SEC Week That Was: Volume VI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2016

Conference play is off and running in the SEC as some teams finished up their non-conference schedules and several others opened league play. Here’s what happened in the final week before it’s all SEC, all the time.

Team of the WeekLSU has caught a lot of flak on this microsite with good reason. Despite boasting arguably the best player in the country, the Tigers have spent most of the season trending in the wrong direction. Still, Johnny Jones‘ team deserves accolades when things go well, and the Tigers’ surprise win over Vanderbilt in Memorial Gym on Saturday merits such a mention. Jones’ club still has a steep hill to climb if it is to enter NCAA Tournament discussion, but consider the following: Ben Simmons (36 points, 14 rebounds, four assists) seems comfortable playing the two-man game with Keith Hornsby (23 points) and Craig Victor (11 points). That pair was not around for the majority of the team’s losses this season, so there is now some reason to believe that the Tigers can surge with a complete roster. There’s also equal reason to believe that they’ll continue to underwhelm. Only time will tell in Baton Rouge.

LSU out-muscled Vanderbilt for a big win in Nashville (lsureveille.com).

LSU outmuscled Vanderbilt for a big win in Nashville. (lsureveille.com)

Player of the Week. Ben Simmons may have aleady numbed the college basketball world to his gaudy statistics, but we need to continue to take notice. The line he put up against Vanderbilt isn’t his best of the season, but it still needs to be appreciated. He also notched a double-double in last Tuesday’s loss to Wake Forest (21 points, 12 rebounds), giving him an SEC-leading 10 such games for the season. It also hasn’t taken the freshman long to exploit the heavy attention he is receiving, as he attempted 35 free throws over the past two games. Compare that with 36 attempts over his first six games and a total of 72 prior to last week. Opponents will keep putting him in a position to draw fouls, and since he’s making his free throws at a respectable 74.8 percent, this represents a great source of offense on a team that has struggled to shoot the ball. Honorable mention goes to Florida freshman guard KeVaughn Allen, who scored 32 points in a loss to Florida State (the highest total for a Gators’ freshman since 2002) and followed it up with 18 in a win over Georgia. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 30th, 2015

There were relatively slim pickings in terms of games over the holiday week, but there was still plenty of SEC action to digest. Let’s break down what went down in some of the final non-conference games of the season as we look ahead to the start of league play this weekend.

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky's win over Louisville (aseaofblue.com).

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky’s win over Louisville. (USA TODAY Sports)

Team of the WeekKentucky stole the show on the lightest college basketball weekend of the year with its narrow win in the Battle of the Bluegrass. The Wildcats lost Isaiah Briscoe to a turned ankle in pregame warm-ups and got very little from Skal Labissiere (for the entire game) or Jamal Murray (for most of the game). Yet they were still able to beat a top-25 team without any freshmen playing a starring role. It took a superb effort from Tyler Ulis (21 points, 8 assists/1 turnover) and good games from Alex PoythressMarcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins. Who knew a Kentucky win led by a sophomore, two juniors and a senior was possible in the Calipari era? That the Wildcats have that kind of depth and experience is why despite ups and downs from the freshmen class, this team will not go the way the team did during Poythress’ freshman year.

Player of the Week. Ulis was the marquee player in the win over the Cardinals, and it wasn’t close. He’s becoming about as complete a player as a college point guard can be, and displayed it all against Louisville. He was masterful breaking the Cardinals’ press and controlled the game offensively, especially by delivering a number of passes to Poythress that put him in position to score near the basket. He also played a big role scoring the ball himself and seems to have shrugged off the elbow injury that had been clearly limiting him since the UCLA loss. The sophomore was an efficient 4-of-7 from distance and scored around the rim as well. Kentucky needed its star point guard to step up against Louisville, and he did just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Don’t Look Now But The Gamecocks Are Rolling

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on December 28th, 2015

It sounded like he was chewing on some kind of hard candy as he ripped his team apart. You might remember the press conference if you read or heard the words. One line stood out: “I’ve been doing this for 28 years — nine of which was a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today.” That was South Carolina coach Frank Martin on Valentine’s Day in 2013 after a humiliating 64-46 home loss to LSU, a fifth consecutive defeat that dropped his first team of Gamecocks to .500 overall (12-12) and an embarrassing 2-9 in the SEC. Fast forward almost three years to today, and you might find a kinder, happier Martin. At least a little bit. South Carolina is one of five unbeatens left in Division 1 college basketball, as they head into the final week of 2015 at 11-0 after a 75-61 pre-Christmas win over St. John’s in Uncasville, CT. So how did we get from there to here in just two and a half years? And can these Gamecocks survive the rigors of conference play?

Frank Martin is extremely hard on his players, but for good reason. South Carolina, a program that was not in good shape when Martin took over, is currently one of only a handful of unbeaten teams left in college basketball. (Getty)

Frank Martin has things humming in Columbia. (Photo: Getty)

South Carolina finished Martin’s first season 14-18 and 4-14 in the SEC. It was almost exactly the same the second season; the 2013-2014 Gamecocks won the exact same number of games overall (14) and just one more in SEC play (five). But last season, while the SEC win total again only went up by one, South Carolina finished 17-16; its first record over .500 since 2009 and only its second in nine years. Last year’s team also finally won games against quality opposition, beating Oklahoma State and Iowa State in the non-conference and sweeping Georgia (an NCAA Tournament team) in league play. This year’s team should be 12-0 (D-3 Francis Marion is the Gamecocks’ only remaining 2015 opponent) when Memphis comes to town on Jan. 2. Back in that angry 2013 press conference, Martin most notably called out his team’s effort and toughness. He said they weren’t working hard enough to make shots (that 2013-2014 team finished 248th in 3-point percentage and 244th in 2-point percentage) and even compared everyone except Bruce Ellington to zombies. In short, he was extremely frustrated that they weren’t playing like a Frank Martin basketball team.

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Alabama Poised to Seize an Opportunity in SEC Play

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 23rd, 2015

If you’re an Alabama fan, you couldn’t have been blamed for feeling underwhelmed when athletic director Bill Battle introduced Avery Johnson and his infectious smile as the next Crimson Tide basketball coach. Battle had swung hard for Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and had come up empty. The former NBA Coach of the Year (Dallas Mavericks) was a good back-up plan in the sense that he brought some name-brand appeal to the program, but would he be a good fit for rhythms and demands of the college game? His last coaching stint did not go well with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, and his last experience in college was as a player. It was easy to speculate that this was an experiment unlikely to pan out for Alabama, especially since Mississippi State (Ben Howland) and Tennessee (Rick Barnes) hired proven college winners.

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide's loss to Oregon (rolltide.com).

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide’s loss to Oregon (rolltide.com).

But as we near the start of conference play, the early returns on Johnson’s performance have been great. There have been wins on the recruiting trail, such as adding five-star shooting guard Terrance Ferguson to his class of 2016. That part was more or less predictable since few other college coaches can sell as much NBA know-how and connections as Johnson. The Tide’s results on the court, though, have been the bigger surprise. Sitting at 7-3 with games against Jacksonville State and Norfolk State before conference play begins, Alabama looks poised to become a legitimate player in an SEC race that looks as open at the top as it has been in years. That’s not necessarily something many saw coming in the preseason.

Blowout losses to Xavier and Dayton in November exposed two big weaknesses: poor rebounding and ball control. Over those two games, the Tide turned the ball over 38 times and were destroyed (-29) on the glass. They were able to right the ship with a subsequent five-game winning streak that included victories over Wichita State (without point guard Fred VanVleet), Notre Dame and Clemson. But Johnson’s offense generally struggled and starting freshman point guard Dazon Ingram was lost for the season with a fractured left foot. There were still a number of questions about Alabama heading into Monday’s game against Oregon in Birmingham. And although the Tide blew a 12-point halftime lead to lose a close contest to a team that has become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, their effort against the Ducks nevertheless showed that they are not a fluke.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 21st, 2015

The week before Christmas provided stocking stuffers for fans of SEC teams, as the league picked up a number of wins against power conference competition. But there was some coal too, highlighted by Kentucky‘s buzzed-about loss to an underwhelming-to-this-point Ohio State team. Here’s the rundown of the SEC’s penultimate non-conference week of action.

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs (onlineathens.com).

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs. (OnlineAthens)

Team of the Week Texas A&M has had a good time playing old Big 12 foes this year. The Aggies had wins against Texas (doesn’t that look better now?) and Kansas State under their belt, and then went and handled a good Baylor team at home this past week. Texas A&M did what Vanderbilt couldn’t a few weeks ago and controlled Taurean Prince, holding the versatile senior to just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting. In all, Texas A&M continued defending at the level it has all season, keeping an efficient Bears offense to 0.90 points per possession. On an individual level, this was a nice game for Danuel House. He helped the Aggies build an early lead and drilled a couple of three’s in the process. He’s a far better shooter than his numbers this year suggest (32.5 percent from three), but a lot of that is due to a dreadful 3-of-15 three-point shooting night against Arizona State. We’re talking about a potential future NBA wing, so confidence shouldn’t be an issue, but Billy Kennedy has to be pleased seeing House trend back up from distance. Read the rest of this entry »

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Freeze Frame: On Ben Simmons’ Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 16th, 2015

After three straight losses to Marquette, NC State and the College of Charleston, we criticized LSU’s offense for its inability to score. In the meantime, head coach Johnny Jones figured out how to get the ball to freshman phenom Ben Simmons, and it resulted in his offense hanging 119 points in a win against North Florida and another 98 points in a road loss against Houston. The problem is that a mediocre defense has only gotten worse, giving up 108 points in that home win over the Ospreys and hemorrhaging 105 in the overtime loss to the Cougars.

Ben Simmons' defense leaves much to be desired (philly.com).

Ben Simmons’ defense doesn’t live up to his superstar status. (philly.com)

After charting every defensive possession LSU played against Houston last Sunday, a sound conclusion is that the defensive ability of the Tigers’ freshman superstar leaves much to be desired. Nobody questions Simmons’ talent with the ball – as demonstrated by his season averages of 19.0 PPG and 5.9 APG – but, at this early point in his career, the offensive juggernaut is just an average defender. In this edition of Freeze Frame, a microscope is taken to Simmons’ defense and the findings aren’t good. He was often lost in pick-and-roll situations; he couldn’t stop penetration; he was frequently the last player back on defense; he had some difficulty closing out on offensive shooters; and he rarely provided help defense on slashing wing players entering the paint. Instead, you will notice a lot of standing around and catching his breath for the offensive end. His size and athleticism allows him to get to blocks and steals that other players cannot, but his defensive fundamentals, particularly in the half-court, are underwhelming. Read the rest of this entry »

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Mississippi State’s Future Bright Despite Early Struggles

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 14th, 2015

Off the court, Ben Howland couldn’t have gotten off to a better start since taking the reins at Mississippi State. Landing McDonald’s All-American and Jackson native Malik Newman was his first well-publicized coup, and he hasn’t stopped there. The Bulldogs’ next recruiting class is rated sixth in the nation according to 247Sports and fourth according to Rivals. Signing players like Mario Kegler, Schnider Herard and Abdul Ado required Howland to beat out Bill Self, Tom Crean, Sean Miller and several other blue-blood programs. This wasn’t just a good first few months on the job; it was a great first few months on the job.

Malik Newman and the Bulldogs are struggling, but the future is bright in Starkville (insidemsusports.com).

Malik Newman and the Bulldogs are struggling, but the future is bright in Starkville. (insidemsusports.com)

On the court, however, things are very different. The Bulldogs lost their second game of the year at home to Southern before dropping two of three in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. A three-game winning streak against an unimpressive slate of opponents led into their first true road game of the year at UMKC, a game that was set up because of former coach Rick Ray’s relationship with Kangaroos’ coach Kareem Richardson. The script for Howland’s dream start didn’t include a loss to a WAC team, but that’s what happened as Mississippi State lost by five points Saturday night in Kansas City. To be fair, this was a tricky game that KenPom had basically pegged as a toss-up, and UMKC has a guard in Martez Harrison that would start for most SEC teams. But for a Bulldogs team that was picked to finish eighth in the conference and that starts four upperclassmen and a potential lottery pick, this was yet another disappointing setback. Read the rest of this entry »

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Florida Backcourt Key to NCAA Chances

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 11th, 2015

Florida had a chance to make a statement on Tuesday night against a Miami team off to a flying start this season. A road win against an intrastate rival would have given new head coach Mike White his first marquee win since arriving in Gainesville. Florida had some momentum too, coming off a dominant performance in a victory over a solid Richmond team. But in the end, the Gators left south Florida with only another loss and a handful of questions. The most pressing of them: Are the Gators’ guards good enough to get them to the NCAA Tournament?

Florida's back court couldn't keep up with Sheldon McCellan and Angel Rodriguez in a loss to Miami (caneswarning.com).

Florida’s backcourt couldn’t keep up with Sheldon McCellan and Angel Rodriguez in a loss to Miami. (Photo: caneswarning.com)

Sheldon McClellan (24 points) and Angel Rodriguez (17 points) had big scoring nights for Miami but it’s hard to get worked up about great players getting their points. It’s not as hard, however, to expect the Gators’ backcourt to make up some of the difference with scoring on the other end. White said before the game that his team needed to take advantage of its open looks, but this simply didn’t happen — the Gators were 1-of-12 from three on the evening, and their two highest volume three-point shooters in the backcourt (Brandone Francis-Ramirez and KeVaughn Allen) are shooting a combined 20.0 percent from three-point range this season. After the game, White was left scratching his head. “We see it in practice,” he told GatorZone.com. “I don’t think we have a bunch of great shooters, but they’re better than this.” Compounding the shooting problem were several long, contested two-point jumpers from Francis-Ramirez and Allen late in the game when the Gators were desperate for points. Allen managed to convert one of these shots to cut the Miami lead to 10 points, but the Gators are desperately in need of sustainable scoring from their perimeter players. Read the rest of this entry »

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Freeze Frame: Searching for Vanderbilt’s Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 10th, 2015

Longtime followers of SEC basketball have come to expect a solid offense from Vanderbilt in most years, but perhaps not a particularly stout defense. Still, Kevin Stallings’ team entered Wednesday night’s clash with Dayton boasting the 16th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, but it certainly didn’t look that way during the game – Vanderbilt gave up 1.06 points per possession to the Flyers. The Commodores’ best defense was not on display last night, but Vandy will need to perform as efficiently as the numbers suggest to reach its goals for this season.

Kevin Stallings needs more consistency on defense to win big games (AP/Bill Kostroun)

Kevin Stallings needs more consistency on defense to win big games. (AP/Bill Kostroun)

This Vanderbilt team is definitely good, but just how good is the burning question. The Commodores had some chances against both Kansas and Baylor, but fell just short in their two contests with the Big 12 clubs. Against Dayton, despite a seemingly commanding 16-point lead in the first half, Vanderbilt gave up far too many points in the paint and made too many mental mistakes to come away with a key non-conference win. The only way to escape this all too familiar scene is by the defense living up to its billing. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we focus on the positive aspects of Vanderbilt’s defense to analyze what the Commodores should do to avoid another meltdown.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume III

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 7th, 2015

Don’t look now but the congealed middle that has defined the SEC the last few seasons is beginning to take shape. Nearly half the conference (six teams) have at least three losses, and part of this jumble are two teams in LSU and Mississippi State that we expected to be better. The league also whiffed on two opportunities for statement road wins this past week as Vanderbilt fell to Baylor and Texas A&M lost to Arizona State. Let’s get to the weekly roundup.

The Gators turned in a dominant performance against Richmond (sportspyder.com).

The Gators turned in a dominant performance against Richmond. (sportspyder.com)

Team of the Week. There were relatively slim pickings this week with the Commodores and Aggies falling on the road along with Kentucky losing to UCLA. What is left is Florida, which was borderline dominant in a win over Richmond. The Spiders may not be great, but they were coming off a win over a good Cal team and haven’t had trouble scoring this year (33rd in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings). The Gators squashed this momentum by dominating the boards and holding Richmond to just 0.78 points per possession for the game that included allowing just a single offensive rebound in the first half. Florida’s athletic front line of Dorian Finney-Smith, John Egbunu and Devin Robinson has been a load on the glass this year and that should continue to be an advantage the Gators hold over most teams. The big question for Mike White’s team will continue to be the point guard position until either Kasey Hill or Chris Chiozza clearly grabs the reins. Chiozza had arguably his best game of the season in hitting a pair of threes and handing out five assists. There’s still room for improvement, but the Gators have some margin for error on offense when they defend and rebound as well they did against Richmond. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.04.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 4th, 2015

Now that the season is in full swing, it’s time for us to take a look at the coaches, teams, and players that we should be bullish on, and those we should look to unload as fast as we can.

BuyKentucky Being Beatable. The Wildcats’ big win over Duke last month had some people thinking that Kentucky could make another long undefeated run to start the season. Thanks to UCLA last night in Pauley Pavilion, any 40-0 talk is already over. The Bruins’ handling of John Calipari’s squad should give the rest of the SEC some hope this season. After watching the Wildcats cruise through the conference schedule last year, it is clear that this year’s version will not be quite as dominant. That has to be encouraging to the rest of a league that has grown tired of being beaten down by Big Blue.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky are the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC (Mark Zerof, USA Today Sports)

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky are still the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC (Mark Zerof, USA Today Sports)

SellAnyone Besides Kentucky Winning the SEC. While Kentucky’s loss will encourage the rest of the league, no one should be delusional enough to think the Wildcats are anything but the prohibitive favorite to win the regular season title. It is likely that they lose a game here or there, but Kentucky is still without question the team to beat. Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have shown that they are ready to win a lot of games in league play as well, but when everything is said and done, it’s still all too likely that the Wildcats will take home another SEC championship.

Buy: Vanderbilt. These Commodores have a chance to advance as far as any Vanderbilt team has since the 2007 squad that went to the Sweet Sixteen. Kevin Stallings seems to truly enjoy coaching this group, and the talent may fit his coaching style better than it did with the Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins group. With two solid NBA prospects in forward Damian Jones and guard Wade Baldwin, the Commodores should be athletic enough to compete with most teams. Assuming their defense continues to improve, anything short of a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament will be considered a disappointment in Nashville.

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume III: Simmons’ Big Night

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 3rd, 2015

This edition of SEC Quotable and Notable reviews Ben Simmons’ Herculean effort, a midweek offensive explosion, an assists record in College Station, Georgia’s razor-thin roster, and some interesting warm-ups in Columbia. Let’s jump into it.

Ben Simmons is living up to the hype. LSU is not. (philly.com).

Ben Simmons is living up to the hype. LSU is not. (philly.com).

“I felt like they couldn’t stop me in the post.” — Ben Simmons on his 43-point outing against North Florida, the first time a Tiger has scored 40 or more points in a game since Tasmin Mitchell in 2009 (courtesy @codyworsham). Yes, the Tigers scored well over 100 points (119) and Simmons may have put together a statistical night that won’t be topped for the rest of the year (43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals). By anyone. But this doesn’t remove the serious concerns surrounding this team. The Ospreys, led by Beau Beech (31 points, 8-of-12 from three), got off to a torrid start from deep and kept up the offensive onslaught for most of the game (finishing 19-of-33 from three-point land). LSU had to know that bombing from deep would be the nation-leading three-point team’s modus operandi, but the Tigers still struggled to close out and cover all the open looks. The defensive performance was reminiscent of the kind of effort that had doomed LSU against the College of Charleston. The offensive side of the equation, however, was considerably more encouraging. Simmons played off the ball while Tim Quarterman and Josh Gray typically ran the point. This allowed the Tigers to get Simmons the ball closer to the basket so that he could operate in the post, a strategy that clearly worked out very well. For a team that often relies upon its transition game to provide offense, a sustainable half-court approach involving Simmons in the post might be something to carry forward from this game.

Notable: Hanging those 100s. Several SEC offenses have had a banner scoring week already, as LSU (119 against North Florida), Arkansas (117 against Northwestern State) and Vanderbilt (102 against Detroit) all topped the century mark in midweek games. Arkansas and LSU also put together ratings above 100.0 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics. All of this great offense came against inferior competition, of course, but that doesn’t prohibit those performances from creating some momentum.

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