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The Watch: Hey, the SEC is actually good basketball

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The high-profile games in the league dwindles this week, but we have the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and a fight in Cincinnati to get us through.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Florida
Florida pushed top-ranked Duke to the brink on Sunday, while schools across the SEC have flashed positive glimpses during non-conference play.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Who did you beat?

This query gets sculpted and reshaped when March arrives, but the crux of the matter remains the same. In a conference room, a bunch of athletic directors pore over team sheets, reams of data and stare at flat screens. All of it looks really technical, and when the head of the NCAA tournament selection committee appears in a split-box on TV, they toss around a bunch of jargon to make it sound tough.

But in many cases, dolling out at-large bids will always come down to wins and losses. Sure, a team—usually a mid-major—gets snubbed. We argue about the minutiae of seed lines or regional assignments, too. By and large, though, the committee gets it right.

Last week, there were teams that helped their cause and others—I’m looking at you Arizona and Saint Mary’s—who saw some luster get scratched off. And now we enter December, a span where the number of high-profile games levels off and the number of buy games rises. (The Big Ten-ACC Challenge is probably our last stretch of quality inter-conference showdowns.)

So it seems like a good time, with almost a quarter of the schedule gone, to take stock.

If you’re the SEC, you should be pleased.

On Monday morning, the wonks and technocrats had the SEC, which stands at 62-17 in non-con play, consistently rated as one of the three best so far.

Sure, RPI is extremely fluid at this juncture. But the SEC has done a nice job racking up wins that won’t grab headlines but help its underlying SOS. Namely, they’ve avoided embarrassing losses to low-majors and picked off teams who will be contenders in one-bid leagues: Texas-Arlington, Vermont, Louisiana-Lafayette, Lipscomb, Samford, and Bucknell. South Carolina lost to Illinois State, but the Redbirds should be a factor in the Missouri Valley. Vanderbilt fell at Belmont, but Rick Byrd’s crew is usually the favorite in the Ohio Valley.

The casual observer, however, will focus on how the league fares in blockbuster matchups. If we’re counting those, SEC has collected some decent chits in the season’s first month with wins over top-25 teams in West Virginia, Gonzaga, Purdue, USC and Saint Mary’s. Meanwhile, victories over Michigan, Oklahoma, and St. John’s may look good when March does get here.

  • Texas A&M, which has knocked off West Virginia and USC, carries the SEC banner.
  • Florida won a late-night, two-overtime thriller against Gonzaga on Friday and almost toppled No. 1 Duke on Sunday.
  • It’s been nice to see teams we expect to see at the bottom of the standings — LSU, Georiga, and Tennessee—score some neutral-floor upsets.
  • We’re waiting on John Calipari’s perennially young brood of talent, which lost to Kansas, to find its footing.
  • Vanderbilt should be commended for facing an early-season gauntlet that included USC, Virginia and Seton Hall—even all of those have ended up with the ‘Dores on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
  • You’d also expect Arkansas to falter against North Carolina and Tennessee to fall against Villanova.

All offseason, the savvy hoops fan could see talk of the SEC becoming a solid basketball conference was now a reality. OK, so it lacks a signature victory, but going 8-9 against other high-major conferences is a clear improvement from several years ago. Also, skim KenPom’s early ratings:

  • No. 5: Texas A&M
  • No. 9: Kentucky
  • No. 10: Florida
  • No. 27: Alabama
  • No. 30: Arkansas
  • No. 34: Tennessee
  • No. 39: South Carolina
  • No. 46: Auburn

Half the league sits in the top-50, and all of its members are in the top-100. There will be some shifts when last season’s data is totally expelled, but, for the most part, the SEC is healthy enough now that a .500 record in league play can keep you on the bubble. The conference’s scheduling mandate for non-league games, too, helps boost SOS for those schools fighting for a bid or to improve their seed line.

Right now, the SEC can answer the question we posed above with some confidence: “We’ve beaten some good teams.”

This week, the slate is relatively quiet when it comes to high-profile games. Next month, there are nine tilts that could draw eyes nationally, featuring Arizona, Cincinnati, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, UCLA, and Louisville. Have no fear, though, there’s plenty of matchups to get us through.


THE CAN’T MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Coppin State at Cincinnati
Gary Clark leads Cincinnati, who so far has flown under the radar, in one of the nation’s most bitter rivalries against Xavier.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

No. 11 Cincinnati vs. No. 21 Xavier | 11 a.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1

I have a confession: The Crosstown Shootout is my favorite rivalry game. Frankly, it’s why it’s here instead of Miami’s trip to Minnesota.

We talk about hate and loathing as features of these games, and, well, let’s go to the tape.

Once you visit The Queen City, it all clicks, too. Cincinnati’s geography is unique. It’s a city, but when plopped on an Appalachia-esque rolling terrain. It’s a city where neighborhood affiliation speaks volumes. There’s the always fun class warfare of public school squaring off against a moneyed, private Jesuit institution. The gyms are compact and the atmosphere one of outright antagonism. (It doesn’t help that the Cintas Center literally has a bar doling out heavy IPAs in the upper deck.) And it’s unique that both coaches aren’t just natives but alumni of the respective schools. To walk into the gym for this game isn’t quite on par with Mizzou-Kansas, but its certainly in the ballpark when it comes to vitriol.

Odd as it might sound, but the Bearcats have been under-the-radar since the season started. Wichita State, which is in its inaugural AAC season, walked in and not only swiped Cincy’s status as the league favorite but also the preseason pub that comes with it.

Yet Cincy is buoyed by having its top-three returning scorers back in the fold in forwards Gary Clark (13.7 points per game), Jarron Cumberland (12.5 ppg) and Jacob Evans (11.7 ppg) on a roster where five players average double figures. UC’s rep is built upon the idea that they bludgeon you to death in the half court and use a meat-and-potatoes offense to subsist and win. That’s changed, though. While UC is currently second in adjusted defensive efficiency, they’re 26th in offense and able to knock in jumpers—see a 42.3 3-point percentage—to supplement the damage they can wreak in the paint. Add in a transfer point guard Cane Broome, and Cronin has enough depth across the roster to make a deep push when March arrives.

What Cronin has lacked, though, is a deep tournament run—something his counterpart in Chris Mack possesses with four Sweet 16 trips in eight seasons.

Mack also has a healthy roster. Trevon Bluiett, a two-time All-Big East pick, is still around and burning defenses to the ground. It’s not just the fact he’s averaging 21.5 points per game. Bluiett is shooting 51 percent from behind the 3-point line and sporting a 131.6 offensive rating--100 is average—in KenPom, while consuming 27.7 percent of possessions. Senior guard J.P. Macura is also back and taunting student sections. Quentin Goodin appears more settled at the point guard spot, one he inherited on the fly after Edmund Sumner was lost to a torn ACL. The Musketeers should also have some more stability in the post with Tyrique Jones, Sean O’Mara and Kaiser Gates.

The ethos of both programs is toughness, but Xavier has always been more liberal with the pace and a tad more creative offensively. The perception of Cronin’s team has largely been that it bullies you into submission. It’ll be fascinating to see a UC squad more adept at executing in the half court squaring off in this one. And to see if we can stretch the streak of brawl-free games to six years.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Arkansas
Ole Miss has a legitimate guard combination in Deandre Burnett (left) and Terence Davis (right), but figuring out where the Rebels fit in the SEC mix is still tricky
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Tech at Ole Miss | 1 p.m. CT Saturday, SEC Network+

As I said earlier, it’s a slow week in the SEC.

By now, you may have seen the main contenders and mid-tier teams like Arkansas, Vanderbilt and, obviously, Missouri. LSU, Tennessee, and Georgia even served as bright spots last week. What’s unclear, though, is where we slot teams like Ole Miss.

Picking off Louisiana-Lafayette, who could contend with UTA in the Sun Belt, is a solid but expected win. The Rebels hung with Utah, who might be better than we thought, on a neutral floor out in Las Vegas. But after that, the strength of the non-conference schedule is unclear. South Dakota State could be a factor in the Summit. Middle Tennessee is always plucky. And Andy Kennedy scheduled Missouri Valley contender Illinois State.

As Sam Snelling will tell you, Kennedy is squeezing the max out of Ole Miss. He’s got a great wing duo in DeAndre Burnett and Terence Davis, who’s underrated in this league and playing with slightly more efficiency this season. Memphis transfer Markel Crawford hasn’t shot the ball all that well, but he’s adept at getting to the foul line. Marcanvis Hymon has been the best player on a frontline with questions. But we don’t know whether the Rebels are team that will crash the gate and finish in the top half of the standings.

Enter Virginia Tech, another team whose forecast is murky.

Buzz Williams has no doubt done a great job so far in Blacksburg, making the NCAA tournament a year ago. And his offense is humming despite losing its top-leading scorers, but they have four guys back who averaged north of nine points, their leader in assists (Justin Robinson), steals (Chris Clarke) and 3-pointers (Justin Bibbs.) Nickeil Alexander-Walker has also shown little hesitation to get in the mix.

That being said, the toughest team the Hokies have faced is Washington, which checks in at No. 141 in KenPom. They also lost on a neutral floor to Saint Louis, who are improved but shouldn’t beat a team some think could be a darkhorse in the ACC race.

Who knows how much clarity Saturday brings, but this potentially the best measure we’ll get of either program before January.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Butler vs Middle Tennessee
Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis Jr. has turned the Blue Raiders into one of the more reliable mid-majors in the country.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Tennessee at Florida Gulf Coast | 6 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN3

In 2012, you could have argued Kermit Davis Jr. was hexed. That season, Middle Tennessee blitzed it way through the Sun Belt Conference, going 25-5 overall and losing just two games in conference play. When it set foot on a makeshift floor in Hot Springs, Ark., for the quarterfinals of its conference tournament, the Blue Raiders were No. 50 in KenPom—on the knife’s edge of securing an at-large berth.

And they lost. To Arkansas State and John Brady, who was mentored by Davis father, Kermit Sr., a former coach at Mississippi State. I saw it courtside, and in the hallway afterward, Brady walked up and hugged his friend. Davis seemed to slump in Brady’s arms.

“I hurt for him,” Brady said. “We got one tonight, but he’s got an NCAA tournament team and it’s going to be left out.”

Later that week, the snub was official.

Today, Davis still leads one of college basketball’s best mid-majors, one that’s racked up a 71-19 league record since jumping to Conference USA and made three trips to the Big Dance. In 2016, the Blue Raiders took down No. 2 seed Michigan State. And last season, it culminated with a Sweet 16 run.

The heroes of that team—JaCorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw—have moved on, but wing Giddy Potts is back. And Davis, a master on the transfer market, has former Alabama big man Nick King plugged in. Point guard Tyrik Dixon hasn’t been stellar early, but he should round into form by the time MTSU tries to run roughshod through the CUSA.

MTSU built its schedule to avoid the plight it faced in 2012, too. It’s slated to face Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Auburn, and this will be its second tilt against Joe Dooley’s crew from FGCU. (They won last week by 13 points). The Eagles have the size in Michigan transfer Ricky Doyle (6-10) and Miami transfer Michael Gilmore (6-10) to contend with MTSU. They also bring back wing Brandon Goodwin, who’s off to a fast start averaging 16.3 points and 3.7 assists per game.

Lob City is now nostalgia, but Dooley has another Atlantic Sun contender on his hands. They also get MTSU at home for this tilt, one featuring two of the nation’s better mid-majors and a clash of Cinderellas.

Guard play should tip in MTSU’s favor, and if King and Brandon Walters can hold their own, the Blue Raiders should walk out of Fort Meyers with a nice win.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and others that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences.

Monday

  • Wisconsin at No. 18 Virginia, 8 p.m. CT, ESPN2

Tuesday

  • No. 16 Baylor at No. 21 Xavier, 5:30 p.m. CT, FS1
  • Northwestern at Georgia Tech, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN2
  • No. 17 Louisville at Purdue, 7 p.m. CT, ESPN
  • South Dakota State at Ole Miss, 7 p.m. CT, SEC Network+

Wednesday

  • Auburn at Dayton, 6 p.m. CT, CBS Sports Network
  • Michigan at No. 13 North Carolina, 6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN
  • No. 10 Miami (Fla.) at No. 12 Minnesota, 8:15 p.m. CT, ESPNU
  • No. 1 Duke at Indiana, 8:30 p.m. CT, ESPN

Thursday

  • No. 22 Texas Tech vs Seton Hall, 5:30 p.m., FS1
  • Notre Dame at No. 3 Michigan State, 6 p.m. CT, ESPN
  • South Carolina vs. Temple, 8 p.m. CT, ESPNU
  • Missouri at UCF, 8 p.m. CT, ESPN2

Friday

  • Purdue at Maryland, 6 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network
  • No. 25 Creighton at No. 15 Gonzaga, 9 p.m. CT, ESPN2

Saturday

  • Virginia Tech at Ole Miss, 1 p.m., SEC Network+
  • Georgia at Marquette, 1 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • Providence at Rhode Island, 4 p.m. CBS Sports Network
  • Arkansas at Houston, 6:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • Arizona at UNLV, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • No. 14 USC at SMU, 9 p.m. CT, ESPNU

Sunday

  • UCF at No. 24 Alabama, 1 p.m. CT, ESPNU
  • Kansas State at Vanderbilt, 1:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network+
  • Seton Hall at No. 17 Louisville, 3 p.m. CT, ESPN2
  • Northwestern at Purdue, 3 p.m., Big Ten Network
  • Tennessee at Georgia Tech, 5 p.m. CT, ESPNU
  • Dayton at Mississippi State, 7 p.m. CT, SEC Network

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!