We, your esteemed voters on the SEC Hoops Power Poll, have elected to conduct a roundtable. Here are the rules: I post questions and answers, and you answer in the comments section. Other blogs that participate in the poll will post their answers at their sites and link in the comments. I'll compile a roundup in a week or two.
1. The SEC was very weak last year. Most predicted that it would rebound this year. Has that happened? Why or why not?
Yes and no. The conference is definitely stronger than last year. We got some notable out-of-conference victories and project to place more teams in the NCAAs. At the same time, the conference still seems to be a little bit down, particularly the Western Division, where the Auburn Tigers, the LSU Tigers, and, to a lesser degree, the Alabama Crimson Tide are all struggling quite mightily. The Georgia Bulldogs are also having a lot of trouble this year; competitive or not, they're losing a lot of games. Moreover, outside of the Kentucky Wildcats, the conference doesn't appear to have any teams that exactly inspire confidence in a deep tournament run. All in all, the conference is better than last year, but still far from the Big East.
2. The national buzz on the conference is definitely focused on Kentucky, who have lived up to their preseason billing as the conference's best team and a national contender. Do the 'Cats have what it takes to win a national title? Why or why not?
I think so. The 'Cats certainly have as much talent as any team in the country. Their only enemy, as many have noted, is themselves. They've played lackadaisically at times, and perhaps more worrisome, they wilted down the stretch when challenged by the South Carolina Gamecocks. The team seems to lack the mental toughness to match its incredible talent. However, the 'Cats are seemingly unbeatable when playing their best, and if they can transcend whatever it is that has held them back at time, they can make a very deep tournament run. They've got time to learn the lessons they need to learn, and I think you'll see a very good team come tourney time.
3. In addition to Kentucky, which other teams will make the NCAAs? Will we see any surprises here, i. e., will anyone--barring an SECT surprise--other than Kentucky, the Tennessee Volunteers, the Vanderbilt Commodores, the Florida Gators, the Mississippi Rebels, and the Mississippi St. Bulldogs make it?
In addition to Kentucky, I think the Vols and Commodores are definitely going to make it. I also think the two Mississippi teams will probably make it, although there's a bit more uncertainty there, especially with both teams dropping a game to the Arkansas Razorbacks. Late-season struggles could keep either of those two out. The Gators are even more of a wildcard to me; they just don't seem to be playing at the level you would expect from such a talented team, and with a tough SEC East schedule to wade through, they're probably still facing several losses. I think the Gators will be right on the bubble on selection Sunday and can see it going either way. The only other team I think has a chance is South Carolina, and that's an unqualified longshot. The Gamecocks have played well lately, but they didn't do much in the non-con and you have to wonder how many more big games Devan Downey can manage to win for the 'Cocks. Arkansas has also heated up lately, but they were awful in the non-con and probably aren't good enough to pick up many wins outside the West.
4. What is the biggest surprise so far this season? Why?
You could make an argument for South Carolina's competitiveness, but I would probably go with Arkansas's play over the past couple of weeks. This is a team that struggled in the non-con and was compltely dismantled by Kentucky. The Hogs have bounced back, though, and are in position to win the West if they continue to play well down the stretch. That was almost unthinkable at one point in the season, when Arky looked like the conference's worst team by far.
5. Who is the player of the year so far? Why?
I may sound like a homer here, but my vote goes to Devan Downey. Although it's a bit of a longshot, Downey oftentimes scores around or more than half of his team's points. He leads the league in scoring and is in the nation's top five. He has done all this while being the clear focus of opponent's defensive strategies. That makes him at the very least the league's most valuable player. If South Carolina makes the NCAA tournament, which, while a longshot, is possible now, I think Downey absolutely deserves SEC Player of the Year and serious consideration for All-American teams.