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SEC Basketball: Ranking the Teams Going Into the Final Stretch

Eli MargerCorrespondent IFebruary 24, 2011

SEC Basketball: Ranking the Teams Going Into the Final Stretch

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    Two weeks from Thursday, the SEC basketball tournament will commence in Atlanta. As the regular season begins to wind down, several crucial games remain to determine seeding in the tournament.

    In what has been a generally weak season for the SEC, there are still several teams that have the ability to be very competitive come March.

    Here are the rankings of all 12 SEC men's basketball teams.

No. 12: LSU Tigers

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    At the bottom of the SEC is a team full of young, inexperienced players. This is not to say that LSU does not have any talent. They have several underclassmen who could grow into very good players, including freshmen Andre Stringer (pictured) and Ralston Turner.

    But the Tigers just do not have the firepower to make any noise in the conference this year. They score a dismal 55.2 points per game and give up 68. They are at or near the bottom of nearly every statistical category in the SEC.

    There is a potentially bright future in Baton Rouge, but this year, the Bayou Bengals just aren't getting it done.

No. 11: Auburn Tigers

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    Though there will probably be a debate about which group of Tigers—LSU or Auburn— is worse, I am ranking Auburn a spot higher because of their fight. Statistically speaking, these two teams are almost even.

    Auburn has some glaring weaknesses—they shoot 59.4 percent from the charity stripe and have the conference's lowest effective field goal percentage—but they have shown in several games a cohesiveness that LSU lacks.

    Auburn has played tight games against the likes of Florida (lost by five) and Alabama (lost by two), but their crowning achievement was coming back from 19 points in the second half to defeat Mississippi State on February 12th.

    The Tigers have much room for improvement and will look to do so in the 2011-12 season led by current junior Kenny Gabriel and sophomore Earnest Ross.

No. 10: South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Last season, South Carolina had six conference wins, a number that they will most likely match or exceed by the end of the season. But this year, there's something missing from the Gamecocks' game. In all likelihood, it's Devan Downey, who averaged 22.5 points per game last season.

    This year, the Gamecocks appear a lot less competitive. They are being outscored by six points per game, the third-lowest mark in the SEC. They shoot the fewest amount of free throws in the conference, which shows a lack of aggressiveness. And the fact that they lead the conference in possessions per 40 minutes is offset by their 10th-ranked offensive efficiency.

    There are strong points, though. The Gamecocks are good offensive rebounders and good shot blockers. But on a team with ten underclassmen, they lack leadership and a prolific scorer like Downey was. Freshman Bruce Ellington appears to be that guy, but it will take some time for him and the rest of this young team to emerge.

No. 9: Mississippi Rebels

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Where South Carolina falls short, Ole Miss does well. As mentioned, South Carolina seems to be missing a prolific scorer and leader. Mississippi has that player in senior guard Chris Warren.

    Warren (pictured) ranks second in the SEC in points per game at 18.8 and leads the Rebels in assists with 3.5 per game. Moreover, he shoots an incredible 95 percent from the free-throw line. He has a nice supporting cast with senior Zach Graham, junior Terrance Henry and sophomore Reginald Buckner.

    However, as a whole, the Rebels are a poor defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot 42.6 percent, the second-worst in the SEC. Having 12.9 turnovers per game doesn't help much either.

    Wins against Kentucky and Arkansas were big, and with senior leadership like Warren and Graham, the Rebels could possibly make some noise in Atlanta.

No. 8: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    It is really a shame to put Mississippi State this low in the rankings because if their defense were on the same level as the offense, the Bulldogs could really be in the upper echelon of SEC teams.

    Their leading scorers—Ravern Johnson, Dee Bost (pictured), Renardo Sidney and Kodi Augustus—all average over 11 points per game. Sidney, a former top recruit who has battled weight and off-the-court issues, is having a great season. Offensively, the Bulldogs are actually fairly good.

    But defensively, this team is weak. They give up the most points in the conference and allowed 84 points to lowly LSU. A lot of this can be attributed to low energy. Furthermore, the Bulldogs rank last in the conference in terms of offensive rebounding.

    With quality wins over Florida and Arkansas, and a near-miss against Kentucky, the Bulldogs have shown great potential. If defense does win championships, however, Mississippi State may be out of luck.

No. 7: Arkansas Razorbacks

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    When Arkansas lost by 32 points at Florida in January, it looked like the Razorbacks would sink to the bottom of the SEC. But following that drubbing, Arkansas went on to defeat Auburn at home and then shocked Vanderbilt in Nashville by 11 points.

    Wednesday, they put a crown jewel on their season with a one-point victory over Kentucky. With three more winnable games in their conference schedule, the Razorbacks could finish the year with a winning SEC record.

    Led by junior Rotnei Clarke and sophomore Marshawn Powell, Arkansas is an aggressive offensive team that gets to the foul line a lot. They do not excel at any one area, but they are fairly solid all-around. Their Achilles' heel, however, is rebounding. They get only 47.4 percent of possible rebounds, the worst rate in the SEC.

    With leading rebounder Delvon Johnson (shown) graduating, the Razorbacks will need to find some good big men to complement a solid group of perimeter players in order to really compete in the SEC. That being said, Arkansas has great upset potential, especially in the SEC tournament.

No. 6: Georgia Bulldogs

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    As we head into the upper half of SEC teams, you may notice that five of the six lowest-ranked teams are from the SEC West. That is no coincidence—the West is having an exceptionally weak season. As such, five of the top six teams in the conference are from the East division, and the differences between the teams are very small.

    At the beginning of the year, Georgia was picked by many to be a darkhorse candidate to challenge for SEC superiority. And given their cast of players, from Trey Thompkins (pictured) to Travis Leslie, it would have been no surprise.

    The Bulldogs are a very good team. They play aggressively and play in the paint often. In a conference that shoots a lot of three-pointers, the Bulldogs shoot the fewest. Their exceptional size in the post has helped them become one of the best rebounding teams in the conference.

    However, their guard play has been spotty at times, and the team has been plagued all year by turnovers. The biggest problem though is the inability to close games. Against Vanderbilt on February 16th, the Bulldogs led by six going into halftime, only to be outscored by 14 in the second half.

    The Bulldogs can gain a lot of credibility tonight with a win at Florida. They are recognized as a dangerous team and a win over the Gators in what will be a tournament-like atmosphere will be a huge asset. And keep in mind that the SEC tournament in Atlanta, so the crowd will be pulling heavily for Georgia.

No. 5: Tennessee Volunteers

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    For all the trouble that has been going on in Knoxville, the boys of the hardwood have quietly put together a very good season. This is an extremely athletic and talented Tennessee Volunteers team.

    Early in the season, Tennessee notched two incredibly impressive wins against Villanova and at Pittsburgh. But bad non-conference losses to the likes of Oakland, UNC-Charlotte and College of Charleston put a damper on the Vols' early success.

    In a one-week span from February 5th to 12th, Tennessee played arguably the three best SEC teams—Alabama, Kentucky, and Florida—and lost all three. To their credit, though, they did sweep the season series against a very good Vanderbilt team.

    Despite their athleticism, Tennessee does not shoot very well. But they do rebound at an elite level, shoot lots of free throws and do a great job of moving the ball. Behind sophomore Scotty Hopson (pictured), freshman Tobias Harris and junior Cameron Tatum, the Volunteers have a great group of talented players.

    Their tournament pedigree, including a huge win over Ohio State last year, will help them in the stretch run. They will be as tough as anyone to beat come the SEC tournament.

No. 4: Alabama Crimson Tide

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    By far, the most surprising team in the SEC has been the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Led by a rising star of a coach in Anthony Grant, they currently hold the conference's best record at 11-2. So why aren't they No. 1 in these rankings?

    Great teams win close games on the road. Now before you start calling for my head Alabama fans, consider who your road wins are against. Mississippi State, Auburn and LSU are not particularly strong. The win at Tennessee was impressive, as was a home win against Kentucky.

    But the four-point loss at Vanderbilt and the five-point loss at Arkansas say something about this team. They are extremely talented—you don't go 11-2 by mistake—but have yet to prove themselves. No one on this team has played meaningful SEC games before this year.

    Alabama is the best defensive team in the SEC and they can play some offense. Despite shooting the lowest three-point percentage in the conference, the Tide shoots well from inside the arc. And junior forward JaMychal Green leads this team with authority, averaging 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

    Before the SEC tournament begins, 'Bama will face their biggest test yet, a road game at Florida on March 1st. If they win that game, they will have proven themselves worthy. Regardless, this is a dangerous team. A strong defensive team can play with anybody and backs down from nobody.

No. 3: Kentucky Wildcats

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    From the early going, Kentucky showed that it was not nearly the team it was last season. It is almost confusing, because the make up of this team is very similar. There are several future NBA lottery picks, veteran leaders and a great coach. Recipe for success? Think again.

    Kentucky lost by 17 points to then-unranked Connecticut, and then a close game at North Carolina. In the SEC season, they have lost to far too many opponents that would seem at first to be easy targets—Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama.

    But these losses are deceiving. Talent-wise, Kentucky may very well be the best team in the conference, maybe even by leaps and bounds. They play incredibly well (13-0) at home. Three freshmen average double-figure points per game, and between Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson, the 'Cats typically clean up the glass.

    So what gives? One explanation for their losses could be their league-worst 16.4 turnovers per game. But maybe it is something that is a cause of these turnovers, something that is not quantifiable. From watching Kentucky, it seems that these players play more for how high they'll be drafted rather than for the success of their team. The individual parts are not greater than the whole in this case.

    Now, if talent really does win out, Kentucky could win the SEC tournament and go deep into the NCAA tournament. But for now, they lack the cohesiveness that last year's group had, and that could be their downfall.

No. 2: Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    It's hard for a team to be more under-the-radar than Vanderbilt. They have crawled their way to No. 18 in the AP poll behind a very solid and very consistent team. They take care of business as well as any team in the conference.

    Up until Tuesday night, Vanderbilt was making a meteoric rise up the polls. Following a loss at Florida on February 1st, the Commodores had beat South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia and Auburn until losing to Tennessee. Add this to non-conference wins over North Carolina and St. Mary's, and Vandy has a pretty impressive resume.

    They have an excellent core of players, from sharpshooting guard and leading scorer John Jenkins (pictured) to versatile swingman Jeffery Taylor to big man Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt might be the most complete team in the conference. They shoot the basketball exceptionally well and are the second most efficient team in the SEC.

    If there are weaknesses, they lie in the offensive glass, where Vanderbilt ranks 10th or in terms of foul trouble. But as far as being a well-rounded team, the Commodores may be the best in the conference. This is a team with great potential to do big things in March.

    With regular season games against Kentucky and Florida remaining, the 'Dores still have many challenges ahead. But given their track record, they're up to the task.

No. 1: Florida Gators

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    From November to late January, the Florida Gators were an enigma. They found ways to win as much as they found ways to lose. They could play Ohio State as well as anyone has all year for one half, only to be destroyed in the second half. They could beat Kansas State by 13 and then lose to Jacksonville two days later.

    But a double-overtime win at Georgia seems to have been the catalyst for the Gators' rise to the top of the SEC. Since then, led by junior guard Erving Walker (pictured), Florida has played like a team with something to prove. They defeated Tennessee twice and Vanderbilt once, won an emotional home game against Kentucky, and aside from a hiccup at Mississippi State, played excellent basketball.

    They are as strong in the paint as they are weak from the perimeter. Though guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and forward Chandler Parsons have not been very good from the three-point line, they have been much better driving to the hoop and making fairly good decisions with the basketball.

    No team in the SEC keeps opponents off the glass as well as Florida, which will be a huge asset to this team moving forward. And despite their 12.9 turnovers per game, they still are able to limit their opponents to the fewest possessions per game of any conference team. This is a slow-paced, but efficient offense coupled with a tenacious defense that guards the perimeter extremely well.

    But much could go wrong for the Gators. Their free-throw woes, much better of late, could come back to haunt them. And they could enter the tournament season with lots of negative momentum considering their upcoming games against Georgia, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

    That being said, the Gators have proven themselves to be the class of the SEC this season.

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