SEC Mid-Season Review
How bad is the SEC? Entering conference play, many believed it to be the worst of the six major conferences. According to the overall RPI, the league hasn’t done much to prove that prediction incorrect. The SEC is fifth in the country in conference RPI, ahead of only the Big Ten.
However, just one week ago the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 Poll included five SEC teams: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida, Mississippi, Mississippi State. That number exceeded every other conference in the country.
Tennessee is clearly the class of the SEC and is the only true hope for a Final Four appearance. The strength of this league will be determined by the likes of Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Florida, and a couple of other respectable squads. How many teams in the SEC have the ability to get to the dance and make a run at the Sweet Sixteen?
Get Your Dancin’ Shoes Ready
Tennessee (21-2, 8-1)
At 21-2, Tennessee is off to its best start in school history. Sure, an SEC regular season title would be nice. An SEC Tournament title would be even nicer. But what the Volunteers are most anxiously awaiting is the NCAA Tournament, because only there can they rid themselves of the bad taste in their mouth after losing to Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Vols are deep, the Vols are quick, the Vols are athletic, and the Vols keep coming after you. They are relentless in their attack and play the same whether they are up fifteen, up five, or down eight. In the Vols offense there is no such thing as a bad shot.
While most pundits do not place Tennessee in the same spectrum as Memphis, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, and Duke, the Vols are eager to prove everyone wrong. Oh, and to those who heard Chris Lofton was having a down shooting year, well, he has found his stroke. Ever since eclipsing the SEC all-time record for three-pointers made, the senior has been on fire. In six ensuing games, Lofton has knocked down 30 threes and is shooting 53 percent.
The Volunteers have the ability to beat anyone in the country and will not be satisfied with anything less than a trip to the Final Four.
Big Games Left:
February 13 – Arkansas
February 23 – at Memphis
February 26 – at Vanderbilt
March 2 – Kentucky
March 5 – at Florida
On the Verge
Arkansas (17-5, 6-2)
The Razorbacks entered conference play on a two-game winning streak and then won their first two SEC games. After some struggles during non-conference play they appeared to finally be in that grove that coach John Pelphrey was waiting for. Arkansas then proceeded to lose to South Carolina and at Georgia. You just had to wonder if this talented team would click before it was too late.
Midway into conference play, the Hogs have finally clicked and Bud Walton Arena has been the scene. After easily handling Mississippi State and Florida, they took care of Ole Miss over the weekend. Now it is time to see if this team can win on the road with tough contests at Tennessee and Mississippi State coming up.
Arkansas is the only team in the SEC that can even begin to counter the depth of Tennessee. The Razorbacks are athletic, have the ability to throw a lot of guys at you, and can score in many different ways. If they can get consistently solid play down the stretch from their senior point guard Gary Ervin, the Hogs have the talent to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Big Games Left:
February 13 – at Tennessee
February 16 – at Mississippi State
February 23 – at Kentucky
March 1 – Vanderbilt
March 4 – at Ole Miss
Vanderbilt (20-4, 5-4)
The Commodores entered conference play undefeated but quickly realized that road victories in the SEC were not easy to come by. After losing their first four SEC contests away from home–all against quality opponents (Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Ole Miss)–Vandy finally got its first road victory at Georgia and then backed it up by squeaking one out at South Carolina.
Shan Foster is a legitimate player of the year candidate. If you give him even a centimeter of space he will find a way to knock the shot down.
Much of Vanderbilt’s struggles recently have been due to A.J. Ogilvy’s inability to adapt to life in the SEC. Ogilvy needs to become more comfortable and provide the ‘Dores with a weapon underneath.
Offensively this team is talented enough to make another run in the NCAA Tournament. That’s especially if Ogilvy regains the form he showed in pre-conference play.
Big Games Left:
February 12 – Kentucky
February 16 – Florida
February 26 – Tennessee
March 1 – at Arkansas
March 5 – Mississippi State
Florida (19-5, 6-3)
Billy Donovan eased his young Gator team into the college basketball scene with a less than dubious pre-conference schedule. Besides their showdown at home with Florida State and their road game at Ohio State (both losses), the Gators loaded their schedule with gimme after gimme.
Allowing his young team to gain confidence is proving ingenious as Florida is starting to mature. Nick Calathes is as underrated a freshman as there is in the country and he does everything for the Gators. Calathes is leading the SEC in assists at 6.8 per game. Marreese Speights is also proving to be a reliable source underneath in his sophomore campaign.
The Baby Gators are growing up fast and the country is starting to take notice. After two tough road losses (to Tennessee and Arkansas), they were able to regroup with a victory at home over a depleted Georgia squad. A road victory at Vanderbilt or Kentucky to finish off SEC play would send Florida into the post-season with serious momentum.
Big Games Left:
February 16 – at Vanderbilt
March 1 – Mississippi State
March 5 – Tennessee
March 9 – at Kentucky
Ole Miss (16-5, 3-5)
After their torrid start to the 2007-08 season, the Rebels have come back to earth after entering conference play. Mississippi has dropped four out of its last five games. Losses at home against South Carolina and on the road at Auburn may give reason for non-believers to overlook the hot start.
Offensively the Rebels have remained pretty solid. Dwayne Curtis has compiled a double-double in each of the last four losses. Chris Warren continues to be a consistent floor general that does a little bit of everything. However, on the defensive side of the ball, the Rebels’ youth has showed just a bit. In their last four losses opponents are shooting 49-percent from the field.
Still you must take notice that this team was able to go through non-conference play unblemished; not an easy task no matter the caliber of your opponents. In order to make the Dance, Andy Kennedy’s squad must turn up its defensive intensity now. The Rebels’ remaining schedule should give them an opportunity to do so as their toughest road test will be against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Big Games Left:
February 20 – Mississippi State
February 27 – at Kentucky
March 4 – Arkansas
Got Work to Do
Mississippi State (16-7, 7-2)
Starkville, Mississippi is the home of the 2008 Southeastern Conference block party. Jarvis Varnado, the nation’s leading shot-blocker at 4.8 swats per game, is hosting the festivities for the Bulldogs. His 111 blocks this season have already eclipsed the MSU single season mark of 106, set by Erick Dampier in 1995-96.
Shot blocking merely sets the tone for a Bulldog defense that is solid in all facets of the game. The unit leads the SEC in field-goal percentage defense (.363) and scoring defense (63.0 ppg). Mississippi State has held seven of its nine conference opponents to less than 40-percent shooting from the field.
After a slow start in non-conference play, Rick Stansbury’s squad has turned to its stingy defense and its do-it-all point guard, Jamont Gordon. At 6-4 and 250 pounds, Gordon looks the part of a linebacker more than he does point guard, but the entire Mississippi State offense goes through him. He is a matchup nightmare and is playing like the SEC Player of the Year.
Big Games Left:
February 16 – Arkansas
February 20 – at Ole Miss
March 1 – at Florida
March 5 – at Vanderbilt
Kentucky (12-9, 6-2)
Considered down and out at the start of SEC play, these Cats are trying to prove to the selection committee that they have more than nine lives. Kentucky has won five in a row and is only one game back of the Volunteers, a team the Wildcats defeated at Rupp Arena earlier this season.
Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford finally appear to have bitten into Billy Gillispie’s system and the new head coach has realized that these two need to be on the court for the Cats to be successful. Injuries are still a concern for Kentucky. Crawford has struggled with planter fasciitis and Bradley with a concussion and viral infection. The Cats have also been without Jodie Meeks, who is suffering from a hip injury, for the last three games.
Kentucky must keep slip-ups at a minimum if it hopes to dance at the end of the year. If the Wildcats can hold serve at home, finish .500 on the road and then make a run in the SEC Tournament, they will make a case. Will the committee be able to overlook inexplicable loses at home to Gardner-Webb and San Diego?
Big Games Left:
February 12 – at Vanderbilt
February 23 – Arkansas
February 27 – Ole Miss
March 2 – at Tennessee
March 9 – Florida
South Carolina (11-11, 3-5)
Devan Downey has been the lone bright spot for the Gamecocks in the The Professor’s (Dave Odom) swan song. At 5’9” tall, Downey is a scoring threat from anywhere on the court and is as exciting a player to watch as there is in the SEC.
Alabama (13-11, 2-7)
How good could this team be with a healthy Ronald Steele? Mike Gottefried has found it impossible to fill Steele’s shoes at point and can’t wait to find out. The Tide bring everyone back in 2008-09 and hope to compete for an SEC West title.
Georgia (11-10, 2-6)
At the midway point the Bulldogs have more arrests than they do SEC victories. I’m guessing this is not how Dennis Felton envisioned his fifth season in Athens.
Auburn (12-10, 2-7)
The Tigers play extremely hard for head coach Jeff Lebo, but it is usually difficult to find success when you struggle from both beyond the arc and in the post. They only go six deep so weary legs will most likely be an issue as they continue down the stretch.
LSU (8-14, 1-7)
Two years removed from a Final Four appearance, LSU canned head coach John Brady last week. Injuries and a lack of a true point guard led to Brady’s demise. Interim head coach Butch Pierre will ride newcomers Marcus Thornton and Anthony Randolph as much as he can. But these Tigers are just bad.
SEC Player of the Year Candidates
Jamont Gordon, G, Mississippi State (18.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.7 APG)
Shan Foster, G, Vanderbilt (18.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG)
Richard Hendrix, F, Alabama (19.0 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG)
Devan Downey, G, South Carolina (19.4 PPG, 5.3 APG, 3.3 SPG)
Tyler Smith, G, Tennessee (13.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.7 APG)
Notables: Chris Lofton (Tennessee), JuJuan Smith (Tennessee), Patrick Patterson (Kentucky), Ramel Bradley (Kentucky), Marcus Thornton (LSU), Sonny Weems (Arkansas), Marreese Speights (Florida), Nick Calathes (Florida)
SEC Rookie of the Year Candidates
Patrick Patterson, F (Kentucky) 16.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG
Nick Calathes, G (Florida) 15.4 PPG, 6.2 APG, 5.0 RPG
Chris Warren, G (Ole Miss) 16.4 PPG, 5.1 APG
A.J. Ogilvy, C (Vanderbilt) 17.4 PPG, 6.7 RPG
Anthony Randolph, F (LSU) 13.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.4 BPG