Josh Gray Gets LSU Off to Big Start in Critical Week

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 4th, 2014

Johnny Jones didn’t try to hide how important this week is for LSU when asked about Jordan Mickey missing last Saturday’s win over McNeese State. “Jordan is fine. If he was needed tonight, he would have been available, but he had treatment that past couple of days. We wanted to make sure that we allowed the process to take place there,” Jones said. Translation: we can win this game without Mickey, and we darn well need him ready for next week’s schedule. This was a calculated risk by Jones. UMass and West Virginia loomed, presenting LSU with a golden opportunity to wash away early season losses to Old Dominion and Clemson. The Tigers needed Mickey in the lineup this week, but a slip-up against McNeese State would have been hard to recover from. Jarell Martin did his part by carrying the Mickey-less Tigers to that win on Saturday, and Jones’ gamble paid off with an 82-60 win against UMass (KenPom #59) on Tuesday night.

Josh Gray led LSU to a big win over UMass with 25 points (nola.com).

Josh Gray led LSU to a big win over UMass with 25 points. (nola.com)

Star of the game. The distinction has to go to Josh Gray, who poured in 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three (he came into the game only 2-of-8 on the season). He also added five assists and four rebounds, but turned the ball over seven times. Two offensive possessions stand out for me. With around two minutes left in the first half, UMass’ Cady Lalanne made a contested basket inside to cut a 15-point LSU lead down to 11. A few stops and a basket or two and the Minutemen would have had some momentum going into halftime. Gray, however, immediately came downcourt and a hit a three to prevent the possibility of a half-closing run. He squashed UMass’ momentum in the second half too. The Minutemen had pulled to within 10 points on a three-point play by Lalanne, but Gray went on a 6-1 run by himself to ultimately put the game out of reach. Mickey had another great game (16 points, 10 rebounds) but he was locked in a physical battle defending Lalanne all night, holding the UMass senior to 6-of-15 shooting from the floor. Gray’s ability to carry the offense was that much more important when LSU’s star had to expend so much effort on the other end of the court. He certainly doesn’t have to score 20 points each night, but if he can build on this performance and become a reliable offensive threat from the outside, the Tigers will have three legitimate scoring options to really put the pressure on opposing defenses. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reassessing Georgia and LSU’s NCAA Tournament Prospects

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 28th, 2014

Georgia entered this season with hopes of making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010-11. That expectation didn’t seem far-fetched since the Bulldogs are coming off a 20-win campaign in 2013-14 and return most of their core contributors. LSU entered this season with similar expectations, largely because of the NBA potential of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. Two weeks in both teams are already saddled with two losses, which begs the question, should we re-adjust our expectations for the Bulldogs and the Tigers?

LSU has been unable to overcome off-nights from either Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin (comojuega.com).

LSU has been unable to overcome off-nights from either Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin (comojuega.com).

To me, LSU has been the most disappointing team in the SEC. Missouri and South Carolina have more losses, but neither was expected to finish in the top quarter of the league. The Tigers dropped neutral site games to Old Dominion (KenPom #100) and Clemson (#93), and needed a late rally to beat Texas Tech (#114) at home. Early season losses to power conference teams and historically-respectable mid-majors (like ODU) are not a sin. But the simple fact is that these are games the Tigers should be winning if they are the team many thought they could be.

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SEC Season Preview: LSU Tigers

Posted by David Changas on November 12th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next week, continuing today with LSU.

LSU Tigers

Strengths. In many other conferences Johnny Jones would have the best frontcourt in the entire league. Alas, this is the conference that Kentucky’s parade of McDonald’s All-American bigs call home. Nonetheless, LSU is loaded up front and hoping Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin can key a breakthrough season in Baton Rouge. Mickey raked in the hardware last season, landing on the All-SEC Second Team, All-Freshman Team and All-Defensive Team. After flirting with the NBA Draft last spring, he returns as one of the best rebounders (7.9 RPG) and shot-blockers (3.1 BPG) in the conference. Martin is an athletic forward who can play on the perimeter, and he got better as the season went along. His statistics across the board were better in conference play than they were in non-conference play, including an offensive rating that jumped from a nice 108.6 to a better 113.9. Massive freshman center Elbert Robinson III may only play in short spurts, but at 7’0’’ and 300 pounds, he’ll be a challenge for any defense. Fellow freshman forward Aaron Epps has drawn praise from Jones for his defensive rebounding and also figures to enter the frontcourt rotation.

Jordan Mickey will look to improve on his All-SEC Second Team freshman season (comojuega.com).

Jordan Mickey will look to improve on his All-SEC Second Team freshman season. (comojuega.com)

Weaknesses. Leadership. I’m always hesitant to write about something intangible that I can’t possibly understand or measure from my seat on the couch, but LSU is an undeniably young team. Their leaders, at least by performance, figure to be Mickey (a sophomore), Martin (a sophomore), Gray (first year in the program) and Hornsby (a transfer). The only senior on the roster is John Odo, who averaged 5.2 minutes per game last year. In an alternate universe the Tigers would have two seniors playing big minutes, but Johnny O’Bryant entered the NBA Draft and Anthony Hickey transferred to Oklahoma State. You don’t need to look further than Kentucky’s run to the National Championship game last year to see that youth and inexperience don’t preclude success. But in a season filled with high hopes, someone on LSU will need to fill the leadership role in the locker room and on the floor. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC M5: 11.07.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 7th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Thursday was a really bad day for Tennessee. As we documented earlier, Jason King of Bleacher Report reported that Southern Mississippi, which was coached for two years by new Volunteers coach Donnie Tyndall, is under NCAA investigation for improper financial support of “Prop 48″ athletes. Tyndall has not been contacted by the NCAA yet, although that appears inevitable. Shortly after that troubling news broke, Chris Clarke, a top-75 senior who committed to Tennessee last week, reneged and announced that he will instead head to Virginia Tech. While it is likely the switch was in the works prior to the release of King’s story, it is hard to believe that the investigation had nothing to do with his change of decision. Clarke was clearly the crown jewel of the Volunteers’ class, and Tyndall must now head back to the recruiting drawing board under the potentially dark clouds of an NCAA investigation.
  2. SI’s Seth Davis recently made waves with an interview of Kentucky head coach John Calipari for his Campus Insiders show. In the interview, Davis raised the issue of the vacation of his two Final Four appearances at UMass and Memphis. Calipari did not seem overly pleased with Davis’ question, indicating that he was not concerned about “me or my reputation. I sleep great at night.” Of course, that particular topic is one that Calipari’s detractors often raise to support their argument that he does not recruit above board, but he was not implicated in either of the two scandals and he seems to be doing well for himself in the Bluegrass State.
  3. Exhibition basketball is about as meaningful as the NFL preseason, so the results of these games are hardly worth paying attention to. Still, it is always surprising when a top-10 team plays a relatively close game against a Division II school. On Thursday night, #7 Florida struggled with Barry College in its exhibition opener, winning by only nine points and getting outscored by the Buccaneers in the paint, 22-18. While the Gators may not have played particularly well, they did get a game-high 22 points from Rutgers transfer Eli Carter, who went 5-of-9 from three-point range. Florida head coach Billy Donovan has to be pleased with Carter’s output — especially given the inexperience in the Gators’ backcourt behind Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II — and likely will not worry too much about the margin of Florida’s win.
  4. It is no secret that Anthony Grant likely needs a successful season to keep his job, and that he will be sent packing if Alabama does not significantly improve upon last year’s 13-19 record. The Crimson Tide have some returning experience, but Grant also brought in the best recruiting class in his six years in Tuscaloosa. Drew Champlin of AL.com took a look at Grant’s early efforts to blend this team’s youth and experience together. Alabama will be led by seniors Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper, but expect significant contributions from its four freshmen as well. Grant also brought in long-time Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon to add some much-needed experience to his staff. Witherspoon, who has what Grant calls a “great basketball mind,” will be crucial to the development of this team, and given a very difficult pre-conference schedule that includes games against Wichita State, Iowa State, Xavier and UCLA, he will need to work his magic quickly.
  5. LSU recently extended Johnny Jones’ contract through the 2017-18 season, based in large part upon his ability to bring in talent to Baton Rouge. He already has a commitment from Rivals.com’s top player in the 2015 class, Ben Simmons, and this weekend he will receive visits from two big-time recruitsJaQuan Lyle and Antonio Blakeney, both of whom previously committed to Louisville before backing out of their pledges. Lyle was a Class of 2014 player who committed to Oregon before reclassifying and going to prep school. Blakeney is ranked No. 13 in the 2015 class, and his decommitment from the Cardinals garnered significant attention because of the widespread belief that his decision was related to shoe company affiliation. For Jones, getting the two on campus for the weekend of the LSU-Alabama football game is a major coup, and if he can somehow convince the two guards to join forces with Simmons, the landscape of this program would change significantly.
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Assessing the SEC Coaching Hot Seat

Posted by David Changas on October 29th, 2014

As the college basketball season approaches, it’s time to assess how much pressure, or lack thereof, is on each of the SEC’s 14 coaches.

The Seat is ICE COLD

  • Billy Donovan (Florida) and John Calipari (Kentucky). It is hard to imagine two seats being any cooler than these two. The only way either leaves his current post is voluntarily for a high-profile and higher-paying job in the NBA. While that may still be a threat for both, Calipari would appear to be the more likely option to eventually take that route. Donovan, who remarkably is now entering his 19th season at Florida, does not appear to be headed anywhere, although he has flirted with — and once even took the Orlando Magic gig — several times in his tenure. For now, though, the two kings of the SEC are firmly entrenched at their respective schools and appear to be primed to dominate the league for the foreseeable future.
  • Bruce Pearl (Auburn). The Auburn administration did what many thought was unthinkable in March: It made Auburn basketball relevant again. The school’s hiring of Pearl was not just a home run; it was a grand slam, as the former Tennessee coach will have the Tigers playing at a high level within two to three years. He has already started recruiting well  – his 2015 class is currently No. 10 in Rivals.com‘s most recent ratings — and once his system is in place with the right parts, the rest of the SEC will be on notice.
Auburn is happy to have Bruce Pearl back in the SEC. (athlonsports.com)

Auburn is happy to have Bruce Pearl back in the SEC. (athlonsports.com)

  • Donnie Tyndall (Tennessee). Tyndall takes over a program that went to the Sweet Sixteen last season and was one controversial call away from having a chance to play for a Final Four berth. However, it is no secret that former head coach Cuonzo Martin was not beloved in Knoxville, and Tyndall’s engaging personality seems to be a better fit for the school. The Vols will certainly struggle this year and maybe a couple more after that, but Tyndall will get a pass in the short term to bring in players who fit his more frenetic system.

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LSU Gives Jones Extension: Does He Deserve It?

Posted by David Changas on October 24th, 2014

LSU announced earlier this week that head coach Johnny Jones‘ contract has been extended for two years through the 2017-18 season, and that he has received a $400,000 raise. Jones had been one of the lowest-paid coaches in the SEC, and will now make $1.5 million per season as the leader of the Tigers (with incentives, that number could reach as much as $2.1 million). While that is still well below what the highest-paid coaches in the SEC earn, the question that must be answered is why LSU thought this was the right time for an extension.

Johnny Jones and LSU Are Happy

Johnny Jones and LSU Are Happy

Jones has been at LSU for two years now but he has yet to lead the Tigers to an NCAA Tournament berth, and last season was a disappointment. Despite being picked to finish fourth in the conference, LSU went 9-9 in league play and 20-14 overall. The Tigers reached the NIT, but they were beaten handily by SMU in the second round. The Tigers were unable to finish better than .500 in league play despite having the talented services of Johnny O’Bryant, who departed for the NBA after the season, and freshman sensation Jordan Mickey, who was selected earlier this week to the preseason all-SEC first team. The Tigers also had Jarell Martin on hand, a player who came in as a five-star recruit but did not produce on the level of the less-heralded Mickey. And although attendance at the Maravich Center increased from Jones’ first year on the job, it is still not on the level it was even a decade ago and questions remain as to whether he can bring the program back to a level it was for much of Dale Brown’s tenure.

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SEC M5: 10.20.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 20th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The ability to recruit was (and still is) a big question mark surrounding first year Missouri head coach Kim Anderson. To address this expected deficiency, Anderson added Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford to his staff, and that decision has already paid immediate dividends in landing four-star wing Montaque (“Teki”) Gill-Caesar from – you guessed it – Huntington Prep. Fulford told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the time Gill-Caesar spent playing with Andrew Wiggins at Huntington was invaluable. “Teki would never back down from Andrew. Now, there were points in practice where Teki would get the better of Andrew until Andrew decided, ‘OK, enough’s enough.’” The Tigers will need that kind of confidence from Gill-Caesar as they replace Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross, three players that accounted for virtually all of the team’s scoring last season.
  2. Luke Winn and Dan Hanner continue their intricate, raw number modeling at SI.com, this time predicting which transfers will have the biggest impact at their new schools. Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones (SMU) lands the second spot on the list as the model predicts he will score 13.9 points per game for the Aggies. This infusion of scoring talent is vital for Billy Kennedy since his team was at times difficult to watch offensively last season. The addition of Jones and a healthy Davonte Fitzgerald should give Texas A&M the offensive boost that it needs. Florida’s Alex Murphy (#70) and Jon Horford (#90) check in pretty far down the list, but each will be heavily relied upon in the frontcourt while Chris Walker serves his three-game suspension, and they could shoot up this list if Walker’s off-court problems persist into the season.
  3. LSU junior guard Joseph Gray checked in at #12 on the SI.com list, and his journey to Baton Rouge has been tumultuous and at times heart-breaking. The Louisiana native, whose mother passed away while he was in high school, was spurned as a prep recruit by former Tigers coach Trent Johnson and ended up Texas Tech. He left the Red Raiders after one productive season (9.3 PPG, 3.2 APG) for Odessa Community College, where he averaged 34.7 PPG in his single season of JuCo action. New LSU head coach Johnny Jones gave Gray the chance to return home and he has a massive opportunity in front of him. He should be in position to earn a lion’s share of the minutes at point guard with Andre Stringer (graduation) and Anthony Hickey (transfer to Oklahoma State) now out of the picture. And despite all the movement in his young career, Gray has two years of eligibility to establish himself as a star at LSU.
  4. Unfortunately for Alabama, one of its transfers won’t see the court at all this season. Christophe Varidel, a graduate transfer from Chaminade, will miss the season because of a pre-existing knee injury, thus ending his collegiate career. Varidel was a part of Florida Gulf Coast’s Sweet Sixteen team in 2012-13, but transferred to the Islands when Andy Enfield left for USC after that season. First and foremost, it’s a sad situation for Varidel, as he will miss out on his only chance to play basketball in a power conference. It’s also an early blow for Anthony Grant since Varidel, a career 38.5 percent three-point shooter, would have played a part in trying to replace the scoring production that left with Trevor Releford.
  5. Frank Martin is angry — this time about criticism leveled at the lack of fan support for basketball at South Carolina. “It’s hard to tell me people don’t care, and yet you’re in the top 40 in the country in total attendance, you’re fifth in the SEC, and there’s an opinion that people don’t care,” Martin told the Charleston Post and Courier. The article points out that South Carolina was actually 41st in attendance with an average of 10,074 fans per game last season, but Martin’s argument is still well-taken. It’s rather impressive that a team without much success in recent history can post that kind of attendance figure, because winning leads to crowds no matter the sport and no matter the level. If Martin can turn the Gamecocks around, Colonial Life Arena and its 18,000-seat capacity will become a daunting challenge. For his part, Martin is about determined as a person can be to reach that point. “I’m not going to stop until the good Lord either takes me, or we put 18 [thousand] in that building when we play,” he said. Touche.
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SEC M5: 03.26.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 26th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Billy Donovan has a great chance to win his third national title at Florida. If that were to happen, the pull of the NBA (which temporarily swooped him up for a few days in 2007) would seem even stronger. But that nightmare scenario for Gators fans became less likely on Tuesday as Donovan signed a contract extension that runs through 2018-19 at $3.5 million a year. This is big news for Florida, but it’s also important for the SEC as a whole as it struggles to boost its overall basketball profile. As long as Donovan is at Florida and John Calipari is at Kentucky there’s a good bet the conference will have two strong contenders that demand national attention every season. That’s not a bad base from which to build.
  2. The storm that had been brewing around Cuonzo Martin might have reached a fever pitch had Tennessee lost its First Four game to Iowa. Auburn had just snatched up Bruce Pearl, and the thousands of people that signed an online petition to return Pearl to his perch in Knoxville would’ve had quite a bit of ammunition. Getting to the Sweet Sixteen, however, can cure a lot of ills. A few hundred fans greeted the Vols as they flew in from Raleigh at 2:30 in the morning, and the Tennessee allotment for an ultra-tough ticket in Indianapolis sold out quickly. It turns out that winning at this time of year gets people’s attention in a positive way. An interesting subplot to the Vols’s upcoming game against Michigan is Martin coaching against Glenn Robinson III, since he played with Robinson’s father, the Big Dog, at Purdue.
  3. Not surprisingly, Gary Parrish has the Kentucky-Louisville game as one of the games he can’t wait to watch in the Sweet Sixteen. The magnitude of this game doesn’t top the one two years ago in the Final Four, but it comes close since it’ll be played less than 200 miles from each school’s campus. And of course there is the ever-present intrigue of two highly-quotable coaches, and Rick Pitino’s history at Kentucky. The current state of this rivalry has so many sideshows and subplots that we as a college basketball audience need to be thankful for getting two NCAA Tournament games between the two powerhouse schools in the last three years.
  4. Arkansas’ season finally came to an end late Sunday night with a 75-64 loss at Cal. It was the Razorbacks’ first game in the state of California since 1973, which seems like an especially long time. Fittingly the season ended with a road loss, but there were plenty of positives in Arkansas’ 2013-14 campaign. The late collapse that washed away a likely NCAA bid can’t be sugarcoated, but this was the Razorbacks first 20-win season since 2007-08 and Mike Anderson picked up a postseason win in the NIT. Rashad Madden and Bobby Portis (if he returns) will form a solid duo next year, with Portis a legitimate contender for preseason SEC Player of the Year. Anderson’s recruiting class isn’t as highly-ranked as it was this year (two three-stars, a two-star and an unranked player on Rivals.com), but Anderson had great success with less-heralded recruits at Missouri.
  5. LSU was also shown the door in the NIT on Sunday, courtesy of a blistering shooting performance from SMU (57.9% FG, 9-of-14 from three). It was good to see Andre Stringer (15 points) and Shavon Coleman (eight points, seven rebounds, four steals) go out with nice games. Like Arkansas, we’ll look at the bright side of things for the Tigers. Johnny Jones got himself a postseason win and finished with an RPI almost 20 spots higher than last year. The Tigers may also have some of the best long-term prospects in the SEC outside of Kentucky and Florida. Jones has proven he can bring in talent (Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin, incoming five-star freshman Ben Simmons), and that’s the fastest way to ascend in the standings. If Mickey, Martin and Johnny O’Bryant stick around (a big if), LSU has to be in the discussion as a favorite to win the league next year.
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SEC M5: 02.12.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Florida may have sealed its last two wins as much at the beginning of those two games than at the end of them. Against Tennessee, an early 10-0 run by the Gators allowed them to stabilize an otherwise lackluster first half (36.4% FG) and only trail a hot-shooting Vols team by one at halftime. To be sure, a couple of late threes from Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin put the game out of reach, but the Gators might not have been in that position if not for that early turnover-fueled surge. The same can be said for their game last Saturday against Alabama. The Gators had an 8-0 lead before the Tide had even gotten the ball across midcourt. This early surge similarly allowed them to withstand some frustration with Alabama’s zone and 16 first half points from Trevor Releford. Sometimes it’s not only about how you finish, but also how you start. Where does Tennessee go from here? The Vols are out of chances for a sparkling Florida/Kentucky resume-enhancing win, but their NCAA Tournament situation is far from dire. They should be favored in all of their remaining SEC games other than next weekend’s contest at Missouri, and currently at 6-5, they could be in good position to rack up an impressive conference record. Pair this with their solid overall RPI and a win or two in the SEC Tournament, and Cuonzo Martin may get his first invitation to March Madness while living in Knoxville.
  2. Momentum was there for Ole Miss to grab. The Rebels had beaten a fellow bubble buddy in Missouri, and then faced manageable road games against Alabama and Georgia before massive back-to-back home dates with Kentucky and Florida. A three-game winning streak followed by a statement win would surely have been what the resume doctor ordered. But it wasn’t meant to be, as the Tide upended Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa last night. Trevor Releford (26 points on 8-of-16 shooting) refused to let another game slip away for the Tide when the Rebels regained the lead with just under 10 minutes left. The senior went on to score 14 of the Tide’s last 16 points, including a game-winning three with under a second left. He won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament (or NIT, barring a minor miracle) in his final amateur season, but he can contribute to Anthony Grant’s program in a big way by playing hard and showing leadership despite the team’s struggles. There aren’t many young players on Alabama’s roster (just two freshmen and a sophomore), but he has set a great example nonetheless. The Rebels, for their part, essentially face a must-win game in Athens on Saturday. If they were to lose that one they could conceivably be stuck with a 7-7 record after the Kentucky/Florida gauntlet. That’s not a good look for a team that appears to be on the outside looking in right now. It’ll help if Jarvis Summers, who has had an excellent season, breaks out of his mini-road slump. In the Rebels’ last two losses at Kentucky and Alabama, he’s only 6-of-22 from the field and 1-of-6 from three despite shooting 50 percent (and that’s not a typo) from distance on the season. Marshall Henderson may be the Ole Miss wildcard, but Summers has been the steady hand that Andy Kennedy needs to return sooner than later.
  3. Johnny Jones has to plug a hole in his rotation after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. The sophomore injured his knee during LSU’s weekend win over Auburn, and had surgery Monday evening. “It’s certainly a blow to us,” Jones said. “That’s an area we are certainly going to have to look at and find out exactly how we will dispatch those minutes. He was able to give us positive minutes.” Jones indicated that freshmen Tim Quarterman (12.5 MPG) and Shane Hammink (6.3 MPG) will be counted on to replace Morgan’s 15.5 minutes per game. This isn’t a crushing blow to LSU since Morgan wasn’t relied on heavily on either end of the floor. But it does limit Jones’ options, and takes away a high energy player and occasional starter. Morgan’s length (6’4’’) and energy was valuable when the Tigers went to a zone look. Quarterman and Hammink do both have length, which is good for Jones. The other angle to this injury is how it’ll affect Morgan’s development. Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman are seniors so there will be an openings on the perimeter next season, and a full season of games would’ve been ideal for Morgan and LSU.
  4. Kentucky has won three straight games. Up next is an Auburn team against which the Wildcats own a 15-game winning streak. And after them? The third-ranked team in the country and the SEC’s biggest game to date. That game would lose a tiny bit of luster if the Wildcats are caught overlooking Auburn and suffer a letdown. “There’s no risk in overlooking Auburn. We all know that Auburn can beat us. We know that we’re going to get their best game. We know that they’re a very, very good team who has two guards who are really playing well,” said Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne. Count tonight as an unexpected measuring stick in the great experiment that is the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats. It’d be hard not to be excited for the upcoming game against Florida at home, and how hard the Wildcats play against Auburn will reveal a lot about their team maturity and development. It’s an easy game to look past, but Kentucky has already been burned on the road by a tandem of high-scoring guards. KT Harrell and Chris Denson average more combined points per game (39.6) than Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, who went for 61 against the Wildcats. This also might be another good chance for John Calipari to work on the zone defense he’s flashed recently. Harrell has been effective from deep this season (39.1 3P%) but that’s been it for the Tigers. As a team they’ve shot 31.9% from three, and two of the three players that dominate the ball (Denson and Tahj Shamsid-Deen) shoot under 30.7%. A final interesting angle to a game that looks mundane on the surface is the relationship between Calipari and Tony Barbee, who got his coaching start as a graduate assistant under Calipari at UMass, and was on his Memphis staff for six years. Since Barbee is sitting on the hot seat, this could be the last time the two face off in the SEC.
  5. There were some upgrades for the SEC this season after Mike Slive mandated tougher scheduling outside conference play. For one, despite not actually winning any of its tough games, Alabama did jump from the 69th toughest nonconference schedule in 2012-13 to the ninth toughest this season. They weren’t the only teams to upgrade. According to the Associated Press, “Kentucky (59th to 14th), Mississippi (271st to 103rd) and LSU (234th to 137th) are also among the teams who made big leaps in strength of nonconference schedule.” This still wasn’t enough, as the SEC nonconferene RPI on the whole was bad, and only Kentucky and Florida have tournament spots seemingly locked up. Slive’s policy should start to see greater returns over the next few years when coaches have greater flexibility to add more name-brand opponents. It’s unlikely anyone schedules like the Tide this year: they played Wichita State, Duke, UCLA, Oklahoma and Xavier. But their fate shouldn’t be a cautionary tale that scares off other SEC coaches. Had the Tide won even one of those difficult games (and they were close) their season could’ve taken on a different feel RPI- and momentum-wise. The SEC doesn’t currently have the cache to get their teams in based on conference play alone. Risks like Anthony Grant’s aggressive nonconference schedule need to be taken to build national respect.
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A-10 Sends SEC Into Conference Play On Sour Note

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 6th, 2014

There was an unofficial, inadvertent Atlantic 10/SEC Challenge on Saturday, with three games matching up teams between the two conferences. Unlike the official Big 12/SEC challenge, this one didn’t take five weeks to finish. But the SEC again found itself on the short end of the inter-conference match-up as two league teams were sent into conference play with disheartening losses.

Johnny O'Bryant had to watch a good portion of LSU's frustrating home loss to Rhode Island from the bench (thetowntalk.com).

Johnny O’Bryant had to watch a good portion of LSU’s frustrating home loss to Rhode Island from the bench (thetowntalk.com).

  • Richmond @ Florida, the narrow escape. Richmond held a lead in the O-Dome with under seven minutes to go, and it seemed that the Spiders had the recipe to spring the big upset. But Florida outscored the Spiders 22-10 down the stretch and escaped with a win. The up-and-down start for the Gators was probably due to a couple of factors. Scottie Wilbekin had an off game (4-of-13 shooting, two assists) and Richmond often runs a funky, quick version of the Princeton offense. They’re also a solid enough team to take advantage of a better opponent that comes out flat, which describes the Gators on Saturday. The real positive for Florida was that Michael Frazier carried them offensively at times. The sophomore has been very efficient (20.1 PER) and deadly from three (49%), but understandably passive on a team with a number of upperclassmen ahead of him. It’s encouraging for Billy Donovan that Frazier has shown that he can step up when needed.

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My 2014 SEC New Year’s Resolutions

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 4th, 2014

As 2013 was coming to a close, my wife and I made the decision to allow our nine-year-old son to stay up and participate in the annual tradition of Ryan Seacrest counting down until midnight as Miley Cyrus stuck her tongue out. Well, we could have done without Ryan Seacrest, but we brought in 2014 with a toast of sparkling cider, a riveting game of Monopoly, and a conversation about New Year’s resolutions. I won the game of Monopoly in decidedly dominating fashion, as my wife eloquently explained the meaning and purpose of resolutions. After taking it all in, our son declared that he would like to save his weekly allowance and donate it each month to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, better known as the ASPCA. I was too busy ruthlessly and strategically acquiring properties and constructing monstrosities of hotels to truly appreciate the sacrifice my son had just made.

My son made a resolution to give his allowance to the ASPCA to save dogs like this one. (Photo courtesy of the ASPCA website)

My son made a resolution to give his allowance to the ASPCA to save dogs like this one (Credit: ASPCA)

Now that I have had a few days to reflect, I came to two conclusions. First, I’m amazed at the miracle that occurred. For those of you with kids you know that convincing your child to give you one lone and measly M&M from an entire wealth of stockpiled chocolates from their rich and bountiful Christmas stocking can be a chore, let alone having them complete a thoroughly selfless action like donating money that could be used for toys and video games to save animals from abuse. In all seriousness, I am genuinely thankful, proud, and inspired by the commitment he made. And second, I also realized I was too wrapped up in winning a completely meaningful and rewarding board game to make resolutions for myself, so I am going back a couple of days later to make some 2014 resolutions of my own. Here goes…

1. I resolve… to start believing in LSU as the SEC’s third best team. There’s Missouri. There’s Tennessee. Even Arkansas can make a case. But I think LSU will be the surprise team in the conference once the chips fall where they may. With a win over Rhode Island on Saturday, the Tigers can enter conference play at 10-2 with only road or neutral court losses to UMass and Memphis. Coach Johnny Jones currently lays claim to Ken Pomeroy’s second-ranked defense in the Southeastern Conference and I think that gives his team the identity it needs to succeed. If you need further proof, look at the Tigers’ interior defense trends over the last five years and you will see that Jones has this team looking very different from the past.

LSU's interior defense is significantly improved, and among the best in the country.

LSU’s interior defense is significantly improved, and among the best in the country.

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SEC M5: 12.18.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 18th, 2013

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  1. Hello there, Casey Prather. A week after this brilliant clueless writer suggested his big scoring nights might be few and far between against good competition, the senior went out and led Florida to a win over Memphis with a game-high 22 points. This was a good match-up for Prather, as he was defended by smaller players most of the night because of Memphis’ frequent four-guard lineup. For the second straight Tuesday, Florida had to execute late in a close game against a good opponent, and that should serve as valuable experience down the road. The Gators coughed it up a fair amount (18 turnovers), but this was expected against Memphis. They were able to offset this by outrebounding the Tigers by 11. Essentially, the game played out like it was projected, with two excellent teams doing what they do best. The Gators can now claim two of the better non-conference wins in the country, with Chris Walker still on the way. Holiday cheer is spreading in Gainesville.
  2. You can’t fault Alabama for losing to Wichita State, even at home. The loss is still excruciatingly disappointing for the Tide because they had numerous chances to pull off the upset and resuscitate their season. Trevor Releford (22 points, six assists) didn’t get much help from his supporting cast, and Retin Obasohan had scored a combined 42 points in Alabama’s last two games but sank to only eight points on 2-of-10 shooting against the Shockers. The Belgian sophomore has emerged as one of the best slashers in the SEC, but he only got to the line four times (two of which were from a stop-the-clock foul late). Alabama played hard all night, but missed an opportunity when Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet and Cleanthony Early were all on the bench in the first half with two fouls. Creating some separation from that golden opportunity would have gone a long way towards a win.
  3. LSU has had a mostly positive start to the 2013-14 season, but Johnny Jones is looking for improved ball-handling as the Tigers head to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech this evening. “In other areas we’re not being as fundamentally sound as we’d like to with the travel calls or taking a pass and throwing it over the top in our offensive set because we’re taking a chance,” he said. “We’re better, and they will continue to go down. We’re hopeful that our turnovers will go down. If we can get to 11 or 12 [per game], I think it’ll be a good trade-off from how we play.” LSU is currently averaging the highest number of turnovers per game in the SEC (16.1 TOPG). NOLA.com‘s Randy Rosetta points out that some of that is due to Jones’ fast style of play, but that Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey need to do a better job of not coughing it up when they face double teams. Big men struggling with double teams has been somewhat of a theme in the SEC recently. Jarnell Stokes was stifled against Wichita State, and Gavin Ware has been lost the last few weeks. Rosetta thinks O’Bryant has shown improvement in passing out of the paint, but Anthony Hickey (38% FG) and Andre Stringer (41% FG) need to knock down jump shots at a better clip to really make the offense hum.
  4. A bumpy road was inevitable for Frank Martin and South Carolina due to transfers and a general lack of talent within the program when he took the job. But the Gamecocks got a rather jarring bump last night with an 18-point loss at home to Manhattan. This was only South Carolina’s sixth game, and the Gamecocks have had three understandable losses in that span (Clemson, Baylor, and Oklahoma State). Last night’s loss may end up being understandable in principle because the Jaspers are 8-2, but even if Manhattan ends up as one 2013-14’s better mid-majors, an SEC program shouldn’t lose at home by 18 to a team from the MAAC (with all due respect to the Siena and Iona teams of recent vintage). The one bright spot was freshman Sindarius Thornwell, who looks like he can become a reliable scorer (17 points, 10-of-13 FTs). He also only turned it over once despite playing 36 minutes. Martin knew he was in for a challenge in Columbia, and he indeed has a big one ahead of him.
  5. Scottie Wilbekin (Player of the Week) and Jordan Mickey (Freshman of the Week) picked up last week’s SEC weekly awards for what was a period light on games because of final exams. In Wilbekin’s lone contest, a home win against Kansas, the senior controlled the game on both ends of the floor. He ended up with 18 points and six assists, and created havoc at the bottom of the Gators’ 1-3-1 zone with four steals. This production came a week after Wilbekin had suffered an ankle injury against Connecticut which looked far worse than it ended up being. Mickey wasn’t as hyped as fellow LSU freshman Jarrell Martin, but he has been one of the best freshmen in the SEC thus far. He scored 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Louisiana-Monroe, and also blocked five shots. He’s averaging nearly four blocks per game this season, which is good for the top 10 in the country. His shot-blocking presence will let Anthony Hickey and Andrew Stringer take more chances on the perimeter as the season goes on.
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