SEC report: League’s top 4 teams have shot at title

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2022
Auburn forward Jabari Smith shoots a shot over Mississippi forward Sammy Hunter during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Auburn forward Jabari Smith shoots a shot over Mississippi forward Sammy Hunter during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Home wins by No. 18 Arkansas and No. 17 Tennessee in marquee games against fellow NCAA Tournament locks No. 6 Kentucky and No. 3 Auburn, respectively, on Saturday not only ensured double byes for all four teams at the SEC Tournament, it gave each of the four a shot at the SEC regular season title in the final week.

Auburn, which fell to No. 5 in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings on Monday, will enter the week with a one-game lead over the other three at 13-3 in conference play. The Tigers have a road game at Mississippi State looming on Wednesday, then wrap up at home on Saturday against South Carolina.

Arkansas, which moved into the No. 2 spot for seeding purposes for the SEC Tournament by beating the Volunteers and Wildcats last week, will continue what was deemed the toughest finishing stretch in college basketball by hosting LSU on Wednesday, then traveling to face Tennessee on Saturday. The Razorbacks jumped to No. 14 in the AP poll, the program’s first visit to the top 15 this late in a season since the 1997-98 season.

The No. 13 Volunteers will have a freshness edge for the 11 a.m. Central tipoff against Arkansas. They travel to Georgia (1-15 in SEC play) tonight and will have an extra day for rest and prep for the Saturday showdown at Thompson-Boling Arena.

No. 7 Kentucky hosts struggling Ole Miss at Rupp Arena tonight, then closes with a 1 p.m. game Saturday at Florida, which enters the home stretch on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Arkansas has a 3-0 record against the other double-bye teams, while Tennessee is 2-2, Auburn is 1-2 and Kentucky 1-3. The Tigers are the only member of the group to play each of the others just once, while Tennessee will wind up with five games against the others.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari voiced a gripe about the scheduling imbalance on his postgame appearance on the UK Radio Network after the Wildcats lost 75-73 at Arkansas on Saturday.

“[Postseason] seeding does matter,” Calipari said. “But the problem is all of our road games are the best teams in the league. We didn’t get them at our place. We got all of the best teams on the road, which is gonna have our seed probably lower than we want.

“But we’re going to have a double bye and then the other thing is, you could say ‘Well they were a 4 seed in their own league.’ Yeah, but this may be the best league. … Our NET’s not gonna be crushed by any of this so we’ll see.”

The quartet have a sterling 63-1 record in home games this season, with Kentucky at 17-0, Auburn and Tennessee at 15-0, and Arkansas at 16-1. The only team to break through against the big four was Vanderbilt, which eked out a 75-74 win over the Razorbacks on Jan. 4 during the Hogs’ 0-3 league start.

Overrated

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes was stirred by the raucous crowd of 21,678 at Thompson-Boling Arena during his team’s comeback from an 11-point deficit for a 67-62 win over Auburn on Saturday.

Barnes said maybe for the first time in his career he advised his team during a timeout that with a strong defensive sequence the arena would come alive.

Yet the crowd also frustrated Barnes a little by employing the trite “Overrated!” chant at the Tigers as the outcome became clear.

“It’s a longstanding feeling: I have never understood that,” Barnes said. “You just had a great, quality win against a team that first of all is not [overrated]. Your fans are acting like you beat nobody.

“I have never understood it. I never have. Wherever I have been, when fans start doing that, I am like ‘Stop.’ Give us credit. Don’t demean what we just did. We just beat an outstanding basketball team. I have thought that my entire career. I have never enjoyed it when fans do that. Our guys work too hard and won a game against an outstanding team today.”

23 or 6 to more

Alabama held a seemingly comfortable 23-point lead at 52-29 early in the second half on South Carolina on Saturday at Coleman Coliseum. However, the Gamecocks went on a 23-6 surge in a little over seven minutes narrow the deficit to 6 points at 58-52.

The Crimson Tide re-heated and went on a 32-13 spree to go back up by 25 points in what became a 90-71 decision. Alabama moved into sole possession of fifth place in the SEC with the win.

“The start of the second half wasn’t what we wanted,” Alabama Coach Nate Oats said. “We’ve got to mature a little bit and play just as hard with a 23-point lead as we do when we’re up by six.

“That’s the area we have got to grow. But I do think we showed some maturity and came out, got some stops, got some buckets and opened it back up which showed a lot about our team.”

Logo dancing

An apparent pre-game ritual for the Auburn basketball team has been used as inspiration for opponents in recent road losses for the Tigers.

Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman and his players noted the Tigers conduced a pre-game hype huddle while standing on the over-sized Razorback at mid-court at Walton Arena prior to the Hogs’ 80-76 win in overtime on Feb. 8.

On Saturday, a packed-out crowd at Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena booed mightily as the Tigers did their pre-game “dance” while standing atop the “Ten” in Tennessee in the mid-court area.

Tennessee guard Zakai Zeigler said the Vols felt “disrespected” by Auburn during his postgame interview on ESPN.

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl had a funny reaction when asked about his team dancing on the Razorback logo, asking the interviewer if he had “seen the size of that Razorback.” Pearl also added the game is supposed to be fun and didn’t have a problem with his players dancing.

Notae-ble races

Arkansas guard JD Notae has fallen slightly behind Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr. in the race for the SEC scoring title, but he’s in a much-closer race for the conference’s steals crown with Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler and LSU’s Eric Gaines.

Heading into the final week of the regular season, Chandler has 60 steals in 27 games for an average of 2.22 per game. Notae has 62 steals in 28 games for an average of 2.214 per game, and Gaines has 64 in 29 games for a 2.206 average.

In the scoring race, Pippen has 565 points in 28 games (20.18) to Notae’s 534 points in 28 games (19.07), with Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar a full point behind (18.07). Pippen and Notae exchanged the scoring lead over and over during the regular season.

Crean crash

Georgia has a 1-15 league mark and just six wins on the year as it winds down Coach Tom Crean’s fourth and possibly final season at the helm.

The Bulldogs are 47-72 in his tenure, including a 15-55 mark (.214) in SEC play, and have finished no better than 7-11 in league play (in 2020-21).

Crean’s buyout is currently $3.6 million, but it drops to $3.2 million soon after the end of the season, according to media reports in Georgia.

Crean had considerably more success in Conference USA and the Big East while guiding Marquette to a 190-96 record in nine seasons, including an appearance at the 2003 Final Four with Dwayne Wade as the team’s center piece, and in the Big Ten, where he led Indiana to a 166-135 record and four NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons.

Top frosh

Tennessee guard Kennedy Chandler earned SEC freshman of the week honors from the league office on Monday after accounting for 18 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per game in wins over Missouri and Auburn last week. The 6-footer from Memphis had 23 points, a career-high 8 rebounds, 6 assists and no turnovers in 37 minutes in an 80-61 win at Missouri, and he had 13 points, including a game-sealing floater in the lane that bounced three times on the rim in a 67-62 win over Auburn.

Spreading out

The upper and lower parts of the SEC have really spread out over the last month of the season. The successes of Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee have been well documented on the top end.

On the other side, Georgia, Ole Miss, Missouri and lately Vanderbilt have sunk into even further ruts down the stretch.

Georgia has lost its last nine games since logging an 82-76 upset of Alabama at Stegeman Coliseum on Jan. 25. The Bulldogs have played only one game decided by less than eight points in that span, a 74-72 home loss to Auburn, and its average deficit during the losing streak is 12.8 points, topped by a 26-point (99-73) home loss to Arkansas.

Coach Kermit Davis’ Ole Miss Rebels have lost six of their past seven games, with the lone victory an 85-68 decision at Georgia. Ole Miss is 2-6 in SEC home games, with wins over Mississippi State and Florida.

Coach Cuonzo Martin’s Missouri team has also lost six of its past seven, with its lone win in that span a 74-68 home win against Ole Miss.

Coach Jerry Stackhouse’s Vanderbilt Commodores have been more competitive through the season, but they have lost four of their past five games.

Game of the week

• Arkansas at Tennessee, 11 a.m., Saturday (ESPN)

Rematch of a major defensive struggle won 58-48 by the Razorbacks on Feb. 19 at Walton Arena in which the Vols fought foul trouble by their guards and shot 27.1% while Arkansas checked in at 30.5%. Both squads could have a share of the regular season title at stake.

Quotebook

“Your fans are acting like you beat nobody. Well, we did. We just beat a top-five team. One, they are not overrated. Two, to me, it diminishes that you just won a great game against an outstanding basketball team.” — Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes on the Vols’ crowd chanting “overrated” at the Auburn team in a 67-62 win on Saturday

“We need more guys to step up offensively. Obviously, we had a good night from K.D. [Johnson] and a good night from Jabari [Smith], but we’ve got more step up in us.” — Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl after Saturday’s loss at Tennessee

By the numbers

5 – Net change in the NET rankings from last week for the top six SEC teams, in NET order: 4 Kentucky (3), 8 Tennessee (11), 11 Auburn (10), 16 LSU (16), 22 Alabama (22), 23 Arkansas (23).

6 – Consecutive wins for Auburn against Tennessee prior to the Vols’ 67-62 home victory on Saturday.

63-1 – Combined home records of SEC’s double-bye teams Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, the lone loss belonging to the Razorbacks (Vanderbilt).

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