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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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part II

Posted by David Changas on November 24th, 2016

Earlier this week, we took a look at four SEC teams in action at various tournaments around the country. Today we’ll take another look at three other teams that will be in action over the next few days (we won’t mention LSU, which was blown out by Wichita State in its opening round matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday).

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been as good as expected so far for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

  • Advocare Invitational (Lake Buena Vista, FL) – Florida. The Gators have easily disposed of four solid opponents in racing to a 4-0 start. They have been good on both ends of the floor and rank as the nation’s 11th best team overall, per KenPom. Things will get tougher today when Florida faces the defending Big East champion, Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 3-0 start of their own, including a nice win at Iowa. The teams appear to be evenly matched, and it should be a terrific game. Florida has thus far benefited from the solid production of graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who leads the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) off the bench. The Gators are also getting excellent play from Devin Robinson and preseason all-SEC pick KeyVaughn Allen, but could use more consistency from point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the Gators can beat the Pirates, they could earn an interesting match-up with Gonzaga in the semifinals, with Iowa State after that. So while Florida is off to a great start so far, we will know a lot more about the Gators after this weekend.

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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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Tyler Davis’ Emergence Gives Texas A&M Hope For March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Texas A&M, which had not been known previously as a destination for college basketball’s top recruits, signed one of the nation’s best classes last year in bringing in four players ranked in the Rivals top 70. On Friday, in the Aggies’ 72-66 win over Florida, one of those highly-prized recruits was critical to Texas A&M’s advancement. All season, center Tyler Davis, the Aggies’ third-leading scorer (11.2 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (6.0 RPG) has been an important part of his team’s run to a share of the SEC regular season championship. Without Davis anchoring the middle, Texas A&M would likely not be where it is today. From that standpoint, Davis’ 15 point, eight rebound performance on Friday was not only not a surprise, but it was also expected — even against Florida’s stout frontcourt defense.

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

After the game, Florida coach Mike White could not stop talking about how impressed he was with the freshman from Plano. “He is just really good. It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s enormous. He’s strong. He’s physical. He likes contact. He knows how to seal [in the post], and he has great hands,” White said. Based upon the way he performed both against the Gators and in the Aggies’ six-game win streak to close the regular season, a strong case could be made that Davis has become A&M’s best player. While most of the attention is paid to Aggie seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House, Davis’s efficiency sets him apart. That was evident again Friday. Jones and House combined to go 11 for 35 from the field, while Davis was made six of his 10 field goal attempts. On the season he has shot over 65 percent from the field; when teammates get the ball to Davis in the post, good things happen.

At 6’10”, 265 lbs., Davis is no ordinary freshman. He has clearly been the biggest addition to a team relegated to the NIT a season ago. Pairing the talented freshman with a core of talented senior leaders has led to a successful regular season, as well as the potential for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Aggies were heavily reliant upon their perimeter offense. Now, however, when shots aren’t falling for Jones, House, and fellow seniors Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, Davis has been able to afford a steadying offensive alternative. He made the difference against Florida today, and if the Aggies are to make the sustained March push many believe them capable of, expect Davis to be as prominent a figure as any.

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SEC Tournament Takeaways: Second Round

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Thursday was the first full day of action at the SEC Tournament, and even though the league’s top four teams have byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round, there were still plenty of important happenings that could impact which of the league’s teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday (John Bazemore/AP)

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Florida Stays Alive. In Thursday’s opener, the Gators took down Arkansas in a win that kept the Gators’ faintly flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty — the two teams combined to commit 50 fouls (thanks, Pat Adams) — but Florida played just well enough to get the job done. Center John Egbunu, who was expected to miss the game with an injured right hand, gutted out an eight-point, nine-rebound performance in 24 minutes, while also helping hold Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to just 10 points. Florida moves on to play #1 seed Texas A&M on Friday, in what will be quite surely be another must-win for the Gators’ still-faint Tournament hopes.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA Hopes Damaged. Vanderbilt came into its game against Tennessee as a 12-point favorite and its regular season sweep of the Vols hinted that this was a touch matchup for Rick Barnes’ team. After all, big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet had dominated Tennessee inside in both of the prior meetings. Things were different on Thursday, though, as Vanderbilt failed to consistently feed those mismatches in the post. The Commodores instead fired up 25 threes (making nine) and generally didn’t seem all that interested in battling as if its postseason life was on the line. A valiant second half comeback nearly saved Kevin Stallings’ team, but Wade Baldwin‘s game-tying layup at the buzzer was released fractions of a second after the horn sounded. Now the Commodores will have a few nervous days ahead, as a loss to a team that entered the SEC Tournament with six conference wins puts Vanderbilt squarely back on to the bubble.

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Florida is Quietly Building a Strong NCAA Resume

Posted by David Changas on February 2nd, 2016

Heading into the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Florida had quietly managed to put together a solid NCAA Tournament-quality resume. It may not have contained any wins over top-50 opponents, but the loss column was also largely limited to teams ranked among the top 50. After getting thrashed by Tennessee in early January in Knoxville, the Gators narrowly lost at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in working their way to a good-not-great 5-3 SEC record. That profile changed on Saturday, however, as Florida enhanced its resume significantly with a resounding 88-71 home win over #9 West Virginia. It’s the kind of win that will pay significant dividends on Selection Sunday, and one that head coach Michael White hopes will become a springboard to even more success in the second half of conference play.

Michael White has Florida positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Michael White has Florida well positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Florida has lived in the NCAA Tournament for nearly all of the last two decades, missing the Big Dance only twice in the prior 17 seasons. Small note: All that was accomplished with a Hall of Fame coach pacing the sidelines. When Billy Donovan fled Gainesville last spring for the bright lights of the NBA, athletic director Jeremy Foley turned to a coach who was about as accomplished as Donovan when he arrived at the school in 1996. While the early returns on White’s tenure are mixed – the Gators’ pre-conference losses came to Purdue, Michigan State, Miami (FL) and Florida State, prior to the ugly loss at Tennessee — the new head man in Gainesville has since steadily righted the ship. Some questioned his hiring around the holidays, but Florida would easily be in the field of 68 if the season ended today. Most of the focus in the SEC has centered on the rise of Texas A&M, the fall of Kentucky, and the superstardom of Ben Simmons, allowing the Gators to fly well under the radar for the first time in a long while.

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SEC M5: 12.01.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 1st, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky held on to its position as the No. 1 team in America in yesterday’s AP poll. The Wildcats defeated Illinois State 75-63 at home on Monday night, despite playing without their leader, Tyler Ulis. The 5’9 sophomore hurt his right elbow in Friday’s win over South Florida in Miami, and coach John Calipari said prior to Monday’s game that he was day-to-day. One could assume that if Calipari thought his team really needed Ulis to dispatch the Redbirds, he would have played, but that obviously wasn’t necessary. It is safe to say that Ulis, who was averaging 13.2 points, 4.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game going into the contest, is the player the Wildcats can least afford to lose.
  2. Speaking of injuries to smallish SEC guards, Auburn will be without  guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen for up to two weeks after the junior re-injured his surgically-repaired right shoulder during the Tigers’ home win over Northwestern State on Friday. Shamsid-Deen, who originally injured the shoulder on October 27, missed both of Auburn’s exhibition games and the season-opener against UAB. Regarded as one of the best defenders on the team, Shamsid-Deen was on the verge of re-entering the starting lineup. Now, coach Bruce Pearl will hope to get him back before the Tigers’ December 12 trip to Middle Tennessee State. If he is not back by then, Pearl should get his most experienced player back before Auburn travels to Xavier on December 19.
  3. College basketball fans have made sport over the past year or so of making fun of LSU coach Johnny Jones’s shortcomings as a head coach. Talent has not been an issue for the Tigers, who lost underclassmen Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey to the NBA Draft after last season, but added the best player in the country, Ben Simmons, and another five-star recruit in Antonio Blakeney. Unfortunately for Jones, however, nothing he has gotten from his talented group so far has changed the perception people who follow the sport have of him, and Monday’s loss at the College of Charleston, which comes on the heels of two losses last week, will do nothing to quiet the critics. Certainly, it is way too early in the season to reach any overarching conclusions about where any team is, and LSU does get Arizona transfer Craig Victor eligible and sharpshooter Keith Hornsby back soon. Still, the Tigers are digging a hole that they’re going to struggle to get out of when it comes to building their resume, and with the calendar flipping to December, Jones would be well-served to figure things out.
  4. South Carolina is one of only a handful of teams in the country that is still undefeated, and though the Gamecocks’ competition may not have been overly impressive thus far, given the school’s recent basketball history, things are looking up for Frank Martin’s club. On Monday, senior forward Mindaugas Kacinas was named SEC Player of the Week for his efforts in South Carolina’s wins over Tulsa in the Paradise Jam championship game and against Lipscomb at home on Friday. Kacinas averaged 13.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in the games. Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon was named SEC Freshman of the Week after he scored a season-high 16 points in the Bulldogs 76-51 win over Tennessee-Martin.
  5. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know that the latest installment – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – opens on December 18. Several professional sports teams have held versions of “Star Wars nights,” allowing fans to dress up as their favorite characters. Florida has decided to get into the act, and Tuesday night’s home game against Richmond will be Star Wars night. There will be costume contests, among other activities, and given the popularity of the movie series, the promotion is a sure bet to draw some fans who normally would not darken the door of the O’Connell Center. Considering some of the problems Florida had with attendance over the years, despite an incredible amount of success, kudos to the Gators’ marketing department for coming up with – or at least copying – the idea.
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SEC Stock Watch: 02.27.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2015

Each week, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches are on the rise, which are holding steady, and which are on the decline. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Kentucky Running the Table. With each passing week, the chances that the 28-0 Wildcats make it to the Big Dance with an unblemished record get prospectively better. Kentucky will face two tough challenges in the next five days — hosting Arkansas and traveling to Georgia — but if they can handle those , they’ll certainly arrive in Nashville for the SEC Tournament without a loss and be prohibitive favorites to remain so.

    Willie Cauley-Stein and his Wildcats have a tough test against Arkansas Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports)

    Willie Cauley-Stein and his Wildcats have a tough test against Arkansas Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Georgia. After the Bulldogs inexplicably dropped a pair of home games against lowly Auburn and South Carolina, they bounced back with wins at Alabama and Ole Miss. Those two wins now put Mark Fox’s team at 10-5 in SEC play and in very good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid.
  • Six Teams to the Big Dance. Right now, it looks like the league is in good shape to receive six bids, as both bracketologists Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm have Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M into their fields. There is plenty of basketball left to play, however, and no team other than Kentucky and Arkansas should get too comfortable, but for the SEC to be in this position is a dramatic improvement from a year ago.
  • Arkansas as the League’s Second Best Team.There was some debate a few weeks ago about the second-best team in the SEC, but that is no longer the case. Arkansas is now an impressive 12-3 in SEC play heading into Saturday’s big-time tilt in Lexington. The Razorbacks have separated themselves from the rest of the pack and are now playing for postseason seeding.
  • Vanderbilt’s Future. The Commodores started SEC play 1-7 but have since righted the ship, winning five of seven games. Thursday’s come-from-behind win at Tennessee, in which they hit an astonishing 84 percent of their attempts in the second half, is a great example of the improvement of Kevin Stallings’ team. With two winnable home games left against Alabama and Mississippi State, Vanderbilt will astonishingly have a chance to finish .500 in SEC play with a win at Mississippi to close out the season, something that didn’t seem possible a few short weeks ago.

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SEC M5: 02.27.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Could the SEC really get six teams into the NCAA Tournament? According to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, it looks that way and it doesn’t appear to be all that close. Kentucky and Arkansas are locks and the bracket guru lists Georgia, Texas A&M and Ole Miss as single-digit seeds with LSU as a #10. Given all the flak that the league has received for being weak this season, getting nearly half of its teams into the field of 68 would be quite an accomplishment. Sure, there’s plenty of basketball left to play, and every team other than the Wildcats and Razorbacks would do well to win several more games to ensure their bids. But as each of these teams played tough non-conference schedules, they’ve earned their placements in field.
  2. As the season draws to a close, it is time to start analyzing who will walk away with the various season awards and  all-conference honors. All jokes aside about the number of players who get selected to SEC all-conference squads, it looks like Kentucky’s balanced success could prevent any of its very deserving players from winning the league’s Player of the Year award. Instead, according to Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com, that honor may end up in the hands of Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. The Razorbacks sit at 23-5 ahead of their huge tilt with undefeated Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday, and it is hard to argue that Portis is somehow undeserving. He is second in the SEC is scoring (17.6 PPG) and fourth in rebounding (8.5 RPG), but most importantly, his team has separated itself as the second-best group in the league in large part because of his leadership.
  3. Playing for a 28-0 basketball team in a state that loves the sport as much or more than any other may seem like it’s all fun and games. And while it mostly is, ESPN.com‘s Dana O’Neil took a look at what it is actually like to suit up for Kentucky. Anyone who follows the sport closely knows that there is no fan base more passionate than the Big Blue Nation, and when you sign up to play for the Wildcats — assuming you’re deemed worthy in the first place — you know that will come with hefty expectations. As O’Neil points out, playing for Kentucky is simply not for everyone, and living up to the lofty standards set by the school’s fans is often difficult. But as she also shows, John Calipari is able to sell players on coming to Lexington because they know it will prepare them for the rigors both on and off the court at the next level better than anywhere else. And in this day and age, that is what matters most.
  4. Florida went to the Elite Eight in each of the last four seasons and swept the SEC on its way to the Final Four a year ago. To say that the Gators have disappointed this season would be to drastically understate the case. Sure, Billy Donovan was right when he said that his team had no business being ranked in the top 10 to start the season. But no one could have foreseen the disaster that this season has become. The 13-15 Gators are currently a long shot to make the NIT, especially with a trip to Kentucky still in the offering. Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley, who has followed the program longer than just about anyone, analyzed what has led to the Gators’ many woes after Tuesday night’s loss to Missouri. Dooley points out that Donovan overscheduled for such an inexperienced group, lost guard Devon Walker before the season even started, and hasn’t been able to win many close games. And while all of the points Dooley raises are accurate, no one could have foreseen such a dropoff coming. We are sure that Donovan will get things turned around in Gainesville, but the precipitous fall of Florida basketball over the past 11 months is nothing short of astonishing.
  5. Billy Kennedy has done a nice job turning things around at Texas A&M one year ahead of schedule, and the Aggies have a monster recruiting class set to enter that includes three top-50 players and a fourth just outside of it. They also have a roster that should return almost everyone of consequence, meaning that expectations will be sky high in College Station next season. However, the current and future on-court success has not translated into success at the turnstiles. Despite playing really well in SEC play and remaining in strong contention for an NCAA Tournament bid, the Aggies are drawing an average of only 7,368 fans per game, down significantly from the Billy Gillispie/Mark Turgeon teams that routinely packed over 13,000 fans into Reed Arena. If A&M can make the Big Dance and return juniors Danuel House and Jalen Jones, the Aggies should enter next season in the Top 25 and the larger crowds should return.
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