Last week I discussed whether an elite team would emerge from the SEC, and how it seemed to be the Auburn Tigers. Most people jump on the bandwagon of the trending team, but with two losses and Bruce Pearl’s Tigers looking better and better, it seemed as if they were going to be the one. But, the SEC this year is just too good. Texas A&M is tied for eighth in the SEC and went into Auburn Arena, a place they haven’t lost all year, and knocked off the No. 8 team in the country. I don’t think we are going to get an SEC team that separates themselves from the pack, especially with Rick Barnes’ Volunteers on a six-game winning streak. Potentially eight to nine teams can make the tournament which obviously shows the depth of this conference. The SEC might not need a team to prove it’s the best for the conference to finally earn respect, the new-found depth and skill level of each team speaks for itself.
Player of the Week
Jontay Porter (Missouri)
Missouri had two candidates for player of the week with senior guard Kassius Robertson stringing together a few impressive performances. But, I believe Jontay Porter is more important to this team and it showed up on the scoreboard, and in the stat sheet. Missouri is currently on a three-game winning streak, and not so coincidentally, Porter has scored 13-plus in all of those games. The two games prior to that against Mississippi State and Auburn, Porter had single digits in the scoring column and they resulted in two Missouri losses.
Porter is starting to understand his role on the defensive end, and it is resulting in success on the other end of the floor. He is playing with more energy and toughness around the basket as expected. The freshman is 6’11 240 lbs., you would expect this out of him, but he has upped the ante and it is resulting in W’s for Cuonzo Martin.
During the game against Kentucky, midway through the first half you could tell it was going to be a grind it out game. Kentucky’s big men have struggled all year and Porter took advantage of it. He scored 13 points, grabbed eight boards, and defended the rim while collecting three blocks. He made key hustle plays down the stretch to keep Kentucky from making a run to put game pressure on Missouri. This effort carried into the next game against Ole Miss as Porter had his best performance as a collegiate athlete. In only 23 minutes, Porter had 18 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, and five blocks. His defensive dominance carried over to the offensive side of the floor where is becoming more confident as shown by taking a career-high 13 shots.
If this Missouri had Michael Porter Jr. on the floor to pair with his brother, this team could have been something special. But, don’t rule out Mizzou as the younger Porter brother might have just figured it out with big brother Mike.
Lamonte Turner (Tennessee)
Turner and Tennessee have won six straight games following a 12-5 start. Tennessee was predicted to finish second to the last in the SEC just in front of LSU. 12-5 would be considered overachieving if looking at Tennessee’s roster in the preseason. Now they are 18-5 and second in the SEC behind a surprising Auburn team.
Tennessee’s success does not dwindle on the play of Turner. But, when he is making shots from beyond the arc and playing aggressively on the offensive end, it elevates the Volunteers into a more well-rounded team that could make a deep run in March.
Over the past two, Turner is shooting 60% from deep while taking 15 attempts. He has learned to become more efficient this year as his shooting numbers have improved across the board. He is up to 38-percent from beyond the arc following a 33-percent clip last year. Turner is also shooting 91-percent from the charity stripe while shooting 40-percent from the field. He has learned his role in the offense, and that may have taken the better half of this season also. But, four-straight games of double digit scoring while stroking it from deep is a sign of consistency. Something the Volunteers have been over the past six outings.
Kevin Knox (Kentucky)
Well following the evaluation of Lamonte Turner and his consistency as of late, Kevin Knox has been anything but. Of course, following me nominating him for player of the week in the SEC, his play goes downhill.
Knox had a career night against West Virginia in Morgantown to knock off the Mountaineers. He even followed it up with an 18-point, eight rebound performance against Vandy where he hit clutch shots down the stretch to get the Wildcats the victory.
Now, just when you thought Knox was going to be the guy for Kentucky the rest of the season, his play dramatically takes a step back. Kentucky’s shooting has been dreadful lately, and when they needed his perimeter play against Missouri it resulted in five points on six shots. Knox went 0 of 2 from three. The following game against No. 15 Tennessee in Rupp, Knox laid another egg. He had 10 points on 3 of 11 shooting and 0 of 3 from deep.
I noticed a trend with Knox. When shots are going down he will contribute in other aspects of the game. In the three games in which Kentucky won, he averaged 23.6 points per game. Knox also averaged seven rebounds per game over that stretch, something he is more than capable of considering his athleticism and frame. In the two games Kentucky loss, he averaged three rebounds while also putting in a lack of effort on the defensive end.
Knox is not the only problem for the Wildcats right now, that would be consistency and effort on both ends of the court. But, good players find a way to affect the game if their shot is not falling that day. Knox has struggled to grasp that concept.
Top-5 Coaching Efforts This Season
1.) Bruce Pearl (Auburn)
Last week I ranted that Auburn should be National Coach of the Year, and I don’t think one loss against a talented A&M team disputes that. Pearl lost two stars in Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and still has his team atop the SEC with just three losses. He should at least be in the conversation with Chris Holtmann and Tony Bennett.
2.) Rick Barnes (Tennessee)
No surprise that the top two teams in the conference boast the Coaches that have been the most impressive. But, what Rick Barnes has done in his third year at Tennessee has been nothing short of great. The Volunteers are riding a six game winning streak and are second in the conference despite being picked to finish in the bottom three by nearly every media outlet.
3.) Cuonzo Martin (Missouri)
Last season Missouri finished 2-16 in conference, which was dead last. Cuonzo Martin comes to Mizzou and now they are tied for fourth in the conference and look like a tournament team. This is also without having MPJ, a player that would have been in the No. 1 overall pick discussion.
4.) Ben Howland (Mississippi State)
The other three coaches were obvious, their teams have substantially overachieved throughout the season. But, I think Howland has proved he’s done a good job with this team. Last year the Bulldogs were 6-12 in conference and finished 12th. They are now tied for fourth and currently on a four-game winning streak.
5.) Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M)
Kennedy did start off 0-5 in conference play with a very talented A&M team. But, people didn’t realize that the Aggies had five players suspended for a total of 15 games. They have also had to deal with the injury bug. People were wondering if A&M was going to make its first ever run at a Final Four and everything went straight downhill. The Aggies are getting all their pieces back at the right time and have reeled off three-straight.