SEC Tournament Takeaways: Second Round

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Thursday was the first full day of action at the SEC Tournament, and even though the league’s top four teams have byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round, there were still plenty of important happenings that could impact which of the league’s teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday (John Bazemore/AP)

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Florida Stays Alive. In Thursday’s opener, the Gators took down Arkansas in a win that kept the Gators’ faintly flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty — the two teams combined to commit 50 fouls (thanks, Pat Adams) — but Florida played just well enough to get the job done. Center John Egbunu, who was expected to miss the game with an injured right hand, gutted out an eight-point, nine-rebound performance in 24 minutes, while also helping hold Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to just 10 points. Florida moves on to play #1 seed Texas A&M on Friday, in what will be quite surely be another must-win for the Gators’ still-faint Tournament hopes.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA Hopes Damaged. Vanderbilt came into its game against Tennessee as a 12-point favorite and its regular season sweep of the Vols hinted that this was a touch matchup for Rick Barnes’ team. After all, big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet had dominated Tennessee inside in both of the prior meetings. Things were different on Thursday, though, as Vanderbilt failed to consistently feed those mismatches in the post. The Commodores instead fired up 25 threes (making nine) and generally didn’t seem all that interested in battling as if its postseason life was on the line. A valiant second half comeback nearly saved Kevin Stallings’ team, but Wade Baldwin‘s game-tying layup at the buzzer was released fractions of a second after the horn sounded. Now the Commodores will have a few nervous days ahead, as a loss to a team that entered the SEC Tournament with six conference wins puts Vanderbilt squarely back on to the bubble.

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Seems Familiar: SEC’s Country Music Doppelgangers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2016

Nashville is a great place for a conference tournament. Even if the basketball happens to be underwhelming, there’s plenty of other forms of entertainment just steps away from Bridgestone Arena. It is the Music City, after all. In the spirit of basketball and honky-tonk, here are some of the SEC’s teams and the country music stars they most resemble.

Screenshot 2016-03-09 at 8.05.59 PM

Blake Shelton And Kentucky Are Both Living Large Again

Kentucky as… Blake Shelton. Before Wisconsin extinguished that dream, life was perfect for the unbeaten Wildcats last year as they tried to notch an unprecedented 40-0 record. Similarly, it wasn’t very long ago that Shelton and Miranda Lambert were living large as country’s pre-eminent power couple. But life happens, and the two stars have since gone their separate ways. Kentucky and Shelton, however, have both found a neon light at the end of the tunnel. Against the odds, Shelton has put together a run of hit singles, is dating Gwen Stefani and even has a Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit opening. The Wildcats, to their credit, claimed a share of this season’s SEC regular season title with a guard-oriented team. Life goes on.

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The SEC Tournament: What’s at Stake in Nashville

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 9th, 2016

The SEC Tournament returns to Nashville tonight for the second year in row. Unlike the last couple of years, however, there isn’t a team trying to cap off a perfect conference run and there doesn’t figure to be much drama surrounding NCAA at-large bids (but you never know). Before getting into what is at stake for individual teams, here are several completely unscientific predictions on how things will look by Sunday afternoon.

  • Tournament FinalKentucky over Vanderbilt
  • MVPJamal Murray, Kentucky
  • Biggest Surprise: #11 seed Mississippi State makes it to the SEC Tournament semifinals
  • Tournament Storylines: Was the season-ending win over LSU Skal Labissiere‘s breakout game? Will Ben Simmons really be locked out of the NCAA Tournament? Can Florida do enough to force its way back into the field? Can Retin Obasohan or Stefan Moody shoot their teams into the NCAA Tournament?
Skal Labissiere might have finally arrived (

Skal Labissiere may have finally arrived (

Teams Playing For Seeding

It’s safe to assume that KentuckyTexas A&MSouth Carolina and Vanderbilt are all locked into the field of 68 and are playing for seeding. Of those four teams, the Commodores and Gamecocks have the most at stake this week. Bracketologists project both teams into the #8-#9 seed range and an unenviable downstream date with a #1 seed looming. Winning twice in Nashville and getting to Sunday’s SEC championship game should be enough to lift either team off that seed line (and potentially facing a #2 seed in a parity-driven field). This might be more important for a team like the Gamecocks since Vanderbilt will not be at much of a talent disadvantage against any of the projected #1 seeds.

The Wildcats and Aggies appear to be in a similar situation. Both teams look like #4 seeds with potential to jump to the #3 line as a result of cutting the nets down in Nashville. Losing their respective opening games probably wouldn’t do much damage since all four potential opponents (Florida/Arkansas for Texas A&M; Ole Miss/Alabama for Kentucky) have solid enough metrics to avert a disaster. There is the interesting matter of the South Regional in Louisville but it’s hard to see the Selection Committee gifting that to a #3 seed Kentucky team (much to the detriment of the top two seeds) even if the Wildcats were to win the SEC Tournament with three consecutive blowouts. That probably won’t stop Big Blue Nation from flocking to wherever Kentucky ends up, though, even if it’s Spokane.

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Handing Out the SEC Awards

Posted by David Changas on March 9th, 2016

Unlike the coaches, the SEC microsite writers stick to a rule of putting only five members on their all-conference team. Clearly, making our group should mean more to those selected than having the coaches pick them.

All-SEC Team

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is the hands-down choice for SEC Player of the Year. (Getty)

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky (SEC Player of the Year)
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky
  • Ben Simmons, LSU
  • Jalen Jones, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss

Credible cases could be made for Damian Jones, Kevin Punter, Retin Obasohan, and Michael Carrera, among others, but the five selected stood out as the five best.

SEC Player of the Year

Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. The diminutive Kentucky point guard successfully made the leap from role player on a 38-win team of all-stars to the leader of one of the nation’s best backcourts. Playing almost every important minute of every contest, Ulis averaged 16.6 points and a league-leading 7.4 assists per game. But it was the way in which he could dominate a game at only 5’9″ that separates him from the pack. If the Wildcats are going to make their usual run later this month, Ulis will be the catalyst that make it happen.

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Texas A&M’s Scenic Route to the SEC Title

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 7th, 2016

In some ways, the final Saturday of the SEC regular season played out like many thought it would in October. Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere altered shots left and right; LSU’s Ben Simmons nearly put together a triple-double; and KentuckyLSUVanderbilt and Texas A&M all entered the weekend with a shot at a share of the regular season title. Ultimately it was the Aggies and Wildcats that became this season’s SEC co-champions, and while that result isn’t at all surprising, the path that led both teams there certainly is.

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (

The Wildcats’ share of the conference title is a testament to the coaching and player development of John Calipari. Kentucky appeared vulnerable in December losses to thoroughly mediocre UCLA and Ohio State teams, but Calipari coaxed a surprise season from Derek Willis and successfully navigated injuries and inconsistency to win the league. The title is assuredly a little sweeter for an Aggies program that notched its first conference championship since sharing the 1986 Southwest Conference title with TCU and Texas. During that same period, the Wildcats have won a share or more of 10 SEC regular season titles.

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Saturday SEC Storylines: Who’s Ready For a Four-Way Tie?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 5th, 2016

There is no shortage of intrigue in the SEC’s final regular season Saturday with the league title up for grabs and several teams fighting for their Tournament lives. Here are the storylines to watch before the attention shifts to Nashville.

There's still a tiny bit of life left in Ben Simmons and LSU (

There’s still a tiny bit of life left in Ben Simmons and LSU (

  • And then there were four. The schedule couldn’t have worked out any better for the final weekend. The league’s top four teams (now that South Carolina bowed out by losing to Georgia) face each other with the league title still in play. Texas A&M has the cleanest path — beat Vanderbilt at home and become SEC co-champion with a wink and nudge due to the head-to-head win over Kentucky. Even if it were a shared title, it would be significant for the Aggies, as it would be their first league championship since winning the Southwest Conference way back in 1986. Of course, Texas A&M and Kentucky could be sole champions if either were to win and the other lose. And then there’s the dream (or nightmare) four-way co-champion scenario if Vanderbilt and LSU were to both win. By our rough calculations, the Tigers, ironically and somewhat miraculously, would be the top seed in the SEC Tournament with a 3-1 record against the other three teams. This is better then Kentucky (1-3), Vanderbilt (2-2) and Texas A&M (2-2). Title scenarios aside, LSU desperately needs a win if it doesn’t want to pin its NCAA hopes on a three-game winning streak in Nashville. The last time the Tigers pulled this off was in late December against Gardner-Webb, Oral Roberts, and American. They’ll need to replicate much of their last performance against Kentucky, where they rebounded 43.2 percent of their missed shots and turned it over just nine times. The injured Keith Hornsby didn’t play much of a role offensively in that win (nine points) but his tough on-ball defense will be missed against Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.

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Freeze Frame: Tracking Jamal Murray

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 3rd, 2016

Jamal Murray had quite the month of February. The Kentucky freshman scored at least 20 points in eight consecutive outings and averaged an insane 26.4 points per game over that stretch, giving him the highest scoring average by a Wildcat for a month since Jodie Meeks torched opponents in January 2009 for 28.0 PPG. Murray’s tear through conference play included a 35-point performance against Florida on February 6, and a 33-point effort at Vanderbilt on February 27.

Murray hits bullseye more often than not (247 sports).

Murray hits his target more often than not (247 sports).

While Murray has been especially hot over the past month, he has been impressive all season. His scoring average of 19.9 PPG ranks third in the SEC and second in the country among freshman. If it holds, he would set a new school freshman record and would represent the highest for any player under head coach John Calipari at Kentucky. And it seems that he is picking up where he left off in March, notching 21 more points against Florida on Tuesday night. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Murray freed himself up for open shots against the Gators earlier this week.

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Texas A&M Looks to History to Take the Next Step

Posted by Nate Kotisso on March 1st, 2016

The year 1893 gives us the first known record of then-Texas A&M College’s Glee Club, originally made up of nine students and faculty from the college. As the club entered the 20th century, membership grew modestly from the original nine to a club of 21. They also began traveling across Texas and the United States trying their luck at singing competitions. (There is no record of success from said competitions.) In 1908, the director of the club left the college and involvement started to fizzle out. Two years later the college decided to hire Frank D. Steger for the task of reorganizing the club “for the development of individual talent, and for furnishing music in Chapel Services, Easter, Commencement, and other similar occasion.” Despite already having a lot on his plate (Steger was also the director of the local YMCA), the college must have been pleased with his direction. Thus, in 1911, A&M hired Steger as its first-ever head basketball coach. In the context of college basketball’s infancy, Steger had a solid career, winning 22 of his 28 games from 1912-15. However, despite that early success, the school we now know as Texas A&M University hasn’t been able to win 20 or more games, go deep in NCAA Tournaments, send players to the NBA or even keep head coaches in College Station at a consistent rate.

Then-head coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV went 27-7 in 2006-07. (Paul Zoeller/Associated Press)

Then-head coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV went 27-7 in 2006-07. (Paul Zoeller/Associated Press)

Picture college hoops during the mid-to-late 20th century. Television was taking the sport to the next level and coaches had became synonymous with their schools — Dean Smith at North Carolina; Bob Knight at Indiana; John Wooden at UCLA; Al McGuire at Marquette. The financial pressures for success were different in those days, and at a football-first school like A&M, competitive basketball was often good enough. Shelby Metcalf was certainly that in College Station, coaching the Aggies to six Southwest Conference (SWC) regular season titles, five NCAA Tournament appearances and two Sweet Sixteens in his 26+ years at the school. Despite his infamous firing midway through the 1989-90 season, Metcalf is the longest tenured coach in the history of SWC basketball. After he was terminated, the program so disastrously spiraled through most of the next 15 years that there was hardly a pulse left. Then Billy Gillispie arrived on the scene.

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Florida’s NCAA Tournament Hopes Hinge on a Win Over Kentucky

Posted by David Changas on March 1st, 2016

Just a few short weeks ago, Florida, with a lofty RPI and impressive strength of schedule, looked to be comfortably within the NCAA Tournament. On February 3, the Gators beat Arkansas to move to 7-3 in the SEC. A subsequent trip to Lexington did not go well — Florida lost to Kentucky, 80-61 — and things have gone steadily downhill ever since. Heading into tonight’s rematch with the Wildcats in Gainesville, the Gators have lost five of seven games and their position as a possible NCAA Tournament team is tenuous at best. Most bracketologists have already moved them out of the field of 68, but a win over Big Blue will go a long way towards putting Mike White‘s team back into position for a bid.

Michael White has Florida positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Mike White’s Gators probably need to beat Kentucky if they have any thoughts of going to the NCAA Tournament. (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

A close examination of Florida’s resume shows that the Gators have played a considerable number of quality teams but they haven’t won enough of them. Florida is currently 2-8 against RPI top-50 teams and 7-11 against teams in the top 100. While Florida has avoided any terrible losses (other than a blowout defeat at then-competitive Tennessee), its two best wins came against St. Joseph’s and West Virginia. The Gators have not made much hay in SEC play, as none of their eight conference wins have come against teams expected to make the NCAA field. Read the rest of this entry »

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Saturday SEC Storylines: Vanderbilt’s Big Blue Opportunity

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 27th, 2016

The bubble is becoming overcrowded with SEC schools. Feel safe, Alabama? Turned your season around, LSU? Not so fast. If nothing else, all of the desperate teams in the conference could set up an intriguing final regular season stretch and SEC Tournament. With that in mind, here are three storylines to watch this weekend:

Damian Jones has been on top of his game lately (

Damian Jones has been on top of his game lately. (

  1. Will Vanderbilt put a bow on its NCAA Tournament bid? The Commodores have won four of their last five games and are on the path toward another late season surge. Damian Jones is arguably playing the best basketball of his career, combing for 42 points on 18-of-23 shooting and 23 rebounds over the past two games. Lo and behold, Vanderbilt gets the best shot the league can give it for a marquee win: Kentucky. Nothing could be better for a team trying to put the final stamp on a resume that isn’t as strong as many expected it to be. The Wildcats did a great job containing Vanderbilt’s guards in the first meeting, and they’ll need to do that again to make sure Vanderbilt doesn’t build momentum from three early. The Tyler UlisWade Baldwin match up is must watch TV, and good material for those wondering if Ulis can match up with the size and athleticism he’d face in the NBA. It’ll also be interesting to see how Kentucky deals with a confident Jones, especially since Alex Poythress played just 17 minutes in his return against Alabama. Read the rest of this entry »
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