Top-ranked Kentucky is clearly ready for Southeastern Conference play.
Is the rest of the league prepared for the 13-0 Wildcats?
The other SEC teams might be more equipped to face Kentucky than some would think. After getting just three teams into the NCAA tournament the past two years, the league has worked to improve nonconference schedules across the board.
And the results show.
The conference ranks second in RPI — up five spots from the end of last season — and leads the nation in strength of schedule.
Kentucky surely deserves credit for much of the heavy lifting, with victories against Kansas, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville already this season.
But several of the other teams have quality wins. LSU handed West Virginia its only loss of the season. Auburn beat Xavier. Tennessee knocked off Butler.
And in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, the SEC went 4-6, with South Carolina stunning Oklahoma State. The SEC had a chance to finish .500 in the annual event, but Florida blew an 18-point lead to then-No. 11 Kansas.
With SEC play beginning next week, the league has a few more shots at raising its profile. Georgia plays at Kansas State on Wednesday. Florida hosts defending national champion UConn on Saturday, the same day Iowa State plays at South Carolina.
Kentucky, meanwhile, has the week off before opening league play next Tuesday against Ole Miss.
“Oh, we’ll be challenged,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “We’re going to go on the road in hostile environments, and we’re going to be challenged. Now, our league, everyone wants to say the league (is down). Well, you still have Florida, you still have Arkansas, you still have LSU, you still have Georgia playing well. Our league is fine. I still think we’ll get five teams in (the NCAA tournament).”
That’s fairly ambitious for a league that has gotten five teams in the tournament just once in the past six years. Beating Kentucky certainly would help.
Here are some other things to know about the SEC as it prepares for conference play:
If Kentucky runs the table in SEC play, the league would have an unbeaten team for the second time in two years. Florida became the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in league play last season. The Wildcats look poised for perfection, winning 12 of their first 13 games by double digits.
“The moon and the stars have connected. Now let’s see what we can do with this,” Calipari said.
Alabama (9-3) beefed up its nonconference schedule and picked up wins against Arizona State and UCLA. But the Tide lost road games at Xavier and Wichita State as well a neutral-site contest against Iowa State.
Nonetheless, Alabama has a chance to finish significantly better than 10th, which is where it was picked before the season.
Florida (7-4 entering Tuesday’s game at Florida State) has played most of the season short-handed, with guard Eli Carter and forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker missing games.
It’s been costly, with coach Billy Donovan’s team losing every key game so far. The Gators are healthy now and added former Duke forward Alex Murphy last week.
“We’ve got 12 players out there now, and practices have been much, much more competitive,” Donovan said. “I think there’s a better opportunity for us to get better and improve in practice with more bodies.”
It’s early, but Arkansas’ Bobby Portis and LSU’s Jarell Martin look like they will provide a close competition for Player of the Year honors. Portis is averaging 17.2 points and 7.7 rebounds, while Martin is averaging 16.9 points and 9.0 boards.
Some pivotal games in Kentucky’s league slate: at Alabama (Jan. 17), at Florida (Feb. 7), at LSU (Feb. 10), at Georgia (March 3).