SEC Conference Catchup: Will someone step up behind Kentucky?

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source: Getty Images
Willie Cauley-Stein (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

Kentucky has made headlines this season for having one of the best defenses that we’ve seen at the college level in the KenPom era, and the sparkplug for that defense is Cauley-Stein. A shot-blocking presence around the rim, Cauley-Stein is so much more than just a rim-protector. He can switch ball-screens, he can guard an opponent’s best wing and he can play the point on their press.

THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis has looked like the best non-Kentucky big man in the conference this season, the centerpiece for an Arkansas team that may be the second-best in the league.
  • Jordan Mickey, LSU: Mickey’s led LSU’s bounce back from a rough start to the season, averaging a double-double and a league-high 3.6 blocks.
  • Levi Randolph, Alabama: There may not be a more improved player in the SEC this season than Randolph, who is averaging 16.2 points and has been Alabama’s spark.
  • Damion Jones, Vanderbilt: The Commodores have not been great this season, but Jones has been a bright spot, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 boards.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Kentucky has a real chance to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated: Kentucky’s doing it with their defense, which is about what we expected about of the Wildcats this season. Even without Alex Poythress in the mix — and even if their idea of a platoon has not exactly come to fruition — Kentucky has been absolutely overwhelming with their size, strength and athleticism on that end of the floor. Offensively, they have some things to work through, but their ability to get to the offensive glass and the improved shooting that freshmen Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles can provide should be enough to get them through SEC play unscathed.

2. But much of that has to do with the SEC’s relative weakness: Part of the reason that Kentucky looks like they’ll be able to run the table in the conference is that there really isn’t another team in the league that’s all that good. Arkansas is probably the second-best team, but they struggle on the road and don’t get Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena this year. LSU is talented, but they’re not trustworthy and their strength — the front line — will be overwhelmed by Kentucky’s bigs. South Carolina looked good against Iowa State, but their physical, tough style of play matches up with what Kentucky does best. And don’t forget about Florida, because …

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Kasey Hill (Getty Images)

3. Kasey Hill and Chris Walker were not ready to replace Florida’s seniors: The key to the Gators being relevant this season was getting their two top ten recruits from the Class of 2013 to play like it. They haven’t. Kasey Hill’s certainly a talented playmaker, but he’s still not hitting perimeter jumpers consistently enough and is a long way away from being able to replace Scottie Wilbekin. Walker’s an athletic freak, but he doesn’t quite know how to take advantage of that athleticism. At 7-6 on the season, Florida is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Will Kentucky continue to embrace their limited minutes?: Right now, everyone on the Wildcats is fully bought-in on their team concept, the idea that playing nine guys for 20 minutes a night is how they’ll win games. That’s the key to everything that Kentucky does. That’s the reason that they have been so overwhelming on the defensive end. And it’s why this has been John Calipari’s best coaching job since he’s been with the Wildcats. But will it last? Will Andrew Harrison get affected by the notion that Tyler Ulis is a better point guard than him? Will Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson continue to be OK with seeing their minutes cut in close games?

2. How many teams will the SEC get into the Big Dance?: At this point, there really is only one team in the SEC that can provide the league with a quality win, and that’s if someone knocks off Kentucky. Maybe Arkansas joins that list if they can make a run early on in league play, but the bottom line is that there just aren’t that many quality wins available in SEC play. That’s a problem, because the SEC doesn’t have that many teams with strong resumes coming off of non-conference play. South Carolina put themselves in a good spot with their win over Iowa State, and LSU joins the Razorbacks as a team that can pass the eye-test on a good day, but that’s about it.

3. Who plays their way into early entry?: Bobby Portis seems to have done enough this season to ensure that he’ll have a high enough draft stock that the NBA will come calling in June, which means that this may be the best team Mike Anderson will have for a while. But the same cannot be said for LSU at this point. With a recruiting class that includes Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney coming in next season, the Tigers will have a chance to be very, very good — at least on paper — in 2015-2016 if Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin somehow wind up back in school.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Kentucky doesn’t take a loss in league play: The only thing standing between the Wildcats and an undefeated conference season is the failure to show up ready to play against a team they should beat. That’s how much more talented they are than the rest of the conference. The way they lose is by sleep-walking through, say, their trip to South Carolina or Florida. I’ll put my money on that not happening.

2. South Carolina ends the year No. 2 in the SEC standings: There’s just something about a team coached by Frank Martin. They exude toughness, and I know that sounds corny and cliche, but they do. And this year’s group actually has some real talent, particularly in their back court. Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson can matchup with anyone else in the conference, including the guys in Lexington.

3. The SEC is more likely to get three bids than five: The biggest reason that I have a hard time seeing the SEC put five teams in the NCAA tournament is that LSU and Arkansas have done an excellent job of developing a reputation for being untrustworthy in conference play. Arkansas never wins away from home, and LSU is always good for two or three head-scratching losses a season. One of those two teams will find a way to miss the Big Dance.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas

NIT/CBI: Alabama, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia

NO POSTSEASON: Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee