1. Kentucky (7-0)
2. Arkansas (6-0)
3. Mississippi State (5-1)
4. Ole Miss (5-1)
5. Vanderbilt (5-1)
6. Alabama (4-1)
7. Texas A&M (4-1)
8. LSU (4-2)
9. Auburn (3-2)
10. Florida (3-3)
11. Georgia (3-3)
12. Missouri (3-3)
13. South Carolina (3-3)
14. Tennessee (2-3)
Less than a month into the regular season Southeastern Conference basketball could use a fresh start. The beginning of league play in January brings about a second season, but the way things have gone for most of the league so far, teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations can’t afford to wait that long to kick into a higher gear.
Yes, Kentucky – and its suffocating defense – has been a bear, undefeated and winning by an average of 34.4 points per game. Arkansas, playing a yawn-ish slate, has also remained unbeaten, averaging a ridiculous 90.0 points (fifth in NCAA) and leading the country in sharing with 20.7 assists per outing.
But the picture hasn’t been pretty for the remaining SEC brethren. The conference is 2-6 versus AP Top 25 opponents and, to date, SEC teams have lost to the likes of Tulsa (Auburn), Missouri-Kansas City (Missouri), Charleston Southern (Ole Miss), Charlotte and Akron (South Carolina) and Old Dominion (LSU).
It’s easy to see why December, the final month to prepare for league play and improve floundering RPIs, is shaping up as an important stretch for a conference that had expectations of getting five into the Big Dance just weeks ago at the SEC Tipoff Event in Charlotte.
EARLY SEASON HEADLINES
Aggies bolstered by addition of Danuel House
Texas A&M received huge news the Friday before Thanksgiving while playing in a Puerto Rico-based tournament. Danuel House, a 6-foot-7, 195-pound transfer from Houston, was given the go-ahead by the NCAA to play this season. He was on the next flight leaving the country and promptly led the Aggies in scoring two days later in a win over New Mexico. House’s averages in two games played for Billy Kennedy: 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.5 made threes. The former five-star prospect, who averaged 12.4 and 13.6 points in two seasons with the Cougars, adds to a suddenly formidable A&M backcourt, which includes the SEC’s leading assist man in Alex Caruso (7.2 per game) and wing Jalen Jones (averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds).
Kentucky attacking teams with wave after wave
The joke is starting to wear thin at this point that John Calipari’s second five would be ranked . . . but that doesn’t mean it’s untrue. Coach Cal has stuck to his word from the preseason, spreading out the minutes on his juggernaut and routinely bringing in a hockey-style line shift of five at a time. Consider that the Wildcats have 10 players averaging 15.3 minutes or more for the season and that no one UK player is on the floor more than 21.5 minutes a game (Willie Cauley-Stein). Contrast that, for example, with a team that has a short bench like LSU. The Bayou Bengals have five players averaging 31.0 minutes or more. Translation: Kentucky has both a frontline and an overall bench that will never quit and, through seven games, Calipari is seeing that depth reflected by balanced contributions – seven players score 7.5 points or more a game for Big Blue.
Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith struggling through injury
One of the Gators’ most reliable returning options from last year’s undefeated SEC team, Finney-Smith had an unfortunate start to this campaign when he fell awkwardly on his left hand in UF’s season-opening win over William & Mary. Tests revealed the forward suffered two hairline fractures on his middle and index fingers. Finney-Smith decided to play through the injury and, after missing two games, played well in Florida’s overtime loss to Georgetown, posting 16 points and six rebounds. The two games since, however, have been nightmarish as Finney-Smith has averaged only 5.0 points and 4.5 rebounds, shot a combined 5-of-19 from the field and fouled out of the most recent game, an 11-point loss to UNC. Billy Donovan will need a healthy Finney-Smith to help the Gators bounce back from a 3-3 start.
Newcomers putting up big numbers in the early going
A veteran presence definitely exists in the SEC this season, from the wealth of Kentucky players back to Georgia’s seasoned backcourt to talented returners for both Arkansas and LSU. But the new guys have made their marks to this point both in terms of overall impact and statistics. The SEC leader in rebounds: Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowers, a JuCo transfer hauling in an average of 13.0 boards (to go with 15.2 points a game). Leading shot-blocker? Kentucky freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, with an average of 3.0 rejections. Leader in steals? Florida freshman Chris Chiozza, recording 2.7 thefts per ballgame.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
Coming off a week in which many of the league’s teams played in tournaments away from home, the early part of this week is unspectacular, save UMass calling on Baton Rouge Tuesday evening. The real meat of this coming week comes in the form of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The headliners are on Friday night: Texas at Kentucky, Florida at Kansas. Also worth keeping an eye on: Arkansas at Iowa State, LSU at West Virginia, South Carolina vs. Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt vs. Baylor.
In last season’s inaugural SEC/Big 12 Challenge, the Big 12 was a convincing winner, besting the SEC in seven of 10 matchups.
Alabama: vs. South Florida (Tues), at Xavier (Sat)
Arkansas: at Iowa State (Thurs), at Clemson (Sun)
Auburn: at Texas Tech (Wed), vs. Coastal Carolina (Fri)
Florida: at Kansas (Fri)
Georgia: at Chattanooga (Tues), vs. Colorado (Sun)
Kentucky: vs. Texas (Fri), vs. Eastern Kentucky (Sun)
LSU: vs. Massachusetts (Tues), at West Virginia (Thurs)
Mississippi State: at Tulane (Sat)
Missouri: vs. SE Missouri State (Tues), at Oklahoma (Fri)
Ole Miss: vs. TCU (Thurs), at Oregon (Sun)
South Carolina: at Marshall (Mon), vs. Oklahoma State (Sat)
Tennessee: vs. Kansas State (Sat)
Texas A&M: vs. Sam Houston State (Wed), vs. Arizona State (Sat)
Vanderbilt: vs. Baylor (Thurs)