The 2017-18 college football season more or less came to an end on Wednesday with National Signing Day. And with a lengthy lull before spring football fires up, this is the perfect time to dive into college basketball.
The SEC, as a whole, is better than it has ever been. While there might not be a truly elite team like 2014 Florida or 2015 Kentucky, 1-14 is as good as it’s ever been. The conference is poised to get as many as nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, besting the old record of six teams.
But with everyone being so focused on football, there’s probably a few things you’ve missed or just don’t know about the conference this season. So allow us to catch you up. Below are five storylines that will prime you for the stretch run, as Selection Sunday is just a month away.
1. The best 2 teams this season aren’t normally the best teams
As of this writing, the two best teams in the SEC are Auburn and Tennessee. The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the preseason standings, while Tennessee was picked to finish 13th. Instead, those teams have established themselves atop the SEC standings, and separated from a clustered middle pack. Auburn is 21-3 and began the week ranked No. 8. The Tigers are also doing this without Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, as both are suspended. The Tigers may have the best set of guards in the country, led by Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper.
As for Tennessee, Rick Barnes’ crew has climbed to an 18-5 record and the No. 15 ranking in the country entering Saturday. The Volunteers also claim wins over No. 3 Purdue and a season sweep against Kentucky. The Volunteers have one of the best defenses in the country, ranking fourth in defensive efficiency. Offensively, the Volunteers are led by SEC Player of the Year candidate Grant Williams.
Both have proven they’re legitimately good teams and potentially poised for a deep tournament run. Both Bruce Pearl and Barnes have proven they can take a team deep into March, just not at their current places of employment. But that seems likely to change this season.
2. Kevin Knox and Kentucky are still figuring it out
In recent years, there have been two types of Kentucky teams. There are the 2015 and 2017 teams, which had so much natural talent and established themselves as title contenders from the jump. Then there was the 2014 team that took a while to figure things out, but the talent was good enough to carry Kentucky to an appearance in the national title game. The 2018 team is hoping to follow in the footsteps of that team from four years ago.
The Wildcats have great talent in players such as Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but they’ve yet to put it together. In the Wildcats’ past three games, the team has just 23 assists to 36 turnovers. That won’t be good enough come March, but John Calipari has proven he can make the necessary tweaks to make a deep tournament run.
3. The Michael Porter Jr. and Missouri question
Under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, Missouri has been one of the most improved teams in the league. But there’s room for Missouri to get better, thanks in part to über-recruit Michael Porter Jr. The 5-star freshman has played just 2 minutes on the season, but there’s been constant chatter about him potentially returning.
Porter Jr. spoke with the media on Friday and made it clear that he wants to return and play for the Tigers this season. He still hasn’t been cleared, but if/when he does, it could vault Missouri from a team that just makes the tournament to a team that can spring a few upsets. The Tigers are 16-8 and entered Saturday on a three-game winning streak.
4. There is individual talent that could spark a deep run for an unheralded team
A big reason for the improvement in SEC basketball can be attributed to the influx of talent. Alabama has guard Collin Sexton, while Texas A&M can tout big man Robert Williams. Mississippi State freshman Nick Weatherspoon has teamed up with his older brother Quinndary to help make Mississippi State a capable team, and freshman Tremont Waters has been a standout for LSU.
In recent years, we’ve seen players including UConn’s Kemba Walker (2011) and Michigan’s Trey Burke (2013) carry teams to deep NCAA Tournament runs. It’s not out of the question to see a player such as Sexton possibly do that with Alabama.
5. There’s almost no separation in the SEC standings, setting up for an exciting SEC Tournament
Two games separate the team in fourth, which gets a double bye in the SEC Tournament, and 13th, which has to play on the first day of the tournament. That means one bad week or one good week could create a wild swing in the standings. And that could mean we get some great early games in the SEC Basketball Tournament, which will be held next month in St. Louis. And given that a number of teams could be playing for NCAA Tournament bids, it could make for some extremely competitive games come March.
2018 SEC basketball standings, entering Feb. 10
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