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.
SEC report: Teams fighting for double bye
Kentucky's Cason Wallace takes an uncontested 3-point shot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
FAYETTEVILLE — The battle for the SEC’s four double byes for the upcoming conference tournament is down to an eight-team race with two positions already clinched.
Alabama (15-1 SEC) nailed down at least a tie for the regular-season title with Saturday’s 86-83 home win over Arkansas coupled with Texas A&M’s 69-62 loss at Mississippi State. The Aggies fell to 13-3 in league play, but they are assured of a double bye.
Texas A&M (13-3) could tie the Crimson Tide, but they would need to win on the road tonight at Ole Miss and have Auburn defeat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Wednesday. If both those outcomes took place, the Aggies would host Alabama on Saturday with a chance to forge a tie.
In that scenario, Texas A&M would receive the No. 1 seed with a win based on the head-to-head victory over Alabama in the teams’ only meeting.
Kentucky (11-5), winners of its last four games since back-to-back losses to Arkansas and Georgia, would clinch a double bye in the tournament with a home win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday.
Tennessee (10-6) has the inside track on the fourth double bye with a one-game lead over Auburn, Missouri and Vanderbilt. However, the Volunteers have a difficult closing stretch, at home against Arkansas tonight and on the road Saturday at Auburn.
Arkansas (8-8) has the longest odds of pushing into the top four, as the Razorbacks would need to win at Tennessee and beat Kentucky on Saturday and have other factors fall their way. Arkansas would lose tie-breakers against both Auburn and Vanderbilt, since the Razorbacks lost their only games against those teams on the road.
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt continue to be the SEC teams most likely on the NCAA Tournament “bubble,” while Auburn is currently heading the wrong direction leading into the final week of the regular season.
CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm listed the Bulldogs as his first team on his “first four out” list on Monday, with Vanderbilt not in his tourney mix.
Auburn, coming off an 86-54 loss at Kentucky, has fallen in five of its last seven games.
The Tigers are projected as a 10 seed by Palm, joining these other six SEC teams in his field: 1 seed Alabama, 4 seed Tennessee, 7 seed Missouri, 8 seeds Kentucky and Texas A&M, and 9 seed Arkansas.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi differs in that he had Mississippi State as his last team in the field in his latest projection, which came before the Bulldogs outlasted Texas A&M 69-62 on Saturday.
Lunardi listed Alabama as his top national seed, joined by these SEC teams: 3 seed Tennessee, 6 seed Texas A&M, 8 seeds Arkansas and Kentucky, and 10 seeds Auburn and Missouri.
Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe and Arkansas’ Nick Smith picked up SEC Player of the Week honors on Monday from the league office.
Alabama freshman Brandon Miller notably did not after averaging 32.5 points and 7 rebounds per game in wins over South Carolina and Arkansas.
Tshiebwe, a 6-9 senior from the Congo, was named the SEC Player of the Week after he averaged 23.5 points and 10.5 rebounds while hitting 87% of his shots (20 of 23) in wins over Florida and Auburn.
Smith earned the SEC Freshman of the Week nod after the 6-5, 185-pounder from Jacksonville averaged 25 points and 3.5 rebounds in games against Georgia and Alabama.
Since a 66-63 loss at Alabama on Jan. 25, Mississippi State has gone 7-2 with three road wins to play its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.
The Bulldogs’ latest conquest was a 69-62 win over Texas A&M that dropped the Aggies two games behind league-leading Alabama with two games to play.
“There’s a reason [Texas A&M] was 13-2 … and had won eight in a row,” Mississippi State Coach Chris Jans said. “They’re a tough-minded group and have a great culture. They play the right way.”
The same might be said of the Bulldogs, who were 1-7 in conference games after a 66-63 loss at Alabama on Jan. 25.
Vanderbilt’s late-season run might not be enough to make the NCAA Tournament field without winning the SEC Tournament, but it has the Commodores looking up in Year Four under Coach Jerry Stackhouse.
Saturday’s 88-72 home win against Florida gave the Commodores their first two-game sweep of the Gators under Stackhouse.
“I thought our guys came out and really set the tone early on, on both ends of the floor,” Stackhouse said.
Vanderbilt is 9-7 in league play, clinching its first .500 record in the SEC since the 2016-17 team won 10 games. The Commodores also evened their all-time series with Florida at 73-73.
The Arkansas guard trio of Nick Smith (24 points), Davonte Davis (21) and Ricky Council (20) all went for 20-plus points in Saturday’s loss at Alabama.
That marked the first time three Razorbacks had reached that scoring plateau in the same game since a 101-73 win at South Carolina on March 2, 2021. In that game, Moses Moody scored 28 points, Justin Smith added 22 and JD Notae had 21 off the bench as Arkansas shot 55.2% in the win at Colonial Life Arena.
Missouri clinched a key 66-64 home win over surging Mississippi State last Tuesday on guard Nick Honor’s three-point shot with 7 seconds remaining in overtime. Honor, who also opened the scoring in overtime with a three-pointer, continued his momentum on Saturday with a season-high 17 points that featured 5-of-7 three-point shooting in an 85-63 win at Georgia that spoiled the Bulldogs’ senior day.
Missouri Coach Dennis Gates said Honor sometimes focuses on creating for others more than taking shooting opportunities in his path.
“I’ve been saying it all along, he needs to be more selfish,” Gates said after the rout at Georgia, the Tigers’ third conference road win. “Sometimes the word selfish has a negative connotation. But in our program if you’re too unselfish that turns the word into selfish. Nick Honor needs to be able to play off the dribble as he has.
Texas A&M guard Wade Taylor hit 9 of 10 free throws in a loss at Mississippi State on Saturday to give the sophomore a wide lead in a quest to be the SEC’s free-throw percentage champ.
Taylor is now at 86.6% with 136 makes on 157 attempts. He ranks 42nd in the country as one of only two SEC players in the top 100 in Division I.
Alabama guard Brandon Miller is tied for 87th on 112 of 133 free-throw shooting (84.2%).
Taylor’s free-throw shooting clip is on track to be the lowest in the SEC in more than a decade. The lowest percentage for the SEC free throw leader since the 2012-13 season was the 87% by Arkansas guard Dusty Hannahs in 2015-16.
Arkansas made a season-high 11 three-pointers in its 97-65 win over Georgia last week, making Mississippi State the only SEC team that has not made double-figure three-point shots in any game.
The Razorbacks’ season-high for made three-pointers had been eight, done in games against Louisville and Creighton in Hawaii, and also in home wins over San Jose State and Ole Miss.
The Bulldogs’ season high is nine made three-pointers accomplished twice, in a 52-49 win over Utah and a 78-67 home loss to Alabama. Mississippi State is the only SEC school to have an 0-for from three-point range in SEC play this year, an 0-for-18 effort in a 69-63 loss at Auburn on Jan. 14. The Tigers outscored their visitors by 33 points from three-point range as they made 11 of 25 tries.
Alabama, the SEC’s runaway leader in three-pointers taken (845) and made (294), has the league high of 21 made threes in a game against Jacksonville State. The Crimson Tide has also hit double figures in made three-pointers 13 times, but that does not lead the SEC.
That distinction belongs to Missouri, which has hit double figures 15 times, including a season-high 16 in games against Penn and Ole Miss.
Tennessee and Vanderbilt are the only other SEC team with double-figure games with 10-plus made three-pointers with 11 and 10, respectively. The rest of the league’s number of games with double-figure made threes: Florida 7, LSU and South Carolina 6, Georgia and Kentucky 5, Ole Miss 3, Auburn and Texas A&M 2, Arkansas and Mississippi State 1.
Florida dropped to 14-15 with a 88-72 loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Gators lost their third consecutive game without star center Colin Castleton (broken hand) and their sixth in the last seven games.
The Gators are below .500 this late in a season for the first time in more than 25 years, since the 1996-97 team was 13-15 on this date en route to a 13-17 finish. Florida has to rally late to avoid posting its first losing record since Coach Billy Donovan’s final team in 2014-15 finished
“Obviously, we’re having kind of a tough time right now,” Florida Coach Todd Golden said. “I appreciate our guys and the way they continue to bring a great attitude. They’re trying. They’re working hard. We’re just falling a little short right now.”
Florida’s last three opponents have combined for 54.1% shooting, with Arkansas at 57.6%, Kentucky at 53.2% and Vanderbilt at 51.7%.
Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis was the first SEC coach fired this season as Athletic Director Keith Carter (Perryville) made the call to part ways with the fifth-year coach last Friday.
Davis led Ole Miss to an eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament in his first season with a 20-13 record, but the Rebels have not been back, and they were 22-47 in the SEC the last four seasons prior to his firing. Davis finished his stint with a 74-79 record.
According to ESPN, citing industry sources, Ole Miss could look at hiring fired Texas Coach Chris Beard, as well as former Arkansas State coach Grant McCasland, who is now at at North Texas, or Dusty May at Florida Atlantic.
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