Can Win at Rupp Propel Arkansas to the SEC’s Third NCAA Tournament Bid?

Posted by David Changas on February 28th, 2014

For the past several weeks, many have wondered if the SEC, a power conference with 14 teams, could actually only get two bids to the NCAA Tournament. The maddening inconsistency of teams other than Florida and Kentucky made it seems like a real possibility. After Missouri recently won three straight home games, it looked like the Tigers could be the third team to step up and solidify the conference’s standing. The Tigers proceeded to drop road games to Alabama and Georgia — the latter giving the Bulldogs a season sweep — and now again appear to be on shaky ground. Tennessee, which in the preseason was considered a lock by many to make the Big Dance, went to College Station last Saturday and lost to lowly Texas A&M for the second time this season, and, although a 4-0 finish to the regular season is possible, the Vols’ Tournament chances appear to be tenuous at best. LSU, another team many thought could compete for a bid, has been inconsistent, and does not have a resume that merits serious consideration at this point.

Is Mike Anderson on the verge of taking Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament? (AP)

The only other hope the league has had for an at-large bid is Arkansas, and for most of the season, the Razorbacks have not been considered a legitimate contender because of their inability to win away from Bud Walton Arena. Prior to this season, Mike Anderson’s only two conference road wins came at Auburn, and this year started out no differently. After getting blown out in their first league road game at Texas A&M, Arkansas lost close but winnable games at Georgia and Tennessee, and began the conference season a chilly 2-6. That appeared to all but end any thought that the Razorbacks could make the NCAA Tournament this season. Since that time, however, the Hawgs have won six of seven, including three on the road. And none have been bigger than last night’s overtime win at Kentucky. Not only was it the first win for Arkansas at Rupp Arena since 1994, it was easily Anderson’s biggest win since taking over for John Pelphrey three years ago. Despite turning the ball over 20 times and giving up 26 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats, the Razorbacks, which led by double-figures for much of the first half and by seven at the break, were able to overcome a late five-point deficit to force the extra frame on their way to a 71-67 win. Thanks in large part to holding Kentucky to 34.2 percent shooting and a 16-of-16 mark from the line, Arkansas was able to get a win that will serve them very well with Selection Sunday just over two weeks away.

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SEC M5: 02.21.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 21st, 2014

  1. For possibly the first time since the start of conference play, each of the four SEC teams that arguably should be considered to be on the bubble won their midweek games. Tennessee downed Georgia on Tuesday night, and LSU, Arkansas, and Missouri all followed with wins on Wednesday. Granted, each of the four teams was at home and was favored, and had any of them lost, it would have been considered an upset. Still, given the numerous times SEC teams have lost games unexpectedly since early January, nothing would have been a surprise. Of course, of the four “bubble” teams, only Missouri, which has an RPI of 35, can consider itself to be safe for the moment. The Tigers, who swept their three-game home stand against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt — each win coming in narrow fashion — have a favorable schedule leading up to their season finale at Tennessee. They go to Alabama and Georgia, which beat them in Columbia in early January, before getting bottom-feeders Mississippi State and Texas A&M at home. Given the softness of the bubble, it’s reasonable to expect that if Missouri can finish out with wins in four of those five contests, they should safely be in the field for the NCAA Tournament. Nothing in this league should be taken for granted, however, so while things look good for the Tigers at the moment, a lot can change over the next three-and-a-half weeks.
  2. As you’re likely already aware, earlier this week Rick Pitino voiced his opinion about social media, saying it often “poisons” athletes’ minds. Some took Pitino’s comments out of context, and a lot of what he said on the subject made sense. The Louisville coach has banned his team from Twitter, and said it was “insulting” for people to use it, given the amount of time spent on it. It didn’t take long for Kentucky coach John Calipari to weigh in. Not surprisingly, Calipari disagreed with Pitino’s assessment, saying that coaches who hate social media “know nothing about” it. Unlike Pitino, Calipari instructs his players on how to use social media, and has a Twitter account with over 1,250,000 followers. Since he arrived in Lexington prior to the 2009-10 season, Calipari has used the medium to hype his program and communicate with fans. Given his ability to connect with recruits, it’s not surprising Calipari is familiar with how to effectively use social media. It’s also not surprising that he would take the opportunity to dust things up with his archrival.
  3. The road for Florida to be ranked No. 1 when the polls are released next Monday is clear, given Syracuse’s stunning loss at home to a woeful Boston College team on Wednesday. The Gators need only win at Ole Miss on Saturday to set themselves up to be at the top of the polls. Still, as the scare they received in their 61-56 home win over lowly Auburn Wednesday night showed, Billy Donovan’s team can take nothing for granted in its quest to finish the SEC season unbeaten. Thanks to a late Auburn meltdown, the Gators were able to improve their conference record to 13-0, and face a capable Rebel squad coming off a somewhat embarrassing home loss to Kentucky. While it’s reasonable to expect Andy Kennedy to have his team ready to bounce back from its lackluster effort, it’s also likely that its performance against Auburn served as a wake-up call for Florida. As The Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley pointed out in this piece, Donovan knows his team can’t take any opponent lightly. The Gators have now won a school-record 18 games in a row, but to make it 19, they’ll have to bring a much better effort against Ole Miss.
  4. It seems that everyone is looking for ways to improve the level of play in the SEC, and there’s no doubt that league commissioner Mike Slive is concerned about the fact that, in late February, the league has only two NCAA Tournament locks. The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Mark Story thinks one way to fix the league is to return to divisional play. The league abandoned the East/West format it follows for football prior to the 2011-12 season, and subsequently moved to an 18-game schedule in which each league team only has one permanent opponent it plays twice. While Story makes some good points – the best one being that the elimination of divisions limits the number of home-and-homes each team consistently plays – it’s more likely that no longer having division play has nothing to do with the league’s poor collective performance, and that improvement in the quality of play would make this a moot argument. The reason the SEC is burdened with so many uninteresting matchups is that too many of its teams simply aren’t very good. No one seems to mind that Kentucky and Florida aren’t geographically close when those two squads get together. While the SEC is more spread out than it used to be, there is plenty of interesting basketball being played in the much more geographically-diverse ACC. There’s no question that expansion has diminished or eliminated a lot of classic rivalries, but the SEC’s decision to follow what all other power conferences were doing by getting rid of the divisional format was the right move.
  5. The weekend ahead doesn’t bring too many glamorous SEC games, though Florida’s visit to Ole Miss could get interesting. The other matchup that could be worth watching involves LSU traveling to Lexington to take on Kentucky. In late January, the Tigers handed the Wildcats one of their three conferences losses. Johnny O’Bryant was dominant for LSU, scoring 29 points and grabbing nine rebounds. The Tigers, whose struggles mostly are attributable to an inconsistent backcourt, got an excellent performance from point guard Anthony Hickey, who handed out six assists without a turnover. Hickey was the most effective guard on the court that night, outshining Kentucky’s Harrison twins. More importantly for the Tigers, though, was the job they did bottling up Julius Randle. The sensational freshman had his worst offensive output of the season, scoring only six points, and it was the only time in the Wildcats’ last 11 games in which he didn’t score in double figures. Kentucky comes into the game as a double-digit favorite, and given LSU’s inconsistency of late, it’s probably too much to expect the Tigers to win in Rupp Arena. But they may be the type of team that presents matchup problems for the Wildcats, and a win would go a long way toward enhancing LSU’s resume.
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Despite Attrition, Vanderbilt Finding Surprising Success in SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 6th, 2014

Expectations for Vanderbilt were relatively low coming into the season, as the Commodores were predicted by most to finish in the bottom half of the SEC. A team beleaguered by defections and suspensions in the offseason started the year with an inexperienced nine-man rotation, but the loss of Josh Henderson to a torn ACL and leading scorer Eric McClellan to dismissal appeared to spell doom for the Commodores as they embarked upon conference play. Using a seven-man group that has forced starting guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker along with forward Rod Odom to essentially play with no rest, Vanderbilt’s start in the SEC went largely as expected with home losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss contributing to a 1-4 record. But after the Ole Miss loss, the Commodores went to Texas A&M and Georgia and grabbed wins, following that up with a home win over Mississippi State last weekend. On Wednesday night, they extended their winning streak to four after edging Tennessee, 64-60, to surprisingly move a game to 5-4 at the halfway mark of SEC play. With Arkansas coming to Nashville on Saturday, the Commodores have a realistic shot of adding to their current hot streak.

Vandy Continues to Surprise (S. Myers/Tennessean)

Vandy Continues to Surprise (S. Myers/Tennessean)

While Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has endured his share of criticism for underachieving with several upper echelon SEC squads, the job he has done with this year’s team has drawn rave reviews. Included among the seven players who are part of the rotation are slender freshman Luke Kornet, who would have been a natural candidate to redshirt under different circumstances, and forward Shelby Moats, who logs just over 10 minutes per game. Fortunately for Stallings, he is especially able to rely upon the underrated Odom, who has stepped his game up to an all-SEC level.

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Florida to Get Boost from Addition of Chris Walker

Posted by David Changas on February 4th, 2014

It’s not often that a top-five team can add an elite recruit in February, but that is exactly what Florida will do tonight when highly-touted freshman Chris Walker finally makes his debut for the Gators. Walker, who was ranked seventh in the 247sports.com composite recruiting rankings last year, was declared academically eligible by the NCAA on December 14, and has been practicing but was not cleared for game action until last week. His suspension totaled 12 games, and was related to impermissible benefits from agents and AAU coaches. As a result, he will be forced to donate the $280 he received to charity and serve 80 hours of community service.

Chris Walker Will Finally Get to Bring His High-Ware Act to the Gators

Chris Walker Will Finally Get to Bring His High-Ware Act to the Gators

Florida currently sits at 19-2 overall and 8-0 in the SEC as it welcomes Missouri to the O’Connell Center for a Super Tuesday tilt. It is unlikely that head coach Billy Donovan will ask too much of Walker tonight, and with good reason. The Gators, currently ranked No. 3 in this week’s AP poll, have done quite well without him and Donovan may not want to disrupt the chemistry his front line has already developed. Florida’s senior-laden trio of Patric Young, Will Yuguete and Casey Prather, along with sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith, have led the Gators to a dominant SEC start, where their average margin of victory is north of 15 points per game. And Donovan has gone out of his way to make it clear not to expect too much from the ballyhooed freshman.

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An Under the Radar Marshall Henderson is Good for Ole Miss

Posted by David Changas on January 23rd, 2014

Maybe it’s because his team isn’t as talented as last year. Maybe it’s because we’re used to him now and his act has worn thin.  Maybe he’s simply more mature. Whatever the case, the Marshall Henderson who entertained us with heroic shots, crazy antics, and endless taunts just doesn’t seem to be stirring the pot like he did a year ago. Sure, he still likes to put on a show and pound his chest after a big three or a pretty pass. It appears, though, that Ole Miss’ efforts to have the senior guard tone down his act have succeeded. Prior to the season, the school made the decision to suspend him for three games for his behavior – he missed the season opener and the team’s first two conference games. He completed that suspension, and proceeded to win SEC Player of the Week honors immediately upon his return after wins over LSU and South Carolina. While his scoring average is slightly down from last year (from 20.1 to 19.2 PPG), his assist and turnover numbers are slightly better. His team, which lost frontcourt stalwarts Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway to graduation, relies on him more than ever, and if it is going to make a run at a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, will need the formerly volatile, now docile guard to be at his best.

Marshall Henderson Under the Radar? (US Presswire)

Marshall Henderson Under the Radar? (US Presswire)

The efforts that coach Andy Kennedy has made to rein in Henderson’s behavior have been well-chronicled. Kennedy has indicated that the fifth-year senior has not caused any problems whatsoever this year. On Wednesday night, he returned to the place where he first burst onto the scene when the Rebels visited Vanderbilt. His performance Wednesday was subpar – he scored only 11 points, going 3-of-10 from three-point range – but he showed he still has a flair for the dramatic. After Vanderbilt overcame a 13-point deficit early in the second half deficit to take a one-point lead with just over six minutes remaining, Henderson did his thing. “We turn it over, and he gets a three in transition and then he comes back and hits another one right after that. Those were both daggers,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said after the game. “Dai-jon [Parker] did as good a job as you could do on him, and the kid still probably hits the two biggest baskets in the game.” It was yet another example of Henderson displaying his keen ability to come up big in important moments.

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SEC M5: 01.22.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 22nd, 2014

  1. If it’s Super Tuesday, it’s a good bet Kentucky is on center stage. Last night against Texas A&M, Kentucky let the Aggies hang around for most of the first half before coasting to a 68-51 victory to push their conference record to 4-1. The Wildcats got their usual strong performances from Julius Randle (13 points, 11 rebounds) and James Young (15 points, seven rebounds), but also got a game- and season-high 16 points from reserve Alex Poythress. The sophomore forward has been inconsistent since he arrived in Lexington, but has shown signs over the past several weeks that he’s ready to become a more regular contributor. After struggling in the period leading up to conference play, Poythress has now scored in double figures in three of the first five league games and looks to be more comfortable in John Calipari’s system. The head coach has said that Poythress’ biggest hindrance to becoming a more productive player is his own lack of confidence. If he is able to build on his recent performances, he will make Kentucky that much more dangerous as March approaches.
  2. In a game between teams that still have their sights set on the NCAA Tournament, LSU topped Missouri, 77-71, Tuesday night in Baton Rouge. LSU got 14 points and 13 rebounds from stellar freshman Jordan Mickey. The highly-touted freshman has lived up to the hype for head coach Johnny Jones, as he is second on the team to Johnny O’Bryant in both scoring (13.1 PPG) and rebounding (6.9 RPG). This game was a contrast in styles, as LSU’s strength is its frontcourt, while Missouri boasts one of the league’s strongest backcourts but struggles with production up front. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Mickey, O’Bryant, and Shavon Coleman combined for 49 of LSU’s 77 points, while Missouri got all but eight of its points from the guard trio of Jabari Brown (28 points), Jordan Clarkson (19), and Earnest Ross (16). LSU moved to 3-2 in the conference with the win, while Missouri, which came into league play with only one loss, dropped to 2-3.
  3. Although we’re less than a quarter of the way through the conference race, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the meeting between Tennessee and Arkansas tonight in Knoxville. The Vols, which are coming off a solid performance in a loss at Kentucky on Saturday, can ill-afford a home loss, as their NCAA Tournament hopes are tenuous at best. In the latest Rush the Court bracketology, the Vols, though not in the “First Four,” are projected as a 12-seed, meaning they have little room for error themselves. They have a number of games remaining against teams with weak profiles, so a win over the Razorbacks here is imperative. Arkansas, for its part, remarkably has only two conference road wins in Mike Anderson’s tenure in Fayetteville, both of which came against Auburn. The Hogs fell short in overtime against Georgia in Athens on Saturday, and though the beginning of their conference slate has been more difficult than most SEC teams’, a 1-4 start in the league would likely be too much overcome. Given their resume (RPI No. 66), a loss would give them little room for error (they are currently in RTC‘s “First Four Out”), and at some point, Anderson is going to have to win a big game away from Bud Walton Arena if he is going to get Arkansas to the Big Dance for the first time since his arrival.
  4. After missing the previous two games against Auburn and Mississippi State, the SEC’s biggest enigma has returned with a vengeance. Marshall Henderson was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points and 3.5 assists per game in Ole Miss’ overtime home win over LSU, and the Rebels’ first win in Columbia since 2001. Henderson, who launched nearly 11 three-pointers per game last year but has increased that number to 11.5 per game this season, went 9-of-24 from beyond the arc in those two games. For Ole Miss (12-5, 3-1), which has seen its RPI profile (No. 66) improve since the beginning of SEC play, to have any chance of making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, it knows that it largely will go as Henderson goes. And Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, whose team faces the Rebels in Nashville tonight, knows that stopping Henderson will be the Commodores’ key to victory. The head coach knows all too well what Henderson is capable of doing after witnessing first-hand the craziness in last year’s Ole Miss win at Memorial Gymnasium.
  5. The saga of Florida’s Chris Walker continues unabated, and Florida head coach Billy Donovan indicated on Tuesday that he will not address the situation anymore. Walker, who was Rivals’ No. 6 player in the class of 2013, was admitted to school in December, but is still awaiting clearance by the NCAA Clearinghouse relating to possible impermissible benefits during his AAU days. If he finally becomes eligible, he will add an important piece to an already formidable Gators’ front line. For his part, Donovan has clearly tired of discussing Walker’s status, and knows all he can do is play the guys who are available to him. Still, not many programs can look at the possibility of adding a top-10 recruit this far into the season. With Tennessee’s talented frontcourt duo of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon coming to Gainesville on Saturday, Donovan would certainly love to have Walker available for that key contest. It’s reasonable to assume that Florida will take care of business at Alabama tonight even without him.
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Calipari Knows Kentucky is Making Progress

Posted by David Changas on January 12th, 2014

All college basketball teams change from year to year. Players graduate, leave early, transfer, and new recruits fill their spots. But as everyone knows, no team changes year over year like John Calipari’s crew. And regardless of the fact that he brought in what many considered the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history this year, he knew that it would take time for his team to come together. After a Christmas week win against archrival Louisville and opening SEC wins over undermanned Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, he is finally confident that things are in fact starting to coalesce. “We’re still not there. But I’m looking around the country, I don’t see anybody there. I like my team. I like our progress. We have the biggest upside of any team in the country. We’re  the youngest team in the country; that’s where we are. I just have to try to [have] patience when I have none,” Calipari said after Saturday’s 71-62 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Calipari is All Smiles About This Year's Group. What About Next Year? (AP)

Don’t look now, Coach Cal’s crew is slowly coming together. (AP)

Calipari knows that bringing in such a haul of talent and that playing almost an entirely new set of players (only Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Jarrod Polson are significant contributors from last year’s squad) will require him to exhibit that patience. “I got a brand new team, and every year it’s something different, and as we go, you start figuring out how we have to play,” he said. Calipari was particularly pleased by the performance of the sophomore Poythress, who has not lived up to the lofty expectations set for him coming into college, and someone whom Calipari thinks has been limited by his lack of self-confidence. “Like I say to him, ‘You’re as good as anybody in the gym. Why won’t you play that way?’ And I asked the team, ‘What’s holding him back?’ [They said], ‘He is,'” Calipari said. The talented veteran forward will be a key for the Wildcats as they try to develop into a team that can win Calipari’s second national championship.

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Arkansas Has Golden Opportunity to Advance NCAA Tournament Cause, Starting Today

Posted by David Changas on January 11th, 2014

Despite multiple bracketologists having Arkansas either in the NCAA Tournament or just on the outside looking in, the Razorbacks’ resume lacks the quality wins that bubble teams always need in March. They have two top-50 RPI wins – at home against SMU, and against Minnesota in the Maui Invitational – and sport an 11-3 overall record. Other than their trip to Maui, which included respectable losses to California (RPI No. 54) and Gonzaga (RPI No. 14), their pre-conference slate was relatively weak. Their first damaging loss of the season came on Wednesday against Texas A&M (RPI No. 142) in College Station, and it pushed Arkansas’ RPI ranking to No. 91. As one of the few teams projected to be able to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid out of the SEC, it’s the kind of loss the Razorbacks could ill afford. Luckily for them, the opportunity to make up for the loss is immediate, and while the phrase “must-win” is entirely overused — especially one game into the conference season — it may be applicable to Arkansas’ next two games, which come at home against what are clearly the best two teams in the SEC.

Mike Anderson's Team (http://grfx.cstv.com).

Mike Anderson’s Team Will Have Its Chances In the Next Week of Action

Later today, Florida comes calling to Bud Walton Arena after opening its conference schedule with a 74-58 thumping of South Carolina in Gainesville. And despite the fact that the Gators have the league’s most impressive non-conference resume and have won six contests in a row, Arkansas may be drawing them at an opportune time. According to various reportsCasey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin could both miss the game due to injury, which would leave Florida with only seven scholarship players. Still, the Gators will present a serious challenge for the Razorbacks. After Florida comes to town, Arkansas hosts the league’s preseason favorite and other juggernaut, Kentucky, in an ESPN Super Tuesday match-up. If the Razorbacks can pull off wins against the league’s two best teams, they’ll place themselves squarely in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament.

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Three Thoughts from Vanderbilt’s Win over Georgia Tech

Posted by David Changas on December 21st, 2013

David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Saturday’s Vanderbilt-Georgia Tech game in Nashville.

Vanderbilt moved to 7-3 on Saturday with a 76-63 home win over struggling Georgia Tech. The loss dropped the Yellow Jackets to 8-4. Here are three thoughts from courtside.

Kevin Stallings Got a Solid Win over an ACC Team Today (AP/Wade Payne)

Kevin Stallings Got a Solid Win over an ACC Team Today (AP/Wade Payne)

  1. A game of runs.  Georgia Tech was clearly in control, leading 31-17 with 6:02 left in the first half. The Yellow Jackets had taken the less-than-capacity crowd out of the game and looked to be poised to run away with it. From that point, however, Vanderbilt scored 39 of the next 49 points over a span of 16:37, and it was the Commodores who won this one going away.”I thought the key to the game was the last seven minutes of the first half,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “When you get down [big] and you’re coming off two games in a row where you hadn’t played well, things can go a lot of different ways.” Given Georgia Tech’s balance and experience, and Vanderbilt’s lack thereof, it was a surprising turnaround. After November losses to Dayton, Ole Miss, and St. John’s, the Yellow Jackets had built some momentum with three straight wins, but could not build on it in their first of four straight road contests. Fifth-year senior center Daniel Miller scored 11 points in the game’s first 10 minutes and appeared to ready for a big night, but finished with only 16 points and essentially was a non-factor the rest of the way. Georgia Tech’s failure to take advantage of Vanderbilt’s relatively thin interior – the Commodores recently lost starting center Josh Henderson for the season – was surprising, especially given its early success. Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory was disappointed in Miller’s supporting cast of Robert Carter and Kammeon Holsey. “Daniel was tremendous. We need to get some other guys to step up.” Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC M5: 12.06.13 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 6th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky heads to Arlington, Texas, tonight to take on Baylor in what clearly is the highest-profile match-up of the weekend involving an SEC team, and the biggest game of the Big 12-SEC Challenge. The contest will be a stiff test for the Wildcats in “The House that Jerry Jones Built,” as Baylor is coming off a good performance at the Maui Invitational last week. Like Kentucky, the Bears are 7-1, and clearly don’t lack for confidence, if the comments of Baylor center Isaiah Austin are any indication. The sophomore, whose college choice came down to Baylor and Kentucky, said the Wildcats aren’t better than the Bears “in any way, shape, or form.” The quotes should motivate the young Wildcats, although it’s unlikely such motivation is needed. Not only do those left on the roster from last year’s team look to avenge last season’s 64-55 loss to the Bears in Rupp Arena, but the game will be played at the site of the 2014 Final Four. John Calipari has to like the idea of getting some experience in a facility that he hopes to return to at the end of the season, and he can sell his team on the idea of working to back to AT&T Stadium in April.
  2. The other match-up of the weekend involving an SEC team that offers significant intrigue is Missouri hosting UCLA on Saturday. While most Tigers’ fans might have their attention on the Georgia Dome and the football team’s tilt with Auburn, the basketball game will serve as a nice appetizer to that one. The Tigers got ready for the contest with an 80-71 win over West Virginia in the Big 12-SEC Challenge last night. While the Bruins will offer the stiffest test Missouri has faced thus far, the Tigers moved to 8-0 with the win, and have settled in nicely after Frank Haith returned from his five-game suspension. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson has been impressive in his first eight games, leading the team in scoring (19.3 PPG) and assists (3.4 APG). Clarkson and Jabari Brown (19.2 PPG, 46.7% on threes) have thus far given the Tigers the type of production they needed after losing so much from last year’s team. A win over equally-untested UCLA could raise eyebrows. With both teams playing a faster brand of basketball than they have in the past, it should be an entertaining match-up, and the kind of distraction Missouri football fans need before arguably the biggest game in school history in that sport.
  3. The Big 12-SEC Challenge certainly does not receive the attention that the ACC-Big Ten Challenge does, and given the often uninspiring match-ups it offers, as well as the fact that it is in its first year and is spread out over more than a month, this isn’t surprising. In addition to the Missouri-West Virginia game, Thursday night offered a mildly interesting contest between Ole Miss and Kansas State in Manhattan, as well as a forgettable game between conference bottom feeders Mississippi State and TCU in Starkville. Both Mississippi schools fell short, with Ole Miss falling 61-58 after leading by four with fewer than four minutes remaining. It was the Rebels’ first loss of the season, and given Kansas State’s struggles so far this year, it was a game Ole Miss needed to win to build a quality resume. As for Mississippi State, the Bulldogs trailed by 12 at the half and eventually lost by a score of 71-61. For those keeping tabs at home – and we know you all are – the Big 12 leads the 10-game series 4-2 so far.
  4. Florida confirmed that Scottie Wilbekin suffered a high ankle sprain in Monday’s last-second loss to UConn, and it is not known how much time he will miss. It is clear, though, that he will not make it back for the Gators’ December 10 home match-up with Kansas in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.  His absence leaves Florida in a bind in the backcourt, as fellow guard Kasey Hill is out for at least a couple more weeks, Rutgers transfer Eli Carter will take a medical redshirt, and highly-touted freshman Chris Walker still has not been cleared to play. Against the Huskies, the only other Gators’ guard to score was Michael Frazier II (seven points in 39 minutes), and it will be difficult for Florida to get enough on the perimeter to take down the Jayhawks.
  5. Speaking of Florida, the Gators made national news when their charter from Gainesville to Storrs Sunday afternoon experienced a mechanical issue, and Delta bumped a full flight of 50 passengers to accommodate Billy Donovan’s squad. While most of the passengers were able to leave Gainesville on Sunday and were given travel vouchers for their inconveniences, some were forced to wait until Monday to leave. The Gators had nothing to do with the change and had no knowledge it was being made, but the move obviously left some of those who were bumped unhappy. Based upon some of the attendance figures that come from games at the O’Connell Center, Florida doesn’t enjoy the popularity a team that has had as much success as it has over the 17-plus years Donovan has been in Gainesville deserves, and this situation likely didn’t help. Neither did the Gators’ last-second loss to the Huskies, for that matter.
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Tennessee Blows Golden Opportunity For Resume Enhancers in Loss to UTEP

Posted by David Changas on November 29th, 2013

For Tennessee, the causes for concern following Thursday night’s loss to UTEP are numerous. The Vols showed no ability to run any semblance of an offense against Tim Floyd’s triangle-and-two and box-in-one defense, hitting only 34.9 percent of their shots, including 3-for-21 from three-point range. They allowed the Miners to shoot 58.0 percent on the other end, and played a wholly uninspired game against a Miners team that previously had given no indication it would be able to compete with the team many expect to finish behind Kentucky and Florida in the SEC race. And while Tennessee has a long way to go at this point to even be mentioned in the same breath as the NCAA Tournament, it’s still November, and what may be the most troubling aspect of losing in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis is that it created missed opportunities for two more games against teams certain to be part of the Big Dance.

Cuonzo Martin Missed a Good Opportunity This Weekend (AP/Adam Brimer)

Cuonzo Martin Missed a Good Opportunity This Weekend (AP/Adam Brimer)

With the loss, the Vols fall into the tournament’s losers’ bracket, and Friday will seek to exact revenge against a Xavier team that dealt them a 67-63 loss in the season opener. While Tennessee appeared to be the more talented team in that game, it got virtually no offensive production from forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon (11 combined points), and shot a paltry 7-of-19 from the free throw line. The Vols also let Matt Stainbrook, who led the Musketeers with 15 points and nine rebounds, control the game. Xavier is expected to finish in bottom half of the revamped Big East, and it is coming off a performance in which it blew a 15-point second half lead and lost 77-74 to Iowa in overtime Thursday. The Musketeers could turn out to be a quality opponent Tennessee will now have on its resume twice, but a win against UTEP would have given the Vols games against the Hawkeyes and either Kansas or Villanova, each of which appears to be sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams. Now, after playing the Musketeers, Tennessee will draw either USC or Wake Forest, neither of which is expected to compete for a bid to the Big Dance.

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A Better Outlook for Vanderbilt?

Posted by David Changas on November 22nd, 2013

It was a summer to forget for Kevin Stallings. After finishing a relatively disappointing 2012-13 campaign with a run to the SEC Tournament semifinals, there was reason for some optimism heading into the offseason. Then Kevin Bright left to play professionally in Germany. And Sheldon Jeter transferred. And, in the biggest blow to this season’s prospects, star point guard and team leader Kedren Johnson was suspended from school. Without those three key contributors, many wrote off the Commodores’ chances for anything but a disastrous season. Picked to finish 10th by the SEC media, the prediction was only that high because the four teams predicted to finish behind them – Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn – are in more dire straits. While the losses of Bright and Jeter hurt — both were expected to be major contributors — Johnson’s departure appeared disastrous. The rising junior would have been an all-SEC selection and was the team’s on-court leader and go-to scorer. With his departures, the Commodores returned only 35 PPG from last season and appeared to be a roster full of complementary players.

Kevin Stallings  (AP/Wade Payne)

Kevin Stallings May Have Some Tricks Up His Sleeve This Year (AP/Wade Payne)

Despite all that happened over the summer and a general expectation of a finish near the bottom of the SEC, Stallings remained optimistic about his team’s prospects during the preseason. And while it’s far too early to say that this team will exceed its low expectations, there are signs Stallings wasn’t just engaging in coach-speak when he talked up his squad. Heading into Friday’s game with Providence at the Paradise Jam, the Commodores sit at 2-1 with home victories over Georgia State and Lipscomb, and an overtime loss at Butler on Tuesday – a game in which they fought back from a 14-point second half deficit to force the extra frame. While the team’s defense appears to have fallen off somewhat (ranking 122nd, down from 51st nationally), the offense, according to Ken Pomeroy, is much improved (177th to 65th). The team heads to the Virgin Islands with a chance to build some necessary confidence against quality competition.

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