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SEC Basketball: Don’t Bury Kentucky Just Yet

Saturday has been all about football since the beginning of September, but we’ve got a week off before bowl season. And what better way to signify the transition of the seasons than to shift gears in the SEC and talk about what’s going on in hoops rather than what’s going on in the gridiron. Kentucky completed the league’s sweep of the BCS & Final Four a year ago, but is now unranked. Florida missed the Final Four by a bucket last March and is in the Top 10. Let’s take a brief look at the top of SEC basketball as teams enter the second half of their non-conference schedules.

Florida is ranked #5 in the country, while Missouri sits at #12. Kentucky just missed the poll this week, and Alabama’s also got a decent chunk of votes. LSU was named on one Top 25 ballot, but at this point that’s not enough to mark the Tigers a legitimate threat. So we’ll build our December look-in around Florida, Missouri, Kentucky & Alabama.

Kentucky: Three losses have left last year’s champs buried, but let’s not get carried away. Two of the losses were to Duke and Notre Dame and both are Final Four-caliber. The other was to Baylor, which has become a pretty good basketball program in recent years. Just because this Wildcat team won’t develop as fast last year’s version, with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, doesn’t mean they won’t come around fast enough to be a factor in the conference race.

A lot of the early season hype went to center Nerlens Noel, as the successor to Davis. The freshman Noel is blocking shots, grabbing rebounds and showing himself to be a good college center, even if the Davis comparison is over the top. But the best freshmen in John Calipari’s lineup are Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. They’re the two leading scorers and each has good touch from long range Poythress, at 6’7” and playing on the wing is a matchup problem for smaller teams.

Combined with Noel, these players give Calipari a good core trio, and between other new frosh and returning senior Julius Mays, the pieces can be filled in. Kentucky’s next big test will be in three weeks at Louisville. This year’s UK team might be a lot like the 2011 version—it took them a little longer to find their stride, but they still ended up winning the SEC Tournament and going to the Final Four.

Florida: The Gators have tormented my home state of Wisconsin so far this December, hammered both Marquette & Wisconsin, and then doing the same to Florida State on Wednesday night. Right now, this is the best team in the SEC and possibly the best team in the nation. The question is whether the upside is sufficient for both statements to still be true as the season progresses.

Billy Donovan’s offense is perimeter-oriented, with senior guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario leading the scoring, and Scottie Wilbeken an able three-point shooter. Donovan gets good board work from Will Yeguete and Patric Young on the front line. What ultimately defines this team on the perimeter is that center Erik Murphy is much more comfortable stepping out shooting the three-ball—where he’s at 43 percent—then he is pounding the glass.

When an offense like this hits on all cylinders, it’s pretty to watch. In today’s perimeter-oriented college game, there aren’t a lot of teams that can exploit them underneath, and in any battle of the outside game, Florida will usually have an edge. But Florida is likely to have problems with teams that can pound underneath, and Kentucky is one of those teams. Watching how both teams progress is going to make this conference race very interesting.

Missouri: The Tigers have a big rebuilding project on their hands in their first year in the SEC. Mizzou’s high early ranking has kept them at #12 in spite of a blowout loss against Louisville and there are no wins that would ease the skepticism I’ve got about this team.

What Missouri does have is a good collection of athletes on the wings. Keion Bells, Earnest Ross and Laurence Bowers all run between 6’4” and 6’8” and Bowers—the 6’8” forward in the group has been lights out from behind the arc. Bell and Ross both aggressively crash the boards from the wings, and head coach Frank Haight is working freshman Negus Webster-Chan into this rotation.

Phil Pressey, the little 5’11” junior is an able quarterback and a good enough three-point shooter to make defenses respect him. And UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi is averaging 10 points/8 rebounds a game right now, albeit mostly against soft competition.

I see the potential in Missouri, but Oriakhi needs to show a consistency he rarely did with UConn and Webster-Chan needs to become a contributor. Those are reasonable goals, and if it all comes together, Missouri has the talent to be a big thorn in the side of Florida.

Alabama: Recent losses to Cincinnati & Dayton have knocked the Tide out of the rankings, and depth is going to be a long-term concern. ‘Bama is very small, with only 6’8” freshman Devonta Pollard being a frontline player and he’s only averaging three rebounds a game. By comparison, Florida is positively physical.

Alabama does get solid work from the backcourt, starting with the two Trevors—Releford and Lacey—who can each hit from downtown, and 6’6” sophomore Rodney Cooper who is at his best inside the arc. Levi Randolph is another able outside shooter. This is a team built a lot like last year’s Missouri team, in that they need to keep the floor spread and the tempo fast.

There’s certainly enough on hand to beat most teams and make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s tough to see the Crimson Tide matching up with Florida, Kentucky or anyone on a national scale. Since conference games don’t start until after the BCS National Championship on January 7, maybe Nick Saban would loan out a couple linebackers to just give 15-20 minutes a night and push people around. Joking aside, that probably would be exactly what Alabama could use.

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