Resident hoopheads Al Blanton and Joe Cox break down the SEC basketball scene, just ahead of what they’d both consider the most wonderful time of the year. Al and Joe break down who stood out most in 2019-20, what were the best moments, and what’s up with the league headed into the Big Dance.

Four teams look more or less safe for the NCAA bracket, but it’s a tangle of teams below that. If a 5th team gets in, who is it? Any chance at a 6th team?

Al: It’s not a good sign when the top teams in your conference, Kentucky and Auburn, are projected as 4 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Bracket expert Joe Lunardi also had LSU as an 8 and Florida as a 9 (but that was before Florida beat LSU by 15 on Wednesday). So, yes, it appears as though those 4 teams, barring anything catastrophic, are safe. I think 3 other candidates, Alabama, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, are on the outside looking in. Right now Mississippi State is the 5th team, and 2 tough road games ahead will tilt its tournament fate.

Joe: Surely, the SEC winner (if it’s UK or Auburn) ends up as a 3? I mean, I know I just watched Duke lose to a sub .500-ACC team and not move an inch in any bracketology. Incidentally, the Blue Devils have the same record as Kentucky. With fewer top 50 wins. But don’t get me started. Mississippi State has the best résumé of those 3 potentially bubble-sitting teams you mentioned, with South Carolina being the one that feels most likely to play its way in. Arkansas could still have a run in the tank, but it’s getting late early there. I’d say a 1/3 shot at a 5th team, and a 6th team would take some bizarre SEC Tournament scenario and some bad injuries to bubble teams, etc.

Al: Yeah, overall, the general consensus is that the SEC is down this year from the last 2 years, and you probably won’t see the conference receiving a tremendous amount of love come selection time. That’s unfortunate, because if you ask coaches from around the country, they’ll tell you that the SEC is definitely a strong basketball conference, perhaps even underrated in terms of quality of play.

Joe: If Vandy beats LSU, it has to mean LSU is terrible. If Wake Forest beats Duke, it just means Wake is a bunch of scrappy overachievers. Did I get that right?

Who’s your All-SEC team? Who’ll be overlooked, but shouldn’t be?

Al: My first team All-SEC is as follows:

  • Skylar Mays, LSU
  • Reggie Perry, Mississippi State
  • Kira Lewis Jr., Alabama
  • Mason Jones, Arkansas
  • Breein Tyree, Ole Miss
  • Samir Doughty, Auburn
  • Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky
  • Anthony Edwards, Georgia

Joe: I was sitting here worried about picking 5, and you went and nabbed 8. I dig it. I’ll follow suit. Incidentally, my 5 was going to be Quickley, Mays, Perry, Nick Richards and Isaac Okoro. But if I’m adding 3 more, I’ll go with Edwards, Tyler and Isaiah Joe.

Yes, I know Mason Jones has the better numbers, but Joe makes his team go (too late to use that as a slogan?). Even if he is 36.6% shooter for the season.

Al: On overlooked guys, Saben Lee will probably be overlooked for first team, simply because Vanderbilt is in the conference cellar. Tyson Carter at Mississippi State is one of the hardest players to guard in the SEC and is a bit underappreciated because of the towering presence of Reggie Perry. John Petty Jr. has posted a solid year for Alabama but probably won’t make the first squad, and Nick Richards of Kentucky is a stud who should get some serious consideration as well.

Joe: A nice save there on Nick Richards, who was my slam dunk pick until your last sentence. I’m overlooking Mason Jones, just because I like Isaiah Joe’s impact on his team better, and it’s hard to pick 2 All-SEC guys from a team that’s probably ending up in the lower third of the league’s standings. Saben Lee and a pre-injury Nesmith make Vandy one of the oddest bad teams ever, with 2 guys who could have been All-SEC picks. LSU’s Trendon Watford is another guy who gets forgotten at times — but shouldn’t.

Who really is the SEC Player of the Year?

Al: Mason Jones. If I had to start a team from scratch, this would be the first guy I’d pick. I absolutely love the way he plays. My dad used to say you want someone tough beside you in a street fight, and when the going gets rough, this is the guy I want on my team. I really like Reggie Perry’s ability to step out on the perimeter and I think he’s a big-time prospect, and Tyree of Ole Miss is capping off one of the truly great careers in SEC basketball history. But Jones is the guy.

Joe: Everything you say about Mason Jones is entirely true. But … how can a guy be the league player of the year if his team finishes 10th in the league and doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament? It’s Immanuel Quickley from Kentucky. No, you don’t have to pick the best player on the best team, but Quickley is the guy who takes Kentucky from a team that loses to Evansville to a team nobody’s wanting to play come bracket time. Dead-eye trey shooter, 90%+ from the foul line, just a solid dude on a team that badly needed a solid dude. Last game he didn’t get into double figures was in 2019.

Tips of the hat to your guy Reggie Perry, who was a couple more close wins from being in the thick of the conversation, as well as Nick Richards and Okoro from Auburn.

Edwards is almost certain as Freshman of the Year, but based on how bad Georgia is, who else should get some thought? How much thought?

Al: Jaden Shackelford at Alabama can flat-out play. He’s averaging 19.3 points per game in the past 10 ballgames and has drained 76 shots from behind the arc. I still think Edwards is Freshman of the Year, but Shackelford’s play, particularly in conference action, makes you at least pause before filling in the bubble. The other person I’d at least mention is Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey. This guy has a silky smooth game and will be a good player at the next level. He’s averaging 13.9 points per game for the Wildcats and is projected as a middle first-rounder in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Joe: Excellent call on Shackelford, who has quietly earned his way onto the all-freshman team. Maxey has been up and down a bit, but he’s up there, too. I’m starting to feel perilously like a broken record, but I’m mentioning Okoro in every answer, so I’ve got to list him, too. If Auburn were to upset Kentucky on Saturday and scratch out the league title, I’d vote for him — assuming he does Okoro-like things to make that happen. But if that doesn’t happen, it’s probably Edwards.

Who’s the SEC Coach of the Year?

Al: The sad thing about Coach of the Year awards is that oftentimes your team had to be really bad or at least sort of bad last year, and we tend to give this award to those who have turned their program around versus the coaches who churn out good programs year-in and year-out.

Joe: You identified it. I call it the Nick Saban dilemma. When Kentucky won 7 games in 2016 and actually looked competitive in SEC games, the question was whether Mark Stoops should get legitimate Coach of the Year consideration. But how could he, with what was going down in Tuscaloosa? Anyway, the short answer was that it didn’t happen for Stoops in 2016. Now in 2018, Stoops won 10 games and got his trophy. So some big-time breakthrough necessary — and I guess I’ve got to apply the same principles here. The coach of the best team is not (necessarily) the best coach.

Al: Which means that John Calipari will probably not get a whole lot of consideration here, though I do think he’s done a tremendous job over the past few weeks at developing his Kentucky team. I think Buzz Williams has done a great job in his first year at Texas A&M, and I would have thought Eric Musselman was a shoo-in for this award a month-and-a-half ago. Bruce Pearl has done another masterful job at Auburn but probably won’t win the award because of the aforementioned reason. So I’ll be a daredevil here and go with Calipari.

Joe: Agreed. In order to be the winner, in my mind, you have to do more than go 7-6 in football or be Buzz Williams in basketball. And yes, Buzz has done a great job making A&M 10 times less awful than they should be. Musselman did have the wheels greased to win the award. But not from the NIT. I’m taking Cal, unless Auburn ends up tied with Kentucky (which would actually mean Auburn wins on the tiebreaker), then Pearl gets it.

Best and worst surprises of the season?

Al: Arkansas in both cases. I was excited to see the Razorbacks tearing through their nonconference schedule like the Hogs of old, but I’ve been a bit disappointed in the results in conference play. Sure, losing Isaiah Joe to injury hurt tremendously, but I thought Arkansas would be a team to compete for the SEC regular season crown, versus a team that is sitting squarely on the bubble in late February. Player-wise, Jaden Shackelford has been a pleasant surprise for Alabama, and Auburn guard J’von McCormick has really stepped up his game from last season to this season.

Joe: The second-half performances of Vandy and A&M have been positive. I mean, I’m digging here, because the league’s worst teams being less awful than we thought doesn’t always amount to much. I guess I thought Auburn would start kind of sluggish and finish red-hot, instead of the other way around. That would qualify for both sides. Kentucky building a team around guys who didn’t do much in their first go around or two in Lexington has been a development I’m still wrapping my mind around. The continued decline of SEC officiating shouldn’t surprise me, but I guess it always does.

Al: Other “worst surprises” include Tennessee (the loss of Lamonte Turner was massive) and the overall decline of the conference in the eyes of America. We know how tough this league is, but if I’m being truthful, it’s probably taken a step back from the past 2 seasons, which were magnificent for SEC basketball fans.

Joe: Afraid so.

With the season ticking down, give me a couple of finalists for the SEC Play of the Year?

Al: I can’t decide between Tyree Crump’s game-winner against Vanderbilt and Herb Jones’s one-handed free throws against LSU. After his big play, Crump got a shout-out from Dwyane Wade, and Jones’ free throws gave his coach goosebumps. The nostalgic/emotional side of me wants to go with Jones, while the euphoric/celebratory side of me wants to go with Crump. Either way, you have two great moments in SEC basketball. Hopefully, we’ll see more in the postseason.

Joe: I like both of those, but have to add a couple more. Gonna give Auburn some credit with the big bucket from Samir Doughty to beat LSU. Also gonna give LSU some credit with Skylar Mays sticking the dagger in Mississippi State early in the conference season. Bigger one as far as lesson-learning time might be Jermaine Cousinard and Carolina knocking off Kentucky. When you don’t defend shooters, bad things happen. Kentucky apparently got the message.