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 (

Ben Simmons is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year (

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 (

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 (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 (

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

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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Freeze Frame: What is Wrong with LSU?

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 2nd, 2015

LSU entered the season with a palpable buzz surrounding the addition of rising superstar Ben Simmons, ESPN poster child and the top high school recruit in the country. Despite an air of sunny optimism in the program this preseason, fans in Baton Rouge have seen this show play out before. Johnny Jones has a deep roster with as much talent as all but a few teams around the country, but skeptics only need to point out that a team with two eventual NBA big men disappointed its way to a 22-11 overall mark and an opening round loss to NC State in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Johnny Jones has not gotten the most out of his LSU squad this season (

Johnny Jones has not gotten the most out of his LSU squad this season. (

At least those Tigers beat the College of Charleston. After three straight losses to middling programs this November, it is painfully clear that the Tigers need more than the return of injured guard Keith Hornsby and the eligibility of Arizona transfer Craig Victor to turn this ship around. Despite the facilitation gifts of Simmons, LSU has been plagued by a stagnant offense. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we take a deeper look at exactly what is causing their offensive woes.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Dynamic Guard Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 18th, 2015

Prior to the Champions Classic game between Duke and Kentucky on Tuesday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he needed to learn more about his team. Knowing how critical Calipari can be about his team’s performances, he probably nitpicked a few of those less positive moments. He saw that his team could get outmuscled at times in the post, and he certainly wasn’t pleased with a lack of physical play near the basket during a long stretch of the first half. He watched as Marcus Lee (even though he otherwise had a standout performance) and Skal Labissiere, two of his starting big men, committed needless fouls on their way to fouling out with over five minutes remaining. But where his big men came up lacking, we also learned that Calipari’s backcourt is already one of the best in the nation, and it stepped up big time to solidify a 74-63 statement win over defending national champion Duke.

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season. (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis is only a sophomore, but the 5’9” point guard played like a seasoned veteran and proved he is the undisputed leader for this year’s young and talented Kentucky squad. The energetic floor general provided a spark on both ends of the floor on his way to 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, and most importantly, zero turnovers in 40 minutes. Freshman Jamal Murray dazzled on his way to 16 points, five assists, five rebounds, and four steals, while Isaiah Briscoe added 12 points, three boards, and two steals. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review the impact of Kentucky’s backcourt when Calipari needed them most.

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SEC Burning Questions: Best Non-Conference SEC Games

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2015

Kentucky was the team to beat a year ago — both in the SEC and nationally. And despite ultimately falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats didn’t disappoint anybody on their way to a 38-1 record. But several SEC teams did, and it started in their non-conference schedules. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern; Mississippi State couldn’t get by USC-Upstate or Arkansas State; South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron; LSU lost a surprising game to Clemson; Missouri dropped its home opener to UMKC.

The SEC isn't just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returners to Nashville (AP/Wade Payne)

The SEC isn’t just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returnees to Nashville. (AP/Wade Payne)

Kentucky is again the team to beat in the SEC (and perhaps nationally). The conference appears to be significantly improved this season, so maybe several SEC teams outside of Lexington can string together enough non-conference victories to give the league some early credibility. The nation will be watching the following 10 games so there will be no better time than the next two months for the league to announce its legitimacy. Here are the 10 best non-conference games involving SEC teams this season.

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Three Takeaways From Wednesday’s #SECTipoff16

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 22nd, 2015

Ed. Note: make sure to add @rushtheSEC to your Twitter follows for SEC basketball coverage over the next six months!

Billy Donovan is no longer roaming the sidelines for the Florida Gators. Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and a handful of other Kentucky underclassmen are gone to the riches and fame of the NBA. There are new coaches with Final Four and NBA Finals resumes now leading programs in Knoxville, Starkville and Tuscaloosa. The SEC certainly looks a little different heading into the upcoming college basketball season, but overall that might be for the best. Participants in the SEC Media Day event in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday oozed hope that the SEC’s early season stumbles and late collapses of years past would better prepare the league for ascent into college basketball’s elite this season. After many years of hype, will this finally be the year that SEC basketball takes a big leap forward into the national landscape?

Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee at #SECTipoff16 (photo credit -

Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee with Sean Farnham at #SECTipoff16 (photo credit –

Here are three key takeaways from Wednesday’s #SECTipoff16:

1) The SEC is no longer Kentucky and everyone else.

Ben Howland has won at the highest levels of college basketball, taking three different schools to the NCAA Tournament. The new Mississippi State head coach has been successful in the Big Sky, Big East, and the Pac-12, but he spoke highly of the depth and quality of the teams in the SEC. “You have to bring it every night or you’re not going to win,” said the first-year Bulldogs coach.

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Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015


Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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What SEC Teams Seek This Weekend

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 18th, 2015


The Southeastern Conference has been hit hard in the national media and on social media and everywhere else for its less than stellar basketball reputation. To be fair, it’s not completely unwarranted. Ole Miss opened the season with a loss to Charleston Southern. Mississippi State lost to Arkansas State and McNeese State. Missouri boasts a loss to UMKC. Those are bad losses to be sure, but the SEC is definitely not a one-team league, and the NCAA Tournament is a very good time to prove it.

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But, the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Five SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament this season, including undefeated Kentucky, which is a step in the right direction. You have to wonder, though, how much the Wildcats running through the conference without a loss has tarnished the perception of the rest of the league. Close followers of the SEC recognize its depth of talent from top to bottom this year but college basketball success is often defined by how the conference performs in March. Whether you subscribe to that opinion or think it’s bunk, it is important for the SEC to prove its worth on the national stage this weekend. Below we will examine what each team stands to gain during the NCAA Tournament in addition to bolstering the overall perception of the conference.

  • Kentucky: ESPN has made you acutely aware that Kentucky is chasing history, but even though the Wildcats are on the pursuit of perfection, there are still plenty of doubters. Everybody knows haters are gonna hate, but there is really only one way to silence those detractors, and that’s to win. For Kentucky, anything short of a National Championship will bring out a chorus of “I told you sos” from the numerous Twitter trolls who have persistently claimed that Kentucky has benefited from a weak SEC slate. John Calipari‘s club is on a mission to achieve something much more substantial than providing trash talk ammunition for the Big Blue Nation to take on Louisville fans. The 2012 version of the Wildcats may very well have been a better team than this season’s crew, but the Anthony Davis Wildcats can’t claim a 40-0 record. With six more wins the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats will forever be remembered as one of the great teams in college basketball history. Lose, however, and this team might be categorized in the same breath as the 2009-10 John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins Wildcats; a talented team that fell short when it counted the most.

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