Freeze Frame: Is It Time For a New “Tweak” In Kentucky’s Offense?

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 8th, 2016

During the 2013-14 season, John Calipari’s team lost six games in SEC play (including three of its last four) on its way to a 22-9 regular season mark. Kentucky, which had entered the season at No. 1 in the country, was considered a huge disappointment at the time. Calipari knew that something had to change if his team was going to turn things around, so heading into the 2014 SEC Tournament, he introduced “the tweak.” The beauty of his strategy was that Calipari wouldn’t say what he actually tweaked.

Calipari's tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention off his struggling juggernaut (cbssports.com).

Calipari’s tweak in 2014 was another public relations masterpiece to deflect attention away from his struggling juggernaut. (Getty)

Calipari’s tweak became a national story as media and fans searched for the mystery in every game. “If you know anything about basketball, you’ll know exactly what I did,” he explained. Yet despite thousands of rumors swirling around, nobody could pinpoint precisely what it was. As Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com (who, as a beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, has followed the head coach’s career longer than most) wrote after Calipari revealed the tweak (he asked point guard Andrew Harrison to pass more), the brilliance of the strategy was that it shifted the conversation away from the play of his struggling Wildcats. This year’s team could certainly use a distraction from its disappointing play on the road, but it could also use a substantial tweak to its offensive approach. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at Kentucky’s recent loss to LSU and analyze a strategic tweak that could change the Wildcats’ season.

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.04.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SEC M5: 12.01.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 1st, 2015

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  1. Kentucky held on to its position as the No. 1 team in America in yesterday’s AP poll. The Wildcats defeated Illinois State 75-63 at home on Monday night, despite playing without their leader, Tyler Ulis. The 5’9 sophomore hurt his right elbow in Friday’s win over South Florida in Miami, and coach John Calipari said prior to Monday’s game that he was day-to-day. One could assume that if Calipari thought his team really needed Ulis to dispatch the Redbirds, he would have played, but that obviously wasn’t necessary. It is safe to say that Ulis, who was averaging 13.2 points, 4.3 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game going into the contest, is the player the Wildcats can least afford to lose.
  2. Speaking of injuries to smallish SEC guards, Auburn will be without  guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen for up to two weeks after the junior re-injured his surgically-repaired right shoulder during the Tigers’ home win over Northwestern State on Friday. Shamsid-Deen, who originally injured the shoulder on October 27, missed both of Auburn’s exhibition games and the season-opener against UAB. Regarded as one of the best defenders on the team, Shamsid-Deen was on the verge of re-entering the starting lineup. Now, coach Bruce Pearl will hope to get him back before the Tigers’ December 12 trip to Middle Tennessee State. If he is not back by then, Pearl should get his most experienced player back before Auburn travels to Xavier on December 19.
  3. College basketball fans have made sport over the past year or so of making fun of LSU coach Johnny Jones’s shortcomings as a head coach. Talent has not been an issue for the Tigers, who lost underclassmen Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey to the NBA Draft after last season, but added the best player in the country, Ben Simmons, and another five-star recruit in Antonio Blakeney. Unfortunately for Jones, however, nothing he has gotten from his talented group so far has changed the perception people who follow the sport have of him, and Monday’s loss at the College of Charleston, which comes on the heels of two losses last week, will do nothing to quiet the critics. Certainly, it is way too early in the season to reach any overarching conclusions about where any team is, and LSU does get Arizona transfer Craig Victor eligible and sharpshooter Keith Hornsby back soon. Still, the Tigers are digging a hole that they’re going to struggle to get out of when it comes to building their resume, and with the calendar flipping to December, Jones would be well-served to figure things out.
  4. South Carolina is one of only a handful of teams in the country that is still undefeated, and though the Gamecocks’ competition may not have been overly impressive thus far, given the school’s recent basketball history, things are looking up for Frank Martin’s club. On Monday, senior forward Mindaugas Kacinas was named SEC Player of the Week for his efforts in South Carolina’s wins over Tulsa in the Paradise Jam championship game and against Lipscomb at home on Friday. Kacinas averaged 13.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in the games. Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon was named SEC Freshman of the Week after he scored a season-high 16 points in the Bulldogs 76-51 win over Tennessee-Martin.
  5. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know that the latest installment – Star Wars: The Force Awakens – opens on December 18. Several professional sports teams have held versions of “Star Wars nights,” allowing fans to dress up as their favorite characters. Florida has decided to get into the act, and Tuesday night’s home game against Richmond will be Star Wars night. There will be costume contests, among other activities, and given the popularity of the movie series, the promotion is a sure bet to draw some fans who normally would not darken the door of the O’Connell Center. Considering some of the problems Florida had with attendance over the years, despite an incredible amount of success, kudos to the Gators’ marketing department for coming up with – or at least copying – the idea.
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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Dynamic Guard Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 18th, 2015

Prior to the Champions Classic game between Duke and Kentucky on Tuesday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he needed to learn more about his team. Knowing how critical Calipari can be about his team’s performances, he probably nitpicked a few of those less positive moments. He saw that his team could get outmuscled at times in the post, and he certainly wasn’t pleased with a lack of physical play near the basket during a long stretch of the first half. He watched as Marcus Lee (even though he otherwise had a standout performance) and Skal Labissiere, two of his starting big men, committed needless fouls on their way to fouling out with over five minutes remaining. But where his big men came up lacking, we also learned that Calipari’s backcourt is already one of the best in the nation, and it stepped up big time to solidify a 74-63 statement win over defending national champion Duke.

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season. (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis is only a sophomore, but the 5’9” point guard played like a seasoned veteran and proved he is the undisputed leader for this year’s young and talented Kentucky squad. The energetic floor general provided a spark on both ends of the floor on his way to 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, and most importantly, zero turnovers in 40 minutes. Freshman Jamal Murray dazzled on his way to 16 points, five assists, five rebounds, and four steals, while Isaiah Briscoe added 12 points, three boards, and two steals. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review the impact of Kentucky’s backcourt when Calipari needed them most.

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Three Keys to Kentucky’s Success Against Duke

Posted by David Changas on November 17th, 2015

The college basketball season may only be a few days old but that doesn’t mean we have to wait long for a matchup of true heavyweights. Unlike its gridiron counterpart, teams don’t risk a shot at a national championship with an early-season loss, which is why fans will be treated to a clash of the titans when Kentucky battles Duke in Chicago at the Champions Classic. It’s a matchup of schools — wearing the same jerseys but with many different faces — that appeared destined to play each other for last year’s national title, a fate that was ultimately derailed by the undefeated Wildcats’ stunning loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. In the absence of Calipari’s crew on the floor during championship Monday in Indianapolis, the Blue Devils captured a crown that for so many months appeared Kentucky’s to lose. The Wildcats will get a shot at some measure of redemption tonight, despite the fact that this game will include only a few of the players who participated in last year’s Final Four.

Kentucky will have to control Duke's Grayson Allen, who is off to a hot start. (Getty).

Kentucky will have to control Duke’s Grayson Allen, who is off to a hot start. (Getty)

Let’s take a quick look at three keys to Kentucky’s chances of earning a mid-November win that will ultimately look very good come March:

  1. Control Grayson Allen. The bouncy sophomore guard enjoyed his coming-out party at last season’s Final Four, making the all-tournament team after being little more than a bit player for most of the season. Now, acting as one of the new leaders of Mike Krzyzewski‘s squad, Allen has started the season with a bang, averaging 27 points per game in wins over Siena and Bryant. Clearly the confidence that he gained last April has carried over to this season. Kentucky will have to neutralize his slashing and shooting game — the Wildcats can use a combination of athletic players, including Jamal Murray, Derek Willis, and Alex Poythress to slow him down. With many of the other Blue Devils still learning their offensive roles, Duke could be in for a long night if Kentucky can limit his production. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC Burning Questions: Best Non-Conference SEC Games

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2015

Kentucky was the team to beat a year ago — both in the SEC and nationally. And despite ultimately falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats didn’t disappoint anybody on their way to a 38-1 record. But several SEC teams did, and it started in their non-conference schedules. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern; Mississippi State couldn’t get by USC-Upstate or Arkansas State; South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron; LSU lost a surprising game to Clemson; Missouri dropped its home opener to UMKC.

The SEC isn't just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returners to Nashville (AP/Wade Payne)

The SEC isn’t just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returnees to Nashville. (AP/Wade Payne)

Kentucky is again the team to beat in the SEC (and perhaps nationally). The conference appears to be significantly improved this season, so maybe several SEC teams outside of Lexington can string together enough non-conference victories to give the league some early credibility. The nation will be watching the following 10 games so there will be no better time than the next two months for the league to announce its legitimacy. Here are the 10 best non-conference games involving SEC teams this season.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.27.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2015

Each week, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches are on the rise, which are holding steady, and which are on the decline. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Kentucky Running the Table. With each passing week, the chances that the 28-0 Wildcats make it to the Big Dance with an unblemished record get prospectively better. Kentucky will face two tough challenges in the next five days — hosting Arkansas and traveling to Georgia — but if they can handle those , they’ll certainly arrive in Nashville for the SEC Tournament without a loss and be prohibitive favorites to remain so.

    Willie Cauley-Stein and his Wildcats have a tough test against Arkansas Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports)

    Willie Cauley-Stein and his Wildcats have a tough test against Arkansas Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Georgia. After the Bulldogs inexplicably dropped a pair of home games against lowly Auburn and South Carolina, they bounced back with wins at Alabama and Ole Miss. Those two wins now put Mark Fox’s team at 10-5 in SEC play and in very good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid.
  • Six Teams to the Big Dance. Right now, it looks like the league is in good shape to receive six bids, as both bracketologists Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm have Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M into their fields. There is plenty of basketball left to play, however, and no team other than Kentucky and Arkansas should get too comfortable, but for the SEC to be in this position is a dramatic improvement from a year ago.
  • Arkansas as the League’s Second Best Team.There was some debate a few weeks ago about the second-best team in the SEC, but that is no longer the case. Arkansas is now an impressive 12-3 in SEC play heading into Saturday’s big-time tilt in Lexington. The Razorbacks have separated themselves from the rest of the pack and are now playing for postseason seeding.
  • Vanderbilt’s Future. The Commodores started SEC play 1-7 but have since righted the ship, winning five of seven games. Thursday’s come-from-behind win at Tennessee, in which they hit an astonishing 84 percent of their attempts in the second half, is a great example of the improvement of Kevin Stallings’ team. With two winnable home games left against Alabama and Mississippi State, Vanderbilt will astonishingly have a chance to finish .500 in SEC play with a win at Mississippi to close out the season, something that didn’t seem possible a few short weeks ago.

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SEC M5: 02.27.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2015

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  1. Could the SEC really get six teams into the NCAA Tournament? According to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, it looks that way and it doesn’t appear to be all that close. Kentucky and Arkansas are locks and the bracket guru lists Georgia, Texas A&M and Ole Miss as single-digit seeds with LSU as a #10. Given all the flak that the league has received for being weak this season, getting nearly half of its teams into the field of 68 would be quite an accomplishment. Sure, there’s plenty of basketball left to play, and every team other than the Wildcats and Razorbacks would do well to win several more games to ensure their bids. But as each of these teams played tough non-conference schedules, they’ve earned their placements in field.
  2. As the season draws to a close, it is time to start analyzing who will walk away with the various season awards and  all-conference honors. All jokes aside about the number of players who get selected to SEC all-conference squads, it looks like Kentucky’s balanced success could prevent any of its very deserving players from winning the league’s Player of the Year award. Instead, according to Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com, that honor may end up in the hands of Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. The Razorbacks sit at 23-5 ahead of their huge tilt with undefeated Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday, and it is hard to argue that Portis is somehow undeserving. He is second in the SEC is scoring (17.6 PPG) and fourth in rebounding (8.5 RPG), but most importantly, his team has separated itself as the second-best group in the league in large part because of his leadership.
  3. Playing for a 28-0 basketball team in a state that loves the sport as much or more than any other may seem like it’s all fun and games. And while it mostly is, ESPN.com‘s Dana O’Neil took a look at what it is actually like to suit up for Kentucky. Anyone who follows the sport closely knows that there is no fan base more passionate than the Big Blue Nation, and when you sign up to play for the Wildcats — assuming you’re deemed worthy in the first place — you know that will come with hefty expectations. As O’Neil points out, playing for Kentucky is simply not for everyone, and living up to the lofty standards set by the school’s fans is often difficult. But as she also shows, John Calipari is able to sell players on coming to Lexington because they know it will prepare them for the rigors both on and off the court at the next level better than anywhere else. And in this day and age, that is what matters most.
  4. Florida went to the Elite Eight in each of the last four seasons and swept the SEC on its way to the Final Four a year ago. To say that the Gators have disappointed this season would be to drastically understate the case. Sure, Billy Donovan was right when he said that his team had no business being ranked in the top 10 to start the season. But no one could have foreseen the disaster that this season has become. The 13-15 Gators are currently a long shot to make the NIT, especially with a trip to Kentucky still in the offering. Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley, who has followed the program longer than just about anyone, analyzed what has led to the Gators’ many woes after Tuesday night’s loss to Missouri. Dooley points out that Donovan overscheduled for such an inexperienced group, lost guard Devon Walker before the season even started, and hasn’t been able to win many close games. And while all of the points Dooley raises are accurate, no one could have foreseen such a dropoff coming. We are sure that Donovan will get things turned around in Gainesville, but the precipitous fall of Florida basketball over the past 11 months is nothing short of astonishing.
  5. Billy Kennedy has done a nice job turning things around at Texas A&M one year ahead of schedule, and the Aggies have a monster recruiting class set to enter that includes three top-50 players and a fourth just outside of it. They also have a roster that should return almost everyone of consequence, meaning that expectations will be sky high in College Station next season. However, the current and future on-court success has not translated into success at the turnstiles. Despite playing really well in SEC play and remaining in strong contention for an NCAA Tournament bid, the Aggies are drawing an average of only 7,368 fans per game, down significantly from the Billy Gillispie/Mark Turgeon teams that routinely packed over 13,000 fans into Reed Arena. If A&M can make the Big Dance and return juniors Danuel House and Jalen Jones, the Aggies should enter next season in the Top 25 and the larger crowds should return.
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SEC M5: 02.13.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 13th, 2015

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  1. There has been ample discussion about what can be done to make college basketball a more enjoyable product, and with good reason. Scoring is down again this year, with way too many games finishing in the 50s and 60s. The most common suggested fix for the scoring issue is to reduce the shot clock to 30 seconds. A recent ESPN poll found that more than 58 percent of the sample of coaches would like to see that happen, although the SEC’s most prominent coach, John Calipari, said that he essentially could not care less whether it does. Given the sheer amount of talent that Calipari brings to Kentucky, it is likely that he will win big regardless of the pace of the game (notably, this is Calipari’s slowest team in his coaching career). Whether the change is actually recommended going forward won’t be known until after the NCAA’s Competition Committee meets in May.
  2. To say this has been a trying first season for Missouri head coach Kim Anderson would be understating things. His team is currently mired in the cellar and on a brutal nine-game losing streak. He lost leading scorer Wes Clark to injury in a Tuesday loss to South Carolina, and he has suspended three more players over the last couple of weeks. Still, all of that turmoil pales in comparison to the experience he went through on Wednesday afternoon when the twin-engine plane he was on for a recruiting trip needed to make an emergency landing in St. Clair, Missouri. Anderson was on his way to Illinois when he heard a “small rumble,” and after the safe landing, he complimented the two pilots for their efforts. Perhaps not surprisingly, Anderson’s return trip to Columbia was by car.
  3. The Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 was released on Wednesday, and the SEC had two representatives on the list: Arkansas’ Bobby Portis, who is averaging a league-leading 17.9 points per game to go along with 8.8 rebounds per contest; and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, who is fourth in the SEC in blocks. Portis’ inclusion is no surprise, as the leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year has led Arkansas to its best season in the Mike Anderson era. As for Cauley-Stein, he was considered a National Player of the Year candidate after a strong start in November, but the junior center has been less effective lately. Given the recent emergence of freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, a strong argument could even be made that Cauley-Stein isn’t the best post presence on his own team.
  4. Speaking of the Wildcats, what would an M5 be without some mention of their quest for an undefeated season? Kentucky survived quite a scare in Tuesday’s come-from-behind win at LSU, but with only seven games left in the regular season, the national discussion and laser-hot focus will only become more intense. CBSSports.com’s “Undefeated Watch” takes a look at those seven games and what kind of threat there is for the Big Blue to lose any of them. The chances of any individual team taking down the Wildcats is not very high, but a home game against Arkansas and a trip to Georgia seem to offer the best opportunities. The reality is that it’s likely that Kentucky leaves the SEC Tournament in Nashville with a great chance to become the first undefeated national champion in the last 39 years.
  5. Florida is having a nightmarish season — the Gators’ crushing one-point loss to Ole Miss on Thursday being only the latest example — and the NCAA Tournament is clearly off the table unless it wins the SEC Tournament. But there is some good news for Billy Donovan on the facilities front, as his athletic department has committed to a $60 million renovation to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center as well as an expansion of the weight room in the basketball practice facility. The O-Dome renovations will include new chair-back seats, club seating, and center-hung video boards. The Gators have had one of the game’s preeminent coaches roaming the sidelines for the past two decades, and it will now have a facility worthy of such a fantastic leader.
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SEC M5: 02.09.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 9th, 2015

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  1. After missing two games — both losses at South Carolina and Kentucky — Georgia forward Marcus Thornton returned to action for Saturday’s win over Tennessee. His presence gave the Bulldogs some much-needed stability, as the senior is an experienced leader who has been through a lot during his four years in Athens. There had been some concern that Thornton would be out for longer than the two games given the apparent significance of his concussion, but Thornton played 26 minutes and scored eight points. Georgia needed his leadership on the floor more than it needed his scoring, though, and, most importantly, the Bulldogs got the win.
  2. As we creep closer to March, the storyline that will continue to grow is Kentucky’s quest to become the first college basketball team since 1976 to run the table. The Wildcats passed one of their stiffest remaining tests by winning at Florida Saturday night, but the victory did not come easy. As USA Today‘s Nicole Auerbach writes, these are just the types of tests John Calipari’s team needs. While Kentucky coasted through its pre-conference schedule, the Wildcats have now been challenged three times in SEC play and have won in tough environments where they haven’t had their best. The Wildcats still have tough road tests remaining at LSU (Tuesday) and Georgia, plus Arkansas at home, so the odds continue to grow daily that they will run the regular season table.
  3. The story of Sunday was the passing of legendary North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, and several SEC coaches weighed in to pay their respects. Like so many others, Billy Donovan talked about how Smith’s impact on lives was far more important than the 879 wins he racked up. John Calipari took to Twitter to talk about how much he loved and admired Smith. Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall, Georgia’s Mark Fox, and South Carolina’s Frank Martin also used social media to express their condolences and offer kind words about the legendary coach. And while he spent his entire coaching career in the ACC, it goes without saying that Smith’s legacy transcends not only the conference he was in or even college basketball as a whole, but all of society.
  4. As if things haven’t been bad enough for Missouri this season, they got worse prior to Saturday’s 83-61 home loss to Texas A&M when two Tigers were suspended as a result of a violation of team rules. Montaque Gill-Caesar and Namon Wright, a pair of freshmen who average 9.6 and 5.5 points per game, respectively, will have their situations re-evaluated at some point down the line. The Tigers are also playing without Tramaine Isabell, a player who missed his third game after Kim Anderson found that his behavior toward teammates was “unacceptable.” Anderson’s first year at his alma mater has been very tough — Missouri sits at 1-9 in SEC play and almost certainly will finish in the league’s basement — but he is doing what is necessary to root out some of the problems that were created by his predecessor in an effort to establish that his program will be run the right way.
  5. Tennessee has struggled lately, losing four of five after starting SEC play at 4-1. Leading scorer Josh Richardson scored only two points in the Volunteers’ three-point loss at Georgia Saturday, with both of those coming in the final minutes. Despite the recent shakiness, Donnie Tyndall is not at all ready to give up on his undermanned club and refuses to believe that his team has hit a wall. Without much of an inside presence to speak of, Tennessee is forced to rely upon its limited good shooting to score enough points to win games. Although the Volunteers never seem to be out of a game, they face a very difficult closing stretch unlikely to present many opportunities for wins. Any postseason berth for this team would be an accomplishment, and anyone who has watched Tyndall operate knows he will get the best out of them.
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