The No. 2 Florida Gators are way out in front in the SEC, a perfect 12-0 record placing them comfortably ahead of the 9-3 Kentucky Wildcats. If you guessed the Georgia Bulldogs were in third place, you did so because you just looked at the standings and not because of any preexisting basketball knowledge. The Bulldogs were 6-6 in non-conference play, their "best" win of those six, according to KenPom's rankings, coming over No. 190 Wofford, and here they are: one game behind Kentucky in the league standings and two games up with six to play in pursuit of one of four byes in the SEC Tournament.
Georgia has some fine wins — at Missouri, and home wins over Arkansas, LSU and Ole Miss — but its standing in the league ledger more brings to question the conference's merit at large than the Bulldogs' excellence. Entering play this week, Florida and Kentucky seem to be the only teams safely in the field of 68; as of Tuesday, SB Nation bracketologist Chris Dobbertean had Missouri as a No. 10 seed and Tennessee as one of his last four out.
Neither the Tigers nor Volunteers have much room left for quality wins; that is to say, neither team has games left against Florida or Kentucky. But both have a game left against Georgia, and they each have a game left against each other (Tennessee hosts Missouri to close the regular season on March 8). But both are two games behind the Bulldogs, the SEC's mystery team that, at 14-10 and 4-5 against the KenPom top 100, has virtually no shot at an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament even if it were to win out.
With six games left in the regular season, it seems much more likely the SEC will have two teams chosen on Selection Sunday than four. It's not been a banner year for SEC basketball unless you like printing banners for crappy things, in which case, yes, it has been a banner year for SEC basketball. Even still, it has two top-20 teams and one of the shortest-list national championship favorites as it stands in mid-February.
Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army
As impressive as Florida has been during the big win streak, how do you see the team differently now than you did before Saturday's win at Rupp Arena?
Florida has been as impressive as any team in the country in the calendar year of 2014 -- they're not first in those power rankings just because I write them and am a homer -- but winning at Rupp is the sort of thing that Florida fans believe only when it happens. Florida just did it for the first time since 2007, when the Gators won a national title (the 2005-06 Gators won at Rupp, too), and the first time since John Calipari took over in Lexington and built a pipeline to the top of the recruiting rankings, and the fourth time under Billy Donovan, who has only been in Gainesville for 18 seasons now.
Does it make me, personally, a lot more confident in Florida's NCAA Tournament chances? Nah, not really; I was high on Florida before. But I think it helps a little, and certainly makes Florida look a lot better to people who don't watch as closely as I do. And I think it helps Florida's players to know that the thing that those four seniors probably thought was impossible after the Gators fell silent and then fell at Rupp last year was very much possible for this team.
Speaking of those four seniors, how has it been to see Scottie Wilbekin up close this season, for him to come back from his second suspension in two seasons and play the way he's played to the point that you called him no less than a co-favorite for SEC Player of the Year?
If national writers cared about four-year seniors at schools like Florida figuring out life over those four years, Wilbekin would be a much bigger story nationally than he is, but that's not the easiest sell (it was much easier to bang on Wilbekin earlier this year, Dan Dakich-style, for selfishly leaving his team in the lurch), so I get it. As is, I burst with pride when I watch him play: He always seems to be both playing harder and thinking harder than everyone else on the court, and even if his game doesn't always match what he thinks it is, especially when it comes to shooting pull-up jumpers, he's got the sort of chip on his shoulder that makes for a badass point guard. Plus, he's been one of the nation's best perimeter defenders and the captain of a tenacious Florida defense for two years running, and as Billy Donovan's remade Florida as a program that wins with defense, not just threes, Wilbekin's been crucial.
Florida fans know that Scottie's earned all of this, because we've watched him earn it, but it's cool to see the rest of the country nodding in agreement, too.
How much credit, then, should Billy Donovan get for molding this team (over the past several years, really) into the excellent defensive team that it is — statistically one of the best he's ever had — even though offense is soaring across college basketball?
A lot, especially for the flexibility. I wrote about this extensively last year, when Florida's defense was even better (imagine that!), but it feels like Donovan has had a sort of evangelical experience with efficiency stats (he talks about per-possession numbers routinely now), and Florida definitely plays defense like you would want a really good defense to play, limiting easy twos and threes and forcing teams to take long jumpers from awkward angles whenever possible.
And, obviously, it would have been so easy for Donovan to zig with everyone else in college basketball: That's where his roots are! That's how he made his name! He coaches offense really, really well! But he has zagged, and Florida has been far better for it.
Bonus question: Which SEC coach is least likely to have an evangelical experience with efficiency stats?
Probably (Tony) Barbee, if only because he'll never have the talent at Auburn to do it. I would love to see Rick Ray (who has a degree in Applied Mathematics, whatever that is!) do it.
Three Big Games
No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats at Ole Miss Rebels (Tuesday): If Ole Miss has any life left in it, it better show it this week. The Rebels host Kentucky on Tuesday before hosting Florida on Saturday, and an 0-2 week would seem to root Marshall Henderson and Co. down in "Win the SEC Tournament or Miss the NCAA Tournament" territory. Kentucky could use the win, too. The Wildcats have a road win at Missouri but have otherwise struggled away from Rupp Arena. John Calipari's young team — the youngest in the country according to KenPom.com's experience rating — could stand to win a few games away from its home floor before the relative indifference neutral floors in the postseason will offer.
Auburn Tigers at No. 2 Florida Gators (Wednesday): Any Florida game is significant at this point and thusly qualifies for "big game" consideration. The Gators are 12-0 in conference play and two-thirds of the way to becoming the first team in SEC history other than Kentucky to have an undefeated regular season in conference play since league expansion in 1990.* And with road games against Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas (very tough in Fayetteville and mediocre away from it), the three toughest games on the Gators' schedule are behind them. When Florida visited Auburn on Jan. 18, the Gators never ran away but still won 68-61.
*Kentucky has run the table three times: 1996, 2003 and 2012. The 1996 and 2012 teams lost in the SEC Tournament final and then went on to win the national championship; the 2003 team won the SEC Tournament but lost in the Elite Eight to Marquette behind Dwyane Wade's 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
Vanderbilt Commodores at Missouri Tigers (Wednesday): Missouri can't afford any missteps from here on out, and Vanderbilt is a team downtrodden with injury and off-court trouble that has somehow persevered to stand at 6-6 with six to play before the SEC Tournament. Kevin Stallings' team has been playing at seven scholarship players since January; that's when leading scorer Eric McClellan was kicked off the team. Still, Missouri star Jabari Brown will have his hands full with Vanderbilt point guard Kyle Fuller.