Commentary

SEC: Everyone but Tennessee has work left to do

Updated: December 24, 2008, 1:17 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Favorite: Tennessee. The Vols are proving to be quite beatable, but no one else in the league is screaming for the favorite tag. The Vols are vulnerable when J.P. Prince doesn't play (see: loss to Temple and near miss against Belmont). The Vols do have a stud in Tyler Smith, quickness in the backcourt and a rising power player in Wayne Chism, but Tennessee can be had. The key is for the Vols to ensure that Knoxville doesn't become a place for an opposing to team to steal a win. But the Vols have to live up to expectations to hold onto the favorite tag and earn a top-four seed. The daunting nonconference slate with a road trip to Kansas and home games against Gonzaga and Memphis still to come will make Tennessee the top power rating team in the conference.

[+] EnlargeWayne Chism
Brian Spurlock/USPresswireWill Wayne Chism and Tennessee become more consistent once SEC play begins?
Most surprising team: Ole Miss. Yes, the Rebels qualify here because it's simply amazing how they were able to get off to an 8-4 start despite all sorts of injuries. Ole Miss nearly beat West Virginia and Louisville, and also lost to Utah and New Mexico. So the Rebels don't have a significant win. But somehow Andy Kennedy is holding this group together despite losing the best lead guard in the league in Chris Warren to an ACL injury (against Louisville). The Rebels may fall flat in the league without Warren, but so far they have been surprising. This also speaks to how soft some of the schedules have been for teams with gaudy records.

Most disappointing team: Alabama. Tide coach Mark Gottfried was so giddy about his team in the preseason. He truly believed he had a potential SEC West title contender. And he still might. But Ronald Steele is still coming back from major knee injuries, JaMychal Green isn't a dominant freshman yet and the Tide do miss Richard Hendrix's experience inside. The Tide failed to beat an average Oregon team in Maui, lost at home to Mercer and couldn't close out Texas A&M at home.

Mystery team: Florida. The Gators have enough talent to warrant being considered a favorite for the league title. They have one of the most versatile players in Nick Calathes, a developing force inside in Alex Tyus and a two-time national championship coach in Billy Donovan. But the Gators don't have a standout win yet. The Gators lost to Syracuse in Kansas City, beat a disappointing Washington squad and fell by two at Florida State. The SEC is hardly imposing, so a lofty record could be forthcoming.

Best player: Nick Calathes, Florida. You could go in myriad directions here. Tyler Smith would be a fine choice. But picking Calathes also makes sense. Calathes leads the SEC in assists at 6.8 per game through his first 11 games. He was also No. 11 in scoring (15.6 ppg) and he is as critical to his team's performance as any single player on any other team so far. Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado should also get consideration for his monster numbers: 14.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and six blocks a game.

Top performance: Jodie Meeks, Kentucky. Meeks was sensational in scoring 46 points in a win over Appalachian State at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 20. Meeks was 14-of-21 from the field, 9-of-10 from the free-throw line and 9-of-14 on 3s. He had three assists, four steals and committed just two fouls in 34 minutes. Meeks is making a strong case to be a serious SEC Player of the Year candidate. How Kentucky finishes will determine if he can get the award.

Strangest score: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 80, Georgia 79 (OT) in Athens. The Islanders were coming off a loss at Savannah State. Georgia also lost to Loyola of Illinois in West Lafayette, Ind., in the Preseason NIT Tip-Off. Georgia is heading toward an abysmal season and a likely last-place finish.

[+] EnlargeCourtney Fortson
AP Photo/Mark SchiefelbeinCourtney Fortson's steady play has been a pleasant surprise for Arkansas.
What you might not have realized: Arkansas has one of the top freshmen in the country in point guard Courtney Fortson. He's averaging 6.5 assists a game, which is second-best in the SEC. In the preseason, Arkansas assistant coach Rob Evans said the Hogs had a special player in Fortson, a player who could be an NBA point guard. Fortson is doing a little bit of everything for the Hogs, with 15.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

Reason to brag: Tennessee beat Georgetown and Marquette. Those are clearly the league's best wins so far. The Vols have more chances for "name" wins upcoming. But the league can't brag about much in the nonconference slate. South Carolina, which started 8-1, and LSU, which began 9-1, can boast about the records, but cleaning up against weaker competition doesn't mean much to the selection committee.

Reason to worry: Everyone but Tennessee when it comes time for an NCAA bid. No one else has the résumé built yet to ensure a bid, and it's nearly January.

Who's going dancing? Tennessee. That's a lock. Expect Kentucky and Florida to be there as well because each team will win enough games in the SEC to get a bid. LSU has the most starting talent in the SEC West to put up a gaudy record. The one team you shouldn't count out yet is Alabama. The talent is too good to dismiss this team in a league that offers up wins. The Tide could pull a Kentucky from a year ago and win double-figure games after a subpar nonconference stretch and earn an NCAA bid.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com