SEC Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2018

The SEC has more teams in the NCAA Tournament than it ever has before, and big things are expected this postseason after placing three teams in the Elite Eight and South Carolina in the Final Four a year ago. Let’s look at a few of the burning questions facing the league on the eve of the Big Dance.

The pressure is on Billy Kennedy and Texas A&M this postseason. (CBS Sports)

  • Which SEC team has the best chance to go the deepest? This is a tough one, as there are no obvious candidates to make it to the Final Four despite the SEC placing eight teams into the field. In fact, none of the group has an easy path, assuming seeding holds, beyond the Sweet Sixteen. Kentucky is playing well but a very tough draw will likely require the Wildcats to beat Arizona to get out of Boise. Tennessee and Auburn have reasonable paths to advance from the first weekend but would need to likely beat Cincinnati and Kansas, respectively, to advance beyond that point. And even though Florida has been wildly inconsistent all season long, the Gators have enough shot-makers and experience to reach the Elite Eight for the second straight year (and six of the last eight).
  • Which SEC player will break out and make a national name for himself? Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield has been on fire recently as the most consistent offensive performer on his team, using his versatile and unique offensive game to lead the Volunteers in three-pointers made while shooting a healthy 39.5 percent from behind the arc. Because of his ability to both draw defenders away from the basket while getting good looks inside, he is an extremely difficult match-up for nearly any opponent in the field. If the Volunteers can make it out of Dallas this weekend, the rest of the country will get to see what the SEC has known for the last two months — that Schofield is worthy of his selection to various all-SEC teams.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2018

For the first time ever, the SEC has placed eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field. Here are some quick impressions of the draws each of those teams received.


Admiral Schofield has been a beast for Tennessee down the stretch. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • Seed: #3, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Volunteers draw Horizon League champion Wright State. The Raiders are solid defensively, ranking 53rd nationally in defense, per KenPom, but struggle mightily on the offensive end (#248). Tennessee needs to get guard Jordan Bowden going, but the Vols should be able to take care of business here.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Texas in the Sweet Sixteen. Sure, the Longhorns would have to upset both Nevada and Cincinnati to get to the regionals, but who wouldn’t want to see Rick Barnes take on the school he led to 16 NCAA Touranment bids in 17 seasons.
  • Final Word: The Volunteers need to be more efficient offensively, especially inside the arc, but they are a threat to make a deep run as they rarely play themselves out of games.


  • Seed: #4, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Tigers open with College of Charleston and should be able to exploit the Cougars’ shoddy three-point defense to find immediate success.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Bruce Pearl had his fair share of success at Tennessee against Bill Self, and if the Tigers can right the shaky ship to make it to the second weekend, they could be dangerous upon arrival.
  • Final Word: Auburn has struggled mightily on the offensive end down the stretch, and may have run out of gas this season. An early exit from the SEC Tournament this weekend might have been a blessing in disguise.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Kentucky’s Inconsistency is Likely Here to Stay

Posted by David Changas on February 1st, 2018

Kentucky walked off the Rupp Arena hardwood two weekends ago after losing a close game to rival Florida, and the Wildcats collectively had to wonder whether their season was headed down a dreadful path of no return. That loss was their second that week – the first coming to South Carolina in Columbia four days prior – and many observers of the program thought the trend was proof positive that John Calipari‘s current group of youngsters simply weren’t very good. To underscore that point, Kentucky’s only top-50 RPI wins had come against two teams — Louisville and Texas A&M — that were clearly struggling at the time of the games, and nothing Kentucky had done since those victories indicated that the Wildcats were headed toward a good place in March. Calipari’s squad bounced back with a strong second half performance in a subsequent 78-65 home win over Mississippi State, but a road trip to double-digit favorite West Virginia as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge was looming. Early in the second half of that game, West Virginia led by 17 points over the Wildcats and things in the Bluegrass State appeared headed to DEFCON 1.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came up huge for Kentucky against Vanderbilt (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Somehow, at what appeared to be the lowest point of the season, something sparked the sluggish Wildcats. Kentucky proceeded to go on an improbable 25-4 run over the next seven-plus minutes before eventually claiming its best win of the season. At that point, the buzz around the program was no longer about whether falling to the NIT was a distinct possibility, but rather whether a trip to the Final Four in San Antonio was still on the table. Chatter suggested that the Wildcats had finally figured things out, thanks largely to the emergence of quickly-developing freshmen Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Riding high after the big victory over West Virginia, the Wildcats returned to Rupp Arena to face struggling Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. And in a shaky follow-up performance that probably should have been expected from such a young team (remember, the Wildcats rank 351st, dead-last, in experience nationally), it took a minor miracle to emerge victorious. On a loose ball play with two seconds remaining, Gilgeous-Alexander was fouled 50 feet from the basket and the Wildcats trailing by two points. He calmly sank two free throws to send the game to overtime, where Kentucky would ultimately prevail, 83-81.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Recapping the Good and Bad from the Big 12/SEC Challenge

Posted by David Changas on January 30th, 2018

Despite being underdogs in seven of the 10 games of the Big 12/SEC Challenge last weekend, the SEC pulled off its first overall win (6-4) in the fourth year of the battle between power conferences. It was yet another boost to a league that has undergone a revival of sorts this season. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad for the SEC from Saturday’s action.

The Good

John Calipari paid homage to Bob Huggins with his attire, then saw his team pull off a big upset against the Mountaineer coach (John Clay/Lexington Herald-Leader).

  • Kentucky’s Upset of West Virginia. How improbable was it that the previously struggling Wildcats would come back from a 17-point second half deficit in Morgantown on Saturday night? According to KenPom’s win probability metric, the Mountaineers had a 97.8 percent chance of emerging victorious with 17 minutes left in the game. And yet, Kentucky stormed back and notched the impressive victory. While an inspiring road win doesn’t fix all of the Wildcats’ ongoing woes, it will serve as a clear resume-enhancer for a club desperately in need of one and should boost the team’s confidence as it heads into February.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC Weekend Preview: Conference Openers

Posted by David Changas on December 28th, 2017

The last weekend of 2017 marks the first weekend of conference play for several SEC teams.Today we look at a few of the compelling match-ups that lie ahead on Saturday and Sunday.

Jaylen Barford (18.5 PPG) leads an explosive Arkansas offense that is averaging 90 points per game (

  • Tennessee at Arkansas. What looked before the season like a relatively nondescript opening game now appears to be the marquee SEC match-up on this weekend’s slate. The #19 Volunteers, picked to finish 13th in the preseason projections, head to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for what could be one of the best games of the entire season. Tennessee has already won four games away from Knoxville, including two road wins against ACC competition. But beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville will require its best performance of the season. The key to this contest might be whether the Vols, which force a lot of turnovers, can do so against an Arkansas team that takes care of the ball as well as any group in college basketball.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC Burning Questions: Kentucky Wildcats

Posted by David Changas on November 6th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC SEC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Is this Kentucky Team Just Too Young to Contend for a National Championship?

As has been the case since John Calipari arrived in Lexington eight years ago, there are a lot of new faces who will take the floor at Kentucky this season. And as is also always the case for the Wildcats, those new faces are all supremely talented. Last year Calipari signed another superb class filled with five-star talent, this time raking in a total of six players ranked among the top 26 of’s composite rankings. That group includes Hamidou Diallo, a freshman guard who enrolled in January of last year, redshirted, then nearly decided to enter the NBA Draft before withdrawing late in the process. Even by Kentucky’s one-and-done standards, this team is exceptionally young — perhaps the youngest group that Calipari has ever had. The only returning player who so much as averaged double-figure minutes last season was sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, who was a role player on last year’s Elite Eight squad. But this is Kentucky, so, per usual, any excuse that involves youth will not be accepted by either Kentucky fans or by Calipari himself. And there is good reason for that optimism — this group is plenty talented.

Wenyen Gabriel is John Calipari’s only returning player with significant experience. (

The 2017-18 version of the Wildcats is exceptionally athletic and big. In addition to Gabriel, Kentucky expects production from freshmen big men Nick Richards and P.J. Washington, as well as Jarred Vanderbilt, who has recently has been cleared to begin conditioning after a September foot injury. Sacha Killeya-Jones, a 6’10” sophomore who played limited minutes as a freshmen, will be asked to step up as well. In the backcourt, Calipari will rely on highly-regarded guards Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to mesh with Diallo to distribute and score. The loss of Jemarl Baker, touted as one of the best shooters in the Class of 2017, will be felt, as he is expected to be out for at least three months after undergoing knee surgery in late October. Regardless, the expectations in Lexington are that the Wildcats will contend for a Final Four berth and another National Championship. Calipari knows that the bargain with fans is that his reliance on one-and-done talent — and therefore youth and inexperience — will never be an excuse. He has routinely won SEC regular season and tournament titles throughout his tenure in Lexington, and while those things are nice, the only thing that really matters to Wildcat fans is what Kentucky does on the national stage in the Big Dance. Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Analyzing Kentucky’s Improved Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 22nd, 2017

Kentucky scored at least 100 points five separate times this year so it is no surprise that the Wildcats’ offense has grabbed most of the headlines. When the season was on the line on Sunday afternoon, however, it was instead a strong defensive performance that propelled John Calipari‘s club into the Sweet Sixteen. In a season-low 62-possession grinder with the Shockers, the Wildcats proved they can win with defense by shutting down one of the 10 best offenses in college basketball.

For reference on the defensive score sheet, refer to this previous post —

Kentucky quietly owns a top 10 team defense (eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom), and it will need it to continue improving if this season is going to be extended. With UCLA looming and a potential Elite Eight matchup with North Carolina beyond that, the Wildcats will need to do better than allowing 97 points and 1.17 points per possession (PPP) to the Bruins and a season-high 100 points and 1.27 PPP to the Tar Heels.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Arkansas 65

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2017

While this game was close for most of the first half, a late surge by hot-shooting Kentucky (60.7% FG) pushed the Wildcats to what would prove to be an insurmountable 12-point halftime lead. The win gave Kentucky its remarkable 17th SEC Tournament title since the event was restarted in its current form in 1979.

Key Takeaways

Bam Adebayo is big reason Kentucky captured its third SEC title in a row on Sunday.

  1. Kentucky’s Improved Defense. Kentucky struggled to defend in late January, causing many to wonder if this year’s version of the Wildcats would ever improve enough to be taken seriously as a Final Four contender. That has changed in the six weeks since, as John Calipari‘s young team has answered affirmatively in resounding fashion. In its three games in Nashville this weekend, Kentucky was incredibly stingy on the defensive end, with a particular emphasis on guarding opponents beyond the arc. In Friday’s quarterfinal match-up with Georgia, the Bulldogs made only 5-of-16 three-point attempts. Alabama was even more dreadful in Saturday’s semifinal (3-for-14 3FG). Sunday brought more of the same, as Arkansas shot a woeful 4-of-18 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats also effectively bottled up Arkansas’ best shooter, Dusty Hannahs, who made only one three on the day and was largely a non-factor.
  2. A Balanced Performance. Kentucky clearly had a better bench than Arkansas on Sunday afternoon. Nine Wildcats scored, including a solid 14-point game from senior Dominique Hawkins (who averages only 3.9 points per contest). Hawkins was one of four double-figure scorers for Kentucky, which shot 48.2 percent from the field and dominated the glass (+14). For its part, Arkansas received 18 points off the bench from guard Daryl Macon, but he was the only Razorback reserve with more than a single point.
  3. The Beat Goes on in Nashville. The SEC Tournament has become very routine over the last several years. In the third season in a row the event was held in Nashville, it became the third year in a row that Kentucky waltzed to a championship. A case can be made that the Wildcats have just as much of a home court advantage in the Music City nowadays as they do in Rupp Arena. The good news for Big Blue Nation is that, after the SEC Tournament takes a one-year turn in St. Louis in 2018, it returns to Nashville for another three-year run. Based upon the way things have gone in this conference, Wildcat fans might as well book their hotel rooms and put in their ticket orders for long weekend stays from 2019-21.

Star of the GameDominique Hawkins. A case could be made for Bam Adebayo, who contributed one of his best performances of the year, but Hawkins was his usual disruptive self on defense as well as very productive on the offensive end. The senior provided an emotional spark in the early going, getting the partisan crowd fully engaged and allowing the Wildcats to break out to a double-figure halftime lead.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Reboot

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 16th, 2017

Late in conference play is usually the point when young teams start to click. John Calipari’s latest edition of a young team at Kentucky, however, appeared to be regressing during a recent five-game stretch where the Wildcats lost three games. Over that period, his team was held under a point per possession three times — after doing so only twice to that point in the season — and gave up more than a point per possession to all five opponents. It wasn’t a very good run of play, but perhaps the predicted demise of Kentucky came far too soon.

Will Calipari’s latest reboot work to turn around the Wildcats? (image via CBS Sports)

Calipari’s defense came together on the road against Alabama on Saturday (holding the Tide to 0.83 points per possession), and his team followed that up with its most complete performance in almost a month against Tennessee earlier this week. What did Kentucky recently change that Calipari hopes to ride into March? In this edition of Freeze Frame, we examine several factors that will help the Wildcats keep their winning streak alive.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story