NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 17th, 2019

The days of the SEC getting only three or four teams into the NCAA Tournament appear to be over. After getting a record eight bids last season, the league will send seven teams to the Big Dance this year, including a pair of #2 seeds, a #3 seed, and a couple of #5 seeds. The league hopes for a bit more success this year, however, when none of those eight squads advanced past the Sweet Sixteen a year ago. Here are our instant impressions on each team’s draw:

Grant Williams and Tennessee have a potentially dangerous second-round matchup ahead with Cincinnati in the Bearcats’ back yard (USA Today Sports/Randy Sartin)

Tennessee

  • Seed: # 2, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: Colgate is a relatively dangerous #15 seed that shoots 39 percent from deep. Tennessee struggles to defend the perimeter at times and will need to recover from Sunday’s debacle against Auburn to do a better job guarding the three.
  • Intriguing Potential Match-up: Virginia in the regional final. Tennessee would seem to match up better against the Cavaliers than the other #1 seeds based on athleticism alone. A game between the region’s top two teams would be a tremendous display of offensive efficiency.
  • Final Word: Assuming the Volunteers beat Colgate, a Second Round battle against an under-seeded Cincinnati team in the Bearcats’ backyard (Columbus, Ohio) would be a tall order. Another early exit is a real possibility for a team that has spent the entire season ranked among the nation’s top 10.

Kentucky

  • Seed: #2, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: A battle of Wildcats will take place, with Kentucky facing Abilene Christian. On talent alone, Kentucky should coast to a victory here.
  • Intriguing Potential Match-up: North Carolina in the regional final. The Wildcats handled the Tar Heels in Chicago just before Christmas, holding North Carolina to just 0.87 points per possession, one of its worst offensive outputs of the year. The Tar Heels have improved immensely since that game, however, although Kentucky could probably make the same case. This is a late March game that everyone who loves college basketball should want to see.
  • Final Word: Kentucky is good enough to win it all, and we will be mildly surprised if the Wildcats do not make it to Minneapolis with a somewhat favorable draw ahead in the Midwest region.

LSU

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With SEC Tournament Title, Bruce Pearl Has Auburn All The Way Back

Posted by David Changas on March 17th, 2019

Sometimes things really do come full circle in sports, and Auburn’s thrashing of Tennessee in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game is evidence of that. In Bruce Pearl’s fifth season at Auburn, he has brought the Tigers program — the absolute dregs of the SEC when he took over five years ago — all the way back. Today’s win gave Auburn its first SEC Tournament title since 1985, and only its second in history. And in getting the program to this point, he has also completed the rehabilitation of a career that appeared dead on more than one occasion. There is certainly poetic justice in that he reached the pinnacle of his accomplishment at the Loveliest Village on the Plains against the school that was forced to fire him eight years ago.

Bruce Pearl was all smiles after beating his old team to claim the SEC Tournament Championship on Sunday (David Changas/Rush the Court)

In winning the SEC Tournament, Pearl was able to accomplish something he never did at Tennessee. Although he guided the Volunteers to the NCAA Tournament in each of his six seasons in Knoxville — including the university’s only Elite Eight appearance in 2010 — he was never able to secure the SEC Tournament trophy, losing his only chance in 2009 when the Volunteers lost to Mississippi State. But now, Pearl can bask in the glow of an unexpected four-games-in-four-days title that came from the middle of the pack. And whatever happens in the NCAA Tournament – the consensus is that 26-9 Auburn will be a #4 seed – nothing will take this accomplishment away. “The championship means so much because it might have been the best the SEC has been in so many years. We feel very blessed to be where we are,” Pearl said after the game.

Pearl resurrected a moribund Tennessee program when he arrived in Knoxville in 2005. The transformation of Thompson-Boling Arena into one of the nation’s nicest arenas is largely a result of his doing, and the six consecutive NCAA appearances remains the longest streak in school history. But the challenge he faced at Auburn was an entirely different animal. In the Tigers’ four seasons under Tony Barbee prior to Pearl’s arrival, they won just 49 games. Worse, he inherited a fan base that was beyond apathetic — even for SEC standards. And after losing 20 games in each of Pearl’s first two seasons, it was clear that this turnaround was not like what he encountered at Tennessee. But three years later, he has a program for which “also ran” status would have been a generous descriptor at the top of the SEC mountain. Only a year and a half ago, an FBI investigation swirled around his program – and just this week, former assistant Chuck Person pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to the scandal – and it was not clear whether Pearl would survive. He weathered that storm last season and led his club to a share of the SEC regular season championship, but a first-round SEC Tournament loss and a blowout at the hands of Clemson in the NCAA Tournament put a damper on that accomplishment. Now, after doing something that has not been done at the school in 34 years, he has proved that he has more than survived.

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Tennessee-Kentucky, Part III: Battle for a #1 Seed?

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2019

LSU won the SEC regular season championship, but anyone who has followed college basketball this season knows the conference battle that matters on the national scene is the seesaw between Tennessee and Kentucky for what could be the fourth #1 seed. With the Tigers getting dispatched by Florida on Friday afternoon, the stage is now set for the third installment of this season’s battle between the two hated rivals. Sure, it won’t get the fanfare and doesn’t have the star power of North Carolina vs. Duke, but when the Volunteers and Wildcats face off on Saturday afternoon, the implications may be just as great. Kentucky came into the weekend projected as one of the four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament by essentially everyone; likewise, Tennessee is viewed as a #2 seed in nearly every relevant bracketology. If the Volunteers beat the Wildcats for the second time this season, it stands to reason that they will instead have a claim on a top seed going into Selection Sunday.

A #1 seed appears to be up for grabs when Tennessee and Kentucky face off for a third time on Saturday (Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)

On Friday evening, both teams handled their business with relative ease. Kentucky, behind a swarming defense that forced Alabama into just 30 percent shooting, dispatched the Crimson Tide, 73-55. Tennessee faced a tougher challenge from a game Mississippi State team that is solidly within the field of 68, before showing the offensive efficiency they are known for on their way to an 83-76 win.

The first two match-ups between these two teams were mirror images of each other. Kentucky dismantled Tennessee in mid-February, handing the Volunteers their only double-figure loss of the season, 86-69. Two weeks later, Tennessee raced out to a 19-point win over the Wildcats in Knoxville. While Kentucky’s strength of schedule numbers are a bit stronger than those of Tennessee, the teams’ resumes are similar enough that a win in the rubber match should be enough to claim a #1 seed regardless of what may happen in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes hinted after the game that the winner would indeed earn that top slot. “The league deserves a #1 seed. I’ll be disappointed if someone in our league doesn’t end up on that one line.”

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Three Questions Facing LSU After It Loses SEC Tournament Opener

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2019

When news broke before LSU’s regular season finale against Vanderbilt last weekend that coach Will Wade would be suspended as a result of his implication in possibly arranging a payment to secure the commitment of Javonte Smart, no one knew what impact it would have on a team that was set to clinch the SEC championship. A comfortable win over the woeful Commodores did just that, and despite Smart being held out for precautionary reasons, the first real test for the Tigers would come against Florida on Friday. After appearing to be well on their way to passing it in racing out to a 10-point halftime lead, a more aggressive – and perhaps more desperate – Gators squad pulled off a 73-70 upset behind a last-second three-pointer from freshman Andrew Nembhard. Now, LSU heads to the NCAA Tournament, where it likely will be slotted as a #2 or #3 seed, with a number of unanswered questions.

LSU Interim Coach Tony Benford has a tall task ahead of him. (Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports)
  1. How significant will Wade’s absence on the sidelines be during games? LSU was clearly ready to play on Friday, as it came out with energy and worked to get the ball inside — where it had a decided advantage — early in the game. When things started to go wrong in the second half, though, interim coach Tony Benford did not appear up to the challenge of keeping the Tigers calm. The Tigers led by three points when Naz Reed was called for running through a Florida screen. A tick after the whistle, Florida hit a three, which the referees inexplicably counted. What was already a disastrous possession was then made worse when Benford picked up a technical foul, ultimately contributing to a six-point trip that changed the entire complexion of the game. Benford was justified in his outrage, of course, but he admitted afterward that he deserved the technical, and that he should have shown the restraint necessary to avoid the technical. His lack of experience in that situation clearly hurt the Tigers today.
  2. Will the LSU players tune out their new coach? Who knows what is to become of LSU after this bizarre season ends, and whether it even matters if they continue to win given the possibility of everything being vacated. With a talented group of players who could be ready to leave school in the aftermath of Wade’s likely dismissal, perhaps they will tune out Benford, who has been put in an untenable position. The players deny that they will, but would anyone really be surprised if the Tigers turned their 16-2 SEC record into an early departure from the NCAA Tournament?
  3. Will the Tigers get any calls? Based upon the aforementioned circumstance, as well as officiating as a whole on Friday, the early answer is no. LSU was called for 24 fouls, while Florida was whistled for only 10. This was the case despite LSU being the more aggressive team, and the Gators taking 28 threes (nine more than the Tigers). After the game, Benford seemed resigned to the fact that this type of officiating is what his team can expect going forward. “We’re not going to get any calls. I heard guys [say] when there’s an interim coach, you’re not getting any calls. I thought they fouled, we fouled some. They got the calls, we didn’t get the calls.” Based on the numbers, he is correct. But his belief that this will continue also likely is accurate, and that could spell trouble for the Tigers when the games really count.

LSU’s situation is unlike anything we have seen in college basketball in the recent past. For a supremely talented team to lose its coach under these circumstances with one game left in the regular season is essentially unprecedented. Whether the Tigers can overcome all that has been put in front of them is an open question, but there is no doubt that they have a significant hill to climb.

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In Winning at Kentucky, LSU Proves Itself to be Among SEC Elite

Posted by David Changas on February 13th, 2019

In getting off to a superb 9-1 start in SEC play, LSU served notice that it should be taken seriously in the conference race. But in comparison with the golden resumes of top-five stalwarts Tennessee and Kentucky, there were lingering concerns about whether the Tigers were quite at their level. While much of the college basketball world had its sights on Saturday night’s blockbuster clash between Tennessee and Kentucky, LSU entered Lexington last night with a chip on its shoulder. After falling behind 48-39 with 16:51 left to play, Will Wade‘s club began to attack the basket with regularity. The result of a raucous final few minutes was a 73-71 win in Rupp Arena on a controversial last-second tip-in by Kavell Bigby-Williams.

Wins at Rupp Arena Are Not Easy to Come By (USA Today Images)

Based on the stellar recruiting Wade has done since arriving in Baton Rouge two years ago, expectations for the LSU program were reasonably high coming into the season. Early losses to Florida State and Oklahoma State in the Advocare Invitational tempered some of that excitement, but a strong start to conference play slowly garnered some fringe national attention. The problem was the schedule: Coming into Tuesday night’s game, LSU’s most impressive victories had come in the last week (at Mississippi State and versus Auburn in Baton Rouge). But everyone knew Kentucky, which had reeled off nine straight SEC wins of its own, would present an entirely different challenge. Now, after pulling off the upset, LSU has solidified its status as a contender and is well-positioned to make a serious run at the SEC title. The Tigers, which are now 6-0 on the road in SEC play, have winnable road games left against Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and other than a looming showdown with #1 Tennessee on February 23, they will be heavy favorites to win their remaining home contests. If they can take care of the Volunteers, a share of the regular season championship, at minimum, is likely.

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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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