Billy Donovan has his Gators on top of the SEC
By Julian Edlow
Saturday, February 2, 2013
The South Eastern Conference came into the college basketball season with high expectations as they do every year. So far the SEC has been somewhat of a letdown if you’re not a Florida fan.
Kentucky came into the season ranked third overall in the country, but their youth has caught up to them, and they are currently unranked. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ole Miss came out of nowhere all the way up to number 16 in the poll this past week (although conveniently enough Kentucky was able to beat Ole Miss on the road this past week). But the cream of the crop this year in the SEC is Florida. The Gators have been steam rolling the competition, and are an undefeated 7-0 in conference play to date. They sit a game above Ole Miss atop the SEC standings, and nationally have been voted the number four overall team in the latest poll. Missouri, much like Kentucky has also fallen short of expectations despite still being nationally ranked. The Tigers are 15-5 (but only 4-3 in conference games), and have been on a recent slide. They could lose their national ranking after dropping a game to the league’s worst team in division play, LSU.
Make no mistakes, right now the SEC title Florida’s to lose. With a 17-2 overall record, Billy Donovan’s team has shown why their 7-0 start is no fluke. They crushed South Carolina this past week 75-36 in one of the most one-sided games of the season, holding the Gamecocks to 10 points in the first half! Florida balanced the box score, with all five starters scoring eight of more points, led by their top player Kenny Boynton.
If Florida is to slip up, Ole Miss and Missouri will be waiting for their chances to climb up to the top of the conference. Ole Miss is in position right now, just one game back of Florida, and with a red-hot team. The Rebels not only have the conference’s leading scorer - Marshall Henderson (19.3 PPG), but they also have the leading rebounder – Murphy Holloway (10.3 RPG).
Missouri is a different story, they have been struggling of late, but have all the talent to bring their season back together. Their point guard, Phil Pressey, was preseason SEC player of the year, and leads the conference in assists with 7.1 per game. Laurence Bowers leads them in scoring at 16.3 PPG (fourth in the SEC), and Jabari Brown is right behind him at 15.5. Missouri has plenty of scorers, and Pressey to deliver them the ball; this team can only go up. Alabama has also had a nice season, and although they are a long shot, it would not be crazy to consider them in the conversation.
Missing from those three SEC contenders is the SEC’s biggest disappointment: the Kentucky Wildcats. A perennial national contender, John Calipari’s team is going through a down year. The Wildcats typically do not have the same team in back to back years because they send a handful of freshman to the NBA each year. Although this seems tough to recover from, Kentucky usually is able to take a few of the best freshman in the country and turn themselves into a threat to not only win the SEC but win it all. This year that has not happened. They are 14-6 overall, but may have turned a corner recently and are 5-2 in the SEC. They just got their best win of the season on the road at Ole Miss in impressive fashion. Freshman Nerlens Noel was fantastic setting a school record with 12 blocks, five of them coming after picking up his fourth personal foul. Despite being a “disappointment” right now, Kentucky still has time to develop and turn their season around and become a contender.
The leader for Player of the Year is going to be a tough call. The obvious place to start is on the Florida roster. It could go to either of their big guns in Scottie Wilbekin and Kenny Boynton. Wilbekin is averaging a well-rounded 9.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, and 4.9 APG. Boynton is leading the team with 13.6 PPG, to go along with 3.5 RPG and 3 APG. Right now Boynton would probably have the edge, and is widely viewed as the team’s leader. Marshall Henderson is another name that has to come up; he leads the SEC in scoring, and was virtually unknown in the preseason. Another name that the Rebels will push into the Player of the Year discussion is their big man, Murphy Holloway. Holloway is averaging an impressive double-double of 14.6 PPG and 10.3 RPG, and has been just as key to Ole Miss’ hot start as Henderson has been.
There is one more candidate for SEC Player of the Year, and he is also a lock for SEC Freshman of the Year. Nerlens Noel of Kentucky is one of the most impressive talents we have seen since… well Anthony Davis last year. Noel has his struggles offensively, but is the defensive centerpiece that coaches dream about having. His current averages of 10.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 4.7 blocks, and 2.4 steals per game display his domination across the stat sheet, and will probably only improve. In Kentucky’s big win over Ole Miss, Noel picked up his fourth foul with 8:30 remaining in the game. Not only did Noel play the remainder of the game, but he fought off the Rebel’s comeback with five blocks during that time period without fouling out of the game. One of the most controlling defensive players in the paint I have ever seen on the college level, hands down. If Kentucky can turn it around, Noel is my pick for SEC Player of the Year.
If Noel can be that type of Player of the Year candidate, I am tempted to pick Kentucky to swoop in and steal the SEC. But for the time being I think it would be too difficult to pick against Florida. Kentucky will play at Florida in a huge game on Tuesday February 12th, in a matchup that may help tell for sure, but the Gators have the experience and the depth (not to mention the lead). Billy Donovan has been there before and knows how to handle the most talented of teams, and has his guys motivated to keep control of the SEC. Behind their Player of the Year candidates, and multiple NBA draft prospects, the Gators appear most likely to finish atop the unpredictable SEC.