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South Carolina stuns No. 14 Mississippi State 87-82 in OT
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Freshman A.J. Lawson stole the ball and finished with an emphatic dunk with 13 seconds left in overtime to seal South Carolina’s 87-82 upset of No. 14 Mississippi State on Tuesday night.
Maik Kotsar scored a career-high 25 points and had nine rebounds for the Gamecocks (7-7, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), who were the only SEC team with a losing record in nonconference play but now sit atop the league.
Lawson, who came in as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 13 points a game, scored just six points on 3-of-11 shooting. But he may have turned around what appeared to be a lost season for South Carolina with his steal and dunk as the Bulldogs (12-2, 0-1) tried to get a potential game-tying 3.
Kotsar came up big in overtime too, with a mid-range jumper with 42.1 seconds to go that put South Carolina ahead 85-82.
Hassani Gravett added 17 points and Chris Silva had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Gamecocks.
Aric Holman had 20 points and 10 rebounds for Mississippi State. Nick Weatherspoon scored 17 points, and Lamar Peters had 16 points and seven assists.
Mississippi State trailed 61-54 with just under 12 minutes to go, but climbed back in it with some timely 3s. Both teams had good looks to take the lead late in regulation.
Silva had a rebound just under the basket slip out of his hands with 30 seconds to go in regulation. Peters missed a tough running layup with 5 seconds left, and Gravett’s half-court heave at the buzzer rolled around the rim before falling away.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs shot well from behind the arc as they often have this season, making 11 of 25 attempts. But Mississippi State made just 13 of 23 free throws, while South Carolina shot 13 of 17 from the foul line.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks have lost to Stony Brook and Wofford this season, which appeared to be slipping away. But South Carolina overcame a 14-point second-half deficit to beat Florida on a full-court heave and dunk by Silva and followed that up with an overtime thriller to become the surprise 2-0 team in the SEC.
Mississippi State’s ranking was its highest since reaching No. 11 in January 2005. The Bulldogs will likely fall next week, but their streak of consecutive weeks in the poll should reach 13.
It was South Carolina’s first win in three tries this season over a Top 25 team.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs get in-state rival Mississippi at home Saturday.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks host Missouri on Saturday.
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.
NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga
Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?
When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.
And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.
Or something like that.
The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.
The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.
And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.
I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.
(As an aside, all that talk of Battle starting the season slow can officially be deaded. He’s popped off for 20 points in four of the five games during this five-game winning streak for the Orange, including 20 points in the win at Ohio State.)
Then there is the importance of this win for the Orange, both in terms of where their season is heading and what this means for their non-conference resume. Syracuse already has two questionable losses to their name, falling to both UConn and Oregon in Madison Square Garden in November. A home loss to a Georgetown team from a down-Big East that probably isn’t tournament bound isn’t the kind of thing that they need.
But a come-from-behind win in a rivalry game?
That’s a nice way to change the momentum of a season.
Good for Frank Haith. Good for Tulsa. Good for the American.
Very, very bad for Kansas State.
This is the second straight Saturday where Bruce Weber’s club has dropped a road game. Last week, they fell at Marquette. This week Tulsa. I think that it is time for us to truly question just how good this team actually is, and it’s not an answer that Kansas State fans are going to like. The problem? They can’t score. The Wildcats rank 99th in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and are shooting 28.2 percent from three, but you didn’t really need me to explain to you that this team can’t score after they put up 46 points on Tulsa.
Before the season, I made the point that Bruce Weber has quite a bit of pressure on him because of the overloaded expectations he had coming into the year, and this certainly isn’t going to help matters. It’s not a secret that Kansas State fans haven’t exactly been thrilled with his tenure, and struggling to find a way to win games like this is going to be a bad thing for him in the long-term.
SETON HALL AND MARQUETTE: The Big East badly needed to pick up some impressive non-conference wins, and they got two of them on Saturday: Seton Hall knocked off No. 9 Kentucky in overtime and Marquette knocked off No. 12 Wisconsin in overtime. For a conference that doesn’t have a clear second-best team when the best team is a reloading Villanova, these are the kind of wins that can turn a four-bid league into a five-bid league or a five-bid league into a six-bid league.
I don’t think I’m overstating that, either.
This was really important not just for these two teams, but for the league in general.
And at some point, I should probably mention that the Golden Eagles have now beaten Louisville, Kansas State and Wisconsin over the last two weeks. That’s pretty good.
INDIANA: The Hoosiers got 21 points from Romeo Langford and came from behind at home to land a win over Louisville in Assembly Hall. Indiana has had some struggles early on this season, as a young team built around a freshman and a banged-up Juwan Morgan has had their share of difficulties, but they’re getting the wins they need. Indiana is now 3-1 in games decided by one possession, and their only loss came at Arkansas, when they missed a layup and a tip-in before committing a foul on the ensuing rebound in a tie game. They should be fine in the long run.
FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles knocked off UConn in the Never Forget Classic in Newark, landing another solid win and improving to 8-1 on the season. Like Indiana, Florida State has yet to truly click this year, but they now have wins over UConn, Purdue, Florida and LSU. That’s a pretty good resume for the first month of the season.
JORDAN POOLE: The concern with Michigan this season was always going to be whether or not they could find enough perimeter shooting to be able to keep the floor spaced, and Poole looks like he is providing the Wolverines with an answer. He had 26 points on Saturday in a win over South Carolina, and has now hit for at least 14 points in the last five games and six of the last seven games. He’s shooting 45.2 percent from three on the season and, after missing nine of his first 10 threes, he’s made 18 of the last 32 threes he’s attempted.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: I’ve been a doubter of Mississippi State this season, but after knocking off Clemson on Saturday afternoon, the No. 22 Bulldogs are 8-1 on the season, thanks in large part to the 28 points and eight threes that they got from Lamar Peters. Clemson is not a great team this season. Hell, I’m not sold they are actually a good team, especially when they are playing without Marcquise Reed. But a win is a win is a win, and Mississippi State got one that they needed on Saturday.
OKLAHOMA: Is Oklahoma actually better this year than they were with Trae Young last season? I don’t know if I fully believe it — they’ve beaten Florida, Notre Dame, Dayton and now Wichita State, albeit by 32 points while losing to Wisconsin by 20 — but I will say this much: They are better than I thought they would be this year. An NCAA tournament bid is within reach if they can do what they need to do in Big 12 play.
WESTERN KENTUCKY: The Hilltoppers are just 5-4 on the season, but after beating Arkansas on Saturday, they have two wins over high-major competition — the Razorbacks and West Virginia. You don’t want to see this group as a No. 15 seed in your bracket.
SATURDAY’S BIGGEST LOSERS
THE BIG EAST NOT NAMED SETON HALL OR MARQUETTE: We mentioned earlier how important it is for this league to go out and land some big wins during the remainder of non-conference play.
Well, Creighton got smoked at Nebraska. DePaul lost at Northwestern. Xavier got drummed by Cincinnati. Georgetown blew a 13 point halftime lead at Syracuse. Yes, all of those games came on the road, but all of those losses are going to hurt.
FLORIDA: The Gators lost their fourth game of the season, and this one might have been the most frustrating, as Mike White’s team had a shot at picking off No. 10 Michigan State slip through their fingers. Kyle Ahrens, of all people, scored the final seven points for the Spartans in a 63-59 victory.
NEW MEXICO STATE: The Aggies had a second half lead on No. 2 Kansas in Lawrence and blew it. Dedric Lawson scored 19 of his 21 points in the second half, including the last 14 points of the game for the Jayhawks, as Kansas eked out a 63-60 win.
It is perfectly reasonable to drop Kentucky out of the top 25 come Monday morning.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Wildcats are not one of the top 25 teams in college basketball at this moment, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they can’t find a way to make themselves a favorite to get to the Final Four by the end of the season.
But as of today, after losing to an OK Seton Hall on a neutral court, Kentucky has not won a game against a high major opponent. They have not won a game away from Rupp Arena. They have not beaten a top that ranks in the top 75 on KenPom and have just two wins against teams that are in the top 150.
That’s just not a good resume.
And, frankly, they have not looked great in the games they have won, either. They struggled with Southern Illinois and UNC Greensboro. It was more difficult than it should have been to beat VMI and Winthrop.
This has happened before with Kentucky teams — Do you remember last season? — and it will happen with Kentucky teams again. It’s the way of the world when you deal with freshmen, and I don’t doubt that Cal will figure this thing out.
But as of right now, if you don’t think that Kentucky is one of the 25 best teams in college basketball, you’re probably right.