Putting Together the SEC Puzzle, Knockoff Style

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 22nd, 2014

Seth Davis has the Jigsaw Man, his alter ego that finds unheralded players and plugs them into more high-profile teams with a distinct need. I don’t have a creative nickname for this, but I do have some SEC puzzles to solve and following Davis’ lead sounds like a good idea. Joe Lunardi currently lists Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee in his field of 68. Each team has its holes, so to get creative, I tried to plug them with one player from a conference foe that won’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Saying something like “Missouri can’t score inside, add Julius Randle” is too easy, though, and the knockoff Jigsaw Man likes to challenge himself. Here goes…

Florida gets: Brenton Williams, South Carolina

Billy Donovan could use Brenton Williams free throw prowess at the end of games in March (beachcarolina.com).

Billy Donovan could use Brenton Williams free throw prowess at the end of games in March (beachcarolina.com).

You have to search high and low to find something Florida doesn’t do well. One thing that stands out, however, is the Gators’ relatively poor team free throw shooting percentage (67.6%, ninth in the SEC). Foul shots become trickier in postseason play as the pressure of closing out a game intensifies. Florida doesn’t have anyone other than Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin who Billy Donovan can feel confident about taking those big shots. Those limited options could make inbounding the ball to a reliable shooter at the end of a close game difficult. So why not give the Gators a player who has only missed three foul shots all season? Brenton Williams has not only been the best foul shooter in the SEC (78-of-81, 96.3%) but he is also a senior who fits Florida’s experienced theme. He’s also one of the best three-point shooters in the conference (42.8%) which addresses another area of relative weakness for the Gators. Let Casey Prather inbound the ball at the end of close games, and with Williams, Wilbekin, and Frazier making cuts, he’s sure to find a guy among the trio who can seal a win.

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SEC M5: 01.31.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 31st, 2014

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  1. As expected, Florida won in Starkville last night. The Gators did not, however, roll over the Bulldogs (they led by only one point at halftime), and haven’t rolled over the SEC at all recently. The national perspective seems to be that Florida is blowing right by every conference team it plays. This is correct in a strict win-loss sense, as the Gators are the only team with an unbeaten SEC record. But Florida has been somewhat tested by triple-digit KenPom teams in three of their last four games (Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn). Should that be cause for concern? Margin of victory is a useful indicator of future success, but conference games are especially difficult when you have a top 10 target on your back. That target will be even brighter in an upcoming stretch when the Gators face Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss on the road in the span of two weeks. The Vols and Rebels will be in desperate need of a statement win, and Florida may not be able to grind out wins as easily (that is if Billy Donovan doesn’t throw a blanket over Tennessee’s offense again).
  2. Tennessee has talented pieces that just haven’t fit together as well as they should have this season. Did Darius Thompson just ride into town on a white horse to make it all work? The freshman made his third start of the season Wednesday night in the Vols’ big win over Ole Miss, and his solid stat line (seven assists against two turnovers) should keep him in that spot. “Him getting better – him growing up as a ball player, the time he puts into it and learning and understanding and just being around those experienced guys; I think it was just time,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. Whether it was a direct result of Thompson starting, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson rebounded from a horrific shooting performance against Florida to go a combined 10-of-14 from three. Jarnell Stokes also said the Vols pushed the tempo more with Thompson in the game, which was refreshing considering how slowly they have played at times. At this point it’s clear Antonio Barton was not the answer to replace Trae Golden. Still, he’s a senior who can certainly contribute down the stretch for Tennessee.
  3. Arkansas is mired in a five-year NCAA tournament drought, and it’s looking more and more likely that number will extend to six. CBSSports.com‘s Gary Parrish took an interesting look at what’s been ailing the Razorbacks. He wrote extensively about problems with the head coaching position, including a whiff at Billy Gillispie and Dana Altman’s change of heart. Can Mike Anderson turn things around in Fayetteville? He reached the Elite Eight in his third season at Missouri, and barring a miracle, won’t come close to that this season. Bobby Portis may be the ray of hope Anderson needs. The five-star Arkansas native chose to stay home (unlike Archie Goodwin) and could generate some in-state recruiting momentum. Anderson has actually done a fairly good job recruiting elite talent the last few years, even if in a roundabout way. In addition to this year’s solid class, Anderson convinced BJ Young to stay at Arkansas and there is a rumor that Otto Porter would have gone to Missouri had Anderson still been the coach. If he can keep gathering top talent, Anderson’s pressure system may be what returns Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament.
  4. Could it be that Kentucky will have a handful of experienced players back next season? John Calipari is reportedly spreading the word in NBA circles that Andrew and Aaron Harrison will return for their sophomore seasons. This is probably wise given their (relative) struggles and the strength of this upcoming draft class. And it could do even more favors for Calipari. Dakari Johnson has looked good, especially recently, but probably hasn’t stood out enough (yet) to make it worth his while to leave. The same can be said for Marcus Lee. You never know what can happen, but Kentucky could have a starting lineup featuring four sophomores next year.
  5. If Auburn had to win only one SEC game a year, I suppose their fans would prefer it to be against Alabama. The Tigers picked up their first conference win in 51 weeks by beating Alabama last night at home. That win nearly a year ago? It came against the Tide too. Chris Denson scored a career-high 32 points and is firmly in the discussion for an all-SEC team spot. One has to wonder where Anthony Grant goes from here. For a team that started the season with NCAA aspirations the Tide are now a long way away from an NIT bid, and lost any good will created by their solid win over LSU last weekend. Right now they are sitting at the front of the SEC’s “most disappointing table.”
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SEC M5: 12.27.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 27th, 2013

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  1. CBSSports‘ Matt Norlander took a look at how the individual conferences have performed thus far and, as has been evident, the results aren’t great for the SEC. The league owns an unsightly 3-16 record against the RPI top 25, but every league has struggled against the best teams. The real concern comes from the 6-24 record against RPI top 50 teams and 28-35 record against teams from RPI top 10 conferences. No other power conference other than the AAC has a losing record in the latter stat. There were some close calls, particularly Florida’s last-second loss at Connecticut and Alabama’s hard-fought loss to Wichita State. But even if the SEC had gotten a few more headline-grabbing wins, the overall results still wouldn’t be pretty.
  2. The Diamond Head Classic was a resounding success for South Carolina this week. The Gamecocks followed up a week with losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate by going 2-1 in the Honolulu tournament, with wins over previously unbeaten St. Mary’s and Akron. Sandwiched in between was a 26 point drubbing by Boise State, but that’s alright because Frank Martin was in desperate need of wins. Freshman guard Duane Notice was the star of the trip, scoring in double figures in each of the three games. He had only scored 19 points on the season prior to the trip, but he scored 39 in USC’s three tournament games. The Gamecocks’ scouting work probably won’t be as intense as usual this week as they will play Akron on Saturday, just three days after beating the Zips in their Diamond Head finale.
  3. As action died down around the conference over the holiday week, let’s revisit an article written a few weeks ago about Arkansas guard Michael Qualls. The Razorback has largely flown under the radar this season, but should start causing SEC hoops fans to take a second look with conference play about to start. The sophomore is averaging 14.1 points per game after logging only 4.6 per game last season. What’s most impressive is the efficient way in which he’s been scoring those points. His true shooting percentage (65.8%) is sixth best in the conference, and his player efficiency ranking (24.1) ranks ninth. Oh, and he annihilated  a poor Southern Illinois-Edwardsville player with this dunk to begin the season. It’s time to take notice of this rising SEC star.
  4. One of the greatest players in Missouri history is keeping his NBA dream alive in the D-League. But this Tiger didn’t play for Frank Haith or Mike Anderson; he goes way back to Quin Snyder. At the ripe basketball age of 33, Kareem Rush is attempting to return to the NBA with the Los Angeles D-Fenders after being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009-10 because of a torn ACL. The Columbia Tribune‘s Joey Kaufman writes, “the average age of the D-Fenders is 26 years old, and nearly all of them were in junior high school when Rush led the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in 2002.” Rush is the darling of a generation of Missouri fans that falls between the Anthony Peeler-led teams of the mid 90s and NCAA Tournament drought-busting teams of Mike Anderson. It’s probably a longshot that he finds another NBA roster spot, but it’s encouraging to see a player come back from injury and give it his best against all odds.
  5.  Tennessee’s home loss to North Carolina State was “as bad as they come,” according to SI.com‘s Seth Davis. He writes, “first of all, how can a point guard (Memphis transfer Antonio Barton) play 21 minutes, miss all eight shots and not record a single assist? That can’t happen, ever. And Jordan McRae (6-for-22) needs to recognize when his shot isn’t falling and find other ways to help his team win. Lotta kinks to work out before the start of conference play.” Barton’s ineffectiveness with this (especially shooting the three) has been a problem, but another issue is the Volunteers’ lack of depth. They are reliant on three freshmen to give them quality off the bench (A.J. Davis, Darius Thompson and Robert Hubbs), but none of the three has stepped forward and been consistently productive this season. That needs to change if Tennessee is to make a run at a NCAA tournament bid. Each player has a potential role and skill set that could greatly help the Vols. Hubbs has the talent to be a primary scoring option, Thompson can be a distributor and Davis has size behind Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Whether they can reach this potential remains to be seen, but it will be a key for Cuonzo Martin.
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The Year of the Freshman Point Guard in the SEC?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 29th, 2013

Antonio Barton was held out of Tennessee’s practice yesterday with a leg injury. The Memphis transfer is expected to handle the bulk of the minutes at point guard for the Volunteers this season, so having Barton available immediately was important because last year’s starting point guard, Trae Golden, transferred to Georgia Tech. Freshman Darius Thompson is the most likely replacement if Barton’s injury lingers. Thompson doesn’t bring the buzz of fellow freshman guard and five-star recruit Robert Hubbs, but he does bring intriguing size (6’5″) to the position. Thompson would join a slew of SEC freshman being counted on to lead talented offenses this season.

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin Is Making a Habit of This (AP/Adam Brimer)

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin Is Making a Habit of This (AP/Adam Brimer)

Andrew Harrison is the most high-profile of these freshman point guards. As talented as the Wildcats are, the Kentucky offense won’t run itself. Harrison will need to get Julius Randle the ball in the right spots on the block, and his penetration will also be the key to getting easy baskets for Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee.

Billy Donovan may also have to rely heavily on his blue chip freshman point guard, Kasey Hill. Hill was going to get big minutes this season regardless, but with Scottie Wilbekin’s indefinite suspension in play, these minutes may be more front-loaded than Donovan originally anticipated. Wilbekin was excellent at the top of Florida’s half-court defense last season, so there is more than just the offense that may need to be replaced.

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SEC M5: 10.25.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 25th, 2013

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  1. Last week, Ole Miss got the go-ahead to borrow $80 million to build a new basketball arena. Initial plans for the arena were approved last March, and it will be located to the west of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Tad Smith Coliseum has the smallest capacity (9,061) of any current SEC arena, just behind Auburn Arena (9,121). The new arena won’t add that much more seating (9,500) but it still a needed upgrade, especially given the Coliseum’s leaky ceiling incident in 2011. Andy Kennedy can also use the promise of new facilities to continue the momentum generated for the program by last season’s SEC Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament win.
  2. CBS’ Jon Rothstein put together a list of his top 20 freshmen under the radar. Three SEC freshmen made the cut: Ole Miss forward Sebastian Saiz, Tennessee guard Darius Thompson, and LSU guard Tim Quarterman. Saiz and Thompson make a lot of sense as both will be looked to to replace key departing players. At 6’9″, Saiz needs to help fill the frontcourt void left by the graduations of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Thompson should get minutes at point guard that would have gone to Trae Golden had he not transferred to Georgia Tech. Quarterman is a 6’6″ point guard who will add a different dimension to the LSU offense when the smaller Anthony Hickey is not at the position. The Michael Carter-Williams comparisons are inevitable for the ESPN top 100-recruit. Johnny Jones will probably be pleased as a peach if Quarterman gives LSU a fraction of what Carter-Williams gave Syracuse the last two seasons.
  3. Mike Anderson is adding a slew of talented forwards to his third Arkansas team. The highest profile frontcourt newcomers are ESPN top 50 recruits Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. Houston transfer Alandise Harris is also in the mix after sitting out last season, and he brings experience, something the other two don’t yet have. Plodding up and down the court in Anderson’s pressure system is not easy on big men, making a deep rotation a necessity. Portis and Kingsley should be instant contributors, but Harris’ experience will be valuable if they initially struggle while transitioning to the college game.
  4. The least heralded Kentucky freshman, Derek Willis, is surprising John Calipari.”“Derek Willis is going to be a really good player,” Calipari said. “He’s learning (and) he’s creating good habits. This team is going to be a hard team to steal minutes (from), but I’ll tell you what, he’s playing as well as anybody.” Yesterday, I shared a quote from former Kentucky assistant Joe Dean about the risks of taking certain Kentucky high school stars like Willis. “When I was there, there was a train of thought with Kentucky high school players that if you were going to bring them to Kentucky, they had to be capable of starting at Kentucky at some point in their career. If they were not, then the fan base in Maysville, Paducah, Danville, Pikeville would be upset because they think those kids are the greatest thing in the world.” I’m not sure this approach applies as much these days. Recruiting gets such expansive coverage that fans have a good understanding of a player’s realistic outlook before he plays his first game. I find it hard to believe a fan of any team would be dismayed if someone as exceptionally talented as Julius Randle gets minutes so that someone like Derek Willis does not. In my opinion, taking a flyer on a local player is rarely a bad idea.
  5. Missouri will take the court in the Hearnes Center tonight for the first time since 2003-04. The Tigers have not played in the building since moving to Mizzou Arena for the 2004-05 season. The exhibition game against Oklahoma City University commemorates the 20th anniversary of Missouri’s 1993-94 Big Eight championship team, which included an undefeated conference mark. That season also included a 52-point loss against Nolan Richardson and Arkansas in the second game ever played at Bud Walton Arena. Talk about not letting one game define a season. Yesterday I wrote about Kentucky and UTEP planning to play a game in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 NCAA title game. It’s neat that schools are finding creative ways to keep history alive (though the UTEP-Kentucky game is far more significant). This a win-win situation, as it educates younger fans while providing older fans with nostalgia.
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