The SEC Blog: The fun of SEC play in men's hoops begins
As the New Year begins, there are only two undefeated men's basketball teams left among the 353 Division I programs. One of them is 12-0 Auburn.
As Southeastern Conference play begins Saturday, there are only five teams across the country that haven't lost a game in regulation this season. One of them is 11-1 Arkansas.
A year ago, the NCAA adopted a new metric, the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET, as a barometer for the Division I Basketball Committee to compare teams. In the latest NET rankings, nine SEC teams are among the top 65 in the nation. Among all Division I conferences, only the Big Ten has more.
So any suggestion that the SEC has muddled through a lackluster non-conference slate to date doesn't tell the whole story.
"How about the great wins?" Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "How about South Carolina going to Virginia (and winning)? How about our Michigan State win to start the season off? I mean, you overlook. Yeah, we've had some stumbles, but we've got a bunch of teams that are young in here."
Despite those stumbles, despite the loss of 12 players to the 2019 NBA Draft - six in the first round, four in the lottery - SEC teams have hit plenty of high notes so far this season.
Calipari mentioned a couple. His Wildcats beat No. 1 Michigan State in their first game and No. 3 Louisville in overtime in their most recent outing. Frank Martin's South Carolina team walked into the home of defending national champion Virginia and took down the Cavaliers 70-59, hanging more points on the nation's No. 1 scoring defense than any other opponent.
"The league's really good," Martin said. "It's just really young. Young teams don't play as well in November as they do in January, February and March. Our teams have gotten better in the league, and they'll continue to get better because of the coaches that we have in this league."
Witness reigning SEC regular-season champion LSU, the first and so far only team to defeat mid-major contender Liberty this season, winning by 17 points last Sunday in Baton Rouge.
Coming off the best season in school history, the Tigers have climbed from No. 24 to No. 8 in the AP Poll and to No. 7 in the NET rankings despite replacing three starters. Senior swingman Samir Doughty has grown into his expanded role, more than doubling his scoring average to 16.4 to lead the team, and senior center Austin Wiley has provided inside muscle with five double-doubles.
At 12-0, Bruce Pearl's bunch is off to the program's best start in 21 years since the 1998-99 Tigers opened 17-0. Heading into Saturday's SEC opener at Mississippi State, Auburn has won 24 of its last 25 games dating to last season, the only defeat a controversial loss to Virginia in the Final Four.
"We talked about making history," Pearl said. "We clearly have."
Arkansas has been a revelation under first-year head coach Eric Musselman. At 11-1, the Razorbacks are No. 24 in the NET rankings, behind only Auburn among SEC teams, as they get ready to host Texas A&M in their conference opener Saturday.
The highlight of the hot start by the Razorbacks was Sunday's 71-64 victory at Indiana, just the second loss of the season for the Hoosiers. Arkansas pulled away late for the victory despite playing just seven players. Musselman expected to have a short bench in his first season in Fayetteville with three scholarship players sitting out as transfers.
Arkansas guards Mason Jones (19.7 ppg) and Isaiah Joe (17.4 ppg) are second and fourth in the SEC in scoring, but they're not the only individuals making an impact across the conference. Vanderbilt forward Aaron Nesmith leads the league at 22.9 points a game, and Georgia freshman guard Anthony Edwards is third at 18.8
Mississippi State's Reggie Perry leads the league in rebounding at 9.8 boards a game. Kentucky's Ashton Hagans is first in assists at 7.3 dimes a night.
Look at the small details and the big picture, and there's no reason the conference shouldn't make another big impact in the NCAA Tournament as it did last year. It should make for another ultra-competitive conference race.
"I've been in this league a long time, and I've said early on when we were getting three teams in (the NCAA Tournament), this is going to be a six-, seven-, eight-bid league," Calipari said. "And that's what we've become, which means you can lose any game you play. You can win any game you play, but you can lose any game you play."
Let the fun begin.