SEC teams played in various Thanksgiving tournaments and generally did very well. The momentum and progression of this league over the past seven days reinforced the more optimistic and bullish forecasts for this season of SEC basketball. No more fever, no more tears -- not for a majority of league schools. Sunny skies might not be a constant outdoor reality in late November, but inside basketball gymnasiums, they are.
Let's get to the rankings:
1: TEXAS A&M -- There cannot be any other choice at No. 1. Aggies hammered USC on the road Sunday night, and didn't even play anything close to their best game. Robert Williams and J.J. Caldwell combined for only eight points. If this team can get all of its players to play well at the same time, with relatively few hiccups over the course of the full regular season, this is a potential No. 1 seed. The non-conference wins are impressive and growing in number. The beefed-up nature of the SEC will make a first-place SEC finish worthy of the highest consideration from the Selection Committee when the NCAA Tournament is seeded and bracketed. This is a good team with great results. Just imagine what can happen if a good team becomes great, chiefly Robert Williams.
2: FLORIDA -- The Gators flew across the country, pounded Stanford, escaped Gonzaga in a semi-road game, and played Duke toe-to-toe for 40 minutes. The Duke game slipped away, which will sting, but it's always better to lose a Final Four-level game in December as opposed to March. North Carolina lost to Kentucky last December but won the rematch in the Elite Eight last March. Florida can hope for a similar rebound.
Chris Chiozza went for 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists in the double-OT win over Gonzaga on Friday. He throws himself into the fray on the glass and has made such a massive leap as a player. With Jalen Hudson putting up ridiculous numbers in the minutes he plays (35 points in 31 minutes against Gonzaga) and KeVaughn Allen always ready to go off at a moment's notice, Florida is balanced and explosive. The Gators deserve to be seen as a heavyweight team after their weekend in Oregon.
3: ARKANSAS -- Jaylen Barford brings it every night. The Razorbacks are relentless in true Mike Anderson fashion. The team has meshed to a considerable degree in the first two weeks of the season, and it is impossible to deny that the program has generally grown up a lot. The Hogs are so much more mature and resilient than they were a year ago. North Carolina was a buzzsaw in Friday's PK80 semifinals. The Tar Heels knew Arkansas outplayed them for 37 minutes in the NCAA Tournament, so it should not rate as a surprise to anyone that Carolina played a very focused game against the Razorbacks. Being able to beat Oklahoma and Connecticut in Oregon makes the weekend a net positive and a forward step for Anderson's athletes. A 1-2 record would have changed the outlook for this team... and downgraded its ranking. As it stands, Arkansas has shown more than the No. 4 team on this list, which is...
4: KENTUCKY -- The Wildcats produced a quiet but encouraging week, devouring three cupcakes and progressively getting better in each of their three wins. Nick Richards threw down a 25-point, 15-rebound game. Kevin Knox developed his post-up offense, and the team experimented with zone defenses in spots. John Calipari has so much to teach his team, which will get its shots at marquee wins (and a move up this list) in December.
5: ALABAMA -- Collin Sexton continues to be special, and even though Alabama lost to Minnesota, it more than held its own at 3-on-5. A home game against UT-Arlington was a scare, but UTA is a legitimately solid team. Alabama continues to answer challenges, showing a level of toughness it didn't have a season ago. In this sense, Alabama is not that different from Arkansas. The main distinction is that Arkansas had already evolved enough to make the NCAA Tournament last season and has raised its floor from that level. Alabama is improving, but its floor was lower than Arkansas' last season. Can the Tide lift their ceiling higher than the one Arkansas currently enjoys? Sexton and Avery Johnson will try their hardest to make that happen.
6: TENNESSEE -- Wins over Purdue and North Carolina State (PU is a near-lock NCAA Tournament team, N.C. State a very possible one) made the Battle 4 Atlantis a clear success for Rick Barnes. The loss to Villanova will look good on a resume sheet. It also taught Tennessee about maximizing runs against a superior team... because that superior team will usually flex its muscles at some point. Villanova did just that in the second half. If Tennessee learns from its loss in the Bahamas, it will continue to develop into an NCAA-worthy team.
7: GEORGIA -- Beating Saint Mary's, a team expected by most to finish ahead of the retooled Gonzaga Bulldogs in the West Coast Conference this season, will fatten up UGA's profile. The encouraging aspect of that win, en route to third place at the Wooden Legacy tournament in Fullerton, California, is that no one player dominated the stat sheet for the Dawgs. Several players made significant contributions, which Mark Fox or any other coach will love. Georgia hopes this blended team approach will remain intact.
8: MISSOURI -- The Tigers didn't win their holiday tournament, but given the loss of Michael Porter, Jr., they acquitted themselves extremely well in Orlando against West Virginia in Sunday night's title game. Grabbing wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals enabled Missouri to feel good about its evolution without its best player. Jordan Barnett, a 6-11 big man, performed particularly well for Mizzou in this tournament. Members of the supporting cast -- who originally expected to be helpers for Porter -- must now play more like starters. Barnett got in on the act, but who will join him?
9: LSU -- The Tigers got pounded by an excellent Notre Dame team and also fell to Marquette, but they picked up a win over Michigan at the Maui Invitational. That will give Will Wade -- in his first season as LSU head coach -- a reinforced belief that he can turn this season's team (not just NEXT season's team) into a winner.
10: VANDERBILT -- The Commodores did lose to both Virginia and Seton Hall, but losing to two likely NCAA teams away from home is not a cause for shame. VU just needs to apply the lessons it learned -- particularly against Virginia's ruthless pack-line defense -- in the weeks ahead.
11-14: SOUTH CAROLINA, MISSISSIPPI STATE, OLE MISS, AUBURN -- These four teams either didn't play (South Carolina), played lower-division schools (Mississippi State, Auburn), or lost on the road at Power 5 schools (Ole Miss lost at Utah). There is not much reason to separate them into neat individual silos. They are not bad teams, merely teams without the achievements of the ones listed above them.