SEC Team Capsules: The Top Tier (#4-#1)

Posted by David Changas on November 11th, 2016

Per usual in the SEC, there is very little question that Kentucky is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the league. While there is always some early-season speculation about how things will turn out, there is often little doubt that the Wildcats will roll into Nashville as the #1 seed at the SEC Tournament. We finish our capsule-sized preview of the league with a look at of course Kentucky, but also the three teams with the best shot of dethroning the SEC giant. Within the last week we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10) as well as the middle tier (#9-#5). Today we tackle the top tier.

No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 28-9 (13-5)
  • Key returnee – Tyler Davis, 11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG
  • Key newcomer – J.C. Hampton, graduate transfer from Lipscomb
  • Team Analysis: The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including their two leading scorers, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. But along with Davis, a preseason all-SEC selection who has a great chance to break out, and guard D.J. Hogg, expectations remain high in Aggie-land. Anything short of a return to the Big Dance this season will be a disappointment.
  • Burning QuestionCan Davis make the jump? Texas A&M had the luxury of two great scorers in House and Jones last season, but the 6’10” center Davis benefited most from an experienced point guard (Alex Caruso) who could deliver the ball to him in positions that allowed him to be effective. Much more will be expected from the sophomore this year, and for Texas A&M to come through on expectations, Davis will have to become one of the elite players in the SEC.

No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

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The RTC Interview Series: One on One With Kyle Tucker

Posted by Chris Stone on November 9th, 2016

RTC interviews one on one

The college basketball season is now less than a week away and one of the sports premier programs resides in Lexington, Kentucky. We reached out to SECCountry.com‘s Kentucky basketball beat writer Kyle Tucker to discuss his time covering the Wildcats and what to expect in the upcoming season. The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Rush the Court: You’re currently the Kentucky beat writer for SECCountry.com. Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up there?

Kyle Tucker: I was covering Virginia Tech for eight years and then wanted to get a little closer to home. I’m from near Nashville, Tennessee, and knew that the Kentucky beat was coming open at the Courier-Journal in Louisville. I got that job and covered Kentucky football and basketball for five years at the Courier-Journal and then got a call that the Atlanta Journal Constitution was starting a new website to cover the league, SECCountry.com, and talked with them for a while. I’m their football columnist in the fall and cover Kentucky basketball, same as I did before, during basketball season. That’s how we got here.

John Calipari is ready for another year at the helm. (USA Today Images)

John Calipari is ready for another year at the helm. (USA TODAY Sports)

RTC: You’ve been on the Kentucky beat for a while. What’s the most memorable Kentucky game you’ve covered?

Tucker: It’s a tough call between all of the Aaron Harrison late three-pointers in the Sweet Sixteen against Louisville, Elite Eight against Michigan, and Final Four against Wisconsin and then the 2011-12 Indiana regular season game that they lost on the [Christian] Watford buzzer beater and they rushed the court. It was the craziest court-storming I’d ever seen. Even though those NCAA Tournament games were really jaw-dropping, I think probably [Indiana] was the craziest, most fun game I’ve ever covered, period, because the crowd was electric and against Kentucky the whole day. It was one of the best home court advantages I’ve ever seen and it was just bonkers in there after Watford hit that shot. Also because I think that moment and the sting of that really did propel that 2012 National Championship team at Kentucky to play better and really lock in. They were definitely the most talented team in the country and that was their one wake-up call and the rest of the way they pretty much mowed everybody down. They wanted to get back and face Indiana again in the Tournament and they did and played another classic game in the Sweet Sixteen of that NCAA Tournament. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Kentucky Needs More Post Production For Deep March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

Given the way Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray have played over the last couple of months, there really can’t be much debate about whether Kentucky has the best backcourt in the country. In Saturday’s thrilling 93-80 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Georgia, Ulis and Murray combined for 51 points — the 11th consecutive game in which Murray had scored 20 points or more. The Wildcats also got a strong second half performance from Isaiah Briscoe, something upon which they haven’t been able to regularly rely. Everyone knows that good guard play is an important key to a deep NCAA Tournament run, and Kentucky’s recent performance bodes well for John Calipari‘s surging team.

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

Kentucky could use more consistency from Alex Poythress. (kentuckysportsradio.com)

If Kentucky is going to be a legitimate Final Four contender, the Wildcats are going to need more production from their big men. Things have definitely improved in that regard, as Skal Labissiere put together a couple of solid performances to end the regular season, Alex Poythress has shown signs of returning to his old form after fighting nagging injuries, and Derek Willis has also shown flashes of excellent play (even if much of his offensive damage he does comes from the perimeter). Kentucky beat Georgia on the strength of its backcourt — the three starting guards combined for 63 points — while Poythress (10 points, all in the second half) and Willis (14 points) had solid offensive performances of their own. Talented NCAA Tournament opponents that are more capable of neutralizing the Wildcats’ prolific backcourt are going to have a chance to beat them. Each of the team’s eight losses have come in games in which the front line was not very productive.

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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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Kentucky is Suddenly in Control of the SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 19th, 2016

On February 2, Kentucky inexplicably blew a 21-point first half lead against a mediocre Tennessee team in Knoxville as the Vols upset the Wildcats. John Calipari’s team at the time sat 6-3 in league play, while Texas A&M, at 7-1 and on a major roll, appeared in complete control. LSU, which had won at Auburn on the same night, was also ahead of the Wildcats at 7-2 and the Tigers finally appeared to be hitting their stride. Just 17 short days later, the Aggies have now lost four of five games and LSU is coming off a perplexing home loss to Alabama. For its part, Kentucky has not lost since, and after exacting some revenge against Tennessee on Thursday night with an 80-70 win in Rupp Arena, it’s difficult to argue that the Wildcats are not once again the team to beat with five games remaining. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is producing at a Player of the Year level (Getty)

The Wildcats have flourished despite losing their most consistent low-post threat and third-leading scorer, Alex Poythress, to injury. But thanks to dominant backcourt play from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as well as an increase in production from junior forward Derek Willis, Kentucky has seized control of the league race and appears ready to climb the national rankings back into the top 10. Willis, who hardly played during his first two seasons in Lexington, scored a career-high 25 points in Thursday night’s win and has capably filled a void left by Poythress’ absence and the inability of freshman Skal Labissiere to consistently produce.

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Freeze Frame: Tyler Ulis in the Pick and Roll

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 18th, 2016

Everybody loves Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. His teammates love his competitiveness. His coach thinks he should be one of the favorites for SEC Player of the Year as well as National Player of the Year. The national media is coming around too. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster ranks the point guard sixth in his National Player of the Year power rankings. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein recently said that Ulis is probably the best point guard in the country. Even Dan Dakich, who has feuded with Kentucky fans all year long, included Ulis among his top five point guards.

All the praise heaped on the 5’9” floor leader is with good reason. Ulis is averaging 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game on the season, but a switch seemed to flip on around Christmas. Since the Wildcats’ rivalry game with Louisville on December 26, Ulis has averaged 19.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of those outings. Nobody has been more valuable to his team this season, proven by the fact that Ulis has played in all but 38 minutes of game action since SEC play began. Where Ulis has been especially good is in his ability to utilize pick-and-roll situations at the top of the key. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Ulis so effectively uses screens to elevate the Kentucky offense.

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Defensive Transformation

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 29th, 2016

Speaking after Kentucky’s beatdown of Missouri on Wednesday night, coach John Calipari talked about desperation. He credited his team’s ugly loss at Auburn as the catalyst for his team’s turnaround. “If we hadn’t lost that game, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate,” Calipari said. The Auburn loss gave Kentucky its second conference defeat, and had to leave Calipari wondering what was wrong with his post players. The Wildcats desperately needed something extra from its big men, and they have received it in recent outings. Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere have been more potent offensively of late, while also providing Kentucky a defensive presence that better approximates what we are used to seeing from a Calipari-coached team.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.23.44 PM

Skal Labissiere is finally giving Kentucky the rim protector it needs. (Photo: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

If you can’t defend Missouri, you can’t defend. In conference play, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in both offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. However, Kentucky hasn’t exactly played well defensively for much of the year. In the seven games after its loss to Ohio State and on through the loss at Auburn, Kentucky allowed more than a point per possession five times. For a point of reference, last season’s undefeated Kentucky team only allowed four teams to score above a point per possession during the entire regular season. But since the loss to Auburn, the Cats have held Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and now Missouri under that mark, including a season-best .77 PPP to Mizzou. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we are looking for the change that sparked the sudden improvement in Kentucky’s defense.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IX

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 26th, 2016

The regular season title is solidly Texas A&M‘s to lose at this point as the Aggies are two games clear of a trio of second place teams. But if college basketball has taught us anything this year it’s that the game can be fickle. Here’s what the Aggies and rest of the league were up to last week.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Team of the Week. For now the storm has passed in Lexington. Kentucky followed up the loss at Auburn with a good win over Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena and a dominant performance at home against Vanderbilt. Lost amid the hand-wringing over the front court has been another very good Wildcat defense. They were excellent in that regard on Saturday, making non-factors out of Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance, and Mathew Fisher-Davis. “That’s the best defensive game we’ve had,” Tyler Ulis told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “That’s what we need to do every game because in order for us to win, we have to be a defensive team.”

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Freeze Frame: Is It Time For a New “Tweak” In Kentucky’s Offense?

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 8th, 2016

During the 2013-14 season, John Calipari’s team lost six games in SEC play (including three of its last four) on its way to a 22-9 regular season mark. Kentucky, which had entered the season at No. 1 in the country, was considered a huge disappointment at the time. Calipari knew that something had to change if his team was going to turn things around, so heading into the 2014 SEC Tournament, he introduced “the tweak.” The beauty of his strategy was that Calipari wouldn’t say what he actually tweaked.

Calipari's tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention off his struggling juggernaut (cbssports.com).

Calipari’s tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention away from his struggling juggernaut. (Getty)

Calipari’s tweak became a national story as media and fans searched for the mystery in every game. “If you know anything about basketball, you’ll know exactly what I did,” he explained. Yet despite thousands of rumors swirling around, nobody could pinpoint precisely what it was. As Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com (who, as a beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, has followed the head coach’s career longer than most) wrote after Calipari revealed the tweak (he asked point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more), the brilliance of the strategy was that it shifted the conversation away from the play of his struggling Wildcats. This year’s team could certainly use a distraction from its disappointing play on the road, but it could also use a substantial tweak to its offensive approach. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at Kentucky’s recent loss to LSU and analyze a strategic tweak that could change the Wildcats’ season.

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