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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Freeze Frame: Julius Randle’s Versatile Offensive Game

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2013

Julius Randle has played in just two college basketball games, but it is obvious that he has a bright future ahead of him. He started out his college career with 23 points and 16 rebounds on Friday night only to follow that up with 22 points and 14 rebounds on Sunday against Northern Kentucky. His 22.5 points and 15 rebounds per game are the best start to a college career for any freshman under John Calipari. Now might be a good time to remind you that Calipari has coached some pretty talented freshman over the last several years, and Randle could end up being right there in the debate as the best of them all.

Julius Randle can beat his opponent in so many ways. (M. Zerof/USA Today)

Julius Randle can beat his opponent in so many ways. (M. Zerof/USA Today)

Randle has done a little bit of everything so far. We already mentioned his rebounding. He is a solid defender. He is also unselfish, distributing two assists per game. He has even brought the ball up the court a couple of times. But perhaps the most impressive part of his game has been the versatility in his offensive repertoire. Randle has scored from underneath the basket, put back easy buckets working the offensive glass, posted up smaller opponents, taken the defender off the drive from the perimeter, and pulled up for the mid-range jumper. Randle has found multiple ways to become an offensive threat, making him a difficult player to stop.

In the first edition of Freeze Frame for the 2013-14 season, we examine Randle’s resourceful offensive game from the first two contests. Randle has been outstanding for Kentucky, finding the basket with the following skills:

Working the offensive glass: Randle has become a dominant low post player, grabbing offensive boards and putting the ball up in traffic. In this frame, Randle grabs the miss, and despite the entire UNC Asheville team surrounding him, still finds a way to score.

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SEC M5: 11.01.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 1st, 2013

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  1. Billy Kennedy is on the hot seat in College Station, according to sources close to the third year coach. Despite going to the NCAA Tournament from 2006 to 2011 under Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon, the Aggies haven’t even gotten a sniff of the Big Dance in Kennedy’s first two seasons at the helm. Texas A&M Athletic Director Eric Hyman expects a postseason berth at the end of the year, and it sounds like Kennedy likes his chances. “We’re deeper and more talented,” Kennedy said after his team’s exhibition win. “We’ve just got to find our identity and find a rotation, and guys have to start separating themselves.” Of course Kennedy needs all of his players on the court to be successful, and it appears that the Aggies are struggling in that department.
  2. Kennedy’s cause won’t be helped by Texas A&M guard J-Mychal Reese, who was suspended indefinitely for a violation of athletic department rules. Reese started 25 games last season for the Aggies averaging 6.2 points, 1.9 assists, and 2.3 rebounds per game. Reese will continue to practice with the team, and could be reinstated for game action in the “near future.” In A&M’s first exhibition game of the year, the backcourt got a 13-point contribution from Fabyon Harris and 11 points and six rebounds from guard Jamal Jones. The Aggies won by just 10 points over Texas Permian Basin, but perhaps the bigger absence at this point is forward Kourtney Roberson, who is still sidelined with a heart condition. Roberson plans to return to the team in a few weeks, but the Aggies can ill afford to lose any more key players in light of the number one item on today’s morning five.
  3. Florida coach Billy Donovan is also busy suspending players from his already thin roster. Donovan previously placed point guard Scottie Wilbekin on the pine, and now Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris will join him. While Wilbekin will sit out the first three games of the year, Finney-Smith and Harris will both be out for the first two. “Well, I mean, you know, it is what it is,” Donovan said. “We just try to go with the guys that we know are going to be available, going to be there to play.” The Gators have very few players available at this point. Donovan has just five scholarship players at his disposal because of the aforementioned suspensions and injuries or illnesses hampering Will Yeguete, Michael Frazier, and Eli Carter.
  4. It was no surprise that the Kentucky Wildcats came in as the preseason #1 in the Associated Press rankings. The Cats will play #2 Michigan State Spartans on November 12 as part of the Champions Classic. The #1 vs #2 match-up will be the first time the top two college basketball teams squared off in the regular season since 2008. And for the SEC history buffs, that last match-up of the nation’s best was when Memphis and the SEC’s own Tennessee Volunteers battled. But you probably already know that Kentucky coach John Calipari downplayed the honor by pretending his team isn’t very good. After learning of his team landing the top spot, he said, “we may be very talented, but I can’t imagine us being the best team in the country at this point.” That’s Calipari speak for, “we’re really, really good.”
  5. Speaking of UK, Calipari grabbed a 2014 recruit in 6’5″ guard Devin Booker on Thursday. Booker liked what he saw in Kentucky, and of course, in Calipari. “The history of Kentucky, coach John Calipari,” Booker said. “I’m a show-me type, and Coach Calipari showed me a lot of things he does with big guards.” Booker is the #31 player in the Scout.com rankings, joining point guard Tyler Ulis and center Karl Towns in what makes up the current Wildcats’ 2014 class. Of course, with the mass exodus scheduled out of Lexington at the end of the year, Calipari and company aren’t done securing a new crop of youngsters for the blue and white. However, in a rare recruiting setback, Calipari appears to have lost out on James Blackmon Jr., who recommitted to Indiana last night.
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SEC Advanced Metrics Superstars

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 30th, 2013

The concept of advanced metrics certainly has its critics across the college basketball landscape. Basketball players, especially of the young and unpaid variety, are far from robots that perform exactly as their percentages suggest. We know this because Ohio State did not win the 2011 National Championship, Florida was not in the Final Four last year, and I am not filthy rich from winning gambling bets. It is clear that utilizing advanced statistics such as offensive ratings, offensive rebounding percentages and percentage of possessions must be balanced with what we see on the court, but advanced statistics can give us an in-depth look at a player’s potential.

We know Marshall Henderson scores a lot, but how does he fare when analyzing temp free statistics?

We know Marshall Henderson scores a lot, but how does he fare when analyzing tempo-free statistics?

To preview the SEC season ahead, we are going to look at players who excelled in advanced and tempo-free metrics last year in an attempt to predict who will be a standout this season. If we know a player scored 14 points per game, we need to know how many times he shot the ball to know how efficient he was. And just because we know a player scored only four points per game doesn’t mean that he was inefficient, but maybe he didn’t see many minutes or play a large role in the offense. Advanced metrics allow us to take our analysis one step further and hopefully serve to make more accurate predictions. Allow us to present our 2013-14 SEC advanced metrics superstar awards (refer to Ken Pomeroy’s explanations page for help with definitions).

SEC Breakout Players

We are looking for players who were largely role players last year but could become major contributors this season. We are specifically examining players with fewer than 60 percent of minutes played last season. And the nominees are…

  • Michael Carrera, South Carolina – Carrera was just a freshman last season, but his advanced statistical profile was solid. He had a good offensive rating (102.8) despite being a high volume shooter (25.4% shots and 27.0% poss.). The really impressive part, though? He placed in the top 25 in the nation in both offensive (16.0%) and defensive (25.0%) rebounding percentages. At just 6’5”, Carrera finds a way to come up with the ball.  Look for the Gamecock sophomore to become a centerpiece of Frank Martin’s second year in Columbia.
  • Michael Frazier, Florida – A lot of points walked out the door in Gainesville, but Frazier remains. He saw limited action (43.7% minutes) and a limited role on offense (15.8% shots), but he had an offensive rating of 121.2 with incredible three point shooting (46.8%). Can he remain this efficient with an expanded role? His 63.3 percent effective field goal percentage gives us hope that he can.
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri – Brown had a 113.4 offensive rating, a 51.6% effective field goal rate, and was part of a very crowded backcourt last season with the Tigers. The crowd has thinned quite a bit, so look for Brown to take a big step forward this year.

SEC Outstanding Rebounders

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Progress of Alex Poythress is Key to Kentucky’s Success

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 23rd, 2013

Kentucky’s freshmen receive all the accolades. Kentucky was declared the number one team in the land by the coaches. NBA scouts may think James Young is the best player on Kentucky’s roster. Julius Randle may be the only bona fide NBA prospect and the best player in the SEC. The other freshmen, including the Harrison twins (Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison) and Dakari Johnson, may snatch up the other college basketball headlines. Yep, John Calipari’s latest freshman class is talented and deserves the publicity, but Kentucky needs to look to its not-so-distant past in order to mimic the program’s success with one-and-dones. When Kentucky achieved tremendous results (think Kansas, not Robert Morris), it wasn’t relying solely on first-year players.

For the Cats to return to glory, they will need contributions from more than just their freshmen. (AP Photo)

For the Cats to return to glory, they will need contributions from more than just their freshmen. (AP)

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a 6’9″ 18-year old freshman stepped into Rupp Arena and poured in 25 points in his first game in a Kentucky jersey. While Lexington certainly seems like a distant supernova in the basketball world, this moment in time wasn’t really all that long ago. It just seems like it was after a dismal 2012-13 season that resulted in a trip to the NIT. The freshman was Terrence Jones and the season was 2010-11. Jones went on to have a stellar first year in blue, dropping 29 points just two games later against Oklahoma, scoring 27 on Notre Dame, and in his second SEC game he put in 35, the most points ever scored by a freshman in Kentucky’s storied history. Jones was somewhat inconsistent that season, because after all he was a freshman; but the very next season, he was a key leader and “veteran” sophomore on a national championship team starting three freshmen. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC M5: 04.05.2013 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 5th, 2013

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  1. Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson stayed in the spotlight this season for rude, crude, and controversial behavior, but it never seemed that he was aware that he was acting a fool. Well, apparently he was. Henderson issued an apology to Ole Miss fans saying, “I take responsibility for my actions this season and apologize to anyone I offended,” Henderson said. “However, my edge on the court has made me the player that I am. I can’t change that, but I do understand that I can take things too far.” He also seemed to confirm that he would return to Oxford next season claiming, “With only nine hours left to earn my degree, I want to help build this program and that means I need to be a leader for my teammates both on and off the court.” Watch out SEC. Marshall Henderson is coming back and he is looking to get paid.
  2. Will Patric Young stay? Or will he go? The debate is on, and the good folks over at Alligator Army weigh in with a summary of reports. One comment from Young seems to suggest that he is staying in Gainesville. According to comments he made to the Palm Beach Posts’ Jason Lieser, Young spoke about next year saying, “to make sure we can have another spectacular season.” Next season could be special indeed for UF, especially if Young progresses in the middle with the additions of Chris Walker and Kasey Hill along with the return of Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin, and Casey Prather.
  3. While much of the conversation this week has been on current student athletes who are making decisions on whether or not to return to the University of Kentucky, last night was all about the high school athletes who have signed to play in Lexington next year. The McDonald’s All American game on Wednesday night featured six future UK athletes, and Kentucky fans are excited after seeing the future backcourt in action. Projected starting point guard, Andrew Harrison scored 10 points to go along with four assists while his brother Aaron Harrison, the projected starting shooting guard, added six points and five assists. The duo connected on an alley-oop lob that resulted in a slam dunk for Aaron. The Harrison twins were impressive, but they weren’t the only future Kentucky stars doing good work. Julius Randle contributed 11 points and seven boards and center Dakari Johnson added 12 points and five rebounds.
  4. The future University of Kentucky athletes know that in order to see playing time this year, they will have to battle future NBA players for it. Several players predicted physical practices that would prepare them for the college and pro level, and they know they will be better players because of that intensity. “I think at this point it’s, ‘Who else do I want to play against in practice?’ I feel like the practices are going to be a lot harder than the games at this point,” incoming freshman forward Marcus Lee said. “Going against (Julius) Randle and all these other major players, I think it’s more, ‘Who wants to fight to be on the court?’ than it is, ‘Who are we fighting against?’” Perhaps UK should enter a second team into SEC play this year so the reserves can see playing time as well.
  5. Former standout Alabama high school star Ricky Tarrant is transferring from Tulane University and is potentially interested in returning closer to home. The sophomore point guard confirmed the news saying, “I will not be attending nor playing basketball for Tulane University next year.” Originally, Tulane was not going to allow Tarrant to transfer, but have now granted him permission to contact other schools. The rumor at this point is that the former Pleasant Grove star would be interested in playing basketball at the University of Alabama, though his father says he has not made a list of potential destinations just yet.
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