Winning basketball games is fun. Whether you're breaking a losing streak that spanned a month and a half, adding that much-needed resume booster to impress the committee, or remorselessly ticking off box #28, everything seems a bit nicer the next day when your team gets one in the W column. Much-needed wins were showing up all over the SEC this week. Let's get right to the action:
LSU (84) - Auburn (61)
Consensus still has the Tigers on the right side of the bubble despite some truly mystifying losses (@Missouri, @MSU, Auburn). If they wanted to stay there, they had to avenge their earlier loss to Bruce Pearl's breed of Tigers, ideally with a minimum of fuss. And that they did, emphatically picking up the revenge win in Auburn Arena.
And again, as it seems to go lately, Jarell Martin was out in front. There were no highlight-reel worthy dunks this time but he was the catalyst with another double-double of 25 points, 11 rebounds. There was just nobody on Auburn with the right combo of size and ability to guard him, keep him away from the rim or stop his increasingly lethal pull-up jumpers. When he plays like an All-SEC player, LSU is the kind of team capable of winning by 23 on the road or taking Kentucky to the buzzer.
Auburn's season has been frustrating at times, but even in that frustration there are bright spots. Bruce Pearl inspires an intensity that will definitely translate into success going forward. He's gotten so much out of a team that is a patched together collection of players and has dealt with injury and being smaller than almost every team they've played.
Alabama (59) - South Carolina (51)
Alabama will probably be playing in the NIT this March, but even that tournament has only so many spots available. Beating South Carolina won't turn any national heads, but the Crimson Tide needed this win all the same.
The Tide outscored the Gamecocks 15-7 down the stretch with Randolph scoring seven of the 15 points. South Carolina managed one field goal in the final five minutes of the ball game. Another scoring drought killed USC, now making it the official characteristic of the 2014-15 South Carolina basketball team.
Inexplicably the Gamecocks, despite a 36-26 rebounding margin and a considerable size advantage, hoisted up an incredible 30 three-point attempts. With the Tide playing basically five guards through much of the night, and with Alabama's bigger players in foul trouble, it would seem that the Gamecocks did Coach Grant's squad a favor by not feeding the ball inside more.
Missouri (64) - Florida (52)
Billy Donovan has 499 wins, but he'll have to wait before he gets #500, as Missouri broke a seemingly interminable losing streak thanks in large part to the hot shooting of Namon Wright. Sure, Florida has fallen off quite a bit from last year's senior-laden Final Four team, and two of the Gators' best players missed the game, but when wins are as rare as they have been this season, you savor them.
Florida's season hasn't gone well at all, and the Tigers might well have put the final nail in the coffin, consigning UF to a sub-.500 season. The karmic balance has come full circle, says Alligator Army:
Florida is bad right now, as bad in some ways as last year's magnificent team was good, as if the pendulum has swung all the way from one end of its period to the other. Its semi-realistic hopes of a winning season were vaporized tonight; its hopes of recording the 17th straight season 20-win season under Billy Donovan were already gone.
Again, Mizzou was so very much due a game like this, but it was actually more encouraging that the Tigers still did plenty of things poorly. As fun as it would have been to go crazy and win by 30, it was exciting to see Mizzou follow what could become a pretty reliable recipe. Yes, Wright was 10-for-13 from the field, which is unsustainable, but Wright, Teki, and Shamburger were 13-for-27, and the team as a whole shot only 43%. Mizzou enforced some semblance of control of the rim on defense (again, thanks to Gant as much as anybody), and when it was winning time late, the Tigers made their shots and the Gators didn't.
Arkansas (81) - Texas A&M (75)
This game had major tournament implications, with Arkansas trying to boost its seeding and the Aggies looking for a signature win to lock them into the field. The Hogs got the win (all but locking down second place in the conference in the process), but a lead that was at several points well over 20 was cut down to two at one point. A&M didn't get the big win they were looking for, but the road comeback should at least keep them from losing catchet in the eyes of the tournament committee.
They just ran out of time (and missed entirely too many point blank shots). But seriously, that was an impressive second half from the Aggies. The kids fought back bit by bit, and showed tremendous amounts of heart out there. It would have been really easy to mail it in after the first half, but they made this thing into a ballgame with 5 minutes lef as they cut the lead to 6. You have to be proud of the fight. If only it was there for 40 minutes. The fact that this was even exciting at the end was impressive.
The easy story is that the Hogs just didn't play with the same intensity they did while building the big lead. There may be some truth to that, but Arkansas' seven 2nd half blocks suggest they were still active, even if some of their fundamentals began to slip. The Aggies only had a rebounding advantage of 16-12 at halftime, but dominated the glass 28-11 in the final 20 minutes. That, along with trimming their turnovers from 16 to 5 after half, was a big reason they were able to cut Arkansas' lead to as few as two points and put a big scare in Bud Walton Arena.
Kentucky (74) - Mississippi State (56)
Another game, another easy win against an overmatched opponent for Kentucky. At least the Bulldogs kept it close for a significant portion of the game, down only 4 with 15 minutes left. But then, as they have so many times this season, the Wildcats hit the accelerator and left their opponents in the dust, winning going away. UK only needs 3 more wins for the undefeated season, but what might be their toughest test is coming up next with Arkansas visiting Rupp Arena Saturday.
Kentucky was able to find intensity tonight when they lacked it — it’s the old golf adage that if you didn’t bring it with you, you won’t find it on the course.
It’s really pretty rare for college basketball teams to be able to change speeds like that, and it’s normally only found in teams good enough to win it all. I’d rather never see that, but now that I have, I guess it’s somewhat praiseworthy. Let’s hope we don’t have to count on it again.
For Whom the Cowbell Tolls posted a preview, but no recap. Take your revenge by voting against their baseball uniform.
Georgia (76) - Ole Miss (72)
Georgia picked up an all-caps BIG WIN, taking down the likely tournament-bound Rebels on the road. No better kind of win this time of year, and it was one the Bulldogs (Georgian variety) desperately needed after a recent slide. Good win for anyone hoping to maximize the SEC's presence in March as well, as all 4 bubble teams are sticking around for now.
The Bulldogs pushed the lead to as many as 12 points before the Rebels mounted a charge late. Stefan Moody cut Georgia's lead to 60-58 with a three-pointer with 4:02 remaining. The Bulldogs turned to their senior leader in Marcus Thornton who responded with five straight points and seven of the team's next nine to regain some separation.
Oh, no worries here at Red Cup Rebellion. Ole Miss is safe. Perfectly safe, for sure.
Wednesday's loss stings somewhat down the stretch, since the Rebs' recent conference streak has gained them leverage against a total NCAA Tournament fail; at this point, truth be told, Ole Miss is arguing for seeding bids. AK's men must now turn their attention to LSU, which has lurked just beneath Ole Miss in the NCAA RPI all season. If the Rebs suffer a two-loss week against Georgia and LSU, the Rebs' 8 or 9-seed tournament bid grows much more volatile.
It's stretch run time, and the SEC Tournament is right around the corner. Chris will be updating y'all on Saturday's action, including the #1 vs. #2 (SEC-wise) clash of Kentucky and Arkansas. I will be back with my last regular season wrap-up next week.