Like most of the year anyway but especially now at the end of December, this is a time when football traditionally takes center stage in the Southeastern Conference. Thursday also marked the open of the conference season for SEC basketball as well, though, and an entertaining night it was.
For one thing, SEC road teams went 2-6 on the night. Road wins are much more frequent in conference play than out of it, for (in addition to there being no more buy games to fluff up win totals) there are no secrets among league competition; every team knows every other inside and out. Still, some of the results were more than a little curious (and one of them can’t even be explained by conference rivalry).
The most surprising result perhaps: Tennessee won at Texas A&M-handily. The Volunteers dominated the second half for a 73-63 win in College Station. The Aggies shot just 34.4%, and their thin eight-man rotation was worn down by Tennessee’s 11-deep roster, per the words of A&M coach Billy Kennedy himself. And while there’s still ample season left, it already might be time to consider that perhaps the Aggies-who have a win over Virginia Tech but have lost to arguably the other four best teams they’ve played-are not as good as they looked in November when nearly defeating UCLA in the Wooden Legacy event.
Kentucky winning at Mississippi 99-76 was no surprise, and it’s probably not even a surprise anymore when Malik Monk scores 34 points. Bam Adebayo also added 25, too, and the Wildcats are unquestionably the equivalent of Alabama football in the SEC, heavy favorites in the conference this year.
Florida is perhaps the team best positioned to be the Seth Meyers to Kentucky’s Jimmy Fallon, the SEC’s No. 2. The Gators picked up a solid win at Arkansas, winning 81-72 to give the Hogs just their second loss.
The night’s best game may well have been Georgia coming back to win at Auburn 96-84 behind more heroics from Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier. One of the very best duos in the country-certainly among those most important to their team-Maten scored 31 points despite early foul trouble, and Frazier added 27 plus five assists and five steals. The Bulldogs were down 12 in the second half but gave a lesson to the young Tigers, who struggled down the stretch and clearly looked like a squad filled with players new to crunch time in conference play.
Vanderbilt also won a shootout, holding on at LSU 96-89 as Riley LaChance had easily his best game of the year with 24 points. It wrapped up a day for the Tigers that started with the news that Craig Victor had been dismissed from the team, a one-time hyped transfer from Arizona now gone along with his 10.5 points per game.
Also: in what some might say is true SEC spirit, a couple conference foes also played non-conference tune-ups Thursday for a presumably easy win. Missouri got far more than it bargained for, though, in hosting Lipscomb, which led much of the way and knocked off the Tigers 81-76. It was the Bisons’ first win over an SEC opponent since 1951. The sledding continues to be tough for Mizzou, which started the year in encouraging fashion with a near-miss against Xavier but has had a rough run out of conference that unquestionably is leaving fans restless.
- Butler beat Indiana just a few weeks ago, but the Bulldogs did their best IU impersonation last night. One night after the Hoosiers lost at home to Nebraska, the Bulldogs were defeated by St. John’s 76-73 in both teams’ Big East opener. Butler led by seven with less than eight minutes left, but the Johnnies rallied and perhaps are starting to turn a corner after nicely backing up their recent blowout win over Syracuse. Still, this is a game the Bulldogs need to take care of if they’re going to contend for the Big East title, and not fall into a messy mix in the middle of the league.
- The Missouri Valley Conference’s terrific 18-game double round-robin schedules started last night and continued Thursday. Already, the league is eating its own, as Drake-with a 2-10 record entering-defeated previously 10-3 Loyola (Ill.) 102-98. In much more Valley-like scores, Illinois State handled Evansville 62-50 and Bradley topped Southern Illinois 60-51.
- The West Coast Conference is another league where its members are getting reacquainted again with conference openers, and favorites rolled Thursday. Among them, Gonzaga is now 13-0 after an easy 92-62 win over sputtering Pepperdine, while Saint Mary’s got a challenge but remained calm in a 72-60 win over Loyola Marymount. Emmitt Naar showed again why he’s one of the most enjoyable, crafty and complete guards few know about, this time leading the way with scoring (19 points).
- William & Mary picked up a nice road win at former CAA rival Old Dominion, winning 65-54 despite getting just a combined 20 points from its starting five. The keys? Daniel Dixon scored a career-high 36 points off the bench, and the Monarchs shot a dismal 30.3% from the field, making little use of 19 offensive rebounds.
- IPFW entered its Summit League conference schedule as the probable favorite in the league. Then the Mastodons went and lost at home to Western Illinois last night 93-91. The outstanding Garret Covington the past couple years has been one of the really, really good players on thus-far losing teams in Division I, and he scored 25 as the Leathernecks improved to 4-8 this year.
- A couple other real “huh???” scores: Portland State pummeled North Dakota 99-62, with the improved Vikings blowing out one of the favorites in the Big Sky, and Houston Baptist won at Sam Houston State 79-65, knocking off the Southland preseason favorite.
- Miami (Fla.) announced that New Zealand native Sam Waardenburg has signed a grant-in-aid with the school and will join the team immediately. A release from the school does say he is expected to begin playing for the Hurricanes in the 2017-18 season.
- It doesn’t have an immediate correlation with college basketball, but in news that could eventually have a huge effect on the sport, ESPN floated a report on Thursday that several so-called “Group of Five” conference schools are interested in forming their own football playoff event, separate of the so-called “power” conferences. Quite simply for college basketball: if this comes to pass, the NCAA Tournament as we know it soon will, too, because it will just be a matter of time before the TV conferences exercise their power to takeover that event, too. In fact, maybe it’s already on the way to doing so. When administrators at Division I schools outside the BCS (or whatever term one likes) realm are so willing to call their product inferior to other schools all because they compete with smaller budgets, it’s no surprise that the tourney selection committees the past two years have so given the shaft to non-BCS schools. The leaders at smaller Division I schools need to have more belief in their product and in their collective power than it often seems like they do.
- Finally from Thursday, Hoopville’s Phil Kasiecki surveyed the landscape of all 32 Division I conference races.
- The Big 12 gets into conference action and a dandy leads it off, with West Virginia on the road at quickly rising Oklahoma State (4 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). Brad Underwood showed his teams can unlock the WVU formula last year in the NCAA Tournament, and don’t believe the Mountaineers have forgotten it. Also: Texas Tech is at Iowa State (6 p.m., ESPNews) and Baylor travels to Oklahoma (7 p.m., ESPN2).
- The Atlantic 10 opens league play, too, and St. Bonaventure at Massachusetts is a fun one to get it going.
- Valparaiso opens Horizon play at Illinois-Chicago on national TV (5 p.m., ESPNU).
- Northwestern tries for 2-0 in the Big Ten when it goes to Michigan State (6 p.m., Big Ten Network)
- The Patriot League opens play, including a good one with Holy Cross at Boston University.
- One of the best games of the night has old CAA-turned-now-Atlantic 10 rivals VCU and George Mason meeting (8 p.m., CBSSN), with the Patriots looking to extend their winning streak to 10 games.
- We’re looking forward to South Carolina and Memphis renewing their series, as these former Metro Conference rivals proved they hadn’t forgotten those days with a heated game a year ago. Expect more of the same this year. (9 p.m., ESPNU).
- Pac-12 play really gets into the swing with a pair of good ones, as undefeated USC is at Oregon (10 p.m., FS1) and Arizona goes to California (11 p.m., ESPN2).
Enjoy your Friday and have a super New Year’s weekend.