SEC be­com­ing strong league in bas­ket­ball

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - Mark Wied­mer

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 mwied­mer@timesfreepress.com.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.