South Carolina Basketball: How do the Cocks Stack Up Against the SEC? (Hoops Power Rankings)

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As the young basketball season heads into the December exam hiatus -- the Gamecocks' break began back on December 5 -- now is as good a chance as ever to size up the rest of the SEC competition.

Since the brain trust in Hoover has abandoned divisional play in basketball (mostly because the Western Division was so awful that it was screwing up seeding in the SEC tournament), we'll be scratching and clawing with the other 11 teams for a unified season championship - though we still play our old Eastern rivals in the traditional home-and-home format. Here is my take on how the rest of the conference stacks up.

Upper Division

1. Kentucky (8-1). Don't be fooled by Saturday's close loss (73-72) to the Hoosiers at Bloomington (I remember when this game used to be played to sell-out crowds at the old RCA Dome in Indianapolis, so its a bit impressive that Kentucky agreed to play in Assembly Hall - call it noblesse oblige). UK is still the strongest, deepest and best team in the nation - and they've played a strong out-of-conference schedule to back it up, including IU, KU and UNC. The 'Cats will be the favorites to win the both the regular season championship and the SEC Tournament, and you can almost certainly pencil them in as a top seed in the NCAA Tournament; it's literally a team of future lottery picks - Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It will take a miracle of Old Testament proportions for the Cocks to pull off an upset on 1.7.12 at Rupp Arena, or home on 2.4.12.

2. Florida (7-2). Billy Donovan's club has only lost to Ohio State and Syracuse (when both were # 3) - which is nothing to be ashamed about - but then redeemed themselves with a hard-fought win over 'Zona in OT. The Gators have as good a backcourt as anyone (Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Brad Beal) but are small in the frontline which will probably catch up with them against other top echelon teams. No matter what, UF is an elite squad and will be one of the few able to challenge UK in SEC play, not to mention a chance to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The Cocks will have to sneak up on the Gators on an off-night just to hope for a split on the season series - 1.14.12 in Columbia and 2.2.12 in Gainesville. I am not holding my breath - the Gators are now # 12 in both polls.

3. Vanderbilt (6-3). This 'Dores squad is better than their record indicates. Originally everyone's pre-season darling (e.g., Dick Vitale ranked Vandy at # 5 in his pre-season poll), the Commodores laid an egg losing to Cleveland State in their second game, and recent back-to-back losses to Xavier and Louisville have taken some additional shine off the season. In Vandy's defense, the Black and Gold have been without 6'11" C Festus Ezeli -- who has been suspended by the NCAA until December 17. The Nigerian big man will join G John Jenkins, who might just be the best guard in the SEC - which is saying something when you look at UF and UK's talent. We play the 'Dores at home on 1.10.12 (our second SEC game) and at Nashville late in the season on 2.22; we'll have to hope we catch them on one of their down nights to have a shot at earning a 1-1 split on the season. The Dores are currently un-ranked, but look for them to reenter the top 25 by the the New Year, and to make up ground fast after that; if Vandy plays erratically, however, they'll be eclipsed by MSU and Bama faster than you can say "Cornelius".

4. Mississippi State (9-1). Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs are cruising through out-of-conference play, with a loss to the Akron Zips as the only blemish -- which has been more than offset by convincing wins over ranked Arizona and Texas A&M teams, and also an easy victory over West Virginia. If there was some grumbling in Starkville that MSU missed post-season action last year, it's pretty clear the Maroon and White will be playing in March barring a total collapse during league play. MSU has a pair of solid frontline players in F Arnett Moultrie and F Renardo Sindey, and Senior 3G Dee Bost can flat light it up. We play State late in the season on 2.29.12. The Bulldogs are currently ranked # 18 by ESPN USA Today and # 17 in the AP.

5. Alabama (7-2) The Tide are currently ranked # 15 by ESPN/USA Today (#16 in the AP), and Bama fans might convincingly argue that they are a better squad than Vandy or MSU, though back-to-back upset losses to Georgetown and Dayton in the last two games means that Anthony Grant's team is going to tumble a bit when the next polls are released. All that notwithstanding, Bama is fearsome at Coleman Coliseum (having won 24 in a row at home before losing to the Hoyas) and has a resume of quality out-of-conference wins so far, including victories over Maryland, Wichita State, Purdue and VCU. I really admire the Tide's schedule - they will take on Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech later this month. With F JaMychal Greene and F Tony Mitchell, not to mention Grant's coaching, I don't expect the Tide's bubble will be burst next March like it was in early 2011. We play Big Al on 1.25.12 - fortunately at the Colonial Life Arena - but it will take more to beat the Tide than we have shown so far.

6. Mississippi (6-1). Ole Miss is the final team in the upper-division, though the Rebels will have to work hard to maintain that position. The Rebs have played a decent out-of-conference schedule, with wins over Miami, Penn State, TCU and DePaul, and only one loss against a ranked Marquette club on the road; they just crushed Mississippi Valley State 80-56 (compare that the Cocks' come-from-behind 61-57 win over Valley if you want a measuring stick between USC and Ole Miss). It's painful to see Murphy Holloway averaging just under 10 rebounds per game for Colonel Reb - er, I mean Rebel Black Bear (Ed. - Just who is the Bear rebelling against again? The Yankees? Or Colonel Reb? I still would have preferred Admiral Akbar); Murphy also had the winning bucket against DePaul to add a little salt to our wounds. We have to travel to Oxford on 1.25.12; it's likely the Rebels will be heavy favorites at Tad Smith Coliseum, so we will have to hope to steal one from them.

Lower Division

7. Arkansas (5-3). The Hogs have played a fairly anemic out-of-conference schedule, with losses to Houston, UConn and Oklahoma. In fairness, however, we should note that the Razorbacks lost for the season their lead scorer and top returning re-bounder from last year, F Marshawn Powell (6'7") - to a knee injury in a practice before the Houston game. Note that Arky still managed to whip Mississippi Valley State 97-64 without Powell; the Hogs' next common opponent with us will be Southeast Louisiana, so we need to keep an eye on that game by way of a measuring stick. USC has to travel to the Bud Walton Arena on 2.11.12, three days after we play at UT at Knoxville. As with the Rebels, we'll likely be heavy underdogs. I'd be shocked if Mike Anderson didn't make the post-season in his first season at Fayetteville.

8. Louisiana State (6-3). The Bayou Bengals haven't played anyone spectacular in OOC play, but have quality wins over Western Kentucky, Houston, Georgia Tech and Rutgers, only dropping to Northwestern (no dishonor), Coastal Carolina (hmmm) and South Albama (sheesh). Well, who are the Gamecocks to sneer? LSU's wins prove that they'll be a tough nut to crack; fortunately we get them this year at the Colonial Life Arena and not at the Pete Maravich Center. This has got to be a must-win if we want a shot at post-season play. At the end of last season I said that LSU coach Trent Johnson's seat was just as hot as Darrin Horn's, but I think LSU will make the NIT, which will cool the heat down appreciably for Trent.

9. Auburn (5-1). Second year coach Tony Barbee's Tigers have played the fewest games in the SEC, swallowing four cupcakes before getting blown-out by Seton Hall 81-59, in Newark. We play the Plainsmen on 1.21.12 at the Auburn Arena. It's not too soon to call this game a must-win, since we'll have already played UK, Vandy and UF in succession in the preceding three games, and we may easily be 0-3 in league play before we limp into the loveliest little village in the greater Phenix City/Opelika/Ft. Benning Metropolitan Area. The jury is still out on this Tiger club.

10. Tennessee (3-5). The Vols have the same record as us, but three of first year coach Cuonzo Martin's losses are to Duke, Memphis and Pitt -- all top clubs -- and the Vols extended the Memphis Tigers to 2 OT (true - UT has also dropped games to weak-sisters Oakland and Austin Peay, but the Memphis game shows Rocky Top is not the worst team in the league. The Vols are probably not going to sniff post-season, but Coach Martin is going to sneak up on some folks with Bruce Pearl's old squad. The Vols play Bobby Cremmins' (7-1) CofC Cougars next week in Charleston, which will be a great test for UT. We play at venerable Thompson-Boling arena (where I saw REM play in '87!) on 2.8.12 and we host the Vols two weeks later in Columbia on 2.25.12. If I sound like I'm repeating myself I am - we need to win both.

11. Georgia (4-5). At Thanksgiving, second-year coach Mark Fox's Bulldogs were a respectable 4-2, but licking their wounds from blow-out losses to ranked Xavier and Cal-Berkeley; unfortunately, it got much worse for the Classic City Canines after Turkey Day, with the wheels coming off in back-to-back-to-back losses to Colorado, Cincinnati and (worst of all) Georgia Tech. Say what you will, the losses were all against power-conference clubs; the Red and Black take on Southern Cal next, which will be an interesting game to use a measuring stick. We host the Dawgs in a must-win at the Colonial Life Arena on 2.15.12, and travel to Stegeman for the final game of the regular season on 3.3.12 - another must-win. Barring a repeat of the '08 Dream Dawgs run through the SEC Tourney, this young UGA team is going to miss the post-season.

12. South Carolina (3-5). Lest you think I'm an anti-Horn partisan, and intentionally dissing the Cocks, I will say that the bottom three slots (the dreaded fourth quartile!) were a toss-up between UT, UGA and USC. With the exception of our win over a young Clemson squad, the highlight of the hoops season so far has been a close loss to Southern Cal in Las Vegas, and a come-from-behind win over the same Mississippi Valley State team that got their doors blown off by Ole Miss and LSU. At least UGA lost to tougher Colorado and Cincinnati, rather than Elon and Tennessee State, and the Vols can at least point to their 2OT bout with Memphis. We'll have a chance to make up some ground with a strong showing in our next six games - a win or a close loss versus Ohio State will go a long way to show if this squad has the chops to make a NIT run - which I think is our best-case scenario.

PS - In case you're wondering, our soon-to-be conference mates Missouri (9-0) and Texas A&M (8-1) are ranked # 10 and # 25 in the country respectively in the ESPN/USA Today Poll (and ## 10 and 22 in the AP); if they were to start SEC play this year, they'd likely both be in the upper division, and USC would be bumped down to the 14th best team. Just sayin'.

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