All of the media nerds thought there was no chance that Tennessee or Auburn could compete for an SEC title. Well, Lou Williams was right again. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. Raise your hand if you thought on the final Saturday of the SEC season that Tennessee would be playing for an opportunity to win an outright SEC title. Keep your hand raised if you thought that Tennessee could share that same SEC regular-season championship with Auburn. If your hand is up you’re a bald face liar. Back in October, the SEC media erroneously picked the Tigers and Volunteers to finish 9th and 13th, respectively. At the time, the idea of Auburn ending the season as the ninth best team in the SEC didn’t seem that unreasonable. The thought that Tennessee, a team that went 16-16 and finished ninth in the league a year ago, would fall to 13th wasn’t nearly as accepted. The Volunteers returned five of their top six scorers, with the lone loss being Robert Hubbs, who led the team in scoring at 13.7 points per game. Conventional wisdom would signal that a team would improve not regress given those factors. But I didn’t vote so don’t blame me.
Now, no one could’ve anticipated what has led up to this point where both teams could be cutting down the nets at home on Saturday. Auburn, despite the FBI cloud that rained down on them in September when assistant Chuck Person was arrested and the absences of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, jumped out to a 16-1 record, ascending to as high as No. 8 in the AP Poll. In recent weeks, the Tigers have come back to earth, losing three of their last four games and feeling the effects of Anfernee McLemore’s season-ending ankle injury and the attrition of a college basketball season. Still, Bruce Pearl’s team needs only one more win to clinch the top-seed in the SEC Tournament next week in St. Louis and should be a top four seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee made waves early in the season, defeating Purdue at the Battle for Atlantis, then challenging then-fifth-ranked Villanova on Thanksgiving Day, leading the Wildcats by double-digits before losing. The Vols impressed again in a losing effort, taking defending national champion North Carolina to the wire at Thompson-Boling Arena in December. Rick Barnes’ team hasn’t wowed anyone with their athleticism or run many teams out of the gym but they have brought consistent toughness on the defensive end and shared the basketball better than any team in the Southeastern Conference. For a team that doesn’t boast any surefire NBA talent, they have played as one unit all year and that is why many believe the Volunteers are the league’s best chance of a deep run in March.
2. Kentucky is peaking has officially become the narrative for everyone except for this guy. Yes, Kentucky is in the middle of a four-game losing streak and appears to be playing their best basketball of the year but let’s not act as if things Wednesday night against Ole Miss were smooth sailing for the full 40 minutes. Following a 7-0 run, the Rebels trailed the Wildcats 67-64 with 10:10 left, prompting John Calipari to call a timeout. From that point, Kentucky outscored Ole Miss 29-14 on way to a 96-78 victory. Kentucky’s ability to run away from inferior competition at home is a positive given where this team was a week ago but let’s not use last-place Ole Miss as an example of how Kentucky is ‘peaking’. Instead, point out the five points and 11 rebounds from Jarred Vanderbilt, who has continued to provide great energy off of the bench, the 19 assists and 8 of 19 shooting from 3-point range as signs to their recent success. Vanderbilt contributing off of the bench, high assist numbers and efficient three-point shooting will be what continues to elevate the Cats. The play of Quade Green should also be added to that list. During the four-game winning streak, Green has averaged 13.5 points per game and two three-point baskets, which can’t be understated, in 31 minutes per outing.
3. Mississippi State likely missed out on the last opportunity to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, getting obliterated 76-54 by Tennessee at home on Tuesday night. As I’ve noted numerous times throughout the last month, there has been a precedent set that teams from power conferences that don’t challenge themselves in the non-conference, i.e. No. 304 non-conference strength of schedule, won’t get into the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina from two years ago is a perfect example. That year the Gamecocks finished tied for third in the SEC and won 24 games. That wasn’t enough to warrant an invite as the committee was unimpressed by their lone RPI top 50 win and weak non-conference strength of schedule. This Mississippi State team, depending on tiebreakers, could finish anywhere between 6th and 8th in the league. That in no way is an indictment on the Bulldogs but it can’t necessarily be pointed to as a positive when evaluating their resume. MSU’s RPI of 66 and three Quadrant 1 wins, two of which are against top 50 teams, won’t be enough come Selection Sunday.
The only way I can see Ben Howland’s team getting into the Dance is if they cut down the nets in St. Louis. Even a trip to the title game likely won’t be enough to satisfy the committee. Of course, how other bubble teams play will impact their chances. Nebraska lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on Friday and Penn State faces an uphill climb to win the tournament crown at MSG. Not to mention, a slew of other power conference teams will be using next week to make one last impression on the committee. Were the Bulldogs to find themselves in the title game on Sunday, they might already be considered ‘in’. I just can’t envision that scenario.
4. Alabama is sliding closer to bubble uncertainty, having lost four straight. The Crimson Tide sit at No. 58 in the RPI, right on the edge of where a team typically likes to sit, and owns a 5-7 record vs Quadrant 1 opponents. The eye test shows that Alabama is a great team at home, which hasn’t been the case over the past two contests as they’ve lost to Arkansas and Florida. Bama will need to win at Texas A&M on Saturday, to earn another Quadrant 1 win, and to lower the stress level heading to St. Louis. For Alabama to feel comfortable next Sunday, they’ll need to either win at Texas A&M then earn another win at the SEC Tournament or win multiple games at the Scottrade Center. Either way, Avery Johnson and the Tide will be sweating it out next weekend if they don’t earn the auto-bid.
5. The rom-com narrative of ‘will he or won’t he’ continues with Michael Porter Jr. The freshman phenom, like on Saturday at Rupp, warmed up Tuesday night at Vanderbilt only to come out in sweats and sit out yet another Mizzou contest. Following the game, Tigers head coach Cuonzo Martin was non-committal on Porter Jr’s availability moving forward. Martin recently said that “it’ll depend on how Porter Jr. feels“. Whether Porter Jr. plays on Saturday against Arkansas or not, Mizzou needs the win to feel better heading to the SEC Tournament. If Porter Jr. is going to return this season, I think it’d be best for Mizzou to have him in as many games as possible before the NCAA Tournament. Well, there’s only two more guaranteed games before that time comes. So, it’s now, next week, the next week or never for Porter Jr. When will it be? I doubt we’ll know until he’s wearing shorts instead of pants when he comes out of the tunnel.
#23 Kentucky (21-9, 10-7 SEC) at Florida (19-11, 10-7 SEC) 11:00 AM CT CBS
Mississippi State (21-9, 9-8 SEC) at LSU (16-13, 7-10 SEC) 12:00 PM CT SEC Network
Alabama (17-13, 8-9 SEC) at Texas A&M (19-11, 8-9 SEC) 1:00 PM CT ESPN2
South Carolina (16-14, 7-10 SEC) at #14 Auburn (24-6, 12-5 SEC) 2:30 PM CT SEC Network
Georgia (16-13, 7-10 SEC) at #16 Tennessee (22-7, 12-5 SEC) 5:00 PM CT SEC Network
Arkansas (21-9, 10-7 SEC) at Missouri (19-11, 9-8 SEC) 5:oo PM CT ESPN2
Vanderbilt (11-19, 5-12 SEC) at Ole Miss (12-18, 5-12 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
Be sure to check back on Monday for the SEC Starting Five as I recap the weekend in college basketball and look at the week ahead. For updates throughout the weekend, follow me on Twitter, @JulianCouncil