SEC Conference Reset: Does Texas A&M have the horses to outpace Kentucky?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Picking a midseason Player of the Year for the SEC is not easy this season. Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg have been the best players for a balanced Texas A&M team that is probably the favorite to win the league. Kevin Knox has been Kentucky’s best player, but he hasn’t necessarily been good enough to be the favorite for this award. Collin Sexton is probably the biggest name in the conference, but he’s also playing on an Alabama team that seems about as likely to miss the NCAA tournament as they are to play their way in.

So what does that mean?

We’re going with Yante Maten with the award, at least for now. Maten is not a name that is going to ring out nationally but over the course of the last three and a half years, he’s quietly put together one of the best careers of any big man in college basketball. This year, he’s averaging career-highs of 20.2 points and 9.3 boards for a Georgia team that is, surprisingly enough, in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth. Consider this a lifetime achievement award if nothing else, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned it this year.

THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • YANTE MATEN, Georgia
  • COLLIN SEXTON, Alabama: Sexton is the most explosive guard in college basketball this season, a dynamic athlete with a competitive edge that borders on the insane. He’s got a shot to play his way into a spot on an all-american team this season.
  • JALEN BARFORD, Arkansas: The senior guard has been the best player for an Arkansas team that has their sights set on the NCAA tournament this season. He’s the third-leading scorer in the conference.
  • KEVIN KNOX, Kentucky: Knox may not be as good as the star of Kentucky teams in past years, but he’s actually been better than some – including me – expected. He’s functioned quite well as a Kentucky’s go-to guy in a season they badly needed one.
  • TYLER DAVIS, Texas A&M: Picking an Aggie for this list is tough but I’m leaning Davis here. He’s their anchor and, for my money, their best player. Or maybe I have an affinity for land warriors in the post with jump hooks.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Texas A&M, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn
  • NIT: Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: LSU, Vanderbilt
Yante Maten (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. KENTUCKY IS NOT AS GOOD AS WE THOUGHT THEY WOULD BE DEFENSIVELY: Coming into the season, the big question with the Wildcats was on the offensive end of the floor. Would they be able to score the ball consistently? Would they be able to shoot the ball from three consistently? Would they be able to score in the half court? It’s still early in the season and Kentucky has not exactly played a murderer’s row this season, but the early returns have been largely positive.

Offensively.

Where Kentucky has struggled is on the defensive end of the floor, which is not exactly what we expected. Kentucky has struggled to contain penetration. They’ve allowed too many open threes. They aren’t rebounding the way that a team with their size and athleticism should be rebounding, especially on the defensive end of the floor. In Kentucky’s last two games – which were the only games they’ve played against high-major competition since Nov. 14th – they’ve allowed 1.14 points-per-possessions to Virginia Tech and UCLA two borderline tournament teams. John Calipari has the pieces to be better on that end than they have been, and they’ll need to be better if they are going to make a run in the tournament.

2. TEXAS A&M’S POINT GUARD ISSUES WERE SOLVED BUT A NAME WE DIDN’T EXPECT: One of the reasons that Texas A&M was not considered a top 15 team entering the season was that there was no clarity in their back court. Who would play the point this season? True freshman Jay Jay Chandler? Redshirt freshman JJ Caldwell? Off guard Admon Gilder?

As it turns out, the answer was fairly simple: Duane Wilson. Wilson had been a good but not great point guard for Marquette for the first two years of his career before falling out of favor last season. A grad transfer, Wilson was immediately eligible this year and slid directly into the starting role for the Aggies. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 4.6 assists on the season and has been as big of a reason as anyone that the Aggies look like the favorite to win the league.

3. FLORIDA … NOT WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE: The Gators were the hottest team in the country for the first two weeks of the season, as all four of the talented guards on their roster caught fire at the same time. The nation fell in love with them. Obviously. Teams that run like they run and shoot like they shot are pure entertainment.

But it was a mirage. When the threes stopped falling Florida stopped winning. They’re now sitting at 8-4 on the season and ranked fifth in the SEC on KenPom with an offense that’s fallen out of the top 40 in adjusted efficiency. They’re still dangerous when those shots are going down, but those shots are not always going down these days.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO IS ACTUALLY THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE?: That’s a question that is more difficult to answer with the SEC than just about any other league in the country. Part of that is because it seems like there are people that have some trouble buying into the idea that Texas A&M could very well be a Final Four team this season – something about football schools in football leagues always trips people up.

But then there is the fact that the most talented team in the conference – Kentucky – is still going through the kind of growing pains you’d expect out of a team that is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The bottom fell out of Florida. Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn. Do you trust any of those teams to win the league?

For a neutral, that’s a good thing. The SEC is deep, it’s competitive and it is going to be fun as hell for the next three months.

2. HOW MANY TEAMS CAN THE LEAGUE PUT IN THE BIG DANCE?: Speaking of how deep the league is this year …

There are two things going in the SEC’s favor this season:

  1. There are power conferences that are unquestionably “worse” this year. The Pac-12 looks like it will be lucky to get five teams into the Big Dance this season. The Big Ten is in that same boat. The WCC and the Mountain West look like they’ll top out at three – maaaaybe four – bids. The rest of the mid-majors around the country look like they are going to have to be auto-bid or bust. There are 68 spots in the Big Dance, and someone has to fill them. It may be SEC teams because …
  2. … there really aren’t all that many gimmes this year. Everyone in the league is ranked in the top 85 on KenPom, and while there are a couple teams that are outliers in the RPI’s formula right now, that is sure to normalize as they start playing league games. There are also plenty of quality wins available at the top of the league, meaning that someone like, say, Georgia, who is probably on the outside of the NCAA tournament as of today, has a chance to play their way onto the right side of the bubble by beating some of the higher-ranked teams.

My best guess? Seven SEC teams end up in the tournament at the end of the day.

3. SO IS MICHAEL PORTER JR. MAKING A COMEBACK?: Porter suffered a fracture in his back early on this season and it was supposed to keep him out for the season. That may not actually be the case. It started after the surgery, in late November, when Porter said on his Instagram story that “whoever said it was going to take 3-4 months to recover lied.” Then an orthopedic surgeon that has treated professional athletes said that he thinks that Porter can return sometime in January. Only time will tell what the truth is.

Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. TEXAS A&M WINS THE LEAGUE: I picked the Aggies to do it in the preseason and I’m going to pick them to do it now. I think that they are the best defensive team in the league, and so long as D.J. Hoog keeps shooting the way that he’s been shooting and Duane Wilson keeps point guarding the way he’s been point guarding, and I think they can get to a Final Four.

2. TENNESSEE’S START IS ANYTHING BUT A FLUKE: Tennessee is legit. They defend. They play hard. They have an all-league player in Grant Williams. Jordan Bowden is developing into a go-to scorer on the perimeter – and shooting 61.9 percent from three! – while Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone have made the point guard spot work. The Vols don’t play pretty and they aren’t going to draw all that much attention from the guys that only care about the future pros on someone’s roster, but the bottom-line is this: this team is going to win a lot of games this year.

3. KENTUCKY MAKES THE DEEPEST TOURNAMENT RUN OF ANYONE IN THE LEAGUE: I still think that the Wildcats have a ways to go before they reach their ceiling, especially on the defensive end of the floor. But I also think that their ceiling is higher than the ceiling of anyone else in the conference. If – when – they get their, they have the horses to make a run to the Final Four in a year where everyone outside of Villanova and Michigan State has some pretty significant flaws.

Miles Kelly leads Ga. Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.

No. 17 Illinois rallies late, beats No. 2 Texas 85-78 in OT

Illinois v Maryland
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NEW YORK – Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 12 of his 16 points in overtime, including the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining, and No. 17 Illinois rallied to hand second-ranked Texas its first loss of the season, 85-78 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.

Jayden Epps added 11 points, including the final five points of regulation – a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left and two tying free throws with 8 seconds remaining. Epps then blocked Marcus Carr’s jumper in the lane just before the buzzer to force overtime in an entertaining showdown at Madison Square Garden.

Matthew Mayer, who faced Texas several times at Baylor, tied a career high with 21 points as he made his first seven shots and finished 8 of 10.

Shannon, who missed eight of nine shots in regulation, took over in the extra period to help Illinois (7-2) beat a ranked foe for the second time this season. He opened overtime with a jumper after Marcus Carr was called for traveling and then hit an open 3 from the right wing over Brock Cunningham for a 73-70 lead.

Shannon then converted a reverse layup and finished off a three-point play to make it 77-70 with 2:16 left. Carr hit two free throws to get Texas within one with 1:28 remaining. Jayden Epps hit a layup, RJ Melendez sank two free throws to put Illinois ahead by five, and Shannon made two free throws with 27.7 seconds left.

Timmy Allen scored a season-high 21 points for Texas (6-1), which failed to open 7-0 for the first time since 2014-15. Tyrese Hunter added 10 points but Carr was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting as Texas had 12 shots blocked and shot 42%.

Texas took its only double-digit lead when Dillon Mitchell hit a layup with 8:28 left. Illinois cut the lead to 58-56 on a 3 by Melendez nearly four minutes later. After Cunningham hit an open 3 with 4:15 remaining, Si’Jabari Rice made a 3 for a 64-58 lead.

Allen found Cunningham for an open jumper that counted when officials called goaltending on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins. That gave Texas a 65-61 lead with with 1:51 remaining.

Carr’s rainbow jumper in the lane made it 68-63 with a minute left and Illinois had a 3-pointer by Melendez waved off because it called timeout with 45.3 seconds left. After the timeout, Epps made an open corner 3 with 33 seconds remaining.

Hunter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Epps’ tying free throws.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 17. But only two of them came in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation or overtime. Illinois’ 15th turnover was an offensive foul by Mayer, which sent him to the bench with four fouls with 10:42 remaining.

Texas: The Longhorns had little offense beyond Allen and Hunter. While the duo was a combined 13 of 29, the rest of the team missed 24 of 40 shots.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts Penn State in its second Big Ten game on Saturday. The Illini lost their conference opener to No. 13 Maryland.

Texas hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Jimmy Blacklock Classic on Saturday.

Clark, Gardner lift No. 3 Virginia past James Madison, 55-50

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Kihei Clark scored 18 points, Jayden Gardner had 14 points and eight rebounds, and No. 3 Virginia beat feisty in-state rival James Madison 55-50 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (8-0), who lost starting guard Reece Beekman to a right leg injury early in the first half, prevented the Dukes (7-3) from winning a second straight December game in Charlottesville. James Madison beat Virginia 52-49 last Dec. 7.

Clark had seven assists while playing nearly 39 minutes with Beekman sidelined.

“Kihei gave everything he had and I had to, you know, ride him,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Sure, he missed some free throws. And I know he made some mistakes, but you could just see him, you know, how tough-minded he was.”

Dukes coach Mark Byington said he told Clark – who’s playing his fifth season for Virginia – after last year’s game that he loved watching him play.

“He’s seen everything and nothing you’re going to do is going to surprise him,” Byington said. “There’s nothing Kihei Clark hasn’t seen out there, and he’s poised. I mean, you can’t rattle him. … So I told him this time I was like, `Look, I better never see you in college basketball again.’ But he’s one of my favorite players to watch just because he’s tough, talented, and he’s a winner.”

Takal Molson scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half for James Madison, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 42-all with 7:47 to play. Gardner responded for Virginia by scoring five straight points in a 9-1 run.

The Cavaliers kept the Dukes in the game by missing eight of 13 free throws over the last six minutes.

Molson made an acrobatic layup while being fouled with 1:51 left, but he missed the free throw. He scored again with 1:01 left, pulling the Dukes within 52-50, but freshman Ryan Dunn answered with a strong move on the baseline for Virginia with 35 seconds to play.

James Madison threw the ball away on its ensuing possession.

BIG PICTURE

James Madison: The Dukes came into the game leading the nation in scoring (93.3 points per game) and having scored as many as 95 points five times. They were shooting 52.7% for the year, but made just four of their first 19 shots and finished 15 of 55 (26.9%). Vado Morse scored 11 points, the only other JMU player in double figures.

“Yeah, we knew how good they were and they showed it in spots tonight,” Gardner said. “But I think you saw a lot of resiliency tonight on the defensive end getting crucial stops.”

Virginia: The Cavaliers played the final 36 minutes without Beekman and gave extensive minutes to freshman Isaac McKneely. Virginia will hope Beekman, its third-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler and defender, recovers in time for its showdown with No. 1 Houston on Dec. 17.

UP NEXT

The Dukes return home to play Gallaudet on Saturday night.

Virginia has a 10-day break before hosting the top-ranked Cougars.

No. 25 Villanova women beat American University 83-42

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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Maddy Siegrist had 24 points and seven rebounds, Lucy Olsen added 14 points and No. 25 Villanova beat American University 83-42 on Tuesday night.

Siegrist scored 15 points in the opening 13 minutes as Villanova led 34-15. The Wildcats extended it to 46-23 by halftime before starting the second half on a 9-0 run for a 32-point lead.

Villanova added an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter for its largest lead of the game at 79-36. The Wildcats held American to 15-of-50 shooting (30%) and scored 21 points off 19 turnovers.

Christina Dalce scored 13 points for Villanova (8-2), which plays Saint Joseph’s on Saturday before taking a week off for final exams. Siegrist, who was coming off a 29-point performance on Sunday, made 10 of 17 shots as Villanova shot 56%.

Emily Johns scored 12 points for American (0-8), which hosts Marist (3-5) on Saturday.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.