Monumental SEC Teams Basking in NCAA Tournament

Ken Cross

March 14, 2023 at 11:42 am.

The SEC is taking a bow as eight teams, all which boast talented players and star coaches and could cause adverse circumstances for their opponents, will be matched up against opponents in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament starting this week.

The only question was not allowing Vanderbilt a position in the field of 68 after the Commodores had won 10 of their last 12 games, posting wins over Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee, plus two ‘Ws’ over Kentucky.

Alabama with its athleticism, running game and defensive approach, won the tournament with an 82-63 victory over Texas A&M in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

The Crimson Tide is known for its eclectic offense that averages 82.2 ppg. (7th/CBB) with one of the top tempos in college basketball, as well as an average possession length of only 15.3 seconds each.

Plug in a rotation that has nine players averaging double digits in minutes, led by star Brandon Miller’s 33.1 minutes per outing, and you have a team that looks to be cycled toward the first Final Four in school history.

That defense was stellar as well in holding the Aggies to 29.7 percent from the field as stars Wade Taylor and Tyrese Radford never got on track on Sunday when they went for 12 and 13 points respectively, as both shot around 25 percent from the field.

Picture Alabama with a group of NCAA entrants that includes Missouri, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn, Tennessee, and Kentucky, so that seeing more than one SEC combatant in the Final Four would not be a surprise.

Missouri has a deep team that coach Dennis Gates construed well when he landed the job in Columbia. D’Moi Hodge and Kobe Brown solidify a one-two punch that can be a tough matchup any night. They combined for 50 points in their win over Tennessee and then Hodge, who was on the all-tournament team, scored 21 in Missouri’s semifinal loss to Alabama.

Missouri gets the Utah State Aggies which lost the Mountain West Tournament championship to San Diego State. The Aggies shot 39.3 percent (5th/CBB) from three this season as Steven Ashworth leads five USU players in double figures.

Texas A&M’s Buzz Peterson seems underrated every season like this year when he has brought his Aggies to a 25-9 record as they finished 15-3 and just one game behind Alabama in the SEC regular season race.

A&M faces a hot Penn State team in its opener after the Nittany Lions almost ran the table in the Big Ten Tournament where they fell to Purdue, 67-65, in the championship game.

Peterson wants to get Wade Taylor’s scoring prowess back after he struggled against Alabama in the final game. Taylor averages a team-leading 16.5 ppg., as he and Radford can accentuate a tough matchup on the perimeter.

A word of note … If the Aggies knock off Penn State, there will likely be a long-awaited rematch of the rivalry with Texas in the field of 32.

Arkansas has had a tough season with Treveon Brazile being sidelined just nine games into the season with a torn ACL.  Nick Smith, Jr., played in only 14 games and started 11 as he suffered from a knee injury.

Coach Eric Musselman is one of the best in the biz and Ricky Council led them in scoring at 15.9 per game, while Anthony Black became one of the top players in the business as the second leading scorer and contributing 4.2 assists per game.

The Razorbacks led Texas A&M, 38-25, at halftime in the quarterfinals before struggles throughout the second half and a more deft shooting Aggies squad dismissed the Hogs from SEC Tournament play.

Their matchup with Illinois is interesting in that the Illini has been one of the better defensive teams against the three in allowing only 6.1 per game while Arkansas only makes 5.1.

Arkansas looks like a more athletic team, especially if this game gets going in the open floor with Smith and Black as the leaders in that faze.

Auburn and Arkansas were the 7th and the 10th seeds in the SEC Tournament, which shows how good the league was with those two teams checking in with those numbers.

Arkansas held off Auburn, 76-73, after the Tigers had come back to regain the lead with just under a minute to play when Allen Flanigan scored on a half-court lay-in for a 73-72 lead. Smith hit a 12-footer off the right baseline on the next possession which allowed Arkansas to win.

Bruce Pearl is one of the game’s top coaches and is finishing his ninth season at Auburn. The Tigers open up in Birmingham against Iowa, which finished 19-13, and will rely on Kris Murray, who led five Hawkeyes in double figures with 20.4 per night.

Wendell Green, Jr., and Johni Broome can create a solid inside-outside combination for the Tigers. Auburn defensively will be one of the toughest matchups Iowa has faced as they hold opponents to 40.7 percent from the field (29th/CBB) and they should be able to score as Iowa has only held opponents to 47.4 percent (350th/CBB).

Flanigan and Jaylin Williams will provide tough matchups for Iowa with their athleticism on both ends of the floor as well as Williams’ shooting ability and Flanigan getting to the rack in transition.

Kudos to Coach Chris Jans for building a culture and getting Mississippi State back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019 and only the second time since 2009.

Jans’ Bulldogs held off Florida, 69-68, in overtime on Thursday behind 28 points and 12 rebounds from Tolu Smith. Smith had a double-double the next day with 17/11, but Alabama only allowed the Bulldogs to shoot just 31 percent from the floor.

Mississippi State will need much better shooting from the outside against Pitt as both are 11-seeds and open in the play-in game. State only averages 5.2 threes per game (347th/CBB), while shooting 26.6 from behind the arc, which is last in college basketball.

The Panthers were in the hunt for the ACC title until Miami won it with a 78-76 decision over Pitt. The Panthers were one of the top three-point shooting teams with 9.2 per outing (27th/CBB).

Blake Hinson will be a tough matchup with his inside-outside abilities  and Jamarius Burton had his best shooting season in this his fifth year. He averaged 15.6 per game as he and Hinson were tied atop the Panthers’ list while he shot 49.7 percent from the field.

Not having point guard Zakai Ziegler will make it much tougher for Tennessee to make a run. Missouri outlasted the Vols, 79-71, in the tournament quarterfinals as the Tigers were able to outscore Tennessee, 14-5, over the last 4:12.

Josiah Jordan-James played minutes on the point, but he’s a noted scorer, so he was 1-of-7 from the floor in that game with only three points. Santiago Vescovi and Tyreke Key can settle in as shooting guards if coach Rick Barnes needs JJJ to pay most attention to commanding the point.

The Vols have been potentially the nation’s top defense this season and will look to defend versus Louisiana forward Jordan Brown (19.4 ppg, 57% field goals).

The Ragin’ Cajuns are a noted scoring team in getting 78 ppg (78th/CBB), but they haven’t faced anyone close to the defensive presence of the Vols, who held opponents to 36.9 percent (2nd/CBB) from the floor and only 58 ppg. (3rd/CBB).

Meanwhile, Kentucky won twice against the Volunteers in their 21-11 campaign which was both on and off. The Wildcats open against Providence in Greensboro as the Friars faulted down the stretch in losing their last three and four of their last five.

Providence scores around the basket and is not as adept at the three-point game.

Oscar Tshiebwe should be a prime scorer against the Friars’ Bryce Hopkins and Ed Crosswell. Of note, Friars guard Noah Locke, who has averaged 11.1 ppg and shot 38.9 percent from three, saw the Wildcats twice each year before he left Florida for Louisville and then on to Providence.