SEC M5: 01.28.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 28th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. SI.com’s latest NCAA Tournament bracket projection is a welcome sight for SEC basketball fans. Four teams make the cut, including Kentucky (#1 seed), Arkansas (#7), LSU (#9) and Georgia (#10). There were times this year that when just getting two bids looked like a real possibility, so four bids (sad as it may be) right now looks very nice. The danger is that the non-Kentucky selections are far from locks and consecutive losses could easily knock any of those teams on to the wrong side of the bubble. The flip side is that with other teams like Texas A&M and Tennessee still within shouting distance of the bubble, five teams (gasp) doesn’t seem completely out of the question either. All joking aside, if the league were to get five bids it would be a nice step forward from the last two three-bid years, and confirm what we’ve been saying on this site all year: Even though it doesn’t show up in the rankings and Florida is down, the depth of the conference is in fact improving.
  2. There are a number of reasons why Florida has struggled this year, but transfers are not one of them. Billy Donovan recently defended the number of transfers on his current roster when asked if the Gators would be better off with more four-year players. “The transfers have been the ones that have really made sense for us because we know what we’re getting in terms of the kind of kids they are,” Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. Alex Murphy and Jon Horford are truly unique cases since both players had a brother who previously starred for Florida, but over-reliance on transfers can bite a program despite Fred Hoiberg’s seemingly endless pool of redemption stories at Iowa State. Just look at Missouri, which is largely in the situation it is now in because Frank Haith didn’t bring enough high school players into the program. But Florida doesn’t fall into that category because Dorian Finney-Smith and Eli Carter both brought three years of eligibility with them to Gainesville, and the Gators have plenty of potential four-year players in contributing roles – like Chris Chiozza, Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson.
  3. Marshall Henderson’s graduation left a big hole in the Ole Miss program. The Rebels lost a lot of scoring, and a lot of must-see-TV. But at least in terms of production, Andy Kennedy has replaced the void left by Henderson quicker than anyone would’ve thought with Stefan Moody. “Everyone in this league was going to be excited when Marshall Henderson left because you didn’t feel like they could get a guy who could shoot it as well as him,” Georgia coach Mark Fox told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “But lo and behold they’ve done it as well added an element of athleticism to the position.” With comparable usage rates, Moody (23.7 PER, 55.7% true shooting, 48.6% effective field goal) is exceeding Henderson’s (19.5 PER, 52.5% true shooting, 48.6% effective field goal) offensive output from last year, and adds more athleticism to the team. Considering Moody hasn’t made headlines for the wrong reasons, the Rebels have clearly upgraded at the off guard position.
  4. Texas A&M is in the midst of its longest conference (Big 12 and SEC) winning streak since 2011, and Billy Kennedy thinks his team’s maturity is a big reason why. “We start three juniors and two seniors and they’ve all played high-level Division I basketball. Their consistency and maturity is why we’re enjoying some success.” Yesterday we pointed out that the Aggies’ influx of new players could mean they are yet to hit their peak. But the two most important players from that group, Jalen Jones and Danuel House, have high major experience, which has helped create that consistency. They’ve also pushed senior starters Jordan Green and Kourtney Roberson into complementary roles, which suits both players very well and makes for a strong all-around team.
  5. At 7-12, Missouri is smack dab in the middle of a rebuilding year, but Kim Anderson has not relaxed his rotations and played guys just to play them. “It’s not like if you’re in a high school situation where like seventh grade basketball gets to play because that’s what the superintendent says. It’s not like that. You’ve got to play — the guys that are playing the best get to play more,” he told the Columbia Tribune. One notable omission has been freshman Jakeenan Gant, who has lost his starting spot and played just 14 minutes in the last two games. The 2013-14 Georgia Mr. Basketball has not developed as expected, or at least in the way his 13 point debut against Xavier suggested he might. Still, it is important for Anderson to establish a culture even if it means one of his more talented freshmen sitting on the bench.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 27th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume IV, including games from January 19-25.

Team of the Week. Welcome to the party, Texas A&M. The Aggies are riding a four-game winning streak after beating Missouri (home) and Tennessee (road) last week. It’s their longest conference winning streak since joining the SEC, and the win over the resurgent Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena was a nice exclamation mark. Tennessee’s match-up zone had frustrated Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina, but the Aggies – which have generally struggled to score in the Billy Kennedy era – were able to shoot 48 percent from the field in the victory. That’s obviously a good sign. Texas A&M’s development potential is also something to keep an eye on. Five key rotation pieces are playing their first year in College Station: Jalen Jones (transfer), Danuel House (transfer), Alex Robinson (freshman), Peyton Allen (freshman) and Tony Trocha-Morelos (freshman). Alex Caruso is again leading the conference in assists per game (5.3) and assist rate (36.7%), and the Aggies’ offense should continue to improve as he gets more experience playing alongside primary scorers Jones and House.

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

Player of the Week. Quick, who is Georgia’s best player? If you didn’t say J.J. Frazier than you’re probably wrong, at least as far the previous week is concerned. The Bulldogs’ point guard gets the nod almost solely for what he did in staving off Mississippi State last Saturday. The sophomore scored 37 points, including a blistering seven-for-seven from three. He told the AP that it was the best game of his career, and it came at a big moment for surging Georgia. The Bulldogs got just 24 points combined from Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic. That kind of production, or lack thereof, from a team’s main horses almost always results in a loss. And a loss to Mississippi State would’ve been bad for Georgia’s tournament hopes. But Frazier didn’t let it happen, and he may be battling Armani Moore for the title of most improved player in the conference. He is second in the league in true shooting percentage (65.3%), and is taking care of the ball very well (1.4 turnover per game) despite seeing his role as primary ball handler drastically increased over what it was last season.

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Veterans Lead Tennessee’s Unexpected Success

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 23rd, 2015

Missouri and Tennessee spent this past offseason as kindred spirits, and not in a good way, as both Frank Haith and Cuonzo Martin bolted for new jobs. The pair left for different reasons — Haith was likely staying one step ahead of the mob, while Martin was looking for more job security — but both left their former schools in the same position. And both schools were already going to be facing challenges in 2014-15. The Tigers lost essentially all of their scoring with the early departures of Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown as well as Earnest Ross’ graduation. The Vols’ Sweet Sixteen squad was also decimated, as Jarnell Stokes left early and Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon ran out of eligibility. All of this turnover on the court and sidelines seemed to launch both programs into full-blown transition years, and transition years can be ugly.

Armani Moore has tripled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season (tricitiesports.com).

Armani Moore has tripled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season (tricitiesports.com).

Except that’s not always the case. The two programs that seemed destined for lockstep this year are now trending in very different directions. In some ways, the Vols’ win over the Tigers last Saturday was a microcosm of this notion. Knotted at 46 with under four minutes to play, Missouri turned over the ball on three straight possessions while juniors Armani Moore and Derek Reese made consecutive tough baskets at the rim to lead the Vols to their second conference road win. On Tuesday night, it was senior Josh Richardson and junior Kevin Punter who shined offensively as Tennessee notched its third SEC road win at South Carolina. At the risk of oversimplifying, that has essentially been the story of both teams’ respective seasons. Tennessee finds itself on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament discussion because its veterans have stabilized what could have been a very difficult rebuilding year. Missouri, on the other hand, does not have any returning upperclassmen playing significant roles, and the freshman and sophomore-heavy Tigers have struggled as a result.

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SEC M5: 01.23.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 23rd, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. South Carolina’s win over Iowa State in early January did wonders for its profile and the perception of where the program was heading. But it might not have done a lot of good for the players, at least not in the eyes of their coach.“We haven’t shot the ball worth a you-know-what since league play started. You’d think guys would find time to come in the gym and shoot balls,” Frank Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “They did in November and December; they’re not doing that now. All of a sudden, we’re too good, so we don’t need to come in here and work on our games.” Carolina is staring down the barrel at a 1-5 SEC start with Kentucky coming to town on Saturday. To pull off a season-resuscitating win, the Gamecocks will need to shoot better than the 29.3 percent from three that they have in conference play.
  2. One team sitting ahead of the Gamecocks in the standings is Mississippi State, which seemed impossible a few weeks ago. Things had taken an alarming turn for Rick Ray after a home loss to McNeese State followed by lopsided losses to Tennessee and Florida to start conference play. But the picture is now looking better after back-to-back wins and the end of a 22-game road losing streak. One big reason has been improved play from sophomore point guard I.J. Ready. His numbers are up virtually across the board in conference play, including a solid PER of 21.8 in five SEC games. He’s still a work in progress and not an ideal distributor (seven turnovers in the win over Vanderbilt), but he’s a natural scorer on a team desperate for talent.
  3. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin get all the press (and rightfully so), but where would LSU be without Keith Hornsby? Johnny Jones recently joked that Tigers fans should start heckling Hornsby at home given how well he’s played on the road, and he may be on to something. In LSU’s three conference road games (Missouri, Ole Miss, Florida), Hornsby has averaged 18.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and has shot 45.8 percent from three. If the folks at the PMAC want to start thinking of some late 80s pop jokes, now might be the time. The Tigers rely heavily on Hornsby and Josh Gray, and while Gray has been up-and-down, Hornsby has done a solid job in his role as a third option and floor spacer. If he maintains that level, LSU will be one step closer to reaching its considerable ceiling.
  4. Texas A&M is riding a three-game winning streak after its Wednesday night win over Missouri, and the Aggies are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the SEC. They are looking for their first record above .500 under Billy Kennedy and have a manageable schedule the rest of the way (in other words: no Kentucky). A step forward this year would be huge for the program as it awaits a mammoth recruiting class to arrive next season. That step may be happening mainly because of two players in their first year in College Station: Jalen Jones and Danuel House. The two transfers are Kennedy’s top two scorers and were responsible for keying the 22-2 run that dropped Missouri. Jones nailed a three during that run and if he keeps adding that threat to his game (7-of-19 on the year), he’ll be a load to handle. Next year’s star-studded group cuts Kennedy a lot of slack for his lackluster tenure at A&M to this point, but his two transfers are doing their part too.
  5. Georgia is another SEC team riding a three-game winning streak. The Bulldogs’ rise, however, is due in part to a player who was on the roster last year but didn’t play much: J.J. Frazier. He has been the best ball-handler on a team stocked with good guards, and over the winning streak he’s dished out 14 assists while turning the ball over just three times. On the season, he has a 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and has provided Georgia with the three-point shooting (39.4%) that it sorely needed. Charles Mann is having a solid junior year but hasn’t logged the step-forward season many thought he would, although part of the reason for that is probably because he’s still adjusting to playing off the ball more with Frazier in the fold (five percent decrease in usage rate). If Mark Fox can develop more chemistry between the two, Georgia should seriously threaten for an NCAA Tournament spot.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume III

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume III, including games from January 12-18.

Team of the week. It took three rounds of this column to get there, but the league Colossus finally gets the nod. Kentucky did in the second week of SEC play what so many predicted it would do in the first — thrash its opponents. The Wildcats beat Missouri by more points (49) than it allowed the Tigers to score (37), and, as Brian pointed out earlier this week, it was the best defensive (points per possession) performance in conference play in the Calipari era. The ‘Cats followed up that victory with an easy 22-point win against a good Alabama team. Its defense was again outstanding, but it was the Kentucky offense that caught my eye in Tuscaloosa. Just one week after a rough outing in College Station (28.1% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 25-of-35 FTs), the Wildcats were hyper-efficient in a slow-paced game (50% FG, 47% 3FG, 16-of-18 FTs). If that’s a sign of the Wildcats’ offense to come, it’s worth wondering whether this team may actually cut down the nets in early April sporting a goose egg in the loss column.

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Player of the Week. Let’s follow the crowd and hand it to Tennessee’s Armani Moore. The junior wing won the SEC’s Player of the Week award and it was well-deserved. He contributed solid scoring totals in last week’s wins over Arkansas (14) and Missouri (15), but more importantly scored crucial points late in both games. His two free throws sealed the Vols’ victory over Arkansas, and he broke a tie-game in Columbia with under four minutes to go with a contested layup. The 6’5″ Moore also helped an undersized Tennessee front line win the rebounding battle in both games. Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones, who played well in returning from an ankle injury, and Georgia’s Kenny Gaines, who guided the Bulldogs through a crucial undefeated week, also deserve mention.

Tournament Chatter. Can you say mediocrity? The league currently has seven teams sitting at 2-2, and the only 3-1 teams (Tennessee and Florida) appear to be well behind several of those in the NCAA Tournament pecking order. None of the fringe NCAA contenders have yet played their way out of the picture but we could be headed toward the league’s nightmare scenario. A team or two separating from the pack would lock in a few bids, but if the soft middle continues to beat up on each other without rhyme or reason, it risks damaging everyone’s profile. Still, 10 (10!) teams are worth mentioning and that’s not too bad.

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SEC M5: MLK Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 19th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. So many potential narratives started swirling around after Kentucky’s shaky outings against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Had the Wildcats become unfocused and vulnerable? Would they respond? Was the sky falling? At least for now, it seems the close calls indeed got the ‘Cats attention. “I think those struggles just reset our mind,” Willie Cauley-Stein told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Now we’re back to like, ‘OK, we’re trying to shut people out.’ We’re not just trying to play with them. We’re trying to demoralize them.” After allowing Ole Miss to score more points per possession than it had any team this season (1.09), Kentucky broke Missouri’s soul (0.58) and then stifled a good Alabama squad (0.83). Given Alabama’s length, athleticism and desperation for a marquee win, the game in Tuscaloosa may have been one of the tougher road assignments Kentucky will face this year. They passed it easily, and it seems the appropriate narrative is that the Wildcats’ slow start to conference play may have in fact been a positive thing.
  2. Kentucky isn’t the only team that took something away from its SEC opener against Ole Miss. The Rebels weren’t intimidated in Rupp against a seemingly invincible opponent, and they brought that same confidence to Fayetteville when they whacked Arkansas 96-82. If you combine their shooting stats from both games, the Rebels shot 53.1 percent on 32 three-point attempts. That is precisely the way to give yourself a chance against good teams in tough environments. The abundance of bravado has to be tied to Ole Miss’ veteran backcourt of Jarvis Summers, Stefan Moody and Snoop White. The trio has guided the Rebels to a 2-2 record against arguably the best the SEC has to offer: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Ole Miss may be able to make some hay as the schedule eases up, especially if it keeps lighting it up from deep.
  3. Is Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones the most important player in the SEC? Probably not, but the Aggies are 2-0 with him in SEC play and 0-2 without him. Billy Kennedy’s leading scorer returned from an ankle injury to score 16 points in a win over Mississippi State and then 18 points in Saturday’s win over LSU. The latter performance was all the more impressive since it came against the Tigers’ ultra-talented front line. Would a healthy Jones have given the Aggies the slight edge they would’ve needed to drop Kentucky? We will never know, but with how Texas A&M has struggled to score this season, it needs Jones to remain healthy if it has any chance of ending up on the tournament bubble.
  4. Auburn’s big recruits a year away. The team was coming off a 20 point loss. Kentucky wasn’t in town. And this is Auburn, after all. Nonetheless, Auburn Arena was rocking Saturday night during the Tigers’ quality win over South Carolina. This is the Bruce Pearl effect. We heard about the spike in season ticket sales during the offseason, and actually saw it come to life against the Gamecocks. Cinmeon Bowers – who is becoming a star in the SEC – ripped down an offensive rebound and converted a tough layup to extend the Tigers’ lead to three with under four minutes left and the arena exploded. Last year, a scene like that seemed a world away. But there is truly excitement around Auburn basketball, and with home wins over Missouri and Carolina, not to mention the emergence of Bowers as a double-double machine, there is tangible progress on the court too. Again, this is the Bruce Pearl effect, and the entire league is better for it.
  5. Florida’s 24-game conference win streak came to an end with an unusual sight. Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith were glued to bench for a large swath of the second half in the Gators’ loss to Georgia, and not because of foul trouble. “For me, it was just, let’s play (freshman) Devin Robinson, Chris Chiozza. Let’s get them some experience. Let’s let them play. These older guys aren’t playing at the level we need them to play at,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. Despite the loss, Florida’s 3-1 conference record does not have it in a helpless position so the benching was a somewhat bold move from Donovan. It might signal that this season has become as much about building for the future as it is contending in the present. And that’s not a bad thing, because except for senior Jon Horford, this same Florida team will likely take the floor together next year.
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SEC M5: 01.14.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. One of the league’s hottest players since entering SEC play has to be Kentucky’s Devin Booker, who scored 13 points against Ole Miss, 18 points against Texas A&M and seven last night against Missouri. During the three-game run he was 8-of-11 from distance, and it is his outside shooting that makes Booker such a dangerous weapon for the Wildcats — perhaps the best long-range threat since Doron Lamb rained triples for the 2012 championship team. He won’t shoot at such a blistering rate all season long (currently 50.8%), but if he continues to produce it’ll be hard for John Calipari to keep him off the court in close games. Despite their exceptional defensive talent, the Wildcats don’t have all that many players who can create their own shot; therefore, the offensive threat that Booker poses will make it easier for guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson to find room inside to operate.
  2. It appears Ole Miss did indeed take something away from its near-win at Rupp Arena last Tuesday. “If we can do that against Kentucky, we can do that against anybody else,” forward Sebastian Saiz told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. The Rebels followed it up with a solid win over the weekend against South Carolina, and have two big opportunities ahead against LSU and Arkansas. If Ole Miss can win both games — no easy task considering that the Razorbacks game is in Fayetteville — the NCAA Tournament bubble could start to come into view. What could set the Rebels apart is that they can actually put the ball in the basket (24th in adjusted offensive efficiency) in a league where many teams struggle to score. Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody were both a bit inconsistent to begin the year, but when the two guards are both hitting shots at the same time, the Rebels can be a handful.
  3. Florida’s ultimate potential is tied in large part to Kasey Hill’s development. The sophomore has struggled shooting the ball this year, making just 20 percent of his two point jump shots and 25 percent of his three point shots. Billy Donovan thinks that while Hill will likely never be a lights out shooter, there is room for growth. Hill is one of the quicker guards in the SEC, but his inability to keep defenses honest has likely had an effect on Florida’s ability to take advantage of Chris Walker’s athleticism at the rim. Walker has not shown he can create offense on his own and would be benefitted greatly from Hill breaking down the defense and creating seams. But the more defenses can sag off Hill, the less he’ll be able to create opportunities for others. Nonetheless, Hill is an ultra-talented player and a slight improvement would go a long way for Florida.
  4. A rash of injuries has followed a tough opening week for Georgia, which could now be down three rotation players. The scariest situation happened to freshman Yante Maten (18.2 MPG), who suffered a concussion after being hit by a car outside of Stegeman Coliseum. Kenny Paul Geno (9.8 MPG) broke his wrist against Arkansas, and an Achilles injury could keep Juwan Parker (23.9 MPG) out of tonight’s game against Vanderbilt. Mark Fox has been essentially using a seven-man rotation with Parker and Maten getting the most minutes of all the reserves. Even if Parker can suit up, the Bulldogs may need Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic to play close to 40 minutes in a critical game. Fox has to hope Cameron Forte can provide some cover. The junior forward was pressed into 24 minutes of action against LSU after never seeing more than six minutes in a game prior to that, and held up well with 10 points and six rebounds.
  5. Another reserve big man that saw his minutes explode in the LSU-Georgia game was Darcy Malone, who played 16 minutes after having only seen 20 minutes total before the game. This was the latest in Johnny Jones’ season-long quest to find depth, especially in the front court. The big man group of Malone, Brian Bridgewater, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps and John Odo has combined for just 6.3 rebounds per game. With that kind of production, or lack of production, you can’t blame Jones for rolling the dice. Luckily for the Tigers it appears that freshman guard Jalyn Patterson has emerged as a solid backcourt contributor. In fact, Jones trusts Patterson so much that he had him in over Josh Gray, who was having an erratic game taking care of the ball, late in the Tigers’ loss to Missouri last week.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 13th, 2015

For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume II, including games from January 5-11.

Team of the Week. There were three strong contenders for this award this week, but Arkansas gets the nod on the strength of a 2-0 record that included wins over KenPom top 55 teams Georgia and Vanderbilt. By beating Georgia in Athens, the Razorbacks achieved something that has been a rarity under Mike Anderson: beating a quality team on the road. And it wasn’t easy. Arkansas had to overcome an 11-point deficit against a confident Bulldogs team that was riding a six-game winning streak of its own, but the Razorbacks cut into the lead by imposing their frenetic style on Georgia and forcing 17 turnovers. They had been similarly disruptive in their other road win this season, at SMU (19 TOs), but not as much in losses to Iowa State (11 TOs) and Clemson (14 TOs). We know that Anderson’s press is highly effective in Bud Walton Arena, but whether it works when the Razorbacks are on the road will be something to watch as the season unfolds. Honorable mention this week goes to Florida, which earned a hard-fought win against South Carolina before pummelling Mississippi State.

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Player of the Week. Bobby Portis had his way with the Commodores’ front line on Saturday, scoring 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting and dunking on every other possession (or so it seemed). He might be the most offensively skilled big man in the SEC this season, and his athleticism provides a great asset guarding the in-bounder as the first wave in the Arkansas press. In the Hawg’s win over Georgia, Portis contributed 21 points and even hit a three-pointer during the game. He’s been exceptionally effective from deep, making 9-of-15 three-point attempts on the season, but the fact he’s attempted so few shows that he hasn’t gotten carried away in trying to show NBA scouts that he has range. Where he’s lethal is in using his athleticism around the rim and making himself available on cuts through the lane. If he keeps living in that sweet spot, the Razorbacks will remain very difficult to defend. Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith also deserves some love this week as he combined for 36 points and 13 rebounds in wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. Despite playing with an injured non-shooting hand, the senior is shooting very well from three (39%) and grabbing defensive rebounds at a ridiculous rate (22.3%) over the first two conference games. The Gators couldn’t afford to miss a beat from him and they haven’t.

Tournament Chatter. Let’s not dress this week up because it was not a kind week for the SEC’s hopes to get more than two teams into the NCAA Tournament. I thoroughly believe that the overall depth of the conference is better than last year, but if Selection Sunday were held today you might be looking at a two-bid league. Kentucky and Arkansas seem safe, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.

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Three Thoughts on Last Night’s Near-Shocker in Rupp Arena

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 7th, 2015

All that undefeated talk surrounding Kentucky was so 2014, right? Or maybe not. The Wildcats stole the college basketball spotlight last night by needing an overtime to defeat pesky Ole Miss, but if Jarvis Summers hadn’t settled for a deep and contested three as time expired, or if Snoop White had been a half-inch behind the three-point line on a second half jumper, Kentucky might well have opened 2015 with a home loss that nobody saw coming. For now, the Wildcats’ survival cools the notion that the team needs only roll out the ball in league play to reach the NCAA Tournament unscathed, but some warning signs became apparent. Here are several thoughts from last night’s wild game in Rupp Arena.

Andrew Harrison came up big for Kentucky, which included a key assist to his brother Aaron. (USA TODAY Sports)

Andrew Harrison came up big for Kentucky, which included a key assist to his brother Aaron. (USA TODAY Sports)

  1. The Wildcats are the team we thought they were. Nothing that happened last night should change that. Sure, a team well-removed from the national consciousness had the Wildcats on the ropes on their home floor, but John Calipari’s team is still a defensive juggernaut with ultra-talented depth. Kentucky was never immune to slow starts or lazy play, and there were a number of factors at play in that regard — the Wildcats hadn’t played at home since December 13; they hadn’t played at all since the big December 27 win over Louisville; and their 12-0 spurt at the start seemed to take all of the air out of their defensive intensity. This sort of thing happens, and when an opponent has enough size to be a factor on the glass as well as a player like Stefan Moody making shots, Kentucky is going to find itself in a ballgame. Add the fact that Ole Miss went 9-of-17 from three — including three huge ones from Snoop White — and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an upset. Read the rest of this entry »
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

With the SEC’s 18-game conference schedule tipping off this week, it’s time to introduce our new The SEC Week That Was column. For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. We’ll start with Volume I, including games from December 29 to January 4.

Team of the Week. Could it go to any other team but South Carolina? The Gamecocks continued their trend of blowing out bad teams by beating North Carolina A&T by 37 points, and then picked up the league’s best non-Kentucky win by beating Iowa State on Saturday in Brooklyn. KenPom has liked Carolina’s defense all season, as the Gamecocks currently have the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball. It was on full display at the Barclays Center as Frank Martin’s team forced the high-powered Cyclones’ offense into 35.1 percent shooting from the floor and 0.79 points per possession, far and away its worst offensive showing of the year. Carolina also got excellent production from its backcourt, as Ty Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice scored at least 13 points apiece. Scrappy defense and solid guard play were the hallmarks of Frank Martin’s best teams at Kansas State, and it seems like his Gamecocks are rounding into that form. I think you can safely put South Carolina on the early NCAA Tournament bubble.

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. Jarell Martin, LSU. The Tigers’ sophomore enters league play as the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, and did nothing but pad that figure last week with strong stat lines in wins over Southern Miss (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Savannah State (26 points, eight rebounds, three assists). DraftExpress ranks Martin as the 42nd-best prospect in this summer’s NBA Draft, so you have to wonder if he will stick around another year. If he does, he’ll join five-star recruits Ben Simmons and the recently-committed Antonio Blakeney on an ultra-talented LSU roster. Honorable mention goes to Missouri’s Jonathan Williams, who starred in a loss to Oklahoma State (22 points, nine rebounds) and a win over Lipscomb (16 points, 10 rebounds). The sophomore forward has been more aggressive on the offensive end and seems to have realized that he needs to command the basketball for the Tigers to play well.

Tournament Chatter. Who made the biggest strides towards an NCAA Tournament invitation this past week?

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SEC M5: 01.05.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

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  1. South Carolina’s win over Iowa State in Brooklyn on Saturday was significant for several reasons. First, it was easily the biggest victory of Frank Martin’s tenure in Columbia, and, second, it was a boost for the conference’s reputation as a whole. Remember the last time time the SEC put a league representative in front of the Cyclones? Needless to say that it didn’t end well. But as Garnet and Black Attack writes, it was also an important victory because the Gamecocks have so few chances left on the schedule for another marquee win. Two cracks at Kentucky could be the extent of it, but now South Carolina doesn’t necessarily need to win one of those two games to get some national attention. A good conference record (e.g., 11-7) even without a Kentucky win could be enough to garner some late season NCAA Tournament chatter — since the Gamecocks’ resume is now buoyed by the victory over Iowa State.
  2. With the Carolina win on our minds, is the SEC quietly improving? While only one team is currently ranked, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton writes that, “10 SEC teams are in the top 104, six in the top 53 and four (UK, Georgia, LSU and Arkansas) in the top 28 of the RPI.” RPI, especially at this time of year, isn’t necessarily the best barometer, but if nothing else this suggests that the depth of the league is better than it was last year. Take Georgia and Alabama, for example. Neither might be viable NCAA Tournament teams, but both have shown enough fight against other major conference opponents that they won’t be pushovers either. This quiet league-wide improvement is also taking place as Florida undergoes an understandable rebuilding period, which should be encouraging to conference fans as a whole.
  3. Vanderbilt’s double-overtime win over Yale on Saturday may not have been pretty, but it pushed the Commodores’ non-conference record to 10-3, representing great progress over recent seasons. Kevin Stallings’ team should be fun to watch grow throughout SEC play, and their future promise screams from the box score, as all five players who reached double figures against Yale are either sophomores (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet) or freshmen (Riley Lachance, Shelton Mitchell, Matthew Fisher-Davis). A January 10 visit to Fayetteville will be a good test to determine how Kevin Stallings’ young team handles one of the league’s toughest environments.
  4. LSU got a late Christmas present late last week when five-star guard Antonio Blakeney committed to the Tigers. It has already been written on all corners of the Internet, but LSU will be overflowing with talent next season if Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey stick around with Blakeney and super-prospect Ben Simmons arriving on campus. But even if Mickey and Martin both leave for the NBA, the Tigers would still be able to field a competitive, NCAA Tournament-caliber team given how Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman have grown this season. Gray and Hornsby have been a complementary three-point shooting backcourt and Quarterman has been a unique, jack-of-all trades swingman. In this worst-case scenario for LSU, the team’s two new elite prospects would still be entering a team with a solid foundation.
  5. Missouri has had a frustrating season, and conference play could be much more difficult should Teki Gill-Caesar miss any time. The freshman, who has averaged 11.5 points per game this season, left the Tigers’ recent win over Lipscomb in the first half with a back injury and did not return. Kim Anderson said afterward that he wasn’t sure how serious his injury actually is. Gill-Caesar’s scoring has dipped recently as defenses focus their attention on him, but he’s a key piece to a team that showed some promise in close losses to Illinois and Oklahoma State. Missouri has an opportunity against a surging LSU team to open league play on Thursday night, but the Tigers from Columbia will be hard-pressed to win that game if Gill-Caesar is on the bench.
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SEC M5: New Year’s Eve Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 31st, 2014

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  1. College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster writes that Kentucky’s New Year’s resolution should be to give Tyler Ulis more playing time at the point guard position because he’s better than Andrew Harrison. He also writes that the reason that may not happen is because Coach Cal will be hesitant to rock the boat and upset his incumbent sophomore starter. There is no doubt that Harrison’s body language wasn’t great in the Saturday win over Louisville, but no one outside of the program knows how Harrison truly feels about his performance. Maybe he was upset that he was being outplayed by a freshman, or maybe he was upset that he laid an egg in the Wildcats’ biggest game of the year. Either way, we’ve officially reached the first blip on the Big Blue Nation drama watch. I don’t expect Harrison to lose his starting spot at Kentucky anytime soon, but if the Wildcats are in a tight game late it’s reasonable to think the freshman will have the ball in his hands.
  2. Speaking of UIis, CBSSports.com named him the Tisdale Freshman of the Week, and he cracked the top 10 of the Tisdale Award Watch for the first time this season. The diminutive but talented guard also took home the SEC’s Freshman of the Week award. He’ll never put up big stats, but it’s nice to see him getting recognition for how vital he has been to the success of the Wildcats. In one fell swoop, he’s filled Kentucky’s twin needs for a selfless distributor ( 3.7 APG; 4.3 FGA per game) and a reliable three-point shooter (52.2%). The exciting part for fans is that Ulis will almost certainly be in Lexington for multiple seasons, and if Calipari could pick one type of player to have in-house as his talented freshmen classes arrive, it would probably be a rock solid point guard with plenty of winning experience.
  3. South Carolina head coach Frank Martin might soon have another player at his disposal as freshman wing Shamiek Sheppard is now practicing after suffering a torn ACL over the summer. Without any setbacks going forward, the three-star recruit could see some playing time this season. Sheppard’s slashing ability would be a boost for a team that has only gotten to the line a measly 206 times this year (276th in the country). In the past two rebuilding seasons it might have been smarter to leave the redshirt on the freshman and save his year of eligibility, but the Gamecocks may not be rebuilding anymore. They are currently on a five-game winning streak, boast a dynamic backcourt, and are 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency. That gives them as good a shot as any SEC team to rack up a bunch of wins in league play.
  4. Alabama did not light up the scoreboard in its recent win over UCLA, but the Crimson Tide finally sealed the deal against a quality name opponent. They also didn’t set the world on fire offensively in their near-win at Wichita State, a surprise given that early in the year it looked like the Crimson Tide would have a high-powered offense. The folks at Roll Bama Roll feel that Anthony Grant has reverted back to “Grantsketball” lately in slowing down the offense and trying to grind out games, and that the Tide would be better off opening things up. The numbers bear this out, as the Tide have indeed averaged 61 possessions in their last four games after averaging 72 possessions in their first seven games. Grant knows the pulse of his team better than anyone else, but he shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances considering what Levi Randolph (16.4 PPG), Rodney Cooper (13.5 PPG) and Ricky Tarrant (10.6 PPG) are capable of doing.
  5. ESPN’s Myron Medcalf wrote a feature on Arkansas’ Bobby Portis, and it is definitely worth a read. The sophomore’s back story is inspiring, as he has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where he is now. The Little Rock native grew up wanting to play for the Razorbacks, and could be the player to lead them back to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008. Right now, you’d have to put him at the forefront of the SEC Player of the Year race, along with Willie Cauley-Stein, Damian Jones and Jarell Martin. Portis has been a consistent scorer and rebounder all season long, and perhaps more importantly, he didn’t fade away in the Razorbacks’ two biggest games of the year. In a road win over SMU, he had 22 points and five rebounds, and even though Arkansas got rolled by Iowa State it wasn’t because of Portis’ efforts, as he contributed 19 points and eight rebounds.
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