After calling 10 SEC non conference games over the last 6 weeks, here's what we know as the conference gets ready to tip off league play this Saturday (Ole Miss at Florida, Saturday, 8pm ET on CSS). The SEC has a lot of work to do in the next two months if they are to get more than 3 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Let's start at the top, anybody who doubted that Coach Cal would have the Kentucky Wildcats ready this season, even though he lost five stars to the NBA, should have thought again. Calipari reloaded every year at Memphis, so you know he'll be able to do it every year with the Wildcats. Lose John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, et al, to the Association...no problem. Just add Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb and you're good to go. They'll play for the conference championship.
The question for me...who will they be playing...here are the candidates...
2. The Florida Gators
They've got all five starters back and Billy Donovan has them playing lock down defense. But something about this team isn't quite right. They don't always click, but when they do, this is a NCAA Tournament team. Look at victories over Kansas State and at Xavier as evidence and don't forget for 32 minutes they were in a battle vs. Ohio State and then vanished in the last 8 minutes of the game and got blown out. But that was early November...not to be confused with March. As Billy Donovan told me, the ultimate long range success of this team this season will depend on if Kenny Boynton and Chandler Parsons play up to their potential which they have not yet consistently done.
3. Vanderbilt Commodores
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the SEC non-conference season. 'Dores stand 11-2 with a win over North Carolina and close, quality losses vs West Virginia and Missouri and this from a team picked to finish 5th in the SEC East. But as Kevin Stallings told me, that's kind of a Vanderbilt tradition, they are used to the lack of respect. Well the rest of the league better respect Festus Ezeli, early candidate for Most Improved Player. John Jenkins has shot lights out and actually played better than Jeffery Taylor who was named pre-season All-SEC First Team.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Got a chance to be one of the biggest stories in the SEC. From where they were when Coach Mark Fox took over to where they are now essentially 14 months later is phenomenal. Trey Thompkins has blossomed into the star the Bulldogs thought he would be, Travis Leslie is strong but adjusting to being a bigger focal point of the opponents' scouting report and Gerald Robinson has provided a big boost to the offense, not only in what he does, but what his presence on the floor does for everybody else. Bulldogs don't have any real big wins, only UAB in the RPI Top 100 but their two losses are quality losses in November to Notre Dame and Temple (both RPI Top 15). With a strong conference showing, the Bulldogs will dance.
5. Tennessee Vols
Big problems. Nobody saying but I think this team has chemistry issues and I believe some of it stems from the fact Bruce Pearl hasn't been able to shorten his rotation. He's playing up to 12 players which is way too many. That makes it hard to develop rhythm on offense and of course that leaves guys feeling short changed on minutes, which means unhappiness. How this team fixes those issues while Bruce Pearl is working on his 8-game SEC suspension will determine what happens to this team the next two months. They've beaten Pitt and Villanova (the only losses for both of those teams) but lost 3 non-conference games at home (Oakland, USC, CofC all good teams) in December or more than Pearl had lost at home in first five seasons combined! There are problems in Knoxville. Many of them.
6. Ole Miss Rebels
Will this be the year that Andy Kennedy gets the Rebs to the NCAA Tournament? Don't know. He's got big problems from a schedule standpoint. Four teams in the SEC West have RPIs over 200. That stinks. That means you don't get much credit for winning what will be tough games and you'll absolutely get killed from a RPI standpoint if you lose them. The Rebels have got to dominate the West. I think they need to go at least 8-2 vs. the division and grab at least a couple big Eastern division wins, preferably vs. UK, UF or Vandy...but anybody out of the East will help the RPI...except SC. Tough road ahead for them....as Al Davis would say...they just got to win baby.
7. Mississippi State
I mention them only because they have the talent to do it. Their RPI is wrecked and Rick Stansbury has nobody to blame but himself. He put his team through scheduling hell to try and accomodate the returns of Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost. It blew up in his face and then to make matters worse, Sidney first gets suspended for a game for losing it in practice and then slugs it out with (now former) teammate Elgin Bailey in Hawaii for the whole world to see. The decision to keep Sidney and Jettison Bailey will one that will be greatly scrutinized if the Bulldogs season goes in the tank. We'll see if the fireworks are over in Starkville.
Got a busy week of basketball this week and it'll actually end with Ole Miss at Florida on Saturday. Before that I've got SEC WBKB on Thursday, Alabama at Tennessee, 7pm ET and our first A-Sun Game on Friday, Kennesaw State at Campbell, 7pm ET. I invite you to watch on CSS and follow me on twitter @matt_stewartcss.