SEC Offseason Burning Questions, Part I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 12th, 2016

The SEC will be a very different league next season, in no small part as a result of losing its two most influential players to the NBA — Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and LSU’s Ben Simmons. Here are five burning questions looking ahead to next season, as the league will once again try to put #SECBasketballFever to bed.

Can Mike Anderson Survive Another Year?

Can Mike Anderson Survive Another Year?

  1. Can Kentucky start completely from scratch? It’s become played-out sarcasm: the Wildcats lose a lot of talent; how ever will they recover? We should assume that Coach Cal will seamlessly mold a group of elite freshmen into a team deserving national consideration, and next year will be no different. Top-10 recruits Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo lead another stacked class headed to Lexington, but consider this: The Wildcats have not truly had to start from square one in three years. The 2014-15 (Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress) and 2015-16 (Ulis, Poythress) teams each  returned major contributors from Final Four runs. The Isaiah Briscoe/Marcus Lee/Derek Willis trio figures to be a solid core but lacks the star power of the previous groups. We know Calipari is up for the challenge, but it has been a few years since he’s had this much inexperience in key roles.
  2. Is Mike Anderson under pressure? The prodigal son has gotten Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament only once since returning to Fayetteville five years ago. Given that Stan Heath earned twice as many bids in his five years before being shown the door, Anderson’s performance thus far has come in well under expectations. This year could be considered a write-off after Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls left school early, but patience is clearly wearing thin in Fayetteville. Anderson without question feels the pressure, as he signed four JuCo players in this year’s class, including well-regarded guards Jaylen Bradford and Daryl Macon. They’ll pair with returnees Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, both of whom should be in the running for preseason all-SEC honors. Losing Monk to the Calipari Machine was a huge blow no matter the circumstances, but it’s even more damaging for a coach that might be advocating for his job next season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Despite Disappointment, South Carolina’s Arrow Still Pointing Up

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 23rd, 2016

South Carolina‘s season came to an end on Monday night with a loss in the NIT. For a program that has been to a national postseason tournament only 18 other times, playing in a March event of any kind is a success on its own. Last week Frank Martin called missing out on the NCAA Tournament a “tough pill to swallow” for a team that put together an undefeated non-conference season, won a school record 24 regular season games, and went 11-7 in the SEC. That disappointment may have carried over into the NIT, as the Gamecocks beat overmatched High Point last week before sleepwalking through a 17-point second round home loss to Georgia Tech.

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

Sindarius Thornwell will continue to be a key piece for Frank Martin in 2016-17 (heraldonline.com).

The Selection Committee’s snub wasn’t a happy day for South Carolina basketball. “It was hurtful; it was disappointing,” senior Laimonas Chatkevicius said at the time. The governing body’s decision represented the first time that a power conference team had been left out of the Dance after winning at least 24 games, but the sting of that disappointment shouldn’t mitigate the positive momentum the Gamecocks built this season. Martin’s team nearly doubled its conference win total from six to 11 and has posted top-40 KenPom defenses in each of the last two years. Being a regularly competitive SEC team (including a win over co-champion Texas A&M) is just not something this program typically does.

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Why Each SEC team Will Advance to the Second Weekend… and Why They Won’t

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 15th, 2016

After watching five teams head to the Big Dance a year ago (including one eventual Final Four participant), the SEC managed just three bids in a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Honestly, the league was lucky to get to three. While some teams have to feel pretty good about where they landed (Texas A&M is a #3 seed?!), others should feel happy to be invited (welcome Vanderbilt!), and still others can rest comfortably knowing that the committee didn’t have the option to send them to Alaska to face the Golden State Warriors (Hey Kentucky, Des Moines, Iowa, is supposed to be nice this time of year). Now that the brackets are set, will the SEC continue to disappoint, or might we see one of these three teams still standing in the Sweet Sixteen? Here are some quick reasons why each team will advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and some equally compelling reasons why they won’t:

Kentucky's offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari

Kentucky’s offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari.

Kentucky

Why the Wildcats will advance to the second weekend: Kentucky’s backcourt is playing very well on offense right now, moving the Wildcats into the top spot for offensive efficiency nationally over the weekend. Tyler Ulis has the ability to carry the team for stretches on his 5’9” frame, but with the added marksmanship of shooting guard Jamal Murray and a front line that provide spot duty, the Wildcats are scoring better than any other team in the John Calipari era. In the first two games of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky scored at the second and third most efficient clips per 100 possessions of his tenure. The last time the Cats met up with possible Second Round opponent Indiana in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, it was a high scoring affair — Kentucky should feel comfortable in entering into a shootout with any team in the nation.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 13th, 2016

The SEC is sending just three teams to the NCAA field as South Carolina found itself on the outside looking in. Here are some quick impressions of the conference’s NCAA Tournament draw:

Tyler Ulis will try to carry Kentucky on another deep tournament run (USA Today).

Tyler Ulis will try to carry Kentucky on another deep NCAA Tournament run (USA Today).

Texas A&M

  • Seed: #3, West.
  • Quick First Round Preview: Horizon League champion Green Bay lost all of its games against power conference foes this season (Georgia Tech, Stanford and Wisconsin). It barely has a top 100 KenPom offense (#96) and a #168 rated defense. Senior guard Carrington Love (17.7 PPG) could find Admon Gilder glued to his hip after the freshman’s impressive job marking Jamal Murray in the SEC championship game.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: This one is easy — an intrastate rivalry rematch with Texas in the second round. The Aggies won their first game back in November, but the Longhorns have improved since then even if they are unlikely to have Cameron Ridley.
  • Final Word: The Aggies could be a popular pick to make the Final Four, especially for those wary of three-point shooting dependent Oklahoma. The potential Second Round game with Texas won’t be a cakewalk but the Aggies are the more balanced team. Stopping Buddy Hield in the Sweet Sixteen would be quite a challenge — something the Aggies’ wings weren’t able to do with the smaller Ulis. The run could end there in what would still be a hugely successful season.

Kentucky 

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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Texas A&M 77 (OT)

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

  1. Ulis was the difference. Jamal Murray struggled more than he had in quite a while, as his 20-point game streak came to an end at 11 (he still had 17). His backcourt mate, Tyler Ulis, however, was there to pick up the slack. Ulis not only led Kentucky with 30 points, but also delivered the crucial baskets for the Wildcats. Ulis is able to penetrate and find good looks better than just about anyone we’ve seen at his size; in a game that was close the entire way, Ulis was the clear difference. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine Kentucky being in position to garner a #3 seed or making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. This was a quality SEC basketball game. The hoops side of the SEC gets made fun of plenty, and often rightfully so. This is a league that could get only two of its 14 members into the NCAA Tournament — an unfathomable consideration for a power five conference. But these two teams were anything but embarrassing today. Kentucky is the SEC constant and have dealt with a revolving door of challengers through the year; the Aggies are the newest one, and their balance, experience, and overall talent that was on display this weekend should not be taken lightly in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a shame there aren’t more such teams in the conference.
  3. Texas A&M acted like it had been here before. Despite the loss, the Aggies showed they belonged. Texas A&M is not used to being on this stage, but that certainly did not show. Senior Danuel House was exceptional for the Aggies in scoring a game-high 32 points, including the tying bucket that sent the game to overtime. Four seniors who log a lot of minutes will be gone next season, but the future is bright for Billy Kennedy’s program, as freshmen Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, and DJ Hogg showed strong signs that they will be able to grow into more prominent roles next season. It’s quite clear why Kennedy was given a five-year contract extension yesterday.

Star of the Game. Tyler Ulis. This was a no-brainer, as was Ulis’s selection as tournament MVP. Still, it simply can’t be overstated how good the sophomore guard was today. He had several critical drives for baskets during regulation, and he helped UK begin overtime on the right track with a three after a quick move forced his defender to fall down. Ulis vindicated his selection as both conference player of the year and defensive player of the year with a tremendous final week in the SEC.

Quotable.

  • “You’ve got to give Kentucky credit. They made the big shots to win the game.” – Billy Kennedy, on the difference in Sunday’s game.
  • “He’s played three straight days without coming out and he could probably play 40 more minutes right now if he needed to.” – Alex Caruso, on one of the things that makes Tyler Ulis special.
  • “We’re still not where we want to be defensively, but this team has gotten better all year. We’re finally healthy so when guys don’t play well, you look for the next man.” – John Calipari, on the improvement of his team.

Sights and Sounds. As it always is at the SEC Tournament, this was a de facto home game for the Wildcats. Big Blue Nation accounted for at least 95% of the fans in attendance, with Kentucky superfan Ashley Judd among them. Kennedy admitted after the game that the crowd was a big advantage for the Wildcats. “We knew that we were playing in basically Rupp Arena,” he said. Some things never change.

What’s Next. Both teams will await word from the Selection Committee as to where they go next. It’s reasonable to believe both will receive a 4-seed or better. While Kentucky may have improved its seeding with the performance this weekend, it’s hard to imagine that Texas A&M did anything in defeat that would harm its standing. The SEC may only get two teams into the Big Dance, but they’ll both be very tough outs.

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Kentucky Needs More Post Production For Deep March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

Given the way Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have played over the last couple of months, there really can’t be much debate about whether Kentucky has the best backcourt in the country. In Saturday’s thrilling 93-80 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Georgia, Ulis and Murray combined for 51 points — the 11th consecutive game in which Murray had scored 20 points or more. The Wildcats also got a strong second half performance from Isaiah Briscoe, something upon which they haven’t been able to regularly rely. Everyone knows that good guard play is an important key to a deep NCAA Tournament run, and Kentucky’s recent performance bodes well for John Calipari‘s surging team.

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

If Kentucky is going to be a legitimate Final Four contender, the Wildcats are going to need more production from their big men. Things have definitely improved in that regard, as Skal Labissiere put together a couple of solid performances to end the regular season, Alex Poythress has shown signs of returning to his old form after fighting nagging injuries, and Derek Willis has also shown flashes of excellent play (even if much of his offensive damage he does comes from the perimeter). Kentucky beat Georgia on the strength of its backcourt — the three starting guards combined for 63 points — while Poythress (10 points, all in the second half) and Willis (14 points) had solid offensive performances of their own. Talented NCAA Tournament opponents that are more capable of neutralizing the Wildcats’ prolific backcourt are going to have a chance to beat them. Each of the team’s eight losses have come in games in which the front line was not very productive.

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LSU’s Dreadful Performance Could Put Johnny Jones’ Future in Doubt

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

In Saturday’s first semifinal matchup at the SEC Tournament, things started out well enough for LSU. The Tigers got to the first media timeout with an 8-3 lead and otherwise looked ready to play. From there, things were, to put it mildly, a disaster for Johnny Jones‘ team. Over the last 15:47 of the half, the Bayou Bengals registered just one field goal — an Antonio Blakeney three-pointer at the 1:18 mark — and were outscored 32-5 on their way to a 35-13 halftime deficit. Ben Simmons picked up three fouls and sat for most of the frame, but using that as an excuse for the putrid effort his team collectively put forward would not be fair. LSU was outhustled in every way by a Texas A&M team that looked like it actually wanted to be in Nashville. The Aggies coasted to an astonishing 71-38 victory that puts them in Sunday’s championship game against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Kentucky and Georgia.

After Saturday's 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it's time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

After Saturday’s 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it’s time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

The first half was in many ways a microcosm of LSU’s entire season. This is a team from which much was expected but could not deliver on the hype. Simmons is regarded by many as the likely first overall pick in the NBA Draft, and while he showed why he’s so highly-regarded at times this season, there were plenty of moments when he did not. On Saturday, after sitting much of the first half, he essentially was a non-factor on his way to a 10-point, 12-rebound performance. After the game, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said he felt sorry for Simmons. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s put on this pedestal; it’s just a lot to ask,” he said. For his part, Simmons said he wasn’t burdened by the pressure so many put on him. “For me, I just wanted to play. I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where our team was going to be,” he said after the game.

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Tyler Ulis Defies Expectations, Sets Sights on NBA

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

When Tyler Ulis signed with Kentucky two years ago, many believed that, for the first time in a long time, John Calipari had a four-year player at the point. Going back to his days at Memphis, Calipari had coached a string of one-and-done phenoms at the position like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight and Marquise Teague. Ulis was different. At 5’9″, he certainly didn’t project very well to the next level, and the idea was that he would stick around Lexington as a solid floor general until graduation day. The only problem is that someone forgot to tell Ulis. Last night, before Kentucky’s 85-59 dismantling of Alabama in its first SEC Tournament game, Calipari announced that Ulis has already made the decision to leave school early for the NBA after this season concludes.

Tyler Ulis Willl Ride an All-American Season into the NBA (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis Willl Ride an All-American Season into the NBA (USA Today Images)

As a freshman on last season’s uber-talented roster, Ulis was more of a contributor than anyone expected, playing as many minutes as anyone on the team by the end of the season. His numbers (5.6 PPG; 3.6 APG) weren’t anything special, but nobody’s on the 38-1 “platoon” squad were either. Ulis came into his sophomore year with much higher expectations, but no one foresaw just how good he turned out to be. In a league that boasts the likely top pick in the NBA Draft (Ben Simmons) and another top-three pick in a teammate (Jamal Murray), Ulis was the consensus SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year. It wasn’t just his 16.6 PPG or league-leading 7.3 assists per contest. It was the way he proved capable of taking over a game like few diminutive players can. He always seems to hit the big shot, make the big steal, or dish out the big assist. Along with Murray, he has carried a Kentucky team that has, extensively at times, shown significant deficiencies in the post.

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Tyler Davis’ Emergence Gives Texas A&M Hope For March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Texas A&M, which had not been known previously as a destination for college basketball’s top recruits, signed one of the nation’s best classes last year in bringing in four players ranked in the Rivals top 70. On Friday, in the Aggies’ 72-66 win over Florida, one of those highly-prized recruits was critical to Texas A&M’s advancement. All season, center Tyler Davis, the Aggies’ third-leading scorer (11.2 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (6.0 RPG) has been an important part of his team’s run to a share of the SEC regular season championship. Without Davis anchoring the middle, Texas A&M would likely not be where it is today. From that standpoint, Davis’ 15 point, eight rebound performance on Friday was not only not a surprise, but it was also expected — even against Florida’s stout frontcourt defense.

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

After the game, Florida coach Mike White could not stop talking about how impressed he was with the freshman from Plano. “He is just really good. It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s enormous. He’s strong. He’s physical. He likes contact. He knows how to seal [in the post], and he has great hands,” White said. Based upon the way he performed both against the Gators and in the Aggies’ six-game win streak to close the regular season, a strong case could be made that Davis has become A&M’s best player. While most of the attention is paid to Aggie seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House, Davis’s efficiency sets him apart. That was evident again Friday. Jones and House combined to go 11 for 35 from the field, while Davis was made six of his 10 field goal attempts. On the season he has shot over 65 percent from the field; when teammates get the ball to Davis in the post, good things happen.

At 6’10”, 265 lbs., Davis is no ordinary freshman. He has clearly been the biggest addition to a team relegated to the NIT a season ago. Pairing the talented freshman with a core of talented senior leaders has led to a successful regular season, as well as the potential for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Aggies were heavily reliant upon their perimeter offense. Now, however, when shots aren’t falling for Jones, House, and fellow seniors Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, Davis has been able to afford a steadying offensive alternative. He made the difference against Florida today, and if the Aggies are to make the sustained March push many believe them capable of, expect Davis to be as prominent a figure as any.

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SEC Tournament Takeaways: Second Round

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Thursday was the first full day of action at the SEC Tournament, and even though the league’s top four teams have byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round, there were still plenty of important happenings that could impact which of the league’s teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday (John Bazemore/AP)

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Florida Stays Alive. In Thursday’s opener, the Gators took down Arkansas in a win that kept the Gators’ faintly flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty — the two teams combined to commit 50 fouls (thanks, Pat Adams) — but Florida played just well enough to get the job done. Center John Egbunu, who was expected to miss the game with an injured right hand, gutted out an eight-point, nine-rebound performance in 24 minutes, while also helping hold Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to just 10 points. Florida moves on to play #1 seed Texas A&M on Friday, in what will be quite surely be another must-win for the Gators’ still-faint Tournament hopes.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA Hopes Damaged. Vanderbilt came into its game against Tennessee as a 12-point favorite and its regular season sweep of the Vols hinted that this was a touch matchup for Rick Barnes’ team. After all, big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet had dominated Tennessee inside in both of the prior meetings. Things were different on Thursday, though, as Vanderbilt failed to consistently feed those mismatches in the post. The Commodores instead fired up 25 threes (making nine) and generally didn’t seem all that interested in battling as if its postseason life was on the line. A valiant second half comeback nearly saved Kevin Stallings’ team, but Wade Baldwin‘s game-tying layup at the buzzer was released fractions of a second after the horn sounded. Now the Commodores will have a few nervous days ahead, as a loss to a team that entered the SEC Tournament with six conference wins puts Vanderbilt squarely back on to the bubble.

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Seems Familiar: SEC’s Country Music Doppelgangers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2016

Nashville is a great place for a conference tournament. Even if the basketball happens to be underwhelming, there’s plenty of other forms of entertainment just steps away from Bridgestone Arena. It is the Music City, after all. In the spirit of basketball and honky-tonk, here are some of the SEC’s teams and the country music stars they most resemble.

Screenshot 2016-03-09 at 8.05.59 PM

Blake Shelton And Kentucky Are Both Living Large Again

Kentucky as… Blake Shelton. Before Wisconsin extinguished that dream, life was perfect for the unbeaten Wildcats last year as they tried to notch an unprecedented 40-0 record. Similarly, it wasn’t very long ago that Shelton and Miranda Lambert were living large as country’s pre-eminent power couple. But life happens, and the two stars have since gone their separate ways. Kentucky and Shelton, however, have both found a neon light at the end of the tunnel. Against the odds, Shelton has put together a run of hit singles, is dating Gwen Stefani and even has a Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit opening. The Wildcats, to their credit, claimed a share of this season’s SEC regular season title with a guard-oriented team. Life goes on.

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The SEC Tournament: What’s at Stake in Nashville

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 9th, 2016

The SEC Tournament returns to Nashville tonight for the second year in row. Unlike the last couple of years, however, there isn’t a team trying to cap off a perfect conference run and there doesn’t figure to be much drama surrounding NCAA at-large bids (but you never know). Before getting into what is at stake for individual teams, here are several completely unscientific predictions on how things will look by Sunday afternoon.

  • Tournament FinalKentucky over Vanderbilt
  • MVPJamal Murray, Kentucky
  • Biggest Surprise: #11 seed Mississippi State makes it to the SEC Tournament semifinals
  • Tournament Storylines: Was the season-ending win over LSU Skal Labissiere‘s breakout game? Will Ben Simmons really be locked out of the NCAA Tournament? Can Florida do enough to force its way back into the field? Can Retin Obasohan or Stefan Moody shoot their teams into the NCAA Tournament?
Skal Labissiere might have finally arrived (courier-journal.com).

Skal Labissiere may have finally arrived (courier-journal.com).

Teams Playing For Seeding

It’s safe to assume that KentuckyTexas A&MSouth Carolina and Vanderbilt are all locked into the field of 68 and are playing for seeding. Of those four teams, the Commodores and Gamecocks have the most at stake this week. Bracketologists project both teams into the #8-#9 seed range and an unenviable downstream date with a #1 seed looming. Winning twice in Nashville and getting to Sunday’s SEC championship game should be enough to lift either team off that seed line (and potentially facing a #2 seed in a parity-driven field). This might be more important for a team like the Gamecocks since Vanderbilt will not be at much of a talent disadvantage against any of the projected #1 seeds.

The Wildcats and Aggies appear to be in a similar situation. Both teams look like #4 seeds with potential to jump to the #3 line as a result of cutting the nets down in Nashville. Losing their respective opening games probably wouldn’t do much damage since all four potential opponents (Florida/Arkansas for Texas A&M; Ole Miss/Alabama for Kentucky) have solid enough metrics to avert a disaster. There is the interesting matter of the South Regional in Louisville but it’s hard to see the Selection Committee gifting that to a #3 seed Kentucky team (much to the detriment of the top two seeds) even if the Wildcats were to win the SEC Tournament with three consecutive blowouts. That probably won’t stop Big Blue Nation from flocking to wherever Kentucky ends up, though, even if it’s Spokane.

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