My latest attempt to rank the SEC ...
1. Florida. Still No. 1 to me. I’m not going to drop the Gators for a loss to a hungry Tennessee team this week. Billy Donovan’s squad was short-handed. But Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II will be available for Saturday’s matchup against Alabama. The Gators have followed the trend within the SEC and nationally by struggling on the road. Every squad on this list, however, has encountered the same off-campus struggles. But no team in this conference possesses Florida’s talent, skills and résumé.
2. Missouri. Frank Haith’s program has improved. The Tigers are finally fulfilling their potential. Perhaps it took three, four months for this group to achieve the chemistry necessary to make it happen. Injuries to Keion Bell and Laurence Bowers did not help. But they’re jelling now. Sure, it’s just a win over South Carolina but the Tigers topped 80 points in their second consecutive road game with that 90-68 victory Thursday night. Also, Phil Pressey did not attempt a field goal in the game, but he finished with nine assists. His recent performances prove he realizes Mizzou needs him to be a better distributor.
3. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin is cooking something in Knoxville. The Vols are sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble after six consecutive wins, a streak that includes victories over Kentucky and Florida. Tuesday night’s win over the Gators was crucial for Martin’s squad. The Vols have certainly dealt with a variety of obstacles this year. Jeronne Maymon has been sidelined all year with a knee injury. The Vols lost four of their first five SEC games. But they’re playing great basketball right now. Jarnell Stokes is more assertive now. Trae Golden is leading. Jordan McRae is balling. This could be a very dangerous squad if it cracks the field in the NCAA tournament.
4. Kentucky. Kudos to John Calipari’s team. It’s not easy for a veteran squad to move forward after losing its best player. This crew is making a push with freshmen. The Wildcats have won three of four without star Nerlens Noel. The 30-point loss they suffered at Tennessee in their first full game without the freshman standout projected trouble for the young crew. But the Wildcats are fighting for an at-large bid. Alex Poythress is a matchup problem for any team in America when he wants to be. And his recent efforts prove he recognizes his significance to this team’s postseason, especially with Noel sidelined. He scored 16 points in Wednesday’s 85-55 victory at Mississippi State, and he dropped 21 points in Saturday’s 90-83 overtime win against Missouri.
5. Alabama. Bama has won four of its past five games. But the Crimson Tide didn’t achieve that success against the league’s best -- and the Tide suffered a triple-overtime road loss to LSU over the weekend. Their next two matchups, road games against Florida and Ole Miss, however, will give Anthony Grant’s team a chance to prove it’s a top-tier team in this league and one that should be feared in the conference tournament. Trevor Releford can lead Bama in this final stretch, but he’ll need other scorers to step up consistently to avoid a late collapse (61.7 PPG in SEC play, ninth in the league).
6. LSU. Johnny Jones' squad has won four of five. The Tigers are not in the NCAA tournament conversation. But if you’re looking for a team that could rally in the SEC tournament, check out the Tigers. They play fast (41st in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy). They defend the 3-point line (SEC squads are shooting just 28.9 percent from the arc against the Tigers). And sophomore Johnny O’Bryant III (13.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG) is a young star.
7. Arkansas. It’s the same story with the Razorbacks. They can contend with America’s best when they’re home. The road is a completely different tale for this squad. They’ve secured double-digit home wins against Tennessee and Florida. They have a win over Missouri, too. They’ve lost to South Carolina and Vandy on the road. The Razorbacks would be in the mix for the conference title if they had avoided those road losses to subpar SEC squads.
8. Ole Miss. It’s getting hot for Andy Kennedy and his program. The Rebels have tumbled in the standings after losing five of their past nine games. The good news? They’ve actually won three of four and they can win the last three SEC games on their slate. The bad news? Their at-large hopes have been jeopardized by their recent fall. They’re the league’s best offensive team (75.9 PPG) and one of its worst defensive squads (70.3 PPG allowed). That’s a formula for chaos.
9. and 10. Texas A&M/Vandy. Both are 6-9 in the SEC, and that’s surprising for different reasons. Texas A&M has wins over Kentucky and Missouri but the Aggies have had far more lows than highs. Kevin Stallings’ young squad has won four of its past six games. That’s a finish that his program can build on for next season.
11. Georgia. Mark Fox’s program had amassed momentum during a five-game winning streak. Since then? The Bulldogs have lost four of their past five.
12.-14. South Carolina/Mississippi State/Auburn. It’s difficult to separate these three teams. The good news for all three? It’s March. This will end soon.