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SEC Hoops Review: Go Home, SEC, You're Drunk

After a couple of weeks of relative sanity, nothing much made sense in the SEC last week. Except for Kentucky, but you already knew that.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a short rundown of what happened in the SEC over the past week:

  • Georgia, a team that had a solid NCAA Tournament resume heading into the week, lost twice.  To Auburn and South Carolina.  At home.
  • Arkansas won at Ole Miss.  That wasn't terribly surprising, but the fact that a walk-on hit the game-winner for the Razorbacks?  Yeah, that's unexpected.
  • Florida won a game that came down to the final possession.  Would be more surprising if in the same game, Vanderbilt hadn't also lost a game that came down to the final possession.
  • LSU went to Tennessee and obliterated the Vols.  That makes sense if you look at the talent on the two rosters, but when you consider what LSU has spent most of the year doing with said talent, it doesn't make sense.
  • Vanderbilt played two close games on the road and only lost one of them in the last minute, which is one fewer than they normally do.

There were a few relatively sane teams this week, like Kentucky and Missouri, who did what they normally do (Kentucky by winning, and Missouri by losing.)  You can also make a case for Texas A&M, which won a pair of close home games, although the ending to their game against Florida wasn't quite so sane.

But all we can really say is drunk SEC is fun SEC.  Road teams went 8-5 this week and now stand at 42-48 on the season, which just makes all of this that much more fun.

On to the rankings!  RPI, Pomeroy, and Sagarin ratings, plus tournament odds (from Team Rankings) are current as of Friday.

1.  Kentucky (26-0, 13-0)

RPI: 2; Pomeroy: 1; Sagarin: 1

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 100%

Last week: W 77-43 vs. South Carolina; W 66-48 at Tennessee

This week: vs. Auburn; at Mississippi State

On Saturday, Kentucky once again looked like the scary-good team that obliterated the likes of Kansas and UCLA in November and December, but it certainly didn't hurt matters that South Carolina happened to play very poorly.  That's an annoying aspect of most Kentucky-related analysis: when Kentucky has a close shave, it's almost always mentioned that Kentucky did not play well (even if, like in the Ole Miss and LSU games, the Wildcats really didn't play poorly), but rarely is it mentioned in a Kentucky blowout win that the opposition was having a bad game.  And that was certainly the case: South Carolina's 24 percent shooting from the floor was partly a function of Kentucky's defense, to be sure, but the Gamecocks also happened to be missing a ton of open jumpers.  That and getting murdered on the boards is a recipe for a game that was basically decided by the first media timeout of the first half.

Kentucky was back to playing their B-game and skating by in Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night.  Blame whatever you want, but Karl-Anthony Towns attempting one field goal is probably not Kentucky's game plan, like, ever.  It's true that Tennessee is almost exclusively a zone team, but it's equally true that Kentucky still doesn't seem like they know how to play against a zone defense.

2.  Arkansas (21-5, 10-3)

RPI: 24; Pomeroy: 29; Sagarin: 24

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 99%

Last week: W 71-70 at Ole Miss; W 84-69 vs. Missouri

This week: at Mississippi State; vs. Texas A&M

For a program with this much tradition, it seems strange when you look up and notice that Arkansas hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008 and hasn't made it to the second weekend since -- get this -- 1996!  (This is the point I was trying to make in my Kevin Stallings article earlier this week.  Arkansas was arguably justified in firing Nolan Richardson, but this is what happens when you botch the subsequent hire.)  The first of those droughts is going to end in a few weeks, and with the way this team is playing right now, the second one could be ending as well.

The Razorbacks' defense wasn't forcing turnovers against the experienced Ole Miss backcourt, again, but the Rebels missed enough shots (including an uncharacteristic 15-22 at the line) for Arkansas to have a chance to win in the final minute -- so, of course, Arkansas had walk-on Manuale Watkins, who plays 15 minutes a night but is mostly deployed as a defensive specialist, take the final shot.  Mike Anderson would have been pilloried if the shot hadn't gone in, but looks like a genius since it did.  (Granted, it was a layup.)  Ah, the vagaries of coaching.  Arkansas's defense was back in form against Missouri on Wednesday night, forcing 20 turnovers, with only an unusually good shooting night by the Tigers keeping the final score fairly close.  I think we can now call the Razorbacks an NCAA Tournament lock.

3.  Ole Miss (18-8, 9-4)

RPI: 33; Pomeroy: 30; Sagarin: 38

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 87%

Last week: L 70-71 vs. Arkansas; W 71-65 vs. Mississippi State

This week: vs. Tennessee; vs. Georgia

The Rebels probably should have won a home game against Arkansas in which they controlled the boards but... ah, well.  A loss to Arkansas doesn't really hurt their NCAA Tournament chances at all.  A loss to Mississippi State, even in Starkville, would have, but the Rebels prevailed even after falling behind in the first half.  There were some serious concerns about allowing Mississippi State to hang around, like the fact that the Rebels were outrebounded and that Mississippi State shot 17-29 on twos, or that Ole Miss needed 29 points from Stefan Moody -- on 8-12 shooting from three -- to prevail by six points.

But fortunately for the Rebels' tournament chances, the RPI doesn't care about all that -- they still see a team that avoided a bad loss in Starkville and beat the Razorbacks in Fayetteville earlier in the year, making up for the missed opportunity in Oxford on Saturday.  Even better, except perhaps for the season-ending home game against Vanderbilt, none of the remaining games on the schedule -- Tennessee and Georgia at home, LSU and Alabama on the road -- can hurt the Rebels.  As long as there are at least one or two wins in there, this team should be good for the tournament.

4.  Texas A&M (18-7, 9-4)

RPI: 36; Pomeroy: 49; Sagarin: 48

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 55%

Last week: W 63-62 vs. Florida; W 68-62 vs. LSU

This week: at South Carolina; at Arkansas

In a league seemingly filled with teams that are schizophrenic or teams that can't close out games in the final minute, the Aggies are notable for their relative steadiness.  For the most part, they win the games you would expect them to and lose the games you expect them to.  Or at least, well... they have a habit of being in the right place at the right time.  A&M probably deserved to lose a Saturday night home game against Florida, as you don't normally allow the other team to shoot 61 percent on twos and win (at least, if you're not a team that can force them into committing turnovers.)  But the Aggies prevailed by one point after a rather bone-headed final possession by the Gators, when Gator star Dorian Finney-Smith (in what might have been his last game of the season) passed up an open look so that teammate Alex Murphy could, uh, not attempt the game-winner in time.  Right place, right time.

The LSU game -- the second Aggie win over the Tigers -- was a different matter, though.  A&M's underrated interior defense managed to make Jordan Mickey's life miserable, holding the LSU star to six points on 2-9 from the floor.  That game was really only close because the Aggies had a rather characteristic poor shooting night at the free throw line; it seems rather odd that the worst free throw shooting team in the SEC also might be its best (other than Kentucky, anyway) at winning close games.  The sheer number of close calls (including against luminaries like Mississippi State and Sam Houston State) are why margin-based metrics like Pomeroy don't like the Aggies too much, but fortunately for them, the Selection Committee only cares that they win basketball games.  And that's why this team is probably better than even money to make the NCAA Tournament.

5.  LSU (18-8, 7-6)

RPI: 54; Pomeroy: 34; Sagarin: 47

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 37%

Last week: W 73-55 at Tennessee; L 62-68 at Texas A&M

This week: vs. Florida; at Auburn

The Tennessee game showed how good LSU can be.  To be frank, it was a complete dismantling, and just as importantly it came with Jarell Martin being a relative nonfactor -- Martin only attempted four shots and had just as many turnovers.  This is the difference between LSU with Josh Gray running the point and LSU with Jalyn Patterson running the point: Gray frequently tries to do too much, while Patterson understands that his job is to serve as a distributor and get the ball to Jordan Mickey (20 points, 11 boards, 7 blocks).  LSU built a 47-20 lead at halftime and basically coasted from there, ending up with a rather impressive road win.

Except that, well, the Selection Committee doesn't really care about how impressive LSU looked; a win at Tennessee doesn't really move the needle regardless of how well the Bayou Bengals were playing.  A win at Texas A&M might have, but it just wasn't happening.  LSU can weather either Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin being a nonfactor on the offensive end, but not both: in College Station, Mickey had his worst game of the season and while Martin scored 13 points on 5-6 shooting, he also fouled out in just 24 minutes.  Mickey's effectiveness as well might have been limited by four fouls, though he still managed to play 34 minutes.  That erased the possibility of a resume-building win, but when you look at the rest of the bubble plus the fact that LSU should be favored in its next four games (home games vs. Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, with a road trip to Auburn in the middle), the Tigers should be fine.

6.  Georgia (16-9, 7-6)

RPI: 40; Pomeroy: 41; Sagarin: 46

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 40%

Last week: L 68-69 vs. Auburn; L 58-64 vs. South Carolina

This week: at Alabama; at Ole Miss

This, folks, is how you play your way out of the NCAA Tournament.  No, Georgia isn't dead -- their overall profile is still relatively strong, even with losses at home to Auburn and South Carolina -- but where they looked to be in good shape last week, that was largely predicated on the assumption that they would take care of business against two very beatable teams at home.  And yet, the recent funk and the reasons behind it should have been entirely predictable.

Despite some success in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Georgia did not appear to be a very good shooting team early in the season.  And much of their success early in the SEC schedule had to do with the Bulldogs suddenly becoming a hot-shooting basketball team.  Nothing else really changed, so some regression to the mean at the absolute wrong time meant an offense that suddenly looked fairly average in the two losses this week.  And on the defensive end, Georgia doesn't force turnovers, which can still mean an effective defense but that defense will have to do everything else well.  So when Auburn is shooting well or South Carolina is generating extra possessions by hitting the offensive glass, Georgia's defense is going to struggle.  There's still time for the Bulldogs to get it together and make the NCAA Tournament, but they have far less margin for error now.

7.  Alabama (16-10, 6-7)

RPI: 68; Pomeroy: 52; Sagarin: 56

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 9%

Last week: L 68-76 vs. Vanderbilt; W 79-68 at Auburn

This week: vs. Georgia; vs. South Carolina

A home loss to Vanderbilt probably killed whatever slim hopes the Tide had left of making the NCAA Tournament; at this point, Alabama would need to win out the rest of the regular season, and probably pick up a win (or at least avoid a bad loss) in their first game of the SEC Tournament, just to get in the conversation.  While Alabama's record since Ricky Tarrant got injured is a solid-looking 3-3, keep in mind that those three wins came against Missouri, Mississippi State, and Auburn.

What went wrong for Alabama in the Vanderbilt game wasn't so much anything Alabama did as what Vanderbilt did: avoid turnovers, get to the foul line, and make their free throws.  I would normally say that hanging around and waiting for the Commodores to self-implode, and sending them to the foul line, is a good strategy, but it backfired on Alabama (though I kind of doubt that was their actual strategy; just saying that you normally won't get burned by doing this.)  At Auburn, the Tide committed way too many turnovers but prevailed by shooting 60 percent inside the arc and controlling the glass; that's a good way to beat Auburn.  Now, though, there's almost no chance for this team to make the NCAA Tournament.  NIT it is, and probably a new head coach in 2015-16.

8.  Florida (13-13, 6-7)

RPI: 77; Pomeroy: 33; Sagarin: 42

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 25% (huh?)

Last week: L 62-63 at Texas A&M; W 50-47 vs. Vanderbilt

This week: at LSU; at Missouri

Florida had played so many close games this year that they were bound to finally win one, right?  The one-point loss at Texas A&M came when the Gators couldn't get a shot off in the game's final seconds.  (Alex Murphy's missed three-pointer came after the buzzer sounded.)  That came in a game in which Florida played well enough to win, shooting 20-33 on twos and holding their own on the boards, but a 6-26 performance from three and 4-7 at the foul line doomed them.

In a lot of ways, that's been the story of Florida's year: For not being particularly good at shooting threes, Florida sure does like to shoot them.  Perhaps the relative lack of any interior presence is behind that (and could also be leading to the low percentages from beyond the arc, though Florida's poor free throw shooting suggests that they're really not good at shooting the ball either way), but in SEC play Florida ranks second in shooting two-pointers.  It's actually a similar issue (though a bit less pronounced) to Alabama, but in this case I don't think anybody thinks that Billy Donovan's coaching is the problem.  Florida narrowly survived Vandy while not playing well at all because, well, Vandy played slightly worse.  Either way, though, this may not even be an NIT team right now, particularly with the news that Dorian Finney-Smith is going to be out for a while.  It just isn't Florida's year.

9.  Tennessee (14-11, 6-7)

RPI: 81; Pomeroy: 102; Sagarin: 92

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 1%

Last week: L 55-73 vs. LSU; L 48-66 vs. Kentucky

This week: at Ole Miss; vs. Vanderbilt

Last week, Tennessee began to resemble the team we thought they'd be back in October and November.  The complete absence of any interior presence (Armani Moore, who's essentially an undersized big at 6'5", is about as good as it gets) was something LSU was able to exploit, with Jordan Mickey nearly registering a triple-double, while LSU's guards took advantage of the Vols' propensity to go zone by going 9-19 from three (having the zone constantly collapsing on Mickey likely didn't hurt, though Mickey did not register an assist.)

Tennessee did manage to keep things competitive for a while against Kentucky before fading late, though.  Part of the reason was that Kentucky attempted 22 threes and only made five of them; that, by itself, kept the game close, but it didn't hurt that Tennessee got over half their own misses.  Still, though, Tennessee's an NIT team at best and their hopes for that might even fade with a tough finishing kick that sees the Vols travel to Ole Miss, Florida, and LSU.

10.  Vanderbilt (14-12, 4-9)

RPI: 113; Pomeroy: 50; Sagarin: 61

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 1%

Last week: W 76-68 at Alabama; L 47-50 at Florida

This week: vs. Missouri; at Tennessee

For one night, at least, Vandy gave a glimpse of how good this team could be (and, in my mind, how good it will be in 2015-16.)  Alabama is no colossus, but the Tide are at least good enough that a win in their house is not a given for all but the very best teams.  It's the kind of game this year in which Vandy has frequently come close, but a combination of turnovers and missed foul shots have done them in.  There were no such issues on Saturday night, though, when a combination of going 28-35 from the foul line and committing only six turnovers led to a win in Tuscaloosa, in a game that could have gone either way in the closing minutes.

And then, like that, Vandy suffered yet another frustrating loss, this time to a Florida team that was missing its two leading scorers.  In the earlier win at Florida, Damian Jones and James Siakam abused the Florida defense, but on Wednesday night Vandy decided not to do that (Jones spending much of the second half in foul trouble or, well, having fouled out didn't help matters.)  Riley LaChance scored 17 points but needed 18 shots to do it, and while Vandy hit their free throws (with the notable exception of a miss in, of course, the final minute) they only got to the line eight times.  Strangely, it was Florida, which shot 10-20 at the line and committed 13 turnovers, that seemed to be trying to give the game away, but Vandy ended up outdoing them.

11.  South Carolina (13-12, 4-9)

RPI: 85; Pomeroy: 57; Sagarin: 63

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 3%

Last week: L 43-77 at Kentucky; W 64-58 at Georgia

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

Sometimes, a team just has another team's number.  South Carolina has gone 2-9 against SEC teams not named Georgia but completed a season sweep of the Bulldogs on Tuesday night in a game in which the Gamecocks (who currently have, by the way, six scholarship players available) jumped out to a big lead early before holding off a furious Georgia rally.  At least in terms of the stat line, Georgia didn't really do anything poorly other than shooting the ball; for what it's worth, the Bulldogs were ice cold the other time they played South Carolina as well.

There's not really much else to write about the Kentucky game; South Carolina got obliterated through a combination of Kentucky playing one of their best games of the year and South Carolina playing one of their worst.  South Carolina does have some winnable games remaining though other than maybe a home game against Mississippi State there are no sure wins left on the schedule.  But with almost everybody coming back next season (unless the recent suspensions of Demetrius Henry and Shamiek Sheppard are a sign that they're on their way out of the program) the Gamecocks are building for next year at this point.  Again.

12.  Mississippi State (12-14, 5-8)

RPI: 185; Pomeroy: 167; Sagarin: 149

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 0%

Last week: W 77-74 at Missouri; L 65-71 vs. Ole Miss

This week: vs. Arkansas; vs. Kentucky

No, Mississippi State isn't terrible -- the fact that they've (mostly) been competitive in recent weeks and picked up a road win at Missouri on Saturday is evidence of that.  But still, it's hard to argue that the Bulldogs are all that good.  A good shooting day in Columbia was just barely enough to overcome a bad Missouri team; Missouri shot 18-33 on twos and also outrebounded Mississippi State in a three-point loss, so State needed basically every one of those shots (including an uncharacteristically good 26-33 at the foul line) to fall.  And State also hung tough in the rivalry game with Ole Miss before falling; 13 turnovers likely sealed the Bulldogs' fate, but it was hard to miss the effort with Mississippi State winning the rebounding battle and shooting 17-29 on twos.

All of it suggests that with Roquez Johnson being the only senior of consequence, Mississippi State is set up to build for next season, but the next four games -- home games against Arkansas and Kentucky, road trips to South Carolina and Vandy -- suggest that State may only win one game the rest of the way (the season finale against Missouri.)

13.  Auburn (12-14, 4-9)

RPI: 148; Pomeroy: 144; Sagarin: 144

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 0%

Last week: W 69-68 at Georgia; L 68-79 vs. Alabama

This week: at Kentucky; vs. LSU

That was a good win at Georgia, and the way it happened -- with Auburn not having a particularly great shooting day, although they weren't cold -- suggested that Auburn might have something to build on.  But it didn't happen, with the Tigers reverting to their usual selves at home on Tuesday night.  Auburn was able to turn Alabama over 17 times but weren't able to do much else defensively, allowing Alabama to shoot over 50 percent from the floor and getting murdered on the glass.  In fact, the Georgia win seems now to be much more a reflection on Georgia than it is on Auburn; Georgia happened to shoot 37 percent in the middle of a four-game stretch for Auburn during which their other three opponents (Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Alabama) have all shot well over 50 percent.

And it might have been Auburn's last win in Bruce Pearl's first season, because four of Auburn's remaining five games are against likely or potential NCAA Tournament teams, and the game against Missouri is on the road.  And unlike the other bad teams in the SEC, Auburn is actually very experienced, so there's little building for next season going on.  Next year will be an almost entirely different team than this one.

14.  Missouri (7-19, 1-12)

RPI: 187; Pomeroy: 202; Sagarin: 181

Odds of making NCAA Tournament: 0%

Last week: L 74-77 vs. Mississippi State; L 69-84 at Arkansas

This week: at Vanderbilt; vs. Florida

Missouri actually played one of their best games in a while, against a beatable opponent, against Mississippi State on Saturday; the fact that it still ended in a loss should tell you about how far this team still has to go.  Mizzou's struggles this year have overshadowed the fact that they actually have a nice piece for the future in sophomore Johnathan Williams III, who went for 27 points and 7 boards against Mississippi State -- but even that kind of performance isn't enough with the rest of the team being inexperienced.  And I say "inexperienced" because Missouri does possess the kind of roster that should be able to compete (or at least not embarrass themselves) in the SEC in a year or (probably) two, but it just isn't happening right now.  Mizzou still has to play Auburn (home) and Mississippi State (road) again, so it's not totally a done deal that this team will finish 1-17.