Conference season is finally here folks! After what was a bit of an up-and-down start to the season the appetizers and salad plates are over and it’s time to get into the meat of the Gator’s schedule. Offering lots of opportunities for big wins and lots of challenges that could contribute to the loss column the SEC is one of the best leagues in the nation and every game is going to be a must-watch affair. Whether you’re just putting your full attention on Gator hoops after the football team finished up their season dismantling Michigan or you’re just someone who couldn’t justify tuning in to Texas A&M taking on Savannah State I thought I’d give you a quick rundown of every SEC team entering league play.
I’ve ordered the teams by who the Gators see first starting with the Gamecocks who the Gators play on January 5th. This will be part one of a two-part series.
Frank Martin hasn’t been able to cash in on the success of a Final Four two seasons ago and this year’s Gamecocks have already taken some devastating losses to Stony Brook and Wofford while also getting blown out by 20 at the hands of Wofford. They did play a good Michigan team tough but right now their best win is against Coastal Carolina as they are 5-7 and are desperately looking for an identity. They haven’t been able to defend with the level of intensity we’re used to seeing from Coach Martin teams while their offense is 191st in the country so all in all, they are badly struggling. AJ Lawson, their top rated freshman this season, has been leading the way offensively with 13.8 points per game but it would take a superhuman effort for any one player to will this team to many victories.
I like how this Razorbacks team is competing and am a big fan of some of their pieces but don’t be fooled by their 9-3 record as they have had quite a few cupcakes on their non-conference slate. While a slim 1-point win over Indiana looks nice on the resume that toss-up game that bounced their way doesn’t cover up the fact that their next best win is a 3-point victory over the 123rd ranked KenPom team in Texas State while they’ve already taken losses to Western Kentucky and a Georgia Tech squad that could be one of the worst power conference teams this year. I am a massive fan of Daniel Gafford (17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 blocks per game) but have been most surprised by an electric freshman named Isaiah Joe who has exploded onto the scene with 15.8 points per game. He is extremely potent offensively with a deadly stroke and at 6’5” at the guard spot he’s a tough cover.
Currently the favorite to win the SEC by pretty much anyone outside of Lexington the Volunteers are dominating quality competition so far this season with their only loss being a narrow overtime defeat to Kansas. When it comes to Tennessee you have to start with Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, the physical pair of forwards that gets it done and sets the tone on both sides of the floor. Williams (20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4 assists) gets the slight edge in production but Schofield isn’t far behind (18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists) and together they are a matchup problem that most teams in the country aren’t ready to handle. Both are extremely physical and willing to impose their will on the inside, but both also happen to be 41%-plus 3-point shooters that can get it done on the perimeter as well. Though both get a lot of the attention when it comes to Tennessee basketball talk (and for good reason) you can’t forget about how well their role pieces have been playing. Center Kyle Alexander anchors their defense and has added a smooth perimeter jump shot this year and Yves Pons is an NBA-level athlete that does freakish things on the court not many in college hoops could replicate. Jordan Bone might have the quietest 14.3 points per game in the country playing behind Williams and Schofield while Jordan Bowden perfectly plays into the system coach Rick Barnes has put in place and is the perfect cog in the machine that could be on it’s way to a Final Four or better. This is a really, really good basketball team that the Gators will have to play twice (at least) this season and a win or two against them would be fantastic on their resume.
Don’t look now but the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team that has struggled for basketball relevancy the last few years, is now one of the best teams in the SEC and is looking towards a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. Lead by tremendous point guard play from Lamar Peters (13.2 points, 6.2 assists) the Bulldogs are 12-1 with a fistful of quality wins over Saint Mary’s, Clemson, Dayton, Cincinatti, Wofford, and others. Coach Ben Howland’s teams have always been known for defense but this season has been different as the Bulldogs have scored the ball at will ranking 18th in offense while being efficient at both driving the basketball and hitting 3-point shots. Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Aric Holman, Tyson Carter, and Nick Weatherspoon are all double digit scorers who have all been doing it on excellent efficiency and it shows how balanced this team is at scoring the ball. Opponents are going to have to find a way to slow down this balanced attack and that is going to be an issue for any team without tremendous depth. Mississippi State is going to surprise a lot of people that haven’t been following their non-conference success so be in the know and expect the Bulldogs to be one of the top teams in the SEC.
A new era has begun in Athens with coach Tom Crean taking over and it’s had a decent start with the Bulldogs going 8-4 in out of conference play, even though it’s been a nice, gentle schedule. After taking a year off following getting fired at Indiana it doesn’t look like Coach Crean is spending any time getting his rhythm back as he’s got a talent-depleted roster fighting hard every night and maximizing the skill they have. Even after losing All-SEC center Yante Maten the frontcourt is still the strength of this basketball team with Rayshaun Hammonds leading the way with 15.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while Nicolas Claxton has been a menace down low with 13.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks per game. Derek Ogbeide (a player that bullied the Gators last year) only has 9.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game but his impact doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet. The physical brand of basketball Georgia plays is perfectly on-brand for the SEC and will grind down some teams and result in some well-earned wins. Right now the biggest issue for Georgia is that they just don’t have much playmaking. Nicolas Claxton, who I’ll remind you is their center, leads the team in assists with 2.5. Part of that is due to the fact Georgia really does share the ball well but part of it is also that they don’t have a go-to player that can make things happen when they really need a basket. I think Coach Crean was a great hire for the Bulldogs and he should have them humming in no time but in season one this is a team that will take some lumps.
We are seeing a complete 180 in terms of how the Aggies play basketball this season. Last year’s team played extremely big with 6’10” Tyler Davis, 6’10” Robert Williams, 6’10” Tonny Trocha-Morelos, and 6’9” DJ Hogg (usually with three of those players on the floor at all times) but with all them gone they now play a much smaller lineup and don’t look at all like what we’ve seen the last couple years. They still have some stout bodies in 6’8”, 240 Christian Mekowulu and 6’9”, 245 Josh Nebo but generally speaking you aren’t going to see the same bully-ball out of the Aggies that you might be used to seeing. Instead they play a whole lot through speedy guard TJ Starks who has been their leading scorer with 13.5 points per game while chipping in 4.0 assists. Shooting has been a major issue for the Aggie attack as they are 320th in the country at 29.1% from three (and you thought the Gators could get cold!) and those struggles have let opponents really pack the paint without worry of getting punished. Florida has had some success against the big-boy play of Texas A&M the last few seasons so it will be interesting to see how they do against this smaller iteration.
That’s the first half of the league! Check back tomorrow when I’ll have a rundown of the other 7 teams.