A key lesson learned so far during the one-and-done era: When you only recruit a certain type player you’re bound to run into years where your team may be in danger of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Is Kentucky one of them? Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. After a 0-2 week, including losses at South Carolina and at Rupp against Florida—the first home loss to an unranked opponent in 58 games—it may be time to ask whether Kentucky could be a team headed toward the bubble. This wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind until CBS Sports College Basketball columnist Gary Parrish broached the subject in his latest Eye on College Basketball podcast. Outside of the 14-5 record, an RPI ranking of 20 and a strength of schedule of 15, according to KenPom, the resume for the Cats isn’t all that impressive. KenPom is probably the best evaluator of college basketball teams, in terms of advanced analytics goes. The Wildcats rarely fall out of the Top 15, but currently, find themselves sitting at 33. The last time the Wildcats were outside the Top 30 they missed the tournament. We asked coming into the season, what type of Kentucky team would this be? Would it be the Nerlens Noel team of 2012-13 that missed out on the tournament and lost to Robert Morris in the opening round of the NIT following the number one recruits season-ending knee injury? Would it be like the Harrison twins freshman year team that limped into the dance as an eight seed and upset undefeated Wichita State on way to a national title game appearance? Or would this be a Kentucky team of the past two seasons that was right there in the middle of those two and cap out somewhere between the second round and Elite Eight?
I think this team is a little more like the John Wall, Boogie Cousins and Eric Bledsoe collection of 2010. That team had more talent than the current Kentucky roster but shared a common fatal flaw in their inability to shoot and make the three. In 2010, Wall and Co. scored 23 percent of their points from behind the arc which ranked 270th in KenPom that year. This season, Kentucky is scoring 19.1 percent of their points from deep, good for 349th in the country. For reference, there are only 351 teams that play Division I basketball. Even with those numbers, Wall’s team ranked Top 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency (22), while the current Wildcat team is 59th. The inability to make the three ball crept its head up this past week when Kentucky shot 1 for 11 in the loss at South Carolina, where Kevin Knox attempted eight of the attempts connecting on the lone long-range ball. Against Florida, the Cats improved by shooting 4 of 17 but made two of those in the final 35 seconds when they were trying to come back from a six-point deficit. The absence of starting point guard Quade Green, who missed three games prior to Florida with a back injury, hurt the Wildcats ability to stretch the floor, but in his return against the Gators, the freshman from Philadelphia went 0 for 4 from deep. Currently, Knox leads the team with 25 made three-point baskets, but is shooting a dismal 29 percent from behind the arc. Like with Wall’s team, this isn’t a problem that can be magically fixed, John Calipari has to hope that on most nights his team can win on talent alone and by defending the three-point line well, which they did on Saturday night, holding Florida to 6 of 30 from three and 33 percent from the field.
Looking at Kentucky’s remaining schedule, particularly on the road, trips to West Virginia, this weekend, Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida still await a young team that is 2-2 so far in true road games. Three of those teams are currently ranked, while A&M and Arkansas have been previously featured by the AP. The Wildcats fell out of the Top 25 Monday for the first time since 2014. Like previously stated, the last time that occurred the Cats played in the national title game. That may very well still be this teams ceiling but with wins against only two Top 50 KenPom teams (Louisville and Texas A&M) and a 2-3 overall record against such opponents, the Wildcats need to worry about what’s in front of them before thinking Final Four. I wouldn’t say this team is headed toward the bubble but have another 0-2 week and then we can have the conversation.
2. While a 14-5 record has folks in Lexington and across the nation worried, Florida’s 14-5 mark and a 6-1 seat atop the SEC has people, especially me, giddy about this team. The Gators had as bad of a shooting night as they’ve had all season long at Rupp on Saturday, but defense and the help of a controversial no-call helped Mike White and his club get out with a win.
That is very bad. https://t.co/CtVxuxWa3l
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) January 21, 2018
Senior point guard Chris Chiozza has become the ultimate closer in college basketball and the additions of Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov have only elevated the offensive potential that Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen already possessed, and that’s with Allen struggling at times this season. The biggest development for this team since the start of the New Year and SEC play has been the offensive explosion from sophomore forward Keith Stone. Stone has averaged 13 points per game during league play while shooting over 45 percent from three and averaging more than five rebounds per outing.
Three of the Gators six SEC wins have come on the road, holding a 3-1 league record away from Exatech Arena. I reiterate this point every week, in this improved and muddled SEC every win is important, but none more than any game that you can win on the road. Given the hot start to conference play, their experience, ability to win away from Gainesville and the eventual return of rim protector John Egbunu, through nearly half of the conference season, the Gators have to be the prohibitive favorite to take home the SEC regular season crown.
3. Auburn has made a case as the best second-half team in America. The Tigers found themselves down 40-26 at the half against Georgia, only to outscore the Bulldogs 53-25 in the second period to hold their own 14-point lead, 79-65. The win was the sixth time that Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have come back to win following a 10+ point deficit. Auburn has now trailed by double-digits in five of their six SEC games.
Auburn has trailed by double-figures at the half in three of its five SEC wins. Tigers’ ability to erase deficits have been second to none.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 21, 2018
The ability to make halftime adjustments and to have the depth to tire out an opponent with constant line changes is a great advantage for Pearl, but it can only be sustainable for so long. At some point, like on Tuesday against Alabama, Auburn will find themselves in a hole that they can’t dig themselves out of. Hopefully, for Pearl, that’s not sometime in March when the season is on the line.
4. Speaking of Alabama, no Collin Sexton, no problem for the Tide. The five-star freshman point guard has missed the past two games with an abdominal injury that first occurred back in December. The Crimson Tide followed the upset of Auburn, with a 68-62 home win vs Mississippi State. John Petty was the offensive catalyst against the Tigers, but it was Braxton Key’s turn on Saturday. Key, who led the Tide in scoring a year ago, has struggled to find his scoring touch after missing the teams first 10 games due to offseason knee surgery. The Charlotte native had his first double-figure scoring performance of the season with 16 points. Sexton is listed as day-to-day and will hopefully be back in time for Saturday’s blockbuster matchup with Oklahoma freshman phenom point guard Trae Young. Until then, Avery Johnson has to feel good about his team’s four-game winning streak, with two of those wins coming sans Sexton, and position near the top of the league standings.
5. Five other things from the weekend:
- Tennessee bounced back with a nice 70-63 win at South Carolina. The Gamecocks had a chance to build off of the momentum from the Kentucky upset until they ran into a surprising outing from Lamonte Turner. Turner scored 25 points on 6 of 9 shootings, including a perfect 3 of 3 from the three-point line and 10 of 10 from the charity stripe. Improved guard play is what Rick Barnes needs and anytime Turner or another backcourt running mate can provide that type of offense it takes pressure off of leading scorer Grant Williams.
- Texas A&M is now trending in the right direction after a 60-49 home win over Missouri. The Aggies played their second consecutive game with the starting lineup of Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg and Duane Wilson. Another positive is Williams and Davis starting to impose their will in the post. Williams fell a rebound shy of a double-double, 13 points and 9 rebounds, while Davis snagged yet another double-double, 11 points and 14 rebounds, his seventh of the year. I expect the Aggies to get on a roll from here.
- Arkansas held on 97-93 over Ole Miss behind 23 points, 16 in the second half, from senior Jaylen Barford for a much-needed home win. The Razorbacks have struggled to find consistency since entering conference play but still have the talent to get by on most nights.
- Vanderbilt ended a four-game slide with a 77-71 win against LSU on Saturday. The Commodores were powered by seniors Riley LaChance (26 points) and Jeff Roberson (20 points), while freshman guard Saben Lee closed the game out by scoring 10 of the Commodores final 18 points to preserve the victory.
- Still waiting for Georgia to give Yante Maten some more consistent help. Maten scored the game-winner Tuesday at LSU then followed that up with 17 points and 9 rebounds at Auburn only to watch his team crumble in the second half. Mark Fox has the best player in the league but can’t get by on that alone.
Arkansas (13-6, 3-4 SEC) at Georgia (12-6, 3-4 SEC) 5:30 PM CT SEC Network
Vanderbilt (7-12, 2-5 SEC) at #22 Tennessee (13-5, 4-3 SEC) 6:00 PM CT ESPNU
Alabama (13-6, 5-2 SEC) at Ole Miss (10-9, 3-4 SEC) 7:30 PM CT SEC Network
Texas A&M (13-6, 2-5 SEC) at LSU (11-7, 2-4 SEC) 8:00 PM CT ESPNU
Mississippi State (14-5, 2-4 SEC) at Kentucky (14-5, 4-3 SEC) 8:00 PM CT ESPN
South Carolina (12-7, 3-4 SEC) at #20 Florida (14-5, 6-1 SEC) 6:00 PM CT SEC Network
#19 Auburn (17-2, 5-1 SEC) at Missouri (13-6, 3-3 SEC) 8:00 PM CT SEC Network
Be sure to look for the SEC Starting Five Friday for all of the reaction from the SEC basketball week that was and for a preview of the weekend slate.