The second weekend of SEC play has concluded and I have no clue how to peg this conference. Here’s The Starting Five:
1. Undoubtedly, Auburn had by far the best week of any team in the SEC. The Tigers came into the week 12-1, while only receiving four votes from the AP for the Top 25. Bruce Pearl’s team made not one, but two statements over Top 25 teams this week by winning in Knoxville 94-84 over the No.23 ranked Vols on Tuesday, then 88-77 Saturday in front of a raucous crowd at Auburn Arena against No. 22 Arkansas. It was only a matter of time before Pearl turned Auburn around in the same way that he did with Tennessee. Pearl came into the season with a 44-54 record on the Plains, following an 18-14 campaign that was preceded by two 20-loss seasons. After the Tigers hot start, Pearl finds his way sitting two games above .500 and is unlikely to ever fall below it again.
The Tigers have now won 12 straight and have consecutive wins over ranked opponents. All of this has come without Austin Wiley (8.8 PPG in 2016-17) and Danjel Purifoy (11.5 PPG in 2016-17), who still await a decision whether they’ll be eligible following the FBI probe on the program and college basketball. Were they to find their ways back into Auburn uniforms this season, Pearl, who already has nine players averaging at least 15 minutes per game, would add even more depth to his roster. And if they don’t, Mustapha Heron (15.9 PPG), Bryce Brown (15.7 PPG) and the seemingly endless supply of Tigers scorers should be able to wreak enough havoc on the rest of the SEC. That being said, I don’t think that there’s any debate that this team will be ranked come noon eastern on Monday.
2. Florida seems to have found their November groove again. The Gators fell behind 75-70 at Missouri with 1:32 left to play. Missouri guard Kassius Robertson made the grave sin of fouling a three-point shooter, sending Jalen Hudson to the free-throw line with Florida down 75-73 and an opportunity to take the lead. Hudson made two of three knotting the game at 75 with 21 seconds to go, giving Missouri the ball with the chance to win or at the least go to overtime, so they thought. Enter Chris Chiozza:
And then there’s Chris Chiozza. pic.twitter.com/dCF9IzNMfS
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) January 6, 2018
I’ve seen plenty of thieves steal games throughout my years of watching college basketball, but I cannot recall a time where a player literally stole the basketball and won the game in the manner that Chiozza did on Saturday. Chiozza etched his name in NCAA Tournament lore back in March at Madison Square Garden when down 83-81 to Wisconsin with four seconds to play in overtime and the Gators on the brink of elimination, Chiozza sprinted down the floor and floated in a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the Badgers home.
That was a special kind of thievery, one that we’ve become accustomed to, but what occurred on Saturday, I’ve never seen before.
Sophomore Keith Stone continues to be a bright spot for the Gators early in conference play. The 6-8 forward scored 13 more points on Saturday at Mizzou, while collecting six rebounds, bringing his conference average to 12.3 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game. Stone should make a great frontcourt partner for center John Egbunu, whenever he returns. Still waiting on KeVaughn Allen to join the party this year. Allen was lauded with preseason accolades, but only scored two points in 19 minutes in Saturday’s win. I still believe that he has to play a significant role if the Gators are going to reach their Final Four potential. Florida now sits atop the SEC alongside Auburn at 3-0, as a week against the Mississippi schools awaits.
3. Saturday afternoon was supposed to be somewhat of a rebirth for A&M in conference play as leading scorer D.J. Hogg returned from a three-game suspension. But, of course, A&M couldn’t gain a player without losing one. Forward Robert Williams sat out Saturday’s contest due to an illness, joining guards Admon Gilder and Duane Wilson who are still day-to-day with knee injuries. Hogg (12 points, 6 rebounds) did his part to help the Aggies win, along with Tyler Davis (19 points, 12 rebounds), who has been the only consistent for Billy Kennedy. Davis’ jumper with 19 seconds left put A&M up 68-63. On the next possession, LSU guard Tremont Waters hit a three to bring the Tigers back within two, 68-66. Following two free throw misses by Davis, Waters committed theft of his own, nailing a wild three-point shot to send the Aggies to 0-3 in league play.
Again, I can’t properly assess A&M until they have everyone back from injury, but at some point, I might have to accept that this team will never be healthy or void of boneheaded decisions that lead to suspension. Until then, I’m going to hold out hope that the Aggies can bounce back and reach the level that many thought during the non-conference made them the best in the SEC and a potential Final Four. Also, LSU is another example of why there are no easy outs in the SEC this season. The Tigers gave Kentucky all they could handle on Wednesday night, losing 74-71 after a three-point attempt to send the game to overtime fell short. The miracle win in College Station backed up the performance against the Wildcats as more than just a fluke.
4. Massive win for Tennessee over No. 17 Kentucky on Saturday night in a game that the Vols had to have. Grant Williams (18 points, 8 rebounds) and Admiral Schofield (20 points, 9 rebounds) were matchup nightmares all night for the Wildcats. By far the biggest takeaway for the Volunteers was their ability to close out a game in the second half. Unlike the games against Villanova and North Carolina, the second half of this contest wasn’t all that close as UT outscored Kentucky 47-28. Those are the performances that Rick Barnes is going to need from his team in this rugged SEC. Also, kudos to the crowd on Rocky Top for selling out Thompson-Boling Arena and making it an impossible environment for the youth of Kentucky to handle. I expect all of you to be there next Saturday evening when A&M comes to town, there’s no excuse not to be there.
As for Kentucky, if Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo combine for 11 points in another game this season I can promise you that Kentucky will lose by double-digits again. I love what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has done recently, despite only three points Saturday night, but the Cats will go only as far as Knox and Diallo take them. This was only John Calipari’s teams second true road game of the season. No offence to the folks down in Baton Rouge who were at the ‘P Mac’ on Wednesday but that atmosphere was completely different than what the team walked into in Knoxville. If not for sheer capacity, it was one of the more vocal crowds that Kentucky will witness. I hope the young Cats are prepared to face that on a nightly basis during conference play.
5. I just don’t know anymore with the SEC this season. I thought coming into the week that Arkansas was a legitimate title contender, but following a 0-2 week with losses at Mississippi State and at Auburn, I don’t feel as good about it. Then again, I don’t know who’s going to beat them inside Bud Walton Arena this year, so if they just find a way to have a respectable road record, then they could very well meet my probably premature expectations.
I’ve been singing the praises of Alabama and how by March no one will want to see this team. Well, they’re also coming off of a 0-2 week, following the 76-75 loss at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, capped by the 65-46 thrashing in Athens. Worth noting, freshman John Petty scored a whopping five points during the two-game road stint. Going to need way more from him. Georgia the team that just embarrassed Bama is pretty darn good too. The Bulldogs might have the best player in the conference in Yante Maten who’s second in the league in points (20.0) while leading the way in rebounding (9.4).
All of this has me befuddled, perplexed and bemused about how to handicap the SEC after only two weekends of games. Therefore, I’ve decided to end this column with this: The SEC is going to be really fun, really crazy and super confusing all year long and I won’t know a damn thing about any of these teams true identities until March when we head to St. Louis for the conference tournament.
Texas A&M (11-4, 0-3) at #21 Kentucky (12-3, 2-1) 6:00 PM CT ESPN
South Carolina (10-5, 1-2) at Alabama (9-6, 1-2) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
#24 Tennessee (10-4, 1-2) at Vanderbilt (6-9, 1-2) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
Ole Miss (9-6, 2-1) at #22 Auburn (14-1, 2-0) 8:00 PM CT ESPNU
Mississippi State (13-2, 1-1) at Florida (11-4, 3-0) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
LSU (10-4, 1-1) at Arkanas (11-4, 1-2) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
Georgia (11-3, 2-1) at Missouri (11-4, 1-1) 8:00 PM CT ESPN2