It is January, which means the resume-building games are over with in the Southeastern Conference and the 18-game sprint to the SEC championship begins in earnest. Most of the teams in the league followed the directive of commissioner Mike Slive and upgraded their schedules, which shows in a strong league RPI (#6 overall) and nine teams with a top 100 RPI.
That so many teams have a top 100 RPI will help the league overcome overcome the fact that five teams have a strength of schedule that is rated #200 or higher.
The SEC goes into conference play with three teams ranked in the top 25: Florida #10; Kentucky #14 and Missouri #21.
First team: Julius Randle, Kentucky; Jordan Clarkson, Missouri; Trevor Releford, Alabama; Casey Prather, Florida; Jordan Mickey, LSU
Second team: Jabari Brown, Missouri; Jordan McRae, Tennessee; Bobby Portis, Arkansas; K.T. Harrell, Auburn; Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss
Best player pre-conference: Trevor Releford, Alabama
Most improved player pre-conference: Casey Prather, Florida
Best coach pre-conference (tie): Billy Donovan, Florida; Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Pre-Conference All-SEC Defensive Team
First team: Patric Young, Florida; Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky; Trevor Releford, Alabama; Scottie Wilbekin, Florida; Earnest Ross, Missouri
Second Team: Coty Clarke, Arkansas; Jordan Mickey, LSU; Retin Obasohan, Alabama; Alex Caruso, Texas A&M; Charles Mann, Georgia
Best defensive player pre-conference: Patric Young Florida
Pre-Conference All-SEC Freshman Team
First team: Julius Randle, Kentucky; Bobby Portis, Arkansas; Aaron Harrison, Kentucky; Jordan Mickey, LSU; James Young, Kentucky
Second team: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina; Duane Notice, South Carolina; Kasey Hill, Florida; Tajh Shamsid-Dean, Auburn; Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
Best freshman pre-conference: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Coach: Billy Donovan (426-168 at Florida; 461-188 overall)
Through 13 games: Florida’s home court winning streak has been extended to 23 games. The Gators can tie the school record for consecutive home wins Wednesday night against South Carolina.
Key stats: The Gators rank eighth nationally and first in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up just 58.8 points per game.
Scoring leaders: Casey Prather (17.3); Michael Frazier (11.9)
Best rebounders: Dorian Finney-Smith (7.7); Patric Young (5.9)
Best freshman: Kasey Hill (7.6 points, 1.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists)
Strength of schedule: 48
Quality wins: Florida State (#50 RPI); Kansas (2); Memphis (30); Richmond (74)
Bad losses: None.
This week’s schedule: South Carolina (Wednesday); at Arkansas (Saturday)
THE REST OF THE SEC
Coach: Anthony Grant (98-59 at Alabama; 168-84 overall)
Through 13 games: Alabama has to find some help for Trevor Releford, who is carrying the team. Freshmen Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale are going to have to step it up and give Bama more of an inside presence heading into the conference schedule. Alabama is the only team to emerge from the non-conference schedule with a losing record, but the Crimson Tide has played the ninth toughest schedule in the country.
Key stats: Trevor Releford’s play in the non-conference portion of the schedule has established him as a legitimate SEC Player of the Year candidate. He’s averaging 18.5 points per game, while hitting 52.4% from the field, 42.9% from the 3-point line and 91.3% from the foul line. He’s chipping in with 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game.
Scoring leaders: Trevor Releford (18.5); Retin Obasohan (12.8)
Best rebounders: Rodney Cooper (4.6); Levi Randolph (4.5)
Best freshman: Shannon Hale (4.5 points, 2.9 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 9
Quality wins: None
Bad losses: South Florida (#190 RPI)
This week’s schedule: Vanderbilt (Tuesday); at Georgia (Saturday)
Coach: Mike Anderson (48-29 at Arkansas; 248-127 overall)
Through 13 games: Against a relatively weak schedule, the Arkansas pressure defense has taken its toll. The Razorbacks have a +7.1 turnover margin and they getting plenty of points in transition. Only Ole Miss takes more 3-pointers than Arkansas, which is hitting a very respectable 37.1%. Freshman Bobby Portis continues to emerge as a post presence and has scored in double figures four consecutive games.
Key stats: Arkansas ranks sixth nationally in scoring margin (20.5 per game) and seventh in scoring (87.2).
Scoring leaders: Michael Qualls (13.7); Bobby Portis (12.8)
Best rebounders: Bobby Portis (6.2); Coty Clarke (5.2)
Best freshman: Bobby Portis (12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 212
Quality wins: Louisiana-Lafayette (#75 RPI); SMU (45); Minnesota (47)
Bad losses: None
This week’s game: at Texas A&M (Wednesday); Florida (Saturday)
Coach: Tony Barbee (43-62 at Auburn; 125-114 overall)
Through 11 games: Auburn is on a four-game winning streak, its longest since the 2010-11 season. Even if it is against a very weak schedule, it’s a positive sign for a program desperate for something positive. Fueling the improvement is the three-guard perimeter of K.T. Harrell, Chris Denson and freshman point Tajh Shamsid-Dean. As bad as the Tigers need an inside presence, they need some consistent shooting from the 3-point line even more. They’re hitting only 30.3% of their long distance shots.
Key stats: Although the Tigers haven’t beaten a single top 100 RPI team, their eight wins are by a margin of 16.7 points per game.
Scoring leaders: K.T. Harrell (19.4); Chris Denson (19.0)
Rebounding leaders: Adrian Payne (5.8); Ashaun Dixon-Tatum (6.0)
Best freshman: Tajh Shamsid-Dean (8.4 points, 3.4 assists)
Strength of schedule: 259
Quality wins: None
Bad losses: Northwestern State (#199 RPI)
This week’s schedule: at Ole Miss (Thursday); Missouri (Saturday)
Coach: Mark Fox (71-69 at Georgia; 194-112 overall)
Through 12 games: Georgia hasn’t found an outside shooter to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope although there is hope that juco transfer Cameron Forte is about to make his presence felt. The Bulldogs have taken the fewest 3-pointers in the SEC and they have struggled to score against the better teams on a very weak schedule. The Bulldogs are going to see a lot of zone defenses until someone proves he can hit outside shots.
Key stat: Georgia’s five game winning streak was snapped with lopsided losses to 21st-ranked Colorado and George Washington.
Scoring leaders: Charles Mann (13.0); Kenny Gaines (11.5)
Rebounding leaders: Donte Williams (5.3); Marcus Thornton (4.6)
Best freshman: Juwan Parker (5.1 points, 3.9 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 264
Quality wins: None
Bad losses: Georgia Tech (#123 RPI); Davidson (138); Temple (155)
This week’s games: at George Washington (#32 RPI)
Coach: John Calipari (133-29 at Kentucky; 536-167 overall)
Through 13 games: Kentucky hasn’t played a game since beating Louisville on December 28. The Wildcats out-talent everybody but they haven’t found a measure of consistency on either end of the floor. The closest thing they have to a complete game is their win over a Lousville team that has very little inside presence. In that game, Kentucky outscored Louisville 42-24 in the paint.
Key stats: Julius Randle has scored in double figures all 13 games this season. He has nine double-doubles so far.
Scoring leaders: Julius Randle (18.1); Aaron Harrison (14.7)
Rebounding leaders: Julius Randle (10.6); Willie Cauley-Stein (8.2)
Best freshman: Julius Randle (18.1 points, 10.6 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 13
Quality wins: Cleveland State (#98 RPI); Eastern Michigan (59); Providence (78); Boise State (44); Belmont (77); Louisville (32)
Bad losses: None
This week’s schedule: Mississippi State (Wednesday); at Vanderbilt (Sunday)
Coach: Johnny Jones (28-15 at LSU; 233-177 overall)
Through 12 games: LSU can look very impressive one night, then stink it up the next, which is exactly what the Tigers did in losing to Rhode Island. This is a team with as much front court talent as there is in the SEC, but it is hampered by inconsistent guards who bomb away unconsciously from the outside.
Key stats: LSU is averaging 14.4 second chance points and 34.7 points per game in the paint.
Scoring leaders: Johnny O’Bryant (14.6); Jordan Mickey (14.1)
Rebounding leaders: Jordan Mickey (7.8); Johnny O’Bryant (7.5)
Best freshman: Jordan Mickey (14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 67
Quality wins: St. Joseph’s (#82 RPI); Butler (55); Louisiana-Monroe (91)
Bad losses: Rhode Island (#168 RPI)
This week’s schedule: Tennessee (Tuesday); at South Carolina (Saturday)
MISSISSIPPI STATE (10-3)
Coach: Rick Ray (20-25)
Through 13 games: All three losses are by double digits and none of the wins are against top 100 RPI teams. The Bulldogs are better than they were last year but things don’t look promising for even a .500 record in conference play. Keep an eye on Gavin Ware, who is starting to emerge as a low post scorer and rebounder.
Key stat: The Bulldogs are hitting only 30.2% of their 3-pointers, which is why they’re going to see a lot of zone defense the rest of the way.
Scoring leaders: Craig Sword (14.3); Gavin Ware (11.2)
Rebounding leaders: Gavin Ware (8.9); Roquez Johnson (4.8)
Best freshman: I.J. Ready (6.7 points, 3.6 assists)
Strength of schedule: 336
Quality wins: None
Bad losses: TCU (#173 RPI);
This week’s schedule: at Kentucky (Wednesday); Ole Miss (Saturday)
Coach: Frank Haith (65-17 at Missouri; 194-118 overall)
Through 13 games: Missouri is a botched final possession away from being 13-0. The Tigers have won five games against top 100 RPI teams while playing most of the time with a five-guard lineup. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson has given the Tigers a far better scoring option than point guard predecessor Phil Pressey. As long as Missouri can keep the game on the perimeter it’s got a chance to do very well. The Tigers are very vulnerable on the inside, however.
Key stats: For a team that depends on a helter-skelter approach and is so perimeter oriented, it’s a bit surprising that Missouri has a negative (-2.2) turnover margin.
Scoring leaders: Jordan Clarkson (19.3); Jabari Brown (18.4)
Rebounding leaders: Johnathan Williams (7.6); Earnest Ross (6.5)
Best freshman: Johnathan Williams (6.8 points, 7.6 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 105
Quality wins: Hawaii (#80 RPI); West Virginia (86); UCLA (42); North Carolina State (97); Long Beach State (100)
Bad losses: None
This week’s schedule: Georgia (Wednesday); at Auburn (Saturday)
OLE MISS (9-4)
Coach: Andy Kennedy (161-91 at Ole Miss; 181-104 overall)
Through 13 games: The Rebels lost their final non-conference game to Dayton on a 25-foot banked 3-ball with 0.3 left, a game in which the flaw in the Ole Miss game was exposed. Dayton took away the 3-ball and dared the Rebels to beat them inside. That’s one of the reasons Andy Kennedy has moved freshman Sebastian Saiz into the starting lineup in an attempt to get more scoring on the inside.
Key stats: Ole Miss is getting only 19 points a game out of its three-man post rotation of Saiz, Demarco Cox and Aaron Jones.
Scoring leaders: Marshall Henderson (18.8); Jarvis Summers (17.8)
Rebounding leaders: Aaron Jones (6.8); Sebastian Saiz (6.5)
Best freshman: Sebastian Saiz (4.8 points, 6.5 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 86
Quality wins: Penn State (#99 RPI); Louisiana-Monroe (91)
Bad losses: Kansas State (#110 RPI)
This week’s schedule: Auburn (Thursday); at Mississippi State (Saturday)
SOUTH CAROLINA (7-6)
Coach: Frank Martin (21-24 at South Carolina; 138-78 overall)
Through 13 games: Football season is over but South Carolina won’t have Bruce Ellington as he has declared for the NFL Draft. His place in the starting lineup has been taken by freshman Duane Notice, who has picked up his game considerably. Frank Martin prefers to bring leading scorer and assist man Tyrone Johnson off the bench for instant offense.
Key stats: Brenton Williams is 30-30 from the foul line this season and has extended his school record streak of consecutive free throws to 47, the longest current streak in the SEC. Williams is averaging a career-best 11.2 points per game.
Leading scorers: Tyrone Johnson (11.7); Brenton Williams (11.2)
Leading rebounders: Mindaugus Kacinas (5.8); Demetrius Henry (5.2)
Best freshman: Sindarius Thornwell (10.8 points, 3.5 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 37
Quality wins: St. Mary’s (#34 RPI)
Bad losses: Clemson (#102 RPI); South Carolina-Upstate (151)
Non-conference games remaining: South Carolina State (#309 RPI)
Coach: Cuonzo Martin (48-32 at Tennessee; 109-73 overall)
Through 13 games: The Vols enter conference play on a three-game winning streak that has been helped by improved play from point guard Antonio Barton, who has hit 7-11 on 3-pointers in the last two games. The point is still a concern, however, as the Vols get only 4.7 assists per game from Barton and Darius Thompson, who split time at the position.
Key stats: The Vols are fourth nationally in fewest turnovers (9.2 per game).
Leading scorers: Jordan McRae (18.9); Jarnell Stokes (13.8)
Leading rebounders: Jarnell Stokes (9.2); Jeronne Maymon (8.2)
Best freshman: Robert Hubbs (5.0 points, 1.5 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 27
Quality wins: Xavier (#27 RPI); Wake Forest (66); Virginia (38)
Bad losses: UTEP (#139 RPI)
This week’s schedule: at LSU (Tuesday); Texas A&M (Saturday)
TEXAS A&M (9-4)
Coach: Billy Kennedy (41-37 at Texas A&M; 252-216 overall)
Through 13 games: The Aggies are dead last in the SEC in 3-point shooting (29.9%) and next to last in shooting percentage overall (45.4%). Add in the fact that they’re pretty average (67.6%) from the foul line and it’s not difficult to understand why this team has problems scoring the basketball.
Key stats: The Aggies are 9-1 at home this season and 117-12 all-time at Reed Arena. Texas A&M opens the SEC season at home with Arkansas.
Leading scorers: Kourtney Roberson (11.0); Jamal Jones (9.7)
Leading rebounders: Kourtney Roberson (8.0); Antwan Space (5.3)
Best freshman: Shawn Smith (5.4 points, 3.4 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 242
Quality wins: None
Bad losses: North Texas (#171 RPI)
This week’s schedule: Arkansas (Wednesday); at Tennessee (Saturday)
Coach: Kevin Stallings (285-180 at Vanderbilt; 408-243 overall)
Through 12 games: Vanderbilt hopes the emergence of Damian Jones as an inside scorer will open things up for an offense that has had its share of scoring problems. Vanderbilt only averages 70.8 points per game and part of the problem – besides very little inside scoring – is leaving points on the floor. Vanderbilt is the worst free throw shooting team in the league at 63%.
Key stats: Leading scorer Eric McClellan (14.3 per game) continues to struggle from the outside where he’s hitting only 18.2%.
Leading scorers: Eric McClellan (14.3); Rod Odom (13.3)
Leading rebounders: Rod Odom (5.8); James Siakam (4.8)
Best freshman: Damian Jones (10.3 points, 4.4 rebounds)
Strength of schedule: 108
Quality wins: None
Bad losses: None
This week’s schedule: at Alabama (Tuesday); Kentucky (Saturday)