Can Georgia Save Mark Fox’s Job?

Posted by David Changas on February 20th, 2018

After an impressive week that included an overtime win in Gainesville to complete a season sweep of Florida followed by an 11-point home win against Tennessee, Georgia has suddenly put itself in position to make a run to the NCAA Tournament — and, by proxy, save head coach Mark Fox’s job. Prior to the win against the Gators, the Bulldogs had compiled a 4-8 SEC record and lost six of their previous seven games. But even during that dismal run, this was not a team that was completely devoid of hope. Given that Georgia possibly has the best player in the SEC in senior forward Yante Maten and had excruciatingly blown double-digit leads at Auburn and against Arkansas in late January, it was clearly a better team than its record. Had the Bulldogs avoided meltdowns in those two contests, the possibility of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Fox’s nine seasons in Athens would have been realistic. Even without those victories, a 15-11 (6-8 SEC) Georgia team isn’t completely finished just yet.

Mark Fox needs his team to finish strong to earn a tenth season at Georgia (John Kelly/UGA)

During his tenure in Athens — a school where admittedly basketball has been and remains a clear afterthought, even by SEC standards — Fox has always been regarded as an underachieving but solid coach who has enough respect from his peers and administration to earn more time. Some would argue that his lackluster overall record, which includes three 20-win seasons but no NCAA Tournament wins, has not been good enough to justify keeping him around in a rapidly improving league. And after Georgia lost its third game in a row on February 10 – a 78-61 home thrashing at the hands of Auburn – it appeared as if Fox’s tenure might be nearing an end. Last week’s performance, however, at least offers a glimmer of hope that he can save his job.

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End of Andy Kennedy Era at Ole Miss a Sign of SEC Change

Posted by David Changas on February 13th, 2018

On Monday Ole Miss announced that it will part ways with longtime head coach Andy Kennedy, whose team sits at 11-14 overall (4-8 SEC) and is on a five-game losing streak. In his previous 11 seasons at the helm, Kennedy guided the Rebels to at least 20 wins a total of eight times. And with an overall record of 245-154, he is the winningest head coach in school history. Furthermore, his teams have never finished worse than sixth in SEC play, although that streak almost certainly will end this year. Despite all of that success at a school that is not known for basketball, the albatross hanging around the neck of all those numbers is that Kennedy has led the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament only twice, winning a single game while there.

Andy Kennedy is out after a dozen seasons at the helm in Oxford (Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports).

While Kennedy’s departure was described as a mutual decision, there is no doubt that his tenure is ending because he has not won enough. And for fans of SEC basketball — notwithstanding that Kennedy is a likable guy who has always managed to field competitive teams even with lesser talent, this should be viewed as a good thing. In a conference that has suddenly become ultra-competitive, Ole Miss brass came to the realization that regular appearances in the NIT simply were not enough. Finishing in the middle of the pack at Ole Miss is never easy, but in the past, it was acceptable. Now that the overall profile of the league has improved, not only would Kennedy have struggled to keep his program in that soft middle, but going to the Big Dance once every six years simply would not be enough.

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Examining the SEC Bubble: Volume I

Posted by David Changas on February 8th, 2018

With just over a month remaining in college basketball’s regular season, the SEC is collectively better positioned for postseason play than it has been in a very long time. But as of today, only two teams – Auburn and Tennessee – should feel completely comfortable about making the upcoming Field of 68. On the other end of the spectrum, barring any unforeseeable late-season surges, we feel safe in saying that four SEC teams – Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and LSU – will miss out on this year’s Big Dance. That leaves eight teams in the messy middle, so let’s take our first look at the otherwise crowded bubble and offer some predictions on the fortunes of those squads.

Kassius Robertson has been a huge part of Missouri’s turnaround. (Kansas City Star)

  • Kentucky. Despite the considerable angst in Lexington about these Wildcats — now 6-5 in SEC play with trips to Texas A&M and Auburn upcoming — they appear to be safe, for now. They have 10 top-100 RPI wins without any bad losses, and there will be several more opportunities for quality wins down the stretch. Chances of making the field: 90%.
  • Florida. The up-and-down Gators are a surprise on this list, and not in a good way. At 15-8 overall, they’ve now lost three in a row in SEC play and face a very difficult closing stretch. While they currently have seven top-50 RPI wins, four Tier-2 losses mean Mike White’s team needs to take advantage of its chances over the last two weeks. Chances of making the field: 85%.
  • Texas A&M. After what was the best performance of any SEC team in non-conference play, it is hard to understand how the Aggies have landed on this list. An 0-5 start in conference play will certainly do that, however, and even though they have won five of their last six SEC games and hold five Tier-1 wins, the Aggies have more work ahead. Chances of making the field: 80%.

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Perimeter-Oriented Florida Struggling to Find Inside Consistency

Posted by David Changas on February 7th, 2018

In the era of advanced metrics and a discerning understanding of the importance of efficiency in college basketball, it seems unusual to contend that a team’s success is predicated on its ability to knock down the three. But with this year’s Florida team, that belief is an appropriate one. After the Gators’ third consecutive SEC loss on Saturday – a 68-50 drubbing at the hands of Alabama – it is all too apparent that Florida’s inconsistency on the offensive end is the corresponding reason for its overall inconsistency. The Crimson Tide outscored Florida 41-17 in the second half in what was the Gators’ second straight conference loss at home and whopping fifth overall in Gainesville. Remember when they were ranked as high as sixth in the AP poll earlier this season?

Rice transfer Egor Koulechov has been great for Florida, but a limited inside game may limit the Gators’ postseason prospects. (Alan Alvarez/Alligator Sports)

A common theme in each of Florida’s eight defeats has been its inability to knock down the perimeter jumper. The Gators are shooting 29.5 percent from beyond the arc in those losses while they are at 41.9 percent in their 15 wins. In other words, when things are going well for Florida, they go really well. But when those outside shots are not falling, ugly and somewhat inexplicable ones – such as Saturday’s beatdown, as well as home losses to Loyola (Chicago) and South Carolina – occur. This significant disparity from three-point range has led to an overall effective field goal percentage of 50.9 percent, which ranks 171st in the nation. While the ability to make shots and score in bunches will still make the Gators a dangerous team in March, it also puts them at significant risk of being an early out in postseason play.

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Kentucky’s Inconsistency is Likely Here to Stay

Posted by David Changas on February 1st, 2018

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

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

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

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

Posted by David Changas on January 30th, 2018

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

The Good

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

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

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SEC Stock Watch: Volume II

Posted by David Changas on January 25th, 2018

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

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

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

Flat

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

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Three Keys to a Texas A&M Turnaround

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2018

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

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

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

Posted by David Changas on January 5th, 2018

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

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

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

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SEC Weekend Preview: Conference Openers

Posted by David Changas on December 28th, 2017

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

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

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

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