Assessing a Disastrous Opening Night for the SEC

Posted by David Changas on November 15th, 2014

We hear the term “SEC Bias” thrown around a lot in the context of college football, and with good reason — the league has won seven of the sport’s last eight national championships, and dominates the headlines on a weekly basis. Based upon how the conference fared on opening night of the 2014-15 college basketball season, however, there is no reason to worry that concept will bleed over into the world of hoops anytime soon. As Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo! Sports points out, the league lost more non-conference games in basketball Friday than it has lost non-conference football games through the first 11 weeks of the season. We set out to examine what happened.

VCU 85, Tennessee 69

Tennessee Fought Hard But Never Put Together a Run Against VCU (USA Today)

Tennessee Fought Hard But Never Put Together a Run Against VCU (USA Today)

This was the least surprising of Friday’s results. The Volunteers have eight new scholarship players and were facing a top-15 Rams squad in Annapolis at the Veterans Classic. While Donnie Tyndall‘s team showed heart by not throwing in the towel after falling behind by 18 at the half, it was apparent that this team has not been playing together for long. Although Tennessee appears to have some athletes, and got an encouraging 17 points from freshman find Detrick Mostella, the Volunteers were outrebounded and a woeful 4-for-17 from three-point range. They also turned the ball over 19 times, and clearly have a long way to go on the offensive end. Their lack of a true point guard – Josh Richardson, who is a natural wing, handled those duties before fouling out late – will be a problem for Tyndall’s squad all season, and the Volunteers will have trouble putting points on the board as a result.

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SEC M5: Opening Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 14th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The SEC, in its infinite wisdom, released a nine-person preseason coaches All-SEC first team and an eight-person second team on Thursday. Imagine the platoon possibilities. The only point of contention I can see here, though — besides the size of the list — is Karl-Anthony Towns landing on the second team. Towns may be the most talented player in the entire country, and it’s confusing to me he didn’t land on the first team considering how Julius Randle was received before last season began. That said, it’s nice to see some less-heralded SEC players like Jarvis Summers and Charles Mann get their recognition as well.
  2. Sports on Earth’s Alexander Goot calls John Calipari the “last honest NCAA coach,” writing a good piece on the way he’s built the Kentucky program along with his ever-present tension with the NCAA. Goot writes, “college basketball has become big business, and John Calipari is the ultimate tycoon. But at least he’s living in reality, and not the absurd amateurist fantasy that the NCAA so desperately clings to.” It’s true that Coach Cal seems to be as transparent as anybody in his position can be in college basketball, and we’d be well-served with more national appreciation for that approach. At the end of the day, every fan base that despises him would gladly watch his players in their school’s colors even if just for a year.
  3. The SI.com’s expert picks article is loaded with SEC thoughts, primarily about Kentucky. Luke Winn and Seth Davis select Kentucky as their national champion, and Davis even goes on record saying, gasp, that the Wildcats could go undefeated. Big Blue Nation is loaded, but haven’t we learned our lesson on that over the last two years? We heard the same chatter before last season, and the Nerlens Noel-led team in 2012-13 wasn’t lacking for hype either. It’s silly, sensationalist talk that creates unrealistic noise around the team. The Wildcats will not go undefeated, but they have as good a chance as any team to cut down the nets at the end of the year.
  4. Not all the SEC thoughts were positive in the SI.com preview piece. Davis, Pete Thamel and Brian Hamilton all chose Florida as the team on which they are not “buying the hype.” Each feels that the Gators are overrated at #7 due to their inexperience outside of Michael Frazier, and how unproven Chris Walker is. Billy Donovan has essentially been saying the same things, if anyone is listening, and it’s likely that the Gators will struggle against a non-conference lineup that features Kansas, Miami (FL), Florida State and Connecticut. But this team has more pure talent than last year’s undefeated SEC squad, and could have a higher upside in March.
  5. The injury problems that plagued Auburn’s Matthew Atewe throughout last season and into the offseason will unfortunately keep the sophomore forward off the floor for an indefinite amount of time. It’s a tough loss for a team with an already-thin frontcourt, but should mean that freshman Jack Purchase and junior Jordon Granger will see more minutes, a good thing in the long run. Auburn’s competitive window truly opens next season when Pearl’s star-studded recruiting class arrives in town. Giving players experience who will (in all likelihood) be a part of that team can’t be a bad thing.
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SEC Season Preview: Georgia Bulldogs

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next week, continuing today with Georgia.

Strengths. Mark Fox will roll out one of the best backcourt duos in the SEC this season. Charles Mann had a breakout season for the Bulldogs last year and ended up on the all-SEC Second Team. He led the team with 13.9 points per game and posted the 10th best assist rate in the conference (22.7 percent). Fellow junior guard Kenny Gaines was not far behind him at 13.0 points per game and proved reliable from the free throw line (77.7%) and the outside (37.5% 3FG). The problem is that Georgia doesn’t figure to be very deep at the guard position. Fox didn’t bring in any backcourt newcomers, so he’ll rely on J.J. Frazier and Juwan Parker to make similar leaps in their sophomore years like Mann and Gaines did last season.

Charles Mann is looking to build on a 2013-14 season that landed him on the All-SEC second team.(msn.foxsports.com).

Charles Mann is looking to build on a 2013-14 season that landed him on the all-SEC second team.(msn.foxsports.com).

Weaknesses. On the intangibles side, the Bulldogs will need to prove that they can play with expectations. They won’t sneak up on anyone and will be playing with the pressure of a team with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations. Georgia was unable to build on Fox’s only NCAA Tournament appearance four seasons ago, going just 15-17 the following year. But that team had to replace NBA Draft picks Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. This season’s team, on the other hand, returns the bulk of its contributors from last year’s 12-6 SEC finish. The lights will be shining on the Bulldogs this year; can they respond?

Toughest Non-Conference Test. The Bulldogs muddled through an uninspiring non-conference schedule at 6-6 last year before their unexpected SEC run to second place. This year, however, the schedule is much more difficult. Georgia faces Kevin Pangos and Gonzaga at the NIT Season Tip-Off on November 26, and that might not even be the toughest game. The Bulldogs also travel to Kansas State to face Marcus Foster and what figures to be a salty Wildcats team on New Year’s Eve. An opening game at Georgia Tech this Friday is also a challenge — Brian Gregory might be on the hot seat but it’s never easy to draw another major conference team right off the bat.

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SEC M5: 11.03.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 3rd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. SI.com released its SEC preview last week, and it’s worth a read to get ready for the upcoming season (in addition, of course, to all the content on this microsite). The only thing that’s ripe to nitpick is the prediction that Georgia will finish seventh in the conference with an 8-10 league record. It could be that I’m too high on the Bulldogs, but Mark Fox returns the core of a team that went 12-6 and finished tied for third in the SEC last season. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are two guards with upside who should be one of the more difficult-to-stop scoring duos in the conference. The Dawgs’ frontcourt may be thin, but Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic are still quality players, so seeing Georgia fall that far back just doesn’t seem likely.
  2. Scrimmage highlights should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s hard not to like what Karl-Anthony Towns showed at Big Blue Madness and during a recent scrimmage. His footwork and mobility for a guy that size are impressive, and his versatility could be a great asset for John Calipari and his cramped roster. Towns looks like he’ll be a threat away from the basket in addition to on the low blocks, whether facing up and driving to the rim or knocking down the occasional long jumper. That should allow him to play well with Kentucky‘s rim-centric players like Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein without stifling the offense.
  3. Marshall Henderson is gone from Oxford and no longer available for our college basketball viewing pleasure, but shocking as it may be, there will be basketball at Ole Miss this season, and as the Associated Press’ David Brandt points out, this may be Andy Kennedy’s deepest team yet. The Rebels return five of their top six players in minutes per game, and they could have the deepest SEC frontcourt in the league outside of Kentucky and LSU. Aaron Jones is a solid senior big man who can clean up the defensive glass, and sophomore Sebastian Saiz (20 points against LSU on January 15) and junior Anthony Perez (21 points against Kentucky on February 22) showed flashes with big offensive nights against strong frontcourts in 2013-14. This is a far cry from the beginning of last season, when Kennedy was trying to replace his two primary big men in Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway.
  4. Florida freshman guard Chris Chiozza is learning that playing for Billy Donovan is no walk in the park. “Got to run, every play, sprint,” Chiozza told GatorCountry.com. “If you stop sprinting, he’s going to make you run on the side, probably.” Donovan will need his freshmen ready to go this season because he no longer has the luxury of a senior-laden lineup. Junior Devin Walker (knee injury) and freshman Brandone Francis (academically ineligible) are out for the year, leaving Chiozza as the Gators fourth option at guard behind Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier and Eli Carter. It’s likely Chiozza and freshman forward Devin Robinson will be called upon to contribute right away, making every sprint worth it.
  5. CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander has Kentucky’s backcourt ranked as the fourth-best in the country, and it’s hard to find a beef with putting Duke, Arizona and North Carolina above the Wildcats. The development of Andrew and Aaron Harrison will be one of the more compelling SEC storylines this season, after their up-and-down freshmen years were capped off with solid performances (and big shots from Aaron) leading up to appearance in the national championship game. What makes the backcourt even more interesting, as Norlander points out, is the presence of 5’9’’ “passing wizard” Tyler Ulis. He’ll be an absolute change of the pace from the big-bodied Harrisons, and it’ll be fun to see him create looks for the all Kentucky big men.
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Kentucky Dominates All-SEC Picks, Tops Preseason Poll

Posted by David Changas on October 23rd, 2014

The SEC held its annual media day on Wednesday, going to the home of the SEC Network in Charlotte for the first time. Along with the usual glass-half-full comments from each team’s coach, the media selected its all-conference teams and predicted the order of finish in the league. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Kentucky was not only picked to win the league, but it also dominated the 10-player preseason all-SEC team. While shooting guard Aaron Harrison was the only Wildcat selected on the first team, the second team included four more Wildcats: Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Harrison, and Alex Poythress. Aaron Harrison, whose late-game heroics sent the Wildcats past Michigan in the Elite Eight and Wisconsin in the Final Four, was chosen as the Player of the Year. Towns, the only freshman to make the first or second team, is a 6’11” center who most expect to be the best of Kentucky’s latest All-America-filled recruiting class. He was ranked fifth in that class by Rivals.com. Florida, which lost a lot of talent from last season’s Final Four squad, put guard Michael Frazier II on the team, and he was joined by Ole Miss’ Jarvis Summers, LSU’s Jordan Mickey, and Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. The only non-Wildcat on the second team was Georgia guard Charles Mann
Preseason SEC Rankings (first-place votes in parentheses)

  1. Kentucky (20) 280
  2. Florida 258
  3. Arkansas 226
  4. LSU 223
  5. Georgia 204
  6. Mississippi 168
  7. Missouri 123
  8. Auburn 113
  9. Texas A&M 111
  10. Alabama 109
  11. Vanderbilt 89
  12. South Carolina 86
  13. Tennessee 75
  14. Mississippi State 35

It goes without saying that preseason all-conference picks mean next to nothing, but, as always, there were a few surprises. Tennessee’s Josh Richardson, who came on strong during the NCAA Tournament, could have been selected, as he will clearly be the Vols’ best player. Likewise, enigmatic Florida forward Chris Walker, who has already been suspended for the first two regular season games, is primed for a breakout season now that he will be a bigger focus of the Gators’ offense. LSU’s Jarell Martin, who received at least one vote for SEC Player of the Year, was a surprising omission. Certainly coaches are glad to have high-quality players left off of the team, as their perceived snubs will serve to motivate them to prove the media wrong.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Team Other Than Florida Can Cut Down the Nets?

Posted by Brian Joyce, David Changas & Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question covers which teams can cut down the nets on Sunday. Florida is clearly the favorite after an 18-0 run in SEC play, but besides the obvious choice of the Gators, which other team could realistically win the championship game on Sunday?

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell): Tennessee. The Vols are more than just the current flavor of the week after winning each of their last three games by more than 27 points. Their talent is undeniable, as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae will both probably get shots in the NBA, and there aren’t many other teams outside of Kentucky in this conference that can say that. That talent didn’t translate to consistently good performances throughout the entire season, but it has lately. The Vols’ defense has been especially effective in recent weeks, as Tennessee has held opponents under 0.93 points per possession in five of its last six games. Locking down teams is usually a great pathway to success in March, and with a big, bruising frontcourt that causes match-up problems and a guy in McRae who can go off for 30 points at any time, this is a dangerous team.

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Dawgs Eating Just Fine in Dog-Eat-Dog SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 18th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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Georgia’s Talented Sophomore Class is the Key to Bulldogs’ Future

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2014

If you had to describe Mark Fox‘s time at Georgia in one word, “flashes” might be it. The Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament in 2010-11, led by juniors Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. But both entered the NBA Draft and Fox was forced into an immediate rebuild instead of entering 2011-12 with two experienced and fringe pro prospects (both players are now out of the league). The next positive jolt in Athens was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s SEC Player of the Year campaign last season. But again, Caldwell-Pope bolted for the NBA (this time, smartly), and Fox lost the opportunity to bring back one of the top returning players in the country. Georgia’s surprise 2-0 start in the SEC this year, however, has been keyed by several young players who will almost certainly stick around past April, and Fox could finally be headed to some sustained success in Athens.

Charles Mann could be part of an eventual basketball revival in Athens (msn.foxsports.com).

Charles Mann could be part of an eventual basketball revival in Athens (Getty).

Sophomore guards Charles Mann (22 points) and Kenny Gaines (22 points) were essentially a two-man show on Saturday against Alabama, and Georgia was still good enough to beat the Tide (although “getting beaten” has been Alabama’s thing this year). At 6’5” and 6’3′,’ respectively, Mann and Gaines can create the type of big guard mismatches that Missouri has employed this season and were big factors in last week’s road win against the Tigers. They’ve also both shown improvement over last season in several key areas, with Mann turning the ball over less and Gaines increasing his effective field goal percentage. Neither is yet skilled enough t0 make the jump to the NBA, so Fox will actually get to reap the fruits of their development over the next couple of seasons. You can throw forward Brandon Morris into the mix too. The sophomore has the highest PER of Georgia’s regulars and has taken a huge step forward from his freshman year. Versatile junior Nemanja Djurisic, fresh off repeatedly silencing Mizzou Arena, has another year of eligibility remaining too.

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SEC M5: 12.16.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 16th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. John Calipari has some coaching to do after Kentucky‘s deflating loss to North Carolina. “We’re not a good team because our emotion is all based on our individual play instead of our team play,” Calipari said. CBSSports‘ Gary Parrish also noticed some bad body language from the Wildcats. He writes, “I watched guys check-in and out without touching hands, which isn’t a big deal except for that it rarely happens with close teams. I saw Julius Randle roll his eyes at his guards — specifically Andrew and Aaron Harrison — whenever they failed to even think about getting him the ball on the block.” It could be that this edition of the Kentucky Wildcats is not a particularly close group. Calipari was on ESPN‘s college basketball podcast with Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg last week and said he needed to “teach” the team how to huddle during free throws and high-five teammates heading to the bench. Can camaraderie be built over the course of a season? Who knows? Does a team need to be buddy-buddy to win a national championship? That’s another intangible-based question that no one can honestly answer. But there’s no question that team bonding can’t hurt, and the Wildcats need to start working together better than they have been to reach their goals.
  2. Jarnell Stokes had been on a roll coming into Tennessee’s game against Wichita State — posting four straight double-doubles — and the Volunteers needed it to continue to beat an excellent Shockers team on the road Saturday. But Stokes was bothered by Wichita State’s length and never got going (eight points on 3-of-7 shooting). On the other hand, Jordan McRae kept Tennessee in the game with 26 points, impressively putting his name on the “Dunk of the Year” list, but it wasn’t enough as the Volunteers lost by nine points. Part of the blame for Stokes’ offensive struggles must fall on Tennessee’s guards: He rarely received the ball close enough to the basket to operate. And it doesn’t show in the box score (two assists), but Jeronne Maymon looked good facilitating the offense from the high post. Antonio Barton is not a true point guard and Darius Thompson is a freshman, so Maymon’s passing ability could come in handy in finding McRae off screens as well as Stokes in the low post.
  3. For a time on Saturday it looked like Middle Tennessee might knock off Ole Miss for the second straight year. The Blue Raiders took a 50-48 lead midway through the second half and the teams traded baskets for the next few minutes until the Rebels finally pulled away. This was a good day for Ole Miss because they didn’t let last week’s close loss to Oregon beat them twice by being discouraged. The Rebels also got the win without a Herculean performance from Marshall Henderson (15 points on only 11 shots). Jarvis Summers was the scoring star (25 points), and he showed a versatile offensive game by shooting well from the outside and getting to the free throw line 11 times. Ole Miss, however, was abused on the glass, getting outrebounded by 21 boards.
  4. Georgia took three tough losses in the Charleston Classic and it dropped them to an unsightly 1-4 to start the season. But a return home and a dip in competition has gotten the Bulldogs back to .500 after a win over Lipscomb on Saturday. The latter two wins came largely without Bulldogs’ leading scorer Charles Mann, who suffered a bone bruise against Appalachian State at the end of November. “Charles has an injury that just needs rest to heal. He hasn’t practiced in 12 days,” [Mark Fox] said. “I got no idea of a timetable [for his return], to be honest with you.” The sophomore played only nine minutes against Chattanooga and not at all against Lipscomb. The development of Mann and fellow sophomore guard Kenny Gaines as an offensive duo could be a positive out of another rebuilding season in Athens. Yet another sophomore, forward Brandon Morris, scored a season high 17 points against Lipscomb, and looks to emerge as another offensive weapon going forward.
  5. Chris Walker has enrolled at Florida, but is not yet eligible to play, and Billy Donovan has ruled him out for the Gators’ Tuesday night game against Memphis. This is still good news for Florida, as Walker began practicing last Saturday and is expected to ramp up quickly once he gets the go-ahead. According to the Gainesville Sun‘s Kevin Brockway, “Walker was rated as a consensus top-15 player in the nation by most recruiting websites because of his ability to play in the open floor, finish around the rim, rebound and block shots.” He should make for a very good fit sliding on the wings of the Gators’ 1-3-1 zone and running with Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill in transition.
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SEC M5: 02.27.12 Edition

Posted by DPerry on February 27th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. The red-hot Tennessee Volunteers extended its winning streak to six games Tuesday night, handing Florida their second loss in three games. Jordan McRae provided most of the offense with 27 points, while Jarnell Stokes (14 rebounds) dominated the glass in a game that was almost a must-win for the Vols to make the NCAA Tournament field. Florida began SEC play with 11 straight victories, looking almost infallible in comparison to the rest of the weak conference. However, injuries have taken their toll (Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II, most recently) and the Gators have lost some of that shine, maybe enough to completely excuse themselves from the #1-seed conversation. With the loss, Billy Donovan’s record against Cuonzo Martin fell to 0-3.
  2. Anthony Grant charged Trevor Releford with putting the offense on his back through the rest of the season, and he started out in style. Behind 21 points from the junior guard, Alabama avenged an ugly February 6 loss to intrastate rival Auburn with an easy win Tuesday night. Nick Jacobs chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “We talked about the importance of every game going forward, but obviously any time you get a chance to play your in-state rival that adds a different meaning,” Grant said after the game. Alabama travels to Gainesville this weekend with, unbelievably, a chance to tie the Gators atop the SEC standings.
  3. Believe it or not, Georgia still has a chance to grab a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Show of hands: Who thought the Bulldogs would be able to say that at the end of February? Really? Really? Coach Mark Fox will face a challenge tonight, as he brings his young backcourt into the uncomfortable environment that is Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, the only venue in the nation that features benches along the baseline. “I’m probably more worried about it this year with such a young perimeter group,” Fox said of the Commodores’ court configuration. “There’s a lot of the game they’ll have to manage on their own on the floor.” Freshman Charles Mann has been seeing more time at the point, while classmates Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris have earned their share of minutes as well. The Bulldogs have lost three of four games after a previous five-game winning streak.
  4. Andrew Wiggins, the top recruit in the class of 2013 according to both Rivals and ESPN, will take an official visit to Kentucky, probably while you’re reading this. He’s visited the Lexington campus before, but expects to see more than he did on his previous unofficial trip. “He’ll have a chance to meet different people: the academic people, the athletic director,” said Rob Fulford, Wiggins’ coach at Huntington (WV) Prep. “It’s more official as far as what you’re looking for and getting a feel for the school.” The forward originally from Canada is also considering Florida State, Kansas, and North Carolina. Also, watch this.
  5. Frank Haith hasn’t been hesitant to criticize his team this season. His most recent target is his team’s subpar defense on the road against Kentucky. “We had nobody play on that end of the court,” Haith said. “And when you have nobody play on that end of the court, you don’t have a chance. We had so many breakdowns where we didn’t rotate, we didn’t shrink the gap and allowed them driving lanes and loose balls and poor closeouts.” Kentucky entered Saturday’s game with Missouri without any momentum, but the Tigers’ lax defense allowed the Wildcats to shoot over 50% from the field, as well as over 40% from long range. Haith believes that his team only plays quality defense when their offensive game is on, which may help to explain much of the Tigers’ road struggles this season.
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SEC Freshman Watch: Breaking Down the “East’s” Most Effective Newcomers

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on February 12th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite Contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland. You can find past editions of the SEC Freshman Watch here (East) and here (West).

The SEC conference slate is more than halfway complete, and the league’s freshmen have begun to stabilize in their fourth month of NCAA competition. As expected, some first-year players are starting to wilt under the grind of the college schedule, while some surprising players are getting stronger as the year goes on. Kentucky has rebounded from early adversity to rejoin the Top 25 rankings, while Georgia, who once sat in the SEC basement with a 1-4 record, has ridden a five-game winning streak to stake its claim as a mid-tier team.

Noel's D is Keying the UK Resurgence (Photo credit: AP).

Noel’s D is Keying the UK Resurgence (Photo credit: AP).

These teams are getting big contributions from freshman play-makers to reboot their seasons. The Wildcats are playing well through Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin’s growing pains thanks in part to the burgeoning defense of Nerlens Noel in the middle. Georgia is riding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to key wins, but Charles Mann has turned into the Bulldogs’ third-leading scorer and Brandon Morris is becoming a pesky defender on the wing. Even South Carolina, mired in a 2-8 SEC season so far, can take solace in Michael Carrera’s scrappy production in the Gamecock frontcourt. Let’s take a closer look at how these first-year players have performed since SEC play got underway. This week, we’ll go back and examine how the freshmen of the former SEC East are doing.

Kentucky: Nerlens Noel has stepped his game up defensively for the Wildcats, and that’s been a big piece of Kentucky’s charge back into the Top 25. UK has won five straight heading into Tuesday night’s showdown with Florida, and Noel has averaged 5.2 blocks and 10.2 rebounds in that span. His offense is still a work in progress, but his impact has been undeniable.

Kentucky Freshmen 2/12

Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin have been trending in the opposite direction, as they’ve taken a back seat to Noel as the season has worn on. Poythress’s minutes and scoring have dropped as the athletic freshman has struggled with fouls (four per game in his last six contests). Goodwin has struggled as a shooter and a ball-handler recently. He hasn’t made a three-pointer in his last eight games (0-of-10) and his assists have dropped (while his turnovers have increased) as the Wildcats have faced tougher opponents.

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SEC Freshmen Report: Volume I

Posted by CNguon on December 21st, 2012

Christian D’Andrea is an SEC microsite contributor. He can be reached on Twitter @anchorofgold.

The SEC has always been home to some of the NCAA’s most talented newcomers. Much of that has to do with Kentucky’s one-and-done superstars, but Lexington’s five-star recruits aren’t the only players making an impact for Southeastern Conference teams. Several under-the-radar prospects – and some of them big names – are starting to get the feel for the NCAA game and bringing value to their programs early in their careers. As a result, teams like South Carolina and Auburn can put a little extra confidence behind their rebuilding efforts.

Nerlens Noel,

Nerlens Noel (Ken), Michael Carrera (SC) and Negus Webster-Chan (Missou) are just three of many freshmen making an impact this season in the SEC East

So who should SEC basketball fans be looking out for with conference play looming? Every week, we’ll look at how the best freshmen in the SEC have performed in their inaugural seasons. We’ll break the league down football-style into East and West divisions to provide an in-depth look at the young guns that may end up dotting all-SEC teams for years to come. This week, we’ll start with the East by introducing you to the most talented first-year players that the conference has to offer. While a team led by newcomers has carried Kentucky through an up-and-down first two months, teams like South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Missouri are also leaning on rookies to carry them to the postseason. Here’s a breakdown on those fresh faces in the (former) SEC East and how they’ve impacted their teams so far.

SEC East

uk freshmen

Kentucky: Kentucky, a team replacing all of its starters in 2012-13, has easily gotten the strongest return from its freshman play-makers this winter. Nerlens Noel has been as good as advertised, and Willie Cauley-Stein has shown a combination of size and skill that suggests that he’d be a starter for almost any other team in the SEC this winter. The two have combined for 18 points, 14 rebounds, and nearly six blocks per game as the Wildcats’ primary big men. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress have carried the ‘Cats offensively. Both have shown well-rounded offensive play, while Poythress in particular has shown some defensive chops that could make him a nightmare matchup (a 7’1” wingspan and the size and strength to cover both forward positions) as the season wears on. However, both have struggled with turnovers early in the year, and their talent hasn’t been enough to cover up UK’s relative inexperience in three early losses. Kentucky may have gotten off to an unexpected start thanks to those losses, but they’re also playing on a steeper learning curve than most teams in the SEC. The development of their freshman class will be one of the conference’s biggest stories to watch once league play unfolds.

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