SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 30th, 2015

Feast Week is in the books and there’s plenty of good and not-so-good happening throughout the SEC. Here’s the good: The league boasts two undefeated teams and four teams with just a single loss. On the flip side, there are two teams siting at .500 and two others already under .500. Here are the nuts and bolts of the previous week in SEC basketball.

The Aggies didn't win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless (cbssports.com).

The Aggies didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless. (AP)

  • Team of the WeekTexas A&M didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but the Aggies nonetheless made a statement. They started with an emotional win over intrastate rival Texas in the opener, and while the Longhorns are in a transition year, that win may improve as the year wears on. A&M then knocked off top 10 team Gonzaga in its second game, notching a win that will pay dividends the rest of the year. The experience that young players such as Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos got against the Bulldogs’ elite frontcourt should be a good primer for future games against Kentucky. And while the team ran out of gas against Syracuse in the championship game, what stood out most might have been the Aggies’ depth. Over the three-game tournament, Davis, Morelos, Jalen JonesDanuel House and Anthony Collins all played starring roles at various times. The team has been extremely balanced in both contributions and results, ranking among KenPom’s top 30 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency — a combination that can be useful in predicting March success.

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume II: Opening Weekend Overreactions

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 16th, 2015

The opening weekend is in the books and with the exception of Georgia’s surprising home loss to Chattanooga, the SEC emerged unscathed. Nothing is more fun than analyzing microscopic sample sizes, so this edition of Quotable and Notable is chock full of overreactions. Let’s jump right in.

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn's win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (al.com).

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn’s win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (al.com).

  • “And I’m not comparing him to them two, as far as he’s as good as them, he’s different.” – John Calipari on comparing Skal Labissiere to Karl-Anthony Towns. And oh boy, could you ever see against NJIT on Saturday why the Haitian big man has drawn rave reviews on the recruiting circuit. Labissiere went off for 22 second half points and scored from seemingly everywhere on the floor. This came after a lackluster opening night effort against Albany, but the freshman’s offensive versatility and touch suggests that Calipari has a player on this year’s roster unlike any he has coached in the past. It’ll be interesting to see how Calipari uses Labissiere and whether his veteran big men, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, can be utilized to shore up any rebounding or defensive issues. Many people are going to harp tirelessly on whether Labissiere’s defense can catch up to his offense, but for now it might be best to sit back and appreciate what he can do. That said, Labissiere becoming an effective player on both ends of the floor would make Kentucky an even tougher team to beat in March.

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SEC Burning Questions: How To Earn Respect

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 4th, 2015

The SEC got an early start in its annual quest to shed its label as an underachieving basketball conference. By swapping out Anthony Grant, Rick Ray and Donnie Tyndall for Avery Johnson, Ben Howland and Rick Barnes, the league upgraded in coaching talent and brand name recognition. Losing Florida’s Billy Donovan to the NBA was counterproductive to that pursuit, but by and large, the SEC was the clear springtime winner when the coaching carousel came to a halt. Now the focus shifts to what happens on the court — resumes don’t much matter if you’re not winning games. Here are several ways how the SEC can sustain the momentum to improve its national standing this upcoming season.

Can Bruce Pearl help raise the SEC's national profile? (athlonsports.com)

Can Bruce Pearl help raise the SEC’s national profile? (athlonsports.com)

  • More and higher seeds: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The best way for the SEC to get more national respect is to put more teams in the NCAA Tournament. Last year’s five teams invited on Selection Sunday counts as solid improvement on this front. This year you could make an early, sight-unseen case that six or even seven SEC teams could be in position to make the field by March. That volume would be great, but even if the number of teams ends up as fewer than six, it would be good to see a few higher seeds. Last year, the league’s seeds other than Kentucky came in at #5, #9, #10 and #11. There was no other SEC team that was consistently in the Top 25 last season.

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SEC Impact Newcomers: Part II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 29th, 2015

Yesterday, we looked at the freshmen or transfers who figure to make a first-year impact for half of the teams in the SEC. Today we do the same with the other half of the league, including two freshmen who could be top-10 picks in the upcoming NBA Draft and a transfer who has some international experience.

LSU – Ben Simmons. Simmons was a major get for Johnny Jones, a coach who will try to prove his critics wrong by showing that he can get the most out of a talented roster. The Australian-born wing will almost certainly be a top-five pick in next year’s NBA Draft and is without question the most talented player Jones has had, which is saying something. Simmons is 6’10”, explosively athletic, and according to DraftExpress, was the best passer at the Nike Academy over the summer. Those kinds of skills are a coach’s dream — Simmons, Tim Quarterman and fellow freshman Antonio Blakeney should make the Tigers a fun team to watch in transition this season.

Ben Simmons is as elite a prospect and talent as there is. Can Johnny Jones cash in on that? (sports.yahoo.com).

Ben Simmons is as elite a prospect and talent as there is in college basketball. Can Johnny Jones cash in on that?

Auburn – Kareem Canty. How do you replace scorers like KT Harrell and Antoine Mason? Simple — add yet another high-volume shooting transfer player with a scoring pedigree. Canty, who spent his freshman season averaging 16.2 PPG at Marshall, will assume that role on Bruce Pearl’s second Auburn team. His latest recruiting class generated a lot of buzz, but Canty should be able to take some of the offensive pressure from the freshmen. He’s not the three-point marksman Harrell was, but he’s a proven scorer. In a three-game stretch against Vanderbilt, Penn State and West Virginia two years ago, Canty scored 18, 28 and 16 points, respectively. That kind of offensive production could allow Auburn to rise up the SEC ladder despite the loss of such a prolific three-point shooter and scorer. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Way-Too-Early 2015-16 Power Rankings

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 23rd, 2015

The SEC coaching carousel’s dust appears to have settled with Avery Johnson, Rick Barnes and Ben Howland having moved into their new offices at Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi State, respectively. Kentucky’s John Calipari is making the recruiting rounds with a new pitch after seven more of his players declared for this summer’s NBA Draft. Anthony Grant is getting re-acclimated to the assistant’s chair next to Billy Donovan at Florida that has worked out so well for both of them in the past. There’s still more to be determined about how the SEC will look heading into next season, but here are some way too early predictions on the season to come.

Tyler Ulis should contend for SEC Player of the Year honors next season (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis should contend for SEC Player of the Year honors next season. (AP Photo)

Coach of the Year

  • John Calipari, Kentucky

Player of the Year

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

Freshman/Newcomer of the Year

  • Ben Simmons, LSU

All-SEC First Team

  • Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky
  • Stefan Moody, SG, Ole Miss
  • Danuel House, SF, Texas A&M
  • Ben Simmons, SF, LSU
  • Skal Labissiere, C, Kentucky

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Battle For Alabama: Can Avery Johnson Catch Bruce Pearl?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 9th, 2015

Bill Battle’s wheelbarrow full of money simply wasn’t enough to lure Gregg Marshall away from Wichita State. But the Alabama athletic director had a bold backup plan up his sleeve, as he recently handed Avery Johnson a six-year, $18 million contract to become the Crimson Tide’s next men’s basketball coach. Johnson doesn’t lack for coaching experience from his stints as the head coach for the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets, but he’ll be making the rare coaching transition from the NBA to college ranks. The only coaches who come to mind having recently done this are Isiah Thomas at Florida International and Eddie Jordan at Rutgers. Jordan, however, spent five years as a college assistant in the late 80s and early 90s before a long coaching career in the NBA.

Avery Johnson has already met with Tuscaloosa's most prominent resident (al.com).

Avery Johnson has already met with Tuscaloosa’s most prominent resident. (al.com)

Thomas was a disaster at FIU (26-65 over three seasons) and Jordan’s first two years rebuilding Rutgers have gone about as well as expected (22-43). But that tiny sample size certainly doesn’t mean much as it relates to the 50-year old former NBA Coach of the Year, who might actually be exactly what Alabama needs right now. It’s easy to rattle off multiple reasons to be concerned. Does Johnson have requisite AAU and high school connections to recruit? Can he rally boosters as an Alabama outsider (he’s originally from New Orleans and went to Southern University)? Will he be able to adjust to the realities of the student-athlete environment? On the flip side, Johnson has a number of things in his favor that most other college coaches cannot match. He’s a basketball authority and familiar face after a long stint at ESPN, and his NBA credibility — with a championship ring on his finger as a player with the 1999 Spurs and as a successful coach of the Mavericks — could go a long way toward attracting elite talent to Tuscaloosa.

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Big Blue Nation Again on Display in Nashville

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2015

Jennifer Hay took the 240-mile drive from her hometown of Brookville, Kentucky, to be in Nashville for this week’s SEC Tournament. She spent $200 on upper level seats for Saturday’s semifinal matchup against a woefully undermanned Auburn team. If she is willing to spend that kind of money for a game the Wildcats had virtually no chance of losing, she sure wouldn’t balk at going a bit higher for a ticket to Sunday’s championship game. “I’d go to $350 for that,” she said outside Bridgestone Arena before Kentucky’s 91-67 annihilation of the SEC Tournament’s Cinderella. When asked why she would spend so much of her resources on the prelude to the main event, the NCAA Tournament, she was quick with a response. “Oh, we’ll go to that, too.” Hay’s story is no different than that of most diehard Big Blue fans. They will do anything and everything it takes to see their beloved Wildcats play. And while it might be easier for them to pinch pennies elsewhere to make sure it happens as the Wildcats march toward history, they’d be here even if their team wasn’t headed to the NCAA Tournament as a prohibitive favorite. They proved that fact two years ago when they took over Music City to watch an NIT team lose its quarterfinal game to Vanderbilt.

Kentucky Fans Have Filled Bridgestone Arena As Usual (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Fans Have Filled Bridgestone Arena As Usual (USA Today Images)

This week, though, is a little different than most years, even by the high standards of Kentucky fans. Tickets are harder to come by, as evidenced by the many empty-handed scalpers standing outside the arena 30 minutes before tipoff. Benny Paige, a Memphian who works for the broker Ticket Resource, said that there was very little to come by and he wasn’t even willing to stick around to see what kind of business he could do in advance of Sunday’s final. “Kentucky fans buy [the tickets] up at $250, so you can’t make enough money on that,” Paige said. According to StubHub.com, a pair of premium lower-level tickets for the championship game was selling for as much as $466 apiece as of Saturday afternoon. That game, in which the Wildcats will take on a team destined for the NCAA Tournament, figures to be far more competitive than today’s semifinal against the Tigers, whose presence may have led to the cost of admission being a bit lower than normal. Still, it’s clear that Wildcats fans will spend generously even for a game that their team is going to handily win and will not impact their position as the #1 overall seed in the upcoming Big Dance.

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Auburn’s Surprising Run Carries it to Clash with Kentucky

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

Earlier this season, Bruce Pearl was brutally honest with his height-challenged squad. To make his players feel like they could compete with almost any team in the SEC, Pearl told his Auburn club that it could beat any team on its schedule. Well, any team besides No. 1 Kentucky. “The reason why I said that was because I truly wanted them to believe that we could beat Ole Miss or LSU or Arkansas or Georgia. Because to just say we could beat any team in the league, I don’t know that that would be a hundred percent,” Pearl said. It may have taken a while to come together, but after the Tigers’ stunning overtime quarterfinal victory against LSU, Auburn is on a roll, having won nearly as many SEC games in three days (three) as it did during the regular season (four).

Bruce Pearl knows that beating Kentucky will be a very tall task (USA Today Images)

Bruce Pearl knows that beating Kentucky will be a very tall task (USA Today Images)

That Auburn has advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament isn’t just surprising; anyone who might have suggested such a thing earlier this week would have been laughed out of Bridgestone Arena. But here they are, and their reward for pulling off three straight upsets? That very Kentucky team that Pearl told them they could not beat. Lest anyone think that Pearl was being unfair to his team by suggesting that it is incapable of beating a fellow SEC school, there’s nobody in America who would disagree with his premise. The Tigers are one of the smallest teams in the country and the Wildcats are the biggest. Pearl knows that getting past the vaunted Wildcats is something too hard to even contemplate. In his postgame comments, he talked about the Tigers being “short-handed,” admitted it will be a “tough matchup,” and said his team “will try to represent.”

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Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament Hopes Vanish in Nashville

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2015

For Texas A&M, things started out well enough. The Aggies opened a 10-point lead against lowly Auburn in Thursday’s SEC Tournament Second Round, only to see that lead quickly evaporate when the Tigers opened the second half on a 26-7 run en route to a 66-59 victory. The Aggies’ halftime lead was not the only thing that went up in smoke in Nashville today. Their case for an NCAA Tournament bid, which appeared strong prior to last week’s losses to Florida and Alabama, is all but over now. With few legitimate wins upon which the Aggies can hang their hats — before today, their strongest argument in favor of inclusion was the avoidance of bad losses, but that is no longer the case – head coach Billy Kennedy is left scratching his head at what went wrong.

KT Harrell and Auburn di in Texas A&M's NCAA Tournament chances (John Locher/AP)

KT Harrell and Auburn did in Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament chances (John Locher/AP)

To be sure, playing without second-leading scorer Danuel House did not help, but Texas A&M is the more talented team, having completed a sweep of the Tigers just 12 days ago. Ultimately, though, the Aggies were done in by their inability to consistently score. “Danuel House, I mean, he’s our go-to guy. He’s a big moment guy. He’s handled the pressure for us for the most part all throughout the season. We really needed somebody else to step up,” Kennedy said afterward. Nobody else did, as only Alex Caruso (11 points) and Alex Robinson (11 points) reached double-figures, and the team as a whole contributed 0.83 points per possession. For Kennedy’s club, the loss probably ends the notion of an NCAA Tournament bid that seemed so likely just a few days ago. The future is still very bright in College Station. Kennedy signed what is currently ranked as the nation’s third-best incoming freshman class, including four players ranked in Rivals.com’s top 66. Additionally, the Aggies are expected to only lose Kourtney Roberson and Jordan Green from this year’s team. Still, Texas A&M had a really good chance to get a head start on that bright future with a scouting trip to the Big Dance this year. Now the Aggies will almost certainly head to the NIT, wondering how it all went wrong and what could have been.

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SEC Tournament Preview: What Teams Are Playing For

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2015

As Nashville awaits the inevitable Big Blue mist that will descend upon it Friday afternoon, let’s take a look at what each of the 14 SEC teams has to play for with the start of tonight’s SEC Tournament.

SEC tournament bracket 2015

The Outsiders

  • Missouri (9-22, 3-15). After winning its SEC opener against LSU, Missouri earned only two more conference victories all season — at home against Florida and Auburn. Kim Anderson’s first year at his alma mater has been a trying one, and there likely will not be much sadness when this campaign comes to a merciful end sometime soon.
  • Mississippi State (13-18, 6-12). Given that Rick Ray won seven league games in his first two seasons in Starkville, this year’s six-win campaign is a substantial improvement. This appeared to be a team that would struggle to win any conference games, so getting six has surely earned Ray the right to coach a fourth season at Mississippi State. While the Bulldogs have nothing to play for beyond Nashville, expect them to be motivated to move into Thursday’s round against Texas A&M.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume IX

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 3rd, 2015

For the next three weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume IX, including games from February 24 to March 1.

Team of the Week: With all due respect to undefeated Kentucky (which won its highest-profile SEC game by beating Arkansas), this week’s award goes to LSU. The Tigers avoided a black mark by picking up a road win at Auburn, and then added a top 50 RPI win by knocking off Ole Miss at home. The win over the Rebels also gave LSU the tie-breaker for conference tournament seeding purposes if the two teams are still knotted at the end of the week. The question for the Tigers, at least in terms of how high their ceiling is, was always going to be how well the roster developed around big men Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. Depth hasn’t arrived and Josh Gray has struggled his way into Johnny Jones’ doghouse, as he hasn’t logged more than 21 minutes over the last five games. But Jones seems to have found a five-man lineup that he likes and is having success with. Tim Quarterman recorded only the seventh triple double in program history, and first since Shaq did the trick in 1992, against Ole Miss. This was an indicative of the all-purpose role he’s played all year. Jalyn Patterson has also stuffed the stat sheet all season (nine points, five assists, four rebounds against the Rebels) and has clearly improved throughout the year and earned Jones’ trust as a freshman. Along with Keith Hornsby, the Tigers have three solid parts to plug alongside their two stars and a team that is athletic, defends well and is deadly in transition. The concern is that Jones has still played fast (seventh highest adjusted temp according to KenPom) despite the thin rotation, and this could catch up to LSU, especially in a back-to-back game tournament setting. But the Tigers know what they are, and there’s something to be said for that at this time of year. Honorable mention goes to Missouri, which snapped its 13 game losing streak against Florida midweek. And let’s also say something for Vanderbilt, which picked up solid wins over Alabama and Tennessee and sits at a respectable 7-9 in SEC play.

Trey Lyles had a career week for Kentucky (collegebasketball.ap.org).

Trey Lyles had a career week for Kentucky (collegebasketball.ap.org).

Player of the Week. At this point in the season it doesn’t hurt to spread the love as much possible, so let’s split the award among three freshmen: Trey Lyles, Wade Baldwin IV and Namon Wright. Lyles had his finest week as a college player, at least in terms of scoring, with a career-high 18 points in back-to-back games. Often times this season defenses have been content with the Wildcat offense settling on two-point jump shots from Lyles, so it was encouraging that he scored those 36 points on an efficient 15-of-22 shooting. Baldwin has quietly had a strong freshman season, and this week put up 28 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and just four turnovers while leading Vanderbilt to two wins. He’s a big, aggressive lead guard that should be fun to watch over the next few seasons, especially alongside Riley LaChance and the other young Commodores. Wright carried Missouri for much of its streak-busting win against Florida, dropping in a career-high 28 points and going six-for-eight from three. Besides a season-opening hot stretch from Teki Gill-Caesar, none of the Mizzou freshmen have shown the type of offensive explosion Wright did in that win over the Gators. Not to get greedy, but Quarterman deserves some more ink for his triple-double too.

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Freeze Frame: Analyzing Kentucky’s Post Game

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 24th, 2015

Teams known for their defensive efficiency might not normally hang 110 points in conference play, but that’s exactly what Kentucky did when it met Bruce Pearl’s Auburn team on Saturday evening. Ken Pomeroy lists the Wildcats as the eighth most-efficient offense in the nation (118.4 points per 100 possessions), but that end of the floor has not consistently been the Wildcats’ calling card this season. John Calipari’s offense does, however, seem to be impvoing at just the right time. Kentucky’s 1.34 points per possession performance over the weekend was the third-best in SEC play for the Wildcats during the Calipari era (2010-15).

Most efficient games in SEC play during the John Calipari era.

Most efficient games in SEC play during the John Calipari era.

The Wildcats were good at just about every aspect of their game against Auburn, but Kentucky dominated the low post, with its 62 points in the paint tied for the most of any SEC team this season. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will examine Kentucky’s post play to see how the bigs use screens on the low block to find and hold good post position.

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