The national perception is that the Southeastern Conference is Florida, Kentucky and the 12 dwarfs. Nobody doubts that either the Gators or the Wildcats can perform on the national stage with anybody, but those other 12? The national perception is they drag the rest of the league down.
Currently the SEC ranks seventh in the conference RPI rankings but only Florida (#5) and Kentucky (#12) have a top 40 RPI. Tennessee (#47) and Missouri (#49) are the only other top 50 teams.
The Gators earned their high RPI with a tough non-conference schedule that included a win over #1 RPI Kansas. Counting conference games, the Gators own nine wins over top 100 RPI teams. Kentucky has 10 wins over top 100 RPI teams against the #7 schedule in the country although its best win is over #34 RPI Louisville.
There have been some notable non-conference wins by the SEC such as Missouri over UCLA and Tennessee over Virginia, but there are also embarrassing losses such as the one LSU suffered at the hands of Rhode Island or Auburn to Northwestern State or South Carolina to South Carolina-Upstate.
As Florida coach Billy Donovan notes, there is a fine line when it comes to scheduling. It’s important to play some difficult games in the non-conference portion of the schedule but not too many. There has to be some balance and yes, teams do need a few cupcake wins to prep for the conference grind.
“I know Tom Izzo – one year we talked about it – scheduled six really hard games,” Donovan said Monday. “He lost all of them. It puts your team in a really bad psyche so to speak. A lot of times your team is not reflective of your record.”
Alabama has that problem. The Crimson Tide is 9-14 but that’s against the #3 toughest schedule in the country.
“You look at Alabama the fact that they’re going to UCLA, they played Xavier, they’ve played Wichita State, they’ve played Oklahoma,” Donovan said. “They’ve played a lot of really, really hard games. They’ve had some injuries. I’m not so sure their record is indicative of the way those guys play.”
To the SEC’s credit, most of the teams have upgraded their schedules. Only Auburn (#116), Texas A&M (#120) and Mississippi State (#157) have schedules outside the top 100. The problem for teams not named Florida and Kentucky who have played tougher schedules is winning games.
“You can schedule up, but you got to be able to win some of those games,” Donovan said. “That’s the hard part when you’re playing against a lot of good teams. You have to win some of them. So you can schedule up, but you’ve got to be able to win some of those games.”
BRACKETOLOGY: Joe Lunardi of ESPN has moved Florida to a #1 seed in the South Region with Kansas the #2. In Lunardi’s bracket, the Gators would face Davidson in Orlando in the first game and then play the winner of North Carolina and George Washington for a chance at the Sweet 16.
Lunardi has Wichita State #1 in the Midwest (Duke #2), Syracuse #1 in the East (Villanova #2) and Arizona #1 in the West (San Diego State #2).
In Lunardi’s brackets, there are five SEC teams – Florida, Kentucky #4 in the Midwest, Tennessee #11 in the Midwest, Missouri #12 in the East and playing a first round game in Dayton, and LSU a #11 in the South with a first round game in Dayton.
In Jerry Palm’s bracket at CBSsports.com, Florida is a #2 in the Midwest facing Georgia State in the first game in Orlando. Palm has San Diego State the #1 seed in the East. Palm has Kentucky a #4 in the East and Tennessee a #11. He has Missouri a #11 in the West playing in Dayton in the first round. Palm has LSU on the bubble.
AROUND THE SEC
FLORIDA (21-2, 10-0 SEC)
Coach: Billy Donovan (436-168 at Florida; 471-188 overall)
Through 23 games: The Gators made it through the first 10 games of the SEC schedule unbeaten but now they face the formidable task of winning in Knoxville and Lexington back-to-back. A split will guarantee a one-game edge over Kentucky with six games to go. If the Gators win twice, you can almost pencil them in as SEC champs.
The future: Florida loses four senior starters but returns Michael Frazier (6-4), Dorian Finney-Smith (6-8) and Kasey Hill (6-1). If Chris Walker (6-10) also comes back for one more year, the Gators will be one of the preseason favorites to win it all next year. An outstanding recruiting class of Brandone Francis (6-6), Chris Chiozza (5-10) and Devin Robinson (6-9) will be bolstered by DeVon Walker (6-6), Eli Carter (6-2, medical redshirt), Dillon Graham (6-4, medical redshirt), Damontre Harris (6-10) and Alex Murphy (6-9, Duke transfer).
Scoring leaders: Casey Prather (15.6); Michael Frazier (12.7)
Best rebounders: Dorian Finney-Smith (7.6); Patric Young (6.4)
Best freshman: Kasey Hill (6.0 points, 1.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists)
Strength of schedule: 35
Quality wins: Middle Tennessee State (#89 RPI); Florida State (54); Kansas (1); Memphis (27); Richmond (43); Arkansas (80); Alabama (95); Tennessee (47); Missouri (49)
Bad losses: None.
This week’s schedule: Missouri (Tuesday); Alabama (Saturday)
THE REST OF THE SEC
ALABAMA (9-14, 3-7 SEC)
Coach: Anthony Grant (95-66 at Alabama; 171-91 overall)
Through 23 games: Right now Alabama is simply trying to stop the bleeding. The Crimson Tide play everybody tough but they have trouble winning games, largely due to inconsistent play on the inside. Trevor Releford won’t be the SEC Player of the Year but he should make first team All-SEC.
The future: The heat is on Anthony Grant but Alabama fans would be wise to be patient one more year. Even though Trevor Releford graduates, Alabama will have far more offensive punch next year. Transfer Ricky Tarrant (6-2) averaged 15 a game at Tulane while transfer (6-9) Michael Kessens averaged 13.7 at Longwood. Grant has signed an athletic class of Riley Norris (6-7, SF), Justin Coleman (5-10, PG) and Devin Mitchell (6-4, WG), all of which know how to put the ball in the hole. Bama returns its four-man big rotation of Shannon Hale (6-8), Nick Jacobs (6-8), Carl Engstrom (7-1) and Jimmie Taylor (6-10) to go with Rodney Cooper (6-6) and Levi Randolph (6-6).
Scoring leaders: Trevor Releford (18.3); Retin Obasohan (11.2)
Best rebounders: Rodney Cooper (4.9); Levi Randolph (3.9)
Best freshman: Shannon Hale (7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 3
Quality wins: Georgia State (#84 RPI); Vanderbilt (80); LSU (43)
Bad losses: Drexel (#111 RPI); South Florida (151); Georgia (115)
This week’s schedule: Ole Miss (Tuesday); at South Carolina (Saturday)
ARKANSAS (15-8, 4-6 SEC)
Coach: Mike Anderson (52-35 at Arkansas; 252-133 overall)
Through 23 games: Arkansas won two straight last week but there is plenty of work to be done if the Razorbacks are going to play their way back into the post season picture. Arkansas is going to have to figure out how to win some games on the road if it intends to play past the SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks are 1-4 away from Bud Walton Arena in SEC play.
The future: The Razorbacks graduate five seniors, all replaceable. If Bobby Portis (6-9) and Rashad Madden (6-5) come back, the key pieces will be there for improvement. Help will come in the form of freshmen Anton Beard (6-1, PG), Trey Thompson (6-9, PF) and Nick Babb (6-4, SG)
Scoring leaders: Rashad Madden (13.2); Bobby Portis (12.3)
Best rebounders: Bobby Portis (6.5); Coty Clarke (5.6)
Best freshman: Bobby Portis (12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 86
Quality wins: SMU (#38 RPI); Minnesota (39); Clemson (65); Kentucky (12)
Bad losses: Texas A&M (#145 RPI); Georgia (115)
This week’s game: at Missouri (Thursday); LSU (Saturday)
AUBURN (11-10, 3-7 SEC)
Coach: Tony Barbee (46-69 at Auburn; 128-121 overall)
Through 23 games: Finishing the season with a better than .500 record would be quite an accomplishment for the Tigers but the schedule is formidable the rest of the way with Kentucky (home) and Florida (road). The Commodores do get Vanderbilt and Tennessee at home.
The future: Leading scorer Chris Denson will graduate and it will be hard to replace his points but K.T. Harrell returns along with waterbug point Tahj Shamsid-Deen. In the recruiting class, Auburn added inside punch in freshmen Sam Longwood (6-7, SF) and Australian Jack Purchase (6-10). Auburn could be improved next year without it showing much in the record.
Scoring leaders: Chris Denson (20.2); K.T. Harrell (19.4)
Rebounding leaders: Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (6.2); Allen Payne (6.0)
Best freshman: Tahj Shamsid-Deen (9.4 points, 3.0 assists)
Strength of schedule: 116
Quality wins: Clemson (#65 RPI)
Bad losses: Northwestern State (#210 RPI); Mississippi State (168)
This week’s schedule: Kentucky (Wednesday); Mississippi State (Saturday)
GEORGIA (12-10, 6-4 SEC)
Coach: Mark Fox (77-73 at Georgia; 200-116 overall)
Through 22 games: Georgia is surprisingly two games over .500 but to finish with a winning record, they will have to figure out a way to win on the road where they are 1-3 so far. Five of the final eight games are away from Athens. A season that ends with 16 or 17 wins should be considered a major success.
The future: Donte Williams is the lone senior on the Georgia roster so this will be a very experienced team that returns its top five scorers next year including the athletic guard tandem of Charles Mann (6-5) and Kenny Gaines (6-4). next year. Mark Fox will have one scholarship to give in the spring and he’s looking for a knockdown shooter.
Scoring leaders: Charles Mann (13.5); Kenny Gaines (11.8)
Rebounding leaders: Marcus Thornton (5.8); Donte Williams (5.3)
Best freshman: Juwan Parker (4.4 points, 3.6 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 85
Quality wins: Missouri (#49 RPI); Alabama (95); Arkansas (80); LSU (61)
Bad losses: Georgia Tech (#143 RPI); Davidson (155); Temple (176); Auburn (180)
This week’s games: at Mississippi State (Wednesday); Ole Miss (Saturday)
KENTUCKY (18-5, 8-2 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (141-31 at Kentucky; 544-169 overall)
Through 23 games: The Wildcats are 14-0 at home this year and they will have a chance to halve Florida’s lead in the SEC Saturday when the Gators come to town. The Wildcats also get LSU and Arkansas at home but have tough roadies at Ole Miss and Florida in the final regular season game.
The future: Kentucky could lose as many as six players to the NBA in freshmen Julius Randle, James Young, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison. Sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein would be foolish to stay. If they leave they will go first round. If they stay, their draft stock further diminishes. They would have gone in the lottery last year. The roster won’t lack for talent with Derek Willis (6-9), Dakari Johnson (7-0), Marcus Lee (6-9) and Dominique Hawkins (6-0) all stick around. The recruiting class brings in Trey Lyles (6-10, PF); Karl Towns Jr. (7-1, C), Tyler Ulis (5-9, PG) and Devin Booker (6-5, WG).
Scoring leaders: Julius Randle (16.0); James Young (14.5)
Rebounding leaders: Julius Randle (9.8); Willie Cauley-Stein (6.4)
Best freshman: Julius Randle (16.0 points, 9.8 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 7
Quality wins: Cleveland State (#91 RPI); Eastern Michigan (75); Providence (50); Boise State (68); Belmont (59); Louisville (34); Vanderbilt (81); Tennessee (47); Missouri (49); Ole Miss (56)
Bad losses: None
This week’s schedule: at Auburn (Wednesday); Florida (Saturday)
LSU (15-7, 6-4 SEC)
Coach: Johnny Jones (34-19 at LSU; 239-181 overall)
Through 22 games: Five of the last eight games are on the road, which hasn’t been kind to the Tigers, who are 1-3 away from Baton Rouge in SEC play. They need to hold serve at home and win two on the road plus one in the SEC Tournament to punch a ticket for the NCAA Tournament.
The future: If Johnny O’Bryant (6-10) stays for his senior season and freshman Jordan Mickey (6-8) resists the NBA, LSU will be loaded next year. Jones still has to find a knockdown shooter but help is on the way with point guards Jalyn Patterson (6-1) and juco Josh Gray. An already loaded front court will add Elbert Robinson (6-11, C) and Aaron Epps (6-9).
Scoring leaders: Johnny O’Bryant (15.6); Jordan Mickey (13.8)
Rebounding leaders: Johnny O’Bryant (7.5); Jordan Mickey (7.4)
Best freshman: Jordan Mickey (13.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.6 blocked shots)
Strength of schedule: 76
Quality wins: St. Joseph’s (#46 RPI); Vanderbilt (81); Missouri (49); Kentucky (12); Arkansas (80)
Bad losses: Rhode Island (#140 RPI); Georgia (115)
This week’s schedule: at Texas A&M (Wednesday); at Arkansas (Saturday)
MISSISSIPPI STATE (13-10, 3-7 SEC)
Coach: Rick Ray (23-32)
Through 23 games: The Bulldogs are 0-5 on the road in the SEC and with only eight scholarship players and just two legitimate posts, it’s going to be hard to finish above .500. This is a much-improved team from last year but it still doesn’t have SEC-caliber personnel at all five positions.
The future: Leading scorers Craig Sword and Gavin Ware return to a roster that will be bolstered by a solid recruiting class that includes Demetrius Houston (6-6, SF), Oliver Black (6-9, PF), Elijah Stanley (6-6, SF) and Maurice Dunlap (6-2, PG). Mississippi State fans will see improvement, but the Bulldogs are at least one more good recruiting class away from being relevant.
Scoring leaders: Craig Sword (13.2); Gavin Ware (10.6)
Rebounding leaders: Gavin Ware (7.7); Roquez Johnson (4.8)
Best freshman: I.J. Ready (6.4 points, 3.1 assists)
Strength of schedule: 157
Quality wins: Ole Miss (#56 RPI)
Bad losses: Utah State (#107 RPI); TCU (199); UNLV (105); Texas A&M (145)
This week’s schedule: Kentucky (Wednesday); Georgia (Saturday)
MISSOURI (16-7, 4-6 SEC)
Coach: Frank Haith (69-23 at Missouri; 198-124 overall)
Through 23 games: t.
The future: Losing seniors Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell is probably addition by subtraction. The two the Tigers can’t afford to lose are Jabari Brown (6-5) and Jordan Clarkson (6-5). Right now Brown is likely to go to the NBA but Clarkson probably stays. If Brown goes, Missouri will be very average next year. The best player in the two-man recruiting class is JaKeenan Grant (6-8, PF) who figures to play right away. Namon Wright (6-5, WG) is a shooter with range.
Scoring leaders: Jabari Brown (20.1); Jordan Clarkson (18.9)
Rebounding leaders: Johnathan Williams (7.3); Earnest Ross (6.5)
Best freshman: Johnathan Williams (6.2 points, 7.3 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 71
Quality wins: Northwestern (#99 RPI); West Virginia (#72); UCLA (19); North Carolina State (63); Alabama (95); Arkansas (80)
Bad losses: Georgia (#143 RPI)
This week’s schedule: Arkansas (Thursday); Tennessee (Saturday)
OLE MISS (16-7, 7-3 SEC)
Coach: Andy Kennedy (168-94 at Ole Miss; 188-107 overall)
Through 21 games: The Rebels are winning but they need some good wins on their resume if they are to make the NCAA Tournament. They do get Kentucky and Florida back-to-back at home where they are 5-0 in SEC play this year. If they get to 22 regular season wins, figure they’re in the NCAA Tournament. Anything less and they will have to do damage at the SEC Tournament.
The future: Andy Kennedy will have a hard time replacing the points and the swag that Marshall Henderson brings but he will return a strong nucleus in Jarvis Summers, Aaron Jones, Sebastian Saiz, Anthony Perez and LaDarius White. The four-man recruiting class brings size in Rauno Nurger (6-10, C) and Marcanvis Hymon (6-7, PF) along with juco point guard Stefan Moody (5-10) and shooter J.T. Escobar (6-2).
Scoring leaders: Marshall Henderson (19.6); Jarvis Summers (17.4)
Rebounding leaders: Aaron Jones (7.1); Sebastian Saiz (6.3)
Best freshman: Sebastian Saiz (5.2 points, 6.3 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 79
Quality wins: Middle Tennessee State (#89 RPI); LSU (61); Vanderbilt (81)
Bad losses: Mississippi State (#168 RPI)
This week’s schedule: at Alabama (Tuesday); at Georgia (Saturday)
SOUTH CAROLINA (8-15, 1-9 SEC)
Coach: Frank Martin (22-33 at South Carolina; 139-87 overall)
Through 23 games: South Carolina has lost its last three games and all six road games in SEC play. A winning season is out of the question but if they could get to 12-13 wins in the regular season that would be an accomplishment.
Post season outlook: The Gamecocks will have to find a replacement for Brenton Williams, but if Sindarius Thornwell (6-5) remains in school at least one more year, the future looks much brighter. Bigs Demetrius Henry (6-9) and Desmond Ringer (6-10) have to get better in a hurry but they are capable. Martin added a shooter in TeMarcus Blanton (6-4) and a point guard in Marcus Stroman (6-2).
Leading scorers: Brenton Williams (13.8); Sindarius Thornwell (13.3)
Leading rebounders: Michael Carrera (5.1); Mindaugus Kacinas (4.6)
Best freshman: Sindarius Thornwell (13.3 points, 3.9 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 51
Quality wins: St. Mary’s (#53 RPI); Akron (TWICE, 94)
Bad losses: South Carolina-Upstate (#195 RPI); Texas A&M (145); Georgia (115); Auburn (180)
This week’s games: Vanderbilt (Wednesday); Alabama (Saturday)
TENNESSEE (15-8, 6-4 SEC)
Coach: Cuonzo Martin (54-36 at Tennessee; 115-77 overall)
Through 23 games: The Vols have seven wins against top 100 RPI teams so if they can go 5-3 the rest of the way, they should get in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols benefit from a schedule that has them home in Knoxville five of the remaining eight games. With Florida Tuesday night and home and home with Missouri, it’s a schedule conducive to getting into the NCAA.
The future: It will be the upset of the century if Jarnell Stokes stays another year. The Vols also lose leading scorer Jordan McRae and brute Jeronne Maymon, so it will be like starting over if Stokes goes. Martin hopes he has finally solved his point guard issues with Larry Austin (6-1), part of a very good recruiting class that also includes Phil Cofer (6-7, PF), C.J. Turman (6-9, C) and Jordan Cornish (6-4, WG). All four of these guys will have to play immediately.
Leading scorers: Jordan McRae (19.3); Jarnell Stokes (14.0)
Leading rebounders: Jarnell Stokes (10.3); Jeronne Maymon (8.2)
Best freshman: Darius Thompson (3.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists)
Strength of schedule: 17
Quality wins: Xavier (#44 RPI); Wake Forest (83); Virginia (20); LSU (61); Arkansas (80); Ole Miss (56); Alabama (95)
Bad losses: Texas A&M (#145 RPI)
This week’s schedule: Florida (Tuesday); at Missouri (Saturday)
TEXAS A&M (13-10, 4-6 SEC)
Coach: Billy Kennedy (45-43 at Texas A&M; 256-222 overall)
Through 23 games: The Aggies have a winning record but they’re barely .500 in the three years that Billy Kennedy has been in charge. It might take a miracle of parting the Red Sea proportions for Kennedy to be back next season.
The future: The entire roster returns and it’s debatable whether that’s good news or bad news. There are three good players to build around in Kourtney Roberson (6-9), Jamal Jones (6-8) and Alex Caruso (6-5). The two-man recruiting class brings in highly regarded point guard Alex Robinson (6-1) and shooter Sidy Ndir (6-2).
Leading scorers: Jamal Jones (12.0); Kourtney Roberson (9.7)
Leading rebounders: Kourtney Roberson (6.9); Antwan Space (4.2)
Best freshman: Davonte Fitzgerald (7.1 points, 2.2 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 120
Quality wins: Arkansas (#80 RPI); Tennessee (47)
Bad losses: North Texas (#184 RPI); Mississippi State (168); South Carolina (171); Georgia (115)
This week’s schedule: LSU (Wednesday); at Vanderbilt (Saturday)
VANDERBILT (13-9, 5-5 SEC)
Coach: Kevin Stallings (290-185 at Vanderbilt; 413-248 overall)
Through 22 games: What Kevin Stallings has done with a seven-man roster should get him a few votes for SEC Coach of the Year. The Commodores will have to win a lot of games to make the NCAA but the NIT is within reach and that would be an accomplishment.
The future: Vanderbilt loses Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller, but will benefit from the return of Kedren Johnson and Alex McClellan from academic issues. Freshman center Damian Jones is a star in the making. Johnson led Vandy in scoring in 2013 and McClellan was the leading scorer in 2014 when he was sidelined. Stallings’ 3-man recruiting class includes point guards Riley LaChance (6-2) and Wade Baldwin (6-2) and shooter Matthew Fisher-Davis (6-4).
Leading scorers: Rod Odom (15.2); Kyle Fuller (11.7)
Leading rebounders: Rod Odom (5.8); Damian Jones (5.3)
Best freshman: Damian Jones (11.0 points, 5.3 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 54
Quality wins: Georgia State (#84 RPI); Missouri (#49 RPI); Tennessee (47)
Bad losses: Butler (#112 RPI)
This week’s schedule: at South Carolina (Wednesday); Texas A&M (Saturday)