What we've learned as the men’s conference season begins.
1. KENTUCKY IS THAT GOOD
The Wildcats learned the hard way not to speak about going undefeated last year, although they still managed to play for a national championship, so this year there’s no talk of going 40-0. At least, not from them. Most pundits across the country think it’s very possible and very realistic. Kentucky has completely blown away its competition thus far with Popeye numbers, its defense as good as its offense and humbling some of the best teams in the country. There’s obviously a very long way to go, but it seems the only team that can beat Kentucky is if Kentucky beats itself.
2. MICKEY AND MARTIN
LSU’s Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin are anchoring the Tigers as they head into SEC play, as they should be. Each is a bonafide NBA lottery pick whenever they want to come out and it’s got Tiger fans thinking of the days of Shaq and Chris Jackson – if those two stick around next year to team with No. 1 overall recruit Ben Simmons and the rest of a strong recruiting class, LSU could be right back on top. The M&M boys are each among the top six in league scoring and are Nos. 2-3 in rebounding.
3. GOOD THEATER
Sure, the SEC has had its inexplicable non-conference losses, but the coaches of the league are providing great entertainment on the sideline. Donnie Tyndall looks like he auditioned for a role with the Three Stooges. Frank Martin has always been known to shake the timbers. Bruce Pearl hasn’t donned the body paint (yet) but he did dress up as Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn for a pep rally. John Calipari’s smirk of knowing he always has one more foolproof play and Billy Donovan’s everything-is-calm gaze. They should go to Broadway.
Kentucky’s No. 1 and the other 13 teams are fighting for No. 2. They all have a great chance to get it, too. The league usually beats itself up pretty well, with no one or two teams dominating, making the fight for a top-four finish (and thus the all-important two-game bye at the SEC tournament) extremely competitive. It’s been six years since someone other than Kentucky or Florida won the regular-season title, and that probably won’t change this year. But a second-through-fourth finish may get the NCAA selection committee doing its research.
5. AN IMAGE PROBLEM
Let’s face it, the SEC, for good reason, is known as “Kentucky and the Pips.” Yes, there have been other terrific moments – Florida and Arkansas have also won national championships – but the league has been dominated for Big Blue for so long that it’s really hard to shake that moniker. For every great stat the SEC can boast of – like having five teams in the RPI Top 50 and 10 in the Top 100 (one of only three conferences) – there’s a loss to Charleston Southern or Missouri-Kansas City to recycle the hashtag #SECBasketballFever. The league won’t get a chance to correct that image until March, and the only way to do that is get more than three teams in the NCAA tournament, like it has the past two years, and then have them stick around. For what it’s worth, Joe Lunardi has five SEC teams in his latest “Bracketology.” Four of them are eight-seeds or below, with one in a play-in game.