Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Calipari talks UK's elephant
Kentucky head coach John Calipari gestures during a game against Texas A&M during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
FAYETTEVILLE -- Kentucky Coach John Calipari hardly addressed the Wildcats' clinching their 49th SEC regular-season championship during his postgame remarks after a 73-66 victory over Auburn at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
When a reporter tried to ask Calipari about the shape of Kentucky's season, considering the Wildcats' 67-64 loss at Rupp Arena on Nov. 12 to Evansville and a pair of losses during a December event in Las Vegas, the coach continually interrupted.
"You know what's amazing?" he asked rhetorically. "When anybody talks about our season, they say, 'Evansville, Evansville, Evansville.'
"Did we play anybody else? How can they be any good, they lost to Evansville?"
Calipari talked about not having E.J. Montgomery available in the loss to Evansville and having two players -- Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards -- slowed by the flu in that game.
"I told them after, I never stopped believing in this group," said Calipari, finally addressing the bigger picture. "I knew we'd be fine. I knew we'd be a team that was playing in March.
"All the stuff we're going through is good. It's not so much winning our league ... or winning our league tournament. It is what are we learning or preparing for so when we walk into March we're ready, like our teams historically have been. Evansville, Evansville, Evansville."
Calipari also discussed how playing in a physical game as Kentucky did against Auburn will benefit his team.
"This team is getting better," he said. "They're doing it. But that was another rock fight. When you went up for a rebound, you were feeling stuff. Something in your neck. Something in your back.
"When you were coming off a screen or driving, it wasn't like a clear lane. We proved to us that in that kind of game where it's, 'We're letting it go,' that we can perform."
Kentucky (24-5, 14-2 SEC) is 16-2 since losing 69-66 to Utah and 71-65 to Ohio State in back-to-back games in the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas.
Jones joins list
Arkansas guard Mason Jones, who surpassed the 1,000-point mark last week, became the third player in SEC history to earn four SEC player of the week honors in the same season on Monday. Jones averaged 31.5 points per game as the Razorbacks split two games against Tennessee and Georgia.
The 6-5 junior from DeSoto, Texas, joined Kentucky's Jodie Meeks (2008-09) and Vanderbilt's Shan Foster (2007-08) as SEC players to take player of the week honors four times.
Jones shared the weekly honor Monday with Kentucky's Immanuel Quickley.
Jones, who leads the SEC in free throws made (207) and attempted (250), leads the SEC with 21.3 points per game. He could become the first Razorback to lead the SEC in scoring, though four players did it in the Southwest Conference. Those players are George Kok (20.4 ppg in 1947-48), Martin Terry (28.3 ppg in 1972-73), current UALR Coach Darrell Walker (18.2 ppg in 1982-83) and Joe Kleine (22.1 ppg in 1984-85).
Three top national outlets are in consensus with the same four SEC teams -- Kentucky, Auburn, LSU and Florida -- projected to make the NCAA Tournament.
The SEC's top bubble teams of Mississippi State, Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina are currently on the wrong side of the bubble.
CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm lists both Arkansas and Mississippi State among his first four teams out of the bracket. He has these seeds for SEC teams: 3 Kentucky, 5 Auburn, 9 Florida and 9 LSU.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi has these seeds for SEC teams: 3 Kentucky, 5 Auburn, 8 LSU and 9 Florida. He lists Mississippi State among his first four teams out of the field, and South Carolina among his next four out.
USA Today has the four SEC teams projected as 3 seed Kentucky, 4 Auburn, 8 LSU and 11 Florida, with Mississippi State among the first four teams out.
A handful of candidates, mostly from teams in the upper echelon of the SEC, are potential league MVPs and all-SEC possibilities heading into the final week of the season.
The group includes big scorers such as Arkansas guard Mason Jones, Georgia guard Anthony Edwards and Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree, but that trio has to overcome finishing in the bottom half of the SEC race.
Jones leads the SEC in scoring at 21.3 ppg, with Tyree second (20.1) and Edwards third (19.8). Edwards was the lone SEC representative among the 20 finalists for the Wooden Award released a few weeks ago.
"I don't think you can look past what Mason Jones has done," former Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said on the SEC Network on Saturday. "Mason Jones has been incredible, fighting Arkansas through a lot of adversity throughout the course of the season."
Kennedy had a five-man list of strong MVP candidates that featured Jones, LSU's Skylar Mays, Mississippi State's Reggie Perry, and the Kentucky duo of guard Immanuel Quickley and center Nick Richards.
Former Auburn standout Daymeon Fishback distilled his candidates to one.
"Let's be candid," Fishback said on the SEC Network. "You win the league championship and you are the leading scorer on that team, one of the more efficient players ... it's Immanuel Quickley."
Quickley averages 16.3 points and an SEC-best 92.2% rate on free-throw shooting.
Perry is sixth in SEC scoring (17.2) and first in rebounding (9.7).
Double bye try
Kentucky has clinched the SEC regular-season crown and the top seed for the conference tourney in Nashville, Tenn., while Auburn and LSU, both 11-5 in league play, are in prime position to claim two other double byes. Florida and Mississippi State, both 10-6, and South Carolina (9-7) are the only other contenders to miss the first two rounds in Nashville and start their postseasons on March 13.
Mississippi State, winners of seven of its past 10 games, holds the head-to-head edge over Florida based on a 78-71 victory in Gainesville, Fla., on Jan. 28.
The Bulldogs finish by traveling to South Carolina tonight and hosting Ole Miss on Saturday. The Gators travel to resurgent Georgia on Wednesday before hosting Kentucky in the season finale.
On the flip side is the battle to stay out of the SEC Tournament's opening round March 11, when the bottom four teams play to get into the 12-team bracket.
Vanderbilt (1-15 SEC record) has clinched the bottom spot, while Georgia and Ole Miss (both 5-11) are on the brink, with Arkansas and Missouri (6-10) a step ahead. Missouri holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Hogs right now due to a win over Auburn.
All squared up
Georgia and South Carolina have played 116 times in men's basketball, and neither team holds an advantage in the series.
The Gamecocks' 94-90 victory at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C., on Wednesday knotted the series at 58-58. That is the Bulldogs' only loss in their past four games.
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday attended the 25-year reunion of the Southern Indiana team he led to the 1995 Division II championship.
The Screaming Eagles, based in Evansville, Ind., rallied from a 30-8 deficit to down California-Riverside 71-63 in Louisville, Ky., to cut down the nets at the Division II championship game.
Pearl was a third-year head coach at the time and his son Steven, now an Auburn assistant, was the team's ball boy.
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
RANK;LAST WK.;NET;TEAM (RECORDS);COMMENT
1;1;14;Kentucky (24-5, 14-2);Clinched 49th SEC title
2;2;27;Auburn (24-5, 11-5);Leads nation with 781 free-throw attempts
3;3;32;LSU (20-9, 11-5);Looking for sweep of Hogs on Wednesday
4;5;52;Miss. State (19-10, 10-6);No. 20 nationally in offensive efficiency
5;4;33;Florida (18-11, 10-6);SEC's top defensive rebound pct. team (.731)
6;6;42;Alabama (16-13, 8-8);2nd in NCAA scoring (83.2), 4th in made 3s (318)
7;7;65;South Carolina (17-12, 9-7);Outside looking in for NCAAs
8;8;67;Tennessee (16-13, 8-8);Tops the SEC in assists (14.7), blocks (5.8)
9;9;47;Arkansas (18-11, 6-10);SEC-best plus-4.7 turnover margin
10;10;124;Texas A&M (14-14, 8-8);Coming off 1st 0-2 week since Jan. 14-18
11;11;92;Missouri (14-15, 6-10);Can sweep Ole Miss with Wednesday win
12;13;83;Georgia (15-14, 5-11);Killer offensive efficiency Saturday vs. Hogs
13;12;93;Ole Miss (14-15, 5-11);Finishes with Mizzou at home, at Miss. State
14;14;169;Vanderbilt (9-20; 1-15);Injury-riddled first season for Stackhouse
The NCAA instituted last year a new rating system called the NET rankings, which took the place of the Ratings Percentage Index. An acronym for NCAA Evaluation Tool, the NET rankings take into account game results, strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, and the quality of wins and losses.
Game of the week
Mississippi State at South Carolina, 6:30 p.m., today (SEC Network)
The Gamecocks are desperately in need of a win at Colonial Life Arena in a bid to earn a double bye for the SEC Tournament. Mississippi State would put itself on the brink of clinching the final double bye with a victory in a rematch from two weeks ago. The Bulldogs won that game 79-76 at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.
"We're obviously disappointed. Didn't shoot as well in the second half as we did in the first half, and Kentucky played really well defensively. You've got to make shots, and you've got to defend without fouling." -- Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl after Saturday's 73-66 loss at Kentucky
"I thought Tyson Carter again was magical down the stretch. You go back and look at our team at Arkansas, he was unbelievable. The end of the game against South Carolina at home, he was great. Again today, putting the ball in his hands and letting him make plays down the stretch." -- Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland on Saturday
By the numbers
Turnovers for Kentucky in its SEC-clinching 73-66 win over Auburn on Saturday
SEC wins for Mississippi State in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1995-96
Second-half shooting percentage for Auburn in its loss at Kentucky
Sports on 03/03/2020
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