Sidelines with John Clay

After strong start, SEC basketball has taken a slight dip

Tennessee center Kyle Alexander goes over the back of North Carolina’s Theo Pinson during North Carolina’s 78-73 victory in a college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Dec. 17, 2017.
Tennessee center Kyle Alexander goes over the back of North Carolina’s Theo Pinson during North Carolina’s 78-73 victory in a college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn. on Dec. 17, 2017. Associated Press

Florida beat Gonzaga and owned a 17-point lead over Duke before losing in the PK80 Tournament. Texas A&M whipped West Virginia, Oklahoma State and USC. Tennessee beat Purdue and took Villanova to the wire. For 2017-18, SEC basketball was off to a strong start.

Yet as we creep closer to the start of conference play, the league has a dipped a bit, dropping in Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings from the fourth-best league to fifth.

After avoiding the inexplicable non-conference losses that dogged the league in past years, a few SEC teams have either taken it on the chin from lesser foes or missed opportunities to knock off bigger names.

Florida is the biggest mystery. After a 5-0 start that propelled the Gators to a No. 5 ranking, Mike White’s team has lost four of its last five. The slump includes that shocking 65-59 home loss to Loyola of Chicago on Dec. 6.

On Dec. 2, Arkansas was blown out 91-65 at Houston, a loss that became more puzzling a week later when Mike Anderson’s club romped 95-79 over No. 14 Minnesota in Fayetteville.

Give Alabama’s Avery Johnson a pat on the back for playing a challenging non-conference schedule. Two of the Tide’s three losses were to No. 14 Minnesota 89-84 and at Arizona 88-82. But Alabama also slipped up at home, losing 65-62 to Johnny Dawkins and Central Florida on Dec. 3.

After an 8-0 start against a cupcake schedule, Mississippi State received a reality check on Dec. 12 with a 65-50 loss at Cincinnati.

Last Saturday, Georgia lost 72-62 at Massachusetts to drop to 7-2. UMass, coached by former Florida assistant and Chattanooga head coach Matt McCall, is just 6-5. And a rebuilding LSU under first-year coach Will Wade dropped to 6-3 with an 83-82 home loss to Stephen F. Austin.

Sunday in Knoxville, Tennessee led No. 7 North Carolina practically the entire game before being outscored 11-3 over the final minute to lose 78-73.

“I don’t think we have to play perfect to win a game like this,” Vols coach Rick Barnes said afterward. “And today, we didn’t get anywhere near perfect. We don’t have to be. But the fact is we had a chance, and when we had the lead we didn’t do what we needed to do when we got the lead. That will always come back to offensive execution.”

As for the Sagarin ratings, his numbers rank the Big 12 as the toughest league, followed by the ACC, the Big East, the Big 10 and then the SEC.

To the links:

▪  on how North Carolina built and maintained the toughness it needed to pull out the win in Knoxville on Saturday. Coach Roy Williams said he liked the way his team responded in the final three minutes.

▪ On Saturday, Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams heaped high praise on Kentucky coach John Calipari, saying no coach could do a better job at the best job in basketball. In my Monday column, I agreed. Dick Vitale retweeted and you can imagine what my Twitter mentions look like.

▪ No. 3 Louisville blew out the Kentucky women 87-63 in Memorial Coliseum, but Jennifer Smith of the Herald-Leader writes that UK believes better days are ahead. Maybe that’s because the Cats don’t have to play the Cards again this season.

▪ Ex-Kentucky head football coach Hal Mumme will be the next offensive coordinator at Jackson State, reports Tyler Cleveland of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Mumme resigned as coach at Belhaven after going 8-33 in four seasons.

▪ Mike White is looking for answers at Florida, reports Kevin Brockway of the Gainesville Sun. With the aforementioned slump, the Gators are trying to figure out how they blew a 12-point lead against Clemson. The coach thinks Florida’s schedule has had more of a mental than physical impact.

SAGARIN SEC BASKETBALL RANKINGS

  • 10 Texas A&M
  • 17 Arkansas
  • 25 Kentucky
  • 26 Missouri
  • 29 Florida
  • 35 Tennessee
  • 46 Auburn
  • 53 Alabama
  • 59 South Carolina
  • 73 Mississippi State
  • 90 Georgia
  • 100 LSU
  • 101 Vanderbilt
  • 110 Ole Miss

SEC men’s basketball standings

Team

SEC

Overall

Auburn

0-0

9-1

Kentucky

0-0

9-1

Texas A&M

0-0

9-1

Miss State

0-0

9-1

Missouri

0-0

9-2

Arkansas

0-0

8-2

South Carolina

0-0

8-2

Georgia

0-0

7-2

Tennessee

0-0

7-2

Alabama

0-0

7-3

LSU

0-0

6-3

Florida

0-0

6-4

Ole Miss

0-0

5-5

Vanderbilt

0-0

3-7

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