Auburn is red-hot. The Tigers won 12 of their last 13 games last season. Virginia stopped the streak by a point in the Final Four. Auburn is 15-0 this season. It defeated Georgia by 22 points on Saturday. It’s ranked fifth in the latest AP college basketball poll.
Kentucky is Kentucky. Stumbles against Evansville and Utah are in the rear-view. Nick Richards is rocking at center. Ashton Hagans is dishing on offense and disrupting on defense. Immanuel Quickley has added three-point punch. Beware the Cats.
As for the rest of the SEC?
As John Calipari’s club returns to the road this week for a pair of games, the two opponents are a microcosm of SEC hoops in 2019-20. The first foe has struggled to find the magic of its 2017 Final Four run. The second appears to be on the rise as a 2019-20 surprise, but one that has yet to convince the skeptics.
Start with South Carolina. The Cats visit Columbia on Wednesday. Frank Martin’s club is 8-7 overall, 0-2 in the SEC. The Gamecocks have lost three straight, including a 56-55 heartbreaker on Saturday at Tennessee. Ken Pomeroy’s analytics rank South Carolina 108th. Jeff Sagarin’s computer has South Carolina at No. 104.
Martin hasn’t been able to capitalize on that 2017 Final Four appearance. His teams are just 41-39 since, including 18-20 in the SEC. They play hard-nosed defense, but they have trouble putting the ball in the basket. According to Pomeroy’s numbers, the Gamecocks are 186th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. They rank 336 out of 356 in three-point shooting at 27.9 percent.
Under new coach Eric Musselman, Arkansas is on the rebound. The 55-year-old former NBA head coach worked wonders at Nevada, going 110-34 in four seasons. By all accounts, he has revitalized the Razorbacks, now 13-2 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. Their lone league loss came by two points, 79-77, last week at LSU.
Speaking of which, think of LSU’s Will Wade what you will, but the guy can coach. The Tigers lost Tremont Waters and Naz Reid off last year’s team, but they are 11-4 overall and 3-0 in the league so far this year. They’re fifth nationally in shooting from two-point range at 56.9 percent. The guess here is they’re a legit contender for the league crown.
There will be better days ahead for both Texas A&M and Alabama. Buzz Williams (Aggies) and Nate Oats (Crimson Tide) were both inspired head coaching choices. They just need time to recruit the players to fit their systems. A&M will beat you with defense. The Tide will roll with transition offense.
As for the rest, here’s a reason only two SEC teams are currently ranked. (UK is 14th.) No. 6 in the AP preseason poll, Florida has been a huge disappointment to date. Mike White’s club took a 91-75 loss at Missouri on Saturday. It was its fifth of the season.
As expected, Tennessee has dipped after major graduation losses from a season ago. Losing point guard Lamonte Turner for the season to shoulder surgery didn’t help. Any team coached by Rick Barnes is dangerous, but the Vols (10-5) might be a long shot to reach the NCAA Tournament.
And Mississippi State is off to an 0-3 league start under Ben Howland, who is 87-62 in Starkville. He has taken the Bulldogs to just one NCAA Tournament. That was last year when MSU lost in the first round. A return trip seems unlikely. You wonder about athletics director John Cohen’s patience.
You also wonder if the league’s struggles this year will help or hurt Kentucky when it comes tournament time. The chances for marquee victories might not be what we thought when the season began. The two games against Auburn — Feb. 1 at Auburn; Feb. 29 in Lexington — loom large.
First things first, however. It’s a week on the road for the Cats.
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