SEC hoops conversation 2.0: How November surprises changed our thinking a bit
This is a second in a season-long series of conversations about SEC hoops from Joe Cox and Al Blanton, both of whom have been keeping an eye on the hardwood even during gridiron days.
Anything we need a mulligan on from our preseason predictions?
Joe: I’m going to switch my vote on Freshman of the Year. Al, you were clearly right, and no matter how mediocre Georgia is, Anthony Edwards is the real deal. Honestly, Edwards is so good that it makes Georgia’s season even more painful. How on Earth will we see a year of Ben Simmons and a year of Anthony Edwards and both resulting in a likely zero NCAA Tournament wins?
Al: I need one, too: Alabama making the NCAA tournament. That won’t happen if the Tide continue to play the way they have so far this season. One of the few bright spots is a close game against North Carolina, but losses to Penn, Rhode Island and a blowout to Iowa State won’t help your tournament résumé. Alabama plays fast, but that does not mean it’s impressive offensively. I think for the Tide to become a better basketball team, it is going to have to run effective sets and slow the game down a bit more.
Joe: That’s a good thought. I did have the Tide as my “team that struggles but catches fire late,” a la 2018 Auburn in March 2019. So I’m getting the struggle part, but admittedly, I am a little nervous about the catching fire.
What’s wrong with Kentucky and Florida?
Joe: Basically, that it was November. Kentucky is eternally rebuilding in November and while Florida went out and got Kerry Blackshear, it’s not like he has spent 3 years playing with these guys. As time goes on, we’ll see enough scrappy mid-majors (cough, Stephen F. Austin, cough) upset work-in-progress Power 5 teams that nobody will eventually look twice at it. The Cats and Gators will be fine. They just weren’t as developed as we hoped in November.
Al: I think Kentucky will be fine; it’s Florida I’m not sold on — yet. I’ve watched the Gators on several occasions and I’m wondering why this team isn’t better than it is already. Maybe it will just take a while to get its bearings. The improvement of Keyontae Johnson throughout the season is encouraging. Hopefully Noah Locke can avoid the dusty shooting streaks that occurred early in the season. Florida will need him to shoot well in January.
Who’s the positive surprise in the league?
Joe: Well, Auburn has done an excellent job of showing up early. This team won’t be as prone to ups and downs as last year’s, but it might end up being almost as good. Vanderbilt at least has a shooter in Aaron Nesmith. Arkansas hasn’t really played anybody, but the Razorbacks might be better than most of us thought.
Al: Agree on Arkansas. The Hogs really haven’t played anybody except Georgia Tech, who’s an unknown at this point. Still, it’s a quality win for the Hogs, who are 8-0 for the first time in 22 years. Missouri has played a little better than anticipated, and Tennessee doesn’t seem to be missing a beat right now. After throttling Buffalo, Vandy is 6-2 and trending (it’s nice to have the luxury of a player like Aaron Nesmith if you’re coach Jerry Stackhouse). I’ll get to Auburn in a moment.
Joe: What if Nesmith actually ends up as the SEC Player of the Year? Stranger things have happened. Kentucky and Florida don’t seem to have one player who is clearly “the guy,” which is why we both went under-the-radar talking about Player of the Year. (I went with Isaiah Joe and you went with Reggie Perry.) But what if we didn’t go far enough under the radar? If Vandy is actually decent and Nesmith continues on pace to break the league’s 3-point records … well, maybe that’s the positive surprise of the year.
Who’s the negative surprise in the league?
Joe: Texas A&M is just painful to watch. They look lost on offense, and this could be a really long season, although that might not be super surprising. Alabama’s struggles are a little odd. Early losses for UK and Florida don’t help the league’s footprint, although of course, it’s March that matters. Kentucky’s complete lack of depth feels more serious than John Calipari would like to admit.
Al: Like you said, the Aggies are in the tank. A&M’s loss of T.J. Starks is a season-changer, and overall you hate to see the Buzz Williams era begin this way. Alabama is a bit disappointing as well, but it’s encouraging to see John Petty play this consistently hard.
What’s the story of the SEC so far?
Joe: To this point, parity. Kentucky and Florida haven’t separated themselves from the pack. Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas have had some nice moments. The bottom of the league is pretty terrible, but honestly, if the 11th-best team beats Kentucky or Florida, it won’t be that surprising.
Al: Auburn. I watched Auburn in person on Nov. 15 against Cal State-Northridge, so please allow me to make a bold statement: Auburn can play with anybody in the country. Auburn can beat anybody in the country. I think at the end of the year, this Auburn team is better than last year’s Auburn team, but it might not finish as well. Auburn is very capable of cutting down the nets; how well Bruce Pearl coaches ’em up will dictate the ceiling of this fine hoops squad.
Joe: I think we both kinda took for granted in the preseason that Auburn would be OK, but not in the talk for the league title. We got some online comments after the preseason conversation blasting us for sleeping on the Tigers. They were right. Or at least, that’s how it looks early in December.