With apologies to Sunday’s clash between Vanderbilt and Alcorn State, we turn our eyes to conference play: four
games teams on Tuesday night, then the rest of us jump on board on Wednesday, including the Top 15 showdown between the Vols and Missouri. More on that game to come, but first, a look at the landscape, where the grass is far less blue.
It’s a credit to Kentucky that the SEC basketball conversation defaults to them. But the immediate question becomes, with the Cats now 1-6 and their only win over Morehead State, how will the league be perceived when its golden goose is down?
Everything, of course, is weird this year. Kentucky’s SEC opener is postponed due to covid issues at South Carolina, which I’m sure won’t be the last of that. The league implemented an open date of sorts on what would normally be the final Saturday of the regular season on March 6, which I’m assuming gives room for a single make-up game. We’ll see how they choose to handle that if/when teams face multiple cancellations. But we already know we’re dealing with a smaller sample size: Tennessee lost games with #1 Gonzaga and #9 Wisconsin, and though the Colorado pickup looks good (also receiving votes at 6-1 and 24th in KenPom), the Vols need their game with Kansas to be played free of covid issues. Otherwise, we’d be left with the same question facing most of the SEC: how good are we, really?
The perception problem isn’t just Kentucky at the top, but a significant shift from preseason expectations:
|Preseason Media Poll||Current KenPom|
|1. Tennessee||1. Tennessee|
|2. Kentucky||2. Florida|
|3. LSU||3. Ole Miss|
|4. Florida||4. Arkansas|
|5. Alabama||5. LSU|
|6. Arkansas||6. Missouri|
|7. Auburn||7. Kentucky|
|8. South Carolina||8. Alabama|
|9. Ole Miss||9. South Carolina|
|10. Missouri||10. Auburn|
|11. Texas A&M||11. Texas A&M|
|12. Mississippi State||12. Mississippi State|
|13. Georgia||13. Georgia|
|14. Vanderbilt||14. Vanderbilt|
Not much has changed at the bottom, though keep an eye on 7-0 Georgia, who did beat faltering Cincinnati by more than we did. At the top, Kentucky has been unusually bad, and Florida’s season is now totally unpredictable after Keyontae Johnson’s health scare. Meanwhile, Missouri is undefeated and in the Top 15 of both polls, while Ole Miss has a three-point loss to Dayton and is beating bad teams by 35-40 points.
What happens to the SEC when Kentucky has a down year? Seven years ago the Cats missed the NCAA Tournament, and the league put just two teams in the field at-large – Florida as a three seed despite finishing second in KenPom, Missouri as a nine – plus Marshall Henderson’s Ole Miss team at 12 as SEC Tournament champions. Cuonzo Martin’s Vols were left out at 20-12 (11-7).
This year, the SEC is currently fourth in KenPom’s conference ratings, just behind the ACC and just ahead of the Big East. With the Big Ten and Big 12 battling it out for conference supremacy, the SEC will get its annual chance to improve its perception in a few weeks in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. In the Christmas Eve Bracket Matrix, the league has five teams in the field (starting with the Vols as a three seed), with Ole Miss among the first four out. After putting eight teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and seven in 2019, five would certainly be a disappointment.
Of course, there’s a simple solution for Tennessee: win the league, and leave no doubt along the way.
KenPom projects the Vols as SEC Champions at 13-5. Tennessee is chasing its second league title in four years, but also just its fourth in 39 years. Most recently, the Vols shared the title in 1982, 2000 and 2018, which means they’ve only won it outright one time since 1967, and twice ever. That accomplishment last belonged to the 2008 Vols.
Can they do it? With Kentucky down and Florida uncertain, the opening stretch – at Missouri, vs Alabama, vs Arkansas – feels much more telling. If Tennessee navigates that stretch successfully, they can cement themselves in the Top 10 nationally and in the top seed conversation. In a year when you may want to avoid Gonzaga at all costs, one surefire way to do that is earn a one seed – the program’s first – yourself.
Could this Tennessee team climb that high? The defense checks out, while the offense is in progress. But with smaller sample sizes and an uncertain SEC, it may take an even better record than we’re used to. In the last four NCAA Tournaments, one seeds have averaged 4.5 losses on Selection Sunday. The Vols will enter league play with a clean slate. The longer they keep it that way, the better their chances to separate themselves from the rest of the league in the overall conversation.
In a year when Kentucky is down and league perception may suffer for it, it would truly be a program accomplishment for Tennessee to win the league outright and earn a one or two seed along the way, commanding their own level of respect regardless of what anyone else in the league does around them. And that’s exactly how they’ll enter league play: good enough to make their own fate.