1. Kentucky (25-0, 12-0)
2. Arkansas (20-5, 9-3)
3. Texas A&M (17-7, 8-4)
4. Ole Miss (17-8, 8-4)
5. LSU (18-7, 7-5)
6. Georgia (16-8, 7-5)
7. Tennessee (14-10, 6-6)
8. Alabama (15-10, 5-7)
9. Florida (12-13, 5-7)
10. Mississippi State (12-13, 5-7)
11. Vanderbilt (14-11, 4-8)
12. Auburn (12-13, 4-8)
13. South Carolina (12-12, 3-9)
14. Missouri (7-18, 1-11)
Top-ranked Kentucky and Arkansas, back in the top 25, were the SEC’s big winners in a week that saw the top half of the league go unchanged in the standings.
Teams positioned third through seventh all went one up, one down in the W-L column. Some of the losses, like LSU’s 71-69 home setback to the Wildcats during the midweek, were expected while others, namely Georgia dropping a 69-68 decision to Auburn in Athens, were not.
That inconsistency, both the Bayou Bengals and Bulldogs have now lost at home to War Eagle, may ultimately rob the conference of an NCAA Tournament entrant (see three sections below for an updated outlook), with the current forecast for SEC teams dancing likely at three-to-four as opposed to four-to-five.
A good example of just how quickly fortunes change in Southeastern Conference basketball are the Florida Gators. The two-time defending regular season champs, and attendees at the last four Elite Eights, lost two more games this past week, now beaten in four straight and seven of nine.
Billy Donovan’s crew has the same record, both overall and in the league, as does Mississippi State, which a season ago under Rick Ray finished 3-15, bottom of the table.
Without the Gators atop or near the top of the standings, the SEC has had to count on others to carry the flag, at least for the benefit of national perception. The jury is still out on several of those clubs, namely Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M.
CHASE FOR PERFECTION CONTINUES
Those looking for entertainment and some drama in Kentucky’s run through the SEC gauntlet haven’t been left empty-handed the past six weeks.
Sure, there have been blowouts. UK has beaten South Carolina by a combined 49 points in a home-and-home, won by 22 in Tuscaloosa and did something to Missouri in Lexington on Jan. 13 that need not be repeated.
Kentucky prevailed twice in a combined three overtimes to tip off SEC action, survived by single digits at Florida and, last week, came from behind in the final minutes to escape Baton Rouge a narrow winner.
The question is, as the quest for history rolls on at 25-0, will anyone trip the Cats in the remainder of league play?
Here are Kentucky’s final six games in the conference.
This Week: at Tennessee, vs. Auburn
Next Week: at Mississippi State, vs. Arkansas
Final Week: at Georgia, vs. Florida
The two biggest potential snags for Big Blue are hosting the Razorbacks, although Kentucky hasn’t lost at home in almost a year (Feb. 27, 2014, to Arkansas), and the following game at Georgia, playing a team that competed well the first time around in Rupp Arena without big man Marcus Thornton, since returned from a concussion.
An anecdote from UK’s victory on the bayou last week says a lot about Calipari, his young Wildcats and the competitive drive of the nation’s number one.
After freshman sensation Karl-Anthony Towns got an ill-timed second-half technical for hanging on the rim, a senseless move that ignited a 16-0 LSU run, Coach Cal immediately took Towns out and reamed him on the bench, yelling audibly, “I hope we lose.”
Some close to the Kentucky bench maintain Calipari also barked some semblance of “you don’t know how to win yet” at Towns. Well, less than 10 game minutes later, Towns, liberated from his bench chewing, made the two biggest plays of the ballgame, grabbing an enormous offensive rebound and putting in a half-hook to put UK ahead for good.
Calipari will never take his foot off the gas, and shouldn’t, but those of us looking on can recognize there’s plenty of killer instinct in these Cats, a group that’s finished foes off in a number of ways in-conference.
HOGS CLINCH 20, GAIN SEPARATION
The Razorbacks are the SEC’s second team to 20 overall wins, a plateau that in days past more often than not got a team into the tourney. The line of demarcation is north of that number now, but, with six league games to play, Arkansas is in great position and stands to gain even more ground this week.
Mike Anderson’s squad, which has won four in a row and seven of its last eight, plays at Missouri Wednesday night before traveling to Starkville on Saturday. If Arkansas takes care of business, it would be at 22 total wins and an impressive 11-3 mark in the conference.
The difference, in stark contrast to recent vintages of Anderson teams, has been winning away from Fayetteville.
The ‘Backs are 4-2 on the road against league foes, with the latest triumph coming at Ole Miss Saturday, 71-70, courtesy a short jumper by reserve Manuale Watkins with 6.4 seconds to go.
Last season Arkansas went 3-6 versus conference opponents away from Bud Walton Arena while the mark was 1-8 the season prior.
Year four under Anderson is starting to go according more to plan.
The offensive numbers are still up – the Hogs rank eighth nationally in assists (17.1 per game) and 11th in scoring (79.9 points per game) – but, more to the point, Arkansas is showing it can win games in different styles, a knock in year’s past.
After dropping 101 at Auburn in the midweek, the Razorbacks navigated a totally different pace of game in Oxford, eventually taking a close contest late and relying (somewhat) on defense.
The way things are going, the newer, clutch-er Hogs will be playing a round one game in the NCAAs as the higher seed.
TALKING SEC AND THE BIG DANCE
In: Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Georgia
Just Out: LSU, Texas A&M
Not Dead: Tennessee, Alabama
Starting with the teams on life support, the picture is not a rosy one for the Vols or Tide. While they’re not technically dead in the race to crash the NCAA Tournament, the reality is both have work to do at this point to solidify invitations to the NIT.
If either wins five or six in a row to close the season, the discussion can re-open on where that teams fits in the postseason equation, but in mid-February the overview has these two squarely out of the dance.
As for the top six teams in the conference, the fates of all aside from Kentucky are still hanging in the balance.
The Wildcats, ranked second overall in the latest RPI, will be the top seed in the tourney. Arkansas, barring a meltdown finish to the regular season, will appear above its first-round opponent in brackets, probably somewhere in the five-to-seven seed range.
From there no team’s spot is guaranteed, but the closest to landing a golden ticket are Ole Miss and Georgia, in that order. The Bulldogs are 30th in the RPI while Hotty Toddy is 38th, the former buoyed by the nation’s 24th-best strength of schedule. But Ole Miss is in much better form of late than Georgia, and the Rebels own a victory at Arkansas, giving them the slight edge in my book.
LSU is perhaps the most interesting case study of the bunch. As talented as any league team aside from Big Blue, the Tigers have squandered games against multiple bottom-half teams and aren’t helped by the nation’s 102nd-best strength of schedule.
I actually think if the season ended now the Tigers would be in. But, the reality is LSU still has to play at Texas A&M, at Arkansas and home versus Ole Miss. Johnny Jones' team will need to win at least two of those games and five of its final six in general. Anything short of that, or winning the conference tournament, and LSU will be NIT-bound for the second straight season.
The Aggies are also still very much alive, but the home loss to Georgia last week didn’t help. Their position isn’t much different from LSU’s, making the meeting the two will have in College Station Tuesday awfully important.
As things stand the SEC is a four-bid league in my opinion. The first two are known, but everything else thereafter is subject to change. Just know that if an LSU or A&M gets hot down the stretch and states is case successfully, it will come at the expense of either Ole Miss or Georgia . . . not in addition to them.
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
By week seven in the SEC it’s an all-out grind. Mississippi State will stay at the Hump all week, welcoming in two top-half teams, while Missouri, on the wrong end of 11 straight ballgames, has its work cut out with two away dates. Among the most important matchups this week are LSU at Texas A&M in the midweek as well as Georgia at Alabama on Saturday.
Alabama: at Auburn (Tues), vs. Georgia (Sat)
Arkansas: vs. Missouri (Wed), at Mississippi State (Sat)
Auburn: vs. Alabama (Tues), at Kentucky (Sat)
Florida: vs. Vanderbilt (Wed), at LSU (Sat)
Georgia: vs. South Carolina (Tues), at Alabama (Sat)
Kentucky: at Tennessee (Tues), vs. Auburn (Sat)
LSU: at Texas A&M (Tues), vs. Florida (Sat)
Mississippi State: vs. Ole Miss (Thurs), vs. Arkansas (Sat)
Missouri: at Arkansas (Wed), at Vanderbilt (Sat)
Ole Miss: at Mississippi State (Thurs), vs. Tennessee (Sat)
South Carolina: at Georgia (Tues), vs. Texas A&M (Sat)
Tennessee: vs. Kentucky (Tues), at Ole Miss (Sat)
Texas A&M: vs. LSU (Tues), at South Carolina (Sat)
Vanderbilt: at Florida (Wed), vs. Missouri (Sat)