SEC REPORT: Auburn suffers bad break

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore (24) is carted off the court after an injury during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Auburn 84-75. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Photo by Associated Press
Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore (24) is carted off the court after an injury during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018, in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina defeated Auburn 84-75. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Auburn is a lock to break its 15-year NCAA Tournament drought -- the longest current streak in the SEC -- and a league championship is within reach as the Tigers lead by two games with four remaining.

But the challenge for Coach Bruce Pearl's Tigers to close out their first SEC regular-season title since 1999 and do damage in the postseason has gotten harder after the loss of center Anfernee McLemore.

The Tigers already were short on their front line before the 6-7 McLemore went down with 1:23 left in the first half of Saturday's 84-75 loss at South Carolina with a dislocated ankle, fractured tibia and torn ligaments.

"There's no breaking point," Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said. "We have a resilient, tenacious, gritty bunch of guys who have been trusting and reliant on each other. We have a terrific team."

McLemore had 73 blocked shots, 13 more than any player in the conference at the time of his injury, and ranked 12th in the country with 2.73 per game. He averaged 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

Pearl said he would give more minutes at center to Horace Spencer and Chuma Okeke, and rotate small forward Desean Murray in at power forward along with Malik Dunbar to fill McLemore's 19 minutes per game.

The 6-3 Murray is averaging 10.7 points and a team-high 7.0 rebounds, while the 6-8 freshman Okeke is averaging 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds.

The Tigers, who host Alabama on Wednesday night, now have eight scholarship players available.

Honors season

Voting will not begin until next week, but the top honors in the SEC are starting to take shape with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

Auburn's Bruce Pearl might be tough to beat for SEC Coach of the Year, with his top competition coming from first-year Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin, and third-year coaches Rick Barnes and Tennessee and Avery Johnson at Alabama.

The SEC Player of the Year vote likely will be split among several players, with strong contenders such as Georgia's Yante Maten; Auburn guards Bryce Brown and Mustapha Heron; Arkansas guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon; Missouri guard Kassius Robertson; Alabama guard Collin Sexton; and big men such as Tennessee's Grant Williams, Kentucky's Kevin Knox, and Texas A&M's Tyler Davis and Robert Williams.

The vote for SEC Freshman of the Year should be competitive, with talent such as Arkansas' Daniel Gafford, LSU's Tremont Waters, Alabama's Sexton and Kentucky's Knox and guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Maten is the league scoring leader with 19.5 points per game, followed by Barford (18.6), Sexton (18.1), Macon (17.0) and Vanderbilt's Jeff Roberson (16.6) in the top five.

A&M's Williams (9.7) and Davis (8.7) are the SEC's top rebounders, followed by Maten (8.6), South Carolina's Chris Silva (7.7) and Roberson (7.2).

The top three assist men in the league are Florida's Chris Chiozza (5.9), Auburn's Jared Harper (5.8) and Waters (5.8).

Gafford wins

Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford and Vanderbilt forward Jeff Roberson were selected SEC players of the week.

Gafford, a 6-11, 234-pounder, averaged 18.5 points and 6.0 rebounds and made 13 of 15 shots in victories over Ole Miss and Texas A&M to win SEC Freshman of the Week.

Roberson, a 6-6 senior, averaged 24 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists per game in victories over Mississippi State and Florida and shot 54.5 percent (12 of 22).

Projections

ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi kept eight teams in his NCAA Tournament bracket Monday, with the following projected seeds: 2 Auburn; 4 Tennessee; 6 Florida, Kentucky and Texas A&M; 7 Alabama and Missouri; and 10 Arkansas. He included Georgia in his second group of four teams out of the field.

CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm included eight SEC teams in his Monday projection with these seeds: 2 Auburn; 4 Tennessee; 6 Kentucky; 7 Missouri; 8 Alabama and Arkansas; 9 Texas A&M; and 11 Florida. Palm lists Florida as one of his last four teams in the field.

BPI talk

ESPN.com, using its Basketball Power Index, gives Auburn and Tennessee a greater than 99.9 percent chance to make the NCAA Tournament, followed by Kentucky's 99 percent, Texas A&M's 98 percent, Arkansas' 89 percent, Missouri's 71 percent, Alabama's 65 percent and Florida's 56 percent.

Gator gulp

Florida, which has lost four of its past six games, enters a critical two-week stretch in its efforts to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

The Gators, who lost to Georgia and Vanderbilt last week, travel to Tennessee on Wednesday, then host league-leading Auburn on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Coach Mike White said he couldn't put a finger on why the Gators have been so inconsistent.

"I wish I had the answer," White said. "It's who we've been since the first day of practice. It's offense, it's defense, it's rebounding.

"We have certain nights where we've been terrific defensively, and we've had certain nights where we get absolutely torched. We've had games where we've set the world on fire offensively making shots, and we have games we can't throw it in the ocean."

Kennedy out

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy, saying "clean breaks are always best," resigned effective immediately Sunday night, six days after announcing his 12th season with the Rebels would be his last at the end of the year.

"Andy proved that Ole Miss can be a consistent winner," said Florida Coach Mike White, a former Ole Miss player and assistant coach. "Ole Miss has been very competitive for the last decade.

"[Kennedy] was able to build a practice facility, a brand-new arena and attract great talent. He had a wonderful run and I learned a lot from him."

Assistant coach Tony Madlock, who has been at Ole Miss four years, will serve as interim coach the rest of the season.

"Of course it's tough," Madlock said. "You've been hearing one voice all year, and now you've got another voice.

"You never know how these things will work out. The guys just haven't responded the way [Kennedy] thought they would."

New deans

Andy Kennedy's departure at Ole Miss leaves Kentucky Coach John Calipari and Georgia Coach Mark Fox as the reigning deans of the SEC at the ends of their ninth seasons. Both were hired in early April 2009.

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Coach Mike Anderson and Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy are the next wave of elder statesmen in the league, both in their seventh seasons.

Nine of the SEC's 14-man roster of coaches have been at their current jobs for four years or fewer.

'Legends' assist

Former South Carolina players such as Sindarius Thornwell were credited with helping the Gamecocks snap a six-game losing streak and knock off No. 10 Auburn 84-75 on Saturday by their return to campus on "Legends Weekend" at the school.

"It helped us for a day," Coach Frank Martin said of leadership lessons sparked by the return of players such as Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier. "Those guys are gone now. Is that something they're going to embrace? We'll find out."

It has been a strange season for South Carolina, which has three victories over ranked SEC opponents for the first time since 2006, but also a six-game losing streak for the first time in five years.

Dog run

Georgia looks to be making a late-season push to burnish its at-large credentials for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs have won two consecutive games -- 72-69 at Florida and 73-62 vs. Tennessee -- after dropping three in a row and six out of seven.

Georgia's overtime victory at Florida, in which the Gators led 50-39 with 10 minutes remaining, was its first in Gainesville, Fla., since 2002. The Bulldogs swept a two-game series against Florida for the first time since 1997.

Tip-ins

• Arkansas, Georgia and Vanderbilt were the only SEC teams to go 2-0 last week.

• Missouri shot 7 of 17 from the free-throw line in its 64-63 loss at LSU on Saturday, while LSU was 11 of 13.

• Mississippi State is 16-1 at home, best in the SEC over Arkansas (14-1) and Auburn (13-1), the only other conference teams with one home loss.

• Florida's Egor Koulechov is the only SEC player hitting better than 90 percent of his free throws, with his 90.7 percent ahead of Arkansas' Daryl Macon (.878), Vanderbilt's Jeff Roberson (.860), Auburn's Desean Muray (.857) and Georgia's Yante Maten (.829).

FROM TOP TO BOTTOM

RANK;LAST WEEK;RPI;TEAM (RECORDS);COMMENT

1;1;8;Auburn (23-4, 11-3);Hosts Iron Bowl rematch with Crimson Tide

2;2;15;Tennessee (19-7, 9-5);Lost 2 of 3 by double figures at Bama, Georgia

3;3;33;Alabama (17-10, 8-6);Stunning -17 rebound margin at Kentucky

4;6;24;Missouri (18-9, 8-6);5-2 in past 7 games, all by 9 points or less

5;8;25;Arkansas (19-8, 8-6);Tough finish starts with Kentucky, at Bama

6;7;18;Kentucky (18-9, 7-7);Three straight SEC regular-season titles snapped

7;4;63;Florida (17-10, 8-6);Takes 2-game losing streak into Tennessee

8;5;21;Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8);0-2 on road after 4-game winning streak

9;9;71; Miss. State (19-8, 7-7);At A&M, vs. South Carolina this week

10;10;75;LSU (15-11, 6-8);Minus-0.5 rebound margin is 12th in the conference

11;12;66;Georgia (15-11, 6-8);Only SEC team (.399) with less than .400 FG defense

12;11;78;South Carolina (14-13, 5-9);Best game of year beating front-running Auburn?

13;14;104;Vanderbilt (11-16, 5-9);Five consecutive home wins for 'Dores

14;13;123;Ole Miss (11-16, 4-10);End of Kennedy tenure turned out meek

The Ratings Percentage Index is a scale used by the NCAA Selection Committee to rank Division I basketball teams by their performance in light of strength of schedule. Low RPI ranking numbers denote strong teams; and high numbers, weaker ones.

Game of the week

Alabama at Auburn, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday (SECN)

The Crimson Tide are looking to rebound from an 81-71 loss at Kentucky in which they were outrebounded 44-27. The Tide are 5-1 against ranked teams. No. 12 Auburn has a two-game lead for the SEC title with four games to play and is seeking to avenge a 76-71 loss at Alabama on Jan. 17.

By the numbers

0

Road victories by Ole Miss (0-9) and Vanderbilt (0-9)

2

SEC teams -- No. 12 Auburn and No. 19 Tennessee -- in this week's AP Top 25 poll

9

Consecutive game-ending made free throws for South Carolina in its 84-75 upset of No. 10 Auburn

11

90-point games for Arkansas, most in the SEC, after Saturday's 94-75 victory over Texas A&M

11.1

Percentage difference in SEC-best three-point shooting for Arkansas (.400) and SEC-best three-point defense (.289) for Kentucky

Quotebook:

"I'll say it again. When you look, eight or nine [SEC] teams should be getting into the NCAA Tournament. When we beat each other it should be good. It should be good for everybody." -- Kentucky Coach John Calipari

"I told Frank after the game he's got my number. This is back-to-back slap-arounds, so obviously he's got some things figured about what we do and how to stop us." -- Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl after Saturday's 84-75 loss at South Carolina

"If this current Gator team has a great practice, it's an outlier. It was the opposite last year." -- Florida Coach Mike White on his team's inconsistency

Sports on 02/20/2018

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