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Tuesday, January 8, 2013
SEC primer: It's a three-team race

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

On Tuesday night, the SEC will kick off its conference season when Alabama and No. 10 Missouri meet in Columbia. The SEC hopes to salvage its reputation after a disappointing start to the 2012-13 campaign.

All you need to know is that this is a league with multiple losses to the SWAC.

The favorite: I still like Florida.

Erik Murphy
Erik Murphy was a first-team All-SEC selection last season at Florida.

Yes, you can make an argument for Missouri. And I like Kentucky as a dark horse based on how it's played in the past three weeks. But this is the Gators' title to lose. I'm saying that with the assumption that Erik Murphy's rib injury will not hinder him for an extended amount of time. Florida needs him, but it can survive for the two weeks he might miss (Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M before a Jan. 19 home matchup against Missouri). The 6-foot-10 forward, the team's second-leading scorer and a threat from the perimeter, is one of the main reasons I've elevated Florida over Missouri and Kentucky.

He's the toughest matchup in this league. He extends Florida's potent offense.

All three teams rely on strong guard play, but I'll take Florida's experience and depth -- even with Kenny Boynton's and Mike Rosario's inconsistencies -- over their rivals' backcourts. And then, there's Patric Young inside and capable reserves Casey Prather and Will Yeguete.

It's a balanced attack (fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency, ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). And it suffered both of its losses outside of the state in matchups against squads (Arizona, Kansas State) that are better than we realized then.

Other contenders: Well, the SEC is ranked seventh in Pomeroy's conference ratings because it just doesn't have many teams that seem to be equipped for the title hunt other than Kentucky, Missouri and Florida.

Kentucky: Two weeks ago, I watched the SEC's best team nearly knock off Louisville on the road. Now, the Wildcats don't seem to realize yet that they can be the SEC's best team if they overcome their struggles with continuity and chemistry, two traits that have propelled past Kentucky squads to the Final Four. But the program that finished that loss at Louisville by turning a 17-point deficit into a two-point game could compete with any team in this conference. And this team's recent acceleration -- the Wildcats have won five of their past six games -- is tied to Ryan Harrow's growth. He has 31 assists and nine turnovers this season. It's beginning to feel as though the Wildcats have the on-floor leader they've been searching for all season. Willie Cauley-Stein has the potential to be more than just an energy guy. Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin can get to the basket at will. And the Wildcats have the SEC's most efficient defense (fourth in Pomeroy's rankings). In a league that really doesn't have a team that's separated itself from the pack, Kentucky is not just a sleeper for the SEC crown. It's a legitimate contender, assuming this trajectory continues.

Missouri: The Tigers should be the best team in the conference. But I don't think they are. The pieces are certainly there for Frank Haith. Phil Pressey is one of the top point guards in America. They have a potent presence in the post with Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi. Earnest Ross (33 percent) and Jabari Brown (35 percent) are both capable of hitting shots beyond the 3-point line. But Missouri's defense (53rd in adjusted defensive efficiency per Pomeroy) could hinder its pursuit of the title. This team has been on the ropes multiple times this season and suffered a lopsided loss to Louisville. Still, it's just as much of a contender as Kentucky and Florida. The Tigers' greatest challenge continues to be their response in clutch situations, which often includes Pressey and more Pressey. That's worked a few times during the nonconference season. But the guard will need help as Missouri battles the league's best in the coming weeks.

The other, other contenders: I like Tennessee as a sleeper as long as its offense wakes up when necessary (117th in Pomeroy's efficiency rankings). But the Vols haven't done that enough thus far, and Jeronne Maymon's redshirt certainly affects their potential. Ole Miss (83.1 PPG) and Arkansas (82.9) might have the offensive firepower to make matchups against the top contenders interesting. And the Rebels are ranked 35th in defensive efficiency per Pomeroy. Both programs are intriguing. I'll mention Alabama here because Trevor Lacey and Trevor Releford comprise one of the league's most talented duos. But the Crimson don't have much time to address their ills, and they'll have to do it without injured big man Carl Engstrom.

Player of the year (so far): Pressey, Missouri. Few teams rely on a player as much as Haith has depended upon Pressey. But Pressey has willingly accepted the challenge. He's averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals and leads the SEC with 34.5 minutes per game, too. He's connected on 36.1 percent of his 3s and 79 percent of his free throws (his offensive rating of 106.3 is 10th in the SEC among players with a usage rate of 24 percent or higher).

That's a fancy way of saying that Pressey is the man in the SEC. Missouri goes to him often, and he delivers. I think there's a lot of balance among the top three contenders. But Pressey is the key reason the Tigers have to be considered in the championship conversation. He'll help this program avoid dicey situations in league play and escape tight games with wins. He's that good.

Other contenders: Bowers, Missouri; Kenny Boynton, Florida; Archie Goodwin, Kentucky; BJ Young, Arkansas; Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia; Trevor Releford, Alabama.

Freshman of the year (so far): While Harrow was away from the team, Kentucky turned to Goodwin when it needed a point guard. The versatile freshman seems more comfortable on the wing now that Harrow is back at point guard, but that stretch showcased Goodwin's versatility. He's averaging 15.8 points (seventh in the SEC) and 3.8 assists (seventh in the SEC). And he's shooting 47 percent from the field.

Plus, he shines under the bright lights. He had 22 points against Louisville and 16 points against Duke. Yes, the Wildcats lost those games. But Goodwin has already proved that he's the kind of kid whom opposing coaches need to monitor at all times. He's dangerous.

Other contenders: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky; Alex Poythress, Kentucky; Gavin Ware, Mississippi State.

Wins to brag about: Kentucky over Maryland in Brooklyn; Missouri over VCU in the Bahamas and over Illinois in St. Louis; Florida over Marquette at home; Tennessee over Wichita State at home.

Losses that sting: Mississippi State to Alabama A&M at home; Texas A&M to Southern at home; Missouri at UCLA; Alabama to Mercer at home; Ole Miss at Middle Tennessee; Auburn to Rhode Island at home; Georgia to Youngstown State at home; Vanderbilt to Marist in Old Spice Classic.

Phil Pressey
Phil Pressey will need help if Missouri is going to win the SEC.

Pleasant surprises: Missouri lost the bulk of its starting rotation from last season, and Michael Dixon left the program before he'd played a game this season. And the Tigers still managed to evolve into a top-10 team with an 11-2 record during their first season in the SEC, even though they're mostly relying on new faces. LSU has played an easy nonconference schedule. But coach Johnny Jones is off to a 9-2 start in his first season with the program. And the Tigers' only losses have come on the road against Marquette and Boise State, a pair of teams that could crack the field of 68 in March.

Biggest disappointments: You could write this entire section about Kentucky. Part of the problem was that the bar was probably too high before the season began. But John Calipari has won with youngsters throughout his tenure, and he has another talented crew of future draft picks this season, though chemistry issues have led to Kentucky's 9-4 start and its absence from the polls. Jeronne Maymon's knee injury, which ultimately led to a redshirt, was a big blow to the program. But Tennessee missed key opportunities (Georgetown, Oklahoma State, Virginia) simply because its offense was so awful. Alabama returned most of its starters from the 2011-12 NCAA tournament team. But the Crimson Tide have gone from SEC preseason contender to a major disappointment. Injuries (Carl Engstrom, Andrew Steele) haven't helped. But the team's lackluster offense has been the biggest issue during its 2-5 record in its past seven games. Georgia was supposed to take a step forward this season, but the 6-7 Bulldogs have gone in the opposite direction. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a special player, but he'll need help if he's going to lead Georgia out of the SEC's basement.

Three questions going forward:

Will Kentucky figure it out and make a run at the SEC title?

Maybe. I think the Wildcats are better than they were a month ago, when they lost back-to-back games to Notre Dame and Baylor, and they fell from the polls. And they're still ridiculously talented. Any team that can battle Louisville in Louisville the way Kentucky did Dec. 29 can compete with the nation's best.

But, as Calipari continues to preach, the Wildcats won't reach their full potential unless they learn how to play together. Their chemistry has improved, so that's a good sign for this young team's future.

Is Missouri a top-10 team?

No. I think the Tigers hide behind Pressey's clutch performances and overall production. This is a Missouri squad that was crushed by Louisville and blew a late lead against a young UCLA team. The Tigers struggled again when they faced Bucknell on Saturday.

Yes, the Tigers are good. And they're a legit contender for the SEC crown. But they're ranked too high in the latest polls.

Can Boynton be trusted to lead the Gators to the SEC title?

Yes. The guard hasn't always delivered for the Gators (2-for-10, five points in 65-64 loss at Arizona on Dec. 15). But overall, he's been the catalyst for Billy Donovan's program. It's not always pretty, but his star power overshadows his inconsistency.

Revised predictions:

1. Florida: Erik Murphy gets healthy and the Gators finish 3-1 in four matchups against contenders Missouri and Kentucky on their way to the league title.
2. Kentucky: The Wildcats emerge as Florida's biggest threat as Harrow continues to improve and help their NBA-level talent challenge Florida for the SEC crown.
3. Missouri: The Tigers use their depth to stay in the mix all season, but defensive challenges lead to a third-place finish.
4. Tennessee: Jarnell Stokes and Co. score in spurts but play solid defense, so they're competitive most nights.
5. Ole Miss: The Rebels aren't talented or deep enough to slay the top three teams, but they're better overall than the rest of the seemingly mediocre assembly in the SEC.
6. Arkansas: BJ Young positions the Razorbacks to win a few games that they probably shouldn't and dismiss most of the SEC's bottom tier.
7. Alabama: The Crimson Tide's free fall continues as they deal with the interior gap created by Engstrom's injury and play porous defense that costs them in tight games.
8. LSU: A mediocre nonconference slate will cost the Tigers in conference play, but Johnny Jones will lead his new team to a respectable finish.
9. Texas A&M: Solid defense will be enough to contend with lower-level squads, but a sputtering offense will result in more losses than wins.
10. Georgia: Caldwell-Pope will have a few elite performances that lead to wins in games the Bulldogs should lose, but that strategy won't work most nights.
11. South Carolina: Brenton Williams helps the Gamecocks stay alive in multiple games, but turnovers (17.3 per game) ensure that the majority don't end in South Carolina's favor.
12. Vanderbilt: This young squad gets into trouble when Kedren Johnson is blanketed by multiple defenders against teams that know he's Vandy's only true offensive threat.
13. Auburn: An upset or two at home seems possible, but on the road, the Tigers will suffer a string of losses that push them toward the bottom of the SEC standings.
14. Mississippi State: Rick Ray's short-handed program will fall short of victory on most evenings and will try to use the season as a learning experience.