Assessing the Challengers to Kentucky’s SEC Crown

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 19th, 2014

It’s a month into the college basketball season and every conference has unanswered questions. For all its faults, the SEC more or less stands alone among the major conferences in that we know with reasonable certainty which team will be taking home the regular season and tournament titles. If you’re betting against Kentucky in this league this season, then you clearly haven’t been watching. But after the Wildcats at the top, there are at least six teams that can make a realistic claim as the second-best team in the conference. Here’s how the race stacks up as we slog through final exams:

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, but can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

  • Arkansas (7-2, Best Win: SMU, Worst Loss: Clemson). If nothing else it has been an eventful month for the Hogs. They stormed into the national polls after a 6-0 start. They won on the road at SMU. People were excited. But then Arkansas fell flat in a marquee game at Iowa State and followed it up with a perplexing loss to Clemson. So really, we are left with the same questions we had about the Razorbacks coming into the season. They look better, but are they NCAA tournament better? To its credit, Arkansas may have the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year in Bobby Portis, who is among the league’s top 10 in points per game (15.8), rebounds per game (6.8), blocks per game (1.6), effective field goal percentage (60.2%) and PER (26.7).
  • Texas A&M (7-2, BW: Arizona State, WL: Baylor). The Aggies’ most compelling argument is not the team they are now, but the one they could be in a few months. Billy Kennedy got an early Christmas present when Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos became eligible. House has immediately become a key cog for the Aggies, leading the team in minutes per game (29.2) and adding a jolt of athleticism to the perimeter. Any doubt about his role should have been erased when he got the last shot in a tie game against Sam Houston State. Freshman Alex Robinson has also at times looked like the best player on the team. The Aggies don’t have any eye-popping wins and recently got rolled by Baylor, but they have good potential as players get accustomed to playing together.

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SEC M5: 12.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 19th, 2014

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  1. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan writes that John Calipari’s biggest challenge this season might be instilling enough doubt in his team so that they don’t completely buy the hype. There’s no doubt Cal needs to latch on to any struggle he can to keep the Wildcats on their toes, but I don’t think he’s going at it alone. A good part of the team was around for last year’s six conference losses. Willie Cauley-Stein was around for that and the epic disappointment that was 2012-13. These players may have confidence, but I doubt they have short memories, and Cal should have support keeping the team focused.
  2. Uttering the word “Clemson” around this microsite is risky business. Legend has it if you say the word three times Brad Brownell will appear and ruin the dreams of your favorite SEC squad. The Tigers have, after all, already beaten Arkansas, LSU and Auburn while losing to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Rutgers. South Carolina gets its shot at its arch rival tonight, and the importance of the game isn’t lost on Frank Martin. “Any time you play those kind of games, you’re playing for your school, first and foremost,” Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “But you’re also representing your conference. And we take pride in that.” The Gamecocks have a good chance to end the SEC’s Clemson skid as they looked good demolishing Oklahoma State almost two weeks ago. Duane Notice has also stepped up his game in a big way, scoring 47 points in his last two games.
  3. The sun probably hasn’t set on Alabama’s tournament chances, but the Tide need to get on a roll to (no pun intended) to truly get in the discussion. The folks at Roll Bama Roll suggest that more of the offensive game plan should involve Michael Kessens, and the numbers certainly back that up. He’s posted the best effective field goal percentage on the team, and looks comfortable with the ball anywhere on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Grant divides up minutes between Kessens and fellow sophomore Shannon Hale the rest of the way, especially since Hale is shooting three’s at a worse rate than last year.
  4. Jakeenan Gant’s debut was a bright spot in what has been a difficult opening season for Kim Anderson at Missouri. The freshman finally gained eligibility and was able to take the court in the Tigers loss to Xavier, scoring 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. This was a surprise to his coach. “I really didn’t expect that much from him just because he hadn’t really been playing with the first group of guys,” Anderson told the Columbia Missourian. “But I was really pleased with the way he came in.” This year will largely be about the development of Gant, Jonathan Williams and Teki Gill-Caesar. The Tigers looked good for portions of the Xavier game, and can build on this with a rivalry game against Illinois tomorrow.
  5. Until last night the only Division I team that Arkansas State, with an RPI of 339 and KenPom rating of 192, had beaten was Central Arkansas. Then they went to Starkville and beat Mississippi State. This was a truly damaging defeat. “Even beyond that, we’ve got to start giving a return on the investment. I think the administration; everybody’s invested in this program. We have to start giving a return on that investment,” Rick Ray told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In a league with no shortage of bad losses this season, this may have been the worst. As Ray said, it’s frustrating because you would have thought the program would be above this type of result at this point in his tenure. Maybe it was a bad outing, but the Bulldogs are mired in a four game losing streak and need to start building some positive momentum or questions about Ray’s job security may begin to surface.
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SEC M5: 12.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 17th, 2014

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  1. Without a doubt, Alabama blew a gigantic opportunity for a statement win by coughing up a lead in the final seconds of last night’s loss at Wichita State. There is no way to sugarcoat it. The Tide held an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining, but a combination of missed shots, bad rebounding and turnovers against the press allowed the Shockers to come back and win. The moral victory of hanging close against a very good team on the road likely won’t have any positive impact on the Tide’s resume, but let’s look for a silver lining. Alabama defended very well, holding the Shockers to 53 points — 25 fewer than their season average — in stifling the 10th most-efficient offense in the country. Much of Alabama’s second half lead was built on Wichita State settling for three-pointers (5-of-18) over an effective zone. Not to peek ahead, but a formula utilizing the Tide’s length and athleticism, could potentially hold up well against a Kentucky team that struggles from the outside (it always comes back to the Wildcats, doesn’t it?). Circle January 17 (home) and 31 (away) on your SEC calendar.
  2. LSU held on to win a competitive game against Sam Houston State last weekend to run its winning streak to four games. It wasn’t all rosy, though, as Josh Gray left the game with an ankle injury, and was seen afterward walking on crutches. Johnny Jones said on Monday that Gray was receiving “aggressive treatment,” but it’s unknown as of this writing whether he’ll miss any games. Ankle injuries can be tricky to heal, and if Gray does miss time it’ll trim down an already thin roster (Jones used only eight players against Sam Houston State). Tim Quarterman, a player who is enjoying a breakout season, would likely slide into the starting point guard role, with freshman Jalyn Patterson also seeing more minutes. The injury does come at a good time of the season for the Tigers, as their toughest non-conference stretch is now behind them and they have games against beatable teams like UAB, College of Charleston and Southern Miss over the next two weeks.
  3. Arkansas got back on track with a win over Dayton last weekend in a game that saw Mike Anderson shuffle his starting lineup. JuCo transfer Jabril Durham got the start at point guard over senior Rashad Madden, who went scoreless and turned the ball over five times in 31 minutes against Clemson. This also came a few days after Anderson said that Madden was “trying to do too much.” Booting a senior from the starting lineup in favor of a first-year player is a precarious road to walk, but it seemed to work out well enough as Durham hit two three-pointers early and Madden scored 12 points (including 8-of-8 from the free throw line). So far, it looks like Anderson knew what buttons to push, and that’s important because Madden’s scoring ability is a key to the success of the Razorbacks’ season.
  4. Two SEC players made College Basketball Talk’s list of the 10 most important midseason additions: Florida’s Alex Murphy and Auburn’s Trayvon Reed. Of the two, Reed seems to be the one needed the most. The article mentions that the 7’1’’ center is incredibly raw and likely won’t contribute much this season, but the guess is that Bruce Pearl will throw Reed into the fire early since this season was always going to be more about development than contention. Reed logged eight largely unproductive minutes (four fouls, one block) in Auburn’s recent loss to Clemson, and he’ll probably consume at least part of the 11.0 minutes per game going forward that was going to Devin Waddell.
  5. Jerry Palm’s first update to his NCAA Tournament bracket projection has three SEC teams in the fold: Kentucky (#1), LSU (#10) and Arkansas (#10). Alabama and Tennessee are among Palm’s first four out, and Florida is nowhere to be found on his board right now. All things considered, this is a pretty generous view of the SEC given how the season has unfolded thus far. The Tigers and Razorbacks have both notched some nice wins, but they also have experienced setbacks that threaten to snuff them from the conversation (e.g., both teams have lost to Clemson). The simple fact that, in Palm’s view, they are still squarely into the Dance should be encouraging. Neither Alabama (sorta) nor Tennessee (very much so) were thought of as NCAA Tournament teams prior to the season, so seeing them on the fringe in December is encouraging for the league. And finally there is Florida, which many believe will right its ship and find a way into the party, especially given Dorian Finney-Smith’s recent resurgence.
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Questions Loom About Florida’s NCAA Chances

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 11th, 2014

Florida entered Selection Sunday last March with just two losses and was a mortal lock for a #1 seed. This season the Gators entered the second week of December with twice that many losses after letting a 15-point halftime lead slip away against Kansas. It seemed as if Florida might flip the script on its early struggles when the Gators jumped out to that lead in Allen Fieldhouse, and had they held on they may have briefly put to rest all the hand-wringing over injuries and missed players. Instead of grabbing the most impressive road victory of the young season, the Gators folded down the stretch, and that missed opportunity raises legitimate questions over whether Florida is in early trouble in terms of the NCAA Tournament.

Billy Donovan's Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

Billy Donovan’s Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

The name of the school on the front of the jersey and the coach walking the sidelines gives the Gators a benefit of the doubt that most other schools in this position would not receive. We’ve already seen this exhibited when voters in both polls put an inexperienced team with a lot of question marks in their preseason top 10. Over the last decade-plus, Florida has not only earned this respect and still, quite frankly, might be the second best team in the SEC. Their four defeats have all come at the hands of teams currently ranked in the top 22 of KenPom’s ratings, and three of these were away from the O’Connell Center. The concern, however, is whether Florida’ remaining schedule provides enough opportunities to put together a Tournament-worthy resume. The SEC doesn’t do the Gators any favors since its two games against Kentucky is their only real chance at a marquee win. It’s not ideal, but a lack of headline-grabbing wins shouldn’t be fatal for a school that doesn’t have to fight for respect.

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SEC M5: 12.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 10th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Speculation over whether all of Kentucky’s players are happy with their playing time will likely swirl all season, but last Friday’s win against Texas was one of the first times there was a potentially dicey situation. Willie Cauley-Stein’s huge game (21 points, 12 rebounds, five steals) meant he needed to be on the floor for 33 minutes, and 33 minutes for one player is not a platoon-friendly split. Marcus Lee was the victim of this minutes crunch and he apparently said all the right things during the game. “Willie told Coach [Calipari], ‘Keep Marcus in,'” assistant John Robic told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “That’s a sign of maturity. That’s a sign of a leader. That’s a sign of being a good teammate.” Lee was rewarded two nights later against Eastern Kentucky when Cauley-Stein was skipped in the rotation. The atmosphere in the Wildcats’ locker room will be something to monitor, or more appropriately, speculate about, all season. At least for now the waters seem calm.
  2. Another potential source of angst in Lexington is a relative lack of accolades, since it will be hard for anyone on the team to post the necessary numbers in limited minutes that’ll lead to national awards. You can see that manifested in this week’s CBSSports.com’s Wayman Tisdale Freshman Watch. Karl-Anthony Towns is the only Wildcat to make the list, and he’s outside the top five in the “next five up” category. This is certainly small beans, but it’s still noteworthy that a team with arguably the best group of freshmen in the game doesn’t have any posting gaudy enough numbers to crack the top five of such a list. That’s the nature of this year’s Kentucky team, and another thing that maestro John Calipari will need to manage.
  3. This M5 is Kentucky-centric, but I don’t feel guilty about it because that’s essentially how the league has showed out on the court this season. Regardless of how the minutes have been used, the Wildcats are defending their opponents at a potentially historic pace. To date, Kentucky has posted an adjusted defensive efficiency rating of 82.6, and if this number holds it’ll be the best rating since KenPom began tracking the statistic in 2001-02. There is a lot of season left, of course, but some of Kentucky’s most difficult regular season games (e.g., Kansas, Texas) have already been played. The SEC as a whole has five other teams ranked in the top 50 of adjusted defensive efficiency (Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU), and – somewhat surprisingly – this compares favorably to the Big Ten (seven teams), Big 12 (seven teams), ACC (five teams) and Pac-12 (five teams).
  4. Tennessee has been working in a lot of new players this year under a new coach, and it is doing so against one of the hardest schedules in the country. The Vols face Butler on Saturday in Knoxville, and that will be their third game against a top-15 team this season. “A lot of these [other] teams I don’t feel are being challenged during non-conference games,” guard Kevin Punter told the Nashville Tennessean. “But we are. Put us through the fire early. Why not?” The schedule might already be paying dividends for the Vols after their nice win last weekend against an up-and-down Kansas State team. A tough schedule for a team in total transition could have been deadly, so it’s good to see that Tennessee is showing some signs of life.
  5. Dorian Finney-Smith was in a three-game mini-slump going into Florida’s game against Yale on Monday, as the senior had shot just 8-of-27 from the floor against UAB, North Carolina and Kansas. This was understandable, of course, because Finney-Smith is playing with a broken non-shooting hand. He came of the slump against Yale, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, and he isn’t making excuses. “I’m out there, so I have to play through it,” he told the Gainesville Sun. The Gators need to hope that Finney-Smith’s improved shooting performance is a sign that he’s learning to cope with the injury, because he’s incredibly vital to them overcoming their rough start.
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Auburn’s Offense Struggling, But It Will Improve

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 5th, 2014

There were a few things that you knew you could expect from Bruce Pearl’s first year at Auburn. One was a good recruiting class, and another was an entertaining wardrobe. On both of those counts he has delivered. Based on his history of success, you also thought that he could deliver a pretty good offense. Even without much interior depth, the Tigers seemed to have enough perimeter pieces to score at a decent clip, and Pearl also has a track record of coaching up efficient offenses. Here are how his teams ranked in offensive efficiency at Milwaukee and Tennessee:

Pearl Offense Table

Currently, Auburn sits at 173rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the Tigers’ relative inability to score has already cost them dearly this season. Auburn’s ugly loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday night is a case in point. The Tigers defended well with a mixture of man-to-man, 2/3 zone and 3/2 zone defense, holding the Red Raiders to just 0.79 points per possession. This might have been even more stifling if not for a number of late-in-the-shot-clock fouls, but Texas Tech imploded there (17-of-31). The point is that Auburn defended well enough to win, but could only muster 44 points on 36.2 percent shooting and lost on a late runner by Devaugntah Williams. The Tigers were similarly punchless last week in Las Vegas against Tulsa, where they scored only 35 points in a loss. In all three of their defeats this season, they’ve failed to score better than 0.77 points per possession.

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SEC M5: 12.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 5th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Arkansas’ showdown in Hilton Coliseum with Iowa State last night went, well, as you might have expected it to go. The Razorbacks weren’t able to build on their rare-in-the-Mike-Anderson-era road win at SMU and were instead trounced by the Cyclones. This might yet be a team that can consistently play well away from the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena, but it wasn’t apparent last night. To be fair, the Cyclones were an offensive buzzsaw (64.0% FG, 10-of-19 from three), as it seemed they were either hitting threes or making transition baskets on nearly every possession en route to 95 points. Arkansas ended up shooting a respectable 36.0 percent from three, but what did the Razorbacks in was their inability to put a stop to a first half Iowa State run that pushed the lead out to 20. The silver lining? Bobby Portis looked right at home (19 points on 8-of-10 shooting) against top quality competition.
  2. LSU picked up a big win for itself and the SEC by knocking off West Virginia last night in Morgantown. In what was probably the biggest win of Johnny Jones’ tenure, the Tigers notched another nice win for their ultimate NCAA Tournament resume. Whether it’s lucky, encouraging or just strange, the Tigers were able to win without Jordan Mickey scoring until after the last media timeout. Jarell Martin (18 points, 14 rebounds) did a lot of the heavy lifting, but LSU wouldn’t have won without Tim Quarterman (21 points, seven rebounds) and Keith Hornsby (15 points, five rebounds). Quarterman has now scored 14 or more points in the last four games, and the Tigers suddenly look like more than a two-man show in Baton Rouge.
  3. Vanderbilt came back from a nine-point halftime deficit to pull within two points against Baylor in the final minutes of its game Thursday night, but the Commodores couldn’t pull out the victory, as Riley Lachance missed a game-tying three at the buzzer. It’s especially disappointing because a win against a team that currently holds the #14 spot in KenPom’s ratings was well within reach. Vanderbilt now gets nine days off before another resume-enhancing game at home against a major conference team, Purdue. The good news is that Damian Jones and Luke Kornet are emerging as one of the more underrated frontcourt duos in the country. Kornet has been great from deep (15-of-26) and is a good complement to Jones’ low-post ability.
  4. An opportunity slipped away at Ole Miss last night, as the Rebels turned in an ugly offensive performance in a home loss to TCU. Ole Miss shot just 29.8 percent from the floor and Jarvis Summers had his worst game of the season (2-of-12 shooting, three turnovers). Worth noting is that Andy Kennedy kept Summers on the bench with the Rebels trailing by 12 points in the final two minutes. A comeback at that point was more than improbable, but you never expect a senior like Summers (who didn’t appear to be injured) to be sitting at a time like that. This game might be a reflection of how improved TCU is this season, but you would have expected a better showing from Ole Miss at home after two big wins against Creighton and Cincinnati.
  5. The Naismith Award top 50 watch list was released on Wednesday and it features five SEC players: Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, LSU’s Jordan Mickey, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, Florida’s Michael Frazier and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. This number of SEC players seems about right, and I can’t think of any glaring omissions off the top of my head. LSU’s Jarell Martin could probably make a case to be on this list, but he didn’t jump off the charts last year so it’s understandable he didn’t make it. It is interesting that Aaron Harrison got the nod while brother Andrew did not, especially because Andrew plays what many consider the more important position. It could be that the difference is the impression still left by Aaron’s late-game heroics in the NCAA Tournament last year.
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Josh Gray Gets LSU Off to Big Start in Critical Week

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 4th, 2014

Johnny Jones didn’t try to hide how important this week is for LSU when asked about Jordan Mickey missing last Saturday’s win over McNeese State. “Jordan is fine. If he was needed tonight, he would have been available, but he had treatment that past couple of days. We wanted to make sure that we allowed the process to take place there,” Jones said. Translation: we can win this game without Mickey, and we darn well need him ready for next week’s schedule. This was a calculated risk by Jones. UMass and West Virginia loomed, presenting LSU with a golden opportunity to wash away early season losses to Old Dominion and Clemson. The Tigers needed Mickey in the lineup this week, but a slip-up against McNeese State would have been hard to recover from. Jarell Martin did his part by carrying the Mickey-less Tigers to that win on Saturday, and Jones’ gamble paid off with an 82-60 win against UMass (KenPom #59) on Tuesday night.

Josh Gray led LSU to a big win over UMass with 25 points (nola.com).

Josh Gray led LSU to a big win over UMass with 25 points. (nola.com)

Star of the game. The distinction has to go to Josh Gray, who poured in 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three (he came into the game only 2-of-8 on the season). He also added five assists and four rebounds, but turned the ball over seven times. Two offensive possessions stand out for me. With around two minutes left in the first half, UMass’ Cady Lalanne made a contested basket inside to cut a 15-point LSU lead down to 11. A few stops and a basket or two and the Minutemen would have had some momentum going into halftime. Gray, however, immediately came downcourt and a hit a three to prevent the possibility of a half-closing run. He squashed UMass’ momentum in the second half too. The Minutemen had pulled to within 10 points on a three-point play by Lalanne, but Gray went on a 6-1 run by himself to ultimately put the game out of reach. Mickey had another great game (16 points, 10 rebounds) but he was locked in a physical battle defending Lalanne all night, holding the UMass senior to 6-of-15 shooting from the floor. Gray’s ability to carry the offense was that much more important when LSU’s star had to expend so much effort on the other end of the court. He certainly doesn’t have to score 20 points each night, but if he can build on this performance and become a reliable offensive threat from the outside, the Tigers will have three legitimate scoring options to really put the pressure on opposing defenses. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ole Miss Picks Up Some Momentum With Tournament Title

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 1st, 2014

Finally, there is a team in the SEC other than Kentucky that is making some non-conference hay as Ole Miss went to Niceville, Florida and won the inaugural Emerald Coast Classic. The Rebels knocked off a ranked Creighton team on Friday and then Cincinnati on Saturday in the championship game. The wins were absolutely necessary to make amends for an overtime loss at home on opening night to Charleston Southern. Ole Miss was able to win the tournament because it brought an efficient offense down the Florida Panhandle. The Rebels shot 52.1 percent against the Blue Jays (25-of-48) and 49.0 percent against the Bearcats (25-of-51), and only turned the ball over 14 times over the course of both games. The Rebels lost a lot of offensive firepower when Marshall Henderson left, but that kind of execution will be just as hard to stop as Henderson’s scoring bursts were.

Stefan Moody led Ole Miss over Cincinnati in the Emerald Coast Classic title game (mississippi.scout.com).

Stefan Moody led Ole Miss over Cincinnati in the Emerald Coast Classic title game. (Getty)

The question going forward is whether Ole Miss can sustain that level of offensive efficiency. An encouraging sign for Andy Kennedy is that a number of players have been contributing this season. Jarvis Summers is the undisputed star and played that way against Creighton by scoring 23 points and not turning the ball over. But unlike the way it was with Henderson, the Rebels have not been entirely dependent on Summers carrying the scoring load. Stefan Moody took over against the Bearcats, scoring 26 points and going 3-of-7 from three point range. His outside shooting display was encouraging because he came into the game just 3-of-21 from deep. He essentially put the game out of reach early in the second half by scoring eight straight points to stretch the lead to from five to 13. Kennedy compared Moody’s quick-strike ability to Nate Robinson, and having him as an offensive threat should ease the pressure on Summers, who scored only eight points against the Bearcats. He’s so quick that he’ll be a tough cover if he can continue the outside shooting he showed against Cincinnati. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC M5: 12.01.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 1st, 2014

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  1. The final score didn’t do justice to how close the majority of Kentucky’s 58-38 win over Providence was. The Friars hung within striking distance until there were about nine minutes left in the game, but it never felt like they could mount a real comeback. This was a game where the Wildcats’ size showed up on the perimeter but not the glass. Kentucky just edged out Providence on the boards 33-29, but really disrupted the Friars offense with their length. The Wildcats forced the Friars into 18 turnovers, including 10 by an injured Kris Dunn. One turnover in particular summed up how scary the Kentucky defense can be. Willie Cauley-Stein stole the ball above the three-point line and glided down the court for a transition layup attempt. He ended up missing the contested basket, but there are only so many seven footers out there that can actively bust up a defense at the top of the key, and most of them are in the NBA.
  2. Arkansas has a watermark opportunity Thursday night in Hilton Coliseum against Iowa State. But first, the Razorbacks needed to take a care of a harder-than-it-looks game at home against Iona, which came in ranked #65 in KenPom’s latest ratings. Arkansas only managed a 44-40 halftime lead in what remained a seesaw game until Michael Qualls took over and broke the game open with around seven minutes left by scoring 11 points over a three-minute stretch. It can’t be emphasized how important it was for one of the Razorbacks’ best players to step up and not let this game go the other way. Losing to the Gaels at home after just entering the rankings would’ve been a severely deflating loss. Qualls helped make sure this didn’t happen, and kept Arkansas’ early season momentum alive.
  3. Tennessee went 1-2 in the Orlando Classic, with a win over Santa Clara and losses to Kansas and Marquette. This obviously wasn’t a great showing from a win-loss perspective, but the Vols did fight back from a 13-point hole against the Jayhawks and tied the game deep into the second half. It would’ve been a very successful trip had they been able to knock off a rebuilding Marquette team, but that’s not how things turned out. Armani Moore is quietly making his case as the most improved player in the SEC. The junior had 18 points against both the Broncos and Golden Eagles, and is averaging 10.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, up from 3.1 and 2.2, respectively, last season.
  4. Referee Rick Crawford collapsing to floor after an inadvertent strike from Damian Jones during the opening tip between Vanderbilt and La Salle was probably the scariest college hoops moment of the weekend. Fortunately, Crawford is okay. For his part, Jones continued his All-SEC campaign with 17 points and seven rebounds in the Commodores win over the Explorers in the consolation side of the Barclays Center Classic. Vanderbilt dropped its opener against Rutgers, but can make up for it quickly with upcoming back-to-back home games against Baylor and Purdue. Winning both games against good-but-not-great power conference teams would be a big step for Kevin Stallings’ young team.
  5. Mississippi State’s trip to the Corpus Christi Classic produced a mixed bag of results. Rick Ray’s squad hammered Saint Louis by 25 points but then lost to TCU in the championship game. Make no mistake, beating a solid A-10 program like Saint Louis is where the Bulldogs need to be, but that win would’ve been a lot better had it happened either of the last two years. Unfortunately, Mississippi State wasn’t able to close it out and win the tournament against the Horned Frogs. Craig Sword made his season debut after missing time with a back injury and played 11 scoreless minutes in both games. It should only be a matter of time before he gets up to speed and becomes a go-to scorer for the Bulldogs.
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Reassessing Georgia and LSU’s NCAA Tournament Prospects

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 28th, 2014

Georgia entered this season with hopes of making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010-11. That expectation didn’t seem far-fetched since the Bulldogs are coming off a 20-win campaign in 2013-14 and return most of their core contributors. LSU entered this season with similar expectations, largely because of the NBA potential of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. Two weeks in both teams are already saddled with two losses, which begs the question, should we re-adjust our expectations for the Bulldogs and the Tigers?

LSU has been unable to overcome off-nights from either Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin (comojuega.com).

LSU has been unable to overcome off-nights from either Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin (comojuega.com).

To me, LSU has been the most disappointing team in the SEC. Missouri and South Carolina have more losses, but neither was expected to finish in the top quarter of the league. The Tigers dropped neutral site games to Old Dominion (KenPom #100) and Clemson (#93), and needed a late rally to beat Texas Tech (#114) at home. Early season losses to power conference teams and historically-respectable mid-majors (like ODU) are not a sin. But the simple fact is that these are games the Tigers should be winning if they are the team many thought they could be.

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SEC M5: 11.24.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 24th, 2014

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  1. Feeling down about LSU’s lackluster start to the season? Here’s something that should lift your spirits: Shaq and Dale Brown were inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City last night. Johnny Jones was an assistant during Shaq’s three years in Baton Rouge, when he scored 21.6 points per game and pulled down 13.5 rebounds per game. It’s surreal to think there was once a time when a player like Shaq actually played three college seasons. And speaking of Brown, if you missed Luke Winn’s story on him trying to recruit Arvydas Sabonis through the Iron Curtain, it’s definitely worth a read.
  2. It hasn’t been a smooth start to the season for Florida. The Gators have been undermanned all year with seemingly half their roster having missed time for various reasons. Friday night’s discouraging overtime win against Louisiana-Monroe continued that trend, as Billy Donovan was without Eli Carter and Dorian Finney-Smith. Carter injured his left foot in practice on Thursday, fresh off a coming-out-party-type game against Miami. It’s unclear at this point how serious the injury is, and Finney-Smith’s time table to return is equally murky as he wasn’t with the team on Friday night because of “academic issues.” If both these players miss significant you start to wonder whether Florida has the depth to put together a NCAA tournament-worthy resume. The good news for Donovan is that his team calls the SEC home, where even a mediocre team can feast like a king.
  3. While one Billy in the SEC loses players, another keeps adding them. Billy Kennedy and Texas A&M got news from the NCAA on Friday that Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos are eligible immediately. David talked about the big impact House could have, and Trocha-Morelos will help out too. Kennedy played him for 10 minutes right off the bat in the Aggies’ win over New Mexico. He was understandably rusty (four fouls, one turnover), but his presence gives Kennedy six serviceable bigs on a team that suddenly looks like one of the deepest in the SEC.
  4. Kentucky was in crisis on Friday night. The Wildcats led Boston University by just five at halftime, prompting questions over whether the platoon system, and John Calipari in general, were in the program’s best long-term interests. Sarcasm aside, Kentucky didn’t leave anything to doubt yesterday against Montana State, posting the fifth-largest margin of victory in Rupp Arena history by beating the Bobcats 86-28. There were a lot of eye-popping stats from this game, including Montana State scoring just 0.39 points per possession and getting to the line just twice. The Wildcats will have their ups and downs this season, and you feel for a team like Montana State that catches them on a night when their talent is on full display.
  5. The season is just over a week old and South Carolina is already flush with missed opportunities. The Gamecocks hold three losses, all by five or fewer points, including yesterday’s 68-63 loss to Akron in the Charleston Classic third place game. The good news for South Carolina is that Frank Martin is relying on a lot of young players, such as Marcus Stroman and Demetrius Henry, who both had turnovers late in the game but should learn from that experience. I still think Martin can build a competitive program in Columbia, but at some point close games like the ones in Charleston against Charlotte and Akron need to end up as wins.
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