Without question, the SEC is down this year. Aside from Kentucky, who ranks number 1 in all of college basketball, there is only one other team in the top 25, and that is the Arkansas Razorbacks at number 23.
One of the biggest signs of a down SEC coming into conference play is the start of the Florida Gators. Florida came into the preseason ranked 7th according to the AP Poll but have started the season at an unimpressive 7-6.
Here’s the current standing of the 14 SEC teams through non-conference play:
South Carolina: 9-3
Texas A&M: 9-3
Ole Miss: 9-4
Mississippi State: 7-6
Keeping these major points in mind, here is everything you need to know heading into conference play in the SEC:
Kentucky Should Run the Table
It would be shocking if the Kentucky Wildcats lost more than two games this season in conference play. The John Calipari led Cats have implemented a platoon style of substituting by rotating through ten players, divided into 2 5 player platoons, that are equally talented. Even after the loss of forward Alex Poythress, the Cats still run nine deep. The Wildcats swept the non-conference schedule with impressive wins against North Carolina, Kansas, Texas, UCLA, and Louisville. The teams that could threaten the Cats perfection in conference are the dark horses of the SEC, Arkansas, and possibly South Carolina who is on the upswing thanks to head coach Frank Martin.
Beware of the Hogs
The Arkansas Razorbacks are coming into conference play hot. The high scoring Hogs, aside from back-to-back losses on the road, have dominated. Ranking eighth in the country in points per game and first in the country in assists per game, the Razorbacks are a team to watch. Led by sophomore forward standout Bobby Portis and junior guard Michael Qualls, the Razorbacks are considered to be the second best team in the SEC. With two meetings with South Carolina, a trip to Kentucky in late February, and closing out the season at home against LSU, the Razorbacks have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves as a legit tournament contender. Which I believe they are.
Players to Watch
Jordan Mickey, LSU
Currently averaging a double-double, Mickey is a 6’8″ sophomore beast for an LSU team that is rising in talent. Mickey averaged 13 points a game a year ago and is averaging 16 points a game this season in almost 34 minutes a game. To go along with his 16 points and 10 rebounds, Mickey is blocking almost four shots a game. Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk wrote, “Mickey put up huge numbers as a freshman, but it didn’t get as much attention nationally due to LSU’s disappointing finish to the season.” Mickey will draw much more attention this season on a better LSU squad.
Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
Another underrated sophomore, Damian Jones is already drawing serious attention from NBA scouts. Jones is a big, physical forward who dominates the paint offensively and defensively while putting in 17 points a game for a young Vanderbilt side. Jones should continue to develop into a great talent because of the lack of depth at forward for the Commodores. Jones could finish First Team All-SEC after earning preseason honors.
Willie Cauley Stein, Kentucky
One of 5 upperclassmen on this year’s Kentucky team, Cauley Stein missed the NCAA tournament last year after suffering an ankle injury. After undergoing offseason ankle surgery, Cauley Stein has solidified himself as a leader and a go-to big man underneath. Cauley Stein has already taken a huge step this season after struggling a year ago. Cauley Stein is averaging 10 points a game and has progressively seen an increase of minutes over his career, proving to be a hidden gem. Cauley Stein may be the oldest player on the list, but he could be considered the most deadly, even on a talent loaded Kentucky team.
The SEC is Kentucky’s to lose and there should be no debate come the SEC Tournament in March as to who’s the best. Arkansas, LSU, and South Carolina have the potential to make a tournament run despite the lack of attention. Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, and Florida look to be NIT bound, but all three of these teams could be right in the mix to make the tournament next year. As for the rest, it isn’t pretty. Mississippi State and Missouri have a lot of work to do to get back to a competitive level but all these teams have solid recruiting classes coming in for 2015.
Here is what I think the SEC standings will look like come March:
4. South Carolina
6. Ole Miss
12. Texas A&M
13. Mississippi State
*Section Photo credit to Sam Greenwood, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Dale Zanine, USA Today Sports