A few missed opportunities for the league during the midweek, but an abundance of marquee non-conference games heading into the weekend. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. When Florida was up 17 late in the second half against top-ranked Duke in the motion bracket final of the PK80, I was ready to anoint the Gators not just the favorites to win the SEC, but as a favorite to go to the Final Four. The Gators were a game away from the sports ultimate destination in March, until they ran into a South Carolina team powered by “why not us” juju and Sindarius Thornwell, so it wouldn’t have been a ludicrous assertion to make. Since that 17 point lead, the Gators have been downright awful. Marvin Bagley III led the Blue Devils back to win the game, 87-84, then archival Florida State had their way with the Gators at the O’Connell Center Monday night, blowing past the Gators, 83-66. While, you can forgive the loss to Duke, sort of, and can understand how a rivalry game could end up lopsided, what occurred Wednesday night was unacceptable for a team of Florida’s quality. The Ramblers from Loyola of Chicago waltzed into Gainesville and collected a 65-59 victory, despite their starting point guard being out with a broken hand. Gator head coach Mike White called his team soft after the loss to the Seminoles and the Loyola result only reassured that. We’ll find out how much this team took that to heart when they square off against and always physical Cincinnati team Saturday evening at the Prudential Center in Newark.
2. It’s probably premature to give the eulogy for Vanderbilt’s season, but I’m not sure there is a way back for Bryce Drew and the Commodores. I’ve said multiple times in the past 10 days that the Commodores next game was virtually a “must win”. Last Sunday’s home contest following the death of trailblazer Perry Wallace was that case, and Vandy fell short. Wednesday night’s matchup with local rival Middle Tennessee State also fell into that category, and ended in disappointment. I asked Bryce Drew why a team with three senior leaders in Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson and Matthew Fisher-Davis were unable to carry over the late season magic of winning close games in 2016-17 to this year. Drew simply stated, that this was a new team and he was still looking for players he trusted in late game situations. LaChance is certainly a player he trusts and were it not for a few inches, he would’ve sent the game to overtime Wednesday night and we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. As the kids say, “thems the breaks”. The breaks haven’t fallen the Dores way and it’s unlikely that that’s going to change anytime soon.
Following an 11-day break for exams, Vandy will travel west to face-off against a much-improved Arizona State team, before returning home for a pair of gimme non-conference games. After that, SEC play starts with a rude awakening against currently No. 5 Florida and No. 24 Alabama. Vandy was sub-.500 as last as February last season and recovered to make the NCAA Tournament as a 15-loss at-large. Currently, the Dores sit at 3-6 overall. Given how improved the league is this year, plus a January visit from TCU, I highly doubt that there’s not at least 9 more losses on that schedule. Then again, ‘Memorial Magic’ has played a factor from time to time. It’s just hard to believe that this season can be salvaged even if it is still early December.
3. Texas A&M’s strong start to the season hit a roadblock Tuesday night, when the Aggies fell to a likely distracted and reeling Arizona team in Phoenix for the Valley of the Sun Showcase. Despite 21 points and 10 rebounds from junior center Tyler Davis, A&M was unable to make the key plays at the end of the game necessary to beat a team as talented as the Wildcats. Davis was hit with a traveling call, a questionable call at that, that took away the tying basket. Billy Kennedy’s squad received another opportunity to send the game into overtime when Duane Wilson was fouled on a three with 2 seconds left. Wilson missed the front end of the trio of free throws and his attempt to intentionally miss the final shot found the bottom of the net ending all hopes of an Aggie comeback. This is a minor setback for a team that now ascends to the top of the SEC. Then again, John Calipari’s Kentucky team is only getting better.
4. Other observations: Alabama picked up a win against a quality Rhode Island team still missing impact guard E.C. Matthews. The Tide overcame 26 turnovers and an early Collin Sexton exit—poked in the eye—to defeat the Rams, 68-64, Wednesday evening. Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team continues to ignore the mess that the FBI has made of their program with a strong 7-1 start. Anfernee McLemore posted a double-double (17 points and 11 rebounds) in a, 80-55, win against Gardner-Webb. Georgia has also continued to impress. Senior forward Yante Maten had another day at the office, totaling 25 points and 11 rebounds in a, 87-82, victory over Winthrop.
5. A bevy of opportunities for the SEC to make a statement in the non-conference this weekend. Tennessee will get a test against a Lipscomb team that is confident after sweeping the season series against rival Belmont for the first time in 8 years. So far, Rick Barnes’ squad has made a fool out of the SEC media that pegged them to finish 13th in the league. Bisons junior guard Garrison Mathews (19.6 PPG) could cause the Vols issues, but he’ll need help from his supporting cast. Tennessee is the far superior team and shouldn’t have difficulty winning this game on paper, but you can never underestimate the motivation a team has when playing against the flagship university of their state.
5a. Florida will not be ranked fifth in the polls on Monday afternoon. If they’d still like to see their names in the Top 25, then they’d be wise to get in the mud with Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati team and come out with a win in New Jersey. Cincinnati is considered a dark horse Final Four contender by some. This is absolutely a game that the Gators need to have to get back on track before SEC play.
5b..Ole Miss for some reason decided that it was a good idea to pay a visit to an MTSU team that won 30-plus games last season and has had no issue defeating SEC teams in the past three seasons. Credit to Andy Kennedy for signing up to potentially get run out of the gym.
5c. I was extremely high on Richard Pitino’s Minnesota team coming into this season, then they lost to Nebraska. This is the type of game that should showcase the crowd at Bud Walton Arena, along with the ’40 Minutes of Hell’ that Mike Anderson is still trying to resurrect.
5d. Avery Johnson’s team has had their ups and downs so far in 2017-18, but will learn a lot about itself when they travel to the desert to face an Arizona team that was as high as No. 2 in the nation a week ago.
What 2 Watch 4
Lipscomb (6-3) at No. 24 Tennessee (6-1) 1:15PM CT SEC Network
No. 5 Florida (5-3) vs No. 17 Cincinnati (7-1) 5:00PM CT ESPN2
Ole Miss (4-3) at Middle Tennessee (6-1)
No. 14 Minnesota (8-2) at Arkansas (6-2) 5:45PM CT SEC Network
Alabama (7-2) at Arizona (6-2) 9:00PM CT ESPN2