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The Watch: The SEC race will be tight

The SEC is mimicking college basketball, where dominant teams are hard to find and an abundance of good teams can lay claim to a title.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: Matt finished this yesterday, and I didn’t realize there was a Monday game involved, so I saved it for today. I am dumb, and Matt is not. But enjoy anyway.)


Man, things got loopy last weekend.

First, there are no undefeated teams left in college basketball. Butler bombed Villanova. Trae Young was ridiculous (again) in throwing 39 points and 14(!) assists to push Oklahoma past TCU. Out west, Arizona knocked off Arizona State. And Alabama took advantage key absences to knock off Texas A&M.

With three top-10 teams falling, a path opened up for Michigan State to ascend to the No. 1 spot in the polls, but this is clearly a year that lacks dominant teams. According to the AP, it’s the first time since 1948-49 that we enter a new year without an undefeated team. To look back at the preseason poll is to count the top-15 teams—Arizona, Florida, USC, Notre Dame and Minnesota—who’ve slumped and slid out of the poll entirely at different points in time.

The Southeastern Conference epitomizes that parity, too.

Currently, KenPom projects a three-way tie between Kentucky, Texas A&M and Arkansas atop the league, with all three finishing 12-6 in the SEC. Meanwhile, Tennessee (11-7), Auburn (10-8) and Alabama (10-8) aren’t expected to finish far off the pace.

Our default setting is to pick between Kentucky and Florida and worry little about the rest of the pack. Not this year.

Again, UK is defined by youth, but the Cats looked impressive demolishing Louisville by 29 points and followed it up Sunday with a five-point win in a cage fight against Georgia. Tennessee is a mere 11 seconds from being 11-1 and a resume that includes wins over Purdue, North Carolina and Arkansas. Speaking of the Hogs, you could argue Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon are still criminally underrated nationally as a guard duo. Until recently, A&M looked the clear favorite, and it should have D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder back well in time for the stretch run.

And that’s before you consider Auburn is thriving after early-season tumult. Alabama still has Collin Sexton, John Petty and an intriguing blend of Donta Hall, Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key. Oh, and Missouri’s rebuild is well ahead of schedule under Cuonzo Martin, even if Michael Porter Jr. never sets foot on a court as a college player.

This week, the SEC schedule could spawn the makings of a quagmire. Take a gander at these matchups:

  • Kentucky at Tennessee
  • Florida at Texas A&M
  • Arkansas at Auburn
  • Florida at Missouri
  • Alabama at Georgia

All eight of the conference’s potential contenders for NCAA tournament bids square off in critical games. For most of the past decade, the lament has been that the SEC doesn’t offer up consequential games and a competitive conference race. That’s not the case this season. And it’s unlikely the picture gets less muddled as the games unfold.


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: Boston College at Virginia
Sophomore guard Kyle Guy learned under Virginia veterans like London Pearrantes last season and is now holding the reigns for another efficient Cavaliers roster.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

No. 12 North Carolina at No. 8 Virginia, Noon CT Saturday, ESPN

Forgetting about Virginia has been easy.

North Carolina entered the year as reigning national champion. Duke’s recruiting haul, bestowed us with the presence of Marvin Bagley III. Louisville fired Rick Pitino after the program was ensnared in the U.S. Justice Department’s pay-for-play investigation, an imbroglio that has also frayed some nerves at Miami.

Meanwhile, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett stayed put in Charlottesville, building another team whose pace is plodding and pack line defense remains an acquired taste for a casual hoops fan.

Yet here we are.

It’s early January, and Virginia sits No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency and features a star—sophomore Kyle Guy—styled in the same manner as unassuming predecessors Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes. Yet Guy, who hails from Indianapolis, Ind., isn’t a modestly-rated prospect. He was the No. 37 prospect and a McDonald’s All-American in 2016, one of four top-100 players Bennett assembled for a class that finished seventh in the country.

For a program like Virginia, which excels at sculpting players over four years, importing players farther along the developmental curve is a major boon. And it’s paid off this year. Guy and Ty Jerome are ideal combo guards for Bennett’s system. Guy is a phenomenal athlete and his jump shot, with range well beyond the college 3-point line, can be launched off pin-downs or on pull-ups off the break. He’s also got great burst and can make terrific passes in the open floor. Jerome won’t beat people in a foot race, but he can also get his shot off in tight quarters and is crafty off the dribble.

In the post, senior Isaiah Wilkins does nitty-gritty work: crashing the glass, protecting the rim and finishing nearly 68 percent of his shots in the paint. Frontcourt partner Jack Salt also does yeomen’s work.

In North Carolina, Bennett’s group faces its stylistic opposite. Developed by Dean Smith and tweaked by Roy Williams, UNC’s secondary break offense is easy to describe. A big man makes a rim run, followed by quick ball reversals, a back-side cut by a big man, who may set a cross-screen for the center as the ball whips back around the arc. If this doesn’t work, the Heels simply flow into their motion offense.T hat might be trickier at times Saturday. Luke Maye is a bonafide inside-out threat, but the rest of the Heels’ frontcourt is young and doesn’t get a ton of use when on the floor.

Against UVA, however, Williams’ teams have been slowed to a crawl. Over the past 10 meetings, UNC and UVA have averaged roughly 63 possessions—almost 12 less than the Heels get most nights this season. And while Bennett’s pack line has been effective at choking off paint production, it makes these games into shooting contests. While the ebb and flow of each meeting are different, the outcome tends to hinge on who shots the ball better from behind the 3-point line

The Heels and Hoos are both among the best in the country at knocking in jumpers, but UNC has struggled against good perimeter shooting teams, giving up 39.7-percent shooting from behind the arc. Meanwhile, UNC doesn’t put up a ton of 3-point attempts each night. If the pack line is working, Maye will be working in a clogged interior and Joel Berry won’t have gaps to probe. And while UNC can knock down perimeter looks, living by them isn’t how Williams builds his teams.


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: James Madison at Florida
Against Vanderbilt, Florida showed flashes of the team we saw in November. This week, they visit Texas A&M for a vital game early in SEC play.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida at No. 11 Texas A&M | 8 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN2

Saying this is a must-win game for Texas A&M probably veers to close to hyperbole.

But dropping back-to-back tilts against Alabama and Florida isn’t ideal if you’re trying to unseat Kentucky.

Sure, the Aggies were drilled by 22 points at Alabama on Saturday. Context matters, though. Senior guard Admon Gilder was sidelined with a sprained knee. And D.J. Hogg, who’s newfound shooting stroke has been critical, sat out the second of three games as part of a recent suspension. With their best outside shooters parked, coach Billy Kennedy’s squad bricked 19 of 21 shots from the 3-point line, a wretched shooting display that his deep frontcourt couldn’t offset.

While Hogg will be back next weekend and, ideally, Gilder shortly behind him, they won’t be available when Florida waltzes into College Station for a game whose outcome might matter in March. The Aggies’ early stretch in SEC play, featuring Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee is among the most daunting in the conference. And in a year where tiebreaker rules may hold sway, dropping early games to the likes of the Tide, Gators or Wildcats—all of whom were expected to contend with A&M atop the confernece—looms large.

Speaking of the Gators, they finally resembled the team we saw in November at the Phil Knight Invitational. Against Vanderbilt, Florida found defensive tenacity that had been inconsistent throughout the year, holding the Commodores to 28-percent shooting—including 15.4 percent inside the arc—to build a 20-point lead at the break. Meanwhile, Kevaugh Allen, who scored 16 points on 4 of 6 shooting, looked like a player who’d sloughed off a malaise that lingered over the course of non-conference play.

A UF team that’s engaged defensively and with an effective Allen, who can be paired with weapons like Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov, is one that can contend for the SEC title.

It’s also catching A&M at the right time. Under normal circumstances, the Aggies’ wing depth would match what UF coach Mike White rolls out, and the post trio of Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos would be shoulders above the Gators’ front line. Not on Tuesday. When pressed into major roles, freshmen JJ Caldwell, TJ Starks and a Savion Flagg have struggled, such as scoring 12 points on combined 3 of 20 shooting against the Crimson Tide, to shoulder the burden normally ferried by veterans.

It’s easy to envision a scenario where Davis and Williams dominate the paint but UF’s wings swamp the Aggies, especially if Koulechov, Hudson and Chris Chiozza are on target from long-range. Looking to senior point guard Duane Wilson might be foolhardy, too. While he’s settled the position for A&M, his forte is moving the ball and defending, and shooting 29.5 percent from the 3-point line doesn’t hint that he can pick up that slack.

For Florida, this road trip, which also features a visit to Missouri on Saturday, stood out in an otherwise favorable early-league docket before possibly seeing the return of forward John Egbunu later this month. For all the turbulence the Gators hit during December, there’s a chance they could still wind up on course by late 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: Northern Kentucky at Texas A&M
Northern Kentucky forward Drew McDonald, who was the preseason Player of the Year in the Horizon League, leads the Norse against Oakland in a pivotal game for the conference title.
C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Kentucky at Oakland | 8 p.m. Friday CT, ESPN2

Life in a one-bid league is about margin for error.

For a program like Oakland, its non-conference schedule is dotted with buy games against high-majors that, in theory, could boost their stock. But as we saw with Monmouth two years ago, a stellar record outside your conference often counts for little if you take a couple losses during the league slate.

On Saturday, the Golden Grizzlies earned one of those black marks—a 1-point loss to Green Bay, who currently sits at 284th in KenPom. And that’s after coach Greg Kampe’s program was already saddled with a couple of sub-150 losses to Toledo and Eastern Michigan.

The only way the Detroit-area school can reach the NCAA tournament is by winning its conference title, and that hinges a great deal on an easy path afforded by a top seed in their conference tournament. And taking a loss to the Phoenix only complicates that task.

NKU knows how much those bids matter. Last season, the Norse punched the Horizon League’s ticket to the dance, becoming just the seventh program in NCAA history to reach the tournament in its first year of eligibility. Coach John Brannen’s crew entered the season picked second in the league, and it upgraded its schedule to match expectations for a roster that brings back eight of its top nine scorers.

Junior forward Drew McDonald, who is averaging 17.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, has lived up to the billing as the Horizon’s preseason player of the year. He’s also getting ample support from sophomore forward Carson Williams (14.5 ppg and 5.4 rpg) and senior point guard Lavone Holland II (13.1 ppg and 5.4 apg) most nights.

As for Oakland, we touched on them a couple of weeks ago:

As for Oakland, Greg Kampe has been around for nearly two decades and tweaked his approach to roster construction to capitalize on the sport’s booming transfer market. Leading scorer Martez Walker started out Texas, while backcourt buddy Kendrick Nunn sat out last season after leaving Illinois. They pack scoring punch on the wing, combining to average 44 points per game, while in-house big man Jalen Hayes adds nearly 19 points and nine rebounds in the post.

While both teams are comfortable pushing the pace, NKU has been better defensively than Oakland this season, and it has the offensive balance to match up nicely with Kampe’s group.

The Horizon League has slipped in recent years as Butler, Valparaiso and Loyola Chicago left for greener pastures, leaving a power vacuum to be filled. Most nights, the league doesn’t merit score-watching, but Oakland and NKU—both likely top-100 KenPom teams—are far and away the best it has to offer.


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 other matchups that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.

Monday

  • No. 6 West Virginia at Kansas State, 4 p.m., ESPNU

Tuesday

  • No. 16 TCU at Baylor, 6 p.m., ESPNews
  • Butler at No. 5 Xavier, 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Auburn at No. 23 Tennessee, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • Penn State at Maryland, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network
  • No. 18 Texas Tech at No. 10 Kansas, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 22 Arkansas at Mississippi State, 8 p.m., SEC Network

Wednesday

  • No. 12 North Carolina at No. 24 Florida State, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 8 Virginia at Virginia Tech, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 25 Clemson at Boston College, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • South Dakota State at North Dakota State, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Toledo at Buffalo, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • Oklahoma State at No. 7 Oklahoma, 8 p.m., ESPNU
  • Wyoming at Nevada, 9:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Thursday

  • Houston at No. 9 Wichita State, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • Maryland at No. 1 Michigan State, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • No. 14 Arizona at Utah, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 19 Cincinnati at Temple, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Northern Iowa at Missouri State, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Saturday

  • No. 5 Xavier at Providence, 11 a.m., Fox
  • Alabama at Georgia, 11 a.m., SEC Network
  • Louisville at No. 25 Clemson, 11 a.m., ESPN3
  • Florida at Missouri, Noon, CBS
  • Texas at Baylor, 1 p.m., ESPNU
  • Buffalo at Ball State, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 21 Seton Hall at Butler, 1:30 p.m., FS1
  • Mercer at Furman, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 22 Arkansas at Auburn, 5 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 7 Oklahoma at No. 6 West Virginia, 6:15 p.m., ESPN2
  • St. Bonaventure at Saint Joseph’s, 7 p.m. ESPNU
  • No. 23 Kentucky at No. 17 Tennessee, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Sunday

  • Loyola Chicago at Northern Iowa, 3 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 1 Michigan State at Ohio State, 3:30 p.m., CBS
  • No. 24 Florida State at No. 15 Miami (Fla.), 5 p.m., ESPNU
  • SMU at No. 19 Cincinnati, 5 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 4 Arizona State at Utah, 7 p.m., ESPNU

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!