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The Watch: Tiers of distinction

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The fight for the final double-bye in the SEC tournament could come down to a three-team race between Alabama, Missouri and Texas A&M.

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NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Florida Matt Stamey-USA TODAY Sports

The pack ice is starting to thaw and shift.

Or that’s how I think of the SEC standings. Every team has a little mobility, but at this time of the year, there’s only so much maneuvering anyone can do. Practically speaking, four layers have stratified.

  • Tier 1: Auburn, Tennessee and Florida
  • Tier 2: Missouri, Alabama and Texas A&M
  • Tier 3: Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State and LSU
  • Tier 4: South Carolina, Georgia, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt

Take a look at the projected standings, using KenPomeroy’s cumulative win expectancies, and you’ll see the hierarchy.

Projected SEC Standings

Team W L Projected KP Wins Projected KP Losses Projected Finish
Team W L Projected KP Wins Projected KP Losses Projected Finish
Auburn 10 2 14 4 4-2
Tennessee 8 4 12 6 4-2
Florida 8 4 11 7 3-3
Missouri 7 5 10 8 3-3
Alabama 7 5 10 8 3-3
Texas A&M 6 6 10 8 4-2
Arkansas 6 6 9 9 3-3
Kentucky 6 6 9 9 3-3
Mississippi State 6 6 9 9 3-3
LSU 5 7 8 10 3-3
South Carolina 4 8 6 12 2-4
Georgia 4 8 6 12 2-4
Ole Miss 4 8 6 12 2-4
Vanderbilt 3 9 5 13 2-4
KenPom.com

Let’s look an example, too. Missouri could catch Florida, a victory in a toss-up game next Saturday at LSU helping them close the gap. Only, as you’re painfully aware, Florida swiped a win in Columbia and owns a head-to-head tiebreaker. Practically speaking, Mizzou is two games back with six to play. It’s not an impossible task, but UF only has to go .500 down the stretch — a scenario KenPom accounts for by projecting losses to Auburn, Tennessee and Alabama — to hold its patch of swamp.

So, let’s start with the safe working assumption that Auburn, Tennessee and Florida will snag three double-byes for the SEC tournament.

The race for the fourth and final one is where, in my opinion, the true intrigue lies. Using KenPom projections and SEC tiebreaker rules, which uses win percentage among the tied teams as the arbiter, this is what we could have on our hands.

  • Missouri: 2-1 (0.667)
  • Texas A&M: 2-2 (0.500)
  • Alabama: 1-2 (0.333)

In the end, Mizzou’s win in Tuscaloosa would push the Tigers into the No. 4 seed — a position that allows Mizzou to get another day of practice in their own gym, another night of sleep in their own beds and a relatively short commute to a friendly building. And while MU’s chances at an at-large bid would likely survive a first-round upset, why take the risk? A quarterfinal loss to, let’s say, Alabama is one the selection committee could understand.

What unfolds this week could loom large in the proceedings, too.

During the last two weeks, coach Billy Kennedy’s group appeared to stabilize, winning four in a row in a streak, including holding on to a much-needed road win against Auburn and “thriving then surviving” versus Kentucky. That was until its backcourt rotation was gutted over the course of Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, they visit Columbia eyeing a season sweep of Missouri, a token that would be critical in a tiebreaker scenario like the one mentioned earlier. Four days later, the Aggies trek to Fayetteville looking for another sweep, this one of Arkansas, who could be poised to make a push of its own.

For Alabama, this week is about keeping in contact. They host LSU and, more importantly, travel to Rupp Arena and Kentucky on Saturday. The Tide’s tournament resume is largely cemented with wins over Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida. If the Tide were engaged in game theory, they’d root for the Aggies, win over Mizzou would set up the Bama and A&M to potentially play for a fourth-place finish on the season’s final day.

Now, Kentucky looms in the background, too. Coach John Calipari’s young brood faces Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Florida down the stretch. The question is whether the Wildcats (finally) find the spacing and ball movement that’s eluded them all season. Since rallying at West Virginia, getting a signature win for a sneaky thin resume, UK hasn’t looked like it’s made any durable progress toward that end.

So it looks like three teams for one spot, the difference between fourth and sixth changing just what route each has to navigate in St. Louis.

Just enough room to make a move — or enough to get boxed in.


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: Xavier at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

No. 3 Villanova at No. 4 Xavier | 3:30 p.m. CT Saturday, Fox

A pair of top-10 offenses. A pair of elite senior guards. A pair of teams vying for a conference title. And a pair of potential No. 1 seeds.

Yeah. There are some stakes involved this Saturday in Cincinnati.

Villanova arrives as an undermanned group, down to just five players seeing more than 20 minutes a night after Phil Booth went down with a fracture in his right wrist. Concerns grew after they tripped up against a winless St. John’s last week. A victory over Butler quelled anxiety, but Nova still doesn’t have a lot of room for error.

What it does have is an offense on track to be the most efficient of the KenPom Era, and that’s a hell of an asset as we head toward March.

No, Jay Wright doesn’t have a deep bench, but he’s got all the right pieces for his 4-out, 1-in motion. Jalen Brunson pilots the attack, averaging 20.1 points and 4.7 assists per game to go with a 27.1 assist rate. On the wing, Mikal Bridges is a long 6-foot-7 guard who can shoot at a high level (40.6 3FG%) and become an elite defender — the rare prospect ($) who can guard spots 1 through 4. Donte DiVincenzo (the Big Ragu!) mans the other wing, and Omari Spellman is a phenomenal redshirt freshman who can protect the rim, finish with both hands and knock in catch-shoot 3-pointers.

Xavier's not lacking for elite perimeter players in Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura, but the question isn’t offense. It’s whether the Muskies can toss a spike strip in front of Nova and slow the ’Cats just enough to make this a game. This season, Xavier’s 1-3-1 zone has Mack’s bunch sitting at 68th in adjusted defensive efficiency. How much discomfort Nova feels, though, might be minimal with an experienced lead guard like Brunson adept at making reads and knowing when to probe. And there are enough shooters ringing the perimeter that Quentin Goodin, a marginal 3-point defender, could get caught out.

(Staying out of transition is critical, too. Xavier ranks 319th nationally, giving up 1.19 points per possession.)

That being said, a poor shooting night from Nova and Xavier’s ability to clear the defensive backboards could siphon off enough possessions. Meantime, Xavier’s equipped with more able bodies to mix rotations enough to stay fresh. Kaiser Gates is another catch-and-shoot and trail option on the outside. If Goodin can turn the corner, he can finish well enough at the rim. Freshman wing Naji Marshall is another strong-bodied wing capable of playing in traffic. Finally, big men Sean O’Mara (1.044 PPP) and Kerem Kanter (1.158 PPP) make the most out of post-ups. O’Mara can also cut off the ball, while Kanter spaces the floor with face-up ability and range out to the 3-point arc.

During Big East play, Nova’s allowed teams to get rolling from long-range and — this is isn’t surprising given its depth — allowed teams to win on the offensive backboards. That’s Xavier’s recipe: disrupt Nova’s rhythm with the zone, win the backboards and hope its wings are able to swamp what Nova’s tight core produces.

In the season’s first meeting, Macura and Bluiett couldn’t lease a basket as Nova went 3 of 17 from behind the arc and coughed the ball up on 21 percent of its possessions. Meanwhile, Booth carried Nova that day, tallying up 21 points on 8 of 11 shooting in a 24-point thumping of the Musketeers.

Maybe a change of venue matters. Maybe Booth’s absence stretches Nova a tad too far. Maybe Xavier, which leads by a half-game in the standings, unseats the ‘Cats from their throne. Maybe doing so secures their grip on a No. 1 seed next month in the NCAA tournament.

Or maybe we should trust that Nova’s body of work speaks for itself.


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: Arkansas at Texas A&M Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

No. 21 Texas A&M at Arkansas | 3 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN2

I’ll fully admit this pick could be irrelevant by late Tuesday night and shortly after Arkansas leaves the floor of The Pavilion.

The Razorbacks are only 1-6 in true road games and sporting a minus-13.6 scoring margin. They don’t just lose. They get drubbed. And for their game against the Aggies to matter, they have to get past Ole Miss.

Selection Sunday is in 27 days, and we’re fast approaching the point where the supply of potential quality wins is exhausted. For a team like Arkansas, which is straddling the No. 10 and No. 11 seed lines — a booster shot would help. The Hogs, who currently sit at 6-6 in the standings, can also parlay two wins last week into a four-game streak that helps them stake their own claim to a double-bye in the season’s home stretch.

To do that, they’ll have to win some games on the road. But on Saturday, they’ll be back inside the friendly borders of Washington County and the safe confines of Bud Walton Arena.

Location truly matters, too.

At home, Arkansas averages 12.5 more points, swats 2.8 more shots and gets called for 5.1 fewer fouls per game. Taken together, the Razorbacks trail only Iowa State and Colorado when it comes to home-court advantage, per KenPom.

It’s good to be home

Team Conf HCA PF Pts NST Blk Elev
Team Conf HCA PF Pts NST Blk Elev
Iowa St. B12 4.6 -5.4 10.3 -2.8 2.3 900
Colorado P12 4.5 -4 12 -1.2 2.9 5400
Arkansas SEC 4.5 -5 12.4 -1 2.8 1300
Air Force MWC 4.5 -3.9 8.9 -2 1.5 7000
Illinois St. MVC 4.2 -5.3 11 -1.7 1.1 800
Colorado St. MWC 4.2 -3.8 9.8 -1.9 1.2 5000
Texas Tech B12 4.2 -4.3 8.7 -1.5 2 3200
Wyoming MWC 4.2 -3.2 7 -0.3 1.8 7200
New Mexico MWC 4.2 -4.5 8.2 -0.8 1.1 5100
Utah Valley WAC 4.2 -3.8 9.4 -1.7 1.4 4600

Two weeks ago, the Aggies blistered Arkansas in the second half, using a 3-point fueled 26-6 run to key a 14-point rout in College Station. Outside of woeful defense, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, the Razorbacks got little in the way of support from Daniel Gafford, Anton Beard or Dustin Thomas.

Playing at BWA, though, can solve both those problems.

The Aggies profile as an ideal victim, ranking No. 242 in turnover rate and 265th in press offense at 0.782 PPP. On the perimeter, Aggies wings are prone to yack the ball up in dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls — plays susceptible to heavy on-ball pressure after you get the ball over the time line. Finally, forward Robert Williams can be stripped when he faces up.

How the Aggies’ backcourt fares will likely tell the tale. As they go, Texas A&M goes. Over the past four games, Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg and Duane Wilson have averaged nearly 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, but their shooting strokes have been erratic. Envisioning a night where they yack the ball up and struggle to make shots from the perimeter isn’t hard to imagine.

This also happened Sunday.

And then this announcement came mid-day Monday: the Aggies starting point guard is done for the year with a knee injury.

So, if you’re counting at home, A&M’s point guard rotation imploded in the span of 24 hours.

A familiar scenario isn’t hard to imagine: Williams and fellow forward Tyler Davis shouldering a large portion of the offensive production. Williams, long adored by NBA scouts, has been hyper-efficient during this stretch, shooting 82.8 percent from the floor and showing improved rim protection. The question is whether that holds up if asked to provide more than 12.3 points per game.

At this point, the Aggies are in the same boat as Missouri. They have four competent rotation pieces and can ill afford an off night from any of them.


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: UNLV at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

No. 24 Nevada at Boise State | 10 p.m. CT Wednesday, ESPNU

A perpetual late bloomer.

That’s probably the aptest description of Boise State forward Chandler Hutchison.

Growing up, he was an undersized guard who only fielded offers from San Diego State and UC-Irvine. Until a throwdown his junior year, he hadn’t unlocked the potential that helped him become a top-100 recruit and the biggest get in coach Leon Rice’s tenure. But once he stepped foot on campus, it would be another two years before he started fulfilling his potential.

In addition to growing two inches since he arrived on campus, Hutchison is up to 196 pounds. After being able to bench press little more than the bar as a freshman, Hutchison is repping 200 pounds. Already a gifted leaper, his vertical has improved by three inches. His body fat percentage is under 4 percent. His squats, deadlifts and hang cleans improved anywhere between 20 and 50 pounds in a few months.

Now the 6-foot-7 forward is rising up draft boards, averaging 20.3 points and 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.

When you watch Hutchison on the floor, his handle and fluidity resemble a wing. And he’s more keen to attack the basket on spot-ups, driving the ball hard on closeouts to attack the rim (1.265 PPP) or drawing fouls. He’s also a superb finisher, evidenced by a 64.5-percent clip at the rim. And while he’s always owned a nice stroke and sound mechanics, Hutchison’s shown improvement as a jump shooter.

Synergy Sports Tech

He can shoot off the catch, looks better pulling up off the bounce and has a nice knack for finding shooters off the dribble, although he might still be a tad turnover prone. Still, finding a long combo forward who’s at ease attacking, showing improved outside shooting and a good feel for distributing is rare, and the Broncos are the beneficiary.

On Wednesday, the Broncos get a chance to take command of the Mountain West standings, the result of Nevada dropping a rivalry game with UNLV. That night the Wolf Pack were down their leading scorer in Caleb Martin, who is still expected to be out of action, in a game that’s vital to help a team whose non-conference resume has become wafer thin.

Much like Mike Daum, Jock Landale or Jaylen Adams, it’s worth tuning in to catch a player who might follow the same path as Kyle Kuzma and Larry Nance Jr. — prospects whose markets made them anonymous.


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

  • TCU at No. 20 West Virginia, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • Baylor at Texas, 8 p.m., ESPN

Tuesday

  • No. 21 Texas A&M at Missouri, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • Arkansas at Ole Miss, 6 p.m., SEC Network
  • No. 23 Oklahoma at No. 7 Texas Tech, 7 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 1 Virginia at Miami (Fla.), 8 p.m., ESPN3
  • LSU at Alabama, 8 p.m., SEC Network

Wednesday

  • Virginia Tech at No. 12 Duke, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 11 Clemson at Florida State, 7 p.m., ESPN3
  • Seton Hall at No. 4 Xavier, 8 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Kentucky at No. 10 Auburn, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • North Carolina State at Syracuse, 8 p.m., ESPN3

Thursday

  • No. 5 Cincinnati at Houston, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • No. 8 Ohio State at Penn State, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network
  • No. 17 Arizona at No. 25 Arizona State, 8 p.m., ESPN
  • New Mexico State at Utah Valley State, 8 p.m., ESPN3

Friday

  • No. 16 Rhode Island at St. Bonaventure, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Northern Kentucky at Wright State, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Saturday

  • Syracuse at Miami (Fla.), 11 a.m., CBS
  • Texas at No. 23 Oklahoma, ESPN
  • Alabama at Kentucky, 1 p.m., CBS
  • Missouri at LSU, 1 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 20 West Virginia at No. 13 Kansas, 5 p.m., ESPN
  • No. 7 Texas Tech at Baylor, 6:30 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 14 North Carolina at Louisville, 7:15 p.m., ESPN

Sunday

  • No. 12 Duke at No. 11 Clemson, Noon, ESPN3
  • Rider at Canisius, 1 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 19 Wichita State at No. 5 Cincinnati, 3 p.m., ESPN

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!