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The Path to an SEC title for LSU, Kentucky and Auburn

Aaron Torres02/06/20


Article written by:On3 imageAaron Torres
[caption id="attachment_267877" align="aligncenter" width="1440"] (SEC)[/caption] We have officially reached the halfway point of the SEC season, with every single team having played exactly nine conference games. And it’s safe to say that while some things have gone as planned, quite a few haven’t. Mainly, a league that was supposed to be “Kentucky, Florida and everyone else” has been anything but that this season. Still, with the conference season halfway done, it does appear as though three teams have emerged with real SEC title hopes, LSU, Kentucky and Auburn. And an already tight race got even tighter on Wednesday, when LSU lost to last place Vanderbilt, meaning that those top three teams are separated by just one game in the loss column. Should Auburn beat LSU this weekend (they play in Auburn) and Kentucky win at Tennessee (not easy) there will be a three-way tie for first place. Ultimately though that’s the small picture of this weekend, and since many have begun to ask, I decided to take a deep dive into the big picture of this SEC race. What do LSU, Kentucky and Auburn have left on the schedule? And what would it take for each to win the SEC crown? Let’s take a look. LSU (17-5, 8-1 in SEC) Remaining Games: Home: Missouri, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Georgia Road: Auburn, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Arkansas How We Got Here: Frankly, I don’t know what’s more shocking. The fact that – after losing Tremont Waters and Naz Reid – LSU started SEC play at 8-0 overall? Or that when they finally did take that loss, it came to last place Vanderbilt, a team which hadn’t won a conference game since 2018? Both results are insane. Still, it shouldn’t take away from LSU has done so far this season. Or the reality that they very much could win a second straight SEC regular season title. Admittedly, I know people don’t want to give Will Wade credit for anything (and I get why). But whatever you think of allegations made against him (and they are in fact allegations, nothing has ever been proven true) it doesn’t change the fact that he has done a remarkable job in Baton Rouge. Even after last night’s loss, LSU is 24-3 in its last 27 SEC regular season games, a remarkable run for a school that has rarely had that kind of basketball success. Now of course with all that said, it also hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for the Tigers to get to 8-1 in SEC play this season. LSU got more breaks to start the SEC slate than Kansas gets from the officials at Phog Allen, as they won four of their first six SEC games by one possession or in overtime before Wednesday night’s loss. Meaning that the loss itself wasn’t all that shocking, but instead, the reality of a bounce finally going against the Tigers. Despite it, it doesn’t change the fact that LSU is still 8-1 in league play and very much in the mix for the SEC crown. The Bad Boys of College Basketball (the nickname I gave LSU amidst turmoil last year) could very much take home a second straight SEC crown. What’s Next: And this is where it gets interesting. Because without taking anything away from LSU, it just finished what is unquestionably the easier half of its SEC schedule. Included in their first nine contests were five home games, and road games against some of the weaker teams in the SEC (Vandy, Ole Miss, Tennessee right after they lost Lamonte Turner for the year). Meaning that things are only going to get much, much tougher from here. You could argue that of the five most talented teams in the SEC besides LSU, the Tigers have road dates with four of them in the coming month – at Auburn, Arkansas, Florida and Alabama (both the Gators and Tide have talent, even if they don’t have the record to show it). They also have a road game at all-of-a-sudden frisky South Carolina and a couple tough home dates, most notably with Kentucky on February 18th. This team will take more losses. The question is simply “how many?” What They Need to Do Going Forward: For all three teams listed here, I’m going to have to do a bit of projecting on what each will do over these next few weeks. So bear with me. And that’s certainly the case with LSU, which again… won eight straight to start SEC play only to lose to the worst team in the league. Therefore, it feels like just about anything could happen from here out for the Tigers. If they went 7-2 in their final nine to finish 15-3 in league play, I’m not sure that I’d be totally surprised. If, given their schedule, they went 5-4, I wouldn’t be surprised either. Still, looking at the schedule it feels like at least a few losses are coming. The most likely one remains this weekend at Auburn, where Bruce Pearl’s club hasn’t lost yet this season (especially when they get a beneficial whistle like they did last week against Kentucky). It also isn’t out of the realm of possibility that the Tigers can or will get tripped up either at Arkansas, at Florida or both, considering that LSU nearly lost to both at home earlier this season. So, if we’re to assume that LSU takes care of all the teams it should at home (Missouri, Texas A&M and Georgia), what the Tigers SEC title chances may come do to are a couple things: 1) What do Kentucky and Auburn in their games? 2) Can they go 3-2 during a tough five game road stretch? 3) And can they beat Kentucky in Baton Rouge? If they can in fact go 3-2 during that five-game road stretch and they beat Kentucky, there is almost no scenario where they aren’t at least sharing a part of the 2020 SEC crown. Kentucky (17-5, 7-2 in SEC) Remaining Games: Home: Ole Miss, Florida, Auburn, Tennessee Road: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU, Texas A&M, Florida How We Got Here: Most everyone reading this doesn’t need me to explain how Kentucky got to 7-2 overall in SEC play, but for those who have been living under a rock the last six weeks, here’s what you need to know. The Wildcats have largely taken care of business early in conference play, quietly piling up a slew of nice wins. That included a victory at Arkansas, a clean sweep of Anthony Edwards and Georgia (shout out, Tom Crean!) and a home win against Mississippi State on Tuesday. That win followed a disappointing loss marred by the referees at Auburn. To be clear, I’m not personally saying Kentucky lost because of the referees (many reading probably disagree). But when one team shoots 44 foul shots and there are 68 total fouls called, it means that either it was the most physical game in the history of basketball, or the refs overstepped their bounds. Still, the Auburn loss also doesn’t change the fact that Kentucky is only behind LSU in the SEC standings because of an inexcusable loss to South Carolina early in the season. The Wildcats led by as many as 14 in the second half, and 13 with 11 minutes to go – and still found a way to lose. Had Kentucky simply won that game, their road to an SEC title would be much more manageable. Now it’s going to take some work down the stretch. What’s Next: Because Kentucky is the signature program in the SEC, the conference office is always sure to give the Wildcats just about the toughest schedule in the league, and back-load it with big games. This year is no exception. Which also means that out of the three teams with realistic SEC title chances, they have the toughest road. For starters, the Wildcats still have remaining home-and-homes with Tennessee and Florida. Say what you want about each team, but neither will be easy, especially on the road. To Rick Barnes’ credit, Tennessee continues to play hard despite injury and the Wildcats have lost four straight games at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Wildcats have had a bit more success at the O-Dome, winning there last year, but the Gators remain talented. Even if they’re not particularly well-coached. Then even if they survive those four games against Tennessee and Florida, there are still two major tests left after that: LSU on the road and Auburn at home. Again, the road to an SEC title won’t be easy for the Wildcats. What They Need to Do Going Forward: For Kentucky, their mettle really will be tested with the road ahead. Winning (at least a piece) of the SEC title seems feasible. But it won’t be easy. First off, Kentucky needs to avoid doing what they’ve done too often this year: Play down to their competition. I’ve said it a million times this season, but the Wildcats have the capability of beating anyone in the sport (as evidenced by wins over Louisville, Michigan State, at Texas Tech and at Arkansas) but also have the ability to lose to anyone too. You don’t need me to tell you about the losses to Evansville, Utah and South Carolina. Which range from “just awful” to “absolutely inexcusable.” Therefore, the first thing Kentucky needs to do is simply just crush the teams they’re supposed to. That means they absolutely need to win at Vanderbilt and Texas A&M and beat Ole Miss on the road. They also have to take care of Auburn, Tennessee and Florida all at home. Considering that they nearly won at Auburn, and are simply more talented then Tennessee, and better coached then Florida, those should be wins. No disrespect to any of those programs. But if you’re an SEC title contender, those are teams you take care of at home. It also means that what this entire season will likely come down to is three games. Can Kentucky finally take care of Tennessee in Knoxville? It won’t be easy, but if there was ever a year to do it, this would be it. Can they beat Florida in the O-Dome? And most importantly, can they beat LSU in Baton Rouge? My guess is that if they win all three, they will almost certainly win at least a share of the SEC title and probably win it outright. Win two, and I’d feel pretty good (especially if one is at LSU). Win one or zero? And we’re talking about a nice SEC finish, but not an SEC title type season. [caption id="attachment_235207" align="aligncenter" width="1022"] © Justin Ford | USATSI[/caption] Auburn (20-2, 7-2 in SEC) Remaining Games: Home: LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M Road: Missouri, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee How We Got Here: Well, the simplest way to put it is that we got here is by Bruce Pearl being an awesome coach. As has been written a million times throughout the off-season, fall and early winter, this team lost three of its best players in program history… and still finds itself at 20-2 and 7-2 in league play. That’s a credit to Pearl. Still, that road hasn’t come without some close calls. First off, there were the two losses – ugly setbacks at Alabama and Florida, where the Tigers lost back-to-back games. It also involved, wild road comebacks at Ole Miss and at Arkansas, which took a combined three overtimes to decide. At the same time we’d be remiss if we didn’t give credit to Auburn for 1) Finding ways to win those close games and 2) taking care of everyone at home. Yes, the Tigers struggled with Vanderbilt early and got an advantageous whistle against Kentucky last weekend. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are undefeated at Auburn Arena this year and 4-0 in SEC games played there. Another big one awaits this Saturday when the first place LSU Tigers come to town. What’s Next: Unlike the other two teams in pursuit of the SEC title, the Tigers have the advantage of playing five of their final nine at home, while Kentucky and LSU have one fewer game in their home arena. So Auburn is already at an edge there, and I’d argue their remaining slate is the easiest of the three teams in serious SEC title contention. Outside of this weekend’s tilt with LSU, there are home games ranging from “All but automatic wins” (Ole Miss, Texas A&M) to “If Auburn does what it is supposed to do, it’s hard to see them losing” (Tennessee, Alabama). Yes, I know Auburn already lost to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But with the return game in Auburn that’s a totally different deal. Auburn also has two verrrrrrrrrrrrry manageable road games. Missouri is basically dead as a program after losing again on Tuesday night (this time to Texas A&M). And Georgia, while a big regional rival, is rarely a rowdy, road environment unless Kentucky is in town. What’s Realistic Going Forward: With everything I’ve laid out, it feels like an absolute worst-case scenario is 6-3 down the stretch. And realistically it seems much more likely that 7-2 or 8-1 is even achievable. Still, while Auburn has the easiest schedule of the three SEC title contenders, they also have the biggest flaw. They’re just not very good on the road. As mentioned, the Tigers already have double-digit losses to Alabama and Florida away from Auburn. More importantly, it took a near miracle to beat both Ole Miss and Arkansas. It also makes Auburn susceptible to a bad loss as well, after so many close calls. After all, if this team nearly lost at Ole Miss, do we really think they are going to go into Kentucky and Tennessee and get wins? Heck, are we positive that they’re just going to roll past Georgia and Missouri? Therefore, if you factor in at least two losses on the road (and the possibility for more) what Auburn’s season – and really the season of all three teams comes down to is Saturday’s game against LSU at home. If Auburn wins that one, then this is very much a three-team race down the stretch. It would also make Kentucky-LSU maybe the game of the year in the league, and just about every LSU, Kentucky and Auburn game must watch from here. But if they lose? Well, that would put Auburn two full games behind LSU, and essentially turn it into a Kentucky vs. LSU race to the finish line (assuming of course that the Wildcats can take care of Tennessee). Point being, we’re halfway through the SEC season and a lot of wild things have happened for these three teams to separate themselves. And if the last nine games have proven anything – there is only more wild stuff to come.

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