SEC becoming strong league in basketball
Just before the start of overtime in Tennessee’s 95-93 loss at Arkansas on Saturday afternoon, SEC Network analyst Daymeon Fishback, a former Auburn star, said of the winners, “The Razorbacks are going to prove they belong in the Top 25.”
And that’s just what they did against the No. 19 Volunteers, who led by nine with 3:53 left in regulation, trailed by 11 in overtime, then barely tasted defeat inside a jampacked and deafening Bud Walton Arena.
And while the Hogs indeed should expect to be ranked for the first time in three years when the new Associated Press poll comes out, Tennessee has nothing to feel bad about after the first of its 18 conference games.
As point guard Jordan Bone said after leading the Vols with 21 points: “We’ll watch film and learn a lot.”
If it wasn’t already clear heading into this weekend — and Georgia visiting Kentucky tonight should enlighten us further concerning conference favorites — the rest of the college hoops community is quickly learning that the SEC is becoming known almost as much for basketball as it is a football colossus.
And that’s only mildly because the league is only 1-3 overall in bowl games heading into Monday’s five football matchups,
which will include the two national semifinals featuring Alabama against defending national champ Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and SEC champ Georgia versus Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
But even with that strong statement about the SEC’s gridiron greatness, the NCAA’s basketball RPI rankings as of Saturday morning included four league schools in the top 18 and Kentucky slotted at No. 23 following its 90-61 dismantling of Louisville on Friday.
The Vols headed that list at No. 7, followed by Texas A&M at 8, Arkansas at 15 and Missouri at 18. Furthermore, Auburn was at 27 before its Saturday rout of Cornell, followed by Alabama at No. 34 and South Carolina at No. 38. That’s eight SEC schools among the first 38.
And you wonder why ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently projects seven SEC schools to make the 68-team NCAA tournament, led by A&M with a No. 2 seed prior to Saturday night’s 79-57 loss at Bama.
For the first time in memory, and much of it due to the unexpected success of Tennessee — which began the season ranked 13th among 14 schools in the media’s (blush, blush!) preseason poll — the league has a number of impressive nonconference wins beyond Kentucky’s two victories over Atlantic Coast Conference opponents Virginia Tech and Louisville.
The Vols have knocked off Purdue, crushed the ACC’s Wake Forest, won at Georgia Tech and beaten another ACC team in North Carolina State.
As Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said after Saturday’s game, “Tennessee is an outstanding team, a terrific defensive team.”
But there are so many outstanding teams and players, beginning with Alabama freshman guard Collin Sexton, who’s averaging 20.5 points per game and may become the SEC’s player of the year if he can keep leading the Crimson Tide to the same kind of outrageous wins they posted Saturday evening when they shocked A&M.
To be fair, the Aggies were without their Nos. 1 and 3 scorers against Bama, and A&M already has beaten West Virginia by 23 points, Oklahoma State by 17 and Southern Cal by 16. With a full roster, it should still be the team to beat within the league.
But the SEC also has six teams with at least 10 wins and four others with nine victories, including Tennessee at 9-3. So who’s the best at this moment?
› Best team to date: Despite Saturday at Alabama, A&M should be the toughest by February if it returns to a full roster.
› Best upside: Kentucky, which has Final Four written all over it if it can sustain the kind of execution and intensity it displayed throughout most of its win over Louisville.
› Toughest to beat: Tennessee, which arguably plays the league’s best defense and relies on almost no freshmen to succeed.
› Best chemistry: Arkansas, which can count on three incredible guards in seniors Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford and Anton Beard. Macon had 33 points against the Vols, Barford 28, and Beard hits 83 percent of his free throws while both Barford and Macon knock down over 40 percent of their 3-pointers. In a tight game, it’s tough to halt the Hogs.
› Wild card: Auburn. The Tigers stand 12-1, have blown out UConn, are averaging nearly 87 points a game and have done it all without frontcourt monsters Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, who remain on the sideline as Auburn continues to investigate their involvement in the FBI investigation into college basketball. But if those two return, Auburn just might become the league’s most dangerous squad.
And just to get the home schedule off to a roaring start for Tennessee, former Vols coach Bruce Pearl brings his Auburn Tigers to Knoxville on Tuesday night.
To that end, a quote from the Razorbacks’ Anderson following Saturday’s game bears repeating: “It’s conference play from here on out. All games are going to be a war.”
But unlike too many past winters, those who can win at least a couple more of those wars than they lose should reach the NCAA tourney come March.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.