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SEC Hoops Review: Clarity Edition

Finally, with a few weeks left in the season, we're starting to see some separation.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The past week didn't necessarily go according to form, but now we are starting to see three teams (other than the obvious one) begin to separate themselves from the pack.  I've listed the odds of making the NCAA Tournament (according to Team Rankings) this week, and you can see who's separating themselves.

Arkansas had the strongest non-conference profile other than Kentucky and spent the last few weeks doing little more than avoiding land mines; the Razorbacks are something close to a lock.  Georgia and Ole Miss picked up key road wins this week, with Georgia winning at Texas A&M and Ole Miss winning at Florida.  Those two teams aren't quite locks yet, but they'll basically get in if they don't completely tank.

After that is where the line is drawn.  LSU and Texas A&M (for different reasons) have sketchy tournament profiles that will need to be shored up over the next few weeks.  Alabama and Florida are long shots, to be sure, but aren't completely crazy.  Tennessee is a long shot as well, but seems less likely than those two to finish strong and play their way in.  And everybody else is auto bid or bust.

1.  Kentucky (24-0, 11-0)

RPI: 1; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1; Tournament odds: 100%

Last week: W 68-61 at Florida; W 71-69 at LSU

This week: vs. South Carolina; at Tennessee

The Wildcats survived a pair of road trips to Florida and LSU this week and now have (according to Ken Pomeroy) a 61.9% chance of entering the SEC Tournament undefeated.  But that has to do with the remaining schedule, because Kentucky might have picked up a loss in the last week were it not for some incredible free throw shooting at Florida (21-22, for a team that normally shoots 69.6% at the line) and some poor late-game strategy by LSU (I'll get to that later.)  Kentucky won the rebounding battle in both games -- quite easily at Florida, though the margin is quite a bit less against LSU -- but the suddenly-skittish post defense (which allowed Florida to shoot 64 percent on twos, and also allowed LSU to shoot 51 percent) is a bit concerning now.

While it might be a bit unfair to Florida and LSU (both of whom put up very strong efforts), Kentucky looked like it was itching to lose a game at times in the last week but ultimately prevailed in the end.  At the same time, those might have been the two toughest tests we were expecting in SEC play (at the time they happened, we weren't expecting Ole Miss at Rupp and Texas A&M on the road to be tough tests.)  Now the Wildcats get into the home stretch, with four of their last seven games at Rupp and two of the road trips being at Tennessee and Mississippi State.  This looks like it's really going to happen.

2.  Ole Miss (17-7, 8-3)

RPI: 37; Pomeroy: 30; Sagarin: 36; Tournament odds: 89%

Last week: W 86-79 at Auburn; W 62-61 at Florida

This week: vs. Arkansas; at Mississippi State

The Rebels just keep winning, extending their winning streak to six games and quite possibly locking up an NCAA bid in the process.  It's not a done deal by any stretch, but at this point the Rebels just need to take care of the games they should win.  Completing the season sweep of Florida on Thursday night, on a last-second shot by Stefan Moody, was huge.  This was the kind of game that Rebels teams of the past would have lost, but Ole Miss prevailed in the final seconds.  That came on the heels of a closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Auburn, in which Ole Miss led for most of the second half but couldn't really put Auburn away until late.

Now, Ole Miss faces four home games plus a road trip to Mississippi State in the closing stretch, and really probably only needs to win four of those five to feel comfortable about getting into the tournament.  Picking up road wins at LSU and Alabama later would do little more than boost their seeding.

3.  Arkansas (19-5, 8-3)

RPI: 23; Pomeroy: 29; Sagarin: 25; Tournament odds: 97%

Last week: W 61-41 vs. Mississippi State; W 101-87 at Auburn

This week: at Ole Miss; vs. Missouri

Since a home loss to Ole Miss on January 17, Arkansas has won six of seven games, and while the competition hasn't exactly been great in those wins -- Alabama is probably the best team they've beaten, and that was an overtime win at home -- in recent weeks, Arkansas has righted the ship on the defensive end; the win over Auburn on Tuesday was the first time in two and a half weeks that the Razorbacks surrendered more than a point per possession.

And even that Auburn performance was mostly the result of Auburn getting hot from three (10-20) and hitting a lot of free throws (31-40); even in a tightly-whistled game, Arkansas was still forcing turnovers and prevented Auburn from getting good looks inside the arc.  The defense was brutally effective in the Mississippi State game, forcing 24 turnovers and holding the Bulldogs to 14-45 from the floor (including 0-10 from three) and just 41 points.  Unlike the middle of the SEC pack, it's fairly safe to think the Razorbacks are going to be an NCAA team at this point as they've avoided losses to teams like Auburn and Mississippi State and have a few good wins on the resume as well.  Regardless of what happens in Oxford on Saturday, Arkansas can cement its status just by winning the two games after that (Missouri at home, followed by a trip to Starkville a week from Saturday.)

4.  Georgia (16-7, 7-4)

RPI: 22; Pomeroy: 27; Sagarin: 34; Tournament odds: 87%

Last week: W 56-53 vs. Tennessee; W 62-53 at Texas A&M

This week: vs. Auburn; vs. South Carolina

It's actually hard to understate how important the win in College Station on Wednesday night was for the Bulldogs.  Before that, Georgia, in spite of solid RPI and SOS numbers, had a profile that was lacking in quality wins -- since Seton Hall has taken a nosedive over the last month, the Bulldogs' only real quality win was a home win over Ole Miss.  Now they can add Texas A&M's scalp to that as the Bulldogs shredded the Aggies' usually solid defense to the tune of 16-28 shooting inside the arc and only seven turnovers.  Even more impressively, Georgia won on the road on a night when Marcus Thornton scored only five points and committed three turnovers.  It's a testament to how much Mark Fox has gotten his players to buy into his philosophy of team basketball that this team has weathered injuries and off nights to get to 7-4 in the SEC.

Now, Georgia is still not at a point where they can feel totally safe about their NCAA Tournament chances, but the Bulldogs have put themselves in a position where they really just need to win the games they're supposed to -- two games against Auburn plus home dates against South Carolina and Missouri -- and they should get in the tournament for the first time since 2011.

5.  LSU (17-7. 6-5)

RPI: 57; Pomeroy: 41; Sagarin: 52; Tournament odds: 36%

Last week: W 71-60 vs. Alabama; L 69-71 vs. Kentucky

This week: at Tennessee; at Texas A&M

With the season on the brink after consecutive losses to Mississippi State and Auburn (to go with an earlier bad loss at Missouri), Johnny Jones made the decisive move to replace the erratic Josh Gray at the point with freshman Jalyn Patterson.  Patterson lacks Gray's raw athleticism or scoring ability but his higher basketball IQ paid immediate dividends: in a win over Alabama and a near-miss against Kentucky, the Bayou Bengals committed fewer turnovers and generally played better on the offensive end than they had been in recent weeks.

About that Kentucky loss, though: I hinted at it earlier, but LSU committed the cardinal sin of going into stall-ball mode when they held a three-point lead at the final media timeout.  Milking the shot clock might seem like a good idea in such a situation, but with a three-point lead scoring more points is the primary concern.  And for LSU, a team that plays a helter-skelter, run-and-gun style, suddenly switching away from what was working to go to a more controlled, halfcourt style against a team that's very good at defending in the halfcourt was probably not going to end well.  And so it was: LSU didn't score at all after the last media timeout and wound up losing.  It was a strategic blunder in a game that could have sealed a tournament bid for LSU.  Now, the Tigers head into a tough finishing stretch probably needing four or five more wins to feel good about their tournament chances, and there isn't a sure win left on the schedule.

6.  Texas A&M (16-7, 7-4)

RPI: 43; Pomeroy: 50; Sagarin: 55; Tournament odds: 34%

Last week: W 83-61 at Missouri; L 53-62 vs. Georgia

This week: vs. Florida; vs. LSU

The past week was pretty typical of Texas A&M's basketball season.  The Aggies beat Missouri easily on Saturday before falling to Georgia at home.  That's been the story of the year, and the story of A&M's NCAA Tournament resume: the Aggies don't have any bad losses (the closest thing to it is a neutral-court loss to Kansas State back in December), but as of right now, they don't have any wins against the RPI Top 50, though that comes with the asterisk that LSU is just outside the top 50 as of right now.

What's more, A&M's vaunted interior defense allowed Missouri to shoot 58 percent on twos and then allowed Georgia to shoot 57 percent.  That turned out to not really be an issue against Missouri when the Aggies' offense was having a field day, but the relative inability to stop the Bulldogs is a large reason why A&M lost that game.  That, along with Danuel House and Jalen Jones combining to go 8-18 from the field and normally reliable point guard Alex Caruso committing five turnovers.  The Aggies' consistently inability to beat good teams is why they're on the bubble, and sadly the remaining regular season schedule doesn't offer too many opportunities to shore up that relative weakness: other than a trip to Fayetteville, Arkansas, on the 24th, the remaining schedule doesn't offer too many opportunities to shore up a lack of heft on the resume.  So unlike Arkansas or Georgia or even Ole Miss, A&M needs to do more than just win the games they're supposed to if they want to make the tournament.

7.  Alabama (15-9, 5-6)

RPI: 63; Pomeroy: 48; Sagarin: 54; Tournament odds: 15%

Last week: L 60-71 at LSU; W 55-51 at Mississippi State

This week: vs. Vanderbilt; at Auburn

What's the difference between Alabama's good defensive performances and their (relatively) bad ones?  Alabama's defense can be counted on to shut down teams like Mississippi State who rely mostly on guards for their scoring.  But the loss to LSU followed the pattern: Alabama isn't really capable of putting up that kind of defensive performance against teams that have bigs who can score.  Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin combined for 40 points on 13-21 from the floor.  That might have been fine except that with Ricky Tarrant out, the Tide's offense has become punchless.  Levi Randolph is a nice scorer, but he's not the kind of guy who's capable of carrying an offense by himself, and Rodney Cooper has entered a funk since Tarrant got hurt.  Now, Retin Obasohan is hurt as well, leaving the point in the hands of freshman Justin Coleman.  Coleman has shown flashes of potential but clearly isn't ready to play big minutes just yet.

Alabama's NCAA Tournament chances (and, ergo, the chances Anthony Grant is still coaching the team next year) look pretty remote at this point, but it's not impossible.  There isn't a sure loss left on the schedule and it's not inconceivable that the Tide could win five or six of their last seven and potentially get into the tournament.  But all of that depends on how soon Tarrant can get back to action.  If he doesn't, Alabama's offense won't be able to overcome several remaining teams who can score at the basket -- not because that's going to improve, but because their offense is too punchless to win if their defense isn't completely shutting down the opposition.

8.  Florida (12-12, 5-6)

RPI: 76; Pomeroy: 35; Sagarin: 43; Tournament odds: 33%

Last week: L 61-68 vs. Kentucky; L 61-62 vs. Ole Miss

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

Story of Florida's season: the Gators came close in losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss, but couldn't finish.  Against Kentucky, Florida had the bad luck of Kentucky for once hitting their free throws.  That wound up putting a competitive game out of reach in the late minutes.  But that wasn't even the most Florida game of the week; the Gators held a four-point lead with under three minutes left against Ole Miss and didn't score again, losing on a last-second shot by Stefan Moody.  That's literally been the difference between a team that could have made the NCAA Tournament, but is now struggling just to make the NIT.

Florida's closing stretch is pretty rough, with road trips to Texas A&M, LSU, and Kentucky to go along with a trip to Missouri and three winnable home games.  Computers still like the Gators, but they'd practically have to win out to sniff the NCAA Tournament.

9.  Tennessee (14-9, 6-5)

RPI: 83; Pomeroy: 84; Sagarin: 87; Tournament odds: 6%

Last week: L 53-56 at Georgia; W 76-73 (OT) at Vanderbilt

This week: vs. LSU; vs. Kentucky

Getting a split over the past week was just enough to keep the Vols' faint NCAA Tournament hopes alive.  Tennessee might well be the luckiest team in the SEC: by all rights, they should have lost to Vanderbilt on Wednesday night, but Vandy gave the game away by going 17-30 at the free throw line.  The offense really struggled at Georgia, but stayed in the game in spite of the Bulldogs shooting 57 percent from the floor by forcing 20 turnovers.  And Georgia also went 7-13 at the line.

All of that's to say that while Tennessee doesn't have much of an NCAA Tournament resume right now (with wins over Butler and Arkansas balanced out by losses to Marquette and Mississippi State -- the latter at home! -- and a relatively weak RPI), they'll have plenty of opportunities to play their way into the tournament with a tough finishing kick.  Except that, well, when your realistic path to the NCAA Tournament reads something like "beat Kentucky, then beat Ole Miss on the road, AND avoid losing to Vandy and South Carolina at home," it's fair to say that your odds of making the NCAA Tournament are faint.  And I'm still not seeing this happening for a team that's just barely outscored the SEC's second-weakest schedule to date.

10.  Mississippi State (11-13, 4-7)

RPI: 187; Pomeroy: 167; Sagarin: 151; Tournament odds: 0%

Last week: L 41-61 at Arkansas; L 51-55 vs. Alabama

This week: at Missouri; vs. Ole Miss

Well, so much for that.  State's offense hadn't exactly looked great in January, but it had at least looked competent. Competent was good enough for Mississippi State to win four of six games.  And then, well... The irony is that Mississippi State just had its two best defensive performances in SEC play over the last week, and both of those resulted in losses, one of them by 20 points.  That's right: Mississippi State held Arkansas to 38 percent shooting, won the rebounding battle, and lost by 20. That's how bad Mississippi State's offense was in Fayetteville: the Bulldogs committed fourteen turnovers -- in the first half. Combine that with an awful shooting performance, and you have a recipe for scoring 41 points in a game that actually wasn't all that slow-paced.  The Alabama game was only slightly better; State still couldn't shoot the ball, but they at least weren't turning the ball over on 34 percent of their possessions, so that's an improvement.

At the very least, what we can say about Mississippi State this year as opposed to Rick Ray's first two years in Starkville is that the defense has gotten good enough that this team can win games when the shots are falling.  But it turned out that State's solid stretch in January was just a stretch when an otherwise poor-shooting team was getting shots to fall.  State does play Missouri twice in the last seven games, but the other remaining games -- Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Kentucky at home, South Carolina and Vandy on the road -- aren't going to be easy.  Still, the possibility of six or seven wins in conference play looks a lot better than how this team looked about a month ago.

11.  Vanderbilt (13-11, 3-8)

RPI: 118; Pomeroy: 56; Sagarin: 70; Tournament odds: 1%

Last week: W 65-50 vs. South Carolina; L 73-76 (OT) vs. Tennessee

This week: at Alabama; at Florida

Let's get a few things out of the way first.  I hate losing to Tennessee.  I especially hate losing to Tennessee at Memorial Gym, when the Vols are having a down year, and when we could have won if we had just hit some damn free throws in the final minute.  It isn't so much that the injury to Shelton Mitchell -- he missed both games last week -- is directly impacting the Commodores (Mitchell, at this point, doesn't do anything that Wade Baldwin can't also do), but the fact that Baldwin has had to play 69 minutes and Riley LaChance has played 81 minutes over the last two games might be having an effect.  Damian Jones missing foul shots is something we've come to expect, but Baldwin and LaChance missing free throws down the stretch -- that seems like tired legs.  Except on Saturday, when Stallings was willing to go to Carter Josephs for extended stretches and Vandy erased a 12-point deficit in the second half to win going away.  Why exactly did Stallings only play him for two minutes against the Vols?  Particularly on a night when neither Baldwin nor LaChance were playing particularly well?

Of course, this year has basically been about building for the future all along.  The recruiting class for next season is signed and delivered, and Vandy is rather unlucky to be 3-8 in conference play.  I can only think of one or two losses that weren't still in doubt late in the second half.  This team still seems like it will be much better next season, if only because they'll figure out how to close.

12.  South Carolina (12-11, 3-8)

RPI: 112; Pomeroy: 57; Sagarin: 66; Tournament odds: 3%

Last week: L 50-65 at Vanderbilt; W 65-60 vs. Missouri

This week: at Kentucky; at Georgia

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but the Gamecocks' chief problem is that they cannot shoot the ball. At all.  This didn't appear to be the case early in the game at Vanderbilt, but Carolina went ice-cold in the second half, getting outscored 32-7 over the final 12:40 of the game.  And it didn't really hurt against Missouri (because Missouri), but South Carolina in SEC play has been pushing the boundaries of just how far defense and rebounding alone can take you.

But the bigger problem isn't the offense, which actually didn't look all that good in November and December (when the team was winning.)  The defense has slipped as well; ironically, the Vanderbilt game was their worst defensive performance of the year, with the Commodores hitting 56 percent of their twos, outrebounding the Gamecocks, and (at least by the standards of this Vanderbilt team) not committing too many turnovers.  The offense wouldn't be a big problem if the defense were playing like it did in December, but it's regressed to the point that it's only capable of shutting down teams like Missouri that struggle offensively against everyone.  With a 3-8 conference record and only three home games left, it's actually difficult to see the Gamecocks avoiding Wednesday in the SEC Tournament.  What started out as a promising year has gone downhill since the calendar turned to 2015.

13.  Auburn (11-13, 3-8)

RPI: 162; Pomeroy: 143; Sagarin: 144; Tournament odds: 0%

Last week: L 79-86 vs. Ole Miss; L 87-101 vs. Arkansas

This week: at Georgia; vs. Alabama

Turnarounds under a new coach can take a couple of years to show results, and that's what Auburn is finding out in its first year under Bruce Pearl.  Pearl looked for a quick fix by bringing in a couple of grad transfers and a JUCO, but it hasn't happened: the grad transfers helped plug the hole left by the departure of Chris Denson, but the end result has been strikingly similar to Auburn's final year under Tony Barbee.  Auburn has given up over a point per possession in 9 of its 11 SEC games, and when the opponent takes care of the ball -- as Ole Miss and Arkansas did -- even fairly good offensive performances aren't good enough to keep up.

The end result is that over its last two games, Auburn has wasted good offensive performances by allowing both Ole Miss and Arkansas to hit well over half their shots and not turning them over.  The combination of that and a fast-paced, foul-plagued game gave Auburn the distinction of being the first SEC team to give up 100 points in a game this year.  It's basically running in place; Pearl has gotten Auburn to be about as good on offense as they were last year under Barbee, but hasn't improved the defense at all.  Things won't get any easier the rest of the way, either; Georgia takes care of the ball and Alabama has already shut down Auburn's offense once.  Like South Carolina, you can almost pencil this team in for a spot on Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament.

14.  Missouri (7-17, 1-10)

RPI: 174; Pomeroy: 194; Sagarin: 178; Tournament odds: 0%

Last week: L 61-83 vs. Texas A&M; L 60-65 at South Carolina

This week: vs. Mississippi State; at Arkansas

This was already a lost season for Missouri, but things got even worse over the past week.  Freshmen Montaque Gill-Caesar and Namon Wright were suspended before Saturday's game against Texas A&M (joining fellow freshman Tramaine Isabell on the suspended list); then, in Tuesday's game at South Carolina, Wes Clark dislocated his elbow and is likely done for the season.  This all probably didn't affect Missouri much against Texas A&M, when the offense was actually sorta competent but the defense got smoked, but might have led to the Tigers losing what turned out to be a winnable game at South Carolina.

Now, assuming that the suspended players aren't reinstated (which isn't a given, but still), Missouri only has seven scholarship players available and only two of those are guards.  This could quickly devolve into Mississippi State-in-2013 levels of bad; not that Missouri was all that good before, but suddenly Kim Anderson is looking at a situation where erratic junior guard Deuce Bello will be playing 35-plus minutes a night because somebody has to play.  And all of this is happening just before Mississippi State comes to town, which probably represented Missouri's best chance at getting a second conference win.