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SEC Hoops Review: Road Teams Keep Winning

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SEC basketball: Where homecourt advantage is nonexistent. Unless you're Kentucky.

Hey guys, would you mind not sending me to the foul line?
Hey guys, would you mind not sending me to the foul line?
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

If there's been a big story in the SEC this year, it's that home court has not been that big of a deal.  Visiting teams went 8-6 last week, and are currently 19-23 through three weeks of SEC play.  Per Ken Pomeroy, the SEC ranks 22nd in the country in home winning percentage in conference play.  That's unusual.

What seems more unusual, though, is that there's little rhyme or reason to it.  Kentucky being 3-0 in SEC road games is, well, expected.  Tennessee being 3-0 in SEC road games -- while being 1-2 at home?  That seems weird.  Even Mississippi State got in on the act; before last week, the Bulldogs hadn't won on the road since 2013, a streak of 19 games in SEC play and 22 games overall.  Now, only four teams haven't won on the road in conference play: South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Missouri -- and Auburn very nearly picked up a road win at Alabama before blowing it late, while Vandy gave Kentucky all it could handle at Rupp Arena.

Winning on the road looks good to the Selection Committee; of course, losing home games looks bad, so as long as SEC teams are beating up on each other, there's going to be a limit to the number of bids the league can get.  Another fun stat: according to Ken Pomeroy, a third of SEC conference games (14 of 42) have been decided by four points or less or in overtime, the second-highest percentage of any conference.  It's about what you would expect from a league that's pretty balanced outside of Kentucky.

All ratings are current as of Monday.  RPI numbers are from Jerry Palm at cbssports.com.

Bonus bracketology:

Jerry Palm: Kentucky (#1 overall); Arkansas (6 seed); LSU (7 seed); Georgia (7 seed); Alabama (first four out); Texas A&M (first four out)

Joe Lunardi: Kentucky (#1 overall); Arkansas (7 seed); LSU (9 seed); Georgia (9 seed); Texas A&M (first four out); Ole Miss (first four out); Tennessee (next four out)

Team Rankings: 5.1 projected bids; Kentucky (#1 overall; 100%); Arkansas (7 seed; 86%); LSU (9 seed; 59%); Georgia (9 seed; 73%); Ole Miss (10 seed; 60%); Florida (49%); Texas A&M (36%); Alabama (25%); Tennessee (15%); South Carolina (8%); Vanderbilt (1%)

1.  Kentucky (19-0, 6-0)

RPI: 2; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1

Last week: W 65-57 vs. Vanderbilt; W 58-43 at South Carolina

This week: at Missouri; vs. Alabama

Pointing out flaws with Kentucky almost seems like nitpicking: the Wildcats are quite obviously going to be favored in every game up through the SEC Tournament.  But, well, shooting 41.3 percent on twos in SEC play?  That seems like a bit more than nitpicking.  The Wildcats aren't typically going to shoot a lot of threes, and for good reason since they really only have one good shooter from distance (Devin Booker.)

Now, all of this might not be a huge problem if the Wildcats were hitting the offensive glass, but in the South Carolina game, Kentucky was getting murdered on the boards.  That ended up not mattering because South Carolina couldn't make a basket to save their lives (23 percent shooting.)  And, of course, I'd be remiss to point out that Kentucky leads the SEC in free throw attempts per field goal attempt (because you were expecting, what, exactly?)  That tendency has papered over an offense that's merely good and not great; what happens in the NCAA Tournament when refs are swallowing their whistles?

2.  Georgia (13-5, 4-2)

RPI: 25; Pomeroy: 28; Sagarin: 37

Last week: W 69-64 vs. Ole Miss; W 72-66 at Mississippi State

This week: vs. Vanderbilt; at South Carolina

If there's a cause for concern with Georgia, it's this: the Bulldogs are currently shooting 44 percent from three in SEC play.  Why is that concerning?  Because, well, Georgia is shooting 35.6 percent from three on the season (and that includes SEC play, so they were even worse than that in non-conference play.)

But then, that's also a reflection of J.J. Frazier becoming a bigger part of the offense over the past few games.  Frazier was more of a role player in November and December, but in SEC play he's attempting nine shots a game -- and is the Bulldogs' leading scorer over that stretch after a 37-point outing against Mississippi State on Saturday.  Those 37 points, by the way, came on just 14 field goal attempts -- Frazier shot 12-14 from the floor and a perfect 7-for-7 from three.  So while on the surface, Georgia's offensive performance in SEC play looks unsustainable, it's also possible that adjustments have made the offense more effective.

3.  LSU (15-4, 4-2)

RPI: 37; Pomeroy: 35; Sagarin: 48

Last week: W 79-61 at Florida; W 79-75 (OT) at Vanderbilt

This week: vs. South Carolina; at Mississippi State

Finally, performance is beginning to catch up with potential for this LSU team.  I'll have more to write about the first game this week when I get around to Florida (because, really, that result probably says more about the Gators than anything else), but even with the issues currently surrounding the Florida program an 18-point win in the O'Connell Center is pretty damn impressive.

Turnovers continue to be a problem for this LSU team, as the Bayou Bengals committed a turnover on a quarter of their possessions in Memorial Gym.  But when they're not turning it over, having Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey in the frontcourt is a matchup nightmare for most teams.  Even against a Vanderbilt team with some size in the frontcourt, Martin went for 19 and 12, and Mickey went for 25 and 11.  That's tough to stop.  With a strong RPI and three wins over the RPI Top 50 (two of them on the road), LSU, like Georgia and Arkansas, would really have to go into the tank to miss the NCAA Tournament.

4.  Arkansas (15-4, 4-2)

RPI: 23; Pomeroy: 46; Sagarin: 35

Last week: W 93-91 (OT) vs. Alabama; W 61-60 at Missouri

This week: vs. Tennessee; at Florida

Arkansas has a disturbing Missouri-in-2014 quality to them, featuring the SEC's second-best offense on a per-possession basis... and pairing it with the SEC's worst defense on a per-possession basis.  Arkansas has yet to hold an opponent under a point per possession in SEC play, and that includes the SEC's worst offensive team (Missouri), who just barely cracked a point per trip in a narrow Razorback win on Saturday.

The normal course for Arkansas is to force a lot of turnovers, but bleed points when they're not forcing turnovers -- alternatively, as happened against Ole Miss and Iowa State before that, the Razorbacks don't force turnovers and surrender a lot of points.  Missouri didn't commit turnovers against the Arkansas press, but bailed Arkansas out by shooting poorly.  What's changed from last year is that Arkansas can't defend in the halfcourt to save their lives, so they're totally dependent on forcing turnovers.  The offense is elite, but it will have to be for this team to go very far.

5.  Ole Miss (12-7, 3-3)

RPI: 46; Pomeroy: 34; Sagarin: 50

Last week: L 64-69 at Georgia; W 72-71 vs. Florida

This week: vs. Mississippi State; at Missouri

If Ole Miss has a weakness on the offensive end, it's that they don't seem to play as well against teams like Georgia that aren't going to overplay and are willing to just sit back and defend you in the halfcourt.  That led to a 40 percent shooting performance (4-18 from three) and a Rebel loss in Athens, in spite of 26 points from Stefan Moody -- who, like Marshall Henderson before him, will have nights where he gets his but needs to fire up a ton of shots (16 field goal attempts plus 10 free throws) to get there.

The Rebels then came home and narrowly scraped by Florida, but in a game in which the Gators shot 12-20 from three, coming away with a win is actually pretty good.  Ole Miss did hold Florida to 10-26 on twos, though, and while the front line of Sebastian Saiz, M.J. Rhett, and Dwight Coleby doesn't provide a ton of offense, Ole Miss's bigs can actually be pretty good defensively.

6.  Texas A&M (13-5, 4-2)

RPI: 32; Pomeroy: 55; Sagarin: 57

Last week: W 62-50 vs. Missouri; W 67-61 at Tennessee

This week: at Auburn; vs. Vanderbilt

While I'm not completely buying into the Aggies just yet, they've managed to figure out how to work the RPI to carve out what looks like a nice profile for the Selection Committee.  They still have just one top 50 win, but it was on the road (at LSU) and nothing remotely resembling a bad loss to go with a solid RPI number.

The Aggies' offense has looked better over the last couple of weeks, in the midst of a four-game winning streak.  I'd be remiss to point out that Jalen Jones missed the first couple of games of SEC play (both Aggie losses) and has averaged 17.0 ppg in four games since coming back.  The main thing the Aggies need to do over the next two weeks is avoid land mines: nobody would hold a loss at Ole Miss against them, but if this is a tournament team then A&M will need to beat Auburn and Missouri (both on the road) and win a home game against Vanderbilt.

7.  Alabama (13-6, 3-3)

RPI: 50; Pomeroy: 45; Sagarin: 54

Last week: L 91-93 (OT) at Arkansas; W 57-55 vs. Auburn

This week: vs. Florida; at Kentucky

It took a late rally for the Tide to overcome Auburn (Alabama trailed by nine midway through the second half), but after a three-game losing streak, Alabama will probably take that.  Like a few other teams in the league, turnovers are Alabama's problem -- the TIde rank among the better shooting teams in the league (55.9 percent on twos, tops in the league, and 72.4 percent on free throws, although they're not great at shooting the three) but turn the ball over too much to be really effective.  That wasn't a huge problem against Arkansas when everything was falling (12-24 on threes) but on a colder-shooting night against Auburn, Alabama could barely scrape by.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Alabama would need to win at least one game in a three-game stretch (at South Carolina, vs. Kentucky, at Arkansas) to be taken seriously as a tournament contender.  Instead, Alabama lost all three, leaving themselves with their backs against the wall.  There are still opportunities to build a tournament resume down the line, but the Tide have little margin for error left.

8.  Florida (10-9, 3-3)

RPI: 84; Pomeroy: 36; Sagarin: 45

Last week: L 61-79 vs. LSU; L 71-72 at Ole Miss

This week: at Alabama; vs. Arkansas

I don't profess to know everything that goes on within Billy Donovan's program, but Florida right now seems to have all the telltale signs of a team with bad chemistry.  Vastly underperforming their talent level?  Check.  Multiple players getting suspended for the nefarious "violation of team rules"?  Check.  Star players (Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith) getting benched for no apparent reason in the middle of conference play?  Check.

All of this is to say, I have Florida eighth right now, but the potential is still there for them to be better than this.  But it's not happening right now, and who knows the reason.  After appearing to quit in the second half against Georgia, Florida came back home to play LSU on Tuesday and... lost by 18.  It played out similarly to the Georgia game, with the game being close at halftime, LSU going on a run midway through the second half and the Gators seeming to pack it in.  The Gators then lost at Ole Miss in spite of a 12-20 shooting performance from three and their two big guns combining for 42 points.  Florida still has a lot of talent, but in terms of making the tournament, they may have dug themselves too big a hole to climb out of.

9.  Tennessee (12-6, 4-2)

RPI: 55; Pomeroy: 84; Sagarin: 82

Last week: W 66-62 at South Carolina; L 61-67 vs. Texas A&M

This week: at Arkansas; vs. Auburn

Tennessee managed to get to 4-1 in the SEC by slogging through a win at South Carolina (in which the Vols got outplayed but South Carolina, in a recurring theme, did not shoot well) before running into the A&M buzzsaw... okay, I'm exaggerating on that, but the Aggies were the first team to really solve the Tennessee defense in SEC play.  And, really, the stat lines that A&M and South Carolina put up against the Vols defense look eerily similar aside from shooting percentages: A&M just shot the ball better and won as a result.  It seems that whatever Donnie Tyndall was doing that was working well on the defensive end might be getting cracked, but we'll see.

10.  South Carolina (10-8, 1-5)

RPI: 118; Pomeroy: 51; Sagarin: 65

Last week: L 62-66 vs. Tennessee; L 43-58 vs. Kentucky

This week: at LSU; vs. Georgia

While South Carolina's offensive struggles in SEC play haven't been entirely unexpected, one of the strange parts of it is that the Gamecocks struggle to shoot -- yet, they're actually good at the free throw line.  In SEC play, Carolina is shooting 29.3 percent on threes (worst in the conference) while shooting 75.2 percent at the line.  At least part of that relates to South Carolina's bigs being unusually good free throw shooters, but Carolina's guards -- in particular, Tyrone Johnson (84.3 percent free throw shooter, 26.8 percent three-point shooter) and Sindarius Thornwell (71.1 percent free throw shooter, 24.3 percent three-point shooter) -- somehow morph from good shooters into terrible ones on field goal attempts.

It's equally bizarre because while neither of those players, nor Duane Notice, were great three-point shooters last season, they weren't horrible either.  And while South Carolina is 1-5 in SEC play, three of those losses were close enough that better three-point shooting could have tipped the scales.  All of this is to say that South Carolina's horrible offense is mostly tied to shooting percentages, and given that they're a good free throw shooting team this seems like a fixable problem.  So it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see this team get things turned around the rest of the season.

11.  Vanderbilt (11-8, 1-5)

RPI: 114; Pomeroy: 66; Sagarin: 74

Last week: L 57-65 at Kentucky; L 75-79 (OT) vs. LSU

This week: at Georgia; at Texas A&M

Before anyone pushes the panic button on Vanderbilt, understand a few things: first, four of the five losses in the current five-game losing streak have come against (in my view) the SEC's top four teams, and probably all four will be NCAA Tournament teams; second, Vandy has been competitive in all of the games; and third, Vandy is (according to Ken Pomeroy) the 348th-most experienced team in Division 1.  To put 348 in perspective, there are 351 teams in Division 1.  It is, of course, expected that a very young team will have some growing pains.  In fact, Damian Jones' free throw shooting alone (47.1% in SEC games) could explain a couple of the losses.

This week, Vandy came close but couldn't quite catch Kentucky before LSU came to town.  It's a positive sign that Jones and Luke Kornet held their own (and then some) against a strong LSU front line, but Vandy couldn't quite come away with the win.  Assuming Vandy can hold this group together, though, there is the talent for this to be a really good team in a year or two.

12.  Mississippi State (9-10, 2-4)

RPI: 210; Pomeroy: 203; Sagarin: 181

Last week: W 78-71 at Auburn; L 66-72 vs. Georgia

This week: at Ole Miss; vs. LSU

While Mississippi State was struggling in December, I kept thinking that the Bulldogs might not continue being bad once everybody was healthy.  Over the past couple of weeks, that's started to become the case: I.J. Ready has grabbed the starting job at the point and won't let go, and is playing well to boot, and Gavin Ware is the best everyone thought he could be on the low block.  That's how a team goes from losing to McNeese State to back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt and Auburn -- the latter on the road -- in a couple of weeks.  Even the loss to Georgia was competitive, with the other Bulldogs needing a career day from J.J. Frazier to come away with a six-point win.  Mississippi State isn't normally a good shooting team, but when they have a night like they did against Auburn (46 percent shooting) the combination of decent shooting and strong rebounding is dangerous.  So, welcome out of the cellar, Mississippi State.

13.  Auburn (10-9, 2-4)

RPI: 147; Pomeroy: 144; Sagarin: 145

Last week: L 71-78 vs. Mississippi State; L 55-57 at Alabama

This week: vs. Texas A&M; at Tennessee

Anyone want to take bets on who gets a bigger ovation at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday, Donnie Tyndall or Bruce Pearl?

It's hard to slice it any other way: this was a bad week for Auburn after a somewhat promising start to SEC play.  First came the debacle at home against Mississippi State, when the Tigers fell behind by 18 early in the second half and were down 14 with five minutes to go before a furious rally to make the final score look respectable.  But even losing respectably, you still lost to Mississippi State.  At home.  Mississippi State's last SEC road win: January 12, 2013.  Auburn played better on Saturday but couldn't withstand a rally by Alabama, and wound up losing late.  Pearl will get this program turned around (we think), but it's not happening this year.

14.  Missouri (7-12, 1-5)

RPI: 161; Pomeroy: 162; Sagarin: 168

Last week: L 50-62 at Texas A&M; L 60-61 vs. Arkansas

This week: vs. Kentucky; vs. Ole Miss

Can you believe this team beat LSU?  Missouri has lost five straight since then, and only the SEC's worst defense could keep them from making it four straight games scoring under a point per possession.  You expect growing pains with a young team, though, and Missouri does have a decent core of young talent -- but it's not happening this year.  There's just too much inconsistency.  The Tigers managed to handle the Arkansas press on Saturday -- but a few days earlier, they turned it over on a quarter of their possessions against Texas A&M.  They shot fairly well against a normally stout A&M defense on Tuesday; then, they shot poorly against the normally porous Arkansas defense on Saturday.  Montaque Gill-Caesar played well against Arkansas, for the first time since going down with an injury -- but Wes Clark played poorly after being the star against A&M.  You can kind of see why Missouri might be good in a year or two if they can keep this group together -- and also see why they're bad right now.  Getting Kentucky and Ole Miss doesn't seem like the best cure for a losing streak.