After a decade of mediocrity, SEC men’s basketball has been on the rise in recent years. In fact, the league sent eight teams to the 2018 NCAA Tournament and seven to the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
However, as we enter the stretch run this week, only three SEC schools are ‘locks’ to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. There are two other teams — Florida and Arkansas — who were ‘in’ the projected field released Tuesday by ESPN’s bracket guru, Joe Lunardi.
The only locks are Kentucky, Auburn and LSU. The bubble teams that are currently on the outside looking in but have time to change that include Mississippi State, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina.
The Gators were a part of Lunardi’s ‘Last Four Byes’ before they went into College Station last night and dealt out woodshed treatment to Texas A&M in the form of a 78-61 shellacking as 5.5-point road ‘chalk.’
Andrew Nembhard, who missed practice Monday after turning his ankle in Saturday’s loss at Ole Miss, looked just fine while dropping a game-high 24 points on the Aggies. The sophomore point guard dished out five assists and hit 9-of-11 field-goal attempts and 3-of-5 launches from downtown.
Noah Locke had 21 points on 8-of-17 FGAs and 5-of-10 makes from 3-point land. Keyontae Johnson added 10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and one steal.
Florida improved to 15-9 overall and 7-4 in SEC play. Mike White’s club is in a tie for fourth place in the SEC standings with South Carolina. The Gators ended a five-game ATS losing slide, but they’re still just 9-15 ATS.
UF went from No. 46 in Ken Pom up to No. 40 with the road victory. The Gators got bumped up six notches in the NET rankings also, moving from No. 44 to No. 38.
Four of UF’s last seven games are at home vs. Vanderbilt, Arkansas, LSU and Kentucky. The three road games are at Kentucky, at Tennessee and at Georgia.
Arkansas (16-8 straight up, 12-12 ATS) is sliding fast and the loss of Isaiah Joe, one of the 10 finalists to win the Jerry West Award given annually to the nation’s best shooting guard, is a big reason why. Joe, who was averaging 16.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, had his knee scoped earlier this month and isn’t expected to be back until late February or early March.
Eric Musselman’s first team has lost three games in a row and four of its last five both SU and ATS. However, two of the defeats came in overtime (83-79 at Missouri and 79-76 vs. Auburn), while another was a 79-77 home loss to South Carolina.
Since Lunardi had Arkansas slotted as a 10 seed on Tuesday, it got run out of Knoxville in an 82-61 loss at Tennessee as a 3.5-point underdog.
Another bracket guru, @bracketguydave, who is the publisher of Bracketville, did his last update going into Monday’s action (2/10). He had the Razorbacks with the Gators among his ‘Last Four Byes.’ Bracketville also had Mississippi State grouped in his ‘Last Four In,’ but the Bulldogs got destroyed at Ole Miss since Dave’s last update.
Speaking of the Rebels, they’re on fire. Kermit Davis’s squad has won four of its last six games, compiling a 6-0 spread record. Breein Tyree dropped 40 points on MSU in Tuesday’s 83-58 win as a one-point home underdog.
The four recent wins for Ole Miss (13-11 SU, 12-11-1 ATS) have come by double-digit margins, including a 68-51 home win over Florida this past Saturday and an 84-70 home win over South Carolina on Feb. 5. One of the defeats during the Rebels’ 4-2 SU run was an 83-82 overtime loss to Auburn.
South Carolina (15-9 SU, 14-10 ATS) has won seven of its last 10 games, going 8-2 ATS in the process. Five of those seven victories have come by margins of 16, 20, 22, 26 and 14 points.
The Gamecocks went into Stegeman Coliseum last night and thumped Georgia 75-59 as 2.5-point road underdogs. Frank Martin’s club led 38-20 at halftime and coasted to victory.
A.J. Lawson led the way with 20 points, four rebounds, three steals and a pair of assists without a turnover. Jermaine Cousinard contributed 14 points, four assists, three boards and one steal.
Cousinard, a redshirt freshman out of Chicago, has been a big part of South Carolina’s recent success. He’s scored in double figures in eight of the last 10 games, including a career-best 28-point effort in a win over Missouri. Cousinard also dropped 26 points on Kentucky in an 81-78 win on Jan. 15.
South Carolina still has plenty of work to do, though. Martin’s team is currently No. 73 at KenPom and No. 65 in the NET rankings. Four of its seven remaining games are at home.
The Gamecocks’ resume suffered a pair of puncture wounds in home losses to Stetson (No. 295 KenPom) and Boston (No. 167). The Gamecocks have lost seven of 11 games against KenPom Top-100 foes. They have quality wins at Clemson (67-54), at Virginia (70-59), vs. UK and at Arkansas (79-77). In other words, USC fans need to be rooting for Clemson and UVA down the stretch (and the Tigers host Louisville on Saturday).
Alabama (13-11 SU, 17-7 ATS) has an easier schedule down the stretch, especially after Saturday’s crucial home game vs. LSU. This is the Crimson Tide’s best chance to bolster its profile until the SEC Tournament.
Nate Oats’s first team in Tuscaloosa has dealt with injuries galore, but this team shook off a 16-0 deficit at Auburn last night and eventually forced the game into overtime. However, the Tigers won a 95-91 decision with the Tide getting the cash as a seven-point road underdog.
There’s only one shameful defeat on Alabama’s resume, an 81-80 season-opening home loss vs. Penn (No. 146 at KenPom). That’s why the Tide’s KenPom ranking is in the Top 50 at No. 48. Hell, it’s No. 39 in the NET rankings.
Alabama is 5-10 against KenPom Top-100 opponents. Oats’s squad let several golden opportunities get away, including a 22-point lead at Florida early in the second half. The Gators made an epic rally and won in double overtime.
‘Bama lost by two (73-71) at Penn State, which is No. 11 at KenPom. The Tide let a double-digit lead get away in a 69-68 home loss vs. Tennessee, and it also dropped an 82-78 decision at home vs. Arkansas.
Now let’s hit on Mississippi State (15-9 SU, 13-10-1 ATS). Ben Howland’s team had covered the number in seven straight games, winning outright five times and losing by one — vs. Oklahoma in Oklahoma City and at LSU — twice.
Since the 7-0 ATS surge, however, MSU has lost two of its last three contests while going 0-3 ATS.
The Bulldogs are No. 49 at both KenPom and in the NET rankings. They’re 4-8 against KenPom’s Top 100, but their resume has only one loss to a team outside of KenPom’s Top 100 (a 62-58 home defeat vs. No. 103 New Mexico St.).
MSU’s best wins are vs. Kansas State (in Newark, N.J.), vs. Arkansas, at Florida and vs. Tennessee. The Bulldogs still face South Carolina twice, get Alabama at home on Feb. 25 and are in Fayetteville this weekend.
One first-year head coach that’s doing a helluva job is Vanderbilt’s Jerry Stackhouse, who has a roster depleted by two critical injuries. Nevertheless, the Commodores had covered the spread in four consecutive games and ended LSU’s 10-game winning streak in Nashville last week.
Vandy’s 4-0 ATS surge ended in Tuesday’s 78-64 home loss to Kentucky, but Stackhouse’s squad raced out to a 14-point lead on the Wildcats in the first half. John Calipari’s bunch didn’t take its first outright lead of the game until there was 11:17 remaining. They didn’t get ahead of the number — UK was an 11-point road favorite — for the first time until there was 2:26 left.
Vandy lost the SEC’s leading scorer, Aaron Nesmith, to a season-ending injury in early January. Nesmith was averaging 23.0 points per game. Also, the Commodores are playing without senior power forward Clevon Brown, who has been out since mid-December. Brown was averaging 9.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots in their first nine games when they were 6-3 SU and 5-4 ATS.
During the 4-0 ATS run, Vandy beat the closing numbers was by 43.5 combined points. It started when the ‘Dores led UK — again — for most of the game at Rupp Arena before a late rally allowed the ‘Cats to capture a 71-62 victory in a misleading final score.
**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**
–The ‘over’ has cashed in eight straight Arkansas games.
–The ‘over’ is on a 14-5 run for the Gators in their last 19 games. They host Vandy on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. ET. on the SEC Network. If UF is double-digit favorite (my line is -7.5 or eight), I’ll be backing the ‘Dores. The ‘under’ has cashed at a 7-3 clip for Vandy in its past 10 contests.
–The ‘over’ is on a 16-5 run for Mississippi State after cashing in each of its last five games.
–The three SEC ‘locks’ are ranked No. 27 (Kentucky), No. 32 (Auburn) and No. 34 (LSU) at KenPom. They’re in a first-place tie atop the league’s standings with 9-2 conference ledgers.
–I have Kentucky as an 8.5-point home favorite Saturday vs. Ole Miss. If the Rebels are double-digit underdogs, they’ll be a part of my Saturday selections.
–Missouri junior guard Mark Smith has missed four games in a row due to a knee injury and is ‘questionable’ Saturday vs. Auburn. Smith averages 10.9 points and 4.3 RPG. Mizzou’s Jeremiah Tilmon is ‘out’ indefinitely after sustaining a foot injury last week. Tilmon was averaging 8.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots per game.
–The SEC’s scoring leaders are Arkansas’ Mason Jones (20.0 PPG), Tyree (20.0 PPG), UGA’s Anthony Edwards (19.5 PPG), MSU’s Reggie Perry (17.7 PPG) and Alabama’s Kira Lewis (17.1 PPG).
–The SEC leading rebounders are Perry (9.9 RPG), Auburn’s Austin Wiley (9.4 RPG), UK’s Nick Richards (8.2 RPG), UF’s Kerry Blackshear (7.9 RPG) and LSU’s Darius Days (7.5 RPG).
–The SEC’s leaders in assists include UK’s Ashton Hagans (6.8 APG), Nembhard (5.7 APG), Lewis (5.1 APG), Auburn’s J’Von McCormick (4.8 APG) and Vandy’s Saben Lee (4.5 APG.
–Lee is the son of former NFL running back Amp Lee, who was a star for some of Bobby Bowden’s best FSU teams in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Saben Lee is also a cousin of FSU senior guard Trent Forrest. Amp Lee and Forrest played at Chipley High School in the Florida panhandle.
—Saturday’s SEC TV schedule: Mississippi State at Arkansas (1:00 p.m. ET., SEC Network), Ole Miss at Kentucky (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN), Georgia at Texas A&M (3:30, SEC Network), LSU at Alabama (4:00, ESPN2), Auburn at Missouri (6:00, ESPN2), Tennessee at South Carolina (6:00, SEC Network) and Vandy at UF (8:00, SEC Network).