As the calendar hits January and Southeastern Conference fans’ beloved college football comes to the end of another season, fans across the league turn their attention to SEC basketball play, which begins in full force this week.
Last year, I attended the entire SEC basketball tournament in St. Louis. It was a lot of fun, wall-to-wall basketball and something of a family reunion for the schools in the conference. It was also in a small way monotonous, just game after game washing over you, four games some days, with most teams fairly even. This led to a lot of exciting, close games, but also made it hard for many teams to stand out.
SEC basketball again has a fairly large middle class, with almost every team capable of beating the other squads. Missouri (9-3 through Sunday) starts the 18-game conference schedule in that sizable middle tier, but they have two months to show they belong in the conference’s upper tier.
For now, Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky seem to be the residents of that top SEC basketball tier. The Volunteers have an experienced squad with plenty of ability, probably the most steady, reliable team in the conference. Auburn also returned plenty of key contributors from last year’s 26-win team, and Bruce Pearl’s Tigers play their typical up-tempo style with plenty of threes. Kentucky then brings their usual mix of youth and high levels of talent, and they did notch some nice nonconference wins over North Carolina and Louisville before losing their conference opener against Alabama.
Mississippi State and Florida look to be in the next tier, a step behind the top group for now but likely to outperform most SEC teams.
Then comes that big middle pack, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, LSU, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, which may actually be a tick below the others. This should be an interesting group, both because they can pull upsets over the top teams, yet also lose to any team as well. Also, one or two of these teams will probably play better than expected in SEC play and make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Tiger fans hope Missouri is one of those teams.
South Carolina and Georgia look to be lower-tier SEC teams, although South Carolina did start conference play with a fairly surprising win at Florida, proof that this pecking order can, and probably will, change a lot between now and March Madness.
Missouri fans have reason to hope heading into conference play. Coach Cuonzo Martin has shown the ability to overcome challenges in his short tenure at Missouri. Last year, when highly touted freshman Michael Porter Jr. missed almost all of the season with a back injury, Martin helped hold the team together and guided them to the NCAA Tournament. This year, Missouri lost a lot of its scoring from last season, and they lost Jontay Porter to a knee injury before the season. There have been some bumps, but a six-game winning streak since early December and gradual improvement have given some cause for optimism heading into the the challenge of conference play.