SEC M5: MLK Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 19th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. So many potential narratives started swirling around after Kentucky’s shaky outings against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Had the Wildcats become unfocused and vulnerable? Would they respond? Was the sky falling? At least for now, it seems the close calls indeed got the ‘Cats attention. “I think those struggles just reset our mind,” Willie Cauley-Stein told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Now we’re back to like, ‘OK, we’re trying to shut people out.’ We’re not just trying to play with them. We’re trying to demoralize them.” After allowing Ole Miss to score more points per possession than it had any team this season (1.09), Kentucky broke Missouri’s soul (0.58) and then stifled a good Alabama squad (0.83). Given Alabama’s length, athleticism and desperation for a marquee win, the game in Tuscaloosa may have been one of the tougher road assignments Kentucky will face this year. They passed it easily, and it seems the appropriate narrative is that the Wildcats’ slow start to conference play may have in fact been a positive thing.
  2. Kentucky isn’t the only team that took something away from its SEC opener against Ole Miss. The Rebels weren’t intimidated in Rupp against a seemingly invincible opponent, and they brought that same confidence to Fayetteville when they whacked Arkansas 96-82. If you combine their shooting stats from both games, the Rebels shot 53.1 percent on 32 three-point attempts. That is precisely the way to give yourself a chance against good teams in tough environments. The abundance of bravado has to be tied to Ole Miss’ veteran backcourt of Jarvis Summers, Stefan Moody and Snoop White. The trio has guided the Rebels to a 2-2 record against arguably the best the SEC has to offer: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Ole Miss may be able to make some hay as the schedule eases up, especially if it keeps lighting it up from deep.
  3. Is Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones the most important player in the SEC? Probably not, but the Aggies are 2-0 with him in SEC play and 0-2 without him. Billy Kennedy’s leading scorer returned from an ankle injury to score 16 points in a win over Mississippi State and then 18 points in Saturday’s win over LSU. The latter performance was all the more impressive since it came against the Tigers’ ultra-talented front line. Would a healthy Jones have given the Aggies the slight edge they would’ve needed to drop Kentucky? We will never know, but with how Texas A&M has struggled to score this season, it needs Jones to remain healthy if it has any chance of ending up on the tournament bubble.
  4. Auburn’s big recruits a year away. The team was coming off a 20 point loss. Kentucky wasn’t in town. And this is Auburn, after all. Nonetheless, Auburn Arena was rocking Saturday night during the Tigers’ quality win over South Carolina. This is the Bruce Pearl effect. We heard about the spike in season ticket sales during the offseason, and actually saw it come to life against the Gamecocks. Cinmeon Bowers – who is becoming a star in the SEC – ripped down an offensive rebound and converted a tough layup to extend the Tigers’ lead to three with under four minutes left and the arena exploded. Last year, a scene like that seemed a world away. But there is truly excitement around Auburn basketball, and with home wins over Missouri and Carolina, not to mention the emergence of Bowers as a double-double machine, there is tangible progress on the court too. Again, this is the Bruce Pearl effect, and the entire league is better for it.
  5. Florida’s 24-game conference win streak came to an end with an unusual sight. Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith were glued to bench for a large swath of the second half in the Gators’ loss to Georgia, and not because of foul trouble. “For me, it was just, let’s play (freshman) Devin Robinson, Chris Chiozza. Let’s get them some experience. Let’s let them play. These older guys aren’t playing at the level we need them to play at,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. Despite the loss, Florida’s 3-1 conference record does not have it in a helpless position so the benching was a somewhat bold move from Donovan. It might signal that this season has become as much about building for the future as it is contending in the present. And that’s not a bad thing, because except for senior Jon Horford, this same Florida team will likely take the floor together next year.
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Alabama Seeks Season-Defining Win Against Kentucky

Posted by David Changas on January 17th, 2015

They almost got Iowa State in a hostile environment. They should have gotten Wichita State on the road. Alabama has shown significant improvement after last season’s disappointment, but the Crimson Tide have yet to secure a marquee win that will enhance their NCAA Tournament resume. Later today Alabama will have the opportunity to make those near-misses away from Tuscaloosa become a distant memory as it welcomes the country’s best to Coleman Coliseum. Kentucky righted its ship on Tuesday with a 49-point home victory over Missouri, while Alabama fell two points short at South Carolina. Still, after thumping Texas A&M at home to start conference play and throttling Tennessee in one of the season’s most impressive defensive performances, the Crimson Tide have to be a bit optimistic as the Wildcats come to town. It’s the first of two games the teams will play in a 15-day period.

Anthony Grant is working to get back to the Big Dance (nbcsports.com)

Anthony Grant is working to get back to the Big Dance (nbcsports.com)

Alabama came into the season with a number of unknowns – not the least of which was whether head coach Anthony Grant’s job could be saved – but so far it has performed beyond expectations and wiped away what was nothing less than an awful 2013-14 season. It currently sits 44th in the RPI and 37th in KenPom, thanks mostly to its improvement on the defensive end as well as better leadership. Whether the Crimson Tide can put it all together against the Wildcats remains to be seen, but there is reason for the hope that they can pull off the upset. While Kentucky has an even-bigger-than-normal size advantage against them, Alabama is very athletic and has done an excellent job with its three-point defense. The Wildcats’ biggest weakness has been their ineffectiveness from the perimeter, so it is incumbent upon the Crimson Tide to force Kentucky to score from beyond the arc.

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SEC Stock Watch: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2015

We are now nearly two weeks into conference play, so let’s take a hard look at which teams, players and other things are heading in the right direction, stuck in neutral or on the decline. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Florida. Perhaps all it took was conference play for the Gators to right the ship. After opening SEC play with a solid win at upstart South Carolina, the Gators easily dispatched conference lightweights Mississippi State and Auburn in Gainesville. Things get tougher on Saturday when they travel to Georgia, but Billy Donovan’s team is doing what it takes to tidy up its shaky resume for March.
  • Dominique Hawkins. The Kentucky guard went from not being part of either five-man platoon to starting against Missouri, and in his 20 minutes of action he gave John Calipari the perimeter defense the Wildcats needed. His entry into the starting lineup in place of Tyler Ulis was a bit of a surprise, but it obviously got the team’s attention as the Wildcats cruised to an 86-47 win over the Tigers, eradicating some of the bad vibe left over from last week’s overtime wins against Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Dominique Hawkins took advantage of his surprise start against Missouri (Bleacher Report).

Dominique Hawkins took advantage of his surprise start against Missouri (Bleacher Report).

  • Robert Hubbs. Anyone who saw Hubbs play earlier this year wouldn’t believe that the freshman would ever make a Stock Watch list, although there was clearly nowhere for him to go than up. The former five-star recruit was way overrated coming out of high school, but Hubbs needed to find a way to contribute for Tennessee to have any success this season. He has done just that, and his career-high 16 points against Arkansas was a huge reason the Vols were able to upset the Hogs earlier this week.
  • Alabama. Sure, the Crimson Tide lost at South Carolina on Tuesday night, but there is no shame in dropping a two-point contest to one of the league’s most improved teams on the road. Alabama clearly has moved on from last year’s disaster, and with two of its next five games against Kentucky, Anthony Grant’s team has a chance to really get things moving (finally) in the right direction.

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SEC M5: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowers was one of the most sought-after junior college players in the country last year and he has proved to be quite a find for Bruce Pearl. He is currently the team’s third-leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and the league’s leading rebounder (11.3 RPG) despite standing only 6’7″. But given what Bowers went through while in high school in Milwaukee, it’s no surprise that the 278-pound forward is one of the league’s toughest players. As chronicled by Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com, Bowers was shot five times during a car robbery attempt four year ago. Given that experience, the often free-spirited Bowers can handle any criticism leveled by Pearl, who is impressed with how the junior has shaken a rocky start to notch nine double-doubles and become one of the Tigers’ most productive players. Given where Auburn is in its program development arc, Pearl has to be thankful Bowers decided to follow him to the school.
  2. Per NCAA rules, teams are allowed to take overseas trips in the offseason every four years, and Kentucky took advantage of its opportunity to do so last summer. The Wildcats traveled to the Bahamas and the timing could not have been more perfect. The trip south gave John Calipari the opportunity to work his talented freshmen with a returning group that played for the national championship a few months earlier. Given the Wildcats’ currently undefeated and mostly-dominant start, the trip appears to have been a resounding success. But that success came at quite a cost. As Adam Himmelsbach of The Courier-Journal points out, the astounding $792,845.68 price tag was nearly $640,000 more than North Carolina spent on its own trip to the Bahamas last summer, and it was 21 times more costly than a similar trip taken by Portland State. Much of that cost related to bringing along teams that could challenge the Wildcats, but while the large figure may cause some unease for Kentucky fans, it’s likely that most of Big Blue Nation will see it as money well spent if the Wildcats win another national championship.
  3. Speaking of large sums of money, it was revealed earlier this week that retiring SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who is currently fighting prostate cancer and will leave his post at the end of July, earned $2.1 million in compensation for the 2013-14 school year, a 69% increase from the prior year. Slive, who is not the highest-paid conference commissioner (he trails the Pac-12’s Larry Scott and the ACC’s John Swofford), clearly has done great things for the league in his tenure, not the least of which is the enormous CBS contract and the establishment of the SEC Network, which launched last August. The vast majority of that success has to do with the conference’s unprecedented dominance in football, but as we have indicated here in the past, if there is one hole in Slive’s legacy, it’s that the conference’s collective performance on the hardwood has been mostly lackluster.
  4. While the overall performance of the SEC has been subpar in basketball during much of Slive’s tenure, there clearly are two programs that have consistently performed at a very high level: Kentucky and FloridaCBSSports.com‘s Matt Norlander set out to find which programs have performed the best when football and basketball are combined, and although newly-crowned national champion Ohio State appeared to be the obvious choice, Norlander found that Florida has actually performed the best. He reviewed eight categories in both sports and found that only the Gators qualified in all of them. Given three football national championships and Billy Donovan’s two basketball titles and four Final Four appearances, it should be no surprise that Florida has had more success than any other program in both major sports over the past two decades.
  5. When Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com issued his latest bracketology column earlier this week, it wasn’t all that surprising that he had five SEC schools included even though most are currently projecting four in the field. What was really surprising, though, was that he chose Tennessee as one of the five teams. Palm listed the Volunteers as a #9 seed, despite an RPI (#53) that ranks outside the top 50. What is even more surprising is that he released his field prior to Tennessee’s upset win over Arkansas Tuesday night. Of course, such things mean very little only three games into the conference season, and Donnie Tyndall all but said to ignore any such projections. Still, the fact that Tyndall could have a team with as many newcomers and limitations as this one in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid is a testament to the job he has done in his first half-season in Knoxville. For Volunteers fans anxiously awaiting the results of the inquiry into Tyndall’s actions while he coached at Southern Miss, they just hope he’s around for a while to build on what he has done.
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SEC M5: 01.14.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. One of the league’s hottest players since entering SEC play has to be Kentucky’s Devin Booker, who scored 13 points against Ole Miss, 18 points against Texas A&M and seven last night against Missouri. During the three-game run he was 8-of-11 from distance, and it is his outside shooting that makes Booker such a dangerous weapon for the Wildcats — perhaps the best long-range threat since Doron Lamb rained triples for the 2012 championship team. He won’t shoot at such a blistering rate all season long (currently 50.8%), but if he continues to produce it’ll be hard for John Calipari to keep him off the court in close games. Despite their exceptional defensive talent, the Wildcats don’t have all that many players who can create their own shot; therefore, the offensive threat that Booker poses will make it easier for guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson to find room inside to operate.
  2. It appears Ole Miss did indeed take something away from its near-win at Rupp Arena last Tuesday. “If we can do that against Kentucky, we can do that against anybody else,” forward Sebastian Saiz told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. The Rebels followed it up with a solid win over the weekend against South Carolina, and have two big opportunities ahead against LSU and Arkansas. If Ole Miss can win both games — no easy task considering that the Razorbacks game is in Fayetteville — the NCAA Tournament bubble could start to come into view. What could set the Rebels apart is that they can actually put the ball in the basket (24th in adjusted offensive efficiency) in a league where many teams struggle to score. Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody were both a bit inconsistent to begin the year, but when the two guards are both hitting shots at the same time, the Rebels can be a handful.
  3. Florida’s ultimate potential is tied in large part to Kasey Hill’s development. The sophomore has struggled shooting the ball this year, making just 20 percent of his two point jump shots and 25 percent of his three point shots. Billy Donovan thinks that while Hill will likely never be a lights out shooter, there is room for growth. Hill is one of the quicker guards in the SEC, but his inability to keep defenses honest has likely had an effect on Florida’s ability to take advantage of Chris Walker’s athleticism at the rim. Walker has not shown he can create offense on his own and would be benefitted greatly from Hill breaking down the defense and creating seams. But the more defenses can sag off Hill, the less he’ll be able to create opportunities for others. Nonetheless, Hill is an ultra-talented player and a slight improvement would go a long way for Florida.
  4. A rash of injuries has followed a tough opening week for Georgia, which could now be down three rotation players. The scariest situation happened to freshman Yante Maten (18.2 MPG), who suffered a concussion after being hit by a car outside of Stegeman Coliseum. Kenny Paul Geno (9.8 MPG) broke his wrist against Arkansas, and an Achilles injury could keep Juwan Parker (23.9 MPG) out of tonight’s game against Vanderbilt. Mark Fox has been essentially using a seven-man rotation with Parker and Maten getting the most minutes of all the reserves. Even if Parker can suit up, the Bulldogs may need Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic to play close to 40 minutes in a critical game. Fox has to hope Cameron Forte can provide some cover. The junior forward was pressed into 24 minutes of action against LSU after never seeing more than six minutes in a game prior to that, and held up well with 10 points and six rebounds.
  5. Another reserve big man that saw his minutes explode in the LSU-Georgia game was Darcy Malone, who played 16 minutes after having only seen 20 minutes total before the game. This was the latest in Johnny Jones’ season-long quest to find depth, especially in the front court. The big man group of Malone, Brian Bridgewater, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps and John Odo has combined for just 6.3 rebounds per game. With that kind of production, or lack of production, you can’t blame Jones for rolling the dice. Luckily for the Tigers it appears that freshman guard Jalyn Patterson has emerged as a solid backcourt contributor. In fact, Jones trusts Patterson so much that he had him in over Josh Gray, who was having an erratic game taking care of the ball, late in the Tigers’ loss to Missouri last week.
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Freeze Frame: Arkansas’ Half-Court Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 13th, 2015

As Florida still works out its offensive kinks, Mike Anderson’s Arkansas Razorbacks are quietly becoming a legitimate SEC contender. The Hogs are riding a seven-game winning streak that includes wins in the first two conference games for the first time in the Anderson era. We have already examined Arkansas’ up-tempo style this year, but it is now the defense that is giving the Razorbacks an edge in conference play.

In addition to 32 points on Saturday, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis finished with four steals as well.  (thesportsseer.com).

In addition to 32 points on Saturday, Arkansas forward Bobby Portis finished with four steals too. (thesportsseer.com).

It is typically Arkansas’ full-court pressure that creates havoc for its opponents, but it was the Razorbacks’ half-court defense that gave Vanderbilt fits as Arkansas created 31 points off of 22 Vandy turnovers on its way to an 82-70 win. Arkansas has forced SEC opponents into a 30 percent or greater turnover percentage seven times since Anderson’s arrival (see table below), so it will be very difficult to beat the Razorbacks when the opponent turns the ball over on almost a third of its possessions. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will review how the Hogs made scoring so difficult for the Commodores and how that performance fits historically in the Anderson era.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 13th, 2015

For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume II, including games from January 5-11.

Team of the Week. There were three strong contenders for this award this week, but Arkansas gets the nod on the strength of a 2-0 record that included wins over KenPom top 55 teams Georgia and Vanderbilt. By beating Georgia in Athens, the Razorbacks achieved something that has been a rarity under Mike Anderson: beating a quality team on the road. And it wasn’t easy. Arkansas had to overcome an 11-point deficit against a confident Bulldogs team that was riding a six-game winning streak of its own, but the Razorbacks cut into the lead by imposing their frenetic style on Georgia and forcing 17 turnovers. They had been similarly disruptive in their other road win this season, at SMU (19 TOs), but not as much in losses to Iowa State (11 TOs) and Clemson (14 TOs). We know that Anderson’s press is highly effective in Bud Walton Arena, but whether it works when the Razorbacks are on the road will be something to watch as the season unfolds. Honorable mention this week goes to Florida, which earned a hard-fought win against South Carolina before pummelling Mississippi State.

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Player of the Week. Bobby Portis had his way with the Commodores’ front line on Saturday, scoring 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting and dunking on every other possession (or so it seemed). He might be the most offensively skilled big man in the SEC this season, and his athleticism provides a great asset guarding the in-bounder as the first wave in the Arkansas press. In the Hawg’s win over Georgia, Portis contributed 21 points and even hit a three-pointer during the game. He’s been exceptionally effective from deep, making 9-of-15 three-point attempts on the season, but the fact he’s attempted so few shows that he hasn’t gotten carried away in trying to show NBA scouts that he has range. Where he’s lethal is in using his athleticism around the rim and making himself available on cuts through the lane. If he keeps living in that sweet spot, the Razorbacks will remain very difficult to defend. Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith also deserves some love this week as he combined for 36 points and 13 rebounds in wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. Despite playing with an injured non-shooting hand, the senior is shooting very well from three (39%) and grabbing defensive rebounds at a ridiculous rate (22.3%) over the first two conference games. The Gators couldn’t afford to miss a beat from him and they haven’t.

Tournament Chatter. Let’s not dress this week up because it was not a kind week for the SEC’s hopes to get more than two teams into the NCAA Tournament. I thoroughly believe that the overall depth of the conference is better than last year, but if Selection Sunday were held today you might be looking at a two-bid league. Kentucky and Arkansas seem safe, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.

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SEC M5: 01.12.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 12th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. The recruiting hits just keep on coming for Johnny Jones and LSU. On Friday, Arizona transfer Craig Victor committed to the Tigers, and will be eligible to play in the second semester of the 2015-16 season. Victor is from New Orleans, so his choice cannot be much of a surprise. He picked LSU over Oklahoma State. Victor was ranked No. 37 in the ESPN 100 Class of 2014, but never saw any important minutes at Arizona. Victor’s commitment comes on the heels of Jones signing Ben Simmons, the nation’s top-ranked player in the class of 2015, and of a getting a verbal pledge from another five-star recruit, Antonio Blakeney, earlier this month. So while the Tigers have not quite played up to expectations thus far this year – they came back from the dead to get their first SEC win at home against Georgia Saturday night – the future looks bright in Baton Rouge.
  2. Reality finally hit Tennessee squarely in the face during their offensive meltdown against Alabama Saturday, as the Vols scored only 2 points in the game’s last 13-plus minutes in their 56-38 home loss to Alabama. Tennessee was 9-4 coming into the contest, despite having only nine healthy scholarship players. On Friday, coach Donnie Tyndall changed that, as he surprised walk-on Galen Campbell, a Knoxville native, by awarding him a scholarship. The redshirt junior guard has played in only 14 games during his time with the Vols, and he did not see any action in the loss to the Crimson Tide. The move by Tyndall was a neat one, and as can be seen in the video, is one that was very popular among Campbell’s teammates.
  3. After Kentucky escaped its double overtime game against Texas A&M with a win, John Calipari wasted no time heading home and hitting the recruiting trail. He and assistant Kenny Payne were in Paducah within three hours of the Wildcats closing out their dramatic victory over the Aggies, checking out signee Skal Labissiere of Memphis, among others. Calipari and Payne were also there to see 2015 targets Malik Newman and Thomas Bryant, as well as Thon Maker and Josh Jackson, who are part of the class of 2016. Such is the life of a college basketball coach: pull out a tough double overtime win in the afternoon and jet 730 miles to catch high schoolers in the evening. Of course, when you’re Calipari, knowing you essentially have your pick of the best of each incoming class makes that grind a lot easier.
  4. Last week, Arkansas showed its faith in Mike Anderson‘s efforts in his three-plus years as the head man in Fayetteville, as well as the direction in which he appears to be taking the program by giving him a two-year extension through the 2019-20 season. From the moment the school hired Anderson, a long-time assistant under Arkansas’s most successful coach, Nolan Richardson, the fit appeared to perfect. Things have not quite gone according to plan, however, as Anderson did not make the NCAA Tournament in his first three years at the school. This year, though, the Razorbacks, who are 2-0 in the SEC and have separated themselves as the league’s clear second-best team, appear to be a shoo-in to make the Big Dance. Anderson has assembled enough talent and has had enough success graduating players that the powers that be are convinced he’s the right man to lead the program for a long time.
  5. Bruce Pearl got his first SEC win since 2011, when he was the coach at Tennessee, as Auburn downed Missouri 85-79 Saturday night at Auburn Arena. And while any win the Tigers get in conference play will be big news, as they likely won’t get many, the bigger story coming from the game was the presence of a famous basketball alumnus who was in attendance: Charles Barkley. As he did at Tennessee, Pearl will pull out all the stops to promote the program at Auburn, and he will especially work hard to honor former Tiger players who can bring positive recognition to the program. Inarguably, there is no one who can better do this than Barkley, who is not only the most famous player in Auburn history, but is still one of the biggest names in basketball. Having Barkley around can only help Pearl in his promotion efforts, and bring some much-needed attention to a program that likely will bring little to itself because of what happens on the court this year.
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Auburn Basketball Not Quite Ready For Prime Time

Posted by David Changas on January 7th, 2015

When Bruce Pearl took over a moribund Tennessee program in 2005, he inherited a team that had underachieved and had not been to the NCAA Tournament in four years. He went on to prove that team had some talent, as he took it to an SEC East championship and a #2 seed in the Big Dance. When Auburn decided to take the plunge with Pearl to give him another shot at coaching in the SEC, he jumped at the opportunity. This time, though, with no stars like C.J. Watson or Chris Lofton on the roster, things have not come as easily as they did in Knoxville, and Pearl has some work to do before he can even think about playing meaningful games in March. Still, there is little doubt that the revitalized head coach has things moving in the right direction, and that he will eventually return this downtrodden program to prominence.

Bruce Pearl will return Auburn to prominence (athlonsports.com)

Bruce Pearl will eventually return Auburn to prominence, but not this year (athlonsports.com)

Despite the confidence that the media showed in Pearl’s coaching abilities when it picked the Tigers to finish eighth in the SEC standings, Auburn’s roster consists of a mishmash of castoffs, players few high-major programs wanted, and athletes who appear to be better-suited for the gridiron than the basketball court. Senior guard KT Harrell, a preseason all-SEC selection, is the team’s best player (17.9 PPG), but he has little help around him. Pearl was able to convince Niagara transfer Antoine Mason to join him, and while Mason can score, he is an inefficient offensive player and struggles defensively with quick guards on the perimeter. As a team, the Tigers currently rank 241st in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, and that showed in Tuesday’s 64-52 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. They shot 31.6 percent for the game, and despite a spirited second half effort, the Tigers never got close than five points in the last 20 minutes. Auburn also was significantly outrebounded (-20) by the Commodores, and other than having the league’s leading rebounder in Cinmeon Bowers (11.3 RPG), the Tigers struggle in that area due to their extremely limited size.

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Three Thoughts on Last Night’s Near-Shocker in Rupp Arena

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 7th, 2015

All that undefeated talk surrounding Kentucky was so 2014, right? Or maybe not. The Wildcats stole the college basketball spotlight last night by needing an overtime to defeat pesky Ole Miss, but if Jarvis Summers hadn’t settled for a deep and contested three as time expired, or if Snoop White had been a half-inch behind the three-point line on a second half jumper, Kentucky might well have opened 2015 with a home loss that nobody saw coming. For now, the Wildcats’ survival cools the notion that the team needs only roll out the ball in league play to reach the NCAA Tournament unscathed, but some warning signs became apparent. Here are several thoughts from last night’s wild game in Rupp Arena.

Andrew Harrison came up big for Kentucky, which included a key assist to his brother Aaron. (USA TODAY Sports)

Andrew Harrison came up big for Kentucky, which included a key assist to his brother Aaron. (USA TODAY Sports)

  1. The Wildcats are the team we thought they were. Nothing that happened last night should change that. Sure, a team well-removed from the national consciousness had the Wildcats on the ropes on their home floor, but John Calipari’s team is still a defensive juggernaut with ultra-talented depth. Kentucky was never immune to slow starts or lazy play, and there were a number of factors at play in that regard — the Wildcats hadn’t played at home since December 13; they hadn’t played at all since the big December 27 win over Louisville; and their 12-0 spurt at the start seemed to take all of the air out of their defensive intensity. This sort of thing happens, and when an opponent has enough size to be a factor on the glass as well as a player like Stefan Moody making shots, Kentucky is going to find itself in a ballgame. Add the fact that Ole Miss went 9-of-17 from three — including three huge ones from Snoop White — and you’ve got the perfect recipe for an upset. Read the rest of this entry »
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

With the SEC’s 18-game conference schedule tipping off this week, it’s time to introduce our new The SEC Week That Was column. For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. We’ll start with Volume I, including games from December 29 to January 4.

Team of the Week. Could it go to any other team but South Carolina? The Gamecocks continued their trend of blowing out bad teams by beating North Carolina A&T by 37 points, and then picked up the league’s best non-Kentucky win by beating Iowa State on Saturday in Brooklyn. KenPom has liked Carolina’s defense all season, as the Gamecocks currently have the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball. It was on full display at the Barclays Center as Frank Martin’s team forced the high-powered Cyclones’ offense into 35.1 percent shooting from the floor and 0.79 points per possession, far and away its worst offensive showing of the year. Carolina also got excellent production from its backcourt, as Ty Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice scored at least 13 points apiece. Scrappy defense and solid guard play were the hallmarks of Frank Martin’s best teams at Kansas State, and it seems like his Gamecocks are rounding into that form. I think you can safely put South Carolina on the early NCAA Tournament bubble.

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. Jarell Martin, LSU. The Tigers’ sophomore enters league play as the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, and did nothing but pad that figure last week with strong stat lines in wins over Southern Miss (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Savannah State (26 points, eight rebounds, three assists). DraftExpress ranks Martin as the 42nd-best prospect in this summer’s NBA Draft, so you have to wonder if he will stick around another year. If he does, he’ll join five-star recruits Ben Simmons and the recently-committed Antonio Blakeney on an ultra-talented LSU roster. Honorable mention goes to Missouri’s Jonathan Williams, who starred in a loss to Oklahoma State (22 points, nine rebounds) and a win over Lipscomb (16 points, 10 rebounds). The sophomore forward has been more aggressive on the offensive end and seems to have realized that he needs to command the basketball for the Tigers to play well.

Tournament Chatter. Who made the biggest strides towards an NCAA Tournament invitation this past week?

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SEC M5: 01.05.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. South Carolina’s win over Iowa State in Brooklyn on Saturday was significant for several reasons. First, it was easily the biggest victory of Frank Martin’s tenure in Columbia, and, second, it was a boost for the conference’s reputation as a whole. Remember the last time time the SEC put a league representative in front of the Cyclones? Needless to say that it didn’t end well. But as Garnet and Black Attack writes, it was also an important victory because the Gamecocks have so few chances left on the schedule for another marquee win. Two cracks at Kentucky could be the extent of it, but now South Carolina doesn’t necessarily need to win one of those two games to get some national attention. A good conference record (e.g., 11-7) even without a Kentucky win could be enough to garner some late season NCAA Tournament chatter — since the Gamecocks’ resume is now buoyed by the victory over Iowa State.
  2. With the Carolina win on our minds, is the SEC quietly improving? While only one team is currently ranked, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton writes that, “10 SEC teams are in the top 104, six in the top 53 and four (UK, Georgia, LSU and Arkansas) in the top 28 of the RPI.” RPI, especially at this time of year, isn’t necessarily the best barometer, but if nothing else this suggests that the depth of the league is better than it was last year. Take Georgia and Alabama, for example. Neither might be viable NCAA Tournament teams, but both have shown enough fight against other major conference opponents that they won’t be pushovers either. This quiet league-wide improvement is also taking place as Florida undergoes an understandable rebuilding period, which should be encouraging to conference fans as a whole.
  3. Vanderbilt’s double-overtime win over Yale on Saturday may not have been pretty, but it pushed the Commodores’ non-conference record to 10-3, representing great progress over recent seasons. Kevin Stallings’ team should be fun to watch grow throughout SEC play, and their future promise screams from the box score, as all five players who reached double figures against Yale are either sophomores (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet) or freshmen (Riley Lachance, Shelton Mitchell, Matthew Fisher-Davis). A January 10 visit to Fayetteville will be a good test to determine how Kevin Stallings’ young team handles one of the league’s toughest environments.
  4. LSU got a late Christmas present late last week when five-star guard Antonio Blakeney committed to the Tigers. It has already been written on all corners of the Internet, but LSU will be overflowing with talent next season if Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey stick around with Blakeney and super-prospect Ben Simmons arriving on campus. But even if Mickey and Martin both leave for the NBA, the Tigers would still be able to field a competitive, NCAA Tournament-caliber team given how Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman have grown this season. Gray and Hornsby have been a complementary three-point shooting backcourt and Quarterman has been a unique, jack-of-all trades swingman. In this worst-case scenario for LSU, the team’s two new elite prospects would still be entering a team with a solid foundation.
  5. Missouri has had a frustrating season, and conference play could be much more difficult should Teki Gill-Caesar miss any time. The freshman, who has averaged 11.5 points per game this season, left the Tigers’ recent win over Lipscomb in the first half with a back injury and did not return. Kim Anderson said afterward that he wasn’t sure how serious his injury actually is. Gill-Caesar’s scoring has dipped recently as defenses focus their attention on him, but he’s a key piece to a team that showed some promise in close losses to Illinois and Oklahoma State. Missouri has an opportunity against a surging LSU team to open league play on Thursday night, but the Tigers from Columbia will be hard-pressed to win that game if Gill-Caesar is on the bench.
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