It is definitely an exciting time to be a Kentucky Wildcat or SEC fan as March Madness nears.
With less than three weeks of regular season college basketball remaining, we can pretty much pick out the top players in the SEC. Who are they?
So I asked former UK assistant coach and longtime SEC observer Joe Dean Jr. during a brief e-mail interview, covering different topics, this past weekend. Here are his Top 7 choices. These are the players he would like to have if he had to pick his own team or starting lineup.
--Kevin Punter of Tennessee. Going into this week's action, the 6-2 senior guard is averaging 22.3 points -- good for second place in SEC scoring.
--Ben Simmons of LSU. The 6-10 freshman sensation can do anything, averaging 19.3 points, SEC-leading 12.0 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. He is a probable No. 1 selection in the 2016 NBA Draft.
--Stefan Moody of Mississippi. The 5-10 senior guard is leading the conference in scoring with 23 points. His 4.2 assists also rank No. 10 in SEC.
--Tyler Ulis (pictured) of Kentucky. The 5-9 darling of the Big Blue Nation is coaching his teammates to key victories as a floor general. The point guard is also SEC's sixth-leading scorer with 16.7 points. He ranks first in the conference in assists per game (6.7) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.6). Ulis is No. 10 nationally in assists per game. He can steal, too, ranking No. 5 in the league with 1.5 steals a game.
Ulis solidified his status as one of the nation’s top players with his stunning 27-point, 12-assist performance against the Gamecocks last Saturday as the “player-coach” without coach John Calipari on the bench. The Kentucky mentor was ejected from the contest for arguing with an official. Ulis is also the first player in UK history to have two career games of at least 20 points and at least 10 assists.
Added Dean, "I think Tyler Ulis is a first team All-American."
--Jamal Murray (pictured) of Kentucky. The 6-4 guard is averaging 18.8 points, good for No. 4 in the league. He is Kentucky's highest-rated player in the 2016 NBA Mock Draft at No. 8 as of Feb. 7, according to DraftExpress.com.
--Yante Maten of Georgia. The 6-8 sophomore forward is averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds.
--Jalen Jones of Texas A&M. The 6-7 swingman is gunning at a 16-point clip.
At this writing, Kentucky and LSU are the leaders in SEC standings with South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida standing close by.
In this week's AP Top 25 poll, the 19-6 Wildcats are the only ranked from the conference. However, in USA Today Coaches Poll, No. 23 South Carolina and No. 24 Texas A&M join No. 14 Kentucky.
As far as the NCAA RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is concerned, Kentucky is No. 13 as of Feb. 15. Following the Cats in RPI, the top SEC schools are Texas A&M (No. 26), South Carolina (27), Florida (31) and Alabama (37). LSU, by the way, is placed No. 72.
However, it is obvious Kentucky will need to step up its inside game if the Cats are going to make noise in March Madness.
"The continued improvement of UK's big men is the key to their chances of winning yet another SEC Championship," said Dean, a TV analyst for the SEC Network. "Losing (Alex) Poythress is a concern going down the stretch."
Among the top five conference teams, Dean said South Carolina has the easiest route -- schedule-wise -- for the SEC regular season crown even though the Gamecocks dropped to Kentucky 89-62 last Saturday in Columbia.
"All their toughest games are at home -- Florida, Tennessee and Georgia," Dean said of South Carolina. "Kentucky has very tough road games at Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida. Based on Kentucky's impressive performance at South Carolina, the SEC championship will again run through Lexington."
Kentucky and LSU will battle in a regular season finale in Lexington on Saturday, March 5. The Wildcats dropped to LSU 85-67 on the road in early January.
As you will recall, NCAA last summer implemented several rule changes to improve the pace of play and Dean likes them for the most part. The former University of Central Florida head coach once served on the NCAA Men's Basketball Rules Committee from 2004 to 2007.
"The 30-second (shot) clock and 'freedom of movement' rules have helped the game in terms of added offensive possessions for each team, and scoring is up about six points per game overall this season," added Dean, who is a longtime athletic director at Birmingham-Southern College.
But there is one new rule that Dean doesn't really like. He explained that "not allowing the head coach to call a timeout during live balls has negatively affect the play of the game."
Dean will be working for the SEC Radio Network during the SEC tournament in Nashville.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photos by Jamie H. Vaught