The other blogs that participate will also answer these questions and you can read the full roundtable at Garnet and Black Attack (linked in the title above), which graciously and ably manages the Poll.
1. The SEC was very weak last year. Most predicted that it would rebound this year. Has that happened? Why or why not?
Oh, good God, yes. The conference, despite some embarrassing, inexplicable losses in the non-conference slate also has had some particularly good wins. Last year, not so much. It looks like the conference will put at least five teams in the tourney and could get six. Last year there were only three and only one made it past the Thursday/Friday game of the first weekend (LSU lost in the Round of 32 to eventual national champion UNC). UK, Tennessee and Vandy have the talent to play into the second weekend. UK could be a final four team, if they are hot. Vandy and Tennessee have the potential to go that deep, but they have to have perfect games and/or good match-ups in the Sweet 16/Great 8 games. The bottom of the conference is better, as well, with one notable exception.
2. The national buzz on the conference is definitely focused on Kentucky, who have lived up to their preseason billing as the conference's best team and a national contender. Do the 'Cats have what it takes to win a national title? Why or why not?
As I alluded to above, I think they can. They are talented, well coached and can score nearly at will from numerous places on the floor. That is the good news. The bad news is that they play undisciplined basketball at times, relying on that talent too much, instead of playing fundamental basketball. That is ok against Auburn. I won't be against the likes of Syracuse or Michigan State. The key rests with Calipari. Calipari has had talented teams before, but built around one star player. Now, he has at least three players of that caliber. If he can get that team to believe they are unbeatable when they play his basketball, they are better than anyone in the nation. If he can't, they are susceptible to what almost happened against Georgia and what did happen against South Carolina.
3. In addition to Kentucky, which other teams will make the NCAAs? Will we see any surprises here, i. e., will anyone--barring an SECT surprise--other than Kentucky, the Tennessee Volunteers, the Vanderbilt Commodores, the Florida Gators, the Mississippi Rebels, and the Mississippi St. Bulldogs make it?
Kentucky, Vandy, Tennessee and Mississippi State are nearly mortal locks right now, either because of record or in Miss State's case their remaining schedule is just that easy. Old Miss can't have anymore Arkansas games, but they are still looking pretty good considering they will finish in the neighborhood of 22-10. The Gators and Gamecocks are your bubble teams right now. To get in the Gators need to win six of their last nine OR five of the nine, plus beat UK on the road the last weekend. Any win in the tourney would be gravy. The Gamecocks have five of their last nine on the road, including UK, Vandy and Tennessee. If they win two of those three and win the home games PLUS a game in the SEC tournament, they could get there. Otherwise, they'd need a deep SECT run. At this point, 'Bama, Arkansas, Auburn and Georgia would have to win out and win at least two in the tourney to have a shot.
I wrote the answer to this before Mississippi State's debacles against Florida, a game I thought they matched up well with and would win. They are my new bubble team and Florida looks more and more like a lock, but still has the tougher schedule. Mississippi State's RPI has plummeted the last week and they have very little room for error the rest of the season.
4. What is the biggest surprise so far this season? Why?
- Tennessee's reaction to the arrests - Knocking off a very good Kansas team with six scholarship players. Enough said.
- South Carolina's resurgence - I thought they might have been overlooked a bit, but with UK, Vandy and Tennessee in your division, it isn't hard to get over looked. Devan Downey is a fantastic player and Horn is using his star perfectly.
- Georgia's competitiveness - The Dawgs, on paper, aren't a very good team. Yeah, they only have two conference victories, but Georgia has played so much better than anyone could have dreamed in October. Coach Fox was the right hire at the right time.
- LSU fail - No one thought they'd win the west, but...damn! They are not a good basketball team.
It is hard to say. My heart wants to pick Travis Leslie, for the shear entertainment value of his play (plus leading the nation in ESPN plays of the day) or Trey Thompkins, who is third in the conference in scoring and rebounding. My head thinks it should be Jarvis Varnardo, leading the conference in blocks (2nd in the NCAA) and rebounds or John Wall, who is leading the conference in assists (2nd in the NCAA) and is fourth in the conference in scoring. The stats and rational thought say Devan Downey. He leads the conference in scoring, by 5+ppg (good for fourth in NCAA), and steals, by 1+ steals per game (good for 2nd in the NCAA), plus he has just played solid basketball all year. No one means more to their team's success than Downey, to boot.*
*All NCAA stats are as of Jan 31.