A conference pecking order has definitely begun to develop as we prepare to enter conference play. Tennessee and Florida appear to be unquestionably the conference's best teams. Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU, and South Carolina all appear to be fairly solid teams that will compete for spots in the Big Dance. Vanderbilt, Alabama, and maybe Auburn and Mississippi State might compete for the NIT. UGA and Ole Miss (the Rebels due to injuries) appear to be just plain bad.
The Vols' win over Georgetown earlier in the season remains one of the most impressive OOC victory by any SEC squad, probably second only to Arkansas's recent win over Oklahoma. The Vols have also beaten good Marquette and Belmont teams. However, the Vols have been shaky at times, losing to Gonzaga, at Temple, and most recently at rebuilding Kansas. The Vols, though, have played a brutal OOC schedule and have probably done as well as could be expected considering the level of the competition. This is still the club to beat in the SEC and that will show when conference play begins.
The Gators solidified their hold on the second spot after scoring a hard fought victory over a decent NC State team. Nick Calathes has taken his game to the next level and is a solid leader for this young but extremely talented team.
All that talk about Arkansas being in rebuilding mode this year? Now that the Hogs have taken down top-five and formerly unbeaten Oklahoma en route to racing to an 11-1 record, we can forget about that. Rating the Hogs third in the conference might be giving them a little too much credit; this is still a young team that lost a game to Missouri State and won nail-biters against a couple of other lowly opponents. However, what I see is a team that's quickly coming together and effectively playing John Pelphrey's up-tempo brand of basketball. This is a definitely a team to watch as the season progresses. And who would have thought Marcus Monk could play basketball so well?
4. South Carolina
Placing the Gamecocks above Kentucky may be something of a homer pick on my part, but you have to admit that (1) the Gamecocks are playing better than advertised and (2) the Cats are clearly underperforming after losing four games in OOC play, although you do have to give them credit for playing a tough slate.
As I write this, the Cats have just dropped a heart-breaker to rival Louisville. Jodie Meeks played another great game and made a couple of free throws to tie the game late, but the Cardinals hit a late shot of their own to take the lead and the game. The Cats could have used this victory for their resume, as they now go into conference play with four losses and without a marquee OOC win. That may come back to haunt them come Selection Sunday. However, this is still a solid team that will make a run for the NCAAs during conference play. Meeks and Patrick Patterson are two of the conference's best players.
The Tigers have amassed a nice record and appear to have a solid team. However, their best victory came over a rebuilding Washington State team, so we've yet to really see what these Tigers are capable of.
The Commodores appear to be a decent team, but like others, they really haven't notched any distinguishing victories.
The Tide picked up a win over a bad Georgia Tech team. I'm still amazed that a team with Alonzo Gee and Ronald Steele in its backcourt can't produce more than these guys, but it seems to be the case that this just isn't a very good team.
Don't look now, but what appeared to be the conference's worst team at one point now has a little winning streak going on. Granted, the wins have come against cupcakes and an ACC also-ran, but wins are wins for this Auburn team. Jeff Lebo appears to be doing a good job of getting the most out of a thin roster. He does it by getting them to force opponents to play play their game, which is a more methodical half-court style than what you see with most teams these days. While Auburn is clearly not a very good team this year, they are a team that could play spoiler to others, as their ability to force their will upon opponents on their good days could disrupt some better teams.
10. Mississippi State
The rebuilding Bulldogs lost in OT to San Diego this past week but also picked up a convincing win against a decent Houston team. Not a good team, but not terrible, either.
11. Ole Miss
Lowly Southern Miss smacked the depleted Rebels this past week and all indications are that this team will struggle mightily to win more than half their games.
The Dawgs played a decent Mizzou team tough in a losing effort this past week, but this is still a team that lost to Texas A&M Corpus-Christi.