ICYMI, SEC basketball is legit this year. Meaning, I’m jumping on the bandwagon and going to provide you biweekly coverage throughout the rest of the regular season, to the conference tournament in St. Louis and hopefully all the way up to the Final Four in San Antonio. Monday’s I’ll take a look back at five things that stood out to me from the weekend and preview the marquee weekday games, while on Friday I’ll point out five thoughts from the week that was and setup the weekend slate. Without further ado it’s time for the inaugural SEC Starting Five.
1. Texas A&M and Florida are the class of the SEC, not Kentucky
The clear answer would’ve been the Gators had they not blown a 17-point second half lead to top-ranked Duke in the championship game of the PK80 Motion bracket. All the while, Mike White’s team impressed all weekend in Portland, taking a 111-105 overtime thriller against national runner-up Gonzaga, in spite of a partisan Zags crowd at the Moda Center. The consensus coming into the season was that junior guard KeVaughn Allen would be the premier scorer for the Gators, but with the emergence of Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson (21.3 PPG, 47.5 3P%) and senior guard Egor Koulechov (17.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG), not to mention the “toughness” of point guard Chris Chiozza (13.2 PPG, 6.7 APG)—dude played with a bruised rib, swollen right elbow, right shoulder contusion, and his right quad cramped up—which I think you need another cliched word to describe him as, coaching staffs across the SEC and America will have a slight difficulty stopping the Gators this season.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Aggies were coasting toward a 16-point win at USC—the same team a week removed from an overtime thriller at Vanderbilt—snatching their second double-digit win against a top-15 opponent on the young season. Junior wing DJ Hogg, who missed the second half of 2016-17, has been a bright spot, alongside veteran forward Tyler Davis (13.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG), while future lottery pick Robert Williams (10.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG) has yet to reach the surface of what he could, and probably, will be this season.
Kentucky might have the five-stars and future NBA talent, but the experience of Florida and A&M will go a long way in deciding who takes the SEC crown.
2. Alabama basketball=Alabama football on the craziness scale
While the Crimson Tide’s football team was getting exposed at archrival Auburn, the hoops version of the Tide was duking it out, literally, at the Barclays Center Classic against 14th-ranked Minnesota. A scuffle between Alabama’s Dazon Ingram and Minnesota’s Dupree McBrayer, resulted in the entire Alabama bench clearing 6:21 into the second half. I’m all for good ole bench clearing brawl, but the timing and situation couldn’t have been any worse of the Tide. Here’s the issue: In the NCAA, any player that leaves the bench area and enters the court during play is immediately ejected. Typically, you’ll see players from both teams rush onto the floor. Well, in this situation only players from Alabama felt the need to defend their teammate, while everyone of the Minnesota bench (which was on the other end of the court) all stayed put. The result: Alabama being down to 5 players with 13:39 left in the game. Collin Sexton, Riley Norris, John Petty, Galin Smith and Ingram became the last men standing, literally.
Ingram would foul out two minutes later, leaving the Tide 5 v 4 with 11:31 to play. Petty would be the next to depart, suffering from a nasty looking ankle sprain. 10:50 to go, Alabama down 11 playing 5-on-3. One would think under these circumstances that the Tide would fold and Minnesota would flexed its muscles. That wasn’t case. Alabama crawled back to a 83-80 deficit with possession of the ball and 1:29 left to play. Richard Pitino’s team finally made the plays necessary to pull out the 89-84 victory, but it wasn’t without working for it. Credit to Sexton (career-high 40 points) Norris and Smith, who all embraced after the gutsy performance, for embodying what Avery Johnson has tried to build in Tuscaloosa. Of course, this came under the circumstances of undisciplined behavior, but you still have to admire the way those 3 players, in particular, played amid adversity. Whenever talented sophomore wing Braxton Key returns from preseason meniscus surgery the Tide will be a team you don’t want to see.
3. SEC middle tier equally as impressive
Georgia upset #21 St Mary’s; Arkansas dropped 102 on UCONN; Michael Porter-less Mizzou takes down St. John’s and pushes #23 West Virginia; and Tennessee upsets 18th ranked Purdue and hangs with 5th ranked Villanova in the Battle for Atlantis. Oh, Mississippi State’s undefeated. The conference currently second highest rated in the nation, just of ahead of the ACC, according to college basketball analytics nerd KenPom. I’m starting to see why so many were high on the leagues potential to land up to 7 bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Also, is Michael Porter Jr. not done for the season???
4. Vanderbilt’s already in trouble
The Commodores struggled out of the gates in 2016-17, but were able to fight their back earning an at-large bid to the Big Dance, after an impressive finish to the second half of the SEC season. That might need to be the case again for the Dores. Bryce Drew’s team already had a loss to perennial mid-major power Belmont and missed out on a resume boosting win at home against Southern California, so he could ill-afford an 0-2 showing at the NIT Season Tip-Off. That’s exactly what he got. Pack line defensive stalwart Virginia a.k.a. the worst possible matchup, was always going to destroy Vandy, but to not show up for the second half after leading No. 2o Seton Hall is inexcusable. This team has a solid senior core, featuring Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson, so I doubt that they’ll continue to slide, but at 2-4, the margin for error may already be gone and it’s not even December.
5. Kentucky needs to lean on their alpha males
One of the biggest struggles for any freshman-laden team filled with five-stars and competing egos is identifying and agreeing upon who will be the teams alpha male, or males. Last year, for Kentucky it was very clearly De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Yes, bruiser Bam Adebayo and veteran Isaiah Briscoe could be go-to’s in certain situations, but everyone knew who you had to stop in order to defeat Kentucky. This season, whether they know it or not, their alpha’s are top-rated wing Kevin Knox (16.1 PPG, 47.6 FG%) and near “non-and-done” guard Hamidou Diallo (12.9 PPG, 35.7 3P%). I’m pretty sure John Calipari knows those two are his “guys”, but we’ll find out soon whether his team knows that. Although, Kentucky’s biggest concern may lie in identifying which rookie point guard, Quade Green or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, gives them the best chance to reach the fan bases lofty expectations.
What 2 Watch 4
Auburn (4-1) at Dayton (3-2) 6:00PM CT CBSSN – Bruce Pearl’s team still impacted by the FBI investigation travels to always tough UD Arena.
Louisiana Tech (5-0) at Alabama (5-1) 7:00PM CT SEC Network+ – How does Collin Sexton follow up a 40 point effort? Can’t wait to find out.
South Carolina (5-1) vs Temple (3-1) (at Madison Square Garden) 8:00PM CT ESPNU- The Gamecocks return to the site where they booked the programs first Final Four appearance. I wonder if Darius Rucker is still crying.
Missouri (5-2) at UCF (4-2) 8:00PM CT ESPN2 – The Golden Knights Tacko Fall is 7-foot-6. Yes, you read that right. Need I say more?
Check back Friday for another addition of The Starting Five.