Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky sitting third as clock ticks down on SEC basketball season

It wasn’t a total Separation Saturday for SEC men’s basketball, but close enough. The 14-team conference entered the day with a three-way tie-up atop the leader board with two of the three facing off against each other. Something had to give.

To start the day, LSU held off Alabama 74-69 in Tuscaloosa to go to 14-2. Skylar Mays scored 20 points to lead the Tigers. After missing two games with an undisclosed illness, point guard Tremont Waters scored five points and made four steals in 24 minutes. The big boost for the Tigers continues to come from Javonte Smart, who again started in place of Waters, and scored 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting from the floor.

Despite 23 points from John Petty, Alabama fell to 8-8 in league play and 17-12 overall. The loss snapped a brief two-game win streak for Avery Johnson’s club. Squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Tide has Auburn at home on Tuesday night before finishing the regular season at Arkansas.

[SEC Tournament bracket}

Then came Tennessee’s impressive 71-52 win over visiting Kentucky. UK had no none who could stay in front of UT point guard Jordan Bone, who scored a game-high 27 points. Bone was 11-of-15 from the floor and drilled all five of his three-point attempts. That helped open things up inside for Grant Williams, who scored 24 points and grabbed seven rebounds. So the Vols are now tied with LSU atop the league standings.

There are two regular-season games remaining, but if play ended today, LSU would be the No. 1 seed for the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament by virtue of its 82-80 overtime win over Tennessee on Feb. 23. Kentucky would be the No. 3 seed. Then comes five teams at 9-7. Good luck sorting that quintet out for the conference tourney, much less the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday in just two weeks.

Without Reid Travis and with Tennessee owning the motivation edge (revenge!), Kentucky did not have much of a chance on Rocky Top on Saturday. PJ Washington’s foul trouble didn’t help. If I’m John Calipari, I’m more troubled by the fact my team turned the ball over 17 times while forcing Tennessee into just five turnovers. Tennessee’s backcourt looked experienced. Kentucky’s backcourt looked like, well, freshmen.

Herald-Leader coverage from Knoxville

From the Tennessee side of things

Up next for Kentucky is Ole Miss, who took another brutal loss on Saturday. After falling at home to Tennessee 73-71 on Wednesday, Kermit Davis’ team traveled to Fayetteville and lost to Arkansas 74-73 on Saturday. Jalen Harris’ layup with 5.9 seconds left was the difference for the Razorbacks, who shot 55.1 percent and snapped a six-game losing streak. Mike Anderson’s team made nine of 18 three-point shots.

The Rebels shot 53.7 percent from the floor, but still managed to lose. They shot just 11 free throws, making nine. And they turned the ball over 16 times. Davonte Shuler turned it over four times. Breein Tyree scored 20 points, but turned it over three times. Ole Miss is now 19-10 overall and 9-7 in the SEC. The Rebels’ last three games have been decided by a total of four points — a 72-71 win over Georgia; the 73-71 loss to Tennessee; the 74-73 loss at Arkansas.

Florida easily suffered Saturday’s worst SEC loss. Mike White’s Gators fell at home to a 1-14 Georgia 61-55. The visiting Bulldogs shot 56.1 percent from the floor while Florida shot just 37.5 percent. Gators’ guard KeVaughn Allen was way off target, going 1-of-10 from the field, including 1-of-6 from the three-point line. As a result, Florida’s five-game win streak went by the boards. The Gators are 17-12 overall and 9-7 in the SEC.

Give Tom Crean credit. In its previous three games, the Bulldogs lost by four to LSU, by one at Ole Miss and by three to Auburn. After his team’s win, Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl praised Georgia for continuing to play hard despite the defeats. That paid off in Gainesville. Nicolas Claxton scored 25 points, making nine of 12 shots from the floor, including a perfect 2-of-2 from three-point range and a perfect 5-of-5 from the foul line.

Outside of Tennessee’s trouncing of Kentucky, Saturday’s biggest win belonged to Auburn. Bruce Pearl’s Tigers stopped a five-game Mississippi State win streak with an 80-75 victory at Auburn Arena. Bryce Brown scored 24 points to lead the way. Brown made five of eight three-point shots. Auburn and MSU are now in that logjam of teams at 9-7.

Mississippi State got 25 points and six assists from Quinndary Weatherspoon, and it still wasn’t enough. Ben Howland’s team shot 30 three-pointers, but made just 10. Tyson Carter heaved up 14 triples, and made six to finish with 21 points. MSU turned it over 18 times against Auburn’s pressure. Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters each committed four turnovers.

South Carolina is officially in free fall. Playing without injured point guard A.J. Lawson, the Gamecocks lost 78-63 at Missouri on Saturday. Frank Martin’s team made just three of 14 three-point shots in the loss. Senior guard Hassani Gravett scored 20 points in Lawson’s absence, but South Carolina managed just eight assists on 24 made field goals. USC, now 9-7 in the league, has lost three straight.

[SEC men’s basketball game-by-game results, schedules]

Missouri snapped a four-game losing streak with the victory. The Tigers out rebounded South Carolina 39-27. Jeremah Tilmon stayed on the floor for 20 minutes and grabbed eight rebounds, including three off the offensive glass. Freshman guard Torrence Watson came off the bench to lead Mizzou with 20 points.

Vanderbilt is closing in on that winless SEC regular season. With games against Arkansas (home) and LSU (road) remaining, the Commodores fell to 0-16 with a 64-57 loss to Texas A&M in College Station on Saturday. Vanderbilt has lost 17 straight games. Missing 25 of 30 three-point attempts, and shooting 37.7 overall on Saturday, didn’t help the Commodores’ cause. Joe Toye was 0-for-10 from three-point land. Ouch.

“Losing stinks, it’s frustrating and it’s miserable,” Commodores coach Bryce Drew said. “Any bad words you can think.”

Texas A&M got 22 points and 12 rebounds from Savion Flagg. Billy Kennedy’s Aggies are not playing bad basketball. After a 2-8 start, they’re now 6-10 in the league. They’ve won three of their last four and five of their last seven. The losses were at South Carolina and at LSU. They get South Carolina at home on Tuesday.

SEC men’s basketball standings

  • Tennessee 14-2 (25-3)
  • LSU 14-2 (24-5)
  • Kentucky 13-3 (24-5)
  • Miss State 9-7 (21-8)
  • Auburn 9-7 (20-9)
  • Ole Miss 9-7 (19-10)
  • Florida 9-7 (17-12)
  • South Carolina 9-7 (14-15)
  • Alabama 8-8 (17-12)
  • Arkansas 6-10 (15-14)
  • Texas A&M 6-10 (13-15)
  • Missouri 4-12 (13-15)
  • Georgia 2-14 (11-18)
  • Vanderbilt 0-16 (9-20)

Remaining SEC regular season schedule

Tuesday, March 5

  • 7:00 - South Carolina at Texas A&M (SEC)
  • 9:00 - Kentucky at Ole Miss (ESPN)
  • 9:00 - Mississippi State at Tennessee (SEC)
  • 9:00 - Auburn at Alabama (ESPNU)

Wednesday, March 6

  • 6:30 - Missouri at Georgia (SEC)
  • 7:00 - LSU at Florida (ESPN2)
  • 8:30 - Arkansas at Vanderbilt (SEC)

Saturday, March 9

  • 12:00 - Tennessee at Auburn (ESPN3)
  • 1:00 - Georgia at South Carolina (SEC)
  • 2:00 - Florida at Kentucky (CBS)
  • 2:00 - Texas A&M at Mississippi State (ESPN2)
  • 3:30 - Ole Miss at Missouri (SEC)
  • 6:00 - Alabama at Arkansas (SEC)
  • 8:30 - Vanderbilt at LSU (SEC)

Kenpom ratings (offense/defense)

  • Tennessee 7 (3/32)
  • Kentucky 8 (15/8)
  • Auburn 16 (12/41)
  • LSU 19 (13/49)
  • Miss State 21 (16/48)
  • Florida 29 (77/10)
  • Ole Miss 44 (36/61)
  • Alabama 57 (71/57)
  • Arkansas 60 (81/64)
  • Texas A&M 80 (122/71)
  • Missouri 90 (136/69)
  • South Carolina 94 (108/98)
  • Georgia 102 (70/140)
  • Vanderbilt 139 (195/90)


SEC scoring leaders

  • Grant Williams, Tennessee 19.3
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Miss State 18.8
  • Breein Tyree, Ole Miss 18.3
  • Daniel Gafford, Arkansas 16.5
  • Admiral Schofield, Tennessee 16.4
  • Bryce Brown, Auburn 16.0
  • Terence Davis, Ole Miss 15.5
  • Tremont Waters, LSU 15.3
  • Jerod Harper, Auburn 15.1
  • PJ Washington, Kentucky 14.9

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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