SEC basketball notebook: SEC Tournament storylines, and how Ole Miss can make the NCAA Tournament

 Blake Lovell   in Basketball

(Crimson Tide Photos/Alabama Athletics)

Here are some thoughts on SEC basketball heading into the start of the conference tournament on Wednesday.

1. The SEC is getting at least six teams in the NCAA Tournament: There is still plenty to be determined when it comes to seeding for the NCAA Tournament. However, what we do know is that at least six SEC teams are making the field of 68.

Some speculated that one team could play its way out during the final week of the regular season, but that didn’t happen. LSU was probably the team that was closest to moving back towards the bubble, and the Tigers squashed any concerns with a fourth Quadrant 1 win with the victory at Missouri.

Alabama and Arkansas should be locked into either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed line (the Illinois win at Ohio State impacts the Tide’s chances at a No. 1). As noted by the Tide’s official Twitter account, Alabama’s 14 wins in Q1 and Q2 are tied for the best nationally, and it’s the only team in the top 45 in the NET without a Q4 opponent. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks won 11 straight SEC games to finish the regular season and have 11 wins in Q1 and Q2.

LSU, Missouri, Florida, and Tennessee have a wider range of seeding possibilities based on their performance in the SEC Tournament.

If you want the NET rankings and quadrant wins for each team (Tennessee and Florida's NET rankings haven't yet been updated but their Q1 wins/losses have), here they are:

2. Ole Miss is back in the mix: The Rebels avenged their loss at Vanderbilt with a win against the Commodores in Oxford. Now, the question is, what does Kermit Davis’s team need to do to play their way onto the right side of the bubble?

“I thought Saturday was a relatively good day for Ole Miss,” Rocco Miller (@roccomiller8), founder of Bracketeer.org, told me. “For me, they are right there at the cut-line. An early loss next week almost certainly spells doom. They are in position to play their way in right now.”

Ole Miss is a combined 8-8 in Q1 and Q2, but two Q3 losses haven’t helped its resume. The SEC’s six tournament locks only have two Q3 losses combined.

“They’ll have to play one of the bottom three teams in the league in their first game, which equals must-win,” Miller says. “Next, they would play LSU. Probably must-win as well. Get past those two and I think they're in pretty decent shape, obviously dependent on bid thieves.”

Simply put, Ole Miss just needs to keep winning.

3. Kentucky again? Speaking of interesting SEC Tournament storylines, the 8/9 game between Kentucky and Mississippi State certainly offers some intrigue. But it’s the game that would come next that’s even more intriguing.

Should John Calipari’s squad advance, that would set up a showdown with the regular season champs. It would mark the fifth straight meeting between Alabama and Kentucky in the conference tournament, and Tide fans are well aware of the team’s record in the previous four games.

Hint: It’s 0-4.

Of course, the script has flipped this season, as Alabama has been the better team. So, while the series history is in Kentucky’s favor, this potential matchup could offer a different result.

Whether it's Kentucky or Mississippi State, the Tide will be aiming for its third win this season against either opponent.

4. Cam Thomas's impressive scoring campaign: We mentioned in a recent episode of The 14 how hard it was to place Thomas in our top 14 player rankings. The main argument was a lack of production outside of scoring.

But man, that guy can score. Also, he had a very strong finish to the regular season. In addition to 19 games with 21 or more points, Thomas grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds in a March 2 win against Vanderbilt and had an efficient performance in LSU's victory at Missouri in the regular season finale, notching 29 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field while going 10 of 12 from the free throw line.

Thomas averaged 23.1 points per game in the Tigers' 17 conference games, which ranked nearly five points better than Vanderbilt sophomore Scotty Pippen Jr.'s 18.2 points per game. While Thomas took a lot of shots to get there (his 406 field goal attempts led the league), LSU needed that type of scoring output to clinch the third seed in the SEC Tournament.

And for those keeping score at home: Darius Days scored 12 in LSU's win at Missouri, pushing the Tigers to 16-1 when he scores in double figures and 0-7 when he scores in single digits or doesn't play. 

5. But how about Moses Moody? Cam Thomas will land on ballots for both SEC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, and so should Moses Moody.

Moody capped off a terrific regular season with 28 points in a comeback win against Texas A&M, which included a go-ahead 3-pointer with around 50 seconds left in the game. He now ranks third in the SEC in scoring (17.8 ppg) is tied with several others for 14th in rebounding (5.9 rpg). Moody is also third in free throw percentage (85.0%), fifth in minutes played (34.8 mpg), and eighth in 3-pointers made (35).

If you're looking for common denominators with both Thomas and Moody, some advanced metrics provide that. According to Sports-Reference, Moody is first in the SEC in total win shares (here's how it's calculated), and Thomas is second. Thomas is first in offensive win shares, and Moody is second. One big difference? Moody is sixth in defensive win shares, while Thomas doesn't rank in the top 10.

We could debate the difference between those two freshmen and the SEC's most productive seniors (for my money, that's Alabama's Herbert Jones and Missouri's Dru Smith), but it's more fun to appreciate the incredible talent on display. 

Of the foursome, Jones may be the frontrunner to win SEC Player of the Year.

6. Auburn's focus turns to the 2021-22 season. Bruce Pearl captured win No. 600 in the Tigers’ victory in their season finale against Mississippi State. Pearl had added 138 of those wins in his seven seasons at Auburn, including 81 wins in the three seasons prior to this one.

This season, obviously, was a bit different for many reasons. The Tigers self-imposed a postseason ban, only had stud freshman Sharife Cooper for 12 games, and ranked as one of the least experienced teams in college basketball (346th in KenPom's experience ratings). All three of those things are significant for the future of the program for different reasons.

But if we look ahead to next season, there's reason to believe Auburn will be back to contending for an SEC title. Most expect Cooper to head to the NBA (it only strengthens the argument if by some chance he returns), but Pearl and company could still boast a versatile group of talent worthy of top 25 ranking.

"(They) need to get evaluated as far as where they would go in the draft if they declared as eligible," Pearl said after Auburn's win against Mississippi State on Saturday, via Josh Vitale of the Montgomery Advertiser. "We might have a couple of guys who will declare and see if they can move their way up or not."

Allen Flanigan and JT Thor have raised their draft stock the most this season. Flanigan ranks 14th in the SEC in scoring (14.3 ppg), but offers much more than that as a consistent rebounder and assist man. Thor proved that not only could he drop the hammer, but he has the size and strength to grow into an elite rebounder and shot-blocker.

Auburn also figures to return nearly its entire rotation outside of those two, in addition to already landing top-five recruit Jabari Smith and top-75 recruit Trey Alexander

7. Are we giving the SEC enough credit? Getting six NCAA Tournament teams is nothing to scoff at, but perhaps the league has been a bit stronger than people think.

This season has been different from a scheduling and total games played standpoint, but in KenPom's conference rankings, the SEC finished the regular season in the No. 3 spot. That's the conference's highest ranking since the 2006-07 season when it finished second. Of course, it didn't hurt that Florida captured the second of its back-to-back national titles that season.

One metric doesn't mean everything when it comes to comparing conferences, especially in such a unique season where teams have played a vastly different number of games. Both South Carolina and Texas A&M didn't play for a month or so, while Tennessee started the season late.

However, if you want to use this particular KenPom statistic, the league is in a much better position than it was last season (sixth) or back in 2012-13 (seventh, including a +8.49 rating, the conference's lowest of the KenPom era). It doesn't tell the full story of the circumstances surrounding the season, but nonetheless, the trend is interesting.

Even with Kentucky struggling, the emergence of national powers in Alabama and Arkansas have certainly boosted the overall strength of the league.

Here are a few more random KenPom stats on how the SEC compares to other conferences in conference-only games:

- 1st in offensive rebounding percentage (31.0%)

- 1st in steal percentage (10.4%)

- 1st in block percentage (11.3%)

- 3rd in tempo (highest since 2008-09)

8. The bracket. Who's crowned SEC Tournament champion? Send us your picks on Twitter.

Want more SEC coverage? Subscribe to The 14 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app for daily SEC podcasts.