After their 90-61 thrashing of rival Louisville, many fans of the Kentucky Wildcats thought head coach John Calipari’s young squad had finally turned over a new leaf. After all, a 29-point victory over a Cardinals team that was 10-2 coming into the game seemed like a rather impressive blowout. But after a 66-61 close call against the Georgia Bulldogs at home on Sunday, many fans, including Calipari, were left wondering why UK seemed to have “reverted.” And while it’s clear the Cats certainly made plenty of mistakes in their SEC opener, it’s more because of the level of competition than anything else that gave UK fans such a scare. Here’s a look at some of the teams that could give the Wildcats a run for their money atop the SEC this season.
Texas A&M (No. 11, 11-2)
Texas A&M will travel to Rupp Arena on January 9 for a Top-25 matchup that is sure to attract plenty of national headlines. According to ESPN.com, the Aggies are the second-best team in the country in rebounds per game, securing an impressive 44.8 boards a contest. Couple that with the fact that they’re 12th in the country in blocks per game (6.31) and Calipari’s young team is going to have a difficult time against this physical Aggies team. Offensively, four players average double figures, led by 6’9” junior forward DJ Hogg, who spent the last two games suspended for a violation of team rules. Hogg will also sit out the Aggies’ matchup against Florida on Tuesday, but plans to be back against UK next Tuesday.
In terms of its non-conference schedule, A&M boasted an impressive 11-1 record, dropping a three-point heartbreaker against Arizona in early December before being dealt a 57-79 drumming from Alabama in its SEC opener. In the loss to Alabama, however, three of its players, including Hogg, were suspended for a violation of team rules. When the Aggies have their entire roster firing on all cylinders, they’ve proven to be a dangerous out for any team, reaching a ranking as high as No. 5 in the polls thanks to a win over 11th-ranked West Virginia in their season-opener and at Oklahoma State in late November. With the Aggies’ size and physicality, Billy Kennedy’s squad can compete with anybody in the country on any given night.
Arkansas (No. 22, 11-2)
Kentucky luckily won’t play Arkansas until February 20th, giving them plenty of time to work on some of their recent defensive struggles. But Arkansas is a team that could give the Cats’ defense fits, as senior guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon are arguably one of the best backcourt duos in the country. In their SEC home opener against Tennessee, the pair combined for a whopping 61 of the Razorbacks’ 95 points. And that victory is just one in a resume full of signature wins against teams like Oklahoma and Minnesota.
Nationally, Arkansas ranks sixth in points per game, scoring an average of 90.4 points per contest. Barford and Macon are a big reason for that, but fellow teammates Anton Beard and Daniel Gafford are also a big part of the Razorbacks’ offense. Also of note, Barford and Macon are each shooting above 40 percent from three, with Macon shooting just .07 percent better (45 percent) than Barford.
Tennessee (No. 23, 9-3)
When Kentucky heads to Knoxville Saturday to face the Volunteers, they’re going to have their hands full against a team that’s shot over 40 percent from the three-point line in eight of its 12 games thus far this season. Sophomore guard Jordan Bowden is currently 4th in the country in three-point percentage, shooting a blistering 61.9% from behind the arc. And that’s not for a lack of a sample size, as he’s shooting an average of 3.5 threes a game and hitting 2.16 of them. With Kentucky’s previous sub-par performances against hot shooting teams, the Vols are sure to use their ability to stretch the floor with their shooting to score points in bunches against a team that’s struggled to defend the three. If the Cats want to leave Thompson-Boiling Arena with a win, they’re going to have to contest the long ball better than they have all season.
The Volunteers already have a solid win over a ranked Purdue team earlier this year, as well as wins over a trio of ACC teams (Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and NC State). They nearly knocked off North Carolina at home in Knoxville before falling 73-78. Make no mistake, Rick Barnes has a talented team that can get hot very quickly and is sure to do some damage in not only the league, but the postseason as well.
When March comes around, Alabama’s nonconference resume isn’t going to turn many heads as its best win was early in the season against a Memphis team that’s now lost three of its last five. But three of the Crimson Tide’s losses have been tight games against some solid competition, headlined by a five-point loss to then-No. 14 Minnesota. In one of the most bizarre college games in recent memory, a brawl between the two teams broke out in the second half that saw nearly all of Alabama’s players ejected for coming out onto the court. The Tide finished the remaining ten minutes playing three-on-five… and almost won. Freshman guard Collin Sexton was a big reason for that, dropping 40 points on 12-22 shooting.
Sexton is without a doubt the Crimson Tide’s leader, averaging an impressive 20.1 points per game. But John Petty, Donta Hall and Dazon Ingram are all averaging double figures along with Sexton and are a big reason Alabama will be a force to be reckoned with this year. The Tide will have to prove themselves in the SEC to ensure they get a spot in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but they are certainly capable of making a run that extends into March.
Florida has had a rather odd season this year, starting off incredibly hot before dropping three straight and four of five. The Gators picked up a signature win against No. 19 Gonzaga and nearly had Duke beat in the PK80 Invitational before the Blue Devils came back to win by three. However, that Duke game seemed to have been a stumbling block, as UF was hammered by in-state rival Florida State 66-83 in its next game. And following that humiliating loss, the Gators lost yet another puzzler, falling to Loyola-Chicago at home in Gainesville.
Record aside, the Gators are still very much a threat in the SEC this year. Senior Chris Chiozza (6’0”) and 6’2” junior KeVaughn Allen may not be the biggest guards in the conference, but what they lack in size they make up for in speed, and have little trouble slashing to the basket. On top of that, Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson has been superb for the Gators thus far this season, leading the team with 17.4 points per game. In the game against Duke, the junior had 24 points on 10-20 shooting to go along with ten rebounds. Florida has had some issues this year, but when they’re at their best Mike White’s team can play with anybody.
Georgia’s performance against Kentucky at Rupp Arena was certainly no fluke. Senior forward Yante Maten was tabbed as a preseason favorite for SEC Player of the Year. And for good reason, as Maten poured in 17 points and 12 rebounds against UK last Sunday. Junior guard William Jackson is doing a nice job running the team, averaging 11.5 points a game along with 3.8 assists each contest.
In terms of the nonconference, the Bulldogs picked up a few notable wins, including a victory over No. 21 Saint Mary’s in late November and at Marquette. Kentucky is lucky that Sunday’s game was the only matchup between the two teams, and Calipari expressed his relief that his team won’t have to see them again until a potential matchup in the postseason. But keep an eye on the Bulldogs this year, as they are sure to cause some turbulence in the conference.
The SEC is no longer a league filled with teams that Kentucky can obliterate. Every team has improved and even the ones that weren’t mentioned above (like Missouri, for example) have the potential to knock off the Cats on any given night. In a league that could potentially get seven or eight NCAA Tournament bids, don’t be surprised if the Cats drop a few this season. In fact, it would be more surprising if they didn’t.