The FBI cloud looms closer to the surface of college basketball and a day of reckoning is coming for all bag men across America. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. If by some chance you missed it, the FBI has an ongoing investigation into mass corruption, bribery and wire fraud in college basketball. The case was a massive bombshell that dropped in September of last year and has hung over the sport throughout the season, even though we have heard little else about what is to happen to the coaches, programs and advisors involved in the case. That was the case until Thursday when Pete Thamel of Yahoo! provided further detail into the ongoing investigation saying that the FBI is prepared to release more information that could see up to 50 schools facing potential NCAA sanctions. To be clear, these are mid-major schools and basketball programs that are being targeted, this is going to affect major college basketball.
One of the programs that has been a part of the FBI scandal from the start is Auburn. Former Tiger star and assistant coach Chuck Person was one of four assistant coaches arrested back in September. Person was charged with felonies for accepting $90,000 in bribes over a 10-month period so that he would direct student-athletes to an Atlanta clothier and financial advisor. Person wasn’t the only party involved. The eligibility status for sophomores Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy came into question, leading the university to hold them out of competition into an internal investigation, along with clearance from the NCAA could get them back on the court. Wiley has since been ruled ineligible, while Purifoy’s status remains unclear with five games remaining before the league tournament in St. Louis. It doesn’t end there. Staffers Frankie Johnson, video coordinator, and Jordan VelHurt, a special assistant to the program, have been removed for the last three months as Auburn tries to clear up their involvement.
That’s five Auburn former and current members of the staff and players that have been looped into what is on way to being the most significant scandal in the soon to be the 112-year history of the NCAA. All that information hasn’t been enough to prompt Auburn to remove Bruce Pearl from his position as head coach of the program. Pearl already has a track record of misdeed’s having earned a show-cause when he was at the head of Tennessee’s basketball program. Auburn University president Steven Leath has been steadfast in his support for Pearl, but it can only last as long Pearl isn’t directly tied to the case.
Given the Tigers 23-3 record and all of the circumstances surrounding the program, Pearl is likely to be the SEC coach of the year and potentially the national coach of the year. All that being said, will he be the coach next season? Thamel said on the Paul Finebaum Show Friday that he’d be shocked to see Pearl return. Seeing all of the information that we’ve been given the last few months about his program, I’m surprised that Pearl is still around, particularly when he has refused to speak to the law firm hired by the university to conduct an internal investigation into the practices within his program. There is no denying Pearl’s ability as a coach, and even putting aside what happened in Knoxville, it feels like there’s a real naviety surrounding anyone who thinks Pearl is lily white when it comes to the dark mark on his program. Until then, Pearl will continue his quest to take the school to their first Final Four. And if that happens, does the banner stay?
2. Kentucky was the latest team to fall to the Tigers, as the Wildcats played their best game during what is now a four-game losing streak but failed to hold on late. One of the more confusing aspects of the loss was leading scorer Kevin Knox not attempting a field goal in the final 13:48 of the game. Coming out of the final media timeout, Knox wasn’t even on the floor for the Cats. Taking both of those things into account, Knox was still the teams leading scorer of the night with 19 points. That’s damning when looking at Kentucky’s current situation. Hamidou Diallo has already admitted to struggling, and that showed again on Wednesday night as he scored only 3 points in 16 minutes. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at times has looked like Kentucky’s best player, he’s certainly been their most consistent during the conference season, but he still doesn’t have the greatest grasp of the point guard position. That has attributed to nine assist type nights for the Wildcats, like the one seen at Auburn Arena. I’ve already made it clear that I don’t see how this Kentucky team can string together a few wins and end up like the 2013-14 iteration, even if John Calipari believes that they’ll get on a roll if they can just win one. Sure, if Kentucky does get into the tournament they can win a game. But from what you’ve seen from this year makes you believe that they can string along two, three, or even four wins in a row in March? By my estimation, nothing.
3. Mississippi State missed out another opportunity to win their second true road game of the season. Following a phantom foul on Joe Toye, which was preceded by a questionable foul call that benefited Toye, Xavian Stapleton appeared to be on his way to icing the game at Vanderbilt late Wednesday night. Late missed free throws have tormented the Commodores this season and that appeared to be the case when both Toye and Jeff Roberson split a pair prior to Stapleton’s attempts. But it was Stapleton and the Bulldogs who were plagued by the misses, as the junior guard split a pair allowing Payton Willis to hit Riley LaChance for the game-winning three at the buzzer.
— Vandy MBB (@VandyMBB) February 15, 2018
The three was redemption for LaChance who had chances late this season, particularly against Kentucky, to notch potential season-changing wins for Vanderbilt but was unable to deliver. The win essentially seals MSU’s fate at a tournament at-large, the loss only results into a Quadrant 2 loss, but I have little confidence that the Bulldogs will be able to capitalize on Quadrant 1 opportunities when they travel to Texas A&M and host Tennessee. I know that Ben Howland will feel that I’m looking at this negatively like he told me at the press conference on Wednesday night. But I wasn’t the one who decided to schedule the 308th best non-conference strength of schedule.
Also, Vanderbilt is only one game behind LSU and Georgia, who are both tied for 10th place, and a potential Thursday start at the SEC tournament. Up to this point, Vanderbilt has seemed like a virtual lock for Wednesday night at the Scottrade Center but looking at the remaining schedule that see’s three of their final five games at home, I wouldn’t rule out their ability to climb up out of the bottom four.
4. Don’t look now but Missouri is on a serious roll and seems to have locked up an NCAA Tournament spot when only two weeks ago this was a team sitting on the outside looking in according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The Tigers win over Texas A&M Tuesday night was their fifth Quadrant 1 win of the season and fifth win in a row. Cuonzo Martin has done a terrific job turning around a program that went 27-68 the past three seasons. A feat that is earning his SEC coach of the year hype. I’m not sure whether Martin has done the best job this year, certainly, Rick Barnes’ turnaround at Tennessee is something to consider, but he definitely doesn’t have the stain of an FBI investigation like Pearl. The watch for Michael Porter Jr. continues as the uber-talented freshman had a checkup with doctors earlier this week to try and get cleared to return to action following back surgery earlier this season. The impact of Porter Jr. and how he fits into the team is an obvious unknown but it is excitement factor that will have people in CoMo believing that a Final Four is possible, especially looking at the current landscape of the sport, and would bring some much-needed juice to the conference tournament in St. Louis.
5. Weekend Thoughts:
- Two words: Joe Toye
— Vandy MBB (@VandyMBB) February 15, 2018
- On Monday afternoon, Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss agreed to ‘mutually part ways’ at the end of the season. Kennedy will leave the program as the all-time winningest coach, having taken the Rebels to two NCAA Tournaments and nine 20-win seasons in his first 11 years at the helm in Oxford. The decision may be a curious decision to some, but given the changing landscape of the league where coaches like Ben Howland, Avery Johnson and Barnes have entered over the past few seasons it may be time for AD Ross Bjork to get some new blood and level the playing field. Particularly with a two-year-old arena.
- Alabama hasn’t been a great team on the road this season owning only two true road wins on the season. Having said that, this is a game that Kentucky better win if there’s any inclination that this season is still salvageable.
- Interested to see if A&M can bounceback at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been phenomenal at home all year (13-1) and could use another Quadrant 1 win to bolster their resume.
Missouri (18-8, 8-5 SEC) at LSU (14-11, 5-8 SEC) 1:00 PM CT ESPN2
Alabama (17-9, 8-5 SEC) at Kentucky (17-9, 6-7 SEC) 1:00 PM CT CBS
#10 Auburn (23-3, 11-2 SEC) at South Carolina (13-13, 4-9 SEC) 2:30 PM CT SEC Network
#21 Texas A&M (17-9, 6-7 SEC) at Arkansas (18-8, 7-6 SEC) 3:00 PM CT ESPN
Florida (17-9, 8-5 SEC) at Vanderbilt (10-16, 4-9 SEC) 3:00 PM CT ESPN2
#18 Tennessee (19-6, 9-4 SEC) at Georgia (14-11, 5-8 SEC) 5:00 PM CT SEC Network
Ole Miss (11-15, 4-9 SEC) at Mississippi State (18-8, 6-7 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