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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The Weekend That Was in the SEC: On Kentucky’s Interior Defense and Sindarius Thornwell…

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 14th, 2014

After one week of conference play, unbeaten Georgia and Texas A&M sit atop the SEC standings along with Florida and Kentucky. While the Bulldogs have to travel to Gainesville for a tough roadie tonight, the Aggies will take on South Carolina and Mississippi State next. It’s not crazy to think that Texas A&M could sit at 4-0 when it travels to Rupp Arena next week for a showdown with the mighty Wildcats. But will Kentucky remain undefeated after visiting Fayetteville this evening? There are a lot of reasons to look forward to this week as the conference race begins to take shape, but first we have to look back at how we got here.

Here are three observations from the past weekend of SEC play.

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  • While Kentucky’s perimeter defense has improved, the Wildcats have allowed offensively deficient Mississippi State and Vanderbilt to play alarmingly well in the post. The Bulldogs scored 36 of their points in the paint, while the Commodores put in 30 down low. Through two games of conference play, Kentucky is allowing opponents to shoot 51.3 percent on two-point jumpers (11th in the SEC), and blocking just 11.8 percent of their overall attempts (seventh). This is an area of major concern for a program that has dominated on the interior since John Calipari’s arrival in 2009.

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Three Takeaways from SEC Play: Two Elite Rebounders and Watch For Rod Odom

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 10th, 2014

Sometimes things go as planned (see Florida’s win over South Carolina), and sometimes they don’t (see Georgia upsetting ranked Missouri), but that’s the element that makes college basketball so intriguing. The SEC’s slate of games certainly brought some unpredictability this week, but also shed some light on things to come in the conference race. The SEC season is only one game old, but it’s never too early to speculate on trends that could affect the end result. Here are our three first-week takeaways that could ultimately impact the final SEC standings.

Mark Fox gets an emotional win to break Missouri's 26 game home winning streak. (AP photo)

Mark Fox gets an emotional win to break Missouri’s 26-game home winning streak. (AP photo)

1. Mark Fox and Georgia got an emotional overtime win over Missouri in large part because of a dominant effort on the boards. I was more than prepared to write a 2,000-word essay on the tremendous play of Nemanja Djurisic, but try as I might to shift the narrative to the hot shooting of the Bulldogs’ junior forward, the more pressing and lingering issue from this game was Missouri’s rebounding deficiency. The Tigers were outboarded on both ends, but if Frank Haith’s squad is going to settle on outside jumpers by its trio of heavy usage guards then they will need a better performance on the offensive glass from freshman Johnathan Williams. Missouri is more than a little thin in the frontcourt, so it will have to rely on the 6’9″ rookie to do better than his season low of two rebounds against the Bulldogs. Missouri simply can’t afford for him to pull a no-show on the glass. The good news is that Williams is more than capable of shouldering the load, considering that he is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. Just how good is he? He’s one of only a handful of freshman  in the last seven years with an offensive rebounding percentage over 15 percent. And he’s in some pretty good company, as the table below exhibits.

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My 2014 SEC New Year’s Resolutions

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 4th, 2014

As 2013 was coming to a close, my wife and I made the decision to allow our nine-year-old son to stay up and participate in the annual tradition of Ryan Seacrest counting down until midnight as Miley Cyrus stuck her tongue out. Well, we could have done without Ryan Seacrest, but we brought in 2014 with a toast of sparkling cider, a riveting game of Monopoly, and a conversation about New Year’s resolutions. I won the game of Monopoly in decidedly dominating fashion, as my wife eloquently explained the meaning and purpose of resolutions. After taking it all in, our son declared that he would like to save his weekly allowance and donate it each month to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, better known as the ASPCA. I was too busy ruthlessly and strategically acquiring properties and constructing monstrosities of hotels to truly appreciate the sacrifice my son had just made.

My son made a resolution to give his allowance to the ASPCA to save dogs like this one. (Photo courtesy of the ASPCA website)

My son made a resolution to give his allowance to the ASPCA to save dogs like this one (Credit: ASPCA)

Now that I have had a few days to reflect, I came to two conclusions. First, I’m amazed at the miracle that occurred. For those of you with kids you know that convincing your child to give you one lone and measly M&M from an entire wealth of stockpiled chocolates from their rich and bountiful Christmas stocking can be a chore, let alone having them complete a thoroughly selfless action like donating money that could be used for toys and video games to save animals from abuse. In all seriousness, I am genuinely thankful, proud, and inspired by the commitment he made. And second, I also realized I was too wrapped up in winning a completely meaningful and rewarding board game to make resolutions for myself, so I am going back a couple of days later to make some 2014 resolutions of my own. Here goes…

1. I resolve… to start believing in LSU as the SEC’s third best team. There’s Missouri. There’s Tennessee. Even Arkansas can make a case. But I think LSU will be the surprise team in the conference once the chips fall where they may. With a win over Rhode Island on Saturday, the Tigers can enter conference play at 10-2 with only road or neutral court losses to UMass and Memphis. Coach Johnny Jones currently lays claim to Ken Pomeroy’s second-ranked defense in the Southeastern Conference and I think that gives his team the identity it needs to succeed. If you need further proof, look at the Tigers’ interior defense trends over the last five years and you will see that Jones has this team looking very different from the past.

LSU's interior defense is significantly improved, and among the best in the country.

LSU’s interior defense is significantly improved, and among the best in the country.

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Freeze Frame: Re-evaluating Kentucky’s Pick and Roll Defense After Beating Louisville

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 2nd, 2014

Kentucky’s porous defense was a hot topic last week as fans and analysts attempted to make sense of a preseason No. 1 team that has failed to meet historic (read: unrealistic) expectations. There was certainly reason for concern. Coming into Saturday’s Battle of the Bluegrass with Louisville, John Calipari’s squad had played exactly three top 50 teams, (according to KenPom’s efficiency ratings) and had come out of those three games winless. It wasn’t time to hit the panic button just yet, as the Wildcats had lost to three quality teams on the road or on neutral courts, but then again the Wildcats were running out of opportunities for quality wins to bolster its inadequate resume. They do play basketball in the SEC, after all. Saturday’s 73-66 win over Rick Pitino’s Cardinals was about as close to a must-win situation in December as Calipari’s young Wildcats will experience.

Kentucky's defensive score sheet vs. Louisville including Alex Poythress' monster defensive performance.

Kentucky’s defensive score sheet vs. Louisville including Alex Poythress’ monster defensive performance.

A lot of positives emerged for Kentucky on Saturday. The offense finally clicked, putting together 1.04 points per possession against a stingy defense. Andrew Harrison grew up before our very eyes, leading the offense down the stretch like a veteran point guard. And this was all with the Wildcats’ best offensive player, Julius Randle, on the bench after a 17-point first half performance. Perhaps nothing was more impressive, however, than Kentucky limiting KenPom’s most efficient offense (at the time!) to just 0.94 points per possession for the game. So how did a team that has had trouble guarding manage to stifle one of college basketball’s best teams at putting the ball in the basket?

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Freeze Frame: The Rise and Fall of Jarnell Stokes

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 27th, 2013

The Tennessee Volunteers were expected to compete near the top of the Southeastern Conference this season. Cuonzo Martin’s squad returned stars in Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae, regained forward Jeronne Maymon from injury, and added veteran guard and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton to run the point. On paper everything was in order for the Vols to become a real contender, but something hasn’t clicked as the team is currently 7-4 with losses to Xavier, UTEP, Wichita State and North Carolina State. Martin is struggling to find consistency at the point guard position; he occasionally has difficulty reining in McRae on a bad shooting night; and he hasn’t been able to get Stokes to the next level in his performance.

As Jarnell Stokes goes, so does Tennessee.

As Jarnell Stokes goes, so does Tennessee.

While Tennessee has several issues, none are more important for Martin to figure out then Stokes’ ongoing struggles. The junior forward was expected to take a huge leap forward this season, but that hasn’t yet happened. And as Stokes goes, so goes Tennessee. Stokes correlation with the team’s overall results aren’t unexpected, but the strength of the relationship is uncanny. In Tennessee’s four losses this season, the junior has struggled with a significant decline in his offensive rating, usage, points per game, rebounds per game, and effective field goal percentage.

The difference in Jarnell Stokes' performances by wins and losses.

The difference in Jarnell Stokes’ performances by wins and losses.

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Freeze Frame: Analyzing Kentucky’s Porous Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 16th, 2013

Kentucky started out the season with delusions of a perfect 40-0 season, a fantasy even more preposterous as we look back now. The fact is that this young team is a work in progress with imperfections that need to be addressed and a resume that needs polishing. In its three losses this season, Kentucky’s defensive struggles were highlighted and exposed for the nation to see. Luckily for these Wildcats, John Calipari has been here before and he has a lot of time to work out his team’s inefficiencies on the defensive end.

Willie Cauley-Stein is an elite defender with or without his blonde hair. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky247sports).

Willie Cauley-Stein is an elite defender with or without his blonde hair. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky247sports).

To analyze the trends ailing this inexperienced squad and to quantify their individual performances on the defensive end of the floor, I have charted every defensive possession in all 11 Wildcats’ games thus far. The analysis below represents the good, the bad, and the ugly in Kentucky’s defensive score sheet this season.

The Good News 

Kentucky’s interior rim protection has been a bright spot, erasing a multitude of mistakes in the Wildcats’ perimeter defense. Both Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle have an impressive defensive rating, a metric calculated to represent the number of points allowed by an individual defender over 100 possessions. Cauley-Stein and Randle lead the team with 91.1 defensive ratings, with Cauley-Stein as a high usage defender involved in nearly 25 percent of the Wildcats’ defensive possessions.

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Freeze Frame: Casey Prather, Rising Superstar

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 19th, 2013

Julius Randle, Johnny O’Bryant, Jarnell Stokes and Marshall Henderson are just a few examples of household names in the SEC — a list of guys with which even the casual basketball fan is familiar. But there is always room for more. A previously lesser-known player has made a case for his inclusion on this exclusive list of SEC stars everyone should know. In just four games, Florida’s Casey Prather has emerged into a star, and it is time to join the bandwagon before it’s too late.

Casey Prather's defense might be his most redeeming quality. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Casey Prather’s defense might be his most redeeming quality. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

It’s not as though we could have seen this development materializing. Prather averaged under four points per game over his career coming into this season. He scored a season high 12 points in 2012-13. Twice. He even grabbed nine rebounds in a game against Kentucky. But nothing in his statistical profile suggested that this was an underrated player poised for a breakout season. Instead, Prather the average player has broken out of the gates in a major way. He opened up with 28 points and eight rebounds against North Florida and has already followed that performance with 27 more points on 10-of-11 shooting against Arkansas-Little Rock. Even when he struggled to score against Southern on Monday night, Prather found other ways to contribute by chipping in nine rebounds and four assists. Prather has excelled on the court in a variety of ways, and he will only get better once Billy Donovan’s Gators are at full strength.

What makes Prather so good, you ask? Let me count the ways.

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