We heard it throughout Southeastern Conference media days last October, when coaches could puff their chests out a bit because of the postseason runs of LSU and Florida the season before.
The SEC was going to be the toughest conference in America, they told us. Florida returned all five of its starters from a national championship team. LSU returned reigning conference player of the year Glen Davis. Kentucky would be better. Tennessee would be back.
A look through the first month of the season shows that the conference has been somewhat humbled. None of the 12 teams remain unbeaten. Injuries and tough-scheduling have contributed to some early struggles, and there have been some quality wins (LSU beating Texas A&M and Tennessee downing Memphis come to mind). Plus, Florida’s home showdown with Ohio State should serve as a barometer of the strength of the conference moving forward.
The following are my SEC power rankings through the first month of the season:
1. Florida (8-2)
Yes, Florida’s two toughest tests this season have both ended in losses (by a combined six points). But the Gators get a pass because starting forward and top defender Corey Brewer was sick for Kansas and out for Florida State. FSU was a road game and Kansas was a neutral-court game in name only, with thousands of Jayhawk fans outnumbering Gator fans by a 7-to-1 margin in Las Vegas. Sophomore guard Walter Hodge has been a pleasant surprise on both sides of the ball, but freshman Dan Werner (5-for-26 from 3-point range) hasn’t delivered as advertised from the perimeter. Al Horford needs to do a better job staying out of foul trouble in big games.
2. Alabama (8-1)
The Tide are still my sleeper pick to go to the Final Four, but there have been some unfortunate issues, beginning with the tragedies surrounding senior center Jermareo Davidson. Davidson’s girlfriend died in a car accident and his brother was critically injured five days before her death. Due to missed class time, Davidson withdrew from classes Dec. 8, but under an NCAA loophole was allowed to rejoin the team Wednesday. In addition, point guard Ronald Steele has had injury problems with both his knee (tendinitis) and ankle (sprain). Steele sprained his ankle early in the Notre Dame game and couldn’t prevent Alabama from folding down the stretch in its lone loss of the season. A bright spot has been the continued development of sophomore forward Richard Hendrix, who scored 34 points in a recent game against Alabama State. Watch out for these guys come March.
3. LSU (5-2)
Closing seconds, down by one in overtime, and sophomore guard Garrett Temple throws up a wild, 26-foot 3-point attempt against Texas. Preseason All-American junior center Glen Davis doesn’t touch the ball. Are you kidding me? Either someone panicked or LSU is poorly organized. Give John Brady kudos for beefing up the non-conference schedule (Texas, Texas A&M, Wichita State, Washington), but LSU is going to need smarter guard play in order to return to the Final Four.
4. Tennessee (7-2)
Just keep Bruce Pearl out of high school gyms. Pearl was kicked out of a high school game for the second time in two years last week after arguing with a ref while recruiting a prep standout in Chattanooga. But there’s an upside to his emotion, one that could help the Vols become a consistent winner. Even with the loss of Major Wingate, Tennesee is deeper inside with the quick development of freshmen big men Duke Crews and Wayne Chism. Another freshman, point guard Ramar Smith, is going to need to play better if the Vols have designs on challenging Florida in the SEC East.
5. Arkansas (7-1)
Save for a blowout loss at resurgent Missouri, Arkansas is off to a solid start. Guard Patrick Beverley, who leads the Hogs at 12.4 points per game, is an early candidate for SEC freshman of the year. The main issue here is at the point, where Mississippi State transfer Gary Ervin (38 assists to 29 turnovers) is still careless at times.
6. Kentucky (6-3)
Root canal is more pleasant than watching the Wildcats run offense. This is a mediocre team that we’re subjugated to watching on national television because of the Big Blue faithful. Randolph Morris has stepped up his game, but there’s still not enough offense. Ramel Bradley proved he wasn’t a true point, and that’s forced Tubby Smith to go small again, with freshman Bobby Jasper running the offense in a three-guard lineup. Freshman forward Perry Stevenson gives them something off the bench, but other than that, there’s little quality depth. I thought Joe Crawford would be better, but he hasn’t come around yet. Ditto Bobby Perry.
7. Mississippi State (6-2)
Bulldogs bounced back from a home loss against Winthrop to pick up a good road win at Miami. Sophomore guard Jamont Gordon continues to lead the offense, with freshman Barry Stewart supplying some surprising offense down the stretch.
8. Georgia (6-1)
The Dogs should get a good test Saturday in Duluth against Gonzaga. Takais Brown is back from an academic suspension and producing, giving Georgia a legitimate post scoring threat. Road win at Wake Forest took some of the sting out of an earlier home loss to Western Kentucky. Channing Toney left the team, but Georgia has more than enough guards (Levi Stukes, Sundiata Gaines, Mike Mercer, Billy Humphrey) to make up for his absence.
9. Ole Miss (8-2)
Give first-year coach Andy Kennedy credit for getting the Rebels to play hard every night. Ole Miss stayed with Connecticut for a close to a half in Hartford and nearly climbed back from a 13-point first-half deficit at Memphis. Bam Doyne (17.5 ppg) is emerging into a scoring threat.
10. South Carolina (6-2)
I thought the Gamecocks were going to miss Renaldo Balkman more than people thought because of all the intangibles he brought to the floor. A loss at UC Irvine and a blowout home loss to Clemson are proof that South Carolina still has a long way to go
11. Vanderbilt (5-3)
There’s no shame in losing to Georgetown at home, but Furman? Home win against Georgia Tech is something to build on. Ross Neltner is still adapting to life a starter after transferring from LSU.
12. Auburn (7-3)
Nearly stunned No. 7 Oklahoma State (66-65 loss in South Padre Island, Texas), then followed it up with 77-63 loss to No. ? Wisconsin. Other loss was at home to No. 2 Pittsburgh (74-66). Remaining non-conference schedule so far has been weak, so it’s still hard to gauge how much progress the Tigers have made. Still, it can’t get much worse than last season.