Three teams take different paths to top as SEC basketball season tips off

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01/07/2014 10:26 PM

05/16/2014 11:15 AM

Three teams start the Southeastern Conference basketball race ahead of the others based on the polls, and each have been put together differently.

Florida, Kentucky and Missouri are the league’s ranked teams with another, Arkansas, receiving a vote in either the Associated Press or USA Today coaches’ polls. Each of the leading trio starts league play Wednesday at home.

The Gators, ranked 10th in the AP and 11th by the coaches, are a veteran team with four senior starters: Patric Young, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather, who leads the Gators in scoring at 17.3 points.

“The older guys have been through it,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “The leadership from those four seniors is going to set the stage for our team going forward.”

Florida, 11-2, with signature victories over Kansas and Memphis and losses to Wisconsin and Connecticut, dealt with roster flux through the season’s first few weeks because of injuries, namely to starting guards Wilbiken and Kasey Hill, but is now at full strength.

“Once we got into January, I knew our team would look different than November,” Donovan said.

Kentucky, 10-3, is about youth with four freshmen starters, and if that makeup sounds familiar, the formula worked two years ago when the Wildcats won the national championship with three freshmen starters, led by national player of the year Anthony Davis.

Forward Julius Randle is the centerpiece, leading Kentucky with 18.1 points and 10.6 rebounds. The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, combine to average about 26 points and 5.6 assists.

The Wildcats, ranked 14th by the AP and 16th in the coaches poll, went into its current 10-day break off its most impressive outing of the season, a home victory over Louisville. The losses have come to ranked teams Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina. Kentucky was within one point of each loss in the final three minutes but couldn’t close them out.

“We don’t know how to finish games,” Calipari said. “We don’t know how to do it together. We’re getting closer to where want to be, but we’re not there yet.”

Missouri, 12-1, is led by a backcourt trio that started elsewhere. Earnest Ross opened his career at Auburn, Jabari Brown at Oregon and Jordan Clarkson at Tulsa.

Clarkson averages 19.3 points, second in the SEC, with Brown at 18.4 and Ross at 14.0. With their length — each stand 6 feet 5 — they’ve done their job on the defensive end, helping hold opponents to 27.9 percent three-point shooting.

“We’re much better than we were last year (defensively),” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “A lot of that has to do with our length on the perimeter.”

The Tigers, ranked 21st in both polls, have lost only to Illinois, in St. Louis by one point. They own victories over West Virginia, UCLA and at North Carolina State.

Among the top three, the league’s imbalanced schedule has Missouri playing the Gators and Wildcats once with Florida and Kentucky meeting twice. There are no games among the leaders until February, but Donovan said he’s waiting to see the difference in intensity when conference play begins.

“I think our guys understand, as everybody does, the season is starting,” Donovan said.

SEC at a glance

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Best victory:

Some good ones, like Missouri over UCLA and Kentucky over Louisville. Both protected home floors. Florida beat Memphis 77-75 on Dec. 10 at Madison Square Garden, a week after the Gators defeated Kansas.

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Worst loss:

The good news is, the SEC doesn’t have any of those hand-covering-eyes losses. Based on RPI, there’s no loss to any team rated below No. 200. But some of the biggest head-shakers have come at home, such as Auburn’s 19-point loss to Northwestern State and Texas A’s 20-point loss to North Texas.

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MVP (and top newcomer):

Missouri point guard Jordan Clarkson had big shoes to fill, following Phil Pressey. But after transferring from Tulsa, Clarkson practiced with Pressey last season. Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown have formed one of college basketball’s most formidable backcourt.

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Other MVP candidates:

Kentucky freshman front-liner Julius Randle is living up to the hype, averaging 18.1 points and leading the SEC in rebounds at 10.6 while hitting 56.4 percent from the floor. Also, LSU freshman forward Jordan Mickey is averaging 14.1 points and 7.8 rebounds.

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Most improved:

Auburn guard KT Harrell was an unhappy camper two years ago at Virginia, where his playing time was disappearing and numbers dropping. He was averaging 4.7 points when he left in December 2012. At Auburn, Harrell has been terrific, leading the SEC in scoring at 19.4 points and recently earning league player of the week honors for averaging 21.5 points in victories over Clemson and Boston College.

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Other improvements:

Among others who have stepped up their games this season are Mississippi’s Jarvis Summers, who has nearly doubled his scoring average from last year to 17.8 points and is hitting 54 percent of his threes. Also, Arkansas guard Michael Qualls averages 13.7 points after scoring 4.6 last season.

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Round-robin schedule for ranked teams: Feb. 1, Kentucky at Missouri; Feb. 4, Missouri at Florida; Feb. 15, Florida at Kentucky; March 8, Kentucky at Florida.

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