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SEC Hoops Power Rankings: Kentucky Back On Top

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As we close in on the halfway point of the conference schedule, ten teams step out of conference. Huh?

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

This is the ballot I submitted for the SEC Power Poll over at our sister blog Rock M Nation.

It's hard to believe that at this time next week, everybody in the SEC will be halfway through the conference schedule.  Huh?  Didn't the season just start?

What we know at the midway point is that the top two teams are going to be playing in the NCAA Tournament, and it's a fairly safe bet that at least two more teams will be joining them... but we're not exactly sure who those will be.  Four teams at least have something to recommend them, but also have holes in their resume that need to be addressed between now and March, while there are a couple of others whose RPI numbers are decent enough that they're at least on the fringes of the bubble.  RPI numbers here are from RPI Forecast, mostly because ESPN has gotten sketchy about actually updating theirs.

1.  Kentucky (16-4, 6-2)

Pomeroy: 20; Sagarin: 20; RPI: 18

The Wildcats aren't in first place in the standings, but they're only a game behind and they (narrowly) lead the SEC in per-possession margin in conference play.  And that's largely a function of their last three games, as they've outscored their opponents by 0.33 points per possession.  They're at least starting to look like the team they were hyped to be in the preseason... but it hasn't been because of the freshmen other than Jamal Murray.  Instead, Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress, and Derek Willis are shining, and in the last case it took Calipari forever to figure out that he actually needs to be playing.  This week brings a pair of road games, a tough one at Kansas on Saturday followed by a trip to Knoxville on Tuesday.

2.  Texas A&M (17-3, 7-1)

Pomeroy: 8; Sagarin: 14; RPI: 13

We shouldn't really freak out about a loss in Fayetteville, but that comes on the heels of sleepwalking through a home game against Missouri.  At times this year, the Aggies have looked like the SEC's best, but they've also had some narrow scrapes against the likes of Mississippi State and Tennessee before the loss at Arkansas... of course, Kentucky lost to Auburn, but that was two weeks ago.  Pomeroy actually has A&M favored in the rest of their games, and they're better than a 60 percent favorite in all but one.  That one comes in Nashville on Thursday night, after they host Iowa State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.  This week should tell us whether the Aggies are a real live contender in March or just a good, but not great, SEC team.

3.  LSU (13-7, 6-2)

Pomeroy: 62; Sagarin: 59; RPI: 79

There have been the usual bugaboos of a Johnny Jones team: playing down to the competition (see: Alabama on Saturday) and laying off the gas pedal at the wrong moment (a 14-point lead with two and a half minutes left against Georgia resulted in a four-point win), but so far, at least since SEC play started, it hasn't resulted in the sort of inexplicable losses you saw last year.  Those did happen back in December, though, and that's why LSU still has quite a bit of work to do in order to not deny the world BEN SIMMONS in the NCAA Tournament.  Fortunately, there's a chance to really add to the resume with Oklahoma coming to town on Saturday... followed by an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot at Auburn on Tuesday.

4.  South Carolina (18-2, 5-2)

Pomeroy: 46; Sagarin: 43; RPI: 26

Why are we still skeptical of a team that's 18-2?  Well, for one thing, they've played (according to Pomeroy) the weakest conference schedule thus far.  And that's on the heels of playing a weak non-conference schedule.  And they haven't exactly looked impressive over the last couple of weeks against the likes of Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Mississippi State.  On the other hand, winning at Clemson (something Louisville, Duke, and Miami could not do) looks more impressive now than it did in December.  They probably won't wind up with a boatload of quality wins, but if they continue to take care of business -- Alabama at home on Saturday, followed by a trip to Georgia on Tuesday -- they should be in decent shape just because of the sheer number of wins.

5.  Vanderbilt (12-8, 4-4)

Pomeroy: 32; Sagarin: 25; RPI: 57

The last three games were a pair of positives (a huge road win at Tennessee and a home win over Florida, finally breaking that "no quality wins" thing) sandwiched around their worst performance of the year.  But that might have also just been a reflection on Kentucky.  There's still work to be done, of course, but more reasons for optimism than there were two weeks ago, and this week offers two more opportunities to boost the resume with a road game at Texas followed by hosting Texas A&M.  Just getting a split would go a long way.

6.  Florida (13-7, 5-3)

Pomeroy: 26; Sagarin: 26; RPI: 28

The Gators usually don't have much of a choice but to win ugly: while their defensive work has been impressive, their offense (particularly their near-complete absence of any shooters) is glaringly deficient.  They did manage to hang 95 points on Auburn, but I'm not convinced that Auburn even plays defense; their cold-shooting performance at Vanderbilt is more reflective of their season thus far.  As far as the tournament goes, the Gators have a similar problem to Vanderbilt: a bunch of losses to quality teams, but actual wins over such teams have been rare; their best win this season has been... St. Joseph's?  Okay, okay, we all know LSU is better than St. Joe's, but the RPI doesn't reflect that.  But the Gators do have a big chance when they host West Virginia on Saturday, followed by drawing road Arkansas on Wednesday.

7.  Georgia (11-7, 4-4)

Pomeroy: 81; Sagarin: 76; RPI: 72

Here's where the conference really starts to look sketchy.  Georgia seems destined to finish 9-9 in the SEC; they can beat everybody below them, but so far they haven't really looked like they can beat the top teams.  The LSU game on Tuesday was not as close as the final score made it look (see above), but they did manage to get a home win over Arkansas... in overtime.  Which is better than losing, I guess, but it still hasn't changed the fact that their best win was over Clemson at home.  This week brings two opportunities to prove that wrong, with a trip to Baylor on Saturday, followed by South Carolina on Tuesday.

8.  Arkansas (10-10, 4-4)

Pomeroy: 55; Sagarin: 55; RPI: 98

Beating Texas A&M only helped so much; while the Razorbacks are still liked by Pomeroy, their RPI and their overall record say they're an NIT team at best.  Prior to beating the Aggies at home, Arkansas had lost three straight and were in danger of falling out of even NIT contention.  While they'd love to steal a road win at Florida on Wednesday, they may have to settle for just taking care of Texas Tech at home and call it a week.

9.  Ole Miss (13-7, 3-5)

Pomeroy: 105; Sagarin: 100; RPI: 99

Ole Miss looked like its season was going off the rails, as they were down three starters (including Stefan Moody) when they went to Starkville on Saturday and extended their losing streak to four games.  And yet even without Moody, the Rebels still managed to score points.  Then Auburn came to town, which seems to be a cure-all for whatever ails you, and Moody returned, and there's still some hope left.  But the next week is tricky; after going to Kansas State on Saturday, the Rebels play at Missouri -- obviously, that's a game they can't afford to lose.  Of course, there really aren't going to be many games the rest of the way that they can afford to lose.

10.  Alabama (11-8, 2-5)

Pomeroy: 87; Sagarin: 90; RPI: 56

Their RPI is still good enough (and their early wins over Wichita State and Notre Dame still quality enough) to fool some people into thinking they're a bubble team.  The reality is that they're currently Tennessee gagging away a 15-point-lead from being on a four-game losing streak, and while Avery Johnson has managed to get them to play some defense, there really isn't a whole lot of offense to be had here.  This week does offer a couple of opportunities to build momentum, though it won't be easy with a trip to South Carolina on Saturday followed by visiting a Mississippi State team that's better than its record on Tuesday.

11.  Tennessee (10-10, 3-5)

Pomeroy: 86; Sagarin: 84; RPI: 97

If the games were only 20 minutes long, Tennessee would be the best team in the SEC: they've led at the half in seven of their eight conference games.  But the games aren't 20 minutes and when you get outscored 30-9 over the last 14 minutes of the game -- as the Vols did in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday night -- well, you're gonna have problems.  They did manage to successfully hold a lead against South Carolina, but something about blind pigs and truffles.  Anyway, the Vols head to TCU on Saturday which seems like another opportunity to gag away a sure win in the last five minutes, before Kentucky comes to town and probably ends that whole string of leading at halftime in games.

12.  Mississippi State (8-11, 1-6)

Pomeroy: 108; Sagarin: 112; RPI: 190

They've played the SEC's toughest conference schedule thus far -- with road trips to Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina along with a home game against A&M -- which explains how they're 1-6 in conference and yet not terrible.  The per-possession margins are more useful here: against that schedule, they've only been outscored by 0.07 points per possession -- not great, but it's way better than Auburn (-0.14) and Missouri (-0.20) have done.  Speaking of Missouri, the Bulldogs head there on Saturday before hosting Alabama on Tuesday; I suspect the record will get less embarrassing as the schedule starts to ease up.

13.  Auburn (9-10, 3-5)

Pomeroy: 166; Sagarin: 131; RPI: 91

Seriously, how did this team not only beat Kentucky, but also hold the Wildcats under a point per possession?  Since then, the Tigers have allowed 1.05 (vs. Alabama), 1.28 (at Florida -- the same team that scored 0.86 at Vandy three nights later), and 1.23 (at Ole Miss.)  At this point, Auburn really only has one thing going for it, and that's their ability to fire up an impressive number of threes and occasionally make some of them.  For some reason they're playing in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge while South Carolina isn't, so they host Oklahoma State on Saturday before LSU comes to town on Tuesday night.

14.  Missouri (8-12, 1-6)

Pomeroy: 185; Sagarin: 160; RPI: 166

Missouri was surprisingly competitive in three straight games (albeit all losses) against South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas A&M -- and then Kentucky blew their doors off in Lexington.  It happens, especially when you're the 13th-least experienced team in the country and those freshmen and sophomores you're playing are not future lottery picks.  This week, with the Mississippi schools coming to Columbia, Missouri probably sees its best chance to pick up another conference win or two -- we'll still be surprised if they go 1-17, but they're still a couple of notches below the rest of the conference.