SEC Report:

SEC looks good for dancing

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Florida's Chris Chiozza (11) heads to the basket to score the game-winning shot as time expires in an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. Florida won 77-75. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Photo by Associated Press
Florida's Chris Chiozza (11) heads to the basket to score the game-winning shot as time expires in an NCAA college basketball game against Missouri, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Columbia, Mo. Florida won 77-75. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

FAYETTEVILLE -- A concerted effort to improve nonconference scheduling that started several years ago is paying off in a major way for the SEC this season.

The SEC enters its second full week of conference play with more than half of its teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament field and more than half ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings.

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said the league is deeper than it has been in his 12 years.

"From top to bottom, it's as good as I've seen the league because everybody's improved and there are no easy outs," Kennedy said.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari said as many as 10 SEC teams could make the NCAA field and that parity near the top of the conference means the league champion might have 11 or 12 victories.

"You could lose six or seven games and win the league," Calipari said. "That's what it looks like to me."

Six SEC teams won 10 or more nonconference games before the start of league play, while Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and South Carolina hit the 10-win mark through two games of SEC play.

"All our teams were pretty good in nonconference games, and I think we're bringing that same mindset to the conference race," University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Coach Mike Anderson said. "I think that's good for our league because now there's excitement when you go to everybody's arena. People are excited about basketball. You know it's going to be a tremendous conference race, and can you imagine now the conference tournament?"

Florida at 3-0 and Auburn (2-0) are the only unbeaten teams in conference play.

Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland extolled the depth and quality of the SEC last Tuesday.

"In this league, and you'll be hearing this over and over all season, anybody can beat anybody in the SEC on a given night," Howland said. "I remember when the schedule came out. There's not one game that we're 'Oh yeah, we're going to beat them.'

"Top to bottom, I don't even think it's close in terms of who has the toughest conference in the country. There's incredible depth in this conference. There's not one game! Name who's the easy win? There isn't one."

In and out

Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com projected nine SEC teams into the NCAA Tournament field. His projected seeds for SEC clubs are 4 for Arkansas and Auburn, 5 for Kentucky and Texas A&M, 7 for Tennessee, 8 for Missouri, 9 for Florida and Georgia, and 10 for Alabama. Palm has Alabama as one of his last four in and Mississippi State as one of his first four out.

ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi had eight SEC teams in his latest projection on Thursday. In it, Kentucky and Texas A&M were 4 seeds, Arkansas and Tennessee were 6 seeds, Auburn was a 7, Florida was an 8, Missouri a 9 and Alabama a 10.

Ailing Gators

Add Saturday star Chris Chiozza to Florida's long list of injured or ill players. Chiozza, who had a steal and layup in the final second of the Gators' 77-75 victory at Missouri on Saturday, tested positive for strep throat Monday and is questionable for Wednesday's game against Mississippi State.

Chiozza, who is averaging 13.1 points and 5.8 assists per game, scored all 13 of his points in the second half at Missouri.

Forward John Egbunu is not expected to return from knee surgery until late January for a Florida team that leads the SEC at 3-0 despite being wracked with injuries. Egbunu was injured in February and missed the Gators' run to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament.

"The team's had a lot of adversity, of course," Coach Michael White said. "We've been banged up all year. Heck, we're practicing with a couple of managers-turned-walkons to get to 10 so we can go full court."

Ranking data

Auburn moved into The Associated Press top 25 at No. 22, joining No. 21 Kentucky and No. 24 Tennessee as the only SEC teams in the rankings as No. 11 Texas A&M and No. 22 Arkansas tumbled out of the poll after going 0-2 last week.

Auburn is ranked for the first time since 2003.

Tennessee took Arkansas' spot as the SEC's top team in the Ratings Percentage Index rankings at No. 10, followed by No. 12 Kentucky, No. 13 Auburn, No. 17 Arkansas, No. 28 Texas A&M and No. 30 Missouri. The Razorbacks, who were No. 4 two weeks ago, led the SEC last week at No. 12.

Top players

The Arkansas Razorbacks played against the SEC's player of the week Saturday and face the league's freshman of the week Wednesday.

Auburn guard Mustapha Heron, a 6-5 sophomore, pulled down player of the week honors after averaging 16.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in victories over No. 23 Tennessee and No. 22 Arkansas.

LSU's Tremont Waters, a 5-11 guard, was named freshman of the week after averaging 19.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in a loss to Kentucky and a victory over Texas A&M.

Hitting half

Arkansas and LSU, who meet Wednesday night at 8, are the only two SEC teams who have made more than half of their shots.

The Razorbacks lead the SEC with 50.5 percent shooting, a figure that ranks No. 12 in the country. LSU is shooting 50.2 percent, good for No. 19.

In three-point shooting, Missouri leads the league at 40.3 percent, which ranks No. 24 in the nation.

Get tough

Kentucky Coach John Calipari credited Tennessee with "out-toughing" the Wildcats during the second half of Saturday's 76-65 victory for the Volunteers. Tennessee trailed 37-29 at the break before outscoring their visitors 47-28 in the second half.

Calipari said the loss of forward PJ Washington due to cramping issues, after the 6-7, 236-pounder scored 11 points in the first half, marked the turning point for the Vols.

"They went in at halftime and said, 'That's it, we're not losing the game.' And when PJ went down, they saw the wounded animal and they went right at it," Calipari said.

Milestones

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy became the 23rd man in SEC history to post 100 victories in SEC regular-season games in a 64-58 victory Saturday over Mississippi State. The dean of SEC coaches, Kennedy has a 100-89 record in SEC regular-season games.

Kennedy and Kentucky Coach John Calipari are the only two active SEC coaches with 100 conference victories.

Florida's KeVaughn Allen (North Little Rock), Mississippi State's Quinndary Weatherspoon, Vanderbilt's Jeff Roberson and Texas A&M's Tyler Davis all surpassed the 1,000-point career mark this season, joining the SEC's active leading scorer, Georgia's Yante Maten (1,530 points), and Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis (1,200) and Riley LaChance (1,190) in the 1,000-point club.

0-3 Aggies

Texas A&M entered SEC play as the league's highest-regarded team with a No. 5 ranking in The Associated Press top 25 poll, but the Aggies have lost their first three conference games, including home setbacks at Reed Arena in an 83-66 loss to Florida last Tuesday and a 69-68 loss to LSU on Saturday.

A combination of injuries, suspensions and defensive lapses have been the leading factors in the sketchy SEC start.

Guard D.J. Hogg missed a 79-57 loss at Alabama in the SEC opener and the loss to Florida while serving a three-game suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules, his second suspension of the season. Hogg, Robert Williams, Admon Gilder, J.J. Caldwell and T.J. Starks have all served suspensions this season.

Coach Billy Kennedy used only eight players in the loss to LSU, as guards Gilder and Duane Wilson missed the game with knee injuries and Williams was ill. Gilder has been out since Dec. 18. Kennedy said he expected everyone back except for Wilson for today's 8 p.m. game at Kentucky.

Hot Tigers

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl thinks the meshing of a rare big class of returners with eager newcomers has helped the Tigers in their 12-game winning streak, which has produced a 14-1 record leading into games this week against Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

Pearl was asked on Monday's SEC teleconference whether the Tigers were underappreciated.

"No, I don't think we're underappreciated," Pearl said. "When you finish 11th in the conference last year as we did and you're picked down in the lower half where we were, that's where we belong until you prove otherwise."

Fouling out

Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin was still being asked questions Monday about whether he sent video to the SEC office regarding the fouls called on freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon, who has fouled out in less than 12 minutes in each of the past two SEC games.

Martin was incensed after Saturday's 77-75 loss to Florida, saying "I guess I have to keep my mouth closed on a lot of things. I've never been one to say anything [about officiating calls], but it was very, very tough for me. Very tough for me if you know what I'm saying.

"We have to figure out a way to allow Jeremiah Tilmon to play basketball, because some of those [fouls], just watching him, man, he's a 19-year-old kid. He's doing the things we're asking him to do. ... I just hope he doesn't get a reputation because he's doing the right things and he plays hard."

Tip-ins

• Mississippi State is 9 of 44 (20.4 percent) from three-point range in two SEC games.

• Ole Miss guard Terence Davis is shooting 4 of 28 (.143) in SEC play.

• Florida guard KeVaughn Allen (North Little Rock) scored two points on 1 of 5 shooting at Missouri and is now 50 of 140 (35.7 percent) on the season, including 23 of 78 (29.5 percent) from three-point range.

FROM TOP TO BOTTOM

RANK;RPI;TEAM (RECORDS);COMMENT

1;48;Florida (11-4, 3-0);Chiozza the hero late at Mizzou

2;13;Auburn (14-1, 2-0);Making magic in fourth year under Pearl

3;12;Kentucky (12-3, 2-1);Cal wants the Cats to be better fighters

4;10;Tennessee (10-4, 1-2);Big bounce back vs. UK after 0-2 start

5;38;Georgia (11-3, 2-1);Maten 2nd in scoring (20.0), 1st in boards (9.4)

6;17;Arkansas (11-4, 1-2);Not forcing many turnovers lately

7;30;Missouri (11-4, 1-1);Heartbreak after blowing a lead vs. Florida

8;82;LSU (10-4, 1-1);Waters' long three-pointer gets road victory at A&M

9;28;Texas A&M (11-4, 0-3);Stunning SEC start due to roster issues for Aggies

10;66;Miss. State (13-2, 1-1);Didn't get "upgrade nonconference scheduling" memo

11;51;Alabama (9-6, 1-2);Dropped a pair after rout of Aggies in SEC opener

12;64;South Carolina (10-5, 1-2);Play both CFP finalists this week on the road

13;115;Ole Miss (9-6, 2-1);Kennedy has 100 regular-season SEC victories

14;156;Vanderbilt (6-9, 1-2);Played six top-60 teams in nonconference

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

Texas A&M at Kentucky, 8 p.m., today (ESPN)

The Aggies earned the most hype in the nonconference season with a No. 5 ranking and an 11-1 record, but they have started 0-3 in league play. Kentucky Coach John Calipari is already harping on his team's lack of spunk.

QUOTEBOOK

"Win or lose, we've got to get our own self-respect back." -- Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes on his team's attitude vs. Kentucky after an 0-2 start in SEC play

"Weak. No comment." -- Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson on the officiating decisions that were called as turnovers against his team in the final minute of a 78-75 loss at Mississippi State

"I'm trying to figure out what I did to anyone at the SEC office to set us up to have to play at Alabama and at Georgia the week that they play each other for the national championship in football." -- South Carolina Coach Frank Martin

By the numbers

3

Consecutive upset victories for Tennessee at home against Kentucky after Saturday's 76-65 victory

5

Unbeaten teams at home: Mississippi State (11-0), Kentucky (10-0), Arkansas (8-0), Auburn (8-0) and Georgia (8-0)

8

SEC teams in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rankings

12

Consecutive victories for Auburn, the most for the Tigers since 2000

Sports on 01/09/2018

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