Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Texas A&M 77 (OT)

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

  1. Ulis was the difference. Jamal Murray struggled more than he had in quite a while, as his 20-point game streak came to an end at 11 (he still had 17). His backcourt mate, Tyler Ulis, however, was there to pick up the slack. Ulis not only led Kentucky with 30 points, but also delivered the crucial baskets for the Wildcats. Ulis is able to penetrate and find good looks better than just about anyone we’ve seen at his size; in a game that was close the entire way, Ulis was the clear difference. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine Kentucky being in position to garner a #3 seed or making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. This was a quality SEC basketball game. The hoops side of the SEC gets made fun of plenty, and often rightfully so. This is a league that could get only two of its 14 members into the NCAA Tournament — an unfathomable consideration for a power five conference. But these two teams were anything but embarrassing today. Kentucky is the SEC constant and have dealt with a revolving door of challengers through the year; the Aggies are the newest one, and their balance, experience, and overall talent that was on display this weekend should not be taken lightly in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a shame there aren’t more such teams in the conference.
  3. Texas A&M acted like it had been here before. Despite the loss, the Aggies showed they belonged. Texas A&M is not used to being on this stage, but that certainly did not show. Senior Danuel House was exceptional for the Aggies in scoring a game-high 32 points, including the tying bucket that sent the game to overtime. Four seniors who log a lot of minutes will be gone next season, but the future is bright for Billy Kennedy’s program, as freshmen Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, and DJ Hogg showed strong signs that they will be able to grow into more prominent roles next season. It’s quite clear why Kennedy was given a five-year contract extension yesterday.

Star of the Game. Tyler Ulis. This was a no-brainer, as was Ulis’s selection as tournament MVP. Still, it simply can’t be overstated how good the sophomore guard was today. He had several critical drives for baskets during regulation, and he helped UK begin overtime on the right track with a three after a quick move forced his defender to fall down. Ulis vindicated his selection as both conference player of the year and defensive player of the year with a tremendous final week in the SEC.

Quotable.

  • “You’ve got to give Kentucky credit. They made the big shots to win the game.” – Billy Kennedy, on the difference in Sunday’s game.
  • “He’s played three straight days without coming out and he could probably play 40 more minutes right now if he needed to.” – Alex Caruso, on one of the things that makes Tyler Ulis special.
  • “We’re still not where we want to be defensively, but this team has gotten better all year. We’re finally healthy so when guys don’t play well, you look for the next man.” – John Calipari, on the improvement of his team.

Sights and Sounds. As it always is at the SEC Tournament, this was a de facto home game for the Wildcats. Big Blue Nation accounted for at least 95% of the fans in attendance, with Kentucky superfan Ashley Judd among them. Kennedy admitted after the game that the crowd was a big advantage for the Wildcats. “We knew that we were playing in basically Rupp Arena,” he said. Some things never change.

What’s Next. Both teams will await word from the Selection Committee as to where they go next. It’s reasonable to believe both will receive a 4-seed or better. While Kentucky may have improved its seeding with the performance this weekend, it’s hard to imagine that Texas A&M did anything in defeat that would harm its standing. The SEC may only get two teams into the Big Dance, but they’ll both be very tough outs.

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Kentucky Needs More Post Production For Deep March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

Given the way Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have played over the last couple of months, there really can’t be much debate about whether Kentucky has the best backcourt in the country. In Saturday’s thrilling 93-80 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Georgia, Ulis and Murray combined for 51 points — the 11th consecutive game in which Murray had scored 20 points or more. The Wildcats also got a strong second half performance from Isaiah Briscoe, something upon which they haven’t been able to regularly rely. Everyone knows that good guard play is an important key to a deep NCAA Tournament run, and Kentucky’s recent performance bodes well for John Calipari‘s surging team.

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

If Kentucky is going to be a legitimate Final Four contender, the Wildcats are going to need more production from their big men. Things have definitely improved in that regard, as Skal Labissiere put together a couple of solid performances to end the regular season, Alex Poythress has shown signs of returning to his old form after fighting nagging injuries, and Derek Willis has also shown flashes of excellent play (even if much of his offensive damage he does comes from the perimeter). Kentucky beat Georgia on the strength of its backcourt — the three starting guards combined for 63 points — while Poythress (10 points, all in the second half) and Willis (14 points) had solid offensive performances of their own. Talented NCAA Tournament opponents that are more capable of neutralizing the Wildcats’ prolific backcourt are going to have a chance to beat them. Each of the team’s eight losses have come in games in which the front line was not very productive.

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LSU’s Dreadful Performance Could Put Johnny Jones’ Future in Doubt

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

In Saturday’s first semifinal matchup at the SEC Tournament, things started out well enough for LSU. The Tigers got to the first media timeout with an 8-3 lead and otherwise looked ready to play. From there, things were, to put it mildly, a disaster for Johnny Jones‘ team. Over the last 15:47 of the half, the Bayou Bengals registered just one field goal — an Antonio Blakeney three-pointer at the 1:18 mark — and were outscored 32-5 on their way to a 35-13 halftime deficit. Ben Simmons picked up three fouls and sat for most of the frame, but using that as an excuse for the putrid effort his team collectively put forward would not be fair. LSU was outhustled in every way by a Texas A&M team that looked like it actually wanted to be in Nashville. The Aggies coasted to an astonishing 71-38 victory that puts them in Sunday’s championship game against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Kentucky and Georgia.

After Saturday's 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it's time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

After Saturday’s 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it’s time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

The first half was in many ways a microcosm of LSU’s entire season. This is a team from which much was expected but could not deliver on the hype. Simmons is regarded by many as the likely first overall pick in the NBA Draft, and while he showed why he’s so highly-regarded at times this season, there were plenty of moments when he did not. On Saturday, after sitting much of the first half, he essentially was a non-factor on his way to a 10-point, 12-rebound performance. After the game, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said he felt sorry for Simmons. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s put on this pedestal; it’s just a lot to ask,” he said. For his part, Simmons said he wasn’t burdened by the pressure so many put on him. “For me, I just wanted to play. I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where our team was going to be,” he said after the game.

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Tyler Ulis Defies Expectations, Sets Sights on NBA

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

When Tyler Ulis signed with Kentucky two years ago, many believed that, for the first time in a long time, John Calipari had a four-year player at the point. Going back to his days at Memphis, Calipari had coached a string of one-and-done phenoms at the position like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquise Teague. Ulis was different. At 5’9″, he certainly didn’t project very well to the next level, and the idea was that he would stick around Lexington as a solid floor general until graduation day. The only problem is that someone forgot to tell Ulis. Last night, before Kentucky’s 85-59 dismantling of Alabama in its first SEC Tournament game, Calipari announced that Ulis has already made the decision to leave school early for the NBA after this season concludes.

Tyler Ulis Willl Ride an All-American Season into the NBA (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis Willl Ride an All-American Season into the NBA (USA Today Images)

As a freshman on last season’s uber-talented roster, Ulis was more of a contributor than anyone expected, playing as many minutes as anyone on the team by the end of the season. His numbers (5.6 PPG; 3.6 APG) weren’t anything special, but nobody’s on the 38-1 “platoon” squad were either. Ulis came into his sophomore year with much higher expectations, but no one foresaw just how good he turned out to be. In a league that boasts the likely top pick in the NBA Draft (Ben Simmons) and another top-three pick in a teammate (Jamal Murray), Ulis was the consensus SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. It wasn’t just his 16.6 PPG or league-leading 7.3 assists per contest. It was the way he proved capable of taking over a game like few diminutive players can. He always seems to hit the big shot, make the big steal, or dish out the big assist. Along with Murray, he has carried a Kentucky team that has, extensively at times, shown significant deficiencies in the post.

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Tyler Davis’ Emergence Gives Texas A&M Hope For March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Texas A&M, which had not been known previously as a destination for college basketball’s top recruits, signed one of the nation’s best classes last year in bringing in four players ranked in the Rivals top 70. On Friday, in the Aggies’ 72-66 win over Florida, one of those highly-prized recruits was critical to Texas A&M’s advancement. All season, center Tyler Davis, the Aggies’ third-leading scorer (11.2 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (6.0 RPG) has been an important part of his team’s run to a share of the SEC regular season championship. Without Davis anchoring the middle, Texas A&M would likely not be where it is today. From that standpoint, Davis’ 15 point, eight rebound performance on Friday was not only not a surprise, but it was also expected — even against Florida’s stout frontcourt defense.

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

After the game, Florida coach Mike White could not stop talking about how impressed he was with the freshman from Plano. “He is just really good. It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s enormous. He’s strong. He’s physical. He likes contact. He knows how to seal [in the post], and he has great hands,” White said. Based upon the way he performed both against the Gators and in the Aggies’ six-game win streak to close the regular season, a strong case could be made that Davis has become A&M’s best player. While most of the attention is paid to Aggie seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House, Davis’s efficiency sets him apart. That was evident again Friday. Jones and House combined to go 11 for 35 from the field, while Davis was made six of his 10 field goal attempts. On the season he has shot over 65 percent from the field; when teammates get the ball to Davis in the post, good things happen.

At 6’10”, 265 lbs., Davis is no ordinary freshman. He has clearly been the biggest addition to a team relegated to the NIT a season ago. Pairing the talented freshman with a core of talented senior leaders has led to a successful regular season, as well as the potential for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Aggies were heavily reliant upon their perimeter offense. Now, however, when shots aren’t falling for Jones, House, and fellow seniors Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, Davis has been able to afford a steadying offensive alternative. He made the difference against Florida today, and if the Aggies are to make the sustained March push many believe them capable of, expect Davis to be as prominent a figure as any.

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SEC Tournament Takeaways: Second Round

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Thursday was the first full day of action at the SEC Tournament, and even though the league’s top four teams have byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round, there were still plenty of important happenings that could impact which of the league’s teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday (John Bazemore/AP)

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Florida Stays Alive. In Thursday’s opener, the Gators took down Arkansas in a win that kept the Gators’ faintly flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty — the two teams combined to commit 50 fouls (thanks, Pat Adams) — but Florida played just well enough to get the job done. Center John Egbunu, who was expected to miss the game with an injured right hand, gutted out an eight-point, nine-rebound performance in 24 minutes, while also helping hold Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to just 10 points. Florida moves on to play #1 seed Texas A&M on Friday, in what will be quite surely be another must-win for the Gators’ still-faint Tournament hopes.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA Hopes Damaged. Vanderbilt came into its game against Tennessee as a 12-point favorite and its regular season sweep of the Vols hinted that this was a touch matchup for Rick Barnes’ team. After all, big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet had dominated Tennessee inside in both of the prior meetings. Things were different on Thursday, though, as Vanderbilt failed to consistently feed those mismatches in the post. The Commodores instead fired up 25 threes (making nine) and generally didn’t seem all that interested in battling as if its postseason life was on the line. A valiant second half comeback nearly saved Kevin Stallings’ team, but Wade Baldwin‘s game-tying layup at the buzzer was released fractions of a second after the horn sounded. Now the Commodores will have a few nervous days ahead, as a loss to a team that entered the SEC Tournament with six conference wins puts Vanderbilt squarely back on to the bubble.

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Handing Out the SEC Awards

Posted by David Changas on March 9th, 2016

Unlike the coaches, the SEC microsite writers stick to a rule of putting only five members on their all-conference team. Clearly, making our group should mean more to those selected than having the coaches pick them.

All-SEC Team

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is the hands-down choice for SEC Player of the Year. (Getty)

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky (SEC Player of the Year)
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky
  • Ben Simmons, LSU
  • Jalen Jones, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss

Credible cases could be made for Damian Jones, Kevin Punter, Retin Obasohan, and Michael Carrera, among others, but the five selected stood out as the five best.

SEC Player of the Year

Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. The diminutive Kentucky point guard successfully made the leap from role player on a 38-win team of all-stars to the leader of one of the nation’s best backcourts. Playing almost every important minute of every contest, Ulis averaged 16.6 points and a league-leading 7.4 assists per game. But it was the way in which he could dominate a game at only 5’9″ that separates him from the pack. If the Wildcats are going to make their usual run later this month, Ulis will be the catalyst that make it happen.

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Austin Peay Returns to the Big Dance With a Surprise Run

Posted by David Changas on March 7th, 2016

After finishing the 2012-13 season with a record of 8-23, Austin Peay head coach Dave Loos decided it was time to relinquish his duties as the school’s athletic director and refocus on his first love: coaching basketball. Loos had been at the school since 1990 and had led the Governors to three NCAA Tournament bids in his first 18 seasons, but in 1997, he added the role of AD to his title. Things steadily slipped over time, and even after Loos returned solely to the sideline, many wondered if the longtime coach would again compete for OVC championships. Austin Peay won only 20 games over the two seasons that followed Loos’ resignation before suffering through a middling 14-17 campaign entering last week’s OVC Tournament. The #8 seed in the event exhibited nothing on its resume to suggest that anything special would happen in Nashville.

Dave Loos's fourth trip to the Big Dance is his most improbable one.(AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

Dave Loos’ fourth trip to the Big Dance is his most improbable one. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

But therein lies the beauty of college basketball. After easily dispatching #5 seed Tennessee Tech in the first round, the Governors overcame a 10-point deficit with just over five minutes remaining to beat #4 seed Tennessee State. In a subsequent semifinal game that may have been the best of Championship Week thus far, Austin Peay then stunned regular season champion Belmont by a single point in overtime after the Bruins’ go-ahead putback was waved off. That led to Saturday night against #2 seed Tennessee-Martin, where the Governors trailed by nine early before charging back and ultimately coasting to their fourth victory in four days, an 83-73 win that came with an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

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Florida’s NCAA Tournament Hopes Hinge on a Win Over Kentucky

Posted by David Changas on March 1st, 2016

Just a few short weeks ago, Florida, with a lofty RPI and impressive strength of schedule, looked to be comfortably within the NCAA Tournament. On February 3, the Gators beat Arkansas to move to 7-3 in the SEC. A subsequent trip to Lexington did not go well — Florida lost to Kentucky, 80-61 — and things have gone steadily downhill ever since. Heading into tonight’s rematch with the Wildcats in Gainesville, the Gators have lost five of seven games and their position as a possible NCAA Tournament team is tenuous at best. Most bracketologists have already moved them out of the field of 68, but a win over Big Blue will go a long way towards putting Mike White‘s team back into position for a bid.

Michael White has Florida positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Mike White’s Gators probably need to beat Kentucky if they have any thoughts of going to the NCAA Tournament. (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

A close examination of Florida’s resume shows that the Gators have played a considerable number of quality teams but they haven’t won enough of them. Florida is currently 2-8 against RPI top-50 teams and 7-11 against teams in the top 100. While Florida has avoided any terrible losses (other than a blowout defeat at then-competitive Tennessee), its two best wins came against St. Joseph’s and West Virginia. The Gators have not made much hay in SEC play, as none of their eight conference wins have come against teams expected to make the NCAA field. Read the rest of this entry »

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Kentucky is Suddenly in Control of the SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 19th, 2016

On February 2, Kentucky inexplicably blew a 21-point first half lead against a mediocre Tennessee team in Knoxville as the Vols upset the Wildcats. John Calipari’s team at the time sat 6-3 in league play, while Texas A&M, at 7-1 and on a major roll, appeared in complete control. LSU, which had won at Auburn on the same night, was also ahead of the Wildcats at 7-2 and the Tigers finally appeared to be hitting their stride. Just 17 short days later, the Aggies have now lost four of five games and LSU is coming off a perplexing home loss to Alabama. For its part, Kentucky has not lost since, and after exacting some revenge against Tennessee on Thursday night with an 80-70 win in Rupp Arena, it’s difficult to argue that the Wildcats are not once again the team to beat with five games remaining. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is producing at a Player of the Year level (Getty)

The Wildcats have flourished despite losing their most consistent low-post threat and third-leading scorer, Alex Poythress, to injury. But thanks to dominant backcourt play from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as well as an increase in production from junior forward Derek Willis, Kentucky has seized control of the league race and appears ready to climb the national rankings back into the top 10. Willis, who hardly played during his first two seasons in Lexington, scored a career-high 25 points in Thursday night’s win and has capably filled a void left by Poythress’ absence and the inability of freshman Skal Labissiere to consistently produce.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.05.16 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 5th, 2016

As we reach the halfway point of conference play, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches we should buy and sell. This is our latest stock watch.

Buy: Vanderbilt Making the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores’ resounding win over Texas A&M Thursday night was a huge step in the right direction, but Kevin Stallings‘ team is still on the outside of the bubble at this point. They finally looked like the team everyone expected at the beginning of the season, however, and we think they will use that performance as a springboard to securing a bid. They will be favored in their next five games, and should be able to build more confidence for a tough stretch run.

Sell: Kentucky Exiting the Big Dance Early. Sure, the Wildcats looked bad in blowing a 21-point lead to Tennessee on Tuesday, but they also took Kansas to overtime and arguably should have beaten the Jayhawks at Phog Allen. They will have to get more consistent production from the post, but with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray growing comfortable together in the backcourt, we’re not betting against a relatively deep run for John Calipari‘s team.

Kevin Stallings

Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt got a big win Thursday night. (AP)

Buy: Kevin Punter Earning First-Team All-SEC Honors. The senior guard plays for a team that almost certainly will finish the season in the bottom third of the league, which is ordinarily a tough position from which to earn first-team all-conference honors. But Punter has been fantastic on a team with little offensive balance. He currently is second in the league in scoring (23.1 PPG) and is shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range. He’s shown remarkable improvement from his junior campaign, when he averaged just over ten points per contest. If he keeps up this level of play, Punter has a strong chance to make the all-SEC first team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Florida is Quietly Building a Strong NCAA Resume

Posted by David Changas on February 2nd, 2016

Heading into the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Florida had quietly managed to put together a solid NCAA Tournament-quality resume. It may not have contained any wins over top-50 opponents, but the loss column was also largely limited to teams ranked among the top 50. After getting thrashed by Tennessee in early January in Knoxville, the Gators narrowly lost at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in working their way to a good-not-great 5-3 SEC record. That profile changed on Saturday, however, as Florida enhanced its resume significantly with a resounding 88-71 home win over #9 West Virginia. It’s the kind of win that will pay significant dividends on Selection Sunday, and one that head coach Michael White hopes will become a springboard to even more success in the second half of conference play.

Michael White has Florida positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Michael White has Florida well positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Florida has lived in the NCAA Tournament for nearly all of the last two decades, missing the Big Dance only twice in the prior 17 seasons. Small note: All that was accomplished with a Hall of Fame coach pacing the sidelines. When Billy Donovan fled Gainesville last spring for the bright lights of the NBA, athletic director Jeremy Foley turned to a coach who was about as accomplished as Donovan when he arrived at the school in 1996. While the early returns on White’s tenure are mixed – the Gators’ pre-conference losses came to Purdue, Michigan State, Miami (FL) and Florida State, prior to the ugly loss at Tennessee — the new head man in Gainesville has since steadily righted the ship. Some questioned his hiring around the holidays, but Florida would easily be in the field of 68 if the season ended today. Most of the focus in the SEC has centered on the rise of Texas A&M, the fall of Kentucky, and the superstardom of Ben Simmons, allowing the Gators to fly well under the radar for the first time in a long while.

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