I’ve been quiet about my thoughts on the state of the SEC basketball early this season, mostly because firing off takes based on a couple of games against bad teams is generally a fool’s errand. But two weeks in, we have enough to form some coherent thoughts about the state of the conference. I’m going to start by running everyone down in alphabetical order.
Alabama (4-0): I’m not worried about the Tide getting taken to the wire by South Alabama last Tuesday; South Alabama is currently #232 in KenPom but they’re a team with a bunch of power-conference transfers and KenPom probably just hasn’t quite caught up. What does worry me a bit is that the defense isn’t elite like it was last year; they’re 34th in defensive efficiency after being 3rd last year.
Arkansas (4-0): They’re still unbeaten, but they haven’t looked all that impressive considering the competition. The offense so far is being carried by JD Notae, who’s attempting 17.5 shots per game and uh, that doesn’t seem like something I’m really comfortable with considering that he posted a 99.7 Offensive Rating last season. We’ll get a better read on the Razorbacks after they play Cincinnati tonight, but right now I’m thinking they may be a bit overrated.
Auburn (3-0): Weird stuff can happen in true road games in November, which is why I’m not terribly concerned about the 58-52 win at South Florida last Friday; getting out of any road game with a win is nothing to sneeze at. Freshman Jabari Smith looks fantastic, and they’ll get Allen Flanigan back from injury at some point, which will probably solve a few of my concerns about their current roster.
Florida (4-0): It’s only been four games, but they’ve looked like a Top 10 team early on, with a comfortable win over Florida State followed by obliterations of Milwaukee and Cal. Colin Castleton is posting the numbers of a first-team All-SEC player and the transfers they’re relying on have been hits. The one concern I have is that their bench is really short.
Georgia (2-3): You can honestly probably read more into narrow wins over the likes of FIU (58-51) and South Carolina State (76-60) than into close-ish losses to Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, and Virginia. Their leading scorer right now is a guy who was averaging 19 minutes a game in the Horizon League last season; their second-leading scorer has a 99.7 Offensive Rating; and they have a walk-on playing 23 minutes a game. This is a bad team.
Kentucky (4-1): They lost to Duke on opening night, and since then they’ve dominated some bad teams (and won by 18 over a pretty good Ohio team.) They’re somewhere in between the disaster of last season and the soul-crushing teams they fielded around 2015. Hot take, I know, but I’m waiting to see how they perform against the three-game stretch against Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Louisville in December to decide whether they’re a real national contender or just a team that will compete for an SEC title.
LSU (5-0): A 30-point win over Belmont on Monday lent some heft to what had been some strong performances against questionable competition early in the season. This LSU team might not have the offensive upside of Will Wade’s past few teams, but they actually appear to be playing defense, the lack of which really limited their potential the last couple of seasons. Stock up.
Mississippi State (4-0): I was bullish on State going into the season and it seems like that’s being vindicated early on. Iverson Molinar appears to have taken The Jump and turned into an All-SEC caliber player, while big-time transfers Garrison Brooks, Shakeel Moore, and D.J. Jeffries are about as advertised. This looks like an NCAA Tournament team.
Missouri (3-2): Laid an absolute turd in an 80-66 loss to UMKC last week, which isn’t quite as bad as it sounds (UMKC is currently 197th and rising in KenPom), but it’s a pretty strong black mark. They did bounce back a bit by taking an overtime win from SMU in Jacksonville, then followed it up by getting drilled by Florida State. The only saving grace is that it’s a young team (a rarity in college basketball this season) that might be better when SEC play rolls around.
Ole Miss (3-2): The Rebels’ offense looked iffy in Myrtle Beach, where they dropped 2 of 3 (to Marquette and Boise State.) It’s being carried by Jarkel Joiner and that’s only working somewhat at the moment because he’s shooting 45 percent from three; he’s a career 30 percent three-point shooter. They can guard, but this might be low-key a team that’s in danger of making the Wednesday night play-in game.
South Carolina (3-1): A bit of a surprise; the Gamecocks can’t really shoot or take care of the ball, but they survived games against Western Kentucky and UAB — which doesn’t sound like a huge achievement, but those have been the kind of games that Frank Martin has destroyed NCAA Tournament resumes with in the past. There are a few more land mines before we’ll really get an idea of whether they’ll compete in the SEC with Georgetown, Florida State, and Clemson on the schedule in December.
Tennessee (3-1): Lost to Villanova and it wasn’t particularly close, but they’ve played well in the other three games. Kennedy Chandler looks about like what you would expect a five-star freshman point guard to look like. This is a good team but not elite, but it’s probably one of the best in the SEC.
Texas A&M (4-1): Not sure what to think of them at this point. Their offense is bad, with no one averaging more than 11.6 ppg and a rough combination of turnovers and poor shooting. The defense might be okay, but they’ve allowed three opponents to break a point per possession and two of those were Abilene Christian and A&M-Corpus Christi. They’re better than Georgia, at least, but this is probably a Wednesday night team.
Vanderbilt (3-1): Raise your hand if you thought someone other than Scotty Pippen Jr. would be the team’s leading scorer through four games. Liars. I like what I’ve seen from the team in the three wins, and then there was whatever the hell that VCU game was. I’m still bullish but they’ll need strong performances against Pitt, SMU, and Loyola in the next few weeks to really remove the stench of that game.
And here’s how I would rank the teams right now:
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
There’s a pretty clear dividing line between 8 and 9; that’s about where I draw the line between “NCAA Tournament contenders” and “Wednesday night contenders.”