Can Win at Rupp Propel Arkansas to the SEC’s Third NCAA Tournament Bid?

Posted by David Changas on February 28th, 2014

For the past several weeks, many have wondered if the SEC, a power conference with 14 teams, could actually only get two bids to the NCAA Tournament. The maddening inconsistency of teams other than Florida and Kentucky made it seems like a real possibility. After Missouri recently won three straight home games, it looked like the Tigers could be the third team to step up and solidify the conference’s standing. The Tigers proceeded to drop road games to Alabama and Georgia — the latter giving the Bulldogs a season sweep — and now again appear to be on shaky ground. Tennessee, which in the preseason was considered a lock by many to make the Big Dance, went to College Station last Saturday and lost to lowly Texas A&M for the second time this season, and, although a 4-0 finish to the regular season is possible, the Vols’ Tournament chances appear to be tenuous at best. LSU, another team many thought could compete for a bid, has been inconsistent, and does not have a resume that merits serious consideration at this point.

Is Mike Anderson on the verge of taking Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament? (AP)

The only other hope the league has had for an at-large bid is Arkansas, and for most of the season, the Razorbacks have not been considered a legitimate contender because of their inability to win away from Bud Walton Arena. Prior to this season, Mike Anderson’s only two conference road wins came at Auburn, and this year started out no differently. After getting blown out in their first league road game at Texas A&M, Arkansas lost close but winnable games at Georgia and Tennessee, and began the conference season a chilly 2-6. That appeared to all but end any thought that the Razorbacks could make the NCAA Tournament this season. Since that time, however, the Hawgs have won six of seven, including three on the road. And none have been bigger than last night’s overtime win at Kentucky. Not only was it the first win for Arkansas at Rupp Arena since 1994, it was easily Anderson’s biggest win since taking over for John Pelphrey three years ago. Despite turning the ball over 20 times and giving up 26 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats, the Razorbacks, which led by double-figures for much of the first half and by seven at the break, were able to overcome a late five-point deficit to force the extra frame on their way to a 71-67 win. Thanks in large part to holding Kentucky to 34.2 percent shooting and a 16-of-16 mark from the line, Arkansas was able to get a win that will serve them very well with Selection Sunday just over two weeks away.

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SEC M5: 02.26.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 26th, 2014

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  1. Maybe Florida just plays down to its competition, or maybe the Gators’ grind-it-out defense lends itself to close games. Either way, Florida ran its winning streak to 20 against Vanderbilt in yet another game that had to be gutted out late. Vanderbilt outshot Florida 48% to 40%, but – as they have done so often this year – the Gators won the rebounding and turnover battles. You can have a less than stellar offense and put yourself in games if you limit your opponent’s chances by taking care of the ball and grabbing defensive rebounds. Florida has the second fewest turnovers per game in the SEC (11.2) and third best team rebounding percentage (54.2%). Pair that with an elite defense and it’s no surprise you’ve got a team that can rack up wins and rise to number one in the rankings. But as Luke Winn pointed out, the Gators offense can be more effective if Dorian Finney-Smith expands on the two made pick-and-pop he had made in conference play. It wasn’t of the pick-and-pop variety, but Finney-Smith found space and drilled a three with under 30 seconds left against the Commodores. It was the junior’s third three of the game, and the finishing touches on his game high 19 points. If that performance jump starts Finney-Smith, Billy Donovan suddenly has another offensive option to play with.
  2. Put a fork in the Tigers, they are done. Short of winning the SEC tournament, I don’t see a way Missouri can salvage a bid after losing by 15 in Athens. The Tigers will almost certainly drop out of the RPI top 50, and they’re a perfectly pedestrian 7-7 against the RPI top 100. That’s just okay, and just okay teams do make a 68 team field. But the Tigers don’t have the high-quality wins to punctuate a resume, going just 1-2 against the RPI top 25. Can that UCLA win from way back in early December stand up? Teams Missouri is competing with for a final spot, like Oklahoma State (Memphis, Texas) and St. John’s (Creighton), have eye-popping wins to spice up a mediocre resume. The Tigers didn’t execute well on defense against Georgia (allowing the Bulldogs to shoot 52.1%) and it could be that Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are wearing down. The two shot a combined 9-for-29 and Brown in particular had no lift on his shots. Georgia, on the hand, continued its surprise run through the SEC with its sweep of Missouri. Per Wildcat Blue Nation’s Corey Price, the Bulldogs are the first SEC team to reach 10 or more conference wins after finishing .500 or worse in the non-conference since 2007-08 Kentucky. With a RPI North of 80 the Bulldogs still aren’t in the bubble picture, but at the very least Mark Fox should’ve assured himself a NIT bid.
  3. Your first thought might “yeah right,” but the Bruce Pearl to Tennessee talk is gaining steam. There’s an online petition signed by thousands of people, and Gregg Doyel writes that as unlikely as it seems, rehiring Pearl makes too much sense for the Vols. “Tennessee should do it. If Tennessee has an opening, it should hire Bruce Pearl. Go ahead, Tennessee. He paid his price. You paid yours,” Doyel writes. “Bruce Pearl is a good coach who made a bad mistake and had to be fired — I was calling for his dismissal months before Tennessee finally did it — but who served his time and surely, surely learned from his mistake.” Sure, a reunion seems highly unlikely and against the norm, but there might just be the pieces in place to make it a reality: Pearl won big at Tennessee, still lives in Knoxville, and the program hasn’t taken a clear step forward in Cuonzo Martin’s third year. There’s also the matter of ticket sales, and from afar it seems like rehiring Pearl would spark the fanbase. Those are hard points to argue against, especially since college basketball in general is far from holy. The problem is that is that letting Martin go is not a no brainer. While the Vols are dancing around the bubble again, the bottom has not fallen out in the former Missouri State coach’s three years in Knoxville. But if Louisville can bring back Bobby Petrino, is the Pearl-Tennessee dream so ridiculous?
  4. It’s put up or shut up time for Arkansas, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. Winning at Rupp Arena is the last chance for Razorbacks to improve on their 65 RPI and grab the attention of those on the selection committee. Can Arkansas actually sweep the Wildcats? In the win at Bud Walton Arena, Kentucky missed a ton of free throws (26-of-40) and the Razorbacks, as they always do at home, won the turnover battle (17 to 6). While the Wildcats will probably miss a few more free throws (team 68.5% FT%) they probably won’t have a similar turnover binge without 20,000 screaming people in red against them. The Razorbacks will in all likelihood lose the rebounding battle in this game, so they’ll need to hit a higher percentage from three than they did in the team’s first meeting (28.6%). If Arkansas isn’t able to win this game and go on a run, barring a miracle weekend in Atlanta it looks like Mike Anderson will miss the tournament for the third straight year in Fayetteville.\
  5. There was a time not so long ago that Rick Ray was enjoying a very positive second season in Starkville. It was January 22 and the Bulldogs had just beaten Auburn to move to 3-2 in conference play. They also picked up their 13th win of the season, three more than they had gotten in 2012-13. But the positivity ended that day, and Mississippi State hasn’t won since. Its nine game losing streak could very well stretch to 12 with upcoming games against Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia. So, now that the bad part has set in, how are things really going in Ray’s second season on the whole? Their RPI is currently 204, which in no world is anything but dreadful. It is, however, less dreadful than the 292 the Bulldogs finished with last season. The good news for Ray? He’s got only one senior in the rotation (Colin Borchert) and his leading scorer (Craig Sword), rebounder (Gavin Ware) and assist man (I.J. Ready) are either sophomores or freshmen. Ready is good to go against Tennessee after getting poked in the eye against the Arkansas. The freshman point guard not only leads the team in assists, but is shooting 40% from three and has a respectable 1.5 assist to turnover ratio for a first year player. A strong finish from him would be a bright spot in another rebuilding year for the Bulldogs.
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Dawgs Eating Just Fine in Dog-Eat-Dog SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 18th, 2014

For Georgia, the “a-ha moment” seemed to come on February 6. After racing out to a surprising 4-1 SEC record (with wins over Missouri and Arkansas), the Bulldogs had lost three straight, punctuated by a loss at cellar-dweller Auburn. That looked like the end of a nice flash of a Georgia storyline. But it wasn’t. Mark Fox’s team has since reeled off four straight wins, underlining this positive streak with a quality win against Ole Miss on Saturday. This begs the question in SEC basketball circles: Is it now time to drop the second part of the “Well, Georgia is off to a good start, but they’re still not that good” sentiment that’s been discussed over the last month and a half?

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia's 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia’s 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

At some point a sample size gets too big to be simply dismissed. It’s now mid-February and the Bulldogs are four games above 0.500 in SEC play, so we may have reached that point with this team. They haven’t compiled that record by only beating the dregs of the conference — they’ve gone 4-4 against RPI top-100 SEC teams — and they haven’t won those four games with smoke and mirrors either. Georgia has the second best field goal defense (39.4%) and rebounding rate (55.3%) in the league right now, trailing only Florida and Kentucky. This is also a young team led by sophomores Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines who should be gaining confidence. To sum it up, their solid conference play to date doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

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SEC M5: 02.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 17th, 2014

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  1. SI.com’s Andy Staples had one of the many good takes on the Kentucky-Florida game that are floating around the internet. Staples listed a number of interesting tidbits like Patric Young having more college games under his belt than Kentucky’s starting lineup combined and that Florida hadn’t won in Lexington since the Joakim Noah-Al Horford days. I expected Florida to struggle this past week, and am getting close to being convinced they will break their recent Elite Eight ceiling. As great as their defense has been, they had “played down” to their competition for a concerning amount of the conference season. There were the sluggish first halves against Alabama and Mississippi State, and a close call against Auburn. I figured that rough starts in charged environments in Knoxville or Lexington would send the Gators to their first (or first and second) conference loss. But it didn’t happen. Both games were difficult and close throughout, and in both Florida found ways to win. Casey Prather’s play on Saturday was encouraging. He had struggled recently (three-of-four single digit scoring games) because of his injured ankle, but was aggressive at the beginning of the game and helped calm Florida and avoid another sluggish start. In the end, the Gators got through a tough week with two wins. So much for my concern.
  2. Resilience has been a theme to Vanderbilt’s season. On Saturday the Commodores were resilient on an in-game basis, regrouping from a putrid shooting performance through much of the game to catch Texas A&M and win in overtime. It was an ugly contest in which both teams kept fans entertained by scoring under 0.900 points per possession. Vanderbilt was especially ugly shooting the ball for three-fourths of the game, and Kyle Fuller, Dai-Jon Parker, and Rod Odom combined to go 10-for-45 from the field. James Siakam (12-of-14 FT’s, 16 points) kept the cold-shooting Commodores in the game, and probably wishes Texas A&M was on the schedule more. In two games against the Aggies he’s averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, shot over 60 percent and gotten to the free throw line 27 times. All of these numbers are well above his season averages. The Commodores lose a lot of scoring after this season with Fuller and Odom departing. Siakam will be one of the elder statesmen in 2014-15, and should use his performances against Texas A&M as confidence building blocks to play a larger offensive role.
  3. This microsite has had a lot of “Tony Barbee hot seat” chatter over the last few weeks, and how it could it not? Auburn has been stuck in an incredibly deep rut. The Tigers did just have a respectable week, with a closer-than-expected loss against Kentucky and a win over Mississippi State. Does Barbee deserve more time? The 2012-13 Tigers finished the season on a 10-game losing streak, won only three SEC games and sunk all the way to #249 in the RPI. This season’s version is currently 100 spots higher in the RPI, has four SEC wins, and has a more efficient offense despite losing leading scorer Frankie Sullivan. Things do look better, but the real question is the potential for long-term improvement. Senior Chris Denson is in the top 15 nationally in scoring and Auburn also loses Asauhn Dixon-Tatum’s rim protecting presence after the season. Barbee’s prospects will look a lot better if Tahj Shamsid-Deen continues to play well, and fellow freshmen role players Matthew Atewe and Dion Wade flash potential. Atewe may be on that path with 21 rebounds the past two games, which includes 13 against Kentucky’s talented front line.
  4. Rob Dauster’s Saturday Bubble Banter column was littered four with SEC teams. Every team but Missouri fell into the losers section. He had the Tigers as the bubble’s biggest weekend winner after beating Tennessee, since the two teams only had two opportunities for top 50 left in the regular season: the two games against each other. Missouri earned at least a split of those games, making the regular season finale in Knoxville a crucial game for the Vols. LSU and Ole Miss fell into the losers column, but Arkansas was noticeably absent. Though maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Razorbacks RPI (#73) might be too high warrant legitimate bubble status right now. If nothing else, the LSU win did diminish the resume of a team in front of them and sets Mike Anderson’s team up for a chance to redeem their case for a tournament invite. They have two winnable games in front of them (South Carolina at home and Mississippi State on the road), before a trip to Rupp Arena. If Arkansas can win the next three they’ll start to get some serious consideration.
  5. Speaking of Arkansas, if you’re a Razorback fan and had to pick one game to go to this season, Saturday might have been it. The Kentucky game was exciting (and “the Kentucky game” for any SEC fan base is generally a must-attend), but the chance to see Bill Clinton, Nolan Richardson and a number of players from the 1994 championship team is hard to top. Matt Norlander points out that Clinton is still the only sitting president to attend a Final Four. Given President Obama’s affinity for basketball, he’d seem a good candidate to break that streak. But it might take an epic turnaround (and no coaching change) at Oregon State to make that happen. But back to Clinton, who saw the Razorbacks put on a clinic from the three-point line (10-of-17). The three-point line has been part of Arkansas’ struggles away from Bud Walton Arena. The home/road splits for some of their outside threats are not pretty: Rashad Madden (46.7% home, 33.3% road), Michael Qualls (38.9% home, 23.5% road), and Mardracus Wade (46.2% home, 30% road) have each been much worse away from Bud Walton. Boosting those percentages just a little will help not only those players, but Bobby Portis as well. Portis has shown a reliable mid-range shot and back-to-the-basket game, and the loosening up the middle of the floor will make him more dangerous.
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SEC M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 14th, 2014

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  1. The Missouri and Arkansas series is off to a good start if it’s ever going to deserve the rivalry week spot ESPN has given it. Three of the team’s four games as SEC opponents have come down to the final seconds and had dramatic finishes. That’s a good way to get fan bases juiced about playing one another. The stakes were pretty high in last night’s match up in Columbia as both teams desperately needed a win to keep their NCAA hopes alive. Missouri and its three-game losing streak probably needed it a bit more, and got it after Jabari Brown’s game-winning teardrop with 10 seconds left. Brown (25 points, 14-of-15 FT’s) and Jordan Clarkson (27 points, 11-of-13 FT’s) deserve the headlines. But in small steps, Ryan Rosburg has quietly handled the ball and finished better around the rim recently and deserves mention too. In his last three games he’s scored 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting. Yes, that’s as many as Clarkson scored against Arkansas alone, but Rosburg is averaging 5 points a game and has struggled catching the ball cleanly at times this season. Help defenses will collapse like a house of cards on Clarkson the rest of the way, so having Rosburg gain confidence taking dump off passes is important for the Tigers.
  2. Garnet and Black Attack has an excellent breakdown on a game that probably flew under most of college basketball’s radar: the snow-delayed afternoon tilt between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. They write about a dominant Gamecock effort on the offensive glass (26 offensive rebounds, 14 more than Vanderbilt), and how it allowed South Carolina to win a game in which it shot only 38 percent. That type of hustle is key in a game at an odd time and with a strange feel. This is only the Gamecocks’ second conference win, and they’d probably have more if Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson were still available. But there’s a silver lining. Those few wins aren’t as valuable as the heavy minutes freshmen Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are logging (they played 36 and 37 minutes, respectively, against Vanderbilt). Notice struggled through a 1-for-7 first half performance that likely would’ve put him on the bench under normal circumstances. But he was needed on the floor, and played solid defense on Kyle Fuller and hit a key three in the Gamecocks 17-5 second half run. That’s valuable situational experience.
  3. LSU has bounced back well this season, going 6-1 following losses. The Tigers desperately need to keep that up Saturday in Fayetteville after dropping a head-scratcher in College Station. Or maybe it wasn’t such a head-scratcher, since the Tigers are riding a four-game road losing streak. Either way, the win was damaging to LSU’s tournament chances and raised a few concerns. For one, they let a largely underwhelming Texas A&M offense shoot 48.3% and go 10-of-23 from three (LSU has the SEC’s worst three point defense). Another issue is their backcourt depth after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. Tim Quarterman (0-for-3, two turnovers) added virtually nothing, and if he isn’t contributing LSU is entirely reliant on two players (Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer) to contribute from the guard spots. When those two struggle, as they did against the Aggies, the Tigers are in trouble.
  4. CBSSports’ Jeff Borzello talked to several coaches about Florida, and touched on a number of topics like the Gators style of play, the best way to score on them, and their biggest weakness. It’s a fascinating read (as is his whole series on championship contender breakdowns), and not something that gets put out there everyday. One coach said a concern for the Gators is that they don’t have a guy who can “overtake” a game by himself. “You know, a guy where, if you needed buckets, he can automatically get you buckets. They say to win a national championship, you need three pros. I don’t know if they have three pros,” the coach is quoted as saying. That’s definitely a legitimate concern, but Florida is so unlike modern contenders that that adage might not apply. How often in today’s college basketball does an elite team have as many seniors – with as much experience (see, three straight Elite Eight appearances) – as the Gators? And if we are being hyper-technical there probably are three pros on the roster. Chris Walker will make it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier develop into legitimate prospects. But I realize that’s not the point: there’s no ball-dominant future pro who can currently get his shot on the roster, and that’s an issue. Florida’s best bet in those situations is probably Wilbekin, who has shown big-shot chops and the ability to get to the line in recent weeks.
  5. Casey Prather and Julius Randle are the only SEC players to land on the Naismith Midseason 30. Prather makes the list despite scoring in single digits in three of his last four games, but an injured ankle has caused that speed bump and it shouldn’t take away from his season on the whole. Randle has largely lived up to the colossal expectations put on him, and he should make the cut for that alone. So let’s get to everybody’s favorite part, the snub discussion. Not to be boring, but I have no real qualms with these two being the SEC’s only representatives. Scottie Wilbekin is probably more important to Florida, is fourth in the conference in assists, sixth in steals and one of the best defenders the SEC has to offer. But that’s understandably not enough to crack the top 30. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown might both have an argument, but Missouri isn’t winning and and it’s hard for players from middling teams to get attention.
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SEC M5: 02.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 10th, 2014

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  1. The book is written on Florida. All you have to do is throw a zone on the Gators, and it won’t matter how stifling their defense is. Well, maybe not. Florida’s offense largely struggled against Missouri’s zone during the week, and then scuffled early against Alabama’s zone on Saturday. But Casey Prather’s ability to find driving lanes (15 points) and effective interior passing (leading to a number of Will Yeguete layups) at the end of the first half forced the Tide to collapse the zone, which opened things up for Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin (three three-pointers each). Florida doesn’t have an abundance of three-point shooting, as Frazier, Wilbekin, and (at times) Dorian Finney-Smith are the only players capable of scaring opponents. But against Alabama they showed they can poke holes on the interior of zone defenses, and make up for that lack of outside shooting.
  2. You don’t have to look far to find big offensive numbers for LSU in its win against previously-streaking Auburn. The Tigers scored 55 second half points. They had five players in double figures. Anthony Hickey had five three-pointers. Jarell Martin’s 11 point performance would be pretty far down the list, but it was an unsung contribution to the LSU win, and kept the Tigers in the game early. NOLA.com’s Randy Rosetta writes, “Martin lit a fire when he followed a Jordan Mickey miss with a slam-dunk and that began a torrid stretch of the 6-foot-9 freshman scoring 10 of LSU’s 15 points over 7 minutes, the last coming on a feathery jump shot from the circle that put the home Tigers in front 16-15 and finally forced Auburn to loosen up inside.” Like with his performance against the Tigers from the Plains, Martin has been quietly coming on lately. Saturday was his third straight game scoring in double figures, after he scored 15 apiece against Arkansas and Georgia. There are a lot of reasons LSU has the look of a team built for March, their recent letdown against Georgia aside. Martin is one of them. The 6’8’’ freshman can score from any point on the floor, and is becoming more consistent. He could be a match-up nightmare down the line, especially since Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey demand so much attention.
  3. Finally, Arkansas did it. At long last the Razorbacks beat a not-so-terrible opponent on the road by winning at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Doc Harper at Arkansas Fight estimates this was the Hogs first road win over a RPI top #100 team (Vanderbilt is currently #66) in four years, and writes that the win will only mean something if Arkansas builds off of it. They’ll get their chance on the road against Missouri on Thursday, in a game with a little extra juice for Mike Anderson. The third year Razorback coach must be pleased with how his team has regrouped over the last week. The situation in Fayetteville looked dim after a home loss to Missouri, followed by a loss to LSU in which Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris were suspended. But Arkansas responded with wins over Alabama and then shook the road monkey off their back in Nashville. Qualls especially must be feeling good after the Vanderbilt game. In his second game back from his suspension he scored 17 points and hit three-of-five three pointers, helping offset a down offensive night from Bobby Portis (8 points). Momentum has been fickle for the SEC’s bubble brethren, but as of right now Arkansas is headed in the right direction.
  4. South Carolina’s season has been as forgettable as they come. The Gamecocks dropped their 13th game in a row to Tennessee Saturday in Knoxville, and were out of it early. They managed only one field goal in the game’s first eight minutes en route to a 23-point halftime deficit. At 1-9 in conference, their stretch of solid play at the end of December, in which they knocked off previously-unbeaten Saint Mary’s and won five-of-six, seems like a decade away. No one should be piling on Frank Martin in his second year though: the Gamecocks are exceedingly young, have lost Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson, and have actually been competitive in the majority of SEC games. But the 1-9 record is still unsightly, especially since “parity” has been a common theme in conference play. Every other team has at least three wins and there have been plenty of surprises (i.e., Georgia beating Missouri and LSU, Texas A&M beating Tennessee, Auburn beating Alabama). You would think South Carolina would have come up with at least one more win in such a rocky and underwhelming conference.
  5. SEC teams are littered across Jerry Palm’s latest bubble watch. He has Missouri and Tennessee “on the fence” and Ole Miss, Arkansas, and LSU with “work to do.” It’s hard for me to put see Missouri as being in better shape than two teams it recently lost to in Ole Miss and LSU, however. The Vols and (Missouri) Tigers, do however, own non-conference wins that look better now than they did in the past. Virginia’s ascent into the rankings (RPI #20) and second-spot in the ACC standings will certainly help Tennessee, which drilled the Cavaliers in Knoxville. To a much lesser extent, West Virginia’s (RPI #69) recent string of good play (until an understandable beating in Allen Fieldhouse) could help Missouri. The tournament picture is muddy for the SEC, but at the very least there are a handful of teams in the bubble mix. That’s about all you can ask for given where the conference stands right now.
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SEC M5: 02.07.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 7th, 2014

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  1. Does anyone want to break away from the pack and become the third best team in the SEC? LSU looked like a prime candidate to do just that after wins over Kentucky and Arkansas last week, but the Tigers saw Tennessee’s momentum-killing loss at Vanderbilt on Wednesday and raised them a Thursday loss at Georgia. Sure, Georgia had an even conference record going into this game, but the Tigers still should have been able to take care of business in Athens. Nemanja Djurisic (17 points, 7-of-7 from the free throw line, six rebounds) has been inconsistent this year, but when he’s right, he can be one of the toughest match-ups in the SEC. His range (2-of-3 from three) pulls defenders away from the basket and helped Georgia neutralize a better rebounding team. Foul trouble on the LSU bigs didn’t help either. Mark Fox’s team now has two quality wins against Missouri and LSU, and the Bulldogs have won more than they’ve lost in conference play. Georgia could be setting up for an impressive SEC record as they’re already done with Kentucky and Florida. Given the loss of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA and how the Bulldogs played in non-conference play (6-6), finishing above .500 in SEC play would be a huge success.
  2. A lot of well-deserved freshman love has flowed to Kentucky’s class, and more recently, LSU’s Jordan Mickey. But it sure needs to flow to Bobby Portis too after what he did against Alabama. The Little Rock native kept the Razorbacks competitive against the Tide almost by himself, scoring 29 of the team’s first 35 points en route to an Arkansas freshman record-tying 35 points. No Razorback freshman had scored that much since Jannero Pargo was pinging threes into Bud Walton Arena’s nets back in 2002. Portis’ big game couldn’t have come at a bigger time for the Hawgs. Last week’s losses to Missouri and LSU didn’t kill their chances at an NCAA at-large bid, but a loss to the struggling Tide probably would have. If Arkansas is to keep winning, Mike Anderson needs to keep Portis on the court because not many players are capable of going 14-of-17 from the field. He hasn’t played fewer than 28 minutes since SEC play began, and his minutes need to continue to be in the low 30s to stay fresh enough to succeed, but this is one horse Anderson needs to ride as far as he can.
  3. Shooting over 50 percent from the field cures a lot of ills. Texas A&M’s offense was downright putrid against Florida (elite defense aside) recently, scoring only 36 points and shooting only 25.9 percent from the field. Enter Mississippi State, which was on a three-game losing streak and likely eager to face that Aggies’ attack in its first-ever trip to College Station. But Jamal Jones scored 20 points, Alex Caruso had 10 assists, and Texas A&M nearly doubled up its output from the Florida game while winning, 72-52. This was the type of solid all-around performance Billy Kennedy needed to instill some confidence in his players for the rest of the way. Not only did the Aggies make more shots than they missed, they also generated 22 assists against only six turnovers.
  4. We know Chris Walker has big-time potential, and we know he’s going to help Florida in some way or another before this season is out. There are a lot of things we don’t know about him too, like what exactly happened with respect to those impermissible benefits before he arrived in Gainesville. A lot of people don’t know much about Walker’s past either, and the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway wrote a good article on that topic. Walker was abandoned by his biological parents, and lost his care-giving grandmother at  the tender age of 12 years old. It’s nice that Walker’s current story is no longer one of whether he’ll play, but rather how much he can help the Gators as he works his way into game shape. That’s an easy story to root for given how much he went through just to get to Florida.
  5. Quick, which is the hottest team in the SEC behind Florida and its 14-game winning streak? I’ll give you the answer: Vanderbilt, which has won four straight games. Behind the Commodores? Auburn, which won its third straight game by beating South Carolina on the road. It hasn’t been often in Tony Barbee’s tenure that his team has had the third-longest winning streak in the conference — it’s not much, but it’s something. Obviously Chris Denson and KT Harrell (25 points each) are the story here, but Tahj Shamsid-Deen (12 point, three assists) should be a thorn in opponents’ side for the next four years. He’s the type of crafty, confident point guard who will get more effective as he gains additional experience. The freshman ranks 10th in the SEC in assists per game, and touts an impressive turnover percentage (13.3 percent) for a first-year player.
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Suspensions Compound Arkansas’ Disastrous Week

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2014

Talk about a rough week. Arkansas suffered a rare home loss to Missouri early in the week and then wasn’t able to shake its road struggles in a 14-point loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. The biggest story for the Razorbacks, however, was who didn’t suit up in yesterday’s game. Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris were suspended from the team indefinitely, removing two major pieces from Mike Anderson‘s rotation. The suspensions couldn’t come at a worse time for the Razorbacks as their NCAA Tournament hopes are on critical life support after losing four of their last five games. Qualls, in particular, will be especially tough to replace. The sophomore averages the second most minutes per game (25.3 MPG), and at 6’6” has size and athleticism that Arkansas doesn’t otherwise have on the wing. The latest personnel crunch also deals a heavy blow to Anderson’s preferred ability to run his pressure system.

Suspensions should accelerate Moses Kingsley's development at Arkansas (wholehogsports.com).

Suspensions should accelerate Moses Kingsley’s development at Arkansas (wholehogsports.com).

We try to stay positive on this microsite (which isn’t always easy), so where’s the silver lining for Arkansas after this latest setback? One such positive could be that Moses Kingsley will need to pick up some of Harris’ minutes. The freshman has incredible peripheral numbers in his small sample size of minutes, including the best PER (27.7), rebounding percentage (17.1%), and block percentage (15.6%) on the team. Now, those are all-conference numbers in a vacuum, and Anderson is no fool. He’s clearly putting Kingsley in a position to succeed by not overexposing him at this point. Still, his talent and upside are enticing. Against LSU he saw 19 minutes of action and logged three points, four rebounds and three blocks during that time. Those aren’t world-beating numbers, but they aren’t terrible for a raw rookie either. These suspensions could mean that Kingsley gets an opportunity to turn into an impressive low post defensive presence, and that development just got fast-tracked.

Qualls’ minutes will be distributed amongst Arkansas’ bevy of guards, but Rashad Madden (who has seen his minutes increase in SEC play) will bear an even greater scoring load than he already had. The junior has been one of the best shooters in the league (with a 65.7 true shooting percentage, third in the SEC), and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds to becoming the true perimeter offensive focus. Arkansas has two winnable games versus Alabama and at Vanderbilt next week, but those looked that way with a full-strength Razorbacks squad. They just became that much tougher, and Anderson’s team simply can’t afford to lose either one if there is any chance of a return to the bubble.

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SEC M5: 01.31.14 Edition

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

SEC_morning5

  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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Well-Rounded Jabari Brown Leading Missouri Revival

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2014

Missouri has an ugly history in Bud Walton Arena, including a 52-point beatdown by Nolan Richardson’s eventual 1994 national championship Arkansas team. But last night the Tigers notched their first win in seven tries in the 21-year old arena, and easily their best road win since joining the SEC. Here are two quick thoughts from the third conference game in a budding regional basketball rivalry.

Jabari Brown has risen to the top of the SEC scoring list (19.5 PPG) with a balanced offensive game (ksdk.com).

Jabari Brown has risen to the top of the SEC scoring list (19.5 PPG) with a balanced offensive game (ksdk.com).

  • Jabari Brown is a complete offensive player. A lot has changed for Brown over the course of a year. Last season he was essentially a spot-up three-point specialist, taking 61.2 percent of his shots from distance. But this year he’s reduced that to 52.2 percent with a corresponding 10 percent increase in shots at the rim (30 percent), and his more complete game was on display yesterday against Arkansas. The junior hit 4-of-5 threes and managed to get to the line eight times, but it was two late mid-range jumpers in the pockets of Arkansas’ zone that helped propel Missouri to the win. Three-point shooting, mid-range jumpers and slashing covers just about everything a player can do on offense. Brown’s recent hot streak could eventually push him towards the NBA Draft, but given his development under Frank Haith in just one year it might be worth it for him to stay. “Downtown Jabari Brown” has turned into “Well-Rounded Jabari Brown,” and another year could see him morph from fringe prospect to sure-fire first rounder.

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SEC M5: 01.29.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Perhaps no team in the country has had as many highs and lows as LSU since conference play began. The Tigers have been blown out at home by Tennessee, endured a 15-0 run by Ole Miss to lose a game of which they were in control, and erased a 19-point deficit against Alabama only to lose the game. But last night they reached the highest point of their season with an impressive home win over Kentucky. The win is a huge boon to LSU’s NCAA Tournament prospects as they head into a relatively benign four-game stretch (Arkansas, at Georgia, Auburn, at Texas A&M). The Tigers still have their warts (notably, poor free throw shooting and turnovers) but their frontcourt has to be considered one of the top units in the country. Jordan Mickey, Johnny O’Bryant and friends held Julius Randle to the lowest scoring output of his career (six points) and gave up just 11 combined rebounds to he and Willie Cauley-Stein. And while Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress found a number of tip-ins and other baskets in the second half, it didn’t matter with the way O’Bryant was playing on offense.
  2. Missouri picked up easily its best road win since joining the SEC last night by winning at Bud Walton Arena. The win pumps life into the Tigers’ sagging NCAA Tournament hopes, and gives them momentum heading into consecutive games against Kentucky and Florida. There’s a legitimate rivalry growing between these two schools. The last two games in Fayetteville have come down to the wire, and there will always be added juice as long as former Missouri head coach Mike Anderson is at Arkansas. A lightning quick postgame handshake (without the seemingly standard shoulder pat) suggests things aren’t exactly rosy between he and Frank Haith. Part of what makes college basketball so great are the regional rivalries and atmosphere surrounding them, and it looks like the SEC is on the verge of having another special match-up.
  3. Billy Donovan has a lot of talent to work with at Florida, but he  also has something that’s become increasingly rare at big-time programs: plenty of senior leadership. There are four seniors averaging over 24 minutes per game, and that experience should keep Florida focused as the schedule winds towards March. Part of that responsibility includes mentoring young players such as Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier. “They don’t really know how to get themselves prepared, how to to make their way through practice every single day,” Will Yeguete said. “We talk to them and let them know that we have to get ourselves ready.” The Gators’ defense was highlighted on the microsite yesterday, and it’s the biggest reason Florida is in the running for a No. 1 seed. But their intangibles and experience will also come in handy during postseason play.
  4. The numbers are not on Tony Barbee‘s side. The Tigers have the second worst SEC record over his four years Barbee (12-44), and the Tigers have not won a conference game in 51 weeksAl.com‘s Kevin Scarbinsky wonders whether Barbee should get the fifth year that Gene Chizik didn’t get on the gridiron. He writes, “Forget winning any kind of championship. Barbee’s program has yet to stage even a one-hit wonder of a major upset over the likes of a Kentucky or a Florida. His Tigers haven’t beaten a ranked team, and they haven’t won a game in the SEC Tournament.” Barbee also hasn’t yet lived up to his reputation as a top-flight recruiter. He hasn’t brought a single player to Auburn who was the caliber of Randy Culpepper, a fringe pro prospect he recruited while at UTEP. The good thing for Barbee is that given the priority put on the Tigers’ football team (and things are going pretty well on that front), the administration can be patient without major repercussions if they have faith in him.
  5. Trevor Releford got quite a workout last week. Backup point guard Retin Obasohan’s injury absence forced Releford to play 40 minutes in Alabama’s games against LSU and Florida. “He’s our only senior. He’s a veteran so he gets the sense of urgency in terms of what we need to do,” Grant said. “To play 80 minutes in 48 hours, that was all heart and guts on his part.” The workload might have taken a toll on Releford, as he only scored two points in the second half against LSU. Seemingly to give him a rest, Grant played him off the ball and ran the offense through Levi Randolph instead. This might not be a bad look going forward because Randolph has the size to see passing lanes and the ability to penetrate, while Releford is a good three-point shooter. One thing, however, is for certain: Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom feel no sympathy for Releford.
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Missouri Set to Enter a Season-Defining Stretch

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 24th, 2014

Missouri’s NCAA chances will be decided in the next two weeks. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but how the Tigers do in their upcoming five games will play a gigantic role in whether they receive a school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament invite this season. South Carolina visits Columbia on Saturday, but after that the Tigers face the Gamecocks, they will go through about as difficult a four-game stretch as there is in the current edition of the SEC. Here are the games:

Jabari Brown and Missouri face a five game stretch that might decide their NCAA fate (kbiasports.com).

Jabari Brown and Missouri face a five game stretch that might decide their NCAA fate (kbiasports.com).

  • January 28: at Arkansas
  • February 1: Kentucky 
  • February 4: at Florida
  • February 8: at Ole Miss 

Even the South Carolina game, struggling as the Gamecocks are, might not be a layup since Frank Martin has abused Missouri in the past. Before losing to Georgia two weeks ago, the last time the Tigers lost in Mizzou Arena was to Martin’s Kansas State team in 2011-12. The problem for Missouri isn’t just that they’re 2-3 in SEC play and about to enter a brutal stretch. The bigger issue is that after the February 8 game in Oxford, there isn’t another good opportunity for a truly eye-grabbing win left on the schedule. Sure, there are two games against Tennessee remaining, but the Volunteers have been up-and-down. Wins at Alabama or Georgia don’t spruce up a resume much either this season.

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