SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 30th, 2015

Feast Week is in the books and there’s plenty of good and not-so-good happening throughout the SEC. Here’s the good: The league boasts two undefeated teams and four teams with just a single loss. On the flip side, there are two teams siting at .500 and two others already under .500. Here are the nuts and bolts of the previous week in SEC basketball.

The Aggies didn't win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless (

The Aggies didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless. (AP)

  • Team of the WeekTexas A&M didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but the Aggies nonetheless made a statement. They started with an emotional win over intrastate rival Texas in the opener, and while the Longhorns are in a transition year, that win may improve as the year wears on. A&M then knocked off top 10 team Gonzaga in its second game, notching a win that will pay dividends the rest of the year. The experience that young players such as Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos got against the Bulldogs’ elite frontcourt should be a good primer for future games against Kentucky. And while the team ran out of gas against Syracuse in the championship game, what stood out most might have been the Aggies’ depth. Over the three-game tournament, Davis, Morelos, Jalen JonesDanuel House and Anthony Collins all played starring roles at various times. The team has been extremely balanced in both contributions and results, ranking among KenPom’s top 30 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency — a combination that can be useful in predicting March success.

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Lithuanian Duo Fueling South Carolina’s Hot Start

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 27th, 2015

A dark horse is emerging in the SEC, as South Carolina knocked of Tulsa to win the Paradise Jam and cap off its first 5-0 start since 2003-04. Two of the main reasons for the great start have been a pair of senior forwards from basketball-crazed Lithuania — Laimons Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas. One of the storylines coming into the season was whether the Gamecocks’ senior-laden frontcourt could support its rotation of dynamic, big-bodied guards. Early on, the bigs have done far more than just support.

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina's Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina’s Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Chatkevicius has been an offensive force, scoring 17 points a piece against Hofstra and Tulsa, and dropping 27 in a home win over Oral Roberts. The 6’11” center struggled to stay on the court for long stretches in his first two years, but showed improvement sustaining minutes last season (22.8 MPG). He is never going to be a 30-plus minute per night player given his giant frame, but he appears to be at a point this season — in terms of conditioning and avoiding foul trouble — that Frank Martin can rely heavily on him. He’s got an efficient back-to-the-basket game (seen in the video below) and range out to the three-point line, making him the type of player that can help the Gamecocks withstand cold nights from the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 23rd, 2015

We’re less than two weeks into the season and the losses are starting to mount in the SEC, as just five of the 14 teams remain undefeated. If we’re looking on the bright side of things, there is really only one truly inexcusable result: Mississippi State falling to Southern. Keeping with the positive vibes, Kentucky yet again dominated the Champions Classic, and LSU and Texas A&M have tantalized with promise. Let’s hand out some hardware for the first week and a half of action.

Jamal Murray and Kentucky are off to a great start (

Jamal Murray and Kentucky are off to a great start. (Getty)

Team of the WeekKentucky is probably going to get ink in this space more than a few times this season, so why not start right away? The Wildcats’ win over Duke is easily the best the league can offer thus far, and freshmen Skal LabissiereJamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have all shown dynamic flashes. Kentucky is already defending at an elite level even though John Calipari lost his entire starting frontcourt and didn’t add an elite defensive big man (as he often does). On a micro level, Alex Poythress has settled very well into a “supporting” role, putting up at least nine points and seven rebounds in each of the last three games. Labissiere is going to need help in the paint and on defense, but Poythress and Marcus Lee have been up to the task thus far.

Player of the Week. Ben Simmons. LeBron James, Magic Johnson and — on the “low” end — Lamar Odom, are just a few of the comparisons we’ve have heard for Simmons. With the understanding that these were more about a skill set than anything else, the Aussie freshman has nonetheless lived up to expectations in his first three games. He has proven to be an alley-oop waiting to happen so far and is averaging 18.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He has also been the main presence for LSU on the glass despite frequently being featured in the pick and roll on offense. His matchup with Marquette’s super freshman Henry Ellenson this week will be our first glimpse at whether he has lockdown defender potential in him, as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume II: Opening Weekend Overreactions

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 16th, 2015

The opening weekend is in the books and with the exception of Georgia’s surprising home loss to Chattanooga, the SEC emerged unscathed. Nothing is more fun than analyzing microscopic sample sizes, so this edition of Quotable and Notable is chock full of overreactions. Let’s jump right in.

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn's win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn’s win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (

  • “And I’m not comparing him to them two, as far as he’s as good as them, he’s different.” – John Calipari on comparing Skal Labissiere to Karl-Anthony Towns. And oh boy, could you ever see against NJIT on Saturday why the Haitian big man has drawn rave reviews on the recruiting circuit. Labissiere went off for 22 second half points and scored from seemingly everywhere on the floor. This came after a lackluster opening night effort against Albany, but the freshman’s offensive versatility and touch suggests that Calipari has a player on this year’s roster unlike any he has coached in the past. It’ll be interesting to see how Calipari uses Labissiere and whether his veteran big men, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, can be utilized to shore up any rebounding or defensive issues. Many people are going to harp tirelessly on whether Labissiere’s defense can catch up to his offense, but for now it might be best to sit back and appreciate what he can do. That said, Labissiere becoming an effective player on both ends of the floor would make Kentucky an even tougher team to beat in March.

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SEC Burning Questions: Five Breakout Candidates

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 11th, 2015

Before we dive into some candidates, let’s define what we mean by “breakout.” Preseason All-American Ben Simmons is a pretty safe bet to have a great season. The same goes for potential first overall pick in next year’s draft, Skal Labissiere. Predicting that the freshmen we’ve been hearing about for years will step in and excel doesn’t make for interesting reading. Instead, here are several returning SEC players who saw little action last year that could become major parts of their respective teams this season.

Devon Baulkman's shooting touch could make him a key part of Rick Barnes' first team at Tennessee (

Devon Baulkman’s shooting touch could make him a key part of Rick Barnes’ first team at Tennessee (

  • Devon Baulkman, Tennessee. The JuCo transfer only averaged 14.7 minutes per game last year under Donnie Tyndall, but could be poised to become a key cog in Rick Barnes‘ offense. Barnes has talked about playing up-tempo and letting his players shoot the three at will. This was borne out in the Vols exhibition win over Alabama-Huntsville where they launched 38 three pointers. Baulkman took eight of those shots, and showed promise from deep last season by making 38.2 percent of his 68 three-point attempts. While Robert HubbsKevin Punter and Armani Moore will be the focal points of the Tennessee offense this year, Baulkman could carve himself a valuable niche on the perimeter.
  • Moses KingsleyArkansas. Kingsley has been an advanced stat nerd’s dream, posting an elite block percentage (11.7%) and solid total rebounding percentage (13.9%) in limited minutes over his two years in Fayetteville. Mike Anderson‘s system by its nature precludes players, especially big men, from playing 25 plus minutes per game. But Anderson is playing with a light deck after an offseason of roster turnover and Kingsley is all of sudden one of his few frontcourt options. He should get plenty of minutes, and has demonstrated enough rim-protecting potential to predict that he’ll have a very productive year.

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SEC Burning Questions: Who’s Feeling Pressure?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2015

For a conference that has been viewed for a while as a basketball underachiever, the SEC’s coaching seats are surprisingly cool. There are a number of factors, of course, that go into that determination. For one, the league turned over nearly a third of its coaches during the offseason with four new hires at Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Alabama. There are also several stalwarts who aren’t going anywhere unless they choose to do so — guys like Kentucky’s John Calipari and Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings – and several more trending toward that status in Georgia’s Mark Fox and Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy. But college athletics wouldn’t be what it is without some modicum of hot seat speculation, so here are the four SEC coaches feeling the most pressure in 2014-15.

Johnny Jones has a talented team and a potential top-5 pick in Ben Simmons. Will that be enough to pick up his first tournament win at LSU? (

Johnny Jones has a talented team and a potential top-5 pick in Ben Simmons. Will that be enough to pick up his first NCAA Tournament win at LSU? (

  • Johnny Jones, LSU. Jones has won at least 19 games in each of his three seasons in Baton Rogue; he was extended through 2019 before last season; he is an LSU alumnus; and he has brought a lot of NBA talent to campus. That’s the long way of saying his job is relatively safe no matter what happens this year. Nevertheless, Jones could quiet a lot of his critics by taking a very talented team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Despite an NBA-caliber frontcourt, there were some inexplicable low points for the Tigers last year — losing the conference opener to Missouri and the SEC Tournament opener to Auburn are but two notable examples. LSU then capped off its inconsistent year by blowing a 14-point halftime lead to lose to NC State in the final minute of the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament opener. Similar letdowns this season would only perpetuate the idea that Jones can’t get the most out of his talent. On the other hand, some clever coaching could make this team a match-up nightmare since both Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman are big, versatile players with the appropriate skill set to run an offense. Cobbling together a productive frontcourt, however, could be a challenge. Jones will need to find the right combination of Arizona transfer Craig VictorBrian Bridgewater, Aaron Epps, Darcy Malone and Elbert Robinson to support Simmons and his talented backcourt. One solution could be to go small with Simmons playing power forward, but the injury to Keith Hornsby could make that difficult early in the season. In short, the Tigers’ roster poses both a number of challenges and intriguing possibilities, but the ultimate goal of getting deep into the NCAA Tournament would go a long way towards silencing Jones’ detractors.

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SEC Quotable & Notable Volume I: Player Absences Mounting

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 9th, 2015

It’s just a few days until the regular season starts and there are already several significant injuries and absences throughout the SEC. The preseason edition of Quotable & Notable looks at the effects of some of these early roster complications.

Keith Hornsby's early season absence pushes freshman Antonio Blakeney into a bigger role (

Keith Hornsby’s early season absence pushes freshman Antonio Blakeney into a bigger role (

  • We’ll have to make some adjustments but it will be difficult. He’s the glue. Night in and night out you know what you’re going to get from him. – Johnny Jones. The LSU coach here is referring to senior guard Keith Hornsby, who will miss the bulk of non-conference play after undergoing an undisclosed recent “medical procedure.” Hornsby quietly had one of the better seasons in the league last year (13.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 39.3% 3FG) and is projected to be a big part of what the Tigers are trying to accomplish. There’s no shortage of depth in the backcourt, though, since Jones can simply hand over more of his workload to freshman Antonio Blakeney — a player whom, incidentally, was just named to the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award watch list. Josh Gray and Jalyn Patterson, despite inconsistent campaigns a year ago, were fixtures in the backcourt rotation and will also be in the mix. But Hornsby’s loss still stings. The steady production the Tigers figured to get from he and Tim Quarterman was supposed to allow Blakeney and Ben Simmons to seamlessly transition to the college game. With Hornsby now on the mend, pressure shifts to the freshmen to carry the load offensively. The good news? Other than a Thanksgiving trip to the Legends Classic in Brooklyn where LSU will face Marquette and either Arizona State or North Carolina State, the Tigers’ schedule is full of games in which they’ll be heavy favorites.

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SEC Burning Questions: Finding the Sleepers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 5th, 2015

Surprise, surprise: Kentucky is once again the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC. But one thing that makes the league a little more exciting this year is that a handful of other teams could emerge as the biggest threat to the crown. Several teams figure to be best-equipped to assume that role:

Once again, Coach Cal and Kentucky are the league favorites. (AP)

Once again, Coach Cal and Kentucky are the league favorites. (AP)

  • Vanderbilt (#2, SEC preseason media poll), led by Damian Jones and a slew of quality guards, landed at #18 in the preseason AP poll. The Commodores finished last season on an 8-3 run and return most major contributors from that improving team.
  • LSU (#4) checked in at #21 nationally behind dynamite freshman and likely top-five pick Ben Simmons and an experienced backcourt duo in Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby. The jury may still be out on the coaching talents of Johnny Jones, but his Tigers have talent.
  • Texas A&M (#3) has an enviable trio of seniors with distinct roles in Danuel House (perimeter shooter/scorer), Jalen Jones (low post threat) and Alex Caruso (distributor). Billy Kennedy also welcomes in an outstanding five-man recruiting class.
  • Florida (#6) may be rebounding from a sub-.500 season and the loss of coaching stalwart Billy Donovan, but Michael White was able to keep the gems of Donovan’s recruiting class intact by retaining KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone. He also inherits a team with elite defensive potential.
  • Georgia (#5) gets the benefit of the doubt after 41 wins over the past two seasons, especially when the heart of those successful seasons (Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann) are still around Athens.

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SEC Burning Questions: How To Earn Respect

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 4th, 2015

The SEC got an early start in its annual quest to shed its label as an underachieving basketball conference. By swapping out Anthony Grant, Rick Ray and Donnie Tyndall for Avery Johnson, Ben Howland and Rick Barnes, the league upgraded in coaching talent and brand name recognition. Losing Florida’s Billy Donovan to the NBA was counterproductive to that pursuit, but by and large, the SEC was the clear springtime winner when the coaching carousel came to a halt. Now the focus shifts to what happens on the court — resumes don’t much matter if you’re not winning games. Here are several ways how the SEC can sustain the momentum to improve its national standing this upcoming season.

Can Bruce Pearl help raise the SEC's national profile? (

Can Bruce Pearl help raise the SEC’s national profile? (

  • More and higher seeds: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The best way for the SEC to get more national respect is to put more teams in the NCAA Tournament. Last year’s five teams invited on Selection Sunday counts as solid improvement on this front. This year you could make an early, sight-unseen case that six or even seven SEC teams could be in position to make the field by March. That volume would be great, but even if the number of teams ends up as fewer than six, it would be good to see a few higher seeds. Last year, the league’s seeds other than Kentucky came in at #5, #9, #10 and #11. There was no other SEC team that was consistently in the Top 25 last season.

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SEC Burning Questions: First Year Coach With the Biggest Impact

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 2nd, 2015

One of the biggest developments in the SEC this offseason was the star power added to the league’s coaching ranks, as no fewer than three programs added a head coach with an impressive pedigree. Mississippi State hired Ben Howland, a man who led UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 and has won conference titles in the Big Sky, Big East and Pac 10/12. Tennessee quickly ended its tumultuous relationship with Donnie Tyndall and added a coach with a Final Four to his name as well (plus three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights) in Rick Barnes. And after swinging and missing on Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Alabama was nonetheless able to win the press conference by hiring Avery Johnson, a former NBA Coach of the Year who led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006. Florida didn’t make a splashy hire, but the Gators replaced its legendary coach with Louisiana Tech’s Michael White  no stranger to the SEC after playing and coaching at Ole Miss.

Ben Howland inherits a better-than-you'd-think situation in Starkville (

Ben Howland inherits a better-than-you’d-think situation in Starkville (

Of the four, Howland and White are poised to have the biggest impacts this season. For Howland, this is in no small part because of the situation former Bulldogs’ head coach Rick Ray left him. It would have been more than understandable had Mississippi State stuck with Ray for at least another year. His three-year results weren’t great, but there had been incremental improvement: The Bulldogs won six SEC games under him last year (his highest total) and were poised to return a strong and experienced core that he had recruited and developed. But as cruel as it was for Ray to lose on the chance to continue building his program, it’s refreshing that Mississippi State strived for more — the type of ambition the league needs if it wants to raise its national profile. Howland arrived in Starkville and delivered right away, signing Jackson native Malik Newman (Rivals’ #8 overall prospect) away from the likes of Kentucky, Ole Miss and LSU.

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SEC Trick-or-Treat: Who’s Handing Out What

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2015

Every house hands out something different on Halloween. Elation or disappointment are just a ring of the doorbell away, and you never know which one is behind the door. It’s much the same in the SEC, where each coach enters the season with plans to cook up something unique. So saunter up to the door and get your bag ready, because SEC coaches are doling out the goodies.

King-sized anything – John Calipari. Don’t pretend like you got dropped off in the country club section of town without hopes of piling your plastic pumpkin full of king-sized Snickers bars. How can Kentucky fans be anything but satisfied with what Coach Cal has served up since landing in Lexington? One championship and four Final Four appearances in six years are enough to keep any fan base content. 2015-16 should be more of the same, with All-American caliber sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis joining forces with another loaded freshmen class. But one of the keys towards making sure this is another king-sized season is a pair of players that are more accustomed to playing “fun-sized” roles in Lexington. Senior Alex Poythress was limited to just eight games last year after tearing his ACL, while junior Marcus Lee has never averaged more than 10 minutes per game in a season. Elite recruit and potential top-five pick Skal Labissiere will be the headliner in the frontcourt, but both Poythress and Lee will be heavily relied upon to provide production alongside the star freshman.

Pixy Stix – Mike Anderson. When you want a sugar rush — and fast — you reach for the sweet simplicity of Pixy Stix. When you want to watch fast-paced basketball, you watch the Arkansas Razorbacks. Mike Anderson’s teams have ranked among the top 25 teams nationally in Kenpom adjusted tempo in all four of his years in Fayetteville. However, the Pixy Stix sugar rush is also accompanied by an inevitable crash — something Anderson will look to avoid this season. Four of his top five scorers are gone, and his rotation was further complicated by off-the-court problems over the summer. Even more trouble came when one of his top recruits, Ted Kapita, wasn’t able to qualify. It might all add up to a trying transition season in Fayetteville, as the Hogs may fall far short of the success of last season’s group, whose season ended in the third round of the Tournament. Still, if nothing else, freshman Jimmy Whitt should be able to light up the scoreboard — even if the points are as empty as the calories in that paper tube of sugar.

Screenshot 2015-10-29 at 11.29.30 PM

Need A Rush? Grab Some Pixy Stix This Halloween…Or Watch Mike Anderson’s Team Play Basketball

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SEC Impact Newcomers: Part II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 29th, 2015

Yesterday, we looked at the freshmen or transfers who figure to make a first-year impact for half of the teams in the SEC. Today we do the same with the other half of the league, including two freshmen who could be top-10 picks in the upcoming NBA Draft and a transfer who has some international experience.

LSU – Ben Simmons. Simmons was a major get for Johnny Jones, a coach who will try to prove his critics wrong by showing that he can get the most out of a talented roster. The Australian-born wing will almost certainly be a top-five pick in next year’s NBA Draft and is without question the most talented player Jones has had, which is saying something. Simmons is 6’10”, explosively athletic, and according to DraftExpress, was the best passer at the Nike Academy over the summer. Those kinds of skills are a coach’s dream — Simmons, Tim Quarterman and fellow freshman Antonio Blakeney should make the Tigers a fun team to watch in transition this season.

Ben Simmons is as elite a prospect and talent as there is. Can Johnny Jones cash in on that? (

Ben Simmons is as elite a prospect and talent as there is in college basketball. Can Johnny Jones cash in on that?

Auburn – Kareem Canty. How do you replace scorers like KT Harrell and Antoine Mason? Simple — add yet another high-volume shooting transfer player with a scoring pedigree. Canty, who spent his freshman season averaging 16.2 PPG at Marshall, will assume that role on Bruce Pearl’s second Auburn team. His latest recruiting class generated a lot of buzz, but Canty should be able to take some of the offensive pressure from the freshmen. He’s not the three-point marksman Harrell was, but he’s a proven scorer. In a three-game stretch against Vanderbilt, Penn State and West Virginia two years ago, Canty scored 18, 28 and 16 points, respectively. That kind of offensive production could allow Auburn to rise up the SEC ladder despite the loss of such a prolific three-point shooter and scorer. Read the rest of this entry »

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