About last weekend...
Big 12 came away with a predictable 7-3 victory in the challenge this weekend, but it was much closer than that tally indicates and the SEC won two of the four most important games (Florida and A&M.) This was about what was expected going in, but maybe even a little more encouraging for the SEC as LSU and Kentucky both easily could have (should have, in LSU's case) won their games. I LOVE these non-conference match-ups thrown in at this time-period, it's great to mix up play-styles and get to see some high-quality teams that we wouldn't otherwise. Especially in the SEC, where there is a surplus of defense and physicality, getting to watch the teams be forced to open play up was fun.
What we learned: Buddy Hield is the player of the year, and it may not even be close. That "race" is over. Simmons could go on a Russell Westrbook-esque string of triple doubles and he'd still have no chance at the award (he's just not there yet, he's one summer of development away from winning the award going away for as many years as he wants, but he's too raw still.) Especially seeing the contrast between him go passive-Benny over those last five minutes and Hield going supernova (not to mention getting bulled on the defensive end by Ryan Spangler all night) put an emphasis on how much better of a college player Hield is. Simmons is the prospect, but Buddy is the player. After what Hield did in Lawrence earlier this year, there's no question that he's is the collegiate performer we have this year, and also (as far as efficiency stats are concerned) one of the best of all time.
Still, that was a bad loss for the Tigers, even to what is likely a final four team. That was a very winnable game, one that a more seasoned team (or more tactically adept coach) finds a way to keep wrestling that lead way from the Sooners, in an ideal home environment. I'm still not sure how Hield sprung himself for so many quality looks in the final 10 minutes of the game, and while the player should be given a lot of credit for the shots (both easy and difficult) that he hit, much of that is on the Tigers defense, which fell apart in the second half. The failure to finish the game may result in missing the NCAA tournament. No season comes down to one game, but given the pre-SEC period of play, LSU doesn't boast the resume of a NIT team, let alone a tournament team, save for the Kentucky win at home.
The formula for the Tigers turning it around and making it: Let's be clear, this is going to take the perfect mix of RPI boosting wins, luck, and the Tigers finally performing to their full potential in high-pressure spots (which they resoundingly have not so far this year.) Thye'd have to have convincing wins at home over Texas A&M and Florida, finish the season with a win in Rupp Arena, and at least make a run to the SEC title game (with no more than 1, maybe 2 losses during this stretch.) This a team with enough talent to win the SEC tournament, but without the requisite coaching expertise (still waiting for a first glimpse of dummy action or any movement from the players not participating in the P/R in the offense), that's pretty much a pipe-dream. When it comes down to it, in a must-score situation, the Tigers have 0 clue what their their objectives are in a half-court set. Off turnovers, misses, and in semi-transition, the Tigers are great, but with 30 seconds left in the game, down 2, having to walk the ball up into a set half-court D, I'm going with the defense every time. Too much predictability in the Tigers offense, and Simmons is too prone to disappearing late in must-score situations.
As for the rest of the league...
Many are actually feeling better about Kentucky after their close loss to Kansas on Saturday. The game was a delight to watch, every thing you could hope for when two blue-bloods go at it (Kansas is one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch, as a hoops junkie I couldn't love Mason and Seldon as a college backcourt anymore than I do.) Count me as someone who believes more in Kentucky now after the loss: Allen Field House is one of the hardest sports venues to win in as a road team in the world, and the Wildcats played their asses off behind Tyler Ulis' excellent work as floor general. When Ulis can get in the lane with ease, the Kentucky offense reaches an elite level comparable to any other team in the country. In classic Calipari style, this team is coming together at the right time after a down-swing in January and looks like it could end up in the final four mix yet again, depending on how the seeding shakes out. Here's a good article from the Lexington Herald Leader about the silver linings from the loss and where the Wildcats go from here. Next KU gets the cellar dwelling Volunteers, before getting the Gators at home this weekend.
Big win for the Aggies against a high quality team in Iowa State. A&M forced loads of turnovers and was able to stave off a Cyclone comeback late in the game to solidify a big win at home, continuing to cement themselves further as the class of the SEC and now, one of the best teams in the country. The Aggies took control in the second half and never looked back, aided by a middling performance from usual Cyclone stand-out Georges Niang. While Iowa State didn't play well as a team either (some foul-trouble and the aforementioned turnovers never had this one feeling like a real game), this is yet another sign that this A&M team is for real and should be feared come March. They play at Vandy next, and get a couple more tune-ups before they head to the PMAC the day before Valentines day. That'll be a must-win for the Tigers, and should be a great game, with a great crowd atmosphere.
Won a HUGE match-up with the West Virginia Mountaineers in the O-Dome, keeping them in the tourney field and poising them for a back-half of the SEC-schedule run coming up. The Gatos put 88 points on the nations number 1 defense, which doesn't seem like a lot, but really is when you dig into the stats and take into account the level that the Gator offense regularly performs at. Florida is an excellent defensive team, especially on the perimeter, and if they can find ways to keep that sort of offensive output up (they wont' be able to, but that doesn't mean they won't continue to score with greater efficiency than the past) than they too will be a formidable opponent in both an SEC and NCAA tournament setting. Mike White is finally starting to get some love in Gainesville, and it's well deserved, Next up, the Gators get Arkansas at home before a much awaited match-up with the Wildcats in Rupp.
Sitting out the challenge, the Gamecocks got a good win against Alabama at home behind Michael Carreras 20 -11 (though he was horribly inefficient getting there, shooting 25% from the floor.) The Gamecocks have yet to be truly tested this year, and while their 19-2 record is certainly impressive, we'll see where they stand at the end of February, given that they play their 5 hardest games during this stretch ( @ A&M, @Georgia, and home games against LSU, Kentucky, and Florida.) How they handle those tests will determine their fate, and if they were to somehow lose all 5, they could likely miss the tournament all together (crazy thought given that their 19-2 on February 1st, but it's a real possibility.) This strange USC season continues, and LSU gets their shot next Wednesday. That comes after a Gamecock trip to College Station, and it'll very interesting to see the state of the two teams when the time comes.