The Good and the Bad from SEC Week 1

Posted by David Changas on November 9th, 2018

With most SEC teams having already opened the 2018-19 college basketball season, let’s take a Week 1 look at the good and the not-so-good.

The Good

Jared Harper had a stellar opening-night for Auburn (al.com)

  • Auburn’s Offense. Bruce Pearl’s team smoked South Alabama 101-58 in its home opener on Tuesday night. And while the incoming expectation was that the Tigers would be very good offensively, it’s going to be a really fun season on the Plains if they’re as good as they showed earlier this week. Specifically, Auburn went 18-of-38 from deep, with junior guard Jared Harper hitting six three-pointers while handing out 13 assists. Things will get much tougher for the Tigers tonight when they host #25 Washington in what should be one of the best games on this evening’s slate.
  • Jordan Bone’s Finishing. Tennessee’s junior point guard – who also happens to be Tennessee’s only point guard – looked phenomenal in finishing at the rim in the Volunteers’ easy 86-41 win over Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. Bone finished with a game-high 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Last season, the biggest criticism of the cat-quick Bone was his inability to convert shots after getting to the basket with relative ease. If Tuesday night’s performance is a sign of true improvement in this area, an already dangerous Tennessee team becomes that much scarier.
  • The Vanderbilt Freshman. Much is expected of Vanderbilt’s five-star freshmen Darius Garland and Simi Shittu, the duo who form the core of the most highly-touted incoming class in school history. Neither disappointed in the Commodores’ 92-79 win over Winthrop earlier this week. Garland scored a game-high 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, making three of his seven three-point attempts along the way. Shittu, a power forward who has played sparingly after tearing his ACL last December, went for 18 points and 10 rebounds in his collegiate debut. Along with Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan and sophomore guard Saben Lee, Vanderbilt certainly will have a formidable offense. If Bryce Drew‘s defense comes along too, this exciting young team will make some noise over the next few months.

The Bad

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Champions Classic Primer: Kentucky vs. Duke

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 6th, 2018

In the absence of significant injuries, it stands to reason that when the NCAA Tournament tips off in a little over four months from now, Duke and Kentucky will be viewed as two of the favorites to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. That is an elongated way of saying that the result of tonight’s top-five match-up in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis doesn’t mean all that much. But, it’s the start of a new season, and there’s really no better way to commence than having two national powerhouses square off in a game that will boast the most pound for pound talent that we will see all season long.

Duke and Kentucky Revisit Their Rivalry Tonight in Indianapolis (USA Today Images)

In something of a script flip, the Wildcats enter tonight’s game as the more experienced side with the less heralded freshmen. A trio of sophomores who combined to start a robust 80 games last year return to give John Calipari’s squad a relatively veteran feel. The returnee most likely to make the leap from precocious rookie to All-American is forward PJ Washington, a player who notched double figures in 11 of the Wildcats’ final 12 games last year. Classmate Nick Richards, who started every game as freshman, and Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis (two-time First-Team Pac-12) will combine to form one of the elite frontcourts in college basketball. The Kentucky group will be put to the test immediately, however, as Duke will counter with the three most highly-touted incoming forwards in the game. Consensus #1 recruit RJ Barrett, rim-rattling man-child Zion Williamson and elite prospect Cam Reddish will be difficult to slow down offensively despite being so green. It will be more interesting to see how they cope on the other end of the floor, as the Blue Devils under Mike Krzyzewski in the one-and-done era have struggled in mastering his patented man-to-man defensive schemes.

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SEC Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2018

The SEC has more teams in the NCAA Tournament than it ever has before, and big things are expected this postseason after placing three teams in the Elite Eight and South Carolina in the Final Four a year ago. Let’s look at a few of the burning questions facing the league on the eve of the Big Dance.

The pressure is on Billy Kennedy and Texas A&M this postseason. (CBS Sports)

  • Which SEC team has the best chance to go the deepest? This is a tough one, as there are no obvious candidates to make it to the Final Four despite the SEC placing eight teams into the field. In fact, none of the group has an easy path, assuming seeding holds, beyond the Sweet Sixteen. Kentucky is playing well but a very tough draw will likely require the Wildcats to beat Arizona to get out of Boise. Tennessee and Auburn have reasonable paths to advance from the first weekend but would need to likely beat Cincinnati and Kansas, respectively, to advance beyond that point. And even though Florida has been wildly inconsistent all season long, the Gators have enough shot-makers and experience to reach the Elite Eight for the second straight year (and six of the last eight).
  • Which SEC player will break out and make a national name for himself? Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield has been on fire recently as the most consistent offensive performer on his team, using his versatile and unique offensive game to lead the Volunteers in three-pointers made while shooting a healthy 39.5 percent from behind the arc. Because of his ability to both draw defenders away from the basket while getting good looks inside, he is an extremely difficult match-up for nearly any opponent in the field. If the Volunteers can make it out of Dallas this weekend, the rest of the country will get to see what the SEC has known for the last two months — that Schofield is worthy of his selection to various all-SEC teams.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2018

For the first time ever, the SEC has placed eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field. Here are some quick impressions of the draws each of those teams received.

Tennessee

Admiral Schofield has been a beast for Tennessee down the stretch. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • Seed: #3, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Volunteers draw Horizon League champion Wright State. The Raiders are solid defensively, ranking 53rd nationally in defense, per KenPom, but struggle mightily on the offensive end (#248). Tennessee needs to get guard Jordan Bowden going, but the Vols should be able to take care of business here.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Texas in the Sweet Sixteen. Sure, the Longhorns would have to upset both Nevada and Cincinnati to get to the regionals, but who wouldn’t want to see Rick Barnes take on the school he led to 16 NCAA Touranment bids in 17 seasons.
  • Final Word: The Volunteers need to be more efficient offensively, especially inside the arc, but they are a threat to make a deep run as they rarely play themselves out of games.

Auburn

  • Seed: #4, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Tigers open with College of Charleston and should be able to exploit the Cougars’ shoddy three-point defense to find immediate success.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Bruce Pearl had his fair share of success at Tennessee against Bill Self, and if the Tigers can right the shaky ship to make it to the second weekend, they could be dangerous upon arrival.
  • Final Word: Auburn has struggled mightily on the offensive end down the stretch, and may have run out of gas this season. An early exit from the SEC Tournament this weekend might have been a blessing in disguise.

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SEC Tournament Storylines

Posted by David Changas on March 8th, 2018

With the play-in round now complete, the SEC Tournament will begins in earnest this afternoon in St. Louis. The story that is dominating the headlines for the event is the return of Missouri freshman star Michael Porter, Jr., who is expected to play against Georgia today. Let’s take a look at a few of the other lingering storylines and make a couple of predictions for this weekend.

Mike White and Florida have gotten hot at the right time and may be the team to beat in St. Louis (Madison.com)

  • Team with the Most to Gain: Alabama. The SEC bubble appears to be generally settled, with one notable exception. Alabama has slumped down the stretch, losing its final five games to go from a relatively safe bet to potentially on the outside looking in. If Avery Johnson’s team cannot get past Texas A&M later today in a rematch of a game the Crimson Tide lost by two over the weekend, they are likely headed to the NIT. On the other hand, a win against the Aggies would give the Tide another shot at a quality win against Auburn in Friday’s quarterfinals. If they turn out to be unable to emerge from this weekend’s tournament with an enhanced resume and end up completely missing the NCAA Tournament, this season will be nothing short of a monumental disappointment.
  • Player to Watch: Michael Porter, Jr. This is an easy call. No one realistically expected the preseason All-American to return after suffering an injury in Missouri’s very first game of the season, but now he is set to enhance a team looking to immediately improve its postseason position. Porter can help a team that has enjoyed a nice turnaround under first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, finishing 10-8 in SEC play. The more action the young forward can get as Missouri prepares for the Big Dance, the better — returning from a nearly four-month layoff is never easy. The fact that he returns to the Tigers’ lineup with the SEC Tournament being played just down the road in St. Louis makes this story all the more intriguing.

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Despite Thin Resume, Mississippi State Makes Late NCAA Push

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2018

With the regular season nearing its end, there is little drama remaining when it comes to the SEC bubble. Barring something unforeseen – and we are not referring to the FBI here, just surprises of the on-court variety – the league will get at least eight teams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Alabama has not helped itself with three recent straight losses, but the Crimson Tide remain solidly in the field in most projections and will almost certainly lock up a bid with a victory this week over Florida or Texas A&M. The only other SEC club with any real drama surrounding it is Mississippi State. Although the Bulldogs played a non-conference schedule that could accurately be described as embarrassing, they still have hope of securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Ben Howland’s team sits at 21-8 overall (9-7 SEC) and currently holds the tiebreaker in a four-way logjam for third place. If they hold that position in the standings, they would receive a double-bye into quarterfinal (Friday) action in the upcoming SEC Tournament.

Ben Howland hopes Mississippi State can overcome his soft scheduling (David Blair, Icon Sportswire)

Despite holding a resume with no wins of consequence prior to the start of conference play – a victory over #122 RPI Dayton is the best – Mississippi State still has a realistic chance to reach the Big Dance. The Bulldogs own four wins over RPI top-50 teams, counterbalanced by 10 over teams ranked below #150. Nonetheless, a strong late push in SEC play has at least elevated them into Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out, and they have an enormous opportunity to improve their position this evening with Tennessee coming to town. If Howland’s group can handle the Volunteers in Starkville and close out the regular season with another win at LSU, they will position themselves to earn an NCAA bid at the SEC Tournament in St. Louis next week.

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Can Georgia Save Mark Fox’s Job?

Posted by David Changas on February 20th, 2018

After an impressive week that included an overtime win in Gainesville to complete a season sweep of Florida followed by an 11-point home win against Tennessee, Georgia has suddenly put itself in position to make a run to the NCAA Tournament — and, by proxy, save head coach Mark Fox’s job. Prior to the win against the Gators, the Bulldogs had compiled a 4-8 SEC record and lost six of their previous seven games. But even during that dismal run, this was not a team that was completely devoid of hope. Given that Georgia possibly has the best player in the SEC in senior forward Yante Maten and had excruciatingly blown double-digit leads at Auburn and against Arkansas in late January, it was clearly a better team than its record. Had the Bulldogs avoided meltdowns in those two contests, the possibility of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Fox’s nine seasons in Athens would have been realistic. Even without those victories, a 15-11 (6-8 SEC) Georgia team isn’t completely finished just yet.

Mark Fox needs his team to finish strong to earn a tenth season at Georgia (John Kelly/UGA)

During his tenure in Athens — a school where admittedly basketball has been and remains a clear afterthought, even by SEC standards — Fox has always been regarded as an underachieving but solid coach who has enough respect from his peers and administration to earn more time. Some would argue that his lackluster overall record, which includes three 20-win seasons but no NCAA Tournament wins, has not been good enough to justify keeping him around in a rapidly improving league. And after Georgia lost its third game in a row on February 10 – a 78-61 home thrashing at the hands of Auburn – it appeared as if Fox’s tenure might be nearing an end. Last week’s performance, however, at least offers a glimmer of hope that he can save his job.

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End of Andy Kennedy Era at Ole Miss a Sign of SEC Change

Posted by David Changas on February 13th, 2018

On Monday Ole Miss announced that it will part ways with longtime head coach Andy Kennedy, whose team sits at 11-14 overall (4-8 SEC) and is on a five-game losing streak. In his previous 11 seasons at the helm, Kennedy guided the Rebels to at least 20 wins a total of eight times. And with an overall record of 245-154, he is the winningest head coach in school history. Furthermore, his teams have never finished worse than sixth in SEC play, although that streak almost certainly will end this year. Despite all of that success at a school that is not known for basketball, the albatross hanging around the neck of all those numbers is that Kennedy has led the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament only twice, winning a single game while there.

Andy Kennedy is out after a dozen seasons at the helm in Oxford (Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports).

While Kennedy’s departure was described as a mutual decision, there is no doubt that his tenure is ending because he has not won enough. And for fans of SEC basketball — notwithstanding that Kennedy is a likable guy who has always managed to field competitive teams even with lesser talent, this should be viewed as a good thing. In a conference that has suddenly become ultra-competitive, Ole Miss brass came to the realization that regular appearances in the NIT simply were not enough. Finishing in the middle of the pack at Ole Miss is never easy, but in the past, it was acceptable. Now that the overall profile of the league has improved, not only would Kennedy have struggled to keep his program in that soft middle, but going to the Big Dance once every six years simply would not be enough.

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Examining the SEC Bubble: Volume I

Posted by David Changas on February 8th, 2018

With just over a month remaining in college basketball’s regular season, the SEC is collectively better positioned for postseason play than it has been in a very long time. But as of today, only two teams – Auburn and Tennessee – should feel completely comfortable about making the upcoming Field of 68. On the other end of the spectrum, barring any unforeseeable late-season surges, we feel safe in saying that four SEC teams – Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and LSU – will miss out on this year’s Big Dance. That leaves eight teams in the messy middle, so let’s take our first look at the otherwise crowded bubble and offer some predictions on the fortunes of those squads.

Kassius Robertson has been a huge part of Missouri’s turnaround. (Kansas City Star)

  • Kentucky. Despite the considerable angst in Lexington about these Wildcats — now 6-5 in SEC play with trips to Texas A&M and Auburn upcoming — they appear to be safe, for now. They have 10 top-100 RPI wins without any bad losses, and there will be several more opportunities for quality wins down the stretch. Chances of making the field: 90%.
  • Florida. The up-and-down Gators are a surprise on this list, and not in a good way. At 15-8 overall, they’ve now lost three in a row in SEC play and face a very difficult closing stretch. While they currently have seven top-50 RPI wins, four Tier-2 losses mean Mike White’s team needs to take advantage of its chances over the last two weeks. Chances of making the field: 85%.
  • Texas A&M. After what was the best performance of any SEC team in non-conference play, it is hard to understand how the Aggies have landed on this list. An 0-5 start in conference play will certainly do that, however, and even though they have won five of their last six SEC games and hold five Tier-1 wins, the Aggies have more work ahead. Chances of making the field: 80%.

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Perimeter-Oriented Florida Struggling to Find Inside Consistency

Posted by David Changas on February 7th, 2018

In the era of advanced metrics and a discerning understanding of the importance of efficiency in college basketball, it seems unusual to contend that a team’s success is predicated on its ability to knock down the three. But with this year’s Florida team, that belief is an appropriate one. After the Gators’ third consecutive SEC loss on Saturday – a 68-50 drubbing at the hands of Alabama – it is all too apparent that Florida’s inconsistency on the offensive end is the corresponding reason for its overall inconsistency. The Crimson Tide outscored Florida 41-17 in the second half in what was the Gators’ second straight conference loss at home and whopping fifth overall in Gainesville. Remember when they were ranked as high as sixth in the AP poll earlier this season?

Rice transfer Egor Koulechov has been great for Florida, but a limited inside game may limit the Gators’ postseason prospects. (Alan Alvarez/Alligator Sports)

A common theme in each of Florida’s eight defeats has been its inability to knock down the perimeter jumper. The Gators are shooting 29.5 percent from beyond the arc in those losses while they are at 41.9 percent in their 15 wins. In other words, when things are going well for Florida, they go really well. But when those outside shots are not falling, ugly and somewhat inexplicable ones – such as Saturday’s beatdown, as well as home losses to Loyola (Chicago) and South Carolina – occur. This significant disparity from three-point range has led to an overall effective field goal percentage of 50.9 percent, which ranks 171st in the nation. While the ability to make shots and score in bunches will still make the Gators a dangerous team in March, it also puts them at significant risk of being an early out in postseason play.

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