Assessing the Challengers to Kentucky’s SEC Crown

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 19th, 2014

It’s a month into the college basketball season and every conference has unanswered questions. For all its faults, the SEC more or less stands alone among the major conferences in that we know with reasonable certainty which team will be taking home the regular season and tournament titles. If you’re betting against Kentucky in this league this season, then you clearly haven’t been watching. But after the Wildcats at the top, there are at least six teams that can make a realistic claim as the second-best team in the conference. Here’s how the race stacks up as we slog through final exams:

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, but can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

  • Arkansas (7-2, Best Win: SMU, Worst Loss: Clemson). If nothing else it has been an eventful month for the Hogs. They stormed into the national polls after a 6-0 start. They won on the road at SMU. People were excited. But then Arkansas fell flat in a marquee game at Iowa State and followed it up with a perplexing loss to Clemson. So really, we are left with the same questions we had about the Razorbacks coming into the season. They look better, but are they NCAA tournament better? To its credit, Arkansas may have the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year in Bobby Portis, who is among the league’s top 10 in points per game (15.8), rebounds per game (6.8), blocks per game (1.6), effective field goal percentage (60.2%) and PER (26.7).
  • Texas A&M (7-2, BW: Arizona State, WL: Baylor). The Aggies’ most compelling argument is not the team they are now, but the one they could be in a few months. Billy Kennedy got an early Christmas present when Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos became eligible. House has immediately become a key cog for the Aggies, leading the team in minutes per game (29.2) and adding a jolt of athleticism to the perimeter. Any doubt about his role should have been erased when he got the last shot in a tie game against Sam Houston State. Freshman Alex Robinson has also at times looked like the best player on the team. The Aggies don’t have any eye-popping wins and recently got rolled by Baylor, but they have good potential as players get accustomed to playing together.

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SEC M5: 12.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 19th, 2014

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  1. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan writes that John Calipari’s biggest challenge this season might be instilling enough doubt in his team so that they don’t completely buy the hype. There’s no doubt Cal needs to latch on to any struggle he can to keep the Wildcats on their toes, but I don’t think he’s going at it alone. A good part of the team was around for last year’s six conference losses. Willie Cauley-Stein was around for that and the epic disappointment that was 2012-13. These players may have confidence, but I doubt they have short memories, and Cal should have support keeping the team focused.
  2. Uttering the word “Clemson” around this microsite is risky business. Legend has it if you say the word three times Brad Brownell will appear and ruin the dreams of your favorite SEC squad. The Tigers have, after all, already beaten Arkansas, LSU and Auburn while losing to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Rutgers. South Carolina gets its shot at its arch rival tonight, and the importance of the game isn’t lost on Frank Martin. “Any time you play those kind of games, you’re playing for your school, first and foremost,” Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “But you’re also representing your conference. And we take pride in that.” The Gamecocks have a good chance to end the SEC’s Clemson skid as they looked good demolishing Oklahoma State almost two weeks ago. Duane Notice has also stepped up his game in a big way, scoring 47 points in his last two games.
  3. The sun probably hasn’t set on Alabama’s tournament chances, but the Tide need to get on a roll to (no pun intended) to truly get in the discussion. The folks at Roll Bama Roll suggest that more of the offensive game plan should involve Michael Kessens, and the numbers certainly back that up. He’s posted the best effective field goal percentage on the team, and looks comfortable with the ball anywhere on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Grant divides up minutes between Kessens and fellow sophomore Shannon Hale the rest of the way, especially since Hale is shooting three’s at a worse rate than last year.
  4. Jakeenan Gant’s debut was a bright spot in what has been a difficult opening season for Kim Anderson at Missouri. The freshman finally gained eligibility and was able to take the court in the Tigers loss to Xavier, scoring 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. This was a surprise to his coach. “I really didn’t expect that much from him just because he hadn’t really been playing with the first group of guys,” Anderson told the Columbia Missourian. “But I was really pleased with the way he came in.” This year will largely be about the development of Gant, Jonathan Williams and Teki Gill-Caesar. The Tigers looked good for portions of the Xavier game, and can build on this with a rivalry game against Illinois tomorrow.
  5. Until last night the only Division I team that Arkansas State, with an RPI of 339 and KenPom rating of 192, had beaten was Central Arkansas. Then they went to Starkville and beat Mississippi State. This was a truly damaging defeat. “Even beyond that, we’ve got to start giving a return on the investment. I think the administration; everybody’s invested in this program. We have to start giving a return on that investment,” Rick Ray told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In a league with no shortage of bad losses this season, this may have been the worst. As Ray said, it’s frustrating because you would have thought the program would be above this type of result at this point in his tenure. Maybe it was a bad outing, but the Bulldogs are mired in a four game losing streak and need to start building some positive momentum or questions about Ray’s job security may begin to surface.
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SEC M5: 12.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 17th, 2014

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  1. Without a doubt, Alabama blew a gigantic opportunity for a statement win by coughing up a lead in the final seconds of last night’s loss at Wichita State. There is no way to sugarcoat it. The Tide held an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining, but a combination of missed shots, bad rebounding and turnovers against the press allowed the Shockers to come back and win. The moral victory of hanging close against a very good team on the road likely won’t have any positive impact on the Tide’s resume, but let’s look for a silver lining. Alabama defended very well, holding the Shockers to 53 points — 25 fewer than their season average — in stifling the 10th most-efficient offense in the country. Much of Alabama’s second half lead was built on Wichita State settling for three-pointers (5-of-18) over an effective zone. Not to peek ahead, but a formula utilizing the Tide’s length and athleticism, could potentially hold up well against a Kentucky team that struggles from the outside (it always comes back to the Wildcats, doesn’t it?). Circle January 17 (home) and 31 (away) on your SEC calendar.
  2. LSU held on to win a competitive game against Sam Houston State last weekend to run its winning streak to four games. It wasn’t all rosy, though, as Josh Gray left the game with an ankle injury, and was seen afterward walking on crutches. Johnny Jones said on Monday that Gray was receiving “aggressive treatment,” but it’s unknown as of this writing whether he’ll miss any games. Ankle injuries can be tricky to heal, and if Gray does miss time it’ll trim down an already thin roster (Jones used only eight players against Sam Houston State). Tim Quarterman, a player who is enjoying a breakout season, would likely slide into the starting point guard role, with freshman Jalyn Patterson also seeing more minutes. The injury does come at a good time of the season for the Tigers, as their toughest non-conference stretch is now behind them and they have games against beatable teams like UAB, College of Charleston and Southern Miss over the next two weeks.
  3. Arkansas got back on track with a win over Dayton last weekend in a game that saw Mike Anderson shuffle his starting lineup. JuCo transfer Jabril Durham got the start at point guard over senior Rashad Madden, who went scoreless and turned the ball over five times in 31 minutes against Clemson. This also came a few days after Anderson said that Madden was “trying to do too much.” Booting a senior from the starting lineup in favor of a first-year player is a precarious road to walk, but it seemed to work out well enough as Durham hit two three-pointers early and Madden scored 12 points (including 8-of-8 from the free throw line). So far, it looks like Anderson knew what buttons to push, and that’s important because Madden’s scoring ability is a key to the success of the Razorbacks’ season.
  4. Two SEC players made College Basketball Talk’s list of the 10 most important midseason additions: Florida’s Alex Murphy and Auburn’s Trayvon Reed. Of the two, Reed seems to be the one needed the most. The article mentions that the 7’1’’ center is incredibly raw and likely won’t contribute much this season, but the guess is that Bruce Pearl will throw Reed into the fire early since this season was always going to be more about development than contention. Reed logged eight largely unproductive minutes (four fouls, one block) in Auburn’s recent loss to Clemson, and he’ll probably consume at least part of the 11.0 minutes per game going forward that was going to Devin Waddell.
  5. Jerry Palm’s first update to his NCAA Tournament bracket projection has three SEC teams in the fold: Kentucky (#1), LSU (#10) and Arkansas (#10). Alabama and Tennessee are among Palm’s first four out, and Florida is nowhere to be found on his board right now. All things considered, this is a pretty generous view of the SEC given how the season has unfolded thus far. The Tigers and Razorbacks have both notched some nice wins, but they also have experienced setbacks that threaten to snuff them from the conversation (e.g., both teams have lost to Clemson). The simple fact that, in Palm’s view, they are still squarely into the Dance should be encouraging. Neither Alabama (sorta) nor Tennessee (very much so) were thought of as NCAA Tournament teams prior to the season, so seeing them on the fringe in December is encouraging for the league. And finally there is Florida, which many believe will right its ship and find a way into the party, especially given Dorian Finney-Smith’s recent resurgence.
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SEC M5: 12.15.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 15th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Tennessee center Dominic Woodson left the Volunteers’ program over the weekend after having been held out of the team’s prior two games because of academic issues. Given that he had experienced some problems during his (only) freshman season at Memphis, his departure could not have come as much of a surprise for head coach Donnie Tyndall. Woodson often talked about turning things around, but after being declared immediately eligible to play in the fall, things never materialized for him. He averaged 12 minutes, 3.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in his four contests, but after the Volunteers pulled off an upset of No. 15 Butler in Knoxville on Sunday, this may be a clear case of addition by subtraction.
  2. One of the most impressive things John Calipari has done with his team this year is to keep everyone happy. Anyone who watches Kentucky play sees that all of the players appear to be having fun despite the fact that none averages more than 24 minutes per game. It’s therefore no surprise that, after the Wildcats’ loss of Alex Poythress for the season from an ACL injury, the Big Blue Nation rallied around him to provide emotional support. Just prior to tipoff of Saturday’s game against North Carolina, chants of “Al-ex Poy-thress!” from the Rupp Arena crowd showed the fans’ support for the junior forward. The student-filled eRUPPtion Zone took it a step further, wearing “Roar for 22″ shirts, referencing Poythress’ number. While it’s been easy for fans to root for the Wildcats in Calipari’s six years at the school, family-oriented actions like these are the subtler part of the reason the nation’s best high schoolers flock to Lexington to play for Calipari.
  3. Auburn received word late last week that Trayvon Reed, who originally signed with Maryland but was not allowed to enroll there because of a July arrest relating to a misdemeanor second-degree assault of a police officer, is now eligible. The 7’2″ center played eight minutes – although he didn’t score or grab any rebounds – in Sunday’s 72-61 loss at Clemson. It is unlikely Reed will make much of an impact this year, and it remains to be seen where he fits into Bruce Pearl’s long-term plans, but for an undersized Auburn team, having the former four-star recruit on board can’t hurt. The loss to Clemson dropped Auburn to a 3-5 record on the season, and it looks like the rebuilding project Pearl inherited on the Plains will take some time.
  4. Alabama lost its second-leading scorerRicky Tarrant, after only eight minutes in Saturday’s 65-53 home win over Tennessee Tech. It does not appear that the junior point guard, who is in his first season at Alabama after transferring from Tulane, will miss much time, though, after leaving the game with cramps. Along with seniors Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph, Tarrant (13.4 PPG) helps provide much of the Crimson Tide’s scoring punch. Alabama’s only losses have come to Iowa State in Kansas City and at Xavier, but it would like to have Tarrant back at 100 percent for what may be the toughest test of the non-conference schedule, a trip to Wichita State Tuesday.
  5. Thanks to 26 points from freshman guard Riley LaChance and 64 percent shooting from three-point range, Vanderbilt toppled Purdue, 81-71, on Saturday night in Nashville. The entertaining match-up was otherwise insignificant on the national scale, but anyone who follows either program closely might have thought it would have more meaning than the average non-conference game for Commodores’ head coach Kevin Stallings. According to the Purdue alumnus and Gene Keady protege, it was just another game, and the fact that it came against his alma mater meant very little. It is certainly not surprising that Stallings, who in his 16th season at Vanderbilt is the dean of SEC coaches, is not sentimental, but you might think it would have had a bit more meaning to him. “It’s not really [special]. It’s an important game because it’s our next one and we’re coming off a loss and it’s a game against a very good team,” he said before the game. Given the way his young team played, it’s hard to argue with how Stallings approached the contest.
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Impressions From the SEC’s Thursday Games

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 21st, 2014

Yesterday was a busy day in the always-interesting world of SEC basketball. Kentucky and Florida were both idle, but the league still managed to go 5-1 with the only blemish being Texas A&M’s loss in an ugly game against Dayton. That’s a successful day considering Dayton sits respectably at #50 in KenPom’s latest ratings and the SEC has already taken its fair share of lumps this year. Small steps, people. Here are a handful of thoughts from yesterday’s action.

Anthony Grant may have the personnel to run an effective zone this season (Bamahoops.com).

Anthony Grant may have the personnel to run an effective zone this season (Bamahoops.com).

  • Alabama flashes defensive potential against Southern Miss. We can finally mention Southern Miss on this microsite without discussing Donnie Tyndall. The story of this game, won by Alabama 81-67, was the potential of its defense. The Crimson Tide are flush with long, versatile guys this season who can play both on the perimeter and in the post. Anthony Grant ran a lot of 1-3-1 zone against the Golden Eagles, and while it didn’t exactly flummox them as they scored a point per possession, the strategy could turn into a nice season-long weapon for Alabama. Consider the personnel in Grant’s rotation: Levi Randolph (6’5’’), Rodney Cooper (6’6’’), Shannon Hale (6’8’’), Jimme Taylor (6’10’’), Michael Kessens (6’9’’) and Riley Norris (6’7’’). All of these guys are either natural wings or can hold their own on the perimeter. Ricky Tarrant also looked at home in picking up three steals out of the zone. It worked last night largely because the Golden Eagles went 8-of-29 from three, but it’s something for opponents to think about going forward.

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Welcome to the Show, Part II: Breakout Newcomers in the Former SEC West

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on November 18th, 2014

Last week, we sorted through Kentucky’s latest five-star recruiting haul and delved into Frank Martin’s latest freshman class to determine who the SEC East’s breakout newcomers would be in 2014-15. Today, we’ll take a closer look at the first-year players who are ready to make a splash in the division once known as the SEC West. A number of high-profile junior college pickups will help teams like Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, and Mississippi replace departing talent and reload en route to a potential NCAA Tournament bid.

Alabama: Justin Coleman. Coleman was a big pick-up for Anthony Grant, and the embattled Alabama coach may need his four-star freshman to come through in a big way if he’s going to keep his job. Coleman started the Crimson Tide’s sole exhibition game and had six assists (and four turnovers) in 31 minutes as the team’s floor general. He’ll cede minutes to Ricky Tarrant – an explosive scorer from the same spot – but it looks like Coleman will have every opportunity to remain his team’s primary option at the position. He’s a diminutive player at just 160 pounds, but he has the passing instincts and shooting range to make an impact against SEC opponents as a true freshman.

Justin Coleman Can Fly (Al.com)

Justin Coleman Can Fly (Al.com)

Arkansas: Anton Beard. Beard is one of two solid point guard prospects in Fayetteville. He’s currently locked in battle with junior college transfer Jabril Durham for a role behind or alongside Rashad Madden, who can handle either guard spot. As a result, this prediction could change as the season wears on. Beard grew two inches in his senior year of high school to bolster his solid man-up defense and develop into a high-major recruit. However, he struggled to find his shot in exhibition play (25% FG). Durham had similar issues, but his JuCo experience and stronger passing from the point carried him to a start in the Hogs’ season opener last weekend. The two newcomers will see their roles expands and contract based on Mike Anderson’s offensive and defensive strategies and Madden’s availability this winter.

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Ranking the AAC Non-Conference Schedules: Part I

Posted by Mike Lemaire on November 10th, 2014

It might seem that ranking non-conference schedules at this early juncture is a fruitless endeavor, and we understand that sentiment. Smart college basketball fans think they know who will be good and who won’t, but it’s all just educated guesswork until the season starts. That doesn’t mean evaluating non-conference schedules is foolish. Some teams will surprise and others disappoint, but the variance between preseason expectations and season-long success isn’t usually big enough to make schedule analysis worthless. In fact, given the weighty importance the Selection Committee places on non-conference scheduling when it determines the field of 68, analyzing schedules now may lead to clues about which AAC bubble teams could actually get in. We ranked all 11 team’s non-conference schedules from worst to first below, with the first installment featuring teams ranked #11-#6 today. All preseason rankings are courtesy of KenPom.com.

11. Houston Cougars

Sampson's Rebuild Took a Hit With the Loss of LJ Rose to Injury

Kelvin Sampson is Likely Smiling Because Of All The Bad Teams The Cougars Play.

The sky is blue, the sun rises in the east, and the Houston Cougars play an aggressively terrible non-conference schedule – those are the only three things anyone can truly count on. After three seasons in a row of playing one of the worst such schedules in the country, nothing has changed in that regard. The Cougars play six opponents ranked #294 and lower, including such luminaries as Abilene Christian and Houston Baptist. Early games against Murray State and Harvard present important opportunities to notch good wins, but it’s a good thing the Cougars aren’t expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament berth because the committee might laugh this non-conference resume out of the building.

10. East Carolina. Aside from the unlikely chance that the Pirates walk into Chapel Hill and upset North Carolina, there are few opportunities for the team to get any other wins worth noting. East Carolina will ease into its new conference playing an inspired non-conference schedule that includes perennial powerhouses like North Carolina Wesleyan and Virginia-Lynchburg. They will play in the Gulf Coast Showcase, pitting them against a tough Green Bay team and perhaps Fresno State if they win, but the rest of this schedule is littered with opponents that won’t be relevant by the middle of December.

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SEC M5: 11.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2014

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  1. Ole Miss will be without Aaron Jones to start the season, as the senior forward was suspended last week for a violation of team rules. He missed the Rebels’ exhibition win against Delta State on Friday and will also miss the first two regular season games against Charleston Southern and Troy. Andy Kennedy figures to weather life without Jones by giving more minutes to Sebastian Saiz (who had 14 rebounds in Friday’s exhibition win), M.J. Rhett and Dwight Coleby. Coleby playing increased minutes could be a silver lining in terms of his development, since he only played 10 minutes per game as a freshman last year. The Rebels are also relatively deep at the guard positions, and Kennedy could use four-guard lineups at times to cover Jones’ absence.
  2. It wouldn’t be a preseason M5 without a list from CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander. This time Norlander looks at 10 coaches who are on the hot seat entering the season, and he includes Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall (a last minute addition) from the SEC. Last year’s 13-19 campaign in Trevor Releford’s final season was certainly disappointing, but Grant has built a solid but underappreciated program at Alabama with at least 21 wins in three of his five seasons in Tuscaloosa. At the end of the day, it depends on how the Alabama administration views its basketball program. Even without a trip to the NCAA Tournament this season, 91 wins, one NCAA Tournament invitation and two NIT invitations in five years may be enough to buy Grant another year if his young roster shows potential. But he is no doubt walking a fine line at Alabama.
  3. Platoons, platoons, platoons. You just can’t avoid talk of platoons, especially not on the SEC microsite. First-year Kentucky assistant Barry Rohrssen talked about whether the platoon system will be a one-year thing or become a program staple at a press conference last week. “Well, you don’t exactly know it’s going to be limited,” Rohrssen said. “That’s to unfold next season.” This comment was in response to a question about the risk of recruits being turned away by the limited minutes they would get in a platoon system. It says here that Coach Cal will get players no matter what system he runs or who figures to be on the roster. Thus far elite recruits have not been scared away by a clogged roster in Lexington, and that doesn’t figure to change as long as Wildcats keep getting drafted.
  4. The Dallas Morning News obtained details of Billy Kennedy’s two-year contract extension that was announced in September, and they appear “mostly cosmetic,” according to the newspaper. Extending the contract of a coach who is 50-49 with no NIT or NCAA invitations in three years seems curious, but the recruiting class Kennedy has put together for next season furthers the case for patience. Still, Texas A&M has enough talent to emerge from the middle-of-the-pack in the SEC this season, and there is nothing like on-court success to validate a contract extension.
  5. Several Tennessee players told Ben Frederickson of GoVolsXtra that the NCAA infraction rumors swirling around Donnie Tyndall are not a distraction. “We are just trying to move forward,” JuCo transfer Kevin Punter told Frederickson. “We have a whole bunch of other things to be worrying about.” One of those things is the Vols’ season opener against VCU on Friday in Annapolis. The Rams are easily the most difficult opponent an SEC team will face to open the season, and it’s asking a tall task to prepare for the HAVOC even in drama-free times.
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SEC M5: 11.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 5th, 2014

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  1. The preview train rolls on at CBSSports.com, and this time Matt Norlander gives his list of the top 20 transfers for the upcoming season, with Auburn’s Antoine Mason, Florida’s Jon Horford and Tennessee’s Dominic Woodson all making the cut. This is an interesting group because each player finds himself in a different position on his team. Mason will be heavily-relied on to score and help Bruce Pearl set a competitive tone for the Tigers in year one. Conversely, Billy Donovan isn’t looking for superstar numbers from Horford, but he’ll need him to be a complementary piece up front. Woodson, as Norlander points out, is a wildcard for Donnie Tyndall because it’s not hard to envision him either as a load on the block or a player glued to the bench for large chunks of time (more on him below). No matter the situation, each of these transfers should have an impact in the SEC this season.
  2. College Basketball Talk released its preseason All-America teams and only two SEC players popped up among the three teams and group of honorable mentions: Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns (third team) and Aaron Harrison (honorable mention). I don’t think this particular lack of an SEC presence deserves an outcry, though. The article points out that Towns is extremely talented but may not get the minutes to rack up All-American numbers. That numbers crunch may also hurt the individual statistics of someone like Dakari Johnson, who at most any other school would probably be getting more preseason hype. The closest non-Wildcats to this list are probably Arkansas’ Bobby Portis and LSU’ Jordan Mickey, but even with my SEC bent I can’t make an argument for their inclusion.
  3. The first Bob Cousy Award watch list, on the other hand, had plenty of SEC flavor. The annual award given to the best point guard in the country included Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, Texas A&M’s Alex Caruso, Florida’s Kasey Hill and Ole MissJarvis Summers on its initial list. Duke also had two entrants on the 50-man list, and I’d be interested to know if two teams have ever had multiple lead guards on the list before. All the choices make sense, though, and I can’t come up with any omissions. Caruso is a deserving selection since he led the SEC in assist rate last season (36.7 percent), even if he should get more time off-the-ball now with the addition of freshman Alex Robinson. Billy Kennedy needs to put a better offense on the floor and that means having his best players out there regardless of position.
  4. If SEC commissioner Mike Slive has a doghouse for basketball coaches compiling soft non-conference schedules, there is no way Anthony Grant is in it. For the second year in a row, Alabama has one of the more challenging pre-SEC slates. Last season the Tide’s games against Oklahoma, Wichita State, Duke and UCLA fueled the 11th best strength of schedule nationally, according to KenPom. This season the Tide gets return games against Wichita State and UCLA, as well as Xavier, Iowa State and either Maryland or Arizona State. The challenge of course will be winning one of those marquee games, which would be a big stepping stone in what needs to be a bounce-back year for Grant.
  5. You always have to pump the brakes before delving too far into exhibition games, but as Will Shelton at Rocky Top Talk writes, it’s hard to not pay attention at Tennessee given all the new faces vying for playing time. The Vols beat NAIA opponent Pikeville, 80-62, in their exhibition opener, and there were stats galore. One interesting tidbit is that Tyndall started the immediately-eligible Woodson (mentioned above) at center, suggesting his level of conditioning may not be as big an impediment as some thought. Another notable statistic is that Armani Moore, who is coming into his junior year with a 3.1 PPG career scoring average, led the Vols in scoring with 17 points.
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One on One: An SEC Preview With Chris Dortch

Posted by Walker Carey on November 4th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the SEC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an SEC expert in Blue Ribbon College Yearbook editor Chris Dortch (@cdortch).

Rush the Court: How good is Kentucky and what makes it that good? The Wildcats begin the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC title. Do you expect them to win both the conference title and the national title?

Chris Dortch: It would not surprise me at all if Kentucky wins both the SEC title and the national title. I think the team is so good that you can rank both its first five and its second five in the Top 25. The team has nine McDonald’s All-Americans and more talent than I can remember any team in the SEC possibly ever having. Having said that, the Wildcats do have a weakness or two. They have to prove that, other than Aaron Harrison, they have someone who can make outside shots. If they cannot do that, teams are going to try to pack it in the lane and negate their size and dribble-drive. I have said this a few times on some radio shows: If Kentucky shoots 35 percent or better from the three-point line for the season, I think the Wildcats will be undefeated going into the Final Four.

It's Gators and Wildcats at the Top of the SEC, Again

It’s Gators and Wildcats at the Top of the SEC, Again

RTC: Florida’s personnel losses are notable with Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete all moving on from Gainesville. However, Billy Donovan’s squad seems primed to have another impressive season. What is it about this year’s Gators that will make them a force to be reckoned with in the conference?

Dortch: I think Florida has some experienced personnel and some young guys who I believe are ready to step. Someone like Kasey Hill, who understudied Wilbekin last season, seems poised to take over the point guard position. I think Michael Frazier is one of the best shooters in the country and he is ready to take the next step in his development. Dorian Finney-Smith, who was eligible last season after transferring from Virginia Tech, is so versatile that he was used at the point a few times. He is going to be a guy who is going to be asked to do a lot more than he was last year. There are also a couple transfers who will help. Jon Horford comes over as a fifth-year eligible from Michigan and Alex Murphy comes over from Duke. I think those two will help fortify the team’s front line.

RTC: Arkansas is still waiting on its breakthrough campaign in the Mike Anderson era. With a talented team featuring star big man Bobby Portis, will this finally be the season that the Razorbacks find a way back to the NCAA Tournament?

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SEC M5: 10.20.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 20th, 2014

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  1. The ability to recruit was (and still is) a big question mark surrounding first year Missouri head coach Kim Anderson. To address this expected deficiency, Anderson added Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford to his staff, and that decision has already paid immediate dividends in landing four-star wing Montaque (“Teki”) Gill-Caesar from – you guessed it – Huntington Prep. Fulford told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the time Gill-Caesar spent playing with Andrew Wiggins at Huntington was invaluable. “Teki would never back down from Andrew. Now, there were points in practice where Teki would get the better of Andrew until Andrew decided, ‘OK, enough’s enough.’” The Tigers will need that kind of confidence from Gill-Caesar as they replace Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross, three players that accounted for virtually all of the team’s scoring last season.
  2. Luke Winn and Dan Hanner continue their intricate, raw number modeling at SI.com, this time predicting which transfers will have the biggest impact at their new schools. Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones (SMU) lands the second spot on the list as the model predicts he will score 13.9 points per game for the Aggies. This infusion of scoring talent is vital for Billy Kennedy since his team was at times difficult to watch offensively last season. The addition of Jones and a healthy Davonte Fitzgerald should give Texas A&M the offensive boost that it needs. Florida’s Alex Murphy (#70) and Jon Horford (#90) check in pretty far down the list, but each will be heavily relied upon in the frontcourt while Chris Walker serves his three-game suspension, and they could shoot up this list if Walker’s off-court problems persist into the season.
  3. LSU junior guard Joseph Gray checked in at #12 on the SI.com list, and his journey to Baton Rouge has been tumultuous and at times heart-breaking. The Louisiana native, whose mother passed away while he was in high school, was spurned as a prep recruit by former Tigers coach Trent Johnson and ended up Texas Tech. He left the Red Raiders after one productive season (9.3 PPG, 3.2 APG) for Odessa Community College, where he averaged 34.7 PPG in his single season of JuCo action. New LSU head coach Johnny Jones gave Gray the chance to return home and he has a massive opportunity in front of him. He should be in position to earn a lion’s share of the minutes at point guard with Andre Stringer (graduation) and Anthony Hickey (transfer to Oklahoma State) now out of the picture. And despite all the movement in his young career, Gray has two years of eligibility to establish himself as a star at LSU.
  4. Unfortunately for Alabama, one of its transfers won’t see the court at all this season. Christophe Varidel, a graduate transfer from Chaminade, will miss the season because of a pre-existing knee injury, thus ending his collegiate career. Varidel was a part of Florida Gulf Coast’s Sweet Sixteen team in 2012-13, but transferred to the Islands when Andy Enfield left for USC after that season. First and foremost, it’s a sad situation for Varidel, as he will miss out on his only chance to play basketball in a power conference. It’s also an early blow for Anthony Grant since Varidel, a career 38.5 percent three-point shooter, would have played a part in trying to replace the scoring production that left with Trevor Releford.
  5. Frank Martin is angry — this time about criticism leveled at the lack of fan support for basketball at South Carolina. “It’s hard to tell me people don’t care, and yet you’re in the top 40 in the country in total attendance, you’re fifth in the SEC, and there’s an opinion that people don’t care,” Martin told the Charleston Post and Courier. The article points out that South Carolina was actually 41st in attendance with an average of 10,074 fans per game last season, but Martin’s argument is still well-taken. It’s rather impressive that a team without much success in recent history can post that kind of attendance figure, because winning leads to crowds no matter the sport and no matter the level. If Martin can turn the Gamecocks around, Colonial Life Arena and its 18,000-seat capacity will become a daunting challenge. For his part, Martin is about determined as a person can be to reach that point. “I’m not going to stop until the good Lord either takes me, or we put 18 [thousand] in that building when we play,” he said. Touche.
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SEC Offseason Reset

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 15th, 2014

The gym is open and the ball is bouncing. College basketball is here. Well, almost. The clang of the ball bouncing off the rim will soon turn into the sweet sound of the nothing but net shot that comes with practice, practice and more practice. The offseason was eventful in the SEC, and now that the dust has settled, here are a few conference predictions, observations, and questions for each team as they begin their 2014-15 journey.

John Calipari is in a good mood with this many All Americans on his roster (AP).

John Calipari is in a good mood with so many prep All-Americans on his roster (AP).

  1. Kentucky: Kentucky dominated the headlines this offseason, and for good reason. After a national title game run last April, expectations could not be higher for this group. The Wildcats played well in six games in the Bahamas during an August trip, earning high praise from observers despite a loss in their final game. The exhibition tour gave John Calipari‘s group of new highly-touted freshmen an opportunity to log significant minutes, a valuable advantage for this time of the year. The big story in Lexington is the possibility that Calipari will rely on a platoon system to provide sufficient minutes for the abundance of talent on his roster. Whether it works is something to watch for this season, but with returnees Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison joining another impressive recruiting class, it is hard to imagine this group failing to dominate the SEC.
  2. Florida: The Gators looked like a team that could have won it all last season on its way to a Final Four, a 36-3 overall record, and a perfect 21-0 in SEC play. The key pieces in that run are now gone, but coach Billy Donovan reloads yet again in Gainesville. Sophomore Chris Walker figures to play a more significant role, as do Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith. Florida has always thrived with the team-first approach, but it will rely heavily on the sharp shooting of junior Michael Frazier to carry the scoring load. The Gators will again find themselves in the upper echelon of the conference standings.

How will the rest of the conference shake out?

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