Two months and a weekend later 14 programs have made it through a grueling 18-game schedule and two of them have made the media once again look like fools. Here’s the SEC Starting Five:
1. Tennessee capped off their improbable regular season with the programs first SEC title since the 2007-08 season. The Volunteers didn’t make it easy on themselves or a sold-out Thompson-Boling Arena, trailing at the half by eight. Things became even more precarious for the Vols when Grant Williams fouled out with 3:33 left. Yante Maten’s three put Georgia up 61-57, leaving the Vols title hopes in doubt with 3:10 remaining. From that point, Tennessee would score the final nine points of the game, five coming from Admiral Schofield, who had a game-high 23. The win embodied the toughness of this Vols teams and the culture that Rick Barnes has instilled in his near three years on Rocky Top. Schofield said it best postgame:
“We’re just a bunch of 3-star guys that weren’t highly recruited, and we just got a lot of heart”. Pretty much, Admiral. I’ve stated this numerous time this year, Tennessee isn’t by the standards of modern college basketball, a talented team. That can interpret as derogatory by the most ardent VFL but it only speaks to what has been so impressive about this season and why Volunteer fans should be rallying around this group.
At the time of his hire, Barnes was seen as more of a retread than an encouraging hire. Instead, Barnes has had a renaissance for a man that “underachieved” at Texas only making one Final Four and wearing out his welcome in Austin. Now, he has a championship program in less than three years with every key player expected to return next year. Before I get ahead of myself with the expectations for the Vols in 2018-19, this team has a great chance to be outright SEC champs by hoisting the trophy in St. Louis, then could very well make a deep run into March. The excitement for basketball in Knoxville likely hasn’t been this way in nearly a decade.
2. Coincidentally, the same day that Tennessee won their first SEC title in a decade, their old coach Bruce Pearl was right there to share it with them.
— Bruce Pearl (@coachbrucepearl) March 4, 2018
Classy move by Pearl who was unceremoniously fired by Tennessee and given a three-year show-cause for lying to the NCAA. The journey back to the top of the SEC has been just as weird for Pearl as it was for Tennessee, albeit self-inflicted. Still, Pearl has done a remarkable job turning around an Auburn program that faced grave uncertainty before the season even began. The Tigers are now SEC champs for the first time since 1999 and headed toward a likely top 3 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
3. Kentucky reverted back to their old ways with an 80-67 loss where the Wildcats shot 41 percent, only had 6 assists and didn’t get a positive contribution from Jarred Vanderbilt (6 points, 6 rebounds) as he was saddled with foul trouble. The loss might’ve left a lot to be desired from the Cats but thanks to Arkansas losing at Missouri, Kentucky still wrapped up a double-bye in the SEC tournament.
Even the Kentucky Basketball Twitter account was looking to put out the narrative that everything in Lexington is fine:
It’s worth noting that nine of our 10 losses are Quadrant 1 defeats. Our strength of schedule is No. 4 and we have 12 Quadrant 1 and 2 wins. Only 10 teams have more. pic.twitter.com/YZSJHDoSQu
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) March 4, 2018
It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is 5-8 away from Rupp Arena. Seeing as they won’t be playing inside Rupp for the rest of the season, that doesn’t bode well for their NCAA tournament longevity. Something else worth noting, only 3 of those 12 wins in the form of Quadrant 1 and 2 came against Quadrant 1 opponents. That would make the Wildcats 3-9 against such teams. That isn’t exactly something to boast about. Yes, Kentucky has played a tough schedule but that hasn’t resulted in a lot of wins of the highest quality. Similarly, Texas A&M has played the No. 5 strength of schedule and won 13 Quadrant 1 and 2 games with 5 of those wins being Quadrant 1. North Carolina owns the No. 1 strength of schedule and has 10 Quadrant 1 wins which rank only behind Kansas’ 11, a team that has played the second toughest schedule in America.
The tweet came across as a clear rebuttal to anyone who is doubting this Kentucky team following their 10th loss of the season. While I understand the reasoning of the tweet, as I listed above, it’s extremely flawed and shortsighted way to look at Kentucky’s season. Yes, the Wildcats have played a tough schedule, and that can be credited to the improvement of the league. But let’s not pretend that this team hasn’t had its struggles this season. The Wildcats have played better in recent weeks but the numbers show that when they face top competition they lose far often than they win. That’s the same for the majority of the 351 teams in men’s Division I basketball but there’s only one that’s currently trying to write a different script from the one we’ve all watched play out these past four months.
4. As a bubble team playing on the final day of the regular season the best way to impress the committee is to not lose by 21 on the road to a team with an RPI in the 90’s. Well, that’s exactly what Mississippi State did. The Bulldogs got drubbed 78-57 in Baton Rouge and now will have to cut down the nets on Sunday in St. Louis in order to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The majority of the Bulldogs wins came against Quadrant 3 and 4 teams and their RPI of 69 is currently too high to expect the committee to look upon them favorably. MSU will get a chance to avenge their loss to LSU as they face the Tigers on Thursday night.
5. Heading to St. Louis, Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M and Arkansas should all be comfortably into the NCAA Tournament field. If that is the case, seven teams from the league getting bids would be a record for the SEC. Alabama, like Mississippi State, has some serious work to do this week if they’re going to hear their names called on Selection Sunday.
Three weeks ago the Crimson Tide looked to be a near lock for the Dance. Now, they’re riding a five-game losing streak through the arch in St. Louis. The Tide’s RPI has dropped to 60 and record against Quadrant 1 teams is 5-9. Overall, Bama is 17-14. Outside of must-needed wins, the loss column is what should be closely monitored this week. Only one team has ever lost 15 games and earned an at-large bid. That was Vanderbilt a season ago when the Commodores earned a nine seed at 19-15. Vandy was aided by playing the nations toughest schedule and winning three games against Florida. Currently, Alabama has played the sixth toughest schedule, which should benefit them. That being said, Bama should be aiming for two wins this week. Those two wins would be significant as Texas A&M and Auburn’s RPI’s would give the Tide Quadrant 1 wins. A win over the Aggies may be enough but the precedent set just a year ago says that 19-15 with a strong SOS is good enough. We’ll see if that holds up.
My bosses have been gracious enough to send me to St. Louis for five days to cover the SEC Tournament. So I’ll be back later this week for a preview of the SEC tourney and will be providing coverage all week long. For updates throughout the SEC tourney follow me on Twitter, @JulianCouncil.