Baylor and Texas Playing Great Heading into Lone Star Match-up

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 14th, 2014

Baylor’s rollercoaster season has been on the upswing for awhile, and that upward trajectory has continued in Kansas City. The Bears got off to a hot start (15-3) in their opener against TCU, and followed that up with a similarly hot start in the quarterfinal against Oklahoma (13-3). The difference? TCU was winless in conference play, while the Sooners came into the game ranked #17 and boasting one of the most efficient offenses in the country. Baylor came ready to play in both games, and is now headed to the semi-finals brimming with momentum. The Bears shredded the Oklahoma defense to the tune of a 54.8 percent shooting performance in the first half, and while that dipped in the second half, they did just enough to shoot 50 percent on the game.

Kenny Chery facilitated an efficient Baylor offense as the Bears outshot Oklahoma (baylorbears.com).

Kenny Chery facilitated an efficient Baylor offense as the Bears outshot Oklahoma (baylorbears.com).

What is the ceiling for this Baylor team? If the way they’ve played in Kansas City is any indicator, it’s pretty high. Steady point guard is usually a big part of a tournament run, and Kenny Chery looked the part against the Sooners. He didn’t shoot the ball well (3-of-11), but played virtually the entire game (38 minutes) and was the key factor in the Bears’ hyper efficient offense. His seven assists helped the Bears put four players other than himself in double figures. Despite three turnovers, Chery did a good job against Oklahoma’s press and created easy basket that way too. Cory Jefferson was another reason the offense kept whirring by effectively passing out of double teams numerous times.

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SEC Bubble Action: Arkansas Takes Big Hit; Missouri Stays Alive

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 13th, 2014

Oh momentum, you are a fickle thing. It was only a week ago that Arkansas was pounding Ole Miss and seemed like an NCAA tournament lock. But after the Hogs’ loss to South Carolina in their SEC tournament opener on Thursday, the only thing they’ve locked up is a bid to the NIT. A lot needed to go wrong to undo Arkansas’ six-game winning streak down the stretch that included a statement win at Kentucky. Unfortunately for Mike Anderson, that’s exactly what has happened. The loss last weekend to RPI #116 Alabama was bad, removing any margin for error this week. But following that up with a loss to RPI #146 South Carolina probably won’t be forgiven by the committee. The offense never got going in Tuscaloosa (0.842 points per possession), and while the Hogs played a tad better against the Gamecocks (0.995 points per possession), they squandered several late chances to reclaim the lead. Close misses by Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden in the final minute were reminiscent of the end of Arkansas’ loss at Missouri in mid-February.

Arkansas' NCAA hopes took a big hit with its loss to South Carolina (utsandiego.com).

Arkansas’ NCAA hopes took a big hit with its loss to South Carolina (utsandiego.com).

Had either shot gone in, the Hogs would have faced a quarterfinal with a likely NCAA bid on the line. Instead, they’ll need to sweat it out until Sunday evening. “I’m hoping for the NCAAs,” Coty Clark told the Associated Press afterward. “But right now, I don’t know.” The late season fall is disappointing for Anderson and the SEC, since Arkansas looked like a team that could help redeem the beleaguered conference in postseason play. Clarke had begun to emerge as a dependable, versatile match-up problem of a forward, and Portis had shown that he could carry a team with his 35-point performance against the Tide in early February. Arkansas also has a bevy of guards that get consistent playing time, and they all chipped in offensively in the stream-rolling of the Rebels. Depth like that would be hard to contend with in a one-and–done tournament setting. That six-game winning streak now looks like nothing but a missed opportunity.

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Rushed Reactions: #10 Kansas 77, Oklahoma State 70 (OT)

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 13th, 2014

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Here are three key takeaways from Kansas’ thrilling win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 quarterfinals.

Andrew Wiggins is heating up at the right time for Kansas (sportschump.net).

Andrew Wiggins is heating up at the right time for Kansas (sportschump.net).

  1. How about that for a follow up performance from Andrew Wiggins? After scoring 41 in a loss to West Virginia last Saturday, the freshman scored 30 points on 9-of-17 shooting in his third, and likely final, game against Oklahoma State. For most of the game the Cowboys did a good job in taking the baseline away from Wiggins and forcing him to beat them with his jump shot. And beat them he did, going 3-of-6 from three, and hitting a stepback jumper to tie the game at the end of regulation. Wiggins found more space going to the rim in the second half, and finished off an elevator of an alley-oop. He was also tasked with guarding Markel Brown the majority of the game, and forced the senior into a 5-of-13 shooting afternoon. This occurred after Brown had an efficient 20 points on 5-of-9 shooting the night before. In these last two games Wiggins has played the type of basketball that can carry a team deep into the postseason. That’s pretty good timing on his part.
  2. Wiggins took the headlines today, but the bigger story is how Kansas fared against a quality opponent without Joel Embiid in the lineup. Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor combined for 21 rebounds, 13 points and two blocks, and production like that will go a long way in allowing the Jayhawks to weather the absence of the seven-foot difference-maker. It’ll need to be an all hands on deck mantra for the Kansas big men, and it was this afternoon. Embiid is a dynamic defensive player, but Kansas may feel his loss just as much on the offensive end. Foul trouble limited Perry Ellis to just eight second half minutes, and without him in the game the Jayhawks had no one to draw the Cowboys’ defensive attention in the low post. If not for Wiggins’ scoring heroics, Kansas likely wouldn’t have been able to weather the Oklahoma State comeback. Though raw offensively, Embiid still demands attention, and that will be missed for as long as he’s out.
  3. Number one seeds now might be able to breathe a sigh of relief. The Cowboys’ late season surge (with wins over Kansas and Kansas State), paired with their solid performance this afternoon, may have served to bump them off of the rumored #8/#9 seed line. Given their star power and reputation going into the season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the committee gives them the benefit of the doubt this weekend. That’s good news for any potential top seed. As Bill Self said after the game, if the Cowboys avoid foul trouble, they are good enough to play with just about anyone in the country. Neither Brown nor Marcus Smart shot the ball well today, but Le’Bryan Nash displayed why he’s a such a tough match-up problem. He’s developed into a capable low post scorer, but by nature is more of a slasher. Contending with both of these styles is a tough task for any big man attempting to guard him.

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Oklahoma State & Baylor Shored Up NCAA Bids Wednesday in KC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 13th, 2014

Call it redemption, call it taking care of business. Whatever you call it, Oklahoma State flew by its first round test last night at the Sprint Center by beating Texas Tech 80-62. Back in October, having to suit up on the tournament’s first night would’ve seemed ridiculous for a team picked to share the regular season Big 12 title. But here the Cowboys were, needing to beat Texas Tech to set up a Thursday afternoon rubber match with Kansas. Even more, the Cowboys didn’t want to test the committee and pick up loss number twelve to a team with a RPI north of 100. Recent wins over Kansas and Kansas State cured a lot of ills, but beating the Red Raiders was the surest path to a stress-free Selection Sunday.

Oklahoma State forced Texas Tech into 17 turnovers, including six steals by Marcus Smart (okstate.com).

Marcus Smart’s six steals helped Oklahoma State dispatch Texas Tech in the first round of the Big 12 tournament (okstate.com).

The Cowboys were able to do just that by attacking the basket early in the game and building a lead Texas Tech would never threaten. The Red Raiders got off to an 8-0 start, but the Cowboys punched back with a 26-5 run keyed by multiple and one’s. Attacking the basket would be a theme for the entire night, as Oklahoma State got to the free throw line 26 times in the first half, and 37 times for the game. This ability to grind out offensive possessions and create easy looks should allow the Cowboys to weather poor shooting spells in any tournament-setting, and makes them a dangerous team going forward. Marcus Smart, LeBryan Nash and Markel Brown are all in the top ten in the Big 12 in free throw makes too.

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SEC M5: 03.12.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 12th, 2014

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  1. AL.com’s Jon Solomon has some bad news about the perilous state of SEC basketball: average attendance (10,380 per game) was at its lowest point since 1984-85. The biggest drop was Missouri, which saw 22 percent less fans go through the Mizzou Arena turnstiles this season. The ice Frank Haith is walking on has gotten progressively thinner, and this is yet another mark against him. Fellow conference newcomer Texas A&M had the second biggest drop at 15 percent. Ole Miss likely benefited from last year’s postseason success, seeing the biggest increase at 21 percent. Surprisingly, 12-19 (5-13) South Carolina had the second biggest boost (17 percent).
  2. Texas A&M, a team that struggles to score, may be without leading scorer Jamal Jones(13.4 PPG, 51.5 TS%) when it takes on Missouri Thursday. Jone is apparently saddled with a 103 degree fever and, Michael Jordan flu game aside, that’s an understandable reason not to suit up. Being shorthanded is nothing new for the Aggies, who have been without arguably their most dynamic player, Davonte Fitzgerald, for a month. Fabyon Harris has also missed the last few games, and wasn’t in Columbia when the Aggies fumbled away a win last week. He will likely be back Thursday, but it was Jones who got the rim and put Texas A&M in a position to steal a win in Mizzou Arena.
  3. There is no drama for South Carolina as it heads into its SEC tournament opener against Auburn this evening. KenPom gives the Gamecocks a 0.04% chance of winning the tournament, so unless the most improbable of runs happens, their season will end in Atlanta. But winning even one game would be a step in the right direction, since South Carolina has not won a conference tournament game since 2008. Call it small steps, but it would be a positive end to the season for a team that has won two of its last three games. It would also be a nice sendoff for Brenton Williams, who has quietly had a great senior year (15.2 PPG, 21.8 PER, 63.9 TS%).
  4. SI.com’s team of college basketball writers released their All-America team, and not surprisingly it didn’t include any players from the SEC. Julius Randle made three of the individual writers’ second teams, and that sounds about right. Despite Kentucky’s offense getting progressively disjointed, Randle’s scoring and rebounding numbers have remained consistent (15.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG). Even though Florida has a great shot at being the number one overall seed, Seth Davis was the only writer to throw any love at the Gators, putting Scottie Wilbekin on his second team. That also sounds about right, since Florida’s strength is the sum of its parts, rather than an individual star.
  5. Staying on SI.com, Davis rolled out his annual All-Glue team recently. Florida did get a lot of love in this piece, as Patric Young took home a Glue Guy honor. The piece is an interesting reflection on Young’s transformation from sparingly used McDonald’s All-American to reliable starter that stayed in the college ranks longer than he initially expected he would. Young fits the glue guy profile to the extent he is a high effort bull of a low poster player. But as was pointed out in general terms on the main site yesterday, maybe Young has played himself out of glue guy consideration. He was named second team All-SEC this year, and seems like more than a role player. But it’s not as if rules for being a glue guy were handed down from the heavens written in stone.
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SEC Superlatives: The Non-Traditional Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 11th, 2014

The SEC’s long (and often bumpy) basketball road has finally led to Atlanta. There were some memorable performances as the season unfolded, and players stood out in a number of ways. Before we unveil the RTC SEC microsite’s predictable year-end superlatives, here are players that made impressions in less traditional ways:

Most Exciting Player Award

This isn’t necessarily the player you know will consistently produce. In fact, it might be a player that spends most of his time maddening you. But every so often this guy will throw down a dunk or hit a crazy three that gets you out of your seat like no one else.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC's Most Exciting Player.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC’s Most Exciting Player. (Getty)

  • Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): For me, there is no one more exciting than Marshall Henderson. You don’t have to like him, but you have to appreciate what he is able to do on the court. Henderson single handedly shot Ole Miss into contention during several games this year (and subsequently shot the Rebels out of many games too), so he is nothing if not entertaining.
  • David Changas (@dchangas): Marshall Henderson. Sure, he didn’t recreate the magic or draw the attention of last season, either on or off the court, but anyone who shoots so often (12.2 threes attempted per game) and from so many spots on the floor and keeps his team in games they otherwise wouldn’t be in is fun to watch. And there’s still time for the senior guard to do something special and go out with a bang at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.
  • Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland)Marshall Henderson. Come on – like it could be anyone else? Henderson misses way more shots than he makes, but the ones he hits have kept us all coming back for more. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get at least one Land Shark moment in Atlanta this week.

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A Fond Farewell to Alabama’s Trevor Releford

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 10th, 2014

“Trevor’s going to be the next biggest star. In my book, it was Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and then there will be Trevor Releford.” Those words were spoken three years ago by an understandably gigantic fan of Releford, his mother Venita Vann. The Alabama senior hasn’t lived to his mom’s lofty standards, but you can count on one finger the current players who have. Instead, this week in Atlanta, Releford will wrap an incredibly accomplished college basketball career. It will probably be an especially sentimental moment for Crimson Tide head coach Anthony Grant, since Releford was one of his first major recruits and a constant bright spot in this year’s frustrating season.

Trevor Releford leaves Alabama as one of the most accomplished players in program history (tide991.com).

Releford leaves Alabama as one of the most accomplished players in program history (Tide991.com).

On November 12, 2010, Releford became only the fourth freshman point guard to start a season opener in Alabama history, joining a list that includes former Tide greats Mo Williams and Ronald Steele. He played only a bit part that night in a win over Florida A&M (five points and three assists), but would play a bigger role as his freshman season advanced. Releford posted solid numbers (11.0 PPG, 3.4 APG, 56.7% TS) en route to a spot on the all-SEC rookie team that year. His assist numbers would never be that high again as he assumed a bigger scoring load in Grant’s offense, but he continually improved throughout his career. After being a dismal three-point shooter during his first two years (27.6% 3FG) he was able to increase that by leaps and bounds over his final two season (40.1% 3FG). And he did all of this without sacrificing his slippery way of making tough shots around the basket at a height (realistically) shorter than six feet. It culminated in spot on the all-SEC second team in 2011-12 and the first team in 2012-13.

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SEC M5: 03.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 10th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. There it is folks, the first 18-0 season in SEC history. “A perfect team? No. No one is,” writes CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander. “Right now, Florida is as close to great as you can get before earning a Final Four trip to validate such a title.” A perfect conference record, in whatever conference, is so rare that the Gators’ season can be considered special regardless what happens from here on. Obviously an early loss in the tournament would be crushing, but 18-0 means more than just a “good” season, or even a regular season title in some ways. Teams win conference championships every year, but they don’t often go undefeated on the way. The perfect mark may also be an indictment on the state of the SEC, but just like with Wichita State, the quality of the league shouldn’t damper the undefeated end result.
  2. Three straight beatdowns will quiet all that Bruce Pearl talk, at least for the moment. Tennessee killed two birds with one stone Saturday: picking up a decent win and essentially eliminating bubble buddy Missouri. They might also be a smart sleeper pick for not only the SEC Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament too. Cuonzo Martin’s team has quietly risen to #12 in the KenPom ratings, one of only three teams with 10+ losses in the top 30. The Vols have balance that plays well this time of year, as they are in the top 28 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.  Antonio Barton has 51 points (13-of-21 from three) in the last three games, and has helped the Vols offense get to a different level. If he keeps it up and Josh Richardson shuts down opposing perimeter scorers like he did Jabari Brown, watch out for Rocky Top.
  3. Arkansas had a chance to take the drama out of its trip to Atlanta. Win Saturday in Tuscaloosa, and the Hogs probably only needed to get by their first game in SEC Tournament to feel secure. Instead, they were done in by an awful offensive first half and Trevor Releford’s 24 points in his final game in Coleman Coliseum. This was simply not the game for the Hogs to lose the turnover battle (15 to 12) and put up only 0.84 points per possession. The loss to a #100+ RPI team means Arkansas must absolutely win its first game (Auburn or South Carolina) and then another virtually must-win game against Tennessee, which won the only meeting this season and is currently steamrolling its opponents. Hog fans also have to now keep a closer eye on smaller conference tournaments, with fingers crossed that teams like Wichita State and Gonzaga don’t get upset.
  4. Georgia locked up the three seed in the SEC Tournament, and in finishing with a 12-6 conference mark it’s hard to deny the Bulldogs are anything but a quality team right now. They limited LSU to 36.4% shooting and beat them on the glass (37 to 29), which they have done to many teams en route to a surprising conference season (best SEC field goal defense, fourth best rebounding rate). Only eight of Georgia’s 69 points and three of its 37 rebounds came from seniors, so Mark Fox has something to build off of. I desperately want to make a case for Georgia as a bubble team, but at RPI #70 it just isn’t possible right now. The Bulldogs avoid Florida until the final, and getting there would mean a 20-12 record and (probably) a win over Kentucky. We’ll re-evaluate then.
  5. You have to hand it to Auburn, Tony Barbee’s team hasn’t quit. The Tigers picked up a solid road win Saturday in College Station against Texas A&M, where the Aggies finished the year 16-3. Auburn’s six conference victories are the most under Tony Barbee. After the game Chris Denson admitted a recent slump (9 points on 3-of-25 shooting over the past two games) was due to him pressing to get the SEC scoring title. That kind of candid comment is refreshing, and Denson rebounded with 19 points to finish second in the scoring race (19.2 PPG). That’s not bad for a guy who averaged under 12 points per game last season. The Tigers tested Florida, Kentucky and Missouri this season, and could be a minor challenge in Atlanta as far as a lower seed goes.
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SEC M5: 03.07.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 7th, 2014

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  1. Things didn’t start well for LSU in Nashville, but Johnny O’Bryant made sure they ended well for the Tigers. The junior had one of his best games of the season scoring an efficient 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds against a solid defensive frontcourt duo in James Siakam and Damian Jones. Bubble mayhem needs to break loose over the next week and a half for the Tigers to re-enter the tournament picture. But if this does happen, O’Bryant is solely responsible for keeping the Tigers razor-thin chances alive: no other Tiger had scored in double figures until four late free throws by Andre Stringer, and they shot 33 percent as a team. Performances like this despite all of the double teams he’ has faced this year are why it’ll be hard to keep O’Bryant off the all-conference team (even if it were a traditional five-man team, which we know doesn’t exist in our beloved conference). This was a disappointing night for Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller on a sentimental note. The two players combined to shoot just 6-of-33 on their senior night, and Odom in particular missed several crucial three’s late in the game. Both deserved better given how much they have contributed this season.
  2. The story of the week in the SEC was Michael Frazier’s three point explosion on Tuesday night. Luke Winn took notice of his in his weekly power rankings, charted out Frazier’s 3 point attempts per 40 minutes, and wrote, “after neglecting their most efficient offensive option for the first two months of the season, the Gators have made a concerted effort to create looks for Frazier during their undefeated run through the SEC.” Winn also wrote about Patric Young acting as a screener and freeing Frazier for easy looks. It’s true Florida has a lot of nice parts (Frazier/shooter, Casey Prather/slasher, etc.) and not one complete superstar. But as cliched as it is, little things like Young’s ability to effectively screen are what makes this Gators team so dangerous. Another little thing is the interior passing between Young and Will Yeguete. Neither player has off the charts offensive skill, but all season long they have created easy looks for one another with their savvy low post passing. Florida may not have a player taken in the first round of the upcoming draft (Chris Walker notwithstanding), but all these little things have them on the brink of an undefeated conference season.
  3. South Carolina will make its regular season ending trip to Starkville without Frank Martin. The second year Gamecock head coach was suspended by the school for directing a few too many four-letter words at Duane Notice during South Carolina’s loss to Florida. The school is officially calling it an “inappropriate verbal communication,” but however you term it, this is what South Carolina knew it was getting with Martin. When you think of “intense college coach” he and Bo Pelini are in a class all to themselves. This will likely be a non-issue that will drop out once the next news cycle starts up, but you have to wonder if there is more behind this, since anyone with access to USC’s games and any semblance of lip-reading skill can tell this type of thing has happened before. Perhaps this is the administration trying to send Martin a message to tone his demeanor down. If so (and that’s just an uninformed guess) it could make for an interesting situation since differences with his previous administration at Kansas State led him away from what was a good situation.
  4. Doc Harper at Arkansas Fight surveyed the bracketology offerings and found that many prognosticators have  Arkansas in the field right now. Joe Lunardi has the Hogs as a part of his “Last Four In,” and Jerry Palm and SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean both slot them as 11 seeds. USA Today’s Shelby Mast is especially up on the Hogs, writing them down as a 10 seed. This is really a remarkable turnaround for Mike Anderson’s team, who sat at 15-9 and 4-7 in conference after a loss at Missouri on February 13. At that point it appeared the Razorbacks had run out of time, but six game winning streak turned that idea on its head. I’m of the opinion that even if Arkansas beats Alabama it’ll need to win at least one game in the SEC tournament to feel comfortable. Sitting at #47 in the RPI isn’t an ideal spot, especially with an #83 strength of schedule number. Winning at Alabama may not be easy either, since the Hogs have lost six straight games in Tuscaloosa, last winning in January of 2007.
  5. Auburn AD Jay Jacobs wanted “significant improvement” out of Auburn basketball this season. Sitting at 13-15 overall, Al.com’s Kevin Scarbinsky writes that “D-Day is coming” for Jacobs and Tony Barbee. There has been improvement since last season, and it has actually been significant. The Tigers are currently over 60 spots better in the RPI (#180 now, #254 in 2012-13), but that’s not saying much. While Auburn is seemingly light years from contending for a tournament spot, is it worth making a change? Chris Fuhrmeister at College and Magnolia, asks the “if not him, then who?” question. He writes, “Barbee has been forced to try and build out of a crater, and while he may have actually deepened that hole, most accepted that the rebuilding project would take a considerable amount of time. If he’s actually — finally — starting to build, is it wise to start all over again with a new coach. And just because Auburn fires Barbee, that doesn’t mean the Tigers will automatically hire a winner.” To be clear, Fuhrmeister is just posing this question, not advocating for Barbee to hang around. But it’s an interesting thought. Auburn isn’t steeped in basketball tradition, and hasn’t made the tournament in over 10 years. If Jacobs doesn’t have an ideal replacement in mind, then why not stick with Barbee for another year and see if the slight momentum he’s built this year begins to snowball? Consistency can be a valuable thing sometimes.
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SEC M5: 03.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 5th, 2014

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  1. You can put that checkbook away, South Carolina. The Gamecocks couldn’t follow up their improbable win (and $5,000 “competition access area” violation) against Kentucky with an infinitely more improbable win over Florida, losing to the Gators by 26 points. The Florida defense frustrated South Carolina’s young guards on the perimeter all night, giving up few easy looks. But forcing 19 turnovers and holding South Carolina to 32 percent shooting wasn’t the story of this game. Michael Frazier, however, was, in a big way. Last week we wrote about Frazier bursting out of a mini-slump, and after last night’s career-high 37-point performance (11-of-18 from three), the sophomore’s narrative is much different. According to the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway, that’s the most points for a Gator since Joakim Noah scored the same number in 2006, and it was also a school record for three-pointers made in one game. Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather have had nights that they’ve carried the Gators offensively this year, but against South Carolina they combined for only nine points. Being an effective three-point specialist is one thing, but making 11 treys in one game is quite another. That’s the kind of elite consistency that can carry a team. If his shooting stroke is on like that at the end of this month, it should be smooth sailing for the Gators.
  2. It isn’t all bad news for South Carolina. Despite a non-conference season which featured home losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate and a 1-9 start to SEC play, attendance is up this year at Colonial Life Arena. Average attendance is near 10,000 people, the highest it has been in three seasons. This is interesting since “down attendance” has been a theme this season for the SEC (and college basketball in general), as the conference has asked ESPN for more convenient start times and even Kentucky (gasp) has seen fewer people in Rupp Arena’s stands. The progress at South Carolina might not be much, but it must be encouraging to the administration that the team still has a moderate pull on fans despite being near the bottom of the conference standings. If Frank Martin is eventually able to point the program in the right direction, the venue could become a major asset. With an 18,000-seat capacity, it’s one of the bigger arenas in any conference. If Gamecock fans have more to watch than just Sindarius Thornwell’s development, that could make for some serious noise.
  3. Blowing out Alabama by 20 points probably wouldn’t have eased the drama swirling around Kentucky since last Saturday’s loss in Columbia. Beating the Tide by seven in a sloppy game won’t either, but it was a bounceback victory that the Wildcats desperately needed. Their shooting is what it is at this point (they rank in the 200s in both free throw and three-point percentage), and designated three-point problem-solver James Young didn’t allay any concerns by going 1-of-10 from distance against Alabama. Still, his lone three created separation towards the end of a close game, and he has flashed a more diversified offensive game recently. Young has gotten to the line seven or more times in three of the past four games, including seven times last evening which allowed him to score nine points despite a horrid shooting performance. Kentucky has a unique opportunity in front of it right now. As long as the Wildcats don’t get embarrassingly blown out Saturday in Gainesville, it’s a no-lose situation. The “40-0 t-shirt” joke is long out of the bag, and losing a game on the road to the #1 team in the country isn’t earth-shaking. But if somehow Kentucky keeps it close or improbably wins the game, that’s one whale of a confidence-builder as the elimination games begin.
  4. Eamonn Brennan is not as impressed with Arkansas’ recent surge as some are. In his recent Bubble Watch piece, he warns against “reductive bubble-watching” and writes that a team’s entire resume shouldn’t be ignored. In the end, he has the Razorbacks still lounging on the bubble along with Missouri and Tennessee. I too have been puzzled by the notion that Arkansas is suddenly on the comfortable side of the aisle. Should Tennessee and Arkansas both win out this week, I’d like the Vols’ chances quite a bit better. Their computer numbers, especially in strength of schedule, are better than that of their competitors, and that win over Virginia is the gift that keeps on giving. The Razorbacks also have a sneakily tricky week ahead of them. First they get an Ole Miss team that they haven’t beaten in six tries, and then hit the road for an Alabama team that has more talent than its profile suggests. That game will also be Trevor Releford’s last hurrah in Tuscaloosa and seems ripe for some senior magic. Still, Arkansas is firmly on the bubble after disappearing for a few weeks.
  5. A big reason Arkansas is back in the Tournament picture is Coty Clarke, who has emerged as one of the most versatile players in the SEC. “I think guys are following his beat,” Mike Anderson said. “And if he can continue to play at the high level he is playing at right now, a lot of good things will continue to happen for this basketball team. … To me, the unselfishness that he brings to the table has kind of tripled throughout our basketball team.” Unselfish is a great way to put it, since Clarke is second on the team in assists per game (2.4) and first in assist percentage (20.3%). You don’t see that every day from a forward, and especially not from one who rebounds as well as Clarke (20.3% defensive rebounding rate). Anderson’s first NCAA Tournament team at Missouri (in his third year) was propelled by two versatile, top flight big men in DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. If his third year at Arkansas similarly produces a Tournament team, it too will be propelled by two high quality forwards in Clarke and Bobby Portis.
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SEC M5: 02.28.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 28th, 2014

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  1. Chris Mannix’s NBA Big Board 4.0 has three SEC players on it, all of them Wildcats. None of the three, however, has the last name of Harrison. Mannix has Julius Randle at #4, James Young at #14 and Willie Cauley-Stein at #15. He writes that Cauley-Stein has the tools to be a solid defensive presence but his “lack of consistency is alarming.” This makes me wonder whether it would make sense for him to hold back on the NBA yet again? Cauley-Stein will always have a place in the league, at least for a few years; his seven-foot frame and athleticism virtually guarantee that. While going in the middle of the first round is attractive, if he were to stay another year and show a bit more consistency and development, he could potentially crack the lottery in a weaker draft class. That could be a decision worth several million dollars, but there’s also risk associated with it. In a somewhat smaller role, his rebounding and shooting percentages are down, and a similar setback next season could start to raise serious questions about his commitment. The point is that Cauley-Stein should at least consider hanging around Lexington another year. Again.
  2. LSU has gone over a week without a bad loss, and that’s an accomplishment in the SEC’s middle class. Their RPI is still too high (#66) to seriously be in the NCAA Tournament discussion, and as Brian pointed out yesterday on Twitter, Tennessee is the best bet for a third SEC bid. Still, LSU has a potential ace in its pocket. If the Tigers can somehow, someway, win at Florida this weekend, they’ll vault themselves right into the picture. It’s not likely, but LSU did play a great game at Rupp Arena last weekend and Florida hasn’t blown many teams away recently. Jarell Martin continuing the improvement he showed against Texas A&M could go a long way in LSU pulling off the upset. The freshman scored 20 points in part by tweaking his shooting form by going straight up more often and not falling back. “We had to double on Johnny O’Bryant so much that Jarell was just spotting up and shooting threes,” Billy Kennedy said. “He’s a McDonald’s All-American and played like it.” That’s the encouraging thing about LSU making a late run: The Tigers don’t lack for talent.
  3. Ole Miss will be without Derrick Millinghaus for the foreseeable future, as the sophomore guard has been suspended indefinitely. This caps off a disappointing season for Millinghaus. Despite getting six more minutes per game this season his usage rate has been virtually identical to what it was as a freshman. His PER (9.0) and true shooting percentage (37.7%) have both sharply declined, and his results have been especially poor lately. In the last three games he’s played 39 minutes, and scored five points on seven shots. Millinghaus has the ability to put up points, but is the type of player that needs a high volume of shots to do so. That simply isn’t a good fit alongside Marshall Henderson. But Henderson will be gone next season, and Millinghaus (if whatever spawned this suspension doesn’t linger) could be a candidate to replace some of those shots and points. In short, this suspension doesn’t hurt the Rebels much the rest of the way, but Millinghaus can still be a big part of their future.
  4. Matt Norlander has an interesting look at Billy Donovan’s career that is steeped in historical nuggets. Donovan will almost certainly get to 500 wins before he turns 50 and he has a legitimate chance to become only the sixth coach with three or more national titles. He definitely already gets recognized as a great coach, but Donovan seems to always slip through the cracks when the “elite coaches” discussion gets going. That’s obviously not a scientific statement, just based off a feeling. If Florida were to win the title this year, what would there be left for Donovan to prove? Putting together two completely different championship teams just about does it. To connect this team to the Al Horford/Joakim Noah teams, you need to go back to when these seniors were freshmen playing with Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes, who played with Walter Hodge and Mareese Speights when they were freshmen. That’s a lot of good recruiting and coaching. Would winning this year be enough for Donovan to finally make a (permanent) jump to the NBA? On a non-Donovan note, Norlander also mentioned Adolph Rupp’s “Cy Young-like unbreakable record” of being the fastest coach to reach 500 wins, in only 583 games. No matter in what era the achievement was reached, that is insanity.
  5. If you want to be called an idiot, just walk up to Kevin Stallings and suggest that Cuonzo Martin should be fired. The Vanderbilt coach went on the offensive to protect his in-state counterpart. “Hopefully, the powers that be over at Tennessee will tune those idiots out and give [Martin] the kind of time he deserves to do the job he needs to do,” Stallings said. This is an admirable coaching fraternity defense, but also goes deeper as Stallings and Martin both come from the Gene Keady-Purdue tree. On Wednesday we wrote about the growing calls for Bruce Pearl around the Tennessee program. And this makes sense, especially if Martin misses the NCAA tournament this year. It’s a difficult situation to really get a handle on because it is unique. Martin may be a good coach: he comes from a good coaching tree and did build a winning program at Missouri State, and you can’t always establish yourself in three years. But the pressure is ratcheted up on Martin with the fan favorite and uber successful Pearl still living in Knoxville and being visible on ESPN.
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SEC M5: 02.26.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 26th, 2014

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  1. Maybe Florida just plays down to its competition, or maybe the Gators’ grind-it-out defense lends itself to close games. Either way, Florida ran its winning streak to 20 against Vanderbilt in yet another game that had to be gutted out late. Vanderbilt outshot Florida 48% to 40%, but – as they have done so often this year – the Gators won the rebounding and turnover battles. You can have a less than stellar offense and put yourself in games if you limit your opponent’s chances by taking care of the ball and grabbing defensive rebounds. Florida has the second fewest turnovers per game in the SEC (11.2) and third best team rebounding percentage (54.2%). Pair that with an elite defense and it’s no surprise you’ve got a team that can rack up wins and rise to number one in the rankings. But as Luke Winn pointed out, the Gators offense can be more effective if Dorian Finney-Smith expands on the two made pick-and-pop he had made in conference play. It wasn’t of the pick-and-pop variety, but Finney-Smith found space and drilled a three with under 30 seconds left against the Commodores. It was the junior’s third three of the game, and the finishing touches on his game high 19 points. If that performance jump starts Finney-Smith, Billy Donovan suddenly has another offensive option to play with.
  2. Put a fork in the Tigers, they are done. Short of winning the SEC tournament, I don’t see a way Missouri can salvage a bid after losing by 15 in Athens. The Tigers will almost certainly drop out of the RPI top 50, and they’re a perfectly pedestrian 7-7 against the RPI top 100. That’s just okay, and just okay teams do make a 68 team field. But the Tigers don’t have the high-quality wins to punctuate a resume, going just 1-2 against the RPI top 25. Can that UCLA win from way back in early December stand up? Teams Missouri is competing with for a final spot, like Oklahoma State (Memphis, Texas) and St. John’s (Creighton), have eye-popping wins to spice up a mediocre resume. The Tigers didn’t execute well on defense against Georgia (allowing the Bulldogs to shoot 52.1%) and it could be that Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are wearing down. The two shot a combined 9-for-29 and Brown in particular had no lift on his shots. Georgia, on the hand, continued its surprise run through the SEC with its sweep of Missouri. Per Wildcat Blue Nation’s Corey Price, the Bulldogs are the first SEC team to reach 10 or more conference wins after finishing .500 or worse in the non-conference since 2007-08 Kentucky. With a RPI North of 80 the Bulldogs still aren’t in the bubble picture, but at the very least Mark Fox should’ve assured himself a NIT bid.
  3. Your first thought might “yeah right,” but the Bruce Pearl to Tennessee talk is gaining steam. There’s an online petition signed by thousands of people, and Gregg Doyel writes that as unlikely as it seems, rehiring Pearl makes too much sense for the Vols. “Tennessee should do it. If Tennessee has an opening, it should hire Bruce Pearl. Go ahead, Tennessee. He paid his price. You paid yours,” Doyel writes. “Bruce Pearl is a good coach who made a bad mistake and had to be fired — I was calling for his dismissal months before Tennessee finally did it — but who served his time and surely, surely learned from his mistake.” Sure, a reunion seems highly unlikely and against the norm, but there might just be the pieces in place to make it a reality: Pearl won big at Tennessee, still lives in Knoxville, and the program hasn’t taken a clear step forward in Cuonzo Martin’s third year. There’s also the matter of ticket sales, and from afar it seems like rehiring Pearl would spark the fanbase. Those are hard points to argue against, especially since college basketball in general is far from holy. The problem is that is that letting Martin go is not a no brainer. While the Vols are dancing around the bubble again, the bottom has not fallen out in the former Missouri State coach’s three years in Knoxville. But if Louisville can bring back Bobby Petrino, is the Pearl-Tennessee dream so ridiculous?
  4. It’s put up or shut up time for Arkansas, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. Winning at Rupp Arena is the last chance for Razorbacks to improve on their 65 RPI and grab the attention of those on the selection committee. Can Arkansas actually sweep the Wildcats? In the win at Bud Walton Arena, Kentucky missed a ton of free throws (26-of-40) and the Razorbacks, as they always do at home, won the turnover battle (17 to 6). While the Wildcats will probably miss a few more free throws (team 68.5% FT%) they probably won’t have a similar turnover binge without 20,000 screaming people in red against them. The Razorbacks will in all likelihood lose the rebounding battle in this game, so they’ll need to hit a higher percentage from three than they did in the team’s first meeting (28.6%). If Arkansas isn’t able to win this game and go on a run, barring a miracle weekend in Atlanta it looks like Mike Anderson will miss the tournament for the third straight year in Fayetteville.\
  5. There was a time not so long ago that Rick Ray was enjoying a very positive second season in Starkville. It was January 22 and the Bulldogs had just beaten Auburn to move to 3-2 in conference play. They also picked up their 13th win of the season, three more than they had gotten in 2012-13. But the positivity ended that day, and Mississippi State hasn’t won since. Its nine game losing streak could very well stretch to 12 with upcoming games against Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia. So, now that the bad part has set in, how are things really going in Ray’s second season on the whole? Their RPI is currently 204, which in no world is anything but dreadful. It is, however, less dreadful than the 292 the Bulldogs finished with last season. The good news for Ray? He’s got only one senior in the rotation (Colin Borchert) and his leading scorer (Craig Sword), rebounder (Gavin Ware) and assist man (I.J. Ready) are either sophomores or freshmen. Ready is good to go against Tennessee after getting poked in the eye against the Arkansas. The freshman point guard not only leads the team in assists, but is shooting 40% from three and has a respectable 1.5 assist to turnover ratio for a first year player. A strong finish from him would be a bright spot in another rebuilding year for the Bulldogs.
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