Kentucky’s comeback victory at West Virginia on Saturday night clinched a 6-4 victory for the SEC in this year’s conference challenge against the Big 12. Below is a look at the winners and losers from this year’s event.
Winner: Kentucky as a Final Four threat
For the final 17 minutes of Kentucky’s 83-76 victory at West Virginia, the Wildcats offered a glimpse of what their best looks like. They rallied from a 17-point deficit on the road against a top 10 team thanks to an impressive show of toughness and resolve. Kevin Knox emerged as the alpha dog that has been missing, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wenyen Gabriel dominated the offensive glass and the whole team played ferocious, aggressive defense. West Virginia scored only four points during one eight-minute stretch and seldom got to set up its press. It’s too soon to say if this is the moment everything comes together for Kentucky, but it was clearly a step forward. Now the goal needs to be stringing a few performances like this together.
Loser: West Virginia as a Final Four threat
Perhaps Bob Huggins should start forbidding his coaching buddies from coming to Morgantown and wearing a pullover on the sideline in his honor. Bill Self and John Calipari have both beaten Huggins while dressed like him this month as Kansas and Kentucky each erased double-digit second-half deficits en route to massive road wins. The concern with West Virginia is whether it scores easily enough to be a credible threat to make a deep March run. When the Mountaineers make outside shots, they can beat anybody. But they’re 240th in 3-point shooting and they sometimes have a hard time finishing at the rim too. When they run up against an opponent who can keep them off the offensive glass and out of transition, they have a tough time.
Winner: The SEC
For most of the season, the Big 12 has been considered college basketball’s premier conference. On Saturday, the SEC won six of 10 games against the Big 12 even though first-place Auburn and potential NCAA tournament contenders Missouri and LSU were not part of this year’s Challenge. A small sample size like that doesn’t necessarily mean the SEC is the better conference, but it does speak to the league’s impressive depth this season. The SEC has a realistic chance of sending as many as eight teams to the NCAA tournament this year, and Saturday’s results will only help.
Loser: Texas A&M
There was a time during non-conference play when Texas A&M appeared to be the favorite to win the SEC this season. Now the floundering Aggies don’t even look like a particularly good bet to make the NCAA tournament anymore. A Texas A&M team loaded with heralded prospects has now lost seven of its last nine games after Saturday’s 79-68 loss at Kansas. The Aggies would need to go 7-3 in their last 10 just to finish .500 in the SEC. Turnovers and a lack of outside shooting are Texas A&M’s biggest issues. The Aggies trailed by 18 at halftime in Lawrence and never mounted a serious threat thereafter.
Winner: Mo Bamba
Bamba may not be as surefire an impact player as Marvin Bagley III or DeAndre Ayton at the NBA level, but the 6-foot-11 center has as much upside as any 2018 draft prospect. He demonstrated that against Ole Miss on Saturday by scoring 25 points on eight shots, grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds and using his 7-foot-9 wingspan to alter shots at the rim. Bamba still isn’t as consistent as you’d like from a future lottery pick, but his flashes are becoming more frequent. In the past month, he is averaging 15.8 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.5 blocks while showing more touch with his jump shot.
Loser: TCU’S defense
For TCU, the margin between a special season and a second-half collapse is razor-thin. Since starting the season with 12 straight wins, the Horned Frogs have dropped six of their past nine games, all by five or fewer points. Saturday’s 81-78 loss at 13-loss Vanderbilt may have been the most alarming of those setbacks. TCU was effective on offense despite the absence of injured point guard Jaylen Fisher, but the Horned Frogs always-susceptible defense was especially poor. Riley LaChance scored 24 points and Vanderbilt scored a ridiculous 1.31 points per possession.
Alabama and Oklahoma both boast future lottery picks at point guard. The difference in the Crimson Tide’s 80-73 victory on Saturday afternoon was that Collin Sexton has more help around him than Trae Young does. Whereas Alabama was able to face-guard and trap Young without fear that the rest of the Sooners would take advantage, Oklahoma could not do the same against Sexton. He scored an efficient 18 points on 14 shots, much of which came head to head against Young. Alabama has been up and down this season, but the Crimson Tide are riding an upswell at the moment. They’ve won five of six to improve to 14-7 and vault back into NCAA tournament contention.
Loser: Trae Young
The challenge of being the focal point of every defense he faces appears to be finally taking its toll on Oklahoma’s Trae Young. The freshman phenom’s 17 points in an 80-73 loss at Alabama on Saturday afternoon were his fewest since the Sooners’ season opener. Young’s shooting percentages have also dipped recently and he has turned the ball over five or more times in seven of his last eight games. No freshman has been any better than Young this season, but no freshman has had to do more either. He doesn’t have a bevy of other stars around him like Marvin Bagley or DeAndre Ayton. He is Oklahoma’s primary shot creator, and that puts a lot on his shoulders.
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