Conducting a Reset on Kentucky’s National Championship Aspirations

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 4th, 2014

I have been wrong before. Many times actually, but the most recent time was a real doozy. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was playing basketball in the gym after work. I was doing my best Willie Cauley-Stein impression when I landed on one of my teammate’s foot and my ankle rolled onto its side. I knew instantly this was a reasonably bad injury. My best guess, based on my experience and susceptibility to reading Web MD, was to diagnose myself with a high ankle sprain.  I went about my entire weekend, standing on my feet to do some yard work, went grocery shopping, and walked 12,000 steps each day based on the Fitbit around my wrist. I did what I normally do on any given weekend because I am stubborn and had already determined that I had a high ankle sprain, and nothing more.

Was I also wrong about John Calipari's Wildcats?

Was I also wrong about John Calipari’s Wildcats?

Of course, the bruising and swelling in my right foot worsened from the activity, and the pain became excruciating. My ankle and toes had almost turned completely purple (I will spare you the pictures I was tempted to include). Based on the appearance and the pain, I finally succumbed to my wife’s pressure to go to the doctor about 72 hours after the injury occurred. To make a long story short, after a couple of x-rays and a CT scan, I found out I fractured my distal fibula and cracked my tibia. My certainty of a high ankle sprain could not be more untrue.

The self-diagnosis of my ankle is vaguely familiar to my erroneous analysis of Kentucky.  I did not anticipate the tweak working. I did not envision Aaron Harrison learning to shoot in the season’s last six games. I never imagined Andrew Harrison would become a pass-first point guard with vision and leadership. I did not foresee Julius Randle getting away from back to the basket post moves where he has not been as effective this season, and instead focus on putting himself in positions where he is efficient. In short, I did not predict Kentucky making a huge splash in the NCAA Tournament.  I certainly knew the Wildcats had the talent and interior presence to compete with Wichita State. I realized they had beaten Louisville before and could certainly do it again. I recognized Kentucky could dismantle Michigan’s porous defense if it played to its potential. But who knew it would all come together for four straight games in the manner it did? It was just too late for all of these elements to come together, I told myself, but you know I have been wrong before. Now that I have admitted the error of my ways, it is time to do a reset on Kentucky’s prospects of a national championship.

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Battle of the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by C.D. Bradley & Brian Joyce on March 28th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

The most intense rivalry in college basketball renews Friday night in Indianapolis when Louisville and Kentucky square off in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. C.D. Bradley, who writes about the American for RTC, and Brian Joyce, who covers the SEC, preview the showdown and what it means to the basketball-mad bluegrass state.

C.D. Bradley: A lot of people will tell you that Duke and North Carolina is the top rivalry in college basketball, but it’s impossible to convey the ever-present antipathy between red and blue. A big part of it is the usual once-a-year nature of the rivalry, but this will be the sixth time Louisville and Kentucky have met in the NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, which had snatched the advantage over the past year, winning a national title and ending this season in the top five of the national rankings while the Wildcats struggled, the possibility of having their potential repeat title run ended by their neighbors to the east is a doubly unpleasant notion. What does this game mean for UK fans?

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Brian Joyce: One might assume that Kentucky fans would be relieved to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance after losing to South Carolina and Arkansas a month ago, but a person with that theory must not know Kentucky fans very well. A win over Wichita State has the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy over the potential of their Wildcats if things come together like they did on Sunday afternoon in Saint Louis. It may even be possible that Kentucky fans are slightly overlooking Louisville. Julius Randle played all of four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats’ victory in December after dominating with 17 points during the first 20 minutes. The Cards struggled with Randle and Kentucky’s length, and while Louisville is a much different team at this point in the season the challenge of stopping the Cats’ imposing front line remains. Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington he has beaten his rival in five of the last six meetings, and Kentucky fans expect that trend to continue.

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Appreciating Near-Perfection in an Instant Classic Between Kentucky and Wichita State

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 24th, 2014

There were a number of storylines entering Sunday’s Kentucky vs. Wichita State game about 1-and-dones, so-called “mid-majors,” David vs. Goliath, and of course, quests for undefeated seasons. Neither the Wildcats nor the Shockers would ultimately reach the 40-0 prize this season, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they would not come exceptionally close to perfection.

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

It’s no secret that Kentucky struggled this season, deteriorating into a poor defensive squad that often appeared lost on offense. When the Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina near the end of the regular season, it seemed as if the team was spiraling out of control. Among most everybody who follows the program, it appeared highly unlikely that John Calipari’s team had the guts and drive to participate in the best game of the season, and one of the best postseason games in years. But there they were yesterday, standing tall, after winning a 78-76 thriller over Wichita State.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Rapid Fire Round

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 13th, 2014

The SEC tournament is underway, and the SEC microwriters have so many key questions to answer to preview the SEC Tournament. Today’s burning questions are a rapid fire round of all the major story lines we haven’t covered yet heading into the beginning of the tournament. Which potential matchup are you most looking forward to this weekend? Can Kentucky pull it together or is destined for an early exit? How many wins does Arkansas need for an NCAA berth? What about Missouri? Which team cuts down the nets on Sunday? The SEC microsite writers answer all of these questions in rapid succession as we head into round two of action in Atlanta.

Will John Calipari's "tweak" alter Kentucky's course? We'll know soon.

Will John Calipari’s “tweak” alter Kentucky’s course? We’ll know soon.

David Changas (@dchangas)

Which potential match-up are you most looking forward to this weekendTennessee-Florida.  Assuming the Volunteers have turned a corner and can get by likely quarterfinal opponent Arkansas, have they improved enough to take down a Gator squad that has certainly already secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

Can Kentucky pull it together or is destined for an early exit? Objectively, there isn’t a lot to be excited about with respect to Kentucky’s recent play. However, there are a few factors that make me think they’re going to reach the championship game on Sunday. First, they have an unmatched history in this event, and have been particularly good in Atlanta in the past. Second, they’ll have an overwhelming crowd advantage, as Big Blue Nation always descends upon the Georgia Dome in hordes. Third, they have a relatively easy draw. They avoid the Florida/Tennessee/Arkansas side of the bracket and should have only LSU and Georgia or Ole Miss standing between them and the title game. I’ll be surprised if they don’t make it there.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Who Will Be the Surprise Player in Atlanta?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 12th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question goes in depth on the individual performances we could see this weekend. After being snubbed for an All SEC first team selection in 2013, Marshall Henderson went on a tear through last year’s SEC tournament guiding Ole Miss to a surprise championship and claiming MVP. Who will be the surprise breakout player of this year’s tournament?

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season?  (US Presswire)

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season? (US Presswire)

Christian D’Andrea (@trainisland): Georgia sophomore Kenny Gaines was the second-leading scorer for the third-best team in the SEC, but was completely snubbed by the media in this week’s All-SEC honors. In fact, Gaines may be the conference’s most overlooked guard. He’s hitting the SEC Tournament after averaging 18.6 points per game over his last seven and shooting a blistering 56.8 percent from long range over that span.  He could outshine players like Marshall Henderson, Jordan McRae, and Trevor Releford if he can carry his recent hot streak with him to Atlanta.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Coach Has the Most on the Line During This Postseason?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 11th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament all week by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question has to do with the personalities on the sidelines. Postseason tournaments can make or break a coach’s reputation. Which coach has the most on the line during this postseason?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): The coach with the most on the line during this postseason is Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin. Volunteer fans are clamoring for former head coach Bruce Pearl to return to the sidelines in his orange blazer after serving time on a three year show cause penalty. Pearl took the Volunteers to six NCAA appearances in his six seasons in Knoxville, including an Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. Pearl was wildly successful in orange, but one thing he never did was win an SEC tournament championship. Meanwhile, Martin hasn’t even made it to Saturday in the SEC tournament, much less Sunday for the championship game. Tennessee hasn’t won more than one game in the SEC tournament under Martin. The Vols didn’t make an NCAA tournament appearance either in his first two seasons at the helm, instead settling for early round exits in the NIT. Tennessee finally has a chance to return to the Big Dance as long as the Vols don’t slip up in the quarterfinals on Friday against fellow bubble team Arkansas, or worse, bottom dwellers Auburn or South Carolina. There is unrest in Knoxville, and it will only get louder with a slip up in the Georgia Dome. An untimely loss in the SEC tournament could ultimately leave Martin’s team on the wrong end of the bubble come Selection Sunday, and then the murmur among fans could become a full on uproar. The only way to quiet the desire for Pearl is to create your own success, and Martin and Tennessee have a chance to do that this March.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Team Other Than Florida Can Cut Down the Nets?

Posted by Brian Joyce, David Changas & Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question covers which teams can cut down the nets on Sunday. Florida is clearly the favorite after an 18-0 run in SEC play, but besides the obvious choice of the Gators, which other team could realistically win the championship game on Sunday?

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell): Tennessee. The Vols are more than just the current flavor of the week after winning each of their last three games by more than 27 points. Their talent is undeniable, as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae will both probably get shots in the NBA, and there aren’t many other teams outside of Kentucky in this conference that can say that. That talent didn’t translate to consistently good performances throughout the entire season, but it has lately. The Vols’ defense has been especially effective in recent weeks, as Tennessee has held opponents under 0.93 points per possession in five of its last six games. Locking down teams is usually a great pathway to success in March, and with a big, bruising frontcourt that causes match-up problems and a guy in McRae who can go off for 30 points at any time, this is a dangerous team.

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On the Brink of Perfection, Florida Might be More Than “Good”

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 5th, 2014

Brian Joyce filed this report following Tuesday’s Florida vs. South Carolina game from Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.

Following Florida’s first win this season, Billy Donovan quipped that his team wasn’t very good. “We are light-years away from even being a remotely good defensive team right now, light-years away from even being a ranked team.” Fast forward light years ahead to early March, and Florida is good. Maybe more than good.

Billy Donovan wasn't so sure about his Gators at the beginning of the year, but Florida certainly appears to be good now.

Billy Donovan wasn’t so sure about his Gators at the beginning of the year, but Florida certainly appears to be good now.

RTC was in attendance on press row Tuesday night as the #1 team in the nation visited South Carolina, fresh off a home victory over a storied Kentucky program. But there would be no court rushing in Colonial Life Arena on this night. With the Gamecocks down 39-35 and the crowd sensing the possibility that their team could make a run at a second straight win over a ranked team and its second victory ever over college basketball’s top-ranked team, Florida exercised its dominance with a 15-0 run and a 33-11 surge to end the game. It wasn’t always pretty, but Florida did what it needed to get to 17-0 in conference play. And now the Gators sense the opportunity that lies ahead. Senior center Patric Young kept things in perspective by crediting the coaching staff. “We’ve just been trying to take it one game at a time. We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, to go 18-0 in conference play.  And just keeping our eyes on the prize, the opportunity to do something great. To be a part of history has motivated us internally. The coaches have pushed us from day one. Laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we are doing today.”

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Three’s a Crowd: Three Observations Near the End of SEC Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 27th, 2014

Three is a popular number in the SEC these days. There was Kyle Fuller’s missed three in regulation to tie the game against Florida on Tuesday night. There is significant and realistic discussion about whether the SEC will get three teams into the NCAA Tournament. And to top it off, time is running out as there are just three regular season SEC games remaining for each team (following Thursday night’s game between Arkansas and Kentucky). So why not go for an old fashioned three-point play with three observations headed into the final week of regular season action?

Is Georgia the SEC's third best team?

Is Georgia the SEC’s third best team?

The Third Best Team?

Georgia is nowhere near NCAA Tournament talk, but the Bulldogs may very well be the third best team in the conference this season. Mark Fox’s squad has won six of its last seven games, including home victories over LSU and Missouri. It also has four very bad losses (Temple, Davidson, Georgia Tech and Auburn) and lacks a true quality win, but I would not want to match up with the Bulldogs in a couple of weeks in Atlanta if I were an SEC head coach. In five of its last six games, Georgia’s defense has held opponents under 1.0 point per possession. Granted, those games were not against any offensive juggernauts, but the Bulldogs appear to be peaking at just the right time. The Bulldogs made a run to the SEC Tournament championship at the Georgia Dome in 2008, so perhaps the setting is right for them to do it again this season (hopefully without the tornado).

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The SEC Rundown: Spring Cleaning Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 24th, 2014

Conversations about which teams are on the bubble, what school needs a big win to improve its seeding, and the coaches who are on the hot seat are all signs that March is quickly approaching. But if you find yourself without one of those gadgets that allows you to play games, take phone calls, and view a calendar, another sure way to know March is coming is by the peculiar weather patterns that late February brings for most of the country. There’s six inches of snow on the ground one week and it’s 70 degrees the next — and it’s that kind of drastic turn of events that inevitably brings my wife into spring cleaning mode.

Scottie Wilbekin deserves the SEC player of the year, and other random thoughts.

Scottie Wilbekin deserves the SEC player of the year, and other random thoughts.

Needless to say, I had a lot of time to collect my thoughts this weekend as I scrubbed our patio furniture and deck within an inch of its life. I am confident we could eat on our outdoor deck right now, and I’m not talking about serving a meal, picnic style, on the patio furniture. No, I mean I could literally serve food on the deck and eat straight off the wood. It’s that clean. A broken hose nozzle, a minor slip and fall accident, and two trips to Home Depot later, I had a lot of time to collect my thoughts. And while this time wasn’t necessarily conducive to a full, well-considered post, it did lend itself well to a collection of random thoughts, questions, and SEC basketball predictions as we round the corner into tournament time.

My notes from a warm and sunny spring southeastern day:

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Freeze Frame: Florida’s Three Point Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 28th, 2014

Last year’s scoring-deficient Tennessee offense put up 0.67 points per possession twice in embarrassing back-to-back losses against Georgetown and Virginia. It doesn’t get much worse than a pair of showings like that, but this isn’t last year’s Volunteers either. Cuonzo Martin’s squad ranks 33rd in offensive efficiency this season, even scoring above a point per possession in a road loss to Kentucky last week. Florida, on the other hand, boasts one of the nation’s most efficient defenses, but not even the biggest Gators’ homer expected the domination that we witnessed between the two schools on Saturday. Florida held Tennessee to just 0.69 points per possession, limiting the Volunteers to 26.8 percent shooting from the field  in a defensive clinic.

Casey Prather's perimeter defense is helping Florida become dominant on the defensive end of the court. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Casey Prather’s perimeter defense is helping Florida become dominant on the defensive end of the court. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

In a box score filled with reasons why the Gators put this one away on their home court, I was most impressed with Florida’s ability to defend the three-point shot. The Vols aren’t a good long range shooting team this year, but they are certainly better than the 5.3 percent that they shot from distance on Saturday. Less than two weeks ago, Sports Illustrated‘s Luke Winn looked at how effective the top teams in his power rankings were at defending the arc. He didn’t look specifically at the Gators, a team on the rise in his weekly analysis, but now seemed like a great time to follow up on his work in the wake of Florida’s dominant performance.

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Handicapping the SEC Race Two Weeks In

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 21st, 2014

And they’re off … Florida has jumped out as the early leader in the SEC race, but it’s still early enough for other teams to catch up with some adjustments. While the records at the top of the conference indicate that the regular season crown could be up for grabs, there will be only three teams in serious contention to finish at the top after an 18 game schedule. After four games in conference play, we handicap the remainder of the SEC regular season and areas to watch for if each contender are to make a run at the number one spot.

Billy Donovan's Gators are the frontrunner in the SEC until they prove otherwise. (AP)

Billy Donovan’s Gators are the frontrunner in the SEC until they prove otherwise. (AP)

The Favorite

Florida is in the lead, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Billy Donovan’s squad isn’t around for a photo finish at the end. The Gators are 4-0, and appear to be solid both at the O’Connell Center and away from it in the unfriendly confines of the SEC’s best venues. Florida was tested early on without its best player in Casey Prather on the road at Arkansas but still came out with an overtime win. The best news for the Gators right now is that they were still efficient even without Prather in the lineup.

Florida's efficiency numbers remained relatively constant without Prather in the lineup.

Florida’s efficiency numbers remained relatively constant without Prather in the lineup.

This team is obviously better with its best player in the game, but UF isn’t solely dependent on him like it has been in the past with players like Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. Prather returned against Auburn with 21 points, six rebounds, and a 148 offensive rating, but if he needs to sit for a few minutes Donovan can be confident that he can continue to get highly efficient play from the rest of his team. The Gators’ efficiency with or without their best player in the lineup makes this team a tough out through conference play, and Dan Hanner agreed when he analyzed the Gators’ lineup. Read the rest of this entry »

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