Is It Time to Worry About South Carolina?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 4th, 2016

In a cramped spare room somewhere in Stegeman Coliseum, Frank Martin was asked about whether a loss to Georgia concerned him. “We’re 22 games into this. Who we are as a team has already been formed.” So, 22 games in, who are the Gamecocks? If you’re playing word association for this season, you might think “South Carolina, success.” That wouldn’t be wrong. The Gamecocks had an undefeated non-conference season, are in the SEC race, have been in and out of the polls and are easily Martin’s best team at South Carolina. But even at 19-3, there are reasons to be concerned about the Gamecocks going forward. 

Are the Gamecocks in trouble despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

Are Frank Martin’s Gamecocks in trouble, despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

In isolation, Tuesday night’s loss in Athens is not that big of a deal. The Bulldogs were desperate for a good win and the Gamecocks presented a rare opportunity to get that. Yet South Carolina was beginning a brutal four-game stretch – at least for SEC standards – against Georgia, Texas A&M (road), LSU (home) and Kentucky (home). With no marquee non-conference wins and an uneven 1-2 road SEC record going into the game, the Gamecocks were out to prove their lofty record had some substance behind it. The loss to the Bulldogs didn’t get this crucial stretch started on a good note, and also raised concerns about how the South Carolina offense will hold up against better defenses.

The Gamecock defense, like that of many Martin-coached teams, has been predictably excellent (KenPom #27). South Carolina’s offense has lagged behind, however – particularly against the better defenses it has played. The chart below shows that the Gamecocks worst shooting nights have come against some of the better defenses that they’ve faced. This may not be a groundbreaking discovery; after all, most teams don’t as well against good defenses because those defenses are, well, good. But the concern is that South Carolina hasn’t been able to do enough against the better defenses it has faced to take advantage of its great defense. That’s what makes its admittedly lackluster offensive effort against the Bulldogs puzzling. The plan against Georgia was simple: attack the middle of the Bulldogs’ zone and make Yante Maten defend the ball handler to try to get him in foul trouble. Somehow though, the Gamecocks generated their third fewest free throw attempts of the year (19) and struggled mightily to score from anywhere in the first half. “We came out lazy and chillin’, and it got us beat,” Sindarius Thornwell told The State after the game. A similar effort in College Station on Saturday against an elite, long Texas A&M that forces plenty of mistakes will not get the Gamecocks the statement win they may desperately need.

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 10.34.52 PM

South Carolina’s offense depends heavily on getting to the line (third highest point distribution from free throws in the NCAA) and creating offense off of turnovers. Whether or not this formula is sustainable is a debatable point, but it goes without saying that the Gamecocks need to be constantly looking to drive off screens and create contact near the basket, especially against better competition. Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas have been less effective offensively in conference play, and Chris Silva hasn’t shown much on offense yet. One solution could be going to more three-guard lineups that feature some combination of Thornwell, P.J. DozierDuane Notice and Marcus Stroman. This could also require more minutes from freshman guard Jamall Gregory, who Martin has not shown much confidence in yet. The downside of getting more shooting and slashing on the court is that it takes away the Gamecocks’ size, which has been such an asset to them this season (ninth best offensive rebounding rate in the country).

Being able to find this balance is going to be crucial for Martin. Between its great defense and experienced core, South Carolina has a lot going for it. Conventional wisdom says a team that has reached 19-3 at this point in the season in a power conference is a lock for the NCAA tournament, but what if the Gamecocks drop the next three games? They don’t have any great non-conference wins to fall back on and have the weakest in-league strength of schedule in the SEC to this point. Legitimate questions could be asked about whether they are truly worthy of a bid. To this point, this season has been a validation tour for the ground level rebuild Martin had to put together in Columbia. It would be a shame for him, the program and seniors that have been there from the start – like Michael Carrera, Chatkevicius and Kacinas, if the season didn’t end with a trip to the tournament.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 12th, 2016

The SEC began last week with the long-awaited Ben Simmons against Kentucky showcase and ended with the annual reappearance of John Calipari to the Nets rumors. Here’s what happened in between.

Team of the Week

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

Sign Andy Kennedy up for a few more weeks like that. The Rebels had loud, capacity crowds for their first two games in the Pavilion and the players on the floor didn’t disappoint. Ole Miss first overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to down Alabama, and then erased Georgia’s four-point lead with less than a minute to eke by the Bulldogs. As usual, Stefan Moody played a starring role in both wins, including a whirlwind game-winning layup against Georgia. The contributions of Sebastian Saiz shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he continued to be an active force in the paint with a pair of double-doubles. The Ole Miss program has some serious energy surrounding it right now.

Player of the Week

You could hand this to a number of guys — Moody, Saiz and (as always) Simmons come to mind. But this week’s honor goes to Anthlon Bell whose torrid three-point shooting and 51 points over two games led Arkansas to home wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Bell spent his first three seasons in Fayetteville as a solid but unspectacular option that Mike Anderson utilized in short bursts. With increased playing time during his senior season, he’s exploded in production. Bell leads the SEC in three-point percentage (47.1%) despite taking the third most three-point shots (104) in the conference.

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Don’t Look Now But The Gamecocks Are Rolling

Posted by Andrew Gripshover on December 28th, 2015

It sounded like he was chewing on some kind of hard candy as he ripped his team apart. You might remember the press conference if you read or heard the words. One line stood out: “I’ve been doing this for 28 years — nine of which was a junior varsity high school coach. That means I dealt with 14-year olds. I’ve never been more embarrassed to call myself a basketball coach than I am today.” That was South Carolina coach Frank Martin on Valentine’s Day in 2013 after a humiliating 64-46 home loss to LSU, a fifth consecutive defeat that dropped his first team of Gamecocks to .500 overall (12-12) and an embarrassing 2-9 in the SEC. Fast forward almost three years to today, and you might find a kinder, happier Martin. At least a little bit. South Carolina is one of five unbeatens left in Division 1 college basketball, as they head into the final week of 2015 at 11-0 after a 75-61 pre-Christmas win over St. John’s in Uncasville, CT. So how did we get from there to here in just two and a half years? And can these Gamecocks survive the rigors of conference play?

Frank Martin is extremely hard on his players, but for good reason. South Carolina, a program that was not in good shape when Martin took over, is currently one of only a handful of unbeaten teams left in college basketball. (Getty)

Frank Martin has things humming in Columbia. (Photo: Getty)

South Carolina finished Martin’s first season 14-18 and 4-14 in the SEC. It was almost exactly the same the second season; the 2013-2014 Gamecocks won the exact same number of games overall (14) and just one more in SEC play (five). But last season, while the SEC win total again only went up by one, South Carolina finished 17-16; its first record over .500 since 2009 and only its second in nine years. Last year’s team also finally won games against quality opposition, beating Oklahoma State and Iowa State in the non-conference and sweeping Georgia (an NCAA Tournament team) in league play. This year’s team should be 12-0 (D-3 Francis Marion is the Gamecocks’ only remaining 2015 opponent) when Memphis comes to town on Jan. 2. Back in that angry 2013 press conference, Martin most notably called out his team’s effort and toughness. He said they weren’t working hard enough to make shots (that 2013-2014 team finished 248th in 3-point percentage and 244th in 2-point percentage) and even compared everyone except Bruce Ellington to zombies. In short, he was extremely frustrated that they weren’t playing like a Frank Martin basketball team.

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.04.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 4th, 2015

Now that the season is in full swing, it’s time for us to take a look at the coaches, teams, and players that we should be bullish on, and those we should look to unload as fast as we can.

BuyKentucky Being Beatable. The Wildcats’ big win over Duke last month had some people thinking that Kentucky could make another long undefeated run to start the season. Thanks to UCLA last night in Pauley Pavilion, any 40-0 talk is already over. The Bruins’ handling of John Calipari’s squad should give the rest of the SEC some hope this season. After watching the Wildcats cruise through the conference schedule last year, it is clear that this year’s version will not be quite as dominant. That has to be encouraging to the rest of a league that has grown tired of being beaten down by Big Blue.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky are the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC (Mark Zerof, USA Today Sports)

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky are still the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC (Mark Zerof, USA Today Sports)

SellAnyone Besides Kentucky Winning the SEC. While Kentucky’s loss will encourage the rest of the league, no one should be delusional enough to think the Wildcats are anything but the prohibitive favorite to win the regular season title. It is likely that they lose a game here or there, but Kentucky is still without question the team to beat. Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have shown that they are ready to win a lot of games in league play as well, but when everything is said and done, it’s still all too likely that the Wildcats will take home another SEC championship.

Buy: Vanderbilt. These Commodores have a chance to advance as far as any Vanderbilt team has since the 2007 squad that went to the Sweet Sixteen. Kevin Stallings seems to truly enjoy coaching this group, and the talent may fit his coaching style better than it did with the Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins group. With two solid NBA prospects in forward Damian Jones and guard Wade Baldwin, the Commodores should be athletic enough to compete with most teams. Assuming their defense continues to improve, anything short of a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament will be considered a disappointment in Nashville.

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Lithuanian Duo Fueling South Carolina’s Hot Start

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 27th, 2015

A dark horse is emerging in the SEC, as South Carolina knocked of Tulsa to win the Paradise Jam and cap off its first 5-0 start since 2003-04. Two of the main reasons for the great start have been a pair of senior forwards from basketball-crazed Lithuania — Laimons Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas. One of the storylines coming into the season was whether the Gamecocks’ senior-laden frontcourt could support its rotation of dynamic, big-bodied guards. Early on, the bigs have done far more than just support.

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina's Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina’s Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Chatkevicius has been an offensive force, scoring 17 points a piece against Hofstra and Tulsa, and dropping 27 in a home win over Oral Roberts. The 6’11” center struggled to stay on the court for long stretches in his first two years, but showed improvement sustaining minutes last season (22.8 MPG). He is never going to be a 30-plus minute per night player given his giant frame, but he appears to be at a point this season — in terms of conditioning and avoiding foul trouble — that Frank Martin can rely heavily on him. He’s got an efficient back-to-the-basket game (seen in the video below) and range out to the three-point line, making him the type of player that can help the Gamecocks withstand cold nights from the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Burning Questions: How To Earn Respect

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 4th, 2015

The SEC got an early start in its annual quest to shed its label as an underachieving basketball conference. By swapping out Anthony Grant, Rick Ray and Donnie Tyndall for Avery Johnson, Ben Howland and Rick Barnes, the league upgraded in coaching talent and brand name recognition. Losing Florida’s Billy Donovan to the NBA was counterproductive to that pursuit, but by and large, the SEC was the clear springtime winner when the coaching carousel came to a halt. Now the focus shifts to what happens on the court — resumes don’t much matter if you’re not winning games. Here are several ways how the SEC can sustain the momentum to improve its national standing this upcoming season.

Can Bruce Pearl help raise the SEC's national profile? (athlonsports.com)

Can Bruce Pearl help raise the SEC’s national profile? (athlonsports.com)

  • More and higher seeds: Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: The best way for the SEC to get more national respect is to put more teams in the NCAA Tournament. Last year’s five teams invited on Selection Sunday counts as solid improvement on this front. This year you could make an early, sight-unseen case that six or even seven SEC teams could be in position to make the field by March. That volume would be great, but even if the number of teams ends up as fewer than six, it would be good to see a few higher seeds. Last year, the league’s seeds other than Kentucky came in at #5, #9, #10 and #11. There was no other SEC team that was consistently in the Top 25 last season.

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Freeze Frame: How South Carolina Broke Georgia’s Zone

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 3rd, 2015

The Gamecocks entered Saturday having dropped six of their last seven games, including the last four. Georgia came in on the opposite end of the spectrum, riding into Columbia on a five-game winning streak and feeling good about its NCAA Tournament chances. So it stands to reason that South Carolina’s defense (11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency) completely shut down the surging Bulldogs, holding Georgia to 22 percent shooting for the game. After an early 13-9 deficit, Georgia turned to a 2/3 zone with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. Frank Martin’s squad lacks a legitimate outside shooting threat, but he used screens and quick ball movement around the zone to propel his offense to its most efficient output (1.04 points per possession) since January 13 (a win over Alabama). In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review how South Carolina was able to break down the Bulldogs’ zone and notch an important conference win.

Frank Martin picked up a big win over Georgia with an efficient zone offense.  (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up a big win over Georgia with an efficient zone offense. (rantsports.com).

The first play we will examine came with 9:42 left in the first half. Georgia had recently switched to the 2/3 zone and the Gamecocks used screens on the perimeter to free up their shooters off the dribble. In this play, South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell works the ball into the middle of the zone where Michael Carrera has set up shop.

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Three Takeaways from Kentucky vs. South Carolina

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 25th, 2015

When you take in a live game, sometimes you can sense that the home team thinks it can win. Everything about the aura in Colonial Life Arena on Saturday told me the Gamecocks felt they had a chance to beat the top-ranked Wildcats. The crowd was into it; the team gave 100 percent effort; and after a three-pointer from Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina led by one with just 4:31 left in the first half. That was where it all ended, though. A big-time victory wasn’t meant to be for a Gamecocks squad that looked much improved from their last couple of times out, but there were several key takeaways that we will see play out through March for Kentucky and the rest of the SEC.

Frank Martin was proud of his team's effort on Saturday against the number one team in the country (Bruce Thorson/US Presswire).

Frank Martin was proud of his team’s effort on Saturday against the number one team in the country (Bruce Thorson/US Presswire).

  1. “Stop saying the SEC isn’t any good” –  South Carolina coach Frank Martin was emphatic in making sure the assembled media knew his stance on the legitimacy of the conference. As he was answering another question, he couldn’t let the moment pass: “By the way, stop saying the SEC isn’t any good,” he said to the room. He has a point. At the time of this writing, the SEC has eight teams ranked among the top 60 of the RPI. Kentucky (#1), Arkansas (#24), Georgia (#26) Texas A&M (#32), LSU (#44), Alabama (#52), Tennessee (#54), and Ole Miss (#59) all are in position for consideration for an NCAA Tournament bid. Additionally, according to Ken Pomeroy, the SEC is the fourth-best conference in the country, behind only the Big 12, Big East and ACC. The SEC has proven its worth this season, and Selection Sunday should assist in shedding the unfair label that the league is just Kentucky and everybody else. Read the rest of this entry »
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RTC Rewind: Virginia Survives, Others Not So Lucky…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 5th, 2015

Last Tuesday, in the first Weekly Primer of conference play this season, I wrote the following: “The beginning of conference play is important, not just because attention ratchets up and the momentous games come in droves, but because these first few weeks are full of realizations. This is when we start to get a true feel for individual teams.” A little later on, I concluded the paragraph with this: “We’ll learn a lot these next few weeks. Or at the very least, we’ll think we have.” With one week in the books – for some, two games; for others, one game; for still others, none – it’s time to start making decisions. What do we think we know? Which 2-0 conference starts are flukes? Which upsets are signs of bigger and better things to come? Which conference races are starting to take shape? Which are still complete crapshoots? These are the types of questions to consider.

Headliner: Virginia 89, Miami 80 (2OT)

Virginia Got All It Wanted from Miami, But Had the Last Laugh on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Virginia Got All It Wanted from Miami, But Had the Last Laugh on Saturday (USA Today Images)

Virginia is still undefeated… but barely. After controlling much of Saturday’s contest at Miami, Virginia’s usually-stout defense was carved up late, and the Cavs eventually needed a clutch Justin Anderson three to stave off their first loss of the season. But while this was a game that should have been more comfortable for the defending ACC champions, this shouldn’t reflect negatively on them. In fact, it further drives home the point that Virginia isn’t just a defensive juggernaut. The Cavaliers can score, too, which is what makes them a top-five team in the country. But what originally looked like smooth sailing for Tony Bennett’s team turned into a perfect example of just how hard it is to go unbeaten in college basketball. Virginia escaped in Coral Gables, but the alarm bells that were sounding during overtime once again alerted the nation that anything can happen in conference play. Miami entered Saturday’s game having lost three of its last five contests by double figures, including a 28-point defeat to Eastern Kentucky. But when conference foes meet, they are generally in the same ballpark athletically. That means all it takes is an outstanding performance here, a subpar one there, sprinkled with a little underdog luck, and an upset is brewing. Louisville almost proved that point as well late Sunday at Wake Forest. Virginia and Duke are both really good teams, but neither will run the table. Kentucky might be a different story in the SEC, but the ACC is just too murderous this season.

And then there were three…

While Virginia scraped by Miami, Saturday wasn’t nearly as kind to three of the six remaining undefeated teams. For Colorado State and TCU, that’s probably no surprise. TCU had feasted on the nation’s weakest schedule, and the Horned Frogs are still a bubble outsider until they show they can win games in the Big 12. Colorado State had won an unsustainably high number of close games, and a trip to New Mexico proved to be its tipping point. The big name that fell over the weekend, though, was Villanova. The Wildcats traveled to Seton Hall on Saturday, but their lack of a true go-to scorer — the generally reliable Ryan Arcidiacono was dreadful — did them in. As a result, Villanova far too often settled for three-pointers outside of the natural flow of its offense, and, as other teams with similar makeups can attest – I’m looking at you, Iowa State – that is a recipe for an upset. Villanova can’t change the composition of its lineup, and that’s why the Wildcats will remain a step or two below the top tier of teams nationally.

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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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SEC M5: 01.05.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. South Carolina’s win over Iowa State in Brooklyn on Saturday was significant for several reasons. First, it was easily the biggest victory of Frank Martin’s tenure in Columbia, and, second, it was a boost for the conference’s reputation as a whole. Remember the last time time the SEC put a league representative in front of the Cyclones? Needless to say that it didn’t end well. But as Garnet and Black Attack writes, it was also an important victory because the Gamecocks have so few chances left on the schedule for another marquee win. Two cracks at Kentucky could be the extent of it, but now South Carolina doesn’t necessarily need to win one of those two games to get some national attention. A good conference record (e.g., 11-7) even without a Kentucky win could be enough to garner some late season NCAA Tournament chatter — since the Gamecocks’ resume is now buoyed by the victory over Iowa State.
  2. With the Carolina win on our minds, is the SEC quietly improving? While only one team is currently ranked, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton writes that, “10 SEC teams are in the top 104, six in the top 53 and four (UK, Georgia, LSU and Arkansas) in the top 28 of the RPI.” RPI, especially at this time of year, isn’t necessarily the best barometer, but if nothing else this suggests that the depth of the league is better than it was last year. Take Georgia and Alabama, for example. Neither might be viable NCAA Tournament teams, but both have shown enough fight against other major conference opponents that they won’t be pushovers either. This quiet league-wide improvement is also taking place as Florida undergoes an understandable rebuilding period, which should be encouraging to conference fans as a whole.
  3. Vanderbilt’s double-overtime win over Yale on Saturday may not have been pretty, but it pushed the Commodores’ non-conference record to 10-3, representing great progress over recent seasons. Kevin Stallings’ team should be fun to watch grow throughout SEC play, and their future promise screams from the box score, as all five players who reached double figures against Yale are either sophomores (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet) or freshmen (Riley Lachance, Shelton Mitchell, Matthew Fisher-Davis). A January 10 visit to Fayetteville will be a good test to determine how Kevin Stallings’ young team handles one of the league’s toughest environments.
  4. LSU got a late Christmas present late last week when five-star guard Antonio Blakeney committed to the Tigers. It has already been written on all corners of the Internet, but LSU will be overflowing with talent next season if Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey stick around with Blakeney and super-prospect Ben Simmons arriving on campus. But even if Mickey and Martin both leave for the NBA, the Tigers would still be able to field a competitive, NCAA Tournament-caliber team given how Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman have grown this season. Gray and Hornsby have been a complementary three-point shooting backcourt and Quarterman has been a unique, jack-of-all trades swingman. In this worst-case scenario for LSU, the team’s two new elite prospects would still be entering a team with a solid foundation.
  5. Missouri has had a frustrating season, and conference play could be much more difficult should Teki Gill-Caesar miss any time. The freshman, who has averaged 11.5 points per game this season, left the Tigers’ recent win over Lipscomb in the first half with a back injury and did not return. Kim Anderson said afterward that he wasn’t sure how serious his injury actually is. Gill-Caesar’s scoring has dipped recently as defenses focus their attention on him, but he’s a key piece to a team that showed some promise in close losses to Illinois and Oklahoma State. Missouri has an opportunity against a surging LSU team to open league play on Thursday night, but the Tigers from Columbia will be hard-pressed to win that game if Gill-Caesar is on the bench.
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SEC M5: New Year’s Eve Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 31st, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster writes that Kentucky’s New Year’s resolution should be to give Tyler Ulis more playing time at the point guard position because he’s better than Andrew Harrison. He also writes that the reason that may not happen is because Coach Cal will be hesitant to rock the boat and upset his incumbent sophomore starter. There is no doubt that Harrison’s body language wasn’t great in the Saturday win over Louisville, but no one outside of the program knows how Harrison truly feels about his performance. Maybe he was upset that he was being outplayed by a freshman, or maybe he was upset that he laid an egg in the Wildcats’ biggest game of the year. Either way, we’ve officially reached the first blip on the Big Blue Nation drama watch. I don’t expect Harrison to lose his starting spot at Kentucky anytime soon, but if the Wildcats are in a tight game late it’s reasonable to think the freshman will have the ball in his hands.
  2. Speaking of UIis, CBSSports.com named him the Tisdale Freshman of the Week, and he cracked the top 10 of the Tisdale Award Watch for the first time this season. The diminutive but talented guard also took home the SEC’s Freshman of the Week award. He’ll never put up big stats, but it’s nice to see him getting recognition for how vital he has been to the success of the Wildcats. In one fell swoop, he’s filled Kentucky’s twin needs for a selfless distributor ( 3.7 APG; 4.3 FGA per game) and a reliable three-point shooter (52.2%). The exciting part for fans is that Ulis will almost certainly be in Lexington for multiple seasons, and if Calipari could pick one type of player to have in-house as his talented freshmen classes arrive, it would probably be a rock solid point guard with plenty of winning experience.
  3. South Carolina head coach Frank Martin might soon have another player at his disposal as freshman wing Shamiek Sheppard is now practicing after suffering a torn ACL over the summer. Without any setbacks going forward, the three-star recruit could see some playing time this season. Sheppard’s slashing ability would be a boost for a team that has only gotten to the line a measly 206 times this year (276th in the country). In the past two rebuilding seasons it might have been smarter to leave the redshirt on the freshman and save his year of eligibility, but the Gamecocks may not be rebuilding anymore. They are currently on a five-game winning streak, boast a dynamic backcourt, and are 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency. That gives them as good a shot as any SEC team to rack up a bunch of wins in league play.
  4. Alabama did not light up the scoreboard in its recent win over UCLA, but the Crimson Tide finally sealed the deal against a quality name opponent. They also didn’t set the world on fire offensively in their near-win at Wichita State, a surprise given that early in the year it looked like the Crimson Tide would have a high-powered offense. The folks at Roll Bama Roll feel that Anthony Grant has reverted back to “Grantsketball” lately in slowing down the offense and trying to grind out games, and that the Tide would be better off opening things up. The numbers bear this out, as the Tide have indeed averaged 61 possessions in their last four games after averaging 72 possessions in their first seven games. Grant knows the pulse of his team better than anyone else, but he shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances considering what Levi Randolph (16.4 PPG), Rodney Cooper (13.5 PPG) and Ricky Tarrant (10.6 PPG) are capable of doing.
  5. ESPN’s Myron Medcalf wrote a feature on Arkansas’ Bobby Portis, and it is definitely worth a read. The sophomore’s back story is inspiring, as he has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where he is now. The Little Rock native grew up wanting to play for the Razorbacks, and could be the player to lead them back to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008. Right now, you’d have to put him at the forefront of the SEC Player of the Year race, along with Willie Cauley-Stein, Damian Jones and Jarell Martin. Portis has been a consistent scorer and rebounder all season long, and perhaps more importantly, he didn’t fade away in the Razorbacks’ two biggest games of the year. In a road win over SMU, he had 22 points and five rebounds, and even though Arkansas got rolled by Iowa State it wasn’t because of Portis’ efforts, as he contributed 19 points and eight rebounds.
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