While the SEC’s dominance on the gridiron is unmatched, the conference’s prowess on the hardwood is not as overwhelming. The additions of Texas A&M and Missouri has given the conference more depth, but it remains a top-heavy league. At this point of the season, Florida and Missouri are the only sure-fire tournament teams in the SEC.
Teams like Ole Miss are off to good starts as well, but they still have to prove themselves against the meat of their schedules. Traditional contenders like Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are having off years and the conference is very weak at the bottom—there are four teams with losing records.
This lack of depth is the reason why the SEC’s RPI is seventh, behind conferences like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West Conference.
The SEC had four teams make the tournament last year and, if middle-of-the-pack teams like Alabama and Texas A&M do not perform well in conference play, they could be looking at another similar showing come March. The three teams that have the potential to challenge for a Final Four spot and potentially a National Championship are Florida, Missouri and Kentucky.
Last year, Kentucky was the class of the SEC and the country. Like last year, the roster is filled with talented young players, but, unlike last year, that talent has not translated to wins. The Wildcats got off to a slow start to the season with losses to Duke, Notre Dame and Baylor, but they have begun to steady the ship as the roster has gained some experience.
Since the loss to Baylor, Kentucky is 8-2, including a 3-1 record in conference play. Kentucky is not a title-contending team right now, but with their growth and maturity, along with the John Calipari’s tournament experience, they can evolve into a formidable opponent in March.
With players like freshmen Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin, Kentucky has as much talent as anyone in the country and if they can find their rhythm, they have the potential to reach the program’s third straight Final Four.
The Tigers have been slowed by injuries during the early part of the season and have gotten off to a suspect start in their inaugural season in the SEC.
Their up-tempo offense led Missouri to a No. 2 seed last year and, with most of their key contributors back, they have the potential to make a deep run in March.
A big difference with this year’s team is the addition of Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi. The senior provides a big body and a low-pot presence that will help the Tigers make a deep tournament run.
Florida handily defeated Missouri Saturday, but do not put too much stock in that performance.
Yes, the Gators are one of the best teams in the country and a loss in Gainesville is not uncommon, but the Tigers were without their leading scorer Laurence Bowers. The teams are much closer than the 31-point difference and their rematch in Columbia on Feb. 19 should be a better indication of the talent of this Missouri team.
In the past, Frank Haith has relied on a guard-heavy lineup. These types of lineups provide a fast-paced game, but they often struggle in physical tournament games. Their guard play is still Missouri’s strength, but Oriaki’s presence provides them with an added dimension—a dimension that could help them make a deep run in the tournament.
The Gators are playing as good as anyone in the country at this point. They are currently No. 8 in the AP poll and have yet to lose a conference game.
Florida presents a balanced offensive attack. The Gators have four starters averaging double-digit points per game. Averaging only 12 turnovers per game, shooting 49 percent from the field and scoring 74 points per game, the Gators are one of the most efficient offenses in country.
Florida can beat its opponents from the inside or the outside.
Senior Erik Murphy and junior Patric Young are both averaging over 10 pints per game and give the Gators a low-post presence. With seniors Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton the Gators have an elite experienced backcourt—a staple of nearly every championship team.
The Gators also have tournament experience. They have made the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons and with two national championships already to his name, Billy Donovan is one of the most successful tournament coaches of the modern era.
These teams are the SEC’s best shot of winning back-to-back national championships, but success in the tournament is predicated so much on matchups and bracket positioning that the best teams do not always advance. Baylor made it to the Elite Eight last year without beating a single-digit seeded team.
These teams have two months to become tournament ready in order to find themselves, where every team wants to find themselves in early April—on the podium where the confetti and lyrics of “One Shining Moment” come raining down.