Why Each SEC team Will Advance to the Second Weekend… and Why They Won’t

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 15th, 2016

After watching five teams head to the Big Dance a year ago (including one eventual Final Four participant), the SEC managed just three bids in a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Honestly, the league was lucky to get to three. While some teams have to feel pretty good about where they landed (Texas A&M is a #3 seed?!), others should feel happy to be invited (welcome Vanderbilt!), and still others can rest comfortably knowing that the committee didn’t have the option to send them to Alaska to face the Golden State Warriors (Hey Kentucky, Des Moines, Iowa, is supposed to be nice this time of year). Now that the brackets are set, will the SEC continue to disappoint, or might we see one of these three teams still standing in the Sweet Sixteen? Here are some quick reasons why each team will advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and some equally compelling reasons why they won’t:

Kentucky's offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari

Kentucky’s offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari.

Kentucky

Why the Wildcats will advance to the second weekend: Kentucky’s backcourt is playing very well on offense right now, moving the Wildcats into the top spot for offensive efficiency nationally over the weekend. Tyler Ulis has the ability to carry the team for stretches on his 5’9” frame, but with the added marksmanship of shooting guard Jamal Murray and a front line that provide spot duty, the Wildcats are scoring better than any other team in the John Calipari era. In the first two games of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky scored at the second and third most efficient clips per 100 possessions of his tenure. The last time the Cats met up with possible Second Round opponent Indiana in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, it was a high scoring affair — Kentucky should feel comfortable in entering into a shootout with any team in the nation.

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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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Freeze Frame: Tyler Davis’ Emergence on the Boards

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 26th, 2016

The key to Texas A&M’s signature win over Kentucky last Saturday was the way in which it controlled the boards. As an example, the Aggies’ Tyler Davis grabbed a career-high nine offensive rebounds, the most influential of which came at the end of overtime for the game winner. Davis followed up that impressive performance with five offensive rebounds against Mississippi State in another win on Wednesday night. With the A&M offense appearing to reach its potential down the stretch, the last thing opponents want to do is give the Aggies extra chances.

Billy Kennedy likes what he sees from his freshmen. (AP)

Billy Kennedy likes what he sees from his freshmen. (AP)

Davis has put together a 13.7 percent offensive rebounding rate in his first year in College Station, a mark that ranks second nationally among power conference freshman (Diamond Stone – Maryland). In a year of SEC newcomers like Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Malik Newman and Skal Labissiere, Davis has often been overshadowed by other names throughout the league. But with his recent play along with the likelihood that Simmons will display his talents in a lesser postseason tournament, Davis could end up as the most discussed SEC freshman by the start of the NCAA Tournament. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at a big reason why Texas A&M will be a tough out in March by reviewing all five of Davis’ offensive rebounds against Mississippi State.

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Introducing Rush the SEC Podcast: Vol. 1

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 18th, 2016

The Rush the Court SEC microsite writers recently got together and tried their hand at podcasting for the first time. In the inaugural episode, Brian Joyce, Greg Mitchell and David Changas discuss all the uncertainty at the top of the SEC standings, whether Tyler Ulis has overtaken Ben Simmons as the likely SEC Player of the Year, what is wrong with Texas A&M and if Alabama is indeed an NCAA Tournament team this season. Give it a listen and let us know @rushtheSEC if you would like to hear more.

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Freeze Frame: Tyler Ulis in the Pick and Roll

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 18th, 2016

Everybody loves Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. His teammates love his competitiveness. His coach thinks he should be one of the favorites for SEC Player of the Year as well as National Player of the Year. The national media is coming around too. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster ranks the point guard sixth in his National Player of the Year power rankings. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein recently said that Ulis is probably the best point guard in the country. Even Dan Dakich, who has feuded with Kentucky fans all year long, included Ulis among his top five point guards.

All the praise heaped on the 5’9” floor leader is with good reason. Ulis is averaging 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game on the season, but a switch seemed to flip on around Christmas. Since the Wildcats’ rivalry game with Louisville on December 26, Ulis has averaged 19.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of those outings. Nobody has been more valuable to his team this season, proven by the fact that Ulis has played in all but 38 minutes of game action since SEC play began. Where Ulis has been especially good is in his ability to utilize pick-and-roll situations at the top of the key. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Ulis so effectively uses screens to elevate the Kentucky offense.

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Freeze Frame: Big 12 Stars vs. SEC Defenses

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 3rd, 2016

LSU and Kentucky each came into the Big 12/SEC Challenge last weekend in very different spots. LSU’s NCAA Tournament resume was already on thin ice, with only a home win over those Wildcats on which to hang its hat. A win over top-ranked Oklahoma would certainly change that. Kentucky found itself in the rare position of needing to prove that it can win on the road in a game where virtually nobody thought it could (at Allen Fieldhouse). After a pair of close-but-no-cigar losses, both teams can hold their heads high about their performances, but it was the Big 12 stars who we are still talking about this week. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Kansas’ Wayne Selden had outstanding individual performances that propelled their teams to victory. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we focus on how LSU allowed Hield to get loose and how Kentucky lost contact with Selden.

Jamal Murray is great with the ball in his hands, but he struggled defending Wayne Selden in Lawrence on Saturday (photo credit: Mark Zerof, USA Today).

Jamal Murray is great with the ball in his hands, but he struggled defending Wayne Selden in Lawrence on Saturday (photo credit: Mark Zerof, USA Today).

ESPN branded the matchup between LSU and Oklahoma as a battle between Ben Simmons and Hield, and neither like All-American disappointed. It was Hield, however, who proved once again that he is college basketball’s brightest star, waiting to explode after his team had fallen behind by 14 points in Baton Rouge. Seven of Hield’s eight three-pointers came in the second half on his way to 32 points, eventually leading the Sooners to a big-time comeback win over the Tigers.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Defensive Transformation

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 29th, 2016

Speaking after Kentucky’s beatdown of Missouri on Wednesday night, coach John Calipari talked about desperation. He credited his team’s ugly loss at Auburn as the catalyst for his team’s turnaround. “If we hadn’t lost that game, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate,” Calipari said. The Auburn loss gave Kentucky its second conference defeat, and had to leave Calipari wondering what was wrong with his post players. The Wildcats desperately needed something extra from its big men, and they have received it in recent outings. Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere have been more potent offensively of late, while also providing Kentucky a defensive presence that better approximates what we are used to seeing from a Calipari-coached team.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.23.44 PM

Skal Labissiere is finally giving Kentucky the rim protector it needs. (Photo: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

If you can’t defend Missouri, you can’t defend. In conference play, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in both offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. However, Kentucky hasn’t exactly played well defensively for much of the year. In the seven games after its loss to Ohio State and on through the loss at Auburn, Kentucky allowed more than a point per possession five times. For a point of reference, last season’s undefeated Kentucky team only allowed four teams to score above a point per possession during the entire regular season. But since the loss to Auburn, the Cats have held Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and now Missouri under that mark, including a season-best .77 PPP to Mizzou. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we are looking for the change that sparked the sudden improvement in Kentucky’s defense.

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Freeze Frame: Scouting Texas A&M’s Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 22nd, 2016

A major reason Texas A&M is 6-0 in league play is its team defense. In last week’s SI power rankings, Luke Winn wrote about the best overall defenses with high defensive turnover rates. Texas A&M just missed the cut, but moved past Wichita State and Arkansas Little Rock this week by forcing a turnover on 39.8 percent of LSU’s possessions on Tuesday night. According to Winn’s fancy charts, that gives A&M the 11th best defensive turnover percentage by a top 20 overall defense in the last eleven years, trumped this season only by West Virginia. Given the historical significance of those numbers and its consistency all year, it might be time to start giving Texas A&M credit for one of the most efficient and high-pressure defenses in the nation outside of Morgantown.

Alex Caruso is the SEC's leader in steals at 2.3 steals per game (d1nation.com).

Alex Caruso is the SEC’s leader in steals at 2.3 steals per game (d1nation.com).

The Aggies boast the SEC’s best adjusted defensive efficiency rating at 91.5 (9th in the nation) and defensive turnover percentage at 24.0 percent (5th in the nation), according to KenPom. In an effort to determine how the Aggies forced all of those turnovers, I charted all of the 19 turnovers A&M’s defense came up with against LSU on Tuesday night. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that senior guard Alex Caruso was involved in more than his fair share of the Tigers’ giveaways.

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Freeze Frame: Evaluating SEC Player of the Year Candidates

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 15th, 2016

If you tune into ESPN to watch college basketball sometime this season, there is a very good chance that you”ll hear about LSU freshman Ben Simmons during the broadcast. He has been the most discussed college basketball player this year, finding himself on the midseason short list for National Player of the Year even after LSU’s disastrous non-conference performance. Correspondingly, Simmons is without question the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year as well, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other outstanding players in the league. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will evaluate several SEC players vying for the hardware.

Ben Simmons is the frontrunner for SEC player of the year (vavel.com)

Ben Simmons is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year (vavel.com)

The favorite – Simmons, LSU: It is hard to envision a scenario where Simmons would not be the SEC Player of the Year at the end of this season. The hype bestowed upon the freshman encourages a corresponding search for his flaws, but it’s impossible to deny his otherworldly talent. In nitpicking any weaknesses, (to wit: his lack of help side defense, as noted in an earlier Freeze Frame; and an inability to shoot the ball from the perimeter), we may have forgotten how historically good Simmons’ freshman year has been.

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Freeze Frame: Is It Time For a New “Tweak” In Kentucky’s Offense?

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 8th, 2016

During the 2013-14 season, John Calipari’s team lost six games in SEC play (including three of its last four) on its way to a 22-9 regular season mark. Kentucky, which had entered the season at No. 1 in the country, was considered a huge disappointment at the time. Calipari knew that something had to change if his team was going to turn things around, so heading into the 2014 SEC Tournament, he introduced “the tweak.” The beauty of his strategy was that Calipari wouldn’t say what he actually tweaked.

Calipari's tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention off his struggling juggernaut (cbssports.com).

Calipari’s tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention away from his struggling juggernaut. (Getty)

Calipari’s tweak became a national story as media and fans searched for the mystery in every game. “If you know anything about basketball, you’ll know exactly what I did,” he explained. Yet despite thousands of rumors swirling around, nobody could pinpoint precisely what it was. As Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com (who, as a beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, has followed the head coach’s career longer than most) wrote after Calipari revealed the tweak (he asked point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more), the brilliance of the strategy was that it shifted the conversation away from the play of his struggling Wildcats. This year’s team could certainly use a distraction from its disappointing play on the road, but it could also use a substantial tweak to its offensive approach. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at Kentucky’s recent loss to LSU and analyze a strategic tweak that could change the Wildcats’ season.

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Freeze Frame: On Ben Simmons’ Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 16th, 2015

After three straight losses to Marquette, NC State and the College of Charleston, we criticized LSU’s offense for its inability to score. In the meantime, head coach Johnny Jones figured out how to get the ball to freshman phenom Ben Simmons, and it resulted in his offense hanging 119 points in a win against North Florida and another 98 points in a road loss against Houston. The problem is that a mediocre defense has only gotten worse, giving up 108 points in that home win over the Ospreys and hemorrhaging 105 in the overtime loss to the Cougars.

Ben Simmons' defense leaves much to be desired (philly.com).

Ben Simmons’ defense doesn’t live up to his superstar status. (philly.com)

After charting every defensive possession LSU played against Houston last Sunday, a sound conclusion is that the defensive ability of the Tigers’ freshman superstar leaves much to be desired. Nobody questions Simmons’ talent with the ball – as demonstrated by his season averages of 19.0 PPG and 5.9 APG – but, at this early point in his career, the offensive juggernaut is just an average defender. In this edition of Freeze Frame, a microscope is taken to Simmons’ defense and the findings aren’t good. He was often lost in pick-and-roll situations; he couldn’t stop penetration; he was frequently the last player back on defense; he had some difficulty closing out on offensive shooters; and he rarely provided help defense on slashing wing players entering the paint. Instead, you will notice a lot of standing around and catching his breath for the offensive end. His size and athleticism allows him to get to blocks and steals that other players cannot, but his defensive fundamentals, particularly in the half-court, are underwhelming. Read the rest of this entry »

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Freeze Frame: Searching for Vanderbilt’s Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 10th, 2015

Longtime followers of SEC basketball have come to expect a solid offense from Vanderbilt in most years, but perhaps not a particularly stout defense. Still, Kevin Stallings’ team entered Wednesday night’s clash with Dayton boasting the 16th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, but it certainly didn’t look that way during the game – Vanderbilt gave up 1.06 points per possession to the Flyers. The Commodores’ best defense was not on display last night, but Vandy will need to perform as efficiently as the numbers suggest to reach its goals for this season.

Kevin Stallings needs more consistency on defense to win big games (AP/Bill Kostroun)

Kevin Stallings needs more consistency on defense to win big games. (AP/Bill Kostroun)

This Vanderbilt team is definitely good, but just how good is the burning question. The Commodores had some chances against both Kansas and Baylor, but fell just short in their two contests with the Big 12 clubs. Against Dayton, despite a seemingly commanding 16-point lead in the first half, Vanderbilt gave up far too many points in the paint and made too many mental mistakes to come away with a key non-conference win. The only way to escape this all too familiar scene is by the defense living up to its billing. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we focus on the positive aspects of Vanderbilt’s defense to analyze what the Commodores should do to avoid another meltdown.

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