Florida Gators (11-0)
AP #5, Coaches #5
Meaningful Wins: Wake Forest (77-72), Syracuse (75-70)
Other wins: St. Peter's, Albany, FSU, Alabama St., C. Fla., at Providence, Beth-Cook, J'ville, at Miami.
Florida's resume looks a lot better if FSU or Miami makes noise in the ACC, but so far this season neither team has done anything impressive. Florida started the season unranked and expected to suffer from the losses of Lee, Walsh, and Roberson. However, both of Florida's quality wins came early in the season, catapulting them over many tough teams that lost one or two early games. However, neither Syracuse or Wake Forest seem to be as good as advertised. Florida is a very good team, maybe the best in the SEC, but the early national coverage of those two wins means that they are probably somewhat overrated.
One of the key factors contributing to Florida's start was the play of Taurean Green. Green had immaculate performances against Wake and ‘Cuse, but has since come back down to earth, averaging only 13.3 ppg on the season. Florida is legitimately nine deep, with five players averaging double figures in scoring. The Gators have a shot at the SEC East title if they can win three of their four games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and that will likely depend on the efforts of Green and Corey Brewer.
Expect them to be in a three-way battle for first in the SEC East. However, don't expect them to live up to their current rankings. Wake Forest and Syracuse have both beaten Texas Tech, but the next-best victory on their combined records is a home win against Davidson. My opinion of Florida has not changed much since the pre-season, and I expect them to finish 3rd in the SEC East.
Tennessee Vols (6-1)
AP: #23, Coaches: NR
Meaningful Wins: at Texas (95-78)
Losses: at Oklahoma State (89-73)
Other wins: ETSU, La-Lafayette, EKU, Murray St., App. St.
Tennessee has done surprisingly well this season. They have pretty much proven that they are better than every D-1 basketball team in the state of Tennessee besides Vanderbilt and Memphis with their non-conference victories. Bruce Pearl has worked his way to a very good recruiting class after some early miscues, and the nationally televised win against then #7 Texas did a lot to legitimize the Volunteers' undefeated status. However, Oklahoma State brought UT fans back to reality on December 22nd with an 89-73 win over the Vols.
Lofton and Watson are easily the most important players to this quick, small team – they average 18.3 and 16.3 points, respectively. Tennessee plays a very fast-paced game, but only six players average more than 10 minutes per game. Any injury trouble or disciplinary issues could end UT's hopes for an impressive SEC run. Making UT's task harder is that 1/18 matchup at #4 Memphis, placed in the middle of the SEC schedule. Expect the Volunteers to pull off at least one more big upset this season (maybe on March 1 at home against Kentucky), but don't expect their good start to turn into an NCAA tournament bid. Tennessee will finish 5th in the SEC East, but might have finished 2nd or 3rd if they were allowed to play in the SEC West instead.
Kentucky Wildcats (8-3)
AP #19, Coaches #20
Meaningful Wins: West Virginia (80-66), Louisville (73-61), Iona (73-67)
Losses: Iowa (67-63), UNC (83-79), Indiana (79-53)
Other wins: South Dakota St., Lipscomb, Liberty, High Point, at Georgia St.
The last week or two has been very, very good to Kentucky fans. Key post man Randolph Morris was restored to eligibility, and the win against Louisville calmed the fears of many fans after consecutive home losses to Indiana and UNC. Kentucky's #20 ranking was legitimized (at long last) by the Louisville and Iona wins. Kentucky plays without Randolph Morris at Kansas (1/7), but on 1/10, Morris returns to action at home against Vanderbilt.
Kentucky is certainly more formidable with Morris to take some of the rebounding load off of point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo averages nearly twice as many rebounds as any other Wildcat, and the team's four leading scorers are listed as guards. Kentucky has three players who are at least 7 feet tall, but they combine for only 28 minutes, 8 points, and 6.4 rebounds a game – that's 4 minutes, 8.2 points, and 2.3 rebounds less than Rajon Rondo alone. Some experts, including Blue Ribbon's Chris Dortsch, have said that the SEC East race is between Florida and Vanderbilt. However, now that Kentucky's defense has started to become more effective and Morris is expected to return, the Wildcats look like the team to beat in the East. Prediction: 1st in the SEC East
South Carolina Gamecocks (7-3)
Both Polls: Not Ranked
Meaningful Wins: None
Losses: Marquette (92-89), at Clemson (82-63), at Temple (63-50)
Other Wins: at W. Carolina, Toledo, at Alaska-Anchorage, Monmouth, Winthrop, Wofford.
South Carolina has failed just about every test they have had this season. They have piled up three losses without playing any team that has ever been ranked this season. 6'6" guard Tarence Kinsey, a senior, and 6'8" junior forward Renaldo Balkman have been trying to carry the Gamecocks with the help of junior point guard Tre Kelley. Kinsey is averaging 16.5 points and 5 rebounds per game, while Balkman averages 11.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Basketball fans around the country watched South Carolina struggle against Alaska Anchorage on national television, and they are a good example of why most consider the SEC to be "down" this year. Losing their leading scorer from last year, the Gamecocks have not yet regained the form that won them an NIT championship last season. Before the conference schedule starts, South Carolina gets a chance to make a statement against #25 Pittsburgh on 12/28.
This team has more talent than UGA, and perhaps more talent than Tennessee. However, they are not yet playing their best basketball. With only six players averaging more than 13 minutes per game, they may have a hard time playing the intense, athletic style of basketball that often forces a sloppy game from their opponents. However, the Gamecocks' experience could make the difference in the conference schedule, and they have a chance to finish in the top half of the SEC. Prediction: 4th in SEC East
Georgia Bulldogs (7-3)
Both Polls: Not ranked
Meaningful Wins: Georgia Tech (91-75)
Losses: at Old Dominion (74-65), at Oregon State (64-60), at Nevada (68-62)
Other Wins: at Fordham, at EKU, at WKU, Florida A&M, Savannah St, Georgia St.
Georgia was the whipping boy of the SEC East last season, but this year looks to be a different story. The signs of improvement are not necessarily in the win loss column, they are in the box scores. The leading scorer and rebounder on the team is Billy Humphrey – a freshman. Mike Mercer, the third leading scorer, is a freshman. Contributors from last season such as Idrissi and Brophy are now almost afterthoughts.
The problem is that Georgia is still a young, relatively thin team recovering from program probation. Another problem is that the Bulldogs haven't beaten a quality opponent yet (the Georgia Tech win is only notable because of the margin of victory). However, they are playing well as a team and show consistent signs of improvement. They are a well-coached team that will improve throughout the season. However, with the strength being shown by the Volunteers, it's hard to put the Bulldogs anywhere but 6th in the SEC East.
Vanderbilt Commodores (8-1)
Both Polls: Not Ranked
Meaningful Wins: at Georgetown (68-61), Oregon (76-75)
Losses: Cincinnati (92-83)
Other Wins: Jacksonville St., Furman, UNC-G, Bama A&M, New Orleans, IUPUI
Everybody reading this probably has a pretty good idea about how Vanderbilt has played this season. The team is on the way to Dayton and Georgia Tech to try and solidify their non-conference resume. Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Julian Terrell, and DeMarre Carroll are each averaging more than 10 points per game, and Mario Moore is close behind with 9 ppg. This team will go as far in the SEC as their star players can take them, but there is still some controversy of who belongs in that "star" category. Is Mario still "Super"? Can DeMarre Carroll or Alex Gordon mature into stars this year?
The one thing that is undoubtedly true is that wing players Shan Foster and Derrick Byars are crucial to this team's success. Foster leads the team in points, and Byars leads the team in assists (he's also 2nd in points). Both players can take over a game, even if the other is taking the day off. For the Commodores to overcome Kentucky and Florida, they will need to avoid the legacy of their historical struggles away from Memorial, and they will need to play strong in the post. If Ted Skuchas' impressive post defense spreads to his teammates, and seniors Mario Moore and Julian Terrell take the reins of this talented team, then the Commodores could become the best team in the SEC. However, there is a lot of inconsistency and rumored discord to overcome. For now, pencil in the ‘Dores as 2nd in the SEC East. Also, if this team's shooting gets hot, they are the most dangerous tournament team in the SEC. Their inconsistency works against them in the regular season, but just might help them in March.