The SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 27th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume IV, including games from January 19-25.

Team of the Week. Welcome to the party, Texas A&M. The Aggies are riding a four-game winning streak after beating Missouri (home) and Tennessee (road) last week. It’s their longest conference winning streak since joining the SEC, and the win over the resurgent Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena was a nice exclamation mark. Tennessee’s match-up zone had frustrated Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina, but the Aggies – which have generally struggled to score in the Billy Kennedy era – were able to shoot 48 percent from the field in the victory. That’s obviously a good sign. Texas A&M’s development potential is also something to keep an eye on. Five key rotation pieces are playing their first year in College Station: Jalen Jones (transfer), Danuel House (transfer), Alex Robinson (freshman), Peyton Allen (freshman) and Tony Trocha-Morelos (freshman). Alex Caruso is again leading the conference in assists per game (5.3) and assist rate (36.7%), and the Aggies’ offense should continue to improve as he gets more experience playing alongside primary scorers Jones and House.

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

Player of the Week. Quick, who is Georgia’s best player? If you didn’t say J.J. Frazier than you’re probably wrong, at least as far the previous week is concerned. The Bulldogs’ point guard gets the nod almost solely for what he did in staving off Mississippi State last Saturday. The sophomore scored 37 points, including a blistering seven-for-seven from three. He told the AP that it was the best game of his career, and it came at a big moment for surging Georgia. The Bulldogs got just 24 points combined from Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic. That kind of production, or lack thereof, from a team’s main horses almost always results in a loss. And a loss to Mississippi State would’ve been bad for Georgia’s tournament hopes. But Frazier didn’t let it happen, and he may be battling Armani Moore for the title of most improved player in the conference. He is second in the league in true shooting percentage (65.3%), and is taking care of the ball very well (1.4 turnover per game) despite seeing his role as primary ball handler drastically increased over what it was last season.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume III

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume III, including games from January 12-18.

Team of the week. It took three rounds of this column to get there, but the league Colossus finally gets the nod. Kentucky did in the second week of SEC play what so many predicted it would do in the first — thrash its opponents. The Wildcats beat Missouri by more points (49) than it allowed the Tigers to score (37), and, as Brian pointed out earlier this week, it was the best defensive (points per possession) performance in conference play in the Calipari era. The ‘Cats followed up that victory with an easy 22-point win against a good Alabama team. Its defense was again outstanding, but it was the Kentucky offense that caught my eye in Tuscaloosa. Just one week after a rough outing in College Station (28.1% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 25-of-35 FTs), the Wildcats were hyper-efficient in a slow-paced game (50% FG, 47% 3FG, 16-of-18 FTs). If that’s a sign of the Wildcats’ offense to come, it’s worth wondering whether this team may actually cut down the nets in early April sporting a goose egg in the loss column.

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Player of the Week. Let’s follow the crowd and hand it to Tennessee’s Armani Moore. The junior wing won the SEC’s Player of the Week award and it was well-deserved. He contributed solid scoring totals in last week’s wins over Arkansas (14) and Missouri (15), but more importantly scored crucial points late in both games. His two free throws sealed the Vols’ victory over Arkansas, and he broke a tie-game in Columbia with under four minutes to go with a contested layup. The 6’5″ Moore also helped an undersized Tennessee front line win the rebounding battle in both games. Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones, who played well in returning from an ankle injury, and Georgia’s Kenny Gaines, who guided the Bulldogs through a crucial undefeated week, also deserve mention.

Tournament Chatter. Can you say mediocrity? The league currently has seven teams sitting at 2-2, and the only 3-1 teams (Tennessee and Florida) appear to be well behind several of those in the NCAA Tournament pecking order. None of the fringe NCAA contenders have yet played their way out of the picture but we could be headed toward the league’s nightmare scenario. A team or two separating from the pack would lock in a few bids, but if the soft middle continues to beat up on each other without rhyme or reason, it risks damaging everyone’s profile. Still, 10 (10!) teams are worth mentioning and that’s not too bad.

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Freeze Frame: Florida’s Pick-and-Roll Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 20th, 2015

This edition of Freeze Frame could have easily gone several different ways. We could have looked at Florida’s season-high 19 turnovers against Georgia on Saturday; dissected Michael Frazier’s inability to create his own shot off the dribble; analyzed Billy Donovan’s lack of a go-to guy; or even criticized his Gators’ struggles to get to the free throw line. Those takeaways, while all relevant, did not represent Florida’s most glaring issue in the 12-point loss. Florida senior Jacob Kurtz said it best afterward: “Our pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t very good.” We went back and analyzed the Gators’ defense on Georgia’s screens, and Kurtz was right. It’s just that simple.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Georgia found a number of ways to exploit that defense, shooting 8-of-15 from beyond the arc, getting to the free throw line 29 times, and making Florida’s defenders appear completely lost for most of the game. But as you will see below, their best strategy was the complete variety in their screens. This Freeze Frame will slow down Mark Fox’s offense to determine exactly what they did to confuse the Gators.

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SEC M5: MLK Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 19th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. So many potential narratives started swirling around after Kentucky’s shaky outings against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Had the Wildcats become unfocused and vulnerable? Would they respond? Was the sky falling? At least for now, it seems the close calls indeed got the ‘Cats attention. “I think those struggles just reset our mind,” Willie Cauley-Stein told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Now we’re back to like, ‘OK, we’re trying to shut people out.’ We’re not just trying to play with them. We’re trying to demoralize them.” After allowing Ole Miss to score more points per possession than it had any team this season (1.09), Kentucky broke Missouri’s soul (0.58) and then stifled a good Alabama squad (0.83). Given Alabama’s length, athleticism and desperation for a marquee win, the game in Tuscaloosa may have been one of the tougher road assignments Kentucky will face this year. They passed it easily, and it seems the appropriate narrative is that the Wildcats’ slow start to conference play may have in fact been a positive thing.
  2. Kentucky isn’t the only team that took something away from its SEC opener against Ole Miss. The Rebels weren’t intimidated in Rupp against a seemingly invincible opponent, and they brought that same confidence to Fayetteville when they whacked Arkansas 96-82. If you combine their shooting stats from both games, the Rebels shot 53.1 percent on 32 three-point attempts. That is precisely the way to give yourself a chance against good teams in tough environments. The abundance of bravado has to be tied to Ole Miss’ veteran backcourt of Jarvis Summers, Stefan Moody and Snoop White. The trio has guided the Rebels to a 2-2 record against arguably the best the SEC has to offer: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Ole Miss may be able to make some hay as the schedule eases up, especially if it keeps lighting it up from deep.
  3. Is Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones the most important player in the SEC? Probably not, but the Aggies are 2-0 with him in SEC play and 0-2 without him. Billy Kennedy’s leading scorer returned from an ankle injury to score 16 points in a win over Mississippi State and then 18 points in Saturday’s win over LSU. The latter performance was all the more impressive since it came against the Tigers’ ultra-talented front line. Would a healthy Jones have given the Aggies the slight edge they would’ve needed to drop Kentucky? We will never know, but with how Texas A&M has struggled to score this season, it needs Jones to remain healthy if it has any chance of ending up on the tournament bubble.
  4. Auburn’s big recruits a year away. The team was coming off a 20 point loss. Kentucky wasn’t in town. And this is Auburn, after all. Nonetheless, Auburn Arena was rocking Saturday night during the Tigers’ quality win over South Carolina. This is the Bruce Pearl effect. We heard about the spike in season ticket sales during the offseason, and actually saw it come to life against the Gamecocks. Cinmeon Bowers – who is becoming a star in the SEC – ripped down an offensive rebound and converted a tough layup to extend the Tigers’ lead to three with under four minutes left and the arena exploded. Last year, a scene like that seemed a world away. But there is truly excitement around Auburn basketball, and with home wins over Missouri and Carolina, not to mention the emergence of Bowers as a double-double machine, there is tangible progress on the court too. Again, this is the Bruce Pearl effect, and the entire league is better for it.
  5. Florida’s 24-game conference win streak came to an end with an unusual sight. Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith were glued to bench for a large swath of the second half in the Gators’ loss to Georgia, and not because of foul trouble. “For me, it was just, let’s play (freshman) Devin Robinson, Chris Chiozza. Let’s get them some experience. Let’s let them play. These older guys aren’t playing at the level we need them to play at,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. Despite the loss, Florida’s 3-1 conference record does not have it in a helpless position so the benching was a somewhat bold move from Donovan. It might signal that this season has become as much about building for the future as it is contending in the present. And that’s not a bad thing, because except for senior Jon Horford, this same Florida team will likely take the floor together next year.
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SEC M5: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowers was one of the most sought-after junior college players in the country last year and he has proved to be quite a find for Bruce Pearl. He is currently the team’s third-leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and the league’s leading rebounder (11.3 RPG) despite standing only 6’7″. But given what Bowers went through while in high school in Milwaukee, it’s no surprise that the 278-pound forward is one of the league’s toughest players. As chronicled by Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com, Bowers was shot five times during a car robbery attempt four year ago. Given that experience, the often free-spirited Bowers can handle any criticism leveled by Pearl, who is impressed with how the junior has shaken a rocky start to notch nine double-doubles and become one of the Tigers’ most productive players. Given where Auburn is in its program development arc, Pearl has to be thankful Bowers decided to follow him to the school.
  2. Per NCAA rules, teams are allowed to take overseas trips in the offseason every four years, and Kentucky took advantage of its opportunity to do so last summer. The Wildcats traveled to the Bahamas and the timing could not have been more perfect. The trip south gave John Calipari the opportunity to work his talented freshmen with a returning group that played for the national championship a few months earlier. Given the Wildcats’ currently undefeated and mostly-dominant start, the trip appears to have been a resounding success. But that success came at quite a cost. As Adam Himmelsbach of The Courier-Journal points out, the astounding $792,845.68 price tag was nearly $640,000 more than North Carolina spent on its own trip to the Bahamas last summer, and it was 21 times more costly than a similar trip taken by Portland State. Much of that cost related to bringing along teams that could challenge the Wildcats, but while the large figure may cause some unease for Kentucky fans, it’s likely that most of Big Blue Nation will see it as money well spent if the Wildcats win another national championship.
  3. Speaking of large sums of money, it was revealed earlier this week that retiring SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who is currently fighting prostate cancer and will leave his post at the end of July, earned $2.1 million in compensation for the 2013-14 school year, a 69% increase from the prior year. Slive, who is not the highest-paid conference commissioner (he trails the Pac-12’s Larry Scott and the ACC’s John Swofford), clearly has done great things for the league in his tenure, not the least of which is the enormous CBS contract and the establishment of the SEC Network, which launched last August. The vast majority of that success has to do with the conference’s unprecedented dominance in football, but as we have indicated here in the past, if there is one hole in Slive’s legacy, it’s that the conference’s collective performance on the hardwood has been mostly lackluster.
  4. While the overall performance of the SEC has been subpar in basketball during much of Slive’s tenure, there clearly are two programs that have consistently performed at a very high level: Kentucky and FloridaCBSSports.com‘s Matt Norlander set out to find which programs have performed the best when football and basketball are combined, and although newly-crowned national champion Ohio State appeared to be the obvious choice, Norlander found that Florida has actually performed the best. He reviewed eight categories in both sports and found that only the Gators qualified in all of them. Given three football national championships and Billy Donovan’s two basketball titles and four Final Four appearances, it should be no surprise that Florida has had more success than any other program in both major sports over the past two decades.
  5. When Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com issued his latest bracketology column earlier this week, it wasn’t all that surprising that he had five SEC schools included even though most are currently projecting four in the field. What was really surprising, though, was that he chose Tennessee as one of the five teams. Palm listed the Volunteers as a #9 seed, despite an RPI (#53) that ranks outside the top 50. What is even more surprising is that he released his field prior to Tennessee’s upset win over Arkansas Tuesday night. Of course, such things mean very little only three games into the conference season, and Donnie Tyndall all but said to ignore any such projections. Still, the fact that Tyndall could have a team with as many newcomers and limitations as this one in the conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid is a testament to the job he has done in his first half-season in Knoxville. For Volunteers fans anxiously awaiting the results of the inquiry into Tyndall’s actions while he coached at Southern Miss, they just hope he’s around for a while to build on what he has done.
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SEC M5: 01.14.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. One of the league’s hottest players since entering SEC play has to be Kentucky’s Devin Booker, who scored 13 points against Ole Miss, 18 points against Texas A&M and seven last night against Missouri. During the three-game run he was 8-of-11 from distance, and it is his outside shooting that makes Booker such a dangerous weapon for the Wildcats — perhaps the best long-range threat since Doron Lamb rained triples for the 2012 championship team. He won’t shoot at such a blistering rate all season long (currently 50.8%), but if he continues to produce it’ll be hard for John Calipari to keep him off the court in close games. Despite their exceptional defensive talent, the Wildcats don’t have all that many players who can create their own shot; therefore, the offensive threat that Booker poses will make it easier for guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson to find room inside to operate.
  2. It appears Ole Miss did indeed take something away from its near-win at Rupp Arena last Tuesday. “If we can do that against Kentucky, we can do that against anybody else,” forward Sebastian Saiz told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. The Rebels followed it up with a solid win over the weekend against South Carolina, and have two big opportunities ahead against LSU and Arkansas. If Ole Miss can win both games — no easy task considering that the Razorbacks game is in Fayetteville — the NCAA Tournament bubble could start to come into view. What could set the Rebels apart is that they can actually put the ball in the basket (24th in adjusted offensive efficiency) in a league where many teams struggle to score. Jarvis Summers and Stefan Moody were both a bit inconsistent to begin the year, but when the two guards are both hitting shots at the same time, the Rebels can be a handful.
  3. Florida’s ultimate potential is tied in large part to Kasey Hill’s development. The sophomore has struggled shooting the ball this year, making just 20 percent of his two point jump shots and 25 percent of his three point shots. Billy Donovan thinks that while Hill will likely never be a lights out shooter, there is room for growth. Hill is one of the quicker guards in the SEC, but his inability to keep defenses honest has likely had an effect on Florida’s ability to take advantage of Chris Walker’s athleticism at the rim. Walker has not shown he can create offense on his own and would be benefitted greatly from Hill breaking down the defense and creating seams. But the more defenses can sag off Hill, the less he’ll be able to create opportunities for others. Nonetheless, Hill is an ultra-talented player and a slight improvement would go a long way for Florida.
  4. A rash of injuries has followed a tough opening week for Georgia, which could now be down three rotation players. The scariest situation happened to freshman Yante Maten (18.2 MPG), who suffered a concussion after being hit by a car outside of Stegeman Coliseum. Kenny Paul Geno (9.8 MPG) broke his wrist against Arkansas, and an Achilles injury could keep Juwan Parker (23.9 MPG) out of tonight’s game against Vanderbilt. Mark Fox has been essentially using a seven-man rotation with Parker and Maten getting the most minutes of all the reserves. Even if Parker can suit up, the Bulldogs may need Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic to play close to 40 minutes in a critical game. Fox has to hope Cameron Forte can provide some cover. The junior forward was pressed into 24 minutes of action against LSU after never seeing more than six minutes in a game prior to that, and held up well with 10 points and six rebounds.
  5. Another reserve big man that saw his minutes explode in the LSU-Georgia game was Darcy Malone, who played 16 minutes after having only seen 20 minutes total before the game. This was the latest in Johnny Jones’ season-long quest to find depth, especially in the front court. The big man group of Malone, Brian Bridgewater, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps and John Odo has combined for just 6.3 rebounds per game. With that kind of production, or lack of production, you can’t blame Jones for rolling the dice. Luckily for the Tigers it appears that freshman guard Jalyn Patterson has emerged as a solid backcourt contributor. In fact, Jones trusts Patterson so much that he had him in over Josh Gray, who was having an erratic game taking care of the ball, late in the Tigers’ loss to Missouri last week.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 13th, 2015

For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume II, including games from January 5-11.

Team of the Week. There were three strong contenders for this award this week, but Arkansas gets the nod on the strength of a 2-0 record that included wins over KenPom top 55 teams Georgia and Vanderbilt. By beating Georgia in Athens, the Razorbacks achieved something that has been a rarity under Mike Anderson: beating a quality team on the road. And it wasn’t easy. Arkansas had to overcome an 11-point deficit against a confident Bulldogs team that was riding a six-game winning streak of its own, but the Razorbacks cut into the lead by imposing their frenetic style on Georgia and forcing 17 turnovers. They had been similarly disruptive in their other road win this season, at SMU (19 TOs), but not as much in losses to Iowa State (11 TOs) and Clemson (14 TOs). We know that Anderson’s press is highly effective in Bud Walton Arena, but whether it works when the Razorbacks are on the road will be something to watch as the season unfolds. Honorable mention this week goes to Florida, which earned a hard-fought win against South Carolina before pummelling Mississippi State.

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Player of the Week. Bobby Portis had his way with the Commodores’ front line on Saturday, scoring 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting and dunking on every other possession (or so it seemed). He might be the most offensively skilled big man in the SEC this season, and his athleticism provides a great asset guarding the in-bounder as the first wave in the Arkansas press. In the Hawg’s win over Georgia, Portis contributed 21 points and even hit a three-pointer during the game. He’s been exceptionally effective from deep, making 9-of-15 three-point attempts on the season, but the fact he’s attempted so few shows that he hasn’t gotten carried away in trying to show NBA scouts that he has range. Where he’s lethal is in using his athleticism around the rim and making himself available on cuts through the lane. If he keeps living in that sweet spot, the Razorbacks will remain very difficult to defend. Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith also deserves some love this week as he combined for 36 points and 13 rebounds in wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. Despite playing with an injured non-shooting hand, the senior is shooting very well from three (39%) and grabbing defensive rebounds at a ridiculous rate (22.3%) over the first two conference games. The Gators couldn’t afford to miss a beat from him and they haven’t.

Tournament Chatter. Let’s not dress this week up because it was not a kind week for the SEC’s hopes to get more than two teams into the NCAA Tournament. I thoroughly believe that the overall depth of the conference is better than last year, but if Selection Sunday were held today you might be looking at a two-bid league. Kentucky and Arkansas seem safe, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.

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AAC Bests and Worsts: 01.13.15 Edition

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 13th, 2015

It was an up-and-down week for the AAC as conference play is well under way and the top six teams in the conference have started beating up on each other. There weren’t a ton of conference gamesl week, but there were more than enough to make some quick-trigger observations. After a rough start to the season, Tulsa remains the only unbeaten team in conference play, but the Golden Hurricane needed to rally from a double-digit deficit just to beat a Temple club without arguably its best player. Memphis continues to spiral out of NCAA Tournament contention while heavyweights like Connecticut and SMU are getting comfortable and playing up to their potential. Let’s take a look at the bests and worsts from last week.

If Omar Calhoun Can Become A Consistent Offensive Threat, UConn Is All The More Dangerous (Photo/USA TODAY)

If Omar Calhoun Can Become A Consistent Offensive Threat, UConn Is All The More Dangerous (Photo/USA TODAY)

Best Way to Step Up When Your Team Needed It Most: Connecticut has been a tough team to figure out this season. The Huskies are still playing championship-level defense but their offense has suffered a steep decline in large part because Kevin Ollie no longer has the three-point shooting of Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey. The Huskies started conference play with a discouraging home loss to Temple and thus absolutely needed to beat Cincinnati when the Bearcats visited Storrs on Saturday. Luckily, Ryan Boatright knew the stakes were higb and put the team on his back. The senior went for 18 points, eight assists, four rebounds, and three steals as the Huskies rallied from a halftime deficit for a much-needed win. Sophomore Terrence Samuel deserves credit as well for handling UConn’s point guard duties, allowing Boatright to move off the ball where he was clearly more comfortable and focused. The senior was the best player on the floor by a pretty wide margin and he is the primary reason why we aren’t talking about how UConn is collapsing just one season after a national championship.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

With the SEC’s 18-game conference schedule tipping off this week, it’s time to introduce our new The SEC Week That Was column. For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. We’ll start with Volume I, including games from December 29 to January 4.

Team of the Week. Could it go to any other team but South Carolina? The Gamecocks continued their trend of blowing out bad teams by beating North Carolina A&T by 37 points, and then picked up the league’s best non-Kentucky win by beating Iowa State on Saturday in Brooklyn. KenPom has liked Carolina’s defense all season, as the Gamecocks currently have the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball. It was on full display at the Barclays Center as Frank Martin’s team forced the high-powered Cyclones’ offense into 35.1 percent shooting from the floor and 0.79 points per possession, far and away its worst offensive showing of the year. Carolina also got excellent production from its backcourt, as Ty Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice scored at least 13 points apiece. Scrappy defense and solid guard play were the hallmarks of Frank Martin’s best teams at Kansas State, and it seems like his Gamecocks are rounding into that form. I think you can safely put South Carolina on the early NCAA Tournament bubble.

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. Jarell Martin, LSU. The Tigers’ sophomore enters league play as the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, and did nothing but pad that figure last week with strong stat lines in wins over Southern Miss (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Savannah State (26 points, eight rebounds, three assists). DraftExpress ranks Martin as the 42nd-best prospect in this summer’s NBA Draft, so you have to wonder if he will stick around another year. If he does, he’ll join five-star recruits Ben Simmons and the recently-committed Antonio Blakeney on an ultra-talented LSU roster. Honorable mention goes to Missouri’s Jonathan Williams, who starred in a loss to Oklahoma State (22 points, nine rebounds) and a win over Lipscomb (16 points, 10 rebounds). The sophomore forward has been more aggressive on the offensive end and seems to have realized that he needs to command the basketball for the Tigers to play well.

Tournament Chatter. Who made the biggest strides towards an NCAA Tournament invitation this past week?

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AAC Non-Conference Report Cards: Part I

Posted by Mike Lemaire on January 2nd, 2015

Conference play in the AAC began this week, which means it’s time for us to a look back at a non-conference portion of the schedule that — based on the results — nearly every team in the conference would prefer not to look back upon. The conference has just two wins over ranked opponents, zero teams ranked in the Top 25, and a KenPom rating that has it battling the West Coast Conference and the Missouri Valley Conference just to stay among the top 10. There were some bright spots and some teams may look back on the non-conference portion of their schedule favorably, but most of these schools will not be taking these grades home to post on the refrigerator. It is worth noting that the grades for teams like UConn, Cincinnati, and Memphis are incomplete because all three programs still have massive non-conference games to play in January. Those games considered in the observations. Part 2 will come a bit later over the weekend.

UConn's Ryan Boatright Will Be A Key Player To Watch In Tonight's Contest

Ryan Boatright And The Huskies Have Plenty of Work Left To Do Out Of Conference

Central Florida: D+ 

The Golden Knights were actually done with the non-conference part of their schedule since December 22nd, so they have had a lot of time to think of lies to tell their parents when they take home this report card. The team’s best win was a five-point home win against a Detroit team battling to stay at .500 and before that win the team lost three straight games, including a blowout loss to Florida State and an embarrassing loss to a bad University of Illinois-Chicago team. The only reason this team avoids the F and earned a plus is because coach Donnie Jones may have the two best freshmen in the conference in B.J. Taylor and Adonys Henriquez. Unfortunately, they may not be enough to save Jones’ job when UCF inevitably misses the NCAA Tournament again.

Cincinnati: C 

The Bearcats are the proud owners of one of the conference’s only two wins over ranked opponents thanks to its 71-62 overtime win over San Diego State at home but the rest of their resume is rather blah. Even if you are willing to overlook the home curb-stomping they received from VCU because it was the first game the team had played without coach Mick Cronin (which is a totally viable reason in my book), the team doesn’t have any other quality wins. And while none of their losses are bad per se, most Bearcats’ fans would have liked to see the team beat either Mississippi or Nebraska, especially considering both teams may be on the bubble with the Bearcats in February. They can still give their grade a bump into the B- territory by beating Xavier in February, and they may need to if they want to be on the right side of the bubble.

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Non-Conference Scheduling: How Does the ACC Stack Up?

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 2nd, 2015

While watching a Virginia Tech football game this year — or at least as much of it as I could stomach — I was reminded of head coach Frank Beamer’s reputation as a special teams guru. As the Hokies’ head coach back in the 1990s, Beamer’s approach to emphasizing special teams play was quite effective — he coached the kicking units himself and used his best athletes to cover, return and block kicks. After a few years of using this innovation, the media caught on and his teams’ reputation as great on special teams was established. About five to seven years ago, however, and despite announcers’ best efforts to remind us, it became apparent that Virginia Tech no longer had that same advantage. Crossing over to basketball this winter, any time Michigan State plays a November or December game, an announcer will inevitably say something like, “Tom Izzo ALWAYS plays a brutal non-conference schedule.” But is it actually true? As the Beamer example shows, once a public narrative is established, it’s very difficult to break.

Recently we looked at the ACC’s non-conference schedules and declared North Carolina the clear winner of the ACC’s competition for the toughest slate this season. Today we will examine how the Tar Heels and the other traditional ACC powers stack up in non-conference scheduling when compared with several of the other national programs. For this analysis we chose the 15 winningest college basketball programs of the last 10 years from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and Big East. The underlying assumption is that top programs from each of these conferences should be fairly comparable in terms of scheduling opportunities to play whichever teams they want, including various made-for-TV contests and routine invitations to the major early-season tournaments. Teams like Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference were removed from the data set because their non-conference scheduling agendas are far different than those of the power conference schools. The full table, including five ACC schools — Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh — is below.

NonConf 10YrsWe ranked schools based on the average ranking between two metrics — KenPom strength of schedule (SOS) and Top 25 opponents. For overall SOS, we averaged the last 10 years using Pomeroy’s end-of-season non-conference schedule strength rating (which does not include postseason or non-Division I opponents). We also counted the number of Top 25 opponents (using KenPom’s final season ratings) each school played in the 10-year span, showing it as a per-year average. As you can see above, both Duke and North Carolina perform very well in both metrics, while recent ACC additions Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh struggle. Among non-ACC schools, Kentucky, Arizona and Kansas are clearly the other national programs willing to play the best non-conference opponents on an annual basis, and surprisingly, Michigan State ranks more in the middle of the pack despite what we are led to believe from most media members. How do things look when we feature the same ratings categories over the last five years instead?

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SEC M5: Christmas Eve Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 24th, 2014

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  1. Kentucky’s clash with Louisville this Saturday might be the most anticipated game until the NCAA Tournament, and according to ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, it also might be the last realistic chance for the Wildcats to lose a game before the Big Dance. Kansas, North Carolina, Texas and even UCLA (before the game, of course) looked like potential challenges, and Kentucky easily got by them all, so Greenberg has a point here. Nonetheless, I’m betting against the undefeated season. As great as it has been, this Kentucky team has not been immune to slow starts, as exhibited in the Boston University and Columbia games. And although it’s a cliche, the Wildcats will almost certainly get everyone’s best effort in the SEC — a slow start in Tuscaloosa or Athens or Columbia could prove fatal. But the fact that we are using a magnifying glass to find one potential loss among 18 chances tells you just how well the Wildcats have played this season.
  2. Slowly but surely, Florida is working its way back towards national relevance this season. The Gators beat Wake Forest over the weekend, and while that isn’t particularly noteworthy, their roster seems to finally be taking shape. Alex Murphy made his Florida debut with an impactful nine points, four rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes. “I thought he played great,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. “The best part about coaching him is he has got a really good feel and he can play multiple, different positions.” Versatility in the frontcourt might turn out to be one of the Gators’ calling cards this year. Murphy joins Dorian Finney-Smith and Devin Robinson as athletic, mobile bigs who can play on the perimeter. Depth down low is also something Donovan has to work with as Jacob Kurtz (4.5 points per game; 4.9 rebounds per game) played well while being forced into action, and Jon Horford and Chris Walker have seen significant minutes this year.
  3. Johnny Jones is being careful with his LSU Tigers, and it may pay off in the long run. Josh Gray’s injured ankle kept him out of the team’s recent win over College of Charleston, but according to Jones, he could have played if it had been a conference game. Jarell Martin was also held out of the starting lineup and played eight minutes under his season average (34.0) because he missed part of Monday’s practice due to a minor car wreck. Amid all of this, Jones used the opportunity to give minutes to several players who have sparsely played this season, such as Jalyn Patterson, Elbert Robinson and Aaron Epps. Patterson played eight minutes over his average, and Robinson played 14 minutes after not appearing in the team’s previous two games. LSU desperately needs more quality depth, and it’s nice for Jones that he can work players into the rotation while still winning games comfortably.
  4. Georgia is forging its way down a novel path. Instead of letting disappointing early losses to Georgia Tech and Minnesota compound themselves in a negative way, the Bulldogs have ripped off consecutive wins against Colorado and Seton Hall in the last week. In fact, the win against the Pirates is arguably the best non-Kentucky win of any SEC team thus far. If nothing else, it’s up there with LSU’s win at West Virginia, Arkansas’ win at SMU and Tennessee’s win over Butler. The Bulldogs look viable going forward and are more than a two-man show that depends entirely on Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines. Marcus Thornton has been a low post scoring threat (14.7 points per game), and J.J. Frazier has gone from little-used freshman to a dependable lead guard (8.7 points per game; 3.4 assists per game; 4.2 rebounds per game). Frazier has also been a consistent threat from three-point range (41.4%) which was a question mark for Georgia heading into the season.
  5. Several of SB Nation’s SEC basketball writers got together for a roundtable on the state of the league. One of the questions they discussed was which team has surprised the most, and answers included Vanderbilt (good), LSU (good) and Missouri (bad). You can’t disagree with any of those three, and two weeks ago I would’ve personally submitted Auburn as a surprise on the negative end of the spectrum. The Tigers were never going to compete for an NCAA Tournament spot this year, but with their experience (KT Harrell, Antoine Mason) and Bruce Pearl on the sidelines, losses to Clemson and Coastal Carolina were unexpected. Better late than never, but the Tigers turned it around in a big way with a double-overtime win over Xavier last weekend, showing the type of team it can become. Part of what has helped is the emergence of Trayvon Reed, who in his just his fourth college game helped cover the Tigers’ hole in the post with five rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes. Auburn did, however, nearly undo that good will with a loss to a two-win Texas Southern team last night, but Pearl’s team was able to survive that one by the slimmest of margins.
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