As we move through December, college hoops are heating up fast. The non-conference slate is starting to heat up with elite match-ups, as conference play is a few short weeks away. The SEC this year has a rather extensive middle of the pack, full of teams that hope to climb into that top tier of SEC teams and compete for an SEC title.
Who are the SEC’s Contenders and Pretenders?
Our first team is the one I’m most confident in. Auburn has played three Power 6 teams so far and has won by no less than 14. They look above any mid-tier Power 6 team you put in their way. Johni Broome looks like an SEC Player of the Year candidate, leading the Tigers in points, rebounds, blocks, and field goal percentage, he is elite. What moves the needle most about Auburn is they aren’t just launching threes anymore. Prior to the Indiana game, they had made just 11 across their last three games. They are 223rd in the country in percentage of points that comes from three, but yet they still made 14 against Indiana. This team guards, they get to the basket, they’re physical. I get the loss to App State, but who hasn’t had a bad loss in the SEC this year? I like Auburn.
In all fairness to Mississippi State, they would be a step above this article if they had Tolu Smith. No doubt in my mind he would have them bordering on a top 15 ranking at this point. However, he’s out indefinitely so we must evaluate them as such until he hopefully returns during SEC play. As they stand, the Bulldogs are still an elite defensive team, ranking third on Kenpom in defensive efficiency. Defense travels and Mississippi State has that department on lockdown. I like the Josh Hubbard–Dashawn Davis mix in the backcourt, it’s a good mix of scoring and facilitating that tends to work out in March. However, I just don’t see the firepower right now. They’re pretenders for now. If Tolu Smith returns that changes everything.
Arkansas came into the year with a bunch of hype and was picked to finish third in the SEC. Since then, those high preseason expectations haven’t exactly materialized. They sit at 6-4 losing several chances for a resume builder, with a killer loss to UNC Greensboro. What raises my eyebrow, is they aren’t really elite at anything. In a vacuum, they are elite at defending the rim, second in the country in blocks per game, yet they aren’t forcing many turnovers and sit at the 56th-ranked defense on Kenpom. Not a weakness, but not elite. On offense, they aren’t a horrible shooting team, and they don’t have a turnover problem. Yet, they aren’t elite in either area. You do not have to be elite at everything, but every top-tier SEC team, which is the standard, is elite at something that affects a whole side of the floor, Arkansas does not have that. While I still believe they can beat anyone on any given night, I can’t call them a contender.
If you go by current SEC standings, Ole Miss is currently in first place, boasting an undefeated record. While they haven’t played any outstanding teams, they do still boast two Power 6 wins, while also beating a very talented Memphis team. They have the potential to be an elite defensive team, given Jamarion Sharp‘s 7’5 stature, as well as recently getting Moussa Cisse‘s NCAA eligibility. The difference why I believe in them as opposed to Arkansas’ defense long term, is Chris Beard. He makes great defenses no matter how you slice it, Eric Musselman doesn’t have that reputation, Beard has it, and the numbers at Texas Tech prove it. However, they have the Arkansas problem, where they are also not elite in anything while playing a worse schedule. I believe in the defensive upside, but I don’t think the talent or depth is enough. I think they’re a year away.
Right behind Ole Miss, sits the team predicted to finish dead last in the SEC, South Carolina. Second-year head coach Lamont Paris is the (very) early SEC favorite for Coach of the Year. They are currently ranked 52 on Kenpom which would be their highest finish since 2017. One of the more experienced teams in the country, South Carolina has been in more than a few battles this year, yet just keep winning. The Meechie Johnson and B.J. Mack pairing has been incredible, combining for 34 points per game. However, they have the same problem Ole Miss does. The depth is lacking, they play a lot of guys but the quality isn’t up to the standard of a Kentucky or Tennessee. They’ve looked pedestrian against multiple bad teams, and the eye test does not show me a contender. Perhaps a year too soon just like the Rebels.