Conference play is just around the corner on the college basketball betting front, and Don Best tips off its look at some of the top leagues with a breakdown of the SEC.
Unlike football where the SEC is divided into East and West divisions, the conference is one big happy family on the hardwood. The balance of power is still with the squads from the eastern half, and the cream of the crop is Florida.
"All SEC basketball discussions start and stop right now with the Florida Gators," Don Best market analyst Todd Fuhrman (@ToddFuhrman) notes at the outset of his conference preview. "This team is clearly a cut above the rest of the league, and the only team I'm willing to go out on a limb and call a true national title contender."
Coach Billy Donovan's crew is led by a strong inside/outside duo in guard Kenny Boynton and center Patric Young plus forward Erik Murphy who presents matchup problems for everyone. The Gators get a big road test at Arizona this Saturday after a 10-day layoff, and a victory in Tucson will leave no doubt as to the upside of this team.
Many pundits point to the Missouri Tigers as the second-best team in the SEC, but Fuhrman isn't quite ready to anoint them as such. A game that could prove the Tigers are an elite squad is Dec. 22 when Illinois comes to Columbia. Mizzou's defense has been outstanding so far, thanks in large part to UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi's play in the paint, but ultimately it will be the play of Laurence Bowers and Phil Pressey that makes or breaks the Tigers.
Kentucky's national title defense has gotten off to a rocky start with three losses in the first nine games, including a string of 55 consecutive home wins that was stopped by Baylor. Fuhrman looks to the perimeter as the key to how far Coach John Calipari's kids will go.
"They're only going to go as far as their point guard development takes them this season," Fuhrman said. "Of course they're going to get better, but if you're looking for a repeat of last year's national title, I don't think it's coming."
There is a big step down to the next tier in the SEC that includes the Tennessee Volunteers who are clearly missing forward Jeronne Maymon. The Vols are coming off consecutive losses to Georgetown and Virginia in which they combined to score just 74 points.
Alabama has also lost two straight after beginning the season 6-0. A close defeat at Cincinnati was followed by an upset loss at home to the Dayton Flyers, and offense will be a big issue for the Crimson Tide once the SEC schedule kicks in.
Fuhrman reluctantly lists Ole Miss at No. 6 in the league, and a very soft schedule up to this point is the reason why he's not buying into the Rebels.
Texas A&M also has been playing a weak non-conference schedule, with the toughest foe so far being Saint Louis. The Billikens closed as 1-point favorites for that game and came away with a 21-point rout of the Aggies.
LSU and Arkansas lead Fuhrman's list of pretenders. The Razorbacks are still trying to adjust to Coach Mike Anderson's style of play, and the Tigers remain a couple of years from being SEC contenders under Johnny Jones.
The very bottom of the league is where we find Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina. Unlike on the gridiron where the SEC is strong from top to bottom, that is not true in basketball.
The conference race is still going to be exciting, but not the race for No. 1, where Florida will emerge. It's the race for 2-6 in the conference standings and who makes a run into March to become a surprise team in the Sweet 16 that will provide the thrills for SEC fans.
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