Now that the Kentucky basketball season is underway, fans are getting a chance to see not only what the Wildcats are really made of, but also how their SEC competition is shaping up. Just as John Calipari’s team hasn’t been quite as unbeatable as it was cracked up to be, so have some of the other top teams in the SEC fallen short of (or exceeded) expectations through the first few weeks.
One talented team that’s off to a rough start is the Tennessee Volunteers, who have suffered losses against both Xavier and UTEP early on. Despite their unremarkable 5-2 record, though, Jordan McRae and the Vols have definitely shown enough to make Kentucky take them seriously once conference play begins.
Herein, a closer look at how the ‘Cats match up with Cuonzo Martin’s team, along with early-season evaluations of four other top challengers Kentucky will have to beat for the SEC crown.
Mizzou’s 7-0 record hasn’t come against the most impressive competition, but it did come while head coach Frank Haith was serving a five-game suspension.
The Tigers’ three-man backcourt—Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross—has the size and experience to outplay Kentucky’s perimeter starters across the board.
Missouri's trio is scoring 52.1 points per game, but the paint has been an unfriendly place for the Tigers.
Freshman Johnathan Williams III, the most talented member of a pedestrian frontcourt, is no match for Kentucky’s reserve big men, let alone starters Willie Cauley-Stein or Julius Randle.
Don’t be fooled by the Tide’s three early losses, two of which came in the NIT against Duke and a tough Drexel squad.
Trevor Releford and his mates are still a formidable defensive team that held the Blue Devils’ sizzling offense to 43.1 percent shooting (nine percentage points below their season average).
Releford’s three-point marksmanship accounts for much of ‘Bama’s scoring, though sophomore playmaker Retin Obasohan has performed admirably against some tough opposition.
Unfortunately for both of those undersized guards, 6’10” freshman Jimmie Taylor’s struggles at center have left the Tide front line perilously short on length and productivity thus far.
The Volunteers badly needed their 2-1 showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, because they hadn’t beaten anybody substantial prior to that tourney.
Now, with wins over Xavier and Wake Forest, Jarnell Stokes and company are starting to look more like their preseason team-on-the-rise buzz.
Stokes and Jeronne Maymon give Tennessee a front line that’s a bit short on height (both are 6’8”) but makes up for it with muscle. Their combined 520 pounds of raw power will make it tough for the lighter Wildcats to keep them from scoring or rebounding effectively.
High-scoring SG Jordan McRae will have a tougher time driving against Kentucky’s interior shot-blockers, though, and new PG Antonio Barton has been just this side of awful through seven starts.
Even with celebrated freshman Jarell Martin battling an ankle injury, LSU has looked sharp early. During Martin’s recovery, classmate Jordan Mickey has soared as a shot-blocker alongside hard-nosed junior Johnny O’Bryant III.
O’Bryant has already shown what he can do against Willie Cauley-Stein (21 points and 12 boards at Rupp Arena last season), and ball-hawking PG Anthony Hickey will give the turnover-prone ‘Cats fits.
Kentucky, though, will have the edge on defense against a team whose perimeter shooting is even weaker than UK’s own—and one that has struggled to find effective contributors off the bench.
Florida nearly upset UConn at Gampel Pavilion on Monday night, and the Gators aren’t anywhere near full strength yet.
By the time Kentucky faces Billy Donovan’s squad, PG Kasey Hill will be back from his ankle injury, and explosive PF Chris Walker will likely have become eligible to join fearsome low-post defenders Patric Young and Will Yeguete.
The Gators are the only SEC team that can approach Kentucky’s depth and athleticism, and their two meetings will likely come down to pace.
If Florida can force the tempo with full-court pressure, the ‘Cats will likely struggle with turnovers and surrender too many easy baskets to Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather.
But, if Kentucky can slow the game down just a bit, its half-court scoring punch—especially from Julius Randle—will be too much for a Gators squad that’s long on D but short on shooters.