SEC hoops conversation: Who's hot, who's not, and what we've learned
Hello there, 2022. It’s more or less time to shift thoughts to basketball, where fortunately, your intrepid hoops experts Adam Spencer and Joe Cox have already been analyzing the scene. If you’re needing a catch-up or just want to ponder a little SEC hoops, dive right in.
1. Should we buy in on Auburn? How good are the Tigers?
AS: I’m all-in on Auburn. I love this team. The depth, the shooting, the energy — this is a fun team to watch. The Tigers also aren’t slouches on defense, mostly thanks to big man Walker Kessler. I think he just blocked another shot while I was typing that sentence. Kessler is the anchor, Wendell Green Jr. is the energy off the bench (the Sixth Man of the Year award is his to lose) and Jabari Smith Jr. is the generational superstar. The comparisons to Kevin Durant are fair, and Smith still has plenty of room to improve.
JC: It’s more fun to disagree than to agree, but I can’t really argue here. Kessler has been superb and I wish I could claim I saw Jabari Smith’s explosion oncoming. We’ll talk about that more later. Honestly, the only negative here is that Bruce Pearl is one of those coaches who does more with an under-the-radar team than with a favorite. That said, in a pretty muddled SEC field, Auburn really does stand out.
AS: The depth is incredible. Zep Jasper, KD Johnson, Devan Cambridge, Jaylin Williams. Those are all guys that can contribute at a high level. And we haven’t even gotten to Allen Flanigan yet! He’s back from an Achilles injury and is rounding into shape. Bruce Pearl has another Final Four-caliber team on his hands this year.
JC: He does. But can he finish the deal? That’s always been the issue with Bruce Pearl, although he may well have been a missed call in the Final Four from winning a title. I used to feel the same way about Lute Olson and then one year, he got his title. Auburn would be a fun long-shot bet on that front … and in this year’s NCAA Tournament, while I wouldn’t exactly forecast that, would it be insane?
2. On the other hand, what’s wrong with Arkansas? It is (quickly? easily?) fixable?
AS: It is fixable. But it won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. In fact, I was hoping Eric Musselman would have figured it out by now. That’s what nonconference play is for. The problem is a lack of cohesion. Last year’s team made a Final Four run because it was firing on all cylinders. Now, the Hogs can’t defend the 3 and have trouble getting buckets when they need them most. JD Notae is a volume shooter, so there are going to be nights he shoots teams out of games. Also, the lack of a Justin Smith-like inside presence is really hurting this team. It would have been nice to see Devo Davis step up his game a bit more than he has thus far, too. I still think the Hogs can regroup and make the NCAA Tournament, but that regrouping needs to happen sooner rather than later.
JC: It’s funny how we all get obsessed with shooting the 3 and forget about defending the 3. Shooting the 3 definitely matters more across the full scope of the collegiate game than it did a decade ago. But the corollary to that is as quickly as you can put up points, you can get them put up against you. This year, Arkansas is 13th in the SEC in 3-point percentage offensively (30.2% leads only Missouri) and 13th in the SEC in 3-point percentage defensively (36.6% leads only … Missouri. Sorry, Adam.) Anyway, if Arkansas is fixable — and I lean more toward saying at mid-season, they really aren’t — they’ve got a pair of easy metrics to improve. If their treys start dropping and the opponents stop, it might look more like 2021 again in Fayetteville.
3. Is Kentucky as good as they look (beating Carolina by 29) or as bad as they look (losing to Notre Dame) or somewhere in the middle?
AS: Kentucky entered the LSU game with the nation’s No. 11 scoring offense. That was quickly proven to be a padded stat, as the Wildcats played an embarrassing number of lesser opponents during nonconference play. I had Kentucky fans chiding me for saying the Wildcats needed to shoot better, but that proved to be true in Baton Rouge.
I think the Wildcats will be fine if Sahvir Wheeler is able to return from his injury soon. But what that LSU game showed was the somewhat-alarming lack of depth. Shaedon Sharpe could help with that, but I’m not sure the Wildcats can afford to bring a freshman along slowly at this point in the season.
This is still a great defensive team and a squad that will finish in the top 5 of the SEC, but there are still some issues that need to be fixed in Lexington.
JC: It could be that LSU is just a bear defensively. I think Kentucky is fine, if not elite, although TyTy Washington having a 17-assist game without Wheeler was certainly a good sign. I’d say the will-he-won’t-he soap opera with Sharpe ends with him not playing.
4. There are 5 SEC teams ranked in the Top 25. Too many, too few? Who’s the best team of the unranked group?
AS: That seems about right at this point in the year. Auburn is definitely a top-10 team. I think Alabama can get there, too. LSU and Kentucky are also solidly Top-25 teams. I have some concerns about the shooting consistency with the Vols, but Tennessee deserves to be ranked, too. As for teams to keep an eye on outside the Top 25, I’m watching Mississippi State. The Bulldogs beat Arkansas to kick off SEC play and they have plenty of depth and talent to compete. We’ll see how they fare moving forward.
JC: Admittedly, your comments came before Alabama laid an egg at Mizzou, but it doesn’t really change anything for me. The UT loss to LSU might be more concerning, but again, it’s a long season and UT has had plenty of personnel shuffles in the young season. If they can get their rotation intact, they should be a solid Top 25 team. What about A&M as a surprise? They’ve got a home game with Ole Miss and a great chance to open SEC play 3-0? Not saying they’re Top 25 worthy now, but weirder things have happened.
5. Could Jabari Smith be the SEC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year?
AS: In my opinion, he has already all but locked up the Freshman of the Year award. Kennedy Chandler, JD Davison and TyTy Washington have simply been too inconsistent to win that award. Smith has had his ups and downs, too, but he’s been the best of the bunch.
JC: Again, Washington used this opportunity to have probably his most complete game of the season, but it came against Georgia, so it should probably count less. Smith’s the guy, barring something insane.
AS: As for SEC Player of the Year, I’d have him significantly behind Oscar Tshiebwe at this point. The Kentucky big man is averaging 15 points and 15 rebounds a game thus far. That’s insane!
JC: Crap. Knowing of your Auburn love, I thought I could bait you with the suggestion of Smith getting both awards. Oscar has been phenomenal — when you lead the SEC in rebounding by 6 boards a game over the guy in 2nd place, you’re doing some work. Kentucky needs to be in the top couple teams for Oscar to win. If they don’t manage that, don’t forget about Kessler. Voters love defense.
6. What teams have been positive surprises this season? For that matter, what players did we overlook in our all-SEC preseason talk?
AS: LSU has been the biggest surprise to me. Once Illinois transfer Adam Miller went down with an injury this preseason, I wrote off the Tigers. Instead, they dominated in nonconference play (albeit against some less-than-stellar opponents) and learned to play defense. The fact that Will Wade is coaching a team with the best defense in the country is incredible to me after some of the all-gas, no-brakes LSU teams we’ve seen in years past. As for overlooked players, Tari Eason has emerged as the leader of that LSU squad. He was an average player for Cincinnati last year. I didn’t see him making this sort of jump in Year 1 at LSU. Kudos to Wade for identifying his talent and letting him thrive.
JC: Got to be LSU, Again, I’m impressed with A&M, but should probably reserve any praise until they win some tough SEC road games. Will Wade could coach you, me and three other SDS columnists into the middle of the SEC pack. And I haven’t made a jump shot since 2013. Of course, he wouldn’t, because he’d recruit some defensive standouts instead.
Another one to circle back on in Tshiebwe. I thought he’d be a solid veteran dude for UK, maybe a slightly better version of Stanford transfer Reid Travis from a couple of years ago. Instead, he has combined the potency of JR Reid, Clay Travis, Randy Travis, and everybody else ever named Reid or Travis or non-Robertson Oscars. Seriously underrated the guy, as I kind of did with Walker Kessler. Thought both would be good, but not this good.
7. What teams have been the biggest disappointments? Who has to step up to get his squad together?
AS: Arkansas has been, by far, the biggest disappointment. There’s still time to turn things around in Fayetteville, though. I think it needs to start with Devo Davis and Jaylin Williams. If those 2 guys can step up and play better, the Hogs can rack up some wins in a hurry.
JC: Don’t leave Florida out of that conversation. More on that in a minute. And UT getting off to a 1-2 start is kind of weird, but it’s been an odd season for the Vols, and there’s no reason to think they won’t turn that around. Arkansas’s 0-3 start is the kind of thing that makes you wonder if they can grind out enough SEC wins for the big dance. But more on that later too.
8. Who’s on the coaching hot seat?
AS: The hottest seat has to be Tom Crean, right? His seat has to be hotter than the Kansas City Chiefs staffer who literally caught on fire on the sidelines recently:
The Chiefs are on fire in Cincy!! ? pic.twitter.com/iHYDiere2T
— McKenzie Nelson (@McKenzieMNelson) January 2, 2022
Once Georgia fans realize they have a basketball team again (admittedly, they’ll celebrate that national title forever), Crean will likely start taking more heat. As he should. That’s not an SEC roster he put together this year.
I’d like to say Cuonzo Martin is on the hot seat at Mizzou, too, but I don’t trust the Tigers to do the smart and obvious thing and move on this offseason. We’ll see. Elsewhere, if Mike White continues to be inconsistent at Florida, the Gators could possibly pursue a change.
JC: And then Cuonzo went out and beat Alabama (he hadn’t when Adam and I talked). I told a hoops buddy on the spot, “Cuonzo may have saved his job.” It’s really Mike White for me. Great googly moogly, it’s one thing for Georgia to be crappy at basketball. Florida’s running bubble teams out there at a program that was making Final Fours not that long ago. I’m surprised White is still in Gainesville.
9. How many teams make the NCAA Tournament and how many realistically reach the Sweet 16?
AS: I think it’s reasonable to expect 7 teams to make the tourney. Auburn, Alabama, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee seem like safe bets to me. Then I think it’s likely that 2 of the Florida, Mississippi State, Arkansas trio do enough to get into the field of 68 teams. Beyond that, I’m not sold on Texas A&M. Ole Miss is going to fade and I’m not buying Vanderbilt stock just yet.
JC: I concur that 7 is the number, and your safe 5 are indeed safe. At the moment I’ll take State and A&M to grab the last 2 spots and knock Florida and Arkansas out.
AS: As for the Sweet 16, it’s always tough to say because matchups are so important in March Madness. But I’m all-in on Auburn, just to bring this conversation full-circle. I think the Tigers go to the Elite Eight, at the very least. Alabama, Kentucky and LSU all have Sweet 16 potential, too.
JC: Absolutely an unfair question, but one I wanted to ask anyway. Let’s say 4 Sweet 16 teams. Auburn feels like the safest bet by far. I feel a 2nd round flameout for one of the other three you named. And then somebody on the bubble will surprise. Maybe Molinar and Mississippi State? Again, without matchups, this is the guessiest kind of guesswork, but we can leave it there for now.