The SEC-ACC challenge featured many fun matchups the past two days, from teams with aspirations of being top-four seeds to teams that likely won’t sniff the tournament. However, just like anything else, it had those who greatly helped themselves and those who did not reap the same rewards.
The SEC’s 5 Winners and Losers From the SEC-ACC Challenge
They say that guards win in March, and Kentucky laid down the blueprint to be set in that department in the offseason. I don’t think John Calipari himself could’ve envisioned this level of production from this group so soon. Last year’s leading scorer, Antonio Reeves, has thrived with three freshmen who are not afraid to go get a bucket. With an injury to D.J. Wagner in the first half, freshmen Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham each got their shine. Sheppard has launched himself from bench player to first-round discussion. Dillingham has shown a new level of facilitating he didn’t quite have in the Overtime Elite league, with nine assists against a great Miami team.
Coming into this game, the Razorbacks had lost three out of four, including letting North Carolina put up 87. However, defensive questions were not raised against the Blue Devils. Holding a Duke team full of NBA-level scorers and the 14th-ranked team on Kenpom to just 35.8% from the floor and 27.3% from beyond the arc. Those numbers would have been even lower if they had kept Kyle Filipowski off the offensive glass. Going into this game without Tramon Mark, they had to get some stops, and they did just that.
The preseason media poll had Georgia finishing 12th in the SEC, and simply put, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Out of their three losses, two of those teams made the tournament last year, one of which was a top-10 team. Even then this Georgia team plays hard, inspired basketball. Wednesday night was just that. It was an ugly game on the road where neither team shot over 40%, but Georgia stuck with it and came back after being down 17. Georgia likely won’t be in the tournament, but I could see them notching a top-10 finish in the SEC. They’re a team that has good guard play that I think will be really annoying to play.
Ole Miss Frontcourt
What a fun mix of athleticism and height. Jamarion Sharp is a seven-foot-five monster who still needs to fill out a little more, but a guy of that size will make problems for anyone driving to the rim. He had three blocks on Tuesday, but he’s averaged over four per game in the last two seasons. I think he’ll average over three a game this year. Jaemyn Brakefield is a guy who is so athletic, and when he’s on, he is fun to watch. The star of the show went for 25 points and eight assists on excellent efficiency. Hopefully, this is the start of a career year for him. However, the best part of all this is that seven-footer and elite defender Moussa Cisse just got cleared by the NCAA. Combine him with what Ole Miss displayed last night, and I think we just might have another elite Chris Beard defense.
Despite the loss, Tennessee had a spirited comeback effort in the second half, and Dalton Knecht led it. He exploded for 37 points and is currently Tennessee’s leader in scoring and field goal percentage. He was able to walk off his ankle injury at the end of the game, so hopefully he’s alright and shouldn’t miss too much time, if any at all. According to Tennessee Stats & Info, his 37 points is tied for the most by a visitor in the Dean E. Smith Center. If the offense Tennessee showed last night is to become a theme this year, he will absolutely be at the center of it.
Sticking with the Volunteers, Rick Barnes’ usually stout defense was completely exploited by RJ Davis and Armando Bacot. It was surprising, considering even in their losses to Kansas and Purdue, the game was still low-scoring and played at Tennessee’s pace. They did not look prepared for this game, as I cannot recall the last time a Barnes team gave up 61 in a half. The Vols’ defense still ranks number three in the country on Kenpom, and I doubt this will become a trend, but certainly something to keep an eye on.
Mississippi State’s “Others”
Winning on the road without your best player, Tolu Smith, is a tough ask. However, this was against a Georgia Tech team that I still think Mississippi State was more talented than, and they were also favored by 8.5 points. Putting up 59 on a Georgia Tech team ranked 147th in defensive efficiency on Kenpom is inexcusable. Josh Hubbard did what he could, pouring in 17 off the bench. Even then, he took 18 shots. If Mississippi State wants to be a serious contender in the SEC, someone else has to step up on a nightly basis.
Texas A&M’s Offense
I get it; it’s Virginia, and I get it; it was on the road. However, 47 points on 30.4% shooting for this team is disappointing. This A&M team goes as far as Wade Taylor, but it has so many guys that can get their own. Henry Coleman and Tyrece Radford can both score 20 on any given night. They’ve put up good outings against talented Ohio State and FAU teams; it’s just Virgina’s defense doing what it often does. I need to see them get back to the top ten offense they are on Kenpom against Houston and Memphis.
Just last year, Alabama ranked number three in defensive efficiency. So far this year, they are 83rd. I’m no statistics major, but I don’t think that’s great. Allowing 85 points to Clemson at home is rough. This is a good Clemson offense, make no mistake, but Nate Oats has been up and down defensively at Alabama. I was looking forward to seeing some consistency this year; for reference, Clemson just scored 85 on Boise State. I get that matchups and style of play make that thinking skewed, but I haven’t seen much to believe Alabama’s defense is far above that.
SEC Resume Builders
Ranked SEC teams went 1-4 in the SEC-ACC challenge, with possible tournament teams such as Florida losing as well. Kentucky looks the part, and Auburn looks like a place you do not want to play in this year, but elite units like Tennessee’s defense and Texas A&M’s offense fell on their face. It is November, and I expect teams to only get better from here, but splitting 7-7 with a down ACC is not a good look. The SEC wasn’t too far off from the Big 12 last year. Maybe they’re closer to a Big 10-level conference this year.
Who Were The SEC’s Biggest Winners and Losers?
Overall, I have to give the biggest winners to Kentucky and Arkansas. Kentucky proved they were more than just a fun team to watch. They are legitimate and have some serious aspirations when their bigs get healthy. After missing some chances and a questionable loss, Arkansas finally got a big resume builder. Maybe this gets them rolling.
The biggest losers are Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Florida. I thought Florida could emerge as a team that gets into that top four of the SEC and throws some people for a loop after the Florida State win, and they did not look the part. Tennessee and Texas A&M were both teams whose strengths looked like weaknesses. They both suffered losses on the road, and I expected more.