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Conference Catchups: A three-bid SEC this season?

Jan 7, 2013, 2:25 PM EDT

Bucknell v Missouri Getty Images

Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our ACC Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Missouri

The Tigers have their issues, but given how weak the SEC is as a whole, there really isn’t much of an argument to make here. Phil Pressey has turned into one of the nation’s most dangerous playmakers at the point at the same time that Laurence Bowers has gone from a defensive presence into a terrific all-around player with a killer perimeter jumper.

There are three things that are going to determine whether or not the Tigers end up being something special this season:

  • Defensive playmaking. The Tigers don’t force turnovers and don’t block shots. That’s why their defense is mediocre.
  • Can Phil Pressey develop better shot selection? As good of a passer as he is, there are times where he gets into takeover mode. He’s not a good enough scorer to go into takeover mode as often as he does.
  • Can Missouri consistently hit threes? That’s where the loss of Mike Dixon hurts the most. Can Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Keion Bell consistently spread the floor?
  • Alex Oriakhi and Bowers got beat up by Mike Muscala on Saturday. What happens when they go up against Jarnell Stokes or Kentucky’s big men or Patric Young?

Contenders: Florida is the biggest threat to Missouri in the SEC thanks to their tough, versatile defense. And when Kenny Boynton is shooting well, they’re a potential Final Four team. That’s no guarantee, either. Through his first five games, Boynton was 13-29 from deep. The five after that? 4-32. In his last two games? 11-17. Go figure.

It would also be foolish to write off Kentucky. That’s a young team, but that’s a team with a ton of talent that looks better every game. Ryan Harrow appears to be filling the void at the point guard spot quite nicely, which was the biggest key. John Calipari’s new task? Getting Alex Poythress to consistently dominate and developing some kind of offensive game for Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Biggest Surprise: How bad the league has been

Texas A&M is third in the SEC in the RPI. They lost to Southern at home. Their last four wins — against Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M-CC, Army and Houston Baptist — came by an average of 8.5 points. Ole Miss and LSU currently have the second and fourth best record in the conference, respectively. The best win between the two: Seton Hall? Hawaii? Missouri and Florida can play with anyone in the country. Kentucky will get there. Beyond that, there may not be another NCAA tournament team amongst them.

Biggest Disappointment: Alabama

The Crimson Tide looked very promising early in the season, as they beat South Dakota State, Villanova and Oregon State early in the season. Since then? They had a buzzer-beating loss at Cincinnati, which wasn’t a problem. They lost at home to Dayton, which was iffy but acceptable. The Tide then got embarrassed by VCU, nearly lost at Texas Tech and then dropped home games to Mercer and Tulane. They’ll visit Missouri on Tuesday. That could be ugly.

(I avoided listing Tennessee here because so much of their struggles can be pinpointed on the balky knees of Jeronne Maymon.)

Player of the Year: Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers, Missouri

Both have been terrific for the Tigers this season, as Pressey’s playmaking has provided a dynamic piece offensively while Bowers has been the only consistent perimeter shooter Frank Haith has had at his disposal.

Best Freshman: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky

The problem with John Calipari landing dominant freshman is that it makes Noel’s 10.3 points, 9.2 boards, 3.5 blocks and 2.6 steals seem disappointing. While he’s not exactly putting up all-american numbers, Noel has been terrific on the defensive end and getting to the offensive glass. He’s lanky, athletic and very active.

Three Predictions

Kentucky enters the tournament as a six or seven seed and makes the Elite 8. They haven’t beaten anyone this season, save for a Maryland team that has an even less impressive collection of wins. They aren’t going to jack up their computer numbers by landing a handful of quality wins in league play, either. But as this team continues to gel and develop as the season goes along, they are only going to get better. Playing them in the Round of 32 will not be pleasant.

The SEC gets three teams into the tournament: Outside of the top three, there hasn’t been much about the SEC that’s impressive. That lack of quality non-conference wins means that conference play won’t generate a wealth of good wins for bubble teams.

LSU surprises people: I actually like the Tigers this season. I think they’ll do very well in conference play. I just don’t see them having a strong enough resume to make a legitimate case for an at-large bid.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Missouri*
2. Florida*
3. Kentucky*
4. LSU
5. Ole Miss
6. Tennessee
7. Arkansas
8. Alabama
9. Texas A&M
10. Vanderbilt
11. Auburn
12. South Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Mississippi State

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

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