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SEC Basketball Preview

Last year the SEC rose from its slumber: after placing three teams in the 2017 Elite Eight, the league sent eight to the dance floor last March. Six won in the first round. And then, disappointment.

No. 3 seed Tennessee lost to No. 11 Loyola-Chicago. No. 4 seed Auburn lost to Clemson by 31 points. Only two SEC teams made it through to the Sweet 16, where No. 5 seed Kentucky lost to No. 9 seed Kansas State, and Texas A&M was routed by Michigan after routing North Carolina in the second round.

In KenPom, the league had no teams in the Top 10 but five ranked between 13-29. No one was special, but plenty were really good. And at the bottom, only Ole Miss was ranked outside the Top 100 (108th).

Entering league play in 2019, the league looks a little better in KenPom: still no one in the Top 10, but five teams between 11-20. The AP voters think even more highly of the league’s best: the Vols are third and receiving first-place votes, Auburn and Kentucky sit at 12 and 13, Mississippi State at 17, and Florida is receiving votes.

Those five look like safe bets for the NCAA Tournament; they’re joined by LSU with a Top 35 NET rating and in the most recent Bracket Matrix:

The Vols and a Number One Seed

At this point, chasing the first No. 1 seed in program history is a reasonable goal. Last year we looked at the records of the last No. 1 seed and all four No. 2 seeds since 2012. Six times in the last seven years, the lowest No. 1 seed either had six or seven losses, or was Gonzaga. Only in 2015 (undefeated Kentucky, 32-2 Villanova, 31-3 Wisconsin, 29-4 Duke) have we seen four truly elite No. 1 seeds.

Tennessee already has a leg up on Gonzaga via head-to-head; keep an eye on Nevada at 13-0, but right now the Vols are on pace to be in this conversation all year. KenPom projects Tennessee to win the SEC at 13-5, which would send the Vols to the SEC Tournament at 25-6. Tennessee is one of seven power conference teams projected to go to their conference tournament with between four and seven losses. We’ll see if anyone can separate themselves from the pack, but matching last year’s 13-5 SEC run could be enough to both win the league and get a one seed.

Something else to keep an eye on for the NCAA Tournament: the closest first-and-second-round venue is Columbia, SC. That will also be the closest option for any ACC Champion from North Carolina or Virginia. The bigger prize: the regional final in Louisville. Those same ACC teams would prefer Washington DC, and the Jayhawks would love Kansas City. So you might want to keep an eye on Big Ten teams like Michigan who would also prefer Louisville. The Final Four is in Minneapolis, if you’re into 14-hour drives.

What to Expect From the SEC

Rebuilding/Reloading:

  • South Carolina (5-7, 126 KenPom) – Somehow Chris Silva is still in school, but the Gamecocks have losses to Stony Brook, Providence, Wofford, and Wyoming, plus Michigan and Virginia.
  • Georgia (8-4, 108 KenPom) – Tom Crean’s first team is 319th in turnovers and 310th in turnovers forced.
  • Texas A&M (6-5, 97 KenPom) – A 15-point loss to Texas Southern ended a five-game winning streak after a 1-4 start. The Aggies are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country (29.1%).

The Bubble:

  • Missouri (9-3, 72 KenPom) – It’s what you expect from Cuonzo: 322nd in tempo, early struggles against Iowa State, Kansas State, and Temple, but now on a six-game win streak including UCF and Xavier. The Tigers have also benefited from teams shooting just 62.3% from the free throw line against them. Appearing in 2.8% of the Bracket Matrix.
  • Alabama (9-3, 63 KenPom) – Losses to Northeastern and Georgia State, but wins over five Top 100 teams. 6’7″ sophomore Herbert Jones is 34th nationally in free throw rate, and Donta Hall is 28th in true shooting percentage. Appearing in 8.6% of the Bracket Matrix.
  • Vanderbilt (9-3, 59 KenPom) – Lost freshman Darius Garland for the year to a knee injury, but fellow freshman Simi Shittu has done a nice job picking up the slack from the post. The names you know and love are gone (Fisher-Davis, LaChance, Roberson), but these guys are young and get after it inside the arc on both ends. Double-digit losses to NC State and Kansas State, a double-digit win over Arizona State. Bracket Matrix next four out.
  • Arkansas (9-3, 57 KenPom) – Three losses by seven total points to Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky, and Texas in overtime. A one-point win over Indiana is currently their only selling point. Still fast (47th in tempo), but actually more efficient on the defensive end this year. Appearing in 11.4% of the Bracket Matrix.
  • Ole Miss (10-2, 47 KenPom) – The biggest mystery in the league entering conference play. Kermit Davis’s first team lost to Butler and Cincinnati but beat Baylor and San Diego, all in November. In December they went 6-0 against teams rated between 173-301 in KenPom. At Vanderbilt to open league play on Saturday, then play Auburn and Mississippi State the following week, so we’re about to find out a lot more about them. Bracket Matrix first four out.

Might Be Contenders, Might Be On the Bubble

  • LSU (10-3, 40 KenPom) – Will Wade’s team has neutral-site losses to Oklahoma State and Florida State in overtime, plus a six-point loss at Houston. They beat Saint Mary’s on December 15. Much like Tennessee, their SEC schedule is extremely back-loaded: they won’t play any of the next tier until February. Third nationally in steals. Bracket Matrix nine seed.

The Contenders

  • Mississippi State (12-1, 20 KenPom) – It might have taken Ben Howland one more year than Rick Barnes to get them here, but they’re here: a five-point loss to Arizona State on a neutral floor is the only blemish, but they have six wins over Top 100 teams, including a pair of 11-point wins over Clemson and Cincinnati and a 23-point beat down of BYU last time out. Eighteenth in offensive efficiency, 19th in effective FG%, 21st in offensive rebounding percentage. The Brothers Weatherspoon are doing their thing, and point guard Lamar Peters is 13th nationally in assist rate. Bracket Matrix five seed.
  • Florida (8-4, 17 KenPom) – A 21-point loss to Florida State in the opener put them on most people’s back burner. Then they lost close games to Oklahoma, Butler, and Michigan State. But they beat West Virginia by 10, and in a rematch with Butler they won 77-43 (!). KeVaughn Allen is still around, and the Gators are sixth nationally in KenPom defense. We’re in Gainesville on January 12. Bracket Matrix ten seed, but 31.4% of brackets haven’t updated since that beat down of Butler.
  • Kentucky (10-2, 13 KenPom) – Got run over by Duke in the opener, and lost to Seton Hall in overtime. Throw in Quade Green’s transfer, and plenty were hitting the panic button. But the Cats beat North Carolina and won at Louisville by 13. Stanford transfer Reid Travis gives them an unusual veteran presence, and PJ Washington is back too. Freshman Keldon Johnson is shooting 43.2% from the arc. Bracket Matrix five seed.
  • Auburn (11-2, 12 KenPom) – Bruce Pearl’s team is first in the nation in forcing turnovers, first in shot-blocking, and fifth in offensive rebounding percentage. This is now a veteran team, and a healthy one at that: Austin Wiley, Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke, and Anfernee McLemore all play their roles well. There’s a six-point loss to Duke and a seven-point loss to NC State, but Pearl still knows how to schedule: wins over Washington, Xavier, Arizona, Dayton, UAB, and Murray State. These guys are plenty tested and plenty good. We’ll only see them once, on the last day of the regular season. Bracket Matrix three seed.
  • Tennessee (11-1, 11 KenPom) – Where do the Vols stand out, other than an overtime loss to Kansas and a win over then-#1 Gonzaga? Tennessee is sixth in KenPom offense and first in the nation in fewest shots blocked. The Vols are good at some of the same stuff from last year – second nationally in assist rate, same cast of characters – but are much improved inside the arc, now 13th nationally in two-point field goal percentage. Lamonte Turner’s health remains a question. The Vols play Florida twice (Jan. 12 and Feb. 9), but don’t face any of the rest of this tier or LSU until February 16. The top No. 2 seed in the Bracket Matrix.

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Louisville Vol
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Louisville Vol

Man oh man, it’s a long ways off and there’s plenty of work to be done, but I’d love to see the Vols play an Elite 8 game in my adopted home town.

Pete
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Pete

This is good stuff, as always. Is there any way to refresh the recruiting outlook? Barnes noted this week that it has been easier to get into the homes of highly rated recruits since we are now in the top 5. I know that the staff is dedicated to finding high character guys who want to work, but hopefully they can also find guys who are incredibly talented as well. The 3* guys can’t all be Admirals or Grants, rgiht?

Gavin Driskill
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Gavin Driskill

You can’t take anything for granted in league play, but the schedule over the next 6 weeks isn’t onerous.

6 SEC games at home, 5 on the road (2 against the rebuilding category, 2 against the bubble category), and a home game against a West Virginia team in the SEC/Big 12 matchup that has taken a step back this year.

If you think it’ll take 13-5 to possibly repeat and/or get a 1/2 seed, then you want to leave some room for that closing stretch…9-2 going into the @UK game? Something like that?

I’m excited. Giddy up.