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5 SEConds: Conference Play Begins

Coming off the best pre-conference season in several years, the SEC begins conference play this week with most conference fans hoping their team has a chance to go dancing in March.

Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall gives instructions to guards Kevin Punter and Josh Richardson.
Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall gives instructions to guards Kevin Punter and Josh Richardson.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Postseason tournament bids will ultimately determine whether or not the SEC has emerged from the Dark Ages of recent years as I had hoped prior to the season, but things are looking up as SEC conference play begins on Tuesday night. Play begins with the SEC ranked 5th in Conference RPI (virtually tied for third with Big 10 and ACC) and 10 teams in the top 100 in RPI (5 in top 50). While there is only one team that looks to contend for the national title, that one team--Kentucky--is as strong as any team in recent memory. Mississippi State remains stuck in the league basement while Missouri, Auburn, and Vanderbilt have had good moments but are not likely to make much noise in league play. The remaining nine teams have reasonable paths to the Big Dance including South Carolina and Tennessee who have both surprised in the early season. The SEC will be flush with bubble teams come March and should finally end up with more double-digit NCAA seeds than teams hosting games in NIT play.

5…All Pre-Conference Team: Josh Richardson (Tennessee-Guard), Levi Randolph (Alabama-Guard), Bobby Portis (Arkansas-Forward), Jarell Martin (LSU-Forward), Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky-Center)

FORE!…Florida enters conference play with a 7-6 record and a 145 ranking in the RPI (12th in SEC). The Gators have been crushed by injuries to a team that lacked depth entering the season. The Gators enter conference play far off the NCAA Tournament bubble, but the 6 losses were understandable given their lack of experience. Unfortunately, the losses look worse on paper (particularly UConn and Miami).  In order to make any type of run to the NCAA Tournament, Billy Donovan will have to get his young talent to learn how to finish games a little better than this:

3D...Kentucky freshman Karl Towns is likely to go in the top 3 of the 2015 NBA Draft. If you have not seen him play, his highlight reel from the Wildcats game against Louisville shows the diversity of his gifts.

2…The best games to watch this week were probably not on the radar a month ago. Florida goes to South Carolina on Wednesday night in a game that will either help Florida get things back on track or find the Gamecocks continuing to build confidence. Meanwhile, Saturday may be the best opportunity for a team to push Kentucky as the Wildcats travel to College Station. Texas A&M is a deep team with excellent guard play that upset another hyped Kentucky team in Rupp a few seasons ago.

And 1…There is a lot of improved coaching going on across the league. Frank Martin has gotten South Carolina playing with his intensity, Johnny Jones is doing magic at the guard position in Baton Rouge, and Mark Fox continues to get the best out of Georgia. None of those compare to what Donnie Tyndall is doing at Tennessee. Despite departures of players and assistants extending into the season, the Volunteers are playing relentless basketball. Tyndall moving Josh Richardson to point guard has not been perfect, but it has been enough to make the Vols a tough team to handle.