SCOTT: SEC Power Rankings

With a few isolated exceptions, the non-conference portion of the SEC men's basketball schedule will come to an end this week and give way to a conference schedule that seems certain to be unpredictable and possibly a little dangerous.

So far the SEC has delivered a mixed bag of results, with more positives than negatives – at least compared to what the preseason previews and polls predicted for the SEC.

 

While the SEC isn't likely to crash the NCAA Tournament with six or seven teams at this point, the SEC is 103-32 (.763) against non-conference opponents as of Dec. 31.

 

The SEC went 13-3 last week, with those three losses coming to Oklahoma (against Alabama), Ohio State (against LSU) and Pitt (against South Carolina). With the loss to 14th-ranked Oklahoma, the SEC is now 6-9 this season against ranked teams and 2-2 against top-10 teams.

 

That record against ranked teams might not seem impressive on paper, but the SEC went 1-13 record against ranked non-conference opponents (0-7 against top 10 teams) in 2004-05. Also, the SEC ranks fourth nationally among all Division I conferences in the latest Sagarin Ratings, so the SEC must be doing something right.

 

Still, the SEC schedule could be dangerous because of the parity or mediocrity (take your pick) in the middle and bottom of the conference. The final regular-season standings could be loaded with 9-7, 8-8 and 7-9 SEC records.

 

With that in mind, let's take a tour of the SEC's men's basketball landscape and see where it takes us, in order of our own unofficial "power" rankings.

 

 

Florida

 

When the season began, few, including coach Billy Donovan, would have predicted such an impressive transition for the Gators.

 

With the loss of departed stars David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh to the NBA Draft (only Lee was actually selected), the Gators appeared to be in a rebuilding phase.

 

Instead, the Gators have built their best start in the history of the program, with a 12-0 record, a No. 5 national ranking, the ninth spot in the latest collegerpi.com poll and wins over Wake Forest, Syracuse, Florida State, Providence and Miami.

 

The Gators' reconstruction is built on a foundation of chemistry, balance and unselfishness. That's not necessarily criticism of last season's stars, however.

 

Donovan said he is guilty of directing 70 percent of last season's offense toward Lee, Roberson and Walsh, so "If anyone is to blame for us not sharing the ball, it's me," Donovan said.

 

This season, "I'm more concerned with guys taking shots they can make," Donovan said.

 

The Gators appear to be doing an excellent job of building a sense of team, both on and off the court. They're also playing with a new sense of purpose.

 

"We're trying to put Florida basketball on the map," said forward Corey Brewer, who owns the SEC's only triple-double of the season with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists against Jacksonville on Dec. 18. "At the beginning of the season, we weren't even ranked. We're trying to prove a point that we're for real."

 

 

Kentucky

 

OK, so the Wildcats lost to Iowa, North Carolina and Indiana in a three-week period, played three games without guard Joe Crawford because of knee and hip injuries and struggled when point guard Rajon Rondo missed one game and played below his usual performance against North Carolina because of strep throat.

 

The Wildcats also bounced back to beat then-No. 4 Louisville 73-61 on Dec. 17. The same week, the Wildcats learned they would soon regain the talents of center Randolph Morris soon after he missed the first 14 games for his relationship with an agent prior to the 2005 NBA Draft.

 

"You don't make excuses," UK Coach Tubby Smith said after the Louisville game. "But everything came together today. That black cloud and the other obstacles and other things that have been distractions, a lot of things were relieved and our kids could play more relaxed. And I think that showed today."

 

At 9-3, with a 2-2 record against ranked teams and a No. 18 national ranking, the Wildcats believe their best basketball is on the way, just in time for the SEC season.

 

"I think we took a bit of a step forward," Ravi Moss told the Lexington Herald-Leader after the Louisville game. "We showed a lot of toughness. Hopefully we can build on it."

 

The addition of Morris should be big for a team that has struggled in the low post, but Kentucky's big men have shown some improvement in the past three weeks – without Morris.

 

"They've been much maligned by you all and everybody else out there," Smith said. "But we had a lot of confidence in those guys."

 

 

Tennessee

 

When the Vols beat then-No. 2 Texas on Dec. 17, the national college basketball audience finally took notice of Tennessee's surprising rise under first-year coach Bruce Pearl.

 

The Vols, however, knew they still had a lot to prove.

 

"People are probably still looking at it as, 'We're undefeated, but we really haven't played any real competition except for Texas, and that could have been a fluke,' " senior forward Andre Patterson said after the Texas game. "This game could really prove that Tennessee basketball has come around."

 

Or, it could make Tennessee a target. That proved to be the case when Oklahoma State exposed Tennessee's weaknesses with a 89-73 victory over the Vols on Dec. 22. In the process, their spot in the national polls lasted only one week.

 

Somewhere between the Texas win and the Oklahoma State loss, the Vols enter the final week of the non-conference schedule at 8-1.

 

"I told our team, 'This is what a lot of SEC teams look like, and this is how they play,' " Pearl said after the OSU loss. "It's kind of like football. I think some of the best defensive teams in the country are in the SEC in basketball. We're going to have to respond to it."

 

 

Arkansas

 

Could the Razorbacks finally be "back" after missing the NCAA Tournament the past four seasons? A 10-2 record with wins over Kansas and Texas Tech and losses to No. 2 Connecticut and No. 16 Maryland would seem to indicate the Razorbacks are headed in the right direction, as well as No. 27 ranking in the Sagarin ratings and a No. 35 ranking by collegrpi.com.

 

The Hogs certainly appear to be more resilient, as they showed in their 78-65 victory over Texas Tech on Dec. 21. They forced 21 turnovers and held Texas Tech to its second-lowest point total of the season.

 

"The mark of a good team is they may bend a little but they don't break," Texas Tech coach Bob Knight said. "That's what Arkansas did."

 

 

Vanderbilt

 

The Commodores are exceeding expectations with a 9-1 record, but it's hard to get a read on a team whose best wins have come against Dayton, Oregon and Georgetown, with the lone loss coming at home against Cincinnati.

 

Friday's 63-60 win at Dayton on Friday and the Commodores' 2-0 road record are probably the best indication of where Vanderbilt stands entering the final week of the non-conference schedule.

 

"Wow, it was a big win, an enormous win," Vanderbilt forward Derrick Byars told The Tennessean after the Commodores committed only three second-half turnovers and sank 18 of 23 free throws. "They have some big wins and are a perennial Atlantic 10 contender. It's a huge win for us on the road."

 

As they approach the SEC season the Commodores need to do a better job guarding the perimeter after allowing too many opposing guards to explode for big games so far this season.

 

"It's an issue, and it's something we have to address," coach Kevin Stallings said. "Mario (Moor) and Alex (Gordon) have to take a stand and say enough is enough. We've got to help them, too. It can't be just those two guys on an island. Our defense has to help them. We can't have any position on the floor that's consistently giving up nights where players are scoring 10 and 12 points above their averages."

 

 

LSU

 

Isn't this what the rest of Tiger Rag is for? Seriously, the Tigers are 7-4 with the SEC's two top scorers, sophomore post Glen Davis and senior guard Darrel Mitchell, but it's difficult to get a read on a team that can win at West Virginia in overtime and then lost at home to Houston three days later.

 

The loss to Northern Iowa doesn't make it any easier, but nothing adds more uncertainty to the Tigers' situation right now than the absence of junior guard Tack Minor.

 

LSU played the first semester without Minor running the point due to a university-imposed academic suspension. Now it appears Minor will miss most or all of the remaining the season with torn cartilage in his left knee.

 

The Tigers could go with senior Darrel Mitchell at the point, but he's more of a natural shooting guard spot. Or, they could use freshman Ben Voogd, who has shown significant progress in recent games but still has a lot to learn. Either way, the Tigers need to make up for Minor's loss by getting more help from several players, not just one.

 

 

South Carolina

 

On Dec. 22, South Carolina players talked about how important it was to finish strong in December in a story published in The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. They pointed to last season's late December struggles as one of the key reasons why the Gamecocks didn't reach the NCAA Tournament.

 

So what do they do? They lost 63-50 at Temple on Dec. 22 and then 58-51 at home to Pittsburgh on Dec. 28. They did bounce back to beat Detroit 65-35 on Saturday, but even at 8-4 they still have a lot to prove.

 

"We know what we can do. The confidence is already there," point guard Tre' Kelley said. "We haven't been as good as we are. We haven't shown our abilities. But we will."

 

 

Georgia

 

Georgia still suffers from a lack of quality numbers and experience due to the NCAA penalties coach Dennis Felton inherited when he took over the program n 2003, but the Bulldogs will be a lot more competitive than the team that won only eight total games and two SEC games last season.

 

That improvement was evident last week when Georgia (8-3) beat Clemson 72-69, giving Clemson is first loss of the season after 11 wins. "This is a great win," junior guard Levi Stukes said, "especially coming against a team that came in here 11-0. And for it to be our eighth win, it was definitely a positive."

 

 

Alabama

 

This is where the SEC really drops off, starting with an Alabama team that has lost to Memphis, Oklahoma Notre Dame, North Carolina State and Temple so far this season.

 

The Tide is struggling to create points from the perimeter with the lack of a true sharpshooter at the off guard, but the strength of the team – big men

 

Chuck Davis, Jermareo Davidson, Richard Hendrix and Alonzo Gee – grabbed one offensive rebound, gave up 16 and got outrebounded 40-18 against Oklahoma on Saturday.

 

 

Auburn

 

Auburn is 7-3 and actually 45th in the RPI and 55th in the Sagarin thanks in part to an impressive 73-42 win over Temple on Dec. 18, but the Tigers remain among the youngest and smallest teams in the SEC, especially with the recent loss of backup point guard Michael Woodard, a juco transfer who left the team in mid-December over a lack of playing time. At this point, the Tigers will probably go only as far as freshmen Rasheem Barrett and Josh Dollard can take them.

           

 

Mississippi State

 

The Bulldogs are a surprising 10-3 and earned third place in the San Juan Shootout with a 76-75 victory over Holy Cross on Dec. 21, but this Mississippi State team hardly compares to the one that played in the past four NCAA Tournaments. The Bulldogs are still hoping enigmatic sophomore forward Walter Sharpe will give them some of the same things they lost when Lawrence Roberts completed his eligibility last spring.

 

 

Ole Miss

 

Coach Rod Barnes hoped his team would be better than last season's 14-17 team. Even at 9-3, they're not significantly better. Barnes, now in his eighth season at Ole Miss, also hoped to save his job this season after three consecutive losing seasons. At this point, that doesn't appear likely.

 

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Richard Scott is a featured columnist and Tiger Rag's SEC expert. A longtime journalist in the Birmingham area, Scott has worked for a number of newspapers in addition to writing two books "Legends of Alabama Football" and "Tales from the Auburn 2004 Championship season." He can be reached by e-mail at Rscottfree@aol.com.


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