Following a slow week on the court due to finals, SEC teams square off in a number of marquee non-conference matchups this weekend. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. I don’t want to say that Mississippi State is fraudulent, but Ben Howland’s team has a long way to go after suffering their first loss, 65-50, Tuesday night at No. 25 Cincinnati. The Bulldogs came into the game with wins over the powerhouses of Alcorn State, Florida A&M, and Division II North Georgia. Those wins allowed the Bulldogs to boast the 349th SOS in the country. For some more perspective, there’s only 351 teams that play Division I men’s basketball. Taking that into account, it makes all the sense in the world to why Howland’s team wasn’t prepared to go on the road to Cincinnati, even if the Bearcats are spending the season across the river in Kentucky at BB&T Arena, instead of on-campus at Fifth Third Arena while the facility gets a facelift. Side note: Would this mean that the Bearcats are in the discussion to be the best team in Kentucky?
Given the fact that Mississippi State has 11 underclassmen on its roster, I completely understand why Howland would play such a weak schedule in the non-conference. Howland has a track record of getting to 20 wins in the third year of all three of his previous coaching stops. Not that the veteran coach was trying to inflate the teams record, more so, he was trying to build upon a young teams confidence. Either way, there’s little reason for any team out of the SEC, or any major conference, to play a schedule this weak. Although, things will ratchet up for State when they host UT-Martin on Saturday.
2. In the other game of note from the week, LSU picked up a win Wednesday night against a Houston team that previous won at Wake Forest and pounded Arkansas by 25. Senior forward Aaron Epps had a monster night, scoring 26 points, while grabbing 18 rebounds. First year head coach Will Wade has the Tigers 8-2 and headed in the right direction as they near SEC play.
3. Looking ahead to the weekend, I’m interested to see how Kentucky fairs at home against a veteran Virginia Tech team. The Hokies were an NCAA tournament participant a year ago and return the bulk of a roster that finished over .500 in what was a particularly brutal ACC in 2016-17. Up to this point, Kevin Knox (15.2 PPG and 5.8 RPG) and Hamidou Diallo (14.7 PPG) have been the Wildcats best players, but a 20-point outing for P.J. Washington against Monmouth last Saturday at Madison Square Garden has some thinking that the John Calipari could have found another reliable option. The key for the Cats will be how their freshman point guards, Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, handle the pressure defense that Hokies head coach Buzz Williams likes to incorporate. Tech is unlikely to be phased by the crowd at Rupp, seeing as they annually make trips to Duke and North Carolina. This isn’t a game that a lot of people will circle going into the weekend, but this matchup should gauge where this youthful team is at in mid-December.
4. Florida and Clemson face-off in the annual Orange Bowl classic at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, FL. The Gators had their struggles last week against rival Florida State and mid-major Loyola-Chicago, but rebounded to beat a tough Cincinnati team in Newark. This is an interesting matchup on multiple levels. The Tigers, sitting at 8-1, have a team that is determined to get to the NCAA Tournament in 2018, or else it might spell the end of their coach Brad Brownell. Not only are the Tigers poised, but they have the personnel to do so. Brownell’s starting lineup consists of five upperclassmen who are all currently averaging double-figures in scoring, led by Donte Grantham’s 16 PPG. The Gators match with their own experience in their first five and have already been through the ringer in the early season, after playing in the PK80. This will be yet another test for a team that was on everyone’s Final Four radar two weeks ago.
A few quick thoughts: 1) I think that the SEC would really appreciate it if Auburn were to end Middle Tennessee’s winning streak against the league. The Blue Raiders have won five in a row versus the league dating back to the 2014-15 season. The last team to beat them? Auburn. 2) I don’t think Vanderbilt could’ve picked a worse year to play at Arizona State. The Sun Devils are coming off of a win at Kansas. Yes, at Kansas. Something that has only happened 10 times since Bill Self took over in 2003. The Sun Devils are currently ranked fifth by the AP and received five first-place votes. Although, there is a positive for Vandy. While the human voters love ASU, KenPom isn’t as fond. The college basketball advanced analytics guru has Bobby Hurley’s team ranked 32nd, while coming in at 152nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The bad news: ASU has four starters currently shooting over 41 percent from three. 3) LSU, Stephen F. Austin is always good, so don’t overlook them.
5. No. 20 Tennessee will welcome 7th-ranked North Carolina to a checkered Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Volunteers will likely draw motivation from falling by only two points in Chapel Hill a year ago in a game where they led by as much as 15—it should be stated that the Tar Heels played without point guard Joel Berry. That motivation might not be what’s at the top of Charlotte native Grant Williams mind Sunday afternoon. Earlier this week, Williams made it known that he grew up a fan of the Tar Heels and is very much looking forward to another opportunity to stick it to the flagship school of his home state. The TBA crowd will undoubtedly be a factor, with 21,768 expected to be checkered in orange and white, but UT will need to fall back on their defensive execution if they’re going to pull off the upset. The Tar Heels currently are tenth in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and boast one of the better backcourts in college basketball in Berry, Theo Pinson, and the much-improved Kenny Williams. Stetch-four Luke Maye has been the story of the early season for the Tar Heels. Last time in the state of Tennessee, Maye immortalized his name in Carolina basketball lore with a buzzer-beating shot against Kentucky that sent Caroina to the Final Four on way to a national title. Maye, currently is averaging a double-double (19.9 PPG and 10.5 RPG) and has caused matchup issues in every game outside of Michigan State. Tennessee doesn’t have the length of the Spartans, so they’ll need to be creative in stopping the junior forward. The Vols do have an advantage inside with Williams and Admiral Schofield, not because of their height, but because of their girth and experience. They’ll need to utilize that early and often against the three freshman bigs that Roy Williams will deploy.
Stephen F. Austin (9-1) at LSU (8-2) 12:00PM CT SEC Network
Virginia Tech (9-1) at #8 Kentucky (8-1) 1:00PM CT ESPN2
Georgia (7-1) at UMass (5-5) 2:00PM CT NBCSN
Illinois State (4-6) at Ole Miss (5-4) 2:30PM CT SEC Network
#22 Florida (6-3) vs Clemson (8-1) in Sunrise, FL 3:30PM CT
Middle Tennessee State (7-1) vs Auburn (8-1) in Birmingham, AL 5:00PM CT SEC Network
UT-Martin (3-7) at Mississippi State (8-1) 7:00PM CT SEC Network+
Troy (5-5) at Arkansas (7-2) 7:00PM CT
North Florida (5-7) at Missouri (8-2) 7:30PM CT SEC Network
Vanderbilt (3-6) at #5 Arizona State (9-0) 1:00 PAC-12 Networks
#7 North Carolina (9-1) at #20 Tennessee (7-1) 2:00PM CT ESPN
Be sure to check out The Starting Five Monday morning for a look back on the weekend.