Nine games are in the books and we have just five Saturdays remaining in the college basketball regular season. It is officially fever season with teams jockeying for the SEC title race and bolstering or hindering their NCAA Tournament resumes. In five short weeks we will be returning to Lower Broadway and heading into the house that the Predators built for another SEC Tournament, but before then there is a lot to be decided.
Thanks to some preseason projections, now feels like a good time to look back and assess where all things stand at the midway point of conference play. All of the major awards (championship, player of the year, coach of the year) are still wide open. It’s now time to see where everything stands as we move into the meat and potatoes of the college basketball schedule.
Yesterday, our own Aaron Torres broke down the regular championship race as we are wins from Auburn and Kentucky tomorrow away from having a three-way tie at No. 1 with eight games remaining. Auburn, LSU and Kentucky have all won or shared the regular season title in each of the last three years and its clear that these are the best three running programs at the moment.
Kentucky goes to LSU in less than two weeks before hosting Auburn on the last Saturday in February. Both Tigers only meet each other once and that happens on the Plains tomorrow at high noon. All three of those games will have a big say in who brings home the regular season crown in 2020.
It is very likely that the winner of he league will be in position to get at least a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and may even have the body of work to get to the 3-line. There is still plenty to play for in the regular season.
Player of the Year
One of the last recruiting battles of the season went well into the summer after Kerry Blackshear Jr. announced he was leaving Virginia Tech in April. After a long two months, Mike White won out in the end over Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Gators were happy to be home to second team All-ACC performer for his final year in college. The media responded by placing Florida at No. 6 in the AP preseason top 25 and picking Blackshear as the league’s preseason player of the year. Despite 13.9 points and 8.2 rebounds, he is likely out of this race.
Out of nowhere, Nick Richards has turned into a force of nature starting with the Louisville game. In SEC play, the junior is putting up 16.9 points, 8.9 rebound and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 63.3 percent from the field and 74.5 percent from the free throw line. When he doesn’t score double-digits, UK is 1-4 and the Wildcats desperately need the former-five star to bring it every night.
Down in Arkansas, Eric Musselman’s squad has been perhaps the biggest story of the league. However, after a hot start, big time scorer Isaiah Joe has missed two games and is now out indefinitely following arthroscopic knee surgery to fix some lingering inflammation issues. This was a big blow with Hogs now sitting at 4-5 in conference play, but Mason Jones is still building a legit player of the year case.
The junior college transfer has dropped at least 30 points in three consecutive teams and is currently carrying the Hogs. The Oklahoma native and brother of former Duke standout Matt Jones is averaging 22.4 points per game and leads the team in scoring. If the Hogs end up finishing in the top-4 and receive a double bye at the SEC Tournament, the junior will have a very strong case.
Reggie Perry surprised some when he decided to return to Mississippi State for his sophomore season, but that is looking like a very good decision right now. He is in great shape and has turned himself into a potential lottery pick. The Georgia native is putting up 17.2 points and 10 rebounds per night while shooting 51.6 percent from the floor and being a capable three-point shooter. The Bulldogs need to win some games down the stretch, but the 6-foot-10 powerhouse is definitely in the running.
Due to Georgia’s 2-7 start, it is very unlikely that Anthony Edwards will be able to enter the mix. If Florida got hot, Kerry Blackshear Jr. could potentially get back into the running but the safe bet is on one of the three players above taking home the hardware. Breein Tyree is putting up 22.8 points in SEC games, but Ole Miss is well on their way to a losing season.
There were expectations that both Georgia and Tennessee would make the NCAA Tournament this season, but the loss of Lamonte Turner has likely taken the Vols out of the running while the Dawgs have a handful of freshmen in the rotation. It’s no surprise to see them going through some growing pains. Ole Miss returned a lot of pieces of an NCAA Tournament team, but an overall lack of talent has caught up to Kermit Davis in year two. Vanderbilt saw their SEC losing streak climb to 26 games before finally beating LSU. All of these have been disappointments, but there is no denying that Florida has been the biggest.
In Mike White’s 5th season, a lot of things seemed to be pointing in the right direction. The Gators scooped up Kerry Blackshear Jr. in addition to a top-10 recruiting class with three players in the top-50. Add all of these newcomers to Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke entering their sophomore seasons and expectations were through the roof. Despite a preseason No. 6 ranking in the AP Poll and No. 12 in KenPom, the Gators have mostly fell on their face.
The season started with a double-digit loss to Florida State at home followed by prominent non-conference losses to UConn, Baylor, Butler and Utah State. The Gators finished just 8-5 outside of SEC play, but early on it looked like they could compete for the first conference regular season title since 2014. That did not last long.
Despite blowing out Auburn at home and beating Alabama in one of the best games of the college basketball season, the Gators dropped a game to Mississippi State at home in addition to falling on the road to Missouri and LSU. They are still trending to be an NCAA Tournament team despite being just 5-8 in Quadrant 1 & 2 games. There is still plenty time to turn things around, but it’s not looking good. Per KenPom’s defensive efficiency numbers, this could go down as the worst defensive team in Mike White’s career.
Projecting the SEC Tournament
Thanks to the good work of KenPom, we are using his projections for the remaining games to project the SEC Tournament after having over half of the games in the book. As always, there are some very intriguing matchups and a potential game with Tennessee for the third SEC Tournament in a row is very much in play.
Auburn would appear to be the big winner here avoiding both LSU and Kentucky on semifinal Saturday, but either Mississippi State or Florida would provide a tough second game.
- Mississippi State
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
- Ole Miss
It’s clear at this point that the coach of the year race is wide open and that whoever wins the regular season title will probably have the inside track. The player of the year race should be fun to follow down the stretch. The only locks for the tournament appear to be Auburn, Kentucky and LSU. Arkansas and Florida are both in at the moment, but could easily drop out with a couple more losses. Mississippi State will likely need to get to at least 11 conference wins and still need at least one win over the top five in Nashville to claim an at-large bid. After that, all other teams need a conference tournament title needed to claim a bid.
Catch the fever.