Post-Super Bowl cram session: The SEC, where Kentucky truly is all that
ST. LOUIS -- When it comes time to talk March Madness and the SEC, you start with big, bad Kentucky.
Undefeated and the unanimous No. 1 team in the land, the Wildcats are worthy of the hype. Debating their chances of finishing the season 40-0 is a hot topic but if you really want an argument, try choosing their best player. Could he be Willie Cauley-Stein, the 7-foot junior with the mobility and quickness to defend point guards? How about 6-6 Aaron Harrison, their leading scorer and the SEC's preseason player of the year? Or his twin Andrew, who directs the offense? Or Karl-Anthony Towns, the 6-11 freshman who has been lauded lately by coach John Calipari?
It likely will take a few years in the NBA to answer that question. But the point is, the Wildcats are so stacked, they are creating a problem of sorts for the SEC.
If they finish the conference schedule without a loss, there will be those who deride the quality of their opponents. You can hear it now: The Wildcats would not have gone undefeated if they played in the Big 12, the ACC or even the Big Ten. While that could prove true, let's not forget what they did in nonconference play: Kentucky beat Kansas by 32 points (yet, somehow, Kansas is No. 1 to Kentucky's No. 2 in the latest RPI), handled North Carolina by 14 and went up 24-0 on UCLA before settling for a 39-point victory.
You won't get an argument from Missouri about the dominance of the Wildcats. After the Tigers lost by 16 to Kentucky last week, both sides talked about how well Missouri played. You can be sure coach Kim Anderson didn't see anything like this at Central Missouri.
"When you play Kentucky, it's overwhelming because they bring so many guys at you," Anderson said. "You think you have one and then there's another one."
Indeed, anyway you look at it, the Wildcats are living at the top of the mountain and every other team -- in the SEC, at least -- has a long climb to reach Kentucky's neighborhood.
But just because the other SEC teams don't reside in the Wildcats' high-rent district doesn't mean they're in the dumps. The numbers and the national media experts agree that the SEC is much improved over last season, when it was scorned for sending only three teams to the NCAA Tournament. (Conveniently overlooked aside: Those teams -- Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee -- won 12 games, more than any other conference.)
In fact, with the Super Bowl parade now history and Selection Sunday moving to the forefront of the sports landscape, the most talked-about topic in the SEC -- after Kentucky, that is -- is the number of teams the conference will put in the 68-team field when it is announced March 15.
With the Super Bowl behind us and attention focused on college hoops, let's break down the possibilities as well as a few other matters that remain to be determined.
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The certain: At this point, Kentucky (22-0) could lose twice and still be a slam dunk for a No. 1 seed.
If there is another sure bid out of the conference, it would appear to be Arkansas, ranked 23rd in the NCAA's latest RPI but unranked in both the AP and coaches Top 25s. But the Razorbacks (17-5, 6-3) will have to rely on an excellent won-loss record because they lost to the only ranked team they've played all season, 95-77 to then-No. 20 Iowa State.
The probable: The latest bracket projections on ESPN and cbssports.com list six SEC teams in the field. Of the SEC's projected entrants, only Kentucky is slotted with better than a six seed in either bracket.
Both ESPN and cbssports.com project the same teams: Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia (27th in NCAA RPI), Texas A&M (31st), LSU (39th) and Ole Miss (48th). Ole Miss and A&M are among the last four teams in on both brackets.
The surprise: That the number of SEC entrants is projected to double since last year is impressive. What also makes that notable is that two of the three teams that made it last year are not among the expected entrants.
Florida was ranked seventh in the preseason polls and has reached the NCAA Tournament five straight years but needs a dramatic turnaround to extend that streak. The Gators (12-10, 5-4) have enough talent but have yet to find the right mix and have lost a number of close games.
Expectations for Tennessee were not as great after their coach, Cuonzo Martin, parlayed a trip to the Sweet 16 into the job at Cal last year. The Volunteers (13-8) are not out of the tournament picture but, like the Gators, need some RPI-building victories. Not encouraging, though, is that both teams dropped in the latest RPI from the 50s to the 70s.
The honor candidates: Based on talent and potential, it would not be a reach to put Kentucky's top nine players on the first or second All-SEC teams. And that could have been 10 if Alex Poythress had not torn up his left knee.
Based on statistics, however, Kentucky should not dominate the conference all-star teams quite so much. The Harrison twins, Towns and Cauley-Stein are likely to land on one of the teams, which leaves half a dozen spots up for grabs.
At the conference halfway point, my six would be Arkansas' Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, LSU's Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, Vanderbilt's Damian Jones and Georgia's Marcus Thornton.
Lookin' good! Check out our gallery of SEC hoops cheerleaders.
Picking Player of the Year promises to be even more difficult. Kentucky is so balanced that its top players effectively could cancel each other's candidacies and clear the way for the Razorbacks' Portis, who leads the conference in scoring and field-goal percentage and is third in rebounds.
The question: So what about the Wildcats? Will Kentucky, like Florida a year ago, finish 18-0 in conference?
It looks like the tougher half of the Wildcats' league schedule is still to come with two games against Florida, road games at LSU and Georgia and a home date with Arkansas.
The Wildcats continue to insist they're not thinking about an undefeated season but the closer they get, the more difficult it will be to avoid the topic. Calipari already seems to be laying the groundwork for his team to lose.
"I told our team, we need to get in a slug match, make plays, come up with blocks, fight like heck to win a game," he said at his postgame presser following Tuesday night's 69-58 victory over Georgia. "Even if we lose it, as long as it's not March, we're good."