Better balance could create more competition in SEC hoops

Florida State forward Phil Cofer's shot is blocked by Florida forward Keith Stone during the first half of the Dec. 4 game in Gainesville. (AP Photo/Ron Irby)

Southeastern Conference men’s basketball coaches love to talk about how their league is more balanced than its national reputation suggests.
Early returns back up their statements and indicate there will be a wide-open race for the SEC title as league play begins Saturday.

“The league is as good as it has been in a number of years,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said.

It’s definitely less predictable.

Traditional powers Kentucky and Florida haven’t looked invincible during nonconference play, while the rest of the league has stepped up its performance.

The Top 25 doesn’t necessarily show the SEC has gotten much better. Only three teams are ranked: No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 16 Kentucky and No. 19 Tennessee.

But the RPI gives the league more respect. The RPI four SEC teams in the top 20: Texas A&M (7th), Tennessee (9th), Arkansas (14th) and Missouri (17th). Other SEC teams in the top 40 include Auburn (28th), Alabama (31st), Kentucky (36th) and South Carolina (40th).

“The difference is our league’s playing a better non-league schedule,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “Top to bottom, there’s no question our league is playing a much more demanding nonconference schedule. Like we’ve all said, we’ve got to win some of those games. We’ve done that this year probably more so than any year since I’ve been in the league.”

The SEC is hoping to follow up its breakthrough in last season’s NCAA Tournament by getting more teams invited this year.

This league hasn’t sent as many as six teams to the NCAA Tournament in a single year since 2008. The SEC earned five NCAA Tournament bids last year, with South Carolina making its first Final Four appearance while Kentucky and Florida reached regional finals.

Kentucky has won at least a share of the SEC’s last three regular-season titles and was the favorite again this season according to a preseason poll of the league’s media. That same poll had Florida finishing second.

Yet Florida has struggled to an 8-4 start after being ranked as high as fifth while Kentucky lost its two highest-profile games against Kansas and UCLA this season. In the meantime, Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State have just one loss each and Tennessee has delivered some quality nonconference wins after being picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams .

So nobody knows what to expect in league competition.

“There’s a lot up at the top there and it could go a variety of ways,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “Texas A&M is playing at a really high level. Kentucky keeps getting better, and as the season goes they’re going to keep getting better, and they’re playing really well. Tennessee is off to a great start, and there are a lot of teams that will be positioned for that top spot. And Florida has been a top 10 team.”

Here’s a look at the SEC heading into conference play.

SURGING AGGIES: Texas A&M has overcome adversity to earn a No. 5 ranking that matches its highest spot ever in the Top 25. Robert Williams missed two games with a concussion, Admon Gilder has been out with a knee injury and D.J. Hogg will miss the Aggies’ first two SEC games as he completes a three-game suspension.

TEAMS ON THE RISE: Tennessee returned to the Top 25 this month for the first time since December 2010. Auburn has won nine straight and is off to its fastest start since 1999-2000. After finishing last in the SEC three straight years, Missouri has raced to a 10-3 start under new coach Cuonzo Martin.

REGROUPING GAMECOCKS: South Carolina replaced the nucleus of its Final Four team, including 2016-17 SEC scoring leader Sindarius Thornwell. The Gamecocks are 9-3 but lost to Illinois State , Temple and Clemson . The Gamecocks will need to come on strong in conference play to return to the NCAA Tournament.

FANTASTIC FRESHMEN: The SEC’s freshman class suffered a major blow with the loss of heralded Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr., who has played just one game due to a back injury that is expected to knock him out for the rest of the season. But plenty of other freshmen have made a major impact in the league. The SEC’s leading scorer is Alabama newcomer Collin Sexton . LSU’s Tremont Waters and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo are each averaging over 15 points.

ADVERSITY FOR VANDY: After making the NCAA Tournament last year, Vanderbilt (5-7) is trying to avoid just its second losing season in the last 15 years. The Commodores do have a bright future after signing two of the nation’s top 13 Class of 2018 prospects in forward Simisola Shittu and guard Darius Garland.