SEC Hoops Conversation 3.0: Time for conference play
Football is winding down, but that’s just a good excuse to transition to roundball. Al Blanton and Joe Cox have had their eyes on hoops, so let them catch you up on what’s gone down and what’s going down in 2020 as the SEC opens conference play Saturday.
1. What’s the story of the SEC season to date?
Al: I have such a temptation to say Arkansas here, but the renaissance in Fayetteville has been so quiet, I’m not sure that that’s the story. Honestly, I’m not sure if there is one story that’s just so glaring or compelling that you can’t ignore it. Undefeated Auburn getting virtually no love in national rankings is a story. Tennessee losing Lamonte Turner for the year was huge. But since I need to give an answer, I’ll say Arkansas.
Joe: Yeah, Turner stands out to me as a season-defining possibility. Auburn and Arkansas both look like they could hold up, but there’s plenty of season to go. Meanwhile, back to UT. With Turner, UT was one of those dangerous March teams that could sneak into the Sweet 16. Without him, I think they end up in the NIT. Speaking of which …
2. How many teams feel likely to make the NCAA as of now?
Al: Up to 9 could make it, depending on how things shake out. Several teams fall in my “Not Sold On” list, Florida being the main one as we approach conference play. Butler manhandled the Gators in Indianapolis on Dec. 7, and I have yet to watch a Florida game in which I thought, “Man, this team is really good.” Georgia, LSU, Missouri, Mississippi State and Tennessee also fall in that list.
Joe: And that’s the problem. So many of the teams that could make the NCAA Tournament just haven’t passed the eyeball test yet. Nine feels way too optimistic for such a group of up and down teams.
Al: Yeah, South Carolina got a huge win against UVA and then turned around and lost to Stetson. I’ve seen Alabama and Auburn live, and though Auburn has a clear advantage in the eye test, the Crimson Tide is very capable of making the tournament. My tournament locks are Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss.
Joe: You’re a little more bullish on Ole Miss than I am, and I grudgingly keep thinking that Florida has to show up sooner or later. I’d feel good about your other 3 plus the Gators. UT with Turner is on that list, but without him? They and LSU look most likely, but they’ve got some work to do.
3. Is Auburn that good?
Al: Yes and no. I thought they were the real deal when I saw them in person. Then I watched the first half of the game against NC State and the team was out of sync offensively. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Auburn is capable of beating anyone in the country. Will this team go further than last year’s Auburn team? Probably not. I’d say this is a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 team.
Joe: That’s a very good point, in that Auburn’s floor feels higher than last year’s team, but maybe their ceiling is a little lower. They’re not insanely dangerous from 3 — 3rd in the league in makes, 5th or so in percentage. But they are more balanced and consistent. But at the end of the day, I don’t know if they’ll be a basket from the national title game again.
Al: I doubt the Tigers will get back to the Final Four, but anything is possible if a team gets hot.
4. Which Kentucky is real? The one that beats Michigan State and Louisville or the one that loses to Evansville and Utah?
Al: Both. Which means that the young kids will have to learn that you’ve got to come to play every night or you’re going to get beat. That’s simple basketball maturity, and I’m certain it’s one of the things John Calipari is stressing from his Big Blue pulpit.
Joe: I’ve written at some length about my concerns with depth, which is becoming an annual Calipari tradition. Seriously, why win with 7 players when you could win with 10, 11, 12? But one reason for optimism (and a break with business as usual under Calipari) is that this team is deadly at the foul line. UK enters SEC play at 79% on free throws, far and away the best in the league. SEC play brings close games and a team that cashes in at the line will end up doing pretty well. I’ll trend upward on UK.
5. Whose coaching seat might be getting a little warm?
Al: No one. Four new coaches — Vanderbilt’s Stackhouse, Arkansas’s Musselman, Alabama’s Oats, and Texas A&M’s Williams — will be given a chance. Bruce Pearl is doing a great job. So are Kermit Davis, Ben Howland and Rick Barnes.
Joe: I hate to agree, but I think I agree. Timing-wise, this might shape up to be one of those weird seasons where coaches are either too new to consider firing, too established to consider firing, or just doing really well.
Al: To that point, Tom Crean, Will Wade, Cuonzo Martin, Frank Martin and Mike White are safe. I don’t see any firings on the horizon.
Joe: The NCAA hammer isn’t hanging so close over Will Wade and there are no crazy Calipari to the NBA rumors. We could see everybody in the same place next fall.
6. What do need to see in January to feel good about March for the league?
Al: Kentucky to come on strong. Last year, Kentucky really started to heat up in the latter part of the season, and it made for an interesting storyline. People like Cinderellas; I like blue bloods. I love to see a Kentucky-Michigan State Final Four matchup, or a Florida-Duke Regional Final, just to give an example. Secondly, I’d like to see 2 other teams separate themselves from the pack. I think Auburn will, and I think Arkansas and Ole Miss have a chance to have really good years.
Joe: Not at all unlike you, I’d like to see the middle of the pack differentiate itself a little. We don’t want just 4 SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament. January is time for UT, LSU, and Mississippi State to put a little distance between themselves and the teams below them. In a season of incredible parity, it’s the teams that sneak into the bracket that can steal the show.
Al: I wouldn’t sleep on Alabama. John Petty is having his best year so far, and if the Tide can commit more on the defensive end of the floor, it could sneak into the tournament on the 7 or 9 line.
Joe: And do some damage, exactly.