With all the chaos that has occurred in conference play so far this year, there has been one constant: a 3-way race for the SEC crown. There are three weeks left in conference play to determine who will be regular season champions of the conference. Three teams are tied for the top of the SEC with Florida blowing out Kentucky, Kentucky beating South Carolina, and South Carolina beating Florida. But, these teams do not go the rest of the season without facing off again. All these teams control their own destiny, and if recent play is any indication of how the rest of the season is going to play out, then Florida is going to steamroll to an SEC crown. Kentucky does not seem interested or focused out on the hardwood, and Sindarius Thornwell is begging for help at this point. This is the part of the season where teams are expected to come into their own, so don’t write-off South Carolina and Kentucky just yet, expect Frank Martin and Coach Cal to get their teams in order. But, a loss at home to Alabama and a 7-point victory at home against LSU aren’t the best looks when you are trying to get your team ready for March.
Player of the Week
Sindarius Thornwell (South Carolina)
Thornwell had arguably the best performance of any player in the country this year Tuesday night against Alabama. Quite possibly even better than Malik Monk’s 47 against North Carolina, and better than all the ridiculous performances Marcus Keene has been able to give us this year. Thornwell went for 44 points and 21 rebounds in a quadruple OT loss to Alabama. Sindarious Thornwell joins Blake Griffin and Norris Cole as the only three players to accumulate 40 & 20 games over the past 20 seasons. That is pretty good company to be in. If it wasn’t for a performance of a lifetime, Avery Johnson Jr. who was on the winning side of this battle, would be receiving the honor. But, Thornwell not only dropped 40 & 20, he also broke “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s record for most free throws attempted in an SEC game with 33. It was a one man show out there, with all the foul trouble Thornwell was forced to play a majority of the game with and he did not seem winded after out-hustling everyone on his way to 21 boards. Of the 60 possible minutes Thornwell could have spent on the floor, he played 56. Frank Martin knew winded or not, Thornwell gave him the best shot to keep Alabama from pulling off an upset in Columbia. The performance may not have been enough, but it was definitely one of the most inspired performances I have seen in my lifetime as every bucket and rebound was earned. All of this following a 2-point victory in which Thornwell played 37 of 40 minutes against Georgia. Thornwell made clutch plays down the stretch along with scoring 18 points and grabbing 7 rebounds to sneak away with a win at home. Thornwell should be the leader for SEC player of the year despite missing a couple games due to a suspension. He has been putting the team on his back as of late, and if he continues to keep his team in the three-team race between them, Florida, and Kentucky he could be bringing home some hardware.
It is safe to say Florida basketball has figured it out. Earlier in the season I commented that for Florida to come out of the SEC regular season as champions they would need someone in their starting lineup to take over. They haven’t had a consistent go to scorer, but all 5 starters distribute shots evenly and their leading scorer, KeVaughn Allen only averages 13.3 points per game. Everyone does their job effectively, and no one is selfish with the basketball. Florida has reeled off five straight victories so clearly something has had to change. Kasey Hill is now the leader of this team. He doesn’t have to be a superstar every night, but he is the senior leader of this team and he just has to lead by example on the defensive end and put his teammates in the right position to make plays. Over his career at Florida, he has been a major disappointment after coming in as a blue-chip prospect expected to fill in for Scottie Wilbekin. Well, Kasey Hill has figured it out down the stretch and his leadership is the reason that the Florida Gators have an opportunity to make a run in the tourney.
Coach Cal was asked about his team’s effort on the defensive side of the ball following their 7-point victory over LSU at home. He claimed that no one would want to be at the following practice the next day. Following the three-hour practice, he tweeted that none of the players threw up on the court, but they may have in the locker room following their teammates carrying them off the court. If this does not get through to his team then I don’t know what will. This current Kentucky team is giving up 74.3 points per game, while in comparison to the 2011-2012 championship team, they gave up 60 points per night. Cal said before the season come February, this team should be the best defensive team in the country. While they have the talent to do it, they are not even the best defensive team in their conference. Isaiah Briscoe and De'Aaron Fox can be some of the best perimeter defenders in the country when they feel like it, but as of late it doesn’t seem like they feel like it. Bam Adebayo looked like a bull fighter pulling away his red flag the other day as he let Antonio Blakeney walk to the hoop and get a free layup. It is hard to tell whether or not this team is just selfish and only care about the offensive side of the court where they average 90.2 points per game, or they are just that putrid on the defensive end of the floor. If it’s due to lack of effort, I think Cal might have gotten through to them the other day, but I guess we’ll find out this Saturday when Kentucky takes a trip to Tuscaloosa to face the Crimson Tide who are coming off the best win of their season.
Top 5 Games Remaining That Will Determine SEC Crown
1. Florida @ Kentucky: February 25th
The champion of the SEC usually comes down between these two teams and this season I expect nothing different. Despite Florida’s stock is up, and Kentucky’s being down, Kentucky is too talented to just roll over and hand the crown to Florida. Expect revenge after Florida dismantled Kentucky by 22 at their place during College Gameday. Florida hosted College Gameday while playing Kentucky? That’s rare.
2. South Carolina @ Florida: February 21st
Yes, that same week Florida travels to Lexington they have to face South Carolina. If Florida pulls off both those victories they most rightfully earned their spot at the top and deserved to be named the best team in the SEC. Earlier this season Florida lost an ugly low scoring game in Columbia, but Florida looks like a different team in their newly renovated stadium.
3. South Carolina @ Vanderbilt: February 18th
Some people don’t believe in trap games, but if there is such thing as trap game, this would be the epitome of one. Vanderbilt is .500 this season, but there are capable of beating any team in the SEC at home with that Memorial Magic. Honestly, I just think the whole concept of putting teams at the baseline kind of throws them off, but I guess it can be considered magic. Either way, Frank Martin’s squad should not overlook this game before their trip to Gainesville.
4. Kentucky @ Georgia: February 18th
During the Cal era, Kentucky has struggled going into Athens. They might not have all resulted in losses, but in times where Kentucky has come in with clearly superior teams Mark Fox and Georgia push them to the wire (2010, 2014). But, more recently Georgia pushed Kentucky to OT in Rupp Arena, a game they actually should have won if it weren’t for Malik Monk’s late game heroics. This game could officially be the tipping point of Kentucky’s season.
5. Florida @ Vanderbilt: March 4th
The Memorial Coliseum is just an awful place to play. No matter how good a team is coming into that gym, and no matter how bad Vanderbilt is that season, Vandy always draws a huge crowd and stirs up some chaos to stay in the game. Florida could have the SEC crown locked up at this point, but if they don’t, Vanderbilt will be trying to ruin their season. The scariest teams to play are teams that have nothing to play for, and Vanderbilt at that point of the season will fall under that category.