Wiedmer: Bama over UT proves SEC hoops race could be a wild one

AP photo by Caitie McMekin / Tennessee forward John Fulkerson shoots during Saturday's home game against Alabama.

You don't necessarily need Ohio State over Clemson in Friday's College Football Playoff semifinals to know that up is still down and down is still up in the world of sports these days.

The year 2020 may have blessedly given way to 2021, but don't attempt to tell college athletics that life is back to normal, the status quo again in place.

Just check out Saturday evening's Southeastern Conference men's basketball results from Knoxville, Tennessee, and Starkville, Mississippi.

Just attempt to process Alabama 71, the No. 7 and previously unbeaten Tennessee Volunteers 63. Or how about Kentucky 78, Mississippi State 73 in double overtime?

The Vols entered Thompson-Boling Arena against Alabama looking like a team headed for its first Final Four in school history and left with coach Rick Barnes saying of expected All-SEC player John Fulkerson's heretofore expected starting spot: "Guys can take his minutes. He's got to do better than he did."

Merely consider the following: Prior to Saturday, the second-best team in the league at this point would have seemed to be No. 12 Missouri, which is led by former Vols coach Cuonzo Martin and which won at Arkansas on Saturday afternoon.

There aren't a lot of big nonconference wins out there for anybody in the SEC at the moment, but Mizzou did beat Illinois a few days before Christmas, and the No. 15 Illini crushed host Duke 83-68 earlier in the season.

Why does that matter? On Wednesday night, Tennessee won by 20 at Missouri. Given that, and the fact that Alabama already had three losses, one would have certainly expected the Big Orange to grab another big win on the way up the rankings.

Instead, Barnes shook his head at a stat sheet riddled with Vol misses - including 4-of-21 shooting from the 3-point line - and rightly observed: "We didn't deserve to win, and they did."

Of course, he also said: "They didn't do one thing we hadn't talked about."

Some of this is conference basketball, any conference. Everyone knows each other a little better. Complacency can set in. Just ask the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men, who began the season with a 9-0 record but are 0-2 in Southern Conference play after back-to-back losses to Furman and VMI.

Even Kansas, the No. 3 team in the land and all but unbeatable inside Allen Fieldhouse, fell by 25 at home on Saturday to Texas in a Big 12 contest there.

Nor is home court the same advantage as in past years, with seating limited to 15% to 20% capacity due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Every game night looks, sounds and feels more like scrimmage than a real game. If you can't self-motivate, you can't win.

But what happened to the previously unbeaten Vols and previously moribund Kentucky on Saturday does send a wake-up call through the league on two fronts. No. 1, Tennessee is now known to be beatable, even at home. No. 2, bad as Kentucky has often looked in going 1-6 with six straight defeats prior to the Mississippi State win - the last time the Wildcats were this bad this early, Calvin Coolidge was president and gas was 10 cents a gallon - it's still Kentucky and John Calipari's team can still be a tough out.

And that's particularly true when redshirt freshman Dontaie Allen - he of the two made baskets all season prior to Saturday, when he hit seven 3-pointers and finished with 23 points - is on target.

That's not to say the more things change in the SEC, the more they stay the same. Tennessee still looks like the best of the league's 14 squads. Let Allen go cold, and Kentucky might still struggle to score more than 65 points, which it couldn't do in any of its six straight defeats.

Let Missouri play as it did at Arkansas on Saturday rather than how it played against the Vols, and the once-beaten Tigers should not only make the NCAA tournament but win a game or two once there.

Look around the rest of the league Saturday, and Florida played well in its win over LSU. Auburn is 0-2 in league play after its last-second loss at Texas A&M, but no one expects a Bruce Pearl-coached team not to rally. Despite losing to Mizzou, Arkansas hadn't previously had an opponent come within 10 points of it, including its 12-point road win at Auburn.

Still, Saturday was unexpected. Saturday proved that no one in this league is unbeatable after two rounds of games, at least no one but Bama and Florida, both 2-0 in SEC play. Saturday also proved that no matter how good or bad this league may prove to be against the rest of the sport, against itself it's pretty salty.

Does any of that change the belief entering the weekend that Tennessee is the toast of the conference? Not really. Said Barnes as he discussed the Bama loss on a Zoom call, "I told our coaches this is good for us."

But it's also one good thing you don't want too much of.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.