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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SEC M5: 11.07.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 7th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Thursday was a really bad day for Tennessee. As we documented earlier, Jason King of Bleacher Report reported that Southern Mississippi, which was coached for two years by new Volunteers coach Donnie Tyndall, is under NCAA investigation for improper financial support of “Prop 48” athletes. Tyndall has not been contacted by the NCAA yet, although that appears inevitable. Shortly after that troubling news broke, Chris Clarke, a top-75 senior who committed to Tennessee last week, reneged and announced that he will instead head to Virginia Tech. While it is likely the switch was in the works prior to the release of King’s story, it is hard to believe that the investigation had nothing to do with his change of decision. Clarke was clearly the crown jewel of the Volunteers’ class, and Tyndall must now head back to the recruiting drawing board under the potentially dark clouds of an NCAA investigation.
  2. SI’s Seth Davis recently made waves with an interview of Kentucky head coach John Calipari for his Campus Insiders show. In the interview, Davis raised the issue of the vacation of his two Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis. Calipari did not seem overly pleased with Davis’ question, indicating that he was not concerned about “me or my reputation. I sleep great at night.” Of course, that particular topic is one that Calipari’s detractors often raise to support their argument that he does not recruit above board, but he was not implicated in either of the two scandals and he seems to be doing well for himself in the Bluegrass State.
  3. Exhibition basketball is about as meaningful as the NFL preseason, so the results of these games are hardly worth paying attention to. Still, it is always surprising when a top-10 team plays a relatively close game against a Division II school. On Thursday night, #7 Florida struggled with Barry College in its exhibition opener, winning by only nine points and getting outscored by the Buccaneers in the paint, 22-18. While the Gators may not have played particularly well, they did get a game-high 22 points from Rutgers transfer Eli Carter, who went 5-of-9 from three-point range. Florida head coach Billy Donovan has to be pleased with Carter’s output — especially given the inexperience in the Gators’ backcourt behind Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II — and likely will not worry too much about the margin of Florida’s win.
  4. It is no secret that Anthony Grant likely needs a successful season to keep his job, and that he will be sent packing if Alabama does not significantly improve upon last year’s 13-19 record. The Crimson Tide have some returning experience, but Grant also brought in the best recruiting class in his six years in Tuscaloosa. Drew Champlin of AL.com took a look at Grant’s early efforts to blend this team’s youth and experience together. Alabama will be led by seniors Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper, but expect significant contributions from its four freshmen as well. Grant also brought in long-time Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon to add some much-needed experience to his staff. Witherspoon, who has what Grant calls a “great basketball mind,” will be crucial to the development of this team, and given a very difficult pre-conference schedule that includes games against Wichita State, Iowa State, Xavier and UCLA, he will need to work his magic quickly.
  5. LSU recently extended Johnny Jones’ contract through the 2017-18 season, based in large part upon his ability to bring in talent to Baton Rouge. He already has a commitment from Rivals.com’s top player in the 2015 class, Ben Simmons, and this weekend he will receive visits from two big-time recruitsJaQuan Lyle and Antonio Blakeney, both of whom previously committed to Louisville before backing out of their pledges. Lyle was a Class of 2014 player who committed to Oregon before reclassifying and going to prep school. Blakeney is ranked No. 13 in the 2015 class, and his decommitment from the Cardinals garnered significant attention because of the widespread belief that his decision was related to shoe company affiliation. For Jones, getting the two on campus for the weekend of the LSU-Alabama football game is a major coup, and if he can somehow convince the two guards to join forces with Simmons, the landscape of this program would change significantly.
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SEC Season Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

Posted by David Changas on November 4th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with Alabama.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Strengths. As with prior Anthony Grant teams, this year’s version should be able to defend at a high level. Alabama has always featured athletic teams that will guard its opponents and make it difficult to score, and as usual, the Crimson Tide will do so without an abundance of size inside. In his preseason ratings, Ken Pomeroy ranks Alabama at #32 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. With big guards like Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper patrolling the perimeter, Alabama has an ability to make things very difficult for its opponents to run offensive sets. And though they do not have any shot-blocking presence to speak of, there is no question that the Crimson Tide will make their opponents work to get good shots. In each of Grant’s five years at the school, his teams have been stellar at halfcourt defense, and this year should be no exception to that trend.

Levi Randolph is Alabama's top returning scorer. (AL.com/Vasha Hunt)

Levi Randolph is Alabama’s top returning scorer. (AL.com/Vasha Hunt)

Weaknesses. As well as Grant’s teams defend, they often have just as much trouble putting the ball in the basket — there is significant concern about what his team will produce from its halfcourt offense. The Tide lost their only double-figure scorer from last season, Trevor Releford — also the team’s only reliable outside shooter — but they do return four other starters. Alabama shot only 44.4 percent from the field and 33.4 percent from three-point range, though, and there is little reason to believe those numbers will improve significantly with virtually the same cast. In particular, perimeter scoring will be a problem, as no returning player shot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc. Grant will try to supplement his backcourt with the best freshman class he has had in his six seasons in Tuscaloosa. In addition to point guard Justin Coleman, Alabama added shooting guard Devin Mitchell and wing Riley Norris. Each will have to contribute early on the offensive end for the Crimson Tide to compete in the SEC. Read the rest of this entry »

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