Saturday offered up a lot of intriguing storylines around SEC basketball.
There was bubble team madness, huge performances, and one unfortunate injury.
Here are random thoughts from the weekend.
- The biggest news from Saturday was Yante Maten’s injury in the first half against Kentucky. Georgia has since announced that Maten is out indefinitely with a knee sprain, and that’s certainly better than any sort of tear. However, without Maten, the Bulldogs’ NCAA chances (which were slim even before the injury) are likely in trouble. Maten is one of the most underrated players in the country and would’ve been a serious candidate for SEC Player of the Year had Georgia won a few more games to this point. Should he return for the SEC tournament, this is still a team to watch out for given how well the Bulldogs played without him in the close loss to the Wildcats.
- Tennessee took care of business in dominating Missouri in Knoxville. The Vols would be the front-runner to get the league’s fifth NCAA tournament bid if the season ended today, but since it doesn’t, it’s all about what happens next. Tennessee has three big opportunities to build an even stronger case (vs. Vanderbilt, at South Carolina, vs. Alabama), and one opportunity to get dropped from the conversation altogether (at LSU).
- Mississippi State had a great chance to upset Florida, but the Bulldogs simply didn’t shoot the ball well enough (2-for-23 from three-point land for a whopping 8%). The Gators played nowhere near their best in game No. 1 without John Egbunu, yet still found a way to win in a tough environment. That’s a sign of a really good team.
- Auburn’s lackluster defense continued on Saturday with an 81-62 loss at Texas A&M. And by lackluster, I mean allowing the Aggies to shoot 69% from the floor (31-of-45). It was the third highest point total for the Aggies in SEC play. The two highest? Both came against LSU (92 and 85). And while people often forget just how horrible things were for Auburn basketball before Bruce Pearl’s arrival, this trend of bad defense must stop if the Tigers want to build any sort of momentum in these last four games.
- In a league of confusing teams, Vanderbilt has been one of the most confusing. But the Commodores proved once again that they’re capable of beating anyone after knocking off South Carolina. Bryce Drew’s team has now beaten two of the league’s top three (SC and Florida), but inconsistency elsewhere has Vandy still fighting for an at-large bid. The good news? The Commodores’ RPI is now at No. 49, which means that winning three of four and grabbing a win in the SEC tournament may be enough to get in. Of course, winning three of four against the foursome of Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Florida is easier said than done.
- Is South Carolina’s NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy after that loss at Vandy? Not yet. The Gamecocks have several quality wins (Michigan, Syracuse, Tennessee, Florida) and their RPI is still at No. 30. But Frank Martin’s squad definitely doesn’t want to test the committee with losses down the stretch against teams like Mississippi State or Ole Miss. More struggles may also hurt Sindarius Thornwell’s SEC Player of the Year chances (although he’d still be my choice today).
- Speaking of teams trying to land in the tournament, Alabama moved to 9-5 in the conference with a blowout win over LSU. Wins over teams like LSU and Missouri obviously do nothing for your résumé, so the Crimson Tide must score as many quality wins as possible in these last four regular season games. Georgia, Ole Miss, and Tennessee will offer decent boosts if Alabama wins those games, but it can’t afford a loss at Texas A&M in there (due to the Aggies’ RPI that continually hovers at around 100). For the Crimson Tide, it’s all about winning as many games as possible at this point to stay in the discussion.
- One team that isn’t as concerned about its NCAA fate these days is Arkansas. After it looked like the Razorbacks were close to playing their way out, all they’ve done is respond with impressive wins at South Carolina and at home against Ole Miss. They aren’t fully in the clear yet, but as long as they don’t lose two straight against Texas A&M and Auburn, the Hogs should be fine. Random sidenote: This is Mike Anderson’s 15th season as a head coach, and he still doesn’t have a losing season on his record. That’s not too bad.
- Although Jerry Palm of CBS has Ole Miss in his first four out, I’m not sure the Rebels are that close. Winning at Arkansas would’ve been a big step forward, but like Alabama, the goal for Ole Miss is just to win games. The next two games – at Mississippi State and vs. Missouri – won’t offer any opportunity to impress the committee or the computers, but losses in either would effectively end the NCAA discussion. However, this team is one to keep an eye on in the SEC tournament in Nashville. Andy Kennedy has enough talent on this team to pull off several upsets.
- In looking ahead to this week, these games will be the ones to watch for bubble and conference title purposes: South Carolina at Florida (2/21), Vandy at Tennessee (2/22), Georgia at Alabama (2/23), Tennessee at South Carolina (2/25), Florida at Kentucky (2/25), Alabama at Texas A&M (2/25).
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