SEC Roundup: League Play Tips Off

The Wildcats stand alone as the annual 18-game grind begins in Southeastern Conference play. But the battle for second will be more interesting than in years past, writes Scout's Ben Love.

CONFERENCE STANDINGS


1. Kentucky (13-0)
2. Arkansas (11-2)
3. LSU (11-2)
4. Alabama (10-3)
5. Vanderbilt (10-3)
6. Georgia (9-3)
7. South Carolina (9-3)
8. Texas A&M (9-3)
9. Ole Miss (9-4)
10. Tennessee (8-4)
11. Auburn (8-5)
12. Florida (7-6)
13. Mississippi State (7-6)
14. Missouri (6-7)

With non-conference play in the rearview mirror, phase one of the 2014-15 season is complete, and, ready or not, the 14 teams of the Southeastern Conference embark on a grueling 18-game league slate this week, with the first four games tipping tonight.

The SEC’s runaway freight train is and will continue to be Kentucky, the nation’s No. 1 and currently an unstoppable defensive force winning games by an average of 27.5 points and holding opponents to 47.8 points per game – no other team in the country is below 50.6.

After Big Blue, however, there’s fresh blood in the chase to finish second. Last year’s league champ, Florida, has staggered to a 7-6 start this season and is still trying to find its identity with new players in lead roles. That leaves the door open for the likes of Arkansas, LSU and Georgia, all NCAA Tournament hopefuls, to challenge (although, as I advise below, write the Gators off at your own peril).

WE’RE GOING STREAKING


Six different teams enter league play with at least a five-game winning streak, led most notably by Kentucky’s unbeaten run through a baker’s dozen of games. To continue putting the ‘Cats dominance defensively and on the glass into perspective: John Calipari’s group ranks first in the country in blocks per game (8.2) and seventh in rebounds per game (41.9). Above all else the two words that best describe UK this season – impossibly long.



Arkansas leading scorer Bobby Portis
The Bayou Bengals check in next with an eight-game streak, highlighted by a Dec. 4 win at then-No. 16 West Virginia in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge (which the SEC lost 6-4). Also continuing their winning ways are South Carolina, a pleasant surprise so far through non-conference play, with seven in a row; Georgia at six straight; and Arkansas and Auburn with five consecutive victories.

While Kentucky has done it with defense, Arkansas is getting it done on the other end of the floor. Mike Anderson’s squad ranks eighth in college basketball in scoring, putting in a robust 84.5 points per contest, and leads the nation in assists, averaging 19.2 dimes a game. Maybe it’s those numbers that have the Hogs back in the AP polls at No. 23, the only other ranked SEC team, because it wasn’t the Razorbacks’ non-conference schedule.

On the other end of streaking, there’s the one team that heads into conference action fresh off a loss – Florida, which has actually dropped two straight. Billy Donovan’s troops have struggled, especially on the offensive end where the not-so-rowdy reptiles are 210th in the country in scoring (66.9 ppg). But it’d be wise for UF’s SEC brethren to pay attention to the caliber of teams the Gators have played in the season’s first seven weeks . . . and just how narrow Florida’s losses have been in many cases.

Here are Florida’s six losses: versus Miami (69-67), versus Georgetown in OT (66-65), versus No. 5 UNC (75-64), at No. 11 Kansas (71-65), at Florida State (65-63) and vs. Connecticut (63-59). First, that’s easily the toughest non-conference schedule played by any SEC team not named Kentucky. Second, consider UF lost all but one game by single digits and three of them were one-possession games with a fourth a four-point game. The point isn’t to rationalize away Florida’s losses – they were always going to struggle with so much turnover. The point is to warn SEC opponents that with the level of competition dropping some (and, yes, that is the case for Florida), don’t discount the developing Gators.

UNDEFEATED CHAMP, AGAIN?


Remarkably, two of the last three years the SEC regular-season champion has run the table. Florida did it last season, notching an 18-0 record and also taking home the conference tournament title en route to a Final Four appearance. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the conference player of the year.

Two years prior, in the final season under a 16-game league schedule, Kentucky was the SEC’s big, bad wolf. The Wildcats went 16-0, slicing through conference competition with no problem, before losing to Vanderbilt in the final of the SEC Tournament. It proved to be a minor speed bump for UK, which went on to win the national championship. Do-everything forward Anthony Davis was named the conference player of the year.

And so the question begs: Will Kentucky turn the trick again this season?

Coach Cal has the depth to pull it off, even with talented, experienced forward Alex Poythress lost for the season with a torn ACL. A quick glance at Kentucky’s schedule reveals two separate three-game windows that will challenge the juggernaut most.

Window 1: vs. Georgia (Feb. 3), at Florida (Feb. 7), at LSU (Feb. 10)

Window 2: vs. Arkansas (Feb. 28), at Georgia (March 3), vs. Florida (March 7)

If the ‘Cats can find their way through those six games, all against teams expected to finish in the SEC’s top half, unblemished, they’ll make it to 18-0.

WHAT’S COMING NEXT


To usher in league play each team will play once on the road and once at home. The game of the week tips Tuesday night in Athens with No. 23 Arkansas at Georgia. The winner gets an early leg up in the standings while the loser, particularly if it’s the Dawgs, has a real chance at starting 0-2. UGA travels to up-and-coming LSU Saturday for another of the league’s top opening-week games.

Alabama: vs. Texas A&M (Tues), at Tennessee (Sat)
Arkansas: at Georgia (Tues), vs. Vanderbilt (Sat)
Auburn: at Vanderbilt (Tues), vs. Missouri (Sat)
Florida: at South Carolina (Wed), vs. Mississippi State (Sat)
Georgia: vs. Arkansas (Tues), at LSU (Sat)
Kentucky: vs. Ole Miss (Tues), at Texas A&M (Sat)
LSU: at Missouri (Thurs), vs. Georgia (Sat)
Mississippi State: vs. Tennessee (Wed), at Florida (Sat)
Missouri: vs. LSU (Thurs), at Auburn (Sat)
Ole Miss: at Kentucky (Tues), vs. South Carolina (Sat)
South Carolina: vs. Florida (Wed), at Ole Miss (Sat)
Tennessee: at Mississippi State (Wed), vs. Alabama (Sat)
Texas A&M: at Alabama (Tues), vs. Kentucky (Sat)
Vanderbilt: vs. Auburn (Tues), at Arkansas (Sat)



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