SEC Week That Was: Volume VIII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 19th, 2016

There is suddenly uncertainty everywhere in the SEC, as league representation in this year’s NCAA Tournament is still very difficult to predict. At one end of the spectrum, the league could realistically see as few as three teams get the call on Selection Sunday. But on the other end, if a bubblelicious group of SEC teams finishes strong, the league could see as many as seven teams in the field of 68 if things break right. There’s a lot left to settle, but here’s what we learned over the past week.

A shorthanded Auburn picked an emotional win over Kentucky (auburntigers.com).

A shorthanded Auburn picked up an emotional win over Kentucky (auburntigers.com).

Team of the Week. It hasn’t been an easy year for Bruce Pearl and Auburn. His 2016 recruiting class generated buzz, but injuries and eligibility issues have kept it from transforming into production on the court. This, coupled with a string of injuries to the back court (including Tahj Shamsid-Deen being officially ruled out the rest of the way), have put Auburn in a tough spot. The lowest point of the trying season came in a blowout loss to Mizzou ten days ago, but what a difference a week makes. The Tigers beat Kentucky for the first time since 2000 in front of a rabid crowd at Auburn Arena. This was the first signature win for Pearl on the Plains, and for that, the Tigers have earned team of the week honors.

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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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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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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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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 Stock Watch: 03.06.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 6th, 2015

We have reached the end of the regular season in the SEC, and this is our final look at who is trending up, down, and who is flat. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Upsets over Bubble Teams. First, it was Florida beating Texas A&M at home, handing the Aggies a crucial loss as they seek to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Then, on Wednesday, Tennessee went into Baton Rouge and beat LSU by 15 points. This was the same group of Tigers that led the Vols by 27 points at the half in Knoxville 18 days earlier. Neither of these underdogs had as much to play for as their opponents, and they both deserve credit for not quitting. But for the Aggies and especially the Tigers, they will have to sweat these and other losses on Selection Sunday.
Kentucky will almost certainly enter the Big Dance 34-0 (cbssports.com)

John Calipari and Kentucky will almost certainly enter the Big Dance 34-0 (cbssports.com)

  • Undefeated Kentucky. It is a mere formality now that the Wildcats will finish the regular season a remarkable 31-0 when they dispatch Florida on Saturday in Lexington (the term “Senior Day” doesn’t mean much there, so we have forgone its use). Many would argue that it’s a formality that the Wildcats will finish the deal and run through the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville to finish 34-0 going into the NCAA Tournament. Given the way they have dominated league play, that is very likely.
  • Comebacks. Kentucky trailed Georgia by nine points with less than eight minutes to play on Tuesday in Athens. The Wildcats then turned the burners on and put away a game Bulldogs team. Last night, on senior night in Columbia, South Carolina overcame a 20-point first half deficit to take an 11-point lead of its own with less than six minutes to play. Arkansas then finished the game on an 18-3 run to steal the win. The Kentucky comeback was unsurprising, but the Razorbacks’ effort is further evidence that Mike Anderson’s team has turned a corner from its old disappointing ways.

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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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SEC Stock Watch: 01.30.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 30th, 2015

It’s time for our weekly look at which SEC teams, players, and coaches are trending up, down, or somewhere in the middle. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Texas A&M. It is hard to imagine that the future has looked any brighter at this school since the glory days of Billy Gillispie. The Aggies lost their first two SEC games — played without second-leading scorer Jalen Jones — but have since reeled off five in a row in league play. They already have three conference road wins and a favorable schedule going forward. With an RPI that sits at #34, this team is a legitimate contender for an NCAA Tournament bid, something that certainly didn’t seem very likely a few short weeks ago.
Alex Caruso and Texas A&M have hit their stride (Paul Abell- USA Today)

Alex Caruso and Texas A&M have hit their stride (Paul Abell- USA Today)

  • Dorian Finney-Smith Dunks. In what was likely the most emphatic game-winning basket we’ve seen this year, Finney-Smith put away Alabama and got his Gators a key road win last week. Florida is still sitting squarely atop the bubble and has a lot of work to do to overcome it, but this was the type of win that will serve handy on Selection Sunday.
  • Mark Fox’s Job Security. It’s looking more and more like Georgia has a legitimate chance to emerge as the SEC’s second-best team, as the Bulldogs have bounced back nicely from two losses to open conference play. Georgia has moved into the RPI’s top 25 and appears very well-positioned to secure its first NCAA bid since 2011.
  • Jordan Mickey’s Draft Stock. If there is a more consistent player in the SEC this season, we haven’t seen him. Mickey is averaging 15.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per contest and has propelled LSU to a nice 5-2 league record. The only bad news associated with Mickey’s play is that he likely won’t be around to play with Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney next season, as the NBA Draft’s first round is well within his sights.
  • Kentucky’s Chances of an Undefeated Season. This stock trends up with every passing week that the Wildcats don’t lose a game. According to KenPom, the best chance Kentucky has of losing in the regular season is when it travels to Georgia on March 3. There, the Wildcats have an 84 percent chance of winning, according to the advanced stats guru’s latest projections.

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SEC M5: 01.30.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 30th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. The Big 12/SEC Challenge, which has been played in early December over several days the last two seasons — and has not garnered anywhere near the exposure or interest of its ACC/Big Ten counterpart — will move to a single blockbuster Saturday in late January next season. Each of the 10 games to be played will be broadcast on the ESPN family of networks. The move is a bold one given that conference play will be in full swing for both leagues when the event takes place. While some coaches surely won’t like that, we think it is wise — especially in SEC country — to bring greater exposure to the sport after college football has wrapped up. Whether the event will be more successful in this new spot on the schedule remains to be seen, but we bet it will be.
  2. Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall had no comment about news that two of his Southern Miss recruits, Rasham Suarez and Jeremiah Eason, were dismissed from the team on Thursday for issues related to their academic standing. While the exact reasons for their dismissals were not made known, they relate to an ongoing NCAA investigation into Tyndall and his previous school. Tyndall has done a nice job this season with an undermanned Tennessee roster and he seems to have much of the Volunteers’ fan base on his side. But those same fans remain skeptical about whether, in light of his uncertain status, he will be around Knoxville for the long haul.
  3. Speaking of Tyndall, his Vols welcome their former leader Bruce Pearl into Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday. Pearl, who coached at Tennessee from 2005-11 and went to the NCAA Tournament in all six of his seasons at the school, will be making his first trip to Knoxville as the visiting coach. While it remains to be seen what kind of reception he will receive upon his return, odds are that it will be a good one. Many of the fans who pined for Pearl to return to Knoxville as recently as last year have moved on now that he is coaching at another SEC school. For his part, Tyndall thinks Pearl deserves a warm welcome for his many accomplishments in his tenure at Tennessee.
  4. SEC basketball has received more than its fair share of criticism over the past several years, and most of that conversation has been deserving. The league has been very inconsistent aside from Florida and Kentucky and its low number of NCAA Tournament bids has accurately fit the conference profile. But according to The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy, things are finally looking up. His article points out that league teams have beefed up their non-conference schedules to the point that it is the best among the Power Five conferences. Such strong scheduling in addition to improved play in those games has resulted in better conference-wide RPI and KenPom numbers, which should translate into more NCAA bids. And while the league still has a ways to go to improve its overall perception, the future holds promise with several schools like LSU and Texas A&M recruiting well and building competitive programs.
  5. Alabama travels to Lexington to face Kentucky for the second time in 15 days on Saturday, and if things don’t go better than the Crimson Tide’s first game against the Wildcats, they will be looking at their fourth loss in five games and a 3-5 conference record. That is certainly not good news for Anthony Grant, who came into the season on the hottest of hot seats after receiving a reprieve from athletics director Bill Battle last spring. As AL.com‘s Kevin Scarbinsky writes, Tuesday’s disappointing home loss to Florida was symbolic of Grant’s entire tenure at the school. Since he arrived six years ago, people have expected things that Grant has been unable to deliver. Against the Gators, the Crimson Tide shook off a rough first half to have a chance to win before, once again, falling just short. Given the regularity with which this kind of result has occurred throughout his career in Tuscaloosa, it stands to reason that there is a very good chance Grant will not be back for a seventh season at the school.
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SEC Quotable & Notable: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2015

Periodically throughout the rest of the season, we will use this column to take a look at who’s making history and who’s saying what around the SEC. Here’s Volume I of what’s Quotable and Notable right now in college basketball’s Southern reaches.

“I just went strong to the hole.” Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith on his game-winning dunk against Alabama.

No player in the country will have a minute as impressive and unlikely as Finney-Smith did in the final 60 seconds of Florida’s recent win against the Crimson Tide. His fierce drive and dunk ended up being the game-winner, and it was sandwiched around two crucial blocks: a body-straight-up rejection on Michael Kessens to keep the game knotted at 50, and a help defense block of Levi Randolph’s potential game-tying shot as time expired. This all coming after the junior had gone scoreless to that point.  Finney-Smith’s magical minute, which helped end Florida’s three-game losing streak, should be one of the highlights of Gators’ season.

Georgia is probably the second best team in the league and, by far, the most physical team.” Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray after his team’s loss to Georgia last weekend. “I thought they hurt us on the boards in the first half, but then you look down and see they hit 50 percent from the field in the second half and over 90 percent from the line… you can’t beat anybody like that.” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings after Georgia hit 23-of-25 free throws and outrebounded the Commodores by 10 in an eight-point victory.

Georgia is taking on the feel of a team that can grind out wins, and in this league, that can be the key to a shiny conference record. Just take care of business. The Bulldogs squeaked by Mississippi State because of a Herculean effort from J.J. Frazier (37 points), and against Vanderbilt, they were sloppy with the ball (16 turnovers) but did enough elsewhere to control the game throughout. Neither win is all that impressive alone, but SEC teams have perfected the art of losing winnable games. The Bulldogs will end up in the NCAA Tournament if they have finally bucked that trend.

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SEC M5: 01.26.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 26th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky got some good recruiting news when it picked up its first commitment of the class of 2016, and it didn’t come from one of the typical locales. Ty Wynyard, a 6’9″ power forward from New Zealand, gave his pledge to John Calipari over the weekend. The Kiwi will be the first from his country to suit up for the Wildcats, and more interesting than the fact that he’s considered to be a good rebounder with a strong inside game, is that he is the son of world champion woodchoppers. As ESPN.com‘s Jeff Borzello points out, although Wynyard is currently a member of next year’s class, there is a good chance he could reclassify to the class of 2015 and end up in Lexington as soon as next fall.
  2. When Auburn made the quick move to dismiss Tony Barbee and hire Bruce Pearl last March, many in the state and around the SEC wondered if Alabama, historically a better basketball job, could have instead landed the former Tennessee coach if it had jettisoned Anthony Grant following his very disappointing fifth season. Athletic director Bill Battle instead chose to give Grant a sixth season, and we will never know if the Crimson Tide could have outbid its archrival for Pearl’s services. On Saturday, Grant’s team edged Pearl’s Tigers in a thrilling two-point game that Auburn appeared in prime position to win when it led by eight points with just over seven minutes remaining. As al.com‘s Kevin Scarbinsky writes, the hoops version of the Alabama-Auburn rivalry will certainly heat up now that Pearl is on the Plains and Grant is not quite ready to let Pearl have control of the state without a fight.
  3. The road was the place to be in the SEC over the weekend, as five of the seven games played on Saturday were won by the visitor. Only Ole Miss and Alabama won at home, and both did so on the game’s final possession. Oddities such as this happen from time to time, and considering Kentucky and Arkansas were heavy favorites at South Carolina and Missouri, respectively, the results shouldn’t be too surprising. Still, it may also reflect that some of the teams from which good things were expected this year — notably, LSU, Georgia, and Texas A&M — are getting better and starting to reach their potential. That trio each finished the week at 2-0, and all three of them rank in the five-way second place logjam.
  4. Georgia head coach Mark Fox earned a few chuckles on Twitter over the weekend when he said after the Bulldogs won a close game at Mississippi State that SEC basketball is “like SEC football.” Few things will ruffle feathers in the South more than comparing something, anything, to SEC football, and when that comparison is made between a basketball league that is widely considered to be mediocre and the highest form of sport in existence, well, you can imagine the backlash. In reality, while Fox was likely only making the point that winning games in league play is tough, there is simply no comparison between the league’s football and basketball products. SEC basketball is clearly getting better, but it has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath as its gridiron counterpart.
  5. Texas A&M won its fourth consecutive SEC game over the weekend when it took out a hot Tennessee team by six points in Knoxville. The Aggies are now 4-2 in league play and making a push to be considered the second-best team in the league. It is no coincidence that the team is undefeated in the conference when junior forward Jalen Jones is in the lineup. Jones missed the team’s first two SEC games – losses to Alabama and Kentucky – but has averaged 17 points per contest in the four he has played since. Jones is a transfer from SMU who has clearly been a key find for Billy Kennedy this year. If Jones decides to return next season along with a top 10 recruiting class headed to College Station, the future appears to be very bright at Texas A&M.
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