The SEC has maintained three or four teams in the Associated Press Top 25 throughout the season but now finds only Auburn and Tennessee in this weeks poll. Has the league cannibalized itself? Is there a team that could have staying power in March? Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. The narrative around the SEC all season long has been about how improved the league is. This is thanks to improved coaching (i.e. Cuonzo Martin, Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl), more talent across the league outside of Lexington (i.e. Collin Sexton, Missouri’s Top 4 recruiting class) and a myriad of other factors. All that being said, I’m not sure whether there is a team that has staying power once the calendar turns to March and the NCAA Tournament arrives. Auburn has been the best team in the league this year and spent the past two weeks in the Top 10 of the AP poll before dropping to 12th this week. The Tigers 84-75 loss at South Carolina, in which they trailed 37-11 with 6:11 left in the first half, is concerning although the Gamecocks have given a lot of teams trouble at home. The biggest concern for Pearl should be the loss of sophomore forward Anfernee McLemore who leads the SEC in blocks per game at 2.7. The loss of McLemore leaves an already depleted roster, thanks to the FBI probe, down to eight scholarship players. Even more concerning, of those eight scholarship players, only two of them, Chuma Okeke and Horace Spencer are 6-7 or taller. A team that already lacked size just got smaller and lost their best rim protector. Auburn has been able to survive the losses of Daniel Purifoy and Austin Wiley and has a surprising amount of depth in playing nine players at least 14 minutes a night, but it’ll be interesting to see how they adjust down a body as the competition stiffens over the next few weeks.
I was already skeptical of how good the Tigers were, due to their lone win against a Top 25 KenPom team (at Tennessee), this only reaffirms my angst to buy into the Tigers. What also has to be considered is whether the FBI cloud will finally affect the team. The loss of Purifoy and Wiley, who would both provided size, especially Wiley at 6-11, hasn’t shown to be that big of an issue, but good chance it does not. The chances are that Auburn will finish the SEC regular season as league champs, which should be good enough for a spot in Nashville for the first and second rounds. I’d expect a considerable Auburn contingent to travel to Nashville, allowing for a similar atmosphere to the one we’ve observed at Auburn Arena this year. They’ll need all of the support they can get because without great size this will be one of the more vulnerable 2 or 3 seeds in the tournament.
2. Great week for Mark Fox and Georgia. The Bulldogs pulled off the series sweep of Florida for the first time since the 1996-97 season with a 72-69 overtime win in Gainesville. Then followed up the win with an upset over then-No. 18 Tennessee, 73-62, in Athens. Georgia’s tournament chances still are unlikely, with an RPI of 66 and losing conference record, but their 2-0 week showed just how balanced the SEC is this year. Georgia, an NIT teams, maybe, defeated a team that went to the Elite Eight a year ago and another that has the potential to be in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this year. The Bulldogs will get a chance to work themselves closer to the bubble before St. Louis. A win at South Carolina and at home against LSU, then split or, preferably sweep, the final two versus Texas A&M and at Tennessee, both of which would be Quadrant 1 wins, and there might be some bubble vibes heading to St. Louis. More importantly, for Mark Fox, a strong finish will signal another year in Athens after there were some whispers over his job security.
3. In terms of job security, we already knew that Andy Kennedy would be stepping down as head coach at Ole Miss, despite a year left on his contract, at seasons end. What we didn’t anticipate was Kennedy calling it quits Saturday night after a 79-62 loss at Mississippi State, the teams seventh straight and ninth in ten games.
ANNOUNCEMENT | Andy Kennedy steps down as head coach effective immediately. Tony Madlock will serve as acting head coach for the remainder of the 2017-18 season.
— Ole Miss Basketball (@OleMissMBB) February 18, 2018
A frustrated Andy Kennedy after the loss to Arkansas. pic.twitter.com/VVDjb4t4xl
— Andy Lee (@AndyLeeWTVA) February 14, 2018
The agreement to part ways with the university struck up an interesting conversation about where people value Ole Miss’ basketball program, particularly in this retooled SEC. Coming into the season, the Rebels program was third in wins since Kennedy took over in 2006, only behind Kentucky and Florida. Kennedy led the Rebels to two NCAA Tournament appearances, nine 20-win seasons over his first 12 years at the helm and leaves as the programs winningest coach, at 245 victories. Overall, Kennedy raised the profile of the program to the point where it was deemed necessary for the athletics department to build a brand new, state-of-the-art $96.5-million arena in the Pavillion. The Rebels were a 22-win team just a season ago. 11 months later Kennedy is on the street. I wonder, with the changing landscape of the SEC, looking at the coaches that have entered the league in the past couple of years, was this a ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ move? It may very well be, but typically schools with the lack of success like Ole Miss, who are already surrounded by controversy thanks to their football program and best known in the college basketball world for being the team Bryce Drew hit ‘The Shot’ against—how many of you knew that it was Ole Miss—don’t run their schools all-time winningest coach before the end of the season. Weighing that history, or lack thereof, the question now is, who are they going to get? East Tennessee State head coach Steve Forbes has already been linked to the job but he signed a contract extension on Monday.
East Tennessee State is expected to announce a contract extension for head coach Steve Forbes through 2023, sources told ESPN.
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 19, 2018
Anyone who follows college athletics knows that head coaching contracts are often times signed for leverage purposes more so than coming to an actual agreement. In that, the buyout money goes up. If Forbes is the replacement for Kennedy, is he that much of an upgrade, if at all? Earlier this season, I spoke to Kennedy prior to his team’s matchup at Middle Tennessee, ribbing him for agreeing to play a program that was coming off of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances where they won as a double-digit seed. Kennedy could’ve easily been a jerk but he laughed and had light conversation with me before we parted ways. In no way does that mean Kennedy is the right coach for Ole Miss, but anyone who can appreciate a random reporter coming up them before game time and joking around with is alright in my book. Best of luck to Andy wherever he ends up next.
ca4. John Calipari can relax now that Kentucky has finally won a game, following a four-game losing streak. In the postgame after the loss to Auburn, Calipari said that he felt that once his team won they would ‘get on a roll‘. Well, we’ll see as the Wildcats travel to Arkansas, a place where only LSU has won, which also represents everything that this SEC season has been. The Wildcats are plenty talented, but the idea that a win over an Alabama team that has two true road wins on the season will be the springboard to a run prior to the SEC Tournament doesn’t seem realistic. The Wildcats still aren’t a good or even average three-point shooting team, shooting 4 of 11 on Saturday, and still have room to improve when it comes to their passing. I’ve been on record of burying this team, so I won’t sit here and tell you that I’m ready to buy in, but given how this college basketball season has gone there’s still a way for me to come out looking foolish.
5. I don’t have a vote for the SEC all-conference teams but that’s not going to stop me from working the phones and making sure that every voter knows that Vanderbilt’s Jeff Roberson should be on the All-SEC first-team list. Forget about the Commodores 11-16 record and focus in on the fact that Roberson, along with his roommate Riley LaChance, hasn’t given up on this season despite all of the close losses and disappointments. Roberson, this week’s SEC Player of the Week, averages 18.1 points per game in conference play, good for third in the league, and ranks top ten in the league play in rebounding at 6.6 rebounds per game. Roberson’s production has been consistent all season long and he’s more than deserving of a first-team nod, particularly when you factor in Georgia’s Yante Maten, the likely SEC Player of the Year, is the only other player to rank top ten in both points and rebounding during league play.
Mississippi State (19-8, 7-7 SEC) at Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8 SEC) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
Ole Miss (11-16, 4-10 SEC) at Missouri (18-9, 8-6 SEC) 8:00 PM CT ESPN2
Kentucky (18-9, 7-7 SEC) at Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) 8:00 PM CT ESPN
Vanderbilt (11-16, 5-9 SEC) at LSU (15-11, 6-8 SEC) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
Georgia (15-11, 6-8 SEC) at South Carolina (14-13, 5-9 SEC) 5:30 PM CT SEC Network
Alabama (17-10, 8-6 SEC) at #12 Auburn (23-4, 11-3 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
Florida (17-10, 8-6 SEC) at #19 Tennessee (19-7, 9-5 SEC) 8:00 PM CT ESPN2
Be sure to check back on Friday for the SEC Starting Five, as I look back on the week that was and ahead to the weekend slate of SEC hoops. For updates throughout the week, follow me on Twitter, @JulianCouncil.