SEC Offseason Burning Questions, Part I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 12th, 2016

The SEC will be a very different league next season, in no small part as a result of losing its two most influential players to the NBA — Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and LSU’s Ben Simmons. Here are five burning questions looking ahead to next season, as the league will once again try to put #SECBasketballFever to bed.

Can Mike Anderson Survive Another Year?

Can Mike Anderson Survive Another Year?

  1. Can Kentucky start completely from scratch? It’s become played-out sarcasm: the Wildcats lose a lot of talent; how ever will they recover? We should assume that Coach Cal will seamlessly mold a group of elite freshmen into a team deserving national consideration, and next year will be no different. Top-10 recruits Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo lead another stacked class headed to Lexington, but consider this: The Wildcats have not truly had to start from square one in three years. The 2014-15 (Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress) and 2015-16 (Ulis, Poythress) teams each  returned major contributors from Final Four runs. The Isaiah Briscoe/Marcus Lee/Derek Willis trio figures to be a solid core but lacks the star power of the previous groups. We know Calipari is up for the challenge, but it has been a few years since he’s had this much inexperience in key roles.
  2. Is Mike Anderson under pressure? The prodigal son has gotten Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament only once since returning to Fayetteville five years ago. Given that Stan Heath earned twice as many bids in his five years before being shown the door, Anderson’s performance thus far has come in well under expectations. This year could be considered a write-off after Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls left school early, but patience is clearly wearing thin in Fayetteville. Anderson without question feels the pressure, as he signed four JuCo players in this year’s class, including well-regarded guards Jaylen Bradford and Daryl Macon. They’ll pair with returnees Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, both of whom should be in the running for preseason all-SEC honors. Losing Monk to the Calipari Machine was a huge blow no matter the circumstances, but it’s even more damaging for a coach that might be advocating for his job next season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Despite Disappointment, South Carolina’s Arrow Still Pointing Up

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 23rd, 2016

South Carolina‘s season came to an end on Monday night with a loss in the NIT. For a program that has been to a national postseason tournament only 18 other times, playing in a March event of any kind is a success on its own. Last week Frank Martin called missing out on the NCAA Tournament a “tough pill to swallow” for a team that put together an undefeated non-conference season, won a school record 24 regular season games, and went 11-7 in the SEC. That disappointment may have carried over into the NIT, as the Gamecocks beat overmatched High Point last week before sleepwalking through a 17-point second round home loss to Georgia Tech.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

The Selection Committee’s snub wasn’t a happy day for South Carolina basketball. “It was hurtful; it was disappointing,” senior Laimonas Chatkevicius said at the time. The governing body’s decision represented the first time that a power conference team had been left out of the Dance after winning at least 24 games, but the sting of that disappointment shouldn’t mitigate the positive momentum the Gamecocks built this season. Martin’s team nearly doubled its conference win total from six to 11 and has posted top-40 KenPom defenses in each of the last two years. Being a regularly competitive SEC team (including a win over co-champion Texas A&M) is just not something this program typically does.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 13th, 2016

The SEC is sending just three teams to the NCAA field as South Carolina found itself on the outside looking in. Here are some quick impressions of the conference’s NCAA Tournament draw:

Tyler Ulis will try to carry Kentucky on another deep tournament run (USA Today).

Tyler Ulis will try to carry Kentucky on another deep NCAA Tournament run (USA Today).

Texas A&M

  • Seed: #3, West.
  • Quick First Round Preview: Horizon League champion Green Bay lost all of its games against power conference foes this season (Georgia Tech, Stanford and Wisconsin). It barely has a top 100 KenPom offense (#96) and a #168 rated defense. Senior guard Carrington Love (17.7 PPG) could find Admon Gilder glued to his hip after the freshman’s impressive job marking Jamal Murray in the SEC championship game.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: This one is easy — an intrastate rivalry rematch with Texas in the second round. The Aggies won their first game back in November, but the Longhorns have improved since then even if they are unlikely to have Cameron Ridley.
  • Final Word: The Aggies could be a popular pick to make the Final Four, especially for those wary of three-point shooting dependent Oklahoma. The potential Second Round game with Texas won’t be a cakewalk but the Aggies are the more balanced team. Stopping Buddy Hield in the Sweet Sixteen would be quite a challenge — something the Aggies’ wings weren’t able to do with the smaller Ulis. The run could end there in what would still be a hugely successful season.

Kentucky 

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Big 12 Quarterfinal Takeaways: Kansas, Baylor Advance

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2016

“Shadows” could’ve been the theme of the Big 12’s first quarterfinal session, as two teams (Baylor and Kansas State) faced opponents (Texas and Kansas) that, at least in the opinion of many Longhorn and Jayhawk fans, cast a long shadow over their respective intrastate rivals. Here are the main takeaways from lopsided wins by the Bears and Jayhawks.

Kansas got past Kansas State to set up a semifinal match up with Baylor (ksnt.com).

Kansas got past Kansas State to set up a semifinal match up with Baylor (ksnt.com).

Baylor: The Bears convincing 75-61 win over Texas was paced by Taurean Prince (24 points, 13 rebounds), whose aggressiveness on the glass contributed to a massive Baylor rebounding advantage (46-27 in total rebounds). The main takeaway, however, was a potential resurgence of Baylor’s zone, which held the Longhorns to just 38.3 percent shooting from the field. Perhaps more importantly, it prevented Isaiah Taylor from getting into the lane and creating offense. No matter what happens against Kansas in the semifinals, this defense-fueled victory was a confidence boost for a team that finished the regular season by losing three of four. Rico Gathers also generated some late season momentum (13 points, 9 rebounds) with his best game in over a month.

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Takeaways from the Big 12’s Opening Night

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2016

Over the last few years there has been at least one NCAA Tournament bid on the line during the Big 12 Tournament’s opening night. It was Texas making its case last season, with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State before that. For better or worse, there was no such drama last night at the Sprint Center as the team with the shakiest prospects, Texas Tech, already seems safely in the field. The Red Raiders, however, may have dinged their seed with an upset loss to TCU. The games went on regardless, and Kansas State‘s win over Oklahoma State gives us a third game with Kansas in what will undoubtedly be a juiced Sprint Center this afternoon. Here are some quick takeaways on each team that played Wednesday night in Kansas City.

Kansas State Moves On to Face Kansas on Thursday Afternoon (USA Today Images)

Kansas State Moves On to Face Kansas on Thursday Afternoon (USA Today Images)

Kansas State. Kansas State’s offense was not pleasant in its last game against Oklahoma State, as a miserable 0.85 points per possession performance resulted in a three-point loss that effectively killed any hopes of a late season run. The Wildcats’ first half on Wednesday night was a different story, as they did a great job utilizing Dean Wade in the high post and Justin Edwards (four first half assists) in keeping the offense moving. This allowed Kansas State to build a 17-point lead that proved insurmountable. Wesley Iwundu admitted after the game that the Wildcats got “too comfortable” with a lead and let Oklahoma State back into the game in the second half. Their date with the rival Jayhawks will not be comfortable, but Bruce Weber said that his team simply needs to “enjoy the opportunity” and compete with them. Replicating their free-flowing offensive effort from last night’s first half will be the only way to challenge a Jayhawks team that hasn’t lost a Big 12 Tournament opener since 2009.

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Seems Familiar: SEC’s Country Music Doppelgangers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2016

Nashville is a great place for a conference tournament. Even if the basketball happens to be underwhelming, there’s plenty of other forms of entertainment just steps away from Bridgestone Arena. It is the Music City, after all. In the spirit of basketball and honky-tonk, here are some of the SEC’s teams and the country music stars they most resemble.

Screenshot 2016-03-09 at 8.05.59 PM

Blake Shelton And Kentucky Are Both Living Large Again

Kentucky as… Blake Shelton. Before Wisconsin extinguished that dream, life was perfect for the unbeaten Wildcats last year as they tried to notch an unprecedented 40-0 record. Similarly, it wasn’t very long ago that Shelton and Miranda Lambert were living large as country’s pre-eminent power couple. But life happens, and the two stars have since gone their separate ways. Kentucky and Shelton, however, have both found a neon light at the end of the tunnel. Against the odds, Shelton has put together a run of hit singles, is dating Gwen Stefani and even has a Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit opening. The Wildcats, to their credit, claimed a share of this season’s SEC regular season title with a guard-oriented team. Life goes on.

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The SEC Tournament: What’s at Stake in Nashville

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 9th, 2016

The SEC Tournament returns to Nashville tonight for the second year in row. Unlike the last couple of years, however, there isn’t a team trying to cap off a perfect conference run and there doesn’t figure to be much drama surrounding NCAA at-large bids (but you never know). Before getting into what is at stake for individual teams, here are several completely unscientific predictions on how things will look by Sunday afternoon.

  • Tournament FinalKentucky over Vanderbilt
  • MVPJamal Murray, Kentucky
  • Biggest Surprise: #11 seed Mississippi State makes it to the SEC Tournament semifinals
  • Tournament Storylines: Was the season-ending win over LSU Skal Labissiere‘s breakout game? Will Ben Simmons really be locked out of the NCAA Tournament? Can Florida do enough to force its way back into the field? Can Retin Obasohan or Stefan Moody shoot their teams into the NCAA Tournament?
Skal Labissiere might have finally arrived (courier-journal.com).

Skal Labissiere may have finally arrived (courier-journal.com).

Teams Playing For Seeding

It’s safe to assume that KentuckyTexas A&MSouth Carolina and Vanderbilt are all locked into the field of 68 and are playing for seeding. Of those four teams, the Commodores and Gamecocks have the most at stake this week. Bracketologists project both teams into the #8-#9 seed range and an unenviable downstream date with a #1 seed looming. Winning twice in Nashville and getting to Sunday’s SEC championship game should be enough to lift either team off that seed line (and potentially facing a #2 seed in a parity-driven field). This might be more important for a team like the Gamecocks since Vanderbilt will not be at much of a talent disadvantage against any of the projected #1 seeds.

The Wildcats and Aggies appear to be in a similar situation. Both teams look like #4 seeds with potential to jump to the #3 line as a result of cutting the nets down in Nashville. Losing their respective opening games probably wouldn’t do much damage since all four potential opponents (Florida/Arkansas for Texas A&M; Ole Miss/Alabama for Kentucky) have solid enough metrics to avert a disaster. There is the interesting matter of the South Regional in Louisville but it’s hard to see the Selection Committee gifting that to a #3 seed Kentucky team (much to the detriment of the top two seeds) even if the Wildcats were to win the SEC Tournament with three consecutive blowouts. That probably won’t stop Big Blue Nation from flocking to wherever Kentucky ends up, though, even if it’s Spokane.

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Texas A&M’s Scenic Route to the SEC Title

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 7th, 2016

In some ways, the final Saturday of the SEC regular season played out like many thought it would in October. Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere altered shots left and right; LSU’s Ben Simmons nearly put together a triple-double; and KentuckyLSUVanderbilt and Texas A&M all entered the weekend with a shot at a share of the regular season title. Ultimately it was the Aggies and Wildcats that became this season’s SEC co-champions, and while that result isn’t at all surprising, the path that led both teams there certainly is.

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

The Wildcats’ share of the conference title is a testament to the coaching and player development of John Calipari. Kentucky appeared vulnerable in December losses to thoroughly mediocre UCLA and Ohio State teams, but Calipari coaxed a surprise season from Derek Willis and successfully navigated injuries and inconsistency to win the league. The title is assuredly a little sweeter for an Aggies program that notched its first conference championship since sharing the 1986 Southwest Conference title with TCU and Texas. During that same period, the Wildcats have won a share or more of 10 SEC regular season titles.

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Saturday SEC Storylines: Who’s Ready For a Four-Way Tie?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 5th, 2016

There is no shortage of intrigue in the SEC’s final regular season Saturday with the league title up for grabs and several teams fighting for their Tournament lives. Here are the storylines to watch before the attention shifts to Nashville.

There's still a tiny bit of life left in Ben Simmons and LSU (fivethirtyeight.com).

There’s still a tiny bit of life left in Ben Simmons and LSU (fivethirtyeight.com).

  • And then there were four. The schedule couldn’t have worked out any better for the final weekend. The league’s top four teams (now that South Carolina bowed out by losing to Georgia) face each other with the league title still in play. Texas A&M has the cleanest path — beat Vanderbilt at home and become SEC co-champion with a wink and nudge due to the head-to-head win over Kentucky. Even if it were a shared title, it would be significant for the Aggies, as it would be their first league championship since winning the Southwest Conference way back in 1986. Of course, Texas A&M and Kentucky could be sole champions if either were to win and the other lose. And then there’s the dream (or nightmare) four-way co-champion scenario if Vanderbilt and LSU were to both win. By our rough calculations, the Tigers, ironically and somewhat miraculously, would be the top seed in the SEC Tournament with a 3-1 record against the other three teams. This is better then Kentucky (1-3), Vanderbilt (2-2) and Texas A&M (2-2). Title scenarios aside, LSU desperately needs a win if it doesn’t want to pin its NCAA hopes on a three-game winning streak in Nashville. The last time the Tigers pulled this off was in late December against Gardner-Webb, Oral Roberts, and American. They’ll need to replicate much of their last performance against Kentucky, where they rebounded 43.2 percent of their missed shots and turned it over just nine times. The injured Keith Hornsby didn’t play much of a role offensively in that win (nine points) but his tough on-ball defense will be missed against Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.

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Saturday SEC Storylines: Vanderbilt’s Big Blue Opportunity

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 27th, 2016

The bubble is becoming overcrowded with SEC schools. Feel safe, Alabama? Turned your season around, LSU? Not so fast. If nothing else, all of the desperate teams in the conference could set up an intriguing final regular season stretch and SEC Tournament. With that in mind, here are three storylines to watch this weekend:

Damian Jones has been on top of his game lately (sportsandentertainmentnashville.com).

Damian Jones has been on top of his game lately. (sportsandentertainmentnashville.com)

  1. Will Vanderbilt put a bow on its NCAA Tournament bid? The Commodores have won four of their last five games and are on the path toward another late season surge. Damian Jones is arguably playing the best basketball of his career, combing for 42 points on 18-of-23 shooting and 23 rebounds over the past two games. Lo and behold, Vanderbilt gets the best shot the league can give it for a marquee win: Kentucky. Nothing could be better for a team trying to put the final stamp on a resume that isn’t as strong as many expected it to be. The Wildcats did a great job containing Vanderbilt’s guards in the first meeting, and they’ll need to do that again to make sure Vanderbilt doesn’t build momentum from three early. The Tyler UlisWade Baldwin match up is must watch TV, and good material for those wondering if Ulis can match up with the size and athleticism he’d face in the NBA. It’ll also be interesting to see how Kentucky deals with a confident Jones, especially since Alex Poythress played just 17 minutes in his return against Alabama. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC Saturday Storylines: Are Texas A&M’s Title Hopes Still Alive?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 20th, 2016

There’s still plenty at stake in the SEC this weekend even if it doesn’t have quite the same juice as last weekend’s schedule. Kentucky can continue its seemingly inevitable charge at the SEC title in College Station and several other teams can play themselves further onto (Alabama) or off (Georgia, Vanderbilt) the bubble. Here are three things to watch for in this weekend’s SEC action.

Does Texas A&M still have a road to the SEC title? (247sports.com)

Does Texas A&M still have a road to the SEC title? (247sports.com)

Texas A&M’s last stand. Drawing comparisons to the Alamo may be overly dramatic but the Aggies will be up against it on Saturday evening. A few short weeks ago the Kentucky game looked like it would be the SEC game of year. Despite Texas A&M’s 2-5 slide over the past few weeks, this game is still getting the bright-lights treatment with ESPN‘s College Gameday broadcasting from College Station. This could represent a swing game for Aggies. A win draws A&M within one game of the Wildcats and Mississippi State, Missouri and Auburn due next. Kentucky’s next three games against Alabama, Vanderbilt and Florida are considerably tougher. This scenario of course assumes that both teams completely reverse their recent runs, but it’s nonetheless a path for Texas A&M. A game storyline worth watching is whether Tyler Davis and Jalen Jones can take advantage of a Kentucky frontcourt that might be without Marcus Lee — he was held to just 17 minutes against Tennessee due to a back injury. The thought of Isaac Humphries or Skal Labissiere trying to contain either of those guys must have John Calipari worried. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats’ three-point marksmen Jamal Murray and Derek Willis (yes, he’s earned that title) will face a defense that has struggled to defend perimeter shots at times this season.

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SEC Rundown: Volume XII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2016

Kentucky and LSU separated themselves from the pack on a pivotal weekend in the SEC title race. If both teams hold steady the rest of the way, we could have a gigantic game between the pair in Rupp Arena to close out the regular season. Plenty of drama is also heating up near the bubble, with Alabama staking a claim to a spot in the conversation. Here’s what went down last week in the SEC and what to look for in the week ahead.

Retin Obasohan and Alabama won in Gainesville for the first time since 1995 (rolltide.com).

Retin Obasohan and Alabama won in Gainesville for the first time since 1995 (rolltide.com).

Trending Up. Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s RPI surged up to #37 after four straight wins, including two victories last week over likely tournament teams (Texas A&M and Florida). It’s easy to forget that Avery Johnson’s club started SEC play at 1-4, but that looks understandable in hindsight, considering those games included losses to Kentucky, Vanderbilt and LSU. The fourth loss (at Auburn) is really the only dark spot on the resume, although the Tigers had the services of Kareem Canty in that one. Welcome to the bubble, Alabama.

Trending DownTexas A&M‘s seed. Just a few weeks ago the Aggies looked like a solid #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with a realistic shot of climbing up to the top line if things broke their way. Their recent four-game losing streak hasn’t put an invitation at risk, but it has done great damage to what could have been a historic placement for the program. With the exception of a home game against Kentucky, the schedule eases up quite a bit and should allow A&M to build some confidence before heading to Nashville.

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