The midpoint of the SEC regular season has arrived, and the stretch is upon us. The league fared better in nonconference play, as expected, and much of league play has gone according to expectations, too.
Kentucky is strong, and the race for second in the East is frantic. But it is a bit strange to see Arkansas atop the West.
A review of the first half of the SEC season:
Florida was picked to finish fifth in the East after guard Nick Calathes left to play in Europe. But the Gators (17-6 overall, 6-3 SEC) are in the battle for second in the East and in good shape to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. The Gators are doing it with contributions from a bevy of players: Freshman guard Kenny Boynton has provided an unexpected spark with a team-leading 14.1 points per game, and junior forward Chandler Parsons finally has emerged.
In one year, LSU has gone from being the runaway regular-season champion to possibly going winless. The Tigers' drop-off wasn't unexpected, but it's difficult to explain their 9-14 record - 0-9 in the SEC - considering they have senior forward Tasmin Mitchell. The Tigers aren't exciting, either, scoring 50 points or fewer in seven league games and getting blown out most of the time.
Kentucky stumbled once, against South Carolina, but otherwise has lived up to its billing. Freshman guard John Wall is a candidate for national player of the year, (though, strangely, he could be losing the SEC race to USC's Devan Downey). Freshman center DeMarcus Cousins is a double-double monster.
Downey might slow down eventually, but his first half of SEC play - during which he averaged 30.9 points in eight games - hasn't been seen in the league since the days of former LSU guard Chris Jackson. The 5-foot-9 Downey has pretty much carried the Gamecocks to a respectable record, and one of the most improbable wins of the season, against then-No. 1 Kentucky.
Downey and the two Kentucky stars - Wall and Cousins - are assured spots. After that it gets tough. Do you go with Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado because of his defense and rebounding? Do you reserve a spot for a Vanderbilt player (A.J. Ogilvy, Jermaine Beal, Jeffery Taylor)? Does Arkansas' Courtney Fortson belong, even though he became eligible in January? What about Georgia's Trey Thompkins?
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER
Georgia sophomore Travis Leslie had trouble getting off the bench last season, averaging 6.3 points a game. Now he's averaging more than 16 in SEC play and has uncorked a highlight reel's worth of dunks.
BEST COACHING JOB
First-year coach Mark Fox has Georgia doing things it wasn't expected to do, such as beating Vanderbilt. South Carolina's Darrin Horn has done a good job of holding things together with a depleted roster. But in the end you have to give the nod to John Calipari, who assembled most of the key talent at Kentucky and has put the Wildcats in good position to earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT
Auburn is 2-6 in league play and 10-12 overall - with a senior-laden starting lineup. That doesn't bode well for coach Jeff Lebo, who likely saved his job last season with a strong finish.
South Carolina's 68-62 victory against Kentucky on Jan. 27. It didn't come down to a final shot, but the nationally televised game featured the No. 1 team going down, huge shots by a great player (Downey) and the only court-storming in the league so far this season.
By far the East, which boasts five teams with winning percentages of .500 or better. Meanwhile, an Arkansas team that is 12-11 overall is leading the West.
"We think the East is probably the toughest division in all of college basketball," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "And I don't think we're just four-deep; it goes deeper than that. I think all six teams in our division are good."
MOST LIKELY POSTSEASON SCENARIOS
The league should get at least five NCAA bids: Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida are good bets, along with either Mississippi or Mississippi State, or possibly both. While USC and Alabama harbor NCAA hopes, they are in good shape to make the NIT. Arkansas is leading the West, but it needs to maintain its winning record to qualify for even the NIT. Georgia is playing its way into consideration for the College Basketball Invitational, for whatever that's worth.