In March of 2016, after only receiving three bids to that year’s NCAA Tournament, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey hired former Big East commissioner and veteran of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee Mike Tranghese to assist the conference in improving the league’s men’s basketball programs performance. Tranghese was officially named Special Advisor to the Commissioner for Men’s Basketball in the Southeastern Conference. Results were seen in the first season under Tranghese’s watch as the league last spring was represented by three of the sports final eight teams vying for a Final Four berth. The league was touted as being markedly improved heading into the season. The job isn’t done yet but this weekend’s results may have yielded the best indicator that SEC basketball has been indeed “saved”. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. The SEC made a major statement with a win over the Big 12 in this year’s Big 12/SEC Challenge. It was the leagues first win in the five-year history of the event. The SEC won two games where an unranked opponent from the league faced a ranked opponent from the Big 12. First, Alabama and Collin Sexton outdueled Trae Young and then-No. 12 Oklahoma, 70-63; then, Kentucky with the stunning comeback in Morgantown against then-No.7 West Virginia, 83-76. South Carolina came close to making it three wins for the SEC in that situation, holding a 61-59 lead with over 2 minutes to play, before Texas Tech closed the game on an 11-2 run. While the Big 12 saw two of their ranked teams go down to unranked SEC foes, the SEC was able to hold serve when the table was flipped. No.22 Tennessee fought off an early surge by Iowa State to cruise past the Cyclones in Ames, 68-45. Meanwhile, 20th-ranked Florida had no trouble with floundering Baylor, winning 81-60 at home on Saturday.
Commissioner Greg Sankey probably owes the biggest thank you to Vanderbilt who upset RPI No.16 TCU at home. The Horned Frogs were ranked in the AP Top 10 at the start of the month and have since dropped out of the polls altogether thanks to the rigors of the Big 12 and the season-ending knee injury to starting point guard Jaylen Fisher. That aside, this was a monumental win for a Vanderbilt program that has struggled to close out games this season, particularly at home. Seniors Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson were sensational, combining for 44 points on 17 of 26 shooting and 7 of 13 from three. Sankey can also send a letter down to Fayetteville, AR, where the Razorbacks were able to edge Oklahoma State 66-65, holding the Cowboys without a field goal in the final 7:36. I don’t think I need Sankey to send a note to the bell cow of the league in Kentucky, but to reiterate the significance of that win for the Wildcats and more importantly, in terms of the magnitude of this weekend, for the league.
Despite the great weekend for the conference, KenPom still rates the Big 12 as the best league, with the SEC still sitting down at fourth, where they began the weekend. Ignoring the advanced analytics, I don’t think a single person who pays attention to college basketball wouldn’t agree that the SEC has improved in the past two season. Last spring’s NCAA Tournament, where the league was represented by three of the final eight teams and this past weekends win over the Big 12 validates the plan that Sankey put in place when he brought in former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese to assist the league in basketball. I generally attribute the league’s success to the coaches, where in the last four years you’ve seen Bruce Pearl and Counzo Martin return to the league, while Rick Barnes and Ben Howland have brought in Final Four experience, not to mention Avery Johnson boasting an NBA championship, but Tranghese’s knowledge has certainly be beneficial to Sankey and the rest of the league.
2. Kentucky had the best win of the weekend in college basketball. Some will point to No.2 Virginia’s win at No.4 Duke, the Cavaliers first at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995, and North Carolina State upsetting then-No.10 North Carolina in overtime in Chapel Hill, becoming only the fourth time that Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams has lost to the Wolfpack. Although both of those results were phenomenal for the two winning party’s, they were at least conceivable in the minds of many, the NC State win less so. Even still, no one, other than Jay Williams anticipated what would occur Saturday evening inside WVU Coliseum, and even he had to be surprised.
J-Will goes with … not West Virginia.
Sorry WVU fans. pic.twitter.com/VLt1ROVwK5
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 27, 2018
Things went just about the way I thought they’d go. Sagaba Konate was blocking everything in sight, Jevon Carter was wreaking havoc on the Kentucky backcourt and Nick Richards still didn’t look like he was ready for the primetime.The Mountaineers held a 15-point lead at halftime and quickly extended it to 17, 50-33, at the start of the second half with 18:57 to play. At this point, I was thinking that the Wildcats were about to get rolled by at least 30, then we could really start the conversation about them falling towards the bubble. Instead, UK stopped turning the ball over, cutting their 11 turnover rate in the first half down to 5, and Kevin Knox took over. Knox scored 19 of his career-high 34 points after halftime. Knox shot 6 of 8 from the field, including 3 of 4 from three and a perfect 4 for 4 from the line, while the Mountaineers as a team went cold. WVU shot 32.4 percent in the second half, after shooting 47.1 percent in the first half and knocking down 7 of 12 from three-point range.
Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo also played a major factor in the second half, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the half. Richards probably had the most integral performance, outside of Knox percolating, by adding 8 points and 5 rebounds of his own after the break. People try to say that John Calipari isn’t more than a recruiter and that can be supported by his inability to win more than one national championship during this one-and-done era but has always been criminally unfair. For anyone who had that thought going into Saturday night, the jokes on you. Calipari did a masterful job in not only motivating his team but keeping them composed amidst bedlam. Credit to Calipari and to this team that may very well have reached the turning point in their season after falling out of the AP Poll a week ago.
3. It should be noted that the SEC was able to win the Big 12/SEC Challenge without the best team in the league, in Auburn. The Tigers sat out the event due to finishing in the leagues bottom four a year ago but still managed to make some noise this weekend with a 95-70 throttling of LSU at Auburn Arena. The Tigers broke from tradition, deciding to build a 19-point halftime lead thanks to strong first-half performance, playing relatively level with LSU in the second half, only outscoring them 44-38. Bruce Pearl’s team jumped up to No.11 in this week’s AP Poll and clearly looks to be the frontrunner for the SEC regular-season title, alongside Florida, who dropped a pivotal contest to South Carolina last week at home. Beyond that, it’s still relatively unclear how good this team is. The Tigers are the leagues highest rated team on KenPom at 8, their Top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, 4-0 against Top 50 KenPom teams, but still seem to lack a marquee win that one could point to that proves them to be a national title contender. The February 14th matchup with Kentucky and visit to Gainesville later that month on the 24th should be the best indicators on how good Auburn can be once the calendar flips to March.
Or you could listen to my enemy Jon Rothstein:
Auburn’s seven SEC wins have come by an average of 14.4 PPG. The Tigers aren’t just winning, they’re winning by a convincing margin.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 28, 2018
4. After a 79-68 loss to Kansas, and it wasn’t that close, it’s time that we have a serious conversation about Texas A&M’s NCAA at-large hopes. I’ve been of the opinion that once A&M returned all of their key players that they’d put things back together and be the team that opened the season crushing West Virginia by 23. Since SEC play started, the Aggies have been anything but that. There have been blowouts at Alabama and to Florida at home when they were banged up. Even when healthy, there’s been uninspiring efforts like the double-digit loss at Tennessee. Then there’s this past week where the Aggies didn’t look ready to play at LSU and were completely outclassed in Lawrence against Kansas, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence.
In his latest Bracketology, Joe Lunardi has A&M among his Last Four Byes, meaning the Aggies are creeping dangerously close to the bubble and a play-in game in Dayton for the First Four. As of Sunday, A&M has an RPI of 37, SOS of 6 and have no losses against teams outside the top 100 of the RPI, several metrics that the committee would love very favorably upon. The Aggies are 4-5 against top 50 RPI opponents, but only 1-5 since starting conference play against said opponents. The selection committee will value the wins over West Virginia and USC, and even Buffalo, given that all three are in play to win their respective conferences regular-season crown, but that doesn’t mean a sub-.500 SEC record can be ignored. Right now, the Aggies are tied with 8-13 Vanderbilt at the bottom of the league at 2-6. It’s hard to see a scenario where the Aggies get above .500 to 10-8, but anything less than 9-9, or maybe 8-10, will spell trouble come Selection Sunday.
I’d also liked to note that South Carolina should have a decent shot at an at-large. The wins over Kentucky and Florida had to have gained the attention of the committee. A win against Texas Tech on Saturday would’ve only built the Gamecocks more of a case, but Frank Martin’s team showed that the previous wins weren’t a fluke in leading the Red Raiders late. Currently, Lunardi has the Gamecocks in his Next Four Out, meaning there’s a lot of work to be done, but he acknowledges USC as a serious bubble contender. Resume building games against Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and twice versus Auburn await in the final month of the conference season.
5. Last week, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes brought up an interesting point about the Big 12/SEC Challenge in trying to match up the conferences top teams, opposed to catering the games for a made for TV audience i.e. Kentucky-Kansas (seen in past years) and Alabama-Oklahoma (featuring top NBA prospects Young and Sexton). The issue is a numbers game. The SEC has 14 teams, while the Big 12, despite its name, only features 10 members. Therefore, the bottom four from the previous season in the SEC are left out in the next year’s competition. Coincidentally, this year involved SEC leader Auburn being left out, along with Mississippi State, Missouri and LSU. I’m sure Sankey would’ve preferred to have the Tigers in over say Vanderbilt, but that’s not how the current model of qualification works.
Barnes suggested that leaving the schedule open until 10 days prior to the event would allow enough time to recognize who the top teams from each league are, likely based on the current standings, while also giving enough time for travel plans. This in all likelihood would create a far better competitive balance, but that’s also contingent on both leagues being equally competitive on the national scene. Fortunately, the SEC has been improved across the board, allowing for more build up for this year’s event outside of whoever Kentucky is playing.
TCU head coach Jamie Dixon also shared his views in his postgame press conference on Saturday, saying that he wouldn’t be opposed to playing the event in November or December like the ACC and Big Ten. Dixon was also pretty non-committal to answering directly how he felt about the challenge’s timing, he was a little preoccupied with the loss to Vanderbilt. A game where his team didn’t attempt a free throw in the 81-78 loss, becoming only the 15th time in the history of Divison I where a game was played without a team attempting a free throw.
I’m all for pairing the Big 12’s best against the SEC’s best but any year that Kansas and Kentucky don’t play in the Champions Classic ESPN will want to have that has the headline game of the weekend. In the end, this is an event controlled by the suits in Bristol, CT and will be based on what will produce the best ratings during a period of time where college basketball is just entering the American viewers’ consciousness. That being said, Barnes is right.
#23 Florida (15-6, 6-2 SEC) at Georgia (12-8, 3-5 SEC) 6:00 PM CST SEC Network
#11 Auburn (19-2, 7-1 SEC) at Ole Miss (11-10, 4-4 SEC) 8:00 PM CST SEC Network
Vanderbilt (8-13, 2-6 SEC) at #21 Kentucky (16-5, 5-3 SEC) 8:00 PM CST ESPN
Arkansas (15-6, 4-4 SEC) at Texas A&M (13-8, 2-6 SEC) 8:00 PM CST ESPNU
LSU (12-8, 3-5 SEC) at #18 Tennessee (15-6, 5-3) 5:30 PM CST SEC Network
Mississippi State (15-6, 3-5 SEC) at South Carolina (13-8, 4-4 SEC) 7:30 PM CST SEC Network
Missouri (13-8, 3-5) at Alabama (14-7, 5-3 SEC) 8:00 PM CST ESPN2
Check back Friday for the SEC Starting Five as a look back on the week that was and prepare you for the weekend of SEC hoops. For updates throughout the week, follow me on Twitter, @JulianCouncil.