SEC Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2018

The SEC has more teams in the NCAA Tournament than it ever has before, and big things are expected this postseason after placing three teams in the Elite Eight and South Carolina in the Final Four a year ago. Let’s look at a few of the burning questions facing the league on the eve of the Big Dance.

The pressure is on Billy Kennedy and Texas A&M this postseason. (CBS Sports)

  • Which SEC team has the best chance to go the deepest? This is a tough one, as there are no obvious candidates to make it to the Final Four despite the SEC placing eight teams into the field. In fact, none of the group has an easy path, assuming seeding holds, beyond the Sweet Sixteen. Kentucky is playing well but a very tough draw will likely require the Wildcats to beat Arizona to get out of Boise. Tennessee and Auburn have reasonable paths to advance from the first weekend but would need to likely beat Cincinnati and Kansas, respectively, to advance beyond that point. And even though Florida has been wildly inconsistent all season long, the Gators have enough shot-makers and experience to reach the Elite Eight for the second straight year (and six of the last eight).
  • Which SEC player will break out and make a national name for himself? Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield has been on fire recently as the most consistent offensive performer on his team, using his versatile and unique offensive game to lead the Volunteers in three-pointers made while shooting a healthy 39.5 percent from behind the arc. Because of his ability to both draw defenders away from the basket while getting good looks inside, he is an extremely difficult match-up for nearly any opponent in the field. If the Volunteers can make it out of Dallas this weekend, the rest of the country will get to see what the SEC has known for the last two months — that Schofield is worthy of his selection to various all-SEC teams.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2018

For the first time ever, the SEC has placed eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field. Here are some quick impressions of the draws each of those teams received.

Tennessee

Admiral Schofield has been a beast for Tennessee down the stretch. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • Seed: #3, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Volunteers draw Horizon League champion Wright State. The Raiders are solid defensively, ranking 53rd nationally in defense, per KenPom, but struggle mightily on the offensive end (#248). Tennessee needs to get guard Jordan Bowden going, but the Vols should be able to take care of business here.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Texas in the Sweet Sixteen. Sure, the Longhorns would have to upset both Nevada and Cincinnati to get to the regionals, but who wouldn’t want to see Rick Barnes take on the school he led to 16 NCAA Touranment bids in 17 seasons.
  • Final Word: The Volunteers need to be more efficient offensively, especially inside the arc, but they are a threat to make a deep run as they rarely play themselves out of games.

Auburn

  • Seed: #4, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Tigers open with College of Charleston and should be able to exploit the Cougars’ shoddy three-point defense to find immediate success.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Bruce Pearl had his fair share of success at Tennessee against Bill Self, and if the Tigers can right the shaky ship to make it to the second weekend, they could be dangerous upon arrival.
  • Final Word: Auburn has struggled mightily on the offensive end down the stretch, and may have run out of gas this season. An early exit from the SEC Tournament this weekend might have been a blessing in disguise.

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SEC Weekend Preview: Conference Openers

Posted by David Changas on December 28th, 2017

The last weekend of 2017 marks the first weekend of conference play for several SEC teams.Today we look at a few of the compelling match-ups that lie ahead on Saturday and Sunday.

Jaylen Barford (18.5 PPG) leads an explosive Arkansas offense that is averaging 90 points per game (ArkansasRazorbacks.com)

  • Tennessee at Arkansas. What looked before the season like a relatively nondescript opening game now appears to be the marquee SEC match-up on this weekend’s slate. The #19 Volunteers, picked to finish 13th in the preseason projections, head to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for what could be one of the best games of the entire season. Tennessee has already won four games away from Knoxville, including two road wins against ACC competition. But beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville will require its best performance of the season. The key to this contest might be whether the Vols, which force a lot of turnovers, can do so against an Arkansas team that takes care of the ball as well as any group in college basketball.

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Three Lessons From PK80 Day One

Posted by RJ Abeytia on November 24th, 2017

My first day at the PK80 Tournament in Portland took place exclusively in the venerable Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where Bill Walton’s Blazers used to run roughshod, where the Showtime Lakers endured many a battle, and where Michael Jordan’s Bulls crushed the hopes of Clyde Drexler’s Blazers. It was amazing to watch a game in what was once considered a state-of-the-art NBA arena but now stands as a relic, but make no mistake: There were lessons to be learned with many future implications when it comes to the here and now in college basketball in The Rose City’s basketball nexus.

Duke is Led by Grayson Allen But Its Most Impressive Attributes are in the Frontcourt (USA Today Images)

  1. Duke’s Frontcourt is Massive. The physical realities of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter are by far the most impressive part of watching the Blue Devils play live. Yes, that size was accentuated by the lack thereof on the part of Portland State, but the two combined for 34 points on 13-of-20 shooting and 25 rebounds. Both are very athletic and graceful. Bagley even brought the ball up to help alleviate pressure in the backcourt several times. On the other hand, Bagley’s 6-of-12 from the free throw line certainly warrants monitoring and Grayson Allen’s emotional stability continues to be a coin flip from play to play, but if you are looking for reasons Duke can win the NCAA Tournament before December begins, look no further than the 6’11” 234-lb. Bagley and the 6’10” 259-lb. Carter. Duke isn’t going to face many teams (elite or Portland State-level) that can handle the inside talent the Blue Devils bring to the table.
  2. Shaka Smart is Building at Texas.  After a year two cratering that Smart warned Texas was part of the plan, the Longhorns notched a hard-earned win over mentally-taxing Butler on Thanksgiving. Texas is likely a year away from really competing on the national level, but the Longhorns showcased impressive perimeter talent like Andrew Jones and size from the likes of Mohamed Bamba. Jones had 16 points on efficient 7-of-13 shooting and Bamba logged 12 rebounds and six blocks. The Bulldogs were able to impose its standard low-possession game on Texas, but the Longhorns maximized their transition opportunities to the tune of a 14-2 fast break point advantage that provided the winning margin. Texas has the kind of balance and depth in the frontcourt that make for a very tough draw in Big 12 play and beyond. Assistant coaches scouting from the stands noted some of the finer points as well, like the Longhorns’ help discipline on defense. Texas is a team to watch moving forward, and their brawl with Duke today is a great early litmus test for both teams.
  3. Florida MOVES.  The #7 Gators demolished Stanford with a staggering barrage of 68 percent three-point shooting that featured a scorching 13-of-17 first-half start that included a perfect 5-of-5 from distance by Egor Koulechov. But again, the live impression may actually be more auspicious than the insane shooting performance. Florida rushes the ball upcourt like its hair is on fire. There was one possession where off a made basket, point guard Chris Chiozza already had the Gators in their offense with the shot clock at 29 seconds and an open three look at 26 seconds. Florida’s average possession time was 14 seconds (which KenPom rates as the 12th-fastest in the country) and its blistering 135.0 ORtg over its 80 possessions made for a painful clinic for Stanford. Identity matters in college basketball, and Michael White’s team has already clearly embraced theirs this season.
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SEC Feast Week Preview

Posted by David Changas on November 22nd, 2017

Feast Week is under way once again this year, and although a few SEC teams have already started their festivities — Texas A&M won the Legends Classic with convincing wins over Oklahoma State and Penn State, while LSU is finishing up a successful trip to Maui that includes an upset over Michigan – there is plenty of Thanksgiving weekend action ahead. Let’s take a look at what’s on the plate for SEC teams during the rest of the week.

Missouri and Michael Porter, Jr. got devastating news on Tuesday. (University of Missouri)

  • Battle 4 Atlantis (Tennessee). The Volunteers have cruised to two easy wins against lesser opponents and appear to have plenty of depth. Things will get really challenging in the Bahamas this weekend, however, as they take on #18 Purdue on Wednesday followed by a likely top-five team (with a win) in Villanova. The stacked field also includes Arizona, N.C. State and SMU this year. Needless to say, we will know a lot more about the fortitude of Rick Barnes’ club by Monday.
  • NIT Season TipOff (Vanderbilt). The Commodores are coming off a close overtime home loss to USC on Sunday and will battle Virginia in the semifinal round of the NIT on Thanksgiving day. On Friday, they will draw either Seton Hall or Rhode Island. This potentially very difficult trip to Brooklyn for two games is an opportunity for the Commodores to significantly enhance a resume that already includes a loss to crosstown rival Belmont.

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SEC Burning Questions: Florida Gators

Posted by David Changas on November 9th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC SEC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Can Florida’s Frontcourt Produce Enough Offense to Carry the Gators?

In his second season on the bench in Gainesville, Florida head coach Mike White erased many of the doubts about whether he was a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan. After missing the 2016 NCAA Tournament from the bubble, the Gators ran all the way to the Elite Eight with a robust 27-9 overall record last season. All that success led to White receiving a healthy raise and extension through the 2023 season. Now that he has settled in nicely and appears to have things rolling on the recruiting trail — White signed a consensus top 25 class and his recruiting for next season is off to a strong start — expectations are that his teams regularly make the NCAA Tournament and do some damage when they get there.

After a rough first season, Mike White has things rolling at Florida. (Madison.com)

For this year’s Florida squad, things appear to be relatively set in the backcourt. Despite losing four-year starter Kasey Hill to graduation, White returns preseason all-SEC guard KeVaughn Allen and senior point guard Chris Chiozza. Additionally, Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson should seamlessly transition into the lineup and provide significant scoring punch while freshman DeAundrae Ballard appears poised to be a solid contributor as well. But the biggest addition is likely to be Rice graduate transfer Egor Koulechov, who averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds for the Owls last season and brings a refined offensive game to the Gators. White will look for Koulechov to do what last year’s graduate transfer, Canyon Berry, did.

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Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (cbssports.com)

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

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A Closer Examination of Florida’s Clutch Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 26th, 2017

It is only fitting that Florida‘s unexpected berth in the Elite Eight came from the most unlikely source. The Gators are on an improbable run, given very little chance by anyone to make it this far despite hanging out in rarefied air among the top four of the KenPom rankings. Even after holding Virginia to 0.65 points per possession in the Round of 32, still nobody expected the Gators to be the favorite in the East Region until late Friday night. After Canyon Barry chased down a sure Wisconsin bucket at the rim with a block that nobody knew he had in him, Chris Chiozza hit an epic buzzer-beater to beat the Badgers by one point. Chiozza was the hero nobody expected for the team nobody thought would still be playing.

Chris Chiozza hits a miraculous buzzer beater.

Every point scored in basketball counts the same, but we tend to place more significance on time and place. Chiozza’s miraculous shot couldn’t have come at a better spot for either qualifier. Clutch performances are part of what makes March special, and Chiozza came up with the biggest clutch shot of 2017. We examine Florida’s clutch play this season to determine if the Gators have another big shot left in them.

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In Hoops We Trust: Trust Coach, “It’s OK”

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 5th, 2017

When Grayson Allen suited up for Duke on Wednesday evening against Georgia Tech, much more than just an interesting news story erupted on social media. Writers and fans all jumped in to add their two cents on whether Allen’s remarkably swift return from his “indefinite” suspension for tripping an Elon player in a game last month was appropriate, adequate or even necessary. Predictably, most (presumably non-Duke) fans said Allen’s sentence was too short. And just as predictably, scribes across the spectrum said it was just enough and to trust the judgment of the legendary coach. Which, of course, (predictably) sent those same (non-Duke) fans into fits of eye-rolling at what they deemed as the writers’ (predictably) pro-Mike Krzyzewski response. Adding another layer to this is the news that Coach K is about to take a month-long leave of absence for back surgery, effectively handing over his team to assistant Jeff Capel. Toss in that Allen is the prototypical Duke “villain” personality (in attitude, demeanor, and, yes, race), and that the Blue Devils badly lost the only game Allen was “indefinitely” suspended for, and you have quite a little tempest brewing in Durham.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski answers a question during the 2016 ACC Men’s Operation Basketball in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Photo by Nell Redmond, theACC.com)

With back surgery looming, Mike Krzyzewski might have ended Allen’s suspension earlier than expected to ease the transition to Jeff Capel. (Photo by Nell Redmond, theACC.com)

It would be easy to see this as a craven move by a coaching lifer who is regularly given a tremendous benefit of the doubt by anyone in the basketball community. Or to see it as a sign of injustice for a white kid at the NCAA’s ur-basketball location. But to me, it’s pretty simple. Krzyzewski had Allen return after a one-game absence because the pressure would have been on Capel to mete out a punishment he didn’t inflict, and then to end that punishment when Capel deemed appropriate. That would be unfair to Capel and unfair to Allen. The coach who punished him should be the one that he signed with and the one absolving him, whatever that punishment might have been. You could argue that Allen deserved to miss more games, but not many more. Could Krzyzewski have handled the entire thing better from the beginning? Yes. Is this some case of malicious intent? Unlikely. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play Looms

Posted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016

Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.

The Favorite

  • Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

As usual, John Calipari and Kentucky are the heavy favorites to win the SEC (cbssports.com).

The NCAA Tournament Contenders

  • Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
  • Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
  • Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.

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