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January 9, 2012

Revising the Southeastern Conference forecast

About two months ago, I submitted my preseason predictions for the conference season, but you never quite have a handle on what a team's going to be until it takes the floor together.

Now that I've had two months to get a better grasp on things, here are my revised predictions, with the record and place I projected before the regular season started in parenthesis.


1. Kentucky, 14-2 (13-3, 2nd)
This may be the most talented UK team since Rick Pitino left Lexington: and yes, that includes the undefeated conference squad of 2002-03, as well as John Calipari's last two teams. This team is scary-good everywhere, but may lose a couple due to youth (see "the Indiana game.")

2. Vanderbilt, 12-4 (14-2, 1st)
You have to question whether health to VU's big men Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang can hold up all season, and there were still enough flaws elsewhere earlier in the season to make me slightly nervous about picking a 12-win season - two weeks ago, I was ready to revise this pick to 9-7. But I've liked what I've seen from this team in the way it hustles and plays intelligently in the last two weeks to think there's hope for an elite season again.

3. Alabama, 11-5 (11-5, T-3rd)
Alabama can score inside and from the wing, is elite defensively, is playing well right now, and has the requisite point guard play from Trevor Releford to go a long way. But - ouch! - 'Bama ranks 327th out of 345 teams in 3-point shooting, according to Ken Pomeroy, and that may limit the upside.

T-4. Florida, 10-6 (11-5, T-3rd)
Before the season started, I wondered how the mix of four volume-shooting guards (three of whom have track records of mixed accuracy, the other of whom is a freshman) and an undersized center would work. Well, UF ranks as Pomeroy's top club in terms of offensive efficiency, and the shots from the field are falling, but now there are two other issues: free throw shooting (66 percent) and playing away from home (the Gators are 0-4 outside of Gainesville). I said in November that Florida was a lower-end Top 25 team, but not a Top-10 team, and it looks like I may be right.

T-4. Mississippi State, 10-6 (10-6, 5th)
Do we ever know exactly what to make of the Bulldogs? It seems like Rick Stansbury frequently has a roster that's equally-talented and toxic in terms of chemistry at the same time. This team starts by losing the second game of the season to Akron, then reels off 11 wins in a row over a bunch of nobodies and Arizona, nearly knocks off Baylor, then loses by double-digits at Arkansas. The wise bet seems to stick with what I first thought: there's too much talent to forecast a collapse, and too many questions to think they'll end up in contention for the league crown.

6. Arkansas (8-8) (8-8, 6th)
Here's another club I have trouble getting a handle on; it's a young team undergoing a complete style make-over, but that style - if this team can learn it - makes the Razorbacks a team that could get a lot better as the season progresses. It also gets the benefit of playing against the former SEC West teams twice each. Upsetting MSU makes me think a .500 record is still reasonable, especially if this team gets on a roll and coach Mike Anderson has fans packing Bud Walton Arena again.

7. LSU (7-9) (4-12, 10th)
The Tigers may be the surprise of the league so far, handing Marquette its first loss and then nearly knocking off a ranked Virginia team on the road. The Tigers don't shoot well, but coach Trent Johnson has made them a tough-minded defensive team, and LSU may win a few games we didn't think it could by "uglying-up" the game and slowing tempo where needed. A 26-point blowout of Ole Miss was a great start.

8. Tennessee (6-10) (2-14, 12th)
I probably whiffed on the Vols a bit with the earlier two-win prediction, mostly because I had no idea that Jeronne Maymon and Trae Golden would be this good (yes, I knew about Golden's high school career, but the Vols weren't exactly world-beaters in the backcourt last year, so why didn't he play more then?). Anyway, the Cuonzo Martin era got a great start to conference play with a whipping of Florida, but this is still a team that lost to Oakland and Austin Peay.

T-9. Georgia (5-11) (6-10, T-8th)
The Bulldogs are what most thought they'd be: a team with a pair of guys in Gerald Robinson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who can score, and underrated point guard in Dustin Ware, and a bunch of other guys. Not a lot of reasons to expect much better, or much worse, than five wins.

T-9. Ole Miss (5-11) (7-9, 7th)
The Rebels played a decent pre-conference schedule, and had their moments: wins over Miami (Fla.) and road victories at Penn State and DePaul. But Ole Miss was weak offensively, and now their best scoring threat from the perimeter, Dundrecous Nelson, was kicked off the team. A 26-point loss at LSU could be a harbinger of things to come, and if the buzzards are circling around coach Andy Kennedy at season's end - and they probably will be - five wins might even be optimistic. The hope is that the team can remain solid defensively, which has been a strength so far.

T-9. South Carolina (5-11) (4-12, T-10th)
There wasn't much left in the cupboard for Darrin Horn, who's gone to an ultra-slow tempo and as a result, Carolina has looked respectable at times. The news gets potentially better, as Horn has played without Bruce Ellington -- the team's most-talented player - part of the time. Horn's teams always play hard and seem good for one or two shocking upsets at home most years, but the team's overall level of talent limits the upside as being much better than this.

12. Auburn (3-13) (6-10, T-8th)
It's pretty hard to get the awful display of basketball I saw this weekend out of my head. The good news for Auburn fans is this: the Tigers have eight SEC home games left, where they're 10-0 so far. The bad news: South Florida was the best of those wins, and USF is about on par with the easiest game remaining on AU's schedule.


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