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Talking Points: A Pre-Conference Play Discussion

‘Talking Points’ shifts to hoops as a few of us dug in and decided to talk about the major storylines heading into league play.

NCAA Basketball: Valparaiso at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to talking points! The action shifts from the gridiron to the hardwood today as we’re talking SEC hoops as the conference season starts later on Thursday. Contributing to this edition is myself, Rob O’Neill, Cam Newton and Tom Stephenson.

Freshman of the Year is basically Malik Monk’s to lose, yes?

Cam Newton: There’s no doubt that Malik Monk has this award locked up if he continues this sort of play. Every year since John Calipari took over in Lexington, we expect a Kentucky player to take home this trophy, as the freshmen he convinces to play for him are always of the highest caliber.

So far this season, Malik Monk has put up roughly 21 points per game, numbers which far exceed those of previous Wildcats who have won this award (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins, to name a few). While his other statistical categories could use some work, it still seems like this award is all his if he continues to be the scoring genius that we have seen thus far.

Robert O’Neill: Yes. And while I don’t think it’s particularly close, Monk’s biggest competition could come from his own team in De’Aaron Fox. Both players are so good at so many different things. They may very well both be in the top 5 players John Calipari has coached in Kentucky, which is an illustrious list.

Tom Stephenson: It probably is but it shouldn’t be. In my opinion, Monk isn’t even the best freshman on his own team (that would be De’Aaron Fox), never mind the whole conference.

Outside of Kentucky, you can look at any one of four freshmen starting for Auburn (Danjel Purifoy, Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper, and Austin Wiley -- roughly in that order) as contenders. Depending on how the rest of their season plays out, you might see Purifoy start to pick up some support.

Chris Novak: I’d say Monk is the beneficiary of being really freaking good out of the gate and already catching a ton of hype. But as my colleagues have mentioned, Monk may not even be the best freshman on his own team as De’Aaron Fox has been dynamite so far. We’ll see how the rest of this season plays itself out, but the Freshman of the Year honor could be handed out to someone in Lexington.

Who in your opinion is the SEC Player of the Year through the nonconference portion of the season? The above answer could also apply.

Cam Newton: While Malik Monk has proven himself as an adept scorer, he would need to greatly improve his other numbers in order to--in my opinion--win the Player of the Year award. That being said, I do think the SEC Player of the Year will be a freshman, and he will be a Kentucky Wildcat. It will be De’Aaron Fox.

Once before, all the way back in 2010, two different Kentucky freshmen won the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year awards, with it being John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, respectively. I believe this year could be a very similar situation, with Fox putting up numbers so far that could put him in the discussion for National Player of the Year accolades. Through 12 games, Fox is scoring almost 17 points per game, all while dishing out roughly 7 assists and 2 steals per outing. Those numbers--added in with the general contribution he adds and workload he shares for Kentucky--are superb, and they will certainly be enough to earn him the top crown in the SEC this season. I just don’t know of any other SEC players that can compete.

Robert O’Neill: I tend to agree with Cam in saying it will be one of the aforementioned Kentucky players, though I’d really like to see Georgia’s Yante Maten be rewarded for his strong play. He’s a gifted player on both sides of the ball, but doesn’t get the publicity because of where he plays.

Tom Stephenson: To be fair, if not for getting suspended and missing the last five games, Sindarius Thornwell would have a really strong case for this (and may wind up having a strong case at the end of the season.) But it has to be Yante Maten. Can you imagine what Georgia would look like without him? The case against him is, essentially, that his teammates are not very good, and that’s an unfair standard for an individual award.

Chris Novak: It’s very easy to suggest that Monk or even Fox could win, but looking at the history of the award, it’s very rarely gone to freshmen unless they have been so unbelievably great. While Monk certainly has the hype train rolling, I’ll side with Tom here and say Yante Maten has as good a shot to win the award out of anybody if we’re including upperclassmen as we should.

So, the conference is Kentucky’s to lose at this point, and that’s hardly arguable. Who in your opinion is best suited to give the Wildcats fits this winter?

Cam Newton: What Louisville showed last week was that one of the best ways to beat Kentucky is to slow down the game and force the Wildcats to both defend and score in the half court. There’s a marked difference between Kentucky on the fast break and Kentucky trying to run plays in a half court offense against stellar defenses.

Based solely on those factors, I believe that Texas A&M is a team that could once again emerge as the team best-equipped to take on Kentucky. The Aggies play at a pace even slower than Louisville’s, and their defense is nothing to shrug off. They’ve held pretty fast-paced opponents like UCLA and USC to low scoring totals, and they’re certainly capable of doing the same to the Wildcats. If they follow the blueprint that Louisville designed, they could give Kentucky quite the scare this season.

Robert O’Neill: Going off of what Cam said, I think you have to put South Carolina in the conversation too. They were one of the nation’s best defensive teams in nonconference play and they slow the game way down as well.

Tom Stephenson: Missouri! You didn’t specify what kind of fits Kentucky would be having, and a fit of rage that they have to play that game could be in order.

In seriousness, I would add Florida to what Cam and Robert said -- aside from the fact that they’re a really good team (and probably the second best team in the SEC), they’ve shown that they are capable of competing with elite teams and their style of play just makes them really difficult.

Chris Novak: Well, everyone above me said what needed to be said here.

Going off that, who from this conference, apart from the ‘Cats and, we’ll say, Florida, has the best chance to go dancing this March?

Cam Newton: The thing is, besides Kentucky, not many SEC teams have resumes that are eye-popping. A few weeks ago, that would have still been true, save for South Carolina--their wins over Michigan and Syracuse aren’t too impressive anymore, and they just dropped games against Seton Hall and Clemson. Still, I believe that the Gamecocks’ resume will be good enough to get them into the tournament, should they play well against their SEC foes.

Therefore, it’s very difficult to say who we should expect to go dancing based off of nonconference play. Arkansas, for instance, is sitting pretty at 11-1, but their strength of schedule is among the country’s worst (KenPom has them at 250th in this category, as a matter of fact). The Razorbacks simply cannot afford conference slip-ups. There’s really no room for error for a team whose best win is a close one against a Texas team that just dropped a home game to Kent State.

Another team whose tournament hopes rest on running through SEC play with little to no hiccups is Texas A&M, a team who was just a few points shy of taking down UCLA, Arizona, and USC in nonconference play. Any of those wins would have padded their resume, but they were never able to get it done. Regardless, there’s no reason to believe they won’t glide past a great deal of their conferences competition and grab a tournament berth.

In the end, I believe the SEC will send Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, and Texas A&M to the tournament. I’m leaving Arkansas out, as I simply haven’t seen enough from them for me to believe that they’ll manage SEC play without dropping a few games to subpar opponents.

Robert O’Neill: The four teams Cam said sound about right, but I think a real wild card in the SEC is going to be Auburn. They’re at 10-2 with a nice win over Oklahoma in the last week of nonconference play. KenPom has them going 8-10 in SEC play, so if they can flip one of those games and go 9-9, they’ll be at 19-11 going into the SEC Tournament. A win or two there and the Tigers may very well be dancing. The problem, of course, is they’re a very freshman-heavy squad who may not be able to stack up to some of the SEC’s more experienced rosters.

Tom Stephenson: Definitely South Carolina -- remember, the Selection Committee will take into account the fact that the Seton Hall and Clemson losses came with Sindarius Thornwell out of the lineup.

I think Cam and Robert are underrating Arkansas’s chances here. The Razorbacks have avoided bad losses, and they’ve got a win over a UT-Arlington team that’s a lot better than you probably think. It’s not a great resume, but if they pick up a win over Florida on Thursday I think you have to take them seriously.

Everybody else will have to do some real work to get in, but I think the SEC will ultimately wind up with five teams in the tournament. Outside of Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina, I can’t say for certain who the other two teams will be, but I think two others will emerge from the pack.

Chris Novak: Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, and then I’d say Texas A&M and Arkansas have opportunities to make things happen.

Make one bold prediction about conference play.

Cam Newton Auburn wins 10 SEC games. Now, there are still a few question marks surrounding this Tigers team, but they’re coming off a solid win streak over teams like Oklahoma and UConn--both of whom are having down years, but whose losses to Auburn represent a new chapter for Bruce Pearl’s Tigers, who are finally competing in non-conference play.

Looking through all of Auburn’s upcoming SEC games, it seems as if they have an excellent shot to pick up wins against most of what football fans would call the SEC West teams. All of that assumes, of course, that Auburn continues playing excellent defense, which has been some of the country’s best this season. If they can keep that up (and Mustapha Heron continues to carry them), they might just find themselves 10 conference wins and an outside shot at a tourney bid.

Robert O’Neill: Missouri goes winless. Is that bold? Regardless, that’s my prediction.

Tom Stephenson: Kentucky will lose an SEC game. If that’s not bold enough for you, Tennessee will go .500 in the SEC. I don’t know how, but Rick Barnes has managed to turn this into a decent team -- far better than what I thought they’d be in the preseason.

Chris Novak: I’ll go opposite from Rob: Mizzou wins a conference game. Maybe 2!