The nation’s best basketball conference, arguably, rides into the final week of the regular season with four teams in range of the league championship and six likely to receive bids to the NCAA Tournament.
No. 18 Arkansas’ 75-73 home win over No. 6 Kentucky and No. 17 Tennessee’s 67-62 home slaying of No. 3 Auburn on Saturday created a three-way tie for second place among Arkansas (23-6, 12-4), Kentucky (23-6, 12-4) and Tennessee (21-7, 12-4) behind first place Auburn (25-4, 13-3).
No. 24 Alabama (19-10, 9-7) is next in fifth after a 90-71 home win over South Carolina (17-11, 8-8) and is a lock for the NCAA Tournament as CBS bracketology expert Jerry Palm has the Crimson Tide as a No. 4 seed along with Tennessee. Palm has Auburn as a No. 1 seed with Kentucky as a No. 3 and Arkansas as a No. 5.
LSU (20-9, 8-8) won 75-55 at home over Missouri (10-19, 4-12) and remains a projected No. 7 seed for the NCAA Tournament by Palm, who has Florida (18-11, 8-8) as a 12 seed and in the First Four. The Gators won 84-72 at last place Georgia (6-23, 1-15) on Saturday. In other games Saturday, Mississippi State (17-12, 8-8) won 74-69 at home over Vanderbilt (14-14, 6-10) and Texas A&M (18-11, 7-9) won 76-66 at Ole Miss (13-16, 4-12).
Arkansas’ win Saturday in front of 19,200 at Bud Walton Arena was its fourth straight and its third over a top 25 team, starting with a Feb. 8 victory over then-No. 1 Auburn, which was followed by a win over No. 16 Tennessee. The Hogs have won 13 of their last 14.
“I’ve just been so impressed, the way that we’ve played throughout this whole streak,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “When we struggled early, we talked about trying to get hot at the right time.”
The Razorbacks close the regular season against LSU on Tuesday (9 p.m. eastern, ESPN2) and at Tennessee on Saturday (noon, ESPN).
“What the group has done is they weathered a really, really tough schedule and not only did they kind of weather it, they dominated it by winning basketball games against some incredible teams,” Musselman said.
JD Notae led Arkansas with 30 points and eight assists. Jaylin Williams scored 16 with 12 rebounds, while Stanley Umude added 13 with six rebounds.
The Razorbacks should move up in the Associated Press rankings Monday – as far as the top 10, says Musselman.
“I mean, I do,” he said. “We beat Kentucky. We beat Auburn. We beat Tennessee.”
Meanwhile, seven top 10 teams fell Saturday – No. 1 Gonzaga to No. 23 Saint Mary’s, No. 2 Arizona to Colorado, No. 3 Auburn to Tennessee, No. 4 Purdue to Michigan State, No. 5 Kansas to Baylor, No. 6 Kentucky to Arkansas, and No. 9 Texas Tech to Texas Christian.
“But we’re not satisfied at all,” Musselman said. “We’re grinding in practice, but we’re having fun, too. We’re having a blast.”
Kentucky overcame a double-digit first half deficit to nearly pull out a win, but lost for the second time in four games. Guards Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington did return from recent injuries, though, to score 14 and 10 points off the bench. Oscar Tshiebwe scored 30 with 18 points.
Kentucky coach John Calipari kept his eyes on the big picture.
“We’re playing for something bigger than jsut a seed or a league championship,” he said. “You know we always play bigger than that. We’ve had teams finish fourth in this league, and we’ve played in the last game of the year.”
Kentucky closes with a home game Tuesday against Ole Miss on Tuesday (ESPN, 7 p.m.) and at Florida on Saturday (CBS, 2 p.m.)
Tennessee finishes at Georgia on Tuesday (SEC Network, 6:30 p.m.) and at home against Arkansas on Saturday (ESPN, Noon).
Auburn closes at Mississippi State on Tuesday (SEC Network, 9 p.m.) and at home against South Carolina on Saturday (SEC Network, 1 p.m.)