State of the SEC as Conference Play Starts
By Dennis Berry
With the coming end of college football means that SEC fans will turn their focus towards their school's basketball team. SEC conference play begins this month and it will be time for SEC teams to try to improve their standing for post season play.
For many teams in the SEC the nonconference portion of the schedules were not very kind. Many teams struggled against weaker teams that they should have been able to defeat. This was a trend across the board for the SEC.
Alabama suffered home losses to Dayton, Mercer, and Tulane.
Auburn suffered a home loss to DePaul and Winthrop.
Georgia lost at home to Youngstown State and Iona.
LSU lost on the road to Boise State.
South Carolina lost at home to Elon.
Texas A&M lost at home to Southern University.
Vanderbilt lost at home to Marist.
Thankfully with the start of conference play, it gives teams a chance for redemption. Although, it would still be difficult to believe that any of the teams listed above – outside Alabama perhaps – will have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
Teams like Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Arkansas have gotten off to good starts. Those teams would still need to make a strong run in conference play and go deep in the SEC Tournament to likely make the NCAA Tournament. Those teams are more likely to end up in the NIT instead.
So which SEC teams are likely to make the NCAA Tournament?
The Florida Gators came into conference play looking to be the team to beat. Their final nonconference game is against Yale at home. If they win that game they will be 10-2 when they open SEC play against Georgia. The Gators have been playing great basketball with their only setbacks coming on the road at Arizona and Kansas State.
Florida is a very balanced offensive team with four players averaging double figures in points, led by Kenny Boyton’s 12.5 points a game. They are also a deep team with eight players averaging at least 13 minutes a game.
The real strength so far this season for the Gators has been defense. They only allow teams to score 52.2 points a game.
The Missouri Tigers were expected to make a lot of noise in their first year in the SEC. They were a preseason Top 20 team that was loaded with talent. The loss of Michael Dixon has not slowed them down.
Point guard Phil Pressey is the key to the Tiger's success. He is averaging 12.8 points and 7.8 assists a game. A key addition for Missouri is Jabari Brown, who is eligible after sitting out the first half of the season. Brown gives the Tigers another scorer to pair with Laurence Bowers, who leads Missouri in scoring at 16.9 points a game.
There was a lot of hype surrounding the Kentucky Wildcats in the preseason, but the results did not follow. Kentucky opened with a win against Maryland, but that is their best win so far this season. They have lost to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Louisville. At times they look more like a bubble team.
That is starting to change,though. You have to remember that Kentucky is depending on young players. In their last game they started four freshmen. There are reasons to think Kentucky will turn it around. Point guard Ryan Harrow appears to have turned a corner and is playing great basketball. The one thing that was missing early in the season was strong point guard play and the Wildcats are starting to get that.
A second advantage point is that Kentucky has the biggest upside of any team in the country. They are still learning what it takes to win at a high level and they still have two months to prepare for March.
A team that does not get a lot of talk when it comes to the SEC is the Tennessee Volunteers. Right now they are 8-3 with their worse loss being at Virginia. Their best win being against then #23 Wichita State. A win against Memphis on January 4 would look really good on their resume come March.
The key to Tennessee is the duo of Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. Golden is the leader on the floor as well as the Volunteer's top scorer and assists man. Stokes is one of the best big men in the SEC. He is second in scoring and leads the teams in rebounds. Stokes – who has disappeared a few times this season – needs to be more of a factor in the paint if the Volunteers are going to make the NCAA Tournament, though.
Tennessee plays tough defense, but at times struggles offensively. Vol's fans hope that freshman Derek Reese can make an impact now that he is healthy. The big loss was Jeronne Maymon, who is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. If he can come back this season and get into playing shape by March, Tennessee will be a bigger threat.
There could be many surprises still to come as the SEC begins conference play. At this point, however, it appears that only four teams will make it to the NCAA Tournament.
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