SEC Tournament notebook: Mizzou avoids upset, Mississippi State ends Kentucky’s year and quarterfinal primer
The SEC Tournament has made it through 2 days of action in Nashville and I’m not sure how much more of it I can take.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. Well, I mostly don’t mean that in a bad way. But, as a Mizzou alum, let’s just say I don’t handle it well when the Tigers are involved in a close game. That was certainly the case in the 7-10 matchup against Georgia on Thursday night.
Elsewhere, Kentucky and Mississippi State played a close game before the Bulldogs ultimately won. And Vanderbilt gave Florida all it could handle before ultimately losing. In the nightcap, Ole Miss handled South Carolina with ease.
The games on Thursday were microcosms of the entire season for most of the teams involved. All 8 teams that played did something that was reminiscent of their seasons. Let’s break down how the season-long storylines continued to play out on Thursday:
Mississippi State over Kentucky
This one is pretty obvious. Kentucky’s 74-73 loss to the Bulldogs perfectly sums up the 2020-21 campaign for coach John Calipari’s squad.
After trailing 44-30 at halftime, the Wildcats battled all the way back, even taking a 71-66 lead with 4:34 left. They only scored 2 more points the rest of the way, though, taking a 73-72 lead with 1:19 left in the second half on an Olivier Sarr jumper.
Then, the Wildcats couldn’t score again. The only 2 other points in the game were made free throws by Iverson Molinar with 8 seconds left. Does that sound like every other game Kentucky has played this year, pretty much?
Yeah. It does. The Wildcats have blown several second-half leads this year. Now, their season is mercifully over and it’s back to the drawing board for Calipari’s crew.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State gets to advance to play No. 1 seed Alabama. The Bulldogs lost by 5 against the Crimson Tide a couple of weeks ago. Can they get over the hump this time around?
Florida over Vanderbilt
The Gators can’t stay out of their own way. Tyree Appleby and Scottie Lewis were held out of the starting lineup Thursday because they were late to a shootaround. That’s the sort of thing that absolutely can’t happen in March.
Frankly, it’s embarrassing that coach Mike White was put in that situation, but that has been a microcosm of Florida’s season. This team cannot avoid negative things happening when they have positive momentum. String together a couple of big wins? Well, you’d better believe a pair of bad losses are coming. Entering the tournament with some buzz? Well, a couple of players are going to need discipline.
No one should be confident in this team entering Friday’s matchup against No. 4 seed Tennessee. But Tre Mann has continued to show he’s a superstar. He finished with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. The Gators need him to keep that same energy moving forward.
Meanwhile, for Vanderbilt, the microcosm of the season was how close this loss was. The Commodores have been fun to watch this year (particularly Scotty Pippen Jr.). But they aren’t ready to win games yet. They come close, but can’t finish the deal. That was the case Thursday. We’ll see how coach Jerry Stackhouse changes things moving forward.
Mizzou over Georgia
What an exhausting victory for the Tigers. They held a 12-point lead with 7:40 left, a 10-point lead with 4:52 left and led 69-65 with 2 minutes left and still managed to nearly give me a heart attack. That’s a microcosm of Mizzou’s season. Earlier this year at Georgia, they blew a double-digit second-half lead so badly they lost by 10 points.
They managed to hold on to win this time around, but let’s just say it was a loud night in the Spencer household:
Me: “Mizzou won.”
My wife: “Didn’t sound like it.”
— Adam Spencer (@AdamSpencer4) March 12, 2021
Meanwhile, on Georgia’s side, the Bulldogs did something all-too-familiar for Dawgs fans. They made a costly mistake in a crucial situation. This time, it was Justin Kier inexplicably committing a violation before a free-throw attempt that cost the Bulldogs 1 of 2 shots:
— Kris (@mizkris18) March 12, 2021
That just can’t happen at this level. It was a huge play as the Tigers managed to hold on for a narrow 73-70 victory.
Ole Miss over South Carolina
The Rebels continued to play stifling defense against the Gamecocks, as they’ve done all year long. Ole Miss isn’t the prettiest team offensively, but the Rebels are competitive on an almost-nightly basis because of their defense. Devontae Shuler is a star, Romello White is a beast in the post and Jarkel Joiner can carry the offense when he’s hot. That’s the story for the Rebels all season.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks suffered another tough loss. For a team that has pulled off some impressive upsets, including against Florida earlier this year, it was a quiet end to the season in the 76-59 loss. Now, it’s back to the drawing board for coach Frank Martin and the Gamecocks.
There are 4 more games on the Friday slate. The first 2 games of the day will be broadcast on ESPN, with the 2 night games being shown on the SEC Network:
- No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 9 Mississippi State (Noon ET)
- No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Florida (25 minutes after Alabama-Mississippi State)
- No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 7 Mizzou (7 p.m. ET)
- No. 3 LSU vs. No. 6 Ole Miss (25 minutes after Arkansas-Mizzou)
I’ll get to my picks in just a minute, but first, let’s dive into a key for each of the 4 matchups:
Alabama vs. Mississippi State
Key: Alabama’s start
This is the first game of the day. It tips off at noon Eastern time. Alabama hasn’t fared too well with early tipoffs this year. Yes, the Tide have won more often than not, but sometimes they come out sluggish. They absolutely can’t do that against the Bulldogs.
If Mississippi State takes a big lead, it might be hard for Alabama to come back in the second half. But, if the Tide take a double-digit halftime lead, the game will be over.
Tennessee vs. Florida
Key: John Fulkerson
I’ve been harping on this point since Fulkerson put up 14 points and 7 rebounds against Florida on Sunday. If he can play well, this Tennessee team is Final Four-worthy. If he scores 4 points, which he has done a shocking amount of times recently, the Vols are a team that can lose on Friday to the Gators and fall in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It all comes down to the veterans for the Vols. If Fulkerson, Yves Pons and Victor Bailey Jr. play well, Tennessee will win. If they struggle, the Gators will win. It’s as simple as that.
Arkansas vs. Mizzou
Key: Jeremiah Tilmon vs. Justin Smith
The Tigers beat the Razorbacks in Fayetteville earlier this year when Smith was injured. Then, when Tilmon was out after a death in the family, the Razorbacks came to Columbia and beat the Tigers in overtime.
Well, both big men are healthy this time around, so whoever has the better game will likely lead his team to victory. Both of them are talented guys and will need to show their leadership skills in this battle of rivals.
LSU vs. Ole Miss
Key: Pace of play
In the latest KenPom.com rankings, LSU is No. 5 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 126 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Basically, the Tigers are all offense, no defense. The Rebels are the exact opposite. They’re No. 116 in offensive efficiency and No. 19 in defensive efficiency.
So, basically, the key to this game is which team can impose its preferred style of play. If the game reaches the 80s in terms of points, LSU will win. If Ole Miss can keep things in the 50s and 60s, the Rebels can pull off the upset.
Here’s who I’m riding with to win today’s games:
Alabama 80, Mississippi State 63
The Crimson Tide come out hot in this one. They make a few early 3s and force the Bulldogs to play a pace and style they aren’t comfortable with to try to catch up. I think Jaden Shackelford will have a big game, getting into the lane and getting to the free-throw line to lead the Tide in scoring. The top seed rolls into the semifinals with an easy win.
Tennessee 73, Florida 69
The Gators fail to avenge Sunday’s loss in Gainesville in Nashville. John Fulkerson scores at least 10 points, but Jaden Springer is the hero here. He’ll score 15+ points and make a couple of clutch free throws to make sure Tennessee advances to take on Alabama in Saturday’s semifinals.
Arkansas 88, Mizzou 83 (OT)
That’s right, I’m calling my shot here. Mizzou forces overtime against the Hogs. After all, these 2 teams battled each other really tight during the regular season. But in the extra 5 minutes, the Tigers fall flat from the field and Arkansas gets a couple of big plays from Moses Moody to extend its SEC winning streak to 12 and its overall winning streak to 9.
LSU 83, Ole Miss 70
The Rebels’ defense falters in the first half, letting the Tigers jump out to a big halftime lead. Freshman Cam Thomas scores at-will, Darius Days gets his 10+ points and the LSU backcourt proves to be too much to handle for the Rebels. That sound you hear is the Rebels’ NCAA Tournament bubble bursting.
After an 0-for-2 start, I’ve rebounded nicely. I’m now 3-2 overall this tournament. I’m feeling good about these picks. 7-2, here I come!