Despite multiple games being either postponed or canceled this last week, the Southeastern Conference still had some shake-ups toward the middle of the standings. Most teams near the top continued their winning ways, while an unfamiliar team succeeded in playing the underdog role.
The Missourian examines who’s up and who’s down across the SEC:
Stock up: Kentucky
While the Wildcats likely won’t be an NCAA Tournament team, they are playing their best basketball of the season. That isn’t saying much, considering Kentucky is 8-13 and has failed to live up to the standards past John Calipari teams have set.
The Wildcats’ three-game winning streak is tied for their longest of the season. The difference for Kentucky has been its play late in games. Prior to the winning streak, the Wildcats struggled in the clutch, going 2-7 in games decided by 10 points or less. That hasn’t been the case recently.
Kentucky saw a balanced scoring performance against Vanderbilt, with six players scoring nine or more points. Vanderbilt was much different, with Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. scoring 50 of the Commodores’ 78 points. But it wasn’t enough, with Kentucky pulling out the four-point win.
Calipari’s squad followed that up with a convincing 70-55 win over then-No. 19 Tennessee. While the Wildcats didn’t shoot lights out (40.4%), their defense on the Vols is what blew open the game. Tennessee shot 32.1%, with Kentucky leading the game front to back.
“We did some good stuff,” Calipari said. “They (Tennessee) weren’t at their best. I know they’re better than they played, but let me just tell you, we were at our best.”
Even though Kentucky probably won’t be dancing in March, this winning steak has been a positive sign for a team that had lost seven of its previous eight games. It looks like Calipari and his squad are embracing the spoiler role.
Stock up: LSU
The Tigers have gone from a bubble team to sitting firmly in many analysts’ NCAA Tournament projections. According to CBS College Hoops analyst Jerry Palm, LSU currently projects as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Due to weather postponements, the Tigers only played one game last week, but they put together one of their best performances this season. LSU scored a season high in its 104-80 win over Auburn and shot a season-best 11 for 22 from 3. The win pushes the Tigers’ win streak to three. LSU continues to have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. According to KenPom, the Tigers are sixth in offensive efficiency.
Even though they don’t play much defense, the Tigers have been better on that end. Instead of giving up north of 90 points, LSU has kept teams around 80 points or fewer. That may be just enough with the offensive firepower they have.
The Tigers have a favorable schedule, with two of their last three scheduled games against teams with losing records in conference play (Georgia and Vanderbilt). Unless the SEC reschedules games LSU has had postponed, the Tigers’ biggest matchup is a road game against No. 20 Arkansas. If the Tigers can pull out a win in Fayetteville, they’ve all but punched their tickets to Indiana for the NCAA Tournament.
Stock down: Tennessee
Entering February with just three losses, Tennessee has lost three of its six games.
The Vols offense is struggling. Freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson have taken on bigger roles lately, but the results have been a mixed bag. Tennessee’s defense still is elite, but the lack of scoring has hurt the Vols. In Saturday’s loss to Kentucky, the duo shot a combined 6 for 25.
“I thought they were hesitant,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think those guys are young and learning that every game is going to be different.”
While this may be the growing pains that come with giving the bulk of your offense to two freshmen, the Vols will need more consistency from them if they want to compete for a national title. Their defense can keep them in most games, but the lack of a go-to guy down the stretch has deterred them.
With two regular-season games remaining, time is running out for Barnes and his squad.
Stock down: South Carolina
No SEC team has had more schedule changes than South Carolina. The Gamecocks went nearly a month without a game because of COVID-19. When they have been on the floor, the play has been lackluster.
Whenever teams face the Gamecocks this season, they seem to set a season high or have their best performance. Tennesee put up 93 points against South Carolina last Wednesday, its most in conference play. Missouri achieved the same feat Saturday, matching the Vols’ 93 points in a 15-point win.
“We don’t make contested layups, we don’t make contested plays,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said following the loss to Missouri. “We just haven’t made those plays. ... For 35 years, my players have never gotten out of the way. We get out of the way this year and it’s very, very frustrating.”
The Gamecocks are riding a five-game losing streak, currently the longest in the SEC. South Carolina is heading for its first losing season since the 2013-14 season. The 78.4 points per game allowed by the Gamecocks is the most in the Martin era and the most since the 1992-93 season.
South Carolina has lacked physicality and effort, something that is usually a staple with Martin-led teams. In the past, the Gamecocks were a competitive SEC team, even at their worst. Now, they are near the bottom of pack, with not much to show.