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During the SEC coaches’ teleconference Monday morning, nearly every coach uttered the same refrain: This week’s conference tournament will be wide open. Even though Kentucky won the regular-season crown by three games, very few single-game upsets in Nashville would come as a shock, and at least a half dozen teams could harbor realistic hopes of cutting down the nets in Bridgestone Arena on Sunday.
“There’s just so much parity in the league,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose Tigers won four games in four days to claim the NCAA Tournament automatic bid last year. “… I think all the teams are still playing, they’re still engaged, and they could look at us last year and go, you know, they were a five-seed that was able to cut nets, and so it certainly can happen.”
The numbers back up the coaches’ words. Ken Pomeroy’s ratings don’t place any SEC teams among the top 25 in the country, with Kentucky the highest-rated team in the conference at No. 28. Yet four league teams rate in the top 40, with Florida (33), Auburn (34) and LSU (36) just behind the Wildcats. Nine of the 14 teams in the league rank in the top 70 nationally. Throw in the fact that Kentucky is coming off a tumultuous week in which it blew a 17-point lead in a home loss against Tennessee, then overcame an 18-point lead to upset Florida on the road, plus could be without starting point guard Ashton Hagans, and it seems reasonable to expect some chaos in Nashville.
“This may be as wide open a field as we all have ever seen,” Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis said.
Jeremiah TIlmon and Missouri will look to begin SEC Tournament play against Texas A&M on Wednesday. (Jessi Dodge)
All that being said, it would probably be too far a stretch to expect Missouri to win enough games in the conference tournament to extend its season. The Tigers (15-16) earned the No. 10 seed and a first-round bye in the tournament thanks to a confluence of results Saturday, but would need to advance to Saturday’s semifinals — something the program has never done since joining the SEC — to accumulate a .500 record and have even a prayer at an NIT berth. It’s probably just as likely (read: just as improbable) for Missouri to win four games in four days and claim a bid in the NCAA Tournament. In order to do so, Missouri would almost certainly need to beat a higher-seeded team in each of its four tournament games, something only one SEC team — Georgia in 2008 — has ever accomplished.
The Tigers’ week will begin at 6 p.m. Thursday against seventh-seeded Texas A&M. SEC Network will broadcast the game. The Aggies defeated Missouri in both regular-season meetings this year, 66-64 in Mizzou Arena on Jan. 21 and 68-51 in College Station two weeks later. However, KenPom and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index both currently favor the Tigers, in large part because Texas A&M rates as the second-worst team from a Power Six conference in both offensive efficiency and three-point shooting.
The common thread in Missouri’s two losses to Texas A&M was the Tigers taking a lot of three-pointers and making few of them. Missouri shot 9-35 from three-point range in the home loss and 7-27 on the road. Only one other time during conference play did the Tigers attempt more than 25 three-pointers in a game, and they lost that one, too. Cuonzo Martin said Texas A&M plays a swarming defense that makes it tough to get open looks near the basket, so outside shooting and offensive rebounding are the keys to beating the Aggies.
“I think the challenge is if you’re not able to make shots,” Martin said. “I think that’s the biggest key. So if you’re not making shots, then you have to do a tremendous job of crashing the offensive glass.”
Missouri should have a couple pieces back in the lineup that can help in both of those areas that it didn’t have for the first two meetings. Center Jeremiah Tilmon missed the first matchup with Texas A&M due to a stress fracture in his left foot, and he tried to return for the second matchup before he was ready, playing just 11 minutes then missing the following five games. Three-point specialist Mark Smith missed the second meeting between the two teams due to a lower back injury.
Should Missouri advance past Texas A&M, it would play Auburn at 6 p.m. Friday. The defending tournament champions earned the No. 2 seed this season, going 12-6 in conference play. Missouri upset Auburn 85-73 on Feb. 15, though it’s worth noting that Auburn was without second-leading scorer and projected NBA Draft lottery pick Isaac Okoro. Auburn has looked beatable down the stretch, dropping four of its final seven games.
If Missouri managed to defeat Auburn a second time, it would play in the second semifinal game on Saturday afternoon, tipping off around 2:30 p.m. The most likely opponent for that matchup would be third-seeded LSU, which rallied to beat Missouri 82-78 on Feb. 11 in Baton Rouge. The conference championship game will be played at noon on Sunday, just a few hours before NCAA Tournament brackets are revealed.