SEC preview: Ranking the Cats’ conference foes

By Les Johns | @KernelJohns

ljohns@kykernel.com

This is the most important conference schedule in the Calipari era for the Cats. They have expectedly trampled inferior competition en route to their current 9-4 record, but have dropped four of the five contests against quality teams.

Although the Cats can tout a close road loss to highly-ranked Louisville and a narrow neutral-court loss to top-ranked Duke, they have little on their resume to acquire a coveted seed come tournament time.

The good news for the Cats is that the SEC is down this year, but the bad news for the Cats is that the SEC is down this year.

They should be able to rack up the wins, but very few of them will be considered “quality” wins by the selection committee. Potential wins against Missouri, Florida and possibly even Ole Miss would help seeding, but a loss against practically any other team would be devastating.

There is very little room for error, and regardless of how tough it is to win league games on the road, the committee is not likely to look favorably on a loss on the road to a team like Georgia or Auburn this year.

Taking the Cats out of the equation, here is how the rest of the SEC shapes up:

1. Florida (10-2)

Best win: Defeated Wisconsin 74-56

Worst loss: Loss to condensation on the playing surface of the USS Bataan at the Mayport Naval Station in season-opening game against now No. 19 Georgetown. The Gators led 27-23 at halftime of the game that was cancelled due to the unsafe playing conditions.

Outlook: The Gators return a talented, experienced and dangerous squad coming off their Elite Eight finish last year. They have four starters averaging in double-figures, led by senior guard Kenny Boyton.

One of Florida’s losses came in a late-game collapse at current No. 3 Arizona. The Gators lost a six-point lead in the final minute to come away from the tough road environment empty-handed.

The Cats will face the Gators twice, including a regular season-ending matchup March 9 at Rupp Arena. If either team were to sweep the two meetings, they would be in the driver’s seat for the conference title.

2. Missouri (12-2)

Best win: Defeated Virginia Commonwealth 68-65 in the Battle 4 Atlantis third-place game.

Worst loss: Lost to Louisville 84-61 in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament final semifinal, with the Cards in complete control the entire second half.

Outlook: Missouri’s first year competing in the SEC could find them contending for a title.

The Tigers feature one of the more dynamic guards in the country, junior Phil Pressey, who averages 13.8 points and 7.1 assists per game.

He has a pair of experienced big men to throw it to inside in redshirt forward Laurence Bowers, who leads the team is scoring at 16.8 points per game, and highly coveted UConn transfer senior Alex Oriakhi. Together, they lead the Tigers to an astounding +13 rebounding margin per game.

The Cats play the Tigers just once, scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 23 when ESPN GameDay comes to Lexington. Conversely, Missouri and Florida play each other twice, which could benefit the Cats in the conference regular season race.

3. Ole Miss (11-2)

Best win: Defeated Rutgers 80-67. Not many signature wins, but Ole Miss has beaten the teams they were supposed to.

Worst loss: Turned the ball over 18 times in a 65-62 loss at Middle Tennessee.

Outlook: As the conference schedule begins, Ole Miss is the SEC’s best shot at a fourth NCAA tourney bid. They have no embarrassing losses and are in the 20s or 30s in most computer RPI rankings.

Ole Miss plays a tough, physical brand of basketball built around defensive intensity. The Rebels force 18 turnovers, block six shots and allow just 64 points a game.

4. Arkansas (9-4)

Best win: Defeated Oklahoma 81-78.

Worst loss: Lost to Arizona State 83-68 in the Las Vegas Invitational semifinals.

Outlook: Mike Anderson’s team will score the ball and defend full-court, with the Arkansas trademark “40 Minutes of Hell” defense. All four Razorback losses come at the hands of BCS conference schools (Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan). Arkansas was just one point behind at No. 2 Michigan with nine minutes to go in early December. This is a dangerous team that could make an impact in the league. The Jan. 19 game at Ole Miss will tell us a lot about both teams and could have NCAA tournament implications.

5. South Carolina (10-3)

Best win: No standout wins, but is on a five-game winning streak

Worst loss: Lost at home 65-53 to Elon, of the Southern Conference.

Outlook: First-year head coach Frank Martin’s team doesn’t shoot the ball well (25 percent 3-point shooting and 54 percent from the free-throw line), but they defend and rebound well. Hard work and intensity helped the Gamecocks win 10 non-conference games, but only one of those teams have a winning record.

6. Texas A&M (10-3)

Best win: Defeated Washington State 55-54 in the consolation game of the CBE Classic.

Worst loss: Lost at home to Southern University from the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Outlook: The Aggies have rolled to 10 wins, but against very little competition. With games against Arkansas and UK, the first week of the Aggies inaugural SEC campaign will show what kind of team they really have. An 0-2 start and a slightly sub-.500 finish would not be a surprise.

7. Alabama (8-6)

Best win: Defeated Villanova 77-55 to win the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden and race to a 4-0 start.

Worst loss: Take your pick. The Tide has lost five of its last seven. Back to back single-digit home court losses to Mercer and Tulane are dreadful, but so is the 73-54 loss at Virginia Commonwealth, Alabama head coach Anthony Grant’s former squad.

Outlook: Alabama is the most surprisingly disappointing SEC team thus far. Led by guards Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey (both shooting more than 40 percent behind the arc), the Tide was expected to be a factor.

8. Tennessee (8-4)

Best win: Defeated UMass 83-69 in the third-place game of the Puerto Rico Tipoff Tournament.

Worst loss: none

While losses to Oklahoma State (62-45), Georgetown (37-36), Virginia (46-38) and Memphis are all respectable, the Vols inability to score at times isn’t. The Vols have won five of their last six games, but the announcement this week that talented senior forward Jeronne Maymon will miss the rest of the season due to his knee injury likely assures an SEC losing record.

9. LSU (9-2)

Best win: Defeated Seton Hall 72-67 as part of the SEC-Big East Challenge.

Worst loss: The Tigers were blown out 89-70 at Boise State.

Outlook: Recent wins over McNeese State, Bethune-Cookman and Houston Baptist haven’t convinced me that LSU will be a factor in the SEC race. A better test will take place when they travel to Gainesville to face the Gators Saturday (4 p.m. on ESPNU).

10. Georgia (6-7)

Best win: Defeated a 4-7 Southern Cal team at home 64-56 in late December.

Worst loss: Hosted Iona and lost in overtime 81-78.

Outlook: Georgia is the anti-LSU. They have played multiple games against power-conference teams, including Indiana and UCLA, but just haven’t put together any quality wins.

11. Auburn (6-7)

Best win: Hosted and defeated Florida State 78-72 on January 2.

Worst loss: Lost to Winthrop 74-67 in late December.

Outlook: Led by senior guard Frankie Sullivan, who scores 17.8 points per game, the Tigers have shown they can beat just about anyone and lose to just about anyone. Before beating Florida State, the Tigers went on the road and lost to No. 12 Illinois by just two points 81-79.

12. Vanderbilt (6-6)

Best win: No notable wins on the season.

Worst loss: Lost 50-33 to Marist (now 4-11) in a consolation round of the Old Spice Classic Tournament.

This is a rebuilding year for the defending SEC Tournament Champions, and they will struggle to gather wins. “Memorial Magic” will only take this team so far.

13. Mississippi State (5-7)

Best win: No notable wins on the season.

Worst loss: A home loss to Alabama A&M 59-57 in late December.

First-year head coach Rick Ray is playing with just seven scholarship players. A last-place regular-season SEC finish looks assured.