Kentucky is Suddenly in Control of the SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 19th, 2016

On February 2, Kentucky inexplicably blew a 21-point first half lead against a mediocre Tennessee team in Knoxville as the Vols upset the Wildcats. John Calipari’s team at the time sat 6-3 in league play, while Texas A&M, at 7-1 and on a major roll, appeared in complete control. LSU, which had won at Auburn on the same night, was also ahead of the Wildcats at 7-2 and the Tigers finally appeared to be hitting their stride. Just 17 short days later, the Aggies have now lost four of five games and LSU is coming off a perplexing home loss to Alabama. For its part, Kentucky has not lost since, and after exacting some revenge against Tennessee on Thursday night with an 80-70 win in Rupp Arena, it’s difficult to argue that the Wildcats are not once again the team to beat with five games remaining. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tyler Ulis is playing at an MVP level (Getty)

Tyler Ulis is producing at a Player of the Year level (Getty)

The Wildcats have flourished despite losing their most consistent low-post threat and third-leading scorer, Alex Poythress, to injury. But thanks to dominant backcourt play from Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as well as an increase in production from junior forward Derek Willis, Kentucky has seized control of the league race and appears ready to climb the national rankings back into the top 10. Willis, who hardly played during his first two seasons in Lexington, scored a career-high 25 points in Thursday night’s win and has capably filled a void left by Poythress’ absence and the inability of freshman Skal Labissiere to consistently produce.

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What’s Trending: Tackles, Tempers, And More!

Posted by Griffin Wong on February 18th, 2016

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Griffin Wong (@griffwong90) is your weekly host.

If College Basketball’s Tripping Epidemic Wasn’t Enough…

Then we have this item for you, as Maryland’s Diamond Stone took it up a notch. At the end of the first half, with Maryland down big to Wisconsin at home, the freshman phenom briefly lost his temper, tackling Wisconsin’s Vitto Brown after the whistle. To make matters worse, Stone pushed Brown’s head back into the ground as he was getting up. Take a look:

Stone was given a flagrant 1 for his actions, and subsequently suspended for a game by coach Mark Turgeon. Though Stone was apologetic after the game, it’s a shame to see any player lose his temper like that. Oh, and Wisconsin snapped Maryland’s 27-game home winning streak.

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SEC Saturday Storylines: Is Alabama Really On The Bubble?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2016

This Saturday will contain more conference title drama in the span of just a few hours than the SEC has had over the past two seasons. The top four teams play each other on a day that could go a long way toward determining which squad arrives in Nashville as the SEC regular season champion. Here are three stories to keep track of with a lot at stake this weekend.

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial match up with Kentucky (thestate.com).

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial matchup with Kentucky (thestate.com).

  1. Which team will have a leg up in the title race on Sunday morning? With the top of the SEC standings muddled as we enter mid-February, the schedule-makers have smiled on us this weekend. KentuckySouth Carolina and LSU all sit at 8-3 with Texas A&M and Florida right behind that trio at 7-4. The Wildcats and Gamecocks will meet in Columbia while the Tigers and Aggies face off in Baton Rouge. The most pressure of the weekend might be on Billy Kennedy’s club, since a fifth straight SEC loss — a situation nobody would have thought possible just a few weeks ago — could put an end to the Aggies’ championship hopes. South Carolina might have the most to gain, however. A win for the Gamecocks could put Frank Martin’s team in a commanding position since its remaining schedule is the most manageable. South Carolina’s remaining road games? At Missouri, Mississippi State and Arkansas. That’s hardly a murderer’s row, even with the trip to Bud Walton thrown in there. There’s a lot of basketball still to come this season, but we may look back on this Saturday as the most pivotal day in the SEC race. Read the rest of this entry »
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Tyler Ulis is Not Kentucky’s Prototypical Defensive Game-Changer

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2016

Kentucky fans are used to having defensive game-changers. These are usually athletic behemoths like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns — players who make entry into the paint a house of horrors for their opponents. But there’s another defensive game-changer on campus in Lexington this season, except that he’s over a foot shorter than his predecessors and does most of his defensive dirty work outside the lane. Tyler Ulis‘ control of the offense and Jamal Murray‘s scoring barrage have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention during the last week, but it has been Ulis’ keen ability to disrupt opponents’ offensive game plans that has been just as important. Just ask Florida head coach Mike White.

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

“I thought it started, again, with Ulis,” he said last weekend after a blowout loss in Rupp Arena. “There were three or four plays that we called that were quick-hitting or with some movement in the first half that Tyler just blew up with the pressure on the basketball.” Kentucky followed up that win with another lopsided victory over a Georgia team that might have been playing for its NCAA Tournament life. But in the end, the box score was littered with ugly numbers. The Wildcats held the Bulldogs to a measly 0.76 points per possession and an astonishingly low 25.0% eFG, poor marks even for a team that has struggled to score this season. Ulis was again the main culprit, using his exceptional quickness in a variety of ways to frustrate Georgia.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.05.16 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 5th, 2016

As we reach the halfway point of conference play, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches we should buy and sell. This is our latest stock watch.

Buy: Vanderbilt Making the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores’ resounding win over Texas A&M Thursday night was a huge step in the right direction, but Kevin Stallings‘ team is still on the outside of the bubble at this point. They finally looked like the team everyone expected at the beginning of the season, however, and we think they will use that performance as a springboard to securing a bid. They will be favored in their next five games, and should be able to build more confidence for a tough stretch run.

Sell: Kentucky Exiting the Big Dance Early. Sure, the Wildcats looked bad in blowing a 21-point lead to Tennessee on Tuesday, but they also took Kansas to overtime and arguably should have beaten the Jayhawks at Phog Allen. They will have to get more consistent production from the post, but with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray growing comfortable together in the backcourt, we’re not betting against a relatively deep run for John Calipari‘s team.

Kevin Stallings

Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt got a big win Thursday night. (AP)

Buy: Kevin Punter Earning First-Team All-SEC Honors. The senior guard plays for a team that almost certainly will finish the season in the bottom third of the league, which is ordinarily a tough position from which to earn first-team all-conference honors. But Punter has been fantastic on a team with little offensive balance. He currently is second in the league in scoring (23.1 PPG) and is shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range. He’s shown remarkable improvement from his junior campaign, when he averaged just over ten points per contest. If he keeps up this level of play, Punter has a strong chance to make the all-SEC first team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Defensive Transformation

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 29th, 2016

Speaking after Kentucky’s beatdown of Missouri on Wednesday night, coach John Calipari talked about desperation. He credited his team’s ugly loss at Auburn as the catalyst for his team’s turnaround. “If we hadn’t lost that game, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate,” Calipari said. The Auburn loss gave Kentucky its second conference defeat, and had to leave Calipari wondering what was wrong with his post players. The Wildcats desperately needed something extra from its big men, and they have received it in recent outings. Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere have been more potent offensively of late, while also providing Kentucky a defensive presence that better approximates what we are used to seeing from a Calipari-coached team.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.23.44 PM

Skal Labissiere is finally giving Kentucky the rim protector it needs. (Photo: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

If you can’t defend Missouri, you can’t defend. In conference play, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in both offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. However, Kentucky hasn’t exactly played well defensively for much of the year. In the seven games after its loss to Ohio State and on through the loss at Auburn, Kentucky allowed more than a point per possession five times. For a point of reference, last season’s undefeated Kentucky team only allowed four teams to score above a point per possession during the entire regular season. But since the loss to Auburn, the Cats have held Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and now Missouri under that mark, including a season-best .77 PPP to Mizzou. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we are looking for the change that sparked the sudden improvement in Kentucky’s defense.

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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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Freeze Frame: Is It Time For a New “Tweak” In Kentucky’s Offense?

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 8th, 2016

During the 2013-14 season, John Calipari’s team lost six games in SEC play (including three of its last four) on its way to a 22-9 regular season mark. Kentucky, which had entered the season at No. 1 in the country, was considered a huge disappointment at the time. Calipari knew that something had to change if his team was going to turn things around, so heading into the 2014 SEC Tournament, he introduced “the tweak.” The beauty of his strategy was that Calipari wouldn’t say what he actually tweaked.

Calipari's tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention off his struggling juggernaut (cbssports.com).

Calipari’s tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention away from his struggling juggernaut. (Getty)

Calipari’s tweak became a national story as media and fans searched for the mystery in every game. “If you know anything about basketball, you’ll know exactly what I did,” he explained. Yet despite thousands of rumors swirling around, nobody could pinpoint precisely what it was. As Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com (who, as a beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, has followed the head coach’s career longer than most) wrote after Calipari revealed the tweak (he asked point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more), the brilliance of the strategy was that it shifted the conversation away from the play of his struggling Wildcats. This year’s team could certainly use a distraction from its disappointing play on the road, but it could also use a substantial tweak to its offensive approach. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at Kentucky’s recent loss to LSU and analyze a strategic tweak that could change the Wildcats’ season.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 30th, 2015

There were relatively slim pickings in terms of games over the holiday week, but there was still plenty of SEC action to digest. Let’s break down what went down in some of the final non-conference games of the season as we look ahead to the start of league play this weekend.

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky's win over Louisville (aseaofblue.com).

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky’s win over Louisville. (USA TODAY Sports)

Team of the WeekKentucky stole the show on the lightest college basketball weekend of the year with its narrow win in the Battle of the Bluegrass. The Wildcats lost Isaiah Briscoe to a turned ankle in pregame warm-ups and got very little from Skal Labissiere (for the entire game) or Jamal Murray (for most of the game). Yet they were still able to beat a top-25 team without any freshmen playing a starring role. It took a superb effort from Tyler Ulis (21 points, 8 assists/1 turnover) and good games from Alex PoythressMarcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins. Who knew a Kentucky win led by a sophomore, two juniors and a senior was possible in the Calipari era? That the Wildcats have that kind of depth and experience is why despite ups and downs from the freshmen class, this team will not go the way the team did during Poythress’ freshman year.

Player of the Week. Ulis was the marquee player in the win over the Cardinals, and it wasn’t close. He’s becoming about as complete a player as a college point guard can be, and displayed it all against Louisville. He was masterful breaking the Cardinals’ press and controlled the game offensively, especially by delivering a number of passes to Poythress that put him in position to score near the basket. He also played a big role scoring the ball himself and seems to have shrugged off the elbow injury that had been clearly limiting him since the UCLA loss. The sophomore was an efficient 4-of-7 from distance and scored around the rim as well. Kentucky needed its star point guard to step up against Louisville, and he did just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Louisville’s Second Legitimate Test of the Season Awaits in Lexington

Posted by Matt Auerbach on December 26th, 2015

The elephant in the room with respect to Louisville’s 11-1 start is the uncharacteristically weak competition it faced to compile its gaudy record. None of the Cardinals’ wins have come against a team rated higher than #131, according to KenPom, and that team was Grand Canyon. To their credit, Dan Majerle’s charges own a win over San Diego State, but nevertheless, the softness of this team’s schedule has left many wondering just how good this team is as it heads into its annual tussle with archrival Kentucky.

Kentucky vs. Louisville is Must-See TV For College Basketball Fans (USA Today Images)

Kentucky vs. Louisville is Must-See TV For College Basketball Fans (USA Today Images)

Statistically speaking, the Cardinals have been terrific. Employing its typically stingy defense, Louisville ranks third overall in defensive efficiency (89.9 points per 100 possessions) and fourth in defensive effective field goal percentage (40.4%). Sparked by graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the Cards have also outperformed expectations offensively, ranking 20th in efficiency (113.4 points per 100 possessions), led by Lee’s 13th-best national offensive rating (137.3). Shooting a blistering 57.5 percent from inside the arc, the Cards have also proven to be remarkably adept when they misfire, rebounding greater than 44.3 percent of their misses, good for second nationally.

Impressive as all that sounds, it isn’t unreasonable to scoff at the numbers when considering Louisville’s level of competition, ranked as the 332nd toughest schedule to this point. The Cards’ lone loss may have been the most instructive data point, in a good way, as the Cardinals led top-ranked Michigan State for the majority of their game in East Lansing only to fall victim to the expert playmaking of Denzel Valentine down the stretch. Perhaps the most positively illuminating development was the play of Lee, who was the best player on the floor for much of the night, proving to any doubters that his game would translate to the high-major level.

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