We made it -- not through the Christmas rush (though we have), but through the slow, cupcake-filled portion of the college basketball schedule. Conference play starts this coming weekend. College basketball begins in earnest even as two SEC football schools, Alabama and Georgia, fight for the chance to meet each other in Atlanta for the national title. With so few games of major consequence occurring in SEC basketball, you won't find dramatic shifts in the rankings. You also won't find extensive notes on teams which feasted on more cupcakes the past week.
Here are the new rankings.
1: TEXAS A&M -- The Aggies played the cupcake route again. They reached conference play with only one loss and an outstanding resume... without some of their better players performing well. Billy Kennedy did a great job of damage control. Now he has to get his prime pieces to come alive.
2: TENNESSEE -- Wake Forest might not be any good -- the Demon Deacons appear to be an NIT team at best -- but for Tennessee to win on the road so decisively represents an encouraging development for a team which could have sulked about the North Carolina loss. The Volunteers might not always display elegant basketball, but they don't let negative developments derail them as much as previous UT teams. Of course, the journey is just getting started, but past UT teams would have struggled at Wake under those circumstances. Some might even have lost. Tennessee didn't "rise" to No. 2 in this week's edition of SEC power rankings so much as Kentucky fell from its No. 2 spot.
3: ARKANSAS -- The Razorbacks get the third spot because of how bad Kentucky looked against UCLA, which we will discuss below:
4: KENTUCKY -- First of all, the Wildcats losing the way they did to UCLA -- while not necessarily EXPECTED -- is not a seismic shock or anything of the sort. Young teams will have scattered, disordered, disjointed performances such as the one Big Blue endured in New Orleans. The surprising part was that a thin UCLA team swimming in distractions and controversy was able to deliver such an effective performance. Kentucky, though, had not played many games over the past three weeks, and had shown noticeable defensive weaknesses. If the offense -- which had been doing well -- lost focus, the Cats risked falling off the precipice, which is exactly what happened against the Bruins.
It is hardly time to be scared for Kentucky. More to the point, this loss could be exactly the splash of cold water these underclassmen need in order to address their flaws and round into form. Losses can abruptly remove the illusion that a team is a fully-formed organism a month and a half into the season. Players who might have felt their skills were more than good enough to handle any situation now know how much work they have to do. John Calipari should have his team's complete attention at the moment, so this loss should not offer cause for alarm.
What DOES merit concern in the Kentucky camp is that this team lacks an overwhelmingly dominant player who, at his best, renders another opponent helpless. UK can ride Hamidou Diallo or Kevin Knox to a point, but they don't possess the ripple-effect dominance over a game that higher-tier stars such as Trae Young or Marvin Bagley can bring to the table. This lack of an overwhelmingly great player coexists with the presence of a much tougher SEC relative to previous seasons. There are fewer safe landing spots, fewer well-cushioned sections of the SEC schedule, for Kentucky to benefit from this season. UK could very easily play better basketball than last season's team did in SEC competition and yet have a worse conference record in early March.
The road will be arduous for this team, but the UCLA loss could help the Wildcats fix their problems sooner rather than later. Louisville and Georgia will offer two initial measurements of how much the UCLA game affected Big Blue.
5: ALABAMA -- The Texas Longhorns did not look very good at all coming into Coleman Coliseum Friday night. The Crimson Tide did not look very good during Friday's game. Mohamed Bamba of Texas exposed Alabama's frontcourt limitations, a timely reminder before SEC play that Bama can't devolve into The Collin Sexton Show And Nobody Else. Sexton has to get more from his supporting cast, especially in the paint.
Alabama maintains the No. 5 spot, though, for lack of better alternatives.
6: AUBURN -- The Tigers continue to win without Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. They continue to win with superb production from their bench. They continue to look more and more like a typically good Bruce Pearl team, wearing down opponents with ample contributions from many players and an abundance of energy.
Why is AU not higher than Alabama? The Tide still have better wins on their portfolio and have not suffered bad losses. Connecticut is a sexy name on the front of the jersey, but the Huskies are barely above .500 and very much an NIT team at this point. Auburn's 11-1 is definitely a lot better than Mississippi State's especially soft 11-1, but Auburn still has to prove its worth (without two star players) in SEC play. Alabama has shown more to this point.
7: GEORGIA -- A pair of convincing wins -- one of them over Temple, a team with NCAA Tournament quality -- restored order for Mark Fox after the loss to Massachusetts the week before. With the middle tier of the SEC drifting along, Georgia was one of few teams to make a loud and emphatic statement this week. One basic point to consider: If UGA loses in Rupp Arena on Sunday night, the Dawgs can't allow such an occurrence to hijack their belief. Yante Maten is a magnificent player -- Georgia has to get him to the Big Dance, and that means the supporting cast has to be there for him in important moments.
8: FLORIDA -- The Gators didn't lose ground so much as Georgia surpassed them. Given that UF is in the back half of the 14-team SEC, the Gators represent one of the greater mysteries in college basketball. They showed so much potential in November and just as promptly nosedived in December. Which team will we see in January at the start of conference action?
9: MISSOURI -- Point guard is a crisis. The lack of cohesion in the halfcourt offense is becoming more pronounced, and the absence of Michael Porter, Jr. is beginning to take a larger toll on this squad. Cuonzo Martin has his work cut out for him. Illinois blitzed his team with superior effort and attention to detail in the first half on Saturday in St. Louis for the "Bragging Rights" game. Missouri didn't reveal the extent of its talents until it was in a big hole. Getting urgent, attentive play from the jump will be a central point of focus for Cuonzo this week and throughout the SEC season.
10: LSU -- Cupcake city. We'll see where the Bayou Bengals stand soon enough.
11: MISSISSIPPI STATE -- This is an 11-1 team, but how many observers believe the record means a lot as a manifestation of the Bulldogs' quality? Skepticism rightly reigns in Starkville, but Ben Howland will get a chance to show that this team is for real.
12: SOUTH CAROLINA -- The Gamecocks could not have looked much worse than they did against Clemson, but as we saw last season, Frank Martin is capable of engineering dramatic turnarounds in short periods of time.
13: VANDERBILT -- The Commodores devoured two cupcakes. Did those games do anything to work off the rough edges and reorient the team for the conference season?
14 - OLE MISS -- The Rebels stopped their losing skid, but did not beat quality opponents. We'll see if the SEC begins to reveal a better, more fortified team which has learned from all the lumps it has taken to this point.