It may have been a while without analysis of SEC basketball, but I am back, and so is the SEC. Over the course of the past month or so we have learned that the SEC is made up of plenty of solid basketball teams.
Not one has been able to break away from the rest of the pack, but Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers might be in the process of doing just that. The Tigers were projected to finish amongst the middle of the pack in the SEC this preseason. Then right before the season started Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, arguably Auburn’s two most talented players were ruled ineligible. Auburn was written off and pushed further down the totem pole in the SEC projections.
It is the first week of February and Bruce Pearl has a two-game lead on the rest of the SEC, the conference that has been the most competitive it has been in recent memory. Auburn has two losses and sits atop the SEC with a 20-2 record. If you didn’t get the hint, that was a campaign for Bruce Pearl for National Coach of the Year. Bruce Pearl’s team is going to make the tournament for the first time since 2003 and poised to make a run. 15 years of not a single tournament appearance and Pearl is going to do it in his fourth season.
Player of the Week
Kevin Knox (Kentucky)
What a wild two week for the ‘Cats, huh? Just recently they were coming off losses to South Carolina and a home loss to an unranked Florida team. Not only do they lose on the court, they lost off the court with Duke reeling in Top-3 recruit Zion Williamson. All the Kentucky haters came out of the woodworks and started claiming that Coach K has beaten Cal at his own game. He has, and Cal won’t be able to fix that with this recruiting class. Duke snatched up the top-3 players in the class, no one can bounce back from that. But, then you heard that Cal’s formula isn’t working, and it is time to give up on the ‘Cats and pray that these freshmen come back next season.
Then Kevin Knox dropped 34 points in Morgantown to relinquish a 17-point lead and lead Kentucky to victory after Jay Williams showed confidence in them during College Gameday. During the first half, the season did look like it was over, Kentucky did not have a quality win all year and would have been on a three-game skid. The problem was Cal could not get consistency out of his players all year to step up. He did not have a John Wall or Anthony Davis. In previous games, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but he was struggling. And with a tie game, 74-74, Kevin Knox knocked down a trey and had a graphic celebration. But, it was what the ‘Cats needed. A leader. Knox had been too passive to take games over in the past, and he did it when they needed it. The next game against Vanderbilt was not the Kevin Knox show, SGA actually dropped 30, but Knox had 18 of his own and a crucial 3-point play in OT. Quade Green knocked down the game-winning layup, but on the other end of the court, Knox contested Payton Willis on his 3-point attempt to win them the game. It rimmed out and Knox did something he hasn’t done all season, contested a shot. It may not look pretty, but Kentucky is figuring things out, and Kevin Knox might have to lead them to where they want to be.
Quinndary Weatherspoon (Mississippi State)
Just when you thought Mississippi State was overrated and solely benefitted off of a very weak non-conference schedule, they rattle off two-straight W’s. Granted, they did lose two-straight prior to their wins against Missouri and South Carolina this week, but they went into Tuscaloosa and Lexington. Alabama might have the most impressive home wins of any team in the country, and Cal very rarely loses at home. The one constant for this Mississippi State team all season has been Quinndary Weatherspoon. He has averaged 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists over the course of the season. But, he has upped his play as of late.
What is most impressive about his game is the variety in which he scores, and how good he is in all facets of the game. He does not have nights where there are goose eggs in the assist and rebound columns. In their two victories this week he had 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists against Missouri in Starkville. And when the Bulldogs took a trip to Columbia he put up 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists including clutch shots down the stretch to pull out an 81-76 victory. Mississippi State now looks like a tournament team, something that hasn’t been said since non-conference play, and if this team makes the tournament it will be because of Quinndary Weatherspoon’s versatile play.
Tremont Waters (LSU)
I don’t want to put the entire blame of the LSU beatdowns over the past two contests solely on Tremont Waters, but he has considerably cooled down. LSU is limited when it comes to talent, they won’t be next year with the recruiting class Wade Davis is bringing in, but right now it is a struggle. Waters carried this team to be competitive for the first three months of the season, but the past two games against ranked opponents have not been pretty.
LSU traveled to Auburn to take on the No. 19 ranked Tigers and got embarrassed 95-70. Waters had 4 points on 1-7 shooting to go with 6 turnovers and no assists. Waters suffered the toughest game of his collegiate career. Following the loss to Auburn, you expected Waters bounce back and perform against a ranked Tennessee team. Instead, he had 7 points on 1-9 shooting in a 23-point loss in Knoxville.
Waters has been trying to carry his team week in and week out. He has averaged 32.5 minutes per game over the course of the season and has done too much at times. He is tired, and you can see it in his jump shot. Waters is shooting just 14% from beyond the arc the last five games. Waters had three double-digit assist outings in six games during non-conference play, he hasn’t notched 10 assists since December. Waters is going to be a star in college basketball, but he needs to stop trying to do too much. He won’t have to worry about that next year with the talent coming to Baton Rouge.
Top-5 Teams heading into February
1.) Auburn Tigers
This is pretty clear-cut right now, this is Auburn’s conference to lose. They have a home game against a Kentucky team that is starting to figure it out and then travel to the Swamp to play Florida. Just imagine if Bruce Pearl had Purifoy and Wiley.
2.) Tennessee Volunteers
Rick Barnes’ team figured it out a year or two early. Everybody wrote them off and had them projected to finish in the bottom two of the league. Grant Williams is only a sophomore, and this Tennessee team is young. Better hope you knock them off this year.
3.) Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky is the most talented team in the league, and water is wet. But, this team is still so young and inconsistent it is tough to bet on them. Cal better hope this plane lands soon or they might run out of runway.
4.) Florida Gators
Guards win in March, and you have to like Florida point guard Chris Chiozza. He has not had two turnovers since January 13. That is five consecutive games with one turnover while controlling the ball for most of the game. As long as Chiozza is leading the Gators, I like their chances.
5.) Alabama Crimson Tide
I was tempted to believe that Quinndary Weatherspoon and Mississippi State have finally figured it out. But, Avery Johnson just has too much talent. He has dealt with injuries and still has Alabama in a good position to make the tournament. Once again, guard play is vital in March, and it is tough to argue against Collin Sexton and John Petty.