Is Tennessee the Most Dangerous “Play-in” Team Since VCU in 2011?

Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2014

In 2011, the field for the NCAA Tournament was expanded from 64 to 68 teams, and the NCAA decided to call the first four games, played on the Tuesday and Wednesday following Selection Sunday, the “First Round” –thus creating the comical idea that some 60 teams receive byes into the second round. Everyone is wise to this, of course, and realizes the “First Four,” as the games are also named, are, in actuality, four “play-in” games. That year, upstart VCU snuck into one of the NCAA Tournament’s last four at-large spots, beat co-#11 seed USC in Dayton, and proceeded to win four more times in advancing to the school’s first Final Four. Since VCU’s historic run took place three seasons ago, it appears no team may be as well-equipped to duplicate the Rams’ feat as Tennessee this year. Prior to the season, the Volunteers were, in most places, considered a Top 25 team, and a shoo-in for the Big Dance. Things didn’t play out as expected, however, and Tennessee had to go 5-1 down the stretch – with the only loss coming to overall #1 seed Florida – to earn one of the last bids to the Tournament. Now that they’ve made the field, could this be the start of a run that could put all questions about Cuonzo Martin‘s job status to rest?

With Cuonzo Martin's job maybe in jeopardy, a VCU-esque run would go a long way to solving that issue. (AP)

With Cuonzo Martin’s job maybe in jeopardy, a VCU-esque run would go a long way to solving that issue. (AP)

Based upon Tennessee’s recent play, which saw the Vols destroy its last four regular season opponents and South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament by an average of 23 points, and gave #1 Florida a great test before falling short, there is evidence to suggest it may be. The Volunteers are experienced, starting three seniors and two juniors, and talented, with two first-team all-SEC performers in guard Jordan McRae (18.6 PPG) and Jarnell Stokes (14.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG) — one of two SEC players to average a double-double this season. They also have another rebounding stalwart in fifth-year senior Jeronne Maymon, who missed the 2012-13 campaign as a result of microfracture surgery. Maymon has struggled to regain his form, but he has shown signs lately of regaining some of his old skill set. The bulk Tennessee has on the inside with Stokes and Maymon presents a significant challenge for each of its opponents.

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Bruce Pearl to Auburn Sends Shock Waves Through SEC

Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2014

Talk about hitting a grand slam. As first reported by ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, Auburn hired former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl as its new head coach this morning. Pearl, who is still subject to a show-cause penalty until August and will not be able to have contact with recruits over the summer, inherits the reins of the program from Tony Barbee, who was fired last week after four seasons at the school. Needless to say, the hire is a major splash for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003 and has essentially been an SEC also-ran throughout the tenures of Barbee and his predecessor, Jeff Lebo.

For Bruce Pearl, a Different Shade of Orange Coast is in Store at Auburn

For Bruce Pearl, a Different Shade of Orange Coast is in Store at Auburn

Pearl’s hiring has to be considered a surprise. Many thought Auburn was overreaching when there were indications that Pearl was going to be considered for the vacancy, as the former Milwaukee and Tennessee head coach figured to be a candidate for several higher-profile jobs. But Pearl obviously felt the challenge was the right one for him at this time. He led Milwaukee to two NCAA Tournament bids before landing his first major job at Tennessee in 2005, where he resurrected the Volunteer program by taking it to the Big Dance in each of his six seasons in Knoxville, including its only Elite Eight appearance in 2010. As evidenced by their reaction on Twitter and message boards, many Tennessee fans see the move as a punch in the gut. Dissatisfaction with Cuonzo Martin had led many to believe that it was possible Pearl would return to the school, and a petition for his rehire had garnered over 36,000 signatures among Volunteer fans earlier this year.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 16th, 2014

As expected, the SEC earned only three bids to the NCAA Tournament. Top-ranked Florida and Kentucky have been locks for some time, and Tennessee secured its status with an impressive finish down the stretch. Based upon their finishes, it’s hard to argue that Missouri and Arkansas, both of which spent significant time on the bubble this year, deserved to get in. We look at how each of the three teams that did make it fared with their selections, and where they go from here.

Florida Gators (No. 1 seed, South Region)

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

  • Opening Round Opponent: The Gators, the overall No. 1 seed in the Tournament, open with the winner of the Albany/Mt. St. Mary’s First Four game in Dayton. It’s a safe bet that Florida won’t be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16.
  • Looking Ahead: With a win in the second round, Florida will face the winner of Colorado/Pittsburgh game in Orlando. The Gators will have a significant advantage playing in their own backyard, and should advance to the Sweet Sixteen. There, they should get VCU or UCLA, and a trip to the regional finals could involve a match-up against Kansas, Syracuse or Ohio State.
  • How Far Can They Go? A potential Elite Eight game with Kansas could be one of the NCAA Tournament’s best, though both teams have work to do before than they can think about that. The Gators have a favorable draw to the regional final, though UCLA could present a challenge if it gets to the Sweet Sixteen. Still, we think Florida plays good enough defense to emerge from this region, and the Gators should make the Final Four. We’d be foolish to the think the overall top seed in the Tournament, which has now won 26 consecutive games, can’t win it all.

Kentucky Wildcats (No. 8 seed, Midwest Region)

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SEC M5: 03.14.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Given the way Auburn AD Jay Jacobs fired Tony Barbee an hour after the team’s loss to South Carolina, the job got a lot of attention today among those covering the SEC Tournament. On the broadcast, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, who is handling sideline TV duties at the tournament, listed four candidates he has heard are on Jacobs’s list. They are former Tennessee coach and ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl, Duke assistant and former Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall, and Louisiana Tech coach Michael White. Goodman joked that Pearl, who is his colleague at ESPN, would not give him any hints about whether he is interested in the job. While it’s certainly possible that Pearl will show interest, it doesn’t make sense to us. Auburn is a very difficult job, and it stands to reason that Pearl will have other options, either this year or next (his show cause expires in August). Of the four candidates Goodman named, we think Tyndall and White would make the most sense.
  2. There has been much discussion about how mediocre the SEC has been this year, and the tournament does not present many opportunities for quality wins. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi thinks that Kentucky has very little to gain from the event. He points out that the Wildcats, who come into the tournament with only one win against a top 50 opponent – a December victory over Louisville – and the only opportunity for one that will help their seed this weekend will come against Florida on Sunday, should both teams get there. Otherwise, Lunardi thinks Kentucky is stuck in the 6-7 seed range, and could drop if it were to drop a game against a lesser opponent. The Wildcats take on LSU, which defeated Alabama Thursday night, in Friday’s quarterfinal round. The Tigers beat Kentucky in Baton Rouge and should have duplicated that feat in Lexington a few weeks ago, as they dropped an overtime decision to the Wildcats. If Kentucky can make it to Sunday’s championship game, it likely will not hurt its seeding, but it’s hard to see the Wildcats beating Florida to jump up a line or two, given how they’ve performed against the Gators so far this year.
  3. Much has been made of Casey Prather‘s improvement for No. 1 Florida, and this piece from Franz Beard at GatorCountry.com chronicles the senior’s rise. Prather was recently named to the first team of the all-SEC squad, and he talked about how he persevered through difficult times early in his career. He even thought about transferring after his freshman season, but after talking every day with teammate and newly-minted SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin, Prather stuck it out in Gainesville. Now, as his career draws to a close, he has a chance to compete for the national championship on arguably the nation’s best team. It’s quite a turnaround for Prather, and his and the team’s testament to the bond the Gators’ senior class has formed.
  4. Missouri got by Texas A&M in overtime on Thursday to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round, where the Tigers will take on Florida. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Bernie Miklasz talked about the future of the Missouri program, and didn’t pull any punches. Miklasz was less than complimentary of head coach Frank Haith and the way he has run the program, and he has serious questions about whether Haith is capable of turning things around. He suggests that Haith has one more year to do so, and if he can’t, it’s time to move on. Miklasz cited KenPom.com‘s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings in the column to support his point that Missouri hasn’t been particularly stellar on either end of the floor since Haith arrived. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s likely plenty of Missouri fans agree with Miklasz’s points.
  5. Most people expected Tennessee to play Arkansas in a Friday quarterfinal, in what many anticipated would be a de facto play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. However, after the Razorbacks almost certainly blew their chance for an NCAA bid with a loss to South Carolina, the Volunteers will now take on the lowly Gamecocks for a chance to most likely get another shot at Florida. Tennessee comes into the game as a double-digit favorite, but anyone who has followed the Volunteer program knows the SEC Tournament has been less than kind to them. Despite their recent failures in the event, this year’s team comes into the tournament playing well, and they are aiming to reverse the program’s trend. Tennessee is clearly a bubble team, and a win over RPI No. 150 South Carolina certainly won’t help its resume, but it would give it an opportunity for a third shot at Florida (assuming the Gators beat Missouri). Even with a loss there, the Volunteers would be in good shape to sneak into the Big Dance.
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Jeff Neubauer Perseveres, Leads Eastern Kentucky Back to Big Dance

Posted by David Changas on March 9th, 2014

In 2007, while in his second year as head coach at Eastern Kentucky, Jeff Neubauer led the Colonels to the NCAA Tournament, getting there with a group that he largely inherited from his predecessor. That team was a #16 seed and lost to a Tyler Hansbrough-led North Carolina squad in the first round. In the seasons that followed, Neubauer has had teams that have been competitive in the Ohio Valley Conference, but none of which has been able to get back to the Big Dance. That changed on Saturday, when Eastern Kentucky took down defending champion Belmont, 79-73, to win the OVC Tournament championship in Nashville. It was a surprising result to many, mostly because Belmont, which had won the regular season title, seems to never fall short of the NCAA Tournament. But to those who have watched the league closely over the past couple of years since Belmont’s arrival, it was no surprise at all that Neubauer was able to get this senior-laden team back the place every coach in a one-bid league aspires to.

Corey Walden, the OVC Tourney MVP, Cuts the Nets (AP)

Corey Walden, the OVC Tourney MVP, Cuts the Nets (AP)

For Neubauer, despite the many years of being not quite good enough, there was never a doubt that he would eventually make it back. “The thing I’ve had in my mind is that it is inevitable that we will end up back in the NCAA Tournament. I think, as a coach, you have to have that mentality that it’s going to happen,” he said after the win. “It’s something we all should really appreciate.” Given the wealth of experience that this team had, missing the NCAAs would have been a lost opportunity. The Colonels are led by guards Glenn Cosey and Corey Walden, who combined for 52 points in the win, and who give Eastern Kentucky as athletic a backcourt as exists in the OVC. With a total of six seniors, this was clearly Neubauer’s best opportunity to get back to the Big Dance. Last year, in a league with an even better Belmont squad and an extremely talented Murray State team, winning the league’s automatic bid was a tall order and was one the Colonels narrowly fell short of in a semifinals loss to the Racers. It was that game that proved to Neubauer that his team could win it. “Our experience being here last year in the semifinal, if you would ask these players, really helped us understand what this OVC Tournament was all about.”

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SEC M5: 03.03.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 3rd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky‘s 72-67 loss at South Carolina Saturday night may rank as the most shocking result in SEC play so far this season. The Wildcats are now 11-5 in league play and 21-8 overall. The loss was their third in five games, and one of those wins was a near-miss against LSU at home. Given the preseason hype for John Calipari‘s collection of freshman, and the nonsensical talk about a 40-0 season for this team, it’s safe to say the Wildcats’ season has been a disappointment so far, and if things don’t get turned in the right direction soon, a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament is inevitable. Yahoo’s Pat Forde took stock of the situation and pulled no punches in his criticism of Calipari. Among other things, Forde criticized Calipari for his scapegoating of Ryan Harrow after last season’s disappointment, his unwillingness to take the blame for what’s gone wrong with this team, and his failure to answer tough questions in the face of the team’s struggles. Needless to say, Forde’s take will be the subject of much discussion in the Bluegrass state in the coming days, and we have a tough time finding too much to criticize about what the veteran writer had to say.
  2. Perhaps it was Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings seeking validation for his comments about Tennessee fans who want to see Cuonzo Martin fired after three seasons at the Volunteers’ helm that led to Tennessee‘s crushing 76-38 victory over the Commodores Saturday in Knoxville. Whatever it was, the performance was a welcome sight for Vol fans who have been frustrated with the level of performance they have seen for most of the year from a squad that appeared before the season to be a clear-cut NCAA Tournament team. Tennessee’s stifling defense forced Vanderbilt to make only 11 field goals on its way to shooting 22%. Meanwhile, the Volunteers shot 53% from the field, and 48% from three-point range, controlled the glass, and turned the ball over only 8 times. Tennessee also got a fantastic performance from Antonio Barton, the senior transfer from Memphis who has been mostly disappointing in replacing the departed Trae Golden. Barton was assertive on both ends of the floor and scored a season-high 21 points on 5-for-7 three-point shooting. If he can give the Volunteers more of that, perhaps they can finally become the team many expected prior to the season.
  3. Speaking of Tennessee, the Volunteers are one of three SEC squads fighting for the NCAA Tournament lives. It appears that they, as well as Arkansas and Missouri, will take things down to the wire as they try to make the field of 68. According to CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm’s latest bracketology, the Razorbacks and Tigers are in the field, with Missouri starting out in a “First Four” game in Dayton. Tennessee is the third team out, which means the Volunteers should have a chance to work their way back into the field. They travel to Auburn on Wednesday for a game that they simply cannot afford to lose, before coming home Saturday to host Missouri in what will be a crucial bubble matchup. As we chronicled here Friday, Arkansas’s win at Kentucky may have propelled them into the field, though it’s clear they must keep winning to stay there. The Razorbacks took care of business on Saturday against Georgia in winning for the eighth time in their last nine tries. While the SEC has seen plenty of mediocre basketball this year, with three teams squarely on the bubble, the final week of the regular season and the SEC Tournament will offer plenty of drama about who makes the field.
  4. With the SEC Tournament just over a week away, teams are jockeying for position in the Georgia Dome. The tournament is now a five-day event, and the top four seeds receive double byes to Friday’s quarterfinal round. Not only does securing one of those double byes give the teams who earn them extra rest, they likely eliminate the possibility of having to play a team with a low RPI in a second-round game. As it stands now, Florida has secured the top seed, and Kentucky looks good for the second spot. Georgia currently sits at third and looks to be in good shape to secure one of the double byes. Tennessee controls its destiny and will secure a double bye by winning out, given that the Volunteers own wins over most of the teams also in the running for the final double bye spot. A lot can happen in the next week, but for the league’s bubble teams, avoiding a game with one of the conference’s bottom-feeders is of paramount importance.
  5. In its first week as the nation’s top-ranked team, Florida acquitted itself well, pulling out a 57-54 win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday before coming home Saturday and trouncing a solid LSU team 79-61. The primary knock against the Gators this year has been their inconsistency from the perimeter, but they knocked down 13 of 23 threes (56.5%) against the Tigers and were never threatened. Dorian Finney-Smith, who came into the week having made one three-point attempt in his seven previous games, went 7-for-14 from behind the arc in the two games. Florida coach Billy Donovan knows having Finney-Smith shoot the ball this well is a big boost for the Gators, and for them to have any chance to win the national championship, it will need to continue. With the win, Florida extended its school-record winning streak to 21, and must only win at South Carolina and at home against Kentucky to finish the conference regular season at 18-0. Despite the mediocrity of the league, going through any power conference without a loss is quite an accomplishment, and it appears the Gators are well on their way to achieving it.
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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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