KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — As the Southeastern Conference heads into league competition, it remains tough to figure which teams stand as defending champion Kentucky’s biggest competition.
Conference play begins Saturday with five league games, including Mississippi (10-2) taking a seven-game winning streak into Kentucky.
“When you get into conference play, everything gets ratcheted up a little bit,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “Teams that want to be good will keep finding ways to get better.”
Right now, there’s plenty of uncertainty beyond Kentucky.
Vanderbilt and LSU were in the preseason Top 25 along with Kentucky but fell out of the rankings after taking some lumps in nonconference action. Joining No. 10 Kentucky (10-2) in this week’s poll are No. 20 Texas A&M (10-2) and No. 24 South Carolina (12-0).
South Carolina, seeking its first NCAA appearance since 2004, is one of only four remaining unbeaten Division I teams.
“I like them,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “They prepare well. They help each other. They compete.”
While South Carolina has been the SEC’s greatest surprise so far, LSU has been the league’s biggest disappointment The Tigers are 7-5 despite having arguably the nation’s top freshman in Ben Simmons.
LSU’s slow start sets up an intriguing SEC opener Saturday at Vanderbilt, which is starting to get healthier. The Commodores were missing guard Cam Justice for five games and is expected to be without injured 7-foot-1 forward Luke Kornet until late January, though three of their four losses were to Top 25 teams.
“I feel like we’re pretty close to where I’d like to be,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “We’ve still got some holes. We’ve got some things that we can continue to address, but I think that we’re playing pretty hard defensively.”
Here are some things to watch as the SEC enters league competition.
KENTUCKY’S NEW GROUP
This year’s Kentucky group isn’t quite as intimidating as the 2014-15 squad that didn’t lose until the NCAA semifinals, but the Wildcats still are the clear SEC favorite. Kentucky again has a potent freshman class and also features sophomore guard Tyler Ulis, who scored 21 points last week in a 75-73 victory over Louisville.
Simmons ranks second nationally in rebounding (13.0) and fourth in the SEC in scoring (19.3), but he isn’t the only freshman making an impact in the conference. Three of Kentucky’s top five scorers are freshmen Jamal Murray (16.7), Isaiah Briscoe (11.5) and Skai Labissiere (9.2). Mississippi State’s Malik Newman is averaging 13.3 points per game. Florida’s KeVaughn Allen scored 32 points Tuesday in a 73-71 loss to Florida State.
The SEC features four new coaches this year in Barnes, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland, Alabama’s Avery Johnson and Florida’s Mike White. Howland and Barnes have coached in Final Fours, while Johnson took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals. Johnson arguably has delivered the biggest results of the new coaches so far, as Alabama (8-3) owns neutral-site victories over Wichita State and Notre Dame. “We’re picked to come in 13th, so not a lot of people are expecting us to do anything in the league,” Johnson said. “But one of the things I love about our team is we put on our hard hats. We play tough, hard-nosed basketball.”
Early indications suggest the SEC could have higher-scoring games this year. Missouri and Alabama are the lone SEC teams averaging below 70 points per game. Last season, only five of the SEC’s 14 teams exceeded 70 points per game. Ole Miss’ Stefan Moody leads the way with 23.8 points per game. “I thought he could be a dynamic scorer, and that’s what he’s become,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. Also averaging over 19 points per game are Tennessee’s Kevin Punter (22.2), Auburn’s Kareem Canty (19.3) and Simmons. Last season, former Auburn guard KT Harrell led the SEC with 18.5 points per game.
Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Ole Miss all earned NCAA bids last season, but some of those teams could have trouble returning. Arkansas (6-6) is reloading after Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls left early for the NBA Draft. LSU is just two games over .500. Georgia (7-3) has come on lately after a 3-3 start that included a season-opening home loss to Chattanooga.