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Kentucky and Florida keep pace in SEC title race

The race for the SEC basketball title is a two-horse race after Saturday’s action.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Georgia Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the SEC’s top three teams -- the Kentucky Wildcats, Florida Gators, and South Carolina Gamecocks -- all faced tough road tests. The Wildcats and Gators survived theirs. The Gamecocks did not.

The Gators were up first with an afternoon game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. You would have thought the Gators might have issues with center John Egbunu being lost for the season with a torn ACL, but Kevarrius Hayes put in a fine performance in his place with nine points, 10 boards and four blocks. The problem was that the Gators couldn’t find their groove offensively, scoring just 0.85 points per possession. The good news? Their defense made sure Mississippi State was even worse, as the Bulldogs shot 2-of-23 from 3-point range and the Gators survived in Starkville, 57-52.

Kentucky was up next, and in spite of losing their star Yante Maten to a knee injury in the game’s early minutes, the Georgia Bulldogs went punch-for-punch with UK for most of the game. Actually, it would be more accurate to say JJ Frazier went punch-for-punch with the Wildcats. Frazier finished with 36 points and basically kept UGA in the game until Kentucky finally put the game away in the final minute. The ‘Cats won 82-77 and ended the day where they started it: in a tie for first place with Florida at 12-2 in the SEC.

South Carolina started the day a game back of Kentucky and Florida and ended it two games back, as the Vanderbilt Commodores shook off a slow start at Memorial Gym and beat the Gamecocks, 71-62. Sindarius Thornwell did everything he could to keep the Gamecocks alive, scoring 21 points, but in spite of committing 15 turnovers Vanderbilt managed to score 1.04 points per possession.

For the third game in a row, South Carolina allowed more than a point per possession and that’s causing the team’s offensive issues to become a bigger problem; the Gamecocks have now lost three of four and are probably out of the race for the SEC title. That said, the Gamecocks should still be in fine shape for the NCAA Tournament assuming they win home games against Mississippi State and Tennessee, and they may not even need to do that.

Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is up to 7-7 in the SEC, 14-13 overall and with their solid RPI and SOS numbers it’s not hard to imagine the Commodores getting into the bubble conversation with a strong finish.

Speaking of the bubble, Georgia’s likely burst with their loss to Kentucky. At this point, it’s pretty tough to imagine the Bulldogs making the dance barring a run in the SEC Tournament. But the SEC’s other three bubble teams took care of business on Saturday. The Tennessee Volunteers took advantage of a sluggish start by the Missouri Tigers to improve to 15-12 on the season and 7-7 in the SEC with a 90-70 win. Grant Williams continues to impress in his freshman year, going for 25 points, and Robert Hubbs added 21 to keep the Vols’ tournament hopes alive. Mizzou dropped to 7-19 overall and 2-12 in the SEC.

The Alabama Crimson Tide have had trouble scoring at times this season, but that wasn’t an issue on Saturday as they put up a season-high 1.31 points per possession in a 90-72 win over the hapless LSU Tigers. The win improved Alabama to 16-10 overall and 9-5 in the SEC, and the Tide are in good position to earn a coveted double-bye in next month’s SEC Tournament.

As for LSU, that was the Bayou Bengals’ 13th loss in a row and they remain in last place at 1-13 in the SEC, and it seems to be a fait accompli that Johnny Jones is coaching his last few games in Baton Rouge. With the rest of the day’s results, LSU achieved the distinction of clinching a bottom-four seed in the SEC Tournament with two weeks left in the regular season.

The Arkansas Razorbacks are probably the SEC’s best bet for a fourth tournament bid and they only helped themselves with a surprisingly easy 98-80 win over the Ole Miss Rebels on Saturday. Daryl Macon came off the bench and scored 30 points to lead the Razorbacks, while Moses Kingsley had 14 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks. That was more than enough to offset big days by the Rebels’ Deandre Burnett (27 points) and Terence Davis (24 points), because Kingsley made Sebastian Saiz’s life a living hell as the senior was held under 10 points for only the fourth time this season.

Arkansas is now 20-7 and 9-5 in the SEC, and while the Razorbacks don’t have a ton of quality wins (and, well, an awful loss to Missouri) it’s starting to feel kind of hard to see them missing the tournament barring a collapse down the stretch.

And finally, the Texas A&M Aggies snapped a two-game losing streak by handling the Auburn Tigers 81-62 at Reed Arena. Admon Gilder finally came off the floor: the sophomore “only” played 36 minutes after playing 40 minutes in each of the Aggies’ last eight games. Gilder led A&M with 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and Texas A&M improved to 14-12 on the season and 6-8 in the SEC.

Auburn has shown promise with a young team this year, but the Tigers are now 5-9 in the SEC and are in danger of playing a Wednesday night game in the SEC Tournament for the fifth year in a row (and for reference, this is the fifth year that the SEC has had Wednesday night games in the conference tournament).