BOZICH | How easily will overlooked Kentucky win the underrated - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | How easily will overlooked Kentucky win the underrated SEC?

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(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following column was not approved by coach Andy Kennedy and the Ole Miss Rebels.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – On Sunday, I shared my snapshot of the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball race. On Monday, I moved to the Big Ten.

Next?

I'm talking about the league that Kentucky is expected to have locked up by Valentine's Day – the Southeastern Conference. (OK, the Wildcats needed an overtime to beat visiting Ole Miss, 89-86, Tuesday night in their SEC opener. I've moving the clinching date from Feb. 14 to the 17th when UK visits Tennessee.)

I'll begin with considerable love for a league that has not placed more than three teams in the NCAA Tournament since 2012.

1. The SEC is Under-rated – Look for more than three SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament this year. In fact, look for more than four.

Print, clip and save: I'm putting five SEC teams in my NCAA Tournament bracket. (I'll use the Ole Miss close call as evidence that the league is tougher than most people think. That's my story -- and I'm sticking with it.)

SEC Network analyst Darrin Horn agrees. “That's how many teams that Joe Lunardi had in his latest projection and Joey Brackets is money when it comes to predicting the bracket,” Horn said.

Agreed.

And Kentucky does not count for two.

After Kentucky (now 14-0), the prediction business gets risky.

Here are my four SEC also-rans: South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas and Louisiana State. (No, I did not include Florida. See item 5.)

South Carolina has nice wins against Iowa State (neutral court), Clemson and Oklahoma State. Losses to Charlotte and Akron cannot be shrugged away but nobody has beaten the Gamecocks by more than five points. Ken Pomeroy's computer formula ranks the Gamecocks sixth in the nation in defensive efficiency, one spot behind Virginia.

Arkansas might have the best 1-2 punch in the league in Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls -- and they showed it with a nice win at Georgia Tuesday night. Here is what hurts the Razorbacks: They play at Kentucky, at Georgia and at Florida without return games against any of those teams. That's borderline unfair.

If Portis and Qualls aren't the best 1-2 combo, give it to Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey of LSU. Mickey is averaging a double-double while Martin leads the SEC in scoring at 18.2 per game. No wonder the Tigers are the only team that has beaten West Virginia – and they did it in Morgantown.

Nobody is talking about Georgia, but the Bulldogs have the second-best Ratings Percentage Index (20th) in the league and are ranked in the Top 40 by Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin. Georgia's win against Seton Hall has become a quality win.

(Ok, throw Ole Miss into the discussion. Wait ... you're saying the Rebels lost to Charleston Southern and Western Kentucky in Oxford? Never mind.)

2. How easily will Kentucky win the SEC? Ken Pomeroy says six games – the same gap that Florida put between itself and the rest of the league last season.

I cannot disagree. (But you might after watching the Ole Miss game.) Kentucky is on a fast-track toward 18-0, even though Pomeroy's projection has John Calipari's team at 17-1. He also projects a ceiling of 11-7 for four SEC teams – Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas.

Let's say one or even two of them exceed expectations and finish 12-6. They'll still be six games behind the Wildcats because I don't see Kentucky losing a conference game, not with a defense ranked best in the nation in many statistical measures. (But you might see them losing one. In fact, you nearly did.)

3. Vanderbilt center Damian Jones is the best SEC player nobody is talking about – Remember that name, Damian Jones.

Jones, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, is one of four players who ranks in the Top 10 in the SEC in points and rebounds, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 boards. He's also fifth in blocked shots and second in field goal percentage, making nearly 57 percent of his attempts.

He's your basic Kevin Stallings coach-him-up success story. Stallings has had a few.

“When you're talking about post players, he's as good with his back to the basket as any player in the league,” Horn said. “He's been terrific.”

4. How many times has a Kentucky player been named SEC Player of the Week?

Looking for an easy question to stump your friends or win a bar debate? This is your chance. The answer is … zero.

That's correct. Eight weeks into the season and not one of John Calipari's players have been recognized as the best player in the SEC for a single week of this season.

Two guys from Auburn have been rewarded. Two from Alabama. Two from South Carolina.

And none from Kentucky.

Yes, all four of Calipari's freshmen (Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker) have been selected as the league's Freshman of the Week.

But the Player of the Week award has yet to be shipped to Lexington.

5. Florida was picked second in the league in the pre-season media poll. Will the defending league champions (7-6) make the NCAA Tournament?

Maybe. But even their coach, Billy Donovan, is not convinced,

The Gators lack a proven inside force. They've been injured. They are scrambling to determine their roles. They've lost back-to-back games to Florida State and Connecticut -- with an RPI of 134.

“All I can go off is our body of work at this time and I'll tell you right now we are not an NCAA Tournament team," Donovan told Antonya English of the Tampa Bay Times.

"I think if it was to be picked right now, the NCAA Tournament, I always believe you earn your way into the NCAA Tournament. I don't believe we've earned that.

“Now we have 18 more games left to play. There's an SEC Tournament left to play. There are still a lot of basketball (games) left to play. Things can change. But do I think this is going to change this year based on what I've seen so far? I don't know. I don't know.”

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