Mizzou hoops conference play primer
The Missouri basketball team returned from its Christmas break with an easy victory over lowly Chicago State on Monday night. The win represented the final guarantee game of the season for the Tigers. Now, it's time for conference play.
After a roller-coaster non-conference slate, Missouri has left itself with some work to do. The Tigers lost each of their first three games against top-100 opponents, including consecutive losses in as many days to Butler and Stanford in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. The team then compounded those slip-ups by losing to Charleston Southern, ranked No. 293 by KenPom, at home in its next game. Missouri has since rebounded a bit, beating Temple on the road and Illinois in the annual Braggin' Rights matchup in St. Louis. The Tigers currently sit at No. 51 in the KenPom rankings and No. 57 in the NET. They will have one more opportunity for a resume-boosting non-conference win when they travel to face No. 16 West Virginia on Jan. 25 as part of the Big 12-SEC challenge.
If Missouri is unable to beat the Mountaineers, who just toppled then-No. 2 Ohio State on Sunday — and maybe even if it can win in Morgantown — a winning record in conference play appears necessary to give the team a realistic chance at earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The good news for Tiger fans is that, at least based on non-conference play, the SEC doesn't look quite as daunting as it did prior to the season. Only two SEC teams appear in the AP Top 25, and KenPom ranks the league fifth-best out of the six high-major leagues.
Here is a breakdown of where each team in the league stands entering conference play (listed in the order in which they face Missouri).
KenPom ranking: 14
NET ranking: 41
Matchup: Saturday Jan. 4, away
Missouri will face perhaps its toughest test of the conference slate in its first SEC game when it travels to Lexington on Sunday. Kentucky hasn't lived up to lofty preseason expectations thus far due to a baffling home loss to Evansville and losses to Utah and Ohio State away from Rupp Arena, but the Wildcats also own wins over No. 14 Michigan State and No. 7 Louisville. Led by the backcourt trio of Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky is a strong defensive team that has excelled at getting to the free throw line, but its shooting has been its Achilles Heel. The Wildcats' 29.3 percent shooting from behind the arc ranks 298th nationally.
KenPom ranking: 49
NET ranking: 75
Matchup: Tuesday Jan. 7, home
No surprise, the Volunteers have taken a bit of a step back after the departure of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Rick Barnes' team has two neutral-site wins over top 50 opponents in Washington and VCU, but Tennessee has also lost to the three best teams it has played, including a 20-point beatdown at the hands of Wisconsin on Saturday. The Vols have been a stout defensive team but have struggled on the offensive end in most of their losses. Losing point guard Lamonte Turner, who led the team in minutes and assists and ranked second in scoring through the first 11 games, for the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury will be difficult to overcome.
KenPom ranking: 24
NET ranking: 55
Matchup: Saturday Jan. 11, home
Boosted by the arrival of graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. and the nation's No. 10 recruiting class, Florida entered the season ranked sixth in the preseason AP poll. Thus far, the Gators have been a disappointment. Florida doesn't have any truly bad losses on its resume but has lost four of its five games against top-75 teams, including a home loss to rival Florida State and a recent loss to Utah State. Like seemingly every other team in the SEC, Florida has struggled to shoot from behind the arc. The Gators are 6-0 when shooting better than 25 percent (not exactly a high bar) from three-point range and 2-4 while shooting 25 percent or worse. Florida certainly has the talent to turn its season around and make a run at the SEC title, but Missouri could benefit from drawing the Gators early in the conference slate and at home.
KenPom ranking: 54
NET ranking: 82
Matchups: Tuesday Jan. 14, away; Saturday Feb. 29, home
The first of the teams Missouri will play both at home and away in league play, Mississippi State has notched just one top-100 win during its non-conference schedule. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have lost to their only top-50 opponent, Villanova, as well as to Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State, both at home. Mississippi State has had little trouble scoring points this season — it ranks No. 29 In offensive efficiency and No. 1 in offensive rebounding — but defense and turnovers have been a problem. Getting junior guard Nick Weatherspoon back into the rotation after he was suspended for the first 10 games of the season should help the latter issue.
KenPom ranking: 60
NET ranking: 62
Matchups: Saturday Jan. 18, away; Saturday March 7, home
Alabama struggled out of the gates under first-year head coach Nate Oats, losing its opening game of the season to Penn then dropping its first game away from Tuscaloosa at Rhode Island. Losses to North Carolina and Iowa State in the Battle 4 Atlantis dropped the Crimson Tide to 2-4 at one point. The team has played better since, beating top-100 opponents Belmont and Richmond and only losing to Penn State by two on the road. The Tide play at a breakneck pace, which has made them the No. 6 scoring team in the country at 82.8 points per game, but that has also resulted in opponents scoring 77.7 points per game, which ranks dead last among high-major teams, and Alabama turning the ball over on 22.3 percent of its possessions.
KenPom ranking: 158
NET ranking: 188
Matchups: Tuesday Jan. 21, home; Tuesday Feb. 4, away
The Aggies made a splash in the offseason by landing head coach Buzz Williams, but so far that has not translated to success on the court. Texas A&M is the lowest-ranked SEC team by KenPom and the worst three-point shooting team in America, so it should be advantageous that Missouri faces the Aggies twice. Texas A&M has not yet played a true road game, yet it has also not won a game away from Reed Arena. The Aggies have lost to Harvard, Temple and Texas all by double-digits, and the low point came in a five-point loss to Fairfield. The only redeeming result on their resume is a home win against Oregon State; aside from that, Texas A&M hasn't beaten a team ranked better than 248th by KenPom.
KenPom ranking: 74
NET ranking: 68
Matchup: Tuesday Jan. 28, home
Led by superstar freshman Anthony Edwards Jr., Georgia is a very young team. The Bulldogs don't have any terrible losses thus far, but they don't have any marquee wins, either. Georgia lost to Dayton and Michigan State in the Maui Invitational (before barely squeaking past Division II Chaminade) and fell at Arizona State. They beat Georgia Tech and SMU at home, though neither the Mustangs or Yellow Jackets is looking like a tournament team this season. Georgia ranks fifth nationally in two-point field goal percentage but has struggled from three-point range and the free-throw line.
KenPom ranking: 102
NET ranking: 121
Matchup: Saturday Feb. 1, away
No SEC team has had a more up-and-down non-conference slate than South Carolina. Frank Martin's team struggled to begin the season, then looked like it had found its stride with consecutive upsets of ACC opponents, including perhaps the best non-conference win of any SEC team: an 11-point victory at Virginia. On Monday, however, the Gamecocks lost at home to Stetson, the No. 318 team in the KenPom rankings. Pair that with an earlier home loss to Boston University, and the Gamecocks' resume doesn't look great. As usual, South Carolina's strengths are its defense and offensive rebounding, but its shooting has been woeful, ranking among the bottom 50 teams nationally in both three-point and free-throw percentage.
KenPom ranking: 32
NET ranking: 27
Matchups: Saturday Feb. 8, home; Saturday Feb. 22, away
Until Sunday, Arkansas largely feasted on a weak schedule to get to 10-1. With a road win over Indiana, however, the Razorbacks proved they could be a legitimate tournament contender and top-four team In the SEC. Under new head coach Eric Musselman, Arkansas has made swarming defense its calling card. The Razorbacks rank seventh nationally in defensive efficiency, sixth in field goal percentage defense and first in three-point defense. They have maintained the ability to generate turnovers from Mike Anderson's regime, too, ranking 14th nationally in turnovers forced and 10th in steals. On the offensive end, guards Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe both average more than 17 points per game. Arkansas' one weakness is its size; none of the Razorback starters stand more than 6-foot-6, and as a result, they rank in the bottom 30 nationally in offensive rebounding.
KenPom ranking: 37
NET ranking: 38
Matchup: Tuesday Feb. 11, away
LSU has taken a bit of a step back since surprising everyone to win the SEC regular-season title last year, although the Tigers did just pick up a sneaky-good 17-point win over previously unbeaten Liberty on Sunday. Aside from that, LSU is 0-4 against top-70 competition, with the worst loss coming at home to East Tennessee State. With five players averaging double-figures, LSU continues to be a good offensive team, ranking 11th nationally in scoring and 15th in offensive efficiency, but turnovers and three-point defense have been issues.
KenPom ranking: 15
NET ranking: 7
Matchup: Saturday Feb. 15, home
After winning the SEC Tournament and making a run to the Final Four last season, Auburn has remained hot. The only SEC team still unbeaten this season, the Tigers brought back Samir Doughty, J'Von McCormick, Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore, among others, from last year's run, and added five-star freshman Isaac Okoro to the mix as well. They continue to score tons of points, averaging 82.2 per game, which ranks just behind Alabama at seventh nationally, although their three-point and free-throw shooting percentages are both down from last season. Also, while Auburn looks like a contender to win the league once again this season, it's worth noting that the Tigers have played just one road game (a one-point win at South Alabama) and have beaten just one top-50 team (NC State) on the year.
KenPom ranking: 83
NET ranking: 54
Matchups: Tuesday Feb. 18, home; Wednesday March 4, away
Ole Miss has faced four good teams (ranked In the top 50 by KenPom) and eight terrible teams (ranked 240th or worse) so far this season. The Rebels have taken care of the games they should have won but have struggled against better competition. Ole Miss lost by a point at Memphis then got clobbered by Oklahoma State, 78-37, in the NIT season tipoff. It also dropped a home matchup against Butler. The Rebels did, however, beat Penn State 74-72 on a neutral court. Once Ole Miss gets into conference play and boosts its strength of schedule a bit, look for Its rankings to climb. With Breein Tyree, who averages more than 17 points per game, at the helm and four of the top six scorers back from a tournament team a year ago, Ole Miss should have the talent to contend for a top-four finish In the league.
KenPom ranking: 131
NET ranking: 122
Matchup: Wednesday Feb. 26, away
New head coach Jerry Stackhouse inherited a tough task after Vanderbilt went 0-18 in SEC play last season. It looks like this will be a rebuilding year. Vanderbilt hasn't played a team ranked better than 65th by KenPom and has just one top-100 win, although that win did just come on Monday. Still, that victory over Davidson represented just the team's second win over a team in the top 200 this season. The Commodores have shown some promise on the offensive end — they actually have the best three-point shooting percentage of any SEC team at 37.8 percent and rank No. 12 nationally in effective field goal percentage — but they have struggled on the defensive end and to finish close games.