SEC report: Tide, Vols stay atop league

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2023
Alabama forward Brandon Miller reacts after making a three-pointer, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, during the second half of the Crimson Tide’s 84-69 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.
( Hank Layton )
Alabama forward Brandon Miller reacts after making a three-pointer, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, during the second half of the Crimson Tide’s 84-69 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Alabama and Tennessee were two of the beneficiaries of top-ranked Houston’s fall from No. 1 after the Cougars lost at home to Temple.

The Crimson Tide (17-2, 7-0 SEC) moved up to No. 2 in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25, while Tennessee (16-3, 6-1), fresh off a pair of road wins last week, surged five places to No. 4. Alabama and Tennessee have held down the top two spots in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s power rankings for each of the three weeks the rankings have been released this season.

Alabama has been blowing the doors off SEC competition with all of its wins by 11 or more points, including routs by 22 points (Ole Miss), 26 points (Kentucky), 40 points (LSU), 22 points (at Vandy) and 21 points (at Missouri).

Alabama reached its highest ranking in the AP poll in 20 years, since a two-week stint at No. 1 under Coach Mark Gottfried in late December, 2002.

Current Alabama Coach Nate Oats was pleased with his team’s ball security against one of the peskiest defenses in the country at Missouri.

“We had a big point of emphasis that Missouri is No. 1 in turning the ball over and turnover rate on defense so we had 11 turnovers in the game,” Oats said. “If you look, Mark Sears and Brandon Miller played 33 minutes-plus each and almost played 70 minutes combined and only had one turnover between the two of them.”

Miller is a true freshman and Sears is a Junior transfer from Ohio.

The Crimson Tide plays a return game against Mississippi State on Wednesday before traveling to Oklahoma at 1 p.m. (ESPN) for the final SEC/Big 12 Challenge matchup on Saturday.

Tennessee thumped Mississippi State (70-59) and LSU (77-56) on the road last week, winning the first of those without starters Santiago Vescovi (injured) and Tyreke Key (illness). Zakai Zeigler, making his first start since November, poured in a career-high 24 points, including 4 of 4 shooting from three-point range, in a 40-minute effort against the Bulldogs.

Vescovi and Key returned for the rout of LSU, in which the Vols outscored LSU 33-7 in points off turnovers and made 12 three-point shots, tying their season high versus a league opponent.

Tennessee returns home this week for games against Georgia on Wednesday at 6 p.m. and against No. 10 Texas.

Texas A&M’s loss at Kentucky on Saturday left Alabama as the SEC’s only unbeaten team in conference play.

For fans ready to see a matchup between the Tide and Vols, they’ll have to wait a while. The lone game between the conference powers is scheduled for Feb. 15 in Knoxville, Tenn.

In and out

Andy Katz of NCAA.com and Turner Sports has six SEC teams in his latest bracket projection on Sunday: 1 seeds Alabama and Tennessee, 5 seed Auburn, 7 seed Arkansas, 9 seed Missouri and 10 seed Kentucky.

CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm’s updated bracket features 1 seed Alabama, 2 seed Tennessee, 6 seed Auburn, 9 seed Missouri, 10 seed Kentucky, and 11 seed Arkansas.

ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi last updated his projections last Friday, when he had Kentucky as his first team out of the tournament, Texas A&M as his fourth team out, and five SEC clubs in the field: 1 seed Alabama, 2 seed Tennessee, 6 seed Auburn, 7 seed Arkansas and 8 seed Missouri.

Challenge time

The SEC has tightened the record with “wins” against the Big 12 in back-to-back years, but the conference would have to go 9-1 on Saturday to get ahead for good as this will mark the final year of the challenge. The Big 12 holds a 48-41 record in the nine previous years of the event, with one game — Texas at Kentucky — wiped out due to covid-19 issues in 2021.

The Big 12 can can clinch the 10-year challenge by going 2-8 on Saturday.

The SEC will take up a new challenge next season against the Atlantic Coast Conference.

This year’s challenge features just one matchup of ranked teams: No. 10 Texas at No. 4 Tennessee at 5 p.m. (ESPN).

Another marquee game is No. 9 Kansas, which has lost two games in a row, at Kentucky, which has won three in a row, at 7 p.m. (ESPN) from Rupp Arena.

Arkansas is on the road against the team with the best record in the challenge, Baylor, which is 7-2. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are all 6-3, while Kansas and TCU are 5-4. Worst record in the Big 12 belongs to West Virginia (2-7), which hosts Auburn at 1 p.m.

Florida (6-3), the only SEC team to play in all nine events, is also the only team with six wins in the series. Kentucky and Tennessee are both 5-3, Alabama is 4-2 and Arkansas (4-4) and Georgia (2-2) are the only other SEC schools without losing records.

The SEC’s worst record belongs to Ole Miss (1-6), with Mississippi State and South Carolina both at 1-3. Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina have missed five challenges, most in the SEC.

Other games

The four teams not involved in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge will face each other Saturday in games to be broadcast by the SEC Network.

Georgia will host South Carolina at 5 p.m. Central, followed by Vanderbilt at Texas A&M. All those teams have six conference games going into the week and will catch up with the other 10 teams with eight league games after Saturday.

Big leads

Alabama freshman Brandon Miller has a handy lead in the SEC scoring race by two points per game over LSU’s KJ Williams at 19.79 to 17.79. Arkansas guard Ricky Council had been second in the conference in scoring before two points in Saturday’s win over Ole Miss dropped his average to 17.16.

Only four other players average more than 15 points: Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe (16.65), South Carolina freshman GG Jackson (15.9), Georgia freshman Terry Roberts (15.9) and Missouri’s Kobe Brown (15.67).

Tshiebwe, the reigning NCAA player of the year, has 14 rebounds per game, nearly a point better than Purdue’s Zach Edey (13.2).

Golden moment

Florida Coach Todd Golden made a critical timeout call with his team struggling to get past full-court pressure during Mississippi State’s second half comeback in the final seconds on Saturday.

The Gators had been immediately trapped after inbounding from the corner on the Mississippi State baseline with 44 seconds left in the game while leading 61-59. Guard Myreon Jones had to throw the ball off a Bulldog just before stepping out of bounds with 39.2 seconds remaining.

After a timeout to review the possession, Florida inbounded to guard Will Richard, who hesitated a few seconds before throwing back to Jones. Just has Jones was heaving a long pass past half court Golden called and was granted a timeout. Jones’ pass air-mailed Richard and was headed out of bounds.

“Good timeout there because they had one second left before there was going to be a 10-second count,” said ESPN analyst and former Arkansas Razorback Joe Kleine.

Florida missed a three-point shot on its possession, but held off the Bulldogs when D.J. Jeffries missed a short bank shot and Cameron Matthews missed a tip-in try near the final buzzer.

FT update

Auburn’s Wendell Green has taken over the SEC lead in free-throw percentage at 83.6%, which is easily on track to being the lowest clip for the SEC leader in the last decade.

The lowest free-throw percentage for an SEC leader in the last 10 years was 87% by Arkansas guard Dusty Hannahs in 2015-16. Hannahs would go on to pace the SEC the following season at 90.8%, then guard Daryl Macon made it a three-peat for the Hogs with an 87.5% clip the next year.

Four SEC free throw percentage leaders have eclipsed 90% in the last decade, with Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley in 2019-20 (92.3%), Ole Miss’ Stefan Moody in 2014-15 (90.3%) and South Carolina’s Brenton Williams in 2013-14 (93.0%) joining Hannahs.

Green is ranked 97th in Division I, way behind NCAA leader Walter Clayton of Iona, who has made 47 of 48 (97.9%).

2 and 3

The SEC has five teams with at least two road wins in league play and four teams with at least three home losses in the conference.

Alabama and Tennessee lead the way with four SEC road wins each. The Crimson Tide have won at Mississippi State, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Missouri, by an average margin of 11.8 points.

The Volunteers have won road affairs at Ole Miss, South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU.

Auburn has three road wins, at Ole Miss, LSU and South Carolina, by an average of 14 points per game. Florida and Texas A&M have two road wins each.

The only four SEC teams without a road win are Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri.

South Carolina has lost all four its SEC home games, incredibly by an average of 27.8 points, including losses by 40-plus points to Tennessee and Texas A&M.

LSU has lost three home games to Florida, Auburn and Tennessee, by an average of 16.7 points per game. Ole Miss and Mississippi State have also dropped three at home.

Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams not to suffer a home conference setback.

Curiously, there are no SEC teams who are unbeaten at home and winless on the road.

Top players

Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe and Tennessee’s Julian Phillips were recognized as SEC players of the week on Monday by the league office.

Tshiebwe, a 6-9 senior from the Congo, was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22 points and 20.5 rebounds and shooting 60% field goals in wins over Georgia and Texas A&M, including a career-high 37 points and 24 rebounds against the Bulldogs. He now owns five of the seven games of 20-plus points and 18-plus rebounds by an SEC player in the last 10 years.

Phillips, a 6-8 forward from Blythewood, S.C., was named SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 14 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins at Mississippi State and LSU last week. With two starters out at Mississippi State, Phillips had 18 points and 11 rebounds for his second double-double.

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