SEC men’s basketball preview

The first two months of non-conference play have not been kind to Southeastern Conference teams.

After a slew of upsets and underwhelming performances, the league holds just two spots between the USA Today Coaches Poll and The Associated Press rankings in the first week of January.

Before the season began, the SEC garnered attention for potentially being one of the deepest conferences in the nation. Kentucky coach John Calipari went as far as saying half of the league’s 14 teams would make the NCAA Tournament this year.

Since the Big Dance expanded to a field of 64 in 1985, the SEC has never sent more than six teams to the postseason.

That streak looks to continue this year.

While annual contenders such as Kentucky and Florida have lost their share of marquee games against top-25 opponents, the real damage to the SEC’s image has come from the upstart squads that were supposed to raise the conference’s overall profile.

Nine SEC teams have already dropped games to mid-major programs outside of the traditional power conferences. By the end of December the league held the eighth worst RPI among all conferences, according to

Worst of all, the SEC was winless in the league’s first 11 games this season against teams currently ranked in the top 25. Missouri broke that streak, however, with its 82-73 win against 10th-ranked Illinois on Dec. 22.

Though, clearly, this may not be the banner year many prognosticators expected for the SEC, there is still time for some of the conference’s upper echelon teams to establish themselves in league play.

At the midway point of this season, several consistent squads have already separated their quality from the rest of the pack.

Here’s how Gator Country ranks the SEC’s top non-conference performers heading into league play:

1 — Florida (9-2)
Good non-conference wins: Wisconsin, Marquette, at Florida State
Bad losses: None
SEC opener: Jan. 9 vs. Georgia

The Gators are one of the mid-season favorites to win the SEC with a surprisingly stingy defense that allows 49.6 points per game and an experienced group of returning starters. Florida has risen as high as No. 5 in the polls by winning its first seven games by an average of 25.3 points, including victories against Wisconsin and Marquette. While the Gators’ lineup has at times been in flux due to injuries and the early suspension of point guard Scottie Wilbekin, Florida has rarely missed a beat with versatile contributions from Erik Murphy and Will Yeguete. The Gators, however, hit a rough patch recently with consecutive road losses to Kansas State and Arizona.

2 — Missouri (10-2)
Good wins: VCU, Illinois
Bad losses: None
SEC opener: Jan. 8 vs. Alabama

A newcomer to the league, Missouri is expected to also contend for an SEC title behind coach Frank Haith’s high-powered attack. After losing eight players from last year’s team, the Tigers have rallied around senior forward Laurence Bowers and junior guard Phil Pressey. Bowers, who redshirted last season with an injury, has gotten off to a stellar start to his final season at Missouri by averaging a team-high 16.3 points per game. While the Tigers got off to an 8-1 start to the year, they only played one true non-conference road game. In a neutral site game against second-ranked Louisville on Nov. 23, Missouri turned the ball over 23 times in an 84-61 loss to the Cardinals.

3 — Kentucky (8-4)
Good wins: Maryland
Bad losses: none
SEC opener: Jan. 10 at Vanderbilt

As the defending national champions, Kentucky might have reloaded with freshmen talent this season, but the Wildcats are still learning how to play as a team. For the first time in Calipari’s four seasons with the team, Kentucky slipped out of the top-25 rankings with back-to-back losses to unranked Notre Dame and Baylor squads. The 7-foot tandem of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein has been effective defensively, but the backcourt is very much a work in progress for the Wildcats. This team may be scary in March as it continues to progress but will continue to take its occasional lumps in SEC play.

4 — LSU (8-2)
Good wins: Seton Hall
Bad losses: None
SEC opener: Jan. 9 at Auburn

One of the surprise teams to start the season, LSU ran out to a 6-0 record before losing its first game to a surging Boise State squad on the road. Still, the Tigers look like a team ready to overachieve this year behind new coach Johnny Jones. Though LSU has benefitted from an easy non-conference slate, the young squad impressively ranked among the nation’s top 50 teams in points, rebounds and assists averages in late December.

5 — Ole Miss (10-2)
Good wins: None
Bad losses: Indiana State
SEC opener: Jan. 9 at Tennessee

Rebels coach Andy Kennedy believes this is his most talented squad he’s had at Mississippi after narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament last year. Ole Miss was just one of four SEC teams to jump out to an 8-1 start to this season. Though the Rebels scored a home win against a Big East team in Rutgers, that victory holds less merit following the Scarlet Knights’ loss to the MAAC’s St. Peter’s College.

6 — Tennessee (8-3)
Good wins: Wichita State
Bad losses: None
SEC opener: Jan. 9 vs. Ole Miss

The Volunteers closed last season on a tear, but that momentum has seemingly not carried over into this year. Tennessee lost all three of its major non-conference games to No. 24 Oklahoma State, No. 20 Georgetown and Virginia. With one of the more anemic offenses in the country at 64.1 points per game, the Volunteers have already been held under 50 points twice this season.

7 — Arkansas (8-4)
Good wins: Oklahoma
Bad losses: None
SEC opener: Jan. 9 at Texas A&M

While their 5-4 record may not reflect it, the Razorbacks will be one of the SEC’s most battle-tested teams this season. Arkansas loaded up its schedule with brutal non-conference clashes against No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Syracuse, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Arizona State. Though the Razorbacks only emerged from that slate with one marquee win against the Sooners, Arkansas was competitive in each matchup with its 82.1 points per game average — the eighth highest in the nation. Behind sophomore B.J. Young’s 16.4 points per game, Arkansas will greatly benefit from entering its weaker SEC schedule.

8 — South Carolina (9-3)
Good wins: None
Bad losses: Elon
SEC opener: Jan. 9 at Mississippi State

Following the departure of coach Darrin Horn, the Gamecocks were gutted in the offseason by transfers. With newly hired coach Frank Martin at the helm to pick up the pieces of a 10-21 season, South Carolina has expectedly gotten off to a three-loss start. Early in their schedule, the Gamecocks needed overtime to down Milwaukee and Missouri State.

9 — Texas A&M (9-3)
Good wins: None
Bad losses: *St. Louis, Southern
SEC opener: Jan. 9 vs. Arkansas

The Aggies lack size in the post and it has shown against a soft non-conference schedule. Texas A&M was outrebounded in four of its first eight games with losses to St. Louis and Oklahoma coming in that stretch. As another team making the transition from the Big 12, the Aggies will need tougher play inside if they want to maintain a winning record after two consecutive losing seasons.

*St. Louis — an NCAA Tournament team last year — is a quality opponent but still registers as a bad loss due to the margin of victory Texas A&M allowed in its 70-49 home loss to the Billikens.

10 — Alabama (7-5)
Good wins: Villanova
Bad losses: Dayton, Mercer, Tulane
SEC opener: Jan. 8 at Missouri

After a 6-0 start to their season, the Crimson Tide hit a three-game skid in December featuring losses to No. 17 Cincinnati, Dayton and VCU. Heading into the year, Alabama looked to be on the right track and in contention for a second straight NCAA Tournament berth under coach Anthony Grant. Though veterans Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey are making their expected impacts, 6-foot-8 freshman Devonta Pollard — a McDonald’s All-American — has struggled out of the gate averaging just 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.

11 — Vanderbilt (5-6)
Good wins: Xavier
Bad losses: Davidson, Marist
SEC opener: Jan. 10 vs. Kentucky

The Commodores were one of the teams hardest hit by graduation and NBA this offseason. Vanderbilt lost eight players — including all five starters — from last year’s SEC Tournament winning team and it has shown in the early going. The Commodores owned a 5-4 record through their first nine games, sporting losses from Davidson and Marist. This year will prove to be one of Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings’ toughest rebuilding projects in his career.

12 — Auburn (5-7)
Good wins: None
Bad losses: Dayton, Rhode Island, Winthrop
SEC opener: Jan. 12 at South Carolina

Bolstered by the return of previously academically ineligible guard Chris Denson, the Tigers reeled off three straight wins in December after a 2-5 start. Last season, Denson was Auburn’s second-leading scorer, so losing his contributions obviously hurt. Pairing with senior guard Frankie Sullivan, Denson is averaging 16.7 points per game leads a Tigers team trying to build momentum heading into their SEC season.

13 — Georgia (5-7)
Good wins: None
Bad losses: Youngstown State, Iona, Southern Mississippi
SEC opener: Jan. 9 at Florida

Through their first 10 games, the Bulldogs have been a disaster. At 3-7, Georgia is off to its worst start since 1970 and has little end in sight after embarrassing losses to Youngstown State, Iona and Southern Mississippi. At 17.4 points per game, sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the only weapon for a team that made its living last year on defense.

14 — Mississippi State (4-7)
Good wins: None
Bad losses: Troy, Loyola, Alabama A&M
SEC opener: Jan. 9 vs. South Carolina

Another in a long list of SEC teams with new coaches, Mississippi State has lived up to its preseason expectations as possibly the worst team in the league. Off to a 3-6 start under coach Rick Ray, the Bulldogs have just five players who have been active for all nine of the team’s games. To make matters worse, MSU averages 58.2 points per game with only 8.9 assists.

Florida’s SEC schedule
Wed, Jan. 9 — Georgia, 7 p.m. (, CSS)
Sat, Jan. 12 — at LSU, 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
Thu, Jan. 17 — at Texas A&M, 7 p.m. (, ESPN or ESPN2)
Sat, Jan. 19 — Missouri, 2 p.m. (, ESPN)
Wed, Jan. 23 — at Georgia, 8 p.m. (, SEC Network)
Sat, Jan. 26 — at Mississippi State, 8 p.m. (, ESPN2)
Wed, Jan. 30 — South Carolina, 8 p.m. (, SEC Network)
Sat, Feb. 2 — Ole Miss, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Tue, Feb. 5 — at Arkansas, 7 p.m. (, ESPN)
Sat, Feb. 9 — Mississippi State, 5 p.m. (, FSN)
Tue, Feb 12 — Kentucky, 7 p.m. (, ESPN)
Sat, Feb. 16 — at Auburn, 1:30 p.m. (, SEC Network)
Tue, Feb. 19 — at Missouri, 9 p.m. (, ESPN)
Sat, Feb. 23 — Arkansas, 7 p.m. (ESPNU, GRN)
Tue, Feb. 26 — at Tennessee, 9 p.m. (, ESPN)
Sat, March 2 — Alabama, 12 p.m. (, ESPN or ESPN2)
Wed, March 6 — Vanderbilt, 8 p.m. (, SEC Network)
Sat, March 9 — at Kentucky, 12 p.m. (CBS)
March 13–17 — SEC Tournament

This article first appeared in Gator Country’s January issue.

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john boothe
John is a former editor and sportswriter with The Independent Florida Alligator and is a recent graduate of the UF College of Journalism and Communications. Over the last three years, he has also written articles for the Ocala Star-Banner and the Gainesville Sun while covering Florida Gators basketball, soccer, women’s lacrosse and local high school sports. A proud native of Ocala, Fla., John likes to fish the Withlacoochee Bay for trout and redfish and listen to bluegrass in his spare time.