Okay, so I started writing this biweekly column because I thought that SEC basketball was going to be watchable this season. Maybe I was wrong, Either way, I’m here for therapy and to boost the conferences morale, sorta. Here’s The Starting Five:
1. Arrived back in Nashville around 9pm last night still buzzing from the environment I experienced at Thompson-Boling Arena earlier in the day. 21,768 orange and white clad Vols fans with more than a few carolina blue dressed supporters, including yours truly, offered what makes college basketball so special. A December game that had few consequences for either side was a battle from the opening tip. Tennessee fed off of the crowd in the first half, seemingly rebounding every one of their missed shots, along with forcing 12 UNC turnovers and holding the Tar Heels to only two free-throw attempts. Howard transfer James Daniel stood out in the first half knocking down all three of the Vols three-point makes.
Despite numerous runs by the Tar Heels, Tennessee was able to hold a lead throughout the majority of the second half and into the final two minutes of the game. After Admiral Schofield convinced Rick Barnes to encourage the referees to review a tipped ball out of bounds—which was overtuened in the Vols favor—Tennessee took a, 70-67, lead on a Grant Williams lay-in. Following two Joel Berry free throws that cut the Volunteer lead to two, 70-69, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams called timeout to prepare his defense. At this time, I turned to the guy sitting next to me and said that Carolina would trap the inbounder. Having watched Williams coached teams for the past 14 years it was very obvious that was coming. Unfortunately for Tennessee, Barnes must’ve not seen that in the hours of film study leading up to the game, despite having matched up against Williams numerous times while the coach at Texas. Well, the Tar Heels were able to get the steal and took the lead for good on Kenny Williams three. Tennessee played well enough to win, but I have to attribute the late game mismanagement more to the coaching staff than the players.
At the end of the day, it boiled down to which team, and coaching staff, knew how to close. Given the fact that Carolina has years of NCAA Tournament and Final Four success they were clearly the team you’d predict to close out the game. Although, Tennessee made them more than work for it. If UT plays the way they did on Sunday and the VFL crowd proves to care about more than just the North Carolina game, then they won’t lose another home game this season. No team in the SEC has the type of experience that Carolina has and has a guard like Berry who can battle through that environment and defensive pressure fairly unfazed.
#Vols’ Jordan Bowden on UNC Sr PG Joel Berry II: He’s a great player. We’ve rattled a lot of guards, but that guy doesn’t get rattled.
— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) December 18, 2017
I like this Tennessee team, but I need them to show this type of energy every night and not just when UNC and Kentucky come to town. If they do that, then they’ll surely finish in the Top 4 of the SEC and be a tournament team.
Lastly, made it to Calhoun’s on the river. Solid ribs, not sure about the whole nation’s best thing but still good. Also, had the Helles from Smoky Mountain Brewery that was on tap, I highly recommend.
2. We learned on Saturday at Rupp Arena that Kentucky will be just fine this year. To this point, the young Wildcats hadn’t wowed many, but a, 93-86, hard fought win against a veteran Virginia Tech team showed the potential that we always knew John Calipari’s team possessed. The Wildcats enter Saturday’s contest 346th in the nation in made three-pointer’s per game, while the Hokies came into the game ranked 28th. The Cats made a season-high 11 trey’s, none bigger than redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo’s dagger, that put UK up, 88-83, with 47.9 seconds left in the game. For the game, Diallo shot 4-for-7 from behind the arc and showed why he was nearly a ‘non-and-done‘ player last spring. The Hokies, on the other hand, went 0-for from three in the second half until 2:46 left in the game, stymying their ability to close the talent gap. Point guard Quade Green played the best game of his young Wildcat career, despite wearing protective glasses after injuring an eye against Monmouth last Saturday, scoring 17 points and dishing out 5 assists in his 27 minutes off the bench. I’m not ready to declare Kentucky as the SEC favorite, I’ll just say that it would be foolish not to think that this team has just as good of a shot as Texas A&M, and whoever else may emerge, to win this league.
3. It may be time to officially start freaking out about Florida. Not really, but there’s gotta be a level of concern for the Gators after losing to Clemson, 71-69, their fourth in five outings. This loss wasn’t like most of the Gators losses this season. UF shot 41.7 percent from three, connecting on 10 treys. That’s typically the formula for the Gators to win. Unfortunately, Florida only shot 41 percent from the field, as a whole, and made 9 free throws compared to Clemson’s 20. I love what Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson provide for this team, but they desperately need to find a rim protector—maybe John Egbunu when he returns—and consistently make shots inside the three-point arc. Until then, Mike White and his team will continue to be the most mercurial team in college basketball.
4. Commence the SEC isn’t all that improved freakout! LSU found out why you never pay Stephen F. Austin to come and beat you. The teams played a tightly contested game all the way to the end. Trailing the Tigers, 81-79, with 31 seconds left in the game, Ivan Canete double-clutched to hit a corner three to put the Lumberjacks up two, 81-79, only to be topped by a three by Skylar Mays, giving LSU an, 82-81, lead. Canete scored another go ahead basket with 4 seconds left and should’ve been undone again, this time by Aaron Epps, but the LSU forwards game-winning lay-up rolled off of the rim as time expired. CBS College Basketball reporter John Rothstein has a “clever” saying anytime something like this happens.
LSU loses a buy game to Stephen F. Austin. The epitome of brutality.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 16, 2017
John Rothstein’s never-ending rolodex of cliches filling up your timeline. The epitome of brutality.
Georgia traveled to Amherst only to lose, 72-62, to UMass and tell me if you’ve heard this before, Ole Miss lost to another mid-major at home, this time, 101-97, in overtime to the Missouri Valley’s Illinois State, a 4-6 team entering the day.
Rough day for the SEC: Georgia loses to UMass, LSU to Stephen F. Austin, Ole Miss to Illinois State and Florida to Clemson.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) December 16, 2017
But hey, Auburn doth slayed the dragon MTSU, 76-70, so there’s that.
5. After this weekend, it seems like the SEC is back to square one. Kentucky and everybody else. Well, Texas A&M has differentiated themselves from the rest of the pack. So this is more like 2015-16 again when the Aggies won the regular-season, while the Wildcats won the conference tournament. I highly doubt that only three teams represent the league in the Big Dance, but I’m starting to fear that much of the same is in store for the conference.
What 2 Watch 4
South Carolina (8-2) at Clemson (9-1) 6:00PM ESPN2
Northern Kentucky (7-3) at Texas A&M (9-1) 7:00PM SEC Network+
Auburn (7-2) at Murray State (6-2) 7:00PM
Georgia Tech (4-4) at Georgia (7-2) 8:00PM ESPN2
Stephen F. Austin (10-1) at Missouri (8-2) 8:00PM ESPNU
Furman (8-3) at Tennessee (7-1) 8:00PM CT SEC Network
Buffalo (7-3) at Texas A&M (9-1) 8:00PM CT SEC Network
Check out The Starting Five Friday morning to look back on the week that was in SEC basketball.