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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Collin Sexton Shows His Importance to Alabama in Much Anticipated Debut

Posted by David Changas on November 16th, 2017

It might have come a game late and after a significant amount of nervousness about whether it would even happen, but Collin Sexton’s debut for Alabama earlier this week was well worth the wait. After being forced to sit out the Crimson Tide’s exhibition contest and opening night win over Memphis because of eligibility questions, the most significant basketball recruit to arrive in Tuscaloosa in many years finally took the court. And he did not disappoint, leading Alabama to a comfortable 86-64 win in its home opener over a pesky Lipscomb club. Sexton led the team with 22 points and five assists in 27 minutes of action, shooting 7-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-5 from three-point range. Beyond the tangible impact he had on the play of the Crimson Tide, he also exhibited leadership and fired up a Coleman Coliseum crowd that was a bit larger than what usually shows up in the middle of November. The focus is almost entirely on football at Alabama this time of year, but Sexton’s debut was enough of a draw so that those in attendance could forget about pigskin for a few hours.

Collin Sexton’s debut against Lipscomb Tuesday night lived up to the hype. (University of Alabama)

Sexton — who had been the subject of an FBI investigation into the sport — was not ruled eligible until just before the Crimson Tide took the floor against Memphis in Annapolis last Friday. He sat out that game, but it felt like a reprieve for a program that was facing the possibility that he may not have been ruled eligible at any point this season. After all, the school’s basketball administrator, Kobie Baker, resigned in September after an FBI complaint revealed that he accepted money in an effort to influence Sexton’s father to sign with a particular financial advisor. Had that been the case, the excitement for a season that fans have been anxiously looking forward to would have been significantly dampened.

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Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (cbssports.com)

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

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Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play Looms

Posted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016

Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.

The Favorite

  • Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

As usual, John Calipari and Kentucky are the heavy favorites to win the SEC (cbssports.com).

The NCAA Tournament Contenders

  • Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
  • Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
  • Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.

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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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SEC Stock Watch: 01.23.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 23rd, 2015

We are now nearly one-third of the way through SEC play, and it’s time to take our weekly look at which teams, players and trends are heading in the right direction, who isn’t going anywhere, and who needs to turn things around. This is the SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Rick Ray. Last week, the Mississippi State coach looked to be well on his way to the unemployment line. A home win over Vanderbilt and a road win at Auburn — the Bulldogs’ first in their last 22 tries — have changed that momentum, however, and Ray’s program may finally have something cooking. Whether his squad can keep things heading in the right direction remains to be seen, as Mississippi State faces several of the league’s most capable teams over the next few weeks.
The emergence of Armani Moore is a big reason for Tennessee's success (sportsanimal99.com)

The emergence of Armani Moore is a big reason for Tennessee’s success (sportsanimal99.com)

  • Tennessee. Prior to the season, Donnie Tyndall’s squad was picked to finish 13th in the league by the media. The Tennessee coach guaranteed that would not happen, and so far, his prediction looks pretty good. The Volunteers have won their first three road games for the first time in six years, and play three of their next four contests at home. They sit alone in second place at 4-1 and could be 7-2 in league play before embarking upon a brutal second half of the SEC schedule.
  • Devin Booker’s shooting. The one real criticism leveled against Kentucky this season has been its relative inability to consistently knock down outside shots. Booker has silenced a lot of that yammering by shooting a robust 11-of-18 from beyond the arc in league play. The freshman’s keen ability to make long-range shots opens up the Wildcats’ dominant inside game, and makes John Calipari’s team even more lethal than it already was.
  • Georgia. The Bulldogs finally appear to be headed in the right direction, playing like a team many thought could make the NCAA Tournament. After an 0-2 start in which they blew large leads, Mark Fox’s team has now won three in a row and faces three more winnable games before a trip to Lexington on February 3. There is no good reason why Georgia can’t separate itself as the second-best team in the SEC in coming weeks.

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Alabama Seeks Season-Defining Win Against Kentucky

Posted by David Changas on January 17th, 2015

They almost got Iowa State in a hostile environment. They should have gotten Wichita State on the road. Alabama has shown significant improvement after last season’s disappointment, but the Crimson Tide have yet to secure a marquee win that will enhance their NCAA Tournament resume. Later today Alabama will have the opportunity to make those near-misses away from Tuscaloosa become a distant memory as it welcomes the country’s best to Coleman Coliseum. Kentucky righted its ship on Tuesday with a 49-point home victory over Missouri, while Alabama fell two points short at South Carolina. Still, after thumping Texas A&M at home to start conference play and throttling Tennessee in one of the season’s most impressive defensive performances, the Crimson Tide have to be a bit optimistic as the Wildcats come to town. It’s the first of two games the teams will play in a 15-day period.

Anthony Grant is working to get back to the Big Dance (nbcsports.com)

Anthony Grant is working to get back to the Big Dance (nbcsports.com)

Alabama came into the season with a number of unknowns – not the least of which was whether head coach Anthony Grant’s job could be saved – but so far it has performed beyond expectations and wiped away what was nothing less than an awful 2013-14 season. It currently sits 44th in the RPI and 37th in KenPom, thanks mostly to its improvement on the defensive end as well as better leadership. Whether the Crimson Tide can put it all together against the Wildcats remains to be seen, but there is reason for the hope that they can pull off the upset. While Kentucky has an even-bigger-than-normal size advantage against them, Alabama is very athletic and has done an excellent job with its three-point defense. The Wildcats’ biggest weakness has been their ineffectiveness from the perimeter, so it is incumbent upon the Crimson Tide to force Kentucky to score from beyond the arc.

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SEC Stock Watch: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2015

We are now nearly two weeks into conference play, so let’s take a hard look at which teams, players and other things are heading in the right direction, stuck in neutral or on the decline. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Florida. Perhaps all it took was conference play for the Gators to right the ship. After opening SEC play with a solid win at upstart South Carolina, the Gators easily dispatched conference lightweights Mississippi State and Auburn in Gainesville. Things get tougher on Saturday when they travel to Georgia, but Billy Donovan’s team is doing what it takes to tidy up its shaky resume for March.
  • Dominique Hawkins. The Kentucky guard went from not being part of either five-man platoon to starting against Missouri, and in his 20 minutes of action he gave John Calipari the perimeter defense the Wildcats needed. His entry into the starting lineup in place of Tyler Ulis was a bit of a surprise, but it obviously got the team’s attention as the Wildcats cruised to an 86-47 win over the Tigers, eradicating some of the bad vibe left over from last week’s overtime wins against Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Dominique Hawkins took advantage of his surprise start against Missouri (Bleacher Report).

Dominique Hawkins took advantage of his surprise start against Missouri (Bleacher Report).

  • Robert Hubbs. Anyone who saw Hubbs play earlier this year wouldn’t believe that the freshman would ever make a Stock Watch list, although there was clearly nowhere for him to go than up. The former five-star recruit was way overrated coming out of high school, but Hubbs needed to find a way to contribute for Tennessee to have any success this season. He has done just that, and his career-high 16 points against Arkansas was a huge reason the Vols were able to upset the Hogs earlier this week.
  • Alabama. Sure, the Crimson Tide lost at South Carolina on Tuesday night, but there is no shame in dropping a two-point contest to one of the league’s most improved teams on the road. Alabama clearly has moved on from last year’s disaster, and with two of its next five games against Kentucky, Anthony Grant’s team has a chance to really get things moving (finally) in the right direction.

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Freeze Frame: Alabama’s Shift to Man to Man Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 18th, 2014

Alabama nearly came up with a huge victory for itself and the SEC when it lost by one at Wichita State on Tuesday night. Anthony Grant’s team felt secure with an 11-point lead and 5:50 remaining, but the Tide’s Achilles Heel — fundamental defense — came back to haunt them once again. Grant’s defense has struggled all season, and after nearly 35 minutes of solid pressure on the road (forcing the Shockers into 40.8 percent shooting), it failed them once again.

Alabama's defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

Alabama’s defensive profile is less than stellar (statistics via KenPom).

In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will look at the final 15 minutes of Alabama’s defense against the Shockers. The Tide to that point had found a lot of success with a 2-3 match-up zone that frustrated Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker, and their Wichita State teammates into a bunch of contested outside shots. But with the momentum clearly in the hands of Alabama, Grant made a huge mistake in shifting back to his man-to-man defense. Van Vleet was then able to penetrate the lane to find open teammates, rendering the pick-and-roll option more effective, and ultimately erasing a late double-figure lead.

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SEC M5: Thanksgiving Eve Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 26th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. It is safe to say the SEC has not had the strongest of starts to this Feast Week, Arkansas’ impressive win at SMU Tuesday night notwithstanding. The league has taken a beating on the first two days of the Thanksgiving week tournaments, and it is safe to say that the SEC, as a whole, somehow is performing below its not-so-lofty preseason expectations. On Monday, LSU lost in the Paradise Jam to a Clemson team that had home losses to Winthrop and Gardner-Webb earlier this month; Missouri got trounced by Arizona in Maui; Auburn put up a whopping 35 points in an 18-point loss to Tulsa in Las Vegas; and Alabama fell to Iowa State in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, though the Crimson Tide at least showed some life, and bounced back with a 76-71 win over Arizona State in the consolation game. Also on Tuesday, Missouri was trounced by Purdue, 82-61.  There is plenty of basketball left this week, so the league has a chance to redeem itself, but based on the early returns, that does not appear likely to happen.
  2. The drama continues to unfold in the Donnie Tyndall saga, as his long-time assistant and apparent right-hand man, Adam Howard, resigned for “personal reasons.” Gary Parrish reported that, not surprisingly, the resignation of the coach who drove Tyndall to his first interview with Tennessee brass in the spring, was related to the NCAA’s investigation of improprieties that occurred at Southern Miss while Tyndall coached there. It was also learned Monday that special assistant R.J. Rush resigned before the season opener against VCU for personal reasons. This situation is far from over, but one must wonder whether, at the end of the day, Tyndall will survive in Knoxville. Long-time Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Mike Strange, who has seen plenty of ups and downs with this program, knows that, whichever way this ultimately goes for Tyndall, the UT administration is in a very tough spot.
  3. Alabama senior guard Levi Randolph was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 21 points and 6.5 rebounds in the Tide’s wins over Western Carolina and Southern Miss. Randolph was obviously motivated after winning the award, as he went out and scored 18 points in Alabama’s 84-74 loss to the Cyclones on Monday. He followed that effort with an even better one in Tuesday’s win, as he went for a game-high 28. Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin won Freshman of the Week honors, as the guard from Belle Mead, New Jersey averaged 9.5 points and a robust 7.5 assists in the Commodores’ wins over Lipscomb and Tennessee State. Baldwin, who led the team with 13 points in Tuesday’s 63-53 win over Norfolk State, is part of a talented freshman class that is giving Vanderbilt fans reasons to be optimistic about the future.
  4. Now that the season is in full swing, various power rankings are out, and to the surprise of no one, Kentucky occupies the top spot in all of them. ESPN.com‘s power rankings have the Wildcats as a unanimous selection at number one, and SI.com‘s Luke Winn has them at the top of his as well. Winn points out that Kentucky is pressing on 20.4% of its defensive possessions, which is a number nearly five times higher than average in coach John Calipari‘s previous five seasons at the school. Of course, with the amount of athleticism and depth he has, as well as the size on the back end of the press to erase mistakes, this should not be surprising. Given the way the Wildcats are demolishing everyone in their path thus far – they trounced Texas-Arlington on Tuesday 93-44 – it is unlikely Calipari will change much of what he is doing moving forward.
  5. Georgia blew a chance at a quality pre-conference win when the Bulldogs dropped their season opener to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. This week, coach Mark Fox‘s team gets a shot a redemption, and a huge resume builder, when it takes on Gonzaga in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip Off at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. It will face either Minnesota or St. John’s on Friday. This appears to be Mark Few’s best team in a number of years, and it has demolished all four of its early-season opponents, including SMU. Georgia knows this is a crucial test, and a win could go a long way toward erasing the Georgia Tech loss and building the Dawgs’ NCAA Tournament resume.
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