Three Keys to a Texas A&M Turnaround

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2018

After Texas A&M opened the season in Germany with an 88-65 dismantling of a West Virginia team that has only lost twice since (both to top-10 teams), you could have gotten pretty good odds against the Aggies being winless in SEC play with nearly a third of the conference season complete. But that is exactly where they stand following a pair of road losses against Kentucky and Tennessee last week. An 11-1 pre-conference performance, with the only loss coming at Arizona, puts the Aggies at 11-6 overall (0-5 SEC), and although still projected by the bracketologists as an eventual entrant into the NCAA Tournament, Billy Kennedy’s squad needs to quickly get things turned around. Here are three ways that can happen.

Tyler Davis has been a consistent performer for the Aggies, even during their slump. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

  1. Get Robert Williams going. Williams surprised many observers when he decided to return for his sophomore season despite the widespread belief that he would be an NBA Draft first-round pick. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year has been disappointing so far, especially on the offensive end, where evidence of any real development in his game has been scant. The big man is averaging just 8.7 points per game this season, and while he leads the Aggies in rebounding (9.6 RPG), he has not at all been the equal to fellow frontcourt star Tyler Davis. If Texas A&M is going to turn things around over the next few weeks, it starts with getting more productivity out of the talented Williams. Read the rest of this entry »
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Despite Adversity, Auburn is Emerging as a Legitimate SEC Contender

Posted by David Changas on January 5th, 2018

Auburn waltzed through its non-conference schedule to a very nice 12-1 record, the Tigers’ best start in more than a dozen years. But behind that gaudy mark was a collection of creampuffs and cupcakes that meant they really had not proven anything entering SEC play at Tennessee on Tuesday night. Against the nation’s 206th-best non-conference schedule, the Tigers played only three games against KenPom top-100 opponents – Temple (the sole loss), Middle Tennessee, and Murray State – and that group isn’t exactly a who’s who of college basketball powerhouses. So even though there was some optimism on the Plains as Auburn began the quest for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 15 years, it was understandably guarded. But after beating the Volunteers by 10 points in front of a near-capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena earlier this week — a game in which they grabbed an amazing 47.8 percent of their own misses — things are looking brighter for Auburn basketball than they have in a very long time.

Auburn’s 11-game winning streak has Bruce Pearl’s team sitting pretty in the SEC. (Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports)

In something of an ironic twist, Auburn’s performance in Knoxville was reminiscent of the type of efforts head coach Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee’s teams customarily gave during his six seasons at the school. The Tigers ultimately overcame deficits of 15 points in the first half and five points in the second half before outscoring the Volunteers by 15 down the stretch. Auburn got the win despite shooting only 40.5 percent from the floor and a 29.0 percent from three-point range by owning the glass on both ends, hitting free throws and forcing turnovers.

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SEC Weekend Preview: Conference Openers

Posted by David Changas on December 28th, 2017

The last weekend of 2017 marks the first weekend of conference play for several SEC teams.Today we look at a few of the compelling match-ups that lie ahead on Saturday and Sunday.

Jaylen Barford (18.5 PPG) leads an explosive Arkansas offense that is averaging 90 points per game (ArkansasRazorbacks.com)

  • Tennessee at Arkansas. What looked before the season like a relatively nondescript opening game now appears to be the marquee SEC match-up on this weekend’s slate. The #19 Volunteers, picked to finish 13th in the preseason projections, head to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for what could be one of the best games of the entire season. Tennessee has already won four games away from Knoxville, including two road wins against ACC competition. But beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville will require its best performance of the season. The key to this contest might be whether the Vols, which force a lot of turnovers, can do so against an Arkansas team that takes care of the ball as well as any group in college basketball.

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Yante Maten’s Decision to Return to Georgia Proving to be a Good One

Posted by David Changas on December 14th, 2017

Georgia’s Yante Maten entered his name into the NBA Draft last spring before making a deadline decision to return to Athens for his senior season. Despite appearing in only one NCAA Tournament game during his under-appreciated career, the fact that he was likely to become a second round pick was not the only reason he came back. He also wanted another trip to the Big Dance, and has made it clear in the half-year since that his decision was the best one for him. Based upon the early returns at the quarter pole of this season, his desire to return to the biggest stage in college basketball is realistic. The Bulldogs are off to a 7-1 start that already includes resume-enhancing wins over St. Mary’s (in the Wooden Legacy) and at Marquette. If they can build on a very successful start – the remainder of the pre-conference schedule sets up well to get to 10-1 – head coach Mark Fox should be in position for a return to the Tournament for only the third time in his nine seasons at the school.

Yante Maten will have to continue to carry Georgia for the Bulldogs to have success (espn.com).

Still, despite the somewhat unexpected good start, the Bulldogs have a lot of work ahead before they can think about punching their ticket. Aside from the pair of quality wins and a loss to San Diego State, the rest of the schedule has been against teams they should beat. Given the SEC’s overall improvement, finding wins during league play will be a much more difficult task this season. For his part, Maten has been everything Fox could have wanted, picking up where he left off at the end of last year. He leads the team with averages of 18.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game; he is knocking down a robust 88.5 percent of his free throws (important because he gets to the line more than six times per game); and, he’s even hitting 42.1 percent of his three-pointers (on 19 attempts). Maten’s efforts have been necessary this season as the young Bulldogs did not return much production — including zero (other than Maten) who averaged double-figures in scoring last year. Other than the addition of four-star freshman forward Rayshaun Hammonds, one of the highest-rated recruits Fox has signed at Georgia, there was little else to get excited about here. Even with a solid start, the Bulldogs will need more from veterans like Juwan Parker and Tyree Crump.

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.07.17 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 7th, 2017

Now that the season is nearly a month old, it’s time to take stock of where the league stands. This is the debut of SEC Stock Watch for the 2017-18 season.

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  • An Improved SEC. There was considerable discussion about SEC basketball being better this season, and so far, it has been. Improved coaching and recruiting has led to better depth across the league, and the number of quality wins in the non-conference season has correspondingly grown. Despite a few setbacks, all 14 SEC teams currently sit in the KenPom top 100, and Texas A&M, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi State have all been early surprises.

Tyler Davis has led the way for Texas A&M so far this season (San Antonio Express-News).

  • Texas A&M as a contender. Much was also made of the Aggies in the preseason, and despite Wednesday night’s loss to Arizona in the desert, Billy Kennedy‘s club has been even better than expected. Texas A&M’s opening-night blowout of West Virginia in Germany remains the biggest win for the league thus far. If the Aggies can get preseason all-conference forward Robert Williams going soon, look out.
  • Missouri without MPJ. Assuming Michael Porter, Jr. does not return to the Tigers this season, his career likely will go down as one of the shortest in the history of college basketball. The devastating loss of a player who many pundits considered the best freshman in the country is an indescribably difficult blow for first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, but the Tigers have righted the ship on their way to a 7-2 start. There is no reason to think Missouri can’t be pretty good even without the services of Porter.

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Tennessee Defying Preseason Expectations with Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on December 5th, 2017

On Monday morning of this week, Tennessee entered the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2010. And while it has been a very long road back into the national rankings for a program on its fourth head coach in those intervening seasons, things finally appear to be on the upswing in Knoxville. Under third-year coach Rick Barnes, the Volunteers are proving correct those skeptics around the program who scoffed at the SEC media’s  preseason 13th-place projection. Tennessee’s only loss to date came in a semifinal match-up against #4 Villanova at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and even that was a game in which the Vols led by double-figures at the half. Barnes’ team also owns a number of resume-enhancing wins against Purdue, NC State, Georgia Tech and a Mercer club that figures to spend much of the season in the RPI top 100. Another solid mid-major test looms on Saturday against a potent Lipscomb team before a December 17 home date with defending National Champion North Carolina. Even with a loss to the Tar Heels, Tennessee will likely be 9-2 and ranked heading into SEC play later this month.

Sophomore Grant Williams is a major reasons why Rick Barnes’ rebuild is ahead of schedule. (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Since his arrival in Knoxville three years ago, Barnes has regularly received criticism for his recruiting. He has countered with dialogue about finding players to fit his system, and the fruits of his efforts to build a nucleus of solid yet unspectacular players appears to be paying off. This is a particularly interesting turn of events for a coach who came from Texas with a reputation of being a better recruiter than floor coach. Instead, Barnes has built a roster of athletic players who have bought into a system stressing defense and rebounding. The Volunteers are turning opponents over on 25.5 percent of their defensive possessions — good for 12th nationally, per KenPom – and despite lacking significant size, are grabbing 37.2 percent of their misses (17th nationally) on the offensive end. These improvements from last season (126th and 82nd, respectively) can largely be attributed to greater experience and familiarity in Barnes’ system and the development of players who have spent multiple seasons learning it. Read the rest of this entry »

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Florida Shows It Is Once Again Ready for Prime Time

Posted by David Changas on November 29th, 2017

When Steve Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990 to take over as the new head football coach for his alma mater, he instituted a progressive “fun ‘n’ gun” offense, which revolutionized the sport and eventually led to the previously moribund program taking over the SEC for the next decade. While the 2017-18 version of Florida’s basketball program is not doing anything revolutionary on the court, head coach Mike White has instituted his own version of the fun ‘n’ gun, and in so doing has made the Gators a must-see squad. On Sunday night, Florida was unable to hold a 17-point second half lead against top-ranked Duke in the PK80 event, but its performance in that game as well as a blowout win over Stanford and a thrilling double-overtime victory over Gonzaga drew plenty of attention.

Egor Koulechov has been even better than Florida could have expected. (AP/Ron Irby)

The up-tempo style that White has instituted has especially benefited two transfer wings – Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov — who lead the Gators in scoring at 21.8 and 17.5 PPG, respectively. The two have combined to shoot a blistering 47.9 percent from three-point range and to this point have far exceeded what White could have expected from the duo. Hudson played his first two seasons at Virginia Tech, where he averaged fewer than 10 points per game,; Koulechov, a coveted graduate transfer from Rice, picked up where he left off in averaging over 18 points per contest last year. Much was expected of the Gators with preseason all-conference selection KeVaughn Allen and underrated senior point guard Chris Chiozza returning, but what Hudson and Koulechov have added has taken Florida to an entirely different level. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Feast Week Preview

Posted by David Changas on November 22nd, 2017

Feast Week is under way once again this year, and although a few SEC teams have already started their festivities — Texas A&M won the Legends Classic with convincing wins over Oklahoma State and Penn State, while LSU is finishing up a successful trip to Maui that includes an upset over Michigan – there is plenty of Thanksgiving weekend action ahead. Let’s take a look at what’s on the plate for SEC teams during the rest of the week.

Missouri and Michael Porter, Jr. got devastating news on Tuesday. (University of Missouri)

  • Battle 4 Atlantis (Tennessee). The Volunteers have cruised to two easy wins against lesser opponents and appear to have plenty of depth. Things will get really challenging in the Bahamas this weekend, however, as they take on #18 Purdue on Wednesday followed by a likely top-five team (with a win) in Villanova. The stacked field also includes Arizona, N.C. State and SMU this year. Needless to say, we will know a lot more about the fortitude of Rick Barnes’ club by Monday.
  • NIT Season TipOff (Vanderbilt). The Commodores are coming off a close overtime home loss to USC on Sunday and will battle Virginia in the semifinal round of the NIT on Thanksgiving day. On Friday, they will draw either Seton Hall or Rhode Island. This potentially very difficult trip to Brooklyn for two games is an opportunity for the Commodores to significantly enhance a resume that already includes a loss to crosstown rival Belmont.

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Despite Early Losses and Bright Future, Vanderbilt not Looking Past the Present

Posted by David Changas on November 20th, 2017

Last week, second-year Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew secured what many consider to be the best recruit in the history of the school when consensus five-star prospect Darius Garland signed with the Commodores. His pledge is a game-changer for a program that has seen its share of success over the years but has never been able to reach the next level. Those close to the program expect Garland’s commitment to attract even more talent, as top-10 prospect Simi Shittu is also expected to sign with Vanderbilt next spring. Drew also landed four-star wing Aaron Nesmith in the early signing period, and his program is currently among the final three (along with Indiana and Kansas) for the services of five-star guard Romeo Langford. Needless to say, the perception of the program is undergoing a significant shift very quickly, and that will be evident when the Commodores take the floor next fall.

Despite enduring two losses, this has been a banner week for Bryce Drew and Vanderbilt. (USA TODAY Sports)

While there is plenty of reason for excitement about the transformative future of the program, the current crop of Commodores isn’t looking past this season. On Sunday night, Vanderbilt, which is led by seniors Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson, took #10 USC to overtime before eventually falling, 93-89. The Commodores controlled the game for most of the first half before a stunning barrage of five unanswered three-pointers gave the Trojans a one-point edge at the break. Vanderbilt came back to again control the game in the second half — building a 10-point lead with just under 10 minutes left — but could not hold that lead, as USC knocked down a number of key threes (12-of-26 3FG) while committing only six turnovers in the entire game. Despite the disappointing loss in addition to an earlier defeat at crosstown rival Belmont, the veteran Commodores know there is plenty of season left to turn things around. “We are not satisfied, but there are definitely things we can learn from this game, and things we can take from it,” Fisher-Davis said after the game.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Collin Sexton Shows His Importance to Alabama in Much Anticipated Debut

Posted by David Changas on November 16th, 2017

It might have come a game late and after a significant amount of nervousness about whether it would even happen, but Collin Sexton’s debut for Alabama earlier this week was well worth the wait. After being forced to sit out the Crimson Tide’s exhibition contest and opening night win over Memphis because of eligibility questions, the most significant basketball recruit to arrive in Tuscaloosa in many years finally took the court. And he did not disappoint, leading Alabama to a comfortable 86-64 win in its home opener over a pesky Lipscomb club. Sexton led the team with 22 points and five assists in 27 minutes of action, shooting 7-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-5 from three-point range. Beyond the tangible impact he had on the play of the Crimson Tide, he also exhibited leadership and fired up a Coleman Coliseum crowd that was a bit larger than what usually shows up in the middle of November. The focus is almost entirely on football at Alabama this time of year, but Sexton’s debut was enough of a draw so that those in attendance could forget about pigskin for a few hours.

Collin Sexton’s debut against Lipscomb Tuesday night lived up to the hype. (University of Alabama)

Sexton — who had been the subject of an FBI investigation into the sport — was not ruled eligible until just before the Crimson Tide took the floor against Memphis in Annapolis last Friday. He sat out that game, but it felt like a reprieve for a program that was facing the possibility that he may not have been ruled eligible at any point this season. After all, the school’s basketball administrator, Kobie Baker, resigned in September after an FBI complaint revealed that he accepted money in an effort to influence Sexton’s father to sign with a particular financial advisor. Had that been the case, the excitement for a season that fans have been anxiously looking forward to would have been significantly dampened.

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