SEC M5: 03.12.14 Edition

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

SEC_morning5

  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

SEC_morning5

  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

SEC_morning5

  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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Michael Frazier Back on Track for Top-Ranked Gators

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 25th, 2014

Florida climbed to number one in the national polls yesterday for the first time since Joakim Noah was doing the Gator chomp in the O-Dome. But for a team that clearly deserves to hold the top spot, the Gators have a somewhat small margin for error, especially in the backcourt. Billy Donovan has had to split the bulk of his perimeter minutes this season between only three players, one of whom (Kasey Hill) missed Saturday’s Ole Miss game with a groin injury. Given their lack of depth, Florida will be hard-pressed to survive off nights from either Scottie Wilbekin or Michael Frazier. That’s why Frazier’s five-three-pointer, 17-point performance against the Rebels was so encouraging.

Michael Frazier isn't the most talked about Gator, but he's vitally important to their postseason chances (tampabay.com).

Michael Frazier isn’t the most talked about Gator, but he’s vitally important to their postseason chances. (tampabay.com)

The sophomore guard had been stuck in a mini-slump, at least as measured by the high standards he has set this season. Casey Prather hasn’t been the only Gator to transform from role player to key offensive option. You can’t exactly say that Frazier was under-the-radar since he made the all-freshman SEC team a year ago, but he has assumed and excelled in a much bigger role this time around — experiencing an increase in minutes per game (17.9 to 29.6), shots per game (3.9 to 8.9) and usage rate (14.5% to 20.4%). Despite a notable increase in defensive attention and offensive opportunities, the three-point specialist has still managed to shoot 42.1 percent from deep. He was rolling along in conference play until a recent blip against Kentucky and Auburn when the starting shooting guard only scored a combined 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting in the two games.

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SEC M5: 02.24.14 Edition

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

SEC_morning5

  1. Saturday may very well have been the day the SEC’s bubble burst. A third bid (at least) seemed relatively solid over the past few weeks, with Missouri and Tennessee exchanging that position. Saturday didn’t always seem like a dreary day. In fact, for a brief moment it seemed as if the league could possibly sneak five teams into the tournament. LSU’s gritty effort at Kentucky looked at it would produce a win that might have catapulted the Tigers past a handful of teams ahead of them on the bubble. But Julius Randle’s floater ended that dream around the same time Texas A&M (RPI #118) handed Tennessee a damaging loss in overtime. Several hours later Missouri took a damaging loss of its own at RPI #117 Alabama. This fatalism could be overly-dramatic, and the Tigers and Vols might be clinging to the fringes of the bubble. But what’s the likelihood both go through the rest of the season unscathed before the they play each other to close the regular season? It’s not good, and another loss before that game would probably be the nail in the coffin for either team.
  2. There’s little controversy over whether Florida deserves to be the number one team in the country when the polls are released later today. But if an argument needs to be made for the Gators over Wichita State, Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army has it. “Florida has handled the SEC about as well as Wichita State has handled the Valley, outscoring it by 0.197 points per possession; Wichita’s MVC number is 0.231 points per possession.” The Gators have simply handled every challenge thrown at them in SEC play, even if it hasn’t been pretty. Like Wichita State, the Gators haven’t been challenged as much from a talent standpoint in conference play like a Big Ten team that seemingly sees at least one ranked opponent a week. But Florida has played a lot of close games in conference, running the spectrum from at home against Auburn and on the road against Kentucky. Each time the Gators have found a way to win, and it’ll be tough to pick against that next month. Billy Donovan deserves kudos for (in all likelihood) reaching number one for the first time in seven years.
  3. There are some positive thoughts following LSU letting a potential season-changing win at Rupp Arena slip through their fingers. NOLA.com’s Ron Higgins writes that while the Tigers are flawed, they have battled hard this season, corrected some mistakes, and Johnny Jones is in position to get a postseason within his first two years on the job. Trent Johnson is the only coach to do that in program history. “Add a few more athletic bodies before next season, a couple more outside shooters and the Tigers will win a game like they lost on Saturday,” Higgins writes. LSU certainly could be a handful next season. Jordan Mickey need only add a post move or two and improve his mid-range jumper to be an all-conference player. Jarrell Martin likely hasn’t impressed enough to make the jump to the NBA, but his talent is undeniable. And then there is incoming five star freshman forward Ben Simmons. If Johnny O’Bryant returns, LSU would have a strong case for having the most talented frontcourt in the country. The junior is on the fringes of NBADraft.net’s latest mock draft (55th overall pick), and might be wise to come back and develop more finesse in his offensive game. He has improved his shooting percentage on two point jumpers (41.1%), but still relies heavily on strength and power. That rarely translates to the NBA (see: Thomas Robinson).
  4. For all the talk of Missouri’s limited scoring options this season, it will be its defense that keeps it out of the NCAA Tournament. In the Tigers last two losses, they have allowed sub-par three-point shooters to get loose and burn them. Against Ole Miss, 31% three-point shooter Ladarius White converted on five-of-six three’s . Saturday night, it was 34% three-point shooter Levi Randolph hitting five-of-seven three’s in route to a career-high 33 points. It’s fine to challenge a poor shooter to make shots and see a couple go down. But when a guy is clearly in rhythm it’s hard justify not sticking with him. For example, Randolph had an open back-breaking three to stretch out Alabama’s lead with a few minutes left. While Missouri has a respectable 32% team three-point defense overall, situational lapses like that helped doom them in a key game. It’s also worth questioning why Frank Haith took so long to abandon the zone defense with Randolph shooting like he was and Trevor Releford dealing with a banged up leg.
  5. Georgia’s win at South Carolina was quietly impressive. People keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Bulldogs, and their season took a step in this direction with a humbling loss to Tennessee last week. It would’ve been allow that loss to beat them twice. Instead, Georgia followed it up with a road win, albeit against the last place team in the conference. But any win away from home is challenging in conference play, and Mark Fox’s team (9-5), assured itself of finishing no worse than .500 in SEC play even if the wheels completely fall off. Would a Bulldog fan have been happy with an even conference mark given how the first two months of the season went? Probably so. The Bulldogs star on Saturday was yet again a player that will be around for years to com, sophomore Kenny Gaines (27 points, 9-of-14 shooting). The folks at Dawg Sports summed up the forward-looking optimism by writing, “Donte’ Williams is the only significant contributor who isn’t likely to be back in 2014-15. While there’s still some basketball to be played in this season, there’s every reason to believe that Mark Fox may have finally turned a corner in Athens.”
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Putting Together the SEC Puzzle, Knockoff Style

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 22nd, 2014

Seth Davis has the Jigsaw Man, his alter ego that finds unheralded players and plugs them into more high-profile teams with a distinct need. I don’t have a creative nickname for this, but I do have some SEC puzzles to solve and following Davis’ lead sounds like a good idea. Joe Lunardi currently lists Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee in his field of 68. Each team has its holes, so to get creative, I tried to plug them with one player from a conference foe that won’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Saying something like “Missouri can’t score inside, add Julius Randle” is too easy, though, and the knockoff Jigsaw Man likes to challenge himself. Here goes…

Florida gets: Brenton Williams, South Carolina

Billy Donovan could use Brenton Williams free throw prowess at the end of games in March (beachcarolina.com).

Billy Donovan could use Brenton Williams free throw prowess at the end of games in March (beachcarolina.com).

You have to search high and low to find something Florida doesn’t do well. One thing that stands out, however, is the Gators’ relatively poor team free throw shooting percentage (67.6%, ninth in the SEC). Foul shots become trickier in postseason play as the pressure of closing out a game intensifies. Florida doesn’t have anyone other than Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin who Billy Donovan can feel confident about taking those big shots. Those limited options could make inbounding the ball to a reliable shooter at the end of a close game difficult. So why not give the Gators a player who has only missed three foul shots all season? Brenton Williams has not only been the best foul shooter in the SEC (78-of-81, 96.3%) but he is also a senior who fits Florida’s experienced theme. He’s also one of the best three-point shooters in the conference (42.8%) which addresses another area of relative weakness for the Gators. Let Casey Prather inbound the ball at the end of close games, and with Williams, Wilbekin, and Frazier making cuts, he’s sure to find a guy among the trio who can seal a win.

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SEC M5: 02.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 19th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Everything was working for Kentucky during the first half of last night’s game in Oxford, and I mean everything. Jarrod Polson threw an alley-oop and made a three; Alex Poythress was getting in on the three-point action; and Julius Randle already had a double-double. With a 17-point lead it looked like Kentucky had answered any question about how they’d bounce back from a tough loss. Oh, but questions persist. The Rebels put up 45 points in the second half and were able to cut the game down to two possessions with under two minutes left. Like they did against Missouri, the Wildcats again let a big early lead slip, and allowed an opponent back into a game it had no business being in. The issues weren’t only on the defensive end. College Basketball Talk’s Matt Giles points out that only four of Kentucky’s two-point fields goals weren’t at the rim, and for an eight-minute second half stretch the Wildcats only scored on free throws. The lackluster defensive effort in the second half needs to be a learning experience for the Wildcats, since they likely won’t be able to escape a game like this against better teams (see: teams that make the NCAA Tournament). The shooting woes, however, are a bigger issue.
  2. So this writer may need to eat a little crow. Yesterday I wrote that I expected Georgia to do just fine as it entered a difficult stretch. Well, it didn’t start out that well for the Bulldogs, who took a 19-point loss to Tennessee in a game that got shuffled to ESPN due to a crumbling arena in Bloomington, Indiana. In front of a national audience, Georgia wasn’t able to validate its great SEC record. Early on the Vols did something they didn’t do Saturday against Missouri: get the ball to Jarnell Stokes, who scored 20 points and led Tennessee to advantages in rebounds and points in the paint. The Vols also have to be encouraged that they won this game without Jordan McRae having a big impact (11 points, 2-of-5 shooting). Antonio Barton made more three’s in this game (four) than he had in the last ten SEC games combined. If that sparks him out of his prolonged shooting funk it would add another dimension to Tennessee’s offense. This was the bounce back performance the Vols needed to kick off a stretch of four winnable games that could boost their resume.
  3. Frank Haith remembers all too well Vanderbilt’s three-point barrage early in Missouri’s loss in Nashville. But after forcing Arkansas and Tennessee into a combined 8-of-37 from deep, he thinks his team is on the right track defensively. “We’re doing a great job of understanding where shooters are at and personnel and doing our work early and getting there and having high hands,” Haith said. “I thought we had some slippage in that area … particularly Vanderbilt. They made some shots, but we didn’t do what we needed to do in terms of getting to their shooters, and Odom and Parker, those guys had really good games against us.” Missouri may be defending the three better of late, but its defense in general is a concern. The Tigers entered conference play with solid defensive numbers, but have sunk to 10th in the SEC in two-point field goal defense (allowing 47%) and 11th in three-point field goal defense (allowing 35.4%). They’ve also lost games in which they scored 79 and 88 (!) points. But it’s not surprising they are improving. Few teams can put the length at the top of a zone than Missouri can with Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. Thursday’s game against the Commodores will be a good litmus test of the Tigers’ progress, since Missouri did give up 12 three pointers in the first meeting.
  4. South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell has stood out amid a thoroughly disappointing season in Columbia. The freshman has Mike Anderson’s attention ahead of tonight’s game in Fayetteville, and has drawn high praise from his own coach. “He’s the guy everyone pencils in when they prepare a scouting report against us,” Frank Martin said. “I’m extremely proud of him. Not only is he performing, but he’s taking on the leadership role of our team. He’s also taking on defensive responsibilities against the better players on the other team.” Thornwell has also taken on a leadership role on the court, as he has the ninth highest usage rate (27.3%) in the SEC. Despite that much exposure he’s still been efficient shooting the ball (56.8 TS%), and though generally thought of first as a scorer, he also has the the eighth best assist percentage (22.6%) in the conference. Thornwell has had to grow up quickly with the personnel losses South Carolina has had, and it appears he’s done a great job of this on and off the court. He’s the type of just-a-cut-below-an-early-draft-entry talent that could stick around and be a tremendously accomplished four year player, and perhaps a building block for better days in Columbia.
  5. James Moran of The Daily Reveille conducted a “post-mortem” on LSU’s NCAA Tournament chances, and identified the cause of the Tigers untimely death. He writes, “The Feb. 6 loss to Georgia was actually the fatal blow to the Tiger’s season. LSU had finally gotten some momentum going for it, and losing a relatively uncompetitive game in a dead arena to a team that was 10-10 at the time killed all of it.” Can reasonable minds disagree on whether this patient is actually dead? Probably not. The Tigers sit at #70 in the RPI and just whiffed on a week that featured road games at Arkansas and Texas A&M. It’s incredible how quickly a season can turn. It was just two weeks ago that the Tigers picked up impressive back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. At this point it seems the only chance for LSU to resurrect itself would be by splitting road games against Kentucky and Florida, and winning their remaining four games (at Vanderbilt, home against Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M). We’ll see if there is one drastic change of momentum left in Johnny Jones’ talented team.
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