SEC basketball report:

Cats, Tide to meet atop league standings

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Alabama head coach Nate Oats works with his team during a timeout during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Western Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Alabama head coach Nate Oats works with his team during a timeout during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Western Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

FAYETTEVILLE — The SEC will present an intriguing battle of undefeated league teams in prime time for the second week in a row tonight when Alabama travels to face Kentucky.

The Crimson Tide (8-3, 4-0 SEC) and Wildcats (4-6, 3-0) tip it off at 8 p.m. Central from Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

Alabama, ranked one position outside of The Associated Press Top 25 on Monday, holds sole possession of first place in the conference after taking out fellow SEC unbeaten Florida last Tuesday, then surviving a 94-90 shootout at Auburn on Saturday.

Kentucky is a half-game behind, unbeaten in the new year after its head-scratching 1-6 mark in non-conference play.

The Wildcats are coming off a surprising 76-58 rout of Florida at ExacTech Arena in Gainesville, Fla., their biggest win there since 1998.

Kentucky leads the SEC in three-point shooting in conference play at 46.8%, more than three percentage points better than second-place Mississippi State (43.6%). The Wildcats, Bulldogs and Vanderbilt (41.3%) are the only teams shooting better than 40% from three-point range in league play.

Alabama’s defense has been its calling card more than its prolific three-point shooting to open conference play. The Crimson Tide rank second in field goal defense (37.9%) and three-point defense (27.2%) in league games, trailing only South Carolina, which has played just one conference game. Alabama is third in scoring defense in league games at 72 points per game.

This will be the first of two meetings between Alabama and Kentucky, which leads the series by an overwhelming 114-38 count, including 12 of the last 13 meetings.

Alabama’s win at Auburn was the 1,700th in school history and it snapped a five-game losing streak at Auburn Arena.

Kentucky shot 55.6% and had a season-high tying 18 assists while holding Florida to 37.5% shooting.

“I thought they were really good with their interior offense, with their interior passing, with their decisions versus some of the defensive looks that we gave them,” Florida Coach Michael White said.

“They shot a really high percentage. … I thought they handled the ball pretty well and executed what they wanted for the most part. They had their way with us offensively, and then came in here and locked us up as well.”

Thomas in question

LSU freshman sensation Cameron Thomas is questionable for Wednesday’s 6 p.m. home game against Arkansas.

Thomas suffered a right ankle injury after missing a three-point shot at the 18:20 mark of the first half and landing awkwardly during the Tigers’ 75-61 rout of Ole Miss in Saturday’s late game. Thomas tried to return later in the first half but came out quickly.

LSU Coach Will Wade did not sound overly concerned after the game, saying, “We’ll see, but I don’t think it’s going to be a prolonged deal. I think he’ll be able to play on Wednesday.”

The 6-4 guard from Chesapeake, Va., leads the SEC in scoring, even though his average dropped from 24.8 points per game to 22.3 after he did not score on Saturday. Thomas scored 25-plus points in six of his first nine games, led by his 32-point performance in a 77-54 rout of Texas A&M.

12-12

SEC road teams went an astounding 5-1 on Saturday to even up the count in league play heading into tonight’s round of games.

SEC home teams are 12-12, with only four teams — Alabama, Kentucky, LSU and South Carolina — still unbeaten at home in conference play.

Alabama and Kentucky lead the way with two home wins each. The Crimson Tide have taken down league-favorite Tennessee (71-63) and Auburn (94-90) on the road, while the Wildcats have prevailed at Mississippi State (78-73) and Florida (76-58).

Saturday’s slate of games was the second in the young league season in which road teams were plus-4 in win differential.

In a round of league openers on Dec. 30, road teams were 4-0, with Arkansas winning 97-85 at Auburn, Mississippi State beating Georgia 83-73 in a battle of Bulldogs at Stegeman Coliseum, Tennessee whipping Missouri 73-53 in Columbia, Mo., and Florida routing Vanderbilt 91-72 in Nashville.

Top players

The SEC office announced Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar and Auburn’s Sharife Cooper as the league players of the week on Monday.

Molinar, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Panama City, Panama, averaged 22 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2 steals in wins over No. 13 Missouri and Vanderbilt. He tied a career high with 24 points on 9 of 11 shooting and had a career-best 8 rebounds and 4 steals in the win at Vanderbilt.

“We have a real special team,” Molinar told the SEC Network. “We’re young and we still have a lot to learn as you saw in this game. I think people were doubting us.”

Cooper, a 6-1 freshman from Powder Springs, Ga., had 26 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, and 3 steals in his college debut in Saturday’s loss to Alabama. Cooper scored or assisted on 16 of Auburn’s 29 made field goals for 55%.

Cooper debut

The highest-rated signee in Auburn history, Sharife Cooper had his eligibility approved on Saturday following a prolonged inquiry by the NCAA. While Cooper had a huge debut, with 26 points and 9 assists, he also added 5 turnovers and his play in the closing stretch was poor.

Cooper assisted on JT Thor’s layup and free throw that gave Auburn an 87-85 lead at the 3:46 mark. After that, Cooper committed two turnovers, could have been charged with a third, burned too much time dribbling after Alabama had taken a 93-90 lead with 1:00 remaining, then missed a pair of three-point shots in the final minute.

Cooper and Justin Powell will apparently vie for time in the Auburn backcourt. Powell could be back from injury this week, with Auburn traveling to Georgia on Wednesday in a battle of SEC cellar dwellers before hosting Kentucky on Saturday.

Big debut

Kentucky’s Keion Brooks Jr. made a splashy return on Saturday at Florida in his first game since recovering from a left leg injury that sidelined him for three months.

Brooks had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting, had 6 rebounds and a game-high 4 assists in 25 minutes.

“I’ve always believed in my ability to come back and play well,” said Brooks, whose last game was also a win at Florida in March, 2020. “I was constantly working out, staying in great shape.”

Two for Tennessee

Covid-19 issues within the Missouri and South Carolina programs have led to a weird scheduling twist this week.

Because those teams were scheduled to face Vanderbilt and Tennessee, respectively, today, the SEC has set up a Tennessee at Vandy game for tonight at 6. The Vols and Commodores will then turn around and play each other again on Saturday in Thompson-Boling Arena in a previously scheduled matchup.

Perfect stripes

Arkansas’ 7-3 Connor Vanover joins two other qualifying SEC players in remaining perfect from the free-throw line in conference play.

Vanover is 11 of 11 from the stripe to lead all SEC players who are still perfect. LSU’s Javonte Smart and Alabama’s Joshua Primo are both 10 of 10 at the free throw line.

LSU freshman Cameron Thomas has the top percentage among players with free-throw misses in SEC play at 29 of 30 (96.7%), followed by Texas A&M’s Quenton Jackson (93.8%), Vanderbilt’s Dylan Disu (92.3%) and Ole Miss’ Jarkel Joiner (91.7%) as the only other players above 90%

Santiago chilly

Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi had perhaps his worst game as a collegian against Arkansas last Wednesday, shooting 1 of 7 overall, 0 for 4 from three-point range and having 4 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 turnovers in a 79-74 Vols’ win.

The sophomore guard from Uruguay returned to form over the weekend, responding with a game-high 23 points boosted by a sizzling start at Texas A&M. Vescovi hit 8 of 13 shots, including 6 of 10 from three-point range in Tennessee’s 68-54 win. Vescovi made his first four three-point shots to trigger Tennessee’s 16-9 lead in the first eight minutes.

Pippen ripping

Vanderbilt guard Scotty Pippen Jr. had his first career double-double on Saturday with 18 points and 12 assists in the Commodores’ 84-81 home loss to Mississippi State.

The son of former University of Central Arkansas and Chicago Bulls’ star Scottie Pippen, he ranks second in the SEC in scoring (21.6 ppg) and assists (5.8) and fourth in free throw percentage (.823).

Frank-ly speaking

South Carolina has played two games since Dec. 10 due to issues related to the coronavirus. The Gamecocks have had three league games postponed, their Dec. 29 SEC opener against Kentucky, Saturday’s road game at Ole Miss and today’s scheduled home game against Tennessee. The total number of lost games is going to make it difficult for South Carolina to get in a full 18-game SEC slate.

Coach Frank Martin talked about the disjointed nature of his team’s season following a 78-54 win over Texas A&M last Wednesday in the Gamecocks’ only SEC game.

“What I’ve talked about with our players is we’re void of a month of practices and games,” Martin said. “So our window for getting better is a lot smaller than what it usually is. We can’t take a day or a five-minute segment in a game off or we’re creating even bigger problems for us.

“It’s SEC basketball. It’s league play. It’s gonna be 18 just really, really hard games.”

Game of the week

Alabama at Kentucky, 8 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

For the second consecutive week, the Crimson Tide play an unbeaten SEC opponent on Tuesday, this time the resurgent Wildcats in a battle of teams atop the SEC standings.

By the numbers

12

Wins by both home teams and visiting teams in SEC play

26 and 9

Points and assists by Auburn freshmen guards Sharife Cooper (on Saturday) and Justin Powell (Dec. 4) in their Auburn Arena debuts

34

Years since Alabama started at least 4-0 in SEC play (8-0 in 1987)

Quotebook

“Credit those guys. With all the expectation in the preseason to get off to a really tough start. Obviously they’ve worked. They’ve developed. This is a different Kentucky team than we were all watching a month ago.” — Florida Coach Michael White after his team’s 76-58 home loss to Kentucky

“I know there was probably some people that put dirt on the coffin. We pushed the coffin open and said, ‘You ain’t putting that dirt on this.’” — Kentucky Coach John Calipari after Saturday’s win at Florida

SEC basketball power rankings

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

1; 1; 3; Tennessee (9-1, 3-1); Holding opponents to league-low 56.8 ppg

2; 5; 29; Alabama (9-3, 4-0); Big week: at Kentucky, home vs. Arkansas

3; 4; 22; LSU (8-2, 3-1); League-high 49.1% FGs and 77.8% free throws

4; 9; 88; Kentucky (4-6, 3-0); Up 56 spots in the NET rankings in one week

5; 12; 81; Mississippi State (8-4, 3-1); Shooting SEC-best 47.5% in conference play

6; 5; 25; Missouri (7-2, 1-2); Jeremiah Tilmon at 71.4% FGs in SEC play

7; 6; 20; Arkansas (10-2, 2-2); 2 tough road tests loom at LSU, Bama

8; 2; 55; Florida (5-3, 2-2); Fell 33 spots in NET after Bama, Kentucky losses

9; 7; 65; Ole Miss (6-4, 1-2); At Florida, vs. Georgia this week

10; 8; 122; Texas A&M (6-4, 1-3); League-worst 0.7 assist-to-turnover ratio

11; 13; 75; South Carolina (3-2, 1-0); On covid-19 hold again to start the week

12; 12; 86; Georgia (7-1, 0-3); Fought hard at LSU, fell flat at Arkansas

13; 11; 90; Auburn (6-6, 0-4); Intro of Cooper into lineup will re-shuffle minutes

14; 14; 174; Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-3); Off to another extended winless league start

The NCAA instituted in 2018-19 a 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.

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