SEC basketball report:

Wildcats impressive on heartbreaking day

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Kentucky guard Davion Mintz (10) celebrates making a three pointer during an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)
Kentucky guard Davion Mintz (10) celebrates making a three pointer during an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

FAYETTEVILLE — No. 12 Kentucky enters a huge week that will go a long way toward sorting out the top of the SEC standings after the Wildcats blitzed Tennessee 107-79 on an emotional day at Rupp Arena on Saturday.

The Wildcats (14-3, 4-1 SEC) travel to face Texas A&M (15-2, 4-0 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. Central on Wednesday, then have a major showdown at No. 2 Auburn (16-1, 5-0) on Saturday in the national CBS broadcast.

Texas A&M and Auburn are the only two remaining unbeaten teams in SEC league play. The Tennessee game started a stretch of five games for Kentucky in which their opponents had a combined record of 64-13.

Kentucky memorialized the loss of former Coach Joe B. Hall, who led the Wildcats to the 1978 NCAA Championship at the Checkerdome in St. Louis, and passed away at age 93 overnight Friday. Coach John Calipari carried a rolled-up program in his hand, a tribute to Hall which he says he’ll continue through the rest of the season. The Wildcats opened the game in a 1-3-1 defense, another nod to Hall.

“The greatest thing in all this, he knew what people thought of him and how much he was appreciated,” Calipari said of Hall. “Our fans have been great to him. He’s a mentor and a friend to me. … He was in our practice four days a week. … I’m just going to miss him.”

The Wildcats did Hall proud with incendiary shooting in the wipeout of Tennessee, which had been ranked No. 2 in defensive efficiency per KenPom.com.

The Wildcats made 22 of 28 shots (78.6%) in the first half, shot 67.9% for the game, including 11 of 18 (61.1%) from three-point range. They also connected on 20 of 21 (95.2%) free throws before a season-high crowd of 20,278 at Rupp Arena while extending their home winning streak to 13 games.

Tennessee had not allowed 100 points in a game in more than 15 years, since a 101-87 loss to No. 2 North Carolina on Nov. 24, 2006, in New York City.

All of Kentucky’s wins this season have come by double figures.

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes had been 3-3 at Rupp Arena in his prior six seasons, including wins in the Vols’ last two trips.

Tigers surge

Auburn (16-1) jumped up two spots in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 poll to No. 2 and nearly surpassed Gonzaga for the spot in the rankings. The Bulldogs had 25 first-place votes and 1,486 poll points while Auburn, which has never been the AP No. 1 in basketball, had 36 first-place votes and 1,482 poll points.

The Tigers who have opened SEC play at 5-0 for the first time since 1999, peaked at No. 2 early in the 1999-2000 season, the year after Cliff Ellis’ squad won the SEC regular-season championship.

Auburn will warm up for Saturday’s showdown against Kentucky with a Wednesday home game against struggling Georgia at 8 p.m.

The Bulldogs (5-12) are the lone winless team in league play and they have lost six games in a row, including four at Stegeman Coliseum. The streak started with an 86-84 setback against East Tennessee State, followed by a 77-60 loss to Gardner-Webb before SEC play started.

No respect?

Texas A&M and Auburn are the SEC’s only unbeaten teams in league play this week, but the pollsters are not impressed with one of the two.

The Aggies (15-2), riding an eight-game winning streak, are not in The Associated Press Top 25 and their NET ranking of 51 says they’re a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament at this point. They can take a big stride toward respectability in Wednesday’s game against No. 12 Kentucky at Reed Arena.

Texas A&M fell behind Missouri 12-0 in Columbia, Mo., on Saturday and also trailed by 13 points later in the first half.

At halftime, Coach Buzz Williams said he told his team they weren’t playing with enough physicality, execution or energy to win on the road. That changed in the second half of the 67-64 win by the Aggies, their sixth in the last seven meetings at Missouri.

“Everything that I told them at halftime was that this is what we need, Williams said on the Aggies’ radio broadcast. “Because we haven’t arrived. We could have for sure been in a different position at the end against Georgia.

“And as you climb the mountain, whatever figurative mountain you’re climbing, I think it’s human nature to think it’s gonna get easier. It actually gets harder. The air becomes thinner. And I told them at the end of the game against Ole Miss, there’s a difference in hunting and being the hunted. And we’re not either one. And regardless of record and regardless of locale, our mentality has to continue to grow. Our identity is improving. What we want to be known for is developing. But we’ve played two weeks in conference play.”

In and out

CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm moved Auburn to the No. 1 overall seed in his NCAA Tournament bracket projection on Monday.

Palm had the Tigers at the top of the Midwest Regional, projected to face the winner of Alcorn State vs. North Carolina-Wilmington.

Auburn was one of five SEC teams in his latest projection, with No. 2 seed LSU, No. 5 seed Kentucky, No.k 6 seed Tennessee and No. 7 seed Alabama also included.

Texas A&M was in his “first four out” along with Indiana, Minnesota and St. Louis.

In his projection on Friday, ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi included seven SEC teams: Auburn (1 seed), LSU (2), Kentucky (4), Alabama (5), Tennessee (5), Florida (11) and Mississippi State (11) with Texas A&M among his first four out of the 68-team field.

Tide slide

Alabama will enter Wednesday’s 6 p.m. home game against LSU riding a three-game losing streak, its longest in nearly two seasons.

The Tide did not lose back-to-back games last season while going 26-7, winning the SEC regular season (16-2) and conference tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16. Coach Nate Oats got a pay raise to $3.225 million and a contract extension through the 2026-27 season last February.

Alabama’s last three-game losing streak came between Jan. 29 and Feb. 4, 2020, in Oats’ debut season with a 90-76 road loss at LSU, followed by an 82-78 setback against Arkansas and a 69-68 loss to Tennessee, both at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Days off

Former LSU Coach John Brady, now serving as an analyst on the LSU Sports Network, credited the Arkansas coaching staff for a strong defensive game plan after the Razorbacks’ 65-58 win over the No. 12 Tigers on Saturday.

Arkansas held Darius Days, a 14.7 point per game scorer, to 3 points, while Brandon Murray (9.2) had only 2 points.

“They did a nice job on Days, making it difficult for him to catch, and when he did catch they were right there making him put it on the floor to create his own shot,” Brady said on the network broadcast. “He did that one time. I think Arkansas did a nice job with the length they have to remove him from the game.”

Brady also gave a nod to the Razorbacks’ strategy on leading scorer Tari Eason, the Tigers’ leading scorer with 15.5 points per game off the bench.

“They were making Eason turn back to his left, as opposed to going to his right,” Brady said. “Eason’s an outstanding driver with his right hand. But I think they over-played his right hand and made him go back to his left, or spin back to his left and he’s certainly not as effective in doing that.

“I think those were two keys. They did a nice job on Days. Although Eason scored 13 points, he never got into the flow of the offense and had the streaks of scoring as he normally does when LSU wins games at home.”

Top players

Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar, Auburn’s Jabari Smith and Kentucky’s TyTy Washington Jr. picked up weekly SEC Player of the Week honors as determined by the league office.

Molinar was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 26 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2 steals in wins over Georgia and Alabama last week. Molinar, of Panama City, Panama, is the only SEC player to score in double figures in all of his team’s games this season. Arkansas guard JD Notae has scored in double figures in every game he has played, but he sat out the Hogs’ loss at Mississippi State on Dec. 29 due to illness.

Smith and Washington were named SEC co-freshmen of the week. Smith, a 6-10, 220-pounder from Fayetteville, Ga., averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in wins over Alabama and Ole Miss, including a career-high 25 points on 8 of 14 shooting, in a win at Alabama.

Washington, a 6-3, 197-pound guard, averaged 21.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3 rebounds in wins over Vanderbilt and Tennessee. He has won four consecutive freshman of the week honors in the SEC.

Doubling up

The Mississippi schools will get their two-game set wrapped up quickly, as Ole Miss is scheduled to take on Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday at 3 p.m.

The Rebels notched an 82-72 victory over the Bulldogs at SJB Pavilion on Jan. 8 in their first meeting. This second Egg Bowl on the hardwood will be the first of the SEC’s arch-rival pairings to go into the books this season if it is played as scheduled.

Arkansas will also host Texas A&M at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of a game won 86-81 by the Aggies on Jan. 8 at Reed Arena in College Station, Texas.

SEC power rankings

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

1; 1; 5; Auburn (16-1, 5-0); Came within 4 poll points of first AP No. 1

2; 4; 11; Kentucky (14-3, 4-1); Big week ahead at Texas A&M, Auburn

3; 5; 51; Texas A&M (15-2, 4-0); Still plenty of doubters, like AP voters

4; 2; 7; LSU (15-2, 3-2); One dunk only points last 9:01 vs. Hogs

5; 3; 24; Alabama (11-6, 2-3); Will lack of physicality remain an issue?

6; 8; 48; Mississippi State (12-4, 3-1); Look tough to beat at the Hump

7; 6; 13; Tennessee (11-5, 2-3); KenPom.com’s No. 2 ‘D’ routed at Rupp

8; 12; 56; Arkansas (12-5, 2-3); NET ranking up 36 spots in one week

9; 11; 46; Florida (10-6, 1-3); 43.1% FG shooting is 11th in the SEC

10; 101; 79; Vanderbilt (10-6, 2-2); Last in SEC rebounding at plus-0.19

11; 7; 115; Ole Miss (9-7, 1-3); 3-point FG defense (.289) 2nd best in SEC

12; 9; 112; South Carolina (10-6, 1-3); 39.6% FG defense is No. 3 in league

13; 13; 225; Missouri (7–9, 1-3); Rough week after huge win over Bama

14; 14; 226; Georgia (5-12, 0-4); Roster havoc not boding well for Crean

The NCAA NET Rankings, an acronym for NCAA Evaluation Tool, factor in 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

Kentucky at Auburn, noon Central, Saturday (CBS)

The No. 2 Tigers (16-1, 5-0 SEC) put their 13-game winning streak on the line while playing host to sizzling No. 12 Kentucky (14-3, 4-1), whose wins have all come by double figures

Quotebook

“This, this is what it’s about, and I want these kids to experience this. That’s why you come here.” — Kentucky Coach John Calipari on the atmosphere with 20,000-plus fans at Rupp Arena on Saturday vs. Tennessee

“It is historic, and it does matter, and it does mean something. That’ll be a proud moment for Auburn. I understand it doesn’t mean much right now, but it still makes a very strong statement.” — Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday on the potential to be ranked No. 1

“As hard as it is to win games, we have to find ways not to beat ourselves. Some of those turnovers … I’ll be struggling to watch some of those, just especially when there’s nothing that took place to make you turn the ball over, that’s hard.” — Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin after the Tigers blew a 12-0 lead in a 67-64 home loss to Texas A&M

“It was almost like they had a magnet in the rim. … You simply can’t give a team this good that many points off turnovers. They’re gonna shoot 80% if you let them get those run-out dunks and those run-outs where they’re going to get to the corner.” — Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes on Kentucky’s hot shooting on Saturday

By the numbers

4 – Poll points separating Auburn from No. 1 Gonzaga on Monday, denying the Tigers their first appearance at No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25

5 – Number of SEC teams that won on Saturday after trailing at halftime (Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt)

18.1 – Scoring average with 301 points in 16 games for Arkansas’ JD Notae and Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr., the SEC scoring co-leaders

60.5 – Combined shooting percentage by Kentucky (67.9%) and Tennessee (53.4%) in the Wildcats’ 107-79 home win on Saturday

Discussion

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