Typically dominant SEC teams are down this season
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are two of the six teams in the country that are still unbeaten.
Just let that settle in for a minute.
Toss in Tennessee, since the Vols are the only one-loss team and arguably the most talented squad, and that's your SEC hierarchy through the first two months of the season.
No Florida. No Kentucky. No Mississippi State. No Arkansas or South Carolina, at least not yet. No Alabama. No LSU. No Georgia and no Auburn.
Nope, none of them are screaming out to the world that they're a team you can lock in, and write down in pen -- not pencil -- for the NCAA Tournament.
"Despite us and Mississippi being undefeated, Tennessee is the best," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "Neither us nor Mississippi would have gone out and won those last two games they won [on the road versus Xavier and Gonzaga]. Well, that's my opinion."
This season is simply not the norm in the SEC these days, not when Florida is going through a complete overhaul after two straight national titles and when Kentucky is in its own bizarre, upside-down world.
"When Kentucky and Florida are not in the top five, it's not going to make for an interesting conference season [for the average fan]," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.
Well, that may be true for television ratings. But for the pretenders (or if that's too harsh, the sleepers) in this conference, it could make for a rather intriguing eight weeks.
But first, let's deal with those teams that already appear to be ready for March.
SEC East: Contenders
Signature wins: The Vols have beaten West Virginia in Newark, N.J., won at Xavier and bested Gonzaga in Seattle.
Bad game: Hard to call it as such, but the Vols simply didn't play well in their only loss against Texas, losing by 19 in Newark.
Bad luck: Duke Crews is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with a heart condition. He played in eight games.
Better than anyone thought: Arizona transfer J.P. Prince is averaging 14 points and four boards in four games so far.
Not up to par: Preseason All-American guard Chris Lofton is leading the Vols in scoring at 14.5 points a game, but he's shooting 33.6 percent on 3s after shooting 41.9 percent last season.
The money man: JaJuan Smith is scoring 14.4 a game, and Pearl said "in a lot of ways, we go as JaJuan Smith goes. He's been better and always been one of the most underrated guards in the league. He's a good defender, and always stays under control offensively."
Forecast: The Vols still have two more nonconference games, against Ohio State and at Memphis. The latter game, on Feb. 23, and a contest at Vanderbilt three days later represent a two-game stretch that could determine NCAA seeding.
Signature wins: Vanderbilt has won two true road games (Toledo and DePaul) and two at a neutral site (Utah State and Bradley). The competition might not be as strong, but the Dores are still finding ways to win. Wins over Georgia Tech and Wake Forest at home sound good in name, but neither team is likely to be in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, none of the teams the Commodores have beaten, save maybe Valparaiso and South Alabama, may make the NCAAs.
Bad game: Stallings said the Commodores don't get repeated defensive stops to slow a team down. "We can't sustain them," he said. "We don't put stops back-to-back-to-back." So when you're 13-0, it's hard to find a bad game. But what you do find is that the Commodores play every game close and don't blow anyone out. They find ways to win.
Bad luck: None so far.
Better than anyone thought: Freshman forward Andrew Ogilvy. The Australian forward is averaging 19.2 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Not up to par: Well, it's hard to pick on anyone on an unbeaten team.
Money man: Shan Foster has been a given for the Dores so far, averaging 20.1 points and shooting 52.5 percent on 3-pointers.
Forecast: The Commodores play out the nonconference schedule with Rice and UMass, and the latter game will be a tussle. Then it's on to an SEC slate that includes the right time to go to Kentucky. Vandy isn't going away and looks like it will be on the Vols' heels the next two months. "I'm surprised we're one of the six undefeated teams left," Stallings said. "I knew we'd do well in our nonconference schedule, but I didn't think we'd be sitting here undefeated."
SEC West: Contenders
Signature wins: Ole Miss beat Clemson by three in Puerto Rico, smacked Southern Miss on a neutral court, ran away from New Mexico and Central Florida, and beat Winthrop and DePaul. Clemson and Winthrop may be the only NCAA-bound teams in the bunch, but the Rebels won all the games.
Bad game: Can't find one, not when the Rebels won them all.
Bad luck: None yet.
Better than anyone thought: Freshman point guard Chris Warren is averaging 15.3 points and 5.6 assists. He has nearly a 2-1 assist-turnover ratio so far. "I can't remember a freshman class that has had so many impact players, do you?" Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "He's done such a great job so far at the point, but he's still a work in progress."
Not up to par: Maybe it's not fair, but freshman forward Malcolm White came in with decent hype. He has played in only nine of the 12 games and is scoring just two points a game so far.
Money man: If the Rebels need to count on someone, then Dwayne Curtis will deliver. He's averaging 15.6 points and 8.1 boards. The senior center has been a rock for Kennedy, shooting 67.6 percent and making nearly 80 percent of his free throws.
Forecast: The easy thing would be to dump on the Rebels and say they're this season's Clemson, a team off to a hot start that fades fast. But there has been no sign the Rebels are going to flop. "I'm not sure we're ever going to scare anyone," Kennedy said. "But we've gained some respect. I think the biggest question mark is how are we going to deal with that number [ranking] in front of our name? People aren't used to playing Ole Miss ranked No. 18. We'll see how guys react to that."
Bad game: Providence is a fully capable squad and may make the NCAAs, but the Friars shouldn't have smacked the Hogs by 14 in Puerto Rico. But the one that will stick in March and may ultimately keep them out of the tournament came on Dec. 22 against Appalachian State, when they lost by seven in Little Rock. "That was a joke," Arkansas assistant coach Rob Evans said. "I was worried about that game. With us going home [for Christmas], that was a trap game. We couldn't make a basket. We're a team when we're playing well and playing hard we can beat anybody." Well, obviously that wasn't the case against Appalachian State.
Bad luck: The Hogs haven't had much good luck on the road, losing three games outside of Fayetteville.
Better than anyone thought: Sonny Weems is averaging nearly the same points as last season, but he's producing in big games for the Hogs, too, notably scoring 16 points against both Missouri and VCU.
Not up to par: There seems to be a feeling that senior center Steven Hill should be producing more than the 4.4 points he's posting so far in the post.
Forecast: The Hogs have a huge game to end the nonconference portion of their schedule at Baylor on Saturday. The Hogs could use a road win -- badly. Evans said the front line makes the Hogs a contender, but the guard play has to improve for the Hogs to fully compete. So that means the onus is on Gary Ervin and Beverley more so than Townes, Weems and Charles Thomas if the Hogs are going to live up to the potential and be an SEC West favorite.
SEC East: Sleeper
The Gators didn't get a signature win during the nonconference slate. The squad showed its youth, which is understandable, in losing to Florida State and Ohio State. But the good news for the Gators is that the league is weak enough that they could garner enough wins to position themselves on the bubble.
SEC East: Pretender
South Carolina: 7-5
The Gamecocks played a tough slate, drawing NC State and George Mason in Orlando, playing at Clemson, Providence in Philadelphia and USC at home. As Dave Odom said, the team is young in experience and hasn't played together much, especially with transfers Devan Downey and Zam Fredrick. Odom said the Gamecocks' struggles on defense have come as a bit of a surprise. Unless that gets figured out, the Gamecocks could fall short.
SEC East: See You Next Year
The Wildcats lost at home to Gardner-Webb, San Diego and North Carolina and on the road against Houston and UAB (in Louisville). Injuries have wrecked this team with Derrick Jasper and Jodie Meeks missing too much time for this squad to have any kind of rhythm. Not having Patrick Patterson for the Houston game was no help. This squad will improve as it gets healthier, but the Cats have nothing to show to the committee at this juncture, leaving it all up to the SEC schedule.
The Bulldogs were decimated by suspension and clearly haven't been able to find any consistency. Dropping games to East Tennessee State and Tulane in Honolulu didn't help their cohesion. Getting blitzed at Wisconsin is somewhat understandable since it was early in the season when the team was still in turmoil. That's why the Gonzaga game on Saturday in Spokane, Wash., will speak volumes as to whether this team has a shot to make some noise in the SEC.
SEC West: Sleeper
Mississippi State: 8-5
The Bulldogs should be better than 8-5. That seems to be the consensus among other SEC coaches. No one is quite sure why this team has struggled so much. The Bulldogs haven't finished games well at all, especially in the Anaheim Classic, where they lost to Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio) and then fell at home to Clemson and Miami (Fla.). The Bulldogs couldn't come back on South Alabama, either. But the 12-point win over Missouri at home on Sunday gives hope that this squad may enter the SEC race. The combination of Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes is talented enough to keep them in every game.
SEC West: Pretender
The Tide were already a long shot to make the NCAAs once Ronald Steele had to sit out the season with bad knees. But Richard Hendrix, Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley are still talented enough to warrant hope for this squad. Hendrix is averaging 19.5 points and Gee and Riley are scoring in the mid-teens. The problem is still inconsistency. Alabama smacked Iowa State and George Washington (granted, two down teams this season), but then turned around and were pummeled by Clemson on Tuesday night by 26.
SEC West: See You Next Year
Losing Tasmin Mitchell, likely for the season, to ankle surgery, and a brutal meltdown against Villanova in Philadelphia essentially doomed this squad. LSU doesn't have a single win to stand up and shout about. The Tigers are athletic, lanky and rangy, but lack the glue and experience to make this an NCAA team this season.
There may not be a team with less luck than Auburn. The Tigers had only seven scholarship players before Korvotney Barber was lost with a broken left hand last week. Barber was leading the nation in field-goal percentage (72.0 percent). He's out for four to six weeks. This is all you have to know about the Tigers so far this season: Quan Prowell was suspended for the first five games; Josh Dollard is a medical redshirt; Boubacar Sylla suffered an ankle stress reaction in November, knocking him out for six weeks; Lucas Hargrove suffered a broken left hand on Dec. 5 and was expected to miss four to six weeks; Barber is out four to six weeks after breaking his hand on Dec. 29; Archie Miaway is ineligible this season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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