While Golden State was busy putting up 50 points in a quarter, the college basketball world had themselves a wild night that featured a pair of top 25 teams winning in the final seconds, some big dogs rolling and a couple of trendy teams taking ugly losses.
Here is what you need to know from Tuesday night:
1. THE BIG BOYS ROLLED
The biggest game of the night ended up being one of the most boring games of the night, as No. 4 Virginia put away No. 9 Virginia Tech before we reached the under eight media timeout. The Wahoos hit nine of their first 11 threes, finished 13-for-24 from beyond the arc on the evening and took a 44-22 lead into halftime, eventually knocking off the Hokies, 81-59. It was an utterly dominant performance from Tony Bennett’s club, and one that had our Travis Hines convincing himself that this is the year for UVA.
The Cavs weren’t the only big dog to handle their business in impressive fashion on Tuesday. No. 3 Tennessee jumped out to a 23-6 lead on Arkansas and never looked back, beating the Razorbacks 106-87 in a game where the Vols never seemed to get out of third gear. While that was happening, No. 12 Kentucky was in the midst of going into Stegeman Coliseum and dropping a hammer on Georgia, 69-49. Ashton Hagans — who was previously committed to the Bulldogs — put a career-high 23 points on the board.
And lastly, while the Tar Heels didn’t run away with this win, they did manage to hold off Notre Dame, 75-69. This win was notable because of the second half performance from Nassir Little. He scored just 11 points, but all of them came in the final 11 minutes, and he had nine in a 14-6 run that turned a deficit into a 65-58 lead.
2. SAM HAUSER SAVES No. 15 MARQUETTE, No. 17 N.C. STATE IS NOT SO LUCKY
Hauser put up a career-high 31 points to go along with eight boards in a 74-71 win at Georgetown as he was forced into point guard duties as Markus Howard was dealing with a lower back issue and Joseph Chartouny has apparently forgotten how to be a point guard. The Hoyas are not exactly a powerhouse these days, but they are a dangerous team offensively that has won some games we did not expect them to win, and going into Washington D.C. and winning this game without the Big East Player of the Year is, frankly, really impressive.
The Golden Eagles remain the only team that is one game behind Villanova in the Big East regular season title race.
N.C. State was not as fortunate. Playing without starting point guard Markell Johnson, the Wolf Pack found themselves down by 15 points at the half and by as many as 22 points in the second half at Wake Forest. A 29-7 run tied the game at 58 with about seven minutes left in the game, but Wake Forest did enough down the stretch to get the win, 71-67.
This is not a great loss for N.C. State, who has now lost two of their last three games and no longer looks like a top 25 basketball team.
3. THE OLE MISS HYPE TRAIN DERAILS
The trendy team this week was Ole Miss, and deservedly so — in the span of 96 hours, they beat No. 11 Auburn by 15 points and went into Starkville and picked off No. 14 Mississippi State. They were 13-2 on the season and 3-0 in the SEC at that point. They deserved to be trendy.
And it all came crashing down with a visit from LSU. Tremont Waters scored 20 points and added nine assists as the Tigers knocked off No. 18 Ole Miss, 83-69, in Oxford. Now 3-0 in the league, it may be time that we start looking at LSU as the new Ole Miss.
AND I NEED TO MENTION …
That a pair of top 25 teams survived at the last second. In Starkville, Mississippi State survived Florida, 71-68, thanks to a three-point play from Quinndary Weatherspoon with 3.6 seconds left on the clock. And out in Boise, No. 10 Nevada knocked off Boise State, 72-71, thanks to a three with 4.5 seconds left from Cody Martin, who had not made a three since Dec. 15th and was shooting 19.5 percent from beyond the arc entering the night.
Rick Barnes upset his players are great at trash talking
Winning is the best thing in sports. Not exactly breaking news, but nothing beats beating your opponent. It’s why we play the games, after all.
The side benefit to winning is being totally unimpeachable with your trash talking.
You win, you get to talk all the mess you want, and there’s really nothing the other guy can do about it. It’s great.
Unless you’re Rick Barnes, apparently.
The Tennessee coach was nonplussed that his players mocked Florida fans with The Gator Chomp after the Vols’ 11-point win in Gainesville on Saturday.
“When someone told me that happened, that’s the first thing I addressed after the game,” Barnes said Monday, per The Associated Press. “I don’t like it simply because I want total focus on the main thing. I think when those things happen, it’s going to be talked about.”
In these divisive times in which we live, I hope we can all take a second and unite to give Barnes a Gator Chomp from wherever you’re reading this.
“I also understand that I’m not out there an hour before the game with the student body,” Barnes said. “I’m sure there are some things that are being said, but we tell our guys we need them to control their emotions throughout the game. I think they did that. Sometimes when the game’s over like that, you let it out.
“It happens, but do I like that? When I was a kid, I probably would have, but I’m not a kid anymore. As a coach, I’m older now. I just want to play the game. I want our guys to learn from it.”
I mean, come on. The Vols players sticking it to Florida fans was one of the best things that happened Saturday across the country. You win, you get to talk. Or Chomp. Especially if your target was was talking theirs before the game, as apparently they were in The Swamp, with Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield claiming fans made “disrespectful” and “inhumane” comments directed at the Vols.
“It was one of those things where it just kept building up over the game,” Schofield said. “Their fans were chirping a lot, even behind the bench.”
Chomp on, Vols. Chomp on.
Grant Williams scores 20, No. 3 Tennessee holds off Florida 78-67
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Grant Williams did just about anything he wanted to against Florida.
He even called for — and delivered — one of his more precise passes of the season in crunch time.
Williams scored 20 points and found Admiral Schofield for a clinching 3-pointer in the corner with 41.3 seconds remaining to help No. 3 Tennessee beat Florida 78-67 on Saturday for the team’s 10th consecutive victory.
“We knew we were going to get Grant the ball at the elbow and we knew they would collapse probably,” Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said. “He told those guys, ‘You get where you’re supposed to be and I’ll make the right pass.’ He found Admiral, and that was big shot obviously.”
It was the biggest shot, although it came after Williams appeared to get away with a travel in the lane.
Jalen Hudson misfired on the other end, and the Gators (9-6, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) committed two turnovers in the waning seconds to turn a one-possession game into a lopsided final score.
“One of those games where every possession was a critical one,” Barnes said.
Jordan Bowden added 17 off the bench for Tennessee (14-1, 3-0), which last enjoyed a double-digit win streak in 2008.
Bowden accounted for 14 consecutive points late in the second half with Schofield on the bench with four fouls. He made five free throws, two driving layups and a 3-pointer. He also dished to John Fulkerson for another layup.
Equally huge for the Vols were two second-half baskets that each came after two offensive rebounds. Williams scored on both.
“Those were some big opportunities for us,” Barnes said.
Williams made 8 of 11 shots to go along with nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.
“If we played man-to-man for 40 minutes, Grant Williams might have had 60,” Florida coach Mike White said. “And we might have all fouled out, including me.”
KeVaughn Allen had 18 points for the Gators, and Noah Locke added 16 points.
Florida led 38-35 at the half thanks to nine 3-pointers. But Tennessee did a much better job guarding the 3-point line and closing out on shooters after the break, allowing just 3 for 10 in the second half.
Still, the Gators had chances to pull off an upset. They missed two treys in the final 1:14, including one wide-open look off a turnover.
“We’ve got some areas where we’re just average or below average,” White said. “If we don’t get more disciplined, more mentally tough, pay closer attention relative to scouting, this is going to happen much more.”
Tennessee players mockingly performed the “Gator chomp” to fans after the final buzzer.
“I’m not one for it. I thought it was kind of low, but whatever,” the Gators’ Kevarrius Hayes said. “I just think people got to have more pride and understand that we are Florida and everybody wants to beat Florida. We can’t go easy.”
Tennessee: The Volunteers have won five straight true road games, a clear sign of their talent and depth.
Florida: The Gators went toe-to-toe with a top-five team, but just don’t have the fire power to score 80 to beat many elite teams.
Florida football coach Dan Mullen addressed the sellout crowd before the game, crediting his team for a 10-win season that included a win against Michigan in the Peach Bowl.
“The Gator standard is to not be in second in the SEC, the Gator standard is about being first in the SEC,” Mullen said. “The challenge for all of us, the challenge for the players, for coaches and everybody in Gator Nation, what we did last year was good enough for 10 wins and No. 6.
“This year we’re going to ask you for a whole ‘nother level. I challenge you to bring back that Gator standard not to be No. 2, but to be at a championship level.”
Former Florida guard Walter Hodge, a two-time national champion, was in attendance. Hodge currently plays for Homenetmen Beirut in a professional league in Lebanon.
Tennessee begins a two-game homestand against Arkansas on Tuesday night.
Florida plays at No. 14 Mississippi State on Wednesday night.
Best Bets: Eight top ten teams on the road, which underdogs have a chance to win?
The No. 1 team in the country is heading down to Tallahassee to take on a top 15 team, and they are one of eight top ten teams that will be playing on the road this weekend.
One of those games is a rivalry game. Two of them involve elite mid-major teams visiting the second-best team in their league. Two elite Big 12 defenses face-off while Kansas takes another road trip in the league. Indiana tests themselves at Maryland. Myles Powell vs. Markus Howard. And, surprisingly enough, a battle between two Mississippi schools that carries quite a bit of weight.
But the game of the weekend is the features a pair of teams that reached last year’s Elite Eight, one of whom has an entirely new roster and the other who returned basically everyone from a season ago.
As always, this column is running on Friday morning. The official Vegas lines will not come out until Friday night or Saturday morning, so we will be using projections from KenPom and Haslametrics. KenPom is typically better for projecting what the lines will be, while Haslametrics tends to be more useful to gauge if I’m on the right side of the bet or not.
No. 1 DUKE at No. 13 FLORIDA STATE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 81, Florida State 73
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 85, Florida State 71
This game is projected to be quite high scoring, as Duke plays at the ninth-fastest pace nationally while Florida State averages better than 70 possessions per game, and it’s worth noting that the only two losses that Florida State has taken on this season have come in their two slowest games — Villanova on a neutral and at Virginia.
There aren’t a lot of teams that want to run with Duke, but my guess is that the Seminoles will be one of those teams — they are in the 63rd percentile nationally in points-per-possession in halfcourt offense, and average 0.15 PPP more in transition than they do in a halfcourt setting. There are two reasons for this: They do not have good point guard play and they are not a good three-point shooting team. If they have to go up against a set defense, one that can clean the defensive glass, they are in trouble. (They were down 65-36 to Virginia, which is all the evidence you need.)
Duke is not Virginia in the halfcourt, but what they are is a top 30 team nationally in steal percentage playing a Florida State team that turns the ball over on 20.6 percent of their possessions. In fact, they actually rank second in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric as of today, while Virginia ranks third.
So this is how I see this game playing out: Tre Jones overwhelms whoever is trying to initiate offense for the Seminoles. Duke gets their quota of “pick-six” dunks and layups off of live-ball turnovers, and Florida State’s press struggles to slow down a team that starts four players that can bring the ball up the floor. The only real concern that I have here is that Duke will be playing on the road against a good team for the first time this season, and I don’t love taking heavy favorites on the road.
PICKS: This matchup favors Duke, and if the line ends up close to what KenPom is projecting, I would probably take the Blue Devils and the over. I can’t see the game not getting into the 80s, and I don’t think that Duke will smother the Seminoles like Virginia did. Their defense isn’t about suffocating teams, it’s about turning steals and rebounds into easy buckets.
No. 3 TENNESSEE at FLORIDA, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Tennessee 67, Florida 65
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Tennessee 67, Florida 65
I just do not see it with Florida this year. This is a young group whose two best returners — Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen — have seemingly forgotten how to score the ball. They are 9-5 on the season. Their three best wins came against West Virginia, Arkansas and Butler, none of whom were in our more recent bracket update. Only Butler was close, and the Bulldogs split with the Gators.
Should I mention that Florida lost at home to South Carolina?
PICKS: I will say this about Florida: They are terrific defensively. They grind teams down and force a bunch of turnovers, although I’m not sure that will have too much of an effect on a Tennessee team that protects the ball. I love Tennessee and I think the computers are overvaluing Florida at this point in the season, but the fact that both KenPom ad Haslametrics are projecting the same score is worrisome. I like the Tennessee side better, but I’ll probably stay away.
No. 4 VIRGINIA at CLEMSON, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCNET)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Virginia 65, Clemson 58
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Virginia 67, Clemson 54
Virginia has played two ACC games this season and both of them were essentially 30-point blowouts. Clemson has played two ACC games this season and gotten rocked by Duke and Syracuse, both on the road. Coming back home will help, but the Tigers are a team that struggles with turnovers and can’t shoot it from the perimeter, which is what you have to be able to do to beat the Pack-Line.
PICKS: Clemson has struggled this season adjusting to a lineup where they have to play three forwards instead of three guards, and struggling is not something that works against a team as ruthless as Virginia. I expect this line to be around (-8), and I love Virginia there.
No. 5 GONZAGA at SAN FRANCISCO, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Gonzaga 80, San Francisco 73
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Gonzaga 83, San Francisco 73
Don’t sleep on San Francisco. The Dons already own wins over Stanford, Cal (on the road) and Saint Mary’s. The knock on Gonzaga is on the defensive end of the floor, and while they’ve rocketed up from sub-70 to top 35 in adjusted defensive efficiency, they’ve done so by steamrolling six horrible teams. The Zags have struggled to stop good teams this year, and USF is the second-best team in the WCC.
PICKS: My concern here is that USF doesn’t have the dudes to really take advantage of Gonzaga’s weaknesses. Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. can be exploited in plus-matchups, and it’s hardly a secret that talented forwards can attack Rui Hachimura, a freak athlete that is still figuring it out defensively. I do, however, have plenty of respect for the Dons defensively, and I think they’ll be able to handle Gonzaga’s ball-screens action. Where the line opens will be interesting. If it gets to double-digit, I’ll be all over USF, but I don’t expect it to open higher than around (-8).
No. 6 MICHIGAN STATE at PENN STATE, Sun. 4:30 p.m. (CBS)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan State 75, Penn State 67
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan State 81, Penn State 64
Penn State has had a brutal start to Big Ten play, and it doesn’t get any easier with Michigan State coming to town. The Nittany Lions are a 7-9 team on the verge of starting 0-4 in Big Ten play. Their backs are against the wall, and unfortunately, the Spartans are hitting their stride.
PICKS: I’m not really interested in this game from a betting perspective. I’m still trying to figure out what Michigan State is, and Penn State always has at least one shocking win in them per season. If I do bet this game, it will probably be just a small moneyline bet on the Nittany Lions.
No. 7 KANSAS at BAYLOR, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas 70, Baylor 66
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kansas 69, Baylor 66
Kansas is cratering in KenPom. They’re all the way down to 10th after losing two of their last five games, and I still don’t think we truly know that this team is without Udoka Azubuike. Baylor, who plays a tricky zone, will certainly make it difficult for the young Jayhawks and will definitely make a team that can’t really shoot prove they can hit threes.
PICKS: I like the Baylor side here. Playing Scott Drew’s zone — which is somewhere between a 1-1-3, a 1-3-1 and a 2-3 — is always weird, and without knockdown perimeter shooters or their best offensive rebounder, I can see Bill Self’s team getting into some trouble. Iowa State has a similar makeup to what Kansas is right now, and they lost in Waco on Tuesday.
Texas Tech has the nation’s No. 1 defense, according to KenPom, and ranks outside the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Texas is 11th defensively and 73rd offensively. This will not be pretty basketball.
PICKS: This total is going to open in the low 120s. Take the under. This will be my heaviest bet of the day. I also expect the Red Raiders to win, and fully expect this to end up in the 50s.
No. 10 NEVADA at FRESNO STATE, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Nevada 73, Fresno State 70
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Nevada 71, Fresno State 69
Is it safe to believe in Nevada again? They bounced back from an ugly loss at New Mexico by absolutely running San Jose State out of California. But Fresno State on the road will be the toughest game that Nevada has played to date.
PICKS: I’m going to be very interested to see where this line opens up. If I had to guess, I think it will open around (-3) and get bet up a few points once the public sees a top ten team in what’s perceived as a weak league only giving three. I think I’d probably lean towards Fresno State here, but I will wait and see where the line moves before I bet on it.
No. 25 TCU at No. 23 OKLAHOMA, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
KENPOM PROJECTION: Oklahoma 75, TCU 70
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Oklahoma 75, TCU 71
The key here is entirely Jaylen Fisher. If he doesn’t play, then I really like Oklahoma if the line ends up around (-4). This is a really, really good defensive team, and Fisher means so much to the Horned Frogs offensively.
No. 22 INDIANA at MARYLAND, Fri. 7:00 p.m. (FS1)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Maryland 74, Indiana 69
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Maryland 75, Indiana 68
Another injury to keep an eye on here. If Indiana point guard Robert Phinisee is out, I would lean towards taking Maryland, but I don’t really love this spot. I’m not quite buying the Terps the way that the computers are at this point, and while Indiana’s three losses are on the road, two of them were at Duke and at Michigan and the third was a game they probably should have won at Arkansas. They tend to play teams tight, so if this ends up around (-7), it would be tough not to take the points.
Again, a lot of that thinking revolves around Phinisee.
SETON HALL at No. 21 MARQUETTE, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FS1)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Marquette 78, Seton Hall 72
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Marquette 76, Seton Hall 72
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I do not like betting on Marquette because you’re betting on whether or not you think Markus Howard will go bonkers. I do think Seton Hall’s Myles Cale will be able to disrupt Howard — the key to slowing him down is length, but there really is no “key” to slowing Howard down because he could put 35 on a Monstar if he gets into a rhythm — but again, I don’t like betting Marquette.
PICKS: If I’m going to bet this game, I’ll probably just take the over, assuming it’s in the high 140s. I also like the idea of taking prop bets on points scored by Howard and/or Myles Powell. Always take the over with them.
OLE MISS at No. 14 MISSISSIPPI STATE, Sat. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Mississippi State 78, Ole Miss 72
HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Mississippi State 79, Ole Miss 72
This is quietly a huge gauge game in the SEC. Ole Miss has won a bunch of games but didn’t beat anyone until they took down Auburn at home. Mississippi State has won a bunch of games and does have some solid Ws, but they also just lost to South Carolina.
PICKS: To be frank, I have no feel for Ole Miss and how good they are, but if we don’t know whether or not a team is good by mid-January, I think we can bet on the idea they aren’t that good. If Mississippi State is (-5) or lower at home in the Egg Bowl, I’d feel comfortable taking them.
SEC Reset: Has Tennessee usurped Kentucky as favorites?
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 recaps 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?
What is still left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.
MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee
The reigning SEC Player of the Year now finds himself firmly in the National Player of the Year discussion after a stellar start. Williams is averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on the season as he’s improved nearly every facet of his game.
While the 6-foot-7 junior was mostly an interior force last season, he’s improved his range to become a decent perimeter shooter (41 percent from three on a small sample size). Passing has also been a revelation for Williams, as he’s made the Vols’ offense a lot better with his ability to create for teammates.
Zion Williamson still finds himself as the current NPOY favorite, but Williams is doing everything he can to close the gap.
THE ALL SEC FIRST TEAM
Grant Williams, Tennessee
Admiral Schofield, Tennessee: Schofield has been nearly just as good as Williams in a dominant Tennessee frontcourt. Putting up 18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, Schofield is a matchup nightmare who can make plays all over the floor.
Daniel Gafford, Arkansas: The sophomore big man has become a force on the interior. The NBA Draft prospect is averaging 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 66 percent shooting.
Keldon Johnson, Kentucky: On a loaded Kentucky team, Johnson has emerged as the team’s best player as he’s now considered as a potential lottery pick. The freshman guard is averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent three-point range.
Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State: The senior leader of a dangerous Mississippi State team, Weatherspoon has helped the Bulldogs to a strong start. Weatherspoon is averaging 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
NIT: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama, Missouri
OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. The SEC race is wide open
Not that this should come as any sort of surprise, but the SEC race is wide open at this point in the season. Defending co-regular season champions Auburn and Tennessee have returned to top-15 form from last season. Kentucky is starting to figure things out while looking like the potential juggernaut many believed they could be.
Mississippi State, LSU and Florida also have the look of very dangerous teams who could be sleepers in the SEC race. And the second tier of the SEC (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, and Missouri) are all off to decent starts.
Besides for Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina, seemingly every team is a threat in the league this year.
2. Auburn and Tennessee both have teams capable of repeating as SEC champions
Defending co-SEC champions Auburn and Tennessee have lived up to lofty preseason expectations so far as both teams find themselves ranked in the top 15 in the country.
The Vols and Tigers both sport top 35 offenses and defenses on KenPom and both have passed the all-important eye-test by playing well against elite teams. Tennessee has knocked off Gonzaga while hanging tough with Kansas while Auburn fought hard against Duke and knocked off teams they were supposed to beat like Washington, Xavier and Arizona.
Both veteran teams look like they’re well-positioned to be near the top of the SEC standings once again this season thanks to veteran teams that have won plenty of games.
3. Kentucky is starting to figure things out
After the opening night dominance of Duke over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, there were some serious questions about the Wildcats. More questions returned once Kentucky suffered a surprising loss to Seton Hall.
Over the last several weeks, the Wildcats have answered many of those concerns with notable results.
Kentucky is starting to figure out its rotation while also clamping down more on defense. The transfer of point guard Quade Green helped alleviate some perimeter logjams that have enabled sparkplugs like Ashton Hagans to come in and earn more minutes. That’s provided more stability for Kentucky overall while enhancing their perimeter defense quite a bit. Kentucky also has the luxury of having multiple guys who can take over a game as we’ve seen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have big recent outings against quality competition. The frontcourt play of Reid Travis and P.J. Washington remains solid as well.
Kentucky still has to get by Auburn and Tennessee to be the SEC’s premier team, but they’re in as good of a position as they could have hoped for given how embarrassing the season started.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. Can Auburn and Tennessee reintroduce key pieces into the rotation?
For as good as Auburn and Tennessee have been this season, both programs are still trying to reintroduce double-figure scorers back into their rotations.
Auburn finally gets forward Danjel Purifoy back into the lineup after his suspension for his alleged involvement in the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal. The Tigers don’t need Purifoy to be great, but if he’s able to provide another lift in the frontcourt, then it adds another scary element to Auburn’s rotation.
Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner has also been sidelined most of this season as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year might be the Vols’ most important perimeter scorer as he would help the backcourt of Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden immensely by adding another playmaker.
It’s not a guarantee that either of these guys make a huge impact. Purifoy hasn’t played for a season and a half and Turner is clearly having issues with a surgically-repaired shoulder that has given him trouble before. But if either of these guys can regain previous form then it makes these two teams even more of a threat for the rest of the season.
2. Do any middle tier teams separate themselves from the pack and make the NCAA tournament?
At the start of 2019 the SEC had five teams ranked in the top 20 on KenPom with a sixth team, LSU, coming in at No. 40. Barring an extremely bad conference season, those teams should all be aiming to make the NCAA tournament.
It’s the second tier of SEC teams that will be intriguing to follow.
Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top 75 on KenPom after positive starts to the season. None of those teams are currently guaranteed NCAA tournament entry based on current standing. But all of them are going to have ample opportunities to earn huge wins since so many SEC teams are ranked and sitting in Quadrant 1 territory.
Last season saw the SEC create a basketball resurgence with eight NCAA tournament bids. Some work still needs to be done, but with the Pac-12 as down as it is, there is ample opportunity for the SEC to make another major push for the same number of NCAA tournament bids.
3. Can Mississippi State push the SEC’s elite?
Among the SEC’s four ranked teams, Mississippi State is by far the most unproven of the bunch.
Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee are all coming off of NCAA tournament appearances with deep and talented rosters. And although the Bulldogs have earned some notable non-conference wins over teams like Cincinnati and Clemson, they haven’t competed against elite national competition like the other top SEC teams.
Since the Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2009, they’ll need to earn the trust of everybody by proving themselves against top-flight teams. After years of building, it finally looks like Ben Howland has a veteran team who can take him back to the NCAA tournament. Quinndary Weatherspoon leads a team with five double-figure scorers. The Bulldogs have depth at multiple spots. Aric Holman has been tremendous in spurts. Mississippi State has a top-45 offense and defense. If this program is ever going to make a run for the top of the SEC, this is the time to do it.
1. The SEC gets seven teams in the NCAA tournament (and has a more successful March)
Last year was a banner year for the SEC when they had eight of its membership make the Big Dance. Although the SEC top-to-bottom doesn’t appear to be as strong as last season, it’s looking like the SEC should still have plenty of numbers in March. And more teams should also be poised for a deeper run.
The key will be if the middle-tier teams can pick off the ranked teams during conference play as happened last season. If the top SEC contenders run away with the league, and only lose to each other, then it significantly hurts the SEC’s chances for overall quality wins. But if the league is a bloodbath like last year, with no team clearly separating from the pack, then we should see plenty of SEC teams back in the field.
Either way, the SEC should fare better than only one Sweet 16 team from last season. Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee are all in potential position to earn great seeds and make runs and there are plenty of dangerous second-tier teams who could get hot at the right time.
2. Tennessee captures the SEC title
The SEC race is going to be a close one given how talented the league is at the top. But Tennessee has the difference of having arguably the two best players in the conference in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
The key for Tennessee could come down to guard play. Jordan Bone has been better than last season but he’s still struggling to shoot from the perimeter. Jordan Bowden has actually been slightly worse than last year — particularly shooting the ball from deep. And the SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner, has only played in three games this season as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery.
As long as Williams and Schofield keep playing at this level, and Tennessee’s perimeter attack can make some timely plays and shots, then the Vols should be in position to claim another SEC regular season title.
3. Florida makes a big push after a strange start
One of this season’s most perplexing teams has been the Florida Gators. Sitting at 8-4 with tremendous computer numbers thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule, it’s tough to get a read on Florida at this point in the season.
We know that Florida is one of best defensive teams in the country. The Gators turn you over and throw waves of bodies at you thanks to their depth and athleticism. It’s offense that’s the issue. Florida doesn’t have a go-to scorer and nobody on the roster seems like a natural takeover guy.
There are currently an astounding eight players averaging between 10.3 points and 6.6 points per game on this roster right now. If a veteran guard like KeVaughn Allen or Jalen Hudson starts to figure things out as a scorer, then Florida should elevate to another level.
Both Allen and Hudson have averaged at least 14.0 points per game over a full college season before, so it’s certainly possible. I believe that Florida gets one of those guys rolling and becomes a dangerous team heading into March.