SEC basketball notebook: What a difference a week makes for 'Cats, Hogs, Vols
It’s probably a good thing that the SEC basketball regular season is winding down. Roller-coasters have fewer twists and turns than the SEC season for most teams not named Alabama or Texas A&M. But the past week was good for Kentucky, Arkansas, and Vandy among others … and not so good for Tennessee. Here’s the latest from the league in our weekly hoops notebook as we inch closer to the SEC Tournament.
‘Cats, Hogs off the mat
A week ago, Kentucky was a genuine threat to miss the NCAA Tournament and Arkansas was wondering if there was much hope other than crawling into the NCAA field. Rumors of both teams’ demise were greatly exaggerated.
Kentucky outlasted Mississippi State in what was a huge game for both teams and then took down hobbled Tennessee for a season sweep. Freshman forward Chris Livingston is a big part of the difference. With Kentucky limited by injuries in the backcourt, Livingston has taken up the slack with 13 points and 5 boards against State and his first UK double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds against UT. After scoring in double figures twice in UK’s first 23 games, Livingston has now done so in 3 of UK’s past 4.
Meanwhile, Arkansas can finally move Nick Smith’s presence from hypothetical to actual. Smith started for the first time since December in Arkansas’s win over Florida, and followed up a solid 10-point effort with 26 points on 5-for-8 3-point shooting against Georgia. Yes, the Hogs have been inconsistent and it’s not clear they have enough perimeter scoring, but getting Smith something close to healthy and integrated into the team chemistry is bigger than huge.
Vols’ fall continues
Meanwhile, Tennessee fell to 2-5 in February after getting swept by Kentucky and Texas A&M. The Vols are looking likely to slide past a double-bye in the SEC Tournament and their NCAA seeding has to be nearing freefall. Yes, the injuries to Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips hurt. But Tennessee’s real issue has been a lack of identity. The Vols have topped 40% shooting only twice in February and have topped 30% from 3-point range just twice in the same span.
Getting James and Phillips back will certainly help, but UT is getting perilously close to running into March without an offensive identity. And meanwhile after starting the season as a historically great three-point defense, UT is sliding into normal range after giving up 35%+ shooting in 5 of 7 February games. Not a good combo.
Who else is hot?
Buzz Williams knocked off the Vols and has positioned his Aggies as the lone team left to give Alabama competition for the SEC regular-season title. The Aggies seemed buried when conference play started. But Wade Taylor is becoming a closer for A&M, and the Aggies continue to play ego-free hoops, defending every inch like junkyard dogs and cashing in offensive opportunities. A&M has been great on the offensive glass and at the foul line, and while that’s not glamorous, it is effective.
And don’t sleep on Jerry Stackhouse’s Vanderbilt Commodores. Losing by 57 to Alabama might not have been the worst thing in the world for Vandy as they have since played like a team trying to crash the NCAA Tournament. At 15-12, Vandy has plenty of work left to do … but being in the conversation is an improvement by miles.
Mississippi State feels like the mystery of the SEC at the moment. State was projected to be just inside the bubble, but then dropped a heart-breaker in overtime at Mizzou. So State is probably just out, and if so, Vandy is the only other SEC team on the outside looking in with even the slightest chance of a Tournament run.
Bama is a solid No. 1 seed, Tennessee is definitely in, although their seed is dropping by the game. Texas A&M is all but guaranteed a spot, too, although there’s still a wide variety of seeding options in play. Arkansas, Kentucky, Auburn, and Mizzou are probably all in as well.
Heading into Tuesday, BracketMatrix.com had each team within all 114 submitted brackets making up their rankings, with all of them in the 8-9 seed range.
Games to Watch
After a fairly lackluster Wednesday, there are some big games coming up over the next week…
Auburn at Kentucky (Saturday) — Each team is 18-9 and looking for another big checkmark in their respective NCAA Tournament resumes
Arkansas at Alabama (Saturday) — Bama trying to hold onto the conference lead, while Arkansas tries to make a statement about returning to form.
Texas A&M at Mississippi State (Saturday) — Meanwhile, the Aggies try to make a run at the Tide and the Bulldogs are fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives.
Arkansas at Tennessee (Tuesday) — Again, big week for the Hogs to show they have turned things around. That said, UT find itself needing a quality will to avoid sliding into the realm of getting handed a legitimate upset-seeking mid-major foe in the NCAA Tournament first round.