There is a week or so of non-conference basketball remaining before the Southeastern Conference shifts into league play but bowl games are likely to dominant the headlines for the next several days. So it’s as good a time as any to evaluate where the league stands which, roughly speaking, is in limbo.
There doesn’t appear to be a dominant team. Auburn has been the most consistent and has survived some close calls against a schedule that has consisted largely of good mid-majors. The Tigers beat South Alabama on a buzzer-beater and edged Furman in overtime. The reason AU isn’t more highly-rated, given its unblemished record, is the lack of a marquee Power 5 win in one of the preseason events that attract the most national attention. A home win over North Carolina State is good but doesn’t move the needle much. Given its fast start, postseason experience and formidable home court advantage, the Tigers appear to be a logical choice as favorite.
The rest of the picture is jumbled. Preseason favorites Florida and Kentucky can look good at times and perplexingly unsteady on offense at other times. The Gators pounding Providence was a high point and may be a sign of a team with new talent starting to coalesce. (Saturday’s loss to Utah State did nothing to polish that impression.) Kentucky seems to inevitably do so despite its annual roster revamping but it hasn’t happened yet and the Wildcats don’t seem to have the sort of backcourt superstar that John Calipari usually has in his arsenal. You never write off Kentucky, of course, but it’s not clear who is going to carry the scoring load.
Last year’s other two power teams, Tennessee and LSU, are encountering what most programs endure at one time or another — the players on hand aren’t as good as the ones from the year before. That doesn’t mean there is no talent left. There’s just going to be an inevitable drop off when Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams are no longer available. A season-ending shoulder injury suffered by guard Lamonte Turner on Saturday doesn’t help the Volunteer cause either. The same thing goes for LSU which has its usual athletic starting five but no presence like Naz Reid around the basket or Tremont Waters on the point.
The other two NCAA Tournament teams from 2019, when the SEC had seven participants, were the Mississippi schools. Both have been pretty good in the preseason but not great. MSU has a loss to Villanova and some middling wins. Ole Miss has a nice neutral court victory over Penn State and also a horrible 79-37 loss to Oklahoma State.
Of the seven teams that missed the tournament last year, Arkansas is probably in the best shape with a 9-1 record against a weak schedule. Missouri did get a good win over Illinois on Saturday and isn’t out of the picture. Alabama is improving and has a solid strength of schedule but needs more wins. The remaining four teams — Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Texas A&M — need more than that.
The overall results so far have put the SEC at fifth overall in the league ratings by Ken Pomeroy. Last year, by comparison, the SEC was third. There isn’t a direct correlation between league strength and NCAA bids but the SEC profile so far looks more like a five-bid league than the seven-bid powerhouse from a year ago.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt