College Basketball's Early Season Conference Review: SEC

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College basketball league play is nearing. Here is where the SEC stands so far.

<p> Kentucky is mortal after all, allowing Florida and Missouri to challenge for SEC dominance.</p>

The final two undefeated SEC teams watched their unblemished records fall during their trips out West. Florida lost 65-64 to Arizona while LSU lost 89-70 at Boise State.

Despite the loss, the Gators, who led until the final seconds, appear to be the class of the conference. Unfortunately for the SEC, standing out is not hard to do. Beyond the top four or five teams, the SEC may struggle to fill postseason spots.

As teams finish up finals and head to semester breaks, Athlon will examine the college basketball landscape through the first month or so of the season before conference play begins later this month and into January.

Here’s our look at the scene so far in the SEC.

EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: SEC
Other conferences: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Non-Big Six

Florida coach Billy Donovan

Surprise team: Florida
Few teams in the SEC have distinguished themselves this season enough to call them a surprise, but the Gators are the clear league favorite at this point despite Saturday night’s 65-64 loss at Arizona. But before that, the Gators had defeated Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State by an average of 25 points. Florida’s rise to the top of the SEC is due to balance across the lineup. The Gators have had standout play at each position this season and have four players averaging at least 10 points per game. They're also one of the most improved defensive teams in the conference.

Disappointing team: Kentucky
Turns out Kentucky can’t just plug in the best freshmen each year and expect similar results. Back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor were stunners, especially as Baylor’s win was sandwiched between the Bears’ losses to Charleston and Northwestern. With Ryan Harrow limited this season, the Wildcats haven’t been able to find steady play at point guard this season, an oddity for a John Calipari-coached team. The Wildcats have won three in a row over lesser competition, but a trip to Louisville on Dec. 29 looms large.

Where did he come from? Laurence Bowers, Missouri
Missouri’s season never derailed when Bowers, the Tigers only real big man, went down with a torn ACL in 2011-12. A year later, Bowers is playing on a new -look Missouri team with Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi joining him in the frontcourt. Bowers, though, has returned from his knee injury as it if it never occurred. He’s leading Missouri with 16.9 points per game and is contributing 6.9 rebounds. In his absence from the court, Bowers bulked up to 230 pounds while improving his 3-point shooting.

Where did he go? Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee
The other half of Tennessee’s frontcourt duo with Jarnell Stokes, Maymon hasn’t played yet this season thanks to a knee injury. The Volunteers may have to get used to playing without him as he’s encountered a setback that may keep him out until January.

Key stat: Florida’s defense
The Gators’ defense has been spotty in recent seasons, but that hasn’t been the case so far in 2012-13. The Gators are second in the SEC in field goal percentage defense (36.1 percent) and 15th nationally in effective field goal percentage defense (41.4), which factors in 3-point attempts. The Gators also lead the SEC in defensive rebound percentage (rate of missed field goals resulting in a defensive rebound) at 72.3 percent.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY

Kentucky coach John Calipari

Kentucky’s point guard situation. Ryan Harrow was not the answer early on, missing four games early this season and ceding some of the point guard responsibilities to freshman Archie Goodwin. He’s getting more work now with a 12-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the last three games, though they were games against  Samford, Portland and Lipscomb. How or if Kentucky resolves its point guard situation will determine if Kentucky will return to top-10 status or if the Wildcats will have more games like the losses to Notre Dame and Baylor.

Can Mike Rosario and Patric Young continue career years? A major reason Florida is off to a hot start is the improvement of Mike Rosario and Patric Young. Rosario is playing a full-time role after averaging fewer than 15 minutes per game last season. The increased playing time has paid off with 12 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Young is enjoying the best season of his career. He’s playing with more focus and has become a defensive factor with 2.3 blocks per game.

Who will escape this mess at the bottom of the league? We knew the SEC would be top heavy entering this season, but after Florida, Kentucky and Missouri, it’s tough to pinpoint who will be in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee is probably in, but the Volunteers aren’t far removed from failing to crack 40 points against Virginia and Georgetown. Arkansas’ breakout season has hit a snag, and Alabama has lost three in a row to Cincinnati, Dayton and VCU. While records for LSU and Ole Miss look good, neither team has signature wins. The bottom of the SEC -- teams like Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi State -- is dreadful.

SEC POWER RANKINGS

Player of the year watch
Phil Pressey, Missouri
Erik Murphy, Florida
Archie Goodwin, Kentucky
Freshman of the year watch
Archie Goodwin, Kentucky
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Alex Poythress, Kentucky
Coach of the year watch
Billy Donovan, Florida
Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee
Frank Haith, Missouri

1. Florida (7-1)
The Gators appeared on their way to another lopsided win, but a collapse in the final seconds cost Florida a top-10 win. Kenny Boynton, who missed the front end of a critical one-and-one late against the Wildcats, has been in a shooting slump.

2. Missouri (9-1)
Guard Michael Dixon isn’t coming back, but the Tigers added yet another transfer to the mix when former Oregon guard Jabari Brown became eligible.
Jabari Brown back

3. Kentucky (7-3)
After facing Marshall on Saturday, the Wildcats will have a week to prepare for a road trip to Louisville. Will Kentucky’s struggles be in the rearview mirror by then?

4. Tennessee (5-3)
Athlon expected Tennessee to be a NCAA Tournament team. A win over previously undefeated Wichita State restored faith in the Volunteers after back-to-back ugly losses to Georgetown (37-36) and Virginia (46-38).

5. Ole Miss (7-1)
The Rebels boast the SEC’s top scorer (junior college transfer Marshall Henderson) and rebounder (Murphy Holloway), but the Rebels have few major wins on their resume and a loss at Middle Tennessee.

6. Arkansas (5-4)
Marshawn Powell and B.J. Young have been a prolific duo, but they need help. With a struggling defense, the Razorbacks have lost four of their last six to Arizona State, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Michigan.

7. LSU (6-1)
A loss to Boise State on Friday ended an undefeated start for first-year coach Johnny Jones.

8. Texas A&M (7-2)
There’s no Johnny Basketball, but Elston Turner (16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists) is having a nice year.

9. Alabama (6-3)
The Tide were crushed 73-54 by VCU on Saturday for the Tide’s third consecutive loss.

10. South Carolina (6-3)
Freshman Michael Carrera (11.3 ppg, 8 rpg) has been a pleasant surprise for a team that’s going to struggle to win SEC games.

11. Vanderbilt (5-4)
 A win in overtime at Xavier on Dec. 6 is a signal of hope for the rebuilding Commodores.

12. Auburn (4-5)
The Tigers have lost to some of the worst teams in the Big East (DePaul), the ACC (Boston College) and Atlantic 10 (Rhode Island).

13. Mississippi State (4-5)
The rebuilding in Starkville is as tough as we figured it would be. At least all of the Bulldogs’ losses have come either on the road or on a neutral court.

14. Georgia (2-7)
The Bulldogs have played a tough schedule, but how does that explain losses to Youngstown State, Southern Miss and Iona?

CBK Conferences: 

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