Tennessee Inches Closer to NCAA Bid, Win Over Alabama Could Seal Deal

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2013

David Changas (@dchangas) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Thursday afternoon’s SEC Tournament game between Tennessee and Mississippi State.

While the SEC has endured a significant amount of well-deserved criticism for its share of mediocre (well, bad) basketball this season (the fact that Mississippi State not only didn’t finish last in the league and was even able to win a game in the conference tournament – albeit against equally woeful South Carolina – is Exhibit A of the league’s futility), perhaps no conference presents more bubble scenarios as we roll towards Selection Sunday. Thus, while the usual Kentucky-related buzz is absent from this weekend’s festivities in Nashville except to the extent the Wildcats are on the bubble themselves,  there is a lot of intrigue about which teams will emerge and land a spot in the field of 68. As of now, it is assumed that only Florida and Missouri are locks for the field, with Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Alabama, and Tennessee seeking bids.

Tennessee Bowled Its Way One Step Closer to the NCAAs

Tennessee Bowled Its Way One Step Closer to the NCAAs

Clearly,  no team is more squarely on the bubble than the Volunteers, who dispatched of the significantly undermanned Bulldogs 69-53 behind 17 points from Jordan McRae Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena. The win arguably will do nothing to help the Vols’ standing in the RPI and with the committee, but a loss would have crippled Tennessee’s chances to receive a bid. Now, they must face a much tougher test on Friday, as they take on co-bubble dweller Alabama. While some view the contest as a “play-in” game of sorts, Tennessee comes in with a better resume than the Crimson Tide, which has no wins over the RPI top 50. And Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t think the bid is in question any longer. “I said after we beat Mizzou that we’re in the NCAA Tournament, so I’ve moved past that,” Martin said, unconvincingly, after the game. Still, for Tennessee, Friday’s game is an opportunity to win another game against a quality opponent and solidify its standing with the selection committee.

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SEC M5: 03.12.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on March 12th, 2013

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  1. It’s been exactly one month since Nerlens Noel last suited up for Kentucky, but his time on the sidelines couldn’t keep him off ofthe Sporting News All-Freshman team. Despite playing 6-7 fewer games than most of his competitors, Noel still finished the regular season as the nation’s fifth-leading shot swatter with 106. He exhibited an unpolished (at best) offensive game, but he still scored 10.5 points per game to go along with his 9.5 boards. Marcus Smart (Freshman of the Year), Shabazz Muhammad, Ben McLemore, and Anthony Bennett join Noel on the All-Freshman team, a quintet that comprises 5 of the top 6 picks in NBADraft.net’s most recent mock draft.
  2. Just as the case may be when the real bracket is revealed, the SEC is struggling for representation in Grantland’s yearly alternate bracket. That may not be so bad though. In “The Most Hated College Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years” bracket, Florida‘s Joakim Noah is the only SEC player judged to have been loathsome enough to make the field, “earning” a 2 seed in the 2000′s region. The ponytailed, headstrong Noah didn’t endear himself to opposing fans as he led the Gators to consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. Let’s break down his chances, based almost solely on personal biases: Noah is a heavy favorite over Aaron Craft, the bracket’s only active player, in the first round. Either Adam Morrison or Luke Walton await in the Sweet 16, but their current irrelevance will hand Noah a victory. Next, we’re in for a clash of titans as Tyler Hansbrough and Joakim Noah meet for the right to go to the Final Four. It’s too close to call for me, but if Noah advances, he’ll challenge Jalen Rose or Larry Johnson for the right to lose to the Duke representative in the final.
  3. Tennessee‘s Jarnell Stokes earned his second SEC Player of the Week honor of the season, tallying two double-doubles in must-win games. Stokes led the way for the Volunteers as they outrebounded Missouri (ranked 6th in rebound rate nationally) by a count of 40-27. He is the only SEC player to average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in conference play. Elsewhere, Mississippi State’s Craig Sword was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his instrumental role in the Bulldogs’ regular season-ending OT win against Auburn. Sword tallied 19 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds and made two crucial free-throws in the extra period to keep Mississippi State out of the SEC basement.
  4. Florida looked like the SEC’s lone Final Four threat through much of the year, but Billy Donovan isn’t a fan of his team’s current trajectory. “I’m disappointed, to be honest with you, in our team’s fire,” he said Monday. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. That’s concerning to me.” Donovan also noted that he had been far from impressed with his team’s effort in practice leading up to the trip to Lexington. The Gators limped to the regular season finish line, winning only three of their last six games. Although they remain atop Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, recent poor performances from perimeter scorers Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario are contributing to Florida coming up short in regards to the so-called eye test.
  5. Alabama has struggled to get any production from their frontcourt for most of the season. Carl Engstrom was lost to an early injury, highly-touted frosh Devonta Pollard has failed to live up to expectations, and Moussa Gueye has zero offensive touch. Sophomore forward Nick Jacobs, however, has stepped up for the Tide when they needed it the most. “Nick has shown improvement,” says coach Anthony Grant. “His play is showing that. He’s more mentally and physically ready to handle what he needs to be able to handle.” Jacobs didn’t see many minutes at the start of the season, failing to reach double-digit points until the last game of 2012. He’s rounded into form over the past month, including a career-high 18 points against Ole Miss. Alabama will most likely face Tennessee in their first SEC Tournament game, and given Jarnell Stokes’ recent play, Jacobs will be counted on to match some of that offensive output.
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A Puncher’s Chance? Breaking Down the Teams Driving the 2013 SEC Tournament

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on March 11th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland.

The SEC Tournament is upon us, and thanks to the league’s new 14-team format, fans get a whole extra day of win-or-go-home basketball in the south. The 2012-13 season hasn’t been particularly kind to the SEC. The conference suffered through a plague of upset losses and a dearth of quality wins which led to speculation that Florida would be the league’s only representative at the NCAA Tournament.

That course has been corrected over the final three weeks of the season thanks to some big wins across the conference’s second tier, but there are still plenty of teams battling for postseason slots. Tennessee and Kentucky will be looking to one-up each other as they duel for what might the last at-large invitation to the Big Dance. Alabama and Ole Miss will look to re-enter the postseason conversation with legitimizing wins. Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt will try to rally hard and extend their seasons one day at a time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 14 teams that will be competing for conference honors when Wednesday rolls around.

The Prohibitive Favorite: Florida

 (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

Florida Seeks Another SEC Title in Nashville (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

Billy Donovan’s team hasn’t been perfect against a downtrodden conference, and that has cost the Gators a shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their best recourse for that will be to put together a dominant run in Nashville, and an easy Friday match-up against LSU or Georgia will give them the opportunity to get off on the right foot. Much like the rest of the season, this will be a high-risk, low-reward endeavor for Florida. They won’t face a top-50 opponent until a theoretical Sunday match-up in the title game. They’ll have to hold court and prove that they can reclaim the dominance that led them to a string of double-digit wins to open league play.

The Savvy Bet: Missouri 

Mizzou may have the richest depth of any team in the SEC, but Frank Haith’s squad has been vulnerable against the conference’s good and mid-level teams in 2013. The Tigers have struggled to play well as a team despite the wealth of experience on their roster, but they’ve been able to regroup (4-2 in their last six games) as the SEC Tournament approaches. Mizzou has the scoring, ball movement, and rebounding to push any opponent to the limit. Players like Alex Oriakhi, Laurence Bowers, and Phil Pressey can create mismatches against any team they face. Can they ratchet up the defense and come together as a cohesive unit when the pressure is on? The Tigers are just a #6 seed in the SEC bracket, but they have the potential to do so much more — especially with a relatively weak draw on the road to the conference championship game.

The At-Large Brawlers: Tennessee, Kentucky

Tennessee and Kentucky represent the conference’s best candidates for a third and possibly fourth NCAA Tournament bid, but it may be a case of one-or-the-other when it comes to the selection committee’s final bracket. Both of these teams proved that they can beat Florida over the past two weeks, but their victories came with the help of home court advantage. Now, they’ll have to prove that they can travel to a neutral court and roll that momentum into a season-sustaining run through the SEC Tournament. The Volunteers and Wildcats will be pitting their resumes against each other for a chance to make it to the Big Dance, and while either team can make a case for inclusion based on their regular season performances, another significant win would all but ensure their spot in one of the NCAA’s four regions.

Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)

Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)

The only way these two would meet in Nashville is in the SEC title game, and both teams would be likely locks for the 68-team filed at that point. Kentucky has the better collection of talent, but no team has been hotter over the past month than Tennessee. The Volunteers are at the tail end of an 8-1 run that rallied the team from CBI territory and on to the happy side of the bubble. However, they may have been pushed down to NIT status after Saturday’s UK win over the Gators and Middle Tennessee State’s surprising Sun Belt Tournament loss. Is there room for both of these teams in the NCAA bracket?

The Forgotten Bubble Contenders: Ole Miss, Alabama

Ole Miss and ‘Bama belonged in the previous group until late-season slumps effectively tanked their seasons. For the Rebels, February and March represented a precipitous fall from grace. Marshall Henderson and his teammates plummeted from a potential five-seed or better all the way off the NCAA Tournament bubble with a 6-6 record down the stretch that included losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State. Still, Henderson, Murphy Holloway, and Reginald Buckner could lead the third-seeded Rebels to a big weekend if they can regain their early-season magic.

The Crimson Tide didn’t have a bad spring, they just failed to produce any resume-defining wins. Anthony Grant’s team is solid across the court and strong enough to hang with the SEC’s best teams, but they’ve been unable to lock down an impressive top-50 victory in 2013. This rebuilding Alabama squad has the pieces in place for a big 2014 run, but they might not have the gas this week to get to the SEC title game and back to the bright side of the bubble.

Puncher’s Chances: Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU

The SEC Tournament occasionally fails to follow rhyme, reason, or tradition. Some years, a tornado hits the host arena and wills a 4-12 Georgia team to the Big Dance. In others, a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t known much beyond abject failure in the conference bracket wins their first postseason title since 1950. Five teams at the lower end of the Southeastern spectrum could end up adding to that legacy in 2013.

Vanderbilt, thanks in part to the emergence of freshman Sheldon Jeter, is finishing its season better than they started it. A team that can shoot from three-point range and play hard-nosed defense on the perimeter is always dangerous in tournament play, and that will give Kevin Stallings’ team a shot. Same goes for Texas A&M, a squad that could ride Elston Turner Jr.’s hot hand to a marquee match-up on Sunday.

Arkansas, with wins over Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri, may have the best resume of the group when it comes to the league’s third tier and a high-paced style that could wreak havoc in a four-day tournament setting. Georgia has been streaky all year and could be an upset of Florida away from an easy path to the SEC title game. Finally, LSU has been wholly unpredictable in 2013 and that volatility could result in a surprising run to a weekend match-up or a Thursday exit at the hands of Georgia.

Saving Money on Costly Weekend Hotels in Nashville: Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina

Frank Martin’s team has some young talent, but doesn’t have a path to a Friday game unless Bruce Ellington or Michael Carrera catch fire for the Gamecocks. Even with a big, slightly inexplicable win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State is still a rebuilding team with just seven scholarship players to count on in Nashville. Auburn held Alabama to just 37 points once and also beat Florida State this season, but that’s about it for bright spots in a season that’s ending on a 1-14 skid.

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SEC M5: 03.11.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on March 11th, 2013

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  1. In one of the best weekends of college basketball that we’ve seen this year, the SEC may be able to lay claim to the top highlight. Trevor Releford hit a half-court shot as time expired to give Alabama a 61-58 win over Georgia, keeping the Crimson Tide in consideration for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Bama appeared well on its way to an easy win when they took a 14-point lead into halftime, but the Bulldogs stormed back in the second. “I felt like in the second half they really picked their tempo up and really attacked us,” coach Anthony Grant said. “The zone caused us some problems.” Releford put the finishing touches on a strong regular season, adding an iconic moment to his case for SEC Player of the Year.
  2. Florida went into Lexington over the weekend looking for its first win at Rupp Arena in six years. A back and forth game had finally swung in the Gators’ favor after Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein was forced to bench with four fouls, but even with a seven-point lead with eight minutes to play, Florida went ice cold. The Gators did nothing with their last 14 possessions the rest of the way, committing five turnovers and missing all 11 of their field goal attempts. “In these situations, someone has to step up and make a play,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Someone has to make a shot.” Florida couldn’t get that shot to fall, doing nothing to dispel the notion that they can’t deliver in close games.
  3. Kentucky’s win over Florida certainly had a do-or-die feel, but Gary Parrish believes that Kentucky shouldn’t rest easy just yet. The Wildcats’ Tournament resume remains marginal. A 21-10 overall record, a 7-9 record against the RPI top 100, and only two wins against the top 50 doesn’t exactly scream “lock.” “There’s a tendency in college basketball to react strongly to every single thing that happens,” writes Parrish, “and the byproduct is that analysts and fans are constantly punching everybody’s tickets for the Big Dance.” A win over Florida filled a big hole in Kentucky’s argument, but a loss to Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament would cancel out a lot of that progress and put the Cats right back on the fringes of the bubble.
  4. The teams at the bottom of the SEC needed overtime to settle their season finale, with Mississippi State beating Auburn, 74-71, putting Bulldogs coach Rick Ray in a celebratory mood. “Just finding a way to gut out a win and to go in the locker room to see so many people happy,” he said after the game. “You read some things were they say we are the worst team in SEC history, so I guess we can’t be that if we finished 13th out of 14.” Touche, Rick. Mississippi State has been ridiculed all season as one of the worst power conference teams in college basketball, but thanks to a strong start and finish to the conference schedule (book-ending that 13-game losing streak), the Bulldogs finished outside of the SEC cellar.
  5. Tennessee overcame an eight-point second half deficit to beat Missouri, 64-62, on Saturday, maintaining its status as the conference’s hottest team. The Vols have won eight of nine to turn what appeared to be a lost season into a potential at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Tennessee is currently on the outside looking in according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, meaning that the Vols are another SEC team in need of SEC Tournament success. “I feel like we’re an older group,” forward Jarnell Stokes said. “We know that we have to do damage in the SEC Tournament. I’m not going to let another one slip away like we did last year.” A year ago, Cuonzo Martin’s team was in an almost identical position. Tennessee had ended the year winning eight of nine, but were upset by Ole Miss in their first SEC Tournament game, relegating the Vols to the NIT.
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SEC M5: 03.08.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 8th, 2013

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  1. Tempers flared on Tuesday night when Arkansas squared off against Missouri, but the real showdown was between coaches. Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson returned to Columbia for the first time since leaving the Tigers, and current Missouri coach Frank Haith apparently hasn’t taken too kindly to some of the credit Anderson has placed upon himself for Haith’s recent success. Anderson made no secret that he felt he left the program in great shape for Haith two seasons ago. “That was a team that probably could have contended for a Final Four. I really thought that. … So you ask me what kind of shape it was in? … It was in great shape. Most guys don’t inherit a team like that.” Did Haith take that statement personally? Perhaps he did take offense, based on the altercation during one of the timeouts of Missouri’s thumping of Arkansas.  So  it just might make you giddy to know that there is still a possibility that Missouri and Arkansas could face off once more in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, if a couple of things go the right way for both teams this weekend.
  2. There has been a lot of bubble chatter on this site, nationally, and among anyone who follows college basketball even moderately. The stakes were clear for both Ole Miss and Alabama, two teams widely considered among the first four out or close thereafter,  going into Tuesday’s game. Win, and live to see another day. Lose, and the bubble would burst. But according to at least one opinion, all of the excitement over the bubble was for naught because ultimately, “this Alabama team is not an NCAA Tournament team. Over and out.” Alabama has wins over Villanova, Tennessee, and Kentucky, but none of those are victories are likely to impress the committee too much. With three losses in their last four games, it is probably time for the Tide to focus their efforts on the postseason, but perhaps the NIT is a more appropriate goal at this point.
  3. Auburn senior guard Frankie Sullivan finally broke out of a severe slump on Wednesday night against the Tennessee Volunteers. He scored 24 points, his largest contribution since a 26 point effort against Arkansas on January 16. Following that double overtime loss in Bud Walton Arena, Sullivan was averaging almost 18 points per game, but from that point on, he managed just 9.7 points per game on 31 percent shooting from the field. Head coach Tony Barbee thinks it’s all in Sullivan’s head. “This stretch right here is as mind-boggling as anything I’ve seen,” Barbee said. “Those are shots that are as automatic as automatic can be for a guy. He’s just struggling mentally right now.” Unfortunately, Sullivan’s resurgence against the Vols is too late for the Tigers to make an impact in the league after losing fourteen of their last fifteen games.
  4. Florida is still experiencing some gaps during stretches on offense, but the Gators continue to rely on defense to win games. “Defense got it done for us tonight,” UF forward Erik Murphy said. “We weren’t clicking on offense early and it allowed us to overcome some things before we got into a rhythm.” Coach Billy Donovan said the Gators’ level of defensive efficiency against Vanderbilt is the way it should always be. “We need to do that to all the teams we play,” Donovan said. “They were a team that, scouting them, definitely was playing better and making shots from the 3-point line. We really collectively, I thought, did a good job there and didn’t give them too many easy layups.” Florida held Vandy to just 40 points on 26.9 percent shooting from the field. If UF continues to be inconsistent on offense, its defense will be forced to lead the way.
  5. Nerlens Noel is filling up his free time by dropping rhymes for his new rap, and it was actually pretty good. The real kicker came towards the end when Noel teases Kentucky fans with the line,  “I might come back — but I don’t know yet.” Check out the video for yourself. Enjoy on this Friday morning:

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Did Black Saturday Sink the SEC’s NCAA Tournament Chances?

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on March 5th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland.

There’s no way around it – the SEC is having one of its worst basketball seasons in recent history. If it holds up, the conference might get lapped by the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley, and Mountain West Conferences in 2013. Only Florida has survived as a top 25 staple as talented but unproven teams like Kentucky and Missouri fell from the national rankings as the season wore on. The Wildcats have struggled to replace the game-altering defense and efficient offense of Nerlens Noel while Frank Haith’s Tigers have failed to gel as a unit despite boasting one of the country’s most talented rosters. Behind them, Ole Miss rose to the national consciousness thanks to Marshall Henderson and a 17-2 opening record. Then, they fell back to earth nearly as quickly while the cocksure guard struggled to make more than 35 percent of his shots in deflating losses. Even Alabama, with an 11-5 conference record and a top 50 RPI, has struggled to prove that their solid record passes the smell test in 2013.

The Gators and.... Who Else From the SEC... WIll Be Dancing?

The Gators and Who Else From the SEC Will Be Dancing?

Then, on March 2, with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee intently watching, all four teams lost. It started when Alabama, who needed a big win against Florida just to make it to the Tournament bubble, fell by a dozen points on the road. Then Tennessee, who was riding high after its own Gator upset, lost against a better-than-advertised Georgia team that was playing angry after an upset loss to Vanderbilt. Kentucky followed that up by allowing Arkansas to a 26-shot advantage in a 13-point defeat in Fayetteville. Then, most inexplicably of all, Ole Miss lost its Egg Bowl showdown with 7-20 Mississippi State, snapping the Bulldogs’ 13-game losing streak and completing the Rebels’ drop from potential NCAA Tournament #4-seed to NIT participant. There’s no sugar-coating how destructive this loss was – the Bulldogs had lost their previous two games by a combined 71 points. Marshall Henderson’s 3-of-18 performance from three-point range painted him less as a Chris Lofton-style savior and more as a late-era Antoine Walker chucker.

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SEC M5: 03.05.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 5th, 2013

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  1. College basketball conversation in March is typically dominated by who’s in and who’s out, and this season is certainly no exception. This year, however, the SEC is central to the bubble conversation. Missouri and Florida appear by all accounts to be in. After that, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss all appear to be heading into the final week of the season and the SEC Tournament holding their collective breath. The latest bracket projections over with our friends at College Basketball Talk on NBC Sports have the SEC on the wrong side of the bubble. Tennessee, despite a road loss to Georgia, is among the last five teams in. Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas are listed as among the last five teams out. And moving further and further away at this point is Ole Miss. The Rebels are now listed among the next five teams out, a spot typically reserved for at-large teams needing to win their conference tournament to work their way back into the conversation. The SEC bubble crew needs a quality win this week, or else.
  2. While the SEC may be downtrodden this year, Florida’s claim to the regular season SEC championship is still quite an accomplishment, according to the Gainesville Sun.  Prior to coach Billy Donovan’s arrival in Gainesville, Florida had won a single SEC regular season title. Under Donovan’s 17-year reign as head coach, the Gators have now won or shared five SEC regular season championships. That is an impressive feat, and as the Sun points out, “I’m not sure there has been a more impressive SEC title than this one because of all the injuries the Gators have endured.” The Gators haven’t been at full strength in quite some time, and it will be interesting to see how the committee seeds UF taking that fact into account. Is a number one seed in the cards for Florida?
  3. Yahoo Sports takes into account Florida‘s injuries throughout the year, and makes the case that the Gators lack the quality road wins needed to make their resume worthy of a number one seed. “Florida has only lost five games all season but all five of its losses have come when the Gators have gone on the road to face a quality opponent, or in the case of Arkansas, a so-so opponent. The Gators lost at Arizona and Kansas State back in December and have lost three times this month on the road in SEC to Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.” Florida has one remaining road game on its schedule, and beating Kentucky could give the Gators the last and necessary piece of the puzzle for a top seed.
  4. We talked yesterday about the potential for Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy to be on the hot seat after what could be another year of not making the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork remains supportive despite an ugly recent loss to Mississippi State. “My position hasn’t changed despite how painful it was (Saturday) night,” Bjork said after watching the short-handed Bulldogs defeat his Rebels. Then again, what athletic director expresses disgust in his head coach two games before the end of the regular season? These matters are generally best left for the offseason. Replacing the head coach in Oxford seems drastic considering the positive direction in which the Rebels have moved over the past several years. Kennedy is now the all-time winningest coach in Ole Miss history, and it is not as though he took over a program that was accustomed to annual trips to the Big Dance. The Rebels haven’t tasted the NCAA Tourney since a 22-point loss to UCLA in 2002. Replacing him now only seems to stall the progress that has been made.
  5. Two weeks ago, the SEC microsite published a piece examining the likelihood of Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel winning the SEC freshman of the year award. The answer was a resounding yes at the time, and now Noel has been named a finalist for the Wayman Tisdale Award honoring the nation’s best freshman. Before his injury, Noel turned in one of the all-time best single season performances for a Kentucky freshman, but he also has the numbers to be competitive for the national award. As WKYT in Lexington points out, “Noel led the nation in blocks per game, while also ranking among the top-30 nationally in rebounds and steals per game. He was the only player standing 6’5″ or taller who ranked in the top-30 for steals.” Despite playing in just 24 games, his defense certainly puts him in the conversation, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if he takes home the hardware.
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SEC M5: 03.04.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 4th, 2013

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  1. Free throws haven’t been a source of pride for the Florida Gators of late, but success at the charity stripe sealed the win for Billy Donovan’s squad against Alabama on Saturday. Alabama coach Anthony Grant admitted Florida’s newfound confidence at the line made the game plan difficult to execute. “We weren’t able to take away the free-throw line today,” said Grant. “In the second half, their whole thing was to drive the ball and to attack the rim, and they had success with it. Twenty-two points at the free-throw line at home is going to be awfully hard to overcome.” The Gators shot just 68.2 percent from the line coming into the game, but were 22 of 26 (84.6 percent) on Saturday afternoon.
  2. Senior guard Kenny Boynton has 1,927 points in a Florida uniform, but he has had to work very hard for every point lately. “Guys project how a guy is playing or not playing based on whether or not the ball is going in the basket and certainly here the last few games he hasn’t made the number of shots that he has made,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He had a stretch there to start the year where he really wasn’t shooting the ball, and then he went on a tear for a little bit and maybe here lately, he’s not.” In the month of February, Boynton averaged under 10 points per game and shot just 24 percent from three-point range. Boynton hasn’t scored 20 points or more since a January 12 game against LSU. If Florida is going to make a deep run into March, it will need its senior guard to return to form.
  3. One thing a coach never wants to admit is that his team got out-hustled, but that is exactly what Kentucky coach John Calipari said after Saturday’s loss to Arkansas. “We weren’t as tough as them, we didn’t play as hard as them and they wanted the game more than us, and that team usually wins,” Calipari said. A huge key to the game was turnovers. The Wildcats turned the ball over 19 times because of the Razorbacks’ press and general hectic pressure.  “We tried to make the game as chaotic as we could,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “That was the difference in the game.” Not that a loss is ever acceptable or needed, but this was exceptionally bad timing for Kentucky as the Cats are in hot pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid. A less than impressive showing did some damage to the Kentucky’s case, but there’s still time with a game at Georgia on Thursday and a home date with Florida on Saturday.
  4. Saturday was a big win for the Razorbacks. They are guaranteed a .500 record in SEC play for the first time since 2008. They beat Kentucky for the first time since 2011 in a hard fought overtime win. But Saturday was big for Arkansas because Kentucky is still a rivalry game, and one in which Razorback fans circle on the calendar with a strong desire to walk out victorious. As Doc Harper of Arkansas Expats writes, “there’s a part of me that always wants to beat Kentucky because of the wars of the early/mid 90s, so today was incredibly sweet.” This type of history and animosity makes the SEC better, and one can only hope that Kentucky takes a potential rematch in Nashville in a couple of weeks a little personal.
  5. Sometimes teams don’t necessarily need to excel to win, but they might just need to make fewer mistakes than their opponents. That’s exactly what the Commodores did in their win over the Auburn Tigers on Saturday. “We’re very happy to get a very ugly road win,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I don’t know if both teams had really bad offense, and I certainly don’t want to speak for their side, but it didn’t feel like either side played very well tonight for me.”  In the SEC, victories no the road are very hard to come by. Prior to their win on Saturday, the Commodores had just two road victories in the SEC. Neither of the wins were against top-tier SEC competition as they had beaten cellar-dwellers South Carolina and Mississippi State. Overall, Vanderbilt is turning the corner at the right time with four victories in its last five games.
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SEC M5: 03.01.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on March 1st, 2013

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  1. Missouri earned its second road win of the season at South Carolina last night, thanks to a fantastic shooting display. The Tigers hit nearly 70% of their shots, including 6-of-9 from three-point range. “I don’t think we could have played any better offensively,” head coach Frank Haith said. Guards Keion Bell and Jabari Brown enjoyed a size advantage over the smaller starting Gamecock backcourt, enabling them to combine for 47 points. Phil Pressey (one game after scoring 27 against Kentucky) didn’t attempt a single shot, opting instead to serve as a pure play-maker, finishing with nine assists. Missouri will head home for a two-game stretch before traveling to Tennessee for its regular season finale.
  2. After suffering its first three losses of its SEC schedule, the air of invincibility has vanished from Florida. Don’t be too quick to remove them from your list of title contenders, though, as the Gators are finally getting healthy. Billy Donovan announced Thursday that both Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II have been cleared for this weekend’s game against Alabama. “Our guys that have been through the grind of most of the last month or so, they can’t rest and relax,” Donovan said. “They’ve got to understand that they’ve got to step up and they’ve got to play and they cannot take the approach of, ‘Well, we’re a little bit deeper. We have more guys available.’ Because I just don’t know if Frazier and/or Yeguete are going to be really able to be able to really provide some significant minutes for us.” Frazier missed only one game, but Yeguete has been sidelined since February 5, during which Florida desperately missed his rebounding ability, only out-boarding its opponent in two of six games.
  3. With the Gators finally having the luxury of a full squad, their biggest worry this Saturday will be Alabama guard Trevor Releford. The junior guard from Kansas City has been a revelation for the Tide this season, earning him quite a bit of praise. “I see a lot more confidence in his shot,” said LJ Goolsby, Releford’s AAU coach. “That’s been evident the last couple of games, most importantly. The bigger the game, the better he is a lot of times. That speaks volumes about his competitiveness. Competitors want the biggest challenges. They accept it and embrace it.” With the departures of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, the position of #1 scoring option was up for grabs in Tuscaloosa this season, and Releford has locked it down. He’s been especially hot recently (including a career high 36 points against LSU), and will have to be at his best to upset the Gators in Gainesville.
  4. Tennessee waited until the last possible opportunity to turn its season around, displaying some pretty remarkable composure during their late-season run. What’s behind this new and improved Volunteers team?  The Chattanooga Times Free PressPatrick Brown credits coach Cuonzo Martin and his stoic nature. “You can’t get overemotional in certain situations,” Martin says. “You’ve got to be even-keeled. But that’s easier said than done.” The second-year coach rarely changes his tone in his interactions with the media, even when some of the Vols’ early-season performances undoubtedly had him boiling inside. Consider leading scorer Jordan McRae impressed. “You guys see our practices, the way Coach Martin is, you would think we hadn’t won a game yet this year,” said the junior guard. “That’s just the way it’s going to be, and I think Coach Martin does a really good job of making us realize we always have a game after this one.”
  5. Kentucky fans were treated to a night of celebration on Wednesday. The Wildcats easily dispatched Mississippi State, as expected, but the real draw was the 1996 team’s return to Rupp Arena. With stars like Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, and Walter McCarty all in attendance, coach John Calipari will hope uber-recruit Andrew Wiggins, who was taking his official visit to the Lexington campus, was impressed by the tradition. The Bulldogs were a bit of a break for the Wildcats, whose NCAA Tournament hopes will be put to the test when they travel to Arkansas (undefeated at home in SEC play) on Saturday.
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SEC M5: 02.27.12 Edition

Posted by DPerry on February 27th, 2013

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  1. The red-hot Tennessee Volunteers extended its winning streak to six games Tuesday night, handing Florida their second loss in three games. Jordan McRae provided most of the offense with 27 points, while Jarnell Stokes (14 rebounds) dominated the glass in a game that was almost a must-win for the Vols to make the NCAA Tournament field. Florida began SEC play with 11 straight victories, looking almost infallible in comparison to the rest of the weak conference. However, injuries have taken their toll (Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II, most recently) and the Gators have lost some of that shine, maybe enough to completely excuse themselves from the #1-seed conversation. With the loss, Billy Donovan’s record against Cuonzo Martin fell to 0-3.
  2. Anthony Grant charged Trevor Releford with putting the offense on his back through the rest of the season, and he started out in style. Behind 21 points from the junior guard, Alabama avenged an ugly February 6 loss to intrastate rival Auburn with an easy win Tuesday night. Nick Jacobs chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “We talked about the importance of every game going forward, but obviously any time you get a chance to play your in-state rival that adds a different meaning,” Grant said after the game. Alabama travels to Gainesville this weekend with, unbelievably, a chance to tie the Gators atop the SEC standings.
  3. Believe it or not, Georgia still has a chance to grab a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Show of hands: Who thought the Bulldogs would be able to say that at the end of February? Really? Really? Coach Mark Fox will face a challenge tonight, as he brings his young backcourt into the uncomfortable environment that is Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, the only venue in the nation that features benches along the baseline. “I’m probably more worried about it this year with such a young perimeter group,” Fox said of the Commodores’ court configuration. “There’s a lot of the game they’ll have to manage on their own on the floor.” Freshman Charles Mann has been seeing more time at the point, while classmates Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris have earned their share of minutes as well. The Bulldogs have lost three of four games after a previous five-game winning streak.
  4. Andrew Wiggins, the top recruit in the class of 2013 according to both Rivals and ESPN, will take an official visit to Kentucky, probably while you’re reading this. He’s visited the Lexington campus before, but expects to see more than he did on his previous unofficial trip. “He’ll have a chance to meet different people: the academic people, the athletic director,” said Rob Fulford, Wiggins’ coach at Huntington (WV) Prep. “It’s more official as far as what you’re looking for and getting a feel for the school.” The forward originally from Canada is also considering Florida State, Kansas, and North Carolina. Also, watch this.
  5. Frank Haith hasn’t been hesitant to criticize his team this season. His most recent target is his team’s subpar defense on the road against Kentucky. “We had nobody play on that end of the court,” Haith said. “And when you have nobody play on that end of the court, you don’t have a chance. We had so many breakdowns where we didn’t rotate, we didn’t shrink the gap and allowed them driving lanes and loose balls and poor closeouts.” Kentucky entered Saturday’s game with Missouri without any momentum, but the Tigers’ lax defense allowed the Wildcats to shoot over 50% from the field, as well as over 40% from long range. Haith believes that his team only plays quality defense when their offensive game is on, which may help to explain much of the Tigers’ road struggles this season.
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ATB: Hoosiers Slip at the Barn, Late Season UT Tournament Push Redux, and Memphis Folds at Xavier…

Posted by Chris Johnson on February 27th, 2013

ATB

Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

Tonight’s Lede. Big Boys Stumble. At various stages of this season, Indiana and Florida have been called the best team in the country. Both efficiency statistics and on-court observations confirmed the hype. Over weeks of grueling competition the season has spotlighted weaknesses on both outfits – Florida can’t win on the road, Indiana tightens up in the second halves of close games. Top teams get picked apart endlessly; it’s part of the reason why this sport, and its subjective polls, are so fun to talk about. With both going down on Tuesday night, I won’t even begin to imagine what will be said Wednesday morning about these teams. Some of the talk may be more optimistic than I’m leading on. Equally possible is a scathing revival of the “No Best Team” debate, and the attendant tirades about the quality and quantity of NBA talent in this year’s draft class. We, of course, will leave that for other people. Don’t worry: These upsets receive plenty of love in the space below. But if you expect a mainstream screed on the state of college basketball, on the evils of the one-and-done system, the ultimate vanity of the regular season, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Your Watercooler Moment. Don’t Rue IU.

It hurts to lose in any context. Even No. 1 Indiana can't avoid the occasional road defeat (AP).

It hurts to lose in any context. Even No. 1 Indiana can’t avoid the occasional road defeat (AP).

The rare multi-week placeholder of the number one ranking in the AP Poll lost Tuesday night. We should have seen this coming; the top spot in the rankings has been a dangerously ephemeral place since Duke fell from its No. 1 perch around the turn of the New Year. Indiana’s reign felt* like the most sustainable thing since, with not only the star power of Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo mounting a strong case for their team’s unquestioned dominance. The results on the court were piling up quite nicely, too – the Hoosiers withstood a devastating last-second loss at Illinois, perilous road trips to Ohio State and Michigan State, all while keeping that coveted numerical distinction. What IU was doing in the Big Ten – living and thriving on the road, what every team has tried and failed to do at time or another – was remarkable. It was also too good to be true. In this historically fierce Big Ten, was there anyone who reasonably believed Indiana could rip off eight straight wins, including trips to Minnesota and Michigan, to finish the season as a Kentucky 2012-like favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament? The Gophers ended that conversation Tuesday night at the Barn. Indiana lost one in a number of tricky Big Ten road games, and now, inevitably, the No. 1 debate will rage on for another week. This feels like a perfect juncture to salute the Hoosiers for an inspiring run of dominance unseen in any other league by any other team this season. After braving the road rigors of Big Ten country, Indiana, despite Tuesday night’s loss, can at least claim to have lived up to its preseason front-runner status. Reputational merits aside, the Hoosiers made a fine go at keeping No. 1 locked up in B-town. And given their body of work to date, they just might keep it (*see what I did there?) through next week.

Also Worth Chatting About.Deja Vols.

A big resume win was what Tennessee needed, and that's exactly what it got Tuesday night in beating Florida (AP).

A big resume win was what Tennessee needed, and that’s exactly what it got Tuesday night in beating Florida (AP).

This is not a new story. Last season, Tennessee won eight out of nine games to finish 10-6 in the SEC race. The Volunteers, powered by then-freshman wunderkind Jarnell Stokes, pushed hard for an at-large bid, and if not for an overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament, their late surge would have given the selection committee a long and hard decision to make. UT is pressing yet again as the conference season plays out, and it might just be in better position to leave Selection Sunday with more than an NIT one-seed this time around. Because when you snag the biggest kid on the SEC block, as the Volunteers did in Knoxville Tuesday night by beating Florida, the resume-changing potential is boundless. Tennessee is in the discussion now, no doubt, and the way Cuonzo Martin’s team is playing lately, and the soft tail end of the SEC schedule (at Georgia and Auburn, home against Missouri), things are looking up in Knoxville. The late-season Tournament surge is on, the Volunteers are playing their best basketball of the season, and in a year where the SEC boasts two decent teams and not much else, UT has a place in the at-large jumble. It also helps when the aforementioned Gators, the best NCAA chip available in this league, cannot, under any circumstance, beat quality teams on the road. The Gators’ road hiccups are of no big concern to UT. Right now, the Vols have their sights set on the prize they fell just short of last season. Their bubble stock is on the rise, that’s for sure – which is a lot more than you can say about most bubble-dwellers these days.

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SEC M5: 2.26.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on February 26th, 2013

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  1. After scoring 20 and 32 points against LSU and Texas A&M respectively Tennessee junior Trae Golden was been named the SEC Player of the Week. The Volunteer point guard has struggled through an up and down season, struggling to find consistency with his shot and decision-making. That wasn’t the case last week however as he shot  almost 50% from the field and a cool 19 for 20 from the free throw line. “He’s like the leader of our team, especially from the standpoint that he can get his own shot and create for others,” junior guard Jordan McRae said. “If you don’t have your floor general out there, it’s kind of hard for someone else to step in and duplicate what he’s been doing for us.” It’s no coincidence that Tennessee’s best stretch of the season has come at a time when Golden and sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes are playing their best basketball.
  2. Tennessee has a chance at a huge resume-padding win tonight when Florida comes to town. The Gators have absolutely dominated the SEC this season, with a scoring margin of over 20 points/game, but the Volunteers may have caught Billy Donovan’s team at the right time. Michael Frazier II will miss out with a concussion he suffered over the weekend, and Will Yeguete won’t yet be back from knee surgery. However, both could be healthy for the Gators home game against Alabama this weekend. “Frazier’s going to come back at some point. So is Will Yeguete,” Donovan said. “When that actually is, no one really knows right now but I think they’ll be a point where we have our team fully back and we’ll have a full complement of players.” The Gators finish out the season with Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
  3. Willie Cauley-Stein followed in the footsteps of his fallen frontcourt mate and was named SEC Freshman of the Week. The freshman from Kansas put together his best two-game stretch of the season, scoring 20 against Vanderbilt midweek before grabbing 12 rebounds and swatting 7 shots against Missouri on Saturday night. Kentucky looked helpless against Tennessee without Nerlens Noel patrolling the paint, but Cauley-Stein has proved to be a decent replacement for Noel’s lost production. The recognition is Cauley-Stein’s second of the season, his first coming after posting a double-double against Eastern Michigan heading into conference play.
  4. LSU doesn’t have many periods of sustained success in their basketball program’s history, but Glenn Guilbeau of the Shreveport Times thinks that may change under the guidance of first-year head coach Johnny Jones. Jones was involved in the program during its best years, as a player for the 1981 Final Four team, and as an assistant for the successful run from 1985-87, all under coach Dale Brown. “Jones’ team plays a lot like most of Brown’s teams — fast and high scoring with hustle and opportunistic defenses that tend to “freak” opponents,” writes Guilbeau. “It’s fun to watch, and people are gradually returning to the Assembly Center. There were 8,200 — a good crowd this century — on a beautiful Saturday with LSU coming off a loss, below .500 in the SEC and neither team ranked.” Jones is making progress on the recruiting trail as well. He’s making sure that his pitches are heard outside of LSU’s immediate surroundings, and has had his hard work rewarded with a commitment from McDonald’s All-American Jarell Martin, only the second to head to Baton Rouge since 2005.
  5. Trevor Releford has been Alabama‘s go-to guy much of the season, but should he be shooting even more? Probably. Trevor Lacey and Rodney Cooper are threats to score from the perimeter as well, but neither is nearly as efficient as Releford. The junior guard is shooting 49% from the field (trailing only reserve forward Nick Jacobs) and leads the team in shooting 42% from distance. “I’ve said this before: When he’s locked in, he’s as good as any guard in our league or across the country,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said Monday. “Here lately, he’s really been playing his best basketball, and we need him to continue.” Despite the heartbreaking loss to LSU over the weekend, Releford was in top form, scoring 36 on 14-18 shooting. The Tide are currently outside the tournament according to most bracket projections, but they have the opportunity for quality wins, with road trips to Florida and Ole Miss before the end of the year.
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