My latest attempt to rank the SEC …
1. Florida. The Gators are still No. 1 even after the loss to Missouri. Will Yeguete will boost Billy Donovan’s depth. And Erik Murphy -- assuming he’s healthy after tweaking an ankle in that game -- should be better (3-for-11) in upcoming games. Yes, Florida’s national reputation has taken a hit. In the SEC? The Gators are still kings of this up-and-down conference.
2. Missouri. You can’t beat Missouri … at home. That’s the program’s mantra, I guess. Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss have all lost in Columbia this season. The Tigers, however, are not the best team in the SEC because of losses to Texas A&M and LSU, and they’ve been crushed by Florida and Ole Miss off campus. Topping Florida was a good win for the Tigers. Let’s see how they handle three of their last five games on the road.
3. Alabama. Anthony Grant’s program has compiled a four-game winning streak. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in a two-bid conference -- three if the stars align -- such as the SEC. The Crimson Tide have defeated LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State during this run. But the Tide won’t look like a serious at-large threat unless they beat Florida in Gainesville on March 2. Tough defense (55.8 points per game allowed in conference play, second in the SEC) raises Alabama’s chances of finishing strong.
4. Tennessee. I believe in Tennessee. The Vols are on a four-game winning streak and they’ve won six of their past eight. And while their 30-point weekend victory over Kentucky probably said more about the Wildcats than about the Vols, it’s a sign that they’re growing. But the latter could surge down the stretch and into the SEC tournament, where I’m convinced anything could happen. Jarnell Stokes is playing big (eight double-doubles in the past 10 games) for a Tennessee team with four very winnable games in its last five SEC outings of 2012-13.
5. Arkansas. The Razorbacks are just 1-5 in SEC road games. But they’re 6-0 at Bud Walton Arena. Missouri and Florida have both lost to Arkansas in Fayetteville. Mike Anderson’s squad has won four of those home games by double digits. Don’t try to decipher this. It doesn’t make much sense. The bad news for the Razorbacks is that three of their last five games are on the road.
6. Ole Miss. The pressure is building at Ole Miss. Andy Kennedy’s program won its first six SEC games. The college basketball world latched onto its newest enigma: Marshall Henderson (19.3 PPG). And then a funny thing happened: We realized the Rebels couldn’t stop anyone. The first serious defensive challenge was apparent when they gave up 79 points to Vandy on Jan. 15. Now that the Rebels have lost five of their past seven and nearly played themselves off the bubble, it’s clear that their lukewarm D is not even sufficient in the SEC. They’re averaging 71.5 PPG (first in the SEC) and allowing 71.3 PPG (13th). That’s a problem.
7. Kentucky. It’s possible that the Wildcats’ 30-point loss to Tennessee on Saturday was the product of a struggling young team mourning the loss of its best player, Nerlens Noel. This youthful squad wasn’t that tough prior to Noel’s season-ending knee injury. And they certainly seemed absent against the Vols. But Kentucky shouldn’t expect any sympathy from the selection committee. The Wildcats didn’t play like a tourney team with Noel, so will his injury really affect their perspective? The bottom line is that the Wildcats have five regular-season games and the SEC tournament to prove they’re worthy.
8-10. LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia. Take your pick from this bunch (each has a 6-7 conference record). They do, however, possess three of the most exciting and unpredictable players in the league: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Georgia), Elston Turner (Texas A&M) and Johnny O’Bryant III (LSU).
11. Vanderbilt. Tough times in Nashville. But top scorer Kedren Johnson is just a sophomore. And four-star prospect Damian Jones will arrive in time for 2013-14. And if any SEC coach deserves a mulligan, it’s Kevin Stallings.
12-13. South Carolina and Auburn. Frank Martin and Tony Barbee have two challenging rebuilding jobs on their plates.
14. Mississippi State. Just when you thought it couldn't get much worse in Rick Ray’s first season, Roquez Johnson got suspended for a violation of team rules. That loss leaves Ray’s program with just five scholarship players.