SEC basketball notebook: What's wrong with everybody not named Alabama?
It’s a good time to be Alabama.
Granted, the way these weekly notebooks have gone, a tacit endorsement of the Crimson Tide will probably plunge them into a massive season-threatening slump. But it may take the power of the notebook to derail Alabama, as it is otherwise looking every bit like a top-5 team and a legitimate national title contender.
But what’s wrong with … well, everybody else? It’s that topic that leads our weekly look around the SEC. We’ll unravel a few of those puzzles and then take an early NCAA Tournament look and note the week’s big games to come.
What’s wrong with Tennessee?
Tennessee is 1-3 in the month of February. Not only that, but the Volunteers have lost consecutive games on 3-point buzzer-beaters. Most of UT’s problems have been on defense. This season, Tennessee has allowed opponents to shoot 40% just 8 times. But the Vols are 3-5 in those games, including those 3 most recent losses. Florida (43.8%), Vanderbilt (43.6%) and Missouri (52.6%) all had little trouble scoring on the Vols. After a season hounding the 3-point line, Tennessee watched those 3 foes shoot a combined 31 for 71 from long range.
On the offensive end, UT has to get more consistency from Santiago Vescovi, who is its leading scorer at 12 points per game. In the Vols’ losses, Vescovi has shot just 27%, including just 25% from 2-point range. UT is also dead last in the SEC in free-throw attempts per game in conference play. The Vols want to float on the perimeter and stumble around on defense, but that’s not exactly a recipe for success.
What’s wrong with Kentucky?
Meanwhile, Kentucky has lost 3 of its past 5 games, including a 75-68 loss to Georgia on Saturday that probably puts the Wildcats outside the NCAA Tournament bubble. Kentucky’s problems are often defensive. The Wildcats are allowing SEC opponents to shoot 45.9%, which is 11th in the league in field goal defense. That includes a 52.4% clip from 2-point range, which is again 1 of the worst marks in the league. Oddly, UK’s opponents are also shooting 81.2% from the foul line, which is the best in the SEC.
Oscar Tshiebwe is a phenomenal rebounder and a decent post scorer. But he’s absolutely clueless in pick-and-roll defense, something that coaches Bill Self and Eric Musselman both had field days with in UK’s losses to Kansas and Arkansas. He’s also kind of a black hole on offense — he has just 15 assists in Kentucky’s 9 losses compared with 21 turnovers. Injuries to guards Sahvir Wheeler and CJ Fredrick haven’t helped the Wildcats, either.
Most significantly, there’s a massive disconnect between coach John Calipari, his team and Kentucky’s fan base. If Calipari did not have the nation’s top recruiting class committed for next season, his odds of departure would be pretty good. As it is, Kentucky fans may be excited for next season, but many observers of high school hoops caution that this group isn’t a John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist kind of group. In which case, Calipari may be out of the skillet and into the fire next season.
What’s wrong with Arkansas?
The SEC’s most talented team is still sitting at 6-6 after a loss to Mississippi State. The situation on the Muss Bus isn’t very complicated. Nick Smith is finally back, but to date he hasn’t given Arkansas a shadow of his expected production. The injury to Trevon Brazile was bigger than anticipated. Arkansas is 10th in the SEC in 3-point shooting and is last in 3-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot 35.6% from long distance.
Losing 2 of its top 4 scorers for all of the season or most of the season has definitely delayed the arrival of Arkansas. At this point, it’s probably still worth trying to integrate Smith into the flow of the team … but it will cause some continuity issues at the point of the season when teams are normally finalizing their rotations and preparing for the season’s stretch run.
What’s the NCAA Tournament situation?
To call the SEC’s NCAA Tournament situation fluid would be an understatement. BracketMatrix has Alabama solidly as a No. 1 seed, as the Crimson Tide are picked in all 104 brackets making up its composite. Tennessee sits as a No. 3 seed, Missouri is a No. 7 (although its meltdown against Auburn on Tuesday might move it down), Auburn and Arkansas are No. 9 seeds, and Texas A&M and Mississippi State are both 11 seeds and are 2 of the last 3 teams in the field.
Kentucky is the 1st team out, although the Wildcats are in the field in 54 of the 104 brackets being sampled. Nobody else in the SEC is getting any mention.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi agrees on Bama and UT’s seeds. He also had Mizzou as a No. 7 and Arkansas as a No. 9 but had Auburn as a No. 10 seed and as 1 of his last 4 1st-round byes. Texas A&M is also a 10 seed but is ranked higher than Auburn, while Mississippi State is an 11 seed and 1 of the last 4 teams in the field. Kentucky is Lunardi’s 2nd team out.
Games to watch
Wednesday — Kentucky at Mississippi State: State is a 2.5-point favorite in an unlikely bubble showdown.
Wednesday — No. 1 Alabama at No. 10 Tennessee: This is either a chance for Bama to lap the field or Tennessee to reassert its potency.
Wednesday — Arkansas at Texas A&M: The Aggies are a 3-point favorite in another game that seems to present the team we all assumed would be in the NCAA Tournament against the team that’s been slowly playing its way into the field.
Saturday — No. 10 Tennessee at Kentucky: Tennessee remains Kentucky’s lone quality win, which doesn’t mean the Wildcats wouldn’t appreciate beating the Vols twice. Meanwhile, the Volunteers could head into this game on a 3-game losing streak.
Saturday — Texas A&M at Missouri: Doesn’t it seem like every game has that NCAA Tournament elimination kind of vibe?