SEC Saturday Storylines: Is Alabama Really On The Bubble?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2016

This Saturday will contain more conference title drama in the span of just a few hours than the SEC has had over the past two seasons. The top four teams play each other on a day that could go a long way toward determining which squad arrives in Nashville as the SEC regular season champion. Here are three stories to keep track of with a lot at stake this weekend.

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial match up with Kentucky (thestate.com).

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial matchup with Kentucky (thestate.com).

  1. Which team will have a leg up in the title race on Sunday morning? With the top of the SEC standings muddled as we enter mid-February, the schedule-makers have smiled on us this weekend. KentuckySouth Carolina and LSU all sit at 8-3 with Texas A&M and Florida right behind that trio at 7-4. The Wildcats and Gamecocks will meet in Columbia while the Tigers and Aggies face off in Baton Rouge. The most pressure of the weekend might be on Billy Kennedy’s club, since a fifth straight SEC loss — a situation nobody would have thought possible just a few weeks ago — could put an end to the Aggies’ championship hopes. South Carolina might have the most to gain, however. A win for the Gamecocks could put Frank Martin’s team in a commanding position since its remaining schedule is the most manageable. South Carolina’s remaining road games? At Missouri, Mississippi State and Arkansas. That’s hardly a murderer’s row, even with the trip to Bud Walton thrown in there. There’s a lot of basketball still to come this season, but we may look back on this Saturday as the most pivotal day in the SEC race. Read the rest of this entry »
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Tyler Ulis is Not Kentucky’s Prototypical Defensive Game-Changer

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2016

Kentucky fans are used to having defensive game-changers. These are usually athletic behemoths like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns — players who make entry into the paint a house of horrors for their opponents. But there’s another defensive game-changer on campus in Lexington this season, except that he’s over a foot shorter than his predecessors and does most of his defensive dirty work outside the lane. Tyler Ulis‘ control of the offense and Jamal Murray‘s scoring barrage have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention during the last week, but it has been Ulis’ keen ability to disrupt opponents’ offensive game plans that has been just as important. Just ask Florida head coach Mike White.

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

“I thought it started, again, with Ulis,” he said last weekend after a blowout loss in Rupp Arena. “There were three or four plays that we called that were quick-hitting or with some movement in the first half that Tyler just blew up with the pressure on the basketball.” Kentucky followed up that win with another lopsided victory over a Georgia team that might have been playing for its NCAA Tournament life. But in the end, the box score was littered with ugly numbers. The Wildcats held the Bulldogs to a measly 0.76 points per possession and an astonishingly low 25.0% eFG, poor marks even for a team that has struggled to score this season. Ulis was again the main culprit, using his exceptional quickness in a variety of ways to frustrate Georgia.

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SEC Rundown: Volume XI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 9th, 2016

What a difference a few weeks can make. It wasn’t too long ago that the big mystery in the SEC was which team would finish second to Texas A&M. Instead, LSU now finds itself in sole possession of first place, and the Aggies’ defense has shown some cracks during a three-game conference losing streak. Here’s what happened last week in SEC hoops and what to look for in the week ahead.

Antonio Blakeney had the best game of his young college career against Mississippi State (theadvocate.com).

Antonio Blakeney had the best game of his young college career against Mississippi State (theadvocate.com).

  • Trending Up. Antonio Blakeney, LSU. Even when his shots weren’t falling early in the season, Blakeney was still playing hard and bringing value on defense. In SEC play, the shots have been falling more frequently (+5.5% eFG), however, and the freshman put together his best game to date (31 points on 4-of-8 from three) last week against Mississippi State. If he continues to cash in on his lofty potential, defenses will have one more dynamic playmaker to contend with along with Ben Simmons.
  • Trending Down. Confidence that the SEC will have many teams playing past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M, LSU, Kentucky and Florida all showed potential against high quality opponents in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Yet last week the Aggies dropped two games, Florida’s normally stout defense was lit up twice, and the Wildcats coughed up a 21-point lead in a loss to Tennessee. These teams’ potential is there, but there’s plenty of inconsistency right alongside it.

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SEC Saturday Storylines: League Title Up For Grabs?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 6th, 2016

A little over a week ago it looked like Texas A&M was about to run away and hide with the SEC’s regular season title. The excursion into non-conference play and exciting win over Iowa State obscures the fact that the Aggies are now on a two-game SEC losing streak after dropping a game in Nashville Thursday night. That puts Johnny Jones‘ LSU squad in a tie for first midway through conference play. Just as everyone predicted, right? The regular season title scramble highlights a crucial weekend in the league.

Didn't expect to see me on top of the standings, did you? (sportsnola.com).

Didn’t expect to see me on top of the standings, did you? (sportsnola.com).

  1. Break out the binoculars and tape measures, we’ve got a race! The Aggies and Tigers are tied atop the standings, and five more teams sit within two games of the lead. LSU should take care of business against Mississippi State at home – although the Bulldogs have been competitive lately – and put pressure on Texas A&M to rebound against a hungry South Carolina team. The winner of Kentucky and Florida will position itself nicely for a run at pole position, as well. But don’t forget about Vanderbilt. Less than week after a disappointing performance in Austin, the Commodores have renewed momentum with that Texas A&M win. They now face Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State, and if they run through that manageable stretch undefeated the ‘Dores will be sitting pretty at 9-4 in league play. We were due intrigue in the league title race after Kentucky and Florida won the league by an average of 5.5 games the past two seasons, and we’ve definitely got it. Read the rest of this entry »
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Is It Time to Worry About South Carolina?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 4th, 2016

In a cramped spare room somewhere in Stegeman Coliseum, Frank Martin was asked about whether a loss to Georgia concerned him. “We’re 22 games into this. Who we are as a team has already been formed.” So, 22 games in, who are the Gamecocks? If you’re playing word association for this season, you might think “South Carolina, success.” That wouldn’t be wrong. The Gamecocks had an undefeated non-conference season, are in the SEC race, have been in and out of the polls and are easily Martin’s best team at South Carolina. But even at 19-3, there are reasons to be concerned about the Gamecocks going forward. 

Are the Gamecocks in trouble despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

Are Frank Martin’s Gamecocks in trouble, despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

In isolation, Tuesday night’s loss in Athens is not that big of a deal. The Bulldogs were desperate for a good win and the Gamecocks presented a rare opportunity to get that. Yet South Carolina was beginning a brutal four-game stretch – at least for SEC standards – against Georgia, Texas A&M (road), LSU (home) and Kentucky (home). With no marquee non-conference wins and an uneven 1-2 road SEC record going into the game, the Gamecocks were out to prove their lofty record had some substance behind it. The loss to the Bulldogs didn’t get this crucial stretch started on a good note, and also raised concerns about how the South Carolina offense will hold up against better defenses.

The Gamecock defense, like that of many Martin-coached teams, has been predictably excellent (KenPom #27). South Carolina’s offense has lagged behind, however – particularly against the better defenses it has played. The chart below shows that the Gamecocks worst shooting nights have come against some of the better defenses that they’ve faced. This may not be a groundbreaking discovery; after all, most teams don’t as well against good defenses because those defenses are, well, good. But the concern is that South Carolina hasn’t been able to do enough against the better defenses it has faced to take advantage of its great defense. That’s what makes its admittedly lackluster offensive effort against the Bulldogs puzzling. The plan against Georgia was simple: attack the middle of the Bulldogs’ zone and make Yante Maten defend the ball handler to try to get him in foul trouble. Somehow though, the Gamecocks generated their third fewest free throw attempts of the year (19) and struggled mightily to score from anywhere in the first half. “We came out lazy and chillin’, and it got us beat,” Sindarius Thornwell told The State after the game. A similar effort in College Station on Saturday against an elite, long Texas A&M that forces plenty of mistakes will not get the Gamecocks the statement win they may desperately need.

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 10.34.52 PM

South Carolina’s offense depends heavily on getting to the line (third highest point distribution from free throws in the NCAA) and creating offense off of turnovers. Whether or not this formula is sustainable is a debatable point, but it goes without saying that the Gamecocks need to be constantly looking to drive off screens and create contact near the basket, especially against better competition. Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas have been less effective offensively in conference play, and Chris Silva hasn’t shown much on offense yet. One solution could be going to more three-guard lineups that feature some combination of Thornwell, P.J. DozierDuane Notice and Marcus Stroman. This could also require more minutes from freshman guard Jamall Gregory, who Martin has not shown much confidence in yet. The downside of getting more shooting and slashing on the court is that it takes away the Gamecocks’ size, which has been such an asset to them this season (ninth best offensive rebounding rate in the country).

Being able to find this balance is going to be crucial for Martin. Between its great defense and experienced core, South Carolina has a lot going for it. Conventional wisdom says a team that has reached 19-3 at this point in the season in a power conference is a lock for the NCAA tournament, but what if the Gamecocks drop the next three games? They don’t have any great non-conference wins to fall back on and have the weakest in-league strength of schedule in the SEC to this point. Legitimate questions could be asked about whether they are truly worthy of a bid. To this point, this season has been a validation tour for the ground level rebuild Martin had to put together in Columbia. It would be a shame for him, the program and seniors that have been there from the start – like Michael Carrera, Chatkevicius and Kacinas, if the season didn’t end with a trip to the tournament.

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SEC Rundown: Volume X

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2016

After a fun Saturday hanging out with the Big 12, SEC teams return to league action starting this evening. Waiting for them is a conference race with the potential to heat up considerably over the rest of the month. Quite the change from the last two years, right? Here’s a look back at last week’s SEC action and what to watch for ahead.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida made a bold statement against West Virginia (smokingmusket.com).

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida made a bold statement against West Virginia (smokingmusket.com).

Trending UpFlorida‘s likelihood of returning to the NCAA Tournament. The Gators’ resume previously lacked a marquee win but that problem was solved by convincingly beating West Virginia at home on Saturday. KeVaughn Allen is also on the upswing, as he has been for most of his freshman season. The freshman is becoming the most important part of Florida’s offense and looked comfortable beyond his years against the Mountaineers’ unrelenting pressure. If he continues his scoring tear, he and Dorian Finney-Smith could be enough to keep Florida afloat on the nights when the team’s shots aren’t falling.

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SEC 3-Point Shot: Big 12/SEC Challenge Takeaways

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 1st, 2016

Saturday gave us a break from league play for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Here are three takeaways from a fun day of college basketball in which the SEC faced off with arguably the best conference in the country.

  1. Open Look: Hey Big 12, let’s do it again? Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s not easy being an SEC basketball fan. How many times can you be expected to generate excitement for a “showcase” game between two unranked teams? This event between the two power conferences was something fresh and each time slot seemed to have an exciting game. ESPN was not shy about marketing it all week long and the push seemed to work (based on an admittedly unscientific peek at social media). Heck, Arkansas’ Dusty Hannahs even found himself trending on Twitter during the afternoon. The attendance and atmosphere in SEC venues was good; even Auburn was near capacity for an uninspiring Oklahoma State team. Here’s hoping the two leagues get together and keep this format — playing the challenge in the middle of conference play — for years to come.Screenshot 2016-01-31 at 3.14.01 PM
  2. Over the Close Out: This was a good day for the SEC. A quick look at the overall record (3-7 is definitively not good) might suggest otherwise, but it’s hard to walk away from Saturday’s action and not be happy about the SEC’s performance. The league was a Tyler Ulis mishandle and Tim Quarterman drive away from washing out the challenge at 5-5 and plucking off wins against the Big 12’s two heavyweights. Kentucky and LSU are developing in their own ways, so to play well against great competition shows that things for both teams are heading in the right direction. Meanwhile, Florida (#22) and Texas A&M (#7) backed up their lofty KenPom ratings by taking care of business at home. Losses in either of those games would have opened the door for questions like “how good are they?” We also need to consider that the SEC didn’t necessarily bring its biggest guns to the fight. Swapping in South Carolina and Alabama for Auburn and Tennessee might have resulted in two more wins (we’ll ignore that Missouri and Mississippi State were also left sitting at the table). Read the rest of this entry »
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Big 12 Q&A: Previewing The SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2016

The SEC and Big 12 regular season races are taking shape, but the leagues take a break on Saturday for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This year’s format has all 10 games on the same day and gives the SEC a rare mid-season chance to measure itself against arguably the best conference in the country. It’s also a penny from heaven for teams like LSU and Vanderbilt that are desperate for marquee wins, if they can take advantage. The Big 12 microsite’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) was nice enough to catch us up on the Big 12 and preview a few of Saturday’s match ups.

Kentucky will face something familiar in Lawrence: a team that has struggled to find consistent front court production (Photo: KUSports.com).

Kentucky will face something familiar in Lawrence: a team that has struggled to find consistent frontcourt production (Photo: KUSports.com).

It’s almost February and Kansas hasn’t locked up the regular season title. What gives? Is the Jayhawks’ streak actually at risk? 

CS: Very much so. Kansas is now 5-3 in Big 12 play despite having played only the seventh toughest league schedule so far. Bill Self and company still have to travel to Baylor, Oklahoma, and Texas before the season is up. Recent numbers from KenPom suggest the Jayhawks now have only a 10 percent chance of winning at least a share of a 12th straight regular season title. Honestly, that sounds about right.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IX

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 26th, 2016

The regular season title is solidly Texas A&M‘s to lose at this point as the Aggies are two games clear of a trio of second place teams. But if college basketball has taught us anything this year it’s that the game can be fickle. Here’s what the Aggies and rest of the league were up to last week.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Team of the Week. For now the storm has passed in Lexington. Kentucky followed up the loss at Auburn with a good win over Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena and a dominant performance at home against Vanderbilt. Lost amid the hand-wringing over the front court has been another very good Wildcat defense. They were excellent in that regard on Saturday, making non-factors out of Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance, and Mathew Fisher-Davis. “That’s the best defensive game we’ve had,” Tyler Ulis told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “That’s what we need to do every game because in order for us to win, we have to be a defensive team.”

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Evansville’s Mockevicius Rebounding At Historic Pace

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 22nd, 2016

The most humble college basketball player in the country might be a Lithuanian based in southern Indiana. Egidijus Mockevicius has grabbed 20 rebounds in back-to-back games, including a 23 point, 20 rebound effort on Tuesday night against Loyola Chicago. How was he able to do this? Luck, he says. “The ball was just bouncing into my hands. It’s just the luck,” the senior big man told CBSSports Network after the game. The numbers would disagree. Mockevicius is grabbing defensive rebounds at a historic pace, currently leading the country with a 40.2 defensive rebounding percentage. This type of production is simply never seen, anywhere. This ferociousness on the defensive backboards is a big part of the reason why he won the Lou Henson Award, which is given the top mid-season mid-major player.

Edgidijus Mockevicius has been a monster on the defensive glass this season (Wichita Eagle, AP).

Edgidijus Mockevicius has been a monster on the defensive glass this season (Wichita Eagle, AP).

The table below shows the top individual defensive rebounding percentage of each of the past eight seasons. The only players that come even close to Mockevicius’ current production are Kenneth Faried in 2009-10 and John Bryant in 2008-09. Faried has been the gold standard in recent college basketball rebounding lore, but Mockevicius is exceeding even his numbers midway through this season. There’s still a long ways to go, but there’s little reason to think the senior can’t keep rebounding at this pace. His production hasn’t slipped against better competition, as he grabbed nine rebounds against Providence, 12 against Arkansas, 13 against Fresno State and 16 against Wichita State. “The thing that makes Big E so good is he’s so smart. Obviously he’s great on the boards,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller told The Pantagraph last week. “He keeps constant pressure on you at the rim at both ends.”

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Saiz Injury May Mean No Moody or Ole Miss in March

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 21st, 2016

If Ole Miss‘ current three-game losing streak didn’t put the fire out on the Rebels’ already-slim NCAA tournament chances, then Sebastian Saiz‘ torn retina might do the trick. Andy Kennedy will be without his best big man for at least two weeks as Saiz recovers from surgery for an injury he suffered back in December against Memphis. The eye issue didn’t affect the junior’s play as he stayed in line with what has been a breakout year. Saiz is nearly averaging a double-double (12.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and hasn’t wilted in SEC play, scoring in double figures and grabbing at least six rebounds in every game.

Sebastian Saiz' absence could be devastating for Ole Miss (bleacherreport.com).

Sebastian Saiz’ absence could be devastating for Ole Miss (bleacherreport.com).

A player like Saiz is a big loss no matter the circumstance, but is especially painful for Ole Miss for a number of reasons. First, Saiz is the Rebels only consistent offensive threat in the post and is by far Kennedy’s best rebounder. Second, the Rebels are about as thin a power conference team as you will find. Kennedy’s rotation generally has maxed out at eight players and only six players average more than 20 minutes per game. Also thin? The Rebels’ shot at making a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. The picture looked fairly rosy a week and a half ago when Ole Miss ran out to a 2-1 SEC start and stood at 12-3 overall. The aesthetics of the overall record covered for the fact that the Rebels’ best win was an away game at Memphis and that they were carrying a disappointing loss to George Mason (KenPom #196).

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Vanderbilt’s Surprising NBA Prospect

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 20th, 2016

There will be no perfunctory press conference several days after Vanderbilt‘s season ends. The beat writers won’t need to trudge to campus to hear Kevin Stallings and Damian Jones announce something that was inevitable. Jones put the faux suspense to rest before the season had even started: he was turning pro after his junior year. “This is my last go-round. But all that means is that I want to give it all I’ve got. I want to push this team and get to that next step while I’m here,” he told the Tennessean in October.

Up to this point, a talented Commodores team has not taken that “next step.” They sit at 10-7 after a frustrating non-conference season that featured missed opportunities for statement wins against Kansas, Dayton, Purdue, and Baylor. On a personal level, Jones hasn’t exactly taken that next step either. He didn’t make the cut for our mid-season SEC Player of the Year watch list and his statistical output is generally the same across the board as compared with last year. He has struggled with foul trouble, particularly in conference play, and had rough outings against Baylor’s and Purdue’s talented front courts.

Luke Kornet has become a blocking machine this year (collegebasketball.nbcsports.com).

Luke Kornet has become a blocking machine this year (collegebasketball.nbcsports.com).

This isn’t to say Jones isn’t still a good NBA prospect with a long career ahead of him. The way he moves with his 7’0” foot frame and 7’2” wingspan isn’t any less appealing to NBA scouts, and he’s generally done a great job passing out of double teams this year. He’s an athletic big who could develop into a Taj Gibson-like reliable NBA forward and to his credit hasn’t tried persuade the world that he’s a three-point shooter. But when scouts come out to Vanderbilt games this year, Jones isn’t the only Commodore that they’re looking at. Junior center Luke Kornet has developed into a legitimate NBA prospect in his own right, and while he lacks lottery (or even first round) buzz at this point, he’s a highly intriguing player.

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