SEC Opening Weekend: What to Watch For

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 14th, 2014

With college basketball tipping off around the country tonight, let’s take a look what to watch for involving SEC teams this weekend.

Who are they playing? There’s no better way for the league to boost its dwindling reputation than by winning non-conference games against quality opponents. It’s only one weekend, but it doesn’t look like the SEC has much opportunity to start changing minds right out of the gate. Overall the league has, to put it lightly, an uninspiring slate of games on tap. There’s nothing wrong with that — you don’t necessarily want to schedule opening games with the Kansases and Dukes of the world right off the bat. This just means that the onus is on the league to not drop an embarrassing game this weekend, especially for teams with NCAA aspirations like Arkansas and LSU. Tennessee and Georgia have tricky games as well, but other than those (vs. VCU and Georgia Tech, respectively), you would expect the league to get to Monday unscathed. One note: Kentucky and Missouri are doubling up and face considerably tougher competition on Sunday, at least according to KenPom. The Wildcats shouldn’t have a problem, of course, but Valparaiso might be a sneaky upset pick against Kim Anderson’s young team. The full list of games involving SEC teams is below.

Team Opponent KenPom Rank
Tennessee VCU (neutral) 17
Georgia Georgia Tech (road) 96
Kentucky (Sunday) Buffalo 141
Missouri (Sunday) Valparaiso 160
Florida William & Mary 161
Auburn Milwaukee 189
Ole Miss Charleston Southern 193
Texas A&M Northwestern State 196
Alabama Towson 203
LSU Gardner-Webb 242
South Carolina North Florida 247
Missouri (Friday) UMKC 251
Kentucky (Friday) Grand Canyon 269
Mississippi State Western Carolina 270
Arkansas Alabama State 291
Vanderbilt Trevecca Nazarene n/a

It’s all about platoons. Of course this piece contains a few words on the platoon system, and how could it not? There are so many questions about the system John Calipari plans to run this season: how will the minutes work out on a team of future pros? Will Coach Cal stick to it throughout an entire game? A month? An entire season? Will everyone stay happy? Kentucky has a quick turnaround with a game tonight against Grand Canyon and another on Sunday against Buffalo, which should allow the platoon system to pay immediate dividends. The most interesting question will be what happens when future games get tight and the Wildcats need to close out better opponents. Unfortunately, we’ll probably need to wait until Tuesday against Kansas for a better answer to that question. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Season Preview: Georgia Bulldogs

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 10th, 2014

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

Strengths. Mark Fox will roll out one of the best backcourt duos in the SEC this season. Charles Mann had a breakout season for the Bulldogs last year and ended up on the all-SEC Second Team. He led the team with 13.9 points per game and posted the 10th best assist rate in the conference (22.7 percent). Fellow junior guard Kenny Gaines was not far behind him at 13.0 points per game and proved reliable from the free throw line (77.7%) and the outside (37.5% 3FG). The problem is that Georgia doesn’t figure to be very deep at the guard position. Fox didn’t bring in any backcourt newcomers, so he’ll rely on J.J. Frazier and Juwan Parker to make similar leaps in their sophomore years like Mann and Gaines did last season.

Charles Mann is looking to build on a 2013-14 season that landed him on the All-SEC second team.(msn.foxsports.com).

Charles Mann is looking to build on a 2013-14 season that landed him on the all-SEC second team.(msn.foxsports.com).

Weaknesses. On the intangibles side, the Bulldogs will need to prove that they can play with expectations. They won’t sneak up on anyone and will be playing with the pressure of a team with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations. Georgia was unable to build on Fox’s only NCAA Tournament appearance four seasons ago, going just 15-17 the following year. But that team had to replace NBA Draft picks Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. This season’s team, on the other hand, returns the bulk of its contributors from last year’s 12-6 SEC finish. The lights will be shining on the Bulldogs this year; can they respond?

Toughest Non-Conference Test. The Bulldogs muddled through an uninspiring non-conference schedule at 6-6 last year before their unexpected SEC run to second place. This year, however, the schedule is much more difficult. Georgia faces Kevin Pangos and Gonzaga at the NIT Season Tip-Off on November 26, and that might not even be the toughest game. The Bulldogs also travel to Kansas State to face Marcus Foster and what figures to be a salty Wildcats team on New Year’s Eve. An opening game at Georgia Tech this Friday is also a challenge — Brian Gregory might be on the hot seat but it’s never easy to draw another major conference team right off the bat.

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SEC M5: 11.03.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 3rd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. SI.com released its SEC preview last week, and it’s worth a read to get ready for the upcoming season (in addition, of course, to all the content on this microsite). The only thing that’s ripe to nitpick is the prediction that Georgia will finish seventh in the conference with an 8-10 league record. It could be that I’m too high on the Bulldogs, but Mark Fox returns the core of a team that went 12-6 and finished tied for third in the SEC last season. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are two guards with upside who should be one of the more difficult-to-stop scoring duos in the conference. The Dawgs’ frontcourt may be thin, but Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic are still quality players, so seeing Georgia fall that far back just doesn’t seem likely.
  2. Scrimmage highlights should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s hard not to like what Karl-Anthony Towns showed at Big Blue Madness and during a recent scrimmage. His footwork and mobility for a guy that size are impressive, and his versatility could be a great asset for John Calipari and his cramped roster. Towns looks like he’ll be a threat away from the basket in addition to on the low blocks, whether facing up and driving to the rim or knocking down the occasional long jumper. That should allow him to play well with Kentucky‘s rim-centric players like Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein without stifling the offense.
  3. Marshall Henderson is gone from Oxford and no longer available for our college basketball viewing pleasure, but shocking as it may be, there will be basketball at Ole Miss this season, and as the Associated Press’ David Brandt points out, this may be Andy Kennedy’s deepest team yet. The Rebels return five of their top six players in minutes per game, and they could have the deepest SEC frontcourt in the league outside of Kentucky and LSU. Aaron Jones is a solid senior big man who can clean up the defensive glass, and sophomore Sebastian Saiz (20 points against LSU on January 15) and junior Anthony Perez (21 points against Kentucky on February 22) showed flashes with big offensive nights against strong frontcourts in 2013-14. This is a far cry from the beginning of last season, when Kennedy was trying to replace his two primary big men in Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway.
  4. Florida freshman guard Chris Chiozza is learning that playing for Billy Donovan is no walk in the park. “Got to run, every play, sprint,” Chiozza told GatorCountry.com. “If you stop sprinting, he’s going to make you run on the side, probably.” Donovan will need his freshmen ready to go this season because he no longer has the luxury of a senior-laden lineup. Junior Devin Walker (knee injury) and freshman Brandone Francis (academically ineligible) are out for the year, leaving Chiozza as the Gators fourth option at guard behind Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier and Eli Carter. It’s likely Chiozza and freshman forward Devin Robinson will be called upon to contribute right away, making every sprint worth it.
  5. CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander has Kentucky’s backcourt ranked as the fourth-best in the country, and it’s hard to find a beef with putting Duke, Arizona and North Carolina above the Wildcats. The development of Andrew and Aaron Harrison will be one of the more compelling SEC storylines this season, after their up-and-down freshmen years were capped off with solid performances (and big shots from Aaron) leading up to appearance in the national championship game. What makes the backcourt even more interesting, as Norlander points out, is the presence of 5’9’’ “passing wizard” Tyler Ulis. He’ll be an absolute change of the pace from the big-bodied Harrisons, and it’ll be fun to see him create looks for the all Kentucky big men.
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SEC Tournament Preview: Who Will Be the Surprise Player in Atlanta?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 12th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question goes in depth on the individual performances we could see this weekend. After being snubbed for an All SEC first team selection in 2013, Marshall Henderson went on a tear through last year’s SEC tournament guiding Ole Miss to a surprise championship and claiming MVP. Who will be the surprise breakout player of this year’s tournament?

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season?  (US Presswire)

Last year it was Marshall Henderson. Who will be the breakout player this season? (US Presswire)

Christian D’Andrea (@trainisland): Georgia sophomore Kenny Gaines was the second-leading scorer for the third-best team in the SEC, but was completely snubbed by the media in this week’s All-SEC honors. In fact, Gaines may be the conference’s most overlooked guard. He’s hitting the SEC Tournament after averaging 18.6 points per game over his last seven and shooting a blistering 56.8 percent from long range over that span.  He could outshine players like Marshall Henderson, Jordan McRae, and Trevor Releford if he can carry his recent hot streak with him to Atlanta.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Team Other Than Florida Can Cut Down the Nets?

Posted by Brian Joyce, David Changas & Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question covers which teams can cut down the nets on Sunday. Florida is clearly the favorite after an 18-0 run in SEC play, but besides the obvious choice of the Gators, which other team could realistically win the championship game on Sunday?

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Billy Donovan and Florida are the clear favorites in the SEC, but can any other team take down the mighty Gators? (AP)

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell): Tennessee. The Vols are more than just the current flavor of the week after winning each of their last three games by more than 27 points. Their talent is undeniable, as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae will both probably get shots in the NBA, and there aren’t many other teams outside of Kentucky in this conference that can say that. That talent didn’t translate to consistently good performances throughout the entire season, but it has lately. The Vols’ defense has been especially effective in recent weeks, as Tennessee has held opponents under 0.93 points per possession in five of its last six games. Locking down teams is usually a great pathway to success in March, and with a big, bruising frontcourt that causes match-up problems and a guy in McRae who can go off for 30 points at any time, this is a dangerous team.

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SEC M5: 02.24.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 24th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Saturday may very well have been the day the SEC’s bubble burst. A third bid (at least) seemed relatively solid over the past few weeks, with Missouri and Tennessee exchanging that position. Saturday didn’t always seem like a dreary day. In fact, for a brief moment it seemed as if the league could possibly sneak five teams into the tournament. LSU’s gritty effort at Kentucky looked at it would produce a win that might have catapulted the Tigers past a handful of teams ahead of them on the bubble. But Julius Randle’s floater ended that dream around the same time Texas A&M (RPI #118) handed Tennessee a damaging loss in overtime. Several hours later Missouri took a damaging loss of its own at RPI #117 Alabama. This fatalism could be overly-dramatic, and the Tigers and Vols might be clinging to the fringes of the bubble. But what’s the likelihood both go through the rest of the season unscathed before the they play each other to close the regular season? It’s not good, and another loss before that game would probably be the nail in the coffin for either team.
  2. There’s little controversy over whether Florida deserves to be the number one team in the country when the polls are released later today. But if an argument needs to be made for the Gators over Wichita State, Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army has it. “Florida has handled the SEC about as well as Wichita State has handled the Valley, outscoring it by 0.197 points per possession; Wichita’s MVC number is 0.231 points per possession.” The Gators have simply handled every challenge thrown at them in SEC play, even if it hasn’t been pretty. Like Wichita State, the Gators haven’t been challenged as much from a talent standpoint in conference play like a Big Ten team that seemingly sees at least one ranked opponent a week. But Florida has played a lot of close games in conference, running the spectrum from at home against Auburn and on the road against Kentucky. Each time the Gators have found a way to win, and it’ll be tough to pick against that next month. Billy Donovan deserves kudos for (in all likelihood) reaching number one for the first time in seven years.
  3. There are some positive thoughts following LSU letting a potential season-changing win at Rupp Arena slip through their fingers. NOLA.com’s Ron Higgins writes that while the Tigers are flawed, they have battled hard this season, corrected some mistakes, and Johnny Jones is in position to get a postseason within his first two years on the job. Trent Johnson is the only coach to do that in program history. “Add a few more athletic bodies before next season, a couple more outside shooters and the Tigers will win a game like they lost on Saturday,” Higgins writes. LSU certainly could be a handful next season. Jordan Mickey need only add a post move or two and improve his mid-range jumper to be an all-conference player. Jarrell Martin likely hasn’t impressed enough to make the jump to the NBA, but his talent is undeniable. And then there is incoming five star freshman forward Ben Simmons. If Johnny O’Bryant returns, LSU would have a strong case for having the most talented frontcourt in the country. The junior is on the fringes of NBADraft.net’s latest mock draft (55th overall pick), and might be wise to come back and develop more finesse in his offensive game. He has improved his shooting percentage on two point jumpers (41.1%), but still relies heavily on strength and power. That rarely translates to the NBA (see: Thomas Robinson).
  4. For all the talk of Missouri’s limited scoring options this season, it will be its defense that keeps it out of the NCAA Tournament. In the Tigers last two losses, they have allowed sub-par three-point shooters to get loose and burn them. Against Ole Miss, 31% three-point shooter Ladarius White converted on five-of-six three’s . Saturday night, it was 34% three-point shooter Levi Randolph hitting five-of-seven three’s in route to a career-high 33 points. It’s fine to challenge a poor shooter to make shots and see a couple go down. But when a guy is clearly in rhythm it’s hard justify not sticking with him. For example, Randolph had an open back-breaking three to stretch out Alabama’s lead with a few minutes left. While Missouri has a respectable 32% team three-point defense overall, situational lapses like that helped doom them in a key game. It’s also worth questioning why Frank Haith took so long to abandon the zone defense with Randolph shooting like he was and Trevor Releford dealing with a banged up leg.
  5. Georgia’s win at South Carolina was quietly impressive. People keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Bulldogs, and their season took a step in this direction with a humbling loss to Tennessee last week. It would’ve been allow that loss to beat them twice. Instead, Georgia followed it up with a road win, albeit against the last place team in the conference. But any win away from home is challenging in conference play, and Mark Fox’s team (9-5), assured itself of finishing no worse than .500 in SEC play even if the wheels completely fall off. Would a Bulldog fan have been happy with an even conference mark given how the first two months of the season went? Probably so. The Bulldogs star on Saturday was yet again a player that will be around for years to com, sophomore Kenny Gaines (27 points, 9-of-14 shooting). The folks at Dawg Sports summed up the forward-looking optimism by writing, “Donte’ Williams is the only significant contributor who isn’t likely to be back in 2014-15. While there’s still some basketball to be played in this season, there’s every reason to believe that Mark Fox may have finally turned a corner in Athens.”
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Dawgs Eating Just Fine in Dog-Eat-Dog SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 18th, 2014

For Georgia, the “a-ha moment” seemed to come on February 6. After racing out to a surprising 4-1 SEC record (with wins over Missouri and Arkansas), the Bulldogs had lost three straight, punctuated by a loss at cellar-dweller Auburn. That looked like the end of a nice flash of a Georgia storyline. But it wasn’t. Mark Fox’s team has since reeled off four straight wins, underlining this positive streak with a quality win against Ole Miss on Saturday. This begs the question in SEC basketball circles: Is it now time to drop the second part of the “Well, Georgia is off to a good start, but they’re still not that good” sentiment that’s been discussed over the last month and a half?

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia's 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia’s 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

At some point a sample size gets too big to be simply dismissed. It’s now mid-February and the Bulldogs are four games above 0.500 in SEC play, so we may have reached that point with this team. They haven’t compiled that record by only beating the dregs of the conference — they’ve gone 4-4 against RPI top-100 SEC teams — and they haven’t won those four games with smoke and mirrors either. Georgia has the second best field goal defense (39.4%) and rebounding rate (55.3%) in the league right now, trailing only Florida and Kentucky. This is also a young team led by sophomores Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines who should be gaining confidence. To sum it up, their solid conference play to date doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

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Georgia’s Talented Sophomore Class is the Key to Bulldogs’ Future

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2014

If you had to describe Mark Fox‘s time at Georgia in one word, “flashes” might be it. The Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament in 2010-11, led by juniors Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins. But both entered the NBA Draft and Fox was forced into an immediate rebuild instead of entering 2011-12 with two experienced and fringe pro prospects (both players are now out of the league). The next positive jolt in Athens was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s SEC Player of the Year campaign last season. But again, Caldwell-Pope bolted for the NBA (this time, smartly), and Fox lost the opportunity to bring back one of the top returning players in the country. Georgia’s surprise 2-0 start in the SEC this year, however, has been keyed by several young players who will almost certainly stick around past April, and Fox could finally be headed to some sustained success in Athens.

Charles Mann could be part of an eventual basketball revival in Athens (msn.foxsports.com).

Charles Mann could be part of an eventual basketball revival in Athens (Getty).

Sophomore guards Charles Mann (22 points) and Kenny Gaines (22 points) were essentially a two-man show on Saturday against Alabama, and Georgia was still good enough to beat the Tide (although “getting beaten” has been Alabama’s thing this year). At 6’5” and 6’3′,’ respectively, Mann and Gaines can create the type of big guard mismatches that Missouri has employed this season and were big factors in last week’s road win against the Tigers. They’ve also both shown improvement over last season in several key areas, with Mann turning the ball over less and Gaines increasing his effective field goal percentage. Neither is yet skilled enough t0 make the jump to the NBA, so Fox will actually get to reap the fruits of their development over the next couple of seasons. You can throw forward Brandon Morris into the mix too. The sophomore has the highest PER of Georgia’s regulars and has taken a huge step forward from his freshman year. Versatile junior Nemanja Djurisic, fresh off repeatedly silencing Mizzou Arena, has another year of eligibility remaining too.

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SEC M5: 02.27.12 Edition

Posted by DPerry on February 27th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. The red-hot Tennessee Volunteers extended its winning streak to six games Tuesday night, handing Florida their second loss in three games. Jordan McRae provided most of the offense with 27 points, while Jarnell Stokes (14 rebounds) dominated the glass in a game that was almost a must-win for the Vols to make the NCAA Tournament field. Florida began SEC play with 11 straight victories, looking almost infallible in comparison to the rest of the weak conference. However, injuries have taken their toll (Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II, most recently) and the Gators have lost some of that shine, maybe enough to completely excuse themselves from the #1-seed conversation. With the loss, Billy Donovan’s record against Cuonzo Martin fell to 0-3.
  2. Anthony Grant charged Trevor Releford with putting the offense on his back through the rest of the season, and he started out in style. Behind 21 points from the junior guard, Alabama avenged an ugly February 6 loss to intrastate rival Auburn with an easy win Tuesday night. Nick Jacobs chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds. “We talked about the importance of every game going forward, but obviously any time you get a chance to play your in-state rival that adds a different meaning,” Grant said after the game. Alabama travels to Gainesville this weekend with, unbelievably, a chance to tie the Gators atop the SEC standings.
  3. Believe it or not, Georgia still has a chance to grab a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Show of hands: Who thought the Bulldogs would be able to say that at the end of February? Really? Really? Coach Mark Fox will face a challenge tonight, as he brings his young backcourt into the uncomfortable environment that is Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, the only venue in the nation that features benches along the baseline. “I’m probably more worried about it this year with such a young perimeter group,” Fox said of the Commodores’ court configuration. “There’s a lot of the game they’ll have to manage on their own on the floor.” Freshman Charles Mann has been seeing more time at the point, while classmates Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris have earned their share of minutes as well. The Bulldogs have lost three of four games after a previous five-game winning streak.
  4. Andrew Wiggins, the top recruit in the class of 2013 according to both Rivals and ESPN, will take an official visit to Kentucky, probably while you’re reading this. He’s visited the Lexington campus before, but expects to see more than he did on his previous unofficial trip. “He’ll have a chance to meet different people: the academic people, the athletic director,” said Rob Fulford, Wiggins’ coach at Huntington (WV) Prep. “It’s more official as far as what you’re looking for and getting a feel for the school.” The forward originally from Canada is also considering Florida State, Kansas, and North Carolina. Also, watch this.
  5. Frank Haith hasn’t been hesitant to criticize his team this season. His most recent target is his team’s subpar defense on the road against Kentucky. “We had nobody play on that end of the court,” Haith said. “And when you have nobody play on that end of the court, you don’t have a chance. We had so many breakdowns where we didn’t rotate, we didn’t shrink the gap and allowed them driving lanes and loose balls and poor closeouts.” Kentucky entered Saturday’s game with Missouri without any momentum, but the Tigers’ lax defense allowed the Wildcats to shoot over 50% from the field, as well as over 40% from long range. Haith believes that his team only plays quality defense when their offensive game is on, which may help to explain much of the Tigers’ road struggles this season.
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