SEC basketball report: Iron Bowl of hoops may determine league's best

Auburn guard Tre Donaldson brings the ball down court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against LSU Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

FAYETTEVILLE — The last remaining unbeaten teams in SEC league play come from what might be the most football-obsessed state in the conference’s footprint.

Alabama and Auburn are the last schools to retain clean league records at 3-0 after the first two weekends of action.

On the other end of the spectrum, Arkansas, Missouri and Vanderbilt are 0-3.

Auburn has won nine games in a row since a 69-64 loss at Appalachian State on Dec. 3 and has been doing it in dominant fashion.

Auburn’s last nine wins have all come by double figures, including an opponent-record 32-point victory at Arkansas’ Walton Arena. The combined margin of victory in those games, which also includes a 104-76 win over Indiana in Atlanta, is 22.4 points per game.

The closest score in that time frame was a 66-55 win over Texas A&M last Tuesday.

The Tigers go on the road to face Vanderbilt in the 8 p.m. time slot (SEC Network) on Wednesday before hosting a big showdown against Ole Miss at Neville Arena at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night.

The week after that, Auburn goes on the road for the first of two Iron Bowl hoops meetings against Alabama, which thumped South Carolina 74-47 and won on the road at Mississippi State (82-74) last week.

The Crimson Tide have won five in a row since suffering a three-game losing streak against top 10 teams Purdue, Creighton and Arizona, all away from home.

Alabama opened 3-0 in SEC play for the third time under fifth-year Coach Nate Oats.

The Tide held Mississippi State scoreless for the final 2:42 at Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday and pulled away from a tie game to score the final eight points, the first six of them by Mark Sears, in the 82-74 decision.

Alabama, with an average winning margin of 25.4 points per game during a five-game winning streak, will host Missouri on Tuesday before a big matchup against Tennessee on Saturday.

In and out

Jerry Palm of CBSSports included eight SEC teams in his NCAA Tournament bracket projection on Monday, highlighted by Tennessee as a No. 2 seed.

Also in his bracket were 4 seed Kentucky, 5 seeds Alabama and Ole Miss, 6 seed Auburn, 8 seed South Carolina, and 9 seeds Mississippi State and Texas A&M.

While Palm had no SEC “bubble” teams, the latest bracket for ESPN’s Joe Lunardi did, with South Carolina listed as one of his last four teams in the field. That was projected before the Gamecocks defeated Missouri on the road in overtime on Saturday.

Seeds for SEC teams in Lunardi’s picks were 2 Tennessee, 3 Auburn, 6 Alabama, 8 Ole Miss, 9 Mississippi State and Texas A&M, and 11 South Carolina.

Rebel run

Ole Miss broke its modest school-record streak at the SJB Pavilion with its 10th victory in a row in Saturday’s 69-56 win over Vanderbilt.

The Rebels, out to an SEC-best 15-1 mark under first-year Coach Chris Beard, have scored 40-plus points in a half five times, all in the last seven games.

Asked what 10 straight home wins means to the program, Beard said, “If you’re going to do the things we’d like to do, to be one of those teams in the tournament that has a chance to win six games in three weekends, then you’ve got to have some streaks throughout the season.

“The ultimate goal is to win six in a row. You’ve got to do it a few times during the year to prove to yourselves you can do that. … We have a home court advantage in Oxford now. It’s got to continue to get better and it will.”

Gamecock tough

South Carolina, which bounced back from a 27-point loss at Alabama to outlast Missouri in overtime in Columbia, Mo., on Saturday, is one of the surprise teams in the SEC.

The Gamecocks (14-2, 2-1 SEC), already have three more wins than they did in Coach Lamont Paris’ debut last year when South Carolina finished 11-21 overall and 4-14 in the SEC.

The Gamecocks showed their mettle by hanging tough in a rowdy environment against the Tigers. They never led in the second half at Missouri until the extra period.

“Fitting that there would be some drama at the end,” Paris said. “It was a lot of fun. A fun game, a fun time of year with conference play starting. Everything’s on the line and everybody’s in the hunt so we’re going to get a lot of games like this.”

South Carolina won its first overtime game since a 74-71 decision at Georgetown on Dec. 3, 2022. The Gamecocks were 0-3 in overtime games in league play last year, the losses coming at Vanderbilt and Georgia and at home against No. 2 Alabama.

Knecht-ing

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht (pronounced “connect”) might be the best transfer in the league.

The 6-6 guard, who transferred from Northern Colorado, scored 36 points on 12 of 20 shooting, including 5 of 8 from three-point range, to help the No. 6 Volunteers rally from an 11-point deficit in the final 6:10 to win 85-79 at Georgia on Saturday.

Vols Coach Rick Barnes compared his play on the road to that of Kevin Durant, who played for Barnes at Texas, who happens to be Knecht’s favorite player.

Knecht was asked about a Georgia player “yapping at him” in the second half.

“He said a little stuff and … I’ll finish the convo for sure,” Knecht told reporters at Stegeman Coliseum. “I’ll finish the trash talk. Shout out to him for getting me right.”

Knecht is one of three Division I players to have multiple 30-point games after going for 37 in a loss at North Carolina and 36 against the Bulldogs. He is averaging 31.3 points in road games.

Knecht had a big opening to the season, earning SEC Player of the Week honors and surpassing the 1,000-point mark for his career.

Milestone ahead

Kentucky Coach John Calipari is sitting one win from 400 with the Wildcats with a record of 399-116 (77.5%).

The Wildcats’ coach fell to 12-4 against Texas A&M with a 97-92 overtime loss in his first shot at win No. 400 in Lexington, Ky.

Calipari will aim for that milestone win on Wednesday at Rupp Arena against Mississippi State.

The veteran coach, who has led UMass, Memphis and Kentucky to the Final Four, has a 187-61 record (75.4%) in SEC games.

Final Fours

Alabama and Tennessee, two of the best programs in the SEC for the last half decade, remain two of the six league schools who have failed to reach at Final Four.

The other schools who have yet to play in the Final Four are Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

South Carolina under Frank Martin in 2017 and Auburn under Bruce Pearl in 2019 are the latest SEC teams to reach their first Final Four.

Ole Miss and Texas A&M have never advanced beyond the Sweet 16, while the best advances by Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have ended at the Elite Eight.

Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina have played in only one Final Four.

Kentucky leads the conference with 17 Final Four appearances, followed by Arkansas (6), Florida (5) and LSU (4).

Kentucky also leads the conference with 8 NCAA championships, while Florida has 2 and the Razorbacks 1.

Shooting 50%

Florida’s Tyrese Samuel hit 8 of 13 shots (61.5%) against Arkansas to maintain his spot atop the league’s field goal percentage stat at 62.8%.

Only six qualifying SEC players are making 50% of their shots, and somewhat surprisingly four of them are guards.

Alabama’s Mark Sears (54.5%), the SEC’s leading scorer with 20.3 points per game, Missouri’s Sean East (54.1%), Arkansas’ Tramon Mark (53%) and Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves (50.8) join Samuel and fellow forward Johni Broome of Auburn (55%) as the league’s only qualifiers to hit half their shots. To qualify, a player must average five made field goals per game and be on track to play in 75% of their team’s games.

Top players

Alabama’s Mark Sears, Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht and Mississippi State’s Josh Hubbard split up SEC Player of the Week honors as announced by the league office on Monday.

Sears and Knecht shared SEC Player of the Week status and Hubbard was named league Freshman of the Week.

Sears, a 6-1 guard from Muscle Shoals, Ala., averaged 26.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals in wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State and made 8 of 13 three-pointers. Knecht, a 6-6 guard from Thornton, Colo., averaged 32 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in games at Mississippi State and Georgia. He was 9 of 17 (52.8%) on three-point shots.

Hubbard, a 5-9 freshman from Madison, Miss., averaged 19.5 points and 2 rebounds in games against Tennessee and Alabama, including a 25-point effort on 8 of 15 shooting in a 77-72 win over the Vols.