SEC Basketball Power Rankings: Kentucky suffers setback, Arkansas lights it up and Mississippi State struggles
This year is going to be a weird one. Ranking the 14 SEC teams, especially during the first few weeks of the season, will be tough.
So far, we’ve had 3 teams — Florida, Tennessee and Ole Miss — that have yet to play a game due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Mississippi State, LSU and Auburn have played 3 games already.
Then, there are the struggles. Kentucky lost to Richmond. Auburn lost to UCF. Mississippi State lost to Clemson. LSU lost to Saint Louis.
It hasn’t been a good start for many SEC teams, but there are a few bright spots. Let’s take a look at this week’s SEC power rankings:
14. Mississippi State (1-2 overall, Last week: 13)
The Bulldogs scored only 42 points in a season-opening loss to Clemson. Then they lost to Liberty. Finally, on Monday, they got in the win column against Texas State. There aren’t many bright spots for Ben Howland’s squad yet, as they continue to try to move on from all the players they lost this offseason. However, DJ Stewart Jr. and Tolu Smith are playing well. In fact, Stewart has led the team in scoring in all 3 games.
For now, though, this team is in a holding pattern until G Iverson Molinar can return.
13. Vanderbilt (1-0 overall, LW: 14)
I’ll bump the Commodores out of the cellar for the time being. I liked what Jerry Stackhouse’s squad did in the season-opener against Valparaiso in a 77-71 victory. Scotty Pippen Jr. looked like a star, scoring 25 points, dishing out 4 assists and grabbing 3 rebounds and 3 steals. He can get to the basket at will, it seems:
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 28, 2020
Yes, he had too many turnovers (5), but he is going to be a playmaker for the Commodores this year.
12. Ole Miss (0-0 overall, LW: 11)
We haven’t seen the Rebels due to COVID-19 issues, so I don’t have much to say yet. Their first game is scheduled for Dec. 12 against UNC Wilmington, so we’ll go through another round of SEC power rankings before we get a look at Kermit Davis’ squad.
11. Georgia (1-0 overall, LW: 12)
An 85-75 win over Florida A&M is nothing to write home about, but it was a decent start for the post-Anthony Edwards era at Georgia. Sahvir Wheeler is severely underrated as a point guard. He scored 12 points and dished out 12 assists Monday night:
— BacKourt Mixtapes (@BackourtMixtape) November 30, 2020
Tye Fagan also looked like a budding star, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Senior Andrew Garcia also had a strong debut at Georgia after transferring from Stony Brook, scoring a team-high 22 points.
This team has some talent. Now, it’ll be up to Tom Crean to get the most of it.
10. Auburn (1-2 overall, LW: 10)
The Tigers made only 8-of-22 free throws and only 7-of-34 3-point attempts in an abysmal loss to UCF on Monday night. That comes after a blowout loss to No. 1 Gonzaga over the weekend. I can’t fault this team for the loss to Gonzaga, but it was absolutely horrible to watch the UCF loss. Bruce Pearl summed it up best:
Bruce Pearl: "Well, that was ugly. Set the game of basketball back a few years."
— Tom Green (@Tomas_Verde) December 1, 2020
This team needs time to build some chemistry. We’ll see if that happens moving forward.
9. South Carolina (1-1 overall, LW: 7)
Ask me if I’m surprised the Gamecocks suffered an inexplicable early-season loss. I’m not. Yes, Liberty is now 2-0 against SEC teams after also beating Mississippi State, but I was hoping Frank Martin’s squad would come out of the gates a bit stronger than last season, especially with so much talent returning.
The Gamecocks bounced back nicely against Tulsa on Saturday, but a tough road trip to No. 10 Houston looms large this coming Saturday night.
8. Alabama (1-1 overall, LW: 5)
The Crimson Tide are the biggest droppers in these rankings, falling from No. 5 in my preseason poll. They didn’t look great in a season-opening win over Jacksonville State. Jahvon Quinerly, John Petty, Jaden Shackelford, Herb Jones and Jordan Bruner are going to be a solid starting 5 when they develop some chemistry, but that was lacking in Monday night’s blowout loss to Stanford at the Maui Invitational.
They’ll be back in action today and Wednesday, though, so we’ll see if they can get back to lighting up the scoreboard like we’re used to.
7. Texas A&M (1-0 overall, LW: 9)
The Aggies opened with an 82-53 win over New Orleans. They shouldn’t be tested too much in their next 2 games, either, starting Wednesday against Tarleton State and then against UT Rio Grande on Sunday. Until the game against TCU on Dec. 12, this team will probably bounce around the No. 7 to 9 range in these rankings.
6. Mizzou (1-0 overall, LW: 6)
The Tigers looked balanced and experienced (which they are) in a season-opening 91-64 victory over Oral Roberts. Mark Smith led the way with 18 points and showed he’s not just a jump-shooter on this powerful alley-oop:
The next 4 games will tell us a lot, as it is a brutal stretch, starting with a game against No. 21 Oregon in Omaha on Tuesday. Then, the Tigers travel to Wichita State, host SEC-killer Liberty and host No. 5 Illinois. This will be fun to watch!
5. LSU (2-1 overall, LW: 4)
LSU slipped up against SLU this past week, but I still like this team. Freshman Cam Thomas is the real deal, scoring more than 20 points in each of the 3 games. The Tigers have been torching the nets as a team, scoring 94, 81 and 96 points. The defense needs plenty of work, but the nonconference schedule is pretty weak, so there’s time to improve.
4. Arkansas (2-0 overall, LW: 8)
The Razorbacks have been one of the biggest surprises to me. I was low on Eric Musselman’s squad heading into the season, and for good reason. They lost co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones and his talented backcourt mate Isaiah Joe, among others.
But they’re 2-0 with wins over Mississippi Valley State (in which they scored a whopping 142 points) and North Texas. Cal transfer big man Connor Vanover, who is 7-3, scored 23 points with 8 rebounds and 3 blocks against Mississippi Valley State, but I was more impressed with his effort against North Texas.
He only scored 6 points, but he found other ways to make his presence felt, grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking 6 shots:
If he can continue to be an impact player, the Hogs could be really good this year.
3. Florida (0-0 overall, LW: 3)
Like Ole Miss, we haven’t seen the Gators. Fortunately, Mike White’s crew makes its debut sooner than the Tennessee Volunteers (who have COVID-19 issues of their own) and Rebels. The Gators tip off Wednesday against Army.
2. Kentucky (1-1 overall, LW: 1)
After Kentucky’s win over Morehead State to start the season, coach John Calipari prepared us all for what was about to happen. He knows his team better than anyone, and he went on a rant about how hard the schedule was that he had created for the young Wildcats:
He knew his team that relies heavily on freshmen wasn’t ready for a senior-laden group like Richmond. The Spiders played excellent defense, forcing the Wildcats into 21 turnovers. I don’t need to tell you that that’s too many.
Richmond’s top 3 scorers — Blake Francis, Nathan Cayo and Grant Golden — are all seniors. They know what it takes to win at the college level. This is a learning experience for Kentucky, and Cal is going to maximize it, ripping into the guys to get his point across that this isn’t high school anymore.
These are losses Cal knows are going to happen, so he’s prepared for them. It wouldn’t shock me to see the young ‘Cats get back on track tonight by beating a Kansas team that is also trying to find itself.
1. Tennessee (0-0 overall, LW: 2)
The Vols move up to the No. 1 spot in my rankings by default, since Kentucky stumbled, LSU already has a loss and Florida also has yet to play. Tennessee will reportedly resume basketball activities on Dec. 5, so a Dec. 12 matchup vs. Cincinnati should still be on.
How will the long COVID-related layoff affect Rick Barnes’ crew? That remains to be seen, but I can’t wait to see this talented, deep Tennessee squad in action.