There was not a lot of action the past week, with college basketball players needing to tend to final exams across the Southeastern United States. Moreover, many of the games played by SEC teams were cupcakes, and still more games on Saturday involved disappointing losses from SEC teams. Given that this weekly look at SEC stars generally tries to identify winning players and players in showcase games, it was not a banner week for this column, but several notables still made their presence felt. Three Auburn players? Yes, it wasn't a normal week, but given how various SEC teams played, and given the small number of high-end SEC wins over the past seven days, it fits the past week in the conference:
Aaron Epps, LSU
LSU and Houston are both struggling, and Epps’ 26 points made the difference for the Tigers in a matchup of programs immersed in long-term battles to reorganize for the future. Neither place is a quick-fix job, as Houston coach Kelvin Sampson has learned. Will Wade is just beginning to learn what he has on his first LSU roster, which he will have ample time to improve. In the short term, he needs players to rise above difficult situations – Epps did exactly that against Houston.
This is a long uphill struggle for Bayou Bengal basketball. Epps offered much-needed relief – it didn’t last long, but it’s something for LSU to lean on before SEC play begins.
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
Diallo hit the biggest shot of the game, a late three-pointer after Virginia Tech cut Kentucky’s lead to two points. More than that, he hit 4 of 7 three-pointers, giving the Wildcats a second main perimeter weapon in addition to Kevin Knox. Getting reliable secondary and tertiary scoring options (after Knox) will form a core part of a big season for Kentucky. Diallo took a big step forward in his evolution on Saturday. Accordingly, Kentucky did as well. Diallo doesn’t have to be a high-volume shooter or scorer – moreover, he shouldn’t feel he must become one – so don’t place too much stock in how many points he scores. His shooting efficiency and the timeliness of his baskets against Virginia Tech represent the components of his game which should give Big Blue backers a lot of hope.
Mustapha Heron, Auburn
Returning from a back injury, Heron was sorely needed in Auburn’s impressive win over Middle Tennessee, a program with NCAA Tournament wins in each of the last two seasons. Heron did a lot for his team in ways that were subtle. Beyond the 16 points and the six boards and the three steals, Heron lent stability to the offense, committing only two turnovers on a day when his Auburn teammates committed 19 (three AU players committed five turnovers apiece). Auburn hit only six three-pointers in 22 attempts (27 percent), so the Tigers needed to get easy points in order to fend off Middle Tennessee. Heron got to the foul line nine times and made seven foul shots in a game decided by six points, 76-70. His leadership and toughness were more valuable than his raw statistical contributions (which also mattered a lot).
Chuma Okeke and Horace Spencer, Auburn
Joint recognition to two players is merited partly because these players are comparatively obscure measured against other SEC notables, but mostly because they are both bench performers.
Auburn would not have held off Middle Tennessee had its bench not gained two sterling performances from frontcourt reserves. Okeke and Spencer played a combined total of 39 game minutes. In those 39 on-court minutes, they produced 25 points, 12 rebounds, two steals, only two turnovers, and shot 10 of 12 from the field. Auburn has not played a hugely challenging schedule, but this victory was a quality result for a team which is now 9-1 despite the continued absences of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley due to the FBI investigation dating back to early October which has affected Auburn and several other programs. If Purifoy and Wiley are ever allowed to join the team this season, Okeke and Spencer will give Auburn a very deep rotation which would enable Bruce Pearl to keep his players fresh and wear down opponents in February and/or March.
James Daniel III, Tennessee
The Vols didn’t beat North Carolina, but Daniel gave Tennessee the level of bench play which, if sustained, will lead to a big SEC season for Rick Barnes’ team. No Tennessee starter scored more than 15 points against the Tar Heels, and no starter was similarly able to light it up from three-point range, but Daniel did. He hit 4 of 6 triples for 14 points and did not commit a turnover in 20 highly efficient minutes. The starters needed to carry more of the freight against a big-name opponent, but Daniel was a central reason the Vols fought the Tar Heels on even terms for 40 minutes.