The SEC is a complete and utter logjam and we should all embrace that, instead living by the ways of past by kneeling before our Kentucky overlord. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. I wrote about a week and a half ago once the SEC was through about three games in conference play that I didn’t have a clue who was the best team in this league, let alone who was good and who I knew for sure wasn’t good. Then, I mocked Dick Vitale’s ‘bold’ proclamation that all roads to the regular season title led through Lexington. In that, I partially agreed while also recognizing that the state of affairs in an improved league—DRINK! Well, here we are a few weeks and some days later and yes I’m still not exactly sure I can pinpoint who is great, who is good, who is alright and who is just complete and utter garbage. This I can tell you: There is no great team in the SEC. The league is largely comprised, if not entirely comprised, of good to average teams. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has eight SEC teams in his NCAA Tournament field, while he has 3 others on the outside looking in.
I know it’s just January but this Lunardi update is remarkable for SEC. 8 teams in right now and 3 on bubble, almost entire league in the NCAA picture pic.twitter.com/c9untmaIgW
— Dane Bradshaw (@DaneBradshaw) January 16, 2018
That’s 11 teams in a 14 team conference. The other three that are being considered are South Carolina, who is 3-3 in the league and just upset Kentucky; Ole Miss, who handed Florida its only conference loss; and Vanderbilt, who has been in basically every game until the final five minutes. There is no proverbial ‘easy out’ in the SEC. I know that it’s cliche to say that because “it’s conference play”. But let’s be real, in every conference, there’s always that doormat that everyone knows isn’t going to win more than a game if they’re that lucky. The ACC has Pitt, the Big East has DePaul and the SEC doesn’t have that team this year.
As I noted earlier, there isn’t a single team in this league that I could foresee winning a national championship. Sure, this is college basketball where the sports title is left in the hands of the individual players and coaches opposed to a committee picking from a litter of 6 teams, so anything is possible. I’d say that Florida and Kentucky are the two that are most likely to find their ways into the Final Four, where a few made shots and breaks will have you climbing up an NCAA sponsored Werner ladder cutting down the nets. Outside of that, like Lunardi, I can see about seven or eight SEC teams earning a tournament bid, but the longevity of those teams isn’t something I’m willing to buy into. Tennessee will give a lot of teams issues with their physicality, but the guard play is concerning. Auburn, is well-coached and loves to play up and down, but they’re woefully undersized which can hurt a team once the pace slows down in the tournament making every possession valuable. Texas A&M is certainly experienced enough to make a run, but we still have a long way to go before they can even legitimately be considered for a berth given where they currently sit in the league. Either way, embrace the logjam and don’t even pretend to believe that you have this league pegged. Leave that to me.
2. In case you’ve forgotten, South Carolina went to the Final Four last April on the back of Sindarius Thornwell, with a little bit of help from guards Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier. Another key edition of that magical run was junior forward Chris Silva (13.4 PPG & 8.8 RPG during NCAA’s) who is one of the lone returnees from last spring. Silva has, by process of elimination, become the Gamecocks leader, while also growing into one of the best players in the SEC. In Tuesday night’s upset of No. 18 Kentucky, Silva scored a career-high 27 points and was unguardable for the majority of the 35 minutes that he was on the floor. Silva has been aided by a pair graduate transfers in guards Frank Booker (11.8 PPG in SEC play) and Wesley Meyers (10.0 PPG in SEC play), which has allowed Frank Martin’s team to remain competitive in a rugged SEC.
Admittedly, I haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on the Gamecocks this season, but I may need to turn more of my attention to this team. In a year that was supposed to be a major rebuild for Martin, the coach that made Kansas State basketball relevant and achieved what had seemed to be the impossible by taking USC to the sports largest stage, is at it again. The Gamecocks aren’t great offensively, ranking 167th in adjusted offensive efficiency by KenPom, which is good for 13th in the SEC, but they top the league in adjusted defensive efficiency at 15th nationally. That kind of defensive ability will keep South Carolina in most games they play, especially against teams that have superior talent (See: Kentucky).
The prospects of landing five-star Zion Williamson, paired with the recent signing of FBI lightning rod Brian Bowen has Gamecock fans excited about what next season could hold. But back-to-back wins at Georgia and over the Wildcats at home show that there’s still a lot that this season could hold. Win on Saturday against Tennessee and Lunardi may have to put them up for consideration for a tournament bid.
3. It’s been no secret that I’ve been wanting to have a love affair with Alabama, sorry Florida. Avery Johnson’s team has their moments where its youth shows, but the upside and talent of this team is unquestioned. Even without starting point guard and likely NBA lottery-pick Collin Sexton, who sat out with an abdominal injury, the Crimson Tide were able to upset No. 17 Auburn thanks to 28 points from backcourt mate John Petty, who hit 8 of 13 from three. What stood out on Wednesday night was the Tide’s depth. Center Donta Hall was a game-time decision, due to a wrist injury, and was limited to 15 minutes. Freshman Herbert Jones earned the start in place of Sexton, scoring a career-high 11 points. Freshman forward Alex Reese also made a large impact with 7 points and 3 rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench. This is a team that has now won three straight and looks to be one of the many contenders for the SEC regular season crown. Obviously, the health of Sexton is paramount to any success that the Tide will have, but it’s an encouraging sign to see his teammates step up and gain a significant victory in his absence.
— Texas A&M Basketball (@aggiembk) January 17, 2018
This shot shows just how fragile a win in the SEC is this season. Texas A&M was millimeters away from being 0-6 in the league when just three weeks back they were considered one of the top 5 teams in America. That close to this season potentially going down the drain even further. Instead, the Aggies got the three-ton gorilla off their back and now can look ahead to competing in the league, opposed to worrying about when they’ll win a game. Finally, Billy Kennedy was able to roll out the starting lineup of Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg, Admon Gilder and Duane Wilson. The five played 30-plus minutes each and scored all but 10 of the Aggies 71 points on Tuesday night against Ole Miss. Williams, who turned down a potential spot in the NBA lottery last summer, played his most complete game of the season scoring 18 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. Davis continued his All-SEC campaign scoring 20 points of his own while collecting 12 rebounds. The pair will have the advantage in the post every night in SEC play. It’s important that the guards recognize that so A&M can maximize their offensive potential. Win a date with Missouri on Saturday and this thing could finally get rolling for the Aggies.
5. Thoughts heading into the weekend:
- The fact that Arkansas is 2-4 in the SEC says all that you need to know about the state of the league. The Razorbacks have no excuse to be at the bottom of the league, but there they sit. Senior guards Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard make up not just the most experienced backcourt, but likely the best outside of Gainesville. Combined those three with Top 50 recruit in freshman center Daniel Gafford, who’s been a great two-way player in the post for the Hogs, and this is clearly a team that should be better. This is the same team that impressed at the PK80 with wins over Oklahoma and UConn and defeated Tennessee at the start of the conference season. Ole Miss has played better than what their 10-8, 3-3 league record shows and won’t be intimidated by the scene at Bud Walton Arena.
- I got my first good look at Auburn on Wednesday night against Alabama and was disappointed by the team’s overall performance. They were impressive in the first half forcing 13 turnovers with Sexton on the bench but then struggled in the second half, particularly defensively against Petty. Guard Bruce Brown is just absurd from behind the arc and Mustapha Herron can jump out of the gym. I love the Tigers depth but hope to see more against Yante Maten and Georgia who visit Auburn Arena on Saturday evening.
- Florida and Kentucky will be featured in the first edition of ESPN’s College GameDay this season. Can the Wildcats come out on top in a spotlight game? Kentucky has had their struggles in the Champions Classic against Kansas and again in the CBS 2K Sports Classic against UCLA. But have also had highs against Louisville and Texas A&M at home. The biggest question won’t be whether they’ll be able to handle a Saturday night primetime affair in Rupp, but whether they’ll be able to defend and shoot the three well enough against the Gators. Florida is tied at 34th in the nation in three-point field goals per game with 9.8, while Kentucky is 6th in three-point field goal defense, holding opponents to 29 percent from behind the arc. Meanwhile, the Cats rank among the worst in Divsion I in three-point field goals per game, 341st, which was a problem at South Carolina when they shot 1 for 11, with Kevin Knox shooting 1 for 8 alone. The Gators would also benefit from another 28 point, 6 for 7 from three effort from KeVaughn Allen, as he hopes to gain a level of consistency in the middle of the conference season.
LSU (11-6, 2-3 SEC) at Vanderbilt (6-11, 1-5 SEC) 12:00 PM CT SEC Network
Ole Miss (10-8, 3-3 SEC) at Arkansas (12-6, 2-4 SEC) 2:20 PM CT SEC Network
Missouri (13-5, 3-2 SEC) at Texas A&M (12-6, 1-5 SEC) 3:00 PM CT ESPN2
Georgia (12-5, 3-3 SEC) at #17 Auburn (16-2, 4-1 SEC) 5:00 PM CT SEC Network
#21 Tennessee (12-5, 3-3 SEC) at South Carolina (12-6, 3-3 SEC) 5:00 PM CT ESPN2
Florida (13-5, 5-1 SEC) at #18 Kentucky (14-4, 4-2 SEC) 7:15 PM CT ESPN
Mississippi State (14-4, 2-3 SEC) at Alabama (12-6, 4-2 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
Be sure to look for the SEC Starting Five Monday for all of the reaction from the SEC basketball weekend that was.