As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the SEC:
Top three contenders
Kentucky. Yes, highly touted signee Skal Labissiere has struggled to acclimate to the college game, averaging just 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. And yes, the Wildcats have already dropped two games, including a 74–67 neutral-court head-scratcher to Ohio State on Dec. 19. But Kentucky still boasts the SEC’s best offense, in terms of adjust efficiency, behind freshman guard Jamal Murray (16.8). With sophomore guard Tyler Ulis at the helm, John Calipari’s squad remains the league standard until another team says otherwise.
Texas A&M. The Aggies have already imposed their will on a stacked non-conference schedule, winning four games against top-60 teams in Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas State and Texas. That’s largely due to their antagonistic defense, which has forced more turnovers (193) than any other SEC team. Plus, guards Alex Caruso (4.7 assists per game) and Daniel House (15.2 points per game) form one of the league’s best backcourts. The pieces are in place for Texas A&M’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2011 if it can sustain this start during SEC play.
Vanderbilt. Several SEC teams have notched better starts than Vandy, but coach Kevin Stallings’s crew still boasts more potential. All four of its losses have come against top-50 teams, with three coming by seven points or fewer. Yet the Commodores have one of the more balanced team in the league with an offense and defense that both rank in the top 40 in adjusted efficiency. Once Vandy gets 7'1" forward Luke Kornet back from injury in late January, the rest of the SEC should watch out.
South Carolina. The Gamecocks haven’t posted a winning season since 2009, so a 13¬–0 start has folks in Columbia plenty excited. Of course, coach Frank Martin’s team has yet to beat a team ranked higher than 70th (Memphis) in kenpom.com’s rankings. But Martin has found balance with his offense, and it’s paying off. Five players average at least 10.8 points per game, helping the Gamecocks jump from averaging 65 points per game last season to 80.6 in 2015. Now South Carolina enters league play on the heels of its first undefeated non-conference schedule since the 1933–34 season. The program could very well snag its first NCAA tournament berth since 2004.
LSU. With the exception of electric freshman Ben Simmons, who has been as good as advertised, the Tigers haven’t given folks in Baton Rouge much to cheer for. Despite starting the year in the top 25, the five-loss Tigers have yet to impose their will on either side of the ball. LSU missed out on every chance to get a signature non-conference win in November and December, though its 90–82 victory at Vanderbilt on Saturday is likely its best of the year. The Tigers reportedly organized a team meeting last week to try to exorcize their locker-room demons. Improvement on the boards should be the first priority: One year after losing NBA-bound forwards, LSU ranks 11th in the SEC in rebounding margin (-0.5).
Player of the year so far
Ben Simmons, LSU. The true freshman Simmons is living up to the immense hype that preceded his arrival at LSU. He leads the Tigers in points (20.5), rebounds (13.1), assists (5.4), steals (2.1) and blocks (1.4) while ranking top-five in the SEC in each of those categories. Simmons has scored at least 20 points in eight of LSU’s games, including its last four. His most impressive performance may have been when he posted a whopping 43 points, 14 boards, seven dimes and five steals against North Florida on Dec. 2. Thus far Simmons is the undisputed leader in the clubhouse for Player of the Year, but keep an eye on Ole Miss sharpshooter Stefan Moody.
Best non-conference win
Kentucky over Duke, 74–63, in Chicago (Nov. 17). A win over the defending national champs was just what Coach Cal’s squad needed in this early season matchup. The Wildcats reached 3–0 after scoring 17 points off 16 Blue Devil turnovers and finishing with four players in double figures. Duke’s Grayson Allen was held to six points on 2-for-11 shooting.
Must-see game in January
Kentucky at No. 2 Kansas (Jan. 30). On Saturday, the Jayhawks put the hurt on a ranked Baylor squad in a 102–74 thumping. We’ll learn just how battle-tested Kentucky’s young squad is when it travels to Allen Fieldhouse at the end of the month.