Kentucky Insider: SEC basketball is for real this time, which means the young Wildcats better buckle up

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari knows his young Wildcats need to grow up fast, and here’s why: the rest of the SEC is coming for Kentucky this season.

The league has built on a strong finish in the 2017 NCAA Tournament — five teams invited, three in the Elite Eight, South Carolina in the Final Four — with a hot start to the 2017-18 season. Consider this: Just three weeks in, the SEC already has 10 non-conference wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistical rankings (which we’ll use exclusively in this piece).

Oh, and none of those have been by Kentucky, whose best win so far is a narrow one against No. 64 Vermont.  The Wildcats, who’ve won an absurd 50 regular-season titles, will have some serious challengers this time around.

The SEC has eight top-50 teams at the moment (after just nine combined the last two seasons): No. 5 Texas A&M, No. 9 Kentucky, No. 10 Florida, No. 27 Alabama, No. 30 Arkansas, No. 34 Tennessee, No. 41 South Carolina and No. 46 Auburn.

The Aggies are 6-0 with four quality wins already in the bag: No. 14 West Virginia, at No. 19 Southern California, No. 36 Penn State and No. 44 Oklahoma State. Does anyone in the SEC have an answer for A&M’s frontcourt of DJ Hogg, Tyler Davis and (lottery pick) Robert Williams, who average a combined 40.5 points, 24.5 rebounds and 5.7 blocks?

The Gators beat Stanford and No. 16 Gonzaga before blowing a big lead (and huge win) against Duke. Despite that disappointing loss, this much is clear: few teams in America have a better backcourt than Florida’s four-headed monster.

Guards Chris Chiozza, Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov and KeVaughn Allen average a combined 66 points per game — and formidable big man John Egbunu is still coming back at some point. The Gators might not have blown their late lead if they’d had any real inside presence.

So if I was picking right now, I’d say both A&M and Florida will finish ahead of Kentucky in the SEC. If that happens, though, it will be as much about other teams in the league giving the young Cats problems.

Alabama is off to a strong start, led by the fantastic 5-star freshman, Collin Sexton, who is averaging 25.2 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds. The Crimson Tide lost to No. 22 Minnesota by just five points despite playing the final 10:41 with three players because of a scuffle and mass ejections.

Avery Johnson’s team already has wins over Memphis, BYU and a really good UT Arlington team, and Alabama looks plenty capable of making noise in the SEC this season. As does Arkansas, which already blew out Connecticut and beat No. 23 Oklahoma, and Tennessee, which toppled N.C. State and No. 13 Purdue and hung with title contender Villanova.

Heck, even Missouri, playing without injured star Michael Porter Jr., beat Iowa State and No. 48 St. John’s and had a big lead late (which it blew) against West Virginia. LSU beat No. 40 Michigan and Georgia knocked off No. 35 Saint Mary’s.

When was the last time the SEC piled up this many resume-boosting victories this early in the non-conference schedule?

The nice thing for the league is having so much hay already in the barn with several more non-conference opportunities still ahead: Texas A&M will face Arizona and Kansas; Florida gets Florida State, Cincinnati, Clemson and Baylor; Kentucky has Virginia Tech, UCLA, Louisville and West Virginia; Alabama plays Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma.

Win even a few of those after this hot start and this football league is going to get all of the national respect it craves in basketball. In the big picture, that’s great for Calipari and Kentucky. The Wildcats will face better competition night in and night out and, in theory, be better prepared come March.

In the short-term, with this particular team that starts five freshmen, the conference uprising couldn’t come at a worse time. All signs point to Kentucky taking some serious lumps in league play. Hell, the young Cats in 2010-11 and 2013-14 stumbled repeatedly — and the SEC was down back then.

So here is some advice for Big Blue Nation: buckle up, embrace the mantra “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” and try to appreciate that you’re going to see a lot better basketball this season. Even if some nights it’s coming from the opposing side.

SEC’S KenPom Top 50 Wins

No. 13 Purdue (Tennessee)

No. 14 West Virginia (Texas A&M)

No. 16 Gonzaga (Florida)

No. 19 Southern California (Texas A&M)

No. 23 Oklahoma (Arkansas)

No. 35 Saint Mary’s (Georgia)

No. 36 Penn State (Texas A&M)

No. 40 Michigan (LSU)

No. 44 Oklahoma State (Texas A&M)

No. 48 St. John’s (Missouri)

Other Notable Wins: BYU (Alabama), Connecticut (Arkansas), Iowa State (Missouri), Memphis (Alabama), N.C. State (Tennessee), Stanford (Florida)

The post Kentucky Insider: SEC basketball is for real this time, which means the young Wildcats better buckle up appeared first on SEC Country.

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