SEC basketball notebook: Kentucky looks like Kentucky again

 Chris Lee and Blake Lovell   in Basketball

Alabama is a win away from an SEC title, and Kentucky is making things interesting.

Here are some thoughts on Saturday's action in SEC basketball, with Kentucky streaking, and Mississippi State knocking Ole Miss off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Alabama's magic number gets smaller with win against Vanderbilt

It wasn't the Alabama anyone expected to see on Senior Day. Both teams hit 10 3s but the Crimson Tide, which leads the SEC in 3-point percentage and 3-point percentage defense in league games, got out-shot 43.5% to 25.6%. 

Alabama just couldn't shake Vandy, which led much of the half and was down 12 in the second half following a brief Crimson Tide run but Vandy, which was carried (again) by Scotty Pippen Jr (24 points, four assists) and Dylan Disu (17 points, 15 rebounds). The Commodores even re-took the lead with 5:23 left on Pippen's lay-up.

But 'Bama's Jaden Shackelford was just enough. The sophomore had a season-high 27 points and hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 45 seconds as Alabama hung on. Jahvon Quinerly (15 points, three assists) was also big down the stretch.

Also, the Crimson Tide took a huge step towards a conference title. It leads Arkansas by four games in the win column and has three fewer losses than the Razorbacks, whose game with Texas A&M was postponed. 

Is Kentucky back?

Many touted Tennessee as a potential Final Four team in the preseason. However, that sound you hear is most of them jumping off the bandwagon. They stayed on as long as they could, but there's simply too much inconsistency with the Vols. 

If it's frustrating for basketball watchers, it has to be frustrating for Rick Barnes and company. The offense just isn't there on a game-to-game basis, and the defense wasn't there in giving up 45 first-half points to a Kentucky team that averaged 69.8 points per game entering the weekend. Speaking of the Cats.....

That other sound you hear is many people jumping on the Kentucky bandwagon. It took a while, but they're onto something. Maybe it was John Calipari's plan all along? The Cats have won three in a row for the second time this season, and unlike Tennessee, they're scoring the ball. Davion Mintz had his best shooting performance of the season, knocking down 5 of Kentucky's 7 3-pointers.

If they play like they did in Knoxville, Calipari's squad is good enough to win the SEC Tournament. In a crazy season, that potential storyline is looking less crazy.

Jeremiah Tilmon gives Missouri a much-needed boost

Missouri came out on a mission at South Carolina. It's a good thing too because the Tigers have been struggling. A win over the Gamecocks won't do anything to help Missouri's NCAA Tournament resume, but more than anything, Cuonzo Martin's team needed confidence. They got that with a 93-point performance, which is their second-highest point total of the campaign. 

Getting Jeremiah Tilmon back was crucial, as he tied a team-high with 17 points while making every shot he attempted (5 of 5 from 2PT, 7 of 7 from FT). You've probably already seen the stat, but if you haven't, it's worth repeating: The Tigers are now 14-4 when Tilmon plays and 0-2 when he doesn't. 

Meanwhile, in a stat that Frank Martin won't love, South Carolina has allowed 81 or more points in 8 of its 12 SEC games. Perhaps the month-long pause from early December to early January impacted the Gamecocks more than we thought it would. 

Still, they're just not playing good defense, and it has resulted in one of the most disappointing seasons of the Martin era in Columbia.

Florida's important win

Florida's game against Georgia was more important than people think, mainly due to the remaining schedule. The Gators are likely a lock to make the NCAA Tournament at this point, but a loss to the Bulldogs would've made that conversation a bit more interesting. 

The Gators' next three games - road games at Auburn and Kentucky, and a home game against Missouri - could be a challenge, and then there are the unknowns of whether Florida will make up games against Tennessee, LSU, and Texas A&M. No matter how many of those six they play, it's far from an easy slate to finish the season. 

Luckily, Mike White's team put the clamps on Georgia's offense, holding the visitors to 63 points on 37.5% shooting. The Gators also had balance on offense, with five players scoring between 9 and 14 points. Sahvir Wheeler (27 points) continues to be a playmaker for Georgia, but shooting 4 of 20 from 3-point range wasn't gonna get it done for the Bulldogs.

It wasn't a spectacular finish for Florida in this one, but all wins are good wins on the road to March.

Points, points, points in Baton Rouge

You were promised points in the LSU/Auburn game, and you were not disappointed. The over was 165.5, and these two teams shattered that number by putting up a combined 184 points in Baton Rouge.

Of course, it was LSU that scored 104 of them to cruise to a 24-point win. The story, once again, was two of the top freshman - and, quite frankly, top players - in the SEC flexing their muscles on offense. Cam Thomas scored 27 points in 29 minutes for LSU, while Sharife Cooper 26 points in 32 minutes for Auburn. Thomas has hit the 25-point mark in 12 of LSU's 20 games this season, and he's easily a frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year. 

LSU's foursome of Thomas, Trendon Watford, Ja'Vonte Smart, and Darius Days is good enough to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. That group can score with the best of them, but it'll be their defense that decides just how far they can go. 

For Auburn, Bruce Pearl has a talented young nucleus, and even if Cooper makes the leap to the NBA, this team should get back on track next season with an added year of experience under their belt. 

The path to the NCAA Tournament is much clearer for Ole Miss

The Rebels have to win the SEC Tournament to go dancing. It's that simple. The reason? They gave away a prime opportunity in Oxford against their biggest rival, as Mississippi State avenged an earlier loss by removing Ole Miss from the bubble conversation.

Similar to Tennessee, the Rebels' biggest struggle has been on offense. They shot just 38.2 percent from the floor in this one, going 5 of 19 from 3-point range for 26.3 percent. Mississippi State, on the other hand, shot an efficient 51.0 percent after scoring just 51 points in a 21-point loss to Vanderbilt a week ago. Ben Howland and Kermit Davis are both probably trying to figure that one out.

Even if Ole Miss wins out against Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, winning the SEC Tournament (or perhaps making a run to the finals) seems like the only path to a bid at this point. 

The only impressive wins on the Rebels' resume are Tennessee and Missouri, and losing three league games to non-tournament teams in Georgia (2) and Mississippi State (1) doesn't do them any favors with the selection committee.

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