With one of the best weeks of the college basketball season now upon us, we offer Part I of our preview of what’s ahead for SEC teams headed to the various holiday tournaments around the country. This post will focus on the events beginning today and Tuesday.
Rick Barnes and Tennessee have a tough road ahead in Maui… and beyond. (Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports Images)
Maui Jim Maui Invitational (Lahaina, HI) – Tennessee. The Volunteers’ season got off to a rough start with a home loss to Chattanooga on opening night, but they now sit at 1-1 after an easy subsequent win over lowly Appalachian State. In Maui, however, Tennessee will get started with a bite than may be bigger than Rick Barnes’ squad can chew. The Vols open with a savvy, veteran Wisconsin team that is likely to give its offense fits. The Vols’ second game of the tournament on Tuesday will either be against a top-10 Oregon team that could have preseason All-American Dillon Brooks back in action, or a Georgetown team that will be desperate after a couple of early losses. There is a strong likelihood that the Vols will drop their first two games, with their only realistic chance for a win on the islands coming against non-Division I host Chaminade on Wednesday.
Every league has teams that are more talented than those fighting to stay out of the cellar yet not quite poised to challenge for a spot at the top of the standings. Some of the squads situated in that position are rising programs looking to take another step forward. Some are programs rebooting to attempt to recapture past success. What they all have in common is the goal of getting into the conference’s upper echelon and contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. On Friday, we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10). Today we tackle the middle tier.
AT A GLANCE
#9 Alabama Crimson Tide
Avery Johnson has a long way to go to get anywhere near Nick Saban, but he has Alabama basketball headed in the right direction (Credit: AL.com)
2015-16 overall record (SEC) 18-15 (8-10)
Key Returnee: Shannon Hale 10.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG
Key Newcomer: Braxton Key 6’8″ forward
Team Analysis: Avery Johnson’s initial season has to be viewed as a success. Energy was restored to the program and the team was surprisingly in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid down the home stretch. The loss of Retin Obasohan makes a repeat of last season’s performance, however, a tall task. The return of Shannon Hale and the presence of a healthy Dazon Ingram gives the Tide a nucleus upon which to build. Johnson will have to coax significant production from freshman Braxton Key and Memphis transfer Nick King to match or surpass last season’s record.
Burning Question: Can Avery Johnson maintain the early momentum he has created in Tuscaloosa? Avery Johnson has rekindled interest in basketball at Alabama — no small feat at a football-mad school. His first team performed better than expected and he has significantly elevated the program’s profile on the recruiting trail. The trick now is to maintain the interest that has been manufactured and continue to improve the roster’s talent level. Early indications from the classes of ’17 and ’18 indicate the recruiting piece will be covered. Making Coleman Coliseum a winter destination for the Tide faithful will be much easier if Johnson continues to haul in quality talent.
#8 Ole Miss Rebels
2015-16 overall record (SEC) 20-12 (10-8)
Key Returnee: Sebastian Saiz 11.7 PPG., 8.7 RPG
Key Newcomer: Deandre Burnett 6’2″ guard
Team Analysis: Andy Kennedy‘s program has been a model of consistency for several years. The Rebels are perennial 20-plus game winners and find themselves entrenched in the top half of the conference. With the departure of all-SEC star Stefan Moody, though, meeting those standards might be difficult this season. Sebastian Saiz provides some inside punch and transfer Cullen Neal will bring some experience in the backcourt, but the development of Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey will be a key to this team’s success.
Burning Question: Can Andy Kennedy strike jump-shooting gold again? It seems as if Ole Miss is always able to find a gunslinger through the transfer market. Over the last four seasons, Rebel transfers such as Marshall Henderson and Stefan Moody lit up scoreboards across the SEC. Kennedy now turns to Deandre Burnett in the hopes of capturing similar magic. While 20 points per night might be a bit ambitious, 15 PPG from Burnett would go a long way toward pushing the Rebels’ win total near its customary number of 20 or more.
The beginning of another college basketball season is already in progress, and with it an opportunity to start talking about SEC hoops again. The SEC last season managed just three bids to the NCAA Tournament, but with a new year brings optimism that more teams can break into the First Round field of 64. To tip off the SEC microsite, here are 64 musings, opinions, thoughts, predictions, questions, and observations about the 2016-17 season [Ed. Note: Technically, 32 since this is part one of two with the second part coming tomorrow]:
John Calipari is confident once again as Kentucky shapes up to be the head of the SEC in 2016-17. (AP)
Kentucky is the clear favorite to win the SEC this year, but the big question mark about the Wildcats in the preseason revolves around their three-point accuracy. It says here that this will be the best perimeter shooting squad John Calipari has put on the court in Lexington since his 2011 Final Four team.
Wildcat sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe shot just 13.5 percent from beyond the arc last year, allowing opposing defenses to sag to the middle on him. But the limited sample of shooting we have seen so far suggests that he will no longer be an offensive liability shooting the ball this season.
Briscoe was also 9-of-12 from the free throw line in Friday night’s Blue-White game, indicating that his 46 percent accuracy from the stripe last season could also be a thing of the past. Read the rest of this entry »
Nashville is a great place for a conference tournament. Even if the basketball happens to be underwhelming, there’s plenty of other forms of entertainment just steps away from Bridgestone Arena. It is the Music City, after all. In the spirit of basketball and honky-tonk, here are some of the SEC’s teams and the country music stars they most resemble.
Blake Shelton And Kentucky Are Both Living Large Again
Kentucky as… Blake Shelton. Before Wisconsin extinguished that dream, life was perfect for the unbeaten Wildcats last year as they tried to notch an unprecedented 40-0 record. Similarly, it wasn’t very long ago that Shelton and Miranda Lambert were living large as country’s pre-eminent power couple. But life happens, and the two stars have since gone their separate ways. Kentucky and Shelton, however, have both found a neon light at the end of the tunnel. Against the odds, Shelton has put together a run of hit singles, is dating Gwen Stefani and even has a Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit opening. The Wildcats, to their credit, claimed a share of this season’s SEC regular season title with a guard-oriented team. Life goes on.
The SEC Tournament returns to Nashville tonight for the second year in row. Unlike the last couple of years, however, there isn’t a team trying to cap off a perfect conference run and there doesn’t figure to be much drama surrounding NCAA at-large bids (but you never know). Before getting into what is at stake for individual teams, here are several completely unscientific predictions on how things will look by Sunday afternoon.
Tournament Final: Kentucky over Vanderbilt
MVP: Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Biggest Surprise: #11 seed Mississippi State makes it to the SEC Tournament semifinals
Tournament Storylines: Was the season-ending win over LSU Skal Labissiere‘s breakout game? Will Ben Simmonsreally be locked out of the NCAA Tournament? Can Florida do enough to force its way back into the field? Can Retin Obasohan or Stefan Moody shoot their teams into the NCAA Tournament?
Skal Labissiere may have finally arrived (courier-journal.com).
Teams Playing For Seeding
It’s safe to assume that Kentucky, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are all locked into the field of 68 and are playing for seeding. Of those four teams, the Commodores and Gamecocks have the most at stake this week. Bracketologists project both teams into the #8-#9 seed range and an unenviable downstream date with a #1 seed looming. Winning twice in Nashville and getting to Sunday’s SEC championship game should be enough to lift either team off that seed line (and potentially facing a #2 seed in a parity-driven field). This might be more important for a team like the Gamecocks since Vanderbilt will not be at much of a talent disadvantage against any of the projected #1 seeds.
The Wildcats and Aggies appear to be in a similar situation. Both teams look like #4 seeds with potential to jump to the #3 line as a result of cutting the nets down in Nashville. Losing their respective opening games probably wouldn’t do much damage since all four potential opponents (Florida/Arkansas for Texas A&M; Ole Miss/Alabama for Kentucky) have solid enough metrics to avert a disaster. There is the interesting matter of the South Regional in Louisville but it’s hard to see the Selection Committee gifting that to a #3 seed Kentucky team (much to the detriment of the top two seeds) even if the Wildcats were to win the SEC Tournament with three consecutive blowouts. That probably won’t stop Big Blue Nation from flocking to wherever Kentucky ends up, though, even if it’s Spokane.
Seven Sweet Scoops is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week throughout the season he will bring you seven notes from the high-stakes world of college basketball recruiting. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul, dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Small forward Terrance Ferguson had been the biggest commitment in Avery Johnson’s short tenure at Alabama, but the No. 13 player in the senior class decided to re-open his recruitment last week. Questions circulated in November regarding the strength of Ferguson’s commitment when he failed to sign a National Letter of Intent with the Crimson Tide on signing day. At the time his mother referenced a possible signing ceremony as the reason for the delay, but that never came to fruition. Schools like Kansas and Baylor were heavily involved in Ferguson’s recruitment and both will certainly try to get back into the picture. One school that was not involved was St. John’s, but members of the Red Storm coaching staff watched the 6’7″ high-flyer play last week. The five-star wing has a game ready-made for the NBA. With a picture perfect jump shot and explosive leaping ability, Ferguson’s strengths are hitting deep jumpers and finishing at the rim with highlight reel dunks. Ferguson has also been a mainstay in USA Basketball circles, winning gold medals on the U-16, U-17, and U-19 teams the last several years. Ferguson currently plays for Advanced Prep International (API) in Dallas, which has a similar make-up to the old Prime Prep teams.
2. Kevin Knox Watched Duke-North Carolina Saturday
Just one year ago, Kevin Knox was a lightly regarded sophomore at Tampa (FL) Catholic; now a junior, the 6’7” forward has risen up the rankings so fast that he is in the midst of a big-time recruiting battle between two of college basketball’s biggest blue-bloods. Knox made a weekend trip to North Carolina a few weeks ago where he split time between the Duke and UNC campuses, and he was back in the area on Saturday to catch the rivalry game in Durham. Knox, an athletic power forward with nice touch out to the three-point line, ranks as the No. 6 prospect in his class. Coach K is selling him on being the school’s next Brandon Ingram, but Kansas — the latest school to offer Knox –and Kentucky are also showing interest. Knox’s father played football at Florida State, so the Seminoles are a dark horse school in this recruitment.
There is no shortage of intrigue in the SEC’s final regular season Saturday with the league title up for grabs and several teams fighting for their Tournament lives. Here are the storylines to watch before the attention shifts to Nashville.
There’s still a tiny bit of life left in Ben Simmons and LSU (fivethirtyeight.com).
And then there were four. The schedule couldn’t have worked out any better for the final weekend. The league’s top four teams (now that South Carolina bowed out by losing to Georgia) face each other with the league title still in play. Texas A&M has the cleanest path — beat Vanderbilt at home and become SEC co-champion with a wink and nudge due to the head-to-head win over Kentucky. Even if it were a shared title, it would be significant for the Aggies, as it would be their first league championship since winning the Southwest Conference way back in 1986. Of course, Texas A&M and Kentucky could be sole champions if either were to win and the other lose. And then there’s the dream (or nightmare) four-way co-champion scenario if Vanderbilt and LSU were to both win. By our rough calculations, the Tigers, ironically and somewhat miraculously, would be the top seed in the SEC Tournament with a 3-1 record against the other three teams. This is better then Kentucky (1-3), Vanderbilt (2-2) and Texas A&M (2-2). Title scenarios aside, LSU desperately needs a win if it doesn’t want to pin its NCAA hopes on a three-game winning streak in Nashville. The last time the Tigers pulled this off was in late December against Gardner-Webb, Oral Roberts, and American. They’ll need to replicate much of their last performance against Kentucky, where they rebounded 43.2 percent of their missed shots and turned it over just nine times. The injured Keith Hornsby didn’t play much of a role offensively in that win (nine points) but his tough on-ball defense will be missed against Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.
There’s still plenty at stake in the SEC this weekend even if it doesn’t have quite the same juice as last weekend’s schedule. Kentucky can continue its seemingly inevitable charge at the SEC title in College Station and several other teams can play themselves further onto (Alabama) or off (Georgia, Vanderbilt) the bubble. Here are three things to watch for in this weekend’s SEC action.
Does Texas A&M still have a road to the SEC title? (247sports.com)
Texas A&M’s last stand. Drawing comparisons to the Alamo may be overly dramatic but the Aggies will be up against it on Saturday evening. A few short weeks ago the Kentucky game looked like it would be the SEC game of year. Despite Texas A&M’s 2-5 slide over the past few weeks, this game is still getting the bright-lights treatment with ESPN‘s College Gameday broadcasting from College Station. This could represent a swing game for Aggies. A win draws A&M within one game of the Wildcats and Mississippi State, Missouri and Auburn due next. Kentucky’s next three games against Alabama, Vanderbilt and Florida are considerably tougher. This scenario of course assumes that both teams completely reverse their recent runs, but it’s nonetheless a path for Texas A&M. A game storyline worth watching is whether Tyler Davis and Jalen Jones can take advantage of a Kentucky frontcourt that might be without Marcus Lee — he was held to just 17 minutes against Tennessee due to a back injury. The thought of Isaac Humphries or Skal Labissiere trying to contain either of those guys must have John Calipari worried. On the other end of the floor, the Wildcats’ three-point marksmen Jamal Murray and Derek Willis (yes, he’s earned that title) will face a defense that has struggled to defend perimeter shots at times this season.
The Rush the Court SEC microsite writers recently got together and tried their hand at podcasting for the first time. In the inaugural episode, Brian Joyce, Greg Mitchell and David Changas discuss all the uncertainty at the top of the SEC standings, whether Tyler Ulis has overtaken Ben Simmons as the likely SEC Player of the Year, what is wrong with Texas A&M and if Alabama is indeed an NCAA Tournament team this season. Give it a listen and let us know @rushtheSEC if you would like to hear more.
Kentucky and LSU separated themselves from the pack on a pivotal weekend in the SEC title race. If both teams hold steady the rest of the way, we could have a gigantic game between the pair in Rupp Arena to close out the regular season. Plenty of drama is also heating up near the bubble, with Alabama staking a claim to a spot in the conversation. Here’s what went down last week in the SEC and what to look for in the week ahead.
Retin Obasohan and Alabama won in Gainesville for the first time since 1995 (rolltide.com).
Trending Up. Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s RPI surged up to #37 after four straight wins, including two victories last week over likely tournament teams (Texas A&M and Florida). It’s easy to forget that Avery Johnson’s club started SEC play at 1-4, but that looks understandable in hindsight, considering those games included losses to Kentucky, Vanderbilt and LSU. The fourth loss (at Auburn) is really the only dark spot on the resume, although the Tigers had the services of Kareem Canty in that one. Welcome to the bubble, Alabama.
Trending Down. Texas A&M‘s seed. Just a few weeks ago the Aggies looked like a solid #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with a realistic shot of climbing up to the top line if things broke their way. Their recent four-game losing streak hasn’t put an invitation at risk, but it has done great damage to what could have been a historic placement for the program. With the exception of a home game against Kentucky, the schedule eases up quite a bit and should allow A&M to build some confidence before heading to Nashville.