SEC Tournament review and preview: Friday's surprise, semifinal predictions and more
The odds figured that somebody would pull an upset Friday at the SEC Tournament in Tampa. Your humble columnist suggested Tennessee, which had the closest odds line of Friday’s game, aside from Arkansas vs. LSU, which was nearly a pick ’em. But no, the Vols actually were the high seed that faired the best, although Arkansas very much had a taking care of business day, too.
No, it was Auburn that disappointed its fan base with an ugly defeat. The Tigers simply started flat and just dug too deep of a hole to climb out from in their 67-62 loss to Texas A&M. A rate rally pulled Auburn to 30% shooting for the game, but the Tigers generally looked like a team that couldn’t throw a basketball off a pier and into water in Tampa Bay.
KD Johnson set a modern record for futility by shooting 0-for-14. On the one hand, that’s horrible. On the other, you have to admire Johnson’s confidence for continuing to rack up attempts despite miss after miss. Wendell Green hit 5 3-pointers, most of them in Auburn’s late run and a couple from the suburbs, but he also struggled for the first three-fourths of the game. Jabari Smith was OK, but nothing more.
The concern moving ahead for Auburn has to be that the Tigers aren’t exactly hitting the NCAA Tournament in stride. The Tigers are 3-3 in their past 6 games, and Florida and A&M, which both contributed upsets in that string, are exactly the sort of teams the Tigers will see in the Round of 32 next weekend. Bruce Pearl was calm afterward, but it might have been whistling past the graveyard for an Auburn team that looked like NCAA champs in December and January, but not so much in March.
And A&M? Surely this gets them in The Big Dance, right?
If Texas A&M hasn't played its way off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament, why are we even playing conference tournaments? Aggies are delivering the most impressive performance to date among the Power 6 tourneys. #SECTourney
— Chris Wright (@CWrightSDS) March 11, 2022
Not so fast, caution the bracketologists. Joe Lunardi managed to bump the Aggies to his First Four Out, so he’s clearly not too impressed. Aside from their miserable 8-game losing streak from mid-January to mid-February, the Aggies would be an easy NCAA Tournament team. But they might need yet another win to get off the bubble. More on that later.
In the second game, Arkansas destroyed predictions of an exciting matchup with LSU by shutting down LSU’s offense and rolling to a 79-67 win that really wasn’t that close. Arkansas led by 16 with 7:07 to play and their lead was never in any jeopardy. Au’Diese Toney was the Arkansas star of the afternoon, going for 22 points and 10 boards on a day when JD Notae had some struggles.
The elephant in the room for LSU was the pending NCAA issues. Was the timing of that news just the natural way that slowly-administered justice trickles downhill from Indianapolis, or were the Tigers used to make a point? We’ll never know, but LSU certainly didn’t give a particularly focused effort Friday, although Arkansas had plenty to do with that.
The second half of the day opened with Tennessee having a taking care of business game. The key to beating the Vols is to get their offense off-track and Mississippi State definitely did not do that. UT shot exactly 50%, and went 8-for-19 from 3-point range as they rolled to a 16 point lead with 7:28 to play and coasted home. Josiah-Jordan James knocked down 4 3-pointers, marking his 5th consecutive game with multiple 3-pointers. UT had 5 double-digit scorers and genuinely looked like a team poised to make a deep NCAA run.
Kentucky finished the evening by holding off a troublesome Vandy team 77-71. The re-emergence of TJ Washington was perhaps the story of this one, as Kentucky’s freshman had 25 points, his first game with more than 15 points since January. Jacob Toppin’s 10 bench points for Kentucky were crucial, particularly after Vandy’s Jordan Wright turned in his personal Klay Thompson impersonation. Wright shot 10-for-12, including 5-of-6 from 3, to nearly set a season-high with 27 points. But it wasn’t enough for the Commodores.
On to the semifinals … and the coveted predictions!
Semifinal 1: Texas A&M vs. Arkansas, 1 pm
For the 3rd game in a row, the Aggies have to win to keep their NCAA fate intact (apparently). Call it toeing the company line, but the Aggies have done enough to prove their NCAA field mettle, but apparently the computer gurus disagree. So the Aggies still need a win. They beat Arkansas by 5 at College Station on Jan. 8, and then lost in Fayetteville in overtime by 3 on Jan. 22, as the 2nd game of what became their 8-game losing streak.
When they beat Arkansas, the Aggies shot 56%, including 42% from 3-point range. In the rematch in Fayetteville, they shot the ball at a much more pedestrian rate. In that game, 47 of A&M’s 73 points came from the bench, which kept them competitive. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks got a huge game from JD Notae in their loss (31 points) and capitalized on 14 steals in their victory. Can the Aggies again keep a superior team from running their offense for the first 30 minutes of the game? For an Arkansas team that played very well down the SEC stretch, that feels unlikely.
Prediction: The Aggies hold a narrow halftime lead but wear down late as Arkansas wins by 8.
Semifinal 2: Tennessee vs. Kentucky, 3:30 pm
It’s the rubber match that we all need. Kentucky smoked Tennessee in Lexington in January, 107-79. The Vols returned the favor in Knoxville, winning 76-63. On a neutral site, the series will be settled.
Kentucky shot 68% in the game in Lexington, including 61% from 3. If they approach that, they should be more than fine. Tennessee has some consolation in that, despite getting blown out, they shot 53% and 48% from 3-point range. They just couldn’t get any stops. That wasn’t an issue in Knoxville, as Kentucky shot 34% and 31% from 3-point range. UT hit 44% and 47% from long range. The difference in those games? Keeping Kentucky’s guards in check. Savhir Wheeler, TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady combined to shoot 7-for-21 in Knoxville — and Washington only played 13 minutes due to a lower leg injury. In Lexington, those starting guards shot 23-for-31.
Kentucky is pretty consistent with Oscar Tshiebwe and some production from either or both Keion Brooks or Jacob Toppin. Can their guards hit perimeter jump shots? That’ll be the question. Of course, the same can be said of UT. When the Vols shoot under 39%, they have suffered 6 of their 7 losses. The good news is that both teams were solid on those respective fronts on Friday.
Washington is probably the key to how deep this Kentucky team can go in the NCAA Tournament. His good game on Friday seems like a positive omen. Kentucky by 3, setting up a UK/Arkansas finals for the fifth time since Arkansas entered the SEC.