Alabama's NCAA hopes are fading
Even though Alabama sits atop the SEC West with an 11-4 record, the Tide's 78-51 wipeout at Florida on Tuesday was a damaging blow to its NCAA tournament hopes. Alabama's only two marquee wins of the season came at home against Kentucky and at Tennessee, a product of a non-conference performance more disastrous than any other bubble team.
Believe it or not, Alabama's most impressive non-league victory is likely over Lipscomb, a team that has now lost two straight to slip to fourth place in the notoriously weak Atlantic Sun Conference. The Tide squandered chances for marquee non-league wins against Purdue and Oklahoma State and also lost to the likes of St. Peters, Iowa, Providence and Seton Hall.
The main question facing the selection committee regarding Alabama will be whether its unlikely SEC success counteracts its non-conference failures. The Tide has an RPI of No. 88 and only three wins over teams in the top 75 of the RPI, so it will likely need at least a win over Georgia on Saturday and a marquee victory or two in the SEC tournament to have any chance of making the field.
Kentucky can win a close game
Whereas last year's Kentucky team went 8-0 in games that went to overtime or were decided by five points or less, this year's Wildcats have struggled terribly in similar situations. Kentucky had lost all six games this season decided by five points or less, so holding off Vanderbilt was a significant step.
The key to the victory were a series of defensive stops in the final minute as Vanderbilt threatened to regain the lead. First Josh Harrellson blocked a potential go-ahead driving layup from Jeff Taylor out of bounds with 22 seconds to go. Then Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli turned it over in the lane on the ensuing inbound pass. And finally John Calipari's strategy to foul with a three-point lead paid off, enabling Kentucky to escape with a 68-66 victory without ever giving Vanderbilt an opportunity at a game-tying 3-pointer.
"We'll expect to win close games (now)," John Calipari told reporters in his postgame news conference. "That's a big part of it. You have to understand, based on the history of the last five, six, seven years, we're in a close game, my mindset is we're winning. The problem is I seemed to be the only guy thinking that way."
Florida's a deserving SEC champion
When Florida got destroyed at home by Ohio State in November and then lost to Central Florida and Jacksonville a few weeks later, it was tempting to rush to judgment by labeling the Gators a disappointment. The preseason SEC favorites have since proven themselves worthy of every accolade, quietly cracking the top 15 in the polls and putting themselves in position to win the SEC title.
A 78-51 demolition of Alabama on Tuesday night maintained Florida's insurmountable three-game edge on Kentucky in the SEC East and put the Gators a game ahead of the Tide in the overall SEC race. Florida can win the title outright with a victory at Vanderbilt on Saturday or an Alabama loss to Georgia.
The conference championship would be the culmination of a long journey for seniors Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. The trio were part of teams that struggled in the wake of the program's back-to-back national titles, but they also led the Gators back to the NCAA tournament last season and now back to the top of the SEC this winter.
Festus Ezeli's improvement is encouraging
If opposing teams focus on defending Vanderbilt's array of perimeter shooters and give the Commodores' big men room to work inside, Festus Ezeli proved Tuesday he's capable of carrying the team.
The junior center had maybe his best performance of what's already been a breakout season, taking advantage of numerous one-on-one opportunities in the paint against Kentucky. He scored 22 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, the most he's generated in either category this season during SEC play.
Ezeli's heroics enabled Vanderbilt to rally from a double-digit deficit and make a game of it at Rupp Arena in spite of an unusual lack of success behind the 3-point arc. The Commodores made just 2 of 11 3-pointers the whole night, a product of an extended Kentucky defense designed specifically to force Vanderbilt's guards to either attempt to penetrate or to look inside.