Admittedly, I am a man of few mistakes. But when the time comes, I’m willing to right my wrongs and accept the consequences that come with my faults. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. Maybe I was wrong to have a funeral for Kentucky two weeks ago. Then again, the Wildcats were coming off of a loss at Texas A&M, their third straight, where they trailed by as many as 23 points and were bound to lose at Auburn. Well, the Cats indeed lost at Auburn, despite looking far more competitive than in their previous three losses. Still, at this point, no one nationally, or even in the state of Kentucky was counting on a ‘turnaround’ by this team. Since losing to Auburn, Kentucky has won three in a row against Alabama, Arkansas (in Fayetteville) and a rout this past Saturday of Missouri. When examining who they’ve played, the win streak really isn’t that surprising. Alabama has won only two true road games this season and Missouri was coming off of a home loss to an Ole Miss team that just said farewell to Andy Kennedy. The win at Arkansas, particularly after the 0-11 start was by far the Wildcats most impressive win of the season.
What has stood out in the three wins compared to the four losses that preceded the streak is how Kentucky has shot the ball from deep and shared the basketball. In their four losses, Kentucky shot 14 of 63 from behind the arc, good for 22 percent, and averaged 10 assists per game. During the current three-game win streak, UK has hit 22 of 48 from outside the arc, nearly 46 percent, and over 14 assists per game. Also, the Wildcats percentage of field goals coming via assists has gone up from 42 percent to 49 percent. I wouldn’t count on the three-point trend continuing, out of 351 teams, Kentucky ranks No. 343 in made 3-pointers per game and No. 349 in the percentage of points from 3-pointers. The Wildcats have also now only made more than eight threes three times in a game (vs Missouri, Virginia Tech and East Tennessee State)—all of which were wins.
Another key to the Wildcats success has been the emergence of freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt, who missed the team’s first 17 games due to a foot injury. In his first nine contests, Vanderbilt averaged 4.2 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game in 14.7 minutes per outing. Over the last three games, all wins for Kentucky, Vanderbilt is averaging, 11 points and 11 rebounds in 21.7 minutes. In a postgame conversation with Sean Farnham and Tom Hart of the SEC Network, Vanderbilt spoke on how he’s accepted his role as a rebounder and someone who can provide energy off the bench, which has allowed him to have this success.
John Calipari has taken notice as the lineup of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Quade Green, PJ Washington, Kevin Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt has been the most frequently used combination over the past five games, according to KenPom. The lineup has played 17.2 percent of the minutes.
Three-point shooting, assists and finding the right lineup are easy solutions to point to but what is evident is the effort level that the Wildcats have played at since losing to Auburn, and even at times against the Tigers. Gilgeous-Alexander pointed to this postgame:
Calipari said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would come in at 7 a.m. every day and work out, then watch film, then go to school — never missed class or tutoring — then in afternoon practices he was hell on wheels. So he challenged the rest to join him.
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) February 25, 2018
The talent that Kentucky possesses is apparent and so is the potential for this team, despite their limitations. If all it took was for the entire team to buy into working hard then it’s disappointing it took them this long, but at least they didn’t waste their potential and the season. I’m not going to admit that I’m wrong about Kentucky because I still have a hard time believing that their three-point shooting problems are “fixed” and will need to see how they respond once they finally lose again. But Kentucky is hitting their stride at the right time of the year and that’s all Calipari could ask for.
2. R.I.P six-way tie for third and welcome four-way tie! Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Arkansas are all knotted at 9-7 in the league. Currently, the Gators and Wildcats win out on tiebreakers, earning the 3 and 4 seeds, respectively, in the SEC Tournament field. Mississippi State would be the 5, while Arkansas would be the 6.
The Bulldogs were able to keep their bubble hopes alive on Saturday by holding on at home 72-68 against South Carolina. The loss would’ve been a hit to their resume, instead, the Bulldogs improved to 21-8 overall. Head coach Ben Howland has now successfully won at least 21 games in his third year at every school he’s been at (Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh, and UCLA). MSU still only has three Quadrant 1 wins, they earned two more thanks to Arkansas and South Carolina moving up in the RPI, which could change after a day of games. Tuesday night’s bout with Tennessee is critical for a team that’s best win came just this past week at Texas A&M, who themselves have plenty of work to do to solidify a tournament spot. The 308th best non-conference strength of schedule will probably force the Bulldogs to have at least a semifinal finish in St. Louis to feel good about their at-large hopes.
Selection Sunday is just two weeks away. pic.twitter.com/3jRg43kcZl
— ESPN (@espn) February 26, 2018
Looking at ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s current First Four Out, the Bulldogs should feel good knowing that UCLA is 10-7 in a down Pac-12. Syracuse also missed out on opportunities this past week against North Carolina and Duke and is behind them in KenPom, an advanced metric that will appear on the selection committee’s team sheet. Nebraska and the Big Ten hold their conference tournament a week earlier than usual, meaning that the Huskers will be sitting at home while MSU is in St. Louis building upon their resume.
Arkansas is pretty close to a lock. A win against Kentucky would’ve likely solidified that, but a Quadrant 1 win at Alabama and RPI bump should be enough for the Razorbacks. Two more Quadrant 1 opportunities await this week when Auburn visits Bud Walton Arena on Tuesday and the Razorback travel to Missouri. Sweeping both would assure an NCAA bid, a split would likely do the same, losing both would hurt, but shouldn’t be too damaging.
3. Florida did a lot of good for their resume winning at home 72-66 over Auburn. The Gators are now 7-4 vs Quadrant 1 teams. Their RPI has also jumped to a more respectable No. 56. Like Arkansas, two more Quadrant 1 opportunities are in line for Florida, this week. A trip to Tuscaloosa comes on Tuesday, followed by a visit from surging Kentucky. At this point, earning their eight or ninth Quadrant 1 wins will be more for seeding than anything.
4. Missouri received positive news on Thursday when all-world freshman forward Michael Porter Jr. was cleared for contact, after only playing two minutes of the season thanks to a lower back injury that required surgery. Porter Jr. warmed up at Rupp on Saturday night but sat idly by, watching his teammates get drubbed 87-66. After winning five straight, Missouri has now lost three in a row. The Tigers still sit in good position in the RPI, at 44, and own six Quadrant 1 victories. That being said, it’s never a good thing for a bubble team to trend negatively heading into the final week of the regular season. I’m wondering whether it may be time for head coach Cuonzo Martin to unleash Porter Jr.
Cuonzo Martin on Michael Porter Jr.: "I don't have a timeline. He wants to play … We have to make sure he's ready to go."
Has practiced once. Will practice again tomorrow. Said MPJ needs to go through some live-game situations to make sure he's healthy, can take physicality.
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 25, 2018
I completely understand Martin’s position here. Porter Jr. is a likely lottery pick in this June’s NBA Draft and shouldn’t jeopardize his future for a Missouri team that, if they make it, likely isn’t getting past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Still, the arrival of Porter Jr. was supposed to make Mizzou a legit Top 20 team in college basketball this season. I don’t know what impact he’ll have but selfishly I want to see him cook someone before turning pro. I would particularly like it to be this Tuesday when Mizzou visits Vanderbilt, a game that I’ll be at. Word on the street is that may happen…
5. There’s still an outside chance that Tennessee could earn a share of the SEC title. Auburn sits a game ahead of the Vols at 12-4 in the league. Tuesday’s game at Arkansas is one the Tigers could absolutely lose. That same night, Tennessee travels to Starkville where they’ll play a Mississippi State team that desperately needs a top 30 RPI win. I don’t think Rick Barnes is worried about his team looking ahead since they themselves have to win out to even have a shot at earning a share of the league title. It’s amazing that we’re even at this point of the season where Tennessee is an SEC title contender. Serious question, if Auburn and Tennessee split, who’s the coach of the year? Bruce Pearl or Barnes? I’d go with Barnes.
5a. Texas A&M wisely won at Vanderbilt on Saturday, despite seeing a 24 point lead with 6:52 left dissipate to 4 points with 36.6 seconds to go. In terms of bubble teams, the Aggies have a great RPI at No. 26, five Quadrant 1 wins and the nations 7th best strength of schedule. Finishing at 9-9 or even 8-10 in the SEC should be enough for them to earn a bid. A 7-11 finish, would not be. At this moment, the Aggies are the 11-seed in the SEC Tournament, losing out on tiebreakers to LSU and Georgia. A bottom four finish in a power conference shouldn’t be good enough for an NCAA bid, regardless of how good a teams RPI and SOS is, or how many Quadrant 1 or 2 wins they have. I’m not worried about the Aggies putting themselves into that position but given how this season has played out in college basketball, nothing is certain.
#16 Tennessee (21-7, 11-5 SEC) at Mississippi State (21-8, 9-7 SEC) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
Florida (18-11, 9-7 SEC) at Alabama (17-12, 8-8 SEC) 6:00 PM CT ESPN
Missouri (18-11, 8-8 SEC) at Vanderbilt (11-18, 5-11 SEC) 6:00 PM CT ESPN2
#14 Auburn (24-5, 12-4 SEC) at Arkansas (20-9, 9-7 SEC) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
LSU (16-12, 7-9 SEC) at South Carolina (15-14, 6-10 SEC) 5:30 PM CT SEC Network
Ole Miss (12-17, 5-11 SEC) at #23 Kentucky (20-9, 9-7 SEC) 6:00 PM CT ESPN2
Texas A&M (18-12, 7-9 SEC) at Georgia (16-12, 7-9 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
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.