As Kentucky stumbles, Prather and Florida take top spot in SEC
Suffice to say, the SEC has not shaken out the way anyone would have predicted in mid-December.
Missouri is the last undefeated team in the league, and Kentucky has the same amount of losses as Vanderbilt and Auburn. Granted, not every loss or undefeated season is created equal. But Kentucky’s losses in two of the last three games have fans in Lexington wondering what’s going on with Big Blue.
In lauding Kentucky’s great freshman class, maybe we forgot the freshman part as the Wildcats are finding their way through the season.
Kentucky headlines will dominate in the SEC as long the Wildcats have John Calipari on board, but Florida is looking every bit the contender Kentucky was expected to be, especially after Wednesday’s wins over Memphis and Kansas. Missouri hasn’t had the same breakout performance, but the Tigers keep absorbing big personnel losses and chugging along under Frank Haith.
Early Season Report Card: SEC
Bubble watch: LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee
Best win: Florida 67, Kansas 61
Worst loss: Northwestern State 111, Auburn 92
Power rankings so far
6. Ole Miss
8. Texas A&M
12. South Carolina
13. Mississippi State
Important non-conference games remaining:
Missouri vs. Illinois (Dec. 21)
Louisville at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
Dayton at Ole Miss (Jan. 4)
Tuesday’s game against Memphis was a chance for Casey Prather to further his case for SEC player of the year, a major upset not only in a league with Kentucky but also on his own roster. Between suspensions, academic casualties and injuries, Florida hasn’t played with its full roster for most of the season, but Prather has been the steadying influence for the Gators around the basket. By averaging 18.7 points, Prather has pulled off the rare senior breakout by topping his 181 points as a junior in his 10th game as a senior.
Top freshman: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Matched up against James Michael McAdoo, Randle struggled with 11 points and five rebounds in an 82-77 loss to North Carolina on Saturday, but he is still one of the most athletically overwhelming players in the country only 11 games into his career. Randle is averaging 17.2 points and 11.4 rebounds. We’re not backing off Randle's potential.
Top newcomer: Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
Missouri expected to rely heavily on Clarkson to replace point guard Phil Pressey. The Tulsa transfer has delivered as much as Frank Haith expected and probably more. Clarkson averaged 16.5 points in his final season at Tulsa but has averaged 19.4 during Mizzou’s undefeated start. Clarkson is producing, but a Pressey clone he is not. Freshman Wes Clark may be the better distributor, and Clarkson isn’t much of an outside scoring threat. But Clarkson has shot 56.9 percent from inside the 3-point line.
Surprise player: Michael Qualls, Arkansas
Qualls showed flashes of his athleticism as a freshman, but his name was tough to find in the preseason for Arkansas. After averaging 15.6 minutes last season, Qualls is averaging 14.8 points per game as a sophomore.
Early season flop: Alabama
Athlon projected this year’s Alabama team to go to the NIT, but even that’s looking iffy. The Crimson Tide has lost to Duke, Wichita State and Oklahoma (not so bad), but losses to Drexel and USF will put the pressure on Anthony Grant. At 5-5 and games upcoming against Xavier, UCLA and Robert Morris, Alabama could enter conference play with a losing record.
Lingering concerns: Is Kentucky ready to contend for the title?
The ludicrous talk of Kentucky going 40-0 was dispensed with a Nov. 12 loss to Michigan State. The Wildcats, though, have more questions after losing to the top three teams on their schedule so far (Baylor and North Carolina). Kentucky is one of maybe three teams capable of winning the SEC, but are the Wildcats better than Florida? Not right now. Jason King of Bleacher Report spelled out the issues plaguing Kentucky right now from lack of leadership to an underachieving point guard and problems on the wing and the perimeter.
Best NCAA resume: Florida
Florida lost in Madison with a skeleton crew of a roster in the second game of the season and to Connecticut on the road on a last-second shot by Shabazz Napier. Neither Wisconsin nor UConn have lost this season. Along the way, Florida has defeated three teams ranked in the top 40 on KenPom.com — Florida State, Kansas and Memphis. And there’s a case that Florida will be getting even better when freshman Chris Walker is eligible.