After a brief hiatus, I have returned and conference play has arrived. Here’s The Starting Five:
1. The common exercise for every young Kentucky team, check that, every Kentucky team during the John Calipari era is constantly measuring the current team to the teams of the past and trying to gauge how “far along” they are. Well, here we are at the end of December and I have no clue what to definitively make of Kentucky. Which really isn’t a bad thing given that they haven’t started conference play and are still playing without the other McDonald’s All-American Jarred Vanderbilt. Still, I’d like to have at least felt like I knew more than just something, if something is even a quantifiable measure of Kentucky, heading into the Louisville game.
Here’s what I do know about Kentucky, or at least what I think I know.
A) This team is at its best when Kevin Knox (15.7 PPG, 5,6 RPG) and Hamidou Diallo (15.5 PPG, 35.5 3FG%) are leading the way. I’ve already mentioned that these two are the Cats alphas and that the sooner they found out the better off they’d be. That seemed to be the case a few weeks back when UK defeated high-powered Virginia Tech at home behind 41 combined from the pair. It’ll need to be the case throughout SEC play, although it’d be beneficial if another one of the star-studded freshmen became a consistent performer.
B) Speaking of the Hokies. I know that Kentucky is capable of beating a high-caliber opponent. Okay, at least one at the level of VT. Then again, I’m not sure what to make of Kansas, who has lost twice in their own state, and UCLA, who most people are still reacting to the departure of LiAngelo Ball instead of paying attention to the actual team. Either way, those are two bluebloods, like the Cats, that happened to have their way, relatively, against Calipari’s young team. There likely won’t be another team on the SEC slate outside of Texas A&M that is better than the Wildcats, so I don’t expect this trend to continue.
C) Overall, I know that this team is capable of competing for an SEC title. Let’s be real, talent alone will get them no further down the SEC pecking order than third, behind Texas A&M and maybe, maybe, Florida (more on them later). Three-point shooting–currently ranked 336th in made three-point field goals per game–will have to improve if they’re going to reach the pinnacle.
I’m excited to see how this team fairs against the rival Cardinals, who have had issues of their own. The one issue that they don’t have is experience. Cards point guard Quentin Snider has played in more college basketball games than Kentucky’s entire roster combined, untrue, but it certainly feels that way. He’ll be a challenge for his freshman counterpart Quade Green, who I was impressed with after the Virginia Tech win and way less so after Saturday’s two-point three-turnover effort in the loss to the Bruins. It should be a fun one in what probably is college basketball’s best rivalry—please don’t tell my friends in the Triangle.
2. We can all agree that the media was wrong about Tennessee back when they descended upon Nashville for Media Days and pegged the Volunteers to finish 13th in the league. Partly, I blame myself for sleeping through the event, instead of being there to hype up the Vols. Rick Barnes has what may as well be the most physical, if not the toughest—if that’s at all different—team in the SEC. But, I’m not sure who the “real” Tennessee is. Is Tennesee the team that led top-ranked Villanova and defending national champion North Carolina by double-digit margins, or is Tennessee the team that only defeated the SoCon’s Furman by 5 at home? The answer is somewhere in the middle, and I’d imagine it’s a lot closer to the being up big on Nova and Carolina side of the pendulum. Either way, a trip to Bud Walton Arena to play the SEC’s other ‘tough-as-nail-why-the-hell-are-we-playing-them’ team in Arkansas will provide further data on who the “real” Tennessee is.
3. To continue the theme of being confused beyond measure, shall I take a stab at understanding Florida? I don’t want to, but then again I almost feel betrayed at this point in the season. What happened to the team that had Duke down by 17 in Portland? They’re still here in some form or fashion, but not nearly as big of a Final Four bet as to when they were the kings of college basketball for 5 minutes on a Pacific Northwestern night in November. Mike White’s team has gone 3-3 since crumbling to Duke late in that contest, including losses to Florida State, Clemson, and the Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago. KeVaughn Allen hasn’t nearly taken the leap that many expected heading into the season, only averaging 11.8 points per game and shooting 29 percent from three—both numbers down from last years totals of 14.0 and 37. Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson (team-high 18.2 PPG) and the emergence of forward Egor Koulechov (14.1 PPG and 6.7 RPG) has probably factored into Allen’s decrease in production, but that’s still not what White expected or needs from his star guard. Point guard Chris Chiozza is still a massive problem for opponents, particularly on the defensive end, but Florida won’t reach their potential until they find a consistent rim-protector and interior scorer. John Egbunu (11.5 PPG and 6.5 RPG in 2015) could be that guy when he’s back and healthy in late January, but even that’s still uncertain. Florida was a team a few possessions away from a Final Four. The core of that team is still on the roster. There’s little excuse for this team not to be one of the Top 4 teams when we head to St. Louis for the conference tournament in March.
4. The team that the Gators will face in their first conference game will be none other than the team that beat them three times a season ago and who they aided in getting into the NCAA Tournament despite 15 losses. Yes, the Vanderbilt Commodores and their 5-7 record are headed to Gainesville Saturday. I’ve read about Bryce Drew having “overscheduled” for Vandy in the non-conference and people wondering why the senior trio of Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson and Matthew Fisher-Davis haven’t been able to carry over the late-season magic. Well, if there was ever a time for it to appear, and a team to do it against it’s Saturday and it’s against Florida. Drew did tell me after the Middle Tennessee loss that it’s a new season and he’s still trying to find the guys that he can “trust” late in the ballgame, but I’m not going to pretend like there’s not still some vacant property owned by the Commodores residing in the Gators heads from last season. Y’all already know what I think about this game and the already dire situation that is this Vanderbilt men’s basketball season. They need to win on Saturday and then do more of it thereafter.
5. ESPN bracketologist,”nerd”, Joe Lunardi currently has Alabama as his first team out of the Big Dance. Lunardi cites that the Crimson Tide losing four of their last five since starting 0-5 and failing to register a win against a “Column 1” opponent on the new NCAA team sheets as to why the Tide would be left out was he the committee and the tournament to start today. Alabama played their first 10 games without 2017 All-SEC Freshman team selection Braxton Key, who was out due to preseason meniscus surgery and are still trying to implement the teams leading scorer from a year ago into the lineup. Road wins might be an emphasis for the committee when it comes meeting time on Selection Sunday, but so does taking into account injuries. The Tide has an opportunity to notch one of those “Column 1” wins at home Saturday evening when A&M visits Coleman Coliseum.
Few other thoughts:
-Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team beat UConn 89-64 last Saturday, leading by as much as 36 in the second half. And they did it without two players still out because of the FBI probe. That’s horrifying.
-Mississippi State is 11-1 and I’m not sure it means anything. A&M is 11-1 and I’m pretty sure it means a whole lot.
-Yante Maten and Georgia travel to Rupp on Sunday following Kentucky’s bout with Louisville. Regardless of the Wildcats result on Friday afternoon, I think that this should be an excellent opportunity for the Dawgs to win in Lexington.
-I desperately want to believe that Frank Martin will have South Carolina back in the tournament again this year, but I also desperately miss Sindarius Thornwell and wish P.J. Dozier came back to school. So does Frank.
Louisville (10-2) at #16 Kentucky (9-2) 12:00PM CBS
#19 Tennessee (9-2) at Arkansas (10-2) 12:00PM SEC Network
Cornell (5-6) at Auburn (11-1) 2:30PM SEC Network
Vanderbilt (5-7) at Florida (8-4) 3:00PM ESPN2
North Florida (5-10) at Mississippi State (11-1) 4:00PM SEC Network Plus
#5 Texas A&M (11-1) at Alabama (8-4) 5:00PM ESPN2
Georgia (9-2) at #16 Kentucky (9-2) 5:00 PM ESPN
South Carolina (9-3) at Ole Miss (7-5) 5:00PM ESPN2
Be sure to check out The Starting Five Monday morning for all of the reaction from the weekend that was in SEC hoops.