By Chris DePew
Jan. 19, 2016
Kentucky is in fine shape for the conference race, or it least it would be in the ACC.
Back in the Southeastern Conference though, the No. 23 Wildcats are mired in the middle of the pack with a 3-2 record. Big Blue Nation is in a state of panic after the latest clunker, a 75-70 loss at previously moribund Auburn. The Cats may have taken down the only two ranked teams they’ve faced (Duke, Louisville) but they have four losses, all against teams that didn’t receive any votes in this week’s AP poll.
It isn’t the first time a John Calipari team has looked flawed in January, but these Wildcats don’t fit the usual pattern of a raw, freshman-heavy team struggling to adjust. Kentucky only started two freshmen against Auburn, one of whom (Jamal Murray) leads his team with 17.8 points per game, good for fifth in the SEC. Otherwise, UK started a sophomore, a junior and a senior, with another junior as the best player off the bench. That’s a bounty of experience back from a 38-1 team last year.
But it has been those veteran players, specifically in the frontcourt, who have failed to step forward. Senior Alex Poythress is a boom or bust player that’s never recaptured the promise of his first year in Lexington before injuries. Marcus Lee is primarily a rebounder and putback scorer, but not someone who can be the alpha male on a Final Four contender. Junior Derek Willis broke through with a triple-double off the bench at Auburn and may finally see more minutes but for reasons that are unclear seems to have been in Calipari’s doghouse since arriving in Lexington.
This week’s schedule does no favors to a team needing a turnaround. As Alabama can attest, the hardest grind in the league is playing a Thursday night road game and then having to tip off again Saturday afternoon with little recovery time. Sure enough, the Cats visit Arkansas Thursday night, then return to Rupp Arena to take on talented but underachieving Vanderbilt, which figures to be sky-high and fighting for its NCAA life.
Game of the week: LSU (11-6, 4-1 SEC) at No. 10 Texas A&M (15-2, 5-0), 8 p.m. Central today, ESPN. The Aggies were already the last unbeaten team in conference play entering last weekend, but three straight nail-biting wins left room for doubt about just how elite A&M truly was. But those doubts got wiped away when the Aggies wiped out Georgia in a 79-45 road victory, holding the Bulldogs to a miserly 28.9 percent. Offense has never been a problem this year for A&M, and if the defense is locked in the Aggies could be unstoppable. Consider that road teams are just 9-24 in SEC games – and the Aggies have a third of those wins. They also have co-Player of the Week Jalen Jones, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds against UGA after scoring 26 in a midweek victory against Florida.
Meanwhile, the Tigers bring the other co-POTW into tonight’s first-place showdown at Reed Arena, but the Tigers owe their season turnaround to playing as a complete team and not just the Ben Simmons Admiration Society. There was a lot to admire last week, as Simmons posted double-doubles Nos. 12 and 13 to sweep Ole Miss and Arkansas respectively. But Arizona transfer Craig Victor has blossomed since becoming eligible last month and capped a 16-point, 12-rebound game against Arkansas with the game-winning basket in the final seconds. Four different players scored in double digits for LSU in that game and five Tigers had 10+ points against the Rebels.
No. 23 Kentucky at Arkansas, 6 p.m., ESPN
No. 24 South Carolina at Tennessee, 11 a.m., SEC Network
LSU at Alabama, 1 p.m., ESPNU
Ole Miss at Mississippi State, 1 p.m., SEC Network
Missouri at No. 10 Texas A&M, 3 p.m., SEC Network
Vanderbilt at No. 23 Kentucky, 3 p.m., ESPN
Arkansas at Georgia, 5 p.m., SEC Network
Auburn at Florida, 7 p.m., SEC Network
- Texas A&M – The Aggies are off to their best record in conference play since beginning 7-0 in the Southwest Conference in 1994, and their 34-point demolition of Georgia is the most lopsided conference win for A&M in any league, dating back to the founding of the SWC in 1915.
- South Carolina – One way the already-surprising Gamecocks could get even better is for freshman point guard P.J. Dozier to blossom. The first McDonald’s All American to sign with South Carolina in 15 years, Dozier saw his minutes and scoring decline and turnovers increase this month. But against Missouri, he bounced back with 11 points and a season-high seven rebounds.
- LSU – The Tigers won a pair of highly entertaining home games last week and fans in Baton Rouge are responding. More than 12,000 turned out midweek to watch LSU come back in the final minutes and down Ole Miss 90-81, and attendance topped 13k Saturday in the thriller against Arkansas.
- Florida – The Gators made themselves at home in the Pavillion at Ole Miss. Florida shot a season-high 55 percent from 3-point range Saturday to claim an 80-71 win, the first for a road team in the SEC’s newest arena.
- Kentucky – Talk about inconsistency. Poythress lit up Alabama earlier this month, scoring 25 points. In four other SEC games, he has a combined 24 points, including six in the loss at Auburn.
- Ole Miss – The Rebels will be missing their undisputed frontcourt leader, Sebastian Saiz, for at least two weeks after surgery Tuesday to fix a torn retina. The junior from Spain is averaging 12.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game for Ole Miss.
- Vanderbilt – An ill Riley LaChance made Bama sick Saturday. After missing practice the day before and most of shootaround with possible tonsillitis, the sophomore scored a season-high 18 points and hit five 3-pointers in 35 minutes of play for the Dores.
- Arkansas – Close losses are nothing new for the Razorbacks. The Hogs are now 0-4 in one-possession games (Stanford, Wake Forest, Mercer) and also lost by four at Dayton. Arkansas’ only close win is a 90-85 overtime upset of Vandy.
- Alabama – The Crimson Tide is still last in the SEC in rebounding (technically tied for 13th with Mississippi State) but has actually won the battle on the boards twice in a row. Saturday’s loss at Vanderbilt was the first time Bama has lost all season despite out-rebounding its opponent (39-29).
- Auburn – The Tigers are 10th in the league in rebounding, but don’t blame forwards Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris. They are fourth and fifth among all SEC players, pulling down an average of 8.9 and 8.6 boards per game respectively.
- Georgia – The Bulldogs’ identity is built around defense, with opponents making only 37.9 percent of their field goals against UGA (second in the SEC, 13th nationally). But A&M went 29-for-55 (52.7 percent) from the floor, including 11 3-pointers, as Georgia suffered its biggest loss of the Mark Fox era.
- Tennessee – Kevin Punter continues to carry the load for the Vols. After a relatively quiet 16 points in a loss at Georgia, he played all 40 minutes of UT’s 90-85 win at Mississippi State, finishing with 23 points and five assists as Tennessee won its first true road game.
- Mississippi State – The Bulldogs are the only winless team in SEC play and have the league’s worst overall record (7-9, 0-4) but keep getting tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. MSU lost by six at Kentucky and by five at home against Tennessee after losing by a point to Texas A&M earlier this month. One thing holding State back is a lack of trips to the foul line. It attempts 17.5 free throws per game and makes 12.9, both league lows.
- Missouri – The school’s self-imposed one-year postseason ban, including the SEC Tournament this spring, felt more like a mercy killing for a season that has already imploded. The day before the sanctions were announced, the Tigers were run out of their own gym by Arkansas, 94-61. Second-year coach Kim Anderson sank his already-meager reputation by sounding detached and befuddled whenever the microphones picked him up, including a memorable apology to a player he yanked out because he miscalculated his foul total.
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