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The Watch: In a topsy-turvy SEC, could Auburn (yes, really) be a favorite?

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Parity is the rule this season, and it would be fitting if the Tigers emerged with a conference title.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Auburn
Left for dead in early November, Auburn and coach Bruce Pearl emerged as one of the nation’s hottest teams and potential SEC contender.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Brace yourself.

I’m going to float an idea that, even now, seems like I’m trying too hard to be savvy.

But here it goes: Auburn should be considered among the favorites for the SEC title.

And just typing those words encapsulates how foreign this entire season has been so far for a conference whose product—#SECBasketballFever—was once considered to a pandemic.

For six years, a comfortable routine defined the Southeastern Conference race: Florida and Kentucky tussle atop the standings, while a mediocre pack of challengers flails around in hopes of landing another two at-large bids to the NCAA tournament.

Between 2012 and 2016, the conference barely averaged three bids each spring, while the Gators and Wildcats were the only programs to make consecutive trips. Arkansas might be pesky. Texas A&M occasionally mounted a threat. Maybe Tennessee, LSU or Ole Miss might sneak in.

Welp, 2017-18 is different.

Parity is chic, the byproduct of better coaching hires begetting better recruits to be developed in posh facilities.

Roughly two weeks into SEC play, the pack for the title remains bunched up. Beset by injuries and suspensions, Texas A&M, which ranked in the top-10 barely two weeks ago, tumbled and is winless in SEC play. Florida, who stumbled in December, sits at 3-0. Arkansas’ resuscitated its reputation road woes. And Tennessee’s velocity from a fast start dipped after a 0-2 start, only to get a timely nudge with a home win Saturday over Kentucky.

So we come to Auburn, a program almost any sober analyst assumed would be a buzzard’s meal after the sport’s pay-for-play scandal cost the Tigers an assistant coach and key cogs in Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.

Yet here Bruce Pearl’s crew stands. They’re 2-0 in the SEC, fresh off routing top-25 teams—at Tennessee and on the Plains against Arkansas—in a week as contenders take early blows. The Watch already detailed how the Tigers have not only been able to cope but thrive, while Sam Snelling slotted them fifth in his SEC power rankings last week. Finally, the Tigers entered the polls at No. 22—the program’s first appearance since Jan. 26, 2003.

Granted, Sam and I remain skeptical about whether the Tiger’s defensive improvement—they’ve jumped 91 spots to 56th in adjusted efficiency this season—and scoring balance holds up. But for now, Pearl’s group can make as reasonable a claim as anyone to the SEC title. Peruse Auburn’s remaining schedule in January, too:

Assuming those predictions hold up, Auburn would make the turn in SEC play perched at 8-1 and a favorable backstretch in front of them. They only face Florida, Kentucky and Texas A&M three times, with two of those games—UK and A&M—on their home floor. If the Wildcats and Aggies continue to take some lumps, Pearl and Co. would occupy a prime position to lead in the standings and use wins as insurance for tiebreaking scenarios.

Or we could take another tack: Auburn is finally living up to expectations.

In his first three recruiting classes, which finished between No. 12 and No. 21 nationally, Pearl snagged seven top-100 prospects. Even with Purifoy and Wiley sitting, his roster still has elite prospects like Mustapha Heron, Chuma Okeke, Davion Mitchell and Horace Spencer. At the same time, Pearl’s done a nice developing Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Talent, in short, wasn’t the problem.

Youth and defensive inconsistency hampered Pearl his first three seasons, and it was worth wondering whether Auburn would break through in his fourth season. Losing Wiley presumably blew a hole in their low-post offense, and Purifoy wouldn’t tag team foes with Heron.

Instead, Auburn has found a way, using the saga as motivation.

This season, the SEC is one of the nation’s most intriguing leagues. There are no great teams. There’s only an open door, one the Tigers might be able to walk through—assuming they avoid the same weekly stint in the barrel that has left Texas A&M, Florida and Alabama bruised.


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: Kansas State at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 West Virginia at No. 8 Texas Tech | 1 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

Will anyone in the Big 12 Conference topple Kansas?

After 13 consecutive titles, betting on the field is foolhardy.

However, unlikely as it might be, Texas Tech could slide into the driver’s seat this week. Notching wins over ninth-ranked Oklahoma, who hosts Tech on Tuesday, and picking off the Mountaineers would leave the Raiders holding wins over all three of the Big 12’s other prime suitors for the Big 12 crown.

Expect a full-scale brawl, too. For the fourth year in a row, the conference is on track to finish as the nation’s toughest, according to KenPom. While it lacks a legitimate national title contender, eight of the league’s teams sit in KenPom top-50, including four in the top-15.

Texas Tech, which finished 6-12 in league play, is easily the league’s breakout squad. Second-year coach Chris Beard, a former Bobby Knight assistant in Lubbock who’s completed a rapid ascent of the coaching ranks, mixed player development—case in point: senior guard Keenan Evans—with timely transfers and JUCO gems to build a rotation where no player sees the floor more than 27 minutes a night.

Like at UALR, where he led the Trojans to an unprecedented 30-5 record and an NCAA tournament victory, Beard uses that depth to impose unrelenting defensive pressure, helping the Raiders rate 3rd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and turnover percentage.

Now, that might sound eerily similar to West Virginia, which is No. 12 in adjusted defensive efficiency and second in turnover percentage. And both teams certainly rely on takeaways to fuel their offense, ranking 8th and 10th, respectively, in shots taken in the immediate aftermath of a steal.

Except for one key difference: tempo.

West Virginia deploys a variant of full-court pressure, hoping to speed up opponents to create turnovers or force rushed shots, which trigger easy scoring chances in transition. Off those makes, the Mountaineers reset and guys like Jevon Carter harass you again.

Texas Tech? They sit at 200th in adjusted tempo, using a stingy man-to-man scheme that you’d expect from a Bobby Knight acolyte. But Beard’s crew also uses a modified version of Knight’s motion offense, allowing the Red Raiders to generate quality looks. (Here’s a quick primer on Beard’s approach on both ends of the floor.)

Beard’s group is also uniquely positioned to contend with West Virginia. They split their two meetings last season, both which went into overtime, with Texas Tech able to shoot a decent percentage from the floor and largely able to dictate the flow. If not for putting Huggins’ team on the line 31 times in the second meeting, the Red Raiders would likely have swept the Mountaineers.

Right now, I’d lean toward the Red Raiders, but it’ll be interesting to see what the return of Esha Ahmad, who was ineligible for the first semester, to fold.


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: Kentucky at Tennessee
A loss to Texas A&M on Tuesday night would leave the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament resume lacking heft.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M at No. 21 Kentucky | 6 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN

Shout out a distress call, Yell Leaders.

All isn’t well in College Station. On Saturday, injuries kept three starters—forward Robert Williams, combo guard Admon Gilder and point guard Duane Wilson—sidelined against LSU, the third-consecutive game where a large chunk of the Aggies core was missing. In a dogfight, the Aggies were the victims of LSU guard Tremont Waters and a cold-blooded finishing move.

Foundering at 0-3 in the standings, Texas A&M’s prospects in the SEC race are grim. Sure, the Aggies could get healthy and use a solid non-conference resume to score an at-large bid, hoping the bracket lets them live up to their potential. And a loss to Kentucky would start making the possibility of a respectable seed all the grimmer.

Oh, and Aggies follow it up with a trip to 24th-ranked Tennessee on Saturday.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve touched on the source of the Aggies’ issues: lack of production from young wings. At the outset of the season, the fate of Billy Kennedy’s crew rested on what its backcourt could provide around Williams, Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos. To that end, Wilson, Hogg, and Gilder delivered.

A fault-line, though, was depth. This recent slide had shown how it can shift and crack the Aggies’ fortunes. Here’s how Kennedy’s young guards have performed during this slide:

  • J.J. Caldwell: 27.3 minutes per game, 5 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game, 3.25 assists per game, 31.6 field-goal percentage and 0.0 3-point percentage
  • T.J. Starks: 15.3 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.3 apg, 22.7 FG% and 0.0 3FG%
  • Jay Jay Chandler: 21.7 mpg, 9.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 47.6 FG% and 40.0 3FG%
  • Savion Flagg: 28.7 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, 27.2 FG% and 33.3 3FG%

Those production levels, especially poor outside shooting, aren’t enough to sustain Texas A&M moving forward. The sooner they get Wilson and Gilder back, the more stability Kennedy will have. Until then, it’s best to assume he’ll rely heavily on Williams, Davis, and Hogg to get his team through choppy waters.

Per usual, UK is also young. The Wildcats, though, are getting balanced production up and down the lineup. Poor outings from Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander sank them against Tennessee, while cramps sent PJ Washington to the locker room and let Grant Williams run amok. Rough night aside, that trio had started cementing itself as John Calipari’s core in recent weeks.

Few teams have the size, length and athleticism Kentucky can put on the floor each night—enough to stack up with the most productive front line in the SEC. Now, at full strength, the Aggies’ guard play might have been enough of a check on Cal’s young brood. That’s not the case right now. And so this game hinges on whether some combination of Caldwell, Starks, Chandler, and Flagg can step forward to help out Hogg.

Even if the Aggies have taken a dip, they’d still represent UK’s best win on an otherwise bland resume. Taking a loss in Rupp Arena would leave the ‘Cats with a 2-3 record against the KenPom top-50, their best win a 29-point shellacking over Louisville. Ideally, UK gets a profile-enhancing win and knocks A&M out of the SEC race before it can have all of its key parts plugged back in.


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: Utah State at San Diego State
San Diego State, led by Malik Pope, is looking to return to the top of a deeper than usual Mountain West Conference.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State at Boise State | 9 p.m. Saturday CT, ESPN2

Brian Dutcher slid down one seat on the bench as head coach, but the defense-first ethos instilled by his former boss, Steve Fisher, remains in place. So is a roster where size and the ability to swap positions is prized. What is different? Pace.

During Fisher’s final decade on the job, SDSU finished lower than 300th in adjusted tempo six times and had four top-10 finishes in adjusted defensive efficiency. Translated: the Aztecs made your 40-minute interaction akin to fighting through the Amazon—a slow trudge through a forest of limbs.

This season, however, Dutcher’s group sits at No. 93 for adjusted tempo, cracking the 70-possession mark in 10 games. Here’s what he installed:

This is where Dutcher has imposed his personality the most, installing an uptempo offense with fewer set plays and more emphasis on speed of play. ... “Now it will be a game of adjustments,” Dutcher says. “What we do as a coaching staff and what reads the players make when they take something away will dictate the success we have.” The advantage of a free-flowing offense that relies more on spacing and innovation than prescribed motion is that it’s harder to scout, since there’s no set pattern of who’s going where.”

Now, the Aztecs sit 103rd nationally, putting up 1.074 points per possession, and they’re shooting just 33.1 percent from the 3-point line—well below what Dutcher would like to see. But they’ve got a pair of stable wings in Jeremy Hemsley and Trey Kell to pair up with San Francisco transfer Devin Watson, a true point guard who’s putting 13.1 points and 3.6 assists per game. Unheralded freshman Matt Mitchell is also chipping in 10.4 points per game and trying to supply perimeter shooting a 36.5-percent from deep.

Then there’s Malik Pope, the biggest recruit in program history.

Over four years, Pope, who is 6-10, 225 pounds, hasn’t cashed in on his potential. I’ll turn it over to Draft Express and their assessment in 2016:

Struggling through extended cold streaks as his mechanics are inconsistent and resemble more of a fling at times, Pope still flashes the ability to spread the floor, making shots off the dribble over the defense in isolation, and even score in pick and pop situations, which at his size, is certainly enough to keep the interest of NBA scouts through his ups and downs. ... Surprisingly smooth putting the ball on the floor, tossing in hooks in the post, and finishing explosively above the rim in transition or for tip dunks on occasion, Pope truly does shine at times offensively. Unfortunately, his aversion to contact makes it difficult for him to make his impact felt with any kind of regularity.

While his scoring is up a tad this season, the senior is still enigmatic. Dutcher imported Kameron Rooks from Cal this offseason to bolster production up front, but it hasn’t really panned out in terms of instant impact.

The Aztecs picked off then-No. 15 Gonzaga last month, but their resume also includes losses to likely Pac-12 cellar dwellers Washington State and Cal. And so it hards to tell what we should make of program looking to get back to the NCAA tournament and the top of the heap in the Mountain West Conference.

The trip to Boise is their first true test in conference play, a meeting where they’ll have to slow Chandler Hutchison, the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year. Like the Aztecs, the Broncos will rely on defense—they’re 19th in adjusted efficiency—and the hope that their backcourt can bolster what Hutchison provides.

The Mountain West race figures to be a three-team race over the next couple of months, with Fresno State and Wyoming looming as upstarts. There’s depth out west, and we’ll get a sense for whether Dutcher’s tweaks to Fisher’s successful formula finds early success.


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.

Tuesday

  • No. 8 Texas Tech at No. 9 Oklahoma, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • Baylor at No. 2 West Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Butler at No. 25 Creighton, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • No. 5 Purdue at Michigan, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 13 Seton Hall at Marquette, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Wednesday

  • No. 10 Xavier at No. 1 Villanova, 7 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • No. 16 TCU at Texas, 8 p.m., ESPNU
  • Louisville at No. 23 Florida State, 8 p.m., ESPN3
  • Georgia at Missouri, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Thursday

  • Maryland at Ohio State, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • St. Francis (Pa.) at Robert Morris, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Western Kentucky at Old Dominion, 7 p.m., beIN
  • No. 19 Clemson at North Carolina State, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • New Mexico State at Grand Canyon, 8 p.m., ESPN3
  • Utah at UCLA, 10 p.m., ESPN

Friday

  • Marquette at Butler, 5:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1

Saturday

  • Rhode Island at St. Bonaventure, 10 a.m., ESPNU
  • No. 5 Purdue at Minnesota, 11 a.m., ESPN2
  • Michigan at No. 4 Michigan State, 11 a.m., Fox
  • No. 25 Creighton at No. 10 Xavier, 1 p.m., Fox
  • No. 16 TCU at No. 9 Oklahoma, 1 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 18 Miami (Fla.) at No. 19 Clemson, 2 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 20 North Carolina at Notre Dame, 5 p.m., ESPN
  • Texas A&M at No. 24 Tennessee, 5 p.m., 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!