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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SEC Weekend Preview: Opening Night Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 10th, 2017

It has been a long time since there has been so much excitement surrounding the start of SEC basketball. With so many of the league’s football programs struggling and the promise of widespread improvement across the conference on the hardwood — not to mention the specter of an ongoing FBI investigation hanging over a few schools — everyone is ready to start playing. As we open the season at 13 of the SEC’s 14 schools tonight, let’s look ahead to this evening’s most intriguing match-ups:

  • Texas A&M vs. West Virginia – ESPN, 6:00 PM. This is the marquee game of opening night, as the #25 Aggies take on Bob Huggins’ #11 Mountaineers at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. Texas A&M gets an early chance to show that last season’s downturn was a momentary blip on its long-term trajectory, but it will have to do so without potential lottery pick Robert Williams, who is serving a two-game suspension for a violation of university policy. Freshman point guard JJ Caldwell is also suspended for the team’s first five games after an offseason arrest charge that was later dropped. That leaves it up to junior forward Tyler Davis to lead the Aggies in what promises to be a very difficult match-up with a Big 12 heavyweight.

Alabama received the good news that Collin Sexton will return next week against Lipscomb (rolltide.com)

  • Memphis vs. Alabama, 6:30 PM. The Crimson Tide will also get an early test against a rebuilding Memphis team at the Veterans Classic in Annapolis. Although Alabama got news late Thursday that highly acclaimed freshman Collin Sexton will only sit out tonight’s game and can return on Tuesday against Lipscomb, Memphis is a dangerous team to play at less than full strength. Still, this is a major development for Avery Johnson as it appeared earlier in the week that Sexton, a consensus top-10 player in the class of 2017, may not ever suit up for the Tide.

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SEC Burning Questions: Florida Gators

Posted by David Changas on November 9th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC SEC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Can Florida’s Frontcourt Produce Enough Offense to Carry the Gators?

In his second season on the bench in Gainesville, Florida head coach Mike White erased many of the doubts about whether he was a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan. After missing the 2016 NCAA Tournament from the bubble, the Gators ran all the way to the Elite Eight with a robust 27-9 overall record last season. All that success led to White receiving a healthy raise and extension through the 2023 season. Now that he has settled in nicely and appears to have things rolling on the recruiting trail — White signed a consensus top 25 class and his recruiting for next season is off to a strong start — expectations are that his teams regularly make the NCAA Tournament and do some damage when they get there.

After a rough first season, Mike White has things rolling at Florida. (Madison.com)

For this year’s Florida squad, things appear to be relatively set in the backcourt. Despite losing four-year starter Kasey Hill to graduation, White returns preseason all-SEC guard KeVaughn Allen and senior point guard Chris Chiozza. Additionally, Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson should seamlessly transition into the lineup and provide significant scoring punch while freshman DeAundrae Ballard appears poised to be a solid contributor as well. But the biggest addition is likely to be Rice graduate transfer Egor Koulechov, who averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds for the Owls last season and brings a refined offensive game to the Gators. White will look for Koulechov to do what last year’s graduate transfer, Canyon Berry, did.

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SEC Burning Questions: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by David Changas on November 6th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC SEC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Is this Kentucky Team Just Too Young to Contend for a National Championship?

As has been the case since John Calipari arrived in Lexington eight years ago, there are a lot of new faces who will take the floor at Kentucky this season. And as is also always the case for the Wildcats, those new faces are all supremely talented. Last year Calipari signed another superb class filled with five-star talent, this time raking in a total of six players ranked among the top 26 of 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. That group includes Hamidou Diallo, a freshman guard who enrolled in January of last year, redshirted, then nearly decided to enter the NBA Draft before withdrawing late in the process. Even by Kentucky’s one-and-done standards, this team is exceptionally young — perhaps the youngest group that Calipari has ever had. The only returning player who so much as averaged double-figure minutes last season was sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, who was a role player on last year’s Elite Eight squad. But this is Kentucky, so, per usual, any excuse that involves youth will not be accepted by either Kentucky fans or by Calipari himself. And there is good reason for that optimism — this group is plenty talented.

Wenyen Gabriel is John Calipari’s only returning player with significant experience. (Zimbio.com)

The 2017-18 version of the Wildcats is exceptionally athletic and big. In addition to Gabriel, Kentucky expects production from freshmen big men Nick Richards and P.J. Washington, as well as Jarred Vanderbilt, who has recently has been cleared to begin conditioning after a September foot injury. Sacha Killeya-Jones, a 6’10” sophomore who played limited minutes as a freshmen, will be asked to step up as well. In the backcourt, Calipari will rely on highly-regarded guards Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to mesh with Diallo to distribute and score. The loss of Jemarl Baker, touted as one of the best shooters in the Class of 2017, will be felt, as he is expected to be out for at least three months after undergoing knee surgery in late October. Regardless, the expectations in Lexington are that the Wildcats will contend for a Final Four berth and another National Championship. Calipari knows that the bargain with fans is that his reliance on one-and-done talent — and therefore youth and inexperience — will never be an excuse. He has routinely won SEC regular season and tournament titles throughout his tenure in Lexington, and while those things are nice, the only thing that really matters to Wildcat fans is what Kentucky does on the national stage in the Big Dance. Read the rest of this entry »

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After Disappointing Season, Texas A&M Looks to Return to SEC Prominence

Posted by David Changas on October 24th, 2017

By any measure, the 2016-17 Texas A&M basketball season was a colossal disappointment. After being picked by virtually everyone to finish near the top of the SEC standings and easily make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies struggled to an 8-10 finish in league play and missed out on postseason play altogether. Last year’s disappointing outcome has not, however, tempered expectations for this year’s team. Once again, the Aggies are expected to challenge for a league championship and easily qualify for the Big Dance. And those expectations are just fine with two of A&M’s stars — Robert Williams and Tyler Davis — who talked about the upcoming season last week in Nashville. When asked about his goals this year, Williams did not mince words: “San Antonio” — the site of the 2018 Final Four. Davis, for his part, was more measured, instead discussing the need to focus on getting better each day. Regardless of how each player answered that question, both know that expectations are high in College Station, and with good reason.

Robert Williams showed his excitement about the upcoming season at SEC Media Days. (RTC Staff)

Davis also talked about improved team chemistry this year, hinting that some members of last season’s squad were not on the same page with head coach Billy Kennedy. “I know he was limited [by] his resources, when it came to game time,” Davis said. “That obviously puts pressure on you as the coach. This year, he’s the same guy every single day; expects the same things out of us. It’s just, are his players willing to give it to him every day in practice.” Last season’s finish aside, it appears there is good reason for high expectations. Texas A&M returns all five of its starters, including Williams and Davis, who could combine to form the best big-man tandem in the SEC. The former, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, credits his maturity for a decision to return to school despite being projected as a likely lottery pick. He also thinks another year battling against Davis in the post during practice should improve his game. “We are awesome with each other,” Davis said. “We’ve gotten to the point where we know what each other’s going to do. We try to memorize each other’s games and help each other.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (cbssports.com)

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Arkansas 65

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2017

While this game was close for most of the first half, a late surge by hot-shooting Kentucky (60.7% FG) pushed the Wildcats to what would prove to be an insurmountable 12-point halftime lead. The win gave Kentucky its remarkable 17th SEC Tournament title since the event was restarted in its current form in 1979.

Key Takeaways

Bam Adebayo is big reason Kentucky captured its third SEC title in a row on Sunday.

  1. Kentucky’s Improved Defense. Kentucky struggled to defend in late January, causing many to wonder if this year’s version of the Wildcats would ever improve enough to be taken seriously as a Final Four contender. That has changed in the six weeks since, as John Calipari‘s young team has answered affirmatively in resounding fashion. In its three games in Nashville this weekend, Kentucky was incredibly stingy on the defensive end, with a particular emphasis on guarding opponents beyond the arc. In Friday’s quarterfinal match-up with Georgia, the Bulldogs made only 5-of-16 three-point attempts. Alabama was even more dreadful in Saturday’s semifinal (3-for-14 3FG). Sunday brought more of the same, as Arkansas shot a woeful 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also effectively bottled up Arkansas’ best shooter, Dusty Hannahs, who made only one three on the day and was largely a non-factor.
  2. A Balanced Performance. Kentucky clearly had a better bench than Arkansas on Sunday afternoon. Nine Wildcats scored, including a solid 14-point game from senior Dominique Hawkins (who averages only 3.9 points per contest). Hawkins was one of four double-figure scorers for Kentucky, which shot 48.2 percent from the field and dominated the glass (+14). For its part, Arkansas received 18 points off the bench from guard Daryl Macon, but he was the only Razorback reserve with more than a single point.
  3. The Beat Goes on in Nashville. The SEC Tournament has become very routine over the last several years. In the third season in a row the event was held in Nashville, it became the third year in a row that Kentucky waltzed to a championship. A case can be made that the Wildcats have just as much of a home court advantage in the Music City nowadays as they do in Rupp Arena. The good news for Big Blue Nation is that, after the SEC Tournament takes a one-year turn in St. Louis in 2018, it returns to Nashville for another three-year run. Based upon the way things have gone in this conference, Wildcat fans might as well book their hotel rooms and put in their ticket orders for long weekend stays from 2019-21.

Star of the GameDominique Hawkins. A case could be made for Bam Adebayo, who contributed one of his best performances of the year, but Hawkins was his usual disruptive self on defense as well as very productive on the offensive end. The senior provided an emotional spark in the early going, getting the partisan crowd fully engaged and allowing the Wildcats to break out to a double-figure halftime lead.

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Will Vanderbilt’s Late Season Turnaround Result in an SEC Title?

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2017

Coming into the SEC Tournament, most of the discussion surrounding Vanderbilt centered on the 17-14 Commodores potentially becoming the first at-large selection with 15 losses in the history of the NCAA Tournament. By most accounts, they were either on the right side of the bubble or solidly in the field. Given how well Bryce Drew‘s team has performed over its first two games of the tournament, Vanderbilt has erased any doubt about whether they will make next week’s Field of 68. As a matter of fact, many observers are now questioning whether that 15th loss will even come this weekend, as the Commodores winning the SEC’s automatic bid is no longer out of the question.

Bryce Drew has engineered a stunning turnaround in his first season in Nashville (thesportsbank.net)

Vanderbilt’s resurgence over the past month to become the SEC’s fifth NCAA Tournament team has been nothing short of remarkable. After a 20-point beatdown at the hands of lowly Missouri on February 11, the Commodores stood at a middling 12-13 overall (5-7 SEC). Not only did an NCAA Tournament bid seem like a laughable proposition; even the NIT seemed anything but a sure thing. From that point on, though, Drew’s defense has shown dramatic improvement in winning seven of eight games, with the only loss coming at Kentucky in a game they led by double-figures in the second half. This is clearly not the same team that lost four of its first five SEC home games and got taken to the woodshed in Columbia.

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Jacksonville State Follows Ray Harper’s Lead to Surprising NCAA Bid

Posted by David Changas on March 6th, 2017

When Ray Harper abruptly resigned as Western Kentucky’s head coach after finishing his fifth season at the school last March, the odds that he would be coaching a team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament were so low as to be laughable. When he subsequently landed at Jacksonville State eight days later — a program that went 8-23 last season and had not finished in the top half of the Ohio Valley Conference in over a decade — his chances did not seem to improve. Never mind that the Gamecocks’ program in its two-decade history in Division I had also never been to the Big Dance.

Jacksonville State will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance next week.

But anyone who knows anything about Harper should not be surprised that he will be dancing in Dayton a week from now. Despite being picked by the media to finish dead last in its division, Jacksonville State completed a remarkable run on Saturday in Nashville with a 66-55 win over UT-Martin. The Gamecocks achieved the feat just one night after stunning prohibitive favorite Belmont, which had finished the regular season with a 15-1 OVC record that included two easy wins over them. In outlasting the Skyhawks in the championship game, the Gamecocks controlled the action throughout and were never really threatened. As usual, they were led by three outstanding guards: Erik Durham, Greg Tucker and Malcolm Drumright, who was named tournament MVP. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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