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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.26.13 Edition

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The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.
Midwest Region

West Region

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ATB: I’m In Love With FCGU, Big Ten Flaunts Superiority and La Salle Quietly Presses Forward…

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Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

Tonight’s Lede. Florida Gulf Coast Does It Again. Outside of the weak frontrunner status placed upon Louisville after a dominant Big East Tournament run, there wasn’t a whole lot college basketball fans could agree on heading into the NCAA Tournament. Common ground could be found on one particular item: there were going to be upsets. Lots of them. The “no dominant team” theme is a tired headline, but it bears repeating on a night like this, when a No. 15 seed punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time in Tournament history. We’re down to 16 teams now, but even in a year when chalky, seed-predictable, docile bracket proceedings were far from the main expectation, I don’t think anybody saw this coming…

Your watercooler moment. A Story Everyone Can Get Behind: FCGU.

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Nothing more strongly embodies the spirit of March Madness than high-seeded underdogs. Last season’s edition gave us Norfolk State and Lehigh – on the same day, no less – reveling in the national spotlight, 15-seed brothers-in-arms taking the college hoops world by storm. CJ McCollum was the best and most entertaining star nobody had heard of. Kyle O’Quinn was a wide-grinned big man with NBA aspirations. Fast track one year later, and this season’s captivating March underdog story is nothing like anything we’ve ever seen before. Florida Gulf Coast doesn’t have one leading protagonist (besides maybe its head coach, Andy Enfield, who – for reasons basketball-related and not – is something of a hero for every man not partial to Georgetown or San Diego State) or even a specific stylistic strength to explain its remarkable run into the second weekend. The best way to describe it is a cocky but measured confidence, a newfound flamboyance, a heightened sense of what it means to own the spotlight. And all of it comes together to produce the most thrilling on-court product of recent memory. There are dunks and heel-clicks and impossibly hilarious bird-imitating dances and, of course, dunk city. The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have stolen the show and I don’t see them giving it back any time soon. Until they meet Florida in this week’s Sweet 16 showdown – and seriously, if they win that game, I give up – stories will be written, lives will be unearthed, and the nation will come to embrace college basketball’s most unlikely March heroes.

Sunday’s Quick Hits…

  • As Expected, The Big Ten is Dominating. All season the Big Ten was drowned in plaudits and glowing recommendations for its upper-tier strength and top-to-bottom quality. The Big Ten was good, and everybody kind of agreed the league was miles ahead of the rest. Now the NCAA Tournament is confirming our suspicions: after Indiana and Ohio State moved past Temple and Iowa State, respectively, Sunday, the Big Ten is 10-3 in tourney competition and can lay claim to one-fourth of the Sweet 16 field. The Hoosiers, Buckeyes, Michigan State and Michigan hovered near the top of the polls all season, and were just as impressive when gauged on per-possession efficiency metrics (as of Sunday, none ranked lower than eighth in Ken Pomeroy’s metrics). To see that play out on the sport’s biggest stage is, for someone who analyzes the game year-round like me, and for fans who have feted their league’s dominance from Midnight madness to March madness, reassuring.
  • The West is Kind of Insane. In a bracket littered with uncertainty and parity, the West region exists in its own province of unpredictability. Ohio State is the only team that has lived up to its seed thus far, and faces as wide-open a path to the Final Four as contender left in the field. The top half of the region will pit Wichita State and – following Sunday’s nail-biting win over Ole Miss – La Salle, who needs just two more wins to go from First Four to Final Four, VCU style, and bring even more wackiness to the field’s weirdest quartile. The Explorers haven’t gotten this far in the Tournament since 1955, but if their stable of talented guards – Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren and Tyrone Garland, who skied in the lane with 2.5 seconds left to ice the game with a deft right-handed finish – stay hot, the Final Four is well within their grasps.

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Florida 78, #11 Minnesota 64

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Walker Carey is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 32 NCAA Tournament game between #3 Florida and #11 Minnesota in Austin.

Three Key Takeaways.

Florida Outmuscled and Outshot the Gophers Today (AP)

Florida Outmuscled and Outshot the Gophers Today (AP)

  1. Florida’s offense was very impressive. The Gators shot the ball very well all game. They finished at a 56.8% mark from the field along with a very impressive 50% mark from deep. Florida was able to build a very comfortable lead because of its torrid shooting, 65.2% from the field, in the first half. While Minnesota fought back in the second half to trim the Gators’ lead, Florida’s offense still played quite well in the second frame. Billy Donovan’s squad has had balanced scoring all season with four players (Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Mike Rosario, and Patric Young) averaging more than 10 points per contest. The Gators only had three guys in double figures in Sunday’s victory, but it was evident that the team focuses on sharing the ball among all five players instead of looking to one as its go-to guy. Rosario showed that he has the ability to go off from behind the three-point line, as he finished with a career-best 25 points on 6-of-9 shooting from deep.
  2. When Florida plays like it did in the first half, a national title is its ceiling. A statistic that shows just how dominant the Gators were in the first half: Rosario and Murphy combined for 32 first half points, while Minnesota, as a team, only managed to score 27 first half points. The Gators shot a scorching 65.2% from the field and connected on 7-of-14 three-point attempts during the opening frame. Florida also defended quite well during the first 20 minutes, as it held Minnesota to just 39.1% shooting, forced the Golden Gophers into many bad shots, and forced nine turnovers. The Gators have had a reputation for inconsistent play this season – especially late in the season – but if they can put forth similar performances to what they showed during the first half against Minnesota, they could cut realistically cut down the nets in Atlanta on April 8.
  3. Minnesota deserves a great deal of credit for fighting hard. When Minnesota fell behind by 21 at half, it could have definitely laid down and ended up losing by 30+. The Golden Gophers did not do that though, as instead they battled until the final buzzer. While the closest they got to Florida was seven points, they definitely had the Gators worried for awhile in the second half. Guard Andre Hollins was red hot from behind the arc in during that time, which resulted in Florida having to make adjustments to its perimeter defense. By opening the second half on a 17-5 run, Minnesota forced Florida back into attack mode as that was needed to ensure the victory. A lot has been discussed nationally about Tubby Smith‘s job status as the leader of the program. While some of the whispers are probably fair, the team’s effort definitely suggests that Smith did not lose his team this season.

Star of the Game. Mike Rosario, Florida. The senior was feeling it all night for the Gators. He finished with a career-best 25 points – on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 6-of-9 shooting from deep. Whenever Florida needed a big shot, it looked to Rosario and he answered the bell. After having a subpar performance in the team’s Round of 64 victory over Northwestern State, Rosario was the best player on the floor in the Round of 32 and his performance has the Gators prepping for another Sweet 16 appearance.

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NCAA Game Analysis: Third Round, Sunday

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Here are the game breakdowns for Sunday’s slate. From 24 to 16…

#2 Ohio State vs. #10 Iowa State – West Regional Third Round (Dayton, OH) – 12:15 PM ET on CBS

Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft will likely have to be their usual stellar selves to get past Iowa State. (Getty)

Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft will likely have to be their usual stellar selves to get past Iowa State. (Getty)

Friday night against Notre Dame, Iowa State hit nine threes as they rolled over Notre Dame into the Round of 32. Maybe just as impressively, they turned it over just six times, forced 17 turnovers and limited a good three-point shooting Irish team to just four threes on the night. Let’s just go out on a limb and say that none of those things are likely to happen when they face Ohio State today. But that’s not to insinuate that the Cyclones don’t have a chance. This is a team that can get scoring from all eight of the players in their rotation and guys like Will Clyburn, Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang are all inside/outside threats that are capable of creating matchup problems for their opponents. The problem is, the Buckeyes have shown their ability defensively to deal with versatile offensive teams; Michigan and Indiana are the top two offensive teams in the nation, and the Buckeyes have held each below one point per possession on one occasion earlier in the season. Of course, the thing is, on the other occasion when the Buckeyes faced those teams, they allowed an average of 1.21 points per possession and gave up a total of 21 three-pointers in those two games. In other words, while OSU has the ability to turn off the water for good offensive teams, there are just nights when good offense beats good defense. If Iowa State has it going, they’ve got enough talent to score enough points to beat Ohio State. The problem is, the Buckeyes have been pretty darn efficient offensively themselves of late and the Cyclones, meanwhile, are the third-worst defensive efficiency team remaining in the tournament. Iowa State’s offense has the ability to give Ohio State trouble, but it is just as likely that the Buckeyes will exploit that soft Cyclone defense.

The RTC Certified Pick: Ohio State

#1 Indiana vs. #9 Temple — East Region Third Round (at Dayton, OH) — 2:45 PM ET on CBS.

Fran Dunphy's squad is known for defense, but lately the Owls have been putting up some major points. (Philly.com)

Fran Dunphy’s squad is known for defense, but lately the Owls have been putting up some major points. (Philly.com)

When you think of Fran Dunphy and Temple, you think of defense and a junkyard dog style of play. Not so much with this group. Since January 19, Temple has been an offensive juggernaut of sorts. The Owls have scored at least 70 points in their last 12 games and 16 of their last 17 games. Even in the one game they didn’t score 70, they fell only one point short of that mark. The point is the Owls can hang with Indiana offensively despite a talent disadvantage. The real question in this game is whether or not Temple can play the defense necessary to knock off the Hoosiers. Indiana is most vulnerable when teams slow the pace and get physical. Temple can surely get physical but we’re not sure the Owls can slow the pace against such a high-octane offense. For Indiana, the defensive key will be containing Khalif Wyatt. Although not a particularly great shooter, the Temple senior does it all. He gets others involved and averages 20.2 PPG with the potential to go for 30+ on any given night as he has done on six occasions this season, including in two of Temple’s last three games. Wyatt gets to the free throw line very well but one of Indiana’s many strengths is keeping opponents off the charity stripe. It’ll be very interesting to see if Wyatt can get to the line with regularity in this game. The Hoosiers have a significant talent advantage in this game but that was also the case with NC State, who Temple beat on Friday. Indiana can’t take this one for granted and must be focused defensively in the half court. Temple won’t turn the ball over often and Wyatt will be searching for contact all game.

The RTC Certified Pick: Indiana 

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Rushed Reactions: #3 Florida 79, #14 Northwestern State 47

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Walker Carey is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the Round of 64 NCAA Tournament game between #3 Florida and #14 Northwestern State in Austin.

Three Key Takeaways.

The Gators Pulled Away from the Demons Late

The Gators Pulled Away from the Demons Late

  1. Florida’s size and the athleticism of its bigs were just too much for Northwestern State. Everyone knew Florida was going to have a size and athleticism advantage over Northwestern State, but those advantages actually turned out to be much greater than expected. In a first half that was actually hotly-contested – Florida led by just eight at the break – the Gators took advantage of their athletic bigs Erik Murphy and Patric Young. Murphy tallied 11 points and Young tallied nine points in the opening frame. When Florida pulled away in the second half, its big continued to play a key role. Murphy finished the night with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Young finished with 16 points and eight boards. Reserves Will Yeguete and Casey Prather also provided Florida with solid minutes in the post. It is not that the Northwestern State bigs were not playing hard – they absolutely were – it was just they were so heavily overmatched on both ends of the court by the size and athletic ability of the Florida frontcourt.
  2. Florida’s guards played smart and avoided taking bad shots and committing bad turnovers. Florida’s guards have rightfully earned a reputation for being inconsistent and shaky with the basketball. That was not the case against Northwestern State, as Scottie Wilbekin, Kenny Boynton, and Mike Rosario all turned in pretty solid performances for the Gators. Wilbekin, who finished with 11 points and four assists, looked very solid running the offense and he also did a commendable job of scoring when needed. Boynton, who has been an enigma throughout his time in Gainesville, showed that he can absolutely turn in an efficient game by finishing with 11 points and refraining from taking any questionable shots. Rosario scored below his season average – he averages 12.3 points per game and he only finished with eight – but he avoided making mistakes. Florida is going to face better teams than Northwestern State as it continues its run through the tournament, but if its guards remain steady, there is an opportunity for the Gators to make it to Atlanta.
  3. With Georgetown falling tonight, Florida’s road to the Elite Eight got much easier. The South region became much more interesting when two-seed Georgetown suffered the upset of the tournament thus far by losing to 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast. Before the tournament began, a vast majority of national pundits were predicting a Florida/Georgetown matchup in next week’s South Regional at Cowboys Stadium. Now because that matchup cannot occur anymore, Florida will be the healthy favorite to come out of the bottom part of the South bracket. With the win over Northwestern State, the Gators advance to a Sunday showdown with either six-seed UCLA or 11-seed Minnesota. The winner of Sunday’s game will play the winner of Sunday’s game between Florida Gulf Coast and either seven-seed San Diego State or 10-seed Oklahoma. With a six-seed being the highest possible seed the Gators will have to face before the Elite Eight, it is only logical to conclude that their road to the Elite Eight has become much easier than originally expected.

Star of the Game. Erik Murphy, Florida. The senior forward helped set the tone for the Gators all night. Four Gators finished in double figures and Murphy led the way with 18 points. Murphy’s ability to finish around the hoop and step out and hit a jumper frustrated the Demons’ bigs all evening. Murphy was also part of an impressive defensive effort turned in by the Gators that held Northwestern State to just 15 points in the second half.

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NCAA Tournament Tidbits: 03.20.13 Edition

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The NCAA Tournament is here and there’s more news, commentary and analysis than any of us can possibly keep up with. To make things a little easier, we’ll bring you a list of daily links gathered about teams in each of the four regions all the way through the Final Four.

Midwest Region

West Region

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Rushed Reactions: Florida 61, Alabama 51

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David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the SEC Tournament semifinal game between Florida and Alabama in Nashville.

Three Key Takeaways:

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The Gators Survived Alabama’s Upset Bid on Saturday

  1. Florida Run.  The Gators trailed by 10 early in the second half before going on a 13-0 run to completely change the momentum of the game. Florida looked lethargic at that point, and it appeared they may be heading home a day earlier than most expected. However, led by senior point guard Kenny Boynton, the Gators made their run in less than three minutes, and Alabama never got closer than three the rest of the way. Florida outscored the Crimson Tide 34-14 after trailing by 10. “Boynton stepped up to the plate.  He gave them that spark and they kept building on that,” Alabama guard Trevor Releford said after the game. The run the Gators made was similar to the one they made two weeks ago in Gainesville, where they also trailed by 10 to the Tide in the second half. And that was certainly on Alabama players’ minds. Guard Trevor Lacey admitted that he discussed it with his teammates. “We knew we needed to keep attacking them,” he said.  The Gators clearly were not deterred when they fell behind, and showed again why they won the league’s regular season title.
  2. Good Kenny Boynton.  There is no shortage of enigmatic point guards in the SEC, and Boynton may be the leader of that club. The senior often takes shots out of the offensive flow, and has hit only 32.5% of his three-point attempts on the year. As the Gators practiced this week, coach Billy Donovan advised Boynton and fellow senior Mike Rosario to let the game come to them and to take shots only within the flow of the offense. While Donovan has expressed concern with the way Rosario has responded to that admonition, Boynton appears to have taken his coach’s advice. Even though he struggled shooting the ball in Friday’s blowout win over LSU, Donovan was pleased that Boynton dished out seven assists, and didn’t force anything on the offensive end. In this game, Boynton’s play sparked the Gators’ run, as Boynton scored seven of their 15 points. On the day, he led Florida with 16 points, and Donovan has made it clear that he has no problem with Boynton continuing to shoot the ball when he gets good looks, and if he continues to do that, the Gators chances to make a deep March run in a wide-open field are pretty good.
  3. Did Alabama’s Bubble Burst?  With Kentucky falling outside the RPI top 50 after last night’s loss to Vanderbilt, Alabama owns no wins over top-50 teams.  When compared to other bubble teams, that may do in the Crimson Tide. In most years, their resume wouldn’t even merit contention for a spot. But this year, given that the committee is considering so many unimpressive resumes, there’s always a chance. Alabama coach Anthony Grant was quick to point out when asked about the Tide’s chances after the game that whether his team has done enough to make the Big Dance is not his concern. “I don’t deal in that.  [The committee has] a tough enough job,” he said. Instead, he’ll sit back and wait to see what happens, but it’s much more likely that his team will be hosting a first-round NIT game than playing in the Big Dance.

Star of the Game.  Kenny Boynton.   Gators center Patric Young was too much for Alabama to handle, but Boynton keyed their turnaround, and sent Donovan’s team to the championship game for only the second time in six years.

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SEC M5: 03.12.13 Edition

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  1. It’s been exactly one month since Nerlens Noel last suited up for Kentucky, but his time on the sidelines couldn’t keep him off ofthe Sporting News All-Freshman team. Despite playing 6-7 fewer games than most of his competitors, Noel still finished the regular season as the nation’s fifth-leading shot swatter with 106. He exhibited an unpolished (at best) offensive game, but he still scored 10.5 points per game to go along with his 9.5 boards. Marcus Smart (Freshman of the Year), Shabazz Muhammad, Ben McLemore, and Anthony Bennett join Noel on the All-Freshman team, a quintet that comprises 5 of the top 6 picks in NBADraft.net’s most recent mock draft.
  2. Just as the case may be when the real bracket is revealed, the SEC is struggling for representation in Grantland’s yearly alternate bracket. That may not be so bad though. In “The Most Hated College Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years” bracket, Florida‘s Joakim Noah is the only SEC player judged to have been loathsome enough to make the field, “earning” a 2 seed in the 2000′s region. The ponytailed, headstrong Noah didn’t endear himself to opposing fans as he led the Gators to consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. Let’s break down his chances, based almost solely on personal biases: Noah is a heavy favorite over Aaron Craft, the bracket’s only active player, in the first round. Either Adam Morrison or Luke Walton await in the Sweet 16, but their current irrelevance will hand Noah a victory. Next, we’re in for a clash of titans as Tyler Hansbrough and Joakim Noah meet for the right to go to the Final Four. It’s too close to call for me, but if Noah advances, he’ll challenge Jalen Rose or Larry Johnson for the right to lose to the Duke representative in the final.
  3. Tennessee‘s Jarnell Stokes earned his second SEC Player of the Week honor of the season, tallying two double-doubles in must-win games. Stokes led the way for the Volunteers as they outrebounded Missouri (ranked 6th in rebound rate nationally) by a count of 40-27. He is the only SEC player to average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in conference play. Elsewhere, Mississippi State’s Craig Sword was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his instrumental role in the Bulldogs’ regular season-ending OT win against Auburn. Sword tallied 19 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds and made two crucial free-throws in the extra period to keep Mississippi State out of the SEC basement.
  4. Florida looked like the SEC’s lone Final Four threat through much of the year, but Billy Donovan isn’t a fan of his team’s current trajectory. “I’m disappointed, to be honest with you, in our team’s fire,” he said Monday. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. That’s concerning to me.” Donovan also noted that he had been far from impressed with his team’s effort in practice leading up to the trip to Lexington. The Gators limped to the regular season finish line, winning only three of their last six games. Although they remain atop Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, recent poor performances from perimeter scorers Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario are contributing to Florida coming up short in regards to the so-called eye test.
  5. Alabama has struggled to get any production from their frontcourt for most of the season. Carl Engstrom was lost to an early injury, highly-touted frosh Devonta Pollard has failed to live up to expectations, and Moussa Gueye has zero offensive touch. Sophomore forward Nick Jacobs, however, has stepped up for the Tide when they needed it the most. “Nick has shown improvement,” says coach Anthony Grant. “His play is showing that. He’s more mentally and physically ready to handle what he needs to be able to handle.” Jacobs didn’t see many minutes at the start of the season, failing to reach double-digit points until the last game of 2012. He’s rounded into form over the past month, including a career-high 18 points against Ole Miss. Alabama will most likely face Tennessee in their first SEC Tournament game, and given Jarnell Stokes’ recent play, Jacobs will be counted on to match some of that offensive output.

SEC Player of the Year: The Contenders

At this time last year, we weren’t having this discussion. Kentucky was cruising to a perfect 16-0 record in SEC play, and the only real speculation was over whether Anthony Davis would sweep the National Player of the Year awards. In 2013, the competition for the SEC’s top honor mirrors the landscape of the league approaching Selection Sunday: lots of candidates, but lots of flaws. Let’s take a look at the contenders:

Jordan McRae is a leading contender for SEC Player of the Year (ksrcollege.com)

Jordan McRae is a leading contender for SEC Player of the Year (ksrcollege.com)

  • Jordan McRae, Tennessee. If you told me back in November that a Volunteer would be the league’s best player, I would have assumed Jarnell Stokes. The sophomore forward took a while to round into form, however, allowing McRae to step in and excel for the Vols. McRae is averaging 19.5 points per game in conference play and has been especially strong over the past few weeks as UT pushes for an NCAA Tournament berth. He put the team on his back in a resume-making win over Florida, racking up 27 points and seven rebounds. McRae has shown massive improvement in his junior season, with big jumps in his shooting percentages to prove it.
  • Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss. Marshall Henderson is the most one-dimensional player you’ll find on this list. He doesn’t rebound, he has a negative assist/turnover ratio, and he doesn’t excel on the defensive end. Despite all this, his scoring is lethal enough to keep him in the discussion. The junior shooting guard hasn’t made many friends in the SEC with his oncourt antics, but it’s hard to ignore his 19.6 points per game. Some voters will be put off by the unimpressive shooting percentages, however, which could ultimately keep him from taking home the award. Read the rest of this entry »

SEC M5: 03.07.13 Edition

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  1. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson made a return to Missouri on Tuesday night, but it certainly wasn’t the homecoming he had in mind. Missouri thumped Anderson’s Razorbacks by 30 points, and it certainly seemed personal. Anderson maintains that he left the Tigers in good shape after building the program into a contender in the Big 12. “When I got here it was empty,” Anderson said. “It was like, ‘Man, they’ve got a program over there?’ All of a sudden now it’s changed. I think that’s good. So the time has to be right to talk about it. That’s good.” The loss did more than sting Anderson’s ego, but severely dismantled Arkansas’ NCAA hopes. The Razorbacks needed to plead their case to the selection committee with a strong road victory, but the 30-point loss probably all but determined that Anderson will be watching his former team in the Big Dance while his new one heads to the NIT.
  2. Missing the NCAA Tournament could have serious financial implications for Kentucky coach John Calipari. Last year, the coach made an additional $800,000 in bonuses and incentives, of which $700,000 were directly tied to success in the NCAA Tournament. Calipari’s deep Tournament runs have become expected in Lexington, and he has been handsomely rewarded as a result. His Wildcats have advanced to at least the Elite Eight in every year he has been there, including two Final Four runs and a national championship team last season. However, it is not as though the head coach will struggle to make ends meet without a performance-driven incentive. He makes $3.8 million dollars in base pay, and he just signed on for an extension to take him through the 2018-19 season. The only problem here is that it doesn’t seem that it is the head coach that needs the incentive to succeed in this particular equation.
  3. Florida senior guard Mike Rosario sat on the bench for the final 12 minutes of the Gators’ victory over Alabama on Saturday. And being the mature player he is, Rosario says he understands. “I wasn’t playing the way my team needed me to play,” Rosario said. “I wasn’t playing what coach would say is the right way. Sometimes you’ve got to look at it as it not being about an individual. It’s about the team. That game, I wasn’t playing the right way, so I had to give our team what we needed.”Regardless of maturity level, every player wants to be out on the court. The 27 minutes he played on Saturday was the first time he’s played under 30 minutes in a game since a February 9 blowout of Mississippi State. Expect Rosario to be on the court when it matters, though, and his mature handling of this situation demonstrates why this team needs his leadership when the going gets tough.
  4. Florida coach Billy Donovan downplayed the significance that a No. 1 seed has on the outcome of the NCAA Tournament, and he uses his Gators from last season as a perfect example. “Does it make a difference? I don’t know,” Donovan said.  “I mean, you could look at the numbers and say the better seeding you have, the more likelihood there is to advance. But, I mean, we’re a No. 7 seed last year with an opportunity to go to the Final Four. We’ve got to go out and play regardless of what the number is next to our name.” The Gators are in the hunt for a No. 1 seed, but there isn’t a single NCAA Tournament venue site within 700 miles of Gainesville (that is, until the Final Four in Atlanta). In terms of a geographic advantage for Florida, there isn’t really one available. Even as a top seed, UF could be paired with a No. 2 seed that is closer to the venue site, removing any real advantage they would have in advancing.
  5. After losing to Georgia on Saturday, Tennessee understands it is in a position where it must win its remaining two regular season games for a chance to hear its name on Selection Sunday. “We’re in the exact same spot as last year so we know what we need to do,” Tennessee’s leading scorer Jordan McRae said. “We don’t like to label games must-wins, but these next two games, we’ve got to win.” The coach agrees. “Just get Ws and keep moving forward,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. UT has won six of its last seven games, but at this point another loss would be difficult to explain.

Celebrating USC Senior Jio Fontan

Today as USC hosts Arizona State in its final home game of the regular season, the Trojans will say goodbye to five seniors, all of them transfers from other Division I institutions, including Eric Wise, Aaron Fuller, James Blasczyk, Renaldo Woolridge and their senior captain Jio Fontan. As these five get ready to celebrate their Senior Day, we’ll take a look at the college career of the best of the bunch, the senior point guard from Paterson, New Jersey.

Jio Fontan's College Career Has Been Plagued By Numerous Setbacks (AP Photo)

Jio Fontan’s College Career Has Been Plagued By Numerous Setbacks (AP Photo)

As a high school student, Jio Fontan got awfully used to winning. As a senior at fabled St. Anthony High School under Hall of Fame head coach Bob Hurley, Fontan and teammates like Mike Rosario, Tray Woodall and Tyshawn Taylor swept to a 32-0 record and a national #1 ranking. While his more celebrated teammates got attention from national powerhouses, Fontan’s attention was more muted and he chose a local school, Fordham, at which to matriculate. In his first season there, though, the Rams went 3-25. After flirting with a transfer immediately following the season, Fontan decided to stick it out at Fordham, aided by the school’s reluctance to grant him his release to transfer. But after five games (and four more losses), he cut bait just ahead of head coach Dereck Whittenburg and opted to head west, like so many before him, in search of greener pastures.

And like those before him, his search met with plenty of hardship. After sitting out a little more than year, Fontan gained his eligibility at USC at the end of the fall semester in 2010, joining a team that had lost four times against middling competition in its first 10 games. Right off the bat, he stepped into the starting lineup for Kevin O’Neill and led his team on the road against a pair of top-20 teams. Against Kansas in his Trojans debut, he was solid in keeping his team right in the game until the final seconds before losing by two. Then a couple days later, he provided a big spark in leading his team to a one-point win at Tennessee. Later, another win over #10 Arizona (led by Derrick Williams) in which Fontan went for 21 points likely put the Trojans over the top and squeaked them into the NCAA Tournament, where they went on to turn in a stinker against (future Final Four team) Virginia Commonwealth in the inaugural First Four. Still, the season was definite progress for the Trojans and with Fontan returning from a season in which he averaged 10 points and four assists per game, the future looked bright for O’Neill’s program.

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SEC M5: 02.22.13 Edition

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  1. Ryan Harrow was a big part of Kentucky’s 74-70 win over Vanderbilt, partly because he stepped out of his comfort zone. After coming off the bench against Tennessee, Harrow went to coach John Calipari to ask to be inserted in the starting lineup. His teammates recognize what a big step that was for the quiet-natured point guard. That was a big step for Ryan,” freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We need him to be more vocal like that; get it within himself and express how he feels to coach. It’s all about growing up and starting to be a man like that. That’s what they express to us every day.” The leadership moment off the court translated to success on it, as Harrow finished with 12 points, four assists, zero turnovers, and a much better command of the offense. 
  2. As Kevin Stallings’ club staged a comeback against the Wildcats on Wednesday night, it was a shot blocking center for Kentucky that came up with two big blocks on defense. Willie Cauley-Stein filled in right where Nerlens Noel left off, but it wasn’t just his defense that impressed. “We gave up 20 points to a guy who’s not averaging 20,” said Stallings. “That will usually get you beat.” The Vanderbilt coach was, of course, referring to Cauley-Stein’s season-high 20 points that went along with his seven rebounds and three blocks on the night. Cauley-Stein seems to be hitting his stride since returning from injury. He has scored in double figures in four of his last five games, and will likely continue to see big minutes with UK’s thin frontcourt.
  3. Sometimes teams just need to loosen up a bit. That’s the approach Kentucky and Calipari took when the players took on the coaches in a friendly game of dodgeball. “We’ve got to lighten this mood up,” Calipari said. “These guys are playing with the weight of the world on their shoulders, let’s do something.” After a big win Wednesday over the Commodores, Calipari plans to continue keeping the mood light. “We’re going to play wiffle ball Friday,” the head coach quipped. “I promise they will lose Friday.” And he probably hopes a fun time leads to a win on Saturday.
  4. Jordan McRae was 6-6 from three point land on his way to 34 points in a Tennessee win over LSU, but the coaching staff sees his performance as a credit to the entire offense. “It’s contagious,” assistant coach Kent Williams said. “When some other guys are shooting well, you tend to shoot well with them. You feel good as a team.” The hot shooting has the Vols on a four game winning streak to bring their record to 7-6 in the conference. Tennessee won eight of its last nine games to end the regular season last year, so be on the lookout for a repeat.
  5. Florida continues to look for answers as to why it has experienced several late game collapses in single digit games this season. Missed free throws contributed not only to the Gators three point loss to Missouri, but in an earlier loss to Arizona. “It’s hard to explain,” senior guard Mike Rosario said. “Normally, we step up to the line and make those with confidence.” Several Florida players are not strong free throw shooters. Three players seeing significant minutes this season (Casey Prather, Patric Young, and Will Yeguete) shoot below 60 percent from the charity stripe. Florida’s point guard, Scottie Wilbekin, the player likely to have the ball in his hands in end game situations, shoots 64.5 percent. If Florida is to reverse its misfortunes in close games, improving its free throw shooting is a good place to start.