SEC basketball notebook: Don't poke the bear, er, Tide, and other SEC notes
February is here and unless Valentine’s Day is your thing, the best news is that March is approaching. We all know that March is the most wonderful time of the year. But will it be that wonderful for the SEC? Here’s our weekly notebook after a particularly head-scratching week of hoops.
Alabama is awful, I mean, amazing
Which Alabama team should we believe? The one that laid a massive egg in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, getting destroyed by a mediocre Oklahoma team by a 93-69 margin? Or the one that beat Vanderbilt by — yes, that number is correct — 57 points?
On a given day, obviously, the Tide are subject to some ups and downs. Defense told the tale. The Tide allowed Oklahoma to shoot 58% on Saturday in the loss (and 9-for-13 for a cool 69% from long range). Alabama has allowed 2 opponents to shoot better than 46%, and has lost to them both (Gonzaga was the other). The good news is they’re 19-1 otherwise.
And Tuesday, the Tide held Vandy to 25% shooting and 3-for-30 from 3-point territory. That was a season-best in field goal defense percentage, and it led to the Tide beating Vandy worse in basketball (57 points) than in football (52 points).
The good news was that Nate Oats had a message to deliver after Saturday and Tuesday proved that Bama got it. The loss Saturday might have been season-changing in a good way. We’ll see.
No. 2 (and rising)
Rick Barnes has done a phenomenal job with Tennessee, and the Vols sit at No. 2 in the nation. In the history of UT basketball, the Vols have reached No. 1 only twice — once briefly in 2008 and again for a month in 2019 under Barnes. They could reach the top spot again.
Tennessee’s recent loss to Kentucky was a game of offensive difficulty. The Vols shot a season-worst 14% from 3-point range (3-for-21). On the season, when UT scores under 71 points, they are 5-3. When they reach 71, they’re 13-0. The other common theme is putting teams at the foul line. When UT’s opponents shoot 21 or more free throws, the Vols are just 3-3. If the other team takes 20 or less foul shots, UT is 15-0.
Tennessee’s offensive balance should keep them healthy on that side of the ball even in the one-and-done environment of March. The Vols’ top 6 players — the only ones who average over 17 minutes per game — all average between 8.6 and 12.2 points per game. Five of them are shooting 34% or better from 3-point range. All 6 shoot 71% or better from the free-throw line.
With the depth challenges arising for Arkansas, Tuesday’s win over Texas A&M took on a brotherly tone. Twin transfers Makhel and Makhi Mitchell helped the Hogs survive the Aggies in an 81-70 win. They combined — on their birthday, no less — for 15 points, 18 rebounds, and 10 blocks. Sure they only split a triple-double, but it was a big effort. Makhi was the more highly regarded twin, and he’s been a consistent contributor all along. But Makhel is coming into more minutes and playing well in doing so. GIven a season-high 32 minutes, he had 9 points, 13 rebounds and 7 blocks, helping to hold A&M to just 34% shooting.
The BracketMatrix.com consensus field has 6 SEC teams represented. Alabama and Tennessee are expected to garner No. 1 seeds based on their current position. But the gap between the SEC’s top 2 and the rest has grown wider. Auburn is projected as a No. 7 seed, and the rest of the SEC field is basically on the bubble — No. 8 seed Missouri, No. 10 seed Arkansas and No. 11 seed Kentucky. The Wildcats are in the field in 73 of the 87 projected NCAA fields.
On the outside peeking in is Texas A&M, which was the consensus second team out. Mississippi State is the only other SEC school getting any real bracket mention, although they look like a long shot.
Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket is pretty similar to the overview. Lunardi has Mizzou as a 7 seed and Auburn as an 8 seed. Lunardi has UK as his next-to-last team in and had A&M as his first team out of the field ahead of Tuesday’s action.
Games to watch
The highlights of the coming week’s schedule:
No. 25 Auburn at No. 2 Tennessee (Saturday): If only there was some sort of common history between these programs. Oh, wait, Bruce Pearl Bowl? Mark me down for it. The Tigers have little to lose heading into Knoxville, while Tennessee has to have its eyes on that No. 1 ranking.
No. 25 Auburn at Texas A&M (Tuesday): A&M finds itself on the NCAA bubble again, but the Aggies would sit a little better if they win this game at home. The Tigers’ second road trip within 7 days looks like a tough one.
Arkansas at Kentucky (Tuesday): Neither is ranked, both are 15-7, both are struggling to avoid being massive disappointments after promising starts. Could be a wild one at Rupp Arena.