SEC Burning Questions: First Year Coach With the Biggest Impact

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 2nd, 2015

One of the biggest developments in the SEC this offseason was the star power added to the league’s coaching ranks, as no fewer than three programs added a head coach with an impressive pedigree. Mississippi State hired Ben Howland, a man who led UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 and has won conference titles in the Big Sky, Big East and Pac 10/12. Tennessee quickly ended its tumultuous relationship with Donnie Tyndall and added a coach with a Final Four to his name as well (plus three Sweet Sixteens and two Elite Eights) in Rick Barnes. And after swinging and missing on Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Alabama was nonetheless able to win the press conference by hiring Avery Johnson, a former NBA Coach of the Year who led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006. Florida didn’t make a splashy hire, but the Gators replaced its legendary coach with Louisiana Tech’s Michael White  no stranger to the SEC after playing and coaching at Ole Miss.

Ben Howland inherits a better-than-you'd-think situation in Starkville (stationcaster.com).

Ben Howland inherits a better-than-you’d-think situation in Starkville (stationcaster.com).

Of the four, Howland and White are poised to have the biggest impacts this season. For Howland, this is in no small part because of the situation former Bulldogs’ head coach Rick Ray left him. It would have been more than understandable had Mississippi State stuck with Ray for at least another year. His three-year results weren’t great, but there had been incremental improvement: The Bulldogs won six SEC games under him last year (his highest total) and were poised to return a strong and experienced core that he had recruited and developed. But as cruel as it was for Ray to lose on the chance to continue building his program, it’s refreshing that Mississippi State strived for more — the type of ambition the league needs if it wants to raise its national profile. Howland arrived in Starkville and delivered right away, signing Jackson native Malik Newman (Rivals’ #8 overall prospect) away from the likes of Kentucky, Ole Miss and LSU.

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SEC Trick-or-Treat: Who’s Handing Out What

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2015

Every house hands out something different on Halloween. Elation or disappointment are just a ring of the doorbell away, and you never know which one is behind the door. It’s much the same in the SEC, where each coach enters the season with plans to cook up something unique. So saunter up to the door and get your bag ready, because SEC coaches are doling out the goodies.

King-sized anything – John Calipari. Don’t pretend like you got dropped off in the country club section of town without hopes of piling your plastic pumpkin full of king-sized Snickers bars. How can Kentucky fans be anything but satisfied with what Coach Cal has served up since landing in Lexington? One championship and four Final Four appearances in six years are enough to keep any fan base content. 2015-16 should be more of the same, with All-American caliber sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis joining forces with another loaded freshmen class. But one of the keys towards making sure this is another king-sized season is a pair of players that are more accustomed to playing “fun-sized” roles in Lexington. Senior Alex Poythress was limited to just eight games last year after tearing his ACL, while junior Marcus Lee has never averaged more than 10 minutes per game in a season. Elite recruit and potential top-five pick Skal Labissiere will be the headliner in the frontcourt, but both Poythress and Lee will be heavily relied upon to provide production alongside the star freshman.

Pixy Stix – Mike Anderson. When you want a sugar rush — and fast — you reach for the sweet simplicity of Pixy Stix. When you want to watch fast-paced basketball, you watch the Arkansas Razorbacks. Mike Anderson’s teams have ranked among the top 25 teams nationally in Kenpom adjusted tempo in all four of his years in Fayetteville. However, the Pixy Stix sugar rush is also accompanied by an inevitable crash — something Anderson will look to avoid this season. Four of his top five scorers are gone, and his rotation was further complicated by off-the-court problems over the summer. Even more trouble came when one of his top recruits, Ted Kapita, wasn’t able to qualify. It might all add up to a trying transition season in Fayetteville, as the Hogs may fall far short of the success of last season’s group, whose season ended in the third round of the Tournament. Still, if nothing else, freshman Jimmy Whitt should be able to light up the scoreboard — even if the points are as empty as the calories in that paper tube of sugar.

Screenshot 2015-10-29 at 11.29.30 PM

Need A Rush? Grab Some Pixy Stix This Halloween…Or Watch Mike Anderson’s Team Play Basketball

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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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Three Takeaways From Wednesday’s #SECTipoff16

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 22nd, 2015

Ed. Note: make sure to add @rushtheSEC to your Twitter follows for SEC basketball coverage over the next six months!

Billy Donovan is no longer roaming the sidelines for the Florida Gators. Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and a handful of other Kentucky underclassmen are gone to the riches and fame of the NBA. There are new coaches with Final Four and NBA Finals resumes now leading programs in Knoxville, Starkville and Tuscaloosa. The SEC certainly looks a little different heading into the upcoming college basketball season, but overall that might be for the best. Participants in the SEC Media Day event in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Wednesday oozed hope that the SEC’s early season stumbles and late collapses of years past would better prepare the league for ascent into college basketball’s elite this season. After many years of hype, will this finally be the year that SEC basketball takes a big leap forward into the national landscape?

Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee at #SECTipoff16 (photo credit - CoachCal.com)

Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee with Sean Farnham at #SECTipoff16 (photo credit – CoachCal.com)

Here are three key takeaways from Wednesday’s #SECTipoff16:

1) The SEC is no longer Kentucky and everyone else.

Ben Howland has won at the highest levels of college basketball, taking three different schools to the NCAA Tournament. The new Mississippi State head coach has been successful in the Big Sky, Big East, and the Pac-12, but he spoke highly of the depth and quality of the teams in the SEC. “You have to bring it every night or you’re not going to win,” said the first-year Bulldogs coach.

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Ben Howland: An Odd Fit That Might Just Work Out For Mississippi State

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 24th, 2015

Several weeks ago I wrote on this microsite that it was shaping up to be the rare offseason where no SEC schools would be welcoming new coaches. That turned out to be a very incorrect notion. Anthony Grant was fired by Alabama on Selection Sunday and Mississippi State followed that up about a week later by announcing that Rick Ray would not be given a fourth year at the helm in Starkville. Ray’s firing registered higher on the “surprise meter” than that of Grant — the Bulldogs had just posted their best SEC record during his tenure (6-12), were expected to return an experienced nucleus of core players, and had signed a trio of three-star prospects in next year’s class. That clearly wasn’t enough for athletic director Scott Stricklin, and it did not take the school very long to name former Pitt and UCLA head coach Ben Howland as its next men’s basketball coach. Howland was loosely connected to seemingly every major job that opened a year ago but he was reportedly never seriously considered at any of Missouri, Tennessee or Marquette. He recently told USA Today that he regretted turning down three schools last offseason (one of these appears to have been Oregon State), two of which were in the process of rebuilding. This year Howland wasn’t willing to wait around, jumping on the first job opportunity that came his way.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland inherits a Mississippi State program that struggled under Rick Ray (Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire)

Is this a good fit? For one, the Bulldogs couldn’t have landed a more accomplished coach, what with Howland’s three Final Fours at UCLA, two Sweet Sixteens at Pitt and another NCAA Tournament appearance at Northern Arizona. At the same time, the Bulldogs would also be hard-pressed to find a coach with more baggage, primarily stemming from a 2012 Sports Illustrated story that alleged that Howland had let things spin severely out of control in Westwood. Also working against him is that he has no real ties to the SEC nor the South other than his hiring of former UCLA and LSU assistant Korey McCray, who made his name as the coach of the influential AAU program Atlanta Celtics. Still, the move has been roundly praised by writers. Howland’s adaptability to his geography seems to be a strong suit, as he’s won on the West Coast, Southwest and the Northeast.

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Morning Five: 03.24.15 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on March 24th, 2015

morning5

  1. We aren’t going to go over what happened last weekend because frankly you probably were sitting on the couch watching the entire thing. So that brings us to the Regionals which have plenty of intriguing story lines. In the East, we have a ridiculously wide-open field where we wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the four teams advance to Indianapolis (ok, maybe North Carolina State would be surprising). In the South, it is pretty much all chalk except for UCLA and since they don’t have an overseeded team or a Cinderella next so we don’t expect they will be around much longer. The Midwest is basically Kentucky and a bunch of other teams that pretty much everybody expects to be pushovers although we think the Elite 8 game could be interesting. To us, the West is by far the most interesting region especially with a potential WisconsinArizona match-up in the Elite 8, which could be a match-up of the second and third best teams in the country right now.
  2. Mississippi State will introduce Ben Howland as its next coach at a press conference tomorrow. The timing of introducing Howland as its new coach so soon after Rick Ray was fired makes it seem like this was either in place or essentially a done deal before Ray was fired. Landing Howland is huge for a program that frankly is a mediocre Power 5 program and that might be generous. There will be plenty of questions as to why Howland took the position so early in the coaching carousel when he presumably could have gotten a better position, but we would guess that it was because he was left without a spot last off-season.
  3. According to Gary Parrish, Alabama is set to offer Gregg Marshall over $3 million per year to try to lure him away from Wichita State. We are assuming that Alabama is at least waiting until after the Shockers are eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, but as we have seen in other cases that is not necessarily always true. Marshall was making $1.75 million a year at Wichita State according to the most recent reports we have heard so he would be making at least $1 million per year more not accounting for bonuses for performance and all the other ridiculous clauses they have in contracts to get more money (radio show, etc). With Bruce Pearl at Auburn, there is some pressure on the Alabama administration to improve their basketball program although we all know the fans of those programs judge success almost entirely by what their football team does. We will be interested to see if Marshall jumps at the chance to get more money and move to a Power 5 conference or if he stays at Wichita State with the possibility of even better positions (like Texas or Indiana) opening up in the coming weeks.
  4. President Obama has been more involved in college basketball (and sports in general) than most previous Presidents, but he has been especially involved recently with his call for student-athletes to receive guaranteed scholarships, but not financial compensation in an interview with The Huffington Post. While none of this is new–the Power 5 conferences are moving towards guaranteed scholarships and there is no official compensation–it is unusual to see a President speak about these issues. And as for his famous annual bracket, teams have started using it as motivation including Cat Barber who called out the President for picking Villanova to beat North Carolina State. It won’t happen, but we wish we could see Barber get invited to the White House and try to explain that one.
  5. We found one championship that Kentucky won’t win this year as the first men’s college basketball national championship of the year was awarded to Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which beat Augustana 70-54 on Saturday to win the Division III title. They won’t get much press for it, but it is the school’s fourth title in 12 years, which is impressive regardless of the level of competition you are playing against. We doubt that this will get more than a quick highlight over the Final Four weekend (unless Wisconsin ends up playing for the Division I title) as they typically broadcast the Division II championship game instead, but it is still worth noting.
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What’s Next at Alabama After Anthony Grant?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 16th, 2015

Anthony Grant was the SEC’s lone coaching question mark heading into the offseason, but unfortunately for the sixth-year Alabama head coach, news of his firing was released shortly before Alabama received an NIT bid. This led commentator and former Providence head coach Tim Welsh to candidly hurl the following zinger toward athletic director Bill Battle during the NIT Selection Show (after hurling a true but strangely-placed zinger at the NIT itself).

Screenshot 2015-03-15 at 10.23.23 PM

Welsh’s sentiment seems to capture the consensus on Grant as a well-liked and respectable guy. He was never surrounded by scandal or shadiness and Grant had clearly impressed Battle a year ago when he wrote the following in a blog post: “In every meeting we have had, I came away impressed with his character, with his knowledge and belief in his approach to the game, with his commitment to win championships at Alabama, and with his ability to recruit and develop players, both on and off the court.” Grant clearly didn’t win enough to keep his job; he exits Tuscaloosa with a 117-85 (54-48 SEC) record that includes one NCAA Tournament appearance (2012). Recruiting and player development at Alabama was a mixed bag — Trevor Releford was an excellent get and he also hit paydirt with Tony Mitchell and Levi Randolph. But there were others that never came around. His coaching strength was on the defensive end. Grant consistently built outstanding defensive teams, landing in the top-20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings each season from 2011-13. But offense was a problem. His teams were never better than 60th nationally (this year) on that end of the floor, and his preferred slow style of play turned off a lot of Tide fans.

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Marching to Vegas: On Pace of Play in the Pac

Posted by Adam Butler on January 23rd, 2015

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

Earlier this week, our very own Andrew Murawa wrote thoughtfully and critically of college basketball. BLASPHEMY. But he’s not wrong. He was sure to cite his love of the sport no matter its flaws and I’d like to note a few of the tempo-related items concerning our Pac-12. Historically it’s been a frenetic pace. During a Thursday morning Twitter conversation, I was brought to this 1988 Arizona Wildcats highlight. In it you’ll notice the Wildcats crashing the offensive glass (possessions!) and sprinting out on the break off a turnover (more possessions!). Arizona would win that game, 78-70, a point total far lower than their season average this year. In 1988, Arizona scored 84.8 point per game, 15th-best in the nation. That would be a top-five scoring total in each of the last 14 seasons.

Up-tempo Exciting Basketball Used To Be The Norm In The Pac-12

Uptempo Exciting Basketball Used To Be The Norm In The Pac-12

Of course Total Points isn’t a statistic we love to note. It bypasses many important factors and qualifiers in understanding how the game is played. Unfortunately, tempo isn’t readily available for that historical context. A Google search, however, can easily deliver a handful of articles that articulate the slowing of the game. What I really want to do, though, is look at the history of this conference. One that saw UCLA and Cal split their 1995 series by a cumulative score of 197-188. That’s two games. By comparison, Cal’s 2012 sweep of UCLA looked like this: 132-158. This is anecdotal and perhaps not indicative of the quality of those respective games; however, there’s been a shift to how the game has been played, particularly in our conference. The century mark is a jaw-dropping feat. It used to get me tacos in McKale.

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Marching To Vegas: On UCLA and Lighting Someone Else’s Candle

Posted by Adam Butler on January 9th, 2015

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops will again be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference as we begin the March to Vegas.

It can’t not be discussed. I never went to journalism school – I studied Human Biology – but I have to think you should never start an article with a double negative. The conversation, however, has got to be had surrounding UCLA. It’s going on in many places, most notably Twitter, where panic is settling in and leaps are being made. It’s a bad look. The question, of course, is the job security of Steve Alford. Let’s first address the obvious: He’s under contract with a crazy buyout at a time in which UC schools are haggling every which way for money. Public relations aside, that’s a lofty price tag to rid yourself of a rushed hire in the wake of a less-than-adored coach. Of course, shelling out exorbitant amounts of money to salvage your athletic brand is not unprecedented. As recently as MICHIGAN it’s happened. The lure of I-don’t-know-exactly-what-but-equal-money-I-guess-kinda-talks drew Jim Harbaugh to his alma mater. The arguable issue, of course, is that there isn’t a lingering mega-alum waiting in UCLA wings.

I promise, that on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be the one to break the peace we've made here today.

I promise, that on the souls of my grandchildren, I will not be the one to break the peace we’ve made here today.

And then, obvioulsly, the Bruins eke out a win against Stanford. Does that salvage their season? UCLA doesn’t have seasons. They have title runs or naught. This, if you weren’t aware, is not a year of the former. But did you expect it to be? If you did, you perhaps aren’t paying attention. In addressing his first season in Westwood, we were impressed with Alford’s adjustment to what he did with fantastic roster. They were fascinating, terrifying and unique. Alford got a lot out of them. Everything, really. Which climaxed with (just) a Sweet Sixteen. That isn’t bad; it’s in fact good; but it perhaps wasn’t indicative of things to come. The thing to come was not necessarily avoiding six-game losing streaks with double-overtime thrillers; but that’s where we find ourselves and that’s the conversations we can’t not avoid.

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Assessing the Steve Alford Era at UCLA Almost One Year In

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 26th, 2014

It was a year ago this week that the change was made at UCLA. Ben Howland was dismissed after an opening round NCAA loss to Minnesota, and the following week, on Saturday morning of the Elite Eight to be precise, UCLA announced that it would hire New Mexico head coach Steve Alford – who had just recently agreed to a lengthy contract extension with that school after its own untimely exit from the NCAA Tournament – as the 13th head coach in the storied program’s history.

Steve Alford, UCLA

The Steve Alford Era Had A Bumpy Start, But Has Settled Into A Nice Groove (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Suffice it to say that the beginning of the Alford era in Westwood did not begin smoothly. The hire was greeted with anywhere from an outright disdain for the choice to a more wait-and-see approach, but few if any saw the hire as a home run. (Here, we called it a solid line-drive single, and our response was probably one of the more favorable ones you may have read). From those initial reactions, the temperature dipped dramatically over the next week after an unreceptive opening press conference delved into his handling of a sexual assault case at Iowa 11 years earlier and went downhill from there. A week later Alford finally apologized for his handling of that case and an uneasy truce with the local media began.

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