The out-of-conference regular season has not been kind to the SEC. In the fall, there had been chatter that the league might be the second most powerful basketball conference, but outside the top three squads, there really hasn't been much to crow about.
1. Kentucky. The Wildcats are 10-1 and currently number 3 in both polls. After the last second loss to Indiana in Bloomington, the 'Cats have come back to maul UT Chattanooga and Samford by scores of 87-62 and 82-50. They next play Loyola-Maryland and Lamar before facing their in-state, arch-rival Louisville Cardinals (#4) on New Year's Eve. Expect the fur and feathers to fly when Rick Pitino and John Calipari clash.
2. Florida. The Gators (8-3) find themselves number 11 in both polls and riding a four game winning streak since they dropped to Syracuse back on December 2. Not only did they crush future SEC member Texas A&M 84-64 on Saturday, they also mauled Mississippi Valley State yesterday 82-54 (yeah - the same ones we beat by four points 61-57). Billy Donovan's squad next meets the FSU Seminoles on Thursday.
3. Mississippi State. Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs (11-1) earned their tenth straight victory on Saturday over Detroit and are currently ranked 18th in the AP and 17th in the ESPN / USA Today Poll. They will likely notch their eleventh consecutive win tomorrow when they host cupcake Northwestern State - but the Dogs' biggest test comes right after Christmas (12.28.11) against current # 7 Baylor in a must-win game for SEC pride.
4. Vanderbilt. The Commodores (7-4) haven't played well enough to deserve a # 4 power-ranking, but then no other SEC squad below them has stepped up to take their place, either; they still would likely beat Ole Miss and Bama. ESPN's Andy Katz says Vandy has the talent to be a top three team, which is debatable, but the 'Dores have lost three home games so far - which was something no one could have foreseen. True, two were heart-breaking OT losses to Big East powers # 11 Xavier and # 6 Louisville (made worse by having held second-half leads on both), but dropping to Indiana State at Memorial is inexcusable. A 99-71 thrashing of Longwood was a tonic, but the prognosis on this team depends on whether 6'11" C Festus Ezeli can heal from his nagging knee injury and return to the hardwood. Stat.
5. Mississippi. The Rebels dropped a close one to in-state Southern Miss at Hattiesburg (86-82), but with solid front court play and a respectable 9-2 record, Ole Miss is still an upper division team, and slightly more deserving than slumping Bama. Irmo, South Carolina native and ersatz-Gamecock Murphy Holloway continues to play well, averaging almost a double-double per game - 10.5 ppg and 9.3 rbg on the season, so far. I'm feeling a little sick to my stomach at the moment.
6. Alabama. December has been a cruel month to the 8-3 Tide - beginning with a buzzer-beater loss to Georgetown at home, followed by home drubbings by Dayton and Kansas State, with only a victory over lowly Detroit in between. It looks like this young Bama squad has lost its early shooting confidence, but the Crimson Tide are still 8-3 and can find their stroke again against a Big 6 opponent Oklahoma State tonight at a "neutral" site in Birmingham. Bama really needs this win to keep their RPI up for March consideration
Lower division rankings after The Jump. Yes - that includes USC.
7. Louisiana State. Having beaten then #10 Marquette at the Pete on Monday - Trent Johnson's Bayou Bengals (8-3) find themselves knocking on the door of the upper division by default. The only thing keeping Big Al ahead of Mike the Tiger at this point is Bama's impressive, early-season win streak. Not to take away from the Tigers' win, but LSU's average points per game (60.3) and shooting percentage (40.1) are terrible - it's solid defense which is getting it done. The door is open for LSU to end out-of-conference play on a high note with home games against North Texas, Grambling and UVA. The Cavs will be a big test for this LSU club.
8. Arkansas. The Razorbacks are 7-3 and should be favored to beat their remaining out-of-conference match-ups with Louisiana Tech, UNC-Charlotte, Texas Southern and Savannah State.
9. Auburn. The Plainsmen's dont-play-nobody schedule is paying dividends. Auburn is 7-1, and while they don't have any big wins, no one is holding their one loss against Seton Hall much against them either. Sneer all you want, but the Aubie men are sunning themselves on Waikiki Beach at this moment, with a game tonight against Hawaii.
10. Georgia. The Dawgs (6-5) might be better than Arkansas or Auburn, and they can point to a nice back-to-back wins over Southern Cal and Mercer. Unfortunately, the four-game skid to Xavier, Colorado, Cincinnati and Georgia Tech has put them in a power-rankings hole. UGA gets credit for playing a bunch of Big 6 conference opponents, but Mark Fox's team needs to step up if they want more SEC respect. .
11. South Carolina. The Gamecock squad which lost a hard-fought game against # 2 Ohio State last Saturday should never have lost to Elon, Tennessee State or Southern Cal - even without Bruce Ellington. But all that is water under the bridge. The Cocks are 4-6, but can crawl back over .500 before the beginning of conference play; despite USC's poor start, they should be able to compete with all the other lower-division clubs in the SEC.
12. Tennessee. Notwithstanding a 72-68 win over a decent UNC-Asheville club, the Vols (4-6) are really skidding, having lost four of their last 5. It looks like its going to be a rough year on Rocky Top. You could make an argument they're just slightly better than South Carolina. But when it's a battle between 11 and 12, why bother?