SEC Saturday Storylines: Is Alabama Really On The Bubble?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2016

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

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

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

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

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2016

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

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

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

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SEC Rundown: Volume XI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 9th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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SEC Saturday Storylines: League Title Up For Grabs?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 6th, 2016

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

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

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

  1. Break out the binoculars and tape measures, we’ve got a race! The Aggies and Tigers are tied atop the standings, and five more teams sit within two games of the lead. LSU should take care of business against Mississippi State at home – although the Bulldogs have been competitive lately – and put pressure on Texas A&M to rebound against a hungry South Carolina team. The winner of Kentucky and Florida will position itself nicely for a run at pole position, as well. But don’t forget about Vanderbilt. Less than week after a disappointing performance in Austin, the Commodores have renewed momentum with that Texas A&M win. They now face Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State, and if they run through that manageable stretch undefeated the ‘Dores will be sitting pretty at 9-4 in league play. We were due intrigue in the league title race after Kentucky and Florida won the league by an average of 5.5 games the past two seasons, and we’ve definitely got it. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC Stock Watch: 02.05.16 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 5th, 2016

As we reach the halfway point of conference play, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches we should buy and sell. This is our latest stock watch.

Buy: Vanderbilt Making the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores’ resounding win over Texas A&M Thursday night was a huge step in the right direction, but Kevin Stallings‘ team is still on the outside of the bubble at this point. They finally looked like the team everyone expected at the beginning of the season, however, and we think they will use that performance as a springboard to securing a bid. They will be favored in their next five games, and should be able to build more confidence for a tough stretch run.

Sell: Kentucky Exiting the Big Dance Early. Sure, the Wildcats looked bad in blowing a 21-point lead to Tennessee on Tuesday, but they also took Kansas to overtime and arguably should have beaten the Jayhawks at Phog Allen. They will have to get more consistent production from the post, but with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray growing comfortable together in the backcourt, we’re not betting against a relatively deep run for John Calipari‘s team.

Kevin Stallings

Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt got a big win Thursday night. (AP)

Buy: Kevin Punter Earning First-Team All-SEC Honors. The senior guard plays for a team that almost certainly will finish the season in the bottom third of the league, which is ordinarily a tough position from which to earn first-team all-conference honors. But Punter has been fantastic on a team with little offensive balance. He currently is second in the league in scoring (23.1 PPG) and is shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range. He’s shown remarkable improvement from his junior campaign, when he averaged just over ten points per contest. If he keeps up this level of play, Punter has a strong chance to make the all-SEC first team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Is It Time to Worry About South Carolina?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 4th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 10.34.52 PM

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

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

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Stopping at College Station: The Balance of Texas A&M

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 4th, 2016

So much has been made of the parity in college basketball this season. So-called top teams continue to lose to lesser competition; home courts haven’t been defended well; and prognosticating the future has become an exercise in futility. As we inch closer to March, it’s easy to wonder what sort of teams are capable of surviving this climate. A case can be made for any number of teams that can get hot for a month, riding good shooting to a string of consecutive wins. Oklahoma or Villanova are two such squads, for example, that could ride hot shooters all the way to the Final Four. Or maybe Louisville or West Virginia, teams that rely on pressure defense, can put together enough stops to find their way to Houston. Anything seems possible.

Texas A&M (USA Today Images)

Texas A&M Closed Out Iowa State in Impressive Fashion Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

Either of those avenues to the sport’s final weekend could work out, but the most likely survivors are usually the teams that can employ a variety of ways to win — teams with balance in their rotations and devoid of major weaknesses. There may not be a team that better encapsulates this concept than Texas A&M. The Aggies have been among the most consistent teams in America all season long, losing only three games to good competition along the way (Syracuse; Arizona State; Arkansas). They are 10-3 against the KenPom top 100 and have lost only once since early December. Their success begins with a defense that ranks second nationally, thanks to very good defensive turnover and free throw rates. Few things prove more reliable in March than the ability to generate stops, and four of Texas A&M’s last five opponents have failed to reach 65 points — most notably an Iowa State team that plays fast (37th nationally) and ranks seventh in the country in offensive efficiency.

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Freeze Frame: Big 12 Stars vs. SEC Defenses

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 3rd, 2016

LSU and Kentucky each came into the Big 12/SEC Challenge last weekend in very different spots. LSU’s NCAA Tournament resume was already on thin ice, with only a home win over those Wildcats on which to hang its hat. A win over top-ranked Oklahoma would certainly change that. Kentucky found itself in the rare position of needing to prove that it can win on the road in a game where virtually nobody thought it could (at Allen Fieldhouse). After a pair of close-but-no-cigar losses, both teams can hold their heads high about their performances, but it was the Big 12 stars who we are still talking about this week. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Kansas’ Wayne Selden had outstanding individual performances that propelled their teams to victory. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we focus on how LSU allowed Hield to get loose and how Kentucky lost contact with Selden.

Jamal Murray is great with the ball in his hands, but he struggled defending Wayne Selden in Lawrence on Saturday (photo credit: Mark Zerof, USA Today).

Jamal Murray is great with the ball in his hands, but he struggled defending Wayne Selden in Lawrence on Saturday (photo credit: Mark Zerof, USA Today).

ESPN branded the matchup between LSU and Oklahoma as a battle between Ben Simmons and Hield, and neither like All-American disappointed. It was Hield, however, who proved once again that he is college basketball’s brightest star, waiting to explode after his team had fallen behind by 14 points in Baton Rouge. Seven of Hield’s eight three-pointers came in the second half on his way to 32 points, eventually leading the Sooners to a big-time comeback win over the Tigers.

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Florida is Quietly Building a Strong NCAA Resume

Posted by David Changas on February 2nd, 2016

Heading into the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Florida had quietly managed to put together a solid NCAA Tournament-quality resume. It may not have contained any wins over top-50 opponents, but the loss column was also largely limited to teams ranked among the top 50. After getting thrashed by Tennessee in early January in Knoxville, the Gators narrowly lost at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in working their way to a good-not-great 5-3 SEC record. That profile changed on Saturday, however, as Florida enhanced its resume significantly with a resounding 88-71 home win over #9 West Virginia. It’s the kind of win that will pay significant dividends on Selection Sunday, and one that head coach Michael White hopes will become a springboard to even more success in the second half of conference play.

Michael White has Florida positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Michael White has Florida well positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Florida has lived in the NCAA Tournament for nearly all of the last two decades, missing the Big Dance only twice in the prior 17 seasons. Small note: All that was accomplished with a Hall of Fame coach pacing the sidelines. When Billy Donovan fled Gainesville last spring for the bright lights of the NBA, athletic director Jeremy Foley turned to a coach who was about as accomplished as Donovan when he arrived at the school in 1996. While the early returns on White’s tenure are mixed – the Gators’ pre-conference losses came to Purdue, Michigan State, Miami (FL) and Florida State, prior to the ugly loss at Tennessee — the new head man in Gainesville has since steadily righted the ship. Some questioned his hiring around the holidays, but Florida would easily be in the field of 68 if the season ended today. Most of the focus in the SEC has centered on the rise of Texas A&M, the fall of Kentucky, and the superstardom of Ben Simmons, allowing the Gators to fly well under the radar for the first time in a long while.

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SEC Rundown: Volume X

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 1st, 2016

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

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

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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