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Conference Catchups: Three-team race in the SEC?

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Jordan Clarkson, Missouri

Much was expected of the Tulsa transfer and thus far Clarkson has delivered, as he leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 ppg) and ranks second in the conference in assists (4.3 apg). And from an efficiency standpoint Clarkson ranks third in the amongst players with a possession percentage of at least 24% when it comes to offensive rating, according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Clarkson’s one of the big reasons why the Tigers are 10-1 heading into their game at N.C. State on Saturday.

All-SEC First Team:

  • Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
  • Jordan McRae, Tennessee
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri
  • Casey Prather, Florida
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky

Midseason Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida

Despite a roster in flux due to injuries and disciplinary issues the Gators are 9-2 and ranked 13th nationally. That says quite a bit about the coaching job that Donovan’s done to this point in the season, and Florida looks to be rounding into form just ahead of the start of SEC play. And the addition of McDonald’s All American forward Chris Walker will help Florida when it comes to their front court depth.

Favorite: Florida Gators

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Kentucky was the prohibitive favorite entering the season, and given the amount of talent at John Calipari’s disposal it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Wildcats ended up being that team come March. But the pick here is Florida, a team that’s getting all of its parts in order and is the lone SEC team that ranks in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Point guards Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin are healthy, as is forward Will Yeguete, and in Casey Prather the Gators have one of the most improved players in the country. The addition of Chris Walker will only help matters, and they have enough talent to take things slowly with the freshman.

And three more contenders: 

  • It wouldn’t be wise to rule out Kentucky, with their stable of talented freshmen being supplemented by sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Two keys for the Wildcats moving forward: the emergence of a team leader (or leaders), and the aggression of Alex Poythress. Poythress clearly has skill, but he has to bring the intensity on a consistent basis in order to help this team.
  • The perimeter tandem of Clarkson and Jabari Brown has led the way for Missouri, and for that reason the Tigers should be considered when discussing the top teams in the SEC. They can use another bench contributor or two, especially in the paint, but this is a group that will be a factor.
  • LSU may be the dark horse, with Johnny O’Bryant III leading four players scoring in double figures. Freshman Jordan Mickey has been very productive for the Bayou Bengals, and classmate Jarell Martin has the skill needed to have a greater impact when conference play begins.

Most Surprising Team: Arkansas

Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have been more balanced and efficient offensively this season, with four players averaging at least 10.4 points per game and two others averaging at least 7.6 ppg. Alandise Harris and Bobby Portis have been good additions inside, and leading scorer Michael Qualls has raised his scoring average by almost ten points per game (14.1 ppg after averaging 4.6 ppg in 2012-13).

Most Disappointing Team: Kentucky

This one’s tough, because young teams need time to mesh and understand roles both on the court and in the locker room. But when you entertain preseason chatter about the possibility of going 40-0, the bar gets raised. The Wildcats have played a difficult schedule to date, so a couple losses were to be expected. The most disappointing thing at this stage in the season is that leaders have yet to emerge. That has to happen if Kentucky is to reach its full potential this season.

Most Important Player (in league play): Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

Kentucky’s lack of a definitive leader at this point means that the starting point guard, Harrison, will be their most important player in conference play. Harrison does rank fifth in the SEC in assists (3.5 apg), but that’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to being a team leader. If he can grab the reins and ensure that everyone’s headed in the same (and proper) direction, Kentucky can win the national title.

Who will slide?: Tennessee

The Volunteers’ best attribute thus far has their ability to hit the offensive glass, as they rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (43.0%). That has masked their shooting issues, as Tennessee is shooting just 31.4% from beyond the arc on the season. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes can be a load inside, but how will they fare against the more athletic front courts of the SEC? That, along with perimeter shooting, could be a concern come January.

Who is the sleeper?: LSU

Johnny Jones has a team more than capable of getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, and given the status of the SEC why can’t they make a run? LSU has plenty of talent, and their guards (especially Anthony Hickey) can get after teams on the defensive end of the floor. They’ve been tested in non-conference play as well, with their two losses coming to UMass and Memphis. If there’s any team outside of the Florida/Kentucky/Missouri triumvirate capable of surprising people it’s LSU.

New Power Rankings

1. Florida
2. Kentucky
3. Missouri
4. LSU
5. Tennessee
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss
8. Alabama
9. Vanderbilt
10. Texas A&M
11. Mississippi State
12. South Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Auburn

VIDEO: Winthrop’s Keon Johnson goes coast-to-coast for buzzer-beater

Winthrop's Keon Johnson (5) shoots a layup while defended by Coastal Carolina's Warren Gillis during the first half of the Big South Conference Championship college basketball game Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Conway, S.C. Coastal Carolina won 81-70. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
(AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
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Winthop earned a Big South road win at Radford on Saturday afternoon as junior guard Keon Johnson raced coast-to-coast and buried the game-winner at the buzzer.

The 5-foot-7 Johnson erupted for 32 points in the win and he’s been one of the most potent mid-major scorers in the country this season. The win moves Winthrop to 18-7 on the season and their 10-4 mark in the Big South ties them with UNC Asheville atop the conference standings.

(H/T: LiveonASN)

After blowout of South Carolina, is No. 22 Kentucky a Final Four contender?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) guards the ball after a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It only took 2:26 for official Doug Sirmons to plant two technical fouls on Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to South Carolina.

He poked the bear, and the result was that a ticked off No. 22 Wildcat team proceeded to run the Gamecocks out of their own gym, 89-62.

The star of the show was interim head coach Tyler Ulis, who put together as dominating of a performance as you’ll ever see out of a player that stands 5-foot-9. Ulis finished with 27 points and 12 assists, hitting 4-for-8 from three and turning the ball over just once.

Marcus Lee added 11 points and 13 boards, including six on the offensive end, and Jamal Murray had his customary 26 points on 9-for-21 shooting, but the story of this game was Ulis.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seed a player under 6-foot capable of dominating a game the way that Ulis can dominate. Murray can take over with the best of them — we saw it against Florida and Ohio State — but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team will go as far as Ulis carries them.

And based on the way that he’s played in the last six weeks, that could end up being pretty far. In SEC play, Ulis is averaging 19.4 points and 7.6 assists. He’s scored at least 17 points in 12 of the last 14 games and has notched as least five assists in all 14. He just orchestrated a total mollywhopping of a Frank Martin-coached team that was tied for first place in the SEC while playing without his head coach and on the road.

The issue with Kentucky is the same today as it was a month ago. They’re a two-man team with an inconsistent supporting cast. When their two studs play like this, they can beat anyone in the country. When they don’t, they can struggle against anyone.

But here’s the thing: When Ulis is playing the way that he’s played of late, they don’t really need all that much from their supporting cast. Derek Willis needs to be able to space the floor. Lee and Skal Labissiere need to be able to hold their own against opposing big men.

And when that happens?

Kentucky is clearly the best team in the SEC and good enough to be able to win four straight in the Big Dance and get to a Final Four.