The SEC currently has five ranked teams in the AP Top 25. There’re the usual suspects like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Auburn. But, there are some dark horse teams separating themselves, one that most thought would be at the bottom of the barrel heading into conference play. Yes, we’re talking about Kermit Davis’ Ole Miss Rebels. Davis is in the conversation for not only SEC Coach of the Year, but NCAA Coach of the Year. But to sum up the depth of the SEC so far this year, two of the top three teams in the current standings are not ranked. South Carolina has reeled off five straight after starting the season 4-7 and my dark horse pick for SEC champion, the LSU Tigers, have won six straight behind the play of Tremont Waters. There are no nights off in the SEC, and that makes for good television.
Player of the Week
Ashton Hagans (Kentucky)
There might not be a better perimeter defender in college basketball than Ashton Hagans. Aside from Tre Jones who just went down with an injury. The last time Hagans accounted for less than 3 steals was over a month ago. The problem with Hagans was he was not an offensive threat and it made it tough for Kentucky to spread the floor when he was out there. But he was tenacious defensively and earned his minutes. He finally had his breakout game against North Carolina, but it was on the defensive side of the ball. He racked up eight steals, but still failed to score in double digits. Then in UK’s biggest rivalry, he finally broke the double digits barrier and his production and consistency has only gone up since. Hagans set career-highs for points in four out of his last five games with his best performance coming against Georgia. The hometown team that he committed to originally before decommitting and taking his talents to Lexington. And with that decision Cal has a point guard that is a bulldog defensively like Tyler Ulis and John Wall. And if you pay close attention to Kentucky Basketball you’ll notice the offensive production of Hagans is trending upward similar to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. SGA came into the season expecting to be a multi-year player, was the most consistent player all year and got drafted in the lottery. If Hagans offensive production is as consistent at it’s been of late, we could see the same scenario.
Tremont Waters (LSU)
The best point guard, and arguably the best player in the SEC has been on fire. The Tigers have won six straight ball games and will most likely jump into the AP Top 25 depending on their game against South Carolina. The team that has come out of left field to jump to second in the SEC. Winners of five straight and winners of six straight, something’s got to give. But, I like LSU’s chances considering they’ll have the best player on the court. Waters is averaging 20 points per game and 9 assists over the last three ball games including a win over No. 18 Ole Miss. What’s great about Waters is he can affect the game in so many ways. For example, in the matchup against Arkansas that went into OT he was 6-15 from the field and 1-6 from deep. LSU ended up pulling out the W thanks to Waters ability to distribute the ball and set his teammates up for easy buckets. He still managed to put up 17, but he had 11 dimes in the victory. Last year, Waters did not nearly have as much talent around him. But now he has the likes of Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams to shoulder the load. His stats may be similar to last year, but what matters is the record. LSU is winning ball games right now and Waters is only shooting 32% from and deep and is averaging over four turnovers a game. He’s not shooting as well as last year and he’s turning the ball over more, but expect those numbers to improve. The talent around him is figuring out their roles and he’s the floor general. LSU is trending up, and so is Waters consideration for SEC Player of the Year.
Keldon Johnson (Kentucky)
Two Kentucky players on this list trending in complete opposite directions. Potential top-10 pick, Keldon Johnson played 27 minutes on Tuesday against Georgia and did not score a single point. The leading scorer for Kentucky did not score a single point in 27 minutes of action and the Wildcats went into Athens and beat the Bulldogs by 20. Just two weeks ago, Keldon Johnson couldn’t miss and it looked like he was going to be the focal point of Cal’s offense. The tide has turned and it seems as if everything will run through Ashton Hagans. Coming into the year everyone expected everything to go inside-out with the combination of Reid Travis and PJ Washington down low. Cal is still trying to figure out his team, and the best option of late has been freshman point guard Ashton Hagans. That doesn’t mean that Keldon Johnson isn’t the most talented player on the floor for the Cats, he still is. And despite going 0-6 from the field, he didn’t hang his head or force anything, he played as hard as usual. Cal acknowledged that and said it’s actually a positive. And I agree. Your leading scorer puts up a goose egg and you still manage to win by 20 on the road in conference play? The inconsistency of Kentucky is still there, and will most likely continue to be a problem, but when it all clicks they’ll be scary. I don’t know about Tennessee scary, but scary nonetheless.
Top 5 Games that Will Determine the Conference Champion
1.) Kentucky vs. Tennessee
We don’t get this matchup just once, but twice. The second battle may determine the SEC Champion on March 2nd.
2.) Tennessee vs. LSU
The way Tennessee is playing, it’s their conference crown to lose. But, a trip to Baton Rouge to battle a talented and surging Tigers team could knock them back.
3.) Kentucky vs. Auburn
These teams meet this Saturday in Auburn Arena, but the more important matchup will take place near the end of February in Rupp.
4.) Ole Miss vs. Auburn
Kermit Davis could potentially be coach of the year. And the way Terence Davis is playing, the Rebels may still be hanging around near March.
5.) Tennessee vs. Kentucky
The Tennessee/Kentucky rivalry has been missing for a couple years now, but this year it should be back. With both teams most likely being ranked in both matchups, and Kentucky knocking off a Tennesee team in the SEC Tournament last year to win it all, I’m sure the rivalry will be very much alive come February 16th.