SEC M5: 03.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 10th, 2014

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  1. There it is folks, the first 18-0 season in SEC history. “A perfect team? No. No one is,” writes CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander. “Right now, Florida is as close to great as you can get before earning a Final Four trip to validate such a title.” A perfect conference record, in whatever conference, is so rare that the Gators’ season can be considered special regardless what happens from here on. Obviously an early loss in the tournament would be crushing, but 18-0 means more than just a “good” season, or even a regular season title in some ways. Teams win conference championships every year, but they don’t often go undefeated on the way. The perfect mark may also be an indictment on the state of the SEC, but just like with Wichita State, the quality of the league shouldn’t damper the undefeated end result.
  2. Three straight beatdowns will quiet all that Bruce Pearl talk, at least for the moment. Tennessee killed two birds with one stone Saturday: picking up a decent win and essentially eliminating bubble buddy Missouri. They might also be a smart sleeper pick for not only the SEC Tournament, but the NCAA Tournament too. Cuonzo Martin’s team has quietly risen to #12 in the KenPom ratings, one of only three teams with 10+ losses in the top 30. The Vols have balance that plays well this time of year, as they are in the top 28 in KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.  Antonio Barton has 51 points (13-of-21 from three) in the last three games, and has helped the Vols offense get to a different level. If he keeps it up and Josh Richardson shuts down opposing perimeter scorers like he did Jabari Brown, watch out for Rocky Top.
  3. Arkansas had a chance to take the drama out of its trip to Atlanta. Win Saturday in Tuscaloosa, and the Hogs probably only needed to get by their first game in SEC Tournament to feel secure. Instead, they were done in by an awful offensive first half and Trevor Releford’s 24 points in his final game in Coleman Coliseum. This was simply not the game for the Hogs to lose the turnover battle (15 to 12) and put up only 0.84 points per possession. The loss to a #100+ RPI team means Arkansas must absolutely win its first game (Auburn or South Carolina) and then another virtually must-win game against Tennessee, which won the only meeting this season and is currently steamrolling its opponents. Hog fans also have to now keep a closer eye on smaller conference tournaments, with fingers crossed that teams like Wichita State and Gonzaga don’t get upset.
  4. Georgia locked up the three seed in the SEC Tournament, and in finishing with a 12-6 conference mark it’s hard to deny the Bulldogs are anything but a quality team right now. They limited LSU to 36.4% shooting and beat them on the glass (37 to 29), which they have done to many teams en route to a surprising conference season (best SEC field goal defense, fourth best rebounding rate). Only eight of Georgia’s 69 points and three of its 37 rebounds came from seniors, so Mark Fox has something to build off of. I desperately want to make a case for Georgia as a bubble team, but at RPI #70 it just isn’t possible right now. The Bulldogs avoid Florida until the final, and getting there would mean a 20-12 record and (probably) a win over Kentucky. We’ll re-evaluate then.
  5. You have to hand it to Auburn, Tony Barbee’s team hasn’t quit. The Tigers picked up a solid road win Saturday in College Station against Texas A&M, where the Aggies finished the year 16-3. Auburn’s six conference victories are the most under Tony Barbee. After the game Chris Denson admitted a recent slump (9 points on 3-of-25 shooting over the past two games) was due to him pressing to get the SEC scoring title. That kind of candid comment is refreshing, and Denson rebounded with 19 points to finish second in the scoring race (19.2 PPG). That’s not bad for a guy who averaged under 12 points per game last season. The Tigers tested Florida, Kentucky and Missouri this season, and could be a minor challenge in Atlanta as far as a lower seed goes.
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Three’s a Crowd: Three Observations Near the End of SEC Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 27th, 2014

Three is a popular number in the SEC these days. There was Kyle Fuller’s missed three in regulation to tie the game against Florida on Tuesday night. There is significant and realistic discussion about whether the SEC will get three teams into the NCAA Tournament. And to top it off, time is running out as there are just three regular season SEC games remaining for each team (following Thursday night’s game between Arkansas and Kentucky). So why not go for an old fashioned three-point play with three observations headed into the final week of regular season action?

Is Georgia the SEC's third best team?

Is Georgia the SEC’s third best team?

The Third Best Team?

Georgia is nowhere near NCAA Tournament talk, but the Bulldogs may very well be the third best team in the conference this season. Mark Fox’s squad has won six of its last seven games, including home victories over LSU and Missouri. It also has four very bad losses (Temple, Davidson, Georgia Tech and Auburn) and lacks a true quality win, but I would not want to match up with the Bulldogs in a couple of weeks in Atlanta if I were an SEC head coach. In five of its last six games, Georgia’s defense has held opponents under 1.0 point per possession. Granted, those games were not against any offensive juggernauts, but the Bulldogs appear to be peaking at just the right time. The Bulldogs made a run to the SEC Tournament championship at the Georgia Dome in 2008, so perhaps the setting is right for them to do it again this season (hopefully without the tornado).

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SEC M5: 02.26.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 26th, 2014

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  1. Maybe Florida just plays down to its competition, or maybe the Gators’ grind-it-out defense lends itself to close games. Either way, Florida ran its winning streak to 20 against Vanderbilt in yet another game that had to be gutted out late. Vanderbilt outshot Florida 48% to 40%, but – as they have done so often this year – the Gators won the rebounding and turnover battles. You can have a less than stellar offense and put yourself in games if you limit your opponent’s chances by taking care of the ball and grabbing defensive rebounds. Florida has the second fewest turnovers per game in the SEC (11.2) and third best team rebounding percentage (54.2%). Pair that with an elite defense and it’s no surprise you’ve got a team that can rack up wins and rise to number one in the rankings. But as Luke Winn pointed out, the Gators offense can be more effective if Dorian Finney-Smith expands on the two made pick-and-pop he had made in conference play. It wasn’t of the pick-and-pop variety, but Finney-Smith found space and drilled a three with under 30 seconds left against the Commodores. It was the junior’s third three of the game, and the finishing touches on his game high 19 points. If that performance jump starts Finney-Smith, Billy Donovan suddenly has another offensive option to play with.
  2. Put a fork in the Tigers, they are done. Short of winning the SEC tournament, I don’t see a way Missouri can salvage a bid after losing by 15 in Athens. The Tigers will almost certainly drop out of the RPI top 50, and they’re a perfectly pedestrian 7-7 against the RPI top 100. That’s just okay, and just okay teams do make a 68 team field. But the Tigers don’t have the high-quality wins to punctuate a resume, going just 1-2 against the RPI top 25. Can that UCLA win from way back in early December stand up? Teams Missouri is competing with for a final spot, like Oklahoma State (Memphis, Texas) and St. John’s (Creighton), have eye-popping wins to spice up a mediocre resume. The Tigers didn’t execute well on defense against Georgia (allowing the Bulldogs to shoot 52.1%) and it could be that Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are wearing down. The two shot a combined 9-for-29 and Brown in particular had no lift on his shots. Georgia, on the hand, continued its surprise run through the SEC with its sweep of Missouri. Per Wildcat Blue Nation’s Corey Price, the Bulldogs are the first SEC team to reach 10 or more conference wins after finishing .500 or worse in the non-conference since 2007-08 Kentucky. With a RPI North of 80 the Bulldogs still aren’t in the bubble picture, but at the very least Mark Fox should’ve assured himself a NIT bid.
  3. Your first thought might “yeah right,” but the Bruce Pearl to Tennessee talk is gaining steam. There’s an online petition signed by thousands of people, and Gregg Doyel writes that as unlikely as it seems, rehiring Pearl makes too much sense for the Vols. “Tennessee should do it. If Tennessee has an opening, it should hire Bruce Pearl. Go ahead, Tennessee. He paid his price. You paid yours,” Doyel writes. “Bruce Pearl is a good coach who made a bad mistake and had to be fired — I was calling for his dismissal months before Tennessee finally did it — but who served his time and surely, surely learned from his mistake.” Sure, a reunion seems highly unlikely and against the norm, but there might just be the pieces in place to make it a reality: Pearl won big at Tennessee, still lives in Knoxville, and the program hasn’t taken a clear step forward in Cuonzo Martin’s third year. There’s also the matter of ticket sales, and from afar it seems like rehiring Pearl would spark the fanbase. Those are hard points to argue against, especially since college basketball in general is far from holy. The problem is that is that letting Martin go is not a no brainer. While the Vols are dancing around the bubble again, the bottom has not fallen out in the former Missouri State coach’s three years in Knoxville. But if Louisville can bring back Bobby Petrino, is the Pearl-Tennessee dream so ridiculous?
  4. It’s put up or shut up time for Arkansas, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. Winning at Rupp Arena is the last chance for Razorbacks to improve on their 65 RPI and grab the attention of those on the selection committee. Can Arkansas actually sweep the Wildcats? In the win at Bud Walton Arena, Kentucky missed a ton of free throws (26-of-40) and the Razorbacks, as they always do at home, won the turnover battle (17 to 6). While the Wildcats will probably miss a few more free throws (team 68.5% FT%) they probably won’t have a similar turnover binge without 20,000 screaming people in red against them. The Razorbacks will in all likelihood lose the rebounding battle in this game, so they’ll need to hit a higher percentage from three than they did in the team’s first meeting (28.6%). If Arkansas isn’t able to win this game and go on a run, barring a miracle weekend in Atlanta it looks like Mike Anderson will miss the tournament for the third straight year in Fayetteville.\
  5. There was a time not so long ago that Rick Ray was enjoying a very positive second season in Starkville. It was January 22 and the Bulldogs had just beaten Auburn to move to 3-2 in conference play. They also picked up their 13th win of the season, three more than they had gotten in 2012-13. But the positivity ended that day, and Mississippi State hasn’t won since. Its nine game losing streak could very well stretch to 12 with upcoming games against Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia. So, now that the bad part has set in, how are things really going in Ray’s second season on the whole? Their RPI is currently 204, which in no world is anything but dreadful. It is, however, less dreadful than the 292 the Bulldogs finished with last season. The good news for Ray? He’s got only one senior in the rotation (Colin Borchert) and his leading scorer (Craig Sword), rebounder (Gavin Ware) and assist man (I.J. Ready) are either sophomores or freshmen. Ready is good to go against Tennessee after getting poked in the eye against the Arkansas. The freshman point guard not only leads the team in assists, but is shooting 40% from three and has a respectable 1.5 assist to turnover ratio for a first year player. A strong finish from him would be a bright spot in another rebuilding year for the Bulldogs.
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SEC M5: 02.24.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 24th, 2014

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  1. Saturday may very well have been the day the SEC’s bubble burst. A third bid (at least) seemed relatively solid over the past few weeks, with Missouri and Tennessee exchanging that position. Saturday didn’t always seem like a dreary day. In fact, for a brief moment it seemed as if the league could possibly sneak five teams into the tournament. LSU’s gritty effort at Kentucky looked at it would produce a win that might have catapulted the Tigers past a handful of teams ahead of them on the bubble. But Julius Randle’s floater ended that dream around the same time Texas A&M (RPI #118) handed Tennessee a damaging loss in overtime. Several hours later Missouri took a damaging loss of its own at RPI #117 Alabama. This fatalism could be overly-dramatic, and the Tigers and Vols might be clinging to the fringes of the bubble. But what’s the likelihood both go through the rest of the season unscathed before the they play each other to close the regular season? It’s not good, and another loss before that game would probably be the nail in the coffin for either team.
  2. There’s little controversy over whether Florida deserves to be the number one team in the country when the polls are released later today. But if an argument needs to be made for the Gators over Wichita State, Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army has it. “Florida has handled the SEC about as well as Wichita State has handled the Valley, outscoring it by 0.197 points per possession; Wichita’s MVC number is 0.231 points per possession.” The Gators have simply handled every challenge thrown at them in SEC play, even if it hasn’t been pretty. Like Wichita State, the Gators haven’t been challenged as much from a talent standpoint in conference play like a Big Ten team that seemingly sees at least one ranked opponent a week. But Florida has played a lot of close games in conference, running the spectrum from at home against Auburn and on the road against Kentucky. Each time the Gators have found a way to win, and it’ll be tough to pick against that next month. Billy Donovan deserves kudos for (in all likelihood) reaching number one for the first time in seven years.
  3. There are some positive thoughts following LSU letting a potential season-changing win at Rupp Arena slip through their fingers. NOLA.com’s Ron Higgins writes that while the Tigers are flawed, they have battled hard this season, corrected some mistakes, and Johnny Jones is in position to get a postseason within his first two years on the job. Trent Johnson is the only coach to do that in program history. “Add a few more athletic bodies before next season, a couple more outside shooters and the Tigers will win a game like they lost on Saturday,” Higgins writes. LSU certainly could be a handful next season. Jordan Mickey need only add a post move or two and improve his mid-range jumper to be an all-conference player. Jarrell Martin likely hasn’t impressed enough to make the jump to the NBA, but his talent is undeniable. And then there is incoming five star freshman forward Ben Simmons. If Johnny O’Bryant returns, LSU would have a strong case for having the most talented frontcourt in the country. The junior is on the fringes of NBADraft.net’s latest mock draft (55th overall pick), and might be wise to come back and develop more finesse in his offensive game. He has improved his shooting percentage on two point jumpers (41.1%), but still relies heavily on strength and power. That rarely translates to the NBA (see: Thomas Robinson).
  4. For all the talk of Missouri’s limited scoring options this season, it will be its defense that keeps it out of the NCAA Tournament. In the Tigers last two losses, they have allowed sub-par three-point shooters to get loose and burn them. Against Ole Miss, 31% three-point shooter Ladarius White converted on five-of-six three’s . Saturday night, it was 34% three-point shooter Levi Randolph hitting five-of-seven three’s in route to a career-high 33 points. It’s fine to challenge a poor shooter to make shots and see a couple go down. But when a guy is clearly in rhythm it’s hard justify not sticking with him. For example, Randolph had an open back-breaking three to stretch out Alabama’s lead with a few minutes left. While Missouri has a respectable 32% team three-point defense overall, situational lapses like that helped doom them in a key game. It’s also worth questioning why Frank Haith took so long to abandon the zone defense with Randolph shooting like he was and Trevor Releford dealing with a banged up leg.
  5. Georgia’s win at South Carolina was quietly impressive. People keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Bulldogs, and their season took a step in this direction with a humbling loss to Tennessee last week. It would’ve been allow that loss to beat them twice. Instead, Georgia followed it up with a road win, albeit against the last place team in the conference. But any win away from home is challenging in conference play, and Mark Fox’s team (9-5), assured itself of finishing no worse than .500 in SEC play even if the wheels completely fall off. Would a Bulldog fan have been happy with an even conference mark given how the first two months of the season went? Probably so. The Bulldogs star on Saturday was yet again a player that will be around for years to com, sophomore Kenny Gaines (27 points, 9-of-14 shooting). The folks at Dawg Sports summed up the forward-looking optimism by writing, “Donte’ Williams is the only significant contributor who isn’t likely to be back in 2014-15. While there’s still some basketball to be played in this season, there’s every reason to believe that Mark Fox may have finally turned a corner in Athens.”
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SEC M5: 02.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 19th, 2014

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  1. Everything was working for Kentucky during the first half of last night’s game in Oxford, and I mean everything. Jarrod Polson threw an alley-oop and made a three; Alex Poythress was getting in on the three-point action; and Julius Randle already had a double-double. With a 17-point lead it looked like Kentucky had answered any question about how they’d bounce back from a tough loss. Oh, but questions persist. The Rebels put up 45 points in the second half and were able to cut the game down to two possessions with under two minutes left. Like they did against Missouri, the Wildcats again let a big early lead slip, and allowed an opponent back into a game it had no business being in. The issues weren’t only on the defensive end. College Basketball Talk’s Matt Giles points out that only four of Kentucky’s two-point fields goals weren’t at the rim, and for an eight-minute second half stretch the Wildcats only scored on free throws. The lackluster defensive effort in the second half needs to be a learning experience for the Wildcats, since they likely won’t be able to escape a game like this against better teams (see: teams that make the NCAA Tournament). The shooting woes, however, are a bigger issue.
  2. So this writer may need to eat a little crow. Yesterday I wrote that I expected Georgia to do just fine as it entered a difficult stretch. Well, it didn’t start out that well for the Bulldogs, who took a 19-point loss to Tennessee in a game that got shuffled to ESPN due to a crumbling arena in Bloomington, Indiana. In front of a national audience, Georgia wasn’t able to validate its great SEC record. Early on the Vols did something they didn’t do Saturday against Missouri: get the ball to Jarnell Stokes, who scored 20 points and led Tennessee to advantages in rebounds and points in the paint. The Vols also have to be encouraged that they won this game without Jordan McRae having a big impact (11 points, 2-of-5 shooting). Antonio Barton made more three’s in this game (four) than he had in the last ten SEC games combined. If that sparks him out of his prolonged shooting funk it would add another dimension to Tennessee’s offense. This was the bounce back performance the Vols needed to kick off a stretch of four winnable games that could boost their resume.
  3. Frank Haith remembers all too well Vanderbilt’s three-point barrage early in Missouri’s loss in Nashville. But after forcing Arkansas and Tennessee into a combined 8-of-37 from deep, he thinks his team is on the right track defensively. “We’re doing a great job of understanding where shooters are at and personnel and doing our work early and getting there and having high hands,” Haith said. “I thought we had some slippage in that area … particularly Vanderbilt. They made some shots, but we didn’t do what we needed to do in terms of getting to their shooters, and Odom and Parker, those guys had really good games against us.” Missouri may be defending the three better of late, but its defense in general is a concern. The Tigers entered conference play with solid defensive numbers, but have sunk to 10th in the SEC in two-point field goal defense (allowing 47%) and 11th in three-point field goal defense (allowing 35.4%). They’ve also lost games in which they scored 79 and 88 (!) points. But it’s not surprising they are improving. Few teams can put the length at the top of a zone than Missouri can with Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. Thursday’s game against the Commodores will be a good litmus test of the Tigers’ progress, since Missouri did give up 12 three pointers in the first meeting.
  4. South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell has stood out amid a thoroughly disappointing season in Columbia. The freshman has Mike Anderson’s attention ahead of tonight’s game in Fayetteville, and has drawn high praise from his own coach. “He’s the guy everyone pencils in when they prepare a scouting report against us,” Frank Martin said. “I’m extremely proud of him. Not only is he performing, but he’s taking on the leadership role of our team. He’s also taking on defensive responsibilities against the better players on the other team.” Thornwell has also taken on a leadership role on the court, as he has the ninth highest usage rate (27.3%) in the SEC. Despite that much exposure he’s still been efficient shooting the ball (56.8 TS%), and though generally thought of first as a scorer, he also has the the eighth best assist percentage (22.6%) in the conference. Thornwell has had to grow up quickly with the personnel losses South Carolina has had, and it appears he’s done a great job of this on and off the court. He’s the type of just-a-cut-below-an-early-draft-entry talent that could stick around and be a tremendously accomplished four year player, and perhaps a building block for better days in Columbia.
  5. James Moran of The Daily Reveille conducted a “post-mortem” on LSU’s NCAA Tournament chances, and identified the cause of the Tigers untimely death. He writes, “The Feb. 6 loss to Georgia was actually the fatal blow to the Tiger’s season. LSU had finally gotten some momentum going for it, and losing a relatively uncompetitive game in a dead arena to a team that was 10-10 at the time killed all of it.” Can reasonable minds disagree on whether this patient is actually dead? Probably not. The Tigers sit at #70 in the RPI and just whiffed on a week that featured road games at Arkansas and Texas A&M. It’s incredible how quickly a season can turn. It was just two weeks ago that the Tigers picked up impressive back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. At this point it seems the only chance for LSU to resurrect itself would be by splitting road games against Kentucky and Florida, and winning their remaining four games (at Vanderbilt, home against Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M). We’ll see if there is one drastic change of momentum left in Johnny Jones’ talented team.
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Dawgs Eating Just Fine in Dog-Eat-Dog SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 18th, 2014

For Georgia, the “a-ha moment” seemed to come on February 6. After racing out to a surprising 4-1 SEC record (with wins over Missouri and Arkansas), the Bulldogs had lost three straight, punctuated by a loss at cellar-dweller Auburn. That looked like the end of a nice flash of a Georgia storyline. But it wasn’t. Mark Fox’s team has since reeled off four straight wins, underlining this positive streak with a quality win against Ole Miss on Saturday. This begs the question in SEC basketball circles: Is it now time to drop the second part of the “Well, Georgia is off to a good start, but they’re still not that good” sentiment that’s been discussed over the last month and a half?

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia's 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia’s 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

At some point a sample size gets too big to be simply dismissed. It’s now mid-February and the Bulldogs are four games above 0.500 in SEC play, so we may have reached that point with this team. They haven’t compiled that record by only beating the dregs of the conference — they’ve gone 4-4 against RPI top-100 SEC teams — and they haven’t won those four games with smoke and mirrors either. Georgia has the second best field goal defense (39.4%) and rebounding rate (55.3%) in the league right now, trailing only Florida and Kentucky. This is also a young team led by sophomores Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines who should be gaining confidence. To sum it up, their solid conference play to date doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

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SEC M5: 02.07.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 7th, 2014

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  1. Does anyone want to break away from the pack and become the third best team in the SEC? LSU looked like a prime candidate to do just that after wins over Kentucky and Arkansas last week, but the Tigers saw Tennessee’s momentum-killing loss at Vanderbilt on Wednesday and raised them a Thursday loss at Georgia. Sure, Georgia had an even conference record going into this game, but the Tigers still should have been able to take care of business in Athens. Nemanja Djurisic (17 points, 7-of-7 from the free throw line, six rebounds) has been inconsistent this year, but when he’s right, he can be one of the toughest match-ups in the SEC. His range (2-of-3 from three) pulls defenders away from the basket and helped Georgia neutralize a better rebounding team. Foul trouble on the LSU bigs didn’t help either. Mark Fox’s team now has two quality wins against Missouri and LSU, and the Bulldogs have won more than they’ve lost in conference play. Georgia could be setting up for an impressive SEC record as they’re already done with Kentucky and Florida. Given the loss of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA and how the Bulldogs played in non-conference play (6-6), finishing above .500 in SEC play would be a huge success.
  2. A lot of well-deserved freshman love has flowed to Kentucky’s class, and more recently, LSU’s Jordan Mickey. But it sure needs to flow to Bobby Portis too after what he did against Alabama. The Little Rock native kept the Razorbacks competitive against the Tide almost by himself, scoring 29 of the team’s first 35 points en route to an Arkansas freshman record-tying 35 points. No Razorback freshman had scored that much since Jannero Pargo was pinging threes into Bud Walton Arena’s nets back in 2002. Portis’ big game couldn’t have come at a bigger time for the Hawgs. Last week’s losses to Missouri and LSU didn’t kill their chances at an NCAA at-large bid, but a loss to the struggling Tide probably would have. If Arkansas is to keep winning, Mike Anderson needs to keep Portis on the court because not many players are capable of going 14-of-17 from the field. He hasn’t played fewer than 28 minutes since SEC play began, and his minutes need to continue to be in the low 30s to stay fresh enough to succeed, but this is one horse Anderson needs to ride as far as he can.
  3. Shooting over 50 percent from the field cures a lot of ills. Texas A&M’s offense was downright putrid against Florida (elite defense aside) recently, scoring only 36 points and shooting only 25.9 percent from the field. Enter Mississippi State, which was on a three-game losing streak and likely eager to face that Aggies’ attack in its first-ever trip to College Station. But Jamal Jones scored 20 points, Alex Caruso had 10 assists, and Texas A&M nearly doubled up its output from the Florida game while winning, 72-52. This was the type of solid all-around performance Billy Kennedy needed to instill some confidence in his players for the rest of the way. Not only did the Aggies make more shots than they missed, they also generated 22 assists against only six turnovers.
  4. We know Chris Walker has big-time potential, and we know he’s going to help Florida in some way or another before this season is out. There are a lot of things we don’t know about him too, like what exactly happened with respect to those impermissible benefits before he arrived in Gainesville. A lot of people don’t know much about Walker’s past either, and the Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway wrote a good article on that topic. Walker was abandoned by his biological parents, and lost his care-giving grandmother at  the tender age of 12 years old. It’s nice that Walker’s current story is no longer one of whether he’ll play, but rather how much he can help the Gators as he works his way into game shape. That’s an easy story to root for given how much he went through just to get to Florida.
  5. Quick, which is the hottest team in the SEC behind Florida and its 14-game winning streak? I’ll give you the answer: Vanderbilt, which has won four straight games. Behind the Commodores? Auburn, which won its third straight game by beating South Carolina on the road. It hasn’t been often in Tony Barbee’s tenure that his team has had the third-longest winning streak in the conference — it’s not much, but it’s something. Obviously Chris Denson and KT Harrell (25 points each) are the story here, but Tahj Shamsid-Deen (12 point, three assists) should be a thorn in opponents’ side for the next four years. He’s the type of crafty, confident point guard who will get more effective as he gains additional experience. The freshman ranks 10th in the SEC in assists per game, and touts an impressive turnover percentage (13.3 percent) for a first-year player.
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SEC M5: 01.20.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2014

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  1. Experienced guards with a killer instinct can be extremely valuable in March, and Billy Donovan has one in Scottie Wilbekin. The senior’s fallaway jumper with under two minutes to go against Auburn kept the Tigers at bay, and came a week after his buzzer-beater to force overtime at Arkansas. “I have confidence I can make plays,” Wilbekin said. “Luckily, they’ve been going down for me. I just want to keep trying to play the right way, regardless of how much time is left in the game.” Between Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young, there may not be a team in the nation with more talented impact seniors, and these are players who have been to three straight Elite Eights. Prather’s solid return (21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, six rebounds) was the most important storyline to come from the closer-than-expected win over the Tigers. But Wilbekin’s continued ability to hit the big shot bodes well for the Gators’ future as well.
  2. Maybe some good came out of Kentucky’s loss at Bud Walton Arena after all. Kentucky.com‘s John Clay writes that a spark may have been lit under Andrew Harrison. “Instead, it’s been some up, some down, inconsistency all around. Rhetoric without results. There have been body language issues, quickness issues, shooting issues. It looked more and more as though the Harrisons would have their Bluegrass stay extended, and not for the right reasons.But then the forgotten thing from Tuesday’s dramatic 87-85 loss at Arkansas was Andrew Harrison rising up from the right corner and nailing a three-pointer to send the late show into overtime.” Harrison was the star for the Wildcats against Tennessee (26 points, three assists, zero turnovers), one of the few times all year that statement can be definitively made and not involve Julius Randle. It couldn’t have come at a better time either. Kentucky was demolished on the glass, and couldn’t overwhelm the Vols with its frontcourt strength and depth. Development is the story to watch for the Wildcats as the season winds towards March, and on Saturday Andrew Harrison took a big step forward.
  3. NBCSports.com‘s Scott Phillips doesn’t have as rosy a take on the Wildcats after the Tennessee win. He writes that the pieces aren’t quite fitting together yet. “James Young is a great complementary kickout on offense and Cauley-Stein can play to his strengths of catching lobs and hunting offensive rebounds, but the Wildcats will not beat the best teams in the country until their three isolation-based main offensive players — the Harrisons and Julius Randle — figure out how to move the ball well and shift the defense around from side-to-side to make things easier on themselves.” Getting this team to reach its potential will certainly be one of the toughest challenges John Calipari has ever faced, mainly because of the preseason expectations and early “struggles.” Phillips’ point about a consistent lack of cohesion is a valid one. But I’m still drinking the Kentucky Kool-Aid because their pieces should be able to eventually fit together. Cauley-Stein needs to add more on offense, but he doesn’t need the ball to be successful and that’s perfect alongside Randle. In the back court, is indeed the perfect floor spacer for the more drive-oriented games of the Harrison twins. It all should work, and until they’ve been eliminated I’ll give Calipari the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Michael Qualls’ dunk put a cap on the Mike Anderson road hex, right? All the momentum and good vibes created by that putback slam had to carry Arkansas through their game at Georgia, right? Nope, it was business as usual for the Razorbacks in Athens, as they failed to pick up a necessary road win. Graham Reaves at Arkansas Fight writes, “What made this game that much more frustrating is that for much of the game it appeared the Hogs would win, knock the monkey off their back on their way towards an NCAA berth. Coming off a win at home over No. 13 Kentucky on Tuesday night, this Razorbacks squad had made believers of those who had doubted for so long. As good for the fanbase Kentucky game was, this one was bad.” And that’s the rub: This was at its core a deflating loss for Arkansas fans. The loss, however, didn’t shoot their NCAA Tournament chances to pieces. The Kentucky win was a good one, and should continue to resonate given it happened in dramatic fashion on national TV. But their next two road games are in Knoxville and Baton Rouge, so that monkey might continue to hang on Arkansas’ back, and the longer it does, the more pronounced the storyline will get.
  5. Missouri stopped the bleeding, at least for the time being, on its disappointing SEC start with a dominant second half against Alabama. Jabari Brown was super efficient (24 points, 7-of-9 shooting, 7-of-8 from the line) in pulling the Tigers ahead. Jordan Clarkson also played a big role offensively, but his overall play has dipped since SEC games began. Rock M Nation‘s Bill Connelly, in his always interesting “Study Hall” piece, writes, “Jordan Clarkson has five assists in four SEC games, and his %Pass was lower than Jabari’s on Saturday. He is no longer Missouri’s point guard.” Clarkson is not a pure point guard, so it was always unreasonable to expect him to keep up the assist numbers he posted in non-conference play. But Wes Clark has also struggled recently, leaving Frank Haith with a problem to solve at the position. He doesn’t seem to trust Shane Rector yet, so the only option seems to be riding out the growing pains of Clarkson and Clark.
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Georgia’s Talented Sophomore Class is the Key to Bulldogs’ Future

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2014

If you had to describe Mark Fox‘s time at Georgia in one word, “flashes” might be it. The Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament in 2010-11, led by juniors Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. But both entered the NBA Draft and Fox was forced into an immediate rebuild instead of entering 2011-12 with two experienced and fringe pro prospects (both players are now out of the league). The next positive jolt in Athens was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s SEC Player of the Year campaign last season. But again, Caldwell-Pope bolted for the NBA (this time, smartly), and Fox lost the opportunity to bring back one of the top returning players in the country. Georgia’s surprise 2-0 start in the SEC this year, however, has been keyed by several young players who will almost certainly stick around past April, and Fox could finally be headed to some sustained success in Athens.

Charles Mann could be part of an eventual basketball revival in Athens (msn.foxsports.com).

Charles Mann could be part of an eventual basketball revival in Athens (Getty).

Sophomore guards Charles Mann (22 points) and Kenny Gaines (22 points) were essentially a two-man show on Saturday against Alabama, and Georgia was still good enough to beat the Tide (although “getting beaten” has been Alabama’s thing this year). At 6’5” and 6’3′,’ respectively, Mann and Gaines can create the type of big guard mismatches that Missouri has employed this season and were big factors in last week’s road win against the Tigers. They’ve also both shown improvement over last season in several key areas, with Mann turning the ball over less and Gaines increasing his effective field goal percentage. Neither is yet skilled enough t0 make the jump to the NBA, so Fox will actually get to reap the fruits of their development over the next couple of seasons. You can throw forward Brandon Morris into the mix too. The sophomore has the highest PER of Georgia’s regulars and has taken a huge step forward from his freshman year. Versatile junior Nemanja Djurisic, fresh off repeatedly silencing Mizzou Arena, has another year of eligibility remaining too.

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Three Takeaways from SEC Play: Two Elite Rebounders and Watch For Rod Odom

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 10th, 2014

Sometimes things go as planned (see Florida’s win over South Carolina), and sometimes they don’t (see Georgia upsetting ranked Missouri), but that’s the element that makes college basketball so intriguing. The SEC’s slate of games certainly brought some unpredictability this week, but also shed some light on things to come in the conference race. The SEC season is only one game old, but it’s never too early to speculate on trends that could affect the end result. Here are our three first-week takeaways that could ultimately impact the final SEC standings.

Mark Fox gets an emotional win to break Missouri's 26 game home winning streak. (AP photo)

Mark Fox gets an emotional win to break Missouri’s 26-game home winning streak. (AP photo)

1. Mark Fox and Georgia got an emotional overtime win over Missouri in large part because of a dominant effort on the boards. I was more than prepared to write a 2,000-word essay on the tremendous play of Nemanja Djurisic, but try as I might to shift the narrative to the hot shooting of the Bulldogs’ junior forward, the more pressing and lingering issue from this game was Missouri’s rebounding deficiency. The Tigers were outboarded on both ends, but if Frank Haith’s squad is going to settle on outside jumpers by its trio of heavy usage guards then they will need a better performance on the offensive glass from freshman Johnathan Williams. Missouri is more than a little thin in the frontcourt, so it will have to rely on the 6’9″ rookie to do better than his season low of two rebounds against the Bulldogs. Missouri simply can’t afford for him to pull a no-show on the glass. The good news is that Williams is more than capable of shouldering the load, considering that he is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. Just how good is he? He’s one of only a handful of freshman  in the last seven years with an offensive rebounding percentage over 15 percent. And he’s in some pretty good company, as the table below exhibits.

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SEC Non-Conference Schedule Round-Up: Part I

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on January 3rd, 2014

Christian D’Andrea is the manager of Anchor of Gold and an SEC Microsite writer. He can be found @TrainIsland on Twitter. 

New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and the only resolution that we’ll get in college basketball is the clarity that comes when cupcake schedules are abandoned and league rivalries begin. The replacing of the calendar means that conference play is just around the corner, and the teams of the Southeastern Conference are ready to tear each other up after a disappointing 2012-13 season. Currently, three SEC programs are ranked inside the Top 25, while five other programs have three losses or fewer with league play on the horizon.

SEC Hoops Tips Off on Saturday With a Full Slate

SEC Hoops Tips Off on Saturday With a Full Slate

To prep for the upcoming SEC season, let’s take a look back at how each team fared in their non-conference slate. We’ll break the programs down alphabetically, with five schools getting called up in the first installment of this three-part series. While Florida and Arkansas have made their case for the league this season, teams like Alabama and Georgia are proving that depth isn’t necessarily a priority in this football-first conference.

Alabama

  • Record: 5-7
  • Best Win: A 12-point home win over 7-5 Texas Tech.
  • Lowest Point: Losing 64-66 to give South Florida its only non-conference win over a power conference opponent.

The Crimson Tide are better than their 5-7 record indicates, but not by much. Their seven losses have all come against either ranked teams or power conference opponents, with the exception of a three-overtime loss to 8-4 Drexel in the Preseason NIT. If you’re in to silver linings, Alabama made things respectable in a 10-point loss to Duke, cutting the Blue Devils’ lead to six points with under three minutes to play. They also pushed #11 Wichita State into deep waters before falling in the final minute of a five-point home loss.

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SEC M5: 01.03.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 3rd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. SI.com‘s Luke Winn always has interesting metrics nuggets in his weekly power rankings. This week he has Kentucky at #15, and writes that Willie Cauley-Stein is living up to the rim-protecting precedent set by Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. Cauley-Stein’s block percentage (13.8%) is identical to Davis’s and better than Noel’s (13.2%). He is also keeping a greater percentage of those blocked shots (64.2%) than Davis or Noel did. On the whole, the SEC has a handful of elite swatters, but not much after that. In addition to Cauley-Stein (who leads the league), only Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, Jordan Mickey, and Aaron Jones have block percentages greater than 10 percent.
  2. You have to go back a few days, but Tennessee picked up a momentum-building win on Monday night over Virginia. The margin they won by (35 points) was the largest in the Cuonzo Martin era, and all the more impressive because the Cavaliers are a good defensive team. Rocky Top Talk‘s Will Shelton writes that the Vols improved shooting percentage against Virginia could be a sign of good things to come. “Tennessee isn’t going to shoot 60+% from three and 85+% from the line every night.  But the fact that they did it [Monday] against such a great defensive team and got it from so many different contributors suggests the transformation we’ve all known this team needed is very possible.” The Vols have largely disappointed this season, but when their solid defensive and elite offensive rebounding is paired with shots falling, it’s not hard to see why they were given such lofty preseason expectations.
  3. Georgia‘s five game winning streak was snapped last Saturday in Boulder, but the Bulldogs can rebound in a big way with a road win tonight over George Washington. Colorado is a good team so Georgia’s 14-point road loss isn’t a head-scratcher. If you want to stretch optimism to its limits, you could say that the Bulldogs were nearly even with Colorado in the second half, losing just 38 to 35. Winning at George Washington would be no small feat, as the Colonials own an impressive win over Creighton this season. But they are coming off a loss to Kansas State on New Year’s Eve and have a weakness the Bulldogs could exploit. George Washington allows its opponents to grab 30 percent of their own misses. Georgia has also struggled giving up offensive rebounds this season, and must take advantage of extra opportunities that may come their way.
  4. It’s never good when a head coach starts apologizing. “I apologize to the fans that came to the game,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “We are not that bad, but we sure looked like it at times,” Kennedy felt compelled to say that after the Aggies’ 20-point loss to North Texas at home on New Year’s Eve. The Aggies enter conference play without a quality win, and are now saddled with a demoralizing home loss. One issue Texas A&M has had this season is a lack of effectiveness from the three point line. The Aggies were just four of 18 against the Mean Green, and as a team have shot 30.2% on the season, good for just 286th in the country. That’s difficult for a team that lacks many impact athletes. Senior guard Fabyon Harris shot 45%last season but has followed it up at 33% thus far this season. The Aggies best three-point shooter, J-Mychal Reese (42%), is no longer with the team. Opposing coaches may be more willing to unleash a zone defense on Texas A&M if they continue to struggle from deep.
  5. It hasn’t been all bad news for the Aggies recently. Kennedylanded SMU transfer Jalen Jones, and if he’s granted a waiver to play immediately, will be a big help in avoiding a repeat of the offensive performance against North Texas. Jones was a respectable shooter last season (56% true shooting), and got to the line nearly 5 times a game. When paired together on the perimeter, the 6’7” Jones and 6’8” Jamal Jones should create challenge for play-by-play announcers and opposing defenses. It appears Jones left SMU because of playing time, so if there isn’t anything more to the move a waiver seems unlikely. If there is no waiver, it’ll be interesting to see if Kennedy even gets to coach his prized transfer in an actual game.
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