Well, here we go again. My latest attempt to rank SEC teams. Enjoy. Or cry. Either would be appropriate with this conference right now.
Missouri. The Tigers secured the No. 1 spot with their 82-73 win over Illinois Saturday in St. Louis. I was impressed by three things in this game: the toughness of Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers; Missouri's ability to overcome Phil Pressey's 3-for-19 slump; and the pressure the Tigers put on Brandon Paul, who scored 23 points on 5-for-18 shooting. Missouri is the king of the league right now after that win.
Kentucky. The Wildcats could move up to No. 1 if they beat Louisville Saturday. That's obviously a difficult proposition for any program. Kentucky has won four consecutive games, albeit against Samford, Portland, Lipscomb and Marshall. But Ryan Harrow (averaging 14.3 points, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals per game in the team's past three matchups) is evolving and that could be the most critical development of the season for John Calipari.
Florida. It feels wrong to put the Gators here. It's not as though they suffered two losses to a pair of bad teams. The biggest surprise, however, was the Gators' inefficiency in the final minutes of those losses to Arizona and Kansas State. And it didn't help that Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario played so poorly. I still think Florida will ultimately win this league but first it has to overcome its recent setbacks.
Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin reportedly will speak with Jeronne Maymon (12.7 points per game, 8.1 rebounds per game) next month about his status for 2012-13. A redshirt is a possibility with his slow-to-heal knee. If he's not ready to go, it will impact Tennessee's ceiling. The Vols beat a nationally ranked Wichita State squad Dec. 21 and followed it up with a pair of wins over two subpar programs (Presbyterian and Western Carolina). But their next five games (Xavier, Memphis, Ole Miss, at Alabama, at Kentucky) will determine if they've exorcised the offensive demons that hurt them in back-to-back losses to Virginia and Georgetown.
Arkansas. The Razorbacks are 7-4 after winning their past three games. They didn't play the likes of Duke, Indiana and Louisville in that run (Alcorn State, Alabama A&M and Robert Morris, actually). But their only bad loss on the year came against Arizona State (Syracuse, Wisconsin and Michigan were their other three defeats). Arkansas is a team that will score a bunch of points -- via BJ Young (16.7 ppg) and Marshawn Powell (16.5 ppg) -- and pray that it gets enough stops along the way to come out on top.
Ole Miss. The Rebels average 82.1 ppg (eighth in the country). But they lost to the only two teams -- Middle Tennessee and Indiana State -- on their nonconference slate with the defensive capability to neutralize their offense. They were 15-for-52 from the 3-point line in those two losses. The 3-point line will be their blessing and curse all year. The Rebels have shot 279 3-pointers through 12 games, No. 1 in the SEC. But they don't have many scoring alternatives when those shots aren't falling.
Alabama. The Crimson Tide have failed to register 60 points in four of their past seven games. Anthony Grant's squad has lost three of its past four. Three of those defeats came against VCU (on the road), Cincinnati (at the buzzer) and Dayton. But Bama will continue to tumble if Grant can't get more consistent offense from players not named Trevor Lacey (13.4 ppg) and Trevor Releford (16.3 ppg).
LSU. Coach Johnny Jones has had the luxury of competing against one of the league's worst nonconference schedules (No. 243 per ESPN.com's RPI ratings). So, he has managed to win seven of his first nine games in Year 1. But the Tigers have lost the only two nonconference games that could potentially boost his team's résumé (89-70 at Boise State Dec. 14, 84-80 at Marquette Saturday). Can Shavon Coleman & Co. compete in the SEC? We won't know until they face the league's known contenders in the coming weeks.
Vanderbilt. Despite their loss to Middle Tennessee Dec. 21, the Commodores' December has been positive simply because they've won three of their past four. They'll face No. 18 Butler in Nashville Saturday. Kevin Stallings' young squad hasn't been a very efficient offensive group (181st in Ken Pomeroy's ratings and its 60.3 ppg are 306th nationally). And they get more than 50 percent of their scoring from two players (Kedren Johnson and Kyle Fuller). They're too limited.
Texas A&M. The Aggies are good representatives of what ails this conference. They just lost to a 5-6 Southern team that was picked to finish sixth in the SWAC by Blue Ribbon. They scored 51 points against the Jaguars, who rallied in the final minutes. Earlier this season, Texas A&M was crushed by St. Louis (70-49) and suffered a double-digit defeat against Oklahoma (64-54). Their wins? Nothing special. And that's the story of this league right now. The SEC as a whole hasn't been competitive in its toughest nonconference matchups, the true barometers of its status entering league play.
South Carolina. The Gamecocks have won three in a row (Jacksonville, Appalachian State and Manhattan), but are averaging 18.8 turnovers per game, No. 1 in the SEC. They're ranked 269th in Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings and 13th overall in the league in scoring defense. Disappointing numbers for any team, but they're even worse considering coach Frank Martin's squad has played the SEC's worst nonconference slate (323rd per ESPN.com's RPI ratings).
Auburn. I think Auburn's true profile is comparable to the other squads in the league's bottom tier. Zero quality wins. Its victories seem to be the product of a soft nonconference schedule, not an influx of talent. But the Tigers have won three of their past four. And that means something in the SEC, regardless of the opposition. Maybe Auburn should be a few slots higher. Perhaps a few other squads should be lower. The bottom line is that the league, after the top four of five squads, is very difficult to gauge right now.
Georgia. Mark Fox has finally racked up a couple of much-needed wins with the Bulldogs. A two-game winning streak (victories over Mercer and USC) is Georgia's first such streak of the season. Yes, they're 4-7. And if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continues to do everything (he leads the team in scoring, rebounding and steals), then they'll probably remain in the basement. He needs as much help as any player in America. But a couple of wins could signal a momentum swing for Georgia.
Mississippi State. Coach Rick Ray's 4-6 Bulldogs have won two of their past three. But that's the most positive stretch of the year for this short-handed squad. Only five players registered more than 20 minutes in Mississippi State's 79-72 win over Central Arkansas on Saturday. That limited depth has been a problem for the Bulldogs all year. Roquez Johnson & Co. can't afford any injuries or foul trouble. And that could be an even greater challenge once SEC play begins.