Battle of the Bluegrass: Previewing Kentucky vs. Louisville

Posted by C.D. Bradley & Brian Joyce on March 28th, 2014

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The most intense rivalry in college basketball renews Friday night in Indianapolis when Louisville and Kentucky square off in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. C.D. Bradley, who writes about the American for RTC, and Brian Joyce, who covers the SEC, preview the showdown and what it means to the basketball-mad bluegrass state.

C.D. Bradley: A lot of people will tell you that Duke and North Carolina is the top rivalry in college basketball, but it’s impossible to convey the ever-present antipathy between red and blue. A big part of it is the usual once-a-year nature of the rivalry, but this will be the sixth time Louisville and Kentucky have met in the NCAA Tournament. For Louisville, which had snatched the advantage over the past year, winning a national title and ending this season in the top five of the national rankings while the Wildcats struggled, the possibility of having their potential repeat title run ended by their neighbors to the east is a doubly unpleasant notion. What does this game mean for UK fans?

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Rick Pitino clashes with in-state rival Kentucky and its coach, John Calipari yet again (AP).

Brian Joyce: One might assume that Kentucky fans would be relieved to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance after losing to South Carolina and Arkansas a month ago, but a person with that theory must not know Kentucky fans very well. A win over Wichita State has the Big Blue Nation in a frenzy over the potential of their Wildcats if things come together like they did on Sunday afternoon in Saint Louis. It may even be possible that Kentucky fans are slightly overlooking Louisville. Julius Randle played all of four minutes in the second half of the Wildcats’ victory in December after dominating with 17 points during the first 20 minutes. The Cards struggled with Randle and Kentucky’s length, and while Louisville is a much different team at this point in the season the challenge of stopping the Cats’ imposing front line remains. Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington he has beaten his rival in five of the last six meetings, and Kentucky fans expect that trend to continue.

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NCAA Tournament Game Analysis: Sweet Sixteen, Friday Night

Posted by Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) & Brian Otskey (@botskey) on March 28th, 2014

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Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) is the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region correspondent, and Brian Otskey (@botskey) is the NCAA Tournament’s East Region correspondent. Make sure to also follow @RTCMidwestRegion and @RTCEastRegion for news and analysis from Indianapolis and New York City throughout the weekend.

#2 Michigan vs. #11 Tennessee – Midwest Region Sweet 16 (from Indianapolis, IN) – at 7:15 PM EST on CBS

Tennessee was not supposed to be in this position. It barely found its way into the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Volunteers had to travel to Dayton last Wednesday to take on Iowa to even advance to the round of 64. Tennessee got by the Hawkeyes in overtime and that was only the beginning of its winning ways. In Raleigh, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was able to throttle Massachusetts and take advantage of Duke’s stunning loss to Mercer by dismantling Bob Hoffman’s Bears in the round of 32 to advance to the Sweet 16. Leading the way thus far for Tennessee has been the spectacular play of forward Jarnell Stokes. The junior has been nothing short of dominant in the team’s recent run, as he is averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in his last three games. The Volunteers have also received a lift from guard Josh Richardson. The junior, who averaged 10.1 points per game in the regular season, has stepped up his play in the tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 points per contest. As a team, the Volunteers’ performance on the rebounding glass has aided tremendously in taking them to the Sweet 16. Tennessee has been an excellent rebounding team all season and its rebounding prowess was never more on display than in Sunday’s victory over Mercer. The Volunteers had a sensational 41-19 rebounding advantage over the Bears in the winning effort.

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Expect plenty of fireworks between these two guys Friday night. (Getty & USA TODAY Sports)

Michigan will take the court in Indianapolis after a relatively easy first weekend in Milwaukee. The Wolverines cruised to a 17-point victory in the round of 64 over an undermanned Wofford squad before wearing down Texas in a 14-point victory. John Beilein’s team has been an outstanding perimeter shooting offense and that has carried over into the postseason. The Wolverines hit a combined 21 three-pointers in the two victories. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas hit seven of those 21 triples an was the team’s leading scorer in each victory. Michigan’s frontcourt has been seen as a concern since sophomore big man Mitch McGary was lost to a back injury in late December, but forward Jordan Morgan showed he is a capable post presence with his performances in Milwaukee. The senior averaged 12.5 points and 10 rebounds against Wofford and Texas, while living up to his reputation as a solid interior defender. In Friday’s game, it should be expected that both teams will play to their strengths. Tennessee will try to use its size advantage to the dominate the interior and Michigan will attempt to get its perimeter shooting going early and often. Texas had a great advantage over Michigan in size too, but the Wolverines were able to wear the Longhorn bigs down through a terrific transition effort and solid offensive spacing. It would be wise to expect Michigan to do the same Friday. Tennessee will keep close throughout much of the game, but the shot-making ability of Stauskas, Caris LeVert, and Glenn Robinson III will ultimately be too much for the Volunteers to overcome. Two-seed Michigan will win the game to advance to its second straight Elite Eight.

The RTC Certified Pick: Michigan

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 78, #1 Wichita State 76

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 23rd, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Cleanthony Early was outstanding for the Shockers. (AP)

Cleanthony Early scored 31 points in a losing effort. (AP)

  1. It was the best game of the year. Kentucky and Wichita State played an absolute classic. Not only was it the best NCAA Tournament game this season, it will likely stay that way. And it easily topped any regular season game simply because all that was on the line. The Wildcats and Shockers threw punch after punch, made run and after run, until Fred Van Vleet’s three clanked off the rim at the buzzer. It’s unfortunate that one of these teams had to lose. This game was fitting of a national championship game rather than a round of 32 game, and it may have been the best round of 32 game in the history of the Big Dance.
  2. Wichita State belongs among the nation’s elite. The Shockers were counted out all year long. It seemed like half the nation thought they weren’t good enough. Well, the detractors need to close their mouths. I don’t care that they were the first #1 seed to lose. They played a magnificent basketball game they certainly could have won, and it’s a real shame the Shockers will be going home early. A brilliant season that started with 35 straight wins ended in disappointment. But that shouldn’t take anything away from what the Shockers accomplished this year. Wichita State can play with anybody.
  3. Kentucky played like 40-0 Kentucky. Remember before the season began when there was all that conversation about preseason #1 Kentucky going 40-0? Well, the Wildcats finally played like the team they were expected to be on Sunday afternoon. They were focused, they competed unbelievably hard for 40 minutes, they defended, and they hit shots. The heralded freshman class lived up to its preseason billing. They were absolutely terrific in scoring 68 of Kentucky’s points. From Julius Randle to the Harrison twins to James Young, they were magnificent — if, and it’s big if, but if Kentucky can continue to play at this level, there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, as national champions two weeks from now.

Star of the Game: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. Yes, even in a losing effort. The senior forward poured in a game-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and 3-of-3 from the free-throw line. Early pulled down seven rebounds, didn’t commit a turnover, and recorded a steal and a block. Early hit big shot after big shot in the second half, and threw down a monster posterizing dunk in the opening half. The only thing he did wrong was a missed layup with three minutes remaining in the tight contest that would have given Wichita State a three-point lead.

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Bracket Prep: Midwest Region Analysis

Posted by Walker Carey on March 17th, 2014

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Throughout Monday, we will roll out our region-by-region analysis on the following schedule: East (10:00 AM), Midwest (11:00 AM), South (1:00 PM), West (2:00 PM). Here, Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) breaks down the Midwest Region from top to bottom. Also, be sure to follow our RTC Midwest Region handle on Twitter for continuous updates the next two weeks (@RTCmwregion).

You should also check out our upcoming RTC Podblast with Walker breaking down the Midwest Region, which will drop both on the site and on iTunes Tuesday.

Midwest Region

Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Louisville dominated UConn on Saturday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Favorite: #4 Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC). Not to take anything away from the fantastic seasons completed by #1 seed Wichita State, #2 seed Michigan and #3 seed Duke, but Louisville is one of the hottest teams in the country entering the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals were likely dropped to a #4 seed due to their weak non-conference schedule and the fact that some of their wins in AAC play were over vastly inferior competition. However, when you have the talent and winning experience that Louisville possesses, seeding does not really matter all that much. Guard Russ Smith is one the nation’s elite scorers and he has shown throughout his collegiate career that he can go off for a monster night in any game against any team. Forward Montrezl Harrell has taken a huge step forward during his sophomore season and his 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game give the Cards an outstanding post presence. Toss in the fact that Louisville’s defense only allows 61 points per game and averages 10.1 steals per game and it should be clear why Rick Pitino’s squad is the favorite to return to the Final Four to defend its national title.

Should They Falter: #1 Wichita State (34-0, 18-0 MVC). If favorite Louisville is to stumble before reaching the Final Four, the undefeated Shockers are the team that is most equipped to do the job. While Wichita State has caught a ton of unnecessary criticism for its “easy” schedule, it is impossible to discount the fact that the team completed the nearly impossible task of finishing the regular season and conference tournament with an unscathed record. Throughout all the monotonous discussion about Wichita State’s merit as a top seed, it was often forgotten that Gregg Marshall’s squad has a solid nucleus that was on the team that advanced to the Final Four last April. Guards Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton, along with forward Cleanthony Early, played big minutes for the team last season and all four have experienced even more success in greater roles this season. Not only is Wichita State talented enough to return to the Final Four, it is also talented enough to cut down the nets at Cowboys Stadium on the first Monday in April.

Grossly Overseeded: #6 Massachusetts (24-8, 10-6 A-10). Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen had a fine season, but their résumé does not suggest that they were worthy of a #6 seed. After winning 16 of its first 17 games, Massachusetts went 8-7 over its final 15. Those seven losses included setbacks to non-Tournament teams Richmond, Saint Bonaventure and George Mason. The Minutemen were a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic 10 team as a result, and that was evident by the fact that they were the #6 seed in their conference tournament. What really makes the placement here a headscratcher is that George Washington and Saint Joseph’s finished ahead of them in the conference and they were given a #8 and a #10 seed, respectively.

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SEC Championship Preview: Kentucky vs. #1 Florida

Posted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014

After four-plus months of basketball, we got the matchup we expected in the SEC Tournament final: Florida versus Kentucky. That’s about all that went as expected. It was supposed to be Kentucky as the favorite, the team whose coach publicly discussed the possibility of going 40-0, the team with the best recruiting class in history. Florida had the Wildcats on experience, but it was a group that couldn’t quite make it over the hump, having lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons. Fast forward to now, and the narratives have flipped. It’s Florida who’s #1 in the polls, the team that has won 25 straight games and become the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC, and which, for the first time ever, has a shot at beating Kentucky three times in a season. It’s Kentucky that has struggled, that has lost when it shouldn’t, that has the coach (the one who talked 40-0, recall) who now explains that his is a team relying on freshmen. Just eight days ago, Florida smashed Kentucky in Gainesville. Now they meet again.

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Can Kentucky change the result? Well, they have played better in Atlanta this week than they have perhaps all season, thanks in no small part to the emergence of the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. The hugely anticipated duo struggled throughout their freshman year, showing flashes of talent along with a lot of pouting and inconsisten play. Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats’ primary ball-handler, totaled 23 points and 17 assists in his first two tournament games, while Aaron scored 36 points and hit more than half his three-point tries. John Calipari famously “tweaked” the offense, and whatever he did, the Cats have played two great games.

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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 70, Georgia 58

Posted by CD Bradley on March 15th, 2014

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C.D. Bradley will be reporting from the SEC Tournament semifinals and finals.

The Wildcats Were All Smiles Heading to Sunday's Showdown (Vicky Graff)

The Wildcats Were All Smiles Heading to Sunday’s Showdown (Vicky Graff)

Three key takeaways.

  1. Kentucky’s spurtability key to their success. Georgia hung around and hung around, cutting the UK lead to three at 46-43 with 13 minutes to go in the game. The Wildcats, whose offense had sputtered for much of the game, then showed a bit of that talent we’ve heard so much about all season. First Dakari Johnson hit a shot and drew a foul after getting an offensive rebound. He missed the free throw, but Willie Cauley-Stein corraled the rebound and found Aaron Harrison for a three. UK then got a stop, and Harrison launched another three. He missed it, and Georgia looked to have the rebound, but James Young swooped in for the tip-in. Seven points in 51 seconds, all off of offensive rebounds, pushed the lead to 10, and the Wildcats never looked back.
  2. Georgia was crushed on the boards. The Bulldogs reached 12 SEC wins mostly with smoke and mirrors, but the one thing they did decently was grab offensive rebounds. And while Kentucky is the best offensive rebounding team in America, they rank a middling #119 in defensive rebounding percentage. None of that mattered Saturday, when the Wildcats dominated the defensive glass, outrebounding Georgia at that end 25-3, with two of those Georgia offensive rebounds coming too late to matter much.
  3. The Twins might finally have arrived. Aaron and Andrew Harrison came to UK with enormous expectations, but both have struggled this year along with their team. So Wildcat fans have to be thrilled with the duo’s play in Atlanta, particularly Saturday when Aaron led all scorers with 22 and Andrew had 12 points, nine assists and five rebounds. If Kentucky is to challenge Florida on Sunday and advance very far in the NCAA Tournament, they will need more of such play from their backcourt.

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SEC Superlatives: The Non-Traditional Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 11th, 2014

The SEC’s long (and often bumpy) basketball road has finally led to Atlanta. There were some memorable performances as the season unfolded, and players stood out in a number of ways. Before we unveil the RTC SEC microsite’s predictable year-end superlatives, here are players that made impressions in less traditional ways:

Most Exciting Player Award

This isn’t necessarily the player you know will consistently produce. In fact, it might be a player that spends most of his time maddening you. But every so often this guy will throw down a dunk or hit a crazy three that gets you out of your seat like no one else.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC's Most Exciting Player.

Somehow, Marshall Henderson was not a unanimous selection as the SEC’s Most Exciting Player. (Getty)

  • Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): For me, there is no one more exciting than Marshall Henderson. You don’t have to like him, but you have to appreciate what he is able to do on the court. Henderson single handedly shot Ole Miss into contention during several games this year (and subsequently shot the Rebels out of many games too), so he is nothing if not entertaining.
  • David Changas (@dchangas): Marshall Henderson. Sure, he didn’t recreate the magic or draw the attention of last season, either on or off the court, but anyone who shoots so often (12.2 threes attempted per game) and from so many spots on the floor and keeps his team in games they otherwise wouldn’t be in is fun to watch. And there’s still time for the senior guard to do something special and go out with a bang at the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.
  • Christian D’Andrea (@TrainIsland)Marshall Henderson. Come on – like it could be anyone else? Henderson misses way more shots than he makes, but the ones he hits have kept us all coming back for more. I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get at least one Land Shark moment in Atlanta this week.

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Kentucky Shows Growth in Win at Missouri

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2014

It has been a tale of two Tigers recently for Kentucky. The young Wildcats were outworked and outplayed Tuesday night versus LSU in Baton Rouge, taking it on the chin from a hungrier team. “They beat the crap out of us. They outcoached us,” John Calipari said. Four days later Kentucky found itself with another bunch of Tigers searching for a statement win, but the story this time was much different. There was growth in the Wildcats’ game as they raced out to a big lead against Missouri, and then preserved it with smart and tough play down the stretch. Based on what happened Saturday in Mizzou Arena, here are several questions that opposing SEC coaches will need to answer when playing these Wildcats.

Andrew Harrison and the Wildcats grew up in their win against Missouri (kentucky.com).

Andrew Harrison and the Wildcats grew up in their win against Missouri (kentucky.com).

  • How do you contend with a bunch of future pros playing hard and together? Maybe it was the coaching, or maybe it was the much-ballyhooed players’-only team meeting last week in Louisiana. Whatever it was, the Wildcats came out with great effort and aggressiveness against Missouri. They got into their sets quickly and attacked the basket early in the game, as Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for eight free throw attempts in the first half. Kentucky also didn’t give up a single offensive rebound in the opening half. It’s not a good sign for future opponents that the Wildcats went into a hostile arena and responded with great energy coming off of a lackluster performance. That shows maturity and growth that should scare the rest of the league. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC M5: 01.31.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 31st, 2014

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  1. As expected, Florida won in Starkville last night. The Gators did not, however, roll over the Bulldogs (they led by only one point at halftime), and haven’t rolled over the SEC at all recently. The national perspective seems to be that Florida is blowing right by every conference team it plays. This is correct in a strict win-loss sense, as the Gators are the only team with an unbeaten SEC record. But Florida has been somewhat tested by triple-digit KenPom teams in three of their last four games (Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn). Should that be cause for concern? Margin of victory is a useful indicator of future success, but conference games are especially difficult when you have a top 10 target on your back. That target will be even brighter in an upcoming stretch when the Gators face Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss on the road in the span of two weeks. The Vols and Rebels will be in desperate need of a statement win, and Florida may not be able to grind out wins as easily (that is if Billy Donovan doesn’t throw a blanket over Tennessee’s offense again).
  2. Tennessee has talented pieces that just haven’t fit together as well as they should have this season. Did Darius Thompson just ride into town on a white horse to make it all work? The freshman made his third start of the season Wednesday night in the Vols’ big win over Ole Miss, and his solid stat line (seven assists against two turnovers) should keep him in that spot. “Him getting better – him growing up as a ball player, the time he puts into it and learning and understanding and just being around those experienced guys; I think it was just time,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. Whether it was a direct result of Thompson starting, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson rebounded from a horrific shooting performance against Florida to go a combined 10-of-14 from three. Jarnell Stokes also said the Vols pushed the tempo more with Thompson in the game, which was refreshing considering how slowly they have played at times. At this point it’s clear Antonio Barton was not the answer to replace Trae Golden. Still, he’s a senior who can certainly contribute down the stretch for Tennessee.
  3. Arkansas is mired in a five-year NCAA tournament drought, and it’s looking more and more likely that number will extend to six. CBSSports.com‘s Gary Parrish took an interesting look at what’s been ailing the Razorbacks. He wrote extensively about problems with the head coaching position, including a whiff at Billy Gillispie and Dana Altman’s change of heart. Can Mike Anderson turn things around in Fayetteville? He reached the Elite Eight in his third season at Missouri, and barring a miracle, won’t come close to that this season. Bobby Portis may be the ray of hope Anderson needs. The five-star Arkansas native chose to stay home (unlike Archie Goodwin) and could generate some in-state recruiting momentum. Anderson has actually done a fairly good job recruiting elite talent the last few years, even if in a roundabout way. In addition to this year’s solid class, Anderson convinced BJ Young to stay at Arkansas and there is a rumor that Otto Porter would have gone to Missouri had Anderson still been the coach. If he can keep gathering top talent, Anderson’s pressure system may be what returns Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament.
  4. Could it be that Kentucky will have a handful of experienced players back next season? John Calipari is reportedly spreading the word in NBA circles that Andrew and Aaron Harrison will return for their sophomore seasons. This is probably wise given their (relative) struggles and the strength of this upcoming draft class. And it could do even more favors for Calipari. Dakari Johnson has looked good, especially recently, but probably hasn’t stood out enough (yet) to make it worth his while to leave. The same can be said for Marcus Lee. You never know what can happen, but Kentucky could have a starting lineup featuring four sophomores next year.
  5. If Auburn had to win only one SEC game a year, I suppose their fans would prefer it to be against Alabama. The Tigers picked up their first conference win in 51 weeks by beating Alabama last night at home. That win nearly a year ago? It came against the Tide too. Chris Denson scored a career-high 32 points and is firmly in the discussion for an all-SEC team spot. One has to wonder where Anthony Grant goes from here. For a team that started the season with NCAA aspirations the Tide are now a long way away from an NIT bid, and lost any good will created by their solid win over LSU last weekend. Right now they are sitting at the front of the SEC’s “most disappointing table.”
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SEC M5: 01.20.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2014

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  1. Experienced guards with a killer instinct can be extremely valuable in March, and Billy Donovan has one in Scottie Wilbekin. The senior’s fallaway jumper with under two minutes to go against Auburn kept the Tigers at bay, and came a week after his buzzer-beater to force overtime at Arkansas. “I have confidence I can make plays,” Wilbekin said. “Luckily, they’ve been going down for me. I just want to keep trying to play the right way, regardless of how much time is left in the game.” Between Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young, there may not be a team in the nation with more talented impact seniors, and these are players who have been to three straight Elite Eights. Prather’s solid return (21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, six rebounds) was the most important storyline to come from the closer-than-expected win over the Tigers. But Wilbekin’s continued ability to hit the big shot bodes well for the Gators’ future as well.
  2. Maybe some good came out of Kentucky’s loss at Bud Walton Arena after all. Kentucky.com‘s John Clay writes that a spark may have been lit under Andrew Harrison. “Instead, it’s been some up, some down, inconsistency all around. Rhetoric without results. There have been body language issues, quickness issues, shooting issues. It looked more and more as though the Harrisons would have their Bluegrass stay extended, and not for the right reasons.But then the forgotten thing from Tuesday’s dramatic 87-85 loss at Arkansas was Andrew Harrison rising up from the right corner and nailing a three-pointer to send the late show into overtime.” Harrison was the star for the Wildcats against Tennessee (26 points, three assists, zero turnovers), one of the few times all year that statement can be definitively made and not involve Julius Randle. It couldn’t have come at a better time either. Kentucky was demolished on the glass, and couldn’t overwhelm the Vols with its frontcourt strength and depth. Development is the story to watch for the Wildcats as the season winds towards March, and on Saturday Andrew Harrison took a big step forward.
  3. NBCSports.com‘s Scott Phillips doesn’t have as rosy a take on the Wildcats after the Tennessee win. He writes that the pieces aren’t quite fitting together yet. “James Young is a great complementary kickout on offense and Cauley-Stein can play to his strengths of catching lobs and hunting offensive rebounds, but the Wildcats will not beat the best teams in the country until their three isolation-based main offensive players — the Harrisons and Julius Randle — figure out how to move the ball well and shift the defense around from side-to-side to make things easier on themselves.” Getting this team to reach its potential will certainly be one of the toughest challenges John Calipari has ever faced, mainly because of the preseason expectations and early “struggles.” Phillips’ point about a consistent lack of cohesion is a valid one. But I’m still drinking the Kentucky Kool-Aid because their pieces should be able to eventually fit together. Cauley-Stein needs to add more on offense, but he doesn’t need the ball to be successful and that’s perfect alongside Randle. In the back court, is indeed the perfect floor spacer for the more drive-oriented games of the Harrison twins. It all should work, and until they’ve been eliminated I’ll give Calipari the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Michael Qualls’ dunk put a cap on the Mike Anderson road hex, right? All the momentum and good vibes created by that putback slam had to carry Arkansas through their game at Georgia, right? Nope, it was business as usual for the Razorbacks in Athens, as they failed to pick up a necessary road win. Graham Reaves at Arkansas Fight writes, “What made this game that much more frustrating is that for much of the game it appeared the Hogs would win, knock the monkey off their back on their way towards an NCAA berth. Coming off a win at home over No. 13 Kentucky on Tuesday night, this Razorbacks squad had made believers of those who had doubted for so long. As good for the fanbase Kentucky game was, this one was bad.” And that’s the rub: This was at its core a deflating loss for Arkansas fans. The loss, however, didn’t shoot their NCAA Tournament chances to pieces. The Kentucky win was a good one, and should continue to resonate given it happened in dramatic fashion on national TV. But their next two road games are in Knoxville and Baton Rouge, so that monkey might continue to hang on Arkansas’ back, and the longer it does, the more pronounced the storyline will get.
  5. Missouri stopped the bleeding, at least for the time being, on its disappointing SEC start with a dominant second half against Alabama. Jabari Brown was super efficient (24 points, 7-of-9 shooting, 7-of-8 from the line) in pulling the Tigers ahead. Jordan Clarkson also played a big role offensively, but his overall play has dipped since SEC games began. Rock M Nation‘s Bill Connelly, in his always interesting “Study Hall” piece, writes, “Jordan Clarkson has five assists in four SEC games, and his %Pass was lower than Jabari’s on Saturday. He is no longer Missouri’s point guard.” Clarkson is not a pure point guard, so it was always unreasonable to expect him to keep up the assist numbers he posted in non-conference play. But Wes Clark has also struggled recently, leaving Frank Haith with a problem to solve at the position. He doesn’t seem to trust Shane Rector yet, so the only option seems to be riding out the growing pains of Clarkson and Clark.
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Arkansas Rejuvenates Its Program With Buzzer-Beating Dunk and Win

Posted by Eli Linton on January 15th, 2014

Arkansas could not have asked for a more timely victory than the one it got in front of a national audience on Tuesday night. The Razorbacks took a top-15 opponent to overtime for a second game in a row, this time earning a win over Kentucky thanks to the instant-wow rebound and face-melting dunk by Michael Qualls as time expired. The win has put Arkansas squarely on the bubble, and for the time being at the very least, gets the Razorbacks into the conversation for an eventual at-large bid.

The Razorbacks had plenty to celebrate about Tuesday evening. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

The Razorbacks had plenty to celebrate about Tuesday evening. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

It’s been a year since we last visited Bud Walton Arena to take in a Razorback game. Then it was for Arkansas’ loss to Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse Orange. Despite the loss a season ago, you could already see the Razorbacks’ promise under new head coach Mike Anderson, and since then they have taken huge strides toward once again becoming a premier SEC program. Watching Arkansas hang tough against Florida last week, you knew they were getting close, and needed just one big win to earn some respect and possibly emerge as a major conference threat. They got it in a big way on Tuesday, thanks in large part to their defensive play and veteran leadership. A team that has experienced its share of hard times and disappointment is now using that to fuel its way to what they hope is a little bit of March glory. “The way the team was celebrating in the locker room, you could tell we needed it,” said Qualls. “Hopefully that will give us a boost on through the next game.”

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Calipari Knows Kentucky is Making Progress

Posted by David Changas on January 12th, 2014

All college basketball teams change from year to year. Players graduate, leave early, transfer, and new recruits fill their spots. But as everyone knows, no team changes year over year like John Calipari’s crew. And regardless of the fact that he brought in what many considered the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history this year, he knew that it would take time for his team to come together. After a Christmas week win against archrival Louisville and opening SEC wins over undermanned Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, he is finally confident that things are in fact starting to coalesce. “We’re still not there. But I’m looking around the country, I don’t see anybody there. I like my team. I like our progress. We have the biggest upside of any team in the country. We’re  the youngest team in the country; that’s where we are. I just have to try to [have] patience when I have none,” Calipari said after Saturday’s 71-62 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Calipari is All Smiles About This Year's Group. What About Next Year? (AP)

Don’t look now, Coach Cal’s crew is slowly coming together. (AP)

Calipari knows that bringing in such a haul of talent and that playing almost an entirely new set of players (only Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Jarrod Polson are significant contributors from last year’s squad) will require him to exhibit that patience. “I got a brand new team, and every year it’s something different, and as we go, you start figuring out how we have to play,” he said. Calipari was particularly pleased by the performance of the sophomore Poythress, who has not lived up to the lofty expectations set for him coming into college, and someone whom Calipari thinks has been limited by his lack of self-confidence. “Like I say to him, ‘You’re as good as anybody in the gym. Why won’t you play that way?’ And I asked the team, ‘What’s holding him back?’ [They said], ‘He is,’” Calipari said. The talented veteran forward will be a key for the Wildcats as they try to develop into a team that can win Calipari’s second national championship.

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