And their best win, so far, has come against NC State at home, a team that’s ranked 36th in KenPom.

Still, undefeated on January 3 is undefeated on January 3, and while I don’t think this is a great team, they’re basically the best team in the SEC by default right now. Samir Doughty has bumped his scoring average from 7.3 ppg last season to 16.4 this year, and five-star freshman Isaac Okoro is averaging 12.8 ppg. Five of Auburn’s top six scorers are seniors.

(2) Kentucky

Record: 9-3

KenPom ranking: 15

In the past, I’ve remarked that preseason rankings have basically just taken a “no, trust us, Kentucky is good” approach over the past few years, and there have definitely been signs of that — specifically, in the Wildcats’ first (69-62 win over Michigan State in the season opener) and last (78-70 win over Louisville last Saturday) games of the young season.

And in between, Kentucky dropped a home game against Evansville on November 12, and prior to the Louisville win they’d lost back-to-back games against Utah and Ohio State in Las Vegas. No shame in losing to the Buckeyes, but Utah is ranked 101st in KenPom ... and Evansville is 206th! The Wildcats’ only real flaw is that they can’t shoot (29.3% from three-point range) ... but, uh, that’s kind of an important flaw. Oh, yeah, and you probably weren’t expecting this — but only two of Kentucky’s top seven players are freshmen.

(3) Arkansas

Record: 11-1

KenPom ranking: 32

Now this is a surprise. Until Sunday, you could make the case that the Razorbacks’ record was a reflection of the fact that they hadn’t really played anyone — they had played just two teams ranked higher than 117th in KenPom, and nobody better than #93 Georgia Tech, and they lost to Western Kentucky in overtime. And then they went on the road and beat Indiana.

Arkansas really only goes seven deep, and a lot of their scoring punch is coming from Mason Jones (19.7 ppg) and isaiah Joe (17.4 ppg.) But so far this season, they’re defending the three-point line really well (21.9%, 1st in the country!) and also forcing turnovers at a good clip (16th nationally.) We’ll see how they hold up in SEC play, but so far, so good for Eric Musselman in his first season.

(4) Florida

Record: 8-4

KenPom ranking: 24

I’m honestly not sure what to think of the Gators, who were ranked #6 in the country in the preseason — a ranking that I thought was quite a bit too high (the back end of the top 25 was more like it), but probably represented the ceiling for this team. On the other hand, their early-season struggles have been overblown. They’ve lost four games, but none of the four (home loss to Florida State, road losses to UConn and Butler, neutral-court loss to Utah State) are embarrassing on their face. And they did win the Charleston Classic in November, including a win over Xavier in the final, and since the Butler loss they’ve blown out both Providence and Long Beach State (albeit with the Utah State loss sandwiched in between.)

So what’s the problem? Like Kentucky, it’s shooting — and really, Florida does have a couple of good shooters in Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke. It’s just that the rest of the team is, well... not good. I thought the hype around Kerry Blackshear was too much, and while he’s been good (14.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg), he’s certainly not the difference between a back-end Top 25 team and a Top 5 team — which is how this was more or less presented. I still think this is one of the better teams in the SEC, though, and a good bet to make the NCAA Tournament.

(5) Mississippi State

Record: 9-3

KenPom ranking: 54

Call this one a bit speculative: Mississippi State just got Nick Weatherspoon back after he missed the first ten games of the season (and the last ten of 2018-19), reportedly due to an academic issue. The thing to really watch here, though, is that among the middle tier of the SEC, Mississippi State is the only one that can really shoot: the Bulldogs rank 95th nationally in three-point percentage, and they’re 1st in offensive rebounding. Granted, they give some of that back with a high turnover rate, but the speculation on my part is that Weatherspoon will help with that.

In Weatherspoon’s absence, the Bulldogs were mostly using senior Tyson Carter as the point guard — and while Carter’s scoring average has jumped to 15.4 ppg, he’s not really a ball-handler or creator. Meanwhile, sophomore Reggie Perry has made the jump and is averaging 15.4 ppg and 9.8 rpg. I actually really like this team, in spite of stubbing their toe against Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State over the last month.

(6) LSU

Record: 8-4

KenPom ranking: 40

In what’s kind of a recurring theme in the SEC, LSU has whiffed on most of its chances to pick up a resume-defining win early in the season, with a road loss to VCU to go with neutral-court losses to Utah State and USC (and a home loss to ETSU.) Their best win, per KenPom, is their last outing, a 74-57 win over Liberty that was the Flames’ first loss of the season.

LSU has five players averaging in double figures, led by Skylar Mays’ 15.8 ppg, and they’re quite good around the rim (2nd nationally in two-point percentage.) But the better teams on the schedule have been able to take advantage of defensive lapses. This looks like a bubble team.

(7) Tennessee

Record: 8-4

KenPom ranking: 45

How will the Vols adjust to the loss of Lamonte Turner, who decided to call it a career due to a shoulder injury? Well, if the 68-48 loss to Wisconsin last Saturday is any indication, the answer is: not well. Turner was not having a good year shooting the ball, but he was averaging 7.1 assists per game.

With Turner out, Tennessee has three players (Jordan Bowden, John Fulkerson, and Yves Pons) averaging in double figures, and now will need freshman Josiah-Jordan James to step up in Turner’s absence — the good news there is that he’s a five-star, but he’s averaged 7.1 ppg on the young season. And Tennessee has lost three of its last four, with losses to Memphis and Cincinnati preceding the loss to Wisconsin.

(8) Missouri

Record: 8-4

KenPom ranking: 50

I can’t completely move past the loss to Charleston Southern on December 3, but (a) weird stuff sometimes happens around finals, and (b) Missouri hasn’t lost since then, and that includes a road win over Temple and a neutral-court win over Illinois.

For lack of a better description, this is a stereotypical Cuonzo Martin team. The Tigers can really get out and defend, but they lack scoring punch and are capable of going through long stretches without scoring. Even in the wins over Temple and Illinois, Missouri averaged less than a point per possession; they just forced the opposition into doing even worse. Aside from the Charleston Southern game, the other three losses aren’t particularly bad: a road loss to Xavier, and neutral-court losses to Butler and Oklahoma. But the lack of offensive punch really scares me. Mark Smith and Dru Smith, both averaging 11.8 ppg, are the leading scorers.

(9) Georgia

Record: 9-3

KenPom ranking: 72

One of the SEC’s youngest teams, with seven freshmen on the roster, Georgia mostly hasn’t played anybody early in the season — and when they have, the results haven’t been pretty, with a 19-point loss to Dayton in Maui and a 20-point loss at Arizona State. They kept the score respectable against Michigan State back in November, but (a) they trailed by 21 at halftime, and (b) Anthony Edwards basically went off in the second half (37 points for the game) to bring the final score down to 93-85.

Edwards, who might be the number one pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, is capable of keeping Georgia in games and maybe even beating some teams by himself, but this season is really just about developing the other six freshmen into useful pieces for the future. Georgia is dangerous enough to pull off an upset or two, but is probably a NIT team at best.

(10) Ole Miss

Record: 9-3

KenPom ranking: 86

Ole Miss played four KenPom top 50 teams in a four-game stretch (at Memphis, Penn State, Oklahoma State, Butler) and lost three of them, including a hideous, 78-37 loss to Oklahoma State. That game, by itself, dropped them 17 spots in KenPom, and they haven’t really recovered (though they’ve won four in a row against questionable competition.)

Since the Rebels lost Luis Rodriguez to a foot injury in November, they’ve really been suffering from a lack of depth: their first five (Breein Tyree, KJ Buffen, Devontae Shuler, Khadim Sy, Blake Hinson) are pretty good, and things really drop off after that. Freshmen Austin Crowley and Sammy Hunter have had their moments, but aren’t ready to be major contributors — and those are the sixth and seventh players in the rotation.

(11) Alabama

Record: 7-5

KenPom ranking: 64

After a rough November, Alabama has won five of its last six, with the only loss coming to Penn State by two points. The Crimson Tide are a fun combination of a fast tempo (4th nationally) and shooting a lot of threes (19th nationally in three-point attempt percentage), and they make a fair amount of them (43rd nationally.)

The problems have manifested themselves on the defensive end, where five opponents have averaged over a point per possession, including two of the last three opponents. Allowing Samford to shoot 60 percent on two-pointers, albeit in a game Alabama won going away, isn’t really the greatest sign that you’re figuring things out. Alabama does have a couple of really good guards in Kira Lewis (16.6 ppg) and John Petty (16.4 ppg), but they’re really lacking in the paint — and that’s going to be a problem against better teams. This is a fun team to watch and should be capable of some upsets, but probably not a tournament bid.

(12) Vanderbilt

Record: 8-4

KenPom ranking: 130

Regular Anchor of Gold readers know my thoughts on the Commodores, who I don’t think are a good team this season, but they’ve looked at least marginally better than the squad that went 0-18 in the SEC last season. Aaron Nesmith leads the SEC in scoring at 22.9 ppg, he’s got a pretty reliable second banana in Saben Lee (16.5 ppg), and Scotty Pippen Jr. has shown promise as a freshman (11.0 ppg, 4.5 apg.)

The problem here is that Vanderbilt doesn’t have much inside, and that issue’s been especially acute with the recent absence of Clevon Brown. That issue manifests itself mostly in opponents shooting a pretty high percentage against Vanderbilt. I think this team will win a few games in conference play (and I also think this isn’t the worst team in the conference), but a .500 overall record is basically the ceiling here.

(13) South Carolina

Record: 8-5

KenPom ranking: 104

What’s weird about this is that South Carolina might have the best win and the worst loss of anybody in the SEC: on December 22, the Gamecocks went into Charlottesville and beat the defending national champs by a 70-59 score. And then they lost to Stetson — ranked 321st in KenPom — on Monday. A hideously bad offense at times managed its best offensive performance of the season at Virginia.

The frequent offensive misfires — and I do mean misfires; the Gamecocks rank 319th in three-point percentage and 341st in free throw percentage — have masked what actually can be a really stifling defense. The big problem is that outside of the legitimately good A.J. Lawson (15.5 ppg), South Carolina just doesn’t have anybody it can count on on the offensive end.

(14) Texas A&M

Record: 6-5

KenPom ranking: 165

There are 353 teams in Division I, and Texas A&M ranks 353rd in three-point percentage. In Buzz Williams’ first season, the Aggies actually have been pretty good on the defensive end — having Josh Nebo, who’s averaging three blocks per game, certainly helps in that effort. On the other hand, this team cannot score to save its life.

Josh Nebo being the team’s best defensive player is great; Josh Nebo being the team’s best offensive player is a problem. Savion Flagg has been decent in averaging 11.5 ppg; the rest of the team is barely worth a mention. This is going to be a long season in Aggieland.