SEC Basketball Report: Big games on tap between teams near top of standings

Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi (25) plays during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

The shape of the top of the SEC basketball race is sure to be impacted this week as there are a few pairings among the strongest contenders, starting with tonight’s South Carolina at Tennessee matchup at 5:30 p.m. Central on SEC Network.

The Gamecocks (17-3, 5-2 SEC) are perhaps the biggest surprise team in the conference under second-year Coach Lamont Paris.

South Carolina already has two SEC road wins, a 71-69 overtime decision at Missouri on Jan. 13 and a convincing 77-64 win at Arkansas on Jan. 20.

The win over the Razorbacks kick-started a 3-0 run for the Gamecocks, who are coming off a 2-0 week at home. South Carolina thumped No. 6 Kentucky 79-62 at home last Tuesday and followed that with a rugged 72-64 win over Missouri.

The Gamecocks had some struggles against Missouri’s zone defense, which Missouri Coach Dennis Gates has used to a solid effect in recent games. South Carolina guard Meechie Johnson, the team’s leading scorer at 15.7 points per game, did not score against the Tigers with a 0-of-9 shooting performance that included 0 of 7 from three-point range.

South Carolina trailed 40-20 on points in the paint against Missouri while holding the Tigers to 2 of 8 from three-point range.

The Gamecocks are 5-2 in league action for the ninth time in school history, but history is not on their side tonight.

Tennessee (15-4, 5-1 SEC) held at No. 5 in Monday’s Associated Press Top 25 after rallying from a 9-point deficit to down Vanderbilt 75-62 on the road Saturday. Guard Santiago Vescovi made his UT-record 129th career start in that game.

The Volunteers have won 9 of 10 games in the series after crushing the Gamecocks in both meetings last year. Tennessee’s 85-42 win in Columbia, S.C., last season was the largest margin of defeat for South Carolina as an SEC team. The Vols also won 85-45 on Feb. 25 in Knoxville, Tenn.

In addition to tonight’s marquee game between South Carolina and Tennessee, the SEC will offer up other critical matchups this week, including the first of two Egg Bowl hardwood editions with Mississippi State visiting Ole Miss tonight at 7:30 p.m. on SEC Network.

Saturday will feature a pair of games with a bearing on the league leaders. Tennessee will visit Kentucky in the 7:30 p.m. ESPN game and Auburn will travel to Ole Miss for a 5 p.m. tip on SEC Network.

In and out’s Jerry Palm included seven SEC teams in his NCAA Tournament projection Monday. That was the same number’s Joe Lunardi included in his bracket on Friday, though with one notable exception. Palm’s picks included Ole Miss, which rallied late to defeat Texas A&M 71-68 last Saturday, while Lunardi’s included the Aggies and left Ole Miss out.

Palm projected Tennessee as a 2 seed and Kentucky as a 3 seed for the highest among SEC teams. Those were followed by 4-seed Alabama, 5-seed Auburn and 8 seeds in Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina in a top-heavy projection. He included Florida among his first four teams out of the tournament.

Lunardi’s projection also featured Tennessee as a 2 seed, Auburn as a 3 seed, Alabama and Kentucky as 4 seeds, Texas A&M as an 8 seed, South Carolina as a 9 seed and Mississippi State as a 10 seed. He has Mississippi State among his last four byes, Ole Miss in his first four out and Florida among his next four out.

The seven SEC teams tied the Big East for the second-most bids in Lunardi’s projection behind the Big 12 with nine.

State being great

Mississippi State is building a solid NCAA Tournament resume under second-year Coach Chris Jans with a pair of wins over AP Top 10 teams for the first time since 2001-02, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.

The Bulldogs are the only SEC team to defeat Tennessee this season, dealing the No. 5 Vols a 77-72 loss at Humphrey Coliseum on Jan. 10.

On Saturday, Mississippi State downed No. 8 Auburn 64-58. The Bulldogs broke a streak of 39 consecutive missed three-point shots against the Tigers.

“I know it isn’t always aesthetically pleasing for everybody, but you get into conference games against good teams, and you’ve got to slow it down a little bit and it becomes somewhat of a rock fight,” Jans said. “That was a classic rock fight this afternoon.”

The Bulldogs (14-6, 3-4 SEC) held Auburn to 33.9% shooting, including 25% from three-point range, and out-rebounded the Tigers 45-30.

Spotless at home

Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee are the only SEC teams to remain unbeaten at home in conference play through seven playing dates. All of those teams are battling in the top echelon of the league. Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee are all unbeaten at home, while the Crimson Tide fell 85-77 at Coleman Coliseum to Clemson in the ACC/SEC Challenge, and the Wildcats dropped an 80-73 decision to North Carolina-Wilmington on Dec. 2.

Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina are all 3-1 at home in SEC play, while Georgia and LSU are 2-1.

The only winless home teams in SEC action are the schools at the bottom of the standings, as Missouri and Vanderbilt are both 0-3. The Commodores have had it tough, falling to league leaders Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee so far at Memorial Gym.

Triple figures

Alabama’s 109-88 win over LSU on Saturday put it in sole possession of first place in the SEC at 6-1 in search of back-to-back conference championships.

The high-scoring affair also marked a school-record sixth 100-point game for the Crimson Tide, their first in league play.

Alabama also cracked the century mark against Morehead State (105-73), Indiana State (102-80) and South Alabama (102-46) in succession in November, and against Eastern Kentucky (111-67) and Liberty (101-56). The Tide also have 99- and 98-point games this season.

Alabama has scored big on LSU in back-to-back seasons following a 106-66 drubbing last Jan. 14 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Off the pace

Kentucky was leading the NCAA in scoring at this time last week with an average of 91.6 points per game. After a 79-62 loss at South Carolina followed by a 63-57 win at Arkansas, the Wildcats dropped to 88.5 points per game, which is fourth in the country.

The new NCAA scoring leader is Alabama, which is at 89.7 points per game, fractions ahead of Arizona (89.3).

Open dates

LSU and Texas A&M will not have mid-week games this week as the SEC cycles through its open dates. The one-game breaks came about because the SEC moved and changed its “challenge” series, now the ACC/SEC Challenge, to the pre-conference portion of the schedule after it took place in late January during the run of the 10-year Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Tennessee and Vanderbilt did not play mid-week games last week. Arkansas and Florida will have open dates on the Feb. 6-7 window, the quartet of Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi State will not play on Feb. 13-14 and Auburn and South Carolina are off on Feb. 20-21.

Additionally, Ole Miss has a rare Saturday open date on Feb. 10, the same day Kentucky hosts Gonzaga, making the Wildcats the only conference team without an open date during league play.

Cat droppings

Kentucky’s defensive effort in last Saturday’s 63-57 win at Arkansas marked season lows for Wildcat SEC opponents in a number of areas.

Arkansas shot 33.3% from the field and 21.4% on three-pointers, both opponent lows in league play for Kentucky. Additionally, the Razorbacks’ 57 points was the lowest by 20 points in conference play.

Both Missouri and Mississippi State scored 77 against the Wildcats in identical 90-77 losses on back-to-back playing dates at Rupp Arena on Jan. 9 and Jan. 17.

Final four

Texas A&M had strange back-to-back 4-minute finishes in the last week. In a 73-69 win at LSU on Jan. 20, the Aggies held the Tigers to one field goal in the last 4-minute stretch to overcome them on the road.

One week later, the Aggies led Ole Miss 60-53 on a Wade Taylor jumper with 3:39 remaining before collapsing in a 71-68 loss at home. The Rebels erased their deficit with a 9-0 run in a span of 2:05, with Brandon Murray scoring the first 5 points in the spurt. Jaylen Murray’s three-pointer with 22 seconds left broke a 62-62 tie.

Ole Miss converted its last 9 free throws while Texas A&M went 12 of 22 (.545) from the stripe.

Top players

Alabama guard Mark Sears and Mississippi State guard Josh Hubbard earned SEC weekly honors from the league office Monday.

Sears, a senior from Muscle Shoals, Ala., averaged 21.5 points, 6.5 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in wins over No. 8 Auburn and LSU last week. The transfer from Ohio prior to last season, who has 11 20-point games this year, was the SEC Player of the Week.

Hubbard, a 5-10, 190-pounder from Madison, Miss., picked up SEC Freshman of the Week honors for the third time after averaging 21.5 points and 3 rebounds against Florida and Auburn, including 26 points at Florida, his fifth game of 20-plus points off the bench.