College Basketball Nation: LSU Tigers

SEC team previews

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
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From Sept. 30 through Oct. 25, Insider will be rolling out its college basketball preview, including breakdowns on every Division I team, projected order of finish for every conference and essays from Insider's hoops experts.

Here are previews for each team in the SEC:

Alabama Crimson Tide Insider
Arkansas Razorbacks Insider
Auburn Tigers Insider
Florida Gators Insider
Georgia Bulldogs Insider
Kentucky Wildcats Insider
LSU Tigers Insider
Mississippi State Bulldogs Insider
Missouri Tigers Insider
Ole Miss Rebels Insider
South Carolina Gamecocks Insider
Tennessee Volunteers Insider
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
Vanderbilt Commodores Insider

3-point shot: Time for optimism

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
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Andy Katz explains why LSU, Baylor and Memphis are each feeling good as the season approaches.

Nonconference schedule analysis: SEC

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
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This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the SEC.

ALABAMA

Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27/29), Wichita State (Dec. 17), at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Xavier (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Tech (Nov. 14), North Florida (Dec. 4), at South Florida (Dec. 7), Charleston Southern (Dec. 14), Robert Morris (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Trevor Releford will have to carry a lot of weight for Anthony Grant’s program this season, even though the Crimson Tide will add a couple of top-100 recruits. His backcourt mate Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State during the offseason. So the turbulence could come early for this program. The NIT Season Tip-Off presents a variety of challenging possibilities. Final Four contender Wichita State will be a handful even though the Shockers travel to Tuscaloosa in mid-December. A road game against Pac-12 contender UCLA in renovated Pauley Pavilion will be difficult for this rebuilding program, too. And the matchups with Oklahoma and Xavier could also be interesting challenges for Bama.

ARKANSAS

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Arkansas could have been an SEC contender, but BJ Young and Marshawn Powell turned pro. Now, the program will rely on a roster that lost 35.1 PPG from last season. The Razorbacks are young and could feel the fire early. But not often. The Razorbacks open the Maui Invitational against Cal. From there, they could play Syracuse, Baylor or Gonzaga. But it’s more likely that they’ll be matched up against Minnesota in the second round and Dayton or Chaminade on the final day of the tournament. There’s really nothing else here. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but the Mustangs probably aren’t ready for the Big Dance yet. Only thing holding up this nonconference schedule are a few unlikely matchups in Hawaii.

AUBURN

Toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 2)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 8), Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: Nicholls State (Nov. 8), Northwestern State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville State (Nov. 19), Murray State (Nov. 23), Tennessee State (Nov. 26), Clemson (Dec. 19), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 30), Florida A&M (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Did a bunch of SEC teams get together and wager on who could assemble the ugliest nonconference schedule? Seems like it. Tony Barbee’s program certainly doesn’t have the worst nonconference slate in the league, but it’s still not great. It’ll be tough to get out of Ames with a win when the Tigers travel to Iowa State in early December and Illinois is rebuilding but John Groce’s team should be tough in his second season. The matchup against Boston College in December will be interesting. Maybe. Auburn is not expected to be a top-half team in the SEC. So perhaps this nonconference arrangement makes sense. To someone.

FLORIDA

Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- This nonconference schedule is a beast. Billy Donovan’s program might be the only legitimate obstacle in Kentucky’s path to the SEC crown and the Gators will face a variety of contenders before they collide with Kentucky and the rest of the league. The Kansas matchup could move Florida into a top-five ranking or higher if it gets the win. And it won’t be much fun to play at UConn, a team that boasts one of the nation’s top backcourts. Josh Pastner reloaded at Memphis. And Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked in another difficult nonconference slate for a national title contender.

GEORGIA

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next toughest: at Colorado (Dec. 28)
The rest: Wofford (Nov. 8), Georgia Tech (Nov. 15), Appalachian State (Nov. 29), Chattanooga (Dec. 2), Lipscomb (Dec. 14), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 19), Western Carolina (Dec. 21), at George Washington (Jan. 3)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Georgia beats Davidson in the opening round of the Charleston Classic, the Bulldogs could move on to face Temple then New Mexico in the championship. But that’s far from a guarantee for a team that lost lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA. The possibility, however, certainly helps. A road game against a Colorado squad that could steal the spotlight from Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 will be a challenge for Mark Fox’s squad in late December. Georgia Tech (Nov. 15) returns most of its top players from last season. Not exactly a gauntlet but enough challenges for a team hoping to stay out of the SEC’s basement.

KENTUCKY

Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC-Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Is there a rating higher than 10? John Calipari is not going to bring his highly touted recruiting class to Division I basketball with an easy introduction. Just the opposite, in fact. If Kentucky gets through this slate, then the Wildcats will more than justify the hype. They’ll face Michigan State, a team that’s certainly in the national title preseason conversation, in Chicago in early November. They play at Chapel Hill in mid-December. And then, the reigning champ, Louisville, comes to Lexington on Dec. 28. Oh, Baylor and Boise State -- who should both be in the preseason top 25 -- will be thirsty for an upset. The only knock against this lineup is that it features only one true road game. Still, good luck, youngsters.

LSU

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: at UMass (Nov. 12)
The rest: Northwestern State (Nov. 16), New Orleans (Nov. 19), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 22), UL-Monroe (Dec. 14), at Texas Tech (Dec. 18), UAB (Dec. 21), McNeese State (Dec. 28), Rhode Island (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In his first season, Johnny Jones went 19-12 with an LSU squad that should be much better this season. Johnny O’Bryant III (15 double-doubles) is back and nationally ranked recruits Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will give the Tigers one of the best frontcourts in the SEC and, possibly, the nation. LSU’s opening slate, however, is only so-so. Too many subpar opponents. The Old Spice Classic, however, could change that. The Tigers could face both Memphis and Oklahoma State if they get past Saint Joseph’s in the opening round. But those matchups aren’t guaranteed. A road game against Atlantic 10 contender UMass in early November is worth mentioning. The rest of the nonconference schedule? Not so much.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Last season, Rick Ray’s program was so depleted by injuries, suspensions and departures that he had to use a graduate assistant in practice. And then, the G.A. tore an ACL. It was an unlucky debut for the rookie head coach. Well, the Bulldogs’ early challenges will be limited in 2013-14. A December meeting with last season’s Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, could be their toughest nonconference game. It’s never easy to steal a win on the road against Utah State and UNLV might be waiting for the Bulldogs -- if they beat South Florida in the first round -- in the Las Vegas Classic. Not breathtaking but that might be the right fit for this program as it prepares for another challenging season.

MISSOURI

Toughest: UCLA (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 21), at NC State (Dec. 28)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 8), Southern Illinois (Nov. 12), Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 23), IUPUI (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), West Virginia (Dec. 5), Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Long Beach State (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Frank Haith’s program lost four key players from last season’s underachieving squad, including point guard Phil Pressey. Once again, Haith’s team will have to rebuild chemistry with veterans (Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown) blending with newcomers (a nationally ranked recruiting class). Well, they won’t face much adversity early in the process. Their toughest nonconference opponent, UCLA, travels to Columbia. Rival Illinois will enter 2013-14 with a brand-new roster and limited experience. Other than that? Not much. Games against Northwestern and Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational are lackluster. Perhaps NC State’s young studs will make a Dec. 28 clash against the Tigers interesting. Not much to get excited about, though.

OLE MISS

Toughest: Oregon (Dec. 8 )
Next toughest: Barclays Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), at Kansas State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 8), at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 16), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 22), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 26), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 18), Mercer (Dec. 22), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 30), Dayton (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Ole Miss’ offseason has been all about Marshall Henderson, who was suspended indefinitely for reportedly failing a drug test. He could return at some point this season, and if he does, he might have to be better than he was a year ago with Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gone. The good news for the Rebels is that they won’t have many tests before SEC play. Oregon is probably their toughest nonconference matchup and the Ducks have to replace some talented players from last season. Games against Georgia Tech and (potentially) St. John’s in Brooklyn probably won’t help much on Selection Sunday and a road game against Kansas State would be more interesting if Angel Rodriguez hadn’t transferred to Miami.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 12), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), at Clemson (Nov. 17), Florida International (Nov. 24), Manhattan (Dec. 17), USC Upstate (Dec. 19), Akron (Dec. 28), Marshall (Dec. 30), South Carolina State (Jan. 3)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- When he’s not listening to the latest Pitbull hit, Frank Martin is trying to enhance the South Carolina program. That task seemed nearly impossible prior to his arrival, but he’s building. The Gamecocks will take a multitude of losses with seven freshmen on the roster in 2013-14, but a year from now, they could surge up the SEC standings. As for this season … a road game against Baylor could be an unpleasant “Welcome to college basketball” moment for South Carolina’s youngsters. Oklahoma State might beat Martin’s squad by 30 or more in early December. The Diamond Head Classic features some talented potential opponents (Iowa State, Boise State), but the Gamecocks might not move past Saint Mary’s in the opening round.

TENNESSEE

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Wichita State (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 12), NC State (Dec. 18), Virginia (Dec. 30)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 16), The Citadel (Nov. 18), Tennessee State (Nov. 22), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7), Morehead State (Dec. 23), Tusculum (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Cuonzo Martin will guide one of the league’s -- and nation’s -- sleepers in 2013-14. Yes, the Vols could contend for the SEC title. But a win over something called Tusculum in early January won’t prove much. Ditto for matchups against The Citadel and USC Upstate. But the Vols could meet Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. To get there, however, they’ll have to go through UTEP and then they’ll have to beat either Xavier or fellow sleeper Iowa. They’ll also travel to Xavier prior to the tournament. And it’s never easy to get a win over the Musketeers in Cincy. Virginia is stacked. And a road game against a Wichita State squad seeking revenge from a loss in Knoxville last season will be a major challenge for Martin’s program.

TEXAS A&M

Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- This is just bad. Again. The Aggies didn’t have many obstacles during their nonconference season in 2012-13. That trend will continue in 2013-14. Ugh. An Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament is their toughest scheduled nonconference game. No. 2? Probably a matchup against a Buffalo team that will be led by new coach Bobby Hurley. Sure, the Aggies -- who lost standouts Elston Turner and Ray Turner -- could earn a game against Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge if they survive an opening-round meeting with Missouri State. That, however, is not enough to save this disappointing nonconference slate.

VANDERBILT

Toughest: Saint Louis (Dec. 30)
Next toughest: at Butler (Nov. 19), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Texas (Dec. 2)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 12), Lipscomb (Nov. 15), Marshall (Dec. 5), Austin Peay (Dec. 17), Georgia Tech (Dec. 21), Northeastern (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The bad news is that Vanderbilt is a mess right now. Top scorer Kedren Johnson and three other players from last season’s squad will not be available for the 2013-14 season. Even worse? The Commodores could enter the SEC campaign with multiple losses and little confidence. Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis could do a lot of damage when it visits in late December. Butler has a new staff and no Roosevelt Jones, but Hinkle Fieldhouse will still be a crazy atmosphere that the Commodores will be asked to overcome in mid-November. They’ll open the Paradise Jam against Providence and subsequent matchups against La Salle and Maryland/Northern Iowa are possible. Texas lost a chunk of its roster, too. But the Longhorns can certainly beat this incomplete Vandy team at home. This could be an ugly nonconference season for Kevin Stallings’ program.
1. Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson is expected to be in class when fall semester starts next week in Oxford, coach Andy Kennedy confirmed. Henderson was suspended earlier in the summer for reportedly failing a drug test. Henderson hasn't been cleared yet. The plan is for him to work on regaining the trust of the department and school before being reinstated. Henderson has been quiet this summer since the suspension. He led the Rebels to the Round of 32 last March and was the leading scorer in the SEC. The Rebels won the SEC tournament, too.

2. UCLA coach Steve Alford said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Monday that he was willing to play his old team, New Mexico, and best friend Craig Neal sometime in the future. But Alford wouldn't commit to a year. Alford should get the game done while his son Bryce and Neal's son Cullen are still in school. The two had a budding rivalry to go along with their close friendship when they were Albuquerque scoring studs. This is a new era out West. In the past, UCLA wouldn't play New Mexico for fear it wasn't a quality game. But now the Lobos are as much of a high-profile game as any game beyond the traditional powers. Playing New Mexico at the Pit -- where Alford said he would be willing to play for a true home-and-home -- would be arguably a better game for the Bruins then their recent series with Missouri. Playing UCLA for the Lobos would be a big deal and another sign the program has arrived on a larger stage.

3. The Super Tuesday schedule was released with two interesting side notes: The amount of exposure for LSU in the SEC and Iowa in the Big Ten. LSU got two high-profile home games against Tennessee (Jan. 7) and Kentucky (Jan. 28). This is a golden opportunity for the Baton Rouge faithful to show their true spirit and ensure the Tigers are a feared road spot. LSU enters the season as a bit of a sleeper in the SEC. Win one or both of those home games on a night when it will be the featured game could give the Tigers shelf-life NCAA-type wins. Iowa is a trendy pick in the Big Ten and was rewarded with three games -- two at home against Michigan State (Jan. 28) and Ohio State (Feb. 4) and one on the road at Indiana (Feb. 18). Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he has an NCAA team. The Hawkeyes won't be short chances with an opportunity to produce advantageous home crowd situations against a few of the top teams in the league.


The best thing about the college basketball offseason is that it ends. The second best thing about the college basketball offseason is that when it ends, it ends so quickly and so exhaustively that within a few days you have to remind yourself that there was ever an offseason in the first place. By mid-November, it's impossible to imagine life without basketball.

We have the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon to thank for that. Hey, it might still be warm outside and the campus dorms are mostly empty here in the dog days of August. But exactly three months from now, college hoops will be back in full force with the Marathon, which will include more than a dozen games in more than 24 consecutive hours of basketball in what has become a great annual excuse to call into work sick.

At 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 11, the Marathon begins with an ESPN2 women's doubleheader (Stanford-UConn; then Tennessee-North Carolina) and an ESPNU men's doubleheader (Kent State-Temple; then Colorado State-Gonzaga). At 7:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 12, the Marathon ends with a Champions Classic doubleheader that very well might match up four of the nation's top five teams (Kentucky-Michigan State; Kansas-Duke).

In between, starting at 11 p.m. ET on the 11th, there's a run of men's games that will keep the hardcore fans up all night and morning and begging for caffeine by lunchtime. Who will be participating in those games? Well, stick with us here in the Nation blog. We'll be revealing each of the Marathon matchups at the corresponding time they'll be taking place three months from now. Keep this page open and refresh every two hours and you'll get a new game, along with an early analysis of the matchup. Starting with ...

BYU at Stanford, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Cougars and Cardinal will not only get the Marathon party started late on Nov. 11, they also provide a handy reminder that the earliest parts of the season mean just as much as what happens in February and March. In recent years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has de-emphasized recent results in its selection, instead emphasizing performance in the nonconference as much (or more) than any other single selection criterion. What happens on Nov. 11 matters, in other words, and that's especially true for both BYU and Stanford. The Cougars have quality players in Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws; Stanford is a quality defensive team with solid guard play from Chasson Randle. Neither team looks like a top-25 group, but they do look like they could be in the mix on Selection Sunday. So both will need as many quality nonconference wins as they can get to avoid languishing on the tournament bubble for months at a time. That process will begin immediately.

[+] EnlargeGregg Marshall
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsComing off a Final Four appearance in April, coach Gregg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers are riding high entering this season.
Western Kentucky at Wichita State, 1 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Just two years ago, Western Kentucky, a proud, historically successful program, appeared to be in deep decline. In January 2012, a 5-10 team lost to six players (true, and long, story), then fired its coach. Since then, Ray Harper has managed to get WKU into the tournament twice, which is as much a testament to his coaching as it is to the wacky power of automatic bids and mid-major conference tournaments. But really, this fixture is about the Wichita State Shockers and their fans, who, in the wake of a surprise Final Four visit, are no doubt eager to showcase the strength of their program and their fan base to a national audience. Charles Koch Arena is always bumping. Imagine what they'll have cooking for a midnight local tip. Oh my.

Akron at Saint Mary’s, 3 a.m. ET, ESPN2: This midnight local tip -- you know, were it not for time zones, this whole Marathon thing would be a lot harder to pull off -- features two of the best mid-major programs of the past decade. You're likely already familiar with Saint Mary's, which has crept up on (and even briefly unseated) Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference in recent years. But Akron coach Keith Dambrot has taken the Zips to the tournament in three of the past five seasons, including as a 12-seed in 2012-13. Recovering from the loss of super-efficient center Zeke Marshall won't be easy (to say nothing of the Alex Abreu ordeal), but Akron has almost everyone else back and is ready to push toward another postseason berth, and then some.

New Mexico State at Hawaii, 5 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There are many, many benefits to being in Hawaii and its time zone is typically not high on that list. But the Warriors' unique geography also makes them a yearly inclusion in the Marathon. At this point, 5 a.m. ET might as well be called the "Hawaii Slot." This year's edition of the Hawaii Slot features one of the more consistently successful and frequently slept-on mid-majors in New Mexico State, where Marvin Menzies has won 50 games over the past two seasons (and has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments). Expect to hear a lot about Sim Bhullar, who is not your average NMSU player: He's a 7-foot-5 Canadian-born son of Indian parents whose unique background (and sheer size) won him cross-cultural hype from the New York Times before he played a minute of college ball. The good news? Bhullar was good as a freshman, when he shot 62.1 percent from the field and grabbed 12.8 percent of available offensive rebounds. The dude can play, and you can see him do so live -- as long as you can get up early (or stay up that late).

Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There's something immensely fun about the early-morning Marathon entries. The schools involved are typically small enough that the very idea of being included in the event (and on ESPN) is enough to draw a raucous A.M. crowd, especially in the student section. Expect things to go up a notch or two in 2013. The folks at Florida Gulf Coast are riding as high as the sport allows these days. March's "Dunk City"-defined run to the Sweet 16 put the tiny 22-year-old school and its pristine beach dorms in front of every sports fan in the country. Merchandise flew off the shelves; enrollment (almost certainly, given precedent) spiked. It's safe to assume the party will be still be raging come November.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Garland
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImagesThe Explorers lost only one contributor from a team that won three NCAA tourney games in March.
Quinnipiac at La Salle, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Are you sensing a theme? La Salle, like Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State above, are likewise coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The 1954 NCAA champs saw the last vestiges of ongoing relevance dry up by the mid-1990s, but their return to the tournament in 2013 -- which required a stopover at the "first round" in Dayton -- took them all the way to the Sweet 16 before they fell to Wichita State. The Explorers lose senior leader Ramon Galloway, but everyone else is back, including a great group of guards led by Tyrone "Southwest Philly Floater" Garland, who is entertaining and frustrating in equally perfect measure.

LSU at Massachusetts, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Typically, LSU fans devote more time to the mechanics of Les Miles' grass-chew habit than they do basketball, and in recent seasons it's been hard to argue with that order of priorities. The Tigers simply have not been very good. That may be changing. Johnny Jones' team returns four starters from a better-than-you-remember 19-12, 2012-13 group. But the biggest piece of news is the arrival of Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked overall player in a stacked incoming recruiting class. The Baton Rouge native took to basketball later than most, but he's already developed into an imposing (if somewhat raw) presence. If his development curve continues to do its best hockey stick impression throughout the rest of the summer, look out for the Tigers. Oh, and don't sleep on UMass -- one of the most stylistically entertaining teams in the country, with a solid returning core -- either. This could be one of those games that looks huge once bubble talk ramps up.

West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN: Virginia Tech got off to a great start last season, its first under new coach James Johnson. But by the end of the year, about the only thing the Hokies had going for them was senior guard Erick Green, who managed to post a 120.0 offensive rating on 31.7 percent usage, which ranked him behind only Nate Wolters, Kelly Olynyk, Doug McDermott and Trey Burke on the list of players who managed to be efficient despite using so many of their team's possessions. Green was great, but now he's gone, which leaves Johnson facing a classic, long-haul rebuilding scenario. West Virginia isn't quite there, but Bob Huggins' team had a decidedly un-Huggins season in 2012-13, when they played some of the ugliest, most disjointed offense the college game had to offer (which, last season, was saying something). After essentially sending talented, but troubled, forward Aaric Murray away, Huggins will have to cull some semblance of a rotation from a smattering of pieces that never congealed last year. Incoming four-star power forwards Devin Williams and Elijah Mason should help.

South Carolina at Baylor, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN: Despite taking a massive L.J. Peak-induced recruiting gut-punch this summer, Frank Martin's Gamecocks have already made more progress in his one year at the school than in the 10 before it. Martin has a six-player class arriving this fall, led by No. 7-ranked shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell. A few years down the road, the talent level in Columbia is going to be unrecognizably high. Baylor fans could lend some experience on this front. Now entering his 11th season, Scott Drew has taken the Bears from the untouchable site of shocking scandal into one of the most consistently talented programs in the country. This season, the Bears are adding two top-100 talents (Ishmail Wainright, Allerik Freeman) to a group that already includes 7-footer Isaiah Austin and a score of rising youngsters and/or reliable veterans, including forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin -- the list goes on and on. After an NIT title in March, Baylor should be after much more this season.

[+] EnlargeMick Cronin
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSean Kilpatrick and Mick Cronin are looking to for a fourth straight NCAA tournament bid.
NC State at Cincinnati, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN: When everything was clicking, there were few sights in the college game as thrilling as NC State's offense last season -- Lorenzo Brown leading the break, T.J. Warren running to the block, Scott Wood spotting up on the wing. The problem, of course, was defense, or more precisely a lack of defense. Some of that had to do with personnel, but much of it was related to attitude. With Wood, Brown, guard Rodney Purvis (transfer to UConn) and forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell all gone, coach Mark Gottfried won't have as much tantalizing talent on the court this time around. But he will have a pared-down group that actually wants to be in Raleigh, and he can build the additions of top-100 recruits Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington around Warren, the Pack's most dynamic and promising player a season ago. A trip to Cincinnati will be a crucial early test of Gottfried's mini-rebuild, as a Sean Kilpatrick-led Bearcats group hopes the addition of power forward Jermaine Lawrence will push the program past the "solid NCAA tournament inclusion" hump into ever more rarefied air.

"College GameDay" from Chicago, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I don't need to preview College Gameday for you, do I? You already know how awesome College Gameday is. Let's move on.

VCU at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: It's almost unfair to pit the ESPN2 primetime games against the Champions Classic. They're bound to look pale by comparison. But on any other night of the season, VCU-Virginia (and its 9 p.m. ET follow-up, about which more below) would be must-see stuff. The basketball is good in and of itself. Under Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth has morphed 2011's shock Final Four run into a burgeoning outfit that plays one of the most recognizable systems -- a constantly turnover-hawking pressing style -- in the country. UVa, meanwhile, has steadily improved under fifth-year coach Tony Bennett, who has adopted many of the pack-line defensive principles that his father Dick Bennett developed long ago at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The contrast of speed and style couldn't be more pronounced here, and if a hearty quasi-cultural, in-state rivalry doesn't exist between these two very different schools already, it shouldn't take long.

Michigan State vs. Kentucky in Chicago, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: And so we arrive at the jewel of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon: The Champions Classic. In its first two years, the Champions Classic has done exactly what it set out to do -- provide mutually beneficial marquee college hoops scheduling at the start of the season -- and then some. It even offered an early national title preview (Kentucky vs. Kansas) in 2011-12.

This year's edition might be the best yet, and that starts with Michigan State-Kentucky. The Spartans are the prohibitive Big Ten favorite (or co-favorite with Michigan, your mileage may vary), and bring back about as solid and imposing a core -- senior guard Keith Appling, still-improving senior forward Adreian Payne, Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris -- and will begin the season in the top 5 because of it.

After the 2012 national title, Kentucky coach John Calipari probably didn't expect to be on the losing side of a first-round NIT game a year later (and in his hometown, no less), but even as Robert Morris fans stormed the court in March, Calipari could take solace knowing he assembled what is by all accounts the best recruiting class since the Fab Five, and maybe ever. With Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee, Calipari landed five of the top nine players in the class and six of the top 25. Oh, and he'll have Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- clearly talented players who struggled as freshmen, but should be more effective with more experience and more minimized roles -- back, too. The whole prospect is terrifying: For as good as UK was in 2011-12, this team might be better. What better early test than a veteran, Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State?

Florida at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: See? This is another really good college basketball game that most people probably won't watch live, because you're not going to miss the beginning of what I have already imagined will be a Bird-Magic-esque Wiggins-Parker rivalry in Duke-Kansas. But the doubleheader on ESPN2 isn't too far behind. No coach in the country is as consistent as Bo Ryan, and this year very little should change. The only exception is the star power offered by sophomore forward Sam Dekker, a rare top-20 recruit for the Badgers who shined in an introductory role as a freshman, and will be asked to do loads more as a sophomore. Speaking of consistency, Florida has participated in the last three Elite Eights, and the Gators appear to be as capable of that feat as ever in 2013-14. No. 2-ranked freshman point guard Kasey Hill should start and star immediately alongside forward Patric Young, and if the Gators can get equally touted freshman power forward Chris Walker academically eligible, they'll have plenty of firepower to bring to the Kohl Center.

Kansas vs. Duke, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Yes, UK-MSU is awfully good, and the teams are probably better overall. But for sheer intrigue, it's hard to top Duke versus Kansas. On one side is the No. 1 player in the class, Andrew Wiggins, who is not merely your average top-ranked recruit but considered by pretty much every scout you talk to as the best prospect since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, if not LeBron James. Which is funny, considering that's the same thing Sports Illustrated once plastered on its cover next to a photo of four-time Illinois state champion, No. 2-ranked Jabari Parker. There is already a bit of a LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony thing going on here. Wiggins is the world-destroying athletic freak with the intuitive all-court game; Parker is the smooth, natural scorer. In 2003, Anthony and James entered their rookie seasons having only ever met on the AAU circuit. In 2013, Parker and Wiggins will meet each other on one of the first nights of the season, following Kentucky's Julius Randle, who is good enough to steal the eventual No. 1 overall pick out from under both.

In other words, the three reasons why you'll hear so much about NBA teams tanking in the next 12 months are all playing on the same United Center night in mid-November, and two of them are playing each other. Man, the Champions Classic is awesome. Did I mention that already? We covered that part, right?

So get your remote control handy; get your DVR game tight. That's good advice for the primetime doubleheader, but it works for the whole Marathon, too. By the time it's over, you won't even remember the offseason existed. I can't wait.
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Old Spice Classic

When and where: Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at the HP Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Fla.

Initial thoughts: The Old Spice Classic field has rarely, if ever, approached the density or strength of the Maui Invitational (historically) or the Battle 4 Atlantis (more recently). It typically, though, has plenty by which to recommend it, and in 2013 more than most. Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart will lead a Cowboys team determined to unseat Kansas at the top of the Big 12 into the Wide World of Sports Complex as the undeniable favorite, but Memphis won't be that far away.

Meanwhile, we'll get a very early look at whether new Butler coach Brandon Miller will be able to field a tournament-ready team just a few months after Brad Stevens' departure to the NBA's Boston Celtics. We'll see if Purdue can bounce back from an ugly (but in many ways promising) 2012-13 season. Will Saint Joseph's' band of returning seniors be ready to make the leap everyone anticipated and gave up on a season ago? LSU has an intriguing rebuilding group that might push the top half of the SEC. We'll also see if Washington State, after losing seniors Brock Motum and Mike Ladd, is going to be so bad as to put coach Ken Bone on the proverbial hot seat. There are a variety of things worth watching in this bracket, and that includes the hoop.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelMarcus Smart returns for his sophomore season after Oklahoma State made an early exit from the NCAA tournament last season.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: St. Joe's versus LSU. This isn't the best game of the first round. That honor goes to Oklahoma State-Purdue, and, really, it isn't close. But St. Joe's and LSU are intriguing for slightly similar reasons.

The Hawks were everyone's vogue pick to win the Atlantic 10 last season, based primarily on the assumption that 2011-12's cadre of sophomores -- the Hawks returned all five starters -- would improve and coalesce as juniors. Instead, the Hawks became merely the latest example of why the muddy mix of "returning players" and "experience" and "chemistry" doesn't always translate into improvement. But Phil Martelli still has a good chunk of those players back for another go at this, and if he can coax better defense from everyone, then Saint Joseph's might transform its narrative yet again.

Meanwhile, LSU probably wasn't as bad as you think in 2012-13. The Tigers weren't great, of course, but they finished in the top 100, and they bring in a surprisingly talented recruiting class. Johnny Jones got "yes" answers from three ESPN 100 players, including No. 3-ranked power forward Jarrell Martin -- the program's best recruit since Glen Davis.

Potential matchup I’d like to see: Oklahoma State versus Memphis. When it comes to early-season tournaments, there is very little reason to root for anything but the best basketball. Every now and then there's a backstory baked into the proceedings, like an old rivalry given a random renewal in November. But, for the most part, our desires can be expressed in the simplest of terms: good basketball. That's the case here. This early before the start of the season, Memphis appears to be the second-best team in this bracket, and its backcourt (Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, both excellent offensive players) should be a fascinating matchup for Smart and running mate Markel Brown. Recently, Memphis has often stumbled out of the gate before otherwise-solid seasons, which has cost the Tigers valuable lines on their NCAA tournament seed in March. Reversing that trend isn't as important in their first season in the American Athletic Conference, but quality nonconference wins are still utterly crucial, and it's going to be hard to find better chances than this.

Five players to watch:

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: NBA scouts really like Smart's game, but they're in love with the intangibles -- his work ethic, his drive and his desire to succeed. Those qualities have earned raves from coaches as long as Smart has played basketball, and they helped transformed Oklahoma State from the defensively soft 2011-12 group into one of the nation's best defenses last season. Smart turned down a shot at being a top-five pick to return to Stillwater. If he has developed the skills to go from "really good" to "frighteningly dominant" -- slightly better ballhandling and much better shooting -- they'll be on display at the Old Spice Classic.

Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: Goodwin's freshman season wasn't quite as good as his recruiting hype foretold, but there were tantalizing bits littered throughout. Now with Memorial Never-Got-There Club member Tarik Black having transferred and Adonis Thomas having left for the NBA draft, the keys to the Memphis frontcourt are decidedly in Goodwin's hands.

A.J. Hammons, Purdue: The Boilermakers weren't the easiest team in the country to watch last season. When they were good, it was usually because they were guarding, not because they were setting the scoreboard alight. But Matt Painter has one thing most coaches don't: a legitimate 7-foot NBA prospect. Hammons is that guy, and it's not just because he's big. He's also athletic for his size, with good ball skills and footwork. If he returns from the summer with a bit less big-man baby fat and a bit more low-post polish, well, look out.

Jarrell Martin, LSU: As mentioned above, Martin is the No. 3-ranked power forward prospect in the class of 2013. What wasn't mentioned is he is also the No. 11 overall talent. In many incoming classes, this would be worth noting, but little more. With the 2013 class regarded as the deepest and most talented in a decade, if not longer, it is something more. In fact, Martin is the highest-ranked 2013 prospect to not choose Kentucky, Duke, Arizona or Kansas. His situation at LSU will be different and arguably more interesting for it. Can the long-dormant Tigers rise again?

Kellen Dunham, Butler: Former coach Brad Stevens earned the reputation for not needing talent -- that he almost had to find unsung players and mold them for his system to work. That's probably true in general, but there were already signs before his departure to the Celtics that Butler's recruiting had gone up a notch or two since the back-to-back title-game runs in 2010 and 2011. For one, Indiana forward Cody Zeller listed the Bulldogs as among his final three recruiting options (North Carolina being the third). For another, he landed Dunham. Sure, Dunham wasn't Zeller, but he was an ESPN Top 100 player, and he was solid and efficient in big minutes as a freshman. Dunham will have to be even more efficient in even bigger minutes as a sophomore, particularly from 3-point range from which he ended up shooting just 34.5 percent, but he's capable.

Title-game prediction: Oklahoma State over Memphis.

As I wrote above, you just root for good basketball in these things, and Memphis' backcourt (especially if Michael Dixon is able to play) by far looks like the most interesting challenge to Smart and Co. in the Old Spice. But I don't think it would be much of a challenge. Jackson can really put the ball on the floor, and Crawford is a lights-out shooter (even off the dribble), but Smart and Brown look like they're going to lock down pretty much everyone in the sport this season. The Tigers included. Cowboys win.

Who others are picking:

Andy Katz: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Jeff Goodman: Memphis over Purdue
Seth Greenberg: Oklahoma State over LSU
Jason King: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Myron Medcalf: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Dana O'Neil: Oklahoma State over Memphis

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

March, 1, 2013
3/01/13
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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.

Saturday afternoon observations

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
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Here are 10 observations I made while channel-surfing Saturday afternoon.

  1. [+] EnlargeKendall Williams
    Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsKendall Williams was locked in Saturday, hitting 12 of 16 shots en route to 46 points.
    New Mexico’s 91-82, come-from-behind victory over Colorado State was the most entertaining game of the afternoon -- and it also featured the best performance not just of the day, but arguably of the entire season. New Mexico junior guard Kendall Williams made 10 of his 13 attempts from 3-point range en route to a career-high 46 points as the Lobos snapped CSU’s 27-game home winning streak. At 10-2 in the Mountain West, New Mexico now has a two-game lead over the Rams (8-4) in the conference standings. These teams are not who you want to play in the NCAA tournament. Even in the loss, Colorado State looked more than worthy of its No. 22 national ranking. But the No. 16 Lobos were more resilient Saturday, fighting back from a six-point deficit with six minutes remaining thanks to Williams, who entered the game averaging just 13.1 points. That New Mexico was able to rally in such a tough environment is a credit to Lobos coach Steve Alford, who is on pace to win his fourth MWC title in five seasons. Alford’s name will surely be mentioned during the offseason coaching carousel, but I think it’d take a phenomenal offer to get him to leave Albuquerque. He’s well compensated, adores that part of the country, will have both of his sons on the roster next season and is beloved by the fan base. Why leave?
  2. Miami point guard Shane Larkin had a great quote after his Hurricanes lost 80-65 at Wake Forest on Saturday. “Who ever thought Miami beating Wake Forest at home would cause a court-rushing scene?” Larkin said. Given that history has more often seen Miami near the bottom of the ACC standings and Wake Forest near the top, the point was a valid one. The excitement Demon Deacons fans showed over beating the No. 2 Hurricanes was a testament to just how far Miami’s program has come under second-year coach Jim Larranaga. The question now is how far it will fall. Miami, which saw its 14-game winning streak snapped, lost for the first time in ACC play and is now 22-4 overall and 13-1 in conference. Miami might also have a difficult time holding on to its projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament; another loss could all but negate that possibility. Miami plays three of its final four games at home, but a March 2 tilt at Duke will be tough to win. In some ways, Saturday’s loss shouldn’t have been all that surprising, as the Hurricanes had been playing with fire in recent weeks. Their previous three victories had come by a combined 12 points. Included in that stretch was a four-point win over Virginia and a two-point victory over Clemson. It all caught up to the Hurricanes Saturday at Wake Forest. “We weren’t prepared to play the game, and they came out and punched us in the mouth,” Larkin said.
  3. Speaking of Miami, if the Hurricanes put Saturday’s loss behind them and win the ACC as expected, I’ll have no problem if Larrranaga is named national coach of the year. But some folks are acting as if the race for that award is already over, that Larranaga is a shoo-in. I disagree. What if Marquette wins the Big East title a year after losing Darius-Johnson Odom and Jae Crowder (and replacing them with basically nothing)? I think that’d be a bigger accomplishment than Miami winning the ACC -- the Big East is a much tougher league -- so I’d vote for Buzz Williams. John Thompson III will have a case, too, if Georgetown wins the Big East crown. His team lost second-leading scorer and leading rebounder Greg Whittington in December and actually got better. And, oh yeah, the Hoyas lost their three leading scorers (Jason Clark, Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims) from last season. What if K-State snaps Kansas’ streak of eight consecutive Big 12 titles and wins its first conference championship since 1977? Wouldn’t Bruce Weber be a candidate -- especially considering this is his first season in Manhattan? I think so. Then there’s Jim Crews at Saint Louis and Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. This race is hardly over. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
  4. Every time I post something on Twitter about how impressed I am with the Memphis Tigers, the responses are always the same. They play in a weak league. Who have they beaten? Just wait until the NCAA tournament. Something tells me the folks saying these things haven’t watched Memphis play in recent weeks. Saturday’s 89-73 victory over Southern Miss marked the 18th straight win for Josh Pastner’s squad. That’s impressive no matter what league you’re in. Yes, I realize Conference USA doesn’t offer up the best competition, but Southern Miss -- an NCAA tournament team a year ago -- is still darn good. So is Central Florida, which features one of the better forwards in the country in Keith Clanton. Neither of those teams has come close to beating Memphis, which is 24-3 overall and 13-0 in league play. Talent has never been an issue for the Tigers, but lately, they’ve also looked extremely well-coached. Great ball movement, good shot selection, selfless play, tons of energy. Tell me, what’s not to like? I’m not ready to peg Memphis as a Final Four team, but I’ll be disappointed if it doesn't make it to the Sweet 16.
  5. I like VCU’s team -- a lot -- but I’m not quite as high on the Rams as I was after watching them in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. Back then, I was convinced that Shaka Smart’s squad was better than the unit that made the 2011 Final Four. I realize VCU made an incredible comeback against Xavier on Saturday, rallying from a 17-point deficit in the second half en route to a 75-71 victory. But why were the Rams down by 17 points in the first place? And if they are truly that good, why did they lose by 14 points at Saint Louis on Tuesday? It wasn’t the defeat that bothered me. It was the margin. Saint Louis is very, very good. But VCU got dominated in that game. Cuff me, officer. I’m guilty of over-hyping the Rams.
  6. The worst team in a "power six" conference is easily Mississippi State. Seriously, would someone please give first-year coach Rick Ray a big hug? I can’t remember a time when a program was this decimated by injuries, suspensions, graduations and transfers. The Bulldogs only have eight active players on their roster. Saturday’s 72-31 loss to Vanderbilt marked Mississippi State’s 12th consecutive defeat. Its 31 points were the second-fewest in Humphrey Coliseum history. It was also the lowest scoring output for MSU in the shot-clock era.
  7. I’m not ready to move him into the No. 1 slot, but I’ll definitely be elevating Georgetown forward Otto Porter into the top five of my weekly Wooden Award ballot, which is released each Wednesday. Porter scored a career-high 33 points on 12-of-19 shooting Saturday to help the Hoyas surge past Syracuse, 57-46. That’s right. Porter scored 33 of his team’s 57 points -- and he did it on the road. He also chipped in eight rebounds and five steals. There might not be a more versatile big man in college basketball.
  8. Every time I turn on a Texas Tech game, I always hear television announcers talk about what “an excellent job” interim coach Chris Walker is doing in a “tough situation.” What am I missing here? The Red Raiders are 9-16 overall and 2-12 in conference play. All but two of their league setbacks have come by double digits. On Saturday, they lost to Iowa State by 20 points, 86-66. That’s what passes for doing a good job these days? Walker inherited a tough situation, to be sure. But so did USC’s Bob Cantu, who was named interim coach last month after the school fired Kevin O’Neill. USC has gone 5-4 under Cantu. Now that’s doing a good job.
  9. One team that has quietly gotten better over the past few months is LSU, which defeated Alabama on Saturday, 97-94 in triple overtime. Johnny O’Bryant scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for the Tigers, who have won seven of their past 10 games. Sure, LSU beat some duds during that stretch, including Mississippi State (twice) and South Carolina. But there have also been victories over Missouri and Texas A&M and, of course, Saturday’s big win over Alabama. The most encouraging thing is that LSU will return virtually every key piece of this year’s team next season, including O’Bryant and guard Anthony Hickey, who leads the nation in steals with 3.2 per game.
  10. Stick a fork in Baylor. The Bears are done. Scott Drew’s squad was embarrassed in a 90-76 loss at Oklahoma on Saturday. Or, heck, maybe they didn’t feel embarrassed at all. For the past few weeks, the Bears -- who trailed 47-21 at halftime Saturday -- have hardly seemed like they care. Baylor has now lost six of its past eight games. Drew’s team is 7-7 in league play but only 1-7 against teams in the top five of the Big 12 standings. The Bears aren’t going to make the NCAA tournament, which is inexcusable for a squad that features the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year in Pierre Jackson -- who leads the conference in scoring and assists -- along with future lottery pick Isaiah Austin and one of the nation’s premier 3-point shooters in Brady Heslip. Sure, the Bears lost three players from last year’s Elite Eight squad to the NBA draft. But there are still enough pieces on this roster to have significant success during a somewhat down year for the Big 12.

Video: Tuba player turned center

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
11:57
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video
Greg Garber profiles LSU center Andrew Del Piero, who used to play the tuba in the LSU band.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

February, 1, 2013
2/01/13
9:30
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Here we go again. This week’s SEC power rankings:

1. Florida. In the 1980s, Mike Tyson was a brutal force who tore through boxing’s contenders with an ease that few, if any, pugilists had ever achieved. But Tyson had a problem. He didn’t beat guys who would have been considered contenders in more vibrant eras in the heavyweight division. So it’s tough to assess his legacy. Yes, he was dominant. But whom did he fight? That’s Florida’s challenge right now. The Gators are destroying the SEC. They’re one of three teams in the past 25 years that have defeated their first seven conference foes by 15 points or more, according to Elias. But they’re in a league that’s clearly one of the worst conferences in America. Still, they held a high-major program (South Carolina) to 10 points in the first half of a 39-point victory this week. That’s impressive regardless of whom they were playing.

2. Ole Miss. So Destiny’s Child just dropped a new track called “Nuclear.” The song created a buzz because folks were convinced that Beyonce & Co. would get back together. But that hasn’t happened. The bottom line is that the track is like every other “group” effort by the pop trio: a lot of Beyonce and a little bit of the other two women/members whom most folks can’t name (Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland). Marshall Henderson turned into Beyonce when Kentucky visited Ole Miss on Tuesday night. He made the night about Marshall Henderson instead of his team. He took bad shots. He played to the crowd. He got into a verbal spat with coach Andy Kennedy. And he threw a piece of ice toward fans. Great theater. But he didn’t lead the Rebels to a win. There was just too much of him and not enough of everyone else in that crucial game.

3. Kentucky. About a decade ago, Dr. Dre promised hip-hop fans that he would deliver one of the greatest rap albums of all time: “Detox.” He has teased with a variety of leaked tracks. But he hasn’t delivered the full project, only glimpses of what it might be. That’s how I feel about this Kentucky team right now. I think the Tuesday victory at Ole Miss was a great showcase for a Wildcats squad that could emerge as Florida’s greatest threat in the coming weeks. It was a dominant performance, especially for Nerlens Noel (12 blocks). But we shouldn’t forget the loss to Alabama. Or Texas A&M (at home). Or Baylor (also at home). The Wildcats have potential, and they proved it again when they beat the Rebels. But I’m weeks away from believing that it was anything more than one impressive effort by a team I can’t trust yet.

4. Alabama. The Crimson Tide beat Kentucky last week, lost to Tennessee over the weekend and squeezed past Arkansas for a 59-56 victory that was decided in the final seconds Thursday night. Where would you rank them? I could leave Bama here. I could also move Anthony Grant’s squad down two or three spots. I’m not sure that this is the fourth-best team in the SEC. But I don’t have any evidence that it’s not the fourth-best team in the league, either. And that’s the problem with this conference. By now, Bama over Arkansas should mean something. It should have offered proof that one team was moving forward and the other was moving in the opposite direction. It didn’t really do that. Neither team played well. Arkansas went 3-for-19 from beyond the arc. Bama committed 19 turnovers. I’m not sure one team is really better than the other. And that’s the story of the SEC -- after Florida of course -- right now.

5. Missouri. Here’s the essence of the conversations I’ve had with Mizzou fans for the past two weeks via the Twittersphere. Me: “Missouri is not as good as its ranking suggests. The Tigers have bigger issues than Laurence Bowers’ injury and absence.” Mizzou fans: “You’re wrong. We’ll get Bowers back. We’ll be fine.” Me: “But their ballhandling is inconsistent, they’re not defending the 3-point line and … ” Mizzou fans: “Dude, Bowers will be back. And we’ll be fine.” Well, Bowers returned … and the Tigers lost at LSU 73-70 on Wednesday night. LSU is 12th in the league with a 39.3 percent overall mark from the field. But LSU -- which has lost to Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina -- shot 55 percent against Mizzou. This is the same Tigers squad that averaged 0.9 points per possession through the first six games of SEC play, 12th in the league according to John Gasaway. Confused yet?

6. Tennessee. The Vols might the most intriguing team in the conference after Kentucky. They lost their first three SEC games but they’ve won three of their past four, a stretch that includes a win over Alabama. Jarnell Stokes finished with double-doubles in those three victories. When he plays to his full potential, the Vols are clearly a different team -- one that’s capable of competing with most of the squads in this league.

7. LSU. Yep, the Tigers beat a nearly complete Missouri squad (Keion Bell did not play) Wednesday night. But they’ve also lost to Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia. … And they’ve beaten a Missouri team that entered the conference slate as Florida’s toughest competitor. So I guess they’re seventh. Why? Because the SEC just doesn’t make much sense, especially after LSU pulled off one of the biggest wins by a team in the bottom tier of the league.

8. Arkansas. The Razorbacks are a solid offensive group that struggles in games that aren’t track meets. They’re averaging 66.4 points per game in SEC play, fifth in the league. Yet they’re last in 3-point shooting (23.9 percent). And they’re really limited to whatever Marshawn Powell and BJ Young can give them each night. The duo accounts for 41 percent of Arkansas’ offensive production. So every night is a toss-up, especially for a program that’s ranked 104th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.

9. Georgia. Mark Fox has only one scorer averaging double figures (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at 17.5 points per game). But he’s making up for those offensive gaps with the 3-ball. The Bulldogs, who’ve won three of their past four, have hit 36.2 percent of their 3-pointers, third in the SEC.

10. Texas A&M. Between now and Feb. 13, the Aggies will play Kentucky (again), Missouri and Ole Miss. This is an important stretch for a program that has disappointed since a Jan. 12 victory at Kentucky. The Aggies are holding SEC opponents to 58.0 PPG (tied for second in the conference) but they’re only scoring 58.4 PPG (12th). Elston Turner's recent turn of inconsistency hasn’t helped.

11. Vanderbilt. Four of the Commodores' past six games have been played on the road. So the young program’s fortunes could change in the coming weeks, because four of its next five games are at home, a stretch that does not include matchups against Kentucky, Ole Miss, Florida or Missouri. The Commodores have lost two SEC games by two points or fewer. They lost to Ole Miss in overtime. Their 61.5 percent mark from the charity stripe (last in the SEC) won’t help the Commodores secure future wins in similar scenarios.

12. Mississippi State. The Bulldogs kicked off the SEC with promise by winning their first two games. But they’ve lost their past five. Their greatest challenge? Turnovers. They’ve averaged 18.3 per game in SEC play. That and a defense that’s giving up an SEC-worst 70.7 PPG.

13. Auburn. Tony Barbee's program isn’t much better. Auburn’s SEC opponents have averaged 70.0 PPG in league play. The Tigers are also on a five-game losing streak.

14. South Carolina. The Gamecocks scored 10 points in the first half of a loss to the Gators this week. I know, I know. They played Florida. But even Southeastern Louisiana managed 26 in the first half of its 82-43 loss to the Gators this season.

Video: LSU 73, Missouri 70

January, 30, 2013
1/30/13
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Anthony Hickey scored 20 points and Andre Stringer added 18 as host LSU scored a 73-70 victory over No. 17 Missouri, which got 25 points from Phil Pressey.
Earlier today, I wrote about the eventful day in the Big East, as Villanova upset No. 3 Syracuse and Louisville dropped its third in a row in a loss at Georgetown. Here are a few other afternoon thoughts from around the college hoops landscape:

1. Kentucky does not look like a tournament team. Unless the tournament in question is the NIT.

I know, I know: A win is a win, and Kentucky held on for a 75-70 home victory over LSU on Saturday. And I know: There's still some time left for this young Kentucky team to figure it all out. But it's clear, at least right now, that the Wildcats have some pretty significant flaws, flaws that could put their already tenuous tournament position in even greater jeopardy the rest of the way.

Chief among them? Defense. The Wildcats had allowed .97 points per possession in SEC play prior to Saturday, seventh-best in a league that most certainly does not house seven good teams. (Maybe three.) It ranked last in the league in forced-turnover rate, and it had allowed SEC opponents to grab 32.1 percent of available offensive rebounds, 10th-best in the conference. These same flaws were apparent Saturday, too. Kentucky scored efficiently throughout the game; it shot 52 percent from the field and a tidy 61 percent from inside the arc (it shot 11 3-pointers and made just two). And still the Wildcats allowed the Tigers -- a 10-7 team with a 1-5 SEC record and the 209th-ranked offense in the country, per KenPom.com -- to put up 70 points at Rupp Arena, to push for a game-tying play until the final possession, to make Ashley Judd a nervous wreck on live television.

Kentucky began the week with a No. 10 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket, and that sounds about right, but that was before Tuesday's loss at Alabama. If I had to bet on UK making it to the tournament or not this season, I'd take the former option. But if it can't get at least some separation from the worst teams in its own down league at home, John Calipari's team will find itself at serious risk of missing the tournament just 11 months after winning it all. Heck, that risk is already here.

2. Minnesota's losses are starting to pile up. Lose at Indiana? No big deal -- you're supposed to lose at Indiana. Lose at home to Michigan? Not preferable, but hey, Michigan's really good. Lose a low-scoring game at Wisconsin? Welcome to the last decade of Big Ten play, right?

Taken separately, none of those three losses -- the latest of which came today, 45-44 in Madison -- is cause for overwhelming concern. But taken alongside Minnesota's 55-48 loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, it's no wonder why Gophers fans are starting to freak out. Saturday's result makes for four consecutive losses in Big Ten play. That would be bad enough, but the methods by which these losses have come have been a product of both bad defense (Indiana and Michigan scored a combined 1.24 points per possession) and bad offense (the Gophers were held to just .84 points per trip against Northwestern and Wisconsin) -- a veritable sampler pack of ways to lose Big Ten games.

Even worse? Forward Trevor Mbakwe reinjured his wrist on the final play Saturday, which forced forward Rodney Williams to take the game-deciding free throws, the last of which he clanged. If that injury causes Mbakwe to miss games, the Gophers, who rely so much on offensive rebounds, could lose their best rebounder and interior scorer. You never want to encourage panic in January, not for a team this good anyway. But if Minnesota fans start freaking out ... well, you can understand where they're coming from, at least.

3. Duke had a "program win" over Maryland. That's what guard Quinn Cook called Duke's 84-64 win over the Terps on Saturday afternoon, and whether you're willing to go that far or not, the fact of the matter is that Duke rebounded from its unsightly 90-63 thrashing at Miami -- during which the Hurricanes slapped the floor defensively, openly (and comedically) taunting Duke in the second half of a blowout -- with gusto. The freshmen led the way, particularly shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, and that is excellent news for a team that needs other contributors to step up as Ryan Kelly recovers from the foot injury that has kept him out of Duke's lineup for much of January. More than anything, though, Saturday's bounce-back victory showed that the Blue Devils' horrific Wednesday night wasn't necessarily the sign of a larger decline. If anything, it was a sign of just how good Miami really is.

4. Iowa State got a huge win over Kansas State. Late January is not too early for a fan base to be concerned with its bubble team's prospective position, and right now it seems like it's the only thing many basketball fans in Iowa -- both fans of Iowa and Iowa State -- can talk about. The Cyclones will have other opportunities to get big résumé wins in Big 12 play, but they took advantage of a major one when they toppled No. 11-ranked Kansas State 73-67. Led by Will Clyburn's 24 points and 10 boards, the Cyclones shot 64 percent in the second half, hoisting up 47 points on a good K-State defense. In Bubble Land, these are the kind of games -- against good but beatable teams at home -- you have to take advantage of. For Iowa State, which suffered a horrible loss at Texas Tech on Wednesday night, it was just what the doctor ordered.

[+] EnlargeJahii Carson
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsASU's Jahii Carson drives to the basket on his way to a 12-point, 8-assist effort against UCLA.
5. It's time to pay attention to Arizona State. This is not the first time we've said as much about Jahii Carson and the Sun Devils* this season, but it is the first time Herb Sendek's team has backed it up with a quality win.

Just last week, as Arizona State prepared to play rival Arizona in its own building, we all perked up, forced to pay attention to a team with a 14-3 record -- coming off a three-point loss at Oregon -- hosting its hated in-state rival at home. Naturally, Arizona proceeded to stomp Carson & Co., and it was just as easy to discard Arizona State once more. After all, who had the Sun Devils actually beaten? Arkansas? Colorado at home? Meh. Meh.

Not anymore. Arizona State's 78-60 win over UCLA on Saturday eliminates wipes away that dismissive disclaimer. It's a good win in its own right, but it's made doubly impressive by the fact that UCLA is coming off its own uber-impressive victory Thursday night at Arizona. Maybe the Bruins were tired. They certainly looked it. But it would be folly to take any credit away from ASU, which was led by a 40-minute performance from Carson (who has more 20-point games than any other ASU freshman in school history, save James Harden and Ike Diogu), a 22-point, 15-rebound performance (on 10-of-12 shooting, no less) from center Jordan Bachynski and a defensive performance that held hot-shooting UCLA to just 25-of-72 from the field (and just 5-of-24 from 3).

The win moves Arizona State to 16-4 and 5-2 in the Pac-12, a stunning turnaround from the depths the program sank into in 2011-12. Sendek has turned things around quickly, and it would be a mistake to dismiss Carson and friends anymore.

*Come to think of it, that would make a pretty good name for a band.

Bonus features:

  • San Diego State was at risk of falling off the MWC title radar after two straight losses -- the first to UNLV at home, the second a 58-45 defeat at Wyoming. "Falling off" isn't this program's M.O. these days, so it was fair to expect the Aztecs to come out strong at home against New Mexico. What I didn't expect was New Mexico to struggle so mightily on the offensive end, scoring just 34 points in the loss. Both sides played some ugly offense, but 34 points? Really?
  • Oh, speaking of which, want to hear about the worst half of offensive basketball in the history of Division I? I thought you might! This afternoon, Northern Illinois trailed Eastern Michigan 18-4 at the half. It shot 1-for-31 from the field and finished the half with 29 straight misses. In the process, according to ESPN Stats & Information, NIU broke Division I records for fewest points (4) and lowest field goal percentage (3.2 percent) in a half and tied the all-time record for fewest field goals in a half (1). Yeah. It was that bad. Searching for a positive angle, the NIU press release on the game lead with: "Northern Illinois posted its best defensive effort in seven seasons, allowing just 42 points on Saturday afternoon, but it came in a losing effort as the Huskies fell to Eastern Michigan, 42-25, at the EMU Convocation Center." Sure, we scored only 25 points -- but at least we played great defense! Silver linings!
  • A couple of months ago, we might have expected Memphis to struggle with Marshall; before the season, the Thundering Herd, who barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season, were the only obvious challenger in Conference USA. But with all of Marshall's struggles -- the Herd are 9-11 with losses to South Dakota State, Hofstra, West Virginia, Delaware State and UTEP -- Memphis' squeaky one-point home victory is little more than an artful bad-loss dodge.
  • George Washington pounded Charlotte 82-54 at home, moving to 4-2 in Atlantic 10 play, including a one-possession loss to Temple on Jan. 16. Not a team anyone in the A-10 should want to play right now, those Colonials.
  • Marquette's win over Providence was delayed by the invasion of a single bat. Make of this new knowledge what you will.

Video: Florida 74, LSU 52

January, 12, 2013
1/12/13
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Kenny Boynton scored 20 points to help Florida to a 74-52 win over LSU.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 21, 2012
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The top remains the same. Yes, the Gators suffered a tough road loss at Arizona Saturday, their first of the season. But I can’t elevate Missouri over the Gators yet. If the Tigers beat Illinois this weekend, let’s talk.

1. Florida. The Gators were one of the nation’s most dominant teams until the final minutes of its 65-64 loss at Arizona Saturday. The McKale Center was booming just hours after the Wildcats’ football squad had defeated Nevada in a crazy, come-from-behind win in the New Mexico Bowl. The place came alive as Arizona made its final, game-turning run. Florida made critical mistakes down the stretch. But I’ll still take the Gators over the rest of the league.

2. Missouri. The Jabari Brown Experiment began with a so-so showing in Monday’s 102-51 win over South Carolina State (12 points, 1-for-7 from the 3-point line). But he hadn’t played a regulated game since Nov. 17, 2011. So the rust was expected. The bottom line is that Frank Haith has access to another high-level wing. And that Missouri backcourt will need more depth to win the SEC crown. Saturday’s matchup against Illinois will be a good test for the Tigers’ (new) guard rotation.


3. Kentucky. No, this season's Wildcats aren’t last year’s Wildcats. But what team in 2012-13 is comparable to that group? They are, however, a group of talented players that has jelled in recent weeks -- albeit against mediocre competition. They’re still one of the nation’s best offensive (26th in efficiency) and defensive (12th) units. How much better is this group compared to a few weeks ago when it lost back-to-back games at Notre Dame and against Baylor in Rupp Arena? We probably won’t know until they’ve played a solid number of SEC games unless they pull off the upset at Louisville Dec. 29.

4. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin told govolsextra.com Thursday that the team is close to a decision on the status of Jeronne Maymon. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound senior is clearly a missing piece for a Vols squad that could use his size and talent (12.7 ppg, 8.1 ppg). Yet he’s still a question mark for the program. The Vols have picked up a pair of wins, including one against Wichita State, since losing two in a row to Georgetown and Virginia. Maymon’s situation, however, could play a role in whether the program can sustain that success, especially as SEC play approaches.

5. Ole Miss. From Jan. 9 through Jan. 15, Ole Miss will play at Tennessee, versus Missouri and at Vanderbilt. If they’re legit, the Rebels must prove it during that stretch. Their nonconference schedule has been so subpar that they’ve been difficult to assess. Yes, they’re averaging 81.6 ppg, 10th in the nation, and they’re 16th in defensive efficiency, but whom have they played? In their toughest matchup thus far, they registered only 62 points in a three-point loss at Middle Tennessee.

6. LSU. The Tigers suffered their first loss of the season on the road against a solid Boise State team Friday. The 89-70 margin was the result of the Tigers finally facing a team that made them pay for their turnover issues (20 at Boise State). They’d gotten away with that sloppiness throughout the nonconference slate. But Boise State was just the second team that Jonny Jones’ program had faced with a top-100 rating on KenPom.com.

7. Texas A&M. The Aggies’ 64-54 loss at former Big 12 adversary Oklahoma Saturday was the result of poor ballhandling (19 turnovers) and the Sooners’ 18-for-19 clip from the charity stripe. But the Aggies are as capable as any second-tier squad in the SEC. To rise above middle-of-the-pack status, however, they’ll have to improve their inconsistent defense (159th in efficiency).

8. Alabama. The injury bug reached Tuscaloosa at a bad time. Carl Engstrom is out for the year with a torn ACL. Andrew Steele could miss the next month with a sports hernia. Anthony Grant’s depth has taken a serious hit as a result of those injuries. But at least the Crimson Tide ended their three-game losing streak with Wednesday’s 66-62 victory at Texas Tech. Yes, it’s Texas Tech, but this program needs any victory it can get right now. With its short rotation, they might hit more hurdles once SEC play begins.

9. Arkansas. Arkansas can roll with the top offenses in the country (81.8 ppg). The Razorbacks, however, have struggled to neutralize opponents. And until they clean up their defense, they’ll remain in the bottom tier of the league. B.J. Young (17.1 ppg) and Marshawn Powell (16.1. ppg) will keep them alive in many games. But unless the Razorbacks clamp down (190th in efficiency), they’ll continue to struggle in meaningful matchups.

10. Vanderbilt. On Friday, the Commodores will face mid-major standout Middle Tennessee at home. In past years, Kevin Stallings’ squad had the advantage. But this year’s unit, one that relies on youth (a dozen underclassmen), is not in the same position. The 5-4 Commodores, however, have developed some momentum in December. They’ve won three in a row, including a 66-64 win at Xavier in overtime Dec. 6. Let’s see if that momentum continues against Middle Tennessee.

11. South Carolina. There’s certainly no verdict on South Carolina yet. Frank Martin has a veteran core of Brenton Williams, LaShay Page, Lakeem Jackson and Bruce Ellington. That’s one plus for the program. But the Gamecocks are still 7-3 against an average schedule. So in some ways, they’re tough to gauge right now, which is the story of this conference so far. But clearly their defense needs work (269th in efficiency per KenPom.com).

12. Auburn. Another SEC squad that won’t get much credit because of its subpar nonconference schedule and the 5-5 record it has amassed against it. But the Tigers have won three consecutive games. And 6-2 guard Chris Denson (16.7 ppg) has emerged during this streak. That’s a good sign for an Auburn team that’s going to face disadvantages at most positions when SEC play begins.

13. Georgia. Mark Fox’s squad ended a three-game losing streak (the Bulldogs had lost seven of eight) with Tuesday’s 58-49 victory over Mercer. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, one of the league’s top talents, scored 17 points. Georgia needs every win it can muster right now because its SEC slate begins with this tough stretch: at Florida, vs. MSU, at Mizzou, vs. LSU and vs. Florida.

14. Mississippi State. Rick Ray is doing what he can right now with this Mississippi State team. At some point, as he builds this program, he’ll have to identify more capable offensive players because that's the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness right now (288th in offensive efficiency). He has two players (Roquez Johnson and Fred Thomas) who are averaging double figures. But he needs more.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 14, 2012
12/14/12
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Finally, some movement in the SEC power rankings. Tennessee secured a nice win over a mid-major power Thursday. Ole Miss, however, lost to a non-power-six standout over the weekend. Feels good to finally make a few changes.

1. Florida: If the No. 5 Gators score a convincing win at No. 8 Arizona on Saturday, they could enter next week as a top-three team. They’ve been as dominant as any squad in the country. But the Wildcats will be the toughest team that they’ve faced to date. Arizona is deep enough inside to limit Patric Young’s production, a rare trait for the teams the Gators have played thus far.

2. Missouri: Frank Haith’s squad has one blemish, an 84-61 loss against Louisville on Nov. 23. But the Tigers have yet to play another nationally ranked squad (224th nonconference strength of schedule per ESPN.com’s InsideRPI). That will change Dec. 22 when they face undefeated Illinois.

3. Kentucky: Its most recent wins over Samford and Portland may have helped it recover from the back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor that cost the team its spot in the Associated Press' Top 25. But they’re just appetizers for the Dec. 29 matchup against rival Louisville, the nation’s most efficient defense. Kentucky’s point-guard problems will be scrutinized in the buildup to that game.

4. Texas A&M: This is where the league’s makeup gets murkier. Yes, Elston Turner (16.3 points per game) has led the Aggies to four consecutive wins. But a one-point neutral-site triumph over Washington State is their best victory. Three of the Aggies’ first four SEC games will include roads trips to Kentucky and Alabama, plus a home matchup against Florida. So this streak could end soon.

5. Tennessee: Cuonzo Martin needed Thursday’s night’s 69-60 win over previously undefeated No. 23 Wichita State, and forced 17 turnovers to hand the Shockers their first loss of the season. The Vols have been one of the top defensive teams in the country all season. But they’ve averaged just 39.7 points in their three losses. So putting up 69 and avoiding a third consecutive loss must have been a refreshing moment for Vols fans.

6. Alabama: I think the Crimson Tide (30th in defensive efficiency) will climb these ratings soon. But Alabama has to prove that it belongs in the SEC’s top tier. And a loss at the buzzer against Cincinnati and a follow-up loss to Dayton at home -- 11-for-36 from the 3-point line in the two games -- didn’t help Anthony Grant’s cause. And now that center Carl Engstrom is out for the season, Alabama has one legit center on its roster, Moussa Gueye. But the program can get back on track with a win at Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday.

7. LSU: Friday is a significant day for Johnny Jones’ squad. The undefeated Tigers have registered a 6-0 mark against a weak slate so far. Seton Hall (No. 80) is the only opponent they’ve faced that’s ranked higher than 190th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. And they haven’t left Baton Rouge. So Friday’s matchup at Boise State will be a better barometer for LSU’s progress, especially for a Tigers squad that has somehow gotten away with an average of 18 turnovers per game.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels were off to a furious start until they ran into Middle Tennessee State last weekend. They had recorded 90 or more points in four of their first six games, all wins against mediocre opposition. But they scored just 62 points (5-of-21 from beyond the arc, 17 turnovers) against the Blue Raiders. Beware of inflated statistics in November and December.

9. Arkansas: If the Razorbacks' porous defense (205th in efficiency) matched their offense (80.3 ppg, 19th in the nation), they’d be a contender for the SEC title. But the two aren’t equal. So they continue to prove that they score (82 points in loss to Syracuse, 81 in a victory over Oklahoma) but they really can’t stop anyone.

10. Vanderbilt: A year after contending for the SEC title with the help of a veteran rotation, Kevin Stallings must rely on a multitude of underclassmen this season. And it shows. The Commodores are near the bottom of every meaningful statistical category in the conference. But last week’s 66-64 win at Xavier might mean that the young squad is growing up fast.

11. South Carolina: Frank Martin’s team is 6-3. And with matchups against Appalachian State, Manhattan, Presbyterian and South Carolina State preceding its SEC opener Jan. 9 at Mississippi State, it will probably be 10-3 soon. But the Gamecocks (228th SOS according to ESPN.com’s BPI) could come down to earth once league play begins, especially if they continue to average 19 turnovers per game.

12. Auburn: So, the Tigers have lost five of their past seven games. Not all bad losses. A double-overtime loss against 2-7 Rhode Island and a 49-point effort in a loss to Boston College, however, were. It might be a really tough year for Frankie Sullivan (18.5 ppg) & Co.

13. Mississippi State: Rick Ray is essentially relying on six guys with Jalen Steele sidelined by a wrist injury. So the Bulldogs’ struggles have continued. This is how most rebuilding jobs start. It’s probably going to be a rough season. But Ray has been a successful coach at other stops. He can certainly pull the Bulldogs out of this basement in the coming seasons. The program’s supporters need foresight so that he’s given the proper time and resources to do it.

14. Georgia: When I talked to Mark Fox at the Final Four, he was excited about this team. But it’s hard to have an optimistic outlook on the Bulldogs’ 2012-13 campaign based on how they’ve started. They’ve lost six of their past seven (a streak that includes defeats to Youngstown State, South Florida and Southern Miss) and their only two victories have come against East Tennessee State and Jacksonville.

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