SEC Stock Watch: 03.06.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 6th, 2015

We have reached the end of the regular season in the SEC, and this is our final look at who is trending up, down, and who is flat. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Upsets over Bubble Teams. First, it was Florida beating Texas A&M at home, handing the Aggies a crucial loss as they seek to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Then, on Wednesday, Tennessee went into Baton Rouge and beat LSU by 15 points. This was the same group of Tigers that led the Vols by 27 points at the half in Knoxville 18 days earlier. Neither of these underdogs had as much to play for as their opponents, and they both deserve credit for not quitting. But for the Aggies and especially the Tigers, they will have to sweat these and other losses on Selection Sunday.
Kentucky will almost certainly enter the Big Dance 34-0 (cbssports.com)

John Calipari and Kentucky will almost certainly enter the Big Dance 34-0 (cbssports.com)

  • Undefeated Kentucky. It is a mere formality now that the Wildcats will finish the regular season a remarkable 31-0 when they dispatch Florida on Saturday in Lexington (the term “Senior Day” doesn’t mean much there, so we have forgone its use). Many would argue that it’s a formality that the Wildcats will finish the deal and run through the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville to finish 34-0 going into the NCAA Tournament. Given the way they have dominated league play, that is very likely.
  • Comebacks. Kentucky trailed Georgia by nine points with less than eight minutes to play on Tuesday in Athens. The Wildcats then turned the burners on and put away a game Bulldogs team. Last night, on senior night in Columbia, South Carolina overcame a 20-point first half deficit to take an 11-point lead of its own with less than six minutes to play. Arkansas then finished the game on an 18-3 run to steal the win. The Kentucky comeback was unsurprising, but the Razorbacks’ effort is further evidence that Mike Anderson’s team has turned a corner from its old disappointing ways.

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SEC M5: 02.25.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 25th, 2015

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  1. I’m not ashamed to admit it: There are few things in my hoops world that I enjoy more than watching Willie Cauley-Stein move his feet. Observing a seven-footer glide across the perimeter in a defensive stance is art. Hyperbole aside, Cauley-Stein’s versatility is why NBCSports.com‘s Rob Dauster has him in the top five of his most recent Player of the Year rankings. By his logic, the junior should be the front-runner for the SEC POY award, but is he? My gut tells me that Arkansas’ Bobby Portis or LSU’s Jordan Mickey will get the honor based on their gaudier stats, but it probably should go to Cauley-Stein. As a team, Kentucky is on the verge of accomplishing something quite historic. Even if the Wildcats don’t run the table, their dominance has been the story of this year’s SEC and no one player captures that better than Cauley-Stein.
  2. As a point guard, Andrew Harrison is playing his best basketball of the season. The sophomore has averaged 4.4 assists and just 1.6 turnovers per game in his last eight outings, punctuated with nine assists and a single turnover on Saturday against Auburn. This uptick in production has coincided with a visit from his father, who also spent time with his brother Aaron last year before he caught fire in the NCAA Tournament. As good as Tyler Ulis has played this season, it must be reassuring to John Calipari that Andrew is playing so well too as the calendar nears March. He led the Wildcats to the championship game last year, and that kind of postseason experience is invaluable for a point guard.
  3. Stories about Memorial Gymnasium’s quirkiness at Vanderbilt are inevitable every year. But next year, those yarns will have a fresh angle. Vanderbilt is extending the coaching box up the sideline for the 2015-16 season, meaning that coaches won’t just be confined to the baseline as they have been in the past. Only head coaches will be allowed in the expanded box, so the solitary figure strolling up and down the sidelines above the first few rows of fans will be another unique part of the games at Vanderbilt. There will probably be some changes on the court for the Commodores next year too, at least from a win-loss perspective. There is a drastic disparity between the team’s KenPom (#47) and RPI (#117) ratings this season –eight of the Commodores’ 12 losses have come by four points or fewer, and Kevin Stallings’ group should be a much bigger threat next season if Damian Jones returns.
  4. The Macon Telegraph’s Seth Emerson has some interesting tidbits on Georgia’s NCAA Tournament resume as we enter the stretch run. We’ve also officially reached the point in the season when it’s not too early to talk about SEC Tournament seeding. Georgia stands at 8-6, nipping on the heels of 10-5 Texas A&M and 10-4 Ole Miss. Making up that difference in the standings to earn a double-bye will be difficult, but the Bulldogs have one thing going for them. They’ve already beaten Texas A&M and could sweep the Rebels with a win this evening, which would give Georgia the tiebreaker over both if it comes to that. That makes tonight’s game at the Tad Pad all the more important for a team looking to get back on the right track.
  5. One phrase is noticeably absent in SEC conversations right now: hot seat. Unless something strange occurs down the stretch, it doesn’t look like there will be a new SEC coach coming on board in 2015-16. Reviewing the hot seat scenario David Changas painted back in October, the two most at-risk coaches were Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Mississippi State’s Rick Ray, and both appear to be safe. Alabama has been somewhat disappointing given how well the Tide’s non-conference schedule went, but at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the SEC it isn’t likely that Grant will lose his job. The same can be said for Ray, as Mississippi State has clearly improved during the season and will have a senior-laden team (Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware) ready to roll next year. The hottest seat right now might actually belong to Kim Anderson, with Missouri trudging through a miserable season and current athletic director Mike Alden set to depart in August. But it’s ridiculous to think that the new administration would part ways with a native son after a clear rebuilding year.
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SEC Week That Was: Volume VIII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 24th, 2015

For the next four 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 VIII, including games from February 16-23.  

Team of the Week. At long last, we relent. When a program with the history that Kentucky has checks off its best start ever (27-0), the award practically gives itself. The Wildcats weathered a poor shooting night and game effort from Tennessee last week to still beat the Vols by 18 on the road, and then didn’t let up against Auburn over the weekend. Kentucky ran out to a 30-4 lead and battered the much smaller-Tigers throughout the game right where they were supposed to with a 44-24 rebounding advantage. There are so many things this Kentucky team does well, including the small things that can help stop an upset bid in its tracks. Kentucky belies its youth by taking great care of the ball, as there isn’t a player on the roster turning the ball over more than 1.9 times per game. The Wildcats also have been fairly strong at the free throw line this season, an area which had been a problem for some of Coach Cal’s elite teams. All four guards plus Karl-Anthony Towns are shooting better than 77.8 percent from the line. In a late-game situation where a foul is coming, a lineup of Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Towns provides cover from a lot of angles. Ole Miss and Arkansas also deserve mention here for picking up wins at the Hump against a confident Mississippi State team.

Stefan Moody has stepped right in and replaced Marshall Henderson at Ole Miss (orlandosentinel.com).

Stefan Moody has stepped right in and replaced Marshall Henderson at Ole Miss (orlandosentinel.com).

Player of the Week. We will mimic the conference’s choice this week and give it to Stefan Moody, who starred in the Rebels’ close wins over Mississippi State (29 points, six rebounds, four steals) and Tennessee (22 points, four rebounds, six steals). The high-octane JuCo transfer comparison to Marshall Henderson is cliched but unavoidable, and this week was no different as Moody put up 23 three-point attempts over both games. He connected on 14 of them, and should continue to have the green light with that kind of success rate. The lift Moody gets on his jumper is incredible, and allows him to be lethal even when the defense knows what is coming. For example, in the second half against Mississippi State, Moody hit threes on three straight possessions, rolling off the same off-ball screen action each time. Henderson and Moody are both exceptional long-range shooting talents, but it’s probably no coincidence that both exploded with the underrated Jarvis Summers running the show next to them. Honorable mention goes to Moody’s intrastate rival Craig Sword (34 points), who seems to be rounding into form as a diverse scoring threat after being sidelined with a back injury early in the year.

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SEC M5: 02.20.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 20th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. We’re deep enough into the season that the debate over whether a loss would actually help Kentucky is starting to percolate. A Sea of Blue’s Keith Garrett makes the case that a loss wouldn’t do any good for the Wildcats, and I tend to agree. The sting of defeat can’t be replicated, but there must have been emotion in the Kentucky after nearly losing to Ole Miss, Texas A&M and LSU. If ever there was a non-conference run to trigger a feeling of invincibility, it was what Kentucky did this year in thrashing Kansas and UCLA, and controlling games against North Carolina and (for the most part) Louisville. But the Kentucky players saw Jarvis Summers nearly put a game-winner through the net, and that must have made them realize their mortality. But they won that game, and setting a precedent and mindset of winning despite poor play seems as important as any lesson that could be taken from a loss.
  2. It’ll take a perfect game to beat Kentucky, and Tennessee experienced that firsthand on Tuesday. The Vols canceled out the rebounding battle and respectably held the Wildcats to 41.7 percent shooting from the field. But that wasn’t enough, and a big reason Tennessee still lost by 18 points was they went just two-for-17 from deep. Not to oversimplify it, but if a team does take down the Wildcats, the three-point line will probably be a big reason why. Ole Miss nearly pulled the upset in Rupp Arena in large part because the Rebels hit nine triples. But reaching this mark will be easier said than done. Some people don’t believe three-point defense is real, but the Wildcats’ length and general defensive prowess has to have something to do with the paltry 26.2 percent opponents have shot against them from distance this season.
  3. Oof, Georgia – what happened? The Bulldogs had avoided the bad loss all season until last week, when home losses to Auburn and South Carolina dropped their RPI by 20 spots in just five days. They are going through an offensive slump at the worst time, shooting below 40 percent in both losses. Georgia’s injury troubles could be partly to blame. J.J. Frazier missed the South Carolina game and Juwan Parker hasn’t played since January 20. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, who both need to essentially play the entire game until either Frazier or Parker returns. Regardless, Georgia is in desperate need of a win in Tuscaloosa this weekend.
  4. Florida is not having a good season. There’s no way to around it. But if you take a step back, strip away expectations and consider the Gators that took the floor Wednesday night against Vanderbilt for what they were – a young team playing out the string – you have to come away impressed. With Michael Frazier out with an injury and Dorian Finney-Smith suspended, Devin Robinson (12 points, 10 in the second half) led Florida to a win over the Commodores. Chris Chiozza (eight points, six rebounds) and Chris Walker (five blocks) were also instrumental. These are young players stepping up, and those experiences probably mean next year won’t be as disappointing.
  5. Texas A&M’s key win against LSU came in large part because the Aggies doubled up the Tigers on the offensive glass (14 to seven). Second-chance points are important for any team, but especially so for one like the Aggies that plays slow and isn’t the most efficient on the offensive end. Danuel House (20 points against LSU) has emerged as a scoring star, but as defenses key in on him it’s nice that Kourtney Roberson (16 points, five offensive rebounds) is playing his best this late in the season. The Aggies are inching closer to their first NCAA Tournament bid under Billy Kennedy, and the win over LSU was pivotal.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 17th, 2015

For the next five 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 VII, including games from February 9-15. 

Team of the Week. Kentucky tied a program record for the best start in school history (25-0) by overcoming a 21-2 second half run to sneak by LSU, and followed that up against South Carolina by running out to a 43-18 halftime lead before coasting home. So that’s why Arkansas is the team of the week. Like we say in this space in each rendition, there’s no fun in simply handing the award to the ultra-deserving Wildcats every week. That means the Razorbacks get the nod because Mike Anderson’s team has moved into rare air with a winning SEC road record. After hanging 101 points on Auburn and gutting out a one-point victory at Ole Miss last week, the Hawgs moved to 4-2 on the road in SEC play. Arkansas is finally playing well enough away from home to support its typically-impressive home record (15-1), and it’s showing up as a result in the national polls (#17 Coaches, #18 AP). The win in Oxford may have been Anderson’s best road victory since returning home, and the Razorbacks are doing the things that his best teams do: forcing turnovers and sharing the ball. Since league play began, Arkansas leads the SEC in both assists (179) and forcing turnovers (190), and while Bobby Portis deservedly receives the most praise, Rashad Madden and Jabril Durham have both been excellent facilitators in the team’s up-tempo motion offense.

Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden have had plenty to celebrate this past week (rantsports.com).

Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden have had plenty to celebrate this past week (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. This one is easy: flight crews. Separate planes carrying Missouri’s Kim Anderson on a recruiting trip and the entire Mississippi State team had to make emergency landings this week near St. Louis after experiencing engine troubles. Thankfully no one was hurt in either incident, but full credit must go to the pilots and crews involved to keep everyone safe. On the hardwood, we’ll stay in Fayetteville and give it to Michael Qualls this week. The junior had an efficient offensive week (34 points on 12-of-20 shooting), grabbed 11 rebounds and hit two critical late jumpers in the win over Ole Miss. After Portis, no other Arkansas player will be more important in terms of Arkansas’ showing in March. Qualls is the Razorbacks’ second option when defenses focus on Portis, and he has the tools to be a big-time defensive difference-maker. Tennessee’s Josh Richardson deserves mention as well for single-handedly carrying the Vols to a road win over rival Vanderbilt (27 points, seven rebounds).

Tournament Chatter. For the third straight week the SEC is holding strong with six teams in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology: Kentucky (#1), Arkansas (#6), Georgia (#8), Ole Miss (#8), LSU (#11) and Texas A&M (#11). While Florida and Tennessee have effectively faded from view, the current three-week consistency from these six teams should help with familiarity down the stretch. It’s still very possible that one or two of these schools will fall out of the picture, but the worst case scenario appears to be four NCAA bids from the SEC, and if nothing else, that is a clear improvement over the last couple of years.

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RTC Weekly Primer: UNC-Duke, No. 1 Seeds, and a Tight Bubble

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 17th, 2015

They say time flies when you’re having fun, so by the transitive property, they might as well say time flies during college basketball season. But seriously, this season seems to have sped by. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because a busy schedule has eaten up my down time. Maybe it’s something subconscious. But I genuinely feel like conference play just started and yet we’re already approaching March. The logical explanation for that? Maybe it’s because the overarching narratives of the season have been in constant flux. Or — another way of putting it — maybe it’s because Selection Sunday is just 25 days away and we really only know one thing: Kentucky is good. Really good. After that, everything is tight — tight with two heavily enunciated ‘t’s. According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, eight teams have a 25 percent or greater chance at a No. 1 seed, but only Kentucky’s odds surpass 60 percent. And moving down the hierarchy, there’s just so much additional uncertainty. There’s been a definitive top eight for over a month now, and nobody below that threshold appears too intent on breaking into it. Teams like Iowa State and North Carolina have invariably followed up big wins with baffling losses, and teams like Utah and Louisville simply haven’t separated themselves in a meaningful way. Even further down the Top 25, the bubble is nothing more than a mess. But that’s the case every year. And even as all-encompassing as it is right now, there are bound to be teams that stage late surges to put themselves in contention. There are also bound to be teams that spin out of control in the other direction. To put it succinctly… there is bound to be madness. That might as well be a slogan for college hoops in general, but especially this year.

The Only Thing We Know For Certain is that Kentucky is Really Good (USA Today Images)

The Only Thing We Know For Certain is that Kentucky is Really Good (USA Today Images)

One for the Money

North Carolina at Duke | Wednesday, 9:00 PM EST, ESPN

No matter which team you root for, no matter where you live, there’s only one game this week that is must-watch television. And even if Dickie V. won’t be on the call, you have to tune in for the first of two battles between North Carolina and Duke. When you think of college sports, almost all of the notions of amateur athletics are embodied by the Tobacco Road rivalry. Games are played with passion and intensity. They are played with unrelenting pressure and in front of hostile crowds. They are played enveloped by the shadows of history, in front of legends and ghosts of years past. They are laden with folklore and religiously maintained traditions. They turn the otherwise forgotten into heroes and the otherwise successful into villains. The Duke-Carolina games are as singularly powerful as nearly any regular season game in any sport, and this year’s annual rite of passage begins Wednesday night.

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SEC M5: Presidents Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2015

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  1. Coach Cal took a step back from coach-speak to appreciate Kentucky’s program-record tying 25-0 start after the Wildcats walloped South Carolina on Saturday. “You just tied a record of the most storied program in the country,” he told his team. “You tied a record and you’re all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein, a junior).” A win at Tennessee will push these Wildcats past the 1953-54 Kentucky squad, but would only tie the best start for a team coached by Calipari. His 1995-96 UMass team led by Marcus Camby started 26-0 before losing at home to George Washington, and his Derrick Rose-led 2007-08 Memphis team got to 26-0 before losing at home to Tennessee in what was one of the biggest regular season games in recent memory. As fate would have it, if the Wildcats get to 26-0 they would face Bruce Pearl, the man who halted Cal’s 26-0 Memphis team, next Saturday. In any event, both of Cal’s 26-0 teams finished as the National Runner-up, and it would probably be considered a disappointment if this Kentucky squad followed suit.
  2. The SEC got plenty of ink in College Basketball Talk’s Saturday Bubble Banter. Texas A&M strengthened its profile, or at least avoided mucking it up, by holding on to beat Florida. Ole Miss and Georgia, on the other hand, took hits with home losses, but the Bulldogs will be dinged much more than the Rebels. Georgia’s loss at home to Auburn (RPI #162, KenPom #135) would be easier swallow had it happened on the road, but losing in Stegeman Coliseum to the Tigers was a surprise. The Bulldogs had generally taken care of business this season, going 7-2 against RPI 101-200 with the only other loss being their season opener against Georgia Tech. They should be fine, especially coming off a strong win at Texas A&M, but can’t afford another bad home loss with South Carolina coming to Athens on Tuesday. An unrelated statistical oddity about the Auburn-Georgia rivalry: the schools are 90-90 against each other in basketball and 55-55 against each other in football. Talk about not having bragging rights.
  3. Despite its inconsistencies, LSU can be a hard team to match up with since most nights the Tigers will have a huge athletic advantage in the front court. This showed in their win over Tennessee, where the Vols struggled to get good looks against LSU’s length. Jordan Mickey ended up with seven blocks and now has an NCAA-leading 91 blocks on the season, and as a team the Tigers have the sixth-most blocks in the country. Barring a late season collapse, it seems the Tigers are a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Even if they wind up with a 10 or 11 seed, they should be in shape to take advantage of their athletic advantage down low and frustrate teams in the early rounds.
  4. Alabama has quietly been one of the more disappointing teams in conference play. The Tide are now just 5-7 in league play after dropping a must-win game at home to Vanderbilt. This comes after a 10-3 non-conference mark that included a win over UCLA and one-point loss at Wichita State, which was a marquee win Alabama had in their pocket before coughing it up late. To be fair, the schedule makers did the Tide no favors. They’ve already gotten Kentucky twice and have had to travel to Arkansas and LSU. But at the end of the day the NCAA Tournament is out of the picture for a team that has yet again had its offensive struggles under Anthony Grant. This season has been an improvement over last, but Grant’s job security continues to be an interesting question.
  5. Something fishy is going on in Eastern Missouri airspace. The plane chartered by Mississippi State lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing in St. Louis as the Bulldogs were on the way home after a win in Columbia. This comes just a few days after a plane carrying Kim Anderson had to make an emergency landing outside of St. Louis for a similar reason. Fortunately, no one was hurt either time. After his nerves evened out, Rick Ray must have been more pleased than usual with his team’s win. The Bulldogs let an 18-point slip away but held on for the victory, and have now won three SEC road games this season, which is a far cry from the 22-game conference road losing streak the program endured up until the January 21 win at Auburn. Building a program is all about positive momentum, and the Bulldogs have plenty of that right now.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume VI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 10th, 2015

For the next six 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 VI, including games from February 3 to February 8.

Team of the Week. This week provides several compelling candidates. Kentucky could win this award every time and this week was no exception as the Wildcats handled a quality Georgia team on Tuesday and survived a difficult environment in Gainesville afterward. Arkansas got healthy with two comfortable wins after seemingly scratching by for weeks. Even Vanderbilt tossed its name into the conversation by shaking off a seven-game losing streak and going 2-0. Despite all these worthy choices, Ole Miss gets this week’s nod after notching a big win against red-hot Texas A&M and then following it up with a road win at Auburn (which itself was coming off an impressive win at LSU). The Rebels last week showed that they can win games in different ways. They needed a solid defensive performance to get past the surging Aggies and were especially effective using ball pressure to frustrate Alex Caruso. But it was the Ole Miss offense that showed up against Auburn (57.8% FG, 40.0% 3FG) to negate a great scoring night from Bruce Pearl’s backcourt. The Rebels may not necessarily be peaking right now, but they seem to be rounding into form. Anthony Perez has emerged as a solid wing/post hybrid who can stretch the floor. Dwight Coleby has developed into a reliable rebounding and shot-blocking presence. Those two, along with Sebastian Saiz and MJ Rhett, give Andy Kennedy a solid frontcourt rotation to support his veteran backcourt.

Karl-Anthony Towns had big games in Kentucky's wins over Georgia and Florida (chron.com).

Karl-Anthony Towns had big games in Kentucky’s wins over Georgia and Florida (chron.com).

Player of the Week. You can only seek alternatives to Kentucky in this league to a certain point. Karl-Anthony Towns gets the nod after leading the Wildcats to two hard-fought victories over Georgia (KenPom #33) and Florida (#35) last week. The Bulldogs surprisingly outrebounded Kentucky in their game, but Towns stepped up to grab more than half (13) of the Wildcats’ 24 total rebounds. Against the Gators, Towns was only the Wildcat who was able to generate consistent offense at the game’s start, which quietly helped Kentucky stay within contact of the fired-up Gators. Towns’ great week (34 points, 21 rebounds, four blocks, six assists, 10-of-10 FT) is an encouraging sign for John Calipari. The freshman recently went through a four-game stretch where he didn’t score more than seven points or grab more than four rebounds in any single game. Whether it was due to foul trouble, growing pains or some combination of both, it bodes well for the Wildcats that he has now strung together a few great outings. See how Kentucky focused on getting him the ball in this week’s edition of Freeze Frame.  Antoine Mason also deserves mention here for cracking 20 points against LSU (24 points) and then following it up with 23 against Ole Miss.

Tournament Chatter. Last week’s eight-team pipe dream proved to be too much to handle, and it will be difficult for either of Tennessee or Florida to make a case for inclusion again. But we’ll always have last week. Still, Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology contains six SEC teams in the fold, which would double what the league received in the last two seasons. Everyone will certainly take that if it comes to pass.

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SEC M5: 02.06.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 6th, 2015

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  1. Ole Miss has some intriguing potential as SEC play nears the stretch run. The Rebels have proven that they can take care of business on offense and will be difficult to beat if they defend at a reasonable level. On Wednesday Ole Miss beat the red-hot Aggies despite an off night from Jarvis Summers (seven points on 2-of-10 shooting) and an overall sluggish shooting performance (38.7%). The Rebels held Texas A&M to just 0.82 points per possession and they did so primarily through man-to-man defense, which is notable because they have looked most effective this year when switching up zone defenses. Ole Miss could be destined to finish second in this league if it keeps defending the way it did Wednesday night.
  2. Bovada has Kentucky as an even-money favorite (1-to-1) to win the national championship, which is, in short, ridiculous. What’s more ridiculous is that it doesn’t seem that ridiculous. Despite a slew of close calls and sluggish performances, Kentucky has done nothing to shake off the perception that it is far and away the team to beat this year. Las Vegas’ confidence in the Wildcats is also an indirect compliment to the entire conference. Kentucky more than proved its mettle in the non-conference slate by beating Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville, among others. If those wins weren’t already in the books, then their less-than-dominant performances against what is perceived as weak competition would raise some eyebrows. Instead, competitive games against Georgia, Ole Miss and Texas A&M seem to say more about the quality of those teams than raise questions about the legitimacy of Kentucky.
  3. Prior to Kentucky and Georgia’s Super Tuesday showdown, you probably could have gotten great odds that the Wildcats would win the rebounding battle, especially with the Bulldogs’ bruising forward Marcus Thornton out of the lineup. But those odds would have been pantsed, as Georgia inexplicably outrebounded the Wildcats by 12. The main reason for that was freshman Yante Maten, who had far and away the best game of his young career, contributing 13 points to go along with nine rebounds. It was a tremendous stat line when you consider the front line he was battling, that he was hit by a car just a few weeks ago, and that he was filling Thornton’s rather huge void. As of Thursday night, Thornton had still not been cleared to play against Tennessee this weekend. If he can’t go, Mark Fox will look for Maten to build on his breakout performance against the Wildcats. If the rookie’s performance becomes a trend, Georgia could become a #9 to #11 seed that no team wants to face in the NCAA Tournament.
  4. There have been a number of reasons why Florida has struggled to live up to what appears to have been unrealistic expectations. One reason is certainly Kasey Hill’s inability to fill the large shoes left by Scottie Wilbekin. Let’s not be too harsh, though: Wilbekin was one of the most valuable players to any team in the country last year — a savvy veteran point guard who made winning plays seemingly every game. Expecting a sophomore to jump right in and replace his production is dumb. But Hill has had a rough year and has not shown improvement in the part of his game that needed the most work: shooting (38.5% on two-point shots; 49.5% last year). He’s still young and his quick first step is something that can’t be taught, but Florida’s offensive prowess is in large part tied to Hill’s development.
  5. Craig Sword is coming on strong for Mississippi State, perhaps setting himself up for a monster senior season. Up until a few weeks ago it looked like his junior campaign would be disappointing when it became clear that a preseason back injury was still ailing. But since the middle of January his minutes have steadily increased and he has gotten back to being the dynamic scorer many thought he could be. In the Bulldogs’ last two road games against Ole Miss and Tennessee – both quality opponents – Sword has averaged 26.5 points per game and shot 17-of-21 from the field. Mississippi State has developed a lot of positive momentum around its program in the last few weeks, and Sword is a big part of that upward trend.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 3rd, 2015

For the next seven 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 V, including games from January 26 to February 2.

Team of the Week. I want to preface this by saying that Kentucky could – and probably should – be the team of the week every week. You don’t get to 21-0 without that being the case. But the Wildcats get plenty of praise from all corners of the web, so why not challenge ourselves with this week’s selection? The nod goes to Florida, the same team that Billy Donovan declared as being dead in terms of the NCAA Tournament a little over a week ago. The Gators’ long-term resurrection is still something of a pipe dream, but if the miracle occurs, last week is where it all will have started. Florida enjoyed a perfect week in knocking off solid opponents Alabama (KenPom #44) and Arkansas (#43) in ugly fashion. These were probably the Gators’ two best wins of the season, which with an overall record of 12-9 overall underscores how much work they still have to do. From a bid perspective, Florida is 1-5 against the RPI top 50 and 4-3 against the next 50; contrast this with fellow bubble team Kansas State  — which is 12-10 overall but 4-6 against the RPI top 50 — and you can see that Florida’s resume may not have the requisite depth to compete for a bid. Despite the pair of victories, last week highlighted some of the Gators’ inconsistencies that have plagued them all year long. After a 27-point outburst against Ole Miss, Michael Frazier scored just 11 points on 2-of-13 shooting. Similarly, Chris Walker followed up one of the best games of his career against the Tide (12 points and four rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting) with a dud against the Hogs (one point, two rebounds). Still, Florida is trending in the right direction as it approaches the ultimate chance for a quality win: Saturday in Gainesville against Kentucky.

Alex Caruso is the SEC's leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Alex Caruso is the SEC’s leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Player of the Week. Danuel House was the SEC’s pick as Player of the Week, but we’ll give it to his slightly less-heralded junior teammate, Alex Caruso, as Texas A&M ran its winning streak to seven games with victories over Auburn and Vanderbilt. In both games Caruso was his usual stat-stuffing self, racking up averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. I firmly believe that the transitions of transfers House and Jalen Jones to their new team has gone so smoothly in large part because of Caruso’s play-making. He’s a bona fide SEC star who does not command the ball, and that is extremely valuable for a team looking to make the leap from also-ran to the NCAA Tournament. We may also be witnessing the rise of one of the great players in recent Texas A&M basketball history. Since 2009-10, no player in the conference has held as high of a career assist percentage (33.9%) or steal percentage (4.4%) as Caruso. LSU’s Jordan Mickey deserves mention in this space solely for his ridiculous 25-point, 20-rebound game in the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State.

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RTC Weekly Primer: At Long Last, It’s Basketball Season

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 3rd, 2015

It’s basketball season. At long last, it’s basketball season. It’s a shame that the general sports-loving public takes so long to realize that’s the case, but regardless of their failures and inadequacies, it’s time to look ahead. Football is finally and definitively over, and it’s time for the roundball and the hardwood floor to take center stage on the American sports landscape. The Super Bowl was awesome — one of the greatest of all-time, and a phenomenal advertisement for the competitiveness of the NFL — but as always, it was a bit anti-climactic. After two weeks of buildup, it’s all over; and just like that, there is a major void on the sports scene.

There's No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

There’s No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

College basketball must fill that void. For the dedicated fans, it undoubtedly will. But a frequently posed question in recent years has been whether college basketball has become a “niche sport”? According to a recent Harris poll, the game has indeed declined in popularity. Currently only three percent of American sports fans identify college hoops as their go-to game — down from five percent in 2011, and 10 percent in 1989 — and only a seismic shift in popularity could see the sport return to its peak levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Does that matter? For those who attach themselves to the overall health and growth of the game, yeah, it does. But at least in the short run from now until April 6, no poll will inhibit the joy we derive from the on-court action of college basketball. “Niche” can be viewed as a demeaning word when it is used in this context, but niche is fine so long as it can produce compelling games like Duke-Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday and atmospheres like Kansas-Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse last night.

Three for the Money

  • West Virginia at Oklahoma | Tuesday, 8:00 PM EST, ESPN2. After an explosive Big Monday of important (if not competitive) games, it’s a rather slow work week in the world of college hoops. But before we jump ahead to the weekend’s action, let’s not lose sight of this one on Tuesday night in Norman. It’s time to focus on the season that West Virginia is putting together. All of a sudden, the Mountaineers at 6-2 appear to be the biggest threat to Kansas in the Big 12 race. Bob Huggins has done a spectacular job in rebuilding this team after a couple of down years. He has possibly the conference’s best player in senior Juwan Staten but his true value with this year’s group has been molding them into a new identity featuring pressure defense all over the floor. Four West Virginia players rank among the nation’s top 100 in steal percentage, and the team prides itself on turning opponents over and getting out in transition. Tonight’s game could go either way. Oklahoma could get sucked into West Virginia’s traps and come out on the wrong end of a helter-skelter contest; or the Sooners could constantly be in attack mode, using the fast tempo and a raucous home crowd to play right into their hands.

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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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