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King's Court: SEC May Not Be the Pushover Many Expected Kentucky Would Face

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagJanuary 22, 2015

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Depth, size and talent aren't the only reasons so many pundits picked the Kentucky Wildcats—who tout nine McDonald's All-Americans—to finish the regular season with an undefeated record.

Their conference played a part in it, too.

So weak is the SEC, the narrative went, that John Calipari's squad would hardly be threatened as it marched through league play without a blemish.

Ha!

Five games into the SEC season, and Kentucky has already needed overtime to pull off victories over Ole Miss and Texas A&M. And Tuesday it had difficulty putting away a Vanderbilt squad that lost to the conference's perceived worst team (Mississippi State) just three days earlier.

"Clearly," Calipari told Bleacher Report, "the league is better than people think. Our RPI is higher than it's been since I've been at Kentucky. But the image and perception of the SEC is still bad."

Indeed, as of Thursday, the RPI ranked the SEC as the fourth-best conference in the country behind the Big 12, Big East and ACC—and ahead of the Big Ten and Pac-12.

In a ranking of individual teams, the RPI listed eight SEC squads among the top 57 squads in the country. But only one of them (No. 1 Kentucky) was included in the top 25.

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"The league is improving," said Darrin Horn, the former South Carolina head coach who now calls SEC games for ESPN. "But the challenge now is about who can separate themselves and do enough to where the league isn't all about Kentucky."

Until recently that team had been Florida. The Gators went 18-0 en route to winning their second straight SEC title last season before advancing to the Final Four. But Billy Donovan's squad is in a transition year after losing four senior starters. Just 10-8 overall, the Gators are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament.

The hope was that either LSU or Arkansas would fill the void. Arkansas is one of the experienced teams in the league and features conference scoring leader Bobby Portis. Led by future NBA forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, LSU is arguably the SEC's most talented squad other than Kentucky.

Still, in a season where both seemed primed to flourish, LSU and Arkansas have floundered.

Arkansas—which made a brief appearance in the Associated Press Top 25 poll last month—is toting back-to-back losses to Tennessee and Alabama and was annihilated by Iowa State (95-77) last month.

A rebuilding Gators squad and a disappointing LSU team have hurt the SEC's image around the country this season.
A rebuilding Gators squad and a disappointing LSU team have hurt the SEC's image around the country this season.USA TODAY Sports

LSU has been an even bigger disappointment. The Tigers needed overtime to beat the worst team in the Big 12 (Texas Tech) back in November and have since dropped games against unranked Old Dominion, Clemson, Texas A&M and, worst of all, a Missouri team that will struggle to win more than three or four conference games.

"Right now we have one great team and a lot of teams that are good or a little above average," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy told Bleacher Report. "From No. 2 to No. 13, anybody can beat anybody."

Kennedy said one of the best ways for the SEC to improve its image is to win more high-profile games in nonconference play.

And, more important, avoid bad losses.

The same Ole Miss team that nearly upset Kentucky in Lexington lost at home to Charleston Southern and TCU. South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron, and Florida succumbed to every non-league opponent from a Power Five conference except Wake Forest.

Still, Calipari said those types of setbacks are occurring all across the country. Not just in the SEC.

"It's hard for people to get past a bad loss in our league," Calipari said. "Wisconsin losing to Rutgers is a nothing. Duke losing at home to Miami? Nothing.

"One of our top teams losing against one of the middle-lower teams...it's a devastating thing. People say, 'Here they go again.' This league doesn't get nearly the credit it deserves."

Which is why going undefeated will be a much more difficult task for Kentucky than most people think.

"Ole Miss is as good as us," Calipari said. "They came onto our court and should've won. Texas A&M nearly beat us and they didn't have their leading scorer [Jalen Jones]. And then they go win at LSU. So what does that say about them?

"This is a good league, and it's only going to get better."

Report Card

Jan 13, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; Oklahoma State Cowboys guard Phil Forte III (13) drives to the basket against Kansas Jayhawks forward Cliff Alexander (2) and guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) in the first half at Allen Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-
USA TODAY Sports

A's: Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre

After a rough November and December, the light finally appears to be coming on for Kansas' highly touted freshmen. Oubre and Alexander combined for 32 points and 22 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 85-78 victory over Oklahoma on Monday at Allen Fieldhouse. Oubre has been particularly effective in the last few weeks, averaging 14.3 points in his last four games.

B's: Mark Fox

After entering the season on the hot seat, the Georgia coach appears to have his team on an upswing at just the right time. Tuesday's win over Ole Miss was the third straight for the Bulldogs in a stretch that also includes victories over Vanderbilt (on the road) and Florida.

C's: SMU

The Mustangs have lost just once (to Cincinnati) since Nov. 25. But last week the school received a notice of allegations from the NCAA that includes accusations of academic impropriety. Guard Keith Frazier has been suspended indefinitely—SMU is appealing—and assistant coach Ulric Maligi has taken a leave of absence for the rest of the season. Not a good look for Larry Brown's Mustangs.

D's: Justise Winslow

Duke's small forward was one of the nation's most talked-about freshmen two months into the season. But the son of former Phi Slama Jama star Rickie Winslow has struggled the past few weeks. Winslow is averaging 11.1 points for the season but has combined for just 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting in his last three games. He's 2-of-10 from the free-throw line during that span.

F's: Bottom of the Big 12

The argument that the Big 12's "strength at the bottom" gives it the edge as the nation's top conference is losing steam. TCU, which went 13-0 in nonconference play, is just 1-4 in the Big 12 and lost at home to Texas on Monday by 18 points. Texas Tech is 0-6 with four of its setbacks coming by double digits.

A Dozen Words About My Top 12 Teams

Jan 19, 2015; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils fans celebrate their 79-65 win over the Pittsburgh Panthers marking Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski's 999 career win in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TOD
USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky: Offense is still choppy; defense is one of the best in history.

Wisconsin: A 32-point win over Iowa without Traevon Jackson? Very, very impressive.

Duke: Coach K should get win No. 1,000 Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

Virginia: All but three of the Cavaliers' wins have been by double digits.

Gonzaga: Thursday's game against Saint Mary's will be a huge test for Zags.

Arizona: Wildcats are clearly the class of the Pac-12. Just ask Utah.

Kansas: Nation's best home-court advantage makes the Jayhawks the Big 12 favorite.

Notre Dame: Is this the year the Fighting Irish make some noise in March?

Louisville: Outside shooting woes are what keep the Cardinals from being considered elite.

VCU: The veteran Rams are hitting their stride at just the right time.

Maryland: Hard to ignore the Terrapins after last weekend's shellacking of Michigan State.

Utah: Larry Krystkowiak's Utes blew out Washington State after being humbled by Arizona?

Starting Five

Considered NCAA tournament locks before the season, these teams will struggle to make the Big Dance.

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 05:  Chris Chiozza #11 of the Florida Gators passes head coach Billy Donovan on his way to the bench after coming off the floor late in the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on December 5, 2014 in Lawrence, Kansa
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Florida: The Gators were blown out at home by LSU on Tuesday and are just 10-8 this season. In nonconference play, Billy Donovan's squad was 1-6 against teams from Power Five leagues.

Connecticut: The defending NCAA champion could be NIT-bound if things don't change in a hurry. Included in the team's 9-7 record are setbacks against Yale, Tulsa, Temple and Stanford. The Huskies have dropped three games at home.

Michigan: Losing star small forward Caris LeVert for the season with a foot injury will be devastating to a team that was already toting setbacks against NJIT and Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines are 5-2 in the Big Ten but have barely squeaked by league bottom-feeders Northwestern and Rutgers.

BYU: The Cougars (15-6) don't have many bad losses other than a defeat against Pepperdine. But they also lack the type of quality wins that will earn them an NCAA tournament berth. Tyler Haws (22.5 points per game) and Kyle Collinsworth (12.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game) need more support.

Colorado: At 9-8 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-12, the Buffaloes have been a massive disappointment. Saturday's loss to league doormat Arizona State was the low point for a squad that won't have many opportunities to pick up resume-building wins in a mediocre conference.

Welcome to My Radar

DAYTON, OH - DECEMBER 30: Stefan Moody #42 of the Mississippi Rebels drives to the basket against the Dayton Flyers at UD Arena on December 30, 2014 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Stefan Moody, Ole Miss: The junior guard has been on fire ever since scoring 25 points in an overtime loss at Kentucky on Jan. 6. Moody is averaging 19.8 points in his last five games and 15.6 points for the season.

Tulsa: First-year Golden Hurricane coach Frank Haith is picking up where Danny Manning left off, as Tulsa is off to a 6-0 start in the American Athletic Conference with impressive wins over Temple and defending NCAA champion Connecticut.

Josh Smith: Issues with academics and weight kept the 6'10", 350-pound Georgetown center from reaching his potential during his first three college seasons, the first two of which were for UCLA. But Smith's senior year has been a resounding success. He's averaging 12.3 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game for the Hoyas, who have won five of their last six.

Louisiana Tech: Don't be surprised if the Bulldogs make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. Louisiana Tech is 14-4 with three quality losses against Syracuse, North Carolina State and Temple, all of them away from home. If his team keeps this up, coach Michael White would likely be the No. 1 candidate at Ole Miss if the school parts ways with Andy Kennedy, who has been to just one NCAA tournament in eight years.

Rapid Fire

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Couldn't be more impressed: Notre Dame

Can't figure them out: Temple

(Seemingly) can't miss: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

Can't shoot: Louisville

Bright future: Vanderbilt

Murky future: Arizona State

Future up in the air: Tennessee

Feel bad for: Doc Sadler, Southern Miss coach

Happy for: Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga forward

Please, boss, send me to: Wichita State at Northern Iowa

And while we're at it: Saint Mary's at Gonzaga

Is he seriously still officiating?: Jim Burr

Press Room Chatter

Deserving of More Praise

• Randy Bennett, Saint Mary's coach

• North Carolina State's backcourt (Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner)

• Kyle Collinsworth, BYU guard

• John Robic, Kentucky assistant coach

• The atmosphere at Kansas State's Bramlage Coliseum when it's sold out

Coaches Who Are Ready for a Job in a Big Five Conference

David Banks/Associated Press

• Gregg Marshall, Wichita State

• Brian Wardle, Wisconsin-Green Bay

• Michael White, Louisiana Tech

• Larry Eustachy, Colorado State

• Shaka Smart, VCU

Non-Traditional Fast-Food Menu Items That I Love

• Egg rolls at Jack in the Box

• Patty melt at Whataburger

• Chili at Wendy's

• Chicken pot pie at KFC

• Fish sandwich at Arby's

Movies That Never Get Old

• Hoosiers

• Fast Times at Ridgemont High

• Trading Places

• The Shawshank Redemption

• The Natural

Wrestlers Who Should Be in the WWE Hall of Fame, but Aren't

• The Fabulous Freebirds

• Rick Rude

• Bruiser Brody

• Kamala

• Bam Bam Bigelow

(Note: The WWE has announced that Randy "Macho Man" Savage will be inducted in April.)

Pit Stops

Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez, Lexington

For the past 10 years, every trip I've taken to Lexington has included a trip to Ramsey's for chicken fried steak, fried green tomatoes and peanut butter pie. But this week my wild side came out, and I decided to try somewhere new.

Jason King

Nate Silver's website, fivethirtyeight.com, recently did a story about the best burritos in the United States, and Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was right there near the top of the list. After motoring through a carne asada burrito (and four al pastor tacos) on Monday afternoon, I can easily see why.

The friendly folks at TyTR start by putting the tortilla on the griddle. This helps hold everything together by making the tortilla less gooey and stretchy. Still, as good as the tortilla was, its innards are what will keep me coming back for years to come. Scoops of flavorful carne asada, lettuce, tomato, Spanish rice, refried beans and jalapenos...seriously, this place puts Chipotle to shame. And I love Chipotle. Washed down with a giant to-go cup of iced horchata, this was one of the best meals I've had in quite a while.

A few people in the booth next to me ordered tortas, and they looked huge and delicious. Maybe I'll get one of those next time—along with a burrito, of course.

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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