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Around the SEC: The league title race, halfway through

It’s basically a three-team race.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

We’re halfway through the SEC schedule for all but four teams, and here’s what the SEC looks like on a per-possession basis (conference games only):

Efficiency margin

Team OE DE Margin
Team OE DE Margin
Auburn 1.13 0.92 0.21
Alabama 1.17 1.02 0.15
Tennessee 1.17 1.02 0.15
South Carolina 1.06 1.01 0.05
LSU 1.08 1.06 0.02
Kentucky 1.14 1.13 0.01
Florida 1.13 1.12 0.01
Ole Miss 1.12 1.13 -0.01
Georgia 1.09 1.11 -0.02
Texas A&M 1 1.03 -0.03
Mississippi State 1.03 1.11 -0.08
Missouri 1.02 1.15 -0.13
Vanderbilt 0.94 1.1 -0.16
Arkansas 0.93 1.12 -0.19

The top three teams in efficiency margin — Auburn, Alabama, and Tennessee — also happen to be three of the four teams with one or two losses in conference play; everybody else has at least four losses already. The fourth is South Carolina, which is significantly below the other three in efficiency margin.

This is really a three-team race, though. Auburn leads the SEC in efficiency margin, though most of the difference between them, Tennessee, and Alabama can probably be chalked up to Auburn having already played Vanderbilt twice and engaging in stat-padding against Arkansas in the conference opener. Alabama, at 8-1, has the best record in conference play; South Carolina did pick up a win at Tennessee last week to keep pace.

The middle of the league is a massive logjam of teams right around .500 with efficiency margins to match, plus Mississippi State — 3-6 in league play with a bad efficiency margin, but that’s influenced a bit by schedule as the Bulldogs have played four games already against Alabama, Tennessee, and Auburn (and won two of them!) Metrics don’t like Georgia and LSU, but everybody else in this tier is contending for a NCAA Tournament bid — Joe Lunardi’s Friday bracket has five of these teams in the tournament and Florida as the last team out.

And then there’s the bottom of the league. Arkansas is 2-7 but has posted the worst efficiency margin in conference play of anyone; Missouri has the best efficiency margin of the three but lost to both Arkansas and Vanderbilt last week and currently sits at 0-9 in SEC play. No, I don’t know what Arkansas is doing in this tier, either; I would be stunned if any of these three are not playing on Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament.

Saturday’s Results

LSU 95, Arkansas 74: This is what Arkansas has become this season: LSU isn’t a particularly good team and yet this game was a blowout from the jump. The Razorbacks scored the first points of the game and then LSU promptly went on a 10-0 run and that was that; LSU got ahead 17-7 seven minutes into the game and Arkansas never got the game within single digits. Yeah. LSU’s Will Baker took 11 field goal attempts and scored 25 points; Jalen Cook scored 20 points on eight field goal attempts. It was that kind of day. Arkansas did manage to score 1.01 points per possession and got blown out, which is really something.

South Carolina 72, Georgia 62: Nope, I didn’t have South Carolina at 19-3, either. Like on Wednesday against Alabama, Georgia got out to a lead in the first half and then saw it get whittled away after halftime before South Carolina eventually pulled away for what looks like a pretty solid win. Freshman Collin Murray-Boyles, who’s provided solid play after doing little early in the season, scored 16 points; 7-footer Josh Gray scored 15, the first time he’s scored in double figures all season.

Texas A&M 67, Florida 66: Florida led for most of this game, and then they scored 20 points over the final 18:42 of the game to let Texas A&M back into it — including, after the Aggies scored what turned out to be the game-winning bucket with under a minute left, blowing multiple chances at the game-winner. Wade Taylor, who’d been averaging nearly 25 ppg in SEC play, had his first off game in a while; he still scored 15 points but needed 18 field goal attempts to do it. Tyrece Radford picked up the slack instead with 26 points. Those two are basically Texas A&M’s entire offense this season.

Auburn 91, Ole Miss 77: Like the South Carolina-Georgia game, this was “home team gets out to a lead in the first half, road team pulls even midway through the second half and then pulls away late.” Impressively, Auburn’s bench scored 36 points to complete the season sweep of Ole Miss.

Alabama 99, Mississippi State 67: The other blowout of the day was at least competitive for longer than Arkansas-LSU was. Alabama used a 14-2 run midway through the first half to put some space between themselves and Mississippi State, then ended the half on an 18-2 run for a 47-24 halftime lead. Alabama’s bench scored 47 points.

Tennessee 103, Kentucky 92: Rough week for Kentucky, which had home games against Florida and Tennessee and lost both of them, giving up 197 points in the process. It’s definitely some sort of achievement to average 1.24 points per possession and also trail by double digits for most of the second half. Unusually for Tennessee, Dalton Knecht wasn’t the one lighting up the defense; instead, Zakai Ziegler was the star with 26 points and 13 (!) assists. This effectively knocked Kentucky out of the conference title race; they’ve now lost 3 of 4 as their disinterest in playing defense has caught up with them.

Midweek Games

Ole Miss at South Carolina (5:30 PM CT Tuesday, SEC Network): I’ve sort of discounted South Carolina in the SEC race mostly because in efficiency terms, they’re clearly a notch below Tennessee, Alabama, and Auburn. That said, if they’re going to keep pace, beating Ole Miss at home is a must. Ole Miss, an 8-seed in Lunardi’s Friday bracket, probably could use a premium win like this to keep from falling onto the bubble.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt (7:30 PM CT Tuesday, SEC Network): Here may be the antidote to Kentucky’s 1-3 stretch and also its defense getting lit up.

LSU at Tennessee (6:00 PM CT Wednesday, SEC Network): For Tennessee, this falls under “win the games you’re supposed to.”

Alabama at Auburn (6:00 PM CT Wednesday, ESPN2): Round 2 between Alabama and Auburn is, obviously, a big one for the SEC race: Alabama securing a season sweep after winning the matchup in Tuscaloosa would make them the leader in the clubhouse for the title; Auburn holding serve at home probably means a four-way tie in the loss column assuming Tennessee and South Carolina take care of business.

Texas A&M at Missouri (8:00 PM CT, ESPN2): Texas A&M is probably closer to the bubble than they’d like to be, and adding a loss to Missouri to an already-iffy resume (which already includes a loss at Arkansas a couple weeks ago) would, uh, not be a good idea. Missouri is still looking for its first SEC win.

Georgia at Mississippi State (8:00 PM CT, SEC Network): Georgia, like LSU, finds itself in the middle of the SEC pack but not really a tournament contender thanks to mediocre metrics and a lack of quality wins (a home win over Wake Forest and a win at South Carolina are as good as it gets on their resume.) Win at Mississippi State, and we can talk. The other Bulldogs, at 3-6 and in danger of falling into “Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament” territory, can basically get in the tournament by holding serve at home the rest of the way.

The Standings

  • Alabama (8-1, 16-6)
  • South Carolina (7-2, 19-3)
  • Auburn (7-2, 18-4)
  • Tennessee (6-2, 16-5)
  • Ole Miss (5-4, 18-4)
  • Kentucky (5-4, 15-6)
  • Florida (5-4, 15-7)
  • Texas A&M (4-4, 13-8)
  • LSU (4-4, 12-9)
  • Georgia (4-5, 14-8)
  • Mississippi State (3-6, 14-8)
  • Arkansas (2-7, 11-11)
  • Vanderbilt (1-7, 6-15)
  • Missouri (0-9, 8-14)