College basketball has a long season and one or two losses in December won’t be the only reason a team misses out on the NCAA tournament, but it can certainly be a contributing factor. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. The Southeastern Conference has been celebrating 50 years since the integration of football. Nate Northington broke the color barrier when he took the field for the University of Kentucky on September 30, 1967 against Ole Miss. Later that fall on December 2, Perry Wallace would see action in Vanderbilt’s season-opening victory against SMU, becoming the first African-American to participate in a varsity contest in the conference. Friday afternoon Wallace passed at the age of 69, one day shy of being recognized with the Michael L. Slive Distinguished Service Award at the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. Wallace’s story and complicated relationship with Vanderbilt was well documented in author Andrew Maraniss’ Strong Inside. Wallace was shunned in 1970 after telling the Tennessean of the racial hardship that he suffered while attending the university. Wallace went on to Columbia University law school and to become an accomplished lawyer and professor, most recently at the American University in Washington D.C. It wasn’t until decades later when Wallace would return to Nashville and Vanderbilt to receive the recognition as a trailblazer for a league and region that has always struggled to make sense of its haunting past. Wallace will be missed, but his legacy will live on through Vanderbilt University, those who knew him, and every minority student-athlete that dons the uniform of one of the 14 institutions across the conference.
2. I said on Friday that Vanderbilt’s matchup with fellow 2017 NCAA Tournament participant was as much of a “must-win” as you can have in early December. The Commodores had already dropped non-conference tilts to Belmont, Southern California, Virginia and Seton Hall, and could ill-afford to lose another on Sunday afternoon. That’s exactly what they did. The Commodores played from behind all afternoon, trailing by 43-30 at the half. To their credit, Vandy didn’t quit. A Matthew Fisher-Davis three would tie the game up at 71 with 3:33 remaining, but Vandy was unable to take the lead down the stretch.
Bryce Drew’s team welcomes mid-state rival Middle Tennessee to Memorial Gym, then following exams will travel to face an improved Arizona State team. Outside of a late-January visit from TCU, these will be the only other opportunities for the Commodores to notch some quality wins outside of the SEC. Last season, Vandy used a strong SEC finish to earn an at-large berth, but with the conference improved there will be even less margin for error for the Dores once they enter league play.
3. Missed opportunity for the league not to sweep the ACC this weekend. Ole Miss dropped a 83-80 overtime contest at home to Virginia Tech, while Tennessee took home the second half of pair weekend games between the two leagues with a 77-70 win at Georgia Tech, their second in as many weeks against the ACC. The Rebels rallied from four down with 21 seconds left, only to come up short in the extra frame. The Volunteers, aided by the absence of star Yellow Jacket guard Josh Okogie, trailed 10-9 early, but led from there on.
4. Other thoughts: Arkansas was thoroughly embarrassed at Houston, losing 91-65, on Saturday evening. The Razorbacks shot only 34 percent for the game, allowing the Cougars to shoot 51 percent from the field. Mike Anderson’s team has a midweek tilt with Colorado State before another early season test Saturday when No. 12 Minnesota comes to Fayetteville.
While most in Athens were celebrating an SEC championship for the football team, Mark Fox’s basketball team was picking up a marquee non-conference win at 2017 NCAA participant Marquette. Senior forward Yante Maten posted 13 points, while collecting 7 rebounds. Georgia is a team that will surprise more than a few this year.
Kentucky isn’t impressing anyone right now, but they’re winning. The young Cats held on for a 79-70 win Saturday afternoon against Harvard. Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo led the way scoring 20 and 19 points, respectively—expect that to be a common theme this season. Also, should be mentioned that freshman point guard Shea Gilgeous-Alexander posted 12 points (8-for-8 from the free throw line), along with four rebounds, three assists and two turnovers. Only a matter of time until John Calipari favors him over Philly product Quade Green.
Friday, I praised Alabama for their ability to pull out a close game midweek against a quality mid-major opponent in Louisiana Tech, noting how these are the types of games that young teams can easily overlook and Avery Johnson should be proud of his team for seeing it through. On Sunday afternoon the 24th-ranked Tide were on the other end of these potential “trap games” when they dropped a 65-62 contest to Central Florida out of the American. Uber-talented point guard Collin Sexton struggled from the field, 0-for-4, scoring all seven of his points from the the line. Johnson shouldn’t be discouraged by the result, but a weeknight visit from Rhode Island, followed by a trip to Arizona next weekend will provide further insight on the maturity of his team.
5. Ninth-ranked Texas A&M has a massive opportunity in front of a national television audience on Tuesday to further prove that this team is a darkhorse Final Four contender when they travel to Phoenix to face Arizona. The Wildcats were among several schools that were severely impacted by the ongoing FBI investigation. For some schools (Auburn) that hasn’t shown up on the court, but for others (Arizona) it has. It was primarily on displayed in the Bahamas as Sean Miller’s team went 0-fer vs the field at the Battle 4 Atlantis. This might not look like the matchup we thought prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, but it’s still a chance for Billy Kennedy’s team to solidify their Top 10 standing in this young season.
What 2 Watch 4
Florida State (6-0) at #6 Florida (6-1) 8:00PM CT ESPN2
#9 Texas A&M (7-0) at Arizona (5-3) (in Phoenix) 8:00PM CT ESPN2
Loyola-Chicago (8-1) at Florida (5-1) 7:00PM CT SEC Network
Rhode Island (5-2) at 24 Alabama (6-2) 7:00PM CT SEC Network+
Middle Tennessee (5-1) at Vanderbilt (3-5) 7:00PM CT SEC Network+