64 Thoughts on the 2016-17 SEC Season: Part I

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 26th, 2016

The beginning of another college basketball season is already in progress, and with it an opportunity to start talking about SEC hoops again. The SEC last season managed just three bids to the NCAA Tournament, but with a new year brings optimism that more teams can break into the First Round field of 64. To tip off the SEC microsite, here are 64 musings, opinions, thoughts, predictions, questions, and observations about the 2016-17 season [Ed. Note: Technically, 32 since this is part one of two with the second part coming tomorrow]:

John Calipari is confident once again as Kentucky shapes up to be the head of the SEC in 2016-17 (AP).

John Calipari is confident once again as Kentucky shapes up to be the head of the SEC in 2016-17. (AP)

  1. Kentucky is the clear favorite to win the SEC this year, but the big question mark about the Wildcats in the preseason revolves around their three-point accuracy. It says here that this will be the best perimeter shooting squad John Calipari has put on the court in Lexington since his 2011 Final Four team.
  2. Wildcat sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe shot just 13.5 percent from beyond the arc last year, allowing opposing defenses to sag to the middle on him. But the limited sample of shooting we have seen so far suggests that he will no longer be an offensive liability shooting the ball this season.
  3. Briscoe was also 9-of-12 from the free throw line in Friday night’s Blue-White game, indicating that his 46 percent accuracy from the stripe last season could also be a thing of the past. Read the rest of this entry »
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Why Each SEC team Will Advance to the Second Weekend… and Why They Won’t

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 15th, 2016

After watching five teams head to the Big Dance a year ago (including one eventual Final Four participant), the SEC managed just three bids in a disappointing 2015-16 campaign. Honestly, the league was lucky to get to three. While some teams have to feel pretty good about where they landed (Texas A&M is a #3 seed?!), others should feel happy to be invited (welcome Vanderbilt!), and still others can rest comfortably knowing that the committee didn’t have the option to send them to Alaska to face the Golden State Warriors (Hey Kentucky, Des Moines, Iowa, is supposed to be nice this time of year). Now that the brackets are set, will the SEC continue to disappoint, or might we see one of these three teams still standing in the Sweet Sixteen? Here are some quick reasons why each team will advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and some equally compelling reasons why they won’t:

Kentucky's offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari

Kentucky’s offensive efficiency under coach John Calipari.

Kentucky

Why the Wildcats will advance to the second weekend: Kentucky’s backcourt is playing very well on offense right now, moving the Wildcats into the top spot for offensive efficiency nationally over the weekend. Tyler Ulis has the ability to carry the team for stretches on his 5’9” frame, but with the added marksmanship of shooting guard Jamal Murray and a front line that provide spot duty, the Wildcats are scoring better than any other team in the John Calipari era. In the first two games of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky scored at the second and third most efficient clips per 100 possessions of his tenure. The last time the Cats met up with possible Second Round opponent Indiana in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, it was a high scoring affair — Kentucky should feel comfortable in entering into a shootout with any team in the nation.

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LSU’s Dreadful Performance Could Put Johnny Jones’ Future in Doubt

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

In Saturday’s first semifinal matchup at the SEC Tournament, things started out well enough for LSU. The Tigers got to the first media timeout with an 8-3 lead and otherwise looked ready to play. From there, things were, to put it mildly, a disaster for Johnny Jones‘ team. Over the last 15:47 of the half, the Bayou Bengals registered just one field goal — an Antonio Blakeney three-pointer at the 1:18 mark — and were outscored 32-5 on their way to a 35-13 halftime deficit. Ben Simmons picked up three fouls and sat for most of the frame, but using that as an excuse for the putrid effort his team collectively put forward would not be fair. LSU was outhustled in every way by a Texas A&M team that looked like it actually wanted to be in Nashville. The Aggies coasted to an astonishing 71-38 victory that puts them in Sunday’s championship game against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Kentucky and Georgia.

After Saturday's 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it's time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

After Saturday’s 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it’s time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

The first half was in many ways a microcosm of LSU’s entire season. This is a team from which much was expected but could not deliver on the hype. Simmons is regarded by many as the likely first overall pick in the NBA Draft, and while he showed why he’s so highly-regarded at times this season, there were plenty of moments when he did not. On Saturday, after sitting much of the first half, he essentially was a non-factor on his way to a 10-point, 12-rebound performance. After the game, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said he felt sorry for Simmons. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s put on this pedestal; it’s just a lot to ask,” he said. For his part, Simmons said he wasn’t burdened by the pressure so many put on him. “For me, I just wanted to play. I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where our team was going to be,” he said after the game.

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Texas A&M’s Scenic Route to the SEC Title

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 7th, 2016

In some ways, the final Saturday of the SEC regular season played out like many thought it would in October. Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere altered shots left and right; LSU’s Ben Simmons nearly put together a triple-double; and KentuckyLSUVanderbilt and Texas A&M all entered the weekend with a shot at a share of the regular season title. Ultimately it was the Aggies and Wildcats that became this season’s SEC co-champions, and while that result isn’t at all surprising, the path that led both teams there certainly is.

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

Tyler Davis and the Aggies are charging into the postseason (12thman.com).

The Wildcats’ share of the conference title is a testament to the coaching and player development of John Calipari. Kentucky appeared vulnerable in December losses to thoroughly mediocre UCLA and Ohio State teams, but Calipari coaxed a surprise season from Derek Willis and successfully navigated injuries and inconsistency to win the league. The title is assuredly a little sweeter for an Aggies program that notched its first conference championship since sharing the 1986 Southwest Conference title with TCU and Texas. During that same period, the Wildcats have won a share or more of 10 SEC regular season titles.

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Texas A&M Looks to History to Take the Next Step

Posted by Nate Kotisso on March 1st, 2016

The year 1893 gives us the first known record of then-Texas A&M College’s Glee Club, originally made up of nine students and faculty from the college. As the club entered the 20th century, membership grew modestly from the original nine to a club of 21. They also began traveling across Texas and the United States trying their luck at singing competitions. (There is no record of success from said competitions.) In 1908, the director of the club left the college and involvement started to fizzle out. Two years later the college decided to hire Frank D. Steger for the task of reorganizing the club “for the development of individual talent, and for furnishing music in Chapel Services, Easter, Commencement, and other similar occasion.” Despite already having a lot on his plate (Steger was also the director of the local YMCA), the college must have been pleased with his direction. Thus, in 1911, A&M hired Steger as its first-ever head basketball coach. In the context of college basketball’s infancy, Steger had a solid career, winning 22 of his 28 games from 1912-15. However, despite that early success, the school we now know as Texas A&M University hasn’t been able to win 20 or more games, go deep in NCAA Tournaments, send players to the NBA or even keep head coaches in College Station at a consistent rate.

Then-head coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV went 27-7 in 2006-07. (Paul Zoeller/Associated Press)

Then-head coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV went 27-7 in 2006-07. (Paul Zoeller/Associated Press)

Picture college hoops during the mid-to-late 20th century. Television was taking the sport to the next level and coaches had became synonymous with their schools — Dean Smith at North Carolina; Bob Knight at Indiana; John Wooden at UCLA; Al McGuire at Marquette. The financial pressures for success were different in those days, and at a football-first school like A&M, competitive basketball was often good enough. Shelby Metcalf was certainly that in College Station, coaching the Aggies to six Southwest Conference (SWC) regular season titles, five NCAA Tournament appearances and two Sweet Sixteens in his 26+ years at the school. Despite his infamous firing midway through the 1989-90 season, Metcalf is the longest tenured coach in the history of SWC basketball. After he was terminated, the program so disastrously spiraled through most of the next 15 years that there was hardly a pulse left. Then Billy Gillispie arrived on the scene.

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Stopping at College Station: The Balance of Texas A&M

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 4th, 2016

So much has been made of the parity in college basketball this season. So-called top teams continue to lose to lesser competition; home courts haven’t been defended well; and prognosticating the future has become an exercise in futility. As we inch closer to March, it’s easy to wonder what sort of teams are capable of surviving this climate. A case can be made for any number of teams that can get hot for a month, riding good shooting to a string of consecutive wins. Oklahoma or Villanova are two such squads, for example, that could ride hot shooters all the way to the Final Four. Or maybe Louisville or West Virginia, teams that rely on pressure defense, can put together enough stops to find their way to Houston. Anything seems possible.

Texas A&M (USA Today Images)

Texas A&M Closed Out Iowa State in Impressive Fashion Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

Either of those avenues to the sport’s final weekend could work out, but the most likely survivors are usually the teams that can employ a variety of ways to win — teams with balance in their rotations and devoid of major weaknesses. There may not be a team that better encapsulates this concept than Texas A&M. The Aggies have been among the most consistent teams in America all season long, losing only three games to good competition along the way (Syracuse; Arizona State; Arkansas). They are 10-3 against the KenPom top 100 and have lost only once since early December. Their success begins with a defense that ranks second nationally, thanks to very good defensive turnover and free throw rates. Few things prove more reliable in March than the ability to generate stops, and four of Texas A&M’s last five opponents have failed to reach 65 points — most notably an Iowa State team that plays fast (37th nationally) and ranks seventh in the country in offensive efficiency.

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Alex Caruso’s Transformation Fueling Texas A&M’s Charge

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2016

Alex Caruso is an accomplished player. The senior guard is so accomplished that it’s not a stretch to say he’s had one of the most impressive careers in Texas A&M basketball history. The active SEC leader in assists and steals has led the conference in both categories each of the past two seasons. That’s one heck of a career. But as this season tipped off, Caruso found himself playing alongside a new teammate who had dished more assists in his college career than even he had.

Alex Caruso's touches are down but he's remained productive (texags.com).

Alex Caruso’s touches are down but he’s remained productive (texags.com).

South Florida transfer Anthony Collins joined the program and brought his 569 career assists and a wealth of experience along with him. He became A&M’s primary point guard from day one and Caruso’s touches naturally dropped — as the table below shows, he’s using the fewest number of possessions and shots of his entire career. A new, reduced role would frustrate a lot of established players, but the senior has instead transformed himself into the grease on the wheels of a team charging toward March.

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SEC Burning Questions: Best Non-Conference SEC Games

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2015

Kentucky was the team to beat a year ago — both in the SEC and nationally. And despite ultimately falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats didn’t disappoint anybody on their way to a 38-1 record. But several SEC teams did, and it started in their non-conference schedules. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern; Mississippi State couldn’t get by USC-Upstate or Arkansas State; South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron; LSU lost a surprising game to Clemson; Missouri dropped its home opener to UMKC.

The SEC isn't just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returners to Nashville (AP/Wade Payne)

The SEC isn’t just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returnees to Nashville. (AP/Wade Payne)

Kentucky is again the team to beat in the SEC (and perhaps nationally). The conference appears to be significantly improved this season, so maybe several SEC teams outside of Lexington can string together enough non-conference victories to give the league some early credibility. The nation will be watching the following 10 games so there will be no better time than the next two months for the league to announce its legitimacy. Here are the 10 best non-conference games involving SEC teams this season.

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SEC Burning Questions: Who’s Feeling Pressure?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2015

For a conference that has been viewed for a while as a basketball underachiever, the SEC’s coaching seats are surprisingly cool. There are a number of factors, of course, that go into that determination. For one, the league turned over nearly a third of its coaches during the offseason with four new hires at Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Alabama. There are also several stalwarts who aren’t going anywhere unless they choose to do so — guys like Kentucky’s John Calipari and Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings – and several more trending toward that status in Georgia’s Mark Fox and Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy. But college athletics wouldn’t be what it is without some modicum of hot seat speculation, so here are the four SEC coaches feeling the most pressure in 2014-15.

Johnny Jones has a talented team and a potential top-5 pick in Ben Simmons. Will that be enough to pick up his first tournament win at LSU? (SportsNola.com)

Johnny Jones has a talented team and a potential top-5 pick in Ben Simmons. Will that be enough to pick up his first NCAA Tournament win at LSU? (SportsNola.com)

  • Johnny Jones, LSU. Jones has won at least 19 games in each of his three seasons in Baton Rogue; he was extended through 2019 before last season; he is an LSU alumnus; and he has brought a lot of NBA talent to campus. That’s the long way of saying his job is relatively safe no matter what happens this year. Nevertheless, Jones could quiet a lot of his critics by taking a very talented team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Despite an NBA-caliber frontcourt, there were some inexplicable low points for the Tigers last year — losing the conference opener to Missouri and the SEC Tournament opener to Auburn are but two notable examples. LSU then capped off its inconsistent year by blowing a 14-point halftime lead to lose to NC State in the final minute of the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament opener. Similar letdowns this season would only perpetuate the idea that Jones can’t get the most out of his talent. On the other hand, some clever coaching could make this team a match-up nightmare since both Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman are big, versatile players with the appropriate skill set to run an offense. Cobbling together a productive frontcourt, however, could be a challenge. Jones will need to find the right combination of Arizona transfer Craig VictorBrian Bridgewater, Aaron Epps, Darcy Malone and Elbert Robinson to support Simmons and his talented backcourt. One solution could be to go small with Simmons playing power forward, but the injury to Keith Hornsby could make that difficult early in the season. In short, the Tigers’ roster poses both a number of challenges and intriguing possibilities, but the ultimate goal of getting deep into the NCAA Tournament would go a long way towards silencing Jones’ detractors.

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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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