SEC Season Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

Posted by David Changas on November 13th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next week, continuing today with Tennessee.

Tennessee Volunteers

Strengths. This is a team that returns four players and only one starter from last year’s Sweet Sixteen run. That roster upheaval was created when head coach Cuonzo Martin left in mid-April for California. He was replaced by Southern Mississippi head coach Donnie Tyndall, and before Tyndall coaches his first game in Knoxville, he has already landed on the hot seat for alleged improprieties that occurred at his former school. The Volunteers will need to set those issues aside and focus on what they can control this season. Their clear leader is Josh Richardson, a senior forward who came on strong during the NCAA Tournament run, averaging 19.3 PPG in four games after averaging just under 10 PPG in the regular season. Richardson had always been a defensive specialist, so his surprising offensive output encourages the team that the trend could carry over into this season. The senior is surrounded by good athletes, but the group has spent so little time playing together that it will take time for the team to develop any real chemistry.

Josh Richardson gives Tennessee a glimmer of hope. (Nooga.com/Billy Weeks)

Josh Richardson’s return gives Tennessee a glimmer of hope. (Nooga.com/Billy Weeks)

Weaknesses. There are many potential downfalls with these Volunteers, but the biggest may be at the point guard position. This is evidenced by Tyndall’s decision to play Richardson there. Ian Chiles, a senior transfer from IUPUI, was thought to be the solution when he joined the team, but he appears to be struggling to adapt. Kevin Punter, a talented junior college transfer who should provide some scoring punch, does not appear to be well-suited for the position either. Tyndall will need Richardson to capably handle the quarterbacking duties, and his team will need to force turnovers from the press to overcome this deficiency. In addition to the glaring issue at the point, the Volunteers appear to be very thin, both literally and figuratively, on the inside. Memphis transfer Dominic Woodson is eligible to play immediately, but even though he was a big disappointment with the Tigers, he provides some much-needed bulk in the paint. Still, despite the fact that he appears to have responded well to Tyndall’s coaching, he does not appear ready to play big minutes, and freshmen Willie Carmichael, who originally signed with Southern Miss, and Tariq Owens, who was set to go to Ohio, will need to overachieve.

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SEC Season Preview: Texas A&M Aggies

Posted by David Changas on November 12th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with Texas A&M.

Texas A&M Aggies

Strengths. The Aggies feature junior point guard and Cousy Award semifinalist Alex Caruso, as well as three of the team’s four leading scorers from last season. Texas A&M also landed SMU transfer Jalen Jones, who left the Mustangs last fall and will be eligible immediately. In the team’s exhibition opener, a win against Texas A&M-Commerce, Jones led the team in scoring and rebounding, something he figures to do frequently this year. He averaged 14.0 PPG and 7.7 RPG two seasons ago for SMU, a program he left because of a dispute with head coach Larry Brown over playing time. So while the junior forward may arrive with some baggage, he will make up for the much needed scoring and rebounding that was lost when Jamal Jones and J-Mychal Reese left the program. The Aggies also return forwards Kourtney Roberson and Davonte Fitzgerald, who averaged 9.8 and 7.3 points per game last season, respectively. In addition, they added a top-100 recruit in guard Alex Robinson, who is likely to start. Texas A&M was a solid defensive club last season, and even though leading scorer Jones left the program under inauspicious circumstances, there is some talent on this roster.

Alex Caruso led the SEC in assists last season. (d1nation.com)

Alex Caruso led the SEC in assists last season. (d1nation.com)

Weaknesses. According to Kenpom.com, Texas A&M ranked 267th in the country in offensive efficiency last season, and the Aggies were 308th in points per game. With the departure of the team’s most prolific perimeter shooter, the burden will fall on Jalen Jones to pick up the slack. Robinson appears to be a solid incoming three-point shooter, but Billy Kennedy’s club likely will struggle to put the ball in the basket once again. Caruso was the SEC’s assist leader last season, but he is a mediocre shooter from distance (33%) and Kennedy does not appear to have many options beyond that. The Aggies are picked to finish ninth in the 14-team SEC, and without more output on the offensive end, there is no reason to think they can outperform that prediction.

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SEC M5: 11.07.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 7th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Thursday was a really bad day for Tennessee. As we documented earlier, Jason King of Bleacher Report reported that Southern Mississippi, which was coached for two years by new Volunteers coach Donnie Tyndall, is under NCAA investigation for improper financial support of “Prop 48″ athletes. Tyndall has not been contacted by the NCAA yet, although that appears inevitable. Shortly after that troubling news broke, Chris Clarke, a top-75 senior who committed to Tennessee last week, reneged and announced that he will instead head to Virginia Tech. While it is likely the switch was in the works prior to the release of King’s story, it is hard to believe that the investigation had nothing to do with his change of decision. Clarke was clearly the crown jewel of the Volunteers’ class, and Tyndall must now head back to the recruiting drawing board under the potentially dark clouds of an NCAA investigation.
  2. SI’s Seth Davis recently made waves with an interview of Kentucky head coach John Calipari for his Campus Insiders show. In the interview, Davis raised the issue of the vacation of his two Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis. Calipari did not seem overly pleased with Davis’ question, indicating that he was not concerned about “me or my reputation. I sleep great at night.” Of course, that particular topic is one that Calipari’s detractors often raise to support their argument that he does not recruit above board, but he was not implicated in either of the two scandals and he seems to be doing well for himself in the Bluegrass State.
  3. Exhibition basketball is about as meaningful as the NFL preseason, so the results of these games are hardly worth paying attention to. Still, it is always surprising when a top-10 team plays a relatively close game against a Division II school. On Thursday night, #7 Florida struggled with Barry College in its exhibition opener, winning by only nine points and getting outscored by the Buccaneers in the paint, 22-18. While the Gators may not have played particularly well, they did get a game-high 22 points from Rutgers transfer Eli Carter, who went 5-of-9 from three-point range. Florida head coach Billy Donovan has to be pleased with Carter’s output — especially given the inexperience in the Gators’ backcourt behind Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II — and likely will not worry too much about the margin of Florida’s win.
  4. It is no secret that Anthony Grant likely needs a successful season to keep his job, and that he will be sent packing if Alabama does not significantly improve upon last year’s 13-19 record. The Crimson Tide have some returning experience, but Grant also brought in the best recruiting class in his six years in Tuscaloosa. Drew Champlin of AL.com took a look at Grant’s early efforts to blend this team’s youth and experience together. Alabama will be led by seniors Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper, but expect significant contributions from its four freshmen as well. Grant also brought in long-time Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon to add some much-needed experience to his staff. Witherspoon, who has what Grant calls a “great basketball mind,” will be crucial to the development of this team, and given a very difficult pre-conference schedule that includes games against Wichita State, Iowa State, Xavier and UCLA, he will need to work his magic quickly.
  5. LSU recently extended Johnny Jones’ contract through the 2017-18 season, based in large part upon his ability to bring in talent to Baton Rouge. He already has a commitment from Rivals.com’s top player in the 2015 class, Ben Simmons, and this weekend he will receive visits from two big-time recruitsJaQuan Lyle and Antonio Blakeney, both of whom previously committed to Louisville before backing out of their pledges. Lyle was a Class of 2014 player who committed to Oregon before reclassifying and going to prep school. Blakeney is ranked No. 13 in the 2015 class, and his decommitment from the Cardinals garnered significant attention because of the widespread belief that his decision was related to shoe company affiliation. For Jones, getting the two on campus for the weekend of the LSU-Alabama football game is a major coup, and if he can somehow convince the two guards to join forces with Simmons, the landscape of this program would change significantly.
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SEC Season Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

Posted by David Changas on November 4th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with Alabama.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Strengths. As with prior Anthony Grant teams, this year’s version should be able to defend at a high level. Alabama has always featured athletic teams that will guard its opponents and make it difficult to score, and as usual, the Crimson Tide will do so without an abundance of size inside. In his preseason ratings, Ken Pomeroy ranks Alabama at #32 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. With big guards like Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper patrolling the perimeter, Alabama has an ability to make things very difficult for its opponents to run offensive sets. And though they do not have any shot-blocking presence to speak of, there is no question that the Crimson Tide will make their opponents work to get good shots. In each of Grant’s five years at the school, his teams have been stellar at halfcourt defense, and this year should be no exception to that trend.

Levi Randolph is Alabama's top returning scorer. (AL.com/Vasha Hunt)

Levi Randolph is Alabama’s top returning scorer. (AL.com/Vasha Hunt)

Weaknesses. As well as Grant’s teams defend, they often have just as much trouble putting the ball in the basket — there is significant concern about what his team will produce from its halfcourt offense. The Tide lost their only double-figure scorer from last season, Trevor Releford — also the team’s only reliable outside shooter — but they do return four other starters. Alabama shot only 44.4 percent from the field and 33.4 percent from three-point range, though, and there is little reason to believe those numbers will improve significantly with virtually the same cast. In particular, perimeter scoring will be a problem, as no returning player shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. Grant will try to supplement his backcourt with the best freshman class he has had in his six seasons in Tuscaloosa. In addition to point guard Justin Coleman, Alabama added shooting guard Devin Mitchell and wing Riley Norris. Each will have to contribute early on the offensive end for the Crimson Tide to compete in the SEC. Read the rest of this entry »

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Assessing the SEC Coaching Hot Seat

Posted by David Changas on October 29th, 2014

As the college basketball season approaches, it’s time to assess how much pressure, or lack thereof, is on each of the SEC’s 14 coaches.

The Seat is ICE COLD

  • Billy Donovan (Florida) and John Calipari (Kentucky). It is hard to imagine two seats being any cooler than these two. The only way either leaves his current post is voluntarily for a high-profile and higher-paying job in the NBA. While that may still be a threat for both, Calipari would appear to be the more likely option to eventually take that route. Donovan, who remarkably is now entering his 19th season at Florida, does not appear to be headed anywhere, although he has flirted with — and once even took the Orlando Magic gig — several times in his tenure. For now, though, the two kings of the SEC are firmly entrenched at their respective schools and appear to be primed to dominate the league for the foreseeable future.
  • Bruce Pearl (Auburn). The Auburn administration did what many thought was unthinkable in March: It made Auburn basketball relevant again. The school’s hiring of Pearl was not just a home run; it was a grand slam, as the former Tennessee coach will have the Tigers playing at a high level within two to three years. He has already started recruiting well  – his 2015 class is currently No. 10 in Rivals.com‘s most recent ratings — and once his system is in place with the right parts, the rest of the SEC will be on notice.
Auburn is happy to have Bruce Pearl back in the SEC. (athlonsports.com)

Auburn is happy to have Bruce Pearl back in the SEC. (athlonsports.com)

  • Donnie Tyndall (Tennessee). Tyndall takes over a program that went to the Sweet Sixteen last season and was one controversial call away from having a chance to play for a Final Four berth. However, it is no secret that former head coach Cuonzo Martin was not beloved in Knoxville, and Tyndall’s engaging personality seems to be a better fit for the school. The Vols will certainly struggle this year and maybe a couple more after that, but Tyndall will get a pass in the short term to bring in players who fit his more frenetic system.

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LSU Gives Jones Extension: Does He Deserve It?

Posted by David Changas on October 24th, 2014

LSU announced earlier this week that head coach Johnny Jones‘ contract has been extended for two years through the 2017-18 season, and that he has received a $400,000 raise. Jones had been one of the lowest-paid coaches in the SEC, and will now make $1.5 million per season as the leader of the Tigers (with incentives, that number could reach as much as $2.1 million). While that is still well below what the highest-paid coaches in the SEC earn, the question that must be answered is why LSU thought this was the right time for an extension.

Johnny Jones and LSU Are Happy

Johnny Jones and LSU Are Happy

Jones has been at LSU for two years now but he has yet to lead the Tigers to an NCAA Tournament berth, and last season was a disappointment. Despite being picked to finish fourth in the conference, LSU went 9-9 in league play and 20-14 overall. The Tigers reached the NIT, but they were beaten handily by SMU in the second round. The Tigers were unable to finish better than .500 in league play despite having the talented services of Johnny O’Bryant, who departed for the NBA after the season, and freshman sensation Jordan Mickey, who was selected earlier this week to the preseason all-SEC first team. The Tigers also had Jarell Martin on hand, a player who came in as a five-star recruit but did not produce on the level of the less-heralded Mickey. And although attendance at the Maravich Center increased from Jones’ first year on the job, it is still not on the level it was even a decade ago and questions remain as to whether he can bring the program back to a level it was for much of Dale Brown’s tenure.

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SEC M5: 10.24.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on October 24th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. South Carolina was picked to finish 12th in the SEC by the media earlier this week, but coach Frank Martin is encouraged about the progress his team is making as he enters his third year. He is especially pleased with the leadership he is seeing from his backcourt duo of sophomore Sindarius Thornwell and senior Tyrone Johnson. If the Gamecocks are going to make a climb out of the bottom of the league, they will need the pair to take another step forward.
  2. The SEC put three teams into the Sweet Sixteen last season, but there is no dispute that the league has lacked significant depth, and has struggled to find teams other than Kentucky and Florida that can consistently compete for an NCAA Tournament bid. As FoxSports.com‘s Zach Dillard points out, one way to remedy the perception the league has is by playing better collective out-of-conference schedules. Too often, teams that finish near the top of the league standings do not have enough of a resume to be considered for a bid. For instance, Georgia finished third in the league last season, but was an afterthought with the selection committee because of a handful of bad losses in November and December. The more the league’s teams do to take on tougher competition, the better positioned they will be come Selection Sunday.
  3. As he embarks upon his first season at Tennessee, Donnie Tyndall credits getting his first shot at a high-major school to another former SEC coach: LSU’s John Brady. Brady coached the Tigers to a Final Four in 2006, but was not exactly a favorite of coaches or fans in the league before he was fired two years later. Tyndall says the current Arkansas State coach taught him “how to build a program,” and he hopes to put those lessons into practice as he rebuilds the Volunteers.
  4. Everyone knew that having Bruce Pearl back in the SEC would be fun, and he continues to do whatever it takes to promote his Auburn program. Earlier this week, he invaded a marketing class to promote his “Pearl Jam” event next Friday. So while Pearl is at a new school and in a different shade of orange, he hasn’t changed, and though his team likely will struggle to compete this season, he will do all he can to raise the profile of the Auburn program, while at the same time bringing much-needed notoriety to the SEC.
  5. As preseason practice continues, Kentucky coach John Calipari is looking for more fight from his most ballyhooed freshman, Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns, a 7′ center, was selected by the media as a second-team all-SEC player before setting foot on the court, will have to live up to the hype if the Wildcats are going to win the national championship. Towns has plenty of opportunity to get better in practice each day, as he goes up against Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, and Marcus Lee. As usual with Kentucky, there will be ups and downs, but with the experience and depth this team has, Calipari can wait for his star freshman to come along.
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Kentucky Dominates All-SEC Picks, Tops Preseason Poll

Posted by David Changas on October 23rd, 2014

The SEC held its annual media day on Wednesday, going to the home of the SEC Network in Charlotte for the first time. Along with the usual glass-half-full comments from each team’s coach, the media selected its all-conference teams and predicted the order of finish in the league. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Kentucky was not only picked to win the league, but it also dominated the 10-player preseason all-SEC team. While shooting guard Aaron Harrison was the only Wildcat selected on the first team, the second team included four more Wildcats: Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Harrison, and Alex Poythress. Aaron Harrison, whose late-game heroics sent the Wildcats past Michigan in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin in the Final Four, was chosen as the Player of the Year. Towns, the only freshman to make the first or second team, is a 6’11” center who most expect to be the best of Kentucky’s latest All-America-filled recruiting class. He was ranked fifth in that class by Rivals.com. Florida, which lost a lot of talent from last season’s Final Four squad, put guard Michael Frazier II on the team, and he was joined by Ole Miss’ Jarvis Summers, LSU’s Jordan Mickey, and Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. The only non-Wildcat on the second team was Georgia guard Charles Mann
Preseason SEC Rankings (first-place votes in parentheses)

  1. Kentucky (20) 280
  2. Florida 258
  3. Arkansas 226
  4. LSU 223
  5. Georgia 204
  6. Mississippi 168
  7. Missouri 123
  8. Auburn 113
  9. Texas A&M 111
  10. Alabama 109
  11. Vanderbilt 89
  12. South Carolina 86
  13. Tennessee 75
  14. Mississippi State 35

It goes without saying that preseason all-conference picks mean next to nothing, but, as always, there were a few surprises. Tennessee’s Josh Richardson, who came on strong during the NCAA Tournament, could have been selected, as he will clearly be the Vols’ best player. Likewise, enigmatic Florida forward Chris Walker, who has already been suspended for the first two regular season games, is primed for a breakout season now that he will be a bigger focus of the Gators’ offense. LSU’s Jarell Martin, who received at least one vote for SEC Player of the Year, was a surprising omission. Certainly coaches are glad to have high-quality players left off of the team, as their perceived snubs will serve to motivate them to prove the media wrong.

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SEC M5: 10.22.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on October 22nd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Everyone knows that John Calipari’s biggest problem this season with Kentucky will be making sure his bevy of high school All-Americans gets adequate playing time. Calipari usually does not have this concern, as he often relies upon short benches, but because of the return of so many players that he assumed would be headed to the NBA, he no longer has that “luxury.” As SportingNews.com’s Mike DeCourcy points out, there are specific challenges Calipari must deal with for the Wildcats to reach their ultimate goal of a national championship. And while it is unlikely any coach in the country will feel sorry for Calipari’s accidental embarrassment of riches, DeCourcy’s raises good points about how difficult it may be to keep everyone happy, and to keep everything in balance.
  2. Billy Kennedy’s remarkable recruiting run continued on Tuesday, when the Texas A&M coach picked up a commitment from top-30 forward Elijah Thomas, becoming the fourth top 100 player to commit to the Aggies over the offseason. Kennedy’s tenure in College Station has been mostly nondescript, but this haul changes the game for the Aggies. Thomas joins post Tyler Davis, forward D.J. Hogg and point guard Admon Gilder to form what 247sports.com rates as its second-best class in the country thus far. This season could be a rough ride for Texas A&M, but the future looks very bright.
  3. Like Kennedy’s tenure at Texas A&M, Mark Fox’s run at Georgia has been anything but overwhelming. However, after the Bulldogs finished tied for second in the SEC last season, big things are expected this year. In fact, many observers believe that Georgia should be disappointed in anything short of an NCAA Tournament run. Fox is entering his sixth season in Athens, but he has been to the Big Dance at Georgia only once. With a veteran club returning and the success last year brought, it is realistic to think the Bulldogs could get to the Tournament for the second time under his tenure. Getting off to a good start will be key, as last year saw several bad early season losses that crippled the team’s chance to compete for a bid. This year, for Georgia to play meaningful basketball in March, it will need to avoid such a slow start, and the Bulldogs should be able to do so with the experience it has returning.
  4. The SEC Network announced its schedule for the upcoming season, and there is no question that the league — which for years suffered from very poor TV contracts that left many games not televised — will gain plenty of exposure from the new outlet. In total, 118 games will be shown, starting with Kentucky’s exhibition against Pikeville on November 2. While top-tier games will continue to be released on bigger outlets, the fact that the network is part of most cable packages nationally can only help increase the league’s visibility. The network also announced its commentators, which will include many of the old SEC standbys like Barry Booker and Joe Dean, Jr., but two new names include former Kentucky standout Tony Delk and Tennessee’s Dane Bradshaw.
  5. When Auburn hired Bruce Pearl, a program with no identity and very little success over the past decade-plus instantly became one that people would talk about. Pearl’s team likely will struggle this season (although no one predicted the success he had during his first year at Tennessee in 2005 either), but the buzz he has brought to The Plains is palpable. Season ticket sales have more than doubled and the players have started to feel as popular as the school’s football team. Not since the days of Charles Barkley and Chuck Person, and, to a lesser extent, the late ’90s run of the Chris Porter team, has anyone spent much time talking about Auburn basketball. The administration knew that hiring someone like Pearl, whose promotional skills are as good as his coaching chops, would bring an identity to the program that had long been missing. Thus far, everything has gone according to plan.
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SEC M5: 10.17.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on October 17th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Florida has had a rough week thus far, as the Gators were forced to suspend sophomore forward Chris Walker on Wednesday for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The three-game suspension will force Walker to miss the Gators’ exhibition game against Barry University as well as the regular season’s first two games against William & Mary and cross-state rival Miami. It has been speculated that Walker, who missed a good portion of last season with academic issues, may have violated the school’s drug policy. The Gators also found out they will be without four-star freshman guard Brandone Francis because of his academic shortcomings. Francis is ineligible to practice with the team this fall, but could return to the court in the spring if his performance in school improves.
  2. Despite having two teams in the top 10, it’s no surprise that the SEC is not particularly well-represented in the first preseason USA Today coaches poll. Kentucky tops the list, receiving 24 of the available 32 first-place votes.  Florida checks in at No. 7, and the only other SEC team to even receive votes was Arkansas. Given the league’s lack of national success over the past several years – Kentucky and Florida aside – and so many questions that must be answered by so many teams in the league, the Wildcats and Gators might be the only two schools from the conference who consistently spend time in the poll throughout this season.
  3. It is no secret that Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison often didn’t see eye to eye with coach John Calipari last year, and that his freshman campaign was mostly disappointing. While he redeemed himself in helping the Wildcats make their surprising run to the national championship game, his success there did not erase the shortcomings of the rest of the season. By contrast, CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish thinks Harrison can be a great redemption story this season. While he did not live up to the hype that came with being one of the nation’s most heralded freshman, he has put that disappointment behind him. His first season in Lexington failed to match those of other great point guards who have played under Calipari — players like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, and Brandon Knight — but that doesn’t mean he can’t turn things around this year. By all accounts, Harrison is in better shape than when he arrived in Lexington last August, and has worked hard during the offseason to be ready to raise the overall level of his game. If Kentucky is going to live up to those lofty preseason expectations, he will need to do just that.
  4. The announcement earlier this week that SEC Commissioner Mike Slive will retire in July 2015 received a lot of attention nationally, mostly because of the remarkable job Slive has done in bringing the conference to a level of college football dominance not seen in some time. He is also credited with putting together the fledgling SEC Network, which virtually every cable and satellite provider in the country offers as part of its basic packages. And while there is no questioning the financial success that the league has enjoyed under Slive’s leadership, his relative inability to lead the conference to commensurate success in basketball is certainly worth discussing. Kentucky has been again dominant since Calipari’s arrival in 2009, and Florida has been a perennial top-10 power for over a decade under Billy Donovan’s leadership, but the overall profile of the league has not improved since Slive took the job in 2002. In fact, it could be reasonably argued that it has diminished, and that the league is perceived, now more than ever, of being concerned only with football success. While it obviously would be overly simplistic to put all of that at Slive’s feet, it is fair to direct some criticism his way, especially in light of the great accolades he receives for the conference’s success on the gridiron.
  5. There were plenty of surprises that came with Tennessee‘s unexpected run to the Sweet Sixteen last year, but none was bigger than the emergence of forward Josh Richardson. The defensive stalwart averaged just under 10.0 PPG during the regular season, but his average soared to 19.3 PPG in the team’s four NCAA Tournament games. Now, with most of his running mates from last year’s team as well as his coach having moved on, new coach Donnie Tyndall is leaning heavily on Richardson to lead his young group of Volunteers. It appears the senior forward has taken Tyndall’s admonitions to heart, and while it is unrealistic to expect Tennessee to duplicate its March success this season, if the Volunteers are going to have any real success, they will need Richardson to lead the way on both ends of the floor.
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Looking Back at Kentucky’s Remarkable Run

Posted by David Changas on April 11th, 2014

On March 1, Kentucky‘s season hit its lowest point when the Wildcats lost to SEC bottom-feeder South Carolina, 72-67. Talk of a 40-0 season was a distant memory, and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament seemed likely. After that loss, Kentucky went on to lose twice to SEC champion Florida, but it was during the second of those losses – a one-point SEC Tournament Championship Game thriller that the Wildcats had a chance to win – that gave coach John Calipari’s team confidence that all was not lost. Kentucky received a #8 seed from the selection committee, and the path ahead of it would consist of games with the region’s top seed and the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record in 23 years, Wichita State, as well as a possible rematch with arch-nemesis Louisville. The regional final projected as a game against the team that lost to Louisville in last year’s national championship game, Michigan, or SEC rival Tennessee. The Wildcats were able to beat Kansas State with relative ease in the opening round, and then proceed to win thrillers against the Shockers, Cardinals, and Wolverines to advance to their third Final Four in Calipari’s five years at the helm of the program.

Kentucky Will Play For The Program's Ninth National Title On Monday Night

Kentucky Celebrated Its Way to the National Title Game

At the outset of the season, Kentucky was the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, and there was some serious talk in the Bluegrass State that the Wildcats could reach 40-0. That dream was dashed with an early-season loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, and then Kentucky followed that with pre-conference defeats to Baylor and North Carolina. If those losses didn’t cause significant concern, the Wildcats’ play in the lowly SEC did. They were swept by the Gators and by Arkansas, and narrowly avoided a sweep by LSU. By the time the SEC Tournament arrived, many wondered whether it was too late for the club to figure things out and salvage their season. After dominant wins over LSU and Georgia, the Wildcats appeared headed for another blowout loss in the title game to Florida. They trailed the Gators by 16 early in the second half, but eventually cut the lead to one point with the ball before James Young slipped and lost control, costing the Wildcats a chance to win. While Kentucky wasn’t able to complete the comeback, that game was the impetus for the turnaround. Willie Cauley-Stein called the performance “a big confidence-booster” afterward, and said that the Wildcats were a “new team” coming out of Atlanta. While winning the daunting Midwest region appeared to be a near-impossible task for a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with 10 losses, the 78-76 second-round win over Wichita State in what many considered the best game of the Big Dance served notice that the Kentucky team many had expected had finally arrived.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Florida 62 # 11 Dayton 52

Posted by David Changas (@dchangas) on March 29th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

David Changas (@dchangas) is the NCAA Tournament’s South Region correspondent. He filed this report after #1 Florida’s 62-52 win over #11 Dayton. RTC will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Elite Eight and Final Four. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion, @RTCsouthregion, and @RTCwestregion

Many have argued that the Gators are the best in the country. Now Billy Donovan's crew will be on the biggest stage to prove it. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Many have argued that the Gators are the best in the country. Now Billy Donovan’s crew will be on the biggest stage to see if they can prove it. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. Stingy Gator Defense. Florida came into the game with one of the nation’s best defenses, and the Gators showed why on this night. They held Dayton to 39.6% shooting. Florida made it especially difficult the Flyers to score from inside the arc, as the Flyers made only 11 of 30 two-point attempts. We expected Dayton would have a much more difficult time scoring on against Florida than it did against Stanford on Thursday, but given the Flyers’ excellent ball movement, we didn’t expect it to be this tough. With Patric Young and Will Yeguete holding things down in the middle, Dayton’s offense was simply over-matched on the interior.
  2. Controlling the Glass, Again. One of the keys to Florida’s win over UCLA was its ability to limit the Bruins’ second chances. Against Dayton, Florida had an 18-15 rebounding edge at the half, as the Flyers held up well and held the Gators to only four offensive boards. The second half was a different story, as Florida out-rebounded Dayton by eight and ended the game with a 37-26 advantage on the glass. Late in the game, when Dayton cut the lead to eight with just under four minutes to play, the Flyers allowed the Gators to get three offensive rebounds and run over a minute off the clock. Though Florida didn’t score on the possession, it was able to take precious seconds off the clock, and essentially took away any chance Dayton had to get close enough to have a chance to win.
  3. Dayton Held its Own. The Flyers became the Cinderella story of this Tournament by knocking off three higher seeds on the way to their first Elite Eight appearance since 1984. And while they simply didn’t have enough to take down the Tournament’s top overall seed, the Flyers acquitted themselves quite well on the big stage. At several points in this game, the Flyers could have packed it in, but they refused to. They trailed by 14 at the half, but came out in the second with two quick threes to cut the lead to 8. Though they never got any closer than that, Florida had a tough time putting them away. Dayton coach Archie Miller served notice that as long he’s at the helm of the program, bright days are ahead.

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