College Basketball Nation: Vanderbilt Commodores

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

Nonconference schedule analysis: SEC

September, 10, 2013
9/10/13
10:45
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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. The NCAA has lacked consistency on granting waivers, whether for an ill relative, in the wake of a coaching firing, following an NCAA violation or any other issue. But the national office cannot, rationally, be inconsistent on waivers when it deals with the same case. If a former Rutgers player is eligible immediately at a new school (Mike Poole at Iona and Vincent Garrett at Green Bay) because he fled the reign of former coach Mike Rice, then a new player (Kerwin Okoro or J.J. Moore) should be granted the same treatment and be allowed to play at Rutgers immediately. Okoro's case, involving the loss of his brother and father, has been well documented -- he clearly has a sympathetic reason to be granted a waiver. But there is a fairness issue for Rutgers that should come into play if departed players are getting a better deal. Two more -- Derrick Randall at Pitt and Eli Carter at Florida -- may also get immediate eligibility. The only break the Scarlet Knights got was when Jerome Seagears was not penalized after he came back to Rutgers from Auburn two months after announcing he would transfer. New Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said Wednesday there is another appeal coming for Okoro, with a different set of eyes and ears to evaluate the grievances. He said he's hopeful there will be a sensible conclusion.

2. Connecticut announced its schedule but not locations for all home games. That's because the Huskies still don't have a deal with their Hartford home, the XL Center. But, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said, "because of timing of transition of management of XL, we are finalizing terms for this year and we will talk long-term arrangement in the near future. We will continue to play games at XL.'' The Huskies have a strong home schedule. UConn hosts headline teams Florida (Dec. 2), Stanford (Dec. 18), Harvard (Jan. 8), Louisville (Jan. 18), Temple (Jan. 21), Memphis (Feb. 15) and Cincinnati (March 1). The only home game on this list that has a designated home court is the Louisville game, at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, because it has been tabbed for ESPN's "College GameDay" and the Saturday prime-time slot.

3. With teams returning from their foreign excursions, follow-up reports are trickling in. Vanderbilt, during its time in Greece and Italy, found out just how much it will rely on guard Dai-Jon Parker; the Commodores were also able to reinforce a pre-trip theory that Tulsa transfer Eric McClellan will be the primary point guard. The staff was also high on the impact of 6-foot-10 center Damian Jones and expects him to be one of the better first-year posts in the SEC (he'll need to be, with players like Kentucky's Julius Randle coming into the league). There is now a chance James Siakam can play power forward, allowing Rod Odom to play his more natural small forward. The hope is that Odom can take care of mismatches at power forward.; Siakam will need to be the glue guy, and can provide the necessary energy. The Commodores have only nine players on scholarship, so this trip was a must to create bonds and give them a head start on what could be a challenging season. Expectations are low, giving Vandy and coach Kevin Stallings plenty of head room to be a surprise in what is a wide-open SEC beyond Kentucky and Florida.
Kevin Stallings' tenure at Vanderbilt has been characterized by stability.

In 14 seasons at Vanderbilt, Stallings hasn't reinvented the wheel. Then again, he hasn't really tried. Staillings' program has been a model of the age-old build-win-rebuild cycle. In 2011-12, the most recent of these cycles ended. Stars John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor, and Festus Ezeli finished their careers after three straight tournament appearances, none of them seeded lower than No. 5; Vandy also lost seniors Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne to graduation. The latest rebuilding valley arrived, but it was hardly a new sensation. Stallings had been there before. In a year or two, the Commodores would be back. They always are.

On Monday, that timeline officially went out the window. That's when, in a school release titled simply "Two matters pertaining to Vanderbilt basketball," the Commodores announced ... two matters pertaining to Vanderbilt basketball. The headline belies their importance. They are:

1. Rising junior guard Kedren Johnson announced -- via an open letter to the public -- that "I have been suspended as a student from Vanderbilt University for one year for a mistake I made, the result of using some very poor judgement. That also means I will not be on the basketball team this upcoming season."

2. The school announced that would-be sophomore guard Kevin Bright, a native of Manheim, Germany, is leaving the school, forgoing the final three years of his collegiate eligibility, and signing a professional contract with the Fraport Skyliners in Fraport, Germany. Stallings explained the move in a statement:
"About a week ago, Kevin went home to attend to his mother, who was ill. Subsequently, he decided that the best thing for he and his family was to sign a professional contract so he could be near her. While the timing of this is very unfortunate, we understand Kevin's desire to be present for his family in this time of need. I do, however, look forward to working with this year's team and overcoming these recent setbacks."

And what setbacks they are. Johnson was without question Vanderbilt's most important player in 2012-13. Not only did he lead the Commodores in scoring, but he consumed a sizable chunk (28 percent) of Vandy's available offensive possessions, posting a tidy 30.4 assist rate in the process. Vanderbilt's offense was ugly last season, but Johnson was never super-efficient. But he was a bright spot, with a big pair of seasons ahead of him.

Bright, though just a freshman last season, was already figuring heavily into the Commdores' long-term plans. He started in his first season on campus, shot 40.6 percent on his 133 3-pointers, and rebounded the ball well on the defensive end. There was a lot to improve, sure, but with another season on his belt, Bright could have morphed into the quintessential Stallings piece. Now he's going to play in Germany instead.

In all, this leaves a young and already regrouping bunch with major roster holes coming into 2013-14. All hope is not lost -- Stallings does have an ESPN 100 player, 21st-ranked power forward Damion Jones, en route. But, well, if you're asking whether losing your best player and your most promising freshman in July of a ladder offseason is bad, I'm here to confirm your suspicions as correct. It's bad. At best, it sets Vanderbilt back one season. At worst, it's far longer.
1. Vanderbilt hasn’t released Sheldon Jeter to his hometown Pitt Panthers yet. It may or may not come. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has never blocked a player from transferring to a specific school in the past. Jeter could be the first. Regardless of whether or not it’s fair to put a block on a player receiving a scholarship in his first year at a new school (blocking doesn’t prevent the player from transferring to a school, but does cloud the process with the NCAA), there is a right and wrong way to depart. Jeter tweeted “Due to some personal issues, I am leaving Vanderbilt University to be closer to my family.’’ According to a source with direct knowledge, he didn’t meet face-to-face with Stallings to tell him he was leaving. Jeter, a freshman forward from Beaver Falls, Pa., isn’t the first nor the last to mishandle a departure. There is a mature way to deal with leaving. Evan Gordon left Arizona State two weeks ago. He went in and told Herb Sendek he was out. The conversation didn’t last more than a few minutes. But at least there was one. Jeter averaged 5.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 17.5 minutes a game. He’ll probably end up at Pitt. He may be on scholarship by next season. Cooler heads may prevail here. But most of the time the reason there is animosity over an exit is the way in which it is handled.

2. Indiana coach Tom Crean said he’s already looking at how the Hoosiers will play next season without Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. He said he still wants to push the tempo and fully expects this team to be offensively effective like last season when the Hoosiers were one of the nation’s best. He’s banking on Will Sheehey continuing to lead and show his work ethic to the young Hoosiers. Expect Yogi Ferrell to team up with Sheehey and newcomer Noah Vonleh as well as Troy Williams as some of the top producers. The player who may surprise more than any other could be Luke Fischer, a 6-9 forward who is considered the most efficient newcomer by the staff and Stanford Robinson, who will add to the depth on the perimeter. Crean said the speed of the game has to be high for the Hoosiers yet again. Look for Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea to be one of the more intriguing early-season battles for Zeller time. The Hoosiers are still looking for one more nonconference game. The Hoosiers are in the 2K Classic in NYC with the likely matchup pitting Indiana against Boston College or Washington to ensure the Hoosiers and UConn are on opposite sides of the bracket. IU plays at Syracuse in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and Notre Dame in Indianapolis.

3. Arizona released its nonconference schedule Thursday and for what should be a top-10 ranked Wildcats team there are a number of challenges: at San Diego State (Nov. 14), hosting UNLV (Dec. 7) and New Mexico State (Dec. 11) and at Michigan (Dec. 14). But the headline event should end up being the NIT Season Tip-Off where Duke is the other primary host with Arizona. Alabama and Rutgers are also hosts. If the home teams hold serve, which doesn’t always happen in the only nonconference neutral-site tournament where you still have to earn a spot with two wins, then a potential Arizona-Duke matchup over Thanksgiving would be the top-10 game the NIT has desperately craved for years. Duke is also playing another high-profile Pac-12 team in New York when it plays UCLA in December.
Sheldon Jeter was promising last season. The Vanderbilt freshman averaged 17.5 minutes and 5.5 points per game for the Commodores in 2012-13, the kind of performance that positioned him as a fulcrum of Vanderbilt's arduous post-John Jenkins/Jeffrey Taylor/Festus Ezeli rebuilding effort. The future was bright.

The only problem? Jeter doesn't want to play at Vanderbilt anymore. On Friday, the Beaver Falls, Pa., native announced his intentions to transfer closer to home "due to personal issues." Bummer, but hey, it happens, right? Transfers are a part of the modern college game, unfortunately. Vanderbilt would have to wave farewell and hope other newcomers could take over Jeter's prospective role.

[+] EnlargeSheldon Jeter
Curtis Wilson/USA TODAY SportsSheldon Jeter would like to transfer to Pittsburgh, which is just 20 minutes from his hometown of Beaver Falls.
If only things were so simple. On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo reported, according to multiple sources, that coach Kevin Stallings was blocking Jeter's transfer to Pittsburgh, which is a 20-minute drive from Beaver Falls, Jeter's hometown. That leaves Jeter and his family to appeal Stallings' decision to Vanderbilt's athletics department brass. If that appeal fails, Jeter will be forced to either find another school or pay Pittsburgh tuition for a season before he can become eligible for a scholarship.

There are a few unknowns here. The first is whether Stallings prevented Jeter from transferring to schools other than Pittsburgh. Another is why Stallings would bother blocking Jeter's transfer to Pittsburgh in the first place. It is not unusual for coaches to stipulate that transfers not be allowed to play for conference opponents or local rivals, but Pitt and Vanderbilt share neither of those connections.

The most frequent off-the-record reason given for this sort of blockage is tampering by the destination program, but there is no evidence of that here. It may well be that Stallings is displeased that his star freshman wants to attend a school that showed interest in him but didn't have a scholarship to offer in 2012-13, especially after Jeter proved himself on Stallings' watch. For their part, the Commodores aren't offering any clarification. When reached by ESPN.com Tuesday afternoon, a Vanderbilt spokesman said only that Stallings "doesn't have any comment."

Whatever the reasons and scope of Stallings' decision, it should not be received well. St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli has never quite recovered from the hit his reputation rightfully took after he stuck little-used transfer Todd O'Brien in NCAA purgatory because, as O'Brien told Sports Illustrated in 2011, Martelli said O'Brien had "wronged him." Bo Ryan came under fire in 2012 for the Jarrod Uthoff transfer saga, in which Wisconsin's hugely restrictive "blocked" list was eventually whittled down thanks in no small part to widespread public outcry.

People get mad when they hear these stories, and for good reason. College basketball coaches are not only wildly compensated, but able to jump from job to job essentially at will, each new buyout clause superseded by the last. College players, meanwhile, must wait a year to play for a new school as a baseline, even if -- as is usually the case -- their request to transfer is granted and their desired school is approved. The fact that coaches have such tight control over the release and eventual destination of a player on a renewable but non-guaranteed one-year scholarship -- a player who can be run off at a moment's notice and still have to sit out a year -- reeks of the NCAA's antiquated patriarchy in its most odious form.

There may be a valid reason for Stallings' decision, at least by his own reckoning. Or maybe the coach just doesn't want to lose a key piece of his rebuilding effort. Maybe he feels betrayed -- "wronged," as Martelli famously put it.

Unfortunately, none of it matters. All we see from the outside is a college coach telling a player he can't go somewhere based on what amounts to a whim. It is the worst possible look.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The NCAA tournament is must-see TV no matter who’s in and who’s out.

The same goes for Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson, whose raw emotion, in-your-face bravado and gunslinger mentality make him one of college basketball’s most entertaining players.

Suffice it to say that Henderson is ready for a little March Madness.

He rebounded from a slow start Saturday to score a game-high 23 points, leading Ole Miss past Vanderbilt 64-52 in the SEC tournament semifinals at Bridgestone Arena.

More importantly, Henderson said there should be absolutely no debate now. In his mind, the Rebels (25-8) are solidly in the Big Dance.

“We’re pumped. We know we made the NCAA tournament now,” Henderson said. “If we didn’t, it would be the biggest snub ever and for the rest of the NCAA tournament.

“We know we made it. We’re in the [SEC] championship and may as well go win it and get us a fat ring.”

[+] EnlargeMarshall Henderson
AP Photo/John BazemoreMarshall Henderson gave Ole Miss fans plenty to scream about last season, including an NCAA tourney win.
Ole Miss will face top-seeded Florida on Sunday in the championship game. It’s the Rebels’ first appearance in the SEC tournament championship game since 2001.

This is the same Ole Miss team that lost to Mississippi State on March 2, the kind of loss that can ruin an entire season. But the Rebels have now won four in a row and six of their past seven, and Henderson said they’re playing their best basketball of the season.

“Everybody in the entire world, even our own fans, thought we were dead and wanted to put our heads on a stake [after the Mississippi State loss],” Henderson said. “We just said, ‘Forget it.’ We really didn’t have any pressure anymore and controlled what we could control.”

There are times when Henderson looks completely out of control. He launches off-balance 3-pointers. He taunts opposing fans (and sometimes the opposing bench) and says exactly what’s on his mind.

The one thing he’s not is boring.

He put on a dribbling exhibition in the final minutes Saturday that Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters would have loved.

“That’s just who I am,” said Henderson, who missed his first five shots Saturday but came roaring back to make seven of his last 12.

He admits that he enjoys being the villain and is keenly aware of what a successful run in the NCAA tournament would do for his legacy.

“People come up to me off the court and talk about this and that,” Henderson said. “Off the court, I like to wear my hat, my hoodie and some shades. It was cool at first, but kind of annoying now. But the last couple of NCAA tournaments, you’ve seen a Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette.

“I’m trying to be them and get a run and make a name for myself ... so I can get this money.”

Noticeably, Henderson wasn’t brought to the podium for the postgame news conference Saturday. That was after he put on a show Friday night.

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy hasn’t wanted to do anything to dampen Henderson’s passion, but Kennedy has reminded him at every turn that he can’t get carried away.

“His passion comes from a good place. It really does,” Kennedy said. “It’s a matter of staying focused. He can easily get distracted and turn his energy into things that are not as productive for anyone.

“I’m constantly challenging him to be focused. I’m really proud of the way he’s grown throughout the course of the year.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A towel draped over his head and his eyes filled with tears, sophomore guard Ryan Harrow sat in a despondent Kentucky locker room Friday night and tried to make sense of a performance that likely sealed the Wildcats’ postseason fate.

Harrow shouldered the blame for Kentucky’s ugly 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, a loss that may well keep the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament for only the second time in the past 22 years.

“I didn’t start off well, and it just trickled down to everybody else. I apologize,” said Harrow, who suffered through a nightmarish 2-of-15 shooting night, many of his misses drives to the basket.

“Of course, we want to get to the [NCAA] tournament, because if we play well, we can beat anybody. I basically just messed it up for us.”

The truth is that he had plenty of help. Nobody played particularly well for Kentucky, while Vanderbilt played lights-out.

The Commodores (16-16) are playing their best basketball of the season, and after being left for dead three weeks ago, have won six of their past seven games.

[+] EnlargeKyle Wiltjer
AP Photo/Dave MartinSophomore Kyle Wiltjer knows UK will have plenty of anxious moments between now and Sunday.
They placed four players in double figures Friday and turned it over only five times, while holding Kentucky to a season-low 48 points.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been as proud of a team as I am this team,” said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose red-hot Commodores will face Ole Miss on Saturday in the semifinals.

Vanderbilt shot 59.1 percent from the field in the first half and built a 14-point halftime lead. That lead swelled to 21 points less than four minutes into the second half, and Kentucky never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way.

As the final seconds ticked down, the Vanderbilt students were taunting the Kentucky team with chants of “NIT, NIT.” Stallings quickly motioned for them to stop, but that’s precisely where the Wildcats may be headed.

Kentucky coach John Calipari almost seemed braced for the worst.

“When you play a game like this, it hurts you,” Calipari said. “But the good news is everyone else is losing, too. So at the end of the day, it will shake out and I trust the [selection] committee to put the right teams in. If we’re in, we’ll play better. And if we’re not in, we’re not. I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it.

“We had an opportunity. It was in our hands to take it out of everybody’s hands, and we didn’t take care of business.

“We laid an egg.”

A smelly one, at that. But Calipari was careful to praise Vanderbilt.

“They had more energy than us,” Calipari said. “I told my team for three days that the hardest thing in tournament play is to have a bye and have a team that’s playing well play a game and then come up against you.

“So it was a combination of everything. I don’t want to take anything away from Vandy. They played great. We laid an egg. We had one guy go 2-for-15 and miss 12 layups.”

Kentucky’s résumé, especially since Nerlens Noel went down with his season-ending injury back on Feb. 12, has been mediocre at best. The Wildcats (21-11) have lost five of their past nine games and haven’t won away from home since they beat Texas A&M on Feb. 2.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped the Wildcats out of his latest projection for the NCAA tournament field and had them among the “first four out.”

The Kentucky players said they will do their best not to think about it until the selection show Sunday night.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult knowing how badly we played,” Kentucky sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “You have to give them credit, but it’s going to be difficult waiting to see if our name is called.”

Video: Vanderbilt 64, Kentucky 48

March, 15, 2013
3/15/13
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Dai-Jon Parker, with 12 points, led four players in double figures as Vanderbilt bounced Kentucky from the SEC tournament, 64-48, and dealt the defending national champs' NCAA tourney hopes a blow.

Video: Florida 66, Vanderbilt 40

March, 7, 2013
3/07/13
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Kenny Boynton had 15 points for No. 11 Florida in a 66-40 win against visiting Vanderbilt.

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.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

February, 1, 2013
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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.
1. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher watched the Fresno State game on the bus ride home late Wednesday night and kept rewinding Jamaal Franklin's Dominique Wilkins-esque dunk over and over and over again. Franklin threw the ball off the backboard, caught his own rebound and flushed. “He’s a very, very aggressive player. He’s not afraid to take chances. He helps us be productive and it turned out to be a pretty spectacular play.’’ Franklin scored 20 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the three-point MWC opening win. Meanwhile, Fisher is concerned about the injury to Xavier Thames, who sat out the Fresno State game with a back injury. Fisher started Winston Shepard in his place and he had seven assists and two turnovers. Meanwhile, forward JJ O'Brien took a tumble and was limited to 17 minutes. Fisher said he’s not sure about O’Brien’s availability either for Saturday’s game against Colorado State.

2. Boise State coach Leon Rice is in no rush to reinstate the four suspended players -- leading scorer Derrick Marks and reserves Michael Thompson, Kenny Buckner and Darrious Hamilton -- after the Broncos beat Wyoming on the road Wednesday night in Laramie. The Broncos don’t play again until Wednesday at home against New Mexico. Rice is letting the four practice. He said the suspension had nothing to do with drugs or violence, but he will not compromise on character decisions. Good for him.

3. The latest officiating controversy came during the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game when a shot-clock violation was missed by the officiating crew. The bucket scored by Nerlens Noel to give the Wildcats a 60-55 lead ended up being the difference in a 60-58 final. A shot-clock violation can’t be reviewed, despite the plea by Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings. This is yet another rule change that must be reviewed in the offseason. These kinds of calls need to be corrected. It may slow up the game but coaches, players and fans would rather the calls be right than clearly wrong when everyone but the officials has access to review the video.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
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Well, here we go again. My latest attempt to rank SEC teams. Enjoy. Or cry. Either would be appropriate with this conference right now.

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

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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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.

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