As the page turns on a long year for Kentucky fans, we at Sea of Blue do our best to forget the struggles of last spring and instead focus on the much improved chances of this year's Cats.
Conference season is going to be a grind this year, as the young teams have grown up and the experienced teams mostly return that experience.
The early season has made contenders of some teams and exposed others. Some schools (Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU) took on all comers, while others (Ole Miss, South Carolina) built confidence on the backs of some schools we didn't even know existed.
The head-to-head matchups will be more telling obviously than any poll we post, but here's the way we see it as the new year opens.
|January 1 SEC Power Rankings|
|(1) #3, 12-2 (0-0 SEC): The Florida Gators have been riding the crest of last spring's national title for some time, hanging around at the top of the polls despite two losses (Kansas and Florida St.) and only one real quality win (Ohio St.). Injuries and illness have kept Corey Brewer and Al Horford from top form, but the talent and experience Florida has at its disposal keeps them atop our early SEC Power Rankings.|
|(2) #21, 12-2 (0-0): Guts have characterized this year's Tennessee Volunteers thus far. After two losses took the legs out of Bruce Pearl's squad early, it rebounded big-time. Taking advantage of a tough non-conference slate, the Vols impressed with victories over Memphis (Neutral Court/NC), Oklahoma State (home/H) and a good, if young, Texas (H) team. Based on quality wins, UT gets the early edge.|
|(3) NR, 10-3, (0-0): A vocal group of malcontents be damned, this year's Kentucky Wildcats team is not half bad. In fact, they could be Tubby Smith's best defensive team since 2003. While a lackluster win over EKU didn't show the Cats at their best, good wins over potential NCAA teams in UMass (H), Indiana (H) and Santa Clara (H) won't hurt. With a cushy early SEC slate, the Cats could hit February in full stride.|
|(4) #8, 12-1 (0-0): Color me underimpressed with the Alabama Crimson Tide's early schedule. That win over Xavier (H) isn't looking quite so bright now, and while losing at Notre Dame isn't a crime, dropping the game by 14 isn't good at all. Credit to Jermareo Davidson for playing through an unbelievably bad series of events, and Richard Hendrix is starting to emerge as a dominant inside player.|
|(5) #17, 10-3 (0-0): Big Baby Davis has looked great, but his LSU Tigers are lacking the firepower thus far to be considered an elite title threat. LSU got waxed by Washington (who then got waxed by No.1 UCLA). A quality win over an overrated Texas A&M is nice, but other good wins on the Tigers' sked are hard to come by as the conference slate approaches. Looking overrated at this stage for John Brady's crew.|
|(6) NR, 8-4 (0-0): A three-game losing streak has taken the wind out of the Georgia Bulldogs, but they have looked venerable at home, and have a solid win over Gonzaga (NC) to show for a tough non-conference season. Losing to Wisconsin (H) and Clemson (road/R) won't hurt so badly. Dennis Felton's kids play fast and score often, but haven't tapped into his defensive mindset. That will change in a hurry come SEC time.|
|(7) NR, 10-3 (0-0): They may not have the wins to show for it, but the Arkansas Razorbacks could be trouble for the top tier SEC squads. Stan Heath seems to finally have the mix of talent and experience he has lacked. Road losses at Texas and Missouri are forgiveable, and that West Virginia victory gets better each passing week. Picking off Bama or Florida in their first two SEC games would be a huge boost.|
|(8) NR, 9-3 (0-0): Picking the bottom of the league this year is tough, as no one is truly miserable and few have a breakout win yet. The Miss. St. Bulldogs did top Charlotte and Miami, though a loss to Winthrop doesn't help. A close loss to Clemson doesn't seem so strange now. The continued maturation of the Delk twins and Jamont Gordon will determine how good or bad this team is by March, but the upside is there.|
|(9) NR, 9-2 (0-0): Not much to show for the early season for the South Carolina Gamecocks. A good win over Southern Cal (R), but losses to UC-Irvine and Clemson (H, by 21) stand out negatively. USC has a strong backcourt, but depth in the frontcourt is an issue. Dave Odom will again slow things down to win. Nothing thus far indicates the Cocks can't defend their NIT title.|
|(10) NR, 11-3 (0-0): New Ole Miss Rebels coach Andy Kennedy did the smart thing in scheduling games his team could win around teams it could not. The Rebels get the nod over Vandy simply on the back of 11 pre-conference wins. Depending on how the club responds in conference, those wins could help bring an NIT bid, a step up for a rebuilding program.|
|(11) NR, 9-4 (0-0): After starting the year 1-3, the Vanderbilt Commodores caught fire, culminating in a win over then-ranked Georgia Tech (H). The 'Dores haven't looked capable of taking down the SEC big dogs on the road, but could again be pesky in Memorial Gym. Strong leadership could help steer them through the perilous SEC, but a lack of athletic big men could doom them as well.|
|(12) NR, 10-4 (0-0): The Auburn Tigers have played four tough teams early on, and lost all but one (H, Ok. St.) in convincing fashion. Jeff Lebo's kids have heart but lack talent in a league as good as it's been in years. Korvotney Barber is showing why he was an All-American coming out of high school, but Auburn needs more than just one big man to take out the big boys.|