SEC Offseason Burning Questions, Part I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 12th, 2016

The SEC will be a very different league next season, in no small part as a result of losing its two most influential players to the NBA — Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and LSU’s Ben Simmons. Here are five burning questions looking ahead to next season, as the league will once again try to put #SECBasketballFever to bed.

Can Mike Anderson Survive Another Year?

Can Mike Anderson Survive Another Year?

  1. Can Kentucky start completely from scratch? It’s become played-out sarcasm: the Wildcats lose a lot of talent; how ever will they recover? We should assume that Coach Cal will seamlessly mold a group of elite freshmen into a team deserving national consideration, and next year will be no different. Top-10 recruits Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo lead another stacked class headed to Lexington, but consider this: The Wildcats have not truly had to start from square one in three years. The 2014-15 (Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress) and 2015-16 (Ulis, Poythress) teams each  returned major contributors from Final Four runs. The Isaiah Briscoe/Marcus Lee/Derek Willis trio figures to be a solid core but lacks the star power of the previous groups. We know Calipari is up for the challenge, but it has been a few years since he’s had this much inexperience in key roles.
  2. Is Mike Anderson under pressure? The prodigal son has gotten Arkansas to the NCAA Tournament only once since returning to Fayetteville five years ago. Given that Stan Heath earned twice as many bids in his five years before being shown the door, Anderson’s performance thus far has come in well under expectations. This year could be considered a write-off after Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls left school early, but patience is clearly wearing thin in Fayetteville. Anderson without question feels the pressure, as he signed four JuCo players in this year’s class, including well-regarded guards Jaylen Bradford and Daryl Macon. They’ll pair with returnees Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley, both of whom should be in the running for preseason all-SEC honors. Losing Monk to the Calipari Machine was a huge blow no matter the circumstances, but it’s even more damaging for a coach that might be advocating for his job next season. Read the rest of this entry »
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LSU’s Dreadful Performance Could Put Johnny Jones’ Future in Doubt

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

In Saturday’s first semifinal matchup at the SEC Tournament, things started out well enough for LSU. The Tigers got to the first media timeout with an 8-3 lead and otherwise looked ready to play. From there, things were, to put it mildly, a disaster for Johnny Jones‘ team. Over the last 15:47 of the half, the Bayou Bengals registered just one field goal — an Antonio Blakeney three-pointer at the 1:18 mark — and were outscored 32-5 on their way to a 35-13 halftime deficit. Ben Simmons picked up three fouls and sat for most of the frame, but using that as an excuse for the putrid effort his team collectively put forward would not be fair. LSU was outhustled in every way by a Texas A&M team that looked like it actually wanted to be in Nashville. The Aggies coasted to an astonishing 71-38 victory that puts them in Sunday’s championship game against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Kentucky and Georgia.

After Saturday's 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it's time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

After Saturday’s 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it’s time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

The first half was in many ways a microcosm of LSU’s entire season. This is a team from which much was expected but could not deliver on the hype. Simmons is regarded by many as the likely first overall pick in the NBA Draft, and while he showed why he’s so highly-regarded at times this season, there were plenty of moments when he did not. On Saturday, after sitting much of the first half, he essentially was a non-factor on his way to a 10-point, 12-rebound performance. After the game, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said he felt sorry for Simmons. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s put on this pedestal; it’s just a lot to ask,” he said. For his part, Simmons said he wasn’t burdened by the pressure so many put on him. “For me, I just wanted to play. I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where our team was going to be,” he said after the game.

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SEC Saturday Storylines: League Title Up For Grabs?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 6th, 2016

A little over a week ago it looked like Texas A&M was about to run away and hide with the SEC’s regular season title. The excursion into non-conference play and exciting win over Iowa State obscures the fact that the Aggies are now on a two-game SEC losing streak after dropping a game in Nashville Thursday night. That puts Johnny Jones‘ LSU squad in a tie for first midway through conference play. Just as everyone predicted, right? The regular season title scramble highlights a crucial weekend in the league.

Didn't expect to see me on top of the standings, did you? (sportsnola.com).

Didn’t expect to see me on top of the standings, did you? (sportsnola.com).

  1. Break out the binoculars and tape measures, we’ve got a race! The Aggies and Tigers are tied atop the standings, and five more teams sit within two games of the lead. LSU should take care of business against Mississippi State at home – although the Bulldogs have been competitive lately – and put pressure on Texas A&M to rebound against a hungry South Carolina team. The winner of Kentucky and Florida will position itself nicely for a run at pole position, as well. But don’t forget about Vanderbilt. Less than week after a disappointing performance in Austin, the Commodores have renewed momentum with that Texas A&M win. They now face Ole Miss, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State, and if they run through that manageable stretch undefeated the ‘Dores will be sitting pretty at 9-4 in league play. We were due intrigue in the league title race after Kentucky and Florida won the league by an average of 5.5 games the past two seasons, and we’ve definitely got it. Read the rest of this entry »
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LSU Looking to Surge to the Top in Wide Open SEC Race

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 6th, 2016

ESPN didn’t get the 30-point, 20-rebound eye-popping gem of a game from Ben Simmons it hoped to showcase on Tuesday night, but LSU nevertheless had a near-perfect night in its big win over Kentucky. No gaudy numbers from Simmons? No Simmons really at all in the first half? No problem. LSU jumped out early, led by 10 at the break, and coasted into an 85-67 victory that gave the Tigers’ many detractors pause about their long-term prospects.

Tim Quarterman was LSU's big star in its win over Kentucky (kentucky.com).

Tim Quarterman was LSU’s big star in its win over Kentucky (kentucky.com).

LSU’s biggest issue this season has been its defense, which could be termed as inconsistent at best, disinterested at worst. Neither of these terms applied on Tuesday night, however, as LSU put up an impressive defensive performance in turning the Wildcats into a jump-shooting team that scored 0.96 points per possession. Kentucky couldn’t get anything easy in the paint and its most reliable offense was Jamal Murray desperately trying to create off the dribble late in the shot clock. It was a great recipe for a win, but perhaps the biggest story of the night was the lack of significant impact from Simmons (who still put up a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, most of which came after the Wildcats were finished). It was instead Tim Quarterman who stole the show, notching 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a showcase game of his own talents. This scintillating performance came from a player who had not scored in double figures in the five previous games and whose role was becoming increasingly hazy with Simmons dominating the ball.

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Freeze Frame: On Ben Simmons’ Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 16th, 2015

After three straight losses to Marquette, NC State and the College of Charleston, we criticized LSU’s offense for its inability to score. In the meantime, head coach Johnny Jones figured out how to get the ball to freshman phenom Ben Simmons, and it resulted in his offense hanging 119 points in a win against North Florida and another 98 points in a road loss against Houston. The problem is that a mediocre defense has only gotten worse, giving up 108 points in that home win over the Ospreys and hemorrhaging 105 in the overtime loss to the Cougars.

Ben Simmons' defense leaves much to be desired (philly.com).

Ben Simmons’ defense doesn’t live up to his superstar status. (philly.com)

After charting every defensive possession LSU played against Houston last Sunday, a sound conclusion is that the defensive ability of the Tigers’ freshman superstar leaves much to be desired. Nobody questions Simmons’ talent with the ball – as demonstrated by his season averages of 19.0 PPG and 5.9 APG – but, at this early point in his career, the offensive juggernaut is just an average defender. In this edition of Freeze Frame, a microscope is taken to Simmons’ defense and the findings aren’t good. He was often lost in pick-and-roll situations; he couldn’t stop penetration; he was frequently the last player back on defense; he had some difficulty closing out on offensive shooters; and he rarely provided help defense on slashing wing players entering the paint. Instead, you will notice a lot of standing around and catching his breath for the offensive end. His size and athleticism allows him to get to blocks and steals that other players cannot, but his defensive fundamentals, particularly in the half-court, are underwhelming. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.04.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Freeze Frame: What is Wrong with LSU?

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 2nd, 2015

LSU entered the season with a palpable buzz surrounding the addition of rising superstar Ben Simmons, ESPN poster child and the top high school recruit in the country. Despite an air of sunny optimism in the program this preseason, fans in Baton Rouge have seen this show play out before. Johnny Jones has a deep roster with as much talent as all but a few teams around the country, but skeptics only need to point out that a team with two eventual NBA big men disappointed its way to a 22-11 overall mark and an opening round loss to NC State in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Johnny Jones has not gotten the most out of his LSU squad this season (nola.com).

Johnny Jones has not gotten the most out of his LSU squad this season. (nola.com)

At least those Tigers beat the College of Charleston. After three straight losses to middling programs this November, it is painfully clear that the Tigers need more than the return of injured guard Keith Hornsby and the eligibility of Arizona transfer Craig Victor to turn this ship around. Despite the facilitation gifts of Simmons, LSU has been plagued by a stagnant offense. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we take a deeper look at exactly what is causing their offensive woes.

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SEC Burning Questions: Who’s Feeling Pressure?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2015

For a conference that has been viewed for a while as a basketball underachiever, the SEC’s coaching seats are surprisingly cool. There are a number of factors, of course, that go into that determination. For one, the league turned over nearly a third of its coaches during the offseason with four new hires at Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Alabama. There are also several stalwarts who aren’t going anywhere unless they choose to do so — guys like Kentucky’s John Calipari and Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings – and several more trending toward that status in Georgia’s Mark Fox and Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy. But college athletics wouldn’t be what it is without some modicum of hot seat speculation, so here are the four SEC coaches feeling the most pressure in 2014-15.

Johnny Jones has a talented team and a potential top-5 pick in Ben Simmons. Will that be enough to pick up his first tournament win at LSU? (SportsNola.com)

Johnny Jones has a talented team and a potential top-5 pick in Ben Simmons. Will that be enough to pick up his first NCAA Tournament win at LSU? (SportsNola.com)

  • Johnny Jones, LSU. Jones has won at least 19 games in each of his three seasons in Baton Rogue; he was extended through 2019 before last season; he is an LSU alumnus; and he has brought a lot of NBA talent to campus. That’s the long way of saying his job is relatively safe no matter what happens this year. Nevertheless, Jones could quiet a lot of his critics by taking a very talented team to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Despite an NBA-caliber frontcourt, there were some inexplicable low points for the Tigers last year — losing the conference opener to Missouri and the SEC Tournament opener to Auburn are but two notable examples. LSU then capped off its inconsistent year by blowing a 14-point halftime lead to lose to NC State in the final minute of the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament opener. Similar letdowns this season would only perpetuate the idea that Jones can’t get the most out of his talent. On the other hand, some clever coaching could make this team a match-up nightmare since both Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman are big, versatile players with the appropriate skill set to run an offense. Cobbling together a productive frontcourt, however, could be a challenge. Jones will need to find the right combination of Arizona transfer Craig VictorBrian Bridgewater, Aaron Epps, Darcy Malone and Elbert Robinson to support Simmons and his talented backcourt. One solution could be to go small with Simmons playing power forward, but the injury to Keith Hornsby could make that difficult early in the season. In short, the Tigers’ roster poses both a number of challenges and intriguing possibilities, but the ultimate goal of getting deep into the NCAA Tournament would go a long way towards silencing Jones’ detractors.

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SEC Quotable & Notable Volume I: Player Absences Mounting

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 9th, 2015

It’s just a few days until the regular season starts and there are already several significant injuries and absences throughout the SEC. The preseason edition of Quotable & Notable looks at the effects of some of these early roster complications.

Keith Hornsby's early season absence pushes freshman Antonio Blakeney into a bigger role (northjersey.com).

Keith Hornsby’s early season absence pushes freshman Antonio Blakeney into a bigger role (northjersey.com).

  • We’ll have to make some adjustments but it will be difficult. He’s the glue. Night in and night out you know what you’re going to get from him. – Johnny Jones. The LSU coach here is referring to senior guard Keith Hornsby, who will miss the bulk of non-conference play after undergoing an undisclosed recent “medical procedure.” Hornsby quietly had one of the better seasons in the league last year (13.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 39.3% 3FG) and is projected to be a big part of what the Tigers are trying to accomplish. There’s no shortage of depth in the backcourt, though, since Jones can simply hand over more of his workload to freshman Antonio Blakeney — a player whom, incidentally, was just named to the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year Award watch list. Josh Gray and Jalyn Patterson, despite inconsistent campaigns a year ago, were fixtures in the backcourt rotation and will also be in the mix. But Hornsby’s loss still stings. The steady production the Tigers figured to get from he and Tim Quarterman was supposed to allow Blakeney and Ben Simmons to seamlessly transition to the college game. With Hornsby now on the mend, pressure shifts to the freshmen to carry the load offensively. The good news? Other than a Thanksgiving trip to the Legends Classic in Brooklyn where LSU will face Marquette and either Arizona State or North Carolina State, the Tigers’ schedule is full of games in which they’ll be heavy favorites.

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SEC Trick-or-Treat: Who’s Handing Out What

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2015

Every house hands out something different on Halloween. Elation or disappointment are just a ring of the doorbell away, and you never know which one is behind the door. It’s much the same in the SEC, where each coach enters the season with plans to cook up something unique. So saunter up to the door and get your bag ready, because SEC coaches are doling out the goodies.

King-sized anything – John Calipari. Don’t pretend like you got dropped off in the country club section of town without hopes of piling your plastic pumpkin full of king-sized Snickers bars. How can Kentucky fans be anything but satisfied with what Coach Cal has served up since landing in Lexington? One championship and four Final Four appearances in six years are enough to keep any fan base content. 2015-16 should be more of the same, with All-American caliber sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis joining forces with another loaded freshmen class. But one of the keys towards making sure this is another king-sized season is a pair of players that are more accustomed to playing “fun-sized” roles in Lexington. Senior Alex Poythress was limited to just eight games last year after tearing his ACL, while junior Marcus Lee has never averaged more than 10 minutes per game in a season. Elite recruit and potential top-five pick Skal Labissiere will be the headliner in the frontcourt, but both Poythress and Lee will be heavily relied upon to provide production alongside the star freshman.

Pixy Stix – Mike Anderson. When you want a sugar rush — and fast — you reach for the sweet simplicity of Pixy Stix. When you want to watch fast-paced basketball, you watch the Arkansas Razorbacks. Mike Anderson’s teams have ranked among the top 25 teams nationally in Kenpom adjusted tempo in all four of his years in Fayetteville. However, the Pixy Stix sugar rush is also accompanied by an inevitable crash — something Anderson will look to avoid this season. Four of his top five scorers are gone, and his rotation was further complicated by off-the-court problems over the summer. Even more trouble came when one of his top recruits, Ted Kapita, wasn’t able to qualify. It might all add up to a trying transition season in Fayetteville, as the Hogs may fall far short of the success of last season’s group, whose season ended in the third round of the Tournament. Still, if nothing else, freshman Jimmy Whitt should be able to light up the scoreboard — even if the points are as empty as the calories in that paper tube of sugar.

Screenshot 2015-10-29 at 11.29.30 PM

Need A Rush? Grab Some Pixy Stix This Halloween…Or Watch Mike Anderson’s Team Play Basketball

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What Jordan Mickey’s Early Exit Means For LSU

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 2nd, 2015

Jordan Mickey joined former teammate Jarell Martin in declaring for the NBA draft this week, forgoing two years of eligibility and depriving the college basketball world of an LSU team that could have legitimately given next year’s Kentucky team a run for its money in terms of talent. Here is a rundown of what his departure means for the Tigers.

Jordan Mickey will enter the NBA draft after two highly productive seasons at LSU (lsusports.net).

Jordan Mickey will enter the NBA draft after two highly productive seasons at LSU. (lsusports.net)

  • Surprise Factor: Low. It took him a little longer than his teammate Martin to announce his decision, but this was expected.
  • Legacy: Mickey certainly got his money’s worth during his two years in Baton Rouge. He racked up all-SEC honors both years (1st and 2nd teams) and landed on the all-defensive team twice. He also leaves LSU with the second-most blocked shots in program history (218), looking up only to Shaquille O’Neal. He’s meant a lot for Johnny Jones as well, who used his North Texas/Dallas connection to get the top-50 prospect to LSU. Mickey had become a legitimate NBA prospect after his freshman year, and while that’s not shocking for a guy with his pedigree, recruits ranked where he was can be somewhat hit and miss. Jones should use Mickey’s clear development as a selling point when sitting in future prospects’ living rooms.

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The Non-Kentucky SEC Postseason Review

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 1st, 2015

Only one of the SEC’s eight postseason teams is still playing, and you may have heard of them a time or two over the weekend. For the other seven schools, the season is now over. Let’s take a look at whether they met, exceeded or fell short of their postseason expectations.

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn't find the same shooting touch against Xavier (espn.com).

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn’t find the same shooting touch against Xavier. (Getty)

Three That Exceeded Expectations

  • #11 Ole Miss (beat #11 BYU in the NCAA First Four; lost to #6 Xavier in the Second Round). The Rebels’ magical second-half outburst to beat BYU in Dayton was a real treat and it gave Andy Kennedy just his second NCAA Tournament win at Ole Miss. That alone has to qualify the Rebels’ postseason journey as a success, especially since the team had lost four of five to end the season and had to be feeling fortunate just to be there. It’s a shame M.J. Rhett has used all of his eligibility since his inside/outside game was instrumental in the First Four comeback and was one of the few players to perform well against the Musketeers.
  • #6 Alabama (beat #3 Illinois in the NIT First Round; lost to #2 Miami (FL) in NIT Second Round). The Tide’s underwhelming season ultimately cost Anthony Grant his job, but for the team to stick together to win at least one game just days afterward is impressive. There’s also no shame in losing to a Miami team that had several big wins this year and ended up reaching the NIT Semifinals in New York. The big question now is whether the gobs of money Alabama has reportedly thrown at Gregg Marshall will be enough to lure him to Tuscaloosa.
  • #5 Vanderbilt (beat #4 St. Mary’s in the NIT First Round; beat South Dakota State in the NIT Second Round, lost to Stanford in the NIT Quarterfinals): The Commodores looked primed for a run in the SEC Tournament but were knocked out in their opener against Tennessee. A run eventually came in the NIT, however, and the future appears bright for Kevin Stallings’ club. Vanderbilt opened with a road win in Moraga and fought to the bitter end against Stanford in Palo Alto. The Commodores’ are certainly pleased with this week’s news that Damian Jones intends to return. Stallings will pair him with a stockpile of sophomore guards (Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Shelton Mitchell, Wade Baldwin IV) that will keep Vanderbilt competitive.

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