Resetting The SEC Race: A Look At The Seven “West” TeamsPosted by Christian D'Andrea on January 9th, 2013
Conference play began for Alabama and Missouri last night, and soon after the rest of the SEC will fall in line. The SEC East has carried the conference banner over the first third of the NCAA basketball season, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t “West” schools that will be vying for postseason bids when March rolls around. The state of the former division has been muddled by a throng of underwhelming non-conference schedules, but it’s almost a lock that at least one of these teams will surprise their opponents en route to a NCAA Tournament berth. Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M have all gotten out to hot starts in 2012-13. Can they sustain them?
Let’s take a closer look at each program in what was once known as the SEC West:
Texas A&M – The Aggies Are Headed Into Their First Season of SEC Play, But a Weak Non-Conference Schedule May Have Masked Their Flaws.
- The good: Texas A&M will enter the SEC with a 10-3 record thanks to head coach Billy Kennedy’s deliberately-paced play-calling. This team has used spacing, shooting, and patience to create open looks and bring inferior opponents down to their level. Senior Elston Turner Jr. has benefited the most from the Aggies’ new style of play, leading the team with 15.5 points per game thanks to a stellar performance from behind the arc.Kennedy’s preference is to grind down opponents, and it’s worked for TAMU so far. Only four opponents have cracked the 60-point barrier on the Aggies this season, and much of that success comes from a team defense that is helping to hold opponents under 40 percent shooting from the field. However, it’s a big question mark as to whether or not these trends can continue when the team’s schedule dives into more hostile waters during SEC play.
- The bad: A&M has played a cupcake schedule so far, and its three losses have come with varying degrees of disappointment. Their only win over a team ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s top 100 came in a 55-54 squeaker over Washington State, and that has been tempered by losses to Saint Louis, Oklahoma, and Southern.They’ll have to shape up quickly if they want to stay afloat in the SEC. They’ll open with Arkansas before traveling to Kentucky and then hosting Florida in their first three games. These showdowns will give the Aggies a chance to prove themselves, but it could also give this team a big hole to climb out of just two weeks into conference play.
- Player to watch: Elston Turner Jr. The Washington transfer has one of the smoothest shooting strokes in the game, and he’ll carry on a tradition of behind-the-arc dominance that SEC gunners John Jenkins and Rotnei Clarke have left behind in recent years. He’s become a more complete player in his second year at A&M, and he’ll be driven to make his transfer a prudent choice by leading his team to the postseason.
- Can it last? No. The Aggies have played just two teams from power conferences, beating a mediocre Washington State team and losing by double-digits to a better but still underwhelming Oklahoma squad. They’ve proven that they’d be able to burn through the Sun Belt, but haven’t shown enough through an easy non-conference schedule to prove that they can hack it in their first year of SEC play. Billy Kennedy’s team will have some success in league games, but their current pace looks unsustainable.
Ole Miss – The Rebels Are Scoring and Have the Best Record in the SEC at 11-2, But Who Have They Played?
- The good: Ole Miss has used a balanced offensive attack to become one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation. The Rebels have scored over 83 points per game while rolling over an overmatched non-conference lineup.Utah transfer Marshall Henderson’s long, winding road has finally brought him back to the court in 2012, and he’s become Ole Miss’s leading scorer in the meantime. Henderson may be the most prolific three-point gunner in a league full of them. He’s putting up more than 10.6 points per game so far, containing his game almost exclusively behind the arc. This has led to some big nights (6-of-13, 27 points against Coastal Carolina, 7-of-16, 27 points against Indiana State), and some forgettable ones (a 10-of-46 stretch over four games in late November/early December). He’s made it abundantly clear that, hot or cold, he’s going to be shooting without remorse from long range.
Ole Miss has a strong balance between their guards and the play of their frontcourt. The Rebels may not have the tallest big men, but they certainly have two of the strongest and hardest working in Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Holloway is putting up all-SEC numbers as an undersized power forward in Andy Kennedy’s lineup. His versatility allows Buckner to do the dirty work in the paint, and the two are combining for 18 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game.
- The bad: Like Texas A&M, their schedule has left them largely untested. They’ve played just one opponent that hails from a power conference and have otherwise raided the low-majors en route to a misleading record. Ole Miss lost a pair of games to respectable mid-major teams (Middle Tennessee State, Indiana State) and rolled over outmatched opponents like Arkansas-Little Rock, Hawaii, Loyola Marymount, Lipscomb, and San Francisco.The Rebels will need to get more from their outside shooting if they want to keep up the pace they’ve driven in non-conference play. Ole Miss is shooting just 32 percent from long range despite taking nearly 23 threes per game. That number will have to improve if they want to compete with the best the SEC has to offer.
- Player to watch: Reginald Buckner. Buckner is in his final year with the Rebels, and his development over the past four years has been impressive. He’s a high-level athlete who has worked hard to give himself every opportunity to be an impact player in the paint. He’s got impressive shot-blocking instincts, and though he fouls too much, he may be the most underrated big man in the SEC. He’s improved by leaps and bounds so far this season, posting career highs in blocks, steals, and field goal percentage. He’ll be paramount to the Rebels if he can keep that pace up when SEC play rolls around.
- Can it last? No. The Rebels are burning hot right now, and their offense will give them a chance to match anyone in the SEC in a shootout. They’ll have a great chance to run their way into a NCAA Tournament berth, but keeping up an 11-2 pace through the grind and increased competition of conference play looks unlikely. Their soft schedule may have raised expectations a bit too high in Oxford.
LSU – Can the Tigers Make a Run Back to Respectability After a 9-2 Start to 2012-13?
- The good: LSU put together a surprising 6-0 run to start the season before falling to the best two opponents they’ve played all season – Boise State and Marquette. Unlike most of the SEC’s teams, the Tigers rely on a strong frontcourt and interior play to lift them to victories. That will make them a match-up nightmare for conference opponents with rebuilding front lines like Vanderbilt or Alabama as the season wears on. Shavon Coleman may only stand 6’5” tall and weigh less than 200 pounds, but the junior college transfer has the athleticism and reach to rebound and block shots at a high level. He works hard to get to the rim and has been tenacious on both sides of the court for LSU.Johnny O’Bryant (6’9”, 265 lbs) and Andrew Del Piero (7’3”, 255) fill more traditional frontcourt roles. Del Piero can be a shot-blocking nightmare despite playing limited minutes, while O’Bryant is rounding into shape as a presence at the four.
- The bad: LSU is relatively untested this season. Their best opponent so far has been Boise State, and that ended in a 19-point blowout loss at home. Fan support should pick up now that football season is over, but that defeat against the Broncos has reinforced the malaise that has followed this team in the past three years. The Tigers have a NIT berth to build on from last season, and that should be a reasonable goal after a solid start in 2011-12.That means that diminutive guards Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey will have to step up. Neither player is over six feet tall, and neither one has a problem putting up shots from the backcourt. Putting them both on the floor at the same time can be a defensive liability for Johnny Jones’s squad, but they’re both vital parts of the team’s offense. Unfortunately, that pairing is begging to be abused by a host of SEC teams with strong, long backcourts that can shoot over their undersized counterparts.
- Player to watch: Anthony Hickey. Hickey is small (5’11”), but he does a little bit of everything for the Tigers. He’s their engine out of the backcourt, and he’ll be counted on to create the offense that LSU will need if they’re going to keep up their winning ways. Hickey is also one of the quickest and most intuitive defenders in the conference, despite his lack of size. He’s averaging 3.6 steals per game so far this season.
- Can it last? No. The Tigers haven’t faced much legitimate opposition in 2012. They’ll play nine games against teams rated higher than their current best win – a five-point victory over Seton Hall. They have shown the chops to keep them in the middle of a mediocre SEC this year, but it will be very difficult for LSU to maintain its 9-2 pace.
Arkansas – The Razorbacks are Beating the Teams They’re Supposed to and Getting Blown Out by Quality Opponents During a 9-4 Slate.
- The good: The Razorbacks have only lost to quality teams in their 9-4 start, dropping showdowns with Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Syracuse this winter. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell have teamed to form a potent 1-2 combination for Mike Anderson in Fayetteville. They’re combining for nearly 33 points per game so far this season and are shooting a hair over 50 percent from the field as a tandem. Anderson’s fast-paced offense has led to plenty of points and lots of efficient ball movement. The Razorbacks rank sixth in the nation in scoring (82.9 PPG) and 25th in assists. This has led to plenty of open looks inside the arc and some easy baskets for the well-conditioned Hogs.
- The bad: The other side of the coin for Arkansas is just how bad their wins have been this year. Their only power conference victory came against Oklahoma, and while that’s a solid result, it stands alone in a sea of competitors like Alabama A&M, Florida A&M, Northwestern State, Alcorn State, and Delaware State. Factor that in with the blowout nature of their losses (an average 11-point deficit), and you can understand why the rest of the SEC isn’t so bullish on the ‘Hogs so far.Good teams have been able to slow Arkansas down, and that’s been the difference between wins and losses in Fayetteville. Since their season opener, the team is scoring 89.8 PPG in their wins and 71.8 PPG in losses. Limiting Arkansas is easier said than done, but Anderson’s team can be beaten up and dragged into slopfests, and when that happens, the Hogs are a very different team. That’s a bad sign for a team that’s about to begin conference play in a league full of win-ugly squads.
- Player to watch: Marshawn Powell. Powell was a long shot to replicate his insane 71.4 FG% in 2012-13, but the burly forward still provides a valuable option for the Hogs while connecting on a high percentage of his shots. He’s learned to be more careful with the ball and has developed a stronger outside shot as he fills out his game for a potential shot at the NBA. He’s still got a ways to go, but his progress could carry Arkansas to a surprising finish in the SEC.
- Can it last? Yes. Arkansas has been bad against good teams, but they should be able to find a comfortable middle ground in the second tier of the SEC. They’ll be able to feast on teams having down years like Mississippi State, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. As long as they can impose their game plan against those teams, a double-digit win total shouldn’t be out of Mike Anderson’s reach in his second year in Fayetteville.
Alabama – A Promising Start Gave Way to a Disappointing December, Putting the Tide at 8-6.
- The good: The Crimson Tide have made the most out of a guard-heavy lineup, shooting their way past teams like Oregon State and Villanova to open their season. Alabama won the 2K Sports Classic en route to a 6-0 start thanks to the hot hands of the two Trevors – Releford and Lacey. Both players have used strong outside shooting to prop up a team that is recovering from the loss of their two best big men from 2011-12, Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green. Early on, it looked like Anthony Grant’s team would be able to chug back towards relevancy with a small-ball lineup. A string of losses derailed that train, but it’s clear that Alabama, when hot, can be a tough out for anyone in the SEC.
- The bad: ‘Bama fell from the periphery of the Top 25 polls into no-man’s land thanks to a December swoon. The Tide went 1-5 that month and lost games to Mercer and Tulane along the way. The team’s rebounding has been a major issue in those losses. Alabama has been out-rebounded in five of its six losses and are giving up just shy of 10 offensive rebounds per game in that span. That’s led to second-chance points that have sunk the Tide and put the clamps on what started out as another promising season under Anthony Grant. Forward Nick Jacobs has been pushed into a starting role to help fix these problems, but the sophomore hasn’t been able to grow into his new assignment this season.
- Player to watch: Trevor Releford. Releford’s always been exciting to watch. Now, he can shoot it from long range, improving his three-point average from 27 percent last season to 42.5 percent this year.
- Can it last? Probably. Anthony Grant’s team has too much talent to let a disappointing start to their season linger. Still, this team’s four-guard lineup puts the Crimson Tide at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to cleaning the glass, and SEC teams with potent frontcourts may be able to bully Alabama around during conference play.
Auburn – The Tigers May be Losing Games, But They’ve Put Up a Fight En Route to 6-7.
- The good: Auburn’s high-scoring backcourt has made the Tigers a competitive team that is entering league play on a high note after beating Florida State last week. Frankie Sullivan (17.8 PPG) and Chris Denson (15.2 PPG on 52% shooting) have steered the Tigers away from the blowout losses that were their calling card in 2011-12. Auburn has only lost two games by double-digits this season. For comparison, they’d lost three games by that margin last year despite rounding out non-conference play at 10-4. The Tigers have tested themselves with a tougher schedule this year, and that’s led to stronger play despite a worse record. Tony Barbee will have this team better prepared for conference play than it was last season, when Auburn went just 5-12 against SEC foes.
- The bad: The Tigers’ schedule has been dotted with close losses that have come to define this team so far. Auburn had the chance to define their season with early wins over high and mid-major opponents, but faltered late in losses to Boston College (one point), Illinois (two points), DePaul (four points), and Rhode Island (six points in double overtime).Those tough defeats may build character, but what Auburn really needs to do in order to win games is improve their shooting. Barbee’s team is shooting just 42 percent from the field this year, and that figure may get worse before it gets better. With Denson and freshman shooter Jordan Price out for several weeks thanks to a pair of stress fractures, the Tigers will need someone to step up and provide an efficient presence on the offensive end.
- Player to watch: Chris Denson. You’ll have to be patient if you want to catch Denson. He missed the first seven games of the year due to academic problems and is now out for a month or more because of a broken foot. Still, he’s proven that he can be a game-changer for the Tigers when he’s on the court. He was his team’s most efficient scorer (despite a clunker in Auburn’s near-upset of Illinois) when he was on the court, and he gives Frankie Sullivan some breathing room when it comes to opposing defenses. His return could spark a mini-renaissance for the Plainsmen.
- Can it last? Yes. Auburn looks like a stronger team than they were last year, despite a worse record rounding into conference play. Unfortunately, they’ll be without two key players to open their SEC slate with Price and Denson on the injured list. Their absence will have a major impact on this program, but the Tigers could end up pulling off some key upsets when everyone is healthy again in February.
Mississippi State – Rick Ray’s Rebuilding Effort Has the Bulldogs in the Midst of a Tough 5-7 season.
- The good: Gavin Ware has controlled his weight and made an immediate impact in State’s frontcourt. The 270-pound forward/center has been able to cut down from 300 pounds in his early days of high school and put on the requisite muscle he’ll need to bang in the paint against NCAA players. Ware has had some growing pains early on, but he’s developing into an effective big man who can rebound and patrol the paint. He’ll be a big part of this team’s rebuilding efforts going forward.Sophomore Roquez Johnson should be a big part of that future as well. After playing only in mop-up duty as a freshman, he’s pacing this team with 12.4 points per game. He may not be best suited as his team’s top scoring option, but he’s shown a diverse game that will make him a piece of the puzzle for Bulldog teams to come. Bonus good: Rick Stansbury’s wife is no longer deafening opposing fans with her banshee calls at away games.
- The bad: The Bulldogs don’t pass well, and as a result, they don’t shoot well either. Mississippi State is averaging fewer than 10 assists per game, and that stagnant ball movement is killing their ability to find open looks and score with regularity. The team is scoring under 56 points per game in their losses, and that’s opened them up to defeats against teams like Alabama A&M, Loyola (Illinois), and Troy. State has yet to shoot better than 38.5 percent against an opponent from a power conference. In losses to Marquette, North Carolina, Providence, and Texas, they scored points at a 33.9 percent clip. This included a mark of 20.9 percent from three-point range.Teams with competent defenses can force the Bulldogs into bad shots, and they lack the cohesion and ball movement to out-maneuver high-level defensive sets. This could lead to some unsightly blowouts once conference play starts up unless Rick Ray and his staff can correct this problem quickly. Also, Fred Johnson is struggling as State’s go-to shooter from behind the arc. He’s putting up almost seven three-pointers per game and making fewer than 25 percent of them.
- Player to watch: Gavin Ware. Can the freshman hold his own against the other big men in the SEC? He’s an agile player with good hands inside, and he has the size to keep from being outmuscled in the paint. However, he’s still got a long way to go, and his development could be a huge theme as the Bulldogs prepare for 2013-14.
- Can it last? Yes. Things are a mess in Starkville, and the Bulldogs might be in the midst of the biggest top-to-bottom overhaul that the SEC has seen in decades. Rick Ray is doing the best he can with what he’s got, but stale ball movement and a lack of developed talent will keep the Bulldogs in the league’s basement this winter.