The SEC Rundown: Spring Cleaning Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 24th, 2014

Conversations about which teams are on the bubble, what school needs a big win to improve its seeding, and the coaches who are on the hot seat are all signs that March is quickly approaching. But if you find yourself without one of those gadgets that allows you to play games, take phone calls, and view a calendar, another sure way to know March is coming is by the peculiar weather patterns that late February brings for most of the country. There’s six inches of snow on the ground one week and it’s 70 degrees the next — and it’s that kind of drastic turn of events that inevitably brings my wife into spring cleaning mode.

Scottie Wilbekin deserves the SEC player of the year, and other random thoughts.

Scottie Wilbekin deserves the SEC player of the year, and other random thoughts.

Needless to say, I had a lot of time to collect my thoughts this weekend as I scrubbed our patio furniture and deck within an inch of its life. I am confident we could eat on our outdoor deck right now, and I’m not talking about serving a meal, picnic style, on the patio furniture. No, I mean I could literally serve food on the deck and eat straight off the wood. It’s that clean. A broken hose nozzle, a minor slip and fall accident, and two trips to Home Depot later, I had a lot of time to collect my thoughts. And while this time wasn’t necessarily conducive to a full, well-considered post, it did lend itself well to a collection of random thoughts, questions, and SEC basketball predictions as we round the corner into tournament time.

My notes from a warm and sunny spring southeastern day:

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SEC M5: 02.21.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 21st, 2014

  1. For possibly the first time since the start of conference play, each of the four SEC teams that arguably should be considered to be on the bubble won their midweek games. Tennessee downed Georgia on Tuesday night, and LSU, Arkansas, and Missouri all followed with wins on Wednesday. Granted, each of the four teams was at home and was favored, and had any of them lost, it would have been considered an upset. Still, given the numerous times SEC teams have lost games unexpectedly since early January, nothing would have been a surprise. Of course, of the four “bubble” teams, only Missouri, which has an RPI of 35, can consider itself to be safe for the moment. The Tigers, who swept their three-game home stand against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt — each win coming in narrow fashion — have a favorable schedule leading up to their season finale at Tennessee. They go to Alabama and Georgia, which beat them in Columbia in early January, before getting bottom-feeders Mississippi State and Texas A&M at home. Given the softness of the bubble, it’s reasonable to expect that if Missouri can finish out with wins in four of those five contests, they should safely be in the field for the NCAA Tournament. Nothing in this league should be taken for granted, however, so while things look good for the Tigers at the moment, a lot can change over the next three-and-a-half weeks.
  2. As you’re likely already aware, earlier this week Rick Pitino voiced his opinion about social media, saying it often “poisons” athletes’ minds. Some took Pitino’s comments out of context, and a lot of what he said on the subject made sense. The Louisville coach has banned his team from Twitter, and said it was “insulting” for people to use it, given the amount of time spent on it. It didn’t take long for Kentucky coach John Calipari to weigh in. Not surprisingly, Calipari disagreed with Pitino’s assessment, saying that coaches who hate social media “know nothing about” it. Unlike Pitino, Calipari instructs his players on how to use social media, and has a Twitter account with over 1,250,000 followers. Since he arrived in Lexington prior to the 2009-10 season, Calipari has used the medium to hype his program and communicate with fans. Given his ability to connect with recruits, it’s not surprising Calipari is familiar with how to effectively use social media. It’s also not surprising that he would take the opportunity to dust things up with his archrival.
  3. The road for Florida to be ranked No. 1 when the polls are released next Monday is clear, given Syracuse’s stunning loss at home to a woeful Boston College team on Wednesday. The Gators need only win at Ole Miss on Saturday to set themselves up to be at the top of the polls. Still, as the scare they received in their 61-56 home win over lowly Auburn Wednesday night showed, Billy Donovan’s team can take nothing for granted in its quest to finish the SEC season unbeaten. Thanks to a late Auburn meltdown, the Gators were able to improve their conference record to 13-0, and face a capable Rebel squad coming off a somewhat embarrassing home loss to Kentucky. While it’s reasonable to expect Andy Kennedy to have his team ready to bounce back from its lackluster effort, it’s also likely that its performance against Auburn served as a wake-up call for Florida. As The Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley pointed out in this piece, Donovan knows his team can’t take any opponent lightly. The Gators have now won a school-record 18 games in a row, but to make it 19, they’ll have to bring a much better effort against Ole Miss.
  4. It seems that everyone is looking for ways to improve the level of play in the SEC, and there’s no doubt that league commissioner Mike Slive is concerned about the fact that, in late February, the league has only two NCAA Tournament locks. The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Mark Story thinks one way to fix the league is to return to divisional play. The league abandoned the East/West format it follows for football prior to the 2011-12 season, and subsequently moved to an 18-game schedule in which each league team only has one permanent opponent it plays twice. While Story makes some good points – the best one being that the elimination of divisions limits the number of home-and-homes each team consistently plays – it’s more likely that no longer having division play has nothing to do with the league’s poor collective performance, and that improvement in the quality of play would make this a moot argument. The reason the SEC is burdened with so many uninteresting matchups is that too many of its teams simply aren’t very good. No one seems to mind that Kentucky and Florida aren’t geographically close when those two squads get together. While the SEC is more spread out than it used to be, there is plenty of interesting basketball being played in the much more geographically-diverse ACC. There’s no question that expansion has diminished or eliminated a lot of classic rivalries, but the SEC’s decision to follow what all other power conferences were doing by getting rid of the divisional format was the right move.
  5. The weekend ahead doesn’t bring too many glamorous SEC games, though Florida’s visit to Ole Miss could get interesting. The other matchup that could be worth watching involves LSU traveling to Lexington to take on Kentucky. In late January, the Tigers handed the Wildcats one of their three conferences losses. Johnny O’Bryant was dominant for LSU, scoring 29 points and grabbing nine rebounds. The Tigers, whose struggles mostly are attributable to an inconsistent backcourt, got an excellent performance from point guard Anthony Hickey, who handed out six assists without a turnover. Hickey was the most effective guard on the court that night, outshining Kentucky’s Harrison twins. More importantly for the Tigers, though, was the job they did bottling up Julius Randle. The sensational freshman had his worst offensive output of the season, scoring only six points, and it was the only time in the Wildcats’ last 11 games in which he didn’t score in double figures. Kentucky comes into the game as a double-digit favorite, and given LSU’s inconsistency of late, it’s probably too much to expect the Tigers to win in Rupp Arena. But they may be the type of team that presents matchup problems for the Wildcats, and a win would go a long way toward enhancing LSU’s resume.
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SEC M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 14th, 2014

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  1. The Missouri and Arkansas series is off to a good start if it’s ever going to deserve the rivalry week spot ESPN has given it. Three of the team’s four games as SEC opponents have come down to the final seconds and had dramatic finishes. That’s a good way to get fan bases juiced about playing one another. The stakes were pretty high in last night’s match up in Columbia as both teams desperately needed a win to keep their NCAA hopes alive. Missouri and its three-game losing streak probably needed it a bit more, and got it after Jabari Brown’s game-winning teardrop with 10 seconds left. Brown (25 points, 14-of-15 FT’s) and Jordan Clarkson (27 points, 11-of-13 FT’s) deserve the headlines. But in small steps, Ryan Rosburg has quietly handled the ball and finished better around the rim recently and deserves mention too. In his last three games he’s scored 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting. Yes, that’s as many as Clarkson scored against Arkansas alone, but Rosburg is averaging 5 points a game and has struggled catching the ball cleanly at times this season. Help defenses will collapse like a house of cards on Clarkson the rest of the way, so having Rosburg gain confidence taking dump off passes is important for the Tigers.
  2. Garnet and Black Attack has an excellent breakdown on a game that probably flew under most of college basketball’s radar: the snow-delayed afternoon tilt between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. They write about a dominant Gamecock effort on the offensive glass (26 offensive rebounds, 14 more than Vanderbilt), and how it allowed South Carolina to win a game in which it shot only 38 percent. That type of hustle is key in a game at an odd time and with a strange feel. This is only the Gamecocks’ second conference win, and they’d probably have more if Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson were still available. But there’s a silver lining. Those few wins aren’t as valuable as the heavy minutes freshmen Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are logging (they played 36 and 37 minutes, respectively, against Vanderbilt). Notice struggled through a 1-for-7 first half performance that likely would’ve put him on the bench under normal circumstances. But he was needed on the floor, and played solid defense on Kyle Fuller and hit a key three in the Gamecocks 17-5 second half run. That’s valuable situational experience.
  3. LSU has bounced back well this season, going 6-1 following losses. The Tigers desperately need to keep that up Saturday in Fayetteville after dropping a head-scratcher in College Station. Or maybe it wasn’t such a head-scratcher, since the Tigers are riding a four-game road losing streak. Either way, the win was damaging to LSU’s tournament chances and raised a few concerns. For one, they let a largely underwhelming Texas A&M offense shoot 48.3% and go 10-of-23 from three (LSU has the SEC’s worst three point defense). Another issue is their backcourt depth after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. Tim Quarterman (0-for-3, two turnovers) added virtually nothing, and if he isn’t contributing LSU is entirely reliant on two players (Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer) to contribute from the guard spots. When those two struggle, as they did against the Aggies, the Tigers are in trouble.
  4. CBSSports’ Jeff Borzello talked to several coaches about Florida, and touched on a number of topics like the Gators style of play, the best way to score on them, and their biggest weakness. It’s a fascinating read (as is his whole series on championship contender breakdowns), and not something that gets put out there everyday. One coach said a concern for the Gators is that they don’t have a guy who can “overtake” a game by himself. “You know, a guy where, if you needed buckets, he can automatically get you buckets. They say to win a national championship, you need three pros. I don’t know if they have three pros,” the coach is quoted as saying. That’s definitely a legitimate concern, but Florida is so unlike modern contenders that that adage might not apply. How often in today’s college basketball does an elite team have as many seniors – with as much experience (see, three straight Elite Eight appearances) – as the Gators? And if we are being hyper-technical there probably are three pros on the roster. Chris Walker will make it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier develop into legitimate prospects. But I realize that’s not the point: there’s no ball-dominant future pro who can currently get his shot on the roster, and that’s an issue. Florida’s best bet in those situations is probably Wilbekin, who has shown big-shot chops and the ability to get to the line in recent weeks.
  5. Casey Prather and Julius Randle are the only SEC players to land on the Naismith Midseason 30. Prather makes the list despite scoring in single digits in three of his last four games, but an injured ankle has caused that speed bump and it shouldn’t take away from his season on the whole. Randle has largely lived up to the colossal expectations put on him, and he should make the cut for that alone. So let’s get to everybody’s favorite part, the snub discussion. Not to be boring, but I have no real qualms with these two being the SEC’s only representatives. Scottie Wilbekin is probably more important to Florida, is fourth in the conference in assists, sixth in steals and one of the best defenders the SEC has to offer. But that’s understandably not enough to crack the top 30. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown might both have an argument, but Missouri isn’t winning and and it’s hard for players from middling teams to get attention.
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Kentucky Shows Growth in Win at Missouri

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2014

It has been a tale of two Tigers recently for Kentucky. The young Wildcats were outworked and outplayed Tuesday night versus LSU in Baton Rouge, taking it on the chin from a hungrier team. “They beat the crap out of us. They outcoached us,” John Calipari said. Four days later Kentucky found itself with another bunch of Tigers searching for a statement win, but the story this time was much different. There was growth in the Wildcats’ game as they raced out to a big lead against Missouri, and then preserved it with smart and tough play down the stretch. Based on what happened Saturday in Mizzou Arena, here are several questions that opposing SEC coaches will need to answer when playing these Wildcats.

Andrew Harrison and the Wildcats grew up in their win against Missouri (kentucky.com).

Andrew Harrison and the Wildcats grew up in their win against Missouri (kentucky.com).

  • How do you contend with a bunch of future pros playing hard and together? Maybe it was the coaching, or maybe it was the much-ballyhooed players’-only team meeting last week in Louisiana. Whatever it was, the Wildcats came out with great effort and aggressiveness against Missouri. They got into their sets quickly and attacked the basket early in the game, as Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for eight free throw attempts in the first half. Kentucky also didn’t give up a single offensive rebound in the opening half. It’s not a good sign for future opponents that the Wildcats went into a hostile arena and responded with great energy coming off of a lackluster performance. That shows maturity and growth that should scare the rest of the league. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC Weekday Primer: Tennessee, Ole Miss Fight for Conference Position

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 28th, 2014

Another week in the SEC brings another slate of games that will play a big role in determining whether the conference has more than two bids to the NCAA Tournament. But there’s also a cannibalistic aspect to the upcoming weekday games: Ole Miss and Tennessee play in Knoxville, while Missouri and Arkansas face off in Fayetteville. Each team is in need of a big win, but two are guaranteed to fall further back in their search for a resume-booster.

Jarnell Stokes needs some perimeter help when he faces Ole Miss.

Jarnell Stokes needs some perimeter help when he faces Ole Miss.

Don’t Miss This One, Part IOle Miss @ Tennessee (Wednesday, 8:00 PM ET)

The Rebels face their stiffest conference test to date in Knoxville, but have built up some momentum with a four-game winning streak. Tennessee, on the other hand, is coming off a 26.8 percent shooting performance in a loss to Florida. The Gators are an elite defensive team, but there’s no excuse for the Vols to only get five field goals (five!) from players other than Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Two seniors will need to shake off their recent struggles to provide Tennessee with a spark on the perimeter. Jordan McRae is coming off an understandably-deflating 1-of-15 shooting performance, and Antonio Barton is 3-of-19 from three over the last five games. The Vols do need a spark, because a loss would drop them to 3-4 in league play before they embark on two consecutive road games. The game is equally important for Ole Miss, which has an opportunity to pick up just its second quality win of the year (the other being at home to LSU). The Rebels’ interior defense is a key to this game. Sebastian Saiz (20 percent defensive rebounding percentage) and Aaron Jones (9.9 percent block percentage) will be a big part of the Rebels’ effort to contain Stokes and Maymon. And of course there is Marshall Henderson, who after a recent shouting match with Rick Ray, could be on the verge of something Deadspin-worthy.

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SEC M5: 01.27.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 27th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Florida has been a saving grace for the SEC this season, and its defense could lead the Gators all the way to the final weekend of the NCAA TournamentSI.com‘s Michael Beller outlined the reasons Florida has frustrated teams this year so much on offense. “What is it that the Gators do so well defensively? First, they generally force their opponents into tough two-point shots. Teams have shot 41.4 percent on two-pointers against Florida this season, which ranks ninth-best in the country. Second, they take the ball away with aplomb, forcing turnovers on 21.9 percent of their opponents’ possessions. In other words, they don’t allow many easy buckets, and create transition opportunities for themselves by turning over their opponents on a regular basis.” Florida flustered Tennessee’s Jordan McRae into one of the worst shooting days of his career on Saturday, holding him to 1-of-15 shooting from the field. Not only do they have the ability to shut down perimeter players, but their frontcourt is incredibly versatile. Patric Young has the size to match up with other low post bruisers, while Will Yeguete and Dorian-Finney Smith are quick enough to stay with stretch fours and still contribute on the glass.
  2. We’re far enough into the season where a weakness narrative has emerged for each of the nation’s elite freshmen, and one of the knocks on Kentucky’s Julius Randle is his relatively short wingspanSBNation’s Jonathan Tjarks described Randle as being “built like a Tyrannosauras Rex: all torso and no arms.” CBSSports.com‘s Matt Moore wrote a great defense of Randle’s offensive game, with a ton of GIFs that show his creativity in finding ways to score. Moore likes the freshman forward’s touch around rim, muscular frame, and driving potential, thinking that there’s a chance he could be “a natural at finding ways to score,” much like Zach Randolph. At this point most NBA general managers probably view Randle as a clear cut below Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins given his athletic “limitations,” and the effect they have on his long-term potential. But unlike Wiggins, and to a lesser extent, Embiid, the player he will ultimately become isn’t a mystery. Your favorite NBA team probably isn’t winning a championship with Randle as its best player. However, he’s got a refined offensive skill set and enough potential that he could become a key cog in a perpetual playoff team.
  3. Is Marshall Henderson‘s game evolving? The easy answer is no, as the senior launched 12 three-pointers in the Rebels’ win over Mississippi State over the weekend. But while only two of those threes went down, Henderson still scored 19 points by attacking the basket seemingly more than any other game this season. Sinking treys or not, he helped Ole Miss avoid a potential trap game with one of its toughest games of the SEC season looming Wednesday night in Knoxville. That was the fourth straight win for Andy Kennedy’s team, and they went into halftime with an 11-point lead. The Rebels seem dialed in, but the schedule begins to pick up with that trip to Tennessee followed by games against Kentucky and Missouri in the following week.
  4. Alabama flipped its 2013-14 script on Saturday and actually came out on the winning end of a close game. The Tide gave up a 19-point lead against LSU, and it looked like it’d be another close loss for Anthony Grant but a late Shannon Hale three saved the day for Alabama, much to his relief. “It was a tough, physical battle,” Grant said. “For our guys to step up in the end, the last four minutes, I thought we showed grit and heart and courage and all the things we’ve been looking for all year.” The Tide are still playing hard, which is a good sign for a team with more talent than its 9-10 record would suggest. Hale might also be a bright spot for Grant, as the big man has shown the ability to shoot from distance (36% 3FG), which should fit well alongside Retin Obasohan over the next few years. Hale also showed some play-making abilities against LSU: He had six assists after recording just 16 total in his previous 18 games.
  5. Kevin Stallings‘ team is hovering just above .500 and is only a few games removed from a 23-point loss to LSU. Nonetheless, the Vanderbilt coach needs to be lauded for how his team has overcome its roster pitfalls. The Commodores went on the road and beat Texas A&M Saturday, getting a big performance from James Siakam. At Anchor of Gold, RTC’s very own Christian D’Andrea wrote, “The shorthanded ‘Dores lost Damian Jones to fouls in 24 minutes and battled through below-average showings from Rod Odom and Dai-Jon Parker on Saturday. Fortunately, Siakam was able to put together a huge showing in the paint and at the free throw line to lead his team to victory.” The roster crunch could turn out to be a big boost for Vanderbilt next season and beyond. Stallings won’t reap the benefits of the increased minutes for seniors Odom and Kyle Fuller, but the rest of the team has the opportunity for games like Siakam’s in College Station — opportunities that may not have been there under normal circumstances. In terms of this season, Vanderbilt has only been non-competitive in one SEC game (LSU), and owns a quality win over Missouri as well as the road win in College Station. That’s not bad considering Stallings has to play multiple players 40 minutes a game.
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Handicapping the SEC Race Two Weeks In

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 21st, 2014

And they’re off … Florida has jumped out as the early leader in the SEC race, but it’s still early enough for other teams to catch up with some adjustments. While the records at the top of the conference indicate that the regular season crown could be up for grabs, there will be only three teams in serious contention to finish at the top after an 18 game schedule. After four games in conference play, we handicap the remainder of the SEC regular season and areas to watch for if each contender are to make a run at the number one spot.

Billy Donovan's Gators are the frontrunner in the SEC until they prove otherwise. (AP)

Billy Donovan’s Gators are the frontrunner in the SEC until they prove otherwise. (AP)

The Favorite

Florida is in the lead, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Billy Donovan’s squad isn’t around for a photo finish at the end. The Gators are 4-0, and appear to be solid both at the O’Connell Center and away from it in the unfriendly confines of the SEC’s best venues. Florida was tested early on without its best player in Casey Prather on the road at Arkansas but still came out with an overtime win. The best news for the Gators right now is that they were still efficient even without Prather in the lineup.

Florida's efficiency numbers remained relatively constant without Prather in the lineup.

Florida’s efficiency numbers remained relatively constant without Prather in the lineup.

This team is obviously better with its best player in the game, but UF isn’t solely dependent on him like it has been in the past with players like Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. Prather returned against Auburn with 21 points, six rebounds, and a 148 offensive rating, but if he needs to sit for a few minutes Donovan can be confident that he can continue to get highly efficient play from the rest of his team. The Gators’ efficiency with or without their best player in the lineup makes this team a tough out through conference play, and Dan Hanner agreed when he analyzed the Gators’ lineup. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC M5: 01.20.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2014

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

Posted by Jameson Fleming on January 17th, 2014

AwardTour

Jameson Fleming is an RTC columnist who also works for CBSSports.com as the site’s social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesonFleming.

As usual, there are many candidates knocking on the door of the Player of the Year race. Florida’s Casey Prather dropped out temporarily after missing the last two games with an injury. He’ll likely be back in the rankings at some point as he’s Julius Randle’s top competition for SEC Player of the Year. After a few rough games, UMass’ Chaz Williams is back on track thanks to a 26-point, eight-assist performance in the Minutemen’s thrilling win against George Mason. Andrew Wiggins is inching closer to the rankings after a monster double-double game against Iowa State, with 17 points and 19 rebounds against the Cyclones. Michigan State’s Gary Harris and Keith Appling have also picked up the slack for the injured Adreian Payne as Sparty continues to roll on.

It's a safe bet that these three guys will be in the mix for POY honors.

It’s a safe bet that these three guys will be in the mix for POY honors.

Player of the Year

10. Russ Smith – Louisville. Last Week: 10
2013-14 stats: 18.1 PPG, 4.9 APG, 113.4 oRTG

Russ Smith hasn’t put together a complete game in a while and that trend continued Thursday night against Houston. He hasn’t scored fewer than 18 points since December 17, but his turnovers are out of control. He has committed 19 miscues in his last four games including five more against the Cougars. He’s logged at least four turnovers in seven of Louisville’s last eight games after doing so well with just three times in the Cardinals’ first 10 games. With Chane Behanan’s dismissal and Chris Jones’ recent struggles (10+ points in just one of Louisville’s last nine games), Smith’s production has to remain elite WITHOUT turnovers for Louisville to be considered a national title threat.

9. Lamar Patterson – Pittsburgh. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats:  17.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, 123.4 oRTG

It’s a gamble to add Lamar Patterson to the Player of the Year rankings considering Pitt basically hasn’t played anyone all season. The Panthers’ first major challenge comes Saturday in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. This weekend will be Patterson’s chance to show he has in fact emerged as one of the best players in the country. He’s currently tearing it up in Oakland to the tune of 58 percent from two, 43 percent from three, and a studly 123.4 offensive rating on a 27.5 percent usage rate. He’s the main reason Jamie Dixon’s squad is the second best team in the ACC.

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The Weekend That Was in the SEC: On Kentucky’s Interior Defense and Sindarius Thornwell…

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 14th, 2014

After one week of conference play, unbeaten Georgia and Texas A&M sit atop the SEC standings along with Florida and Kentucky. While the Bulldogs have to travel to Gainesville for a tough roadie tonight, the Aggies will take on South Carolina and Mississippi State next. It’s not crazy to think that Texas A&M could sit at 4-0 when it travels to Rupp Arena next week for a showdown with the mighty Wildcats. But will Kentucky remain undefeated after visiting Fayetteville this evening? There are a lot of reasons to look forward to this week as the conference race begins to take shape, but first we have to look back at how we got here.

Here are three observations from the past weekend of SEC play.

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  • While Kentucky’s perimeter defense has improved, the Wildcats have allowed offensively deficient Mississippi State and Vanderbilt to play alarmingly well in the post. The Bulldogs scored 36 of their points in the paint, while the Commodores put in 30 down low. Through two games of conference play, Kentucky is allowing opponents to shoot 51.3 percent on two-point jumpers (11th in the SEC), and blocking just 11.8 percent of their overall attempts (seventh). This is an area of major concern for a program that has dominated on the interior since John Calipari’s arrival in 2009.

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SEC M5: 01.13.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 13th, 2014

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  1. Missouri, LSU, and Arkansas all took hits to their tournament resumes in their first SEC games. Tennessee now belongs on that inglorious list after blowing a 14-point first half lead and losing to Texas A&M. The Aggies have thrown a wrench into both the Vols’ and Razorbacks’ tournament hopes in less than a week. Alex Caruso is off to a scorching start in SEC play, with 19 assists against 4 turnovers in the Aggies’ two wins. As the folks at Good Bull Hunting write, Texas A&M should continue to cause problems because of their defense. “The season may be pretty ugly thus far, but with A&M’s play on defense, they can never be taken lightly, as Arkansas just experienced.” That was on display in Knoxville, as the Aggies held both Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes in single figures. Billy Kennedy’s squad is the early leader for SEC Spoiler of the Year.
  2. Starkville hasn’t been kind to Ole Miss, where they’ve now lost 15 of their last 16 game against their biggest rival. For the Rebels it was yet another close game they weren’t able to close out, similar to losses against Kansas State, Oregon, and Dayton. “Our guys scrap and fight and it’s not always the most pleasing to watch from any vantage point, but we stay in games,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “Then it comes down to the stretch and you’ve got to make plays. The games we’ve made plays — like (Auburn on Thursday) — we win. The games we don’t make the plays and Mississippi State does, they win.” At this point the Rebels simply aren’t in the NCAA tournament conversation, especially after losing to RPI #156. For Mississippi State, the win moved them to 11-4, surpassing their win total from last season. Even though their fans didn’t get a chance to boo the suspended Marshall Henderson, the win still must have been satisfying.
  3. Julius Randle was limited to 25 minutes in Kentucky’s win against Vanderbilt because of cramping, which he struggled with against Louisville as well. Randle has the Wildcats’ highest usage rate (27.9%) and is the focus of every opposing defense. John Calipari talked about the toll this is taking on the freshman. “You have to understand, he’s in a dogfight,” Calipari said in his post game news conference. “I think he is the only college player when he catches the ball, he’s got three guys on him. He’s not just running up and down the court. He’s, like, in a football game.” Randle’s conditioning will be something to watch going forward, and the onus falls on Alex Poythress, among others, to keep the power forward position afloat. Poythress has played reasonably well in the 41 minutes he’s logged in SEC play (21 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks).
  4. Missouri‘s front court rotation has suddenly grown since the Tigers entered SEC playTorren Jones (13 minutes) and Keanau Post (14 minutes) saw extended minutes against Auburn after both played sparingly during the non-conference season. They combined for 17 rebounds, and this was important because senior Tony Criswell was benched for an undisclosed team violation. Criswell began the year suspended so his absence could easily snowball into more games, and Frank Haith will need to keep relying on Jones and Post. Starting center Ryan Rosburg was in foul trouble much of the game, so it’s encouraging for Missouri that they were still able to win the rebounding battle (44 to 28).
  5. Scottie Wilbekin says his ankle is feeling good, and that’s obviously great news for Florida. “I think (I was) 100 percent, maybe 90 percent, 85,” Wilbekin said. “It wasn’t really hurting that bad. It was just range of motion. It was good. It was all right.” The senior point guard was able to play 35 mostly effective minutes in the Gators’ overtime time in Fayetteville. Injuries appear to be an inevitable part of Florida’s 2013-14 season after early ankle injuries to Wilbekin and Kasey Hill, and the current injuries faced by Wilbekin, Patric Young and Casey Prather. Young was able to play 21 minutes despite knee tendinitis, but Prather sat out and is the major concern for Billy Donovan. It’s always hard to lose a senior starter, but Prather is a little different because, foremost, he’s having a SEC POY-type season and no one else on the roster has his combination of size, length and ball-handling. The status of his knee has become a key to Florida’s season.
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Calipari Knows Kentucky is Making Progress

Posted by David Changas on January 12th, 2014

All college basketball teams change from year to year. Players graduate, leave early, transfer, and new recruits fill their spots. But as everyone knows, no team changes year over year like John Calipari’s crew. And regardless of the fact that he brought in what many considered the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history this year, he knew that it would take time for his team to come together. After a Christmas week win against archrival Louisville and opening SEC wins over undermanned Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, he is finally confident that things are in fact starting to coalesce. “We’re still not there. But I’m looking around the country, I don’t see anybody there. I like my team. I like our progress. We have the biggest upside of any team in the country. We’re  the youngest team in the country; that’s where we are. I just have to try to [have] patience when I have none,” Calipari said after Saturday’s 71-62 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Calipari is All Smiles About This Year's Group. What About Next Year? (AP)

Don’t look now, Coach Cal’s crew is slowly coming together. (AP)

Calipari knows that bringing in such a haul of talent and that playing almost an entirely new set of players (only Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Jarrod Polson are significant contributors from last year’s squad) will require him to exhibit that patience. “I got a brand new team, and every year it’s something different, and as we go, you start figuring out how we have to play,” he said. Calipari was particularly pleased by the performance of the sophomore Poythress, who has not lived up to the lofty expectations set for him coming into college, and someone whom Calipari thinks has been limited by his lack of self-confidence. “Like I say to him, ‘You’re as good as anybody in the gym. Why won’t you play that way?’ And I asked the team, ‘What’s holding him back?’ [They said], ‘He is,’” Calipari said. The talented veteran forward will be a key for the Wildcats as they try to develop into a team that can win Calipari’s second national championship.

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