When I was a child, my universe hinged on letters.

I was a student at Memorial Park Elementary School in Jasper, Alabama, and every so often my teachers would hand out these sheets of paper called “report cards.”

I remember the nervousness and anticipation I felt as I clasped that brutal form of academic adjudication in my hand. I remember swallowing hard and the sweat forming across my brow as my eyes scanned downward and I beheld those cursive letters: A, B, C, and D, accompanied by the inevitable “plus” or “minus.”

The event was perhaps the most ominous aspect of my childhood, but I’m thankful I received more “As” than “Bs.”

Today, I’ve been asked to give them.

This has been a fun and compelling SEC basketball season, principally because a great deal of conference parity exists and no one team is truly dominant. Kentucky and Auburn are the top 2 teams, but there’s a big pileup after that. And if the conference schedule has proven anything, it’s that there are no guaranteed wins. This past week alone, Tennessee beat Kentucky, Vanderbilt beat Alabama, and Texas A&M beat Auburn. In the SEC, teams better arrive at the coliseum ready to play and your head better be right or else you are going to get beat.

This week, I was asked to give a grade for every SEC team in the conference. As I thought about how I wanted to approach this, I felt like there ought to be some sort of methodology in place, similar to a grading system in school. In other words, As are earned by using certain mathematical criteria, not how the teacher feels or thinks. So in order to show you I’m not a hardhearted person, I’m going to take my subjective views out of this as much as possible. I did have to use some subjective criteria to break the grading system down into 4 categories I felt were important, however, and here they are:

  1. Predicted order of finish at SEC Media Days vs. current conference standings
  2. Conference wins
  3. Total wins
  4. Quality rating – record against teams with a current BPI under 50
  5. Injuries

When you grade a team’s overall performance, I think you have to necessarily factor in expectations. In other words, did the team do better or worse than expected? Back in October, conference media representatives voted on predicted order of finish for all 14 SEC teams. The media was nearly correct on the top 4 spots, but 5 through 12 were a bit more jumbled. Here’s a chart with the predicted order of finish as measured against the current conference standings as of March 5.

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To grade teams based on this criteria, we will subtract the difference between the two columns. Looking at the chart, Missouri would have a NET +2 score, since it was predicted to finish 13 but is currently 11th in the conference. Conversely, LSU would have a NET -1 score, since the Tigers were predicted 3rd but are currently 4th. You’ll notice that 2 teams, Texas A&M and South Carolina, have a NET +5 score, while Ole Miss has the worst NET score of all SEC teams at -4.

In other words, Ole Miss has not lived up to expectations, but South Carolina and A&M have exceeded them.

Here’s a list of NET scores per team:

  • South Carolina – NET +5
  • Texas A&M – NET +5
  • Missouri – NET +2
  • Arkansas – NET +1
  • Mississippi State – NET +1
  • Auburn – NET +1
  • Vanderbilt – NET 0
  • Florida – NET 0
  • Kentucky – NET 0
  • LSU – NET -1
  • Tennessee – NET -3
  • Alabama – NET -3
  • Ole Miss – NET -4
  • Georgia – NET –4

I also think we should also factor in conference wins, overall wins, and wins against quality opponents as reflected in criteria 2-4.

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As well, injuries can impact a team’s performance, and if significant enough, can materially alter a basketball season. That said, I think it’s important to credit teams who have sustained injuries to players. An example would be the injury to Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe, who missed a large part of conference play after averaging over 16 points per game. Factoring this in, I will add 5 points to the final score of teams that have been materially riddled with injury.

For these purposes, grading will be based on a 100-point scale.

Let’s take a look at the overall composite rankings, beginning with the lowest score and ending with the highest.

14. Georgia

Composite score: 71

Georgia’s story has been largely about an individual and less about the team. Future NBA lottery pick Anthony Edwards has dazzled in his freshman season, and is sure to win SEC Freshman of the Year honors. But he’ll soon be a one-and-done, and head coach Tom Crean will have to replace the best player on a mediocre team.

13. Ole Miss

Composite score: 74.3

Perhaps we expected a bit too much out of Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis in his second season. In terms of guard play, the Rebels had one of the strongest tandems in the conference in Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree, but this was not enough to translate into success. Davis and the Rebels will not be participating in the Big Dance, and will have some serious holes to fill in a few short weeks.

12. Vanderbilt

Composite score: 75

It never helps your team when you lose the SEC’s leading scorer. Such was the case when Vandy’s Aaron Nesmith went down with a foot injury in early January. The Commodores recently showed tremendous grit in a road win over Alabama, which should give head coach Jerry Stackhouse reason to be optimistic about his program moving forward.

11. Missouri

Composite score: 78.6

Though Missouri struggled this season, Cuonzo Martin’s team did post significant wins against Illinois, Florida and Auburn. The Tigers also had a respectable SEC home record of 11-4.

10. Texas A&M

Composite score: 83.3

A&M’s number would probably be a bit higher if the Aggies could have performed better earlier in the season. A 4-game losing streak in November and early December took a bit of wind out of the sails, but head coach Buzz Williams steadied the ship and turned in a respectable season in Aggieland. William’ team particularly enjoyed traveling to the state of Alabama, defeating the Tide and Tigers on their respective home floors in recent weeks.

9. Alabama

Composite score: 83.6

It’s hard to measure how good Alabama is because there is such a tremendous upside to this basketball team, but the converse is that it has a propensity to lay an egg, as it did this past Tuesday against Vanderbilt. As one observer and fan recently noted, “We may be going back to the NIT, but it was a lot more entertaining this year.”

8. Tennessee

Composite score: 85.3

The other day I did not include Tennessee in my list of bubble teams and I immediately regretted it. That night, the Vols knife-edge chopped Kentucky in Rupp Arena and rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of bracketology. Perhaps I listened too much to the “experts” and not to my heart. I know this Tennessee team is good. Heck, I watched the Vols, paced by John Fulkerson, utterly dominate the last 4 minutes of the game in Coleman Coliseum on Feb. 4. Would it surprise me at this point if Big Orange got hot and made it to the Dance? Believe me, I won’t question them again.

7. Arkansas

Composite score: 86

Toss out the conference record, I love watching this Arkansas team play. The triumvirate of Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt are super fun to watch, and I just think the NCAA Tournament will be better with the Hogs in it.

6. Mississippi State

Composite score: 89.3

Last week, Mississippi State seemed to be figuring it out, and then — bam! South Carolina hits ’em in the mouth in Columbia. How will Ben Howland’s team respond? We’ll find out Saturday night as MSU takes on Ole Miss in Oxford.

5. Florida

Composite score: 90

Is it wrong to say that Florida has quietly had a good season? Yes, the Gators are 11-6 in conference and 19-11 overall, but they struggled in nonconference action earlier in the year. I don’t think this team has peaked yet, and there’s enough talent on the roster that if head coach Mike White can get his team firing on all cylinders come tournament time, look out. The question is, which Florida team will show up? The one that beat Xavier and Auburn? Or the one that got drubbed by Missouri?

4. LSU

Composite score: 92.3

I think LSU has lost a little bit of mojo as the conference season has come to an end. Just last night, for instance, Arkansas was blowing out LSU until the last 4 or 5 minutes in the game when the Tigers went on a run to tighten the gap. Overall, though, it’s been another good year in Baton Rouge and Will Wade has obviously got something cooking in the bayou.

3. South Carolina

Composite score: 95

Here’s a team that was picked by the prognosticators to finish 10th in the SEC and doggone it if Frank Martin’s team hasn’t rolled off 10 conference wins and posted an 18-12 record overall. South Carolina is the “feel good” story of the SEC heading into postseason play, and as “they” say it’ll be “interesting to see” what pans out over the next 2 weeks.

2. Auburn

Composite score: 97.6

Last year no one saw a Final Four run coming for the Auburn Tigers. This year, there are still plenty of doubters, but don’t be surprised if Auburn one of the 8 teams left on your bracket when the smoke clears. Bruce Pearl has found a little recruiting niche in Georgia and it’s paying dividends. The Tigers are one of the best teams in the conference for the second consecutive year.

1. Kentucky

Composite score: 100

If the Southeastern Conference were a classroom, the star student would be in Lexington.

I mean, was there ever a doubt who No. 1 would be?

Yes it’s a new crop of players, but it’s the same old Kentucky. It’s Quickley, Richards, Maxey, Hagans, and, of course, Calipari. It’s Rupp Arena, Big Blue and the greatest fans in SEC basketball. It’s the Kentucky Wildcats, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, let’s go to Nashville.