New Year, New SEC. Here’s The Starting Five:
1. Impressive weekend for Kentucky. The Wildcats ended 2017 with a 90-61 drubbing of archrival Louisville, led by a career-high 24 points from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Cats then rang in the new year with a hard-fought 66-161 victory over Georgia behind 21 more points from Gilgeous-Alexander. Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo are probably UK’s best players, but if we’re starting to see Gilgeous-Alexander turn the proverbial corner, then one might need to reevaluate the power structure on the roster. Either way, what may be more important than identifying the top cats is for everyone on that bench to understand that sometimes it won’t be their night and to relegate their egos in favour of whoever’s night it may be. This weekend it was Gilgeous-Alexander’s time to shine, while Knox didn’t touch double-figures in scoring. At the beginning of the weekend many would’ve seen that as trouble for John Calipari, instead, it turned out to potentially be the best thing to happen for the team. I have a feeling that this is a team on the cusp of hitting its stride.
Also, I don’t understand how a team that blows out Louisville and skirts past a good Georgia team drops in the rankings, then again it doesn’t matter.
2. Alabama showed Saturday night against a Top 5 Texas A&M team what a lot of us have been waiting for, a complete performance against a quality opponent. Avery Johnson tested his team in the non-conference with games against Minnesota in Brooklyn, Texas in Birmingham and at Arizona, but the Tide was unable to pick up a win against either of those foes. These close calls had ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi pointing to later Selection Sunday trouble for Alabama, that’s why it was important for the Crimson Tide to come out and in their SEC opener at home against a shorthanded Aggies team with a win. Freshman studs John Petty (18 points, 5-for-9 from three), who was named SEC Freshman of the Week, and Collin Sexton (16 points) showed why everyone in Tuscaloosa should be excited about basketball following, and even during, the football teams run through the College Football Playoff. Donta Hall and Dazon Ingram scored 17 and 16 points, respectively, proving that this is more than a two-man team. Riley Norris, whose career is over due to a hip injury will certainly be missed as a reliable outside shooter and rebounder, along with his experience having been the lone senior on the team. Despite Norris’ absence, I like what this team can be, especially once Braxton Key, who recently returned from a knee injury gains some of the form that made him the Tide’s leading scorer in 2016-17. I’m looking forward to getting a live look at this team Tuesday night when they travel to Memorial Gym to face a struggling Vanderbilt team.
3. On the other hand, Texas A&M is left in a precarious situation. SEC Network analyst Jimmy Dykes echoed this sentiment multiple times during the broadcast Saturday evening: When A&M has all of its parts they’re a legitimate SEC title contender and likely a Top 10 team in the country. Unfortunately for Billy Kennedy, he’s had to deal with disciplinary issues, twice with leading scorer D.J. Hogg, and injuries, most recently to Marquette transfer Duane Wilson who left Saturday’s game with an apparent knee injury. The Aggies have the best frontcourt pairing in the SEC with Tyler Davis (13.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG) and Robert Williams (8.0 PPG, 9.9 RPG), who hasn’t touched the surface of where many expected him to be this year when he turned down a likely position in this past years NBA draft lottery. Combine that with a backcourt led by Admon Gilder (12.7 PPG), Wilson (12.3 PPG) and Hogg (14.6 PPG, 50.0 3FG%) and you have a roster that should be competing for an SEC title. That’s without mentioning the bench contributions from Tonny Trocha-Morelos (8.8 PPG including 8 starts) and Savion Flagg (8.3 PPG).
The Aggies have played three games this season with the starting lineup of Davis, Williams, Gilder, Wilson and Hogg, and only one with their full complement of players. While the status of Wilson’s knee is uncertain, Gilder should be back in another week from his own knee injury, but until Hogg and others that have been previously disciplined decide to get on board with Kennedy and the rest of the program the Aggies will continue to flutter in 2018.
Amen!!! Time for DJ Hogg to grow up! pic.twitter.com/RBxPUYEk22
— Rusty Burson (@RBinBCS) December 30, 2017
4. Arkansas deserves some discussion as a contender for the SEC title. The Razorbacks in front of a sellout crowd of 18, 696, trailed for most of the afternoon—first lead of the day came with 45 seconds left in the second half—Saturday against then 19th-ranked Tennessee, before battling back for a 95-93 overtime win. Senior guards Daryl Macon (career-high 33 points) and Jaylen Barford (28 points) led the furious second-half rally, with the help of freshman big man Daniel Gafford (15 points, 8 rebounds). Macon and Barford, along with fellow senior Anton Beard make up the SEC’s best backcourt, if not it’s toughest. I’ve said this about Tennessee and I think the same applies for Arkansas, looking at the crowd inside Bud Walton Arena Saturday afternoon I don’t know how anyone in the SEC goes to Fayetteville and comes out victorious. The buy-in level in Knoxville is still up in the air, although Thompson-Boling Arena currently comes in at 11th in the nation in attendance, that’s not a question for the folks in the Natural State. That’s why I was impressed with Tennessee despite the loss, they controlled the game in front of a raucous crowd before the pressure and environment, along with foul trouble, got to them. That’s going to be a nightly occurrence at Bud Walton this season, only backing up what Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones has long said about the potential of the Arkansas program. Ranked 22nd in the latest AP Top 25, Mike Anderson and the Hogs are starting to get the respect that they deserve.
5. Other Thoughts:
- Before knowing the result of the Kentucky-Louisville game I thought that Georgia had a great opportunity to beat Kentucky at Rupp on Sunday evening. Despite a double-double from Yante Maten (17 points, 12 rebounds) the Bulld0gs fell short 66-61.
- I mentioned above how I was impressed with Tennessee’s road performance at Arkansas despite falling apart late. The Vols lost, in part, because of the disqualification’s of Grant Williams (12 points) and Admiral Schofield (16 points, 4-for-6 from three). The other big reason is the guards being overwhelmed by the late pressure. The point I want to get across is who is Tennessee’s ‘go-to guy’? Williams is the leading scorer, 15.1 PPG, but is reliant on the guards feeding him the ball in the post. Jordan Bowden is the top scorer from the perimeter, 11.6 PPG, and the SEC’s top three-point shooter, 61.9 percent, but lacks the aggression necessary to take over a game late. Jordan Bone, who led the Vols with 21 points on Saturday, might be too aggressive, but at least he’s willing. This is something that Rick Barnes will need to figure out because it hurt them against North Carolina late and again against the Razorbacks.
- Florida tried its damnedest to blow a 20-point halftime lead against Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Commodores eventually cut the Gators lead to 4 with 1:43 left in the game but UF held on to start the conference slate on a high note. The Gators are very much so the most mercurial team in college basketball this season. That’s why a road swing at A&M and Missouri this week could go extremely well or very poorly, there’s no in between.
- Credit to Vandy for not quitting because I certainly shifted my attention away from them on Saturday. I still don’t understand how a team with three seniors in Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson, and Matthew Fisher-Davis can be this inept, but there’s still hope that Bryce Drew can turn this season around.
- After playing the 239th best non-conference slate, Mississippi State gets a chance to show whether that was at all beneficial when Arkansas visits The Hump Tuesday night.
- Bruce Pearl returns to Knoxville Tuesday night, as Auburn starts their SEC season. Despite all of the FBI mess, the Tigers are 12-1 and it looks Pearl is on his way to turning yet another SEC program into a national contender
What 2 Watch 4
Auburn (12-1, 0-0) at #23 Tennessee (9-3, 0-1) 6:00PM CT ESPNU
Alabama (9-4, 1-0) at Vanderbilt (5-8, 0-1) 6:00PM CT SEC Network
Florida (9-4, 1-0) at #11 Texas A&M (11-2, 0-1) 8:00PM CT ESPN2
#22 Arkansas (11-2, 1-0) at Mississippi State (12-1, 0-0) 8:00PM CT SEC Network
Ole Miss (8-5, 1-0) at Georgia (9-3, 0-1) 5:30PM CT SEC Network
#17 Kentucky (11-2, 1-0) at LSU (9-3, 0-0) 7:30PM CT SEC Network
Missouri (10-3, 0-0) at South Carolina (9-4, 0-1) 8:00PM CT ESPN2
Check back Friday morning for The Starting Five as I recap the week that was and preview the weekend’s slate of games.