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SEC basketball notebook: Alabama captures regular season title, and an interesting trend

 Blake Lovell   in Basketball

(Crimson Tide Photos/Alabama Athletics)

Here are some thoughts on Saturday's action in SEC basketball, including a new regular season champion being crowned for the fourth straight season.

1. They are the champions, my friends. Alabama is the SEC regular season champion for the first time since 2002, holding on for a predictably tough win at Mississippi State. 

The turnaround has been remarkable in Nate Oats' first two seasons. The Tide went 16-15 last season, finishing ninth in the SEC. One year later, they're the champs. Some were higher on Alabama than others entering the season (I'd like to think our Blue Ribbon Yearbook staff was somewhat right ranking the Tide at No. 14 in the preseason), and it was a matter of seeing whether this team would finally find the overall consistency that it had been seeking for nearly two decades. 

It has always felt like the Alabama program was close to a breakthrough. We've talked about the potential of certain teams for years. But the problem has typically been the Tide being consistent on one side of the court and not so consistent on the other. That hasn't been the case this season. 

Alabama ranks third nationally in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings and 37th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. The defensive ranking is the team's highest in the KenPom era, while the offensive ranking is tied with last season's team for the highest ranking since 2007.

For seniors like Herbert Jones, John Petty, and Alex Reese, their patience was well worth it. All three in-state products chose Alabama in hopes of guiding the program back to national relevance, and the victory in Starkville was mission accomplished. In addition to being crowned champions, Jones and Petty will undoubtedly earn All-SEC honors once again this season.  

Overall, the arrival of Oats in Tuscaloosa has only added to the strength of the SEC as a whole. He's recruiting well, he's winning games, and he's changing the culture of a team that doesn't have to carry that pesky "potential" label anymore. 

We're no longer talking about Alabama as the team with potential. We're talking about Alabama as the team with the trophy. 

That leads us to another important point.....

2. Alabama's title win continues an interesting trend for SEC basketball. The Tide became the fifth team in the past four seasons to either win or capture a share of the regular season title, joining Kentucky, LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee. For those who judge the league based solely on how the Wildcats are performing, it may be worth rethinking that approach. 

The accolades of the current SEC coaching roster have been well-documented, and it's leading to more competition than ever at the top. Six SEC coaches - Rick Barnes, John Calipari, Ben Howland, Tom Crean, Bruce Pearl, and Frank Martin - have all been to a Final Four during their decorated careers. However, only Barnes has his team ranked higher than eighth in the league standings this season. 

Sure, it's only one season, and it's a crazy season at that. But staying at the top in the current SEC landscape is clearly more challenging than ever, no matter how many accomplishments a coach has on his resume.

It also makes Oats' accomplishment even more spectacular considering the competition he's up against both in recruiting and on the sidelines.

3. Auburn continues it streak against Tennessee. The Tigers won their sixth straight game against Pearl's former team on Saturday. The most impressive part? They did it without Sharife Cooper.

Allen Flanigan is an absolute stud and one of the SEC's most underrated players this season, but it was more than just him in this game. Auburn's five starters combined to notch 75 of its 77 points, and Pearl and company had to love that type of balance. 

Another good thing for Tiger fans? Most of the talent on the roster is young. Pearl and his staff have been among the best in the country at developing players, so depending on who returns next season, Auburn figures to contend for another SEC title.

As for the Vols, they're proving hard to trust given their frustrating offense. Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer combined for 43 points, but there was little consistency elsewhere. 

On paper, Tennessee appeared to be a potential Final Four team. However, that no longer seems realistic based on how the Vols have played the past month or so. 

4. Arkansas also loves to streak. Make it nine in a row in SEC play for the Razorbacks, who put up 51 second-half points against LSU. 

We ranked Moses Moody at No. 2 in our SEC player rankings for this season, and he once again filled the stat sheet with 18 points, eight rebounds, and five assists. He's also made 27 of 33 attempts from the free throw line in the past two games. 

Another takeaway from this game? I'm genuinely curious how many uncontested shots the Tigers give up each game. There is so much individual talent on the floor for LSU, but it simply has not translated to the defensive side of the court.

5. South Carolina's win at Georgia defined SEC basketball this season. I tweeted the stats after the game, but they're so wild that they're worth repeating. 

The Bulldogs entered this game on a four-game winning streak at home, including two straight against NCAAT teams. The Gamecocks had lost six straight overall and were coming off a 48-point performance in a 21-point road loss at Mississippi State. So, of course, South Carolina scored 91 points and earned a 21-point victory at Stegeman Coliseum, with the Gamecocks now holding a 10-game winning streak against Georgia.

Your guess is as good as mine. But that's SEC basketball this season.

6. Diving deeper on Vanderbilt's win over Ole Miss. The Commodores' record - 7-13 overall and 3-11 in SEC play - is not going to impress many people. However, maybe we should look beyond that for a better idea of the direction of a program that it two seasons removed from going 0-18 in league play. 

If you've watched the games, it's been hard to ignore the improvement with Jerry Stackhouse's group on the court. 

Vanderbilt, once again without its top two players in Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu, earned a five-point win against an Ole Miss team that was in the hunt for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps the victory was inevitable given how close the Commodores have come throughout the season (0-7 in league play in games decided by seven points or less). 

I know Vanderbilt fans have been split on Stackhouse's tenure thus far in Nashville, but his team has gotten better. No one can deny the fact that the Commodores are, for the most part, are competitive enough to jump back towards the middle of the pack. However, as we've noted with the SEC champions trend, getting there and staying there will be a tall order. 

Stackhouse has achieved the challenge of improving the roster that he currently has at Vanderbilt. To win more games, it'll likely come down to adding more talent in a league that had seven teams rank in the top 19 nationally and 10 teams rank in the top 40 nationally in recruiting entering the season. 

7. What have we learned about Florida? Maybe we chalk up Florida's home loss to South Carolina on Feb. 3 as just one of those games? After losing at Arkansas following a two-week break after that defeat at the hands of the Gamecocks, Mike White's team has won three in a row. 

The most recent of that group stands out, especially against a Kentucky squad that has been playing its best basketball of the season. Florida moved up to the No. 7 seed line on Bracket Matrix with the victory, and it'll have two more quality win opportunities in the regular season against Missouri and Tennessee. 

The Gators had their struggles after the Keyontae Johnson situation (who wouldn't?), but they're starting to put it together. 

Adding two more victories before the SEC Tournament would be huge for Florida's resume.

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