Tuesday, January 7, 2014

SEC Hoops: Starting Conference Play

As conference play kicks off in the SEC tonight (at least, for those of us who care about basketball), the SEC already looks to be a bit improved on last season.

Last year, just three teams made it to the NCAA Tournament -- and one of those, Ole Miss, had to play its way in by winning the SEC Tournament.  This year, that number could go as high as six if everything breaks right.

As things stand right now, three teams are probably in the tournament unless they completely go in the tank.  Three more look to be in decent shape, and a couple of others could play their way in -- unlike last season, there's enough heft at the top of the SEC that tournament contenders can pick up some quality wins.  Here's how I think the SEC looks as we head into conference play.

1.  Florida (11-2)
RPI: 14
Pomeroy: 17
RPI Top 25 wins: 1 (Kansas)
RPI Top 50 wins: 2 (Kansas, Memphis)
Losses: at Wisconsin (1), at Connecticut (42)
With a couple of good wins and no bad losses, the Gators can already feel pretty secure about being in the NCAA Tournament.  The Gators do a good job at protecting the rim and hitting the glass, but as important, they don't really seem to have any glaring weaknesses (except maybe freethrow shooting.)  Depth could be a problem, though, particularly if star recruit Chris Walker doesn't get eligible; right now, Florida really only goes eight deep and doesn't really have much beyond that.  Still, this is a good, experienced team, and it's a program that has made the Elite Eight three straight years.

2.  Kentucky (10-3)
RPI: 25
Pomeroy: 12
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 2 (Boise State, Louisville)
Losses: vs. Michigan State (12), vs. Baylor (19), at North Carolina (36)
The ridiculous 40-0 talk was put to bed early with the Michigan State loss, but the Wildcats still look pretty good heading into SEC play.  The Wildcats protect the rim, hit the offensive glass and get to the line a lot.  They're not particularly good at shooting (either from the foul line or outside) but Julius Randle is difficult to handle inside and Willie Cauley-Stein is a beast on the defensive end.  The Louisville win gives them a quality win that they didn't have last year.

3.  Missouri (12-1)
RPI: 28
Pomeroy: 41
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 1 (UCLA)
Losses: vs. Illinois (11)
Consistency is the key here: the Tigers aren't a great team, but they don't have any inexplicable losses.  They're one point away from being undefeated on the season.  Point guard play could be a problem, though: the Tigers shoot the ball well, but don't take particularly good care of the ball and don't turn you over, though the defense is otherwise fine.  And there's very little depth here, particularly in the paint.

4.  Arkansas (11-2)
RPI: 54
Pomeroy: 37
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 2 (SMU, vs. Minnesota)
Losses: vs. Gonzaga (16), vs. California (46)
Two good wins so far, but we'll see how SMU and Minnesota hold up over the rest of the season, and no bad losses... but then, the three games in Maui were the full extent of the Razorbacks' games outside the state of Arkansas, and they lost two of those.  Will they have the same schizophrenia as last year?  If they can pick up a couple of good wins on the road (or at least avoid bad losses on the road), this could be an NCAA Tournament team.  Their coach is Mike Anderson, which means they will turn you over a lot, but having Bobby Portis down low also means they're pretty good at protecting the rim if they don't turn you over.

5.  Tennessee (9-4)
RPI: 66
Pomeroy: 23
RPI Top 25 wins: 1 (vs. Xavier)
RPI Top 50 wins: 2 (vs. Xavier, Virginia)
Losses: at Xavier (24), at Wichita State (17), NC State (80), vs. UTEP (151)
On their best nights, the Vols are capable of running a pretty good Virginia team out of the building.  And on their worst nights?  Well, there's that loss to UTEP... Still, none of the losses are eyesores, and the profile is good enough that assuming they can get it together in SEC play and avoid any further bad losses, they could very well make the NCAA Tournament.  But they start SEC play squarely on the bubble.

6.  LSU (9-3)
RPI: 68
Pomeroy: 50
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: at UMass (5), vs. Memphis (32), Rhode Island (166)
LSU has plenty of potential, but, uh, Rhode Island?  At home?  Really?  Certainly, the Bayou Bengals had their chances in the UMass and Memphis games, but at least as far as the selection committee is concerned, they got through the non-conference portion of the schedule with zero quality wins.  But there's enough potential that they can make amends for that in SEC play.  Another bubble team.

7.  Alabama (6-7)
RPI: 110
Pomeroy: 69
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: vs. Oklahoma (15), vs. Duke (38), Wichita State (17), Xavier (24), at UCLA (29), vs. Drexel (74), at South Florida (182)
Here is the problem with the RPI.  The RPI sees a bunch of losses and determines that Alabama is a mediocre team, whereas Pomeroy sees that Alabama was competitive with a bunch of teams that will probably be in the NCAA Tournament and says they're actually pretty decent.  The bad news, though, is that all the losses (even if they were to good teams) means that the Tide can't get in the tournament with a middling SEC finish.  The good news, though, is that the non-conference strength of schedule means that a good SEC finish -- say, 13-5 or better -- quite likely gets them in the tournament, and I think they're capable of doing that.

8.  Ole Miss (9-4)
RPI: 86
Pomeroy: 78
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: Oregon (9), Dayton (39), at Kansas State (55), Mercer (85)
Even the Mercer loss isn't really bad; Mercer is actually a pretty good team.  On the other hand, the Rebels' best win is over... Penn State?  Yeah, they have a lot of work to do in SEC play.  Marshall Henderson is Marshall Henderson, and Jarvis Summers is improved, but unlike last year, the Rebels have zero presence down low at the offensive end.  Aaron Jones, Demarco Cox, and Sebastian Saiz are all good at rebounding and contesting shots, but none of them offer the offensive presence that Murphy Holloway did, so Ole Miss isn't as good as last year's team.  This team looks to be on the wrong side of the bubble right now.

9.  Vanderbilt (8-4)
RPI: 99
Pomeroy: 90
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: St. Louis (47), at Butler (53), vs. Providence (69), at Texas (58)
Like Ole Miss, Vandy neither helped nor hurt themselves in non-conference play; no bad losses here, but the best wiu is over a middling Georgia Tech team.  Damian Jones is a budding star down low, but the Commodores have sketchy guard play and are unusually iffy at shooting behind the three-point line.  At this point, this doesn't look like an NCAA team, but there's enough potential here that that possibility can't be ruled out.

10.  South Carolina (7-6)
RPI: 97
Pomeroy: 107
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 1 (vs. St. Mary's)
Losses: at Baylor (19), at Oklahoma State (13), vs. Boise State (50), Manhattan (65), at Clemson (108), USC Upstate (207)
The Gamecocks actually went out and challenged themselves in non-conference play, and while the results weren't pretty at times (blowout losses to Oklahoma State and Boise State), this team actually looks to be improved quite a bit over last season.  Frank Martin knows what he's doing, and as is typical of Frank Martin teams, they're physical, they hit the offensive glass, they get to the freethrow line, and they also send you to the freethrow line a lot (by design.)  This probably isn't an NCAA team, but unlike last season, the good teams in the SEC can't count on coming out of Columbia with a win.

11.  Texas A&M (9-4)
RPI: 190
Pomeroy: 161
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: vs. SMU (37), vs. Oklahoma (15), vs. Missouri State (91), North Texas (171)
The Aggies combine a defense that's actually pretty good (thanks, Kourtney Roberson and Alex Caruso) with an offense that is, at times, horrendous (see: 41 points in a home loss to North Texas.)  This team looks like it will be playing on Wednesday night in the SEC Tournament again, and that's not good for Billy Kennedy's job security.

12.  Auburn (8-3)
RPI: 169
Pomeroy: 157
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: at Iowa State (2), vs. Illinois (11), Northwestern State (192)
There was that 19-point loss to Northwestern State, but other than that, Auburn hasn't looked terrible; home wins over Clemson and Boston College suggest that (at least at home) they're capable of beating mid-level power-conference teams.  The Tigers can score, but can't defend (see: 111 points in a home loss to Northwestern State), so they wind up being pretty limited and will probably be playing on Wednesday night in the SEC Tournament.  And, yeah, Tony Barbee will probably be unemployed if that happens.

13.  Mississippi State (10-3)
RPI: 157
Pomeroy: 205
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: at Utah State (77), vs. UNLV (113), TCU (162)
10-3 against a joke of a non-conference schedule (best win: a neutral-court win over South Florida, and they barely scraped by Jackson State), but they're at least improved over last season, not that that's saying a lot given how godawful they were last season.  The defense is actually pretty good at turning you over, and the offense is improved with Gavin Ware developing down low and Craig Sword shooting better than he did last season (and turning the ball over less.)  But this team is still probably a year away from really being competitive in the SEC.

14.  Georgia (6-6)
RPI: 239
Pomeroy: 170
RPI Top 25 wins: 0
RPI Top 50 wins: 0
Losses: vs. Nebraska (48), at Colorado (8), at George Washington (22), Georgia Tech (117), vs. Davidson (167), vs. Temple (156)
Georgia's best player is Charles Mann, a guy who shoots 47 percent on 2-pointers and turns it over 3 times a game.  There's really not a lot to like about this team: they're not particularly good at shooting, they turn it over too much, they don't turn you over, and while they protect the rim pretty well they can get hurt on the perimeter.  And the best team they've beaten this season is... Western Carolina.  By 2.  At home.  I would be very surprised if this team is not playing on Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament.

Hot Seat Index: Midseason

1.  Tony Barbee: He went 9-23 last year, player turnover has been an ongoing issue in the program, and this season's team -- while improved -- doesn't look like it will even get within sniffing distance of the NCAA Tournament.  In four years on the Plains, it's really hard to see how he's an improvement over Jeff Lebo, and he might actually be worse.  This serves as a word of caution to anyone thinking about hiring that hot mid-major coach, because remember, Barbee was considered a great hire when he came in.
2.  Mark Fox: Has one NCAA Tournament appearance in four years (which came primarily with Dennis Felton's players), probably won't make it this year, and will probably have four losing seasons in five years.  Fox is actually a pretty good coach, but other than landing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope he hasn't been able to recruit talent to Athens; UGA would be much better off with a coach who knows the recruiting trail in the South, particularly in the fertile Atlanta area.
3.  Anthony Grant: One NCAA appearance in four years, though in Grant's case the Tide has at least been coming fairly close; he has a 92-59 record in Tuscaloosa.  The problem, though, is that this season looked like one for the Crimson Tide to take a leap forward and it hasn't happened; player turnover has been a problem here as well.  And the difference between Grant and Barbee/Fox is that he has a team that's capable of getting things turned around in SEC play and making the tournament.
4.  Billy Kennedy: Had Kennedy followed Melvin Watkins or Tony Barone in College Station, his 41-37 record and no NCAA appearances wouldn't be a problem.  Unfortunately for him, that's coming on the heels of six straight NCAA appearances under Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon, and so Aggies fans actually have some expectations for the basketball program now.  He's only in his third year, so he should be back for another year, but a second straight year of playing in the first round of the SEC Tournament will probably increase the heat.
5.  Andy Kennedy: The wolves seem to have calmed down after Kennedy (finally) got Ole Miss to the NCAA Tournament for the first time last season.  He's 161-91 in his eighth season and, believe it or not, that actually makes him Ole Miss's winningest basketball coach -- which really says a lot more about the Ole Miss basketball program than it does about Kennedy.  Even with a bit of a down year, he looks fine right now, though I wouldn't rule out a firing if the team tanks in SEC play.
6.  Mike Anderson: He's 48-29 in his third season in Fayetteville, but hasn't made the NCAA Tournament.  If he doesn't get the Razorbacks there this year, the heat could go up, though given his long history with the Arkansas program (he was a top assistant coach under Nolan Richardson) he has a lot of good will built up and should be fine.
7.  Cuonzo Martin: Like Billy Kennedy, Martin had the misfortune of following the highly successful (though ultimately marred) Bruce Pearl era in Knoxville; if he had followed Buzz Peterson, his record would not be a problem.  His recruiting has also gotten Vols fans fired up, but so far the team has been inconsistent and hasn't made the NCAA Tournament.  Worth watching if the Vols miss the tournament again.
8.  Frank Haith: When hired, he was not Missouri's first choice, but has gotten the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament in both of his first two years.  On the other hand... he's also lost in the first round both years, and this isn't a program where merely getting to the NCAAs is good enough.  Should be fine so long as the program doesn't tank on his watch.
9.  Kevin Stallings: Some Vanderbilt fans might not like this placement, but Stallings -- who's in his 15th year at Vandy and is the school's all-time winningest coach -- seems to be fine as far as the athletic department (or whatever Vanderbilt calls it) is concerned.
10.  Johnny Jones: He's an alum and in his second year seems to be getting LSU turned around.  Should be fine for now, though LSU fans will expect NCAA appearances at some point soon.
11.  Rick Ray: Basically gets a mulligan for his first season, and he's already equaled his win total from year 1 in his second year.  Will get time to try to get Mississippi State turned around.
12.  Frank Martin: This is what happens when you follow an unsuccessful coach and have a good track record coming in.  South Carolina will probably be willing to give Martin plenty of time to get the program turned around, and there's already some improvement.
13.  John Calipari: Even after a disappointing 2013 season, nobody is calling for Calipari's head in Lexington.  Winning a national championship two years ago will do that.
14.  Billy Donovan: Um, no.

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