Weekend lookahead: Tennessee and the SEC look tough

From ESPN - December 15, 2017

We thought we knew before the season that Grant Williams would have serious breakout-sophomore potential for Tennessee in 2017-18. That, however, is pretty much the only thing we got right in the preseason about the Volunteers. Williams is indeed having an excellent season. So, too, are his teammates. So, indeed, is the SEC.

Here we are, one month and change into the season, and Tennessee's 7-1 and ranked No. 20. Better still, the Volunteers have some familiar in-league company in the rankings: Kentucky is No. 8, Texas A&M is No. 9 and Florida checks in at No. 22.

Meanwhile, Arkansas is coming off a 16-point thrashing of Minnesota in Fayetteville, Alabama only happens to have one of the best players in the country in Collin Sexton and, at Missouri, the persistent urban legends saying that Michael Porter Jr. will come back for the Tigers this season refuse to go away. These are the best of basketball times for the SEC.

Tennessee has been a big part of this burgeoning hoops renaissance in the conference better known for another rather prominent American college-revenue sport. With luck, Rick Barnes might prove once and for all this season that great rim defense need not necessarily depend on sheer size and amazing shot-blocking. The Vols actually are not all that big, and, in fact, when 6-foot-11 junior Kyle Alexander takes a breather, Barnes has been perfectly content to play long stretches with no one taller than 6-foot-7 on the floor.

Yet UT's opponents have converted a measly 40 percent of their 2-point attempts thus far this season. Williams is a fair shot-blocker, and the Vols have also been adept at forcing turnovers. That, plus the small matter of Jordan Bowden shooting 59.3 percent on his 3s at a moderate volume, has brought Barnes' team to this point much sooner than expected.

North Carolina will want to be cognizant of all the above. The No. 7 Tar Heels arrive in Knoxville on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) having won their only true road game thus far, at Stanford, 96-72. Luke Maye is proving, if any evidence were required, that his March heroics were the real deal, as the junior has played at a level that would earn him first-team All-ACC status if it continues. Speaking of all-conference honors, Kenny Williams will be in line for some kind of recognition if he continues to hit anything close to 55 percent of his 3s.

UNC will need Maye, Williams and Joel Berry all at the tops of their games to prevail against a resurgent Tennessee. The SEC's best outside the traditional big two of Kentucky and Florida can no longer be regarded as afterthoughts -- nor is it at all clear that the league's big two still operates as an unchallenged duopoly. To all the skeptics who said basketball could never really happen in the SEC, the grounds for skepticism are fading fast.

No. 17 Purdue vs. Butler, Saturday, noon ET


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