SEC Reset: Has Tennessee usurped Kentucky as favorites?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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 recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

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

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year now finds himself firmly in the National Player of the Year discussion after a stellar start. Williams is averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on the season as he’s improved nearly every facet of his game.

While the 6-foot-7 junior was mostly an interior force last season, he’s improved his range to become a decent perimeter shooter (41 percent from three on a small sample size). Passing has also been a revelation for Williams, as he’s made the Vols’ offense a lot better with his ability to create for teammates.

Zion Williamson still finds himself as the current NPOY favorite, but Williams is doing everything he can to close the gap.

THE ALL SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Grant Williams, Tennessee
  • Admiral Schofield, Tennessee: Schofield has been nearly just as good as Williams in a dominant Tennessee frontcourt. Putting up 18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, Schofield is a matchup nightmare who can make plays all over the floor.
  • Daniel Gafford, Arkansas: The sophomore big man has become a force on the interior. The NBA Draft prospect is averaging 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 66 percent shooting.
  • Keldon Johnson, Kentucky: On a loaded Kentucky team, Johnson has emerged as the team’s best player as he’s now considered as a potential lottery pick. The freshman guard is averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent three-point range.
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State: The senior leader of a dangerous Mississippi State team, Weatherspoon has helped the Bulldogs to a strong start. Weatherspoon is averaging 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, LSU
  • NIT: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama, Missouri
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. The SEC race is wide open

Not that this should come as any sort of surprise, but the SEC race is wide open at this point in the season. Defending co-regular season champions Auburn and Tennessee have returned to top-15 form from last season. Kentucky is starting to figure things out while looking like the potential juggernaut many believed they could be.

Mississippi State, LSU and Florida also have the look of very dangerous teams who could be sleepers in the SEC race. And the second tier of the SEC (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, and Missouri) are all off to decent starts.

Besides for Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina, seemingly every team is a threat in the league this year.

2. Auburn and Tennessee both have teams capable of repeating as SEC champions

Defending co-SEC champions Auburn and Tennessee have lived up to lofty preseason expectations so far as both teams find themselves ranked in the top 15 in the country.

The Vols and Tigers both sport top 35 offenses and defenses on KenPom and both have passed the all-important eye-test by playing well against elite teams. Tennessee has knocked off Gonzaga while hanging tough with Kansas while Auburn fought hard against Duke and knocked off teams they were supposed to beat like Washington, Xavier and Arizona.

Both veteran teams look like they’re well-positioned to be near the top of the SEC standings once again this season thanks to veteran teams that have won plenty of games.

3. Kentucky is starting to figure things out

After the opening night dominance of Duke over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, there were some serious questions about the Wildcats. More questions returned once Kentucky suffered a surprising loss to Seton Hall.

Over the last several weeks, the Wildcats have answered many of those concerns with notable results.

Kentucky is starting to figure out its rotation while also clamping down more on defense. The transfer of point guard Quade Green helped alleviate some perimeter logjams that have enabled sparkplugs like Ashton Hagans to come in and earn more minutes. That’s provided more stability for Kentucky overall while enhancing their perimeter defense quite a bit. Kentucky also has the luxury of having multiple guys who can take over a game as we’ve seen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have big recent outings against quality competition. The frontcourt play of Reid Travis and P.J. Washington remains solid as well.

Kentucky still has to get by Auburn and Tennessee to be the SEC’s premier team, but they’re in as good of a position as they could have hoped for given how embarrassing the season started.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Can Auburn and Tennessee reintroduce key pieces into the rotation?

For as good as Auburn and Tennessee have been this season, both programs are still trying to reintroduce double-figure scorers back into their rotations.

Auburn finally gets forward Danjel Purifoy back into the lineup after his suspension for his alleged involvement in the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal. The Tigers don’t need Purifoy to be great, but if he’s able to provide another lift in the frontcourt, then it adds another scary element to Auburn’s rotation.

Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner has also been sidelined most of this season as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year might be the Vols’ most important perimeter scorer as he would help the backcourt of Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden immensely by adding another playmaker.

It’s not a guarantee that either of these guys make a huge impact. Purifoy hasn’t played for a season and a half and Turner is clearly having issues with a surgically-repaired shoulder that has given him trouble before. But if either of these guys can regain previous form then it makes these two teams even more of a threat for the rest of the season.

2. Do any middle tier teams separate themselves from the pack and make the NCAA tournament?

At the start of 2019 the SEC had five teams ranked in the top 20 on KenPom with a sixth team, LSU, coming in at No. 40. Barring an extremely bad conference season, those teams should all be aiming to make the NCAA tournament.

It’s the second tier of SEC teams that will be intriguing to follow.

Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top 75 on KenPom after positive starts to the season. None of those teams are currently guaranteed NCAA tournament entry based on current standing. But all of them are going to have ample opportunities to earn huge wins since so many SEC teams are ranked and sitting in Quadrant 1 territory.

Last season saw the SEC create a basketball resurgence with eight NCAA tournament bids. Some work still needs to be done, but with the Pac-12 as down as it is, there is ample opportunity for the SEC to make another major push for the same number of NCAA tournament bids.

3. Can Mississippi State push the SEC’s elite?

Among the SEC’s four ranked teams, Mississippi State is by far the most unproven of the bunch.

Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee are all coming off of NCAA tournament appearances with deep and talented rosters. And although the Bulldogs have earned some notable non-conference wins over teams like Cincinnati and Clemson, they haven’t competed against elite national competition like the other top SEC teams.

Since the Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2009, they’ll need to earn the trust of everybody by proving themselves against top-flight teams. After years of building, it finally looks like Ben Howland has a veteran team who can take him back to the NCAA tournament. Quinndary Weatherspoon leads a team with five double-figure scorers. The Bulldogs have depth at multiple spots. Aric Holman has been tremendous in spurts. Mississippi State has a top-45 offense and defense. If this program is ever going to make a run for the top of the SEC, this is the time to do it.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The SEC gets seven teams in the NCAA tournament (and has a more successful March)

Last year was a banner year for the SEC when they had eight of its membership make the Big Dance. Although the SEC top-to-bottom doesn’t appear to be as strong as last season, it’s looking like the SEC should still have plenty of numbers in March. And more teams should also be poised for a deeper run.

The key will be if the middle-tier teams can pick off the ranked teams during conference play as happened last season. If the top SEC contenders run away with the league, and only lose to each other, then it significantly hurts the SEC’s chances for overall quality wins. But if the league is a bloodbath like last year, with no team clearly separating from the pack, then we should see plenty of SEC teams back in the field.

Either way, the SEC should fare better than only one Sweet 16 team from last season. Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee are all in potential position to earn great seeds and make runs and there are plenty of dangerous second-tier teams who could get hot at the right time.

2. Tennessee captures the SEC title

The SEC race is going to be a close one given how talented the league is at the top. But Tennessee has the difference of having arguably the two best players in the conference in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

The key for Tennessee could come down to guard play. Jordan Bone has been better than last season but he’s still struggling to shoot from the perimeter. Jordan Bowden has actually been slightly worse than last year — particularly shooting the ball from deep. And the SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner, has only played in three games this season as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery.

As long as Williams and Schofield keep playing at this level, and Tennessee’s perimeter attack can make some timely plays and shots, then the Vols should be in position to claim another SEC regular season title.

3. Florida makes a big push after a strange start

One of this season’s most perplexing teams has been the Florida Gators. Sitting at 8-4 with tremendous computer numbers thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule, it’s tough to get a read on Florida at this point in the season.

We know that Florida is one of best defensive teams in the country. The Gators turn you over and throw waves of bodies at you thanks to their depth and athleticism. It’s offense that’s the issue. Florida doesn’t have a go-to scorer and nobody on the roster seems like a natural takeover guy.

There are currently an astounding eight players averaging between 10.3 points and 6.6 points per game on this roster right now. If a veteran guard like KeVaughn Allen or Jalen Hudson starts to figure things out as a scorer, then Florida should elevate to another level.

Both Allen and Hudson have averaged at least 14.0 points per game over a full college season before, so it’s certainly possible. I believe that Florida gets one of those guys rolling and becomes a dangerous team heading into March.