Lithuanian Duo Fueling South Carolina’s Hot Start

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 27th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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Despite Loss, Vanderbilt Can Learn From Maui Experience

Posted by David Changas on November 27th, 2015

After thrashing St. John’s and Wake Forest in its first two games at this week’s Maui Invitational, Vanderbilt was not able to finish the deal against #5 Kansas in the championship game, falling 70-63. The #19 Commodores, a team that generally has no problem scoring but is somewhat prone to struggling on the defensive end, held the Jayhawks in check for the first half, leading 30-26 at the break. However, defensive shortcomings allowed Kansas to ride a 62.5 percent shooting second half en route to the school’s second championship in Maui. The Commodores helped things along with a woeful 6-of-27 (22.2%) performance from three-point range, and there was no way Kevin Stallings’ team was going to leave the islands with a trophy without a better offensive performance.

Damian Jones and Vanderbilt can take a lot of good from Maui (Bosley Jarrett/Vanderbilt Hustler).

Damian Jones and Vanderbilt can take a lot of good from Maui. (Bosley Jarrett/Vanderbilt Hustler)

Despite the disappointment of not becoming the first SEC team to win the Maui Invitational since 1993 (Kentucky), Vanderbilt’s loss to Kansas should provide Stallings some valuable lessons as the season progresses. First of all, it is highly unlikely that the Commodores will again be so futile on the offensive end. The Commodores came into the game shooting over 42 percent from beyond the arc, so it’s doubtful that one cold shooting performance signals a long-term problem. Where the Vanderbilt coach should be concerned, however, is on the defensive end. The Commodores allowed Kansas guard Wayne Selden, Jr., to completely go off on them, as the junior guard matched his career high with 25 points and almost single-handedly kept the Jayhawks in the game in the first half. Fellow guard Devonte’ Graham scored 12 points of his own as the two Jayhawks’ guards combined to go 7-of-11 from deep. Read the rest of this entry »

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 23rd, 2015

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

Jamal Murray and Kentucky are off to a great start (

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

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

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

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Dynamic Guard Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 18th, 2015

Prior to the Champions Classic game between Duke and Kentucky on Tuesday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he needed to learn more about his team. Knowing how critical Calipari can be about his team’s performances, he probably nitpicked a few of those less positive moments. He saw that his team could get outmuscled at times in the post, and he certainly wasn’t pleased with a lack of physical play near the basket during a long stretch of the first half. He watched as Marcus Lee (even though he otherwise had a standout performance) and Skal Labissiere, two of his starting big men, committed needless fouls on their way to fouling out with over five minutes remaining. But where his big men came up lacking, we also learned that Calipari’s backcourt is already one of the best in the nation, and it stepped up big time to solidify a 74-63 statement win over defending national champion Duke.

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season. (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis is only a sophomore, but the 5’9” point guard played like a seasoned veteran and proved he is the undisputed leader for this year’s young and talented Kentucky squad. The energetic floor general provided a spark on both ends of the floor on his way to 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, and most importantly, zero turnovers in 40 minutes. Freshman Jamal Murray dazzled on his way to 16 points, five assists, five rebounds, and four steals, while Isaiah Briscoe added 12 points, three boards, and two steals. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review the impact of Kentucky’s backcourt when Calipari needed them most.

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Three Keys to Kentucky’s Success Against Duke

Posted by David Changas on November 17th, 2015

The college basketball season may only be a few days old but that doesn’t mean we have to wait long for a matchup of true heavyweights. Unlike its gridiron counterpart, teams don’t risk a shot at a national championship with an early-season loss, which is why fans will be treated to a clash of the titans when Kentucky battles Duke in Chicago at the Champions Classic. It’s a matchup of schools — wearing the same jerseys but with many different faces — that appeared destined to play each other for last year’s national title, a fate that was ultimately derailed by the undefeated Wildcats’ stunning loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. In the absence of Calipari’s crew on the floor during championship Monday in Indianapolis, the Blue Devils captured a crown that for so many months appeared Kentucky’s to lose. The Wildcats will get a shot at some measure of redemption tonight, despite the fact that this game will include only a few of the players who participated in last year’s Final Four.

Kentucky will have to control Duke's Grayson Allen, who is off to a hot start. (Getty).

Kentucky will have to control Duke’s Grayson Allen, who is off to a hot start. (Getty)

Let’s take a quick look at three keys to Kentucky’s chances of earning a mid-November win that will ultimately look very good come March:

  1. Control Grayson Allen. The bouncy sophomore guard enjoyed his coming-out party at last season’s Final Four, making the all-tournament team after being little more than a bit player for most of the season. Now, acting as one of the new leaders of Mike Krzyzewski‘s squad, Allen has started the season with a bang, averaging 27 points per game in wins over Siena and Bryant. Clearly the confidence that he gained last April has carried over to this season. Kentucky will have to neutralize his slashing and shooting game — the Wildcats can use a combination of athletic players, including Jamal Murray, Derek Willis, and Alex Poythress to slow him down. With many of the other Blue Devils still learning their offensive roles, Duke could be in for a long night if Kentucky can limit his production. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume II: Opening Weekend Overreactions

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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SEC Burning Questions: Five Breakout Candidates

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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SEC Burning Questions: Best Non-Conference SEC Games

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2015

Kentucky was the team to beat a year ago — both in the SEC and nationally. And despite ultimately falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats didn’t disappoint anybody on their way to a 38-1 record. But several SEC teams did, and it started in their non-conference schedules. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern; Mississippi State couldn’t get by USC-Upstate or Arkansas State; South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron; LSU lost a surprising game to Clemson; Missouri dropped its home opener to UMKC.

The SEC isn't just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returners to Nashville (AP/Wade Payne)

The SEC isn’t just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returnees to Nashville. (AP/Wade Payne)

Kentucky is again the team to beat in the SEC (and perhaps nationally). The conference appears to be significantly improved this season, so maybe several SEC teams outside of Lexington can string together enough non-conference victories to give the league some early credibility. The nation will be watching the following 10 games so there will be no better time than the next two months for the league to announce its legitimacy. Here are the 10 best non-conference games involving SEC teams this season.

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SEC Burning Questions: Who’s Feeling Pressure?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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SEC Quotable & Notable Volume I: Player Absences Mounting

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 9th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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SEC Burning Questions: Finding the Sleepers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 5th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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SEC Burning Questions: How To Earn Respect

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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