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Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Once again, Wildcats the class of SEC

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

John Wall
John Wall has dazzled so far this season, leading Kentucky to a 12-0 record.

Favorite: Kentucky
The Wildcats have had their moments of angst, allowing the likes of Miami (Ohio), Stanford and Sam Houston State to hang around way too long. Still, when the games mattered most -- against North Carolina and Connecticut -- the Wildcats have risen to the challenge. Patrick Patterson has been an All-American inside while John Wall has been a stud on the perimeter. DeMarcus Cousins has shown flashes of being a sensational talent inside. The role play has been solid. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement and the Wildcats will likely get nipped on the road a few times, but they are clearly the favorite to win the league title.

Most surprising team: Florida
Even though Florida has struggled in its past three games (losing to South Alabama at home is rather inexcusable), the Gators are still a surprise overall in the conference. Beating Florida State wasn't a total shock since the game was at home, but it's still a quality win. And taking out then-No. 2 Michigan State in New Jersey was a stunner at the time. The Gators have proven that they can knock off big-time teams, and they'll need to do that going forward in the SEC if they are to avoid a third straight NIT appearance.

Most disappointing team: Vanderbilt
I considered South Carolina in this spot but the Gamecocks have been at a disadvantage without forward Dominique Archie. Vandy hasn't had that kind of issue. The Commodores looked good early, squeezing out a win at Saint Mary's and then handily beating Arizona in Maui followed by a win over Missouri at home. There's no shame in losing to Illinois on the road but the loss to Western Kentucky stings a bit. The problem the Dores will likely face is whether they did enough in the nonconference to earn an NCAA berth if they don't have enough quality wins in the SEC. Maybe this is a hard judgment of the Dores, but they just haven't been at the level I thought they would be at this juncture.

Mystery team: LSU
The Tigers have one of the best players in the league in Tasmin Mitchell. Don't sleep on Mitchell, Bo Spencer and coach Trent Johnson. The Tigers could find a way to be trouble.

Best player: John Wall, Kentucky
The freshman guard is averaging 17.8 points, seven assists and four boards through his first dozen games. Wall has been quite a bookend player, performing well at the beginning and end of games with a few lulls in the middle. He was stellar in closing out Miami (Ohio) with the winning shot, helped the Wildcats beat Stanford in overtime in Cancun, Mexico, and started strong and hit the game winner to beat Connecticut at Madison Square Garden. He then came up big in the beginning and end of a cramp-plagued game against North Carolina. He's easily one of the top four candidates for national player of the year honors prior to Jan. 1.

Chris Warren
Chris Warren has turned in some impressive performances for Ole Miss this season.

Top performance: Chris Warren, Ole Miss
Warren has shown no signs of fading after coming back from an ACL injury. He had quite a day in Puerto Rico, scoring 27 points in a victory over Kansas State back in November. But his best performance was against UTEP last week in Southaven, Miss., in a 91-81 overtime victory. Warren was 7-of-16 overall, 5-of-10 on 3s, 13-of-15 on free throws for 32 points, three assists and a steal.

Strangest score: Auburn, several times
Not sure where to begin with the rebuilding Tigers. They were the surprise team late last season in making a surge toward a possible NCAA bid. But they've flailed this season, losing at home to Troy and Sam Houston State. The 22-point loss by Tennessee at USC was a strange score. But if the Trojans end up being relevant in the Pac-10, the margin won't be as shocking.

What you might not have realized: South Carolina has not had Dominique Archie since he suffered a season-ending knee injury in a loss to Miami on Nov. 22, taking away the Gamecocks' main inside threat. If South Carolina is to make the NCAAs, it will largely be a result of Devan Downey's putting the team on his shoulders.

Reason to brag: Kentucky's freshmen class has lived up to the hype. The Wildcats have multiple future pros and players whom other teams would covet in a second. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Darnell Dodson all will have and have had their moments this season.

Reasons to worry: Florida's struggles of late could catch up to the Gators again. Mississippi State still doesn't know if it's ever going to get Renardo Sidney eligible and that will continue to leave a void for the Bulldogs. In Tennessee's case, the Vols looked lost in the defeat at USC and their defense has yet to be dominant.

Who's going dancing: The most consistent teams and my locks at this point are Kentucky and Ole Miss. I expect Tennessee and Mississippi State to receive bids. Florida should be there as well for at least five squads in the Big Dance. That's up from three a year ago. Vandy is the X factor at this point with the Gamecocks and LSU likely long shots.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.