Funny thing about pre-season thinking -- it rarely survives the actual season, much like a battle plan rarely survives contact with the enemy. Those of us who thought we had the SEC pegged earlier this year have some small reason to wonder what we might have been thinking.
So let's look at surprises so far, both good and bad:
LSU Tigers -- LSU looked like it was doomed to spend another season in the SEC cellar, and the non-conference season gave us little reason to expect much in conference play. The Tigers have lost to such notables as the Nicholls St. Colonels and the Rice Owls. They also lost to the North Texas Eagles and the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, but those losses, as bad as they sound, weren't really that bad. Both North Texas and Coastal Carolina are very good mid major teams.
So far, the Tigers are 2-0 in the conference, having dispatched the Auburn Tigers on the road and the Arkansas Razorbacks at home. This weekend, they try their luck against the #13 Kentucky Wildcats. Right now, only the Arkansas win was really an upset, but LSU may be starting to find their groove. The best they can hope for, though, is an NIT bit unless they win the tournament, or go through the SEC with 3 losses or less and deep in the SEC tournament.
More after the jump.
The Good (cont.)
Alabama Crimson Tide -- Like LSU, the Tide have some puzzling losses against the Iowa Hawkeyes and the St. Peter's Peacocks (the who?). Even so, the Tide have been rolling of late, dispatching their last five opponents including the South Carolina Gamecocks at home and Mississippi St. Bulldogs on the road.
The Tide have all the pieces they need to put together at least an NIT season, and given their hot start, could be a dark horse candidate for the NCAA tournament.
Arkansas Razorbacks -- Arkansas was expecting a mostly-rebuilding year in anticipation of their outstanding 2011 recruiting class, which could put them back on the map. But the team had other ideas, and decided that waiting around for the young guys just didn't work for them.
Despite a weak non-conference schedule, the Razorbacks have managed a decent win against the Seton Hall Pirates, but the obliteration by the Texas Longhorns more than makes up for that. But the Razorbacks, for the most part, have won the games they are supposed to win and lost only the games they are supposed to lose. The lack of really bad losses offsets the weak scheduling a bit, but John Pelphrey's charges are going to have to make some noise in the SEC to get to the tournament. Ten conference wins will be required, plus a win or two in the SEC tournament to get them on the bubble. The more reasonable ceiling for the Razorbacks is the NIT, but the NCAA tournament is an achievable, if difficult goal.
Tennessee Volunteers -- Coming out of last season's Elite Eight run, much was expected of the Vols. They had a great recruiting class, returning players aplenty, and the hottest coach in the SEC next to John Calipari, and perhaps even on the same level.
Then came the fall, and Bruce Pearl's reputation fell farther than the leaves from the highest tree on the highest mountain. His silly rulebreaking and subsequent deception of the NCAA turned a promising season into a potential train wreck. He now stands like a condemned man with his covered head in the guillotine slot, waiting for the NCAA to drop the blade. SEC commish Mike Slive has banned him from coaching for eight SEC games, and the smart money is that he will not be at Tennessee next year because of the likely severity of the NCAA sanctions. The very best the Vols can hope for is to lose Pearl for the rest of this season and part of the next.
The Volunteer team has reacted in a most erratic and schizophrenic manner. They managed to defeat no less than three top 25 teams in the non-conference season, including a virtual road win at the Pittsburgh Panthers. They threw in a three-game losing streak to snap all that positive momentum, and have started conference play 0-2 with losses to the Razorbacks on the road and the Florida Gators at home.
The road to the NCAA is not as hard for the Vols if they can right their ship and finish with no less than nine wins in conference and a couple of wins in the SEC Tournament. Anything less, and they are NIT bound at best. I still haven't ruled out the possibility that the wheels may fall completely off this team.
Mississippi Rebels -- It's very surprising to see the Ole Miss 0-2 in the SEC so far, and it really bodes ill for their NCAA tournament chances. The Rebels played a typically, but not excessively soft non-conference slate and basically won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose. The two exceptions were the loss to the Colorado St. Rams, but that was a road game, and the upset of the Penn St. Nittany Lions. That works out to a net positive for the Rebs, but barely.
Losing at Florida is certainly no shame, but to get beat at home by your poor arch-rival (more on that in a minute) is going to hurt. It's hard to really imagine the Rebels getting in the NCAA tournament with an 0-2 start unless they take only one more loss and win a couple in the SEC tournament. The NIT is probably the ceiling for this team.
Mississippi St. Bulldogs -- Make no mistake, MSU was supposed to be good this year. Instead, they are having the Mississippi St. version of Kentucky's famous "Team Turmoil," and it seems that the Dawgs do turmoil way better than even Kentucky. Notable losses are almost too many to count, including the Florida Atlantic Owls at home, the East Tennessee St. Buccaneers at home, the Hawaii Warriors in the Diamond Head Classic. Not only that, the non-conference schedule for the Bulldogs was embarrassingly weak.
The Bulldogs have talent, but absolutely no chemistry. It is possible that with an improving Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost now available, absent more shenanigans, the Dawgs could become a quality team. But at this point, their only path to the NCAA tournament is to lose no more than one more SEC game, or to win the SEC tournament.
So there you have it -- the good, the bad, and the likely outcome according to my crystal ball. It seems that the SEC may wind up being exciting this year, but not in the sense that they are likely to get six or seven teams in the tournament. My over-under bet right now would be four, and I cannot imagine a scenario where the SEC gets more than five.