Written by The Judge
Different arena, same great entertainment. Thursday and Friday brought us some quality games inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. We didn’t get the panned shots of Broadway, but we still got four winners with sights on an SEC Tournament Championship.
The fun continues Saturday at 1pm ET with Texas A&M vs. Arkansas, followed by Tennessee vs. Kentucky.
4 Arkansas vs. 8 Texas A&M
What do you get when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We very well might see that in Saturday’s opener. Arkansas has done almost nothing but win for the last two months and Texas A&M is refusing to lose.
Texas A&M was the first to punch its ticket to the conference semifinal, knocking off top seeded Auburn, extinguishing their hopes of a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Powered by Tyrece Radford and Henry Coleman, III, the win was the Aggies’ sixth straight and critical to its postseason prospects. At this time of year, it’s not necessarily about the team you are playing, but what the team you are playing is playing for. A&M appears to still be on the outside looking in but could make a case for getting an invite to the big dance with another win Saturday.
Arkansas joined the Aggies in the conference semifinal shortly after, taking care of a stingy LSU team. The Razorback offense relieved a first-half defensive struggle, finding production in their dynamic guards JD Notae and Chris Lykes. The Tigers couldn’t find an answer. Arkansas has been one of the hottest teams of late, winning 15 of their last 17. The Muss Bus keeps rolling.
This game might more resemble a fist fight than the game James Naismith envisioned. That’s what happens when you get two teams hellbent on playing harder than their opponent. Which team will flinch first?
While no team has been able to match Texas A&M’s physicality to this point, the Aggies have given up two large second-half leads in Tampa. A&M allowed Florida to score 45 in the second half, and Auburn to score 41. The Hogs poured in 50 points in the second half against LSU, but don’t count on the Razorbacks to have a deficit to overcome. Jaylin Williams will be the key in this one. His threat to draw a charge on anyone and everyone will keep Henry Coleman, III, at bay. His versatility on offense will open up the Aggie defense and allow the Arkansas guards to do what they do.
2 Tennessee vs. 3 Kentucky
Before the conference tournament, John Calipari gave us a stat via Twitter: The top 4 teams in the SEC went 35-1 at home during the regular season. After two of the SEC’s best split during the regular season, a rubber match on a neutral floor is just what the Judge ordered.
Tennessee took on Mississippi State’s best shot and still came away with a comfortable win. The win did not come without cost, however. All-Freshman guard Kennedy Chandler had to leave the game multiple times due to an ankle injury. Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler picked up the slack and Josiah-Jordan James pitched in a 4-for-6 night from the 3-point line. Assuming Chandler’s injury does not linger, this team has the markings of one that can make a deep March run.
Kentucky wasn’t so comfortable in their win over Vanderbilt. While keeping Scottie Pippen, Jr., in check, Vanderbilt’s front court gave the Wildcats fits for a large portion of the night, including 27 from Jordan Wright. Jerry Stackhouse’s squad looked poised to make this one interesting, but Kentucky finally overwhelmed the 11-seed. Offensively, Kentucky received double-digit contributions from Oscar Tshiebwe, Tyty Washington, Jacob Toppin and Davion Mintz.
Kentucky’s Washington and Wheeler combined for 59 in the first game between these two. Tennessee’s Chandler, Vescovi, and Zeigler provided 49 points in the rematch. Whose guards can get going Saturday afternoon?
There’s no doubt guards win games in March. This game has those in spades: Vescovi, Washington Chandler, Wheeler, Zeigler, Grady. The Tennessee bunch has found a groove and the Kentucky bunch is finally healthy. I don’t see one group significantly outplaying the other. So give me the front court that can do the most damage. Look no further than player of the year candidate Tshiebwe, the walking double-double. He and Toppin have the ability to make game-changing plays on both sides of the court. The Judge likes them better than John Fulkerson and Uros Plavsic.
The Judge’s Saturday Picks
Arkansas -6 vs. Texas A&M, o/u 139
The total has gone over in the last 4 for Arkansas and 4 of the last 5 for Texas A&M. The Judge sees no reason to overrule this precedent.
Ruling: Over 139
Kentucky -2 vs. Tennessee, o/u 139.5
Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. What else do I need to say? The Cats are healthy and Big Blue Nation brought it to Tampa.
Ruling: Kentucky -2
Bang the gavel.