Texas A&M among teams rising in parity-filled, much-improved SEC

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Outside of Lexington, Kentucky, a surge of parity has swept through Southeastern Conference basketball. At least that’s the pitch SEC coaches are selling this week as nine SEC teams populate the top 100 RPI rankings, including seven in the top 50.

With top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky on one end of the spectrum and Mississippi State (RPI No. 218) on the other — although the Bulldogs took down Vanderbilt on Saturday — the middle layer of teams in the conference looks much improved.

And difficult to separate.

“From teams two to 14, you have to play well to beat anybody in this league,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who spent six seasons at Tennessee, then three years as an ESPN analyst. “The bottom and the middle of our league is the best since I’ve been in the SEC and covered the SEC the last 10 years.”

The bottom and the middle of our league is the best since I’ve been in the SEC and covered the SEC the last 10 years.
— Bruce Pearl, Auburn coach

“Our league is much improved from last year,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “The teams playing tougher schedules has gotten them more prepared for conference play. There’s more parity. There’s a lot of good teams, a lot of depth.”

Just when Anderson’s Razorbacks looked like the class of the league’s second tier, the Razorbacks went 0-2 this past week against Tennessee and Mississippi, who along with Alabama have already eclipsed preseason expectations through two weeks of league play.

Texas A&M belongs in that company, too.

Coming off back-to-back 18-win seasons, the Aggies have yet to produce a winning record in conference play under fourth-year coach Billy Kennedy. That could change this year for the Aggies (11-5, 2-2 SEC), who host Missouri (7-10, 1-3) at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.

Sparked by two prolific scoring transfers, Texas A&M came within a few missed free throws of toppling Kentucky on Jan. 10. The Wildcats needed double overtime to escape Reed Arena with a 70-64 win, but the Aggies have since taken down Mississippi State and Louisiana State.

“We gained some confidence out of that even though it really hurt us to lose because we felt like we gave the game away by not making free throws and not coming up with a big stop that should have put the game away,” Kennedy said. “We played exceptionally well. We were able to build off that [loss] and not hurt us too much.”

Missouri didn’t follow its loss to Kentucky with the same progress. After last Tuesday’s 49-point annihilation in Lexington, the Tigers unraveled in the final minutes at home against Tennessee on Saturday in a 59-51 defeat. Much like earlier losses to Illinois, Oklahoma State and Auburn, Mizzou couldn’t sustain momentum in the second half and breakdowns on both ends of the floor were costly. In those four losses, the Tigers were outscored 55-33 in the games’ final five minutes.

In practice, coach Kim Anderson said Mizzou’s been so occupied with working on its offense and defense that it hasn’t spent as much time simulating late-game situations, when every mistake is magnified.

In Saturday’s loss, the Tigers committed three consecutive turnovers in the final minutes, two by Tramaine Isabell against the same halfcourt trap Tennessee had used most of the game.

“That’s more youth and inexperience,” said Anderson, whose Tigers have lost three in a row since beating LSU on Jan. 8. “Hopefully we learn from that and get better. We’ll certainly learn from that, I promise you.”

In College Station, Texas, the Tigers face a more seasoned Aggies team that’s gotten a lift from 6-foot-7 Division I transfers Jalen Jones (Southern Methodist) and Danuel House (Houston), who average 13.8 and 13.5 points, respectively. The Aggies are 11-0 when Jones scores in double figures. He sat out losses to Alabama and Kentucky with an ankle injury. House, a former five-star recruit, had a breakout game against Kentucky with 25 points.

The transfers combined for 36 points in Saturday’s win at LSU and helped the Aggies erase a 13-point deficit in the second half. A&M took its first second-half lead on House’s jumper with 22 seconds left — the kind of late-game heroics Mizzou hasn’t delivered lately.

“And any time you take guys into your program like that and go on the road and play with a sense of urgency and compete and make baskets like they did down the stretch, you have to be excited for A&M if you’re a fan,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “They did everything necessary when they had a chance to hang their head or start pressing.”

This article was written by Dave Matter from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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