Very few high-end games were played during finals week. After Christmas, the college basketball machine revs up, but we're still in the low-key period of college basketball, the month stuck between the Thanksgiving tournaments and the start of conference play. Few big epiphanies emerged over the past seven days, but the bottom of the league looks a little clearer. The two most significant developments concern the two schools which have dominated the league more than any others this century: Kentucky and Florida.
Here are the rankings after the past week.
1: TEXAS A&M -- The Aggies played and won a cupcake game. There's not much to say, other than that they still have a great overall portfolio without Robert Williams being at his best. A&M gets a slight edge over Kentucky, but if you wanted to put the Wildcats first, the impulse would be more than understandable.
2: KENTUCKY -- Virginia Tech won't be a No. 1 seed or even a No. 4 or 5 seed in March, but the Hokies should be an NCAA Tournament team, and Kentucky handled them -- barely, but successfully. The Wildcats had played cupcakes the past few weeks, and had barely played any games for that matter, so it made complete sense that Virginia Tech brought a level of speed which UK had not seen in nearly a month. The adjustment process was evident for the Wildcats, who were often a half-step slow to react on defense. They had to win on offense... and they did. Hamidou Diallo's emergence as a knockdown shooter is a huge development. Nick Richards was effective for extended stretches of the second half, using his size and length to play over the top of Virginia Tech's smaller defense. This team did what it had to do in a stiff test which should enable Big Blue to become a lot better down the line. John Calipari should be privately thrilled about this game, a coach's dream -- it contained ample weaknesses to promote teaching (and receptiveness among players) in practice, but Cal also got the resume-boosting result he was looking for.
3: TENNESSEE -- On Sunday, the Vols did play North Carolina very closely in an intense and entertaining contest, but keep in mind that they played UNC to the wire a year ago on the road in Chapel Hill, against a squad which eventually won the national title. Tennessee couldn't parlay that 2016 effort into an NCAA Tournament berth. Yes, Joel Berry was part of this 2017 reunion in Knoxville, whereas he was injured last year, but this year's North Carolina team isn't nearly as deep as last season's version. This was a missed opportunity for the current Vols, and they cannot allow it to hijack their confidence. Too few players shot the ball confidently or well against Carolina, indicative of a team which carried expectations a little too heavily. The Vols can use this loss as a chance to cultivate more freedom and fluidity on the court when they get into the teeth of their SEC schedule.
4: ARKANSAS -- The Razorbacks won a cupcake game. They did so comfortably, which prevents this weekly assessment from needing to go into great depth. Only when a close call or a loss occurs must a good team undergo further examination. We'll check back with this team in greater detail when it plays a game of consequence.
5: ALABAMA -- The Tide had the week off. They needed it.
6: MISSOURI -- The Tigers crushed a cupcake and sit sixth in the power rankings for a conference which could very realistically send seven teams to the Big Dance. That's not bad at all for the Porter-less Tigers.
7: FLORIDA -- That Clemson game on Saturday got away from a team which is enduring a crisis of confidence. The Cincinnati win -- the team hoped -- was going to become a marked change, a departure from a downward trajectory. Instead, it merely became a brief interruption. The injuries to the bigs have reduced this team's margin for error, and that sense of being limited has placed pressure on players throughout the lineup. Despite the run to the Elite Eight last season, the pressure has been too big for the roster Mike White puts on the court. The resume for the NCAAs is still very solid, but the current team would likely lose to each of the teams above it in these December 18 rankings. It's not time to panic, but White has a lot of work to do in the next 2.5 weeks.
8: AUBURN -- Finally, these Tigers scored a win which deserves mention. Beating Middle Tennessee is no small feat. Doing so without Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley makes the team's work even more special... but without those two players, Missouri is still likely better.
9: GEORGIA -- A loss to Massachusetts might become an aberrational result in the course of time, and a lot of teams are losing weird games during this final-exam portion of the season. Nevertheless, dropping a decision to UMass erodes a lot of the work the Dawgs did in late November and very early December. They will need to pick it back up soon and can't take on a lot more water in terms of losses to mid-level teams.
10: LSU -- Stephen F. Austin is not a bad team, but LSU needs to beat SFA at home. That loss to the Lumberjacks undid the good things created by a similarly narrow win over Houston earlier in the week. LSU fans shouldn't get too wrapped up in results, though. Will Wade is trying to rebuild a team and a way of proceeding on the basketball court. That is not a quick-fix project.
11-12: SOUTH CAROLINA and MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The clutter at the lower end of the league began to loosen up. While Auburn rose, the Gamecocks and Bulldogs remain in a two-way tie. Mississippi State got clocked by Cincinnati, which certainly keeps the Bulldogs near the bottom of the league, but did South Carolina do anything to noticeably lift itself to a higher plane? (The Gamecocks had the week off.) Here's a better question if you find that previous one unconvincing: Would South Carolina have lost by fewer than 15 points at Cincinnati?
13: VANDERBILT -- The Commodores scored the first 13 points against Arizona State on the road... and lost comfortably. It is tempting to elevate VU in the SEC rankings based on playing competitively for roughly three-fourths of a game against a top-five opponent on the road, but after an early 13-point lead, it seems a little too charitable to do that. A big early lead should -- at the very least -- translate into a 40-minute game, even if it turns out to be a loss, but Vanderbilt was done and dusted well before the final horn. Vanderbilt's veteran returning starters aren't filling up the stat sheet to the extent this team needs.
14: OLE MISS -- The Rebels' downward spiral continued with another home-court loss to a non-power-conference team, Illinois State. Important defensive stops continue to evade this team. Andy Kennedy's crew has to take a stand at some point if this season is to amount to anything in Oxford.