After a rather weird week the week before, the SEC this week got back to separation. The top six in the league have established themselves as looking pretty clearly separate from everybody else.
Any questions about that were largely answered in a pair of games on Saturday: Georgia beat Alabama on the road, in overtime, and LSU handled Florida pretty easily in spite of the seven-point final margin. To a large degree, Georgia and LSU did a lot to solidify their NCAA Tournament profiles, while Ole Miss and Texas A&M didn't hurt themselves -- yeah, Ole Miss lost to Georgia at home and A&M lost to Arkansas on the road, but both won the game they absolutely had to have (Ole Miss beat Tennessee at home, A&M beat South Carolina on the road.)
That leaves the SEC with six teams that probably have better than a 50-50 shot of making the NCAA Tournament (or, in the case of Kentucky and Arkansas, mortal locks.) And yet what's strange is that depending on how the rest of the season shakes out, if all six of those do wind up in the NCAA Tournament, the SEC might not have a single team in the NIT. The best bet is probably Alabama -- but the Tide don't compare very well to bubble teams in other conferences. Vanderbilt might get in if they close strong, while Florida and Tennessee have done a lot to harm their chances in the last few weeks.
And of course, in some ways, this kind of separation is exactly what the league office wants. Instead of a jumble of 10-8/9-9 teams in conference play, there could be a three-game gap in the final standings between sixth and seventh place. That's good for maximizing the number of NCAA Tournament berths.
1. Kentucky (28-0, 15-0)
RPI: 1; Pomeroy: 1; Odds of making tournament: 100%
Last week: W 110-75 vs. Auburn; W 74-56 at Mississippi State
Remaining games: vs. Arkansas; at Georgia; vs. Florida
As of Thursday, Ken Pomeroy gives Kentucky a 77% chance of getting through the regular season undefeated. Kentucky did about what you would expect them to against Auburn: the offense shot 75 percent on twos against Auburn's completely overmatched front line. Giving up 75 points -- the second highest total UK has given up this season -- might seem strange, but at least part of that was a function of pace; even while scoring 75 points, Auburn was still scoring less than a point per possession. And as you would expect, Kentucky limited Auburn to 34 percent on twos and won the rebounding battle by a big margin; Auburn simply got hot from three (11-19.) Mississippi State managed to keep things interesting for a while, in part by keeping Kentucky off the offensive glass, but State couldn't hit jump shots to save their lives (2-11 from three.)
It seems like nobody has figured out the formula to beat Kentucky yet, but that theory will be tested in the next week with an uber-hot Arkansas team coming to Lexington followed by a trip to Athens, GA. Those might be two of the biggest challenges Kentucky has faced all season, but then Kentucky has proven that they can win games like that all season.
2. Arkansas (23-5, 12-3)
RPI: 20; Pomeroy: 32; Odds of making tournament: 100%
Last week: W 65-61 at Mississippi State; W 81-75 vs. Texas A&M
Remaining games: at Kentucky; at South Carolina; vs. LSU
Even if it's not particularly pretty, the Razorbacks just keep winning. Arkansas had a mysteriously poor performance in Starkville on Saturday, shooting 35 percent from the floor and getting outrebounded 42-31, yet still came away with a win thanks to forcing 23 turnovers and a total of 11 blocked shots -- 5 by Moses Kingsley, who played just 12 minutes. The rebound margin was even worse against Texas A&M -- 44-23, in favor of the Aggies -- but Arkansas again managed to survive by forcing 21 turnovers and jumping out to a big lead in the first half, when Texas A&M couldn't handle the Arkansas press at all. It's still a bit disturbing that Arkansas allowed the Aggies to get back in the game; A&M got it down to four points late after trailing by as many as 25 in the first half. But there's little to argue with in a seven-game winning streak that has made Arkansas a mortal lock to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008.
And now, Arkansas gets basically a free shot to boost its seed in the tournament a couple of lines when they head to Rupp Arena on Saturday. The last two games of the regular season are very winnable, and at this point Arkansas should be no worse than the #3 seed in the SEC Tournament, which would allow them to avoid playing Kentucky again until the finals. Two more wins would clinch their highest win total since 1995 -- which, you might remember, involved a trip to the national championship game.
3. Georgia (18-9, 9-6)
RPI: 29; Pomeroy: 38; Odds of making tournament: 78%
Last week: W 66-65 (OT) at Alabama; W 76-72 at Ole Miss
Remaining games: vs. Missouri; vs. Kentucky; at Auburn
After a mysterious week that saw the Bulldogs lose to both Auburn and South Carolina at home, Georgia righted the ship in a big way with road wins over Alabama and Ole Miss. That certainly gets the Bulldogs back on the right side of the bubble, and now the Bulldogs just need to get past the remaining land mines against Missouri and Auburn and they should be safe. What changed? The big change was that Georgia got back to defending, holding Alabama to 21-for-56 from the floor and then holding a good-shooting Ole Miss team to 23-for-66; what's more, Georgia got jump shots to fall again (11-for-23 from three) in Oxford. All of that was good enough to get a pair of wins and clinch at least a .500 finish in conference play, and just the two remaining "easy" games should be enough to get Georgia to 11-7 in the SEC. I've said all along that 11-7 is the mark you're shooting for in conference play to feel good about your NCAA Tournament chances, and the Bulldogs are well on their way to that.
It's worth pointing out, too, that in the first game in Lexington Georgia was playing without Marcus Thornton and still managed to outrebound the Wildcats and keep things close in spite of committing a bunch of turnovers and not shooting well. It's not that insane to think that Georgia can pull off the upset this time around.
4. Ole Miss (19-9, 10-5)
RPI: 45; Pomeroy: 37; Odds of making tournament: 77%
Last week: W 59-57 vs. Tennessee; L 72-76 vs. Georgia
Remaining games: at LSU; at Alabama; vs. Vanderbilt
While it was a 1-1 week with two winnable home games, Ole Miss got the game they absolutely had to have, and given a pair of uncharacteristically poor shooting performances (39 percent from the floor, 11-31 from three against Tennessee; 35 percent from the floor, 6-23 from three against Georgia) even going 1-1 can be considered a win. It doesn't necessarily harm Ole Miss's NCAA Tournament chances, but the Rebels were always going to need an impressive performance in SEC play to erase the memories of losses to Charleston Southern, TCU, and Western Kentucky in non-conference play; though Ole Miss also did come up with a neutral-court win over Cincinnati and a road win over Oregon back then.
But all of that makes the upcoming road trips to LSU and Alabama and the season-ending home game against Vandy bigger than you might think. Ole Miss would be in really good shape if they had come up with a win against Georgia, but now might need to win two of their last three to feel really good about their NCAA Tournament chances. Going 1-2, they might need to win a game in the SEC Tournament.
5. LSU (20-8, 9-6)
RPI: 55; Pomeroy: 29; Odds of making tournament: 64%
Last week: W 70-63 vs. Florida; W 84-61 at Auburn
Remaining games: vs. Ole Miss; vs. Tennessee; at Arkansas
Johnny Jones' move to replace Josh Gray with Jalyn Patterson at the point has perhaps been the best coaching move of the year. In the first nine games of SEC play, with Gray starting at the point, LSU committed turnovers on more than 20 percent of their possessions in all but one game, and they went 5-4 in that stretch. Since Patterson took over, they've broken that threshold only twice (and both of those games, at Tennessee and Florida at home, the Tigers won anyway.) LSU was held under a point per possession against Florida, but that ended up not mattering with the Gators having a godawful offensive performance anyway, and that game was mostly memorable for two of Jarell Martin's 28 points. (Just Google it.) Then LSU came up against the offensive efficiency ATM known as Auburn, and Jarell Martin (11-17 from the floor) and Jordan Mickey (7-for-8) proceeded to abuse Auburn's overmatched front line.
As far as the NCAA Tournament goes, LSU isn't completely out of the woods yet. Their tournament profile does feature a bunch of elite wins (at West Virginia, vs. Georgia, at Ole Miss) but also some really bad losses -- and they don't need to add to that total with a loss to Tennessee at home or, potentially, in their first game of the SEC Tournament. They're almost to the point where just avoiding those two land mines should be enough, but beating Ole Miss again or Arkansas in Fayetteville certainly wouldn't hurt their case.
6. Texas A&M (19-8, 10-5)
RPI: 31; Pomeroy: 41; Odds of making tournament: 71%
Last week: W 62-52 at South Carolina; L 75-81 at Arkansas
Remaining games: vs. Auburn; at Florida; vs. Alabama
Texas A&M presents an interesting case for the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Much like the rest of their season, in the last week the Aggies avoided a bad loss at South Carolina, but couldn't come up with a big win at Arkansas. That represented their last chance to get a win to impress the Selection Committee until the SEC Tournament, because the three remaining games won't move the needle at all. Even with that, though, it's hard to imagine that the Selection Committee would leave out a team with a 12-6 record in the SEC (and that, unlike Georgia last year, didn't rack up a bunch of terrible losses in non-conference play.) The Aggies can get to that point just by winning the two home games left on the schedule; and, even in Gainesville, do you think Florida is going to beat A&M right now?
The South Carolina game was a textbook A&M performance, with the Aggies not being overwhelming but also playing strong defense and generally keeping mistakes to a minimum. The Arkansas game was a different matter: A&M made a furious rally in the second half, but simply dug themselves too big of a hole in the first half and wound up committing 21 turnovers on the night. Still, there were positive takeaways; aside from the complete murdering of Arkansas on the glass, the Aggies didn't pack it in when they were down 23 points at the half.
7. Alabama (17-11, 7-8)
RPI: 79; Pomeroy: 55; Odds of making tournament: 3%
Last week: L 65-66 (OT) vs. Georgia; W 59-51 vs. South Carolina
Remaining games: at Vanderbilt; vs. Ole Miss; at Texas A&M
On the surface, the injury to Ricky Tarrant hasn't really derailed Alabama's season. Alabama was sitting at 3-4 in the SEC when Tarrant went on the shelf and has gone 4-4 since -- but the wins came against Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn, and South Carolina. The hidden penalty has been that the Tide lost the opportunity to pick up a couple of key wins. It's certainly fair to think that Tarrant could have made the difference in the Georgia game, a game that Alabama lost in overtime to a reeling team -- and also a game in which the Tide shot 38 percent from the floor. Even more importantly, though, the absence of Tarrant's 1.4 steals per game has hurt Alabama's defense; yes, Alabama has held their last three opponents under a point per possession, but two of those games were against Auburn and South Carolina.
Not that Alabama is going to be an NCAA Tournament team either way, but at this point, just getting to the NIT might require them to win two more games between the regular season and the SEC Tournament, and given the remaining schedule another win isn't a given. There are two road trips to Vanderbilt and Texas A&M sandwiched around a visit from Ole Miss. Particularly if Tarrant doesn't get back to health, Alabama could lose all three of those games.
8. Vanderbilt (16-12, 6-9)
RPI: 109; Pomeroy: 43; Odds of making tournament: 1%
Last week: W 76-53 vs. Missouri; W 73-65 at Tennessee
Remaining games: vs. Alabama; vs. Mississippi State; at Ole Miss
Now, that was fun, wasn't it? (The games, I mean, not the incident that landed us on SportsCenter for all the wrong reasons.) On Saturday, Vandy pretty much dominated Mizzou from start to finish, and in every phase of the game -- shooting well, limiting turnovers, and hammering the Tigers on the boards is a near sure-fire way to win. The only real issue to point out, and it seems like a minor one, is that Vandy only got to the foul line eight times and went 4-for-8. Then came the trip to Knoxville: Vandy came out on fire, then for a time couldn't get out of their own way, allowing Tennessee to go on a 25-3 run to close the first half thanks to the usual culprit: turnovers. And then came the second half, when Vandy scored 54 points and looked like a classic NBA Jam team that was on fire. Yes, the Vols got on the offensive glass way too much, but other than that, can we really complain too much about a road win over them?
Now, Vandy still has a realistic shot at finishing .500 in conference play with winnable home games against Alabama and Mississippi State before closing things out in Oxford -- a tough game, to be sure, but one that I don't doubt this team can win if they continue playing well. There's a good chance this team could get as high as the #7 seed in the SEC Tournament if they beat Alabama and Mississippi State.
9. Tennessee (14-13, 6-9)
RPI: 99; Pomeroy: 102; Odds of making tournament: 0%
Last week: L 57-59 at Ole Miss; L 65-73 vs. Vanderbilt
Remaining games: at Florida; at LSU; vs. South Carolina
The vagaries of playing a zone can be summed up by the Vols' last two games. Both Ole Miss and Vandy shot more 3's than 2's against the Tennessee zone, and Ole Miss (11-for-31) wasn't hitting them too much. That allowed Tennessee to hang around in spite of committing a bunch of turnovers and not shooting particularly well themselves. But occasionally, the other team catches fire and hits, say, 13-for-25 from three like Vandy did, and for a rather offensively-challenged team like the Vols, they're not going to win when the other team shoots like that.
And now, Tennessee faces a rather tough closing kick with road trips to Florida and LSU before the closer against South Carolina. With the way Florida is playing of late, that game seems winnable, but maybe the Gators decide to actually play hard this time, and LSU is unpredictable but handled the Vols with ease in their previous meeting.
10. Florida (13-15, 6-9)
RPI: 91; Pomeroy: 49; Odds of making tournament: 4%
Last week: L 63-70 at LSU; L 52-64 at Missouri
Remaining games: vs, Tennessee; vs. Texas A&M; at Kentucky
Billy Donovan had two chances to get career win #500 in the last week, and he's... still stuck at 499. That doesn't figure to be the case too much longer with a winnable home game against Tennessee on Saturday, but the way this Florida team is playing right now, nothing is a given. Over the last twelve games, Florida has cracked the point-per-possession barrier just twice; but more importantly, the defense has regressed, allowing five of the last seven opponents to score more than a point per possession. That's proximately led to the current stretch in which Florida has lost six of seven and probably played their way out of consideration for the NIT -- never mind the NCAA Tournament (which was a long shot even before this stretch.)
Still, even in the two games this week, the defense managed to play well enough that even a remotely competent offense could have won those games. Instead, Florida shot 24-for-68 from the floor in the LSU game, before going 9-of-23 from the foul line at Missouri. That and Namon Wright going for 28 points meant that instead of Donovan getting win #500 against Mizzou, Florida is the historical footnote for allowing Missouri to break the longest losing streak in school history. So, yeah, we can safely say it's been a lost season for the Gators -- and the last two losses certainly can't be blamed on "luck." When you're shooting this poorly, it isn't luck that's causing you to lose games.
11. Mississippi State (12-16, 5-10)
RPI: 188; Pomeroy: 163; Odds of making tournament: 0%
Last week: L 61-65 vs. Arkansas; L 56-74 vs. Kentucky
Remaining games: at South Carolina; at Vanderbilt; vs. Missouri
The two best teams in the conference both came to Starkville this week and, well, Mississippi State didn't embarrass themselves. They actually had plenty of chances to win against Arkansas, leading by five with ten minutes to go, but then suddenly went cold and couldn't take advantage of a cold shooting day (19-for-54 from the floor) by the Razorbacks. Committing 23 turnovers will do that. Yet aside from the consistent problems with shooting and turnovers, Mississippi State is suddenly a good rebounding team -- there's really no other way to describe a team that limits Kentucky to 7 offensive rebounds considering the Wildcats' prowess on the offensive glass. And State managed to take care of the ball; if State had been able to make shots at all (and granted, that's probably a function of Kentucky's defense) that game could have been much closer.
Basically, State is a pretty bad team right now but has hope for the future because only one of their core players (Roquez Johnson) is a senior. It's not completely insane to think this could be an NCAA bubble team next year if they can smooth out some of the rough edges -- i.e., hit more open jumpers and not commit so many turnovers. Or, you know, land Malik Newman on the recruiting trail.
12. South Carolina (13-14, 4-11)
RPI: 100; Pomeroy: 70; Odds of making tournament: 1%
Last week: L 52-62 vs. Texas A&M; L 51-59 at Alabama
Remaining games: vs. Mississippi State; vs. Arkansas; at Tennessee
It's rather incredible how much South Carolina's season went off the rails once SEC play started -- remember, back in December, this was a team that completely obliterated Oklahoma State and beat Iowa State on a neutral court right before conference play started. And while the defense has regressed since then, the offense (which currently ranks as the SEC's worst on a per-possession basis -- yes, even worse than Missouri's) has consistently been the problem. South Carolina managed to hold Texas A&M to 62 points in a 62-possession game, and Alabama to 59 points in a 55-possession game -- and those numbers should be good enough to win. But they're not good enough to win when you shoot 27 percent from the floor (as the Gamecocks did against Texas A&M) or 35 percent from the floor (at Alabama.) All that said, South Carolina does have some strengths (namely, rebounding) and the defense has been victimized a bit by luck, with opponents shooting 74 percent from the foul line against Carolina in SEC play (though it's not luck that South Carolina sends opponents to the line more than anyone else in the conference.) But it's simply hard to overcome consistently poor shooting on offense. South Carolina did come up with the novel idea to go inside to Laimonas Chatkevicius in the Alabama game, and he scored 18 points on 7-12 shooting -- while the rest of the team combined to go 12-43. (This is the kind of thing that makes you wonder what people are thinking when they say South Carolina has good guards but their bigs are the problem -- no, really, it's the reverse.)
In any case, this team's not going to play in a real postseason tournament, but they should have an opportunity to build some more confidence in the last three games. Arkansas will be tough, but at least that game's in Columbia, and Mississippi State and Tennessee are beatable. And with only one senior on the team, building confidence heading into next year is important.
13. Auburn (12-16, 4-11)
RPI: 140; Pomeroy: 155; Odds of making tournament: 0%
Last week: L 75-110 at Kentucky; L 61-84 vs. LSU
Remaining games: at Texas A&M; at Missouri; vs. Georgia
Congratulations, Missouri, you no longer have the SEC's worst defense. The people who think college basketball needs to be "fixed," if we're being completely honest, probably like a team like Auburn. Auburn is the SEC's best three-point shooting team (38.1 percent in conference play) and also fires up a ton of threes, while also playing at a fast pace. And playing exactly zero defense. The combination of pace and no defense is how you score 75 points on Kentucky -- the second most that the Wildcats have given up in a game this season -- and lose by 35 points. No, seriously, that happened. In two games this week, Auburn combined to allow Kentucky and LSU to shoot 68-for-94 on two-pointers. That's what happens when a team with no regular taller than 6'8" (7'2" Trayvon Reed has only played 6 minutes a night in conference play) comes up against a pair of teams with skilled big men.
Unlike most of the teams toward the bottom of the SEC standings, Auburn has four seniors and two juniors out of its seven-man rotation and thus isn't building for next year at this point. It's a testament to how much this program bottomed out under Tony Barbee that even a coach as accomplished as Bruce Pearl hasn't been able to do much with this group. And given the remaining schedule, Auburn might not win another game the rest of the way. This is a lost season, and while we still suspect Pearl will get Auburn turned around, it's not happening any time soon.
14. Missouri (8-20, 2-13)
RPI: 198; Pomeroy: 185; Odds of making tournament: 0%
Last week: L 53-76 at Vanderbilt; W 64-52 vs. Florida
Remaining games: at Georgia; vs. Auburn; at Mississippi State
For a variety of reasons, Missouri has had a brutal season -- in addition to being inexperienced (with five freshmen and two sophomores playing regular minutes), a variety of injuries and suspensions have helped to magnify the problems the youngsters have had adjusting to the college game. Still, Namon Wright's 28-point performance -- on 10-13 from the floor -- against Florida should serve as a subtle reminder that Missouri isn't in that bad shape going forward; Missouri does have six players on the roster who were rated as four-star recruits. The fact that the rest of the team was pretty bad on offense against Florida (and against Vanderbilt, when Wright was having a more typical game), and the fact that Florida was having a godawful offensive game themselves, aren't really important now that the team finally has its second SEC win after a 13-game losing streak.
And, yes, it still may be possible for Mizzou to pick up a couple more wins -- after a likely loss at Georgia, Mizzou finishes the season with Auburn and Mississippi State. They're still a mortal lock to play on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament, but that should present an opportunity to add to their win total as well. So assuming this group stays together, gaining more confidence heading into 2016 should help matters a bit.