College Basketball Conference Reset: The SEC’s best players and biggest story lines

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the SEC.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Malik Monk is the guy that everyone loves on Kentucky. He’s the high-volume scorer, the shooter that can hit eight threes in a game and pop off for 47 points on national television against North Carolina. That performance was unbelievable. But Monk hasn’t played like that every game, while Fox has been terrific basically every night that he’s step foot on the court for the Wildcats. His numbers are terrific – 16.3 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 boards, 1.8 steals – but it’s the totality of what he provides Kentucky that gets him the nod over Monk. He’s Kentucky’s engine offensively, particularly in their lethal transition game, and he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the country. As good as Lonzo Ball and Frank Mason II have been, there’s an argument to be made that Fox has been the best point guard in college basketball.


  • De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
  • Malik Monk, Kentucky
  • P.J. Dozier, South Carolina
  • Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss
  • Yante Maten, Georgia

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big EastPac-12 | SEC | Big 12


  1. Kentucky is going to steam-roll through the league: This has more to do with Kentucky than it does the SEC, although the fact that the SEC is the weakest of the power conferences is a good thing for the Wildcats. But regardless of the reason, the Wildcats are the safest bet of any team in any league to win their conference. And that is a good thing for John Calipari, because it should afford him plenty of chances to try and cure what ails his team. Their biggest issue at this point is perimeter shooting because Cal is still figuring out how to effectively work Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis into the rotation. The other issue is Bam Adebayo, who has shown flashes of dominance but has been more or less anonymous for the first six weeks of the season. The Wildcats already are Final Four good, and they can still get better.
  2. A full strength South Carolina is the second-best team in the conference: The Gamecocks were terrific through the first month of the season, posting a perfect record and dominating the likes of Michigan and Syracuse. They are tough, they are athletic, they defend and they have a pair of really talented guards in Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. All in all, Frank Martin’s club is just a misery to play against, as Frank Martin clubs tend to be.
  3. The young talent in the conference needs more time to mature: Entering the season, there were three teams that were really intriguing given the amount of talent that had joined the program: Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. The Aggies should be good enough to earn themselves an NCAA tournament bid despite the fact that they are playing without a point guard, but both the Bulldogs and the Tigers look like they’re a year away from getting Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland back into the NCAA tournament.
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13: Yante Maten #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots the ball against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Yante Maten (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


  1. So how many SEC teams are going to get bids to the NCAA tournament?: Kentucky’s going dancing, that’s for sure. Beyond that? Nothing is a given. Part of the reason is that the league, has a whole, did not land many great non-conference wins. Kentucky picked off North Carolina. Beyond that? South Carolina has wins over Syracuse and Michigan, Florida beat Seton Hall and Miami, Arkansas beat Texas, Georgia beat Georgia Tech, Ole Miss beat Memphis, Texas A&M beat … Denver. What that means is that, as of today, not only are these SEC teams in a bad spot today, there are only so many quality wins available in conference play. Just how much can you improve your résumé if you don’t land a win over the Wildcats? The league sent three teams to the tournament last season. Can they better that number this year?
  2. When will Sindarius Thornwell return?: Thornwell was deservedly in the conversation for all-americans seven games into the season, averaging 18.7 points, 6.1 boards and 4.3 assists. But then he got suspended for an offseason arrest, and the Gamecocks have gone just 2-2 in his absence. Yes, it’s given a chance for P.J. Dozier to shine, but if Thornwell is out for any significant amount of time, South Carolina is going to have a significantly lower ceiling than they would otherwise.
  3. Is there a challenger to Kentucky in the conference?: If there is going to be one, it’s going to be South Carolina. But we won’t have an answer to that until we know when the Gamecocks will be back to 100 percent. Even then, in order for Kentucky to blow the league title, something weird is going to have to happen.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Georgia is checking in at 8-4 on the season, which is the kind of non-conference record that is usually reserved for teams that are going to be mired somewhere near the bottom of a power conference. The Bulldogs are better than that – J.J. Frazier is one of the better point guards in the conference and Yante Maten is one of the best big men in the country – but just how much “better than that” they are depends on just how good their supporting cast ends up being.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Four games into the season, Arkansas went to Minnesota and lost by 14 points. At that point, it looked like the Razorbacks were destined for another .500 season, but fast forward a month and that is still the only loss Arkansas has suffered while Minnesota is sitting at 12-1. Moses Kingsley hasn’t been as good as he was as a junior, but that may be a good thing for Mike Anderson’s club as they look to be more balanced.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson climbed out of a coffin at Missouri’s Midnight Madness, which is not the imagery that a coach who won 19 games in his first two seasons and went 6-30 in the SEC in that span wants to invoke. The Tigers have already lost to NC Central and Eastern Illinois this season. Yikes.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)


Tourney teams

  • 1. Kentucky: What else is their left to say about the Wildcats? They are a second consistent three-point shooter away from being an absolute terror. The good thing about playing in the SEC is that they shouldn’t have their chances of a No. 1 seed hurt if they focus on developing the likes of Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis.
  • 2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are a misery to play against. They’re as tough and physical defensively as every Frank Martin team has been, but this group actually has some skill of the offensive end of the floor. P.J. Dozier has been fantastic this month, but the Gamecocks have a ceiling if they don’t get Thornwell back.
  • 3. Florida: I’m still trying to figure out this Florida team. They have the pieces that would allow them to thrive in Mike White’s system and they have some impressive computer numbers, but this was the case last season as well. The on-court product has yet to match the on-paper potential.
  • 4. Texas A&M: The Aggies are a point guard short of being really good. They have a really good front line – namely Tyler Davis and Robert Williams – and some solid shooters around them, but they don’t have a playmaker to set the table. The Aggies are in a tough spot in terms of getting a tournament bid after a non-conference season where they lost close games to Arizona, UCLA and USC.

NIT teams

  • 5. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the best one-two punch in the league this side of Kentucky in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten,
  • 6. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the great unknown in the SEC. They have a gaudy 11-1 record but they haven’t really beaten anyone that would make you believe that record is real. They could finish under-.500 in the league and they also could finish second in the league.
  • 7. Ole Miss: I like this Rebel team. Sebastian Saiz might be the best big man in the conference, but as long as Deandre Burnett has these bouts of inconsistency, Ole Miss has a ceiling.
  • 8. Auburn: The loss to Boston College is worrying, but with wins over Oklahoma and at UConn – and the recent addition of Austin Wiley – there’s reason to be bullish on the Tigers as we head into conference play.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Tennessee: The Vols actually looked pretty good at North Carolina, when they had a chance to knock off the Tar Heels on the final possession. Four of their five losses this season have come to Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
  • 10. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have played a pretty difficult schedule, but the only win of note that they have to date came against Arkansas State. It seems fitting that a team coached by Avery Johnson doesn’t have anyone averaging double-figures.
  • 11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are sitting at 6-6 on the season, but they’ve had some promising performances of late, beating Chattanooga and losing by five at Dayton.
  • 12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got a boost last month when it turned out that Quinndary Weatherspoon didn’t actually need season-ending wrist surgery. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that this is a very young roster that Ben Howland is working with.
  • 13. LSU: The Tigers have a 35-point loss to Wichita State and a 36-point home loss to Wake Forest on their résumé.
  • 14. Missouri: During Missouri’s midnight madness festivities, Missouri head coach Kim Anderson made the decision to climb out of a coffin to introduce the crowd. I wonder at what point he’ll realize the symbolism.

Houston-Miami matchup a battle for respect

Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

Top-seeded Houston is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament, but the Cougars don’t feel they receive the proper respect.

Heading into the second weekend of the tournament, that feeling lingers despite the Cougars being just one victory away from their third straight Elite Eight appearance.

“A lot of people were pushing for us to lose,” Houston guard Tramon Mark said. “They didn’t believe we were a real 1 seed because of the conference (American Athletic) we play in. But I think we’re one of the best teams in the country still, and we proved it.”

The Cougars (33-3) look to take the next step when they battle fifth-seeded Miami (27-7) on Friday night in Midwest Region play in Kansas City, Mo.

Houston spent the entire season near the top of the national rankings and surely isn’t a surprise Sweet 16 participant.

“I put ourselves in a whole different category,” forward J’Wan Roberts said. “I don’t compare us to other teams. We just stick to what we do, and it shows. Other No. 1 teams got beat, but we didn’t.”

The Cougars and Alabama are the No. 1 seeds still playing. Purdue lost in the opening round and Kansas fell in the second.

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson tries to simplify the approach during March Madness.

“We’ve been here many times in the final 16,” Sampson said. “The next 40 minutes are going to be big. We’ve got to find a way to get the next 40 minutes, and then we’ll move on from there. If not, it’s over.”

Star guard Marcus Sasser (groin) is still gimpy despite scoring 22 points in Saturday’s 81-64 win over Auburn. On Thursday, Sasser proclaimed he will be “around 90 percent” for the game. Teammate Jamal Shead (knee) said he is 100 percent recovered.

Mark scored a career-high 26 points against Auburn.

The Hurricanes are in the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. Last season, they reached the Elite Eight before being routed 76-50 by eventual national champion Kansas.

Star guard Isaiah Wong said it is a great era for the Hurricanes, who are just two victories away from matching the school record.

“It’s just an honor being part of this program, with the history we have,” Wong said. “We have a great team this year and last year too, and I feel like it’s great to see how we came up.

“My first year we wasn’t as good, but for the last two years, we’re going to the Sweet 16, and last year the Elite Eight.”

Still, guard Jordan Miller said that Miami also doesn’t receive the level of respect it should.

“I wouldn’t say underappreciated, but at the end of the day, all we can do is just come out and win basketball games,” Miller said. “I feel like winning a game in itself is a way to get recognition. We’re going to the Sweet 16. That’s a lot of recognition. We don’t necessarily care about what the media says.”

Wong averages a team-best 16.1 points and Miller is right behind at 15.1 Nijel Pack and Norchad Omier both average 13.4 points with the latter collecting a team-leading 10.1 rebounds per game.

Omier grabbed 17 rebounds in Sunday’s 85-69 victory over Indiana. That was a program record for boards in an NCAA Tournament game, surpassing the 14 he collected two nights earlier in a 63-56 victory over Drake.

“If I’m being honest, I really don’t know,” Omier said of his success. “I just like playing with my teammates. They always motivate me to go do what I love to do, and I love rebounding.”

Wong scored 27 points against Indiana.

Miami guard Wooga Poplar, who injured his back against Indiana, has yet to be cleared but will be in the starting lineup if he can play.

Houston holds a 9-5 series edge over Miami but the schools haven’t met in 52 years.

The winner faces either second-seeded Texas or third-seeded Xavier in Sunday’s regional final.

Punch thrown following Bowling Green-Memphis WNIT game

Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio – A confrontation between two players in the postgame handshake line following Bowling Green’s win over Memphis on Thursday night in the Women’s NIT has been referred to campus police.

As the teams walked toward center court following Bowling Green’s 73-60 win in the Round of 16 game, Memphis’ Jamirah Shutes stopped to talk with Falcons’ player Elissa Brett. After a short conversation, Shutes appears to throw a punch at Brett’s face. Brett fell toward the scorer’s table and onto the sideline.

There was no immediate word about what caused the confrontation or if any player was seriously injured.

Bowling Green said in a statement that the incident is in the hands of the campus police.

“The incident that took place following tonight’s home WNIT game has been turned over to the BGSU Police Department,” the school said. “Bowling Green State University Athletics does not make comments about active police investigations. Our priority is with the health, safety and support of our student-athletes.”

Bowling Green coach Robyn Fralich didn’t directly comment on the incident after the game, saying only that they were “figuring all those things out,” as far as what happened in the handshake line.

Memphis’ office of sports information didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper reported that Shutes, who leads the Tigers in scoring, took an elbow to her face with 24 seconds left in the opening quarter and played just eight minutes in the first half. She returned to start the second half.

Shutes, a fifth-year player who finished with 13 points in her final game with the Tigers, was a second-team All-AAC selection this season.

Brett scored 15 points in the win.

South Carolina’s leading scorer Jackson heads to NBA draft

Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina leading scorer Gregory “GG” Jackson II said Friday that he’s entering the NBA draft after one season in college.

The 6-foot-9 freshman said on Instagram Live that his year in college with the Gamecocks helped him mature.

“Now, I’m declaring for the NBA draft, just like that,” he said.

Jackson, 18, is projected as a mid-first round selection.

He started 29 of 32 games for the 11-21 Gamecocks, averaging a team-high 15.4 points a game. He also led South Carolina with 26 blocks and 24 steals.

Jackson, from Columbia, was rated the No. 1 college prospect in 2023. But he reclassified to join his hometown team and first-year coach Lamont Paris.

Gonzaga beats UCLA 79-76 in Sweet 16 on Julian Strawther’s late 3-pointer

Gonzaga's Malachi Smith
USA Today
1 Comment

LAS VEGAS — Gonzaga and UCLA played one NCAA Tournament game that left the Zags’ star player bawling, and another game that stunned the Bruins.

Add another to the list. Maybe the maddest one in March yet.

Julian Strawther hit a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left to answer a 3-pointer by UCLA’s Amari Bailey, lifting Gonzaga to a wild 79-76 win over UCLA Thursday night in the Sweet 16.

“It’s moments like that you can’t make up,” said Strawther, a Las Vegas native. “Those are literally the moments you dream of. To even make a shot like that in March Madness and just to be back home in Vegas is like the cherry on top.”

The Bruins (31-6), the West Region’s No. 2 seed, stormed back from an eight-point deficit in the final 1:05 and took a 76-75 lead on Bailey’s 3-pointer with 12.2 seconds left.

The Zags (31-5) brought the ball up the floor and Strawther stepped into a 3-pointer after a drop pass from Hunter Sallis, sending Gonzaga fans to their feet.

“As soon as it came off, it looked like it was on line,” Strawther said.

The Zags still had to sweat it out.

Gonzaga’s Malachi Smith stole the ball from UCLA’s Tyger Campbell, but Strawther only hit 1 of 2 free throws at the other end, giving the Bruins a chance.

Campbell’s 3-pointer at the buzzer hit the back of the rim, sending the Zags rushing off the bench and into the Elite Eight against UConn on Saturday while leaving the Bruins disappointed again.

“Every game, try not to get too high, try not to get too low,” said UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez, who had 29 points and 11 rebounds. “He hit a big shot and we lost.”

Strawther’s shot was reminiscent of the one Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made off a drop pass to clinch the 2016 national championship – a shot that came after North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit an off-balance 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left.

There’s a reason it looked familiar.

“That’s Jay Wright’s play that he used in Villanova-Carolina, the championship,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That’s what we call it. He makes it all the time.”

It also is the latest chapter in what’s become the best West Coast rivalry in college basketball.

UCLA got the better of the teams’ first NCAA Tournament go-around, rallying from 17 points down to send the Zags out of the 2006 bracket and star Adam Morrison to the floor crying.

Jalen Suggs crushed the Bruins the last time, hitting a running 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Zags to the 2021 national championship game.

“I can’t even describe what he did. It’s crazy,” Gonzaga’s Drew Timme said of Strawther’s game-winner. “It’s just like that Jalen shot, man.”

Timme had 36 points for his record 10th NCAA Tournament game with 20 points.

The flurry of a finish started off more like a prize fight, each team taking its turn landing blows in a game of wild swings.

UCLA led by 13 at the half, but went on an 11-minute field goal drought as Gonzaga went up by 10 with 2:40 left. The Bruins took their rally turn and retook the lead, but left Gonzaga with too much time on the clock.

“We should have been tighter on Strawther,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “We were the whole game. We just weren’t on that play. If we were tighter then he couldn’t have looped behind.”

Timme kept Gonzaga in it during UCLA’s torrid first half and Gonzaga’s porous first-half defense tightened in the second, giving them a seven-point lead with 53 seconds left.

Jaquez brought the Bruins back in his final college game.

The Pac-12 player of the year scored on a three-point play and a layup to cut it 74-71 with 45 seconds left. Timme then missed two free throws, setting up Bailey’s shot.

Thankfully for the Zags, Strawther was on the mark with his long 3-pointer and Campbell was off the mark on his, sending Gonzaga to the Elite Eight for the fifth time under Few.

Florida Atlantic makes first Elite Eight, bounces Tennessee

fau tennessee
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

NEW YORK — Florida Atlantic, playing in just its second NCAA Tournament, moved within a victory of the Final Four by using a second-half push led by Michael Forrest to beat fourth-seeded Tennessee 62-55 on Thursday night.

The ninth-seeded Owls (34-3) will play third-seeded Kansas State in the East Region final at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.

Even before the tournament started, this was the unquestionably the greatest season in FAU history. Now it the Owls are one of the biggest stories in all of sports.

Johnell Davis led the Owls with 15 points and Forrest finished with 11, eight in a crucial second-half run where FAU took control.

The Volunteers (25-11), who were looking for just the second Elite Eight appearance in program history, shot just 33% – including 6 of 23 from 3-point range. Josiah-Jordan James and Jonas Aidoo scored 10 points apiece.


The Owls have never played Kansas State.