Jared Quillen is the RTC correspondent for the SEC.
A Look Back
There was little change in SEC standings this week, which bodes well for the SEC’s chances at getting six bids to the NCAA Tournament, the most since 2008. And that’s just how Joe Lunardi sees it as he currently projects six SEC teams in his bracket. That means that Tennessee and Georgia both remain in the tournament despite suffering losses this week. The SEC is second only to the Big East in total conference bids, which is currently projected at eleven. While I think that is a little excessive, it’s quite obvious that the big winners in the expanded 68-team field are the major conferences; especially with the number of historically strong mid-majors sitting squarely on the bubble. Memphis and Gonzaga are probably barely in, meaning one more little trip up and they lose their bid. Saint Mary’s is on the edge of losing its at-large bid after a loss to Utah State on Saturday and Butler, last year’s national championship runner-up, is just barely playing its way back into at-large consideration. The mid-majors’ loss is the SEC’s gain.
1. Florida (21-5, 10-2): Florida went to LSU and got a win without Chandler Parsons. Now on a five-game winning streak, Florida has established enough breathing room to feel confident about its chances of winning the SEC East if not the conference. I was critical of the Gators early, but they have proven me the fool.
2. Alabama (18-8, 10-2): The Tide is 7-1 against SEC West opponents including wins over Arkansas and at LSU. Last week, Alabama clinched the SEC West, its third SEC West title and first since 2005. Alabama is also 14-0 at home. How’d the Tide do it? Well for starters, holding conference opponents to a league-leading 38 percent from the field really helps. This team is only getting better and seems poised to make a good run in the NCAA Tournament.
3. Kentucky (19-7, 7-5): Mississippi State gave the Wildcats more than they wanted in Rupp Arena, closing the Cats’ lead to just four with under a minute left after Kentucky built a 12-point lead with 3:26 to play. The Wildcats followed that win with an easy victory over reeling South Carolina in a game that Kentucky opened up with 15-0 lead. Darius Miller, who has been known to disappear at times, scored a career-high 22 points.
4. Vanderbilt (20-6, 8-4): The Commodores have won five straight since dropping two in a row to Arkansas and Florida. With this week’s two wins, Vandy reaches the 20-win mark for the sixth time in the Kevin Stallings era. Jeffery Taylor continues to shine, recording a double-double at Auburn where he scored 20 points and pulled down ten rebounds.
5. Georgia (18-8, 7-5) Despite the loss to Vanderbilt, the win over Tennessee should be enough to solidify the Bulldogs’ at-large chances barring a late season meltdown in conference play. The win in Knoxville was also Georgia’s first in ten years. Mark Fox is doing everything right in Georgia, which finished with four, three and five conference wins and a last place finish in the SEC East in each of the last three seasons, but now has a good chance of finishing second in the East with just four games to play.
6. Arkansas (16-10, 5-7) The Hogs won easily over Florida A&M at home this week in a rare late season non-conference matchup, but couldn’t get the win at Alabama despite a 31-31 tie at the half. Then again, no one has beaten the Tide at home this year. The Razorbacks host Kentucky this week in what should certainly be a rowdy one as it always is when the Cats come into Bud Walton Arena.
7. Tennessee (16-11, 6-6) After dropping three straight to Alabama, Florida and Kentucky in the Volunteers’ toughest stretch of the season, the Vols beat South Carolina, 73-67, but couldn’t get the home win over Georgia despite Scotty Hopson’s career high 32 points. Inconsistency is making home games very frustrating for the Volunteers, who are now 10-6 at home, including 3-3 in conference play.
8. Mississippi (17-10, 5-7) The Rebels beating Auburn handily 90-59 is good, but losing to in-state rival Mississippi State twice in a season for the second straight year is frustrating. The Bulldogs controlled the second half despite a 33-33 tie. On the bright side, Chris Warren made all four of his free throw attempts in the loss to improve his nation-leading free-throw percentage to 94.3 percent.
9. South Carolina (13-12, 4-8) After a strong start to the SEC, where the Gamecocks got wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas and at Florida, the Gamecocks seem to be withering now. The Cocks are also losers of seven of their last eight, including five straight after opening SEC play at 3-1. Credit that to the Cocks’ poor shooting (40.4%) and terrible turnover ratio (0.8:1). Couple that with a stretch that includes games at home against Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and on the road against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky, and wins can be hard to come by. It doesn’t help either when freshman leading-scorer Bruce Ellington has played nine straight games without shooting at least 50 percent from the field, including a 1-12 performance against Georgia and 1 for 11 at Kentucky in his last three games. They’ll be better next year.
10. Mississippi State (14-12, 6-6) The Bulldogs suffered a second straight loss at Kentucky following their season low-point loss to Auburn, but were able to follow that up with a 71-58 home win over in-state rival Mississippi. The Bulldogs have now won five straight against the Rebels and when you’re having a rough year, it’s always nice to be able to say at least you’re dominating your rival.
11. Auburn (9-17, 2-10) As usual, Auburn had a tough week, losing 90-59 at Ole Miss and 77-60 to Vanderbilt despite keeping it close for most of the game trailing by just two with 14 minutes to play. If you’re looking for a bright spot, Earnest Rost is averaging 19.3 points per game over Auburn’s last four and is shooting 54.5 (12-22) from three and 56.5 percent overall. Compare that to last year when he averaged just 2.8 points per game.
12. LSU (10-17, 2-10) Monday on the SEC Coaches Teleconference, Tigers Coach Trent Johnson said, “Believe it or not, we’re starting to play better.” I’m gonna go with the “or not” option. The Tigers have lost ten straight, including home losses this week to Alabama and Florida. The dubious stretch has to be among the longest current active losing streaks. Furthermore, LSU is currently last in conference play in the following categories: scoring, scoring margin, three-point field goal percentage and assist to turnover ratio and second-to-last in free throw percentage, field goal percentage, rebounding, blocked shots, steals and turnover margin. But Coach Johnson thinks things are getting better. Apparently those rose-colored glasses are working out pretty well for the LSU coach.
The Week Ahead
At this point, every game matters, whether for seeding or just getting into the NCAA Tournament. Let’s see what’s on the docket:
- February 22, Tennessee @ Vanderbilt. Rivalry games are always fun and the Volunteers probably need to win this one to feel really comfortable with their chances for an NCAA berth, especially with games against Florida and at Kentucky still remaining on the schedule.
- February 23, Kentucky @ Arkansas. The Wildcats have to get this win on the road against “Unforgettable” Kentucky alum John Pelphrey in Fayetteville if they want to have any chance of winning the conference regular season, much less the East. They haven’t been strong on the road and Bud Walton is always particularly hostile to the Cats.
- February 24, Georgia @ Florida. Georgia won the last one 101-94 in double overtime. The Bulldogs can stay in the hunt for the East or at least a second-place finish with a win at Florida. Florida’s NCAA seeding gets better with every win.
- February 26, Florida @ Kentucky. Florida holds a 9-4 advantage over Kentucky in their last 13 meetings, a fact not lost on the Wildcat faithful who have learned a special hatred for the Gators of late. The Gators won the last meeting on February 5, 70-68. A win by Florida here all but guarantees them an SEC East championship and brings an end to coach John Calipari’s 31-game win streak at Rupp Arena, where he is undefeated in his two seasons at Kentucky.