SEC M5: 03.26.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 26th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Billy Donovan has a great chance to win his third national title at Florida. If that were to happen, the pull of the NBA (which temporarily swooped him up for a few days in 2007) would seem even stronger. But that nightmare scenario for Gators fans became less likely on Tuesday as Donovan signed a contract extension that runs through 2018-19 at $3.5 million a year. This is big news for Florida, but it’s also important for the SEC as a whole as it struggles to boost its overall basketball profile. As long as Donovan is at Florida and John Calipari is at Kentucky there’s a good bet the conference will have two strong contenders that demand national attention every season. That’s not a bad base from which to build.
  2. The storm that had been brewing around Cuonzo Martin might have reached a fever pitch had Tennessee lost its First Four game to Iowa. Auburn had just snatched up Bruce Pearl, and the thousands of people that signed an online petition to return Pearl to his perch in Knoxville would’ve had quite a bit of ammunition. Getting to the Sweet Sixteen, however, can cure a lot of ills. A few hundred fans greeted the Vols as they flew in from Raleigh at 2:30 in the morning, and the Tennessee allotment for an ultra-tough ticket in Indianapolis sold out quickly. It turns out that winning at this time of year gets people’s attention in a positive way. An interesting subplot to the Vols’s upcoming game against Michigan is Martin coaching against Glenn Robinson III, since he played with Robinson’s father, the Big Dog, at Purdue.
  3. Not surprisingly, Gary Parrish has the Kentucky-Louisville game as one of the games he can’t wait to watch in the Sweet Sixteen. The magnitude of this game doesn’t top the one two years ago in the Final Four, but it comes close since it’ll be played less than 200 miles from each school’s campus. And of course there is the ever-present intrigue of two highly-quotable coaches, and Rick Pitino’s history at Kentucky. The current state of this rivalry has so many sideshows and subplots that we as a college basketball audience need to be thankful for getting two NCAA Tournament games between the two powerhouse schools in the last three years.
  4. Arkansas’ season finally came to an end late Sunday night with a 75-64 loss at Cal. It was the Razorbacks’ first game in the state of California since 1973, which seems like an especially long time. Fittingly the season ended with a road loss, but there were plenty of positives in Arkansas’ 2013-14 campaign. The late collapse that washed away a likely NCAA bid can’t be sugarcoated, but this was the Razorbacks first 20-win season since 2007-08 and Mike Anderson picked up a postseason win in the NIT. Rashad Madden and Bobby Portis (if he returns) will form a solid duo next year, with Portis a legitimate contender for preseason SEC Player of the Year. Anderson’s recruiting class isn’t as highly-ranked as it was this year (two three-stars, a two-star and an unranked player on Rivals.com), but Anderson had great success with less-heralded recruits at Missouri.
  5. LSU was also shown the door in the NIT on Sunday, courtesy of a blistering shooting performance from SMU (57.9% FG, 9-of-14 from three). It was good to see Andre Stringer (15 points) and Shavon Coleman (eight points, seven rebounds, four steals) go out with nice games. Like Arkansas, we’ll look at the bright side of things for the Tigers. Johnny Jones got himself a postseason win and finished with an RPI almost 20 spots higher than last year. The Tigers may also have some of the best long-term prospects in the SEC outside of Kentucky and Florida. Jones has proven he can bring in talent (Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin, incoming five-star freshman Ben Simmons), and that’s the fastest way to ascend in the standings. If Mickey, Martin and Johnny O’Bryant stick around (a big if), LSU has to be in the discussion as a favorite to win the league next year.
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Appreciating Near-Perfection in an Instant Classic Between Kentucky and Wichita State

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 24th, 2014

There were a number of storylines entering Sunday’s Kentucky vs. Wichita State game about 1-and-dones, so-called “mid-majors,” David vs. Goliath, and of course, quests for undefeated seasons. Neither the Wildcats nor the Shockers would ultimately reach the 40-0 prize this season, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they would not come exceptionally close to perfection.

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

It’s no secret that Kentucky struggled this season, deteriorating into a poor defensive squad that often appeared lost on offense. When the Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina near the end of the regular season, it seemed as if the team was spiraling out of control. Among most everybody who follows the program, it appeared highly unlikely that John Calipari’s team had the guts and drive to participate in the best game of the season, and one of the best postseason games in years. But there they were yesterday, standing tall, after winning a 78-76 thriller over Wichita State.

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Rebounding Key to Kentucky’s Success Against Kansas State

Posted by David Changas on March 19th, 2014

In one of the most intriguing match-ups of the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round, Kentucky takes on Kansas State in St. Louis tonight. On the surface, as with most #8/#9 battles, this game appears to be a toss-up. And though most oddsmakers have installed Kentucky as a six-point favorite, a fairly sizeable spread for two teams that appear to be equally matched, there is little reason to think this one won’t go down to the wire. Kansas State is battle-tested, having dealt with the rigors of the Big 12 round-robin that allowed for very few breathers. Kentucky, on the other hand, played very few conference games against quality opponents. In fact, the only NCAA Tournament team it has beaten since the calendar flipped to 2014 was Tennessee.

John Calipari and Bruce Weber both have a lot to prove this tourney.

John Calipari and Bruce Weber both have a lot to prove this tourney.

There is no question that Kentucky comes into this NCAA Tournament this season with a lot to prove. For a team that was the consensus preseason No. 1 in the polls, an #8/#9 NCAA Tournament opener is nothing short of disappointing. However, a win over Kansas State almost certainly will give coach John Calipari’s team a shot at top-seed Wichita State, and offer it a chance to wipe away much of that disappointment. Calipari has spent much of the past few days criticizing the Selection Committee for giving his Wildcats a #8 seed despite having played one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules. At this point, though, all that should matter to him is what his team needs to do to defeat its Big 12 opponent.

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SEC M5: 03.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 19th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The SEC’s 2014 NCAA Tournament action is now upon us. Cuonzo Martin will makes his NCAA debut against Iowa and its high-powered offense this evening in Tennessee’s third-ever game in Dayton (losses in 2001 and 2009). The Hawkeyes ranked fourth in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings, and are headlined by all-Big Ten first team selection Roy Devyn Marble (17.3 PPG, 22.2 PER). If the Vols need some confidence in keeping elite scores in check, they need not look very far. In recent poundings of Auburn and Missouri, Tennessee held the SEC’s top two scorers (Jabari Brown and Chris Denson) to 1-of-10 shooting nights. Do something like that to Marble tonight and the Vols have a great chance to keep on playing through the weekend.
  2. If there was any question about Arkansas’ motivation for the NIT, it was answered with a 54-point second half in the Razorbacks win last night over Indiana State. In an ideal world, the NIT can be used as a confidence-builder and springboard to next season for young players. If that’s the case, Anthlon Bell will have something to feel good about this offseason. The sophomore scored 28 points on 11-of-13 shooting, including 6-of-8 from three-point land. This was only the second time he has hit the 20-point plateau this year (23 points against Ole Miss). With Fred Gulley and Mardracus Wade graduating, Bell will be in a position for more playing time on the wing, and Mike Anderson has to hope he can become a more consistent offensive option. The Razorbacks play the winner of California and Utah Valley in the NIT next.
  3. Missouri was shorthanded, both on its roster and in the stands, but still found a way to erase a 13-point second half deficit and beat Davidson in its NIT opener. The Tigers weren’t able to bully Davidson on the glass like it first appeared, grabbing only one more rebound than the Wildcats for the game. But they were able to attack the basket on the smaller Davidson team, shooting 58.0 percent from the field and getting to the line 34 times. Jabari Brown’s 30 points were the headline, but also notable was Frank Haith giving a good chunk of playing time to junior forward Danny Feldman (four points, four rebounds), who had seen the court for only 19 total minutes all season. This could have been a message to suspended freshmen Wes Clark and Shane Rector about the value of doing things the right way. The Tigers will play the winner of Toledo and Southern Miss next.
  4. The SEC’s other two NIT squads open the tournament this evening. LSU takes on a San Francisco team that finished third in the WCC and is making its first postseason appearance since an appearance in the CBI in 2011-12. This may be the last chance to see Johnny O’Bryant in a LSU uniform, and he should have ample opportunities against a porous Dons’ defense (KenPom #145). Georgia tips off its NIT campaign at home against Vermont, a team that briefly grabbed the nation’s attention with a near-win at Duke in November. The Catamounts are an experienced team (five of their top six scorers are seniors), and face a much younger Bulldogs squad in Athens. It’ll be interesting to see how the two juxtaposed teams approach this game.
  5. Auburn made a giant splash by hiring former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl, bringing the accomplished and controversial coach back to the conference in which he excelled for six years. David Changas had a great take on the hire, pointing out what it could mean in a larger context. He writes, “after seeing the coup that [Auburn AD Jay Jacobs] was able to pull off, perhaps other SEC schools that have not shown they are serious about basketball will renew their commitment to the sport.” For the conference’s profile to improve, it only takes a few schools to become consistent NCAA Tournament threats. Consistently elite programs are great, but they’re not the only way to respectability. Pearl’s hire is a long-term step in this direction.
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NIT Breakdown in the SEC: Arkansas and Missouri Open With Home Games

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 18th, 2014

It might not be Super Tuesday, but flip over to ESPN and ESPN2 tonight and you will find two SEC teams in action. Arkansas and Missouri both kick off their respective NIT campaigns with home games against teams from smaller conferences. Here’s all you need to know about Indiana State and Davidson ahead of this evening’s alternative March fun:

Indiana State at Arkansas, 9 PM ET, ESPN

Senior Jake Odum will be tasked with breaking the Arkansas press.

Senior Jake Odum will be tasked with breaking the Arkansas press. (Getty)

  • Indiana State’s Story: Last we saw the Sycamores, they had pulled within five points (55-50) of Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game. Getting that automatic bid was their only chance ending up in the NCAA Tournament, so the Shockers’ late surge (they won 83-69) sent Indiana State to the NIT. The Sycamores, however, were pretty clearly the second best team in the MVC, and the only realistic challenge to Wichita State. They picked up a win at then #21 Notre Dame in mid-November, which didn’t hold up given the Irish’s slide (they finished 15-17). Indiana State avoided a bad loss in its non-conference slate, losing only to Belmont and tournament teams Tulsa and Saint Louis. Unfortunately for the Sycamores, their resume simply lacked quality wins, and while they went 12-6 in the MVC, the down-nature of the conference outside of Wichita State doomed them. Read the rest of this entry »
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Is Tennessee the Most Dangerous “Play-in” Team Since VCU in 2011?

Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2014

In 2011, the field for the NCAA Tournament was expanded from 64 to 68 teams, and the NCAA decided to call the first four games, played on the Tuesday and Wednesday following Selection Sunday, the “First Round” –thus creating the comical idea that some 60 teams receive byes into the second round. Everyone is wise to this, of course, and realizes the “First Four,” as the games are also named, are, in actuality, four “play-in” games. That year, upstart VCU snuck into one of the NCAA Tournament’s last four at-large spots, beat co-#11 seed USC in Dayton, and proceeded to win four more times in advancing to the school’s first Final Four. Since VCU’s historic run took place three seasons ago, it appears no team may be as well-equipped to duplicate the Rams’ feat as Tennessee this year. Prior to the season, the Volunteers were, in most places, considered a Top 25 team, and a shoo-in for the Big Dance. Things didn’t play out as expected, however, and Tennessee had to go 5-1 down the stretch – with the only loss coming to overall #1 seed Florida – to earn one of the last bids to the Tournament. Now that they’ve made the field, could this be the start of a run that could put all questions about Cuonzo Martin‘s job status to rest?

With Cuonzo Martin's job maybe in jeopardy, a VCU-esque run would go a long way to solving that issue. (AP)

With Cuonzo Martin’s job maybe in jeopardy, a VCU-esque run would go a long way to solving that issue. (AP)

Based upon Tennessee’s recent play, which saw the Vols destroy its last four regular season opponents and South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament by an average of 23 points, and gave #1 Florida a great test before falling short, there is evidence to suggest it may be. The Volunteers are experienced, starting three seniors and two juniors, and talented, with two first-team all-SEC performers in guard Jordan McRae (18.6 PPG) and Jarnell Stokes (14.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG) — one of two SEC players to average a double-double this season. They also have another rebounding stalwart in fifth-year senior Jeronne Maymon, who missed the 2012-13 campaign as a result of microfracture surgery. Maymon has struggled to regain his form, but he has shown signs lately of regaining some of his old skill set. The bulk Tennessee has on the inside with Stokes and Maymon presents a significant challenge for each of its opponents.

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Bruce Pearl to Auburn Sends Shock Waves Through SEC

Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2014

Talk about hitting a grand slam. As first reported by ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, Auburn hired former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl as its new head coach this morning. Pearl, who is still subject to a show-cause penalty until August and will not be able to have contact with recruits over the summer, inherits the reins of the program from Tony Barbee, who was fired last week after four seasons at the school. Needless to say, the hire is a major splash for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003 and has essentially been an SEC also-ran throughout the tenures of Barbee and his predecessor, Jeff Lebo.

For Bruce Pearl, a Different Shade of Orange Coast is in Store at Auburn

For Bruce Pearl, a Different Shade of Orange Coast is in Store at Auburn

Pearl’s hiring has to be considered a surprise. Many thought Auburn was overreaching when there were indications that Pearl was going to be considered for the vacancy, as the former Milwaukee and Tennessee head coach figured to be a candidate for several higher-profile jobs. But Pearl obviously felt the challenge was the right one for him at this time. He led Milwaukee to two NCAA Tournament bids before landing his first major job at Tennessee in 2005, where he resurrected the Volunteer program by taking it to the Big Dance in each of his six seasons in Knoxville, including its only Elite Eight appearance in 2010. As evidenced by their reaction on Twitter and message boards, many Tennessee fans see the move as a punch in the gut. Dissatisfaction with Cuonzo Martin had led many to believe that it was possible Pearl would return to the school, and a petition for his rehire had garnered over 36,000 signatures among Volunteer fans earlier this year.

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SEC Well-Represented In NIT Field

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 18th, 2014

You were probably too busy rifling through your bracket and getting ready to take a stab at Warren Buffett’s billion dollars, but the 2014 NIT field was released Sunday night. As expected, the SEC was well-represented in the secondary tournament (Brian said the NIT would be the SEC Tournament revisited, and I thought that comment deserved a wider audience). In total, four SEC teams got the call: Missouri (2 seed), Georgia (2 seed), Arkansas (3 seed), and LSU (4 seed). As this SB Nation article points out, the NIT bubble was smaller this year due to many mid-major regular season champions not winning their conference tournaments.

Mike Anderson and Arkansas' trip to the NIT doesn't have to be a total downer. (Arkansas Business)

Mike Anderson and Arkansas’ trip to the NIT doesn’t have to be a total downer. (Arkansas Business)

Therefore, the Belmonts and Utah Valley States of the world may have cost Ole Miss a spot in the field. Given how highly the NIT committee apparently views Georgia, it’s possible Ole Miss could have secured an invite had they won its hard-fought quarterfinal Friday night in Atlanta against Georgia. Instead, Andy Kennedy was unable to follow up his most successful season in Oxford with another postseason appearance. We’ll have more in-depth coverage and breakdowns of the individual matchups as the week goes on, but a general theme heading into NIT competition is how it can be a positive for the teams taking part. Missouri, Arkansas and LSU all had varying degrees of favorable NCAA odds at different points this season, so to miss out is no doubt disappointing. Georgia also played itself to the brink of being in the bubble discussion. But there’s a glass-half-full outlook for all four of these teams. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC M5: 03.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 17th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. In his South region preview, Jeff Borzello thinks that Florida should have an open road to the Final Four. He writes, “I like Florida’s combination of experience, balance and lockdown defense. They can play at multiple tempos, which is also key in the Big Dance.” All in all it seems the Gators got a pretty good draw. They don’t have a potential nightmare of an 8/9 match-up (like Oklahoma State or, conference aside, Kentucky), and while a hot UCLA team poses a threat, the Gators defense should win the day should that game happen. It is curious to me that Florida, the overall #1 seed, got Kansas as its number two seed. The Jayhawks are in my opinion the best of the number two seeds, and have a potential game changer waiting in the wings in Joel Embiid.
  2. Bracket madness ruled the day Sunday, but the most important game of the SEC season did precede it. Glenn Logan at A Sea of Blue has an overall positive take on Kentucky‘s 61-60 loss to Florida. He writes, “Many teams would have mailed it in down 16 in the second half, but Kentucky bowed their backs and showed their quality, in spite of their youth.” As far as losses go, there should be no shortage of encouragement coming out of this one for Big Blue Nation. Kentucky’s competitive psyche has been questioned all year, and you saw a team with a lot of fight in that second half. You also saw Willie Cauley-Stein play a dynamic role against arguably the best team in the country (10 points, 11 rebounds, 5 blocks). Even had James Young not fallen down and sunk the final shot, the overall takeaways would have been the same.
  3. Will Shelton at Rocky Top Talk has a detailed breakdown of Iowa ahead of Tennessee’s Dayton date with the Hawkeyes. Shelton points out that we would’ve already seen this game had the Vols not lost a stinker to UTEP in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The rub of the preview is that this should be an interesting matchup between an Iowa team that can score (1.15 points per possession) and a Tennessee team that has been stout defensively of late. And despite 12 losses apiece, the two teams are both in KenPom’s top 30. This game doesn’t lack for talent or ability, and there’s the potential for a “can you top this?” game within the game between Jordan McRae and Roy Devyn-Marble.
  4. The search for Auburn’s next coach is less than a week old, and something that could work against AD Jay Jacobs is the Under Armour logo on the Tigers’ jerseys. Charles Barkley and Gary Parrish both told AL.com that Auburn is at a recruiting disadvantage since Nike and Adidas have far more clout on the AAU circuit. Apparel issues aside, it has been reported that Jacobs is interested in a proven, major conference coach. But he shouldn’t foreclose the up and coming mid major coach route just because Barbee and Jeff Lebo didn’t work out. At the time, Barbee was a wise hire: it’s hard to argue with the logic behind a John Calipari-connected coach that just went 15-1 with UTEP in Conference USA. Things just don’t work out sometimes, and Jacobs should keep all options on the table.
  5. Take away Frank Martin’s one-game suspension and it has been a pretty positive few weeks for South Carolina. The Gamecocks won four of six including one road and two neutral site wins, and picked up a quality victory over (what should have been) a desperate Arkansas team. This was also the first year South Carolina won a SEC Tournament game since 2008. The positive momentum should build into next season, as everyone returns except for Brenton Williams. Point guard Ty Johnson will be back after healing his broken foot, and there was a silver lining to his absence. “Sindarius [Thornwell] and Duane Notice will be so much better next year, because they were forced to learn how to play a new place on the floor,” Martin said.
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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 16th, 2014

As expected, the SEC earned only three bids to the NCAA Tournament. Top-ranked Florida and Kentucky have been locks for some time, and Tennessee secured its status with an impressive finish down the stretch. Based upon their finishes, it’s hard to argue that Missouri and Arkansas, both of which spent significant time on the bubble this year, deserved to get in. We look at how each of the three teams that did make it fared with their selections, and where they go from here.

Florida Gators (No. 1 seed, South Region)

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

  • Opening Round Opponent: The Gators, the overall No. 1 seed in the Tournament, open with the winner of the Albany/Mt. St. Mary’s First Four game in Dayton. It’s a safe bet that Florida won’t be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16.
  • Looking Ahead: With a win in the second round, Florida will face the winner of Colorado/Pittsburgh game in Orlando. The Gators will have a significant advantage playing in their own backyard, and should advance to the Sweet Sixteen. There, they should get VCU or UCLA, and a trip to the regional finals could involve a match-up against Kansas, Syracuse or Ohio State.
  • How Far Can They Go? A potential Elite Eight game with Kansas could be one of the NCAA Tournament’s best, though both teams have work to do before than they can think about that. The Gators have a favorable draw to the regional final, though UCLA could present a challenge if it gets to the Sweet Sixteen. Still, we think Florida plays good enough defense to emerge from this region, and the Gators should make the Final Four. We’d be foolish to the think the overall top seed in the Tournament, which has now won 26 consecutive games, can’t win it all.

Kentucky Wildcats (No. 8 seed, Midwest Region)

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Florida 61, Kentucky 60

Posted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014

C.D. Bradley will be reporting from the SEC Tournament semifinals and finals.

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

The Gators Held On For the SEC Tourney Title

Three key takeaways:

  1. Kentucky’s tweak might not have taken: The Wildcats very nearly made it out of the hole they dug themselves on Sunday. Down 16 early in the second half, and by 14 with less than 11 minutes left, they had the ball with a chance to win. They didn’t get a shot off, and it wasn’t their first failure on offense. Kentucky shot only 35.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from three, which was bad enough. But the Wildcats came into the game as the best offensive rebounding team in the country, grabbing 42.5 percent of their own misses. Florida held them to 32.4 percent (12 of 37).
  2. Florida slowed down too early: The Gators are #1 for a reason. They have everything: experience, athleticism, size, shooters and one of the best coaches in the country. In the first half, they ran UK ragged. In the second half, they looked like they were trying to run out the clock. Scottie Wilbekin, in particular, looked like he was running on fumes. The Wildcats went on their furious run, but the Florida D clamped down and held UK off. Barely.
  3. “We have five freshmen out there”: That’s what John Calipari said after Saturday’s win, and it was again apparent on Sunday. I would love to play poker against UK’s players, who wear every emotion on their faces. As Eric Crawford noted, “They go from bad body language to great faster than any team I’ve ever seen. And, of course, back again.” By contrast, Florida maintained a business-like demeanor in the face of Kentucky’s furious run. The pressure will only grow next week, and how the young Wildcats handle it will be key in determining how long they hang around.

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SEC Championship Preview: Kentucky vs. #1 Florida

Posted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014

After four-plus months of basketball, we got the matchup we expected in the SEC Tournament final: Florida versus Kentucky. That’s about all that went as expected. It was supposed to be Kentucky as the favorite, the team whose coach publicly discussed the possibility of going 40-0, the team with the best recruiting class in history. Florida had the Wildcats on experience, but it was a group that couldn’t quite make it over the hump, having lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons. Fast forward to now, and the narratives have flipped. It’s Florida who’s #1 in the polls, the team that has won 25 straight games and become the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC, and which, for the first time ever, has a shot at beating Kentucky three times in a season. It’s Kentucky that has struggled, that has lost when it shouldn’t, that has the coach (the one who talked 40-0, recall) who now explains that his is a team relying on freshmen. Just eight days ago, Florida smashed Kentucky in Gainesville. Now they meet again.

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Can Kentucky change the result? Well, they have played better in Atlanta this week than they have perhaps all season, thanks in no small part to the emergence of the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. The hugely anticipated duo struggled throughout their freshman year, showing flashes of talent along with a lot of pouting and inconsisten play. Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats’ primary ball-handler, totaled 23 points and 17 assists in his first two tournament games, while Aaron scored 36 points and hit more than half his three-point tries. John Calipari famously “tweaked” the offense, and whatever he did, the Cats have played two great games.

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