Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play Looms

Posted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016

Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.

The Favorite

  • Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

As usual, John Calipari and Kentucky are the heavy favorites to win the SEC (cbssports.com).

The NCAA Tournament Contenders

  • Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
  • Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
  • Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.

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Stifling Defense Leads South Carolina to Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on November 30th, 2016

South Carolina was bitterly disappointed to not make the NCAA Tournament last season after posting a 23-8 overall record, and given the departures of three key contributors from that squad — Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas — not much was expected this season. Based upon last week’s thrashing of two Top 25 teams, however, expectations in Columbia have quickly recalibrated. On Thanksgiving Eve, the Gamecocks allowed Michigan to make only eight two-point field goals on their way to a 61-46 trouncing of the Wolverines. For anyone who may have thought that home win was a fluke, South Carolina then waltzed into the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon and similarly throttled previously-undefeated Syracuse — again giving up only eight two-point field goals — on its way to a 64-50 manhandling of the Orange.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell is has been a breakout player for South Carolina. (heraldonline.com)

Frank Martin clubs define themselves on the defensive end, and this team’s success in that regard has been staggering. The Gamecocks currently rank 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and have had only one game — a season-opening 85-76 win over Louisiana Tech — in which they have given up more than a point per possession (PPP). In contrast, Michigan garnered only 0.74 points per possession while Syracuse’s output at 0.77 points per possession was only slightly less dreadful. The Gamecocks have routinely been one of the SEC’s most efficient defensive teams since Martin’s arrival four years ago, but given his roster’s attrition, no one saw this level of production coming. An overtime one-point win over Monmouth may have initially indicated that the Gamecocks could be in for a long year, but last week’s resume-boosters should serve them well on Selection Sunday. December games with Seton Hall, Clemson and Memphis should also help. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part II

Posted by David Changas on November 24th, 2016

Earlier this week, we took a look at four SEC teams in action at various tournaments around the country. Today we’ll take another look at three other teams that will be in action over the next few days (we won’t mention LSU, which was blown out by Wichita State in its opening round matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday).

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

Tyler Davis has been as good as expected so far for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

  • Advocare Invitational (Lake Buena Vista, FL) – Florida. The Gators have easily disposed of four solid opponents in racing to a 4-0 start. They have been good on both ends of the floor and rank as the nation’s 11th best team overall, per KenPom. Things will get tougher today when Florida faces the defending Big East champion, Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 3-0 start of their own, including a nice win at Iowa. The teams appear to be evenly matched, and it should be a terrific game. Florida has thus far benefited from the solid production of graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who leads the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) off the bench. The Gators are also getting excellent play from Devin Robinson and preseason all-SEC pick KeyVaughn Allen, but could use more consistency from point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the Gators can beat the Pirates, they could earn an interesting match-up with Gonzaga in the semifinals, with Iowa State after that. So while Florida is off to a great start so far, we will know a lot more about the Gators after this weekend.

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Quinndary Weatherspoon Injury a Crippling Blow to Mississippi State

Posted by David Changas on November 23rd, 2016

Mississippi State announced Monday night that its leading scorer, Quinndary Weatherspoon, will require surgery after tearing ligaments in his left wrist and miss the remainder of the season. The sophomore is the team’s leading scorer (18.8 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (5.0 RPG) through four games, notching a career-high 25 points in last Friday’s win over Boise State. His loss is a big blow to a Bulldogs team that was expected to finish in the middle of the SEC pack under second-year head coach Ben Howland. Even though an earlier blowout loss to Central Florida confirmed that the rebuilding process is ongoing, losing the cornerstone of that process is tough in the wake of last year’s graduations (Gavin Ware and Craig Sword) and transfer (Malik Newman to Kansas).

The loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon is a huge blow for Mississippi State (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports).

The loss of Quinndary Weatherspoon is a huge blow for Mississippi State (Gary Rohman/USA Today Sports).

With Weatherspoon out for the remainder of the year, Howland will need even more from his three top-100 freshmen: Tyson Carter, Mario Kegler, and Lamar Peters. Carter, a 6’4″ guard, is off to a nice start, hitting 11 of 25 three-pointers and committing only one turnover in 122 minutes of action. Kegler, a 6’7″ forward who already played 25 minutes per game, will see his playing time increase in Weatherspoon’s absence. Peters has played less than his fellow freshmen, but he has been solid in backing up the team’s only senior,I.J. Ready. The only player other than Weatherspoon who came into this season with any real experience, the diminutive point guard leads the team in assists (5.0 APG) and has a fairly low turnover rate (10.9%), but he struggles defending bigger guards and is a poor shooter from beyond the arc (27.3%). It is unlikely that he will be able to pick up the Bulldogs’ scoring slack.

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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part I

Posted by David Changas on November 21st, 2016

With one of the best weeks of the college basketball season now upon us, we offer Part I of our preview of what’s ahead for SEC teams headed to the various holiday tournaments around the country. This post will focus on the events beginning today and Tuesday.

Rick Barnes and Tennessee have a tough road ahead in Maui… and beyond. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)

  • Maui Jim Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI) – Tennessee. The Volunteers’ season got off to a rough start with a home loss to Chattanooga on opening night, but they now sit at 1-1 after an easy subsequent win over lowly Appalachian State. In Maui, however, Tennessee will get started with a bite than may be bigger than Rick Barnes’ squad can chew. The Vols open with a savvy, veteran Wisconsin team that is likely to give its offense fits. The Vols’ second game of the tournament on Tuesday will either be against a top-10 Oregon team that could have preseason All-American Dillon Brooks back in action, or a Georgetown team that will be desperate after a couple of early losses. There is a strong likelihood that the Vols will drop their first two games, with their only realistic chance for a win on the islands coming against non-Division I host Chaminade on Wednesday.

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SEC Team Capsules: The Top Tier (#4-#1)

Posted by David Changas on November 11th, 2016

Per usual in the SEC, there is very little question that Kentucky is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the league. While there is always some early-season speculation about how things will turn out, there is often little doubt that the Wildcats will roll into Nashville as the #1 seed at the SEC Tournament. We finish our capsule-sized preview of the league with a look at of course Kentucky, but also the three teams with the best shot of dethroning the SEC giant. Within the last week we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10) as well as the middle tier (#9-#5). Today we tackle the top tier.

No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 28-9 (13-5)
  • Key returnee – Tyler Davis, 11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG
  • Key newcomer – J.C. Hampton, graduate transfer from Lipscomb
  • Team Analysis: The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including their two leading scorers, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. But along with Davis, a preseason all-SEC selection who has a great chance to break out, and guard D.J. Hogg, expectations remain high in Aggie-land. Anything short of a return to the Big Dance this season will be a disappointment.
  • Burning QuestionCan Davis make the jump? Texas A&M had the luxury of two great scorers in House and Jones last season, but the 6’10” center Davis benefited most from an experienced point guard (Alex Caruso) who could deliver the ball to him in positions that allowed him to be effective. Much more will be expected from the sophomore this year, and for Texas A&M to come through on expectations, Davis will have to become one of the elite players in the SEC.

No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

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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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