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The Watch: For the SEC, February might be more frenetic than usual

With the season’s home stretch looming, up to 11 SEC teams can sketch out cases for a bid to the NCAA tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Louisiana State
LSU and guard Tremont Waters were picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC. Instead the Tigers, led by first-year coach Will Wade, are within creeping distance of the NCAA tournament bubble — one of 11 teams from the conference vying for a bid.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The home stretch is here at week’s end.

On Saturday, every SEC squad will be making the turn in league play, while February’s arrival signals its time to solidify seedings or make a last push to shore up you’re standing for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.

After last weekend, which saw the SEC claim a victory in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, the conference remains in position to punch eight tickets — the most in its history. As I wrote last week, optics, for better or worse, matter. On Saturday, Collin Sexton and Alabama prevailed in a made-for-TV tilt with Oklahoma, followed up that night by a Kevin Knox-led Kentucky rally in Morgantown. Farther down the slate, though, the SEC helped itself. Vandy picked off TCU. Florida thumped Baylor. Tennesse stifled Hilton Magic. And Arkansas avoided heartbreak via last-second tip drill against Oklahoma State.

The conference can also relish a potentially compelling closing stretch — a far cry from Kentucky and Florida dueling for a regular season title. Strictly using KenPom’s game-by-game predictions, here’s a projection of the final standings:

Over the first nine games of the conference slate, a quartet of teams managed to open up a slight gap with what can generously be called a cluster of teams. But when you look at the aggregate projections, which uses combined odds for each team, this is what the potential standings look like:

Clear as mud, right? I’d recommend you start getting familiar with SEC’s tiebreaker protocols ahead of the conference tournament in St. Louis, especially the one for a three-team knot:

Best winning percentage of games played among the tied teams (Example: Team A is 3-1, Team B is 2-2 and Team C is 1-3 - Team A would be seeded highest, Team B second-highest and Team C lowest of the three).

Best winning percentage of the tied teams versus the No. 1 seed (and proceed- ing through the No. 14 seed, if necessary).

If two teams remain, coin flip by the Commissioner.

If three or more teams remain, draw by the Commissioner.

As it stands, we can feel safe penciling in Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, and Kentucky into the field of 68, while Arkansas and Alabama stand on pretty firm ground. Texas A&M and Missouri, though? Both entered the weekend clinging to bids, and Mizzou’s ill-fated excursion to Starkvegas relegated them to the First Four Out on Monday.

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has three other SEC teams within shouting distance of the bubble.

Five teams — Missouri, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia — are jockeying for two at-large slots. Those teams are slated to play each other 10 times during the season’s final month, which could create some stratification and sorting. No, it’s not as compelling as seeing whether Auburn can overcome offseason controversy to win a regular-season crown, but it’s another sign of health that the fight for seeds No. 6 through No. 12 have implications.


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: Georgia at Kansas State
Kansas State guard Barry Brown’s breakout in Big 12 play has the Wildcats entering the Sunflower Showdown with a chance to earn a tie atop the league standings.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7 Kansas at Kansas State | 8 p.m. CT Monday, ESPN

As far as inflection points go, Kansas State’s end-game debacle at Kansas touted solid credentials for a tailspin.

If you didn’t catch it the first time, a primer: trailing by a point with 15.2 seconds left, K-State combo guard Barry Brown showed a certain lack of urgency running a final play. He burned nearly 8.2 seconds off the clock, missed Dean Wade on a pop play at the 3-point arc and settled for a fadeaway deep heave.

“I don’t know why, but I kind of got confused when he popped the other way. I kind of got confused, I looked at the time and tried to make a play.”

Whiffing on a win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, at the time, stung deeper than the usual loss to a rival. Coach Bruce Weber’s bunch was 0-4 against KenPom top-50 opponents, which came on the heels of a non-conference that schedule that — even now — is among the nation’s weakest. And earlier in the week, point guard Kamau Stokes went down with an injury. Finally, a difficult stretch loomed, and that’s saying something in the rugged Big 12: Oklahoma, TCU, a visit to Baylor and Georgia in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Two weeks later, however, they’ve tried to do an admirable clean-up job.

They knocked off Oklahoma, dogging Trae Young into a career-high for turnovers. Next, they upset a then-ranked TCU in Manhattan. Against Baylor, Brown went off for 34 points. Finally, on Saturday, the Wildcats rallied past Georgia, a victory Brown said proved K-State is “most definitely” an NCAA tournament team.

Will it move the needle? Uh, Jerry Palm is skeptical.

“The little bit of good that they have done has been on their home floor.… It’s nice that they beat Oklahoma and TCU. Those are good wins. But there is more to be done. They can’t just say, ‘We beat Oklahoma.’ Somebody gets left out of the tournament for a weak schedule every year.

“Baylor doesn’t move the needle for me. It’s nice, but Kansas State has to beat teams like Baylor and Iowa State. You can’t afford to lose those games.”

Tonight, they host KU, a chance for redemption and a signature win on the table.

The Jayhawks’ attack remains perimeter-driven, even with the addition of Silvio De Sousa in recent weeks. But in their first meeting, forward Udoka Azubuike’s 18 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocks gave KU an added dimension. The big man could play a central role again, given the fact KSU allows 0.97 PPP on post-ups and ranks No. 293 nationally. If Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick are a tick more efficient, Kansas should be in good shape.

For the Wildcats, Brown’s emergence in Big 12 play has been more than timely, joining some pretty decent company in terms of high-usage and efficient players.

Wade is also an ideal sidekick, especially in pick-and-pops, driving the ball from the mid-post and — at worst — generating offense on putbacks. The junior, though, is now a credible post-up threat (1.056 PPP) and improved his efficiency as a roll man (1.438 PPP) by 63 percent this season. Diversifying his game is one reason he’s averaged more than 20 points per game in Big 12 play. Toss in swingman Xavier Sneed, who’s added a reliable jumper to his stellar transition game, and Makol Mawien down low, and the Wildcats have a group that’s second in offensive efficiency during Big 12 play.

No team has been hotter than Kanas State, which has surged into a tie for second place in the Big 12. A win moves the Wildcats into a tie for first place with KU, creating a five-team logjam atop the standings. Even better, it makes the Jayhawks pursuit of a 14th-consecutive conference title all the more difficult, given the fact KU will own losses three fo the teams in the hunt.

Because what we need is a Big 12 race that’s even more crowded.


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: Oklahoma at Alabama
Alabama guard John Petty’s shooting stroke gave the Crimson Tide one commodity it could rely upon as it tried to live up to preseason potential.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama at No. 23 Florida | 3 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

It’s unlikely many people noticed when Georgia waxed Alabama by 14 points — not when the schools would stage a classic two days later in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.

But on Jan. 6, the Crimson Tide were foundering.

Avery Johnson’s group stood at 9-6 — its best non-conference coming over Rhode Island — and off to a 1-2 start in the SEC. A week earlier, the Tide learned Riley Norris, a senior reserve who could supply spot-up shooting, was done for the season with a hip injury. Meanwhile, Braxton Key’s return from preseason knee surgery was — and remains — slow going. Dazon Ingram’s shooting stroke was scattershot. And Daniel Giddens’ inability to stay out of foul trouble hurt the Tider’s interior rotation.

Bluntly, a team many slotted in the preseason top-25 and expected to breakthrough looked on course for a letdown.

Three weeks later, the Tide have a signature victory over Oklahoma, a critical conference win over Auburn — ending their rivals’ 14-game winning streak — and sit in a three-way tie for third place in the standings. Did I mention they did it with Sexton dealing with an abdominal injury?

The stakes of their road trip to Gainesville are clear: a victory creates a potential four-team pileup for second place and gives the Tide a leg up over a Florida squad it faces twice this month. With Tennessee, Kentucky, and Auburn also looming, Alabama has a prime opportunity and the personnel to make a push toward a regular-season crown.

The Tide still rely heavily on Sexton and freshman wing John Petty to carry the bulk of the scoring load, but recently Ingram, Key, Donta Hall and Herbert Jones have each taken turns as a third scoring option. It’s also helped that Jones, a less ballyhooed freshman, emerged as a capable perimeter defender. Mix in the size and length of Giddens and Alex Reese off the bench, and the Tide finally have a rotation where some semblance of roles exist.

Currently, Alabama’s adjusted defensive efficiency in league play tops the SEC, and they rank second in effective-field-goal percentage defense (44.6), 2-point field-goal defense (43.5 percent) and steal percentage (11.3). Defending at a high level will give the Tide a chance against a Gators squad that remains perimeter-oriented in conference play.

Naturally, eyes will drift to Chris Chiozza, who may be tasked with corralling Sexton. The senior point guard’s reputation speaks for itself and is backed by plenty of data.

Chiozza’s ability to force Sexton to his right hand is one of those scouting report details you should lodge in your brain, too. Sexton’s not a pass-first point guard when he operates in a pick-and-roll, and it matters little if he’s on the left wing (1.25 PPP), right wing (1.087 PPP) or at the top of the key (1.000 PPP) for the Tide. What matters is forcing him to drive and kick, because his efficiency drops (0.726 PPP) and his turnovers (22.6 percent) climb.

On the wing, senior KeVaughn Allen clamps down on spot-up shooters (0.853 PPP) like Petty and is excellent in pick-and-rolls (0.525), meaning switches on to Sexton won’t bother him. Down low, the Gators post players are average at best and been a liability at times against proven frontcourts. Aside from Hall, though, the Tide isn’t loaded with big men who should make the Mike White queasy.

Reduced to its essence, the team that controls the tempo and the backcourt that’s able to get to its spots is going to have the leg up. Any production the Crimson Tide can get up front is a bonus, too.

Auburn’s emergence remains the league’s biggest surprise, but the Crimson Tide have slowly moved into stalking position. Missouri, who visits Tuscaloosa on Wednesday, is reeling. After facing UF, Alabama heads to Mississippi State, a game that on paper tilts toward the Tide, who could find a way to become the fifth team in what is currently a four-team pack in front of the SEC.


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.

Loyola vs Norfolk State
Forward Aundre Jackson and Loyola Chicago have made the Missouri Valley Conference look savvy for expanding its footprint into Chicago.
Lou Foglia/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

Missouri State at Loyola Chicago | 1 p.m. CT Saturday, CBS Sports Network

Almost five years ago, Loyola Chicago’s move to the Missouri Valley Conference was a market grab. “It’s about market, potential and commitment,” Commissioner Doug Elgin said in April 2013.

While I still find that logic laughable, the Ramblers made steady progress under the direction of Porter Moser, a Chicago-land native who is in his sixth season at a Jesuit school plopped along the Lakeshore.

His method is a familiar one for most mid-major programs: identify skilled, but undervalued players who present mismatches. Aundre Jackson, Marques Townes and Donte Ingram match that template. Take Ingram, for example, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound senior, who can not only spot up but is phenomenal in pick-and-roll sequences (1.233 PPP), especially pulling for jumpers. Jackson, a 6-5 forward, is a problematic matchup as a roll man and as a cutter.

Moser, though, has a point guard and big man who might conform to your expectations. Redshirt junior Clayton Custer is a table-setter averaging 13.4 points and dealing out 4.2 assists per game. In Missouri Valley action, his 29.4 assist rate is fifth in the league, while his 56.0-percent clip from behind the arc leads the way. Down low, Cameron Krutwig, a 6-9, 260-pound freshman forward, has been a revelation during the Valley portion of the docket.

The result: a team that leads the MVC in offensive and defensive efficiency, using a slower-than-usual tempo and lineup where every member averages between 10 points and 13 points a game to create a balanced attack.

As for Missouri State, the Bears’ appear intent on shutting their window of opportunity created by the departure of Creighton and Wichita State. They’ve lost three in a row to fall to .500 in the standings and three games back of the Ramblers — a span where they’ve allowed 1.134 PPP, been routinely beaten on the backboards and saw star forward Alize Johnson twice failed to score in double figures.

Yet MSU remains a top-100 KenPom team, and the final one on Loyola’s schedule as the season winds down. Holding serve at Gentile Arena would allow the Ramblers, who are currently 55th in KenPom’s ratings, to have a fairly smooth glide path into Arch Madness next month.


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

  • Notre Dame at No. 4 Duke, 6 p.m., ESPN

Tuesday

  • No. 19 North Carolina at No. 20 Clemson, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • TCU at Oklahoma State, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 23 Florida at Georgia, 6 p.m., SEC Network
  • No. 11 Auburn at Ole Miss, 8 p.m., SEC Network
  • Arkansas at Texas A&M, 8 p.m., ESPNU
  • Baylor at No. 12 Oklahoma, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Wednesday

  • LSU at No. 18 Tennessee, 5:30 p.m., SEC Network
  • Houston at No. 8 Cincinnati, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • Louisville at No. 2 Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Providence at Seton Hall, 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Maryland at No. 3 Purdue, 7:30 p.m., Big Ten Network
  • Butler at Marquette, 8 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Virginia Tech at Boston College, 8 p.m., ESPN3
  • Missouri at Alabama, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Texas at No. 10 Texas Tech, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Thursday

  • Creighton at No. 1 Villanova, 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports
  • No. 16 Wichita State at Temple, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Middle Tennessee at Old Dominion, 7 p.m., Stadium

Friday

  • No. 22 Rhode Island at VCU, 6 p.m., ESPN2

Saturday

  • Notre Dame at North Carolina State, 11 a.m., ESPN3
  • No. 10 Texas Tech at TCU, 1 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 21 Kentucky at Missouri, 1 p.m., CBS
  • Miami (Fla.) at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • Arkansas at LSU, 2:30 p.m., SEC Network
  • No. 2 Virginia at Syracuse, 3 p.m., ESPN3
  • Kansas State at No. 15 West Virginia, 3 p.m., ESPN2
  • Vermont at UMBC, 3 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 12 Oklahoma at Texas, 5:15 p.m., ESPN
  • USC at UCLA, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • BYU at No. 14 Gonzaga, 9 p.m., ESPN2
  • UC Davis at Long Beach State, 9 p.m., ESPN3

Sunday

  • Seton Hall at No. 1 Villanova, 11 a.m., Fox

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!