With only 2 weeks left until conference play begins, it’s not a bad time at all to be the SEC. Sure, the league can’t claim the top team, but they can claim the team that’s knocked off No. 1 twice. They also have an unbeaten team left, even if it’s not one anybody would have picked in the preseason. Titles aren’t won in December … but if they were, the SEC would be in the thick of the hunt. Here’s our weekly look around the league.

Bama the giant killer

Beating No. 1? Always a big deal. Beating them twice before Christmas? Hadn’t happened since 1965, but Alabama took care of business on that front in a big win over Houston on Saturday, 71-65. The Tide pulled out the win despite getting just 8 points (on 0 made field goals) from Brandon Miller and shooting just 41% overall (and 30% from 3-point range). Bama bounced back with a tough 91-88 win over Memphis on Tuesday, in a game that could well have been an emotional hangover game.

Alabama can still shoot the 3, but Nate Oats’ team has improved greatly on the backboard. The Tide average over 49 rebounds per game, and their nearly +13 average rebounding margin leads the SEC by a good chunk. This is how Alabama has managed to reach No. 4 despite forcing just a dozen turnovers a game (12th in the SEC).

The last unbeaten

If you had Mississippi State as the SEC”s final unbeaten team, give yourself a big pat on the back. And then give new Bulldogs coach Chris Jans one. The Bulldogs have remained unbeaten despite ranking 11th in the SEC in scoring, 13th in free throw shooting and three-point shooting percentage, State holds opponents to 49.8 points per game on 33.9% shooting. That’s the story of their good start, and as long as the defense persists, the offense doesn’t have to improve much.

Tolu Smith is quietly building a case for SEC Player of the Year, averaging 16.7 points per game on 62% shooting, as well as 9.4 rebounds per contest. State’s early success basically means that if the Bulldogs can just hold serve in conference play and hang around .500, they’re probably an NCAA Tournament team. It’s understandable if Jans is setting his goals higher.

Not everybody is sold, however. The Bulldogs are ranked No. 17 in the AP poll, behind 4 other SEC teams.

Volunteering for defense

The apparent theme of early SEC play is that the defensive team gets the wins. Tennessee is another qualifier for that category. The Vols outlasted No. 13 Maryland in a 56-53 clunker on Sunday in Brooklyn. UT led by 17 at halftime but had to hold on for the victory after shooting just 29% overall. That said, UT held the Terps to 33% shooting and an astonishing 2-for-24 performance from 3-point range. On the year, UT’s opponents are shooting 20.2% from long range. That’s nearly 6% ahead of SEC 2nd place leader Georgia on that stat. For that matter, it’s 2.6 ahead of Rutgers for best 3-point defense in the nation. Opponents are making just 32.7% of all their shots against UT, which is 2nd-best in the nation, behind only Houston. This is how a team that’s 14th in overall shooting percentage and 11th in 3-point shooting percentage is one of the top squads in the SEC.

UT’s other big ingredient is balance — with 5 Vols averaging double-digit scoring. Zakai Zeigler was the lone Vol to reach double digits against Maryland, but his 12 points were pivotal. Now, if the Vols can only improve from 338th in Division I basketball in shooting percentage, the sky might be the limit.

Early bracketology

Speaking of skies, it’s never too early to think about March possibilities, particularly for the bracketologists. Joe Lunardi has 7 SEC squads projected for the NCAA’s Big Dance, led by No. 1 seed Alabama. How’s that for respect, Tide fans? The Tide have been an NCAA Tournament No. 2 seed 3 times, but have never been a top seed.

Other SEC teams near the top of Lunardi’s bracket are Tennessee (2 seed), Arkansas (3), Kentucky (4), Auburn (5), and Mississippi State (5). Lunardi failed to list a 7th SEC team in the actual bracket, but does note that Ole Miss and LSU are just outside of his bubble. Possibly Missouri is the team Lunardi forgot to include?

Games to Watch

The next week should have some epic matchups ahead of the holidays. Here’s games you don’t want to miss:

No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 15 Gonzaga (in Birmingham) on Saturday: The Tide have played very well while the 15th ranked Bulldogs have been tending toward underachieving, with 3 losses already.

No. 13 Kentucky vs. No. 16 UCLA (in New York) on Saturday: The Wildcats’ best win yet was a ho-hum victory over Michigan. A quality win certainly wouldn’t help calm Big Blue Nation’s nerves heading into the holidays.

No. 6 Tennessee at No. 9 Arizona on Saturday: The Vols have a great shot to get a meaningful win and a shot of momentum here. Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis (20.2 PPG, 61% shooting) is a handful, but if UT can defend him well, they could get a good win.

Texas A&M at Memphis on Saturday: The 6-3 Aggies have been disappointing, and Penny Hardaway’s Tigers are a very competent team. A&M could use a few strength of schedule points from a win in this one.

No. 17 Mississippi State vs. Drake (in Lincoln, Nebraska) on Tuesday: This is a good de facto road test for the Bulldogs. If they win, they’ll likely host Alabama as a top 15, 12-0 squad on Dec. 28.