Assessing the Challengers to Kentucky’s SEC Crown

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 19th, 2014

It’s a month into the college basketball season and every conference has unanswered questions. For all its faults, the SEC more or less stands alone among the major conferences in that we know with reasonable certainty which team will be taking home the regular season and tournament titles. If you’re betting against Kentucky in this league this season, then you clearly haven’t been watching. But after the Wildcats at the top, there are at least six teams that can make a realistic claim as the second-best team in the conference. Here’s how the race stacks up as we slog through final exams:

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, but can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

  • Arkansas (7-2, Best Win: SMU, Worst Loss: Clemson). If nothing else it has been an eventful month for the Hogs. They stormed into the national polls after a 6-0 start. They won on the road at SMU. People were excited. But then Arkansas fell flat in a marquee game at Iowa State and followed it up with a perplexing loss to Clemson. So really, we are left with the same questions we had about the Razorbacks coming into the season. They look better, but are they NCAA tournament better? To its credit, Arkansas may have the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year in Bobby Portis, who is among the league’s top 10 in points per game (15.8), rebounds per game (6.8), blocks per game (1.6), effective field goal percentage (60.2%) and PER (26.7).
  • Texas A&M (7-2, BW: Arizona State, WL: Baylor). The Aggies’ most compelling argument is not the team they are now, but the one they could be in a few months. Billy Kennedy got an early Christmas present when Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos became eligible. House has immediately become a key cog for the Aggies, leading the team in minutes per game (29.2) and adding a jolt of athleticism to the perimeter. Any doubt about his role should have been erased when he got the last shot in a tie game against Sam Houston State. Freshman Alex Robinson has also at times looked like the best player on the team. The Aggies don’t have any eye-popping wins and recently got rolled by Baylor, but they have good potential as players get accustomed to playing together.

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SEC M5: 12.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 19th, 2014

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  1. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan writes that John Calipari’s biggest challenge this season might be instilling enough doubt in his team so that they don’t completely buy the hype. There’s no doubt Cal needs to latch on to any struggle he can to keep the Wildcats on their toes, but I don’t think he’s going at it alone. A good part of the team was around for last year’s six conference losses. Willie Cauley-Stein was around for that and the epic disappointment that was 2012-13. These players may have confidence, but I doubt they have short memories, and Cal should have support keeping the team focused.
  2. Uttering the word “Clemson” around this microsite is risky business. Legend has it if you say the word three times Brad Brownell will appear and ruin the dreams of your favorite SEC squad. The Tigers have, after all, already beaten Arkansas, LSU and Auburn while losing to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Rutgers. South Carolina gets its shot at its arch rival tonight, and the importance of the game isn’t lost on Frank Martin. “Any time you play those kind of games, you’re playing for your school, first and foremost,” Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “But you’re also representing your conference. And we take pride in that.” The Gamecocks have a good chance to end the SEC’s Clemson skid as they looked good demolishing Oklahoma State almost two weeks ago. Duane Notice has also stepped up his game in a big way, scoring 47 points in his last two games.
  3. The sun probably hasn’t set on Alabama’s tournament chances, but the Tide need to get on a roll to (no pun intended) to truly get in the discussion. The folks at Roll Bama Roll suggest that more of the offensive game plan should involve Michael Kessens, and the numbers certainly back that up. He’s posted the best effective field goal percentage on the team, and looks comfortable with the ball anywhere on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Grant divides up minutes between Kessens and fellow sophomore Shannon Hale the rest of the way, especially since Hale is shooting three’s at a worse rate than last year.
  4. Jakeenan Gant’s debut was a bright spot in what has been a difficult opening season for Kim Anderson at Missouri. The freshman finally gained eligibility and was able to take the court in the Tigers loss to Xavier, scoring 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. This was a surprise to his coach. “I really didn’t expect that much from him just because he hadn’t really been playing with the first group of guys,” Anderson told the Columbia Missourian. “But I was really pleased with the way he came in.” This year will largely be about the development of Gant, Jonathan Williams and Teki Gill-Caesar. The Tigers looked good for portions of the Xavier game, and can build on this with a rivalry game against Illinois tomorrow.
  5. Until last night the only Division I team that Arkansas State, with an RPI of 339 and KenPom rating of 192, had beaten was Central Arkansas. Then they went to Starkville and beat Mississippi State. This was a truly damaging defeat. “Even beyond that, we’ve got to start giving a return on the investment. I think the administration; everybody’s invested in this program. We have to start giving a return on that investment,” Rick Ray told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In a league with no shortage of bad losses this season, this may have been the worst. As Ray said, it’s frustrating because you would have thought the program would be above this type of result at this point in his tenure. Maybe it was a bad outing, but the Bulldogs are mired in a four game losing streak and need to start building some positive momentum or questions about Ray’s job security may begin to surface.
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Freeze Frame: Alabama’s Shift to Man to Man Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 18th, 2014

Alabama nearly came up with a huge victory for itself and the SEC when it lost by one at Wichita State on Tuesday night. Anthony Grant’s team felt secure with an 11-point lead and 5:50 remaining, but the Tide’s Achilles Heel — fundamental defense — came back to haunt them once again. Grant’s defense has struggled all season, and after nearly 35 minutes of solid pressure on the road (forcing the Shockers into 40.8 percent shooting), it failed them once again.

Alabama's defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

Alabama’s defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will look at the final 15 minutes of Alabama’s defense against the Shockers. The Tide to that point had found a lot of success with a 2-3 match-up zone that frustrated Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and their Wichita State teammates into a bunch of contested outside shots. But with the momentum clearly in the hands of Alabama, Grant made a huge mistake in shifting back to his man-to-man defense. Van Vleet was then able to penetrate the lane to find open teammates, rendering the pick-and-roll option more effective, and ultimately erasing a late double-figure lead.

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SEC M5: 12.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 17th, 2014

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  1. Without a doubt, Alabama blew a gigantic opportunity for a statement win by coughing up a lead in the final seconds of last night’s loss at Wichita State. There is no way to sugarcoat it. The Tide held an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining, but a combination of missed shots, bad rebounding and turnovers against the press allowed the Shockers to come back and win. The moral victory of hanging close against a very good team on the road likely won’t have any positive impact on the Tide’s resume, but let’s look for a silver lining. Alabama defended very well, holding the Shockers to 53 points — 25 fewer than their season average — in stifling the 10th most-efficient offense in the country. Much of Alabama’s second half lead was built on Wichita State settling for three-pointers (5-of-18) over an effective zone. Not to peek ahead, but a formula utilizing the Tide’s length and athleticism, could potentially hold up well against a Kentucky team that struggles from the outside (it always comes back to the Wildcats, doesn’t it?). Circle January 17 (home) and 31 (away) on your SEC calendar.
  2. LSU held on to win a competitive game against Sam Houston State last weekend to run its winning streak to four games. It wasn’t all rosy, though, as Josh Gray left the game with an ankle injury, and was seen afterward walking on crutches. Johnny Jones said on Monday that Gray was receiving “aggressive treatment,” but it’s unknown as of this writing whether he’ll miss any games. Ankle injuries can be tricky to heal, and if Gray does miss time it’ll trim down an already thin roster (Jones used only eight players against Sam Houston State). Tim Quarterman, a player who is enjoying a breakout season, would likely slide into the starting point guard role, with freshman Jalyn Patterson also seeing more minutes. The injury does come at a good time of the season for the Tigers, as their toughest non-conference stretch is now behind them and they have games against beatable teams like UAB, College of Charleston and Southern Miss over the next two weeks.
  3. Arkansas got back on track with a win over Dayton last weekend in a game that saw Mike Anderson shuffle his starting lineup. JuCo transfer Jabril Durham got the start at point guard over senior Rashad Madden, who went scoreless and turned the ball over five times in 31 minutes against Clemson. This also came a few days after Anderson said that Madden was “trying to do too much.” Booting a senior from the starting lineup in favor of a first-year player is a precarious road to walk, but it seemed to work out well enough as Durham hit two three-pointers early and Madden scored 12 points (including 8-of-8 from the free throw line). So far, it looks like Anderson knew what buttons to push, and that’s important because Madden’s scoring ability is a key to the success of the Razorbacks’ season.
  4. Two SEC players made College Basketball Talk’s list of the 10 most important midseason additions: Florida’s Alex Murphy and Auburn’s Trayvon Reed. Of the two, Reed seems to be the one needed the most. The article mentions that the 7’1’’ center is incredibly raw and likely won’t contribute much this season, but the guess is that Bruce Pearl will throw Reed into the fire early since this season was always going to be more about development than contention. Reed logged eight largely unproductive minutes (four fouls, one block) in Auburn’s recent loss to Clemson, and he’ll probably consume at least part of the 11.0 minutes per game going forward that was going to Devin Waddell.
  5. Jerry Palm’s first update to his NCAA Tournament bracket projection has three SEC teams in the fold: Kentucky (#1), LSU (#10) and Arkansas (#10). Alabama and Tennessee are among Palm’s first four out, and Florida is nowhere to be found on his board right now. All things considered, this is a pretty generous view of the SEC given how the season has unfolded thus far. The Tigers and Razorbacks have both notched some nice wins, but they also have experienced setbacks that threaten to snuff them from the conversation (e.g., both teams have lost to Clemson). The simple fact that, in Palm’s view, they are still squarely into the Dance should be encouraging. Neither Alabama (sorta) nor Tennessee (very much so) were thought of as NCAA Tournament teams prior to the season, so seeing them on the fringe in December is encouraging for the league. And finally there is Florida, which many believe will right its ship and find a way into the party, especially given Dorian Finney-Smith’s recent resurgence.
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Kentucky’s Rotations Most Impacted by Alex Poythress Injury

Posted by David Changas on December 16th, 2014

News that broke late last week that Kentucky forward Alex Poythress would miss the remainder of the season with an ACL injury was met generally with the notion that the Wildcats are so deep, so talented, and have such good overall chemistry that it will not impact their quest to win the national championship. Given the Wildcats’ subsequent performance in an 84-70 thumping of North Carolina in Lexington — a game the Wildcats controlled from the start — it’s understandable that people would feel that way. But it’s also impossible to take too much from one game, and any definitive statement of how the loss of the 6’8″ junior forward will be felt is premature.

The loss of Poythress leaves Kentucky without a true small forward (Bleacher Report)

The loss of Poythress leaves Kentucky without a true small forward. (Getty)

There is no question that Kentucky’s depth, and the quality of it, is unmatched in college basketball. The Wildcats have operated well under John Calipari’s much-discussed platoon system, as no one on the team averages more than 24.5 minutes per game. For his part, Poythress played just over 20 minutes per game in his eight contests, and his overall numbers were nothing special. He averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per outing, and often appeared lost in the shuffle on the offensive end. Still, given his size and athleticism, he is projected by several outlets as a second rounder in the 2015 NBA Draft. As an explosive leaper with a propensity to make astounding plays, his demonstrated ability to guard athletic wings on the perimeter will be missed because Kentucky does not have anyone else who can be classified as a true small forward.

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SEC M5: 12.15.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 15th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Tennessee center Dominic Woodson left the Volunteers’ program over the weekend after having been held out of the team’s prior two games because of academic issues. Given that he had experienced some problems during his (only) freshman season at Memphis, his departure could not have come as much of a surprise for head coach Donnie Tyndall. Woodson often talked about turning things around, but after being declared immediately eligible to play in the fall, things never materialized for him. He averaged 12 minutes, 3.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in his four contests, but after the Volunteers pulled off an upset of No. 15 Butler in Knoxville on Sunday, this may be a clear case of addition by subtraction.
  2. One of the most impressive things John Calipari has done with his team this year is to keep everyone happy. Anyone who watches Kentucky play sees that all of the players appear to be having fun despite the fact that none averages more than 24 minutes per game. It’s therefore no surprise that, after the Wildcats’ loss of Alex Poythress for the season from an ACL injury, the Big Blue Nation rallied around him to provide emotional support. Just prior to tipoff of Saturday’s game against North Carolina, chants of “Al-ex Poy-thress!” from the Rupp Arena crowd showed the fans’ support for the junior forward. The student-filled eRUPPtion Zone took it a step further, wearing “Roar for 22″ shirts, referencing Poythress’ number. While it’s been easy for fans to root for the Wildcats in Calipari’s six years at the school, family-oriented actions like these are the subtler part of the reason the nation’s best high schoolers flock to Lexington to play for Calipari.
  3. Auburn received word late last week that Trayvon Reed, who originally signed with Maryland but was not allowed to enroll there because of a July arrest relating to a misdemeanor second-degree assault of a police officer, is now eligible. The 7’2″ center played eight minutes – although he didn’t score or grab any rebounds – in Sunday’s 72-61 loss at Clemson. It is unlikely Reed will make much of an impact this year, and it remains to be seen where he fits into Bruce Pearl’s long-term plans, but for an undersized Auburn team, having the former four-star recruit on board can’t hurt. The loss to Clemson dropped Auburn to a 3-5 record on the season, and it looks like the rebuilding project Pearl inherited on the Plains will take some time.
  4. Alabama lost its second-leading scorerRicky Tarrant, after only eight minutes in Saturday’s 65-53 home win over Tennessee Tech. It does not appear that the junior point guard, who is in his first season at Alabama after transferring from Tulane, will miss much time, though, after leaving the game with cramps. Along with seniors Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph, Tarrant (13.4 PPG) helps provide much of the Crimson Tide’s scoring punch. Alabama’s only losses have come to Iowa State in Kansas City and at Xavier, but it would like to have Tarrant back at 100 percent for what may be the toughest test of the non-conference schedule, a trip to Wichita State Tuesday.
  5. Thanks to 26 points from freshman guard Riley LaChance and 64 percent shooting from three-point range, Vanderbilt toppled Purdue, 81-71, on Saturday night in Nashville. The entertaining match-up was otherwise insignificant on the national scale, but anyone who follows either program closely might have thought it would have more meaning than the average non-conference game for Commodores’ head coach Kevin Stallings. According to the Purdue alumnus and Gene Keady protege, it was just another game, and the fact that it came against his alma mater meant very little. It is certainly not surprising that Stallings, who in his 16th season at Vanderbilt is the dean of SEC coaches, is not sentimental, but you might think it would have had a bit more meaning to him. “It’s not really [special]. It’s an important game because it’s our next one and we’re coming off a loss and it’s a game against a very good team,” he said before the game. Given the way his young team played, it’s hard to argue with how Stallings approached the contest.
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A Battle of Blue Bloods: Previewing North Carolina vs. Kentucky

Posted by David Changas & Lathan Wells on December 13th, 2014

Two college basketball titans renew their rivalry in Lexington Saturday when North Carolina visits Kentucky. RTC’s Lathan Wells and David Changas offer their analysis of the match-up, and give their takes on what it will take for each team to prevail.

David Changas: North Carolina has been particularly ineffective in keeping its opponents off the offensive glass – the Tar Heels currently allow their opponents to grab more than a third of their misses – and Kentucky leads the nation in offensive rebounding (46.1%).  How can North Carolina combat the Wildcats’ prowess on the offensive boards?

Kennedy Meeks will have to be almost perfect for the Tar Heels to have a chance (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kennedy Meeks will have to be almost perfect for the Tar Heels to have a chance (draftexpress.com)

Lathan Wells: Honestly, I think this an effort issue. The Tar Heels, like the Wildcats, have plenty of size in the post. The two teams who made them look porous on the defensive boards were Butler and Iowa, both of which are much smaller than the Tar Heels, but which played much more aggressively. Brice Johnson has to stay out of the foul trouble that has plagued him recently, because Kennedy Meeks is undersized at the center spot. As you noted, the Wildcats’ offensive rebounding numbers are astonishing. But part of that has to do with the fact that they are only an average shooting team (currently 81st in the country in field goal percentage). If the Tar Heels are better on the glass than in those losses to Butler and Iowa, who has to step up their shooting to make sure the Wildcats’ shots count?

DC:  There is no question that this has to be an area of serious concern for John Calipari. The Wildcats are shooting 27% from three-point range, and last year’s NCAA Tournament hero, Aaron Harrison, is a dreadful 10-for-44 beyond the arc. Of course, Kentucky’s size and incredible ability to attack the offensive glass has covered up this weakness. While the obvious answer to your question is better production from Harrison, having Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, both of whom missed the Columbia game Wednesday, should help, as the two freshmen have been the Wildcats’ best shooters from beyond the arc. Like Kentucky, North Carolina has struggled from deep, and is shooting just 28% from three-point range. Kentucky is nearly impossible to score against on the interior, too.  How can the Tar Heels score enough points to compete in Lexington, much less win the game?

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Alley-Oop Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 12th, 2014

Up until Wednesday night against Ivy League opponent Columbia, only Texas and Buffalo had stayed within 20 points of the No. 1 team in the country. While the Wildcats still beat the Lions by double figures, they looked somewhat beatable for much of the game as Columbia slowed things down to 51 possessions. Columbia maintained good spacing on the offensive end of the court, forced Kentucky to shoot primarily from the outside (17 of 60 shots), and cut off the Wildcats’ go-to offensive move, the alley-oop.

Kentucky's dunk totals on the year (through December 11 and the Columbia game).

Kentucky’s top dunk totals on the year (through December 10’s Columbia game).

Kentucky typically uses its athleticism and length to get easy looks at the basket. Against Eastern Kentucky last Sunday, the Wildcats ended up with 14 dunks and 10 lob plays in a rout at Rupp Arena. Just three days later, a well scouted game plan helped Columbia limit the Cats to just two alley-oops, both of which came in transition. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at how Kentucky gets so many easy lobs at the rim and how Columbia cut off that option without the same size and athleticism of all the future NBA players who reside in Lexington.

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SEC M5: 12.12.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 12th, 2014

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  1. Kentucky plays UCLA on December 20 at the United Center in Chicago in the CBS Sports Classic, but over the next two seasons, the two traditional powers will take the game to campus, as they agreed to a home-and-home series earlier this week. The teams will play at Pauley Pavilion next year, with the Bruins paying back the visit the following year at Rupp Arena. There is no doubt that college basketball gives us plenty of great early-season games that our friends on the gridiron don’t have and neutral-site battles give us a good gauge for where teams stand, but it’s always nice to see heavyweights like these two programs willing to play each other on campus.
  2. When the Donnie Tyndall saga will be resolved is anyone’s guess, and given the way things work with the NCAA, the season may be over by the time it is. Many have wondered what might happen if Tyndall ultimately is implicated, and the release of Tyndall’s contract with Tennessee appears to make it clear that the first-year coach can be fired for cause if he is. The contract states that Tyndall “has disclosed to the university all material information known to him concerning previous NCAA, conference, or institutional rules violations or potential violations committed by him or any person under his direct or indirect control at any other NCAA member institution.” For Volunteer fans anxious about the future of the program, they can at least take solace in the fact that the athletic department would be spared the $3 million buyout it would otherwise be responsible for if Tyndall is let go.
  3. Things have been rough for Florida in the early going, and we have documented how dicey the team’s NCAA Tournament chances may be, but it certainly has not helped that preseason all-SEC selection Dorian Finney-Smith has not been at full strength. The junior forward, who broke his left hand in the Gators’ season-opening win against William & Mary, led the team with 6.7 rebounds per game last season, but has seen that number dip to 4.6 boards per contest this year, and Billy Donovan thinks that is the biggest area in which the injury has limited Finney-Smith. Donovan contends that the injury has impacted his ability to catch the ball. Though he has still been somewhat effective, and is averaging nearly ten points per game, getting Finney-Smith back to full health will be key for Florida, as it attempts to improve its resume prior to the start of SEC play.
  4. One team that has flown under the radar over the past few seasons is Mississippi State, and for good reason, as the Bulldogs have won seven conference games during coach Rick Ray’s tenure. Thus far this season, the Bulldogs are 5-2, ahead of a trip to Corvallis to play Oregon State Saturday. They have played their first seven games without last season’s leading scorer, Craig Sword, but have shown improvement. One of the reasons for that is the play of forward Travis Daniels. The junior is fourth on the team in scoring (8.6 PPG), and is the second-leading rebounder (5.7 RPG), but Ray has had to plead with Daniels to be more aggressive offensively. Without Sword, the Bulldogs, who struggle to score, need Daniels to continue to be more assertive. If he can do so, they could challenge for post-season play for the first time in Ray’s three seasons at the helm.
  5. After suffering an understandable, though disappointing blowout loss at Iowa State in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, Arkansas inexplicably lost in overtime at Clemson, which came into the game with losses to Winthrop and Gardner-Webb on its resume. The loss was the kind that Razorback fans have seen all too often in Mike Anderson’s tenure, and could come back to haunt the team on Selection Sunday. Arkansas returns to the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena for a Saturday matchup with Dayton, and it is a game the Razorbacks must win if they are going to end up on the right side of the bubble. While there obviously is plenty of basketball to be played, the remainder of Arkansas’s non-conference schedule presents nothing but cupcakes, and it needs to take advantage of the opportunity to get a quality win against the Flyers, as a loss could loom large in March.
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Questions Loom About Florida’s NCAA Chances

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 11th, 2014

Florida entered Selection Sunday last March with just two losses and was a mortal lock for a #1 seed. This season the Gators entered the second week of December with twice that many losses after letting a 15-point halftime lead slip away against Kansas. It seemed as if Florida might flip the script on its early struggles when the Gators jumped out to that lead in Allen Fieldhouse, and had they held on they may have briefly put to rest all the hand-wringing over injuries and missed players. Instead of grabbing the most impressive road victory of the young season, the Gators folded down the stretch, and that missed opportunity raises legitimate questions over whether Florida is in early trouble in terms of the NCAA Tournament.

Billy Donovan's Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

Billy Donovan’s Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

The name of the school on the front of the jersey and the coach walking the sidelines gives the Gators a benefit of the doubt that most other schools in this position would not receive. We’ve already seen this exhibited when voters in both polls put an inexperienced team with a lot of question marks in their preseason top 10. Over the last decade-plus, Florida has not only earned this respect and still, quite frankly, might be the second best team in the SEC. Their four defeats have all come at the hands of teams currently ranked in the top 22 of KenPom’s ratings, and three of these were away from the O’Connell Center. The concern, however, is whether Florida’ remaining schedule provides enough opportunities to put together a Tournament-worthy resume. The SEC doesn’t do the Gators any favors since its two games against Kentucky is their only real chance at a marquee win. It’s not ideal, but a lack of headline-grabbing wins shouldn’t be fatal for a school that doesn’t have to fight for respect.

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SEC M5: 12.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 10th, 2014

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  1. Speculation over whether all of Kentucky’s players are happy with their playing time will likely swirl all season, but last Friday’s win against Texas was one of the first times there was a potentially dicey situation. Willie Cauley-Stein’s huge game (21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals) meant he needed to be on the floor for 33 minutes, and 33 minutes for one player is not a platoon-friendly split. Marcus Lee was the victim of this minutes crunch and he apparently said all the right things during the game. “Willie told Coach [Calipari], ‘Keep Marcus in,'” assistant John Robic told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “That’s a sign of maturity. That’s a sign of a leader. That’s a sign of being a good teammate.” Lee was rewarded two nights later against Eastern Kentucky when Cauley-Stein was skipped in the rotation. The atmosphere in the Wildcats’ locker room will be something to monitor, or more appropriately, speculate about, all season. At least for now the waters seem calm.
  2. Another potential source of angst in Lexington is a relative lack of accolades, since it will be hard for anyone on the team to post the necessary numbers in limited minutes that’ll lead to national awards. You can see that manifested in this week’s CBSSports.com’s Wayman Tisdale Freshman Watch. Karl-Anthony Towns is the only Wildcat to make the list, and he’s outside the top five in the “next five up” category. This is certainly small beans, but it’s still noteworthy that a team with arguably the best group of freshmen in the game doesn’t have any posting gaudy enough numbers to crack the top five of such a list. That’s the nature of this year’s Kentucky team, and another thing that maestro John Calipari will need to manage.
  3. This M5 is Kentucky-centric, but I don’t feel guilty about it because that’s essentially how the league has showed out on the court this season. Regardless of how the minutes have been used, the Wildcats are defending their opponents at a potentially historic pace. To date, Kentucky has posted an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 82.6, and if this number holds it’ll be the best rating since KenPom began tracking the statistic in 2001-02. There is a lot of season left, of course, but some of Kentucky’s most difficult regular season games (e.g., Kansas, Texas) have already been played. The SEC as a whole has five other teams ranked in the top 50 of adjusted defensive efficiency (Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU), and – somewhat surprisingly – this compares favorably to the Big Ten (seven teams), Big 12 (seven teams), ACC (five teams) and Pac-12 (five teams).
  4. Tennessee has been working in a lot of new players this year under a new coach, and it is doing so against one of the hardest schedules in the country. The Vols face Butler on Saturday in Knoxville, and that will be their third game against a top-15 team this season. “A lot of these [other] teams I don’t feel are being challenged during non-conference games,” guard Kevin Punter told the Nashville Tennessean. “But we are. Put us through the fire early. Why not?” The schedule might already be paying dividends for the Vols after their nice win last weekend against an up-and-down Kansas State team. A tough schedule for a team in total transition could have been deadly, so it’s good to see that Tennessee is showing some signs of life.
  5. Dorian Finney-Smith was in a three-game mini-slump going into Florida’s game against Yale on Monday, as the senior had shot just 8-of-27 from the floor against UAB, North Carolina and Kansas. This was understandable, of course, because Finney-Smith is playing with a broken non-shooting hand. He came of the slump against Yale, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and he isn’t making excuses. “I’m out there, so I have to play through it,” he told the Gainesville Sun. The Gators need to hope that Finney-Smith’s improved shooting performance is a sign that he’s learning to cope with the injury, because he’s incredibly vital to them overcoming their rough start.
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Two Burning Questions: Previewing Kansas vs. Florida

Posted by Brian Goodman & David Changas on December 5th, 2014

The Big 12/SEC Challenge will wrap up tonight at 9:00 ET as Kansas looks to exact revenge for a loss in Gainesville last year. Meanwhile, the Gators are in need of a signature non-conference win, and what better venue to get that win than in a raucous Allen Fieldhouse? RTC contributors Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) and David Changas (@dchangas) are here to break down a tilt between two of the millennium’s best programs.

BG: The Jayhawks may finally have their answer at point guard after Frank Mason enjoyed a very successful Orlando Classic as freshman Devonte’ Graham continued to heal from a shoulder injury. The sophomore posted averages of 11.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game last week and has been the primary reason why Kansas has regained its footing despite Graham’s troubles, Wayne Selden‘s shooting slump, and Kelly Oubre‘s failure to find his way onto the court for more than a few minutes a night. In the other backcourt, Kasey Hill has come up big for a Florida team that has otherwise struggled out of the gate. How important is this match-up to the outcome of the game and how do you see it turning out?

Another steady game from Frank Mason would lend an added sense of security for a Kansas team that has occasionally struggled to find consistency in its backcourt. (AP)

Another steady game from Frank Mason would lend an added sense of security for a Kansas team that has occasionally struggled to find consistency in its backcourt. (AP)

DC: Mason was absolutely terrific in Orlando, and Kansas looked nothing like the team that Kentucky embarrassed two and a half weeks ago. On the other hand, Florida came away from the Battle 4 Atlantis with two losses and a mediocre win over UAB to show for it. Thus far, the Gators have a long way to go to become a good offensive team, shooting a highly inefficient 44.1 percent in effective field goal rate. With Eli Carter injured and likely to miss this game, Hill, who has finally begun to look more comfortable in his role as the team’s primary ball-handler, will need to have a big night for Florida. He showed some signs of offensive life with 20 points in Sunday’s loss to North Carolina, shooting the ball well and getting to the line 12 times (making 10) against the Tar Heels. If he can do the same against Mason while simultaneously taking care of the ball, Florida will have a chance at pulling off the big upset.

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