SEC Tournament Preview: Who Will Be the Surprise Player in Atlanta?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 12th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question goes in depth on the individual performances we could see this weekend. After being snubbed for an All SEC first team selection in 2013, Marshall Henderson went on a tear through last year’s SEC tournament guiding Ole Miss to a surprise championship and claiming MVP. Who will be the surprise breakout player of this year’s tournament?

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season?  (US Presswire)

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season? (US Presswire)

Christian D’Andrea (@trainisland): Georgia sophomore Kenny Gaines was the second-leading scorer for the third-best team in the SEC, but was completely snubbed by the media in this week’s All-SEC honors. In fact, Gaines may be the conference’s most overlooked guard. He’s hitting the SEC Tournament after averaging 18.6 points per game over his last seven and shooting a blistering 56.8 percent from long range over that span.  He could outshine players like Marshall Henderson, Jordan McRae, and Trevor Releford if he can carry his recent hot streak with him to Atlanta.

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SEC M5: 03.12.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 12th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. AL.com’s Jon Solomon has some bad news about the perilous state of SEC basketball: average attendance (10,380 per game) was at its lowest point since 1984-85. The biggest drop was Missouri, which saw 22 percent less fans go through the Mizzou Arena turnstiles this season. The ice Frank Haith is walking on has gotten progressively thinner, and this is yet another mark against him. Fellow conference newcomer Texas A&M had the second biggest drop at 15 percent. Ole Miss likely benefited from last year’s postseason success, seeing the biggest increase at 21 percent. Surprisingly, 12-19 (5-13) South Carolina had the second biggest boost (17 percent).
  2. Texas A&M, a team that struggles to score, may be without leading scorer Jamal Jones(13.4 PPG, 51.5 TS%) when it takes on Missouri Thursday. Jone is apparently saddled with a 103 degree fever and, Michael Jordan flu game aside, that’s an understandable reason not to suit up. Being shorthanded is nothing new for the Aggies, who have been without arguably their most dynamic player, Davonte Fitzgerald, for a month. Fabyon Harris has also missed the last few games, and wasn’t in Columbia when the Aggies fumbled away a win last week. He will likely be back Thursday, but it was Jones who got the rim and put Texas A&M in a position to steal a win in Mizzou Arena.
  3. There is no drama for South Carolina as it heads into its SEC tournament opener against Auburn this evening. KenPom gives the Gamecocks a 0.04% chance of winning the tournament, so unless the most improbable of runs happens, their season will end in Atlanta. But winning even one game would be a step in the right direction, since South Carolina has not won a conference tournament game since 2008. Call it small steps, but it would be a positive end to the season for a team that has won two of its last three games. It would also be a nice sendoff for Brenton Williams, who has quietly had a great senior year (15.2 PPG, 21.8 PER, 63.9 TS%).
  4. SI.com’s team of college basketball writers released their All-America team, and not surprisingly it didn’t include any players from the SEC. Julius Randle made three of the individual writers’ second teams, and that sounds about right. Despite Kentucky’s offense getting progressively disjointed, Randle’s scoring and rebounding numbers have remained consistent (15.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG). Even though Florida has a great shot at being the number one overall seed, Seth Davis was the only writer to throw any love at the Gators, putting Scottie Wilbekin on his second team. That also sounds about right, since Florida’s strength is the sum of its parts, rather than an individual star.
  5. Staying on SI.com, Davis rolled out his annual All-Glue team recently. Florida did get a lot of love in this piece, as Patric Young took home a Glue Guy honor. The piece is an interesting reflection on Young’s transformation from sparingly used McDonald’s All-American to reliable starter that stayed in the college ranks longer than he initially expected he would. Young fits the glue guy profile to the extent he is a high effort bull of a low poster player. But as was pointed out in general terms on the main site yesterday, maybe Young has played himself out of glue guy consideration. He was named second team All-SEC this year, and seems like more than a role player. But it’s not as if rules for being a glue guy were handed down from the heavens written in stone.
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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Coach Has the Most on the Line During This Postseason?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 11th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament all week by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question has to do with the personalities on the sidelines. Postseason tournaments can make or break a coach’s reputation. Which coach has the most on the line during this postseason?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): The coach with the most on the line during this postseason is Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin. Volunteer fans are clamoring for former head coach Bruce Pearl to return to the sidelines in his orange blazer after serving time on a three year show cause penalty. Pearl took the Volunteers to six NCAA appearances in his six seasons in Knoxville, including an Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. Pearl was wildly successful in orange, but one thing he never did was win an SEC tournament championship. Meanwhile, Martin hasn’t even made it to Saturday in the SEC tournament, much less Sunday for the championship game. Tennessee hasn’t won more than one game in the SEC tournament under Martin. The Vols didn’t make an NCAA tournament appearance either in his first two seasons at the helm, instead settling for early round exits in the NIT. Tennessee finally has a chance to return to the Big Dance as long as the Vols don’t slip up in the quarterfinals on Friday against fellow bubble team Arkansas, or worse, bottom dwellers Auburn or South Carolina. There is unrest in Knoxville, and it will only get louder with a slip up in the Georgia Dome. An untimely loss in the SEC tournament could ultimately leave Martin’s team on the wrong end of the bubble come Selection Sunday, and then the murmur among fans could become a full on uproar. The only way to quiet the desire for Pearl is to create your own success, and Martin and Tennessee have a chance to do that this March.

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SEC Superlatives: The Non-Traditional Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 11th, 2014

The SEC’s long (and often bumpy) basketball road has finally led to Atlanta. There were some memorable performances as the season unfolded, and players stood out in a number of ways. Before we unveil the RTC SEC microsite’s predictable year-end superlatives, here are players that made impressions in less traditional ways:

Most Exciting Player Award

This isn’t necessarily the player you know will consistently produce. In fact, it might be a player that spends most of his time maddening you. But every so often this guy will throw down a dunk or hit a crazy three that gets you out of your seat like no one else.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC's Most Exciting Player.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC’s Most Exciting Player. (Getty)

  • Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): For me, there is no one more exciting than Marshall Henderson. You don’t have to like him, but you have to appreciate what he is able to do on the court. Henderson single handedly shot Ole Miss into contention during several games this year (and subsequently shot the Rebels out of many games too), so he is nothing if not entertaining.
  • David Changas (@dchangas): Marshall Henderson. Sure, he didn’t recreate the magic or draw the attention of last season, either on or off the court, but anyone who shoots so often (12.2 threes attempted per game) and from so many spots on the floor and keeps his team in games they otherwise wouldn’t be in is fun to watch. And there’s still time for the senior guard to do something special and go out with a bang at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.
  • Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland)Marshall Henderson. Come on – like it could be anyone else? Henderson misses way more shots than he makes, but the ones he hits have kept us all coming back for more. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get at least one Land Shark moment in Atlanta this week.

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A Fond Farewell to Alabama’s Trevor Releford

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 10th, 2014

“Trevor’s going to be the next biggest star. In my book, it was Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and then there will be Trevor Releford.” Those words were spoken three years ago by an understandably gigantic fan of Releford, his mother Venita Vann. The Alabama senior hasn’t lived to his mom’s lofty standards, but you can count on one finger the current players who have. Instead, this week in Atlanta, Releford will wrap an incredibly accomplished college basketball career. It will probably be an especially sentimental moment for Crimson Tide head coach Anthony Grant, since Releford was one of his first major recruits and a constant bright spot in this year’s frustrating season.

Trevor Releford leaves Alabama as one of the most accomplished players in program history (tide991.com).

Releford leaves Alabama as one of the most accomplished players in program history (Tide991.com).

On November 12, 2010, Releford became only the fourth freshman point guard to start a season opener in Alabama history, joining a list that includes former Tide greats Mo Williams and Ronald Steele. He played only a bit part that night in a win over Florida A&M (five points and three assists), but would play a bigger role as his freshman season advanced. Releford posted solid numbers (11.0 PPG, 3.4 APG, 56.7% TS) en route to a spot on the all-SEC rookie team that year. His assist numbers would never be that high again as he assumed a bigger scoring load in Grant’s offense, but he continually improved throughout his career. After being a dismal three-point shooter during his first two years (27.6% 3FG) he was able to increase that by leaps and bounds over his final two season (40.1% 3FG). And he did all of this without sacrificing his slippery way of making tough shots around the basket at a height (realistically) shorter than six feet. It culminated in spot on the all-SEC second team in 2011-12 and the first team in 2012-13.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Team Other Than Florida Can Cut Down the Nets?

Posted by Brian Joyce, David Changas & Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question covers which teams can cut down the nets on Sunday. Florida is clearly the favorite after an 18-0 run in SEC play, but besides the obvious choice of the Gators, which other team could realistically win the championship game on Sunday?

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell): Tennessee. The Vols are more than just the current flavor of the week after winning each of their last three games by more than 27 points. Their talent is undeniable, as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae will both probably get shots in the NBA, and there aren’t many other teams outside of Kentucky in this conference that can say that. That talent didn’t translate to consistently good performances throughout the entire season, but it has lately. The Vols’ defense has been especially effective in recent weeks, as Tennessee has held opponents under 0.93 points per possession in five of its last six games. Locking down teams is usually a great pathway to success in March, and with a big, bruising frontcourt that causes match-up problems and a guy in McRae who can go off for 30 points at any time, this is a dangerous team.

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SEC M5: 03.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 10th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. There it is folks, the first 18-0 season in SEC history. “A perfect team? No. No one is,” writes CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander. “Right now, Florida is as close to great as you can get before earning a Final Four trip to validate such a title.” A perfect conference record, in whatever conference, is so rare that the Gators’ season can be considered special regardless what happens from here on. Obviously an early loss in the tournament would be crushing, but 18-0 means more than just a “good” season, or even a regular season title in some ways. Teams win conference championships every year, but they don’t often go undefeated on the way. The perfect mark may also be an indictment on the state of the SEC, but just like with Wichita State, the quality of the league shouldn’t damper the undefeated end result.
  2. Three straight beatdowns will quiet all that Bruce Pearl talk, at least for the moment. Tennessee killed two birds with one stone Saturday: picking up a decent win and essentially eliminating bubble buddy Missouri. They might also be a smart sleeper pick for not only the SEC Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament too. Cuonzo Martin’s team has quietly risen to #12 in the KenPom ratings, one of only three teams with 10+ losses in the top 30. The Vols have balance that plays well this time of year, as they are in the top 28 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.  Antonio Barton has 51 points (13-of-21 from three) in the last three games, and has helped the Vols offense get to a different level. If he keeps it up and Josh Richardson shuts down opposing perimeter scorers like he did Jabari Brown, watch out for Rocky Top.
  3. Arkansas had a chance to take the drama out of its trip to Atlanta. Win Saturday in Tuscaloosa, and the Hogs probably only needed to get by their first game in SEC Tournament to feel secure. Instead, they were done in by an awful offensive first half and Trevor Releford’s 24 points in his final game in Coleman Coliseum. This was simply not the game for the Hogs to lose the turnover battle (15 to 12) and put up only 0.84 points per possession. The loss to a #100+ RPI team means Arkansas must absolutely win its first game (Auburn or South Carolina) and then another virtually must-win game against Tennessee, which won the only meeting this season and is currently steamrolling its opponents. Hog fans also have to now keep a closer eye on smaller conference tournaments, with fingers crossed that teams like Wichita State and Gonzaga don’t get upset.
  4. Georgia locked up the three seed in the SEC Tournament, and in finishing with a 12-6 conference mark it’s hard to deny the Bulldogs are anything but a quality team right now. They limited LSU to 36.4% shooting and beat them on the glass (37 to 29), which they have done to many teams en route to a surprising conference season (best SEC field goal defense, fourth best rebounding rate). Only eight of Georgia’s 69 points and three of its 37 rebounds came from seniors, so Mark Fox has something to build off of. I desperately want to make a case for Georgia as a bubble team, but at RPI #70 it just isn’t possible right now. The Bulldogs avoid Florida until the final, and getting there would mean a 20-12 record and (probably) a win over Kentucky. We’ll re-evaluate then.
  5. You have to hand it to Auburn, Tony Barbee’s team hasn’t quit. The Tigers picked up a solid road win Saturday in College Station against Texas A&M, where the Aggies finished the year 16-3. Auburn’s six conference victories are the most under Tony Barbee. After the game Chris Denson admitted a recent slump (9 points on 3-of-25 shooting over the past two games) was due to him pressing to get the SEC scoring title. That kind of candid comment is refreshing, and Denson rebounded with 19 points to finish second in the scoring race (19.2 PPG). That’s not bad for a guy who averaged under 12 points per game last season. The Tigers tested Florida, Kentucky and Missouri this season, and could be a minor challenge in Atlanta as far as a lower seed goes.
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SEC M5: 03.07.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 7th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Things didn’t start well for LSU in Nashville, but Johnny O’Bryant made sure they ended well for the Tigers. The junior had one of his best games of the season scoring an efficient 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting and grabbing 10 rebounds against a solid defensive frontcourt duo in James Siakam and Damian Jones. Bubble mayhem needs to break loose over the next week and a half for the Tigers to re-enter the tournament picture. But if this does happen, O’Bryant is solely responsible for keeping the Tigers razor-thin chances alive: no other Tiger had scored in double figures until four late free throws by Andre Stringer, and they shot 33 percent as a team. Performances like this despite all of the double teams he’ has faced this year are why it’ll be hard to keep O’Bryant off the all-conference team (even if it were a traditional five-man team, which we know doesn’t exist in our beloved conference). This was a disappointing night for Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller on a sentimental note. The two players combined to shoot just 6-of-33 on their senior night, and Odom in particular missed several crucial three’s late in the game. Both deserved better given how much they have contributed this season.
  2. The story of the week in the SEC was Michael Frazier’s three point explosion on Tuesday night. Luke Winn took notice of his in his weekly power rankings, charted out Frazier’s 3 point attempts per 40 minutes, and wrote, “after neglecting their most efficient offensive option for the first two months of the season, the Gators have made a concerted effort to create looks for Frazier during their undefeated run through the SEC.” Winn also wrote about Patric Young acting as a screener and freeing Frazier for easy looks. It’s true Florida has a lot of nice parts (Frazier/shooter, Casey Prather/slasher, etc.) and not one complete superstar. But as cliched as it is, little things like Young’s ability to effectively screen are what makes this Gators team so dangerous. Another little thing is the interior passing between Young and Will Yeguete. Neither player has off the charts offensive skill, but all season long they have created easy looks for one another with their savvy low post passing. Florida may not have a player taken in the first round of the upcoming draft (Chris Walker notwithstanding), but all these little things have them on the brink of an undefeated conference season.
  3. South Carolina will make its regular season ending trip to Starkville without Frank Martin. The second year Gamecock head coach was suspended by the school for directing a few too many four-letter words at Duane Notice during South Carolina’s loss to Florida. The school is officially calling it an “inappropriate verbal communication,” but however you term it, this is what South Carolina knew it was getting with Martin. When you think of “intense college coach” he and Bo Pelini are in a class all to themselves. This will likely be a non-issue that will drop out once the next news cycle starts up, but you have to wonder if there is more behind this, since anyone with access to USC’s games and any semblance of lip-reading skill can tell this type of thing has happened before. Perhaps this is the administration trying to send Martin a message to tone his demeanor down. If so (and that’s just an uninformed guess) it could make for an interesting situation since differences with his previous administration at Kansas State led him away from what was a good situation.
  4. Doc Harper at Arkansas Fight surveyed the bracketology offerings and found that many prognosticators have  Arkansas in the field right now. Joe Lunardi has the Hogs as a part of his “Last Four In,” and Jerry Palm and SB Nation’s Chris Dobbertean both slot them as 11 seeds. USA Today’s Shelby Mast is especially up on the Hogs, writing them down as a 10 seed. This is really a remarkable turnaround for Mike Anderson’s team, who sat at 15-9 and 4-7 in conference after a loss at Missouri on February 13. At that point it appeared the Razorbacks had run out of time, but six game winning streak turned that idea on its head. I’m of the opinion that even if Arkansas beats Alabama it’ll need to win at least one game in the SEC tournament to feel comfortable. Sitting at #47 in the RPI isn’t an ideal spot, especially with an #83 strength of schedule number. Winning at Alabama may not be easy either, since the Hogs have lost six straight games in Tuscaloosa, last winning in January of 2007.
  5. Auburn AD Jay Jacobs wanted “significant improvement” out of Auburn basketball this season. Sitting at 13-15 overall, Al.com’s Kevin Scarbinsky writes that “D-Day is coming” for Jacobs and Tony Barbee. There has been improvement since last season, and it has actually been significant. The Tigers are currently over 60 spots better in the RPI (#180 now, #254 in 2012-13), but that’s not saying much. While Auburn is seemingly light years from contending for a tournament spot, is it worth making a change? Chris Fuhrmeister at College and Magnolia, asks the “if not him, then who?” question. He writes, “Barbee has been forced to try and build out of a crater, and while he may have actually deepened that hole, most accepted that the rebuilding project would take a considerable amount of time. If he’s actually — finally — starting to build, is it wise to start all over again with a new coach. And just because Auburn fires Barbee, that doesn’t mean the Tigers will automatically hire a winner.” To be clear, Fuhrmeister is just posing this question, not advocating for Barbee to hang around. But it’s an interesting thought. Auburn isn’t steeped in basketball tradition, and hasn’t made the tournament in over 10 years. If Jacobs doesn’t have an ideal replacement in mind, then why not stick with Barbee for another year and see if the slight momentum he’s built this year begins to snowball? Consistency can be a valuable thing sometimes.
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On the Brink of Perfection, Florida Might be More Than “Good”

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 5th, 2014

Brian Joyce filed this report following Tuesday’s Florida vs. South Carolina game from Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.

Following Florida’s first win this season, Billy Donovan quipped that his team wasn’t very good. “We are light-years away from even being a remotely good defensive team right now, light-years away from even being a ranked team.” Fast forward light years ahead to early March, and Florida is good. Maybe more than good.

Billy Donovan wasn't so sure about his Gators at the beginning of the year, but Florida certainly appears to be good now.

Billy Donovan wasn’t so sure about his Gators at the beginning of the year, but Florida certainly appears to be good now.

RTC was in attendance on press row Tuesday night as the #1 team in the nation visited South Carolina, fresh off a home victory over a storied Kentucky program. But there would be no court rushing in Colonial Life Arena on this night. With the Gamecocks down 39-35 and the crowd sensing the possibility that their team could make a run at a second straight win over a ranked team and its second victory ever over college basketball’s top-ranked team, Florida exercised its dominance with a 15-0 run and a 33-11 surge to end the game. It wasn’t always pretty, but Florida did what it needed to get to 17-0 in conference play. And now the Gators sense the opportunity that lies ahead. Senior center Patric Young kept things in perspective by crediting the coaching staff. “We’ve just been trying to take it one game at a time. We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, to go 18-0 in conference play.  And just keeping our eyes on the prize, the opportunity to do something great. To be a part of history has motivated us internally. The coaches have pushed us from day one. Laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we are doing today.”

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SEC M5: 03.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 5th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. You can put that checkbook away, South Carolina. The Gamecocks couldn’t follow up their improbable win (and $5,000 “competition access area” violation) against Kentucky with an infinitely more improbable win over Florida, losing to the Gators by 26 points. The Florida defense frustrated South Carolina’s young guards on the perimeter all night, giving up few easy looks. But forcing 19 turnovers and holding South Carolina to 32 percent shooting wasn’t the story of this game. Michael Frazier, however, was, in a big way. Last week we wrote about Frazier bursting out of a mini-slump, and after last night’s career-high 37-point performance (11-of-18 from three), the sophomore’s narrative is much different. According to the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway, that’s the most points for a Gator since Joakim Noah scored the same number in 2006, and it was also a school record for three-pointers made in one game. Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather have had nights that they’ve carried the Gators offensively this year, but against South Carolina they combined for only nine points. Being an effective three-point specialist is one thing, but making 11 treys in one game is quite another. That’s the kind of elite consistency that can carry a team. If his shooting stroke is on like that at the end of this month, it should be smooth sailing for the Gators.
  2. It isn’t all bad news for South Carolina. Despite a non-conference season which featured home losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate and a 1-9 start to SEC play, attendance is up this year at Colonial Life Arena. Average attendance is near 10,000 people, the highest it has been in three seasons. This is interesting since “down attendance” has been a theme this season for the SEC (and college basketball in general), as the conference has asked ESPN for more convenient start times and even Kentucky (gasp) has seen fewer people in Rupp Arena’s stands. The progress at South Carolina might not be much, but it must be encouraging to the administration that the team still has a moderate pull on fans despite being near the bottom of the conference standings. If Frank Martin is eventually able to point the program in the right direction, the venue could become a major asset. With an 18,000-seat capacity, it’s one of the bigger arenas in any conference. If Gamecock fans have more to watch than just Sindarius Thornwell’s development, that could make for some serious noise.
  3. Blowing out Alabama by 20 points probably wouldn’t have eased the drama swirling around Kentucky since last Saturday’s loss in Columbia. Beating the Tide by seven in a sloppy game won’t either, but it was a bounceback victory that the Wildcats desperately needed. Their shooting is what it is at this point (they rank in the 200s in both free throw and three-point percentage), and designated three-point problem-solver James Young didn’t allay any concerns by going 1-of-10 from distance against Alabama. Still, his lone three created separation towards the end of a close game, and he has flashed a more diversified offensive game recently. Young has gotten to the line seven or more times in three of the past four games, including seven times last evening which allowed him to score nine points despite a horrid shooting performance. Kentucky has a unique opportunity in front of it right now. As long as the Wildcats don’t get embarrassingly blown out Saturday in Gainesville, it’s a no-lose situation. The “40-0 t-shirt” joke is long out of the bag, and losing a game on the road to the #1 team in the country isn’t earth-shaking. But if somehow Kentucky keeps it close or improbably wins the game, that’s one whale of a confidence-builder as the elimination games begin.
  4. Eamonn Brennan is not as impressed with Arkansas’ recent surge as some are. In his recent Bubble Watch piece, he warns against “reductive bubble-watching” and writes that a team’s entire resume shouldn’t be ignored. In the end, he has the Razorbacks still lounging on the bubble along with Missouri and Tennessee. I too have been puzzled by the notion that Arkansas is suddenly on the comfortable side of the aisle. Should Tennessee and Arkansas both win out this week, I’d like the Vols’ chances quite a bit better. Their computer numbers, especially in strength of schedule, are better than that of their competitors, and that win over Virginia is the gift that keeps on giving. The Razorbacks also have a sneakily tricky week ahead of them. First they get an Ole Miss team that they haven’t beaten in six tries, and then hit the road for an Alabama team that has more talent than its profile suggests. That game will also be Trevor Releford’s last hurrah in Tuscaloosa and seems ripe for some senior magic. Still, Arkansas is firmly on the bubble after disappearing for a few weeks.
  5. A big reason Arkansas is back in the Tournament picture is Coty Clarke, who has emerged as one of the most versatile players in the SEC. “I think guys are following his beat,” Mike Anderson said. “And if he can continue to play at the high level he is playing at right now, a lot of good things will continue to happen for this basketball team. … To me, the unselfishness that he brings to the table has kind of tripled throughout our basketball team.” Unselfish is a great way to put it, since Clarke is second on the team in assists per game (2.4) and first in assist percentage (20.3%). You don’t see that every day from a forward, and especially not from one who rebounds as well as Clarke (20.3% defensive rebounding rate). Anderson’s first NCAA Tournament team at Missouri (in his third year) was propelled by two versatile, top flight big men in DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. If his third year at Arkansas similarly produces a Tournament team, it too will be propelled by two high quality forwards in Clarke and Bobby Portis.
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SEC M5: 03.03.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 3rd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky‘s 72-67 loss at South Carolina Saturday night may rank as the most shocking result in SEC play so far this season. The Wildcats are now 11-5 in league play and 21-8 overall. The loss was their third in five games, and one of those wins was a near-miss against LSU at home. Given the preseason hype for John Calipari‘s collection of freshman, and the nonsensical talk about a 40-0 season for this team, it’s safe to say the Wildcats’ season has been a disappointment so far, and if things don’t get turned in the right direction soon, a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament is inevitable. Yahoo’s Pat Forde took stock of the situation and pulled no punches in his criticism of Calipari. Among other things, Forde criticized Calipari for his scapegoating of Ryan Harrow after last season’s disappointment, his unwillingness to take the blame for what’s gone wrong with this team, and his failure to answer tough questions in the face of the team’s struggles. Needless to say, Forde’s take will be the subject of much discussion in the Bluegrass state in the coming days, and we have a tough time finding too much to criticize about what the veteran writer had to say.
  2. Perhaps it was Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings seeking validation for his comments about Tennessee fans who want to see Cuonzo Martin fired after three seasons at the Volunteers’ helm that led to Tennessee‘s crushing 76-38 victory over the Commodores Saturday in Knoxville. Whatever it was, the performance was a welcome sight for Vol fans who have been frustrated with the level of performance they have seen for most of the year from a squad that appeared before the season to be a clear-cut NCAA Tournament team. Tennessee’s stifling defense forced Vanderbilt to make only 11 field goals on its way to shooting 22%. Meanwhile, the Volunteers shot 53% from the field, and 48% from three-point range, controlled the glass, and turned the ball over only 8 times. Tennessee also got a fantastic performance from Antonio Barton, the senior transfer from Memphis who has been mostly disappointing in replacing the departed Trae Golden. Barton was assertive on both ends of the floor and scored a season-high 21 points on 5-for-7 three-point shooting. If he can give the Volunteers more of that, perhaps they can finally become the team many expected prior to the season.
  3. Speaking of Tennessee, the Volunteers are one of three SEC squads fighting for the NCAA Tournament lives. It appears that they, as well as Arkansas and Missouri, will take things down to the wire as they try to make the field of 68. According to CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm’s latest bracketology, the Razorbacks and Tigers are in the field, with Missouri starting out in a “First Four” game in Dayton. Tennessee is the third team out, which means the Volunteers should have a chance to work their way back into the field. They travel to Auburn on Wednesday for a game that they simply cannot afford to lose, before coming home Saturday to host Missouri in what will be a crucial bubble matchup. As we chronicled here Friday, Arkansas’s win at Kentucky may have propelled them into the field, though it’s clear they must keep winning to stay there. The Razorbacks took care of business on Saturday against Georgia in winning for the eighth time in their last nine tries. While the SEC has seen plenty of mediocre basketball this year, with three teams squarely on the bubble, the final week of the regular season and the SEC Tournament will offer plenty of drama about who makes the field.
  4. With the SEC Tournament just over a week away, teams are jockeying for position in the Georgia Dome. The tournament is now a five-day event, and the top four seeds receive double byes to Friday’s quarterfinal round. Not only does securing one of those double byes give the teams who earn them extra rest, they likely eliminate the possibility of having to play a team with a low RPI in a second-round game. As it stands now, Florida has secured the top seed, and Kentucky looks good for the second spot. Georgia currently sits at third and looks to be in good shape to secure one of the double byes. Tennessee controls its destiny and will secure a double bye by winning out, given that the Volunteers own wins over most of the teams also in the running for the final double bye spot. A lot can happen in the next week, but for the league’s bubble teams, avoiding a game with one of the conference’s bottom-feeders is of paramount importance.
  5. In its first week as the nation’s top-ranked team, Florida acquitted itself well, pulling out a 57-54 win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday before coming home Saturday and trouncing a solid LSU team 79-61. The primary knock against the Gators this year has been their inconsistency from the perimeter, but they knocked down 13 of 23 threes (56.5%) against the Tigers and were never threatened. Dorian Finney-Smith, who came into the week having made one three-point attempt in his seven previous games, went 7-for-14 from behind the arc in the two games. Florida coach Billy Donovan knows having Finney-Smith shoot the ball this well is a big boost for the Gators, and for them to have any chance to win the national championship, it will need to continue. With the win, Florida extended its school-record winning streak to 21, and must only win at South Carolina and at home against Kentucky to finish the conference regular season at 18-0. Despite the mediocrity of the league, going through any power conference without a loss is quite an accomplishment, and it appears the Gators are well on their way to achieving it.
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Can Win at Rupp Propel Arkansas to the SEC’s Third NCAA Tournament Bid?

Posted by David Changas on February 28th, 2014

For the past several weeks, many have wondered if the SEC, a power conference with 14 teams, could actually only get two bids to the NCAA Tournament. The maddening inconsistency of teams other than Florida and Kentucky made it seems like a real possibility. After Missouri recently won three straight home games, it looked like the Tigers could be the third team to step up and solidify the conference’s standing. The Tigers proceeded to drop road games to Alabama and Georgia — the latter giving the Bulldogs a season sweep — and now again appear to be on shaky ground. Tennessee, which in the preseason was considered a lock by many to make the Big Dance, went to College Station last Saturday and lost to lowly Texas A&M for the second time this season, and, although a 4-0 finish to the regular season is possible, the Vols’ Tournament chances appear to be tenuous at best. LSU, another team many thought could compete for a bid, has been inconsistent, and does not have a resume that merits serious consideration at this point.

Is Mike Anderson on the verge of taking Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament? (AP)

The only other hope the league has had for an at-large bid is Arkansas, and for most of the season, the Razorbacks have not been considered a legitimate contender because of their inability to win away from Bud Walton Arena. Prior to this season, Mike Anderson’s only two conference road wins came at Auburn, and this year started out no differently. After getting blown out in their first league road game at Texas A&M, Arkansas lost close but winnable games at Georgia and Tennessee, and began the conference season a chilly 2-6. That appeared to all but end any thought that the Razorbacks could make the NCAA Tournament this season. Since that time, however, the Hawgs have won six of seven, including three on the road. And none have been bigger than last night’s overtime win at Kentucky. Not only was it the first win for Arkansas at Rupp Arena since 1994, it was easily Anderson’s biggest win since taking over for John Pelphrey three years ago. Despite turning the ball over 20 times and giving up 26 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats, the Razorbacks, which led by double-figures for much of the first half and by seven at the break, were able to overcome a late five-point deficit to force the extra frame on their way to a 71-67 win. Thanks in large part to holding Kentucky to 34.2 percent shooting and a 16-of-16 mark from the line, Arkansas was able to get a win that will serve them very well with Selection Sunday just over two weeks away.

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