SEC Basketball Preview: The Best of a Generation

LSU is at Memphis today, and Kentucky faces Louisville on Friday. Then SEC play tips off, with Tennessee and Arkansas doing the honors Saturday at 1:00 PM ET.

Five years ago, you could have confused the SEC for a mid-major league. Florida dominated a newly-expanded conference in 2013, rated second nationally in KenPom before bowing out in the Elite Eight. Missouri got in as a nine seed and lost in the first round. And Marshall Henderson shot Ole Miss to an SEC Tournament title, pushing the Rebels into the tournament as a 12 seed.

And that was it.

Kentucky, Alabama, and Tennessee just missed the field, each earning a one or two seed in the NIT. The league’s three NCAA Tournament teams were the only ones to finish in the KenPom Top 50. And the basement was a mess, dead weight around the necks of tournament hopefuls:  Auburn at 197, South Carolina at 209, and Mississippi State at 256 in KenPom.

Changes in coaching and scheduling made a difference, but not immediately. Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee (barely) got in the next year, with all three advancing to the Sweet 16. Kentucky’s undefeated bid was the story in 2015, but four other SEC teams made the field. But the league was back to just three in 2016, with Vanderbilt bowing out in Dayton.

While the top tier still needed work, the bottom was getting better. Two years ago Rick Barnes’ first squad just missed the Top 100 in KenPom at 103, while Missouri (159) and Auburn (189) brought up the rear. Last year the middle leveled up: while Kentucky and Florida did their usual at the top, the SEC’s Top 12 teams were all in the Top 90. Missouri (156) and LSU (172) still struggled mightily, but South Carolina’s surprise run to the Final Four gave the league some additional juice. Five teams got in, and three made it to the Elite Eight.

The SEC got five in the field in 2017, 2015, and 2011, but six hasn’t happened since 2008. By my count, seven has never been done.

This year, in the Christmas Eve edition of the Bracket Matrix, the SEC has eight on the dance floor.

The best SEC since…

This is easily the best SEC since expansion those five years ago, and has put itself in the running for a much longer conversation. The league is currently third in conference RPI and first in out-of-conference strength of schedule, with ten games against the Big 12 (first in conference RPI) still to come. Top to bottom, the SEC is one of the nation’s best basketball conferences:

SEC ACC Big East Big 10 Big 12 Pac 12
AP Top 25 3 5 4 2 6 2
KenPom Top 25 4 6 3 2 4 2
KenPom Top 50 7 9 7 7 9 4
KenPom Top 100 14 13 9 14 10 6
RPI Top 25 4 5 4 2 3 2
RPI Top 50 8 8 5 4 7 3
RPI Top 100 11 11 8 8 8 8
Bracket Matrix 8 10 6 5 7 2

Texas A&M leads the way at 11-1, seventh in KenPom. Kentucky is 9-2 and 18th.

And then there’s us.

What’s a good goal for Tennessee?

The Vols are one spot behind the Wildcats at 19th in KenPom and join Kentucky and Arkansas at 9-2 in the Top 25 in those ratings. Those four make up the league’s top tier entering conference play. Ending the season in that top tier is a great, practical goal for Tennessee.

Finishing in the top four in SEC play would both give the Vols a double bye in the SEC Tournament, and secure a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. Right now the Vols are a five seed in the Bracket Matrix, while RPI Forecast projects Tennessee to finish 10-8 in league play. There are no cupcakes this time around; the league will not be easy. Finishing as a six seed or higher would keep the Vols away from college basketball’s very best until at least the Sweet 16. Or you could consider the fact that the Vols have already played three competitive games with college basketball’s very best and won one of them, and just let this thing play out hoping for the most favorable seed possible.

RPI Forecast also gives the Vols a 75.7% chance to finish the regular season with at least 19 wins, which would make the Vols an NCAA Tournament lock. It’s tough to have a conversation about goals for a team that started the year picked 13th in the SEC and is currently flirting with 13th in the nation. This season so far has been a gift, but this team has earned it:  the Vols haven’t been lucky, just good.

So if they go 9-9 in league play and just get into the tournament, this year would still have to be considered a success. But the Vols have earned the right to dream a little bigger.

On that:

Tennessee’s conference schedule is relatively easy, but extraordinarily front-loaded.

As usual, the Vols get Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina twice. You know what you’ll get from UK every year. Vanderbilt is a conundrum at 5-7 with no bad losses. South Carolina is rebuilding without Sindarius Thornwell, P.J. Dozier, and Duane Notice.

This year the Vols draw Georgia and Ole Miss as their other two home-and-home opponents. The Dawgs are 10th among SEC teams in KenPom, the Rebels 13th. Vanderbilt is 12th, South Carolina ninth.

The Vols and seven others make up the top eight teams in the SEC. And of the other seven, the Vols play six of them only once.

And they will play five of them in their first six SEC games, plus visit Memorial Gym.

  • at Arkansas, Saturday December 30
  • vs Auburn, Tuesday January 2
  • vs Kentucky, Saturday January 6
  • at Vanderbilt, Tuesday January 9
  • vs Texas A&M, Saturday January 13
  • at Missouri, Wednesday January 17

The bulk of Tennessee’s resume will take shape by mid-January. As it looks right now, Tennessee’s only opportunities for quality wins after this are in Rupp on February 6 and vs Florida on February 21. Maybe we’ll be able to add at Alabama to that list by February 10.

So if the Vols start, say, 3-3 in SEC play? That’s far closer to pretty good than it would be to the negative overreaction some casual basketball fans would have. In Sagarin’s ratings at RPI Forecast, the most difficult game left on Tennessee’s schedule is the next one.

We’ll know a lot more about this team and what kinds of conversations we can have for March in just three weeks. Tennessee has to make the most of its early opportunities. Fortunately, the Vols have been doing that all year.


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