Madness Previews: The SEC – The Most Underrated Conference in College Basketball

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March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos! 

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The SEC get’s a horrible wrap in basketball season. Now, some of this is deserved, but this year in particular I think there’s a significant amount of close mindedness and inability to accurately asses events impacting the national college basketball media. See, people love to hate the SEC because of their football dominance. So over the past decade or so, while the SEC has had several down years I think they’ve been no worse than the Pac-12, for instance, but have constantly been painted as a distant 5th in the Big 5 Conferences during basketball season. Its a chance for the country to get revenge on schools they’ve learned to hate. However, no matter how you feel about how past SEC seasons have been judged, this year The SEC is a very good Conference, and probably the 3rd best in college basketball. That obviously starts with Kentucky at the top, but as we’ll see the conference has more teams deserving of an NCAA Bid than any conference but the Big 12.

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Now, they don’t compare at all to the Big 12’s depth in once sense. While practically every team in the Big 12 (Texas Tech being the lone exception) is competitive enough to warrant post-season conversation (the NIT and CBI at least if not all to the NCAA) the SEC has some reeeeeal stinkers at the bottom of the league. Frank Haith abandoned Missouri this year and left them in absolute shambles. They’re terrible. And Bruce Pearl will have Auburn in the top 4 in this league soon enough, but that time is not now. Mississippi State is terrible, and while South Carolina has looked very good at times this year, they were generally abysmal in conference. So admittedly the bottom of the SEC is very bad, but I would say no worse (and probably better) than the bottom of the ACC. And really, I so no reason in judging a conference on the worst teams in their league unless their worst team is actually good.

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BUT ANYWAY. The Middle of the SEC is every bit as good as those lower tier Big 12 teams (ie TCU). By all accounts Tennessee should have been horrible this year, but Donnie Tyndal, in spite of all the controversy surrounding him, has somehow built a .500 level club out of bubble gum and shoelaces. Florida has underachieved horribly, and are undeniably terrible BUT the talent on that roster, if they could ever get their heads out of their asses, should be a tournament team, and a top 8 caliber seed. Vanderbilt somehow came out of nowhere to throw together a competitive team, and Alabama is a Tournament quality team that simply underachieved to the point that they knocked themselves out of contention. I’m not trying to tell you that the Middle of the SEC are great, but they’re ALL competitive teams SO contrary to what many people believe, beating the Middle Tier of the SEC is not akin to beating the bottom tier of the WAC. National media writers like to beat up on the top teams in the SEC saying they haven’t beaten anyway, calling the rest of the conference some of the worst teams in college basketball which is flatly untrue. These aren’t Tournament caliber teams, but I could easily see a team like Florida or Alabama upsetting the Iowa States and Louisvilles of the world in their home gyms.

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So with that in mind, I think the good teams at the top of the league are not given nearly enough credit for the wins they have earned. Teams like Ole Miss, Georgia, and Texas A&M are fringe Tournament teams, but we’ve seen time and time again that when a fringe/bubble SEC team makes the Big Dance, they take advantage of their opportunity far better than Big 12 or ACC teams do. Last year, for instance, only 3 SEC teams made the Tournament; Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee. All 3 of them made the Sweet 16. Tennessee came within inches of beating Michigan to make it to the Elite 8 (after needing a play-in game to even make the field), Florida made it to the Final 4, and Kentucky made it all the way to the championship game. This is why it makes no sense when the national media constantly say the SEC is bad. Yes they beat up on each other and it hurts their records, but when you throw the SEC up against the rest of the country, their superior athleticism really gets a chance to shine. So with that said I’d ask you to avoid any biased opinions of national media folk in considering the next 6 teams, all of whom could make the NCAA Tournament.

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A&M came absolutely out of nowhere this year to finish 5th in the SEC regular season standings. They have a top 5 recruiting class coming in next season so I fully expected them to be a program on the rise, but never expected it to be this year. However, they absolutely raided the transfer market and cobbled together a collection of talented transfers (specifically Danuel House) and upper classmen, paired them with the oldest looking little 20 year old you ever did see in Daniel Carusso, and they came out of nowhere to be surprisingly competitive in the SEC. Admittedly A&M probably don’t have much of a future in them if the make it to the NCAA Tournament (I’m thinking 1 game and done) and likely need to win a couple games in the SEC Tournament to even guarantee a spot in the big dance, but what they’ve done this season has been thoroughly impressive, and I for one hope they get rewarded.

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The Rebels are the next team on this list and I have to say, Andy Kennedy has put together a spectacular coaching effort this season. Ole Miss was supposed to absolutely collapse after the Marshall Henderson Era (hell… it almost collapsed DURING the Marshall Henderson Era) and Kennedy was going to be back on the hot seat. Instead, he finds this little firecracker Stefan Moody, (5’10” Jr. Transfer out of Florida Atlantic) who is absolutely lighting the league on fire to pair with Jarvis Summers, and Ole Miss suddenly has a competitive team! They are by no means perfect but for Kennedy to have pulled off 20 wins with this group is spectacular. They probably need to win a game or two in the SEC Tournament to lock down a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but they certainly could compete in the NCAA Tournament, and definitely deserve to be rewarded with a spot after this season.

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Next comes the Georgia Bulldogs whose roster, by all accounts, is crap. However, as it turns out Mark Fox is apparently an absolutely spectacular coach. This has managed to squeeze more out of this roster than I ever imagined possible and somehow has them in 4th place in the SEC and likely locked to make the NCAA Tournament. The guy is just smart. He’s gotten his team to play perhaps more competitively against the juggernaut Kentucky Wildcats than anyone in the country when he had less tools to work with than many others who attempted the same feat (UNC, Texas, Louisville, LSU, Arkansas and even Florida). The guy is a great coach and I hope his excellent coaching season is rewarded with a trip to the NCAAs.

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The Bayou Bengals have one of the best frontcourts in the country. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are stone cold killers and absolute beasts. Both these guys will play in the NBA sooner rather than later. However, their backcourt leaves quite a bit to be desired since the departure of Anthony Hickey. Transfer Josh Gray has been solid and sophomore Tim Quarterman has definitely outperformed expectations, but too often this year it hasn’t been enough. The larger problem, however, is that Johnny Jones is a horrendous coach. This man is an idiot. He botched that Kentucky game horribly and cost his team the win. The man is a spectacular recruiter (and he’s bringing in a top 5 class next year which includes the #1 player in the country) but his work on the court could use some major improvements. Even with these issues, however, they’re still 22-9, came closer than anyone to beating UK and will all the pros and the insane amounts of athleticism littered across this roster, LSU is going to be an absolute nightmare matchup for someone in the tournament. Ultimately the guard play and coaching will sink them, but they have at least a chance at a Sweet 16.

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Arkansas is slowly clawing their way back to being one of the best programs in the country. In the 90s they were an absolute menace and even won the title in 1994, but things got pretty rough there for a while. This year, however, Arkansas should be a guaranteed Sweet 16 team. Coach Mike Anderson is an undeniable dick according to preeeeeetty much every coach who plays him, but unlike Mr. Jones the man is undeniably great at his job. Moreover, he has two absolute studs on this years team in Bobby Portis (who is guaranteed to make an NBA roster some day) and Michael Qualls (who has a chance to make it in the NBA). Moreover, senior Rashad Madden is a spectacular distributor for this up tempo offense, and his length and athleticism (a theme among Arkansas players) can be an absolute nightmare for opponents. This team loves to push the pace, and against most teams can absolutely run them into the ground. Arkansas could easily wear down a superior team with this style and make a run at an Elite 8, but it all depends on the draw. With the right draw, however, this team could be really dangerous in the Tournament.

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But the real reason to like the SEC is that far and away the best team in the country plays in their league. Its not even close. I won’t dwell on this point because everyone else already has but Kentucky is spectacular. This team basically consists of 9 NBA guys… would be 10 if Alex Poythress hadn’t been lost for the season. They are the best defense in the country, and its not even close. They struggle offensively at times, but it never seems to matter cuz they can get 5 straight defensive stops seemingly whenever they want. Which they often do, giving their best offensive threats (Devin Booker, the Harrison twins, and Trey Lyles) time to find a rhythm and dig them out of whatever hole they may have found themselves in. And I do mean WHATEVER hole. There hasn’t been a single moment this season where I felt Kentucky was in a position that they were completely out in a game. They’re just too good. They can do whatever they want as long as their heads are in the game. The only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky. They’re a monster. A Leviathan. They are Ragnarok. What John Calipari has done getting 10 NBA players to sacrifice minutes and play together on 1 college roster is unheard of. Hell… its unheard of just to HAVE 10 NBA players on one roster! He is easily the National Coach of the Year, and this is the best team in college basketball. Not even close.

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The Magnolia State Saga Continues

Yes that is their real state flag.

Yes that is their real state flag. A mashup of France and the Confederacy?

The State of Mississippi has yet to let me down with this exciting, magical pair of football seasons they’re throwing together. I mentioned last week how they had a pair of tough games coming up this weekend. I wanted to savor they unbelievable things they had been able to do thus far because it was easy to believe that if anyone could go into the Cowbell Den that is Starkville and win it would be #2 Auburn, and there was no reason to think Texas A&M couldn’t upset Ole Miss at home, especially when they were pissed off and coming off a loss. And then the games happened.

Over 110,000 people showed up to watch the Rebels crush the Aggies (Image Via http://olehottytoddy.com/2014/10/12/ole-miss-rebels-texas-recap-new-normal/)

Over 110,000 people showed up to watch the Rebels crush the Aggies (Image Via http://olehottytoddy.com/2014/10/12/ole-miss-rebels-texas-recap-new-normal/)

Ole Miss went down to A&M and buried them. The Game ended up being 35-20 but it wasn’t even close. The Aggies were never better than 2 TDs down. And scored 13 of their 20 points in the 4th quarter and all 20 of their points in the second half.

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Mississippi State, however, felt a little different. On the surface they absolutely beat down Auburn. That first quarter was an absolute spectacle. The rest of the game was too although for multiple ever-changing reasons ranging from a freak monsoon, to Heisman hopeful Dak Prescott’s turnovers etc. And yet somehow throughout the entire thing, State seemed to be completely in control. Mullen made some absolutely atrocious coaching calls all game long, the biggest example being the inexplicable Fake Punt play. I get it. Its one thing to just step on someone’s throat when you’re really feeling it, but that play had about as much chance for success as Custer following Crazy Horse into the Little Bighorn.

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And it didn’t stop there. With 7:26 to go in the game Dak Prescott ran the ball out of bounds when he should have slid to keep the clock running and ensure the victory. Mullen went for it on 4th and 8 instead of kicking a field goal in the 4th quarter that would have almost certainly have guaranteed the win. And lets not forget all the turnovers from our alleged Heisman leader Prescott. In a lot of ways this team played and looked terrible. And yet? THEY COMPLETELY FUCKING DOMINATED AUBURN! THE NUMBER 2 TEAM IN THE COUNTRY AND DEFENDING SEC CHAMPS!!! Even through poor coaching, mental missteps, turnovers and everything else, Mississippi State looked dominant against Auburn. And they shut down one of the best offensive minds in football today, Gus Malzahn.

Somehow this doofus (right) knocked off Malzahn (Photo Credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images)

Somehow this doofus (right) knocked off Malzahn (Photo Credit: Kevin Cox, Getty Images)

Now, when the new polls came out this week that picture perfect “shared third place” thing that the two Mississippi schools had was over. Ole Miss held down the #3 spot, but Mississippi State leapt over Florida State to claim the #1 spot. However, with all those mental missteps it just doesn’t feel like like Mississippi State is the #1 team in the country. I mean… I think they deserve to be ranked there after that spectacle they went through being #8 in the country on the road, #6, and then #2 all in a row. And they certainly look dominant enough, both offensively and defensively, to be there. However, they are perhaps the most beatable #1 overall team I have ever seen.

Win or lose against LSU this Saturday Kentucky will get the first road crack at our newly minted #1, and I’m chomping at the bit for a chance at these guys. For all we know Mullen is already half way through contract talks to replace Will Muschamp at Florida, and doesn’t bother to gameplan. Now, I still love the story of these two Mississippi schools dominating the gauntlet that is the SEC West. I’m still rooting for the Egg Bowl to be between two undefeateds and I would LOVE it if both schools someone made the 4 team playoff. All I’m saying is that I’m just glad Kentucky gets the first crack at them as a number one, and I hope Mullen calls fake punts all day long. Why not?

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

Ask Not For Whom the Cowbell Jing-a-Lings; It Jing-a-Lings for Thee

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Wow. What a weekend for College Football. 3 of the top 4 and 4 of the top 6 teams got knocked off, and the entire state of Mississippi hasn’t been able to reclaim this kind of happiness since before the Battle of Vicksburg. Let’s dwell on that for a second.  Ole Miss beat #1 ranked Alabama… Holy Shit.

(Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

(Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel, USA TODAY Sports)

This is an event of cataclysmic proportions here in SEC country (as it always is when Bama loses), but I couldn’t be happier about it. Before this game the general world consensus was that this game would follow the same course as Georgia vs. Alabama circa 2008. This was right near the beginning of Alabama’s rise to dominance in College Football. However, coming into that game the big story was the Georgia Bulldogs. #3 in the country. The game was a blackout. The crowd was amped up, Matt Stafford was still the QB in Georgia, and Bulldogs fans were ready to take the next big step on their route to a national championship… about that…

(Photo Credit: Doug Benc/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Doug Benc/Getty Images North America)

(Photo Credit: Mark Almond, Birmingham News)

(Photo Credit: Mark Almond, Birmingham News)

(Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert, Online Athens)

(Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert, Online Athens)

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Yes Ugga… thats about as well as it went… but hey, didn’t those black jerseys look awesome??

The game ended 41-31 but it wasn’t even close. It was 31-0 at the half, at which point Alabama completely took their foot off the gas and went into cruise control to secure the victory. Now, before the weekend’s slate of crazy games this is the fate people were predicting for Ole Miss (I heard it from Ryen Russillo on the SVP and Russillo Show, and I totally agreed, which shows how much I know about college football I guess). That was clearly incorrect.

Not only did Ole Miss win, but they won in spite of controversial calls going in Alabama’s favor. The number one team in the country, and perennial SEC bully just got knocked off by a school which has been perceived as a perpetual bottom feeder in the conference since Eli Manning left. This game was such a big even for the school, the state, and the conference, that not only did they tear down the goalposts, but the fans then started a fund to help the school pay for new posts, as well as the SEC fines for storming the field. And they raised more than the necessary amount in just a couple days time.

Now, all that is INCREDIBLY impressive and I was thoroughly stunned to see it happen (we watched it on the giant TV monitors in Commonwealth Stadium before the UK South Carolina game kicked off) but the more interesting story to me was the case of the cowbell-shaking fans of Mississippi State and their bulldogs this weekend.

(Image via Mississippi State Alumni Association)

(Image via Mississippi State Alumni Association)

Ole Miss may be an SEC bottom feeder of sorts, and they may be a little brother to the likes of Alabama and LSU, but Mississippi State is the little brother to Ole Miss… meaning they could not possible get any further down the foodchain, right? Well apparently not because one week after crushing SEC powerhouse and #8 ranked team LSU [IN BATON ROUGE!!!] they proceeded to beat down #6 Texas A&M like Chong Li murdering Ray Jackson in Bloodsport.

THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN!!!!!!! So its one thing for Ole Miss to pull off an upset now and then, and Ole Miss has even been hailed as a program on the rise the last couple years because of stellar recruiting, but MISSISSIPPI STATE?!?! Now, I won’t dwell on Kentucky’s big win this weekend here, but its amazing to me that these 3 schools who have all circled the drain together the past half decade or so  and all pulled off massive wins in the same weekend (Mississippi State is so seemingly poorly thought of that their semi-permanent cross conference rival [SEC East vs. West] has been Kentucky. Thats the esteem with which the SEC holds State. They think they’re equivalent to Kentucky football which, as a UK fan, I can tell you has been no great shakes until these last 2 seasons). Ok… anyway… a short aside for a little backstory on why the State win is so shocking even if the Ole Miss win is fairly believable…

The two Mississippi Schools, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt have been, in large part, bottom feeders for the majority of the SECs reign of dominance in college football. For Vanderbilt this is generally because they’re a “smart kid school” of sorts with a relatively underdeveloped fanbase, respective to other SEC programs, and more importantly its because any and all good recruits in the state of Tennessee go to UT. For Kentucky its generally been because well the top 3 or 4 recruits in the state of Kentucky have always been really solid players, they often haven’t chosen to go to Kentucky, and even when they have, 3 players does not a team make. And in the state of Mississippi the problem has generally been that there are enough solid recruits in the state to fuel ONE big college football team, but never two, and the two schools have traditionally fought each other to death, only to split the total number of recruits between one another anyway.

Now, around 5 years ago, State got the upper hand in this recruiting relationship, which became a major factor in 2 Ole Miss coaches (Ed Orgeron and Houston Nutt) getting fired before the school finally found Hugh Freeze. In the last couple years, however, Ole Miss has dramatically and radically turned this around, as mentioned above. Not least of which included a top 10 class in 2013 and a top 20 class in 2014 as well as the #1 player in the country in 2013. Outside observers were starting make make comments to the tune of “if Will Muschamp gets fired at Florida, Dan Mullen (Mississippi State Coach and former Florida Assistant) better hop on that job while the getting is good” and “Ole Miss has grabbed every player worth playing in the state, so Mullen better get his resume ready.”

So you can see why it would be extremely surprising to see Ole Miss at number 3 in the country right now, but not totally unbelievable. They’ve finally found the right couch. They’re locking down all the top talent in their state, including some of the best talent in the nation, they have a solid and historic tradition and passionate football fans. They have plenty of building blocks for this to happen. Even last year they had already shown signs of this growth, hopping into the top 25 poll multiple times through the season (#21 once, and #24 a couple times) on the backs of their rebuilt defense. So although it still seems insane for them to knock off #1 Alabama and rocket to #3 in the country, we could see this kind of growth was coming.

State on the other hand?  They’ve made a bit of a habit of starting off hot, before collapsing in hilariously cataclysmic fasion. I’m thinking specifically of the 2012 season where they came roaring out of the gates, winning their first 7 games and screaming to #13 in the country before losing 4 of their last 5 games (including the season finale against rival Ole Miss), losing their bowl game to NORTHWESTERN of all schools, and ending the season unranked. THATS the Mississippi State that we’ve been expecting. Thats the Mississippi State we got last year when they went a completely bland 6-6. And that is NOT the Mississippi State we have this year. This year we have a school with Dak Prescott, THE FRONT RUNNER FOR THE HEISMAN TROPHY!!! FROM MISSISSIPPI STATE!!! I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW DAK WAS A NAME!!!

This year we have another #3 ranked school in the state of Mississippi.

And how picture perfect is that? The AP just decided “screw it” and ranked both Mississippi schools #3. “We don’t know… lets just call’m both 3 and wait till one, both, [or neither] of them starts losing.”

That could very will be this week, as Ole Miss now has to play a pissed off, embarrassed, and motivated Texas A&M team IN College Station. State has to play Auburn who… y’know… no big deal, but they’re #2 in the country and look like the best team in football. They could both lose this weekend. Or maybe they could keep shocking us all, win their games, and go into the season finale both undefeated, playing for the SEC West Title, a chance to win the SEC overall title, and a chance to play in the first ever College Football Playoff. Wouldn’t that just be perfect for two teams with great fanbases, great traditions, and far too little reward. Ole Miss has tailgating in The Grove and Mississippi State has those incessant cowbells.

Together they form this spectacular rivalry and old southern aristocracy and class blended into new south traditions of college football for Ole Miss versus the rough, uncut, farm folk and redneck feel of Mississippi state. A class of sub-cultures within the greater culture of the South, all trapped within a Mississippi microcosm. Thats why it would be so damn lovely if these two schools kept this up and ran the table. Probably won’t happen… in fact it almost definitely won’t happen… but hey… this sure is fun while it lasts. Here’s to hoping they give us a show for the rest of the season, and make that final game as big as it has ever been. Meanwhile, I’ll just be over here takin’ mah crazy pills and living life.

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