SEC men’s basketball team-by-team preview

dcloninger@thestate.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Looking at the SEC as the men’s conference season begins. (Note: Tennessee-LSU and Vanderbilt-Alabama began the SEC season on Tuesday.)

ALABAMA

Record: 6-7

Ranking: None

The skinny: Alabama lined up a tough nonconference schedule to see how well it could compete. It might end up costing the Crimson Tide an NCAA tournament berth. Nobody realistically expected Alabama to beat Duke or Wichita State, but many figured if the Tide could pull an upset or two against Oklahoma or UCLA, it would bode well. The good news is that Bama has been good at home, losing only to the Shockers and to Xavier. They’ve been bad away from home, losing to the Sooners, Bruins, USF and to Drexel in triple overtime in New York. The Tide will have a big-time RPI, but will they have the wins to make it relevant?

ARKANSAS

Record: 11-2

Ranking: Receiving votes (41)

The skinny: Arkansas is leading the SEC in points per game, and is doing it without a superstar. Like Florida usually does, the Razorbacks are getting contributions from everybody instead of leaning on one or two guys. But the flipside, as it has been over the past two seasons, is the road. Arkansas has lost two of the four games it’s played away from Bud Walton Arena (and one of the wins was in North Little Rock). The Hogs haven’t played anybody better than SMU and Clemson, and when they played Cal and Gonzaga in Maui, they lost. The road has been the coffin nail for Mike Anderson’s first two teams at Arkansas. If it goes to three, heads might start rolling.

AUBURN

Record: 8-3

Ranking: None

The skinny: Auburn has “name” wins, as in the Tigers have beaten schools that aren’t cupcakes in athletics but maybe aren’t so great in basketball. Beating Clemson was impressive, Boston College decent. The rest — not so much. The Tigers won their home games, except for a November game hosting Northwestern State in which the Tigers gave up 72 points in the second half, and lost on the road to Iowa State and Illinois. The first four SEC games could set in motion Tony Barbee’s exit from the SEC.

FLORIDA

Record: 11-2

Ranking: 10

The skinny: With a roster depleted by injuries and suspensions, the guy who does it better than anybody in the league — Billy Donovan — guided his Gators through troubled waters to again be one of the country’s best. Florida did lose to Wisconsin (certainly excusable, being the second game of the year) and by a point at UConn, but beat Kansas, Memphis and Florida State. I feel more and more confident that it will be Florida, not Kentucky, to take home the SEC championship. These guys are good, and know how to play team basketball.

GEORGIA

Record: 6-6

Ranking: None

The skinny: Georgia was expected to struggle. After starting 1-4, losing to Georgia Tech and then all three games at the Charleston Classic, some shrugged and many others said, “How are they this bad with those kind of athletes?” The Bulldogs rebounded to win five in a row, all at home, but then lost their next two, to Colorado and George Washington, each on the road. Maybe Georgia figures it out and goes .500, but considering the teams it’s beaten (nobody of note), I think that the Bulldogs will once again be home for good in early, early March.

KENTUCKY

Record: 10-3

Ranking: 14

The skinny: It was foolishness for John Calipari to think “40-0,” and, moreso, to say it in public. Not like a non-perfect season can’t win a title, you know. So when the Wildcats lost to Michigan State, and then lost to Baylor and North Carolina, folks started harping on how they were overrated. They’re not — they’re just struggling to fit so much individual talent into a team concept. They’ll win plenty of games, they’ll go far in the NCAA tournament, they might win the whole thing. But they’ve got to have five to seven guys quit trying to make it to the NBA in one night.

LSU

Record: 9-3

Ranking: None

The skinny: This team will finish in the SEC’s top four despite a so-so nonconference schedule. LSU has beaten the teams it’s supposed to, with a couple of nice ones (St. Joseph’s, Butler, Texas Tech), and it’s lost to Massachusetts and Memphis, certainly understandable. But the Tigers also lost to Rhode Island at home. The first two SEC games (hosting Tennessee, traveling to South Carolina) are key for this team.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Record: 10-3

Ranking: None

The skinny: MSU hasn’t beaten anybody of note, but that’s what this team needs. The Bulldogs were hit so hard by the end of the Rick Stansbury era that it might take them another season or two to be decent. Rick Ray lined up a soft nonconference schedule that raised the team’s confidence, perhaps making SEC play an easier path. Win six conference games, that’s something to build on. Win eight, that’s gravy.

MISSOURI

Record: 12-1

Ranking: 21

The skinny: Losing top talent, coach suspended, big deal — Missouri has lost one game, by a point to Illinois, on a neutral court. They haven’t beaten top, top talent — UCLA and N.C. State are the highlights — but the Tigers have gotten their feet under them and seem ready for SEC play. They get a pretty easy start, too — Georgia, Auburn and Vanderbilt, even with the last two on the road, are winnable. We’ll see if Frank Haith can turn this into an NCAA tournament win this year.

OLE MISS

Record: 9-4

Ranking: None

The skinny: It was wise of Andy Kennedy to challenge his team during the nonconference schedule. The thought was that it would backfire once Marshall Henderson became himself again, but the Rebels came through it pretty well. Two of their four losses were in overtime, and the others were to Kansas State and to, um, Mercer. Still, Ole Miss got solid wins and seems ready for SEC play. Now, Henderson is suspended for the first two SEC games (Auburn, Mississippi State), but Kennedy wisely has gotten his team used to playing without him. Henderson has started five of 12 games.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Record: 7-6

Ranking: None

The skinny: The Gamecocks have played a nonconference schedule ranked in the country’s 40 toughest, and the results have been predictable. Yet, USC has improved, is starting to find its rotations and is seeing its massive crop of freshmen grow up. The hope is that a tough early slate will pay off in finding ways to win close games in the SEC, which would be the opposite of what happened last year. If the Gamecocks win six or seven SEC games, get a win in Atlanta, that’s a solid foundation.

TENNESSEE

Record: 9-4

Ranking: None

The skinny: Lost to great teams, beat good teams (split with Xavier). Early, the question was when the real Tennessee was going to show up. It clearly has now. The Volunteers beat Virginia by 35 points. Don’t be surprised if the Volunteers also finish ahead of Kentucky in the final standings.

TEXAS A&M

Record: 9-4

Ranking: None

The skinny: It started well, the Aggies winning warm-up home games, but it has begun to turn a little gloomy. A&M has lost four of seven — to Missouri State, SMU, Oklahoma and North Texas. The good thing is it has Arkansas at home to start and then South Carolina at home two games later. The chance to regain footing is there. If the Aggies don’t take advantage, then Billy Kennedy mightmay never see those storm clouds lift.

VANDERBILT

Record: 8-4

Ranking: None

The skinny: Can’t ask for much better from a team that went in with two-and-a-half strikes against it. The Commodores lost to Butler, Providence, Texas and St. Louis, but won games against Georgia Tech and mid-majors. A second game against Kentucky is a concern, but it is at home. Win that one, and perhaps this rebuilding project gets pushed up a year.

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