Entering the final week of regular-season play in the Southeastern Conference, there’s still plenty of time for movement in the standings as some teams vie for NCAA Tournament bids. Last week, three projected tournament teams stood out among a crowded conference.
The Missourian examines who’s up and who’s down across the SEC:
Stock up: Alabama
Entering this year with just two NCAA Tournament appearances in the past 14 seasons, making the big dance would’ve been an accomplishment in itself for Alabama. Instead, the No. 8 Tide are rolling into the tournament with a chance to be a No. 1 seed after clinching their first regular-season SEC title since 2002, with Saturday’s win over Mississippi State.
It took Alabama three days later than it would’ve liked after suffering its second conference loss Wednesday against Arkansas. The Razorbacks handled the Tide 81-66 at home. Arkansas attempted a season-high 43 free throws, while Alabama had just eight. That caused foul trouble for the Tide, with three starters fouling out.
Nonetheless, Alabama still held a 2.5-game lead over Arkansas, needing one win in its final three regular-season games to clinch the SEC title. The Tide achieved the feat in a 64-59 slugfest over Mississippi State on Saturday. Alabama didn’t play well, shooting its second-worst field goal percentage this season (32.3%). The 64 points were its lowest in conference play. Still, Alabama pulled out the win and the SEC title.
Saturday showed just how difficult it is to defeat Alabama. Even at their worst, the Tide can still come away with wins. With likely more gritty games like Saturday’s ensuing in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, it serves Alabama well that it can still compete despite offensive struggles.
Stock up: Arkansas
Winners of six straight, the 12th-ranked Razorbacks are clicking at the right time. Their two wins last week might’ve been the most impressive during the stretch.
Facing the aforementioned Tide, Arkansas used a 17-2 second-half run to take the lead and go up by nine points. While free throws were a big factor for the Razorbacks, they still shot the ball well from the field (46.3%). Five Razorbacks scored in double figures, with Moses Moody leading them with 24 points to defeat then-No. 7 Alabama.
Arkansas followed that win with another strong performance against visiting LSU on Saturday. Similar to Wednesday, the Razorbacks needed a big second-half comeback to down the Tigers. LSU led by 10 in the second half, but an 11-1 run helped Arkansas fight back. The Razorbacks would outscore the Tigers 51-38 in the final 20 minutes. Arkansas again got to the line frequently, shooting 31 free throws.
With two underwhelming opponents remaining on their regular-season schedule in South Carolina and Texas A&M, the Razorbacks look primed to be on an eight-game winning streak entering the SEC Tournament. Aside from Alabama, Arkansas may be the most likely SEC team to play deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Stock up: Florida
The Gators are quietly winners of three straight. Florida handled both of its games last week, each coming on the road.
The Gators dominated a Sharife Cooper-less Auburn 74-57 last Tuesday. In 12 games this season, Cooper is averaging 20.2 points and 8.1 assists per game. The Tigers struggled to replace him, shooting 35.3% from the field. Auburn had 21 turnovers, tying a season high. Florida had a much easier time offensively, shooting 44.4% and hitting seven 3s.
Saturday, Florida pulled away with a 71-67 win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena. The win snapped Kentucky’s three-game winning streak, which was tied for its longest this season. Despite the closer game, the Gators were more efficient offensively against the Wildcats than they were Tuesday against Auburn. Florida shot 52.1% from the field and 46.7% from 3. Kentucky’s 25 made free throws kept it close, but Florida was able to fight off a feisty Wildcats team.
Gators guard Tre Mann played a pivotal role in Florida’s recent success. In his past two games, Mann is averaging 20 points and 10.5 rebounds, which earned him SEC Player of the Week. Against Auburn, he recorded his first career double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Against Kentucky, he scored 14 of his 21 points in the second half.
The Gators’ final regular-season games involve some key matchups against projected tournament teams in Missouri and Tennessee. If Florida can extend its winning streak with those games, the Gators likely will improve their seeding come Selection Sunday.
Stock down: LSU
It’s hard to get a good read on the Tigers this season. They’ll rattle off a few nice wins, only to lose multiple games in a row. This was the case last week.
The Tigers followed a three-game winning streak with losses to Georgia and Arkansas on the road. An offense that usually carries LSU was its downfall last week. The Tigers shot a combined 39.9% in the two games, well under their 46.7% average this season. With lackluster defense, LSU’s offense going cold doesn’t bode well for coach Will Wade and his squad.
LSU wasn’t competitive in its 91-78 loss to the Bulldogs. Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler recorded the first triple-double in school history, posting 14 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. The Bulldogs shot 46.4% against the Tigers.
Second-half collapses have been common for LSU this season. On Jan. 30 against Texas Tech, the Tigers gave up a 12-0 run in the final 59 seconds, losing 76-71. While Saturday’s meltdown against Arkansas wasn’t as bad, it still resulted in a loss. Leading by 10 in the second half against one of the top SEC teams, LSU looked to be in control, until it wasn’t. A Tigers defense that held their own in the first half completely collapsed in the final 20 minutes, giving up 51 points as LSU lost 83-75.
The Tigers are a fringe tournament team as it currently stands, with their biggest remaining game coming against Missouri on Saturday at Mizzou Arena. A Quadrant-1 win over Missouri likely would land LSU in the tournament, especially if it takes care of seven-win Vanderbilt on Tuesday.