SEC Hoops Conversation 4.0: Gearing up for the stretch run
Once again, our resident hoopsters Al Blanton and Joe Cox break down a handful of the major issues, questions and stories of SEC basketball. As is usually the case, there’s plenty to talk about.
1. Can LSU keep doing this? How far can they go in March?
Joe: Admittedly, I was still thinking more about Will Wade and NCAA fallout than the on-court Tigers in November. But this LSU team is no fluke. They do a phenomenal job on the backboard and at the foul line and those are two things that have enabled them to win a ton of close games. The two big hurdles upcoming are at Auburn on Feb. 8 and at home against Kentucky on Feb. 18. If LSU can split those, they can win the SEC. Tournament-wise, they look like a Sweet 16 kind of team, but if they get in a region without a ton of great scoring teams, they could grind their way to the Final Four.
Al: One of the things I needed to relearn this year is that the eye test can often be deceiving. You need a larger sample size. Example: I watched LSU play earlier in the season, and I thought their offense was like watching paint dry. In other words, I didn’t think they were very good. (Wednesday) night, I watched a stretch in which they didn’t miss a shot. So, the question for me is, “Can LSU maintain this identity throughout the remainder of the season?” Quite possibly.
Joe: The eye test can be deceiving and so can early losses. LSU lost to Utah State early — so they weren’t very good. Well, maybe Utah State is very good. Could be Sweet 16 good. Granted, LSU also lost to East Tennessee State. But yeah, we’re on the same page. They’re legitimate.
Al: I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Tigers made the Sweet 16 or went even further.
2. Who would you take for SEC Player of the Year now?
Joe: To review, preseason, I went with Isaiah Joe and Al liked Reggie Perry. We both had good instincts, as both guys have had excellent years and their respective teams could still end up being the SEC surprises of the year. Anthony Edwards is the best player in the league, but he doesn’t win Player of the Year on an NIT-bound Georgia team. If I’m picking right now, I’m taking either Skylar Mays (LSU) or Nick Richards (Kentucky), depending on who wins the SEC.
Al: I’ll admit, after my pick earlier in the season I’ve been secretly hoping Reggie Perry’s numbers continue to climb. I saw him for the first time in person this year, and I was impressed with his versatility and ability to step out and stick the 17-19 foot jumper. Joe, you’re absolutely right: Anthony Edwards probably won’t win it if Georgia goes in the proverbial tank. Nick Richards is having a splendid season in Lexington and I don’t necessarily disagree with that pick.
My argument against Mays is that during LSU’s 9-game winning streak, Mays has not led the team in scoring in any game. This is not to say he is not a huge contributor or even the MVP of the team. So I’ll stick with my original pick, Perry. MSU is playing well and Perry is averaging a double-double. Not even Nick Richards can say he’s doing that.
Joe: I’ll karaoke “Stand By Your Man” in your honor at the SEC Tournament if Perry pulls the deal off. It’s not a bad pick, and if MSU makes a late run … maybe I should check that lyric sheet.
3. NCAA Tournament-wise, who’s in, who’s out, and who has some big work to do in February?
Joe: A month ago, we both were in on Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky. The first 2 have had moments of concern, but no reason to take them off the roll. I get a rare “I told you so” on Ole Miss, which isn’t going anywhere, but my continued defense of Florida is looking shaky. LSU is definitely in, so we can add them to the list. Right now, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas and Kentucky are in. Vandy, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mizzou, South Carolina and A&M are out. That leaves 4 teams — Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee. I feel like they’re playing for 2 spots, and they’re the teams with work to do. I’d take Florida and Bama if the season ended this second.
Al: Please allow me to do 2 things here. First, feel free to punch me straight in the face for picking Ole Miss as a tournament lock earlier in the year. I gambled on the Rebels’ upside, and I was wrong. Secondly, allow me to brag on Texas A&M and head coach Buzz Williams for just a moment. Early in the season, the Aggies lost a major contributor, T.J. Starks, and were on the verge of becoming completely unhinged. But Williams has circled the wagons and put together a pretty good little ol’ basketball team in College Station. Hats off to them. Now, to your points: I agree with most of what you said, except for South Carolina. Depending on how things shake out, the Gamecocks could squeak in the tournament.
Joe: Sleeping on South Carolina could be dangerous. I wrote off the Gamecocks in the 2017 NCAA Tournament after watching them play one of the worst games I’ve ever seen in an SEC Tournament loss to Alabama. And of course, they went to the Final Four. Beating Arkansas on Wednesday does nothing to hurt your point — give Frank Martin a chance and he’ll get a win.
Al: Wins over Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas should keep everybody watching for the Gamecocks.
4. Can Kentucky rebrand itself as the school of 2- or 3-and-dones this year? How good are they?
Joe: In the long term, this might be the story of the year. A season after P.J. Washington returned to UK and doubtlessly improved his NBA Draft stock, junior Nick Richards and sophomore Ashton Hagans are the keys to Kentucky’s season, while super-frosh Kahlil Whitney never really fit in and has left the team. If Kentucky can succeed in conveying the message that recruits don’t have to be 1-and-dones to be successful, it could be a game-changer. That said, UK remains a foul-plagued game from Richards and a 2-for-13 shooting day from Ashton Hagans away from a 2nd round NCAA exit. If Richards and Hagans can play as well as they have, Kentucky is as good as anybody. But it is an “if” with big ramifications, not just in UK’s season, but in a potential rebranding of their program.
Al: I was having a conversation with a few buddies about why the casual fan has lost interest in college basketball. At least part of the reason, in my opinion, is the amount of turnover. Players are here and then they are gone. Whatever happened to the 4-year stars, the teams laden with upperclassmen? Honestly, I love Ashton Hagans contributing as a sophomore and Richards as a junior. I loved seeing Reid Travis come in last year as a grad transfer. Are we seeing a trend?
Joe: Just when I get excited about this Kentucky team, they throw a clanker up against Vandy and almost lose. These veterans could be a great narrative … or a footnote when Kentucky watches another SEC team play on after they’re gone. With that said …
5. What are you looking forward to in February?
Joe: That LSU/Kentucky game that decided the SEC a year ago gets a rematch in Baton Rouge. The last one was decided on a blown goaltending call, and this one could be an epic sequel. Going to enjoy every Anthony Edwards game we get, because the number left is dropping rapidly. Looking forward to seeing who gets in position to be those last two-ish SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Al: Besides the conference leaders, I’m watching 3 teams closely: Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State. A few months ago, you asked who’s coaching seat is getting a little warm, and I answered “no one.” But if Mike White isn’t careful, his might get a little tepid. If you look at Florida’s immediate schedule, you think, “oh, not too bad.”
Don’t think, however, that the Gators are just going to waltz into Oxford or College Station and waltz out with a victory. Those late away games against rivals Tennessee and Georgia won’t be a game of Red Rover, either. As far as Alabama and MSU, can they steal enough road wins and lock down on their home floor to make their résumé viable to the committee?
6. Positive and negative surprises of the year?
Joe: On the positive end, Arkansas has pulled it together a little quicker than anticipated, and LSU keeps pulling off last-minute grinders. Kentucky is winning in surprising ways. Player-wise, Auburn’s Isaac Okoro has been a revelation and Nick Richards has grown up before our eyes. Negative-side, Ole Miss’ struggles, the lack of anybody on Georgia’s roster to go with Anthony Edwards, Florida’s inability to win meaningful games, and Auburn’s recent puzzling struggles would be on the list. I have a feeling we add a few more to each in February.
Al: As you might remember, I was really high on Auburn earlier in the year, but I feel they have backtracked recently. Overcoming a 19-point deficit in Oxford after a terrible week at Alabama and Florida was a positive sign, but I’m still unsure how good this Tigers team truly is. The problem is that Bruce Pearl does not have a true point guard, a deficit that might lead to bankruptcy in March.
Joe: Point guard play is king in March, and your point on Auburn is well taken. By the way, earlier in the week you and I had talked about your over-regard of Ole Miss and then they were absolutely destroying Auburn. I thought it was redemption week for the Rebels. But not so fast. There’s a Charlie Brown kind of thing going for us. We like a team and they half fall apart. Is that it?
Al: No comment.