FAYETTEVILLE -- The two hottest teams in the SEC are the league's newest teams -- Missouri and Texas A&M -- and they clash tonight at Mizzou Arena in a battle for postseason positioning.
The Tigers (17-8, 7-5 SEC) have won four SEC games in a row for the first time since joining the league and have surged into a tie for fourth place with Alabama.
There could be good news looming for first-year Coach Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers, as freshman Michael Porter Jr. -- who played all of 127 seconds in the season opener before needing back surgery -- plans to be back before the end of the season.
Porter, the nation's top recruit last year, told reporters last week that he plans to see his surgeon in Dallas in the next week or two for a six-week followup to his Jan. 4 visit.
"My rehab therapist thinks I'm good to go with practice except for the contact part," Porter told reporters. "I'm hoping the doctor clears me to do everything, contact included. That's what I'd love to hear.
"I feel better right now than I've ever felt. Like, I feel great. I'm just a kid who wants to play basketball."
Porter, who had surgery Nov. 21 to repair his L3-L4 spinal discs, said he has no concerns about reinjuring his back if he returns.
"I'm not thinking about the risks," he said. "If I could play today, I would play today. I'm not worried about reinjury. What I'm worried about is, is it good for our team if I come back? Because if it was tournament time and they said I'm ready to go, is that the best thing for our team? We're doing really well right now, and I think people are losing sight of that."
Missouri has its longest conference winning streak since the 2011-2012 team won five Big 12 games in a row late in the season. Missouri had lost five of seven games before its current streak.
Texas A&M's four-game winning streak is even more impressive than Missouri's, as it includes an 81-80 victory at No. 8 Auburn -- the Tigers' first home loss -- and an 85-74 victory over Kentucky on Saturday.
However, the Aggies, who have battled injuries and suspensions all season, have a new set of concerns. On Monday, transfer guard Duane Wilson announced his season was over after he appeared to reaggravate a knee injury in the victory over Kentucky. Wilson was averaging 9 points, 4 assists and 2 rebounds per game.
The news on Wilson came a day after Texas A&M announced the dismissal of former ESPN 100 recruit J.J. Caldwell and the indefinite suspension of freshman Jay Jay Chandler after their arrests on Sunday for misdemeanor drug charges.
Caldwell, the No. 89 recruit by ESPN in 2016, was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for all of last year and has been suspended twice already this season. He made four starts in January while Wilson was recovering from a knee injury, but he was limited to 17 minutes in Texas A&M's past eight games.
Ole Miss and South Carolina are streaking in the opposite direction, with both teams riding five-game losing streaks. The Rebels host Arkansas tonight at 6 while South Carolina travels to Tennessee for an 8 p.m. game. The Gamecocks' average losing margin during the streak is 15 points per game.
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin was fined $25,000 by the SEC office Monday for comments he made regarding official Lee Cassell after Saturday's 65-41 loss to Florida.
Cassell called a technical foul on Martin in the game, but it wasn't the official's presence at the game that rankled Martin more than his calls.
"Eleven years as head coach, I think today was my sixth technical foul in 11 years," Martin said. "I got a problem when our league office puts a guy on our game that got his break in the SEC, and he turned his back on the SEC to go officiate the other leagues. Why are we hiring that official to officiate SEC games? That's a problem."
Cassell has called nine ACC games and six SEC games this season, according to The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
In announcing Martin's fine, the league office wrote: "Our coaches and administrators have been fully informed of our strategies for improvement, which include building relationships with other conferences to coordinate the assignment of officials outside of their primary assigning conference."
The NCAA released its own 16-team bracket preview Sunday, projecting the top four seeds in four regions, and it included two SEC teams: No. 2 seed Auburn and No. 4 seed Tennessee.
The Razorbacks are 2-2 in games against the 16 teams, with victories over Tennessee and No. 4 seed Oklahoma, and losses to Auburn and No. 3 seed North Carolina.
CBSSports.com's Jerry Palm included eight SEC teams in his Monday bracket projection and had Mississippi State as one of his first four teams out of the field.
Palm's projected seeds for SEC teams are 2 Auburn; 4 Tennessee; 7 Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M; 8 Alabama; 9 Florida; and 11 Arkansas.
ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi also slotted eight SEC teams in his Monday projection, with Arkansas a 10 seed receiving one of the last four byes and Mississippi State as one of his next four out. Lunardi's seeds for SEC teams are 2 Auburn; 4 Florida and Tennessee; 7 Alabama and Texas A&M; 8 Kentucky and Missouri; and 10 Arkansas.
Auburn was the last unbeaten team at home in SEC play at 5-0 before falling 81-80 at Auburn Arena to Texas A&M on Wednesday. The Tigers were also 12-0 at home in all games before the loss to the Aggies.
Only three SEC teams have lost once at home this year. Mississippi State is 16-1 at Humphrey Coliseum, the lone loss 76-68 to Auburn on Jan. 13; and Arkansas is 13-1 at Walton Arena, falling only to LSU 75-54 on Jan. 10.
Missouri's Kassius Robertson and Texas A&M's T.J. Starks earned SEC honors from the league office Monday.
Robertson, the SEC Player of the Week, averaged 24.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in the Tigers' victories over Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Starks was named SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 20 points, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals in victories over No. 8 Auburn and No. 24 Kentucky. Starks shot 55.6 percent from three-point range in the two games.
Kentucky is 6-6 in the SEC, riding a three-game losing streak and facing a tough finishing stretch that has the Wildcats in jeopardy of finishing below .500 in the league for the first time under John Calipari.
The Wildcats play at league leader Auburn on Wednesday at 8 p.m., then host Alabama on Saturday.
Kentucky's finishing stretch also features games at Arkansas -- where Calipari is 1-3 with the Wildcats -- at Florida, and against Missouri and Ole Miss.
A Calipari-coached team has not lost four consecutive games since 2003-2004.
The SEC is no longer split into divisions, but if it was still separated into the same sides as in football, the West would hold a 22-18 lead in head-to-head meetings.
Best records from the West are Auburn at 5-0 and Arkansas at 5-1. Worst from the West is LSU, which has an 0-5 mark.
The best cross-division teams from the East are Kentucky (3-1) and Florida (4-2). South Carolina is 0-5 against teams in the Western Division.
The Gainesville Sun reported Sunday that Florida center John Egbunu, out since last Valentine's Day with a torn knee ligament, has had recent setbacks in his rehabilitation, has not been cleared for contact in practice and might have to undergo a second procedure on his surgically repaired knee.
Florida has had some issues with rebounding and post play without the 6-11, 265-pound senior, who hasn't worked out before a game since Jan. 27 against Baylor.
FROM TOP TO BOTTOM
RANK;LAST WEEK;RPI;TEAM (RECORDS);COMMENT
1;1;7;Auburn (22-3, 10-2);Big home game Valentine's Night vs. UK
2;2;13;Tennessee (18-6, 8-4);Bama loss first by more than 10 points
3;4;33;Alabama (16-9, 7-5);Alternated Ws, Ls past seven games
4;5;47;Florida (17-8, 8-4);Faces Georgia, Vandy before tough 4-game finish
5;10;17;Texas A&M (17-8, 6-6);How will team on fire react to adversity?
6;6;23;Missouri (17-8, 7-5);Is Michael Porter Jr. return getting near?
7;3;20;Kentucky (17-8, 6-6);Tough week at Auburn, vs. Bama
8;9;35;Arkansas (17-8, 6-6);Trying to turn around 1-6 road record
9;7;57; Miss. State (18-7, 6-6);Surprise team in SEC on NCAA bubble
10;8;75;LSU (14-10, 5-7);Showing big improvement under Will Wade
11;11;76;South Carolina (13-12, 4-8);Free falling and looking bad doing it
12;12;83;Georgia (13-11, 4-8);Have fallen off the NCAA tourney bubble
13;13;103;Ole Miss (11-14, 4-8);First game after Kennedy news vs. Hogs
14;14;127;Vanderbilt (9-16, 3-9);Hot shooting cooled off at Walton Arena
The Ratings Percentage Index is a scale used by the NCAA selection committee to rank Division I basketball teams by their performance in light of strength of schedule. Low RPI ranking numbers denote strong teams; and high numbers, weaker ones.
Game of the week
Texas A&M at Missouri, 6 p.m., today (ESPNU)
The Aggies have won four in a row, including an 81-80 victory at SEC leader Auburn, but they face yet another set of obstacles with the loss of guard Duane Wilson, the dismissal of J.J. Caldwell and indefinite suspension of Jay Jay Chandler. Missouri has won four in a row to reach a tie for fourth in the SEC.
By the numbers
Consecutive losses for Kentucky, which has not lost 4 in a row under John Calipari
Active winning streaks for Missouri, the longest for the Tigers since joining the SEC, and Texas A&M
20-win seasons during his 12 years at Ole Miss for Andy Kennedy
Consecutive home victories to open the season for Auburn before last week's 81-80 loss to Texas A&M
Sports on 02/13/2018
Print Headline: Missouri's fortunes trend up