Kentucky’s Inconsistency is Likely Here to Stay

Posted by David Changas on February 1st, 2018

Kentucky walked off the Rupp Arena hardwood two weekends ago after losing a close game to rival Florida, and the Wildcats collectively had to wonder whether their season was headed down a dreadful path of no return. That loss was their second that week – the first coming to South Carolina in Columbia four days prior – and many observers of the program thought the trend was proof positive that John Calipari‘s current group of youngsters simply weren’t very good. To underscore that point, Kentucky’s only top-50 RPI wins had come against two teams — Louisville and Texas A&M — that were clearly struggling at the time of the games, and nothing Kentucky had done since those victories indicated that the Wildcats were headed toward a good place in March. Calipari’s squad bounced back with a strong second half performance in a subsequent 78-65 home win over Mississippi State, but a road trip to double-digit favorite West Virginia as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge was looming. Early in the second half of that game, West Virginia led by 17 points over the Wildcats and things in the Bluegrass State appeared headed to DEFCON 1.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came up huge for Kentucky against Vanderbilt (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Somehow, at what appeared to be the lowest point of the season, something sparked the sluggish Wildcats. Kentucky proceeded to go on an improbable 25-4 run over the next seven-plus minutes before eventually claiming its best win of the season. At that point, the buzz around the program was no longer about whether falling to the NIT was a distinct possibility, but rather whether a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio was still on the table. Chatter suggested that the Wildcats had finally figured things out, thanks largely to the emergence of quickly-developing freshmen Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Riding high after the big victory over West Virginia, the Wildcats returned to Rupp Arena to face struggling Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. And in a shaky follow-up performance that probably should have been expected from such a young team (remember, the Wildcats rank 351st, dead-last, in experience nationally), it took a minor miracle to emerge victorious. On a loose ball play with two seconds remaining, Gilgeous-Alexander was fouled 50 feet from the basket and the Wildcats trailing by two points. He calmly sank two free throws to send the game to overtime, where Kentucky would ultimately prevail, 83-81.

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Recapping the Good and Bad from the Big 12/SEC Challenge

Posted by David Changas on January 30th, 2018

Despite being underdogs in seven of the 10 games of the Big 12/SEC Challenge last weekend, the SEC pulled off its first overall win (6-4) in the fourth year of the battle between power conferences. It was yet another boost to a league that has undergone a revival of sorts this season. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad for the SEC from Saturday’s action.

The Good

John Calipari paid homage to Bob Huggins with his attire, then saw his team pull off a big upset against the Mountaineer coach (John Clay/Lexington Herald-Leader).

  • Kentucky’s Upset of West Virginia. How improbable was it that the previously struggling Wildcats would come back from a 17-point second half deficit in Morgantown on Saturday night? According to KenPom’s win probability metric, the Mountaineers had a 97.8 percent chance of emerging victorious with 17 minutes left in the game. And yet, Kentucky stormed back and notched the impressive victory. While an inspiring road win doesn’t fix all of the Wildcats’ ongoing woes, it will serve as a clear resume-enhancer for a club desperately in need of one and should boost the team’s confidence as it heads into February.

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SEC Stock Watch: Volume II

Posted by David Changas on January 25th, 2018

As we approach the halfway mark of SEC play, it’s time for this season’s second installment of Stock Watch.

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It’s been an unusual season for Bruce Pearl, who has Auburn in first place in the SEC (Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports)

  • Auburn as Regular Season Champion. With Wednesday night’s win at Missouri, Auburn is now 6-1 in the SEC with three road wins and a favorable schedule ahead. The Tigers are without question the biggest surprise in a league with quite a few of them, and there is no reason to think that they’ll fall apart anytime soon.
  • An Eight-Bid League. For a conference that submitted only three of its 14 teams into the Big Dance just three years ago, the fact that so many of its members are still reasonably in the hunt for a bid in late January is remarkable. Right now, Florida, Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama all appear to be safe bets to make the field, while Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia and South Carolina are in the running. Whether any of these 10 teams can do any damage once they get there remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that times around the SEC have changed.
  • Yante Maten. The Georgia senior has not disappointed in his final campaign. He leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 PPG), ranks second in rebounding (9.4 RPG), and is almost single-handedly keeping the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament conversation. If they can make a run to .500 or better in the second half of conference play, Maten might be looking at SEC Player of the Year honors.

Flat

  • Bruce Pearl. It might seem odd for Pearl to land here given the remarkable job he has done with a team that has surged to a great start without the services of two expected elite talents, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley. But it is the reason that those two aren’t playing that puts the fourth-year Auburn coach in this category. As long as the specter of the FBI investigation hangs over the program, no one on the Plains will get too comfortable regardless of how well things are going on the floor.

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Three Keys to a Texas A&M Turnaround

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2018

After Texas A&M opened the season in Germany with an 88-65 dismantling of a West Virginia team that has only lost twice since (both to top-10 teams), you could have gotten pretty good odds against the Aggies being winless in SEC play with nearly a third of the conference season complete. But that is exactly where they stand following a pair of road losses against Kentucky and Tennessee last week. An 11-1 pre-conference performance, with the only loss coming at Arizona, puts the Aggies at 11-6 overall (0-5 SEC), and although still projected by the bracketologists as an eventual entrant into the NCAA Tournament, Billy Kennedy’s squad needs to quickly get things turned around. Here are three ways that can happen.

Tyler Davis has been a consistent performer for the Aggies, even during their slump. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

  1. Get Robert Williams going. Williams surprised many observers when he decided to return for his sophomore season despite the widespread belief that he would be an NBA Draft first-round pick. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year has been disappointing so far, especially on the offensive end, where evidence of any real development in his game has been scant. The big man is averaging just 8.7 points per game this season, and while he leads the Aggies in rebounding (9.6 RPG), he has not at all been the equal to fellow frontcourt star Tyler Davis. If Texas A&M is going to turn things around over the next few weeks, it starts with getting more productivity out of the talented Williams. Read the rest of this entry »
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Despite Adversity, Auburn is Emerging as a Legitimate SEC Contender

Posted by David Changas on January 5th, 2018

Auburn waltzed through its non-conference schedule to a very nice 12-1 record, the Tigers’ best start in more than a dozen years. But behind that gaudy mark was a collection of creampuffs and cupcakes that meant they really had not proven anything entering SEC play at Tennessee on Tuesday night. Against the nation’s 206th-best non-conference schedule, the Tigers played only three games against KenPom top-100 opponents – Temple (the sole loss), Middle Tennessee, and Murray State – and that group isn’t exactly a who’s who of college basketball powerhouses. So even though there was some optimism on the Plains as Auburn began the quest for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 15 years, it was understandably guarded. But after beating the Volunteers by 10 points in front of a near-capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena earlier this week — a game in which they grabbed an amazing 47.8 percent of their own misses — things are looking brighter for Auburn basketball than they have in a very long time.

Auburn’s 11-game winning streak has Bruce Pearl’s team sitting pretty in the SEC. (Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports)

In something of an ironic twist, Auburn’s performance in Knoxville was reminiscent of the type of efforts head coach Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee’s teams customarily gave during his six seasons at the school. The Tigers ultimately overcame deficits of 15 points in the first half and five points in the second half before outscoring the Volunteers by 15 down the stretch. Auburn got the win despite shooting only 40.5 percent from the floor and a 29.0 percent from three-point range by owning the glass on both ends, hitting free throws and forcing turnovers.

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SEC Weekend Preview: Conference Openers

Posted by David Changas on December 28th, 2017

The last weekend of 2017 marks the first weekend of conference play for several SEC teams.Today we look at a few of the compelling match-ups that lie ahead on Saturday and Sunday.

Jaylen Barford (18.5 PPG) leads an explosive Arkansas offense that is averaging 90 points per game (ArkansasRazorbacks.com)

  • Tennessee at Arkansas. What looked before the season like a relatively nondescript opening game now appears to be the marquee SEC match-up on this weekend’s slate. The #19 Volunteers, picked to finish 13th in the preseason projections, head to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for what could be one of the best games of the entire season. Tennessee has already won four games away from Knoxville, including two road wins against ACC competition. But beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville will require its best performance of the season. The key to this contest might be whether the Vols, which force a lot of turnovers, can do so against an Arkansas team that takes care of the ball as well as any group in college basketball.

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Yante Maten’s Decision to Return to Georgia Proving to be a Good One

Posted by David Changas on December 14th, 2017

Georgia’s Yante Maten entered his name into the NBA Draft last spring before making a deadline decision to return to Athens for his senior season. Despite appearing in only one NCAA Tournament game during his under-appreciated career, the fact that he was likely to become a second round pick was not the only reason he came back. He also wanted another trip to the Big Dance, and has made it clear in the half-year since that his decision was the best one for him. Based upon the early returns at the quarter pole of this season, his desire to return to the biggest stage in college basketball is realistic. The Bulldogs are off to a 7-1 start that already includes resume-enhancing wins over St. Mary’s (in the Wooden Legacy) and at Marquette. If they can build on a very successful start – the remainder of the pre-conference schedule sets up well to get to 10-1 – head coach Mark Fox should be in position for a return to the Tournament for only the third time in his nine seasons at the school.

Yante Maten will have to continue to carry Georgia for the Bulldogs to have success (espn.com).

Still, despite the somewhat unexpected good start, the Bulldogs have a lot of work ahead before they can think about punching their ticket. Aside from the pair of quality wins and a loss to San Diego State, the rest of the schedule has been against teams they should beat. Given the SEC’s overall improvement, finding wins during league play will be a much more difficult task this season. For his part, Maten has been everything Fox could have wanted, picking up where he left off at the end of last year. He leads the team with averages of 18.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game; he is knocking down a robust 88.5 percent of his free throws (important because he gets to the line more than six times per game); and, he’s even hitting 42.1 percent of his three-pointers (on 19 attempts). Maten’s efforts have been necessary this season as the young Bulldogs did not return much production — including zero (other than Maten) who averaged double-figures in scoring last year. Other than the addition of four-star freshman forward Rayshaun Hammonds, one of the highest-rated recruits Fox has signed at Georgia, there was little else to get excited about here. Even with a solid start, the Bulldogs will need more from veterans like Juwan Parker and Tyree Crump.

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.07.17 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 7th, 2017

Now that the season is nearly a month old, it’s time to take stock of where the league stands. This is the debut of SEC Stock Watch for the 2017-18 season.

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  • An Improved SEC. There was considerable discussion about SEC basketball being better this season, and so far, it has been. Improved coaching and recruiting has led to better depth across the league, and the number of quality wins in the non-conference season has correspondingly grown. Despite a few setbacks, all 14 SEC teams currently sit in the KenPom top 100, and Texas A&M, Tennessee, Georgia and Mississippi State have all been early surprises.

Tyler Davis has led the way for Texas A&M so far this season (San Antonio Express-News).

  • Texas A&M as a contender. Much was also made of the Aggies in the preseason, and despite Wednesday night’s loss to Arizona in the desert, Billy Kennedy‘s club has been even better than expected. Texas A&M’s opening-night blowout of West Virginia in Germany remains the biggest win for the league thus far. If the Aggies can get preseason all-conference forward Robert Williams going soon, look out.
  • Missouri without MPJ. Assuming Michael Porter, Jr. does not return to the Tigers this season, his career likely will go down as one of the shortest in the history of college basketball. The devastating loss of a player who many pundits considered the best freshman in the country is an indescribably difficult blow for first-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, but the Tigers have righted the ship on their way to a 7-2 start. There is no reason to think Missouri can’t be pretty good even without the services of Porter.

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Tennessee Defying Preseason Expectations with Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on December 5th, 2017

On Monday morning of this week, Tennessee entered the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2010. And while it has been a very long road back into the national rankings for a program on its fourth head coach in those intervening seasons, things finally appear to be on the upswing in Knoxville. Under third-year coach Rick Barnes, the Volunteers are proving correct those skeptics around the program who scoffed at the SEC media’s  preseason 13th-place projection. Tennessee’s only loss to date came in a semifinal match-up against #4 Villanova at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and even that was a game in which the Vols led by double-figures at the half. Barnes’ team also owns a number of resume-enhancing wins against Purdue, NC State, Georgia Tech and a Mercer club that figures to spend much of the season in the RPI top 100. Another solid mid-major test looms on Saturday against a potent Lipscomb team before a December 17 home date with defending National Champion North Carolina. Even with a loss to the Tar Heels, Tennessee will likely be 9-2 and ranked heading into SEC play later this month.

Sophomore Grant Williams is a major reasons why Rick Barnes’ rebuild is ahead of schedule. (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Since his arrival in Knoxville three years ago, Barnes has regularly received criticism for his recruiting. He has countered with dialogue about finding players to fit his system, and the fruits of his efforts to build a nucleus of solid yet unspectacular players appears to be paying off. This is a particularly interesting turn of events for a coach who came from Texas with a reputation of being a better recruiter than floor coach. Instead, Barnes has built a roster of athletic players who have bought into a system stressing defense and rebounding. The Volunteers are turning opponents over on 25.5 percent of their defensive possessions — good for 12th nationally, per KenPom – and despite lacking significant size, are grabbing 37.2 percent of their misses (17th nationally) on the offensive end. These improvements from last season (126th and 82nd, respectively) can largely be attributed to greater experience and familiarity in Barnes’ system and the development of players who have spent multiple seasons learning it. Read the rest of this entry »

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Florida Shows It Is Once Again Ready for Prime Time

Posted by David Changas on November 29th, 2017

When Steve Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990 to take over as the new head football coach for his alma mater, he instituted a progressive “fun ‘n’ gun” offense, which revolutionized the sport and eventually led to the previously moribund program taking over the SEC for the next decade. While the 2017-18 version of Florida’s basketball program is not doing anything revolutionary on the court, head coach Mike White has instituted his own version of the fun ‘n’ gun, and in so doing has made the Gators a must-see squad. On Sunday night, Florida was unable to hold a 17-point second half lead against top-ranked Duke in the PK80 event, but its performance in that game as well as a blowout win over Stanford and a thrilling double-overtime victory over Gonzaga drew plenty of attention.

Egor Koulechov has been even better than Florida could have expected. (AP/Ron Irby)

The up-tempo style that White has instituted has especially benefited two transfer wings – Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov — who lead the Gators in scoring at 21.8 and 17.5 PPG, respectively. The two have combined to shoot a blistering 47.9 percent from three-point range and to this point have far exceeded what White could have expected from the duo. Hudson played his first two seasons at Virginia Tech, where he averaged fewer than 10 points per game,; Koulechov, a coveted graduate transfer from Rice, picked up where he left off in averaging over 18 points per contest last year. Much was expected of the Gators with preseason all-conference selection KeVaughn Allen and underrated senior point guard Chris Chiozza returning, but what Hudson and Koulechov have added has taken Florida to an entirely different level. Read the rest of this entry »

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