The narrative–DRINK!–around the SEC this season has been about the improved quality and depth of the league. Unlike in years past, Kentucky and Florida aren’t peacefully sitting atop of the standing just buying time until March when the “real” season begins. Instead, Auburn finds themselves alone atop the SEC perch near the midpoint of conference play; Tennessee only sits two wins away from matching their win total from a year ago; both Alabama and Arkansas have found themselves in the Top 25 at times this season; and South Carolina, thanks to recent wins over Kentucky and Florida, has shown that they’re still a competitor just a season removed from a Final Four berth. All of that is all good and well and should make the good people down at the league office in Birmingham feel warm and fuzzy. But, in college basketball, a league is not evaluated upon how teams perform in conference play, rather how they perform out of conference. The ACC may have sent nine teams to the dance last season, but many only remember that one, North Carolina, made it past the first weekend. While the Tar Heels did cut down the nets in Phoenix and bring the ACC glory, it was the SEC who garnered attention when three teams were left in last years final eight.
The SEC didn’t necessarily, surpass the ACC last season, certainly not in prestige, but the league put everyone across college basketball on notice that the gap was closing. Coming into the weekend, KenPom rates the Big 12 as the nations best conference, while the SEC finds itself ranked fourth, behind the ACC and Big East. This weekend’s Big 12/SEC Challenge offers a few key matchups that will allow all of the national college basketball pundits to further handicap both leagues and will go a long way, come Selection Sunday, in determining how the committee values the SEC. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. College GameDay tipped off their roadshow last weekend in Lexington and now will follow the Wildcats on the road to Morgantown, WV for their showdown with Bob Huggins and his seventh-ranked Mountaineers. West Virginia holds the lofty distinction as being the only team to have defeated second-ranked Virginia on the season. That came in Morgantown back in December when the Cavaliers were unable to handle the tempo and crowd noise at WVU Coliseum. Kentucky, who is 2-2 in road games this season, will have a major test on their hands. Once ranked No. 2, the Mountaineers have sputtered in the past few weeks, losing three of their last four, with those losses coming to at then-No.8 Texas Tech, home last week to then-No.10 Kansas and on Monday at TCU. All losses that come with the territory of playing in the nations highest rated conference.
The defensive pressure that has garnered the Mountaineers the ‘Press Virginia’ moniker will be a chief concern for John Calipari and his young Cats. Senior guards Jevon Carter (16.9 PPG) and Daxter Miles (13.1 PPG) have played a major role in WVU being ranked eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, along with coming in at second in the nation in defensive turnover percentage, 26.1. Carter, who’s second in the nation in steals per game, 3.4, will likely draw the assignment of freshmen point guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green. Kentucky is rated 231st in terms of offensive turnover percentage and will need quality ballhandling from the two if they’re to avoid the chaos that Carter and company like to enact.
WVU forward Sagaba Konate has been his own defensive force for the Mountaineers. Konate is sixth in the nation at 2.3 blocks per game. For reference this is what Konate did against Kansas:
Sagaba Konate hosted a BLOCK PARTY in the first half Monday night. pic.twitter.com/A7sl7son1X
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 16, 2018
Yeah, he’s not of this earth. That being said, the Wildcats will need a man’s performance from freshman center Nick Richards, who despite his high recruiting ranking has struggled throughout the first half of conference play, and anyone else who dares to challenge that man at the rim.
Calipari’s bunch have fallen short in marquee games against Kansas, UCLA and last weekend against Florida. Can this group of freshman find a way to stay within themselves in a hostile environment and get a signature win or will they take another stop closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble?
2. While Kentucky-West Virginia was the made for TV matchup back when the ESPN schedule makers were putting the event together, Alabama-Oklahoma, or Collin Sexton vs Trae Young, has become the must-watch game of the weekend. The two freshman point guards rated seventh and 23rd, respectively, in the 2017 ESPN 100. Given the results this season, Young, shockingly wasn’t the one rated in the Top 10, let alone first, and that’s not to discredit what Sexton has done in being the SEC’s third-leading scorer at 18.5 points per game. But Young leading the nation in both points, 30.3, and assists, 9.6, is just absurd for a guy Calipari ‘didn’t even realize that he was this good‘. Aside from the matchup between the two freshmen, this is a monumental opportunity for the Tide to notch, not only a win against a KenPom Top 20 opponent but to garner a marquee non-conference win after falling short against Arizona, Texas and Minnesota—where two of those losses look worse by the day.
In case you haven’t seen Trae Young…
Trae Young put the defender on skates pic.twitter.com/xRwcL4v7Nv
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 20, 2018
Trae Young walks the tightrope and hits ANOTHER deep 3. pic.twitter.com/awgB8FkiTi
— ESPN (@espn) January 24, 2018
You’re welcome. Now tune in.
3. Texas A&M, as has been previously mentioned several times in this column, has been a massive disappointment up to this point. But there’s good news. Saturday’s trip to Lawrence doesn’t feel as daunting as it once was. Kansas has lost three times in-state this year. Once in at the Sprint Center in Kansas City to Washington and twice inside Allen Fieldhouse to Arizona State and Texas Tech. Outside of the opening night matchup with West Virginia, A&M hasn’t played nearly to the level of the Red Raiders or Sun Devils to give anyone confidence that they can achieve the same feat in Lawrence, but at least they’re equipped to do so. The fact is KU has no answer for the inside pair of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. Seven-foot Udoka Azubuike is essentially the lone inside presence for the Jayhawks that could give head coach Billy Kennedy pause. Outside of that, there isn’t another capable big man on the roster that can slow down Davis and Williams, particularly when both are on the floor. A&M will have to do a superb job of defending the three-point line, as this is maybe Bill Self’s best three-point shooting team, as the Jayhawks make just over ten three’s per game, 10.6. Currently, Joe Lunardi has A&M slotted as a seven-seed in his latest Bracketology. Looking at the Aggies 13-7 overall record and 2-6 conference mark, I can’t see them getting by on much more losses, despite the 31st best RPI and 11th SOS ranking. Win on Saturday and the tension of the second half of SEC play will be lighter.
4. Had South Carolina not gone to Gainesville Wednesday night and upset No. 20 Florida, I would’ve chosen Georgia at Kansas State as my under the radar game of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Instead, the Gamecocks have stolen my attention thanks to the wins over Georgia on the road, home against Kentucky and in Gainesville the other night. Frank Martin is supposed to be in the middle of a rebuilding year, but apparently, that hasn’t been his or his team’s mindset up to this point. Texas Tech has struggled on the road in recent weeks, losing three straight, including at Oklahoma, at Texas and last Saturday by 18 points in Ames to a less than stellar Iowa State team. At the moment, Lunardi doesn’t have the Gamecocks near the cut line of an NCAA at-large bid but add a win against a KenPom Top 15 team before the start of February and it might be time to seriously consider the Gamecocks on the bubble.
THE DAILY ROTHSTEIN
South Carolina has moved the needle. Gamecocks go to Gainesville and beat Florida. That’s the type of win that gets you into the NCAA Tournament.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 25, 2018
Stay hungry, stay humble, Gamecocks.
5. Other thoughts going into the weekend:
- Georgia-Kansas State will be the closest thing to a bubble matchup that occurs in this weekend’s challenge. Heading into the weekend, the Bulldogs sit in Lunardi’s Next Four Out, while the Wildcats are among the four slated for Dayton in Lunardi’s Last Four In. This game is probably more of a ‘must-win’ for Mark Fox and Georgia. K-State already has quality wins at home against Oklahoma and TCU, while having a bad loss to Tulsa in a neutral site. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs resume is highlighted by a November victory against St. Mary’s, who hasn’t lost since but is marred by a 10-point loss at UMass.
- Florida hosts a Baylor team that has yet to win on the road this year and isn’t near the quality of last year’s squad that earned the school’s first number one ranking; Ole Miss is also searching for its first road win in Austin, against a Texas team that is still trying to find consistency; Tennesee has a tricky matchup with Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum, a place known to cause Top 25 teams issues; Oklahoma State travels to old Southwest Conference rival Arkansas, in what is sure to be an up and down affiar; and Vanderbilt will look for their own magic as they welcome in TCU.
- The unfortunate four left out of the challenge will continue conference play on Saturday. LSU travels to Auburn, in a game where I’m sure the Tigers of the Plains will wait until the second half to start playing. And Missouri visits Starkville, where both teams will try to avoid a 0-2 week.
#14 Texas Tech (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) at South Carolina (13-7, 4-4 SEC) 11:00 AM CT ESPN2
Baylor (12-8, 2-6 Big 12) at #20 Florida (14-6, 6-2 SEC) 1:00 PM CT ESPN
Ole Miss (11-9, 4-4 SEC) at Texas (13-7, 4-4 Big 12) 1:00 PM CT ESPN2
Georgia (12-7, 3-5 SEC) at Kansas State (15-5, 5-3 Big 12) 1:00 PM CT ESPNU
#12 Oklahoma (15-4, 5-3 Big 12) at Alabama (13-7, 5-3 SEC) 1:15 PM CT ESPN
#22 Tennessee (14-5, 5-3 SEC) at Iowa State (11-8, 2-6 Big 12) 3:00 PM CT ESPNU
TCU (15-5, 3-5 Big 12) at Vanderbilt (7-13, 2-6 SEC) 3:00 PM CT ESPN2
Texas A&M (13-7, 2-6 SEC) at #5 Kansas (16-4, 6-2 Big 12) 3:30 PM CT ESPN
Oklahoma State (13-7, 3-5) at Arkansas (14-6, 4-4 SEC) 5:00 PM CT ESPN2
LSU (12-7, 3-4 SEC) at #19 Auburn (18-2, 6-1 SEC) 5:00 PM CT SEC Network
Kentucky (15-5, 5-3 SEC) at #7 West Virginia (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) 6:00 PM CT ESPN
Missouri (13-7, 3-4 SEC) at Mississippi State (14-6, 2-5 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network