If you were scrolling through Tweetdeck a little after 5 o’clock Sunday afternoon, you might have come across a 280-character missive from the SEC Network that expressed as much relief as exuberance. A little over 30-minutes later, the channel gave hosannas to the man that made it possible: Admiral Schofield.
Tennessee’s jack-of-all-trades buried a 3-pointer with 24 ticks to play and helped the No. 7 Volunteers to a victory apply the first blemish to top-ranked Gonzaga’s record. Beyond that, though, the neutral floor triumph delivered the SEC a precious commodity: a marquee victory.
In an alternate universe, the absence of Grant Williams, who fouled out, would have been too much to overcome, and the SEC would find itself with lone victory — Arkansas topping Indiana — as the conference’s lone win against opponents sitting in the top 25 of Ken Pomeroy’s ubiquitous ratings.
The rest of the weekend testified to how ordinary the rest of the conference appears at the moment.
On Saturday, Kentucky lost an overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden, leaving Coach Cal’s ’Cats winless against top-75 teams — losses that also took place away from Rupp Arena. While UK and the Hall were trading buzzer beaters, Florida let No. 10 Michigan State wriggle free from its jaws and brackish waters, sending the Gators to 1-4 in games against top-50 foes. Oh, and speaking of Arkansas, the Hogs lost to Western Kentucky (No. 106) in Fayetteville.
The rows and columns below hint as to why Sunday loomed large. When you strip Auburn and Tennessee from the equation, the SEC is just 5-18 against top-50 opponents — a continuation of a trend I pointed out a couple weeks ago.
Body of Work | How has the SEC has fared against KenPom tiers?
|Team||vs. 1-25||vs. 26-50||vs. 51-100||vs. 100-150||vs. 151-200||vs. 201+||Total|
|Team||vs. 1-25||vs. 26-50||vs. 51-100||vs. 100-150||vs. 151-200||vs. 201+||Total|
To be clear, the SEC’s product is markedly better than it was five years ago. Members are investing resources into the sport. The fact Auburn and Mississippi State are ensconced in the top 25 is proof. Yet those efforts also elevate expectations, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether the conference — so far — meeting them.
Under normal circumstances, knocking off Arizona, Louisville or West Virginia would be results the league could proudly tout. Yet the Cardinals (No. 39) and Wildcats (No. 48) are down — the FBI and Department of Justice certainly can inject roster uncertainty — and the Mountaineers (No. 32) lost Daxter Miles Jr. and Jevon Carter to graduation. It explains why State’s win on Saturday over Clemson (No. 41), which was pegged to finish sixth in the ACC, rates as one of the SEC’s highlights.
Try to answer this question: Who is the third best team in the SEC?
On paper, Kentucky is the easy answer. Yet we’re witnessing the growing pains that are part and parcel of Calipari’s annual roster churn. Typically, the Wildcats begin to coalesce around the time SEC play arrives.
We’ve picked over Florida’s struggles, but the Gators defend at a high level and use their defense to generate transition offense. Mike White put together a brutal non-conference slate, and his program has only been run off the floor in one of its five games against elite competition. If Jalen Hudson breaks out of his slump, UF’s offensive futility can abate pretty quickly.
Alabama’s non-conference slate was dotted with high-caliber mid-majors — Northeastern, Murray State, UCF, Georgia State, Stephen F. Austin and Liberty — that could all find their way into the field of 68. Blowing a 19-point lead in Tuscaloosa is hard to spin, but the Tide figure to be calloused when the SEC standings start taking shape. Kira Lewis looks like the real deal, while John Petty and Donta Hall are sturdy anchors. Getting consistent production from Tevin Mack would be a boon, though.
This is all to say that the conference isn’t damned when the NCAA tournament selection committee convenes. Yet as we look over hypothetical team sheets, it’s hard to argue that the SEC deserves more than two protected seeds come March.
We should also keep close watch on Baton Rouge and Starkville. Two weeks ago, LSU came back from the Advocare Invitational with a lackluster showing, only toting a victory against Charleston. This week, Will Wade’s bunch venture away from the PMAC to visit Houston (No. 36) and square off against Saint Mary’s (No. 55) on a neutral floor.
For their part, the Bulldogs remain enigmatic, with victories over Saint Mary’s and Clemson balanced against a defeat at the hands of Arizona State. Clarity might arrive when Cincinnati shows up at The Hump on Saturday. It also speaks to the murky nature of the SEC race that the Bulldogs have a compelling claim to the third spot in any power ranking.
Moving toward the start of conference play, the schedule isn’t poised to offer many chances to boost the SEC’s stock. Kentucky and North Carolina are slated for a neutral-floor clash in Chicago, while Florida travels to iconic Hinkle Fieldhouse to play Butler. But is anyone optimistic South Carolina takes down Virginia? Or that the ‘Dores topple Kansas State? Would an Auburn victory over North Carolina State move the needle?
There’s no extra credit or make-up opportunities in sight. All the league’s members can do is try to max out the assignments they have left.
We know you have competing demand for your time and attention span. No, you won’t have ESPN+ called up watching mid-week Atlantic Sun games. But if you want college hoops in your life, make sure to have your eyes on this game.
No. 4 Gonzaga at No. 12 North Carolina | 6 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN
So, Mark Few, your team just dropped its first game of the year. You’ve visited Creighton, beaten Washington at the buzzer and warred with the Volunteers — all in eight days. You’re still without Killian Tillie, too.
Wouldn’t it be nice for your team to knuckle down for finals week and then work out some tension against nearby Eastern Washington?
Instead, you opted for a cross-country flight to Chapel Hill and a tussle with your third KenPom top-10 team in as many weeks? I know you have to compensate for playing in the West Coast Conference, but this still seems a little...overzealous.
Still, we’re the beneficiaries of watching two of the nation’s most efficient offenses race each other inside the Dean Dome. The Tar Heels and Zags thrive on secondary breaks, but UNC coach Roy Williams’ offense still puts a premium on big men sprinting rim to rim, where his system relies on keeping guards wide, quick ball reversals and hitting entry plays to the low block. Meanwhile, Few’s built his ball-screen continuity offense around a simple set the Zags can flow into out of a break — whether they’re facing man or zone.
The Heels still have a pair of anchors along the frontline Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson, but their backcourt is studded with youth. Coming into the year, Nassir Little, a 6-foot-6 wing built to score, figured to be the largest cog on the wing, but his consistency has been a tad sporadic, and he also started the season in a reserve role — all of which has made some pro scouts skittish. As that SI piece notes, Williams tends to lean heavily on veterans, with may serving as a Swiss Army knife and Johnson’s perimeter stroke stretching defenses. Meanwhile, freshman point guard Coby Johnson can be tad bit ball-dominant, and he’s shown a knack for knocking in 3-pointers.
The beauty of watching Gonzaga and North Carolina is both run motion-based systems, which flow at their own rhythm and organically generate shots. You won’t always see Williams or Few calling plays from the sideline — which means the distribution of touches and shots ebbs and flows based on matchups and scouting reports. For a freshman like Little, finding the beat — and moments for a solo flourish — can be jarring.
That uncertainty is alluring. Will it be Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr., Josh Perkins or Corey Kispert who pops off for 20-points? What late-clock wizardry can Maye conjure up if UNC’s offense doesn’t yield a quality look? And all of it is likely to unfold at what we can only assume will be a breakneck pace.
We already know North Carolina and Gonzaga are bonafide contenders for a national title. There no vexing questions were trying to resolve. No, we’re just going to put up our feet and drink in two hours of pure entertainment.
THE CONFERENCE CALL
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 implications for the league race.
Cincinnati at No. 18 Mississippi State | 6:30 p.m. CT Saturday, SEC Network
Don’t look now, but State is sinking jumpers.
Reductive as it is to say that draining 3-pointers is a cure-all or healing balm, there’s no getting around the fact the Bulldogs shot 27.5 percent in losses last season. As Sam Snelling noted in his preseason preview, Aric Holman was the only member of the roster to eclipse the 35-percent barrier. Simply being average might be enough to push this team up the standings.
Nine games into the season, the Bulldogs are doing just that, riding hot starts by Lamar Peters (43.5 3FG%) and Nick Weatherspoon (55.0%) to better offensive balance. Slippage might occur, but if those two can space the floor, Quinndary Weatherspoon is free to attack gaps and Abdul Ado won’t be swarmed in the post as soon as he catches an entry pass. The end result might be Bulldogs, who currently sit at No. 25 in adjusted offensive efficiency, producing the first top-50 attack of Howland’s tenure.
Facing Cincinnati is the kind of stress test the Bulldogs need. Mick Cronin’s program has finished among the top 25 nationally for defensive efficiency each of the past eight seasons and looks poised to do it again.
The irony, though, is the Bearcats’ willingness to concede perimeter jumpers in exchange for packing the paint. Striking that bargain doesn’t mean UC gives ground on its terms. So far, Keith Williams, Cane Broome and Jarron Cumberland are only allowing 23.1-percent shooting combined from deep — and less than two unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers per game. Justin Jenifer is the only weak link in perimeter rotation.
Keep an eye on how State deploys Peters, whether it’s trying to get Broome on a switch in pick-and-rolls or target Jenifer in isolation. Ball-screen actions might be the best way to involve Holman and Ado, pulling Tre Scott and Nysier Brooks to the perimeter and opening up the middle of the floor. Quinndary Weatherspoon is an adept cutter, while his younger brother’s jumper might force a fly-by close out and a chance to attack the rim.
If State is a bonafide contender in the SEC, this is the type of rugged affair where they’ll need to impose their will. Howland has the depth, balance and tenacity that comes with four years of steady building. These are the games where progress becomes verifiable.
THE DEEP CUT
At Rock M Nation, we believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, 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. Let’s get off the grid, shall we?
Murray State at Southern Illinois | 6 p.m. CT Wednesday, ESPN+
I want to buy Frank Martin a drink.
Back in 2016, the coach extended an offer to slender, 6-foot-3 guard out of Sumter, S.C., which is only a 44-mile commute from the University of South Carolina. At the time, the Gamecocks were the lone high-major suitor for Temetrius Morant, otherwise known as Ja, who instead opted to sign with Murray State and toil in the Ohio Valley Conference. Two years later, the unranked prospect is rocketing up NBA draft boards.
In late November, nearly 40 scouts piled into Coleman Coliseum to watch Morant drop 38 points on Alabama, nearly lifting the racers to a road upset. By the night’s end, Tide coach Avery Johnson was directing double-teams to slow the sophomore 30 feet from the basket. Two days before dismantling Bama, Morant posted his second triple-double of the season — 29 points, 13 rebound and 12 assists — against Missouri State.
In a year where the draft class, particularly at point guard, is relatively shallow, Ja Morant is the kind of prospect who has quickly shed the label of sleeper affixed to his game. Peruse lists assembled by ESPN, The Athletic, Sports Illustrated, The Stepien, and The Sporting News, and you’ll find Morant firmly entrenched in first-round territory.
When you comb through montages on YouTube, Morant’s physicality and athleticism jump off the screen.
He’s explosive off the floor, including his second jump, and has a stride the chews up ground. Against OVC defenders, Morant slashes to rim at will, especially when attacking closeouts out of spot-ups. Once he reaches the bucket, he’s an elite finisher, shooting 62.2 percent and 1.297 points per possession — the byproduct of stellar spatial awareness and natural body control when playing through contact.
Bolting downhill also warps defenses and creates open looks for Morant’s teammates. As of Sunday night, he led the nation in assist rate (53.6) and resulted in a 59.5 effective-field-goal percentage on plays where he kicks the ball to a spot-up shooter. Those drives also help him beat a path to the free-throw line, where he shoots better than 79 percent.
Morant’s blend of size, athleticism and preternatural feel lend him upside, but there are questions about whether his jumper can evolve. At the moment, he needs ample time and space to get his shot off. For such a natural leaper, Morant doesn’t explode into his jumper, which is slow to load because his shot pocket starts around his sternum. Raising it would help quicken his release — and his 3-point percentage. If there’s one respite available, it’s forcing Morant to shoot on the move, where he’s only knocking down 23.5 percent of his jumpers off the dribble.
You might also expect front offices to nitpick Morant’s defense. While evolution tends to lag on that end of the floor, you can still rightly critique Morant for playing upright and letting his off-ball awareness sag. For now, his superior athletic tools allow him to recover if he gets back cut, stunts too far in or over-rotates. Yet opponents have used his slight frame to gain an advantage, crunching Morant in pick-and-rolls.
No prospect, however, is free of warts, and there’s enough evidence to suggest that Morant’s tools and instincts are a worthwhile bet. This past summer, he more than held his own against highly-touted peers at Chris Paul’s Elite Guard Camp — a breakout that even appeared to take Morant by surprise.
Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 match-ups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and other games that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are CST.
Dec. 10 to Dec. 16
|Dec. 11||No. 17 Villanova at Penn||6 p.m.||ESPN2||58.8|
|Dec. 11||Georgia Southern at UCF||6 p.m.||ESPN3||31.7|
|Dec. 12||Lipscomb at Louisville||6 p.m.||ESPN3||46.5|
|Dec. 12||Murray State at Southern Illinois||7 p.m.||ESPN+||48.9|
|Dec. 12||LSU at No. 24 Houston||8 p.m.||ESPN2||56.1|
|Dec. 15||No. 17 Villanova at No. 1 Kansas||11 a.m.||ESPN||63.6|
|Dec. 15||No. 3 Tennessee at Memphis||11 a.m.||ESPN2||51.1|
|Dec. 15||Purdue vs. Notre Dame||12:30 p.m.||CBS||60.9|
|Dec. 15||North Carolina State vs. Penn State||1 p.m.||ESPNU||69.7|
|Dec. 15||Southern Illinois at No. 14 Buffalo||1 p.m.||ESPN+||42|
|Dec. 15||Indiana vs. Butler||2:45 p.m.||CBS||73.3|
|Dec. 15||Temple vs. Davidson||3:30 p.m.||ESPN3||57.1|
|Dec. 15||Belmont at UCLA||4 p.m.||Pac-12 Network||45.9|
|Dec. 15||No. 20 Arizona State at Georgia||5 p.m.||SEC Network||55.4|
|Dec. 15||No. 4 Gonzaga at No. 12 North Carolina||6 p.m.||ESPN||85.9|
|Dec. 15||No. 13 Virginia Tech vs. Washington||6 p.m.||ESPNU||63.6|
|Dec. 15||Cincinnati at No. 18 Mississippi State||7:30 p.m.||SEC Network||64.6|
|Dec. 15||USC at Oklahoma||8 p.m.||ESPNU||42.6|
|Dec. 15||LSU vs. Saint Mary's||10 p.m.||ESPNU||63.6|
|Dec. 15||Baylor at Arizona||10 p.m.||ESPN2||51.4|
|Dec. 15||Texas A&M at Oregon State||10 p.m.||Pac-12 Network||50.5|
|Dec. 16||Northeastern at Vermont||1 p.m.||ESPN+||49.5|
|Dec. 16||Saint Louis at No. 24 Houston||2 p.m.||ESPNU||44.9|
|Dec. 16||Nebraska vs. Oklahoma State||6 p.m.||Big Ten Network||58.6|