SEC Power Rankings: Florida, Kentucky open on top

Casey Panther, who is averaging 17.4 points per game, has scored in double figures in every game for the Gators.

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — SEC basketball opens league play this week with only three teams ranked in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Once again, defending regular-season champion Florida and Kentucky appear heads and shoulders above the remainder of the league. Then again, Missouri apparently can’t be beaten at home and appears ready to challenge the league’s top shelf in just its second season as a member.

SEC tournament champion Ole Miss appears headed back to the middle of the pack after making the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2002, but senior guard Marshall Henderson and his antics — both on and off the court — will always keep it interesting.

Heading into the first week of league play, here is the first SEC Power Rankings of the season …

When the 10th-ranked Gators open SEC play Wednesday night against visiting South Carolina, they will seek to tie the school record of 24 straight home wins at O’Connell Center. In beating visiting Richmond 67-58 on Saturday to close non-league play, Florida had four scorers hit double figures in a game for the fifth time this season. The Gators are eighth in the nation in scoring defense (58.8).

After pulling a season-best 13 rebounds against Richmond, 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Doran Finney-Smith has led the team in rebounding in six games. Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II tops the SEC at 50 percent shooting from three-point range. Senior forward Casey Prather, the team’s leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, has scored in double figures in every game.

Sporting a new crop of stellar freshmen, the Wildcats began the season ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since the 1995-96 national championship season. Kentucky was also picked to win its 46th SEC championship and be led by freshman forward Julius Randle, the league’s preseason player of the year. The 6-foot-9 forward hasn’t disappointed, averaging a double-double at 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

While the 14th-ranked Wildcats have shown growing pains with neutral-site losses to Michigan State and Baylor and at North Carolina, they did close non-SEC play with a bang with an impressive 73-66 home win over defending national champion Louisville. The freshmen Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew who are both 6-6 guards, combined for 28 points. At 7-foot, sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein ranks third in the nation at 4.08 blocked shots per game.

If you want to beat the Tigers, don’t schedule to play them in their friendly confines of Mizzou Arena. With the 69-59 win Saturday against visiting Long Beach State, the Tigers own the nation’s longest home winning streak at 26 games. And they won 81 non-league games in a row dating back to the 2005-06 season. Third-year Tigers coach Frank Haith has lost only one of 42 home games.

But can the 21st-ranked Tigers win on the road? They got a big win at North Carolina State the game after their only loss — a one-point setback to Illinois in St. Louis. Junior guard Jabari Brown has scored more than 20 points four times and is second on the team in scoring (18.4). When you add two other guards, junior Jordan Clarkson (19.3) and senior Earnest Ross (14.0), the Tigers feature one of the better backcourts in the country.

Heralded freshman Bobby Portis is delivering 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the Razorbacks.

Once a NCAA tournament regular, the Razorbacks haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2008, and they’ve taken advantage of favorable non-conference scheduling to win all seven games in December after losing to Gonzaga and California at the Maui Invitational. Under third-year coach Mike Richardson, the Razorbacks are trying to get back to their heyday of "40 minutes of hell" intensity.

During the seven-game win streak, Arkansas forced 142 turnovers while giving up only 138 field goals. They enter SEC play leading the league in scoring (87.2) and assists (17.2) and have scored 100 or more points three times, most for the program since 2000-01. Forward Bobby Portis, a 6-10 forward, arrived with the billing of being the Arkansas prep player of the year. He’s second on the team in scoring (12.8), tops in rebounds (6.2) and has a pair of double-doubles.

The Volunteers have notoriously started slowly under third-year coach Cuonzo Martin and missed the NCAA tourney the previous two seasons after six-straight appearances. That has Vols fans restless, especially with three of the top four scorers returning, not to mention the healthy return finally of senior forward Jeronne Maymon.

After consecutive losses at Wichita State and at home versus N.C. State, the Vols have a modest three-game winning streak that includes drilling visiting Virginia by 35 points. The backcourt of seniors Jordan McRae (18.9) and Josh Richardson (8.8) form one of the league’s best, but the Vols like to work inside out while featuring sturdy junior forward Jarnell Stokes. After leading the SEC in rebounding last year, he nearly averages a double-double in scoring (13.8) and rebounding (9.2).

The Tigers enter SEC play having had a six-game win streak snapped at home Saturday in a 74-70 loss to Rhode Island. Second-year Tigers coach Johnny Jones, who played at LSU from 1981-85, depends again upon 6-9 junior forward Johnny O’Bryant for production in scoring (team-high 14.8) and rebounding (7.5). But he found himself benched by an unhappy coach in the second half of Saturday’s loss.

The Tigers are depending upon a pair of freshmen forwards — 6-9 Jarell Martin, Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball last season, and 6-8 Jordan Mickey — to have immediate impact in both scoring and rebounding. Mickey is averaging 13.9 points and leads the team at 7.8 rebounds per game, while Martin put his first double-double as a Tiger in a win Dec. 28 over McNeese State. Senior Andre Stringer and junior Anthony Hickey again form a solid backcourt for the Tigers.

The Rebels return the league’s leading scorer and most volatile player in Henderson, the senior guard who hasn’t met a shot he didn’t like. After scoring 20.1 points per game last year, the 6-2 guard is back at it again at 18.8 per game. But he was also suspended three games — the first of the regular season and the first two of SEC play, including Thursday versus Auburn and Saturday at Mississippi State — for violation of team rules during the offseason.

Henderson might be the show for the Rebels, but they also need junior guard Jarvis Summers to score, too. Thus far, he’s just a tick behind Henderson at 17.8 points per game, including scoring a career-high 29 points in last Saturday’s 83-80 overtime loss to visiting Dayton.

After losing three starters to either transfer or suspension, including top scorer Kedren Johnson to the latter, the hits kept on coming. Josh Henderson, a 6-11 junior center, injured his knee in the win over Marshall on Dec. 5 and was lost for the season. That placed immediate pressure on 6-10 freshman center Damian Jones, who’s responded by averaging 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds.

Sophomore guard Eric McClellan (14.3), a transfer from Tulsa, and 6-9 senior forward Rod Odom (13.3) have taken up the scoring slack. Odom is second in the SEC in both 3-point percentage (43.8) and 3-pointers made (2.7) and has scored in double figures in nine games. Senior point guard Kyle Fuller is second in the SEC in assists (3.8).

Last season, the Bulldogs won only 10 games in coach Ricky Ray’s first season. They’ve already matched that win total heading into SEC play, but will find out exactly where they are right out of the gate when they open Wednesday at Kentucky.

With five starters returning, the Bulldogs hope a light non-conference schedule can build confidence and translate to more than just the four SEC wins of last season. Like he did last season as a freshman, guard Craig Sword tops the team in scoring (14.3).

The Tigers’ four-game winning streak heading into SEC play includes solid home wins over Clemson and Boston College. The 56 rebounds pulled in last Saturday’s 81-50 win over Florida A&M in their final tune-up before league play was most under fourth-year coach Tony Barbee.

Junior guard K.T. Harrell, a Virginia transfer, has provided instant offense (19.4) to lead the team. After finishing second in scoring last year, senior guard Chris Denson (19.0) is in the exact same spot now, but this time without graduated backcourt mate Frankie Sullivan.

After not making the NCAA tourney last season after going 23-13 overall and 12-6 in league play, Alabama listened to the critics and toughened their schedule to include the likes of Duke, Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA. But the Crimson Tide limp into league play on a three-game losing skid and losers of four of five games.

Alabama might have the best defensive backcourt in the country. Sophomore guard Retin Obasohan, who hails from Antwerp, Belgium, leads the SEC and ranks sixth in the nation in steals (2.9), while senior guard Trevor Releford (2.5) is second in the league and 14th in the nation.

It was an uneven start to coach Frank Martin’s second season, including a stretch of five losses that culminated with an embarrassing home loss to instate foe USC-Upstate. But the Gamecocks have won four in a row and five of six heading into league play, led by the backcourt of junior Tryone Johnson (11.7 ppg) and senior Brenton Williams (11.2).

After helping the Gamecocks’ football team go 11-2 and beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl at wide receiver, senior guard Bruce Ellington won’t return to the basketball team after declaring for the NFL Draft. A mid-term graduate, Ellington played 80 games, starting 66, with a career average of 11.3 points per game. He posted 39 double-doubles and finished with 893 career points.

Guard Fabyon Harris, the Aggies’ lone scholarship senior and top returning scorer, didn’t make his first start of the season until last Saturday’s 63-46 win over Texas-Pan American. Emerging from third-year coach Billy Kennedy’s doghouse, Harris scored 10 points.

Junior Kourtney Roberson, a 6-9 forward, is leading the team in scoring (11.0) and rebounding (8.0). He has 15 career games with double-digit rebounds. The team’s workhorse is sophomore guard Alex Caruso, who in the last game had 13 points, six assists, four steals, three rebounds and three blocks during a season-high 35 minutes.

The hottest coaching seat in the SEC might well belong to fifth-year Bulldogs coach Mark Fox, who has guided Georgia to the NCAA tournament — or the postseason, for that matter — just once (2011). And this season he’s trying to fill the gap left by departed guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the SEC Player of the Year.

Dependable senior Donte Williams, a 6-9 forward, has made 70 career starts following last Saturday’s 73-55 loss at George Washington. Sophomore forward Cameron Forte had career highs of 14 points and eight rebounds in the loss. Sophomore guard Charles Mann (13.0) leads the team in scoring.