By Kevin McPherson
LITTLE ROCK — My weekly SEC Power Rankings(12/13/20): Nobody expected the Kentucky Wildcats to be in the lower tier of the league as the non-conference part of the 2020-21 season winds down, but that’s exactly the early take as Big Blue is trending way down while Tennessee, Missouri, and Florida have provided the early heavy-lifting for the league with LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas next in line. The league has picked up some meaningful non-conference wins in recent days.
1. Tennessee (2-0, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the SEC’s only ranked team coming into the weekend, the No. 12 Vols emerged from a Covid-19 related pause at the beginning of the season to play two games in the past week: a 56-47 home win over Colorado on Tuesday and a 65-56 home win over Cincinnati on Saturday … determined senior big man John Fulkerson is averaging 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds while talented returnees Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, and Yves Pons have blended well with newcomers in Oregon transfer Victor Bailey, Jr., and freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson … once again, Tennessee is tough defensively … the Vols have home games scheduled against Appalachian State, Tennessee Tech, Saint Joseph’s, and SC Upstate before opening league play at unbeaten Missouri on Dec. 30 … previous ranking: N/A.
2. Missouri (5-0, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Tigers are out of the gates fast and likely will be ranked soon while boasting the league’s best resume that includes wins over then-No. 21 Oregon, a 10-point road win at Wichita State, a home win over 4-3 Liberty, and a huge 81-78 home victory Saturday over No. 6 Illinois … the Tigers were not preseason picks for the top of the league, but they look the part early as head coach Cuonzo Martin returned underrated talents in veteran guards Xavier Pinson (14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists), Dru Smith (14.4 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.4 rebounds), and Mark Smith (15.0 point, including 14-of-29 from 3 for 48.9%), plus sophomore forward Kobe Brown, senior center Jeremiah Tilmon, junior guard Javon Pickett, and senior forward Mitchell Smith of Van Buren all bring production, experience, and impact to the court … the Tigers host games against Prairie View and Bradley before an SEC showdown at home against No. 12 Tennessee in their league opener on Dec. 30 … previous ranking: N/A.
3. Florida (3-1, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Gators suffered a heartbreaking blow when preseason SEC Player of the Year pick Keyontae Johnson collapsed in the early going Saturday against No. 20 Florida State … Johnson was rushed to a hospital in Tallahassee, Fla., where he was listed in critical but stable condition, and Florida ended up losing its first game of the season as FSU won, 83-71 … with Johnson, the Gators had beaten a good Army team, they took down Boston College by 20 points, and they throttled Stetson … Johnson had been averaging 20 points per game, and with uncertainty surrounding his health it means sophomore guards Tre Mann (15.8 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.5 rebounds) and Scottie Lewis (12.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists) must be prepared to step up … next up for the Gators are home games against North Florida, Florida Atlantic, and James Madison before they hit the road for their league-opener at Vanderbilt on Dec. 30 … previous ranking: N/A.
4. LSU (3-1, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … lots of returning talent in Baton Rouge — forwards Trendon Watford, Darius Days, and Shareef O’Neal, and guards Javonte Smart and Charles Manning, Jr. — to go with alpha-scoring freshman guard Cam Thomas (he leads the league with 22.3 points per game) … the Tigers are once-again high-octane on offense, and they have double-digit-margin wins over Louisiana Tech, Southeastern Louisiana, and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville with a 4-point road loss against unbeaten Saint Louis of the Atlantic-10 conference … LSU has home games scheduled against Sam Houston State, New Orleans, North Texas, and VCU before hosting Texas A&M in the league-opener on Dec. 29 … previous ranking: N/A.
tie 5. Alabama (3-2, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Tide have played only once at home — an 81-57 win over Jacksonville State — with neutral-site wins over Providence and UNLV, and neutral-site losses against Stanford and Clemson … veteran impact guards John Petty, Jr. and Jaden Shackelford combine to average 26.0 points per game, versatile combo forward Herbert Jones is chipping in 12.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, and Villanova transfer point guard Jahvon Quinerly is contributing 13.6 points per outing … next up for ‘Bama are home games against Furman, No. 7 Houston, and East Tennessee State before the Tide open up league play by hosting Ole Miss on Dec. 29 … previous ranking: N/A.
tie 5. Arkansas (6-0, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Hogs have played one of the weakest non-conference schedules around — all home games against low- and mid-major schools that have a combined 5-26 record — but a 33.3-point average winning margin is impressive nonetheless … the Hogs’ 100-75 win over winless in-state Central Arkansas on Saturday was a challenge for the first 30 minutes, but the Hogs won’t face a high-major opponent or their first road test until the start of SEC play … freshman guard Moses Moody of Little Rock is the team’s best player and leading scorer (16.0 points per game), 7-3 stretch-5 Connor Vanover has been a force in the paint defensively (9.0 rebounds and 3.3 blocks), and senior-graduate transfers Jalen Tate and Justin Smith have been consistently good at both ends of the court … two more home games in the non-conference remain against Oral Roberts and Abilene Christian before Arkansas opens league play at Auburn on Dec. 30 … previous ranking: N/A.
7. Auburn (3-2, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Tigers have a neutral-site win in overtime against Saint Joseph’s, a 23-point rough-up courtesy of No. 1 Gonzaga at a neutral site, an 8-point road loss at Central Florida, followed by back-to-back single-digit-margin wins over South Alabama and Memphis … the Tigers have been one of the best teams in the nation (not just in the SEC) spanning the past 2-3 seasons under Bruce Pearl, but early on this looks more like a rebuild than a reload season, although things could change quickly because there is talent on the Plains … sophomore wing Allen Flanigan of Little Rock (13.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists per game) and freshman scorer Justin Powell (16.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists) are two tough matchups at 6-6, and there’s frontline talent in 6-10 freshman J.T. Thor, 6-8 sophomore Jaylin Williams, 6-11 freshman Dylan Cardwell, and 6-10 sophomore Babatunde Akingbola … Arkansans Javon Franklin and Chris Moore are providing frontcourt depth and seeing playing time … Auburn will host Texas Southern, Troy, and Appalachian State before opening league play at home against visiting Arkansas on Dec. 30 … previous ranking: N/A.
8. Kentucky (1-4, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the ‘Cats have been NOT very good … the usual new cast of freshman phenoms — this season its Brandon Boston, Jr., Terrence Clark, Isaiah Jackson, Devin Askew, and Camron Fletcher — have struggled along with Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr and Creighton transfer Davion Mintz … the ‘Cats have played a tough non-conference slate, maybe even better than usual, and have lost 4 games in a row: at home by 12 points against Richmond, by 3 points at a neutral site against Kansas, by 17 on the road against Georgia Tech, and by 1 point at home against Notre Dame after trailing by 22 points at halftime … John Calipari will likely have his ‘Cats figuring things out and improving when league play starts at the end of the month, but this initially looks like the rare Kentucky team that will NOT contend for an SEC title … the ‘Cats host Detroit Mercy before playing against UCLA and Louisville, then they open league play by hosting South Carolina on Dec. 29 … previous ranking: N/A.
tie 9. Texas A&M (3-1 , 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Aggies could be much like they were last year in head coach Buzz Williams’ debut season in College Station, which is to say not very good in non-conference play but battle-tested and worthy in league play … so far, TA&M has wins over New Orleans, new D1 Tarleton State (close, ugly victory), and Texas-Rio Grande, with an 18-point loss at TCU on Saturday … sophomore forward Emmanuel Miller is averaging 18.0 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, senior guard Quenton Jackson is averaging 13.8 points and 4.0 rebounds, and senior combo forward Savion Flagg is averaging 10.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists … senior 6-8 grad-transfer Kevin Marfo was expected to provide space-eating rebounding prowess but is pulling down just 4.5 boards per game … the Aggies will host Southeastern Louisiana and Wofford before opening league play at LSU on Dec. 29 … previous ranking: N/A.
tie 9. South Carolina (1-2, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Gamecocks always seem to struggle in non-conference play, then they always seem to factor into the top half of the SEC standings under Frank Martin … the Gamecocks have an 11-point neutral-site win over defending American Athletic Conference champion Tulsa, a 16-point neutral-site loss against Liberty, and a 10-point road loss against then-No. 10 Houston … versatile 6-6ish junior guards AJ Lawson (11.3 points per game) and Keyshawn Bryant are back, as is 6-4 sophomore guard Jermaine Couisnard (13.3 points, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals) and forwards Justin Minaya, Alanzo Frink, and Jalyn McCreary … USC-E will host Wofford, Clemson, and South Carolina State before going on the road to open league play against Kentucky on Dec. 29 … previous ranking: N/A.
11. Ole Miss (2-0, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … OM had a polongued delay to their season due to Covid-19 issues but have two wins since Thursday: 80-45 over Jackson State and 78-58 over UNC-Wilmington … senior guard Devonate Shuler (20.5 points and 4.0 assists per game) and Arizona State grad-transfer forward Romello White (14.0 points and 6.0 rebounds) are an effective inside-out punch, with veterans KJ Buffen and Luis Rodriguez, transfers Jarkel Joiner and Robert Allen, and talented freshman guard Matthew Murrell adding complementary support … OM has Central Arkansas, Middle Tennessee State, Dayton, and Tennessee-Martin on the schedule before playing at Alabama to begin league play on Dec. 29 … previous ranking: N/A.
12. Georgia (5-0, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … the Bulldogs are unbeaten through 5 games using the same formula as Arkansas = all homes games against low- and mid-major opponents … Georgia’s wins are against Florida A&M, North Georgia, Jacksonville, Montana, and Samford … gone is star guard Anthony Edwards, who left after his freshman season and was the No. 1 player selected in last month’s 2020 NBA Draft, but the ‘Dogs have six players averaging double-figures in scoring … sophomore 5-10 guard Sahvir Wheeler leads the way with 14.8 points, 8.6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game; forward Toumani Camara is averaging 14.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 2.0 steals; and senior guard Justin Kier is contributing 11.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.8 assists … Georgia will host Cincinnati and Northeastern before opening league play at home against Mississippi State on Dec. 30 …previous ranking: N/A.
13. Vanderbilt (2-0, 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … after brutal back-to-back seasons in league play, the Commodores just might get out of the SEC cellar in ’20-21 … home wins over pesky Valparaiso (by 6 points) and helpless Mississippi Valley State (by 43 points) don’t tell us much, but sophomore point guard Scotty Pippen, Jr. (18.0 points and 5.0 assists per game), sophomore forward Dylan Disu (11.5 points and 12.0 rebounds), and senior guard Maxwell Evans lead the way, with freshman guard Issac McBride of Little Rock (8.5 points per game) providing perimeter shooting and scoring punch off the bench … the ‘Dores will play North Carolina Central, Richmond, Radford, and Davidson before hosting Florida in their league opnener on Dec. 30 …previous ranking: N/A.
14. Mississippi State (3-3. 0-0 SEC) … NCAA NET ranking (N/A) … Ben Howland is facing a rebuilding project in Starkville … the ‘Dogs have home wins over Texas State (by 17 points), North Texas (by 6 points), and Jackson State (by 23 points), and neutral-site losses against Clemson (by 11 points), Liberty (by 11 points), and Dayton (by 3 points in double-overtime) … 6-6 sophomore guard DJ Stewart is averaging 19.0 points per game (11-of-22 from 3 for 50%); 6-3 sophomore guard Iverson Molinar is averaging 18.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists; and 6-10 sophomore Tolu Smith is contributing 14.7 points and 8.2 rebounds … MSU will host Central Arkansas and Mississippi Valley State before opening league play at Georgia on Dec. 30 … previous ranking: N/A.