Freeze Frame: Tyler Ulis in the Pick and Roll

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 18th, 2016

Everybody loves Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. His teammates love his competitiveness. His coach thinks he should be one of the favorites for SEC Player of the Year as well as National Player of the Year. The national media is coming around too. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster ranks the point guard sixth in his National Player of the Year power rankings. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein recently said that Ulis is probably the best point guard in the country. Even Dan Dakich, who has feuded with Kentucky fans all year long, included Ulis among his top five point guards.

All the praise heaped on the 5’9” floor leader is with good reason. Ulis is averaging 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game on the season, but a switch seemed to flip on around Christmas. Since the Wildcats’ rivalry game with Louisville on December 26, Ulis has averaged 19.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of those outings. Nobody has been more valuable to his team this season, proven by the fact that Ulis has played in all but 38 minutes of game action since SEC play began. Where Ulis has been especially good is in his ability to utilize pick-and-roll situations at the top of the key. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Ulis so effectively uses screens to elevate the Kentucky offense.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.05.16 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 5th, 2016

As we reach the halfway point of conference play, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches we should buy and sell. This is our latest stock watch.

Buy: Vanderbilt Making the NCAA Tournament. The Commodores’ resounding win over Texas A&M Thursday night was a huge step in the right direction, but Kevin Stallings‘ team is still on the outside of the bubble at this point. They finally looked like the team everyone expected at the beginning of the season, however, and we think they will use that performance as a springboard to securing a bid. They will be favored in their next five games, and should be able to build more confidence for a tough stretch run.

Sell: Kentucky Exiting the Big Dance Early. Sure, the Wildcats looked bad in blowing a 21-point lead to Tennessee on Tuesday, but they also took Kansas to overtime and arguably should have beaten the Jayhawks at Phog Allen. They will have to get more consistent production from the post, but with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray growing comfortable together in the backcourt, we’re not betting against a relatively deep run for John Calipari‘s team.

Kevin Stallings

Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt got a big win Thursday night. (AP)

Buy: Kevin Punter Earning First-Team All-SEC Honors. The senior guard plays for a team that almost certainly will finish the season in the bottom third of the league, which is ordinarily a tough position from which to earn first-team all-conference honors. But Punter has been fantastic on a team with little offensive balance. He currently is second in the league in scoring (23.1 PPG) and is shooting 38.5 percent from three-point range. He’s shown remarkable improvement from his junior campaign, when he averaged just over ten points per contest. If he keeps up this level of play, Punter has a strong chance to make the all-SEC first team. Read the rest of this entry »

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Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Defensive Transformation

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 29th, 2016

Speaking after Kentucky’s beatdown of Missouri on Wednesday night, coach John Calipari talked about desperation. He credited his team’s ugly loss at Auburn as the catalyst for his team’s turnaround. “If we hadn’t lost that game, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate,” Calipari said. The Auburn loss gave Kentucky its second conference defeat, and had to leave Calipari wondering what was wrong with his post players. The Wildcats desperately needed something extra from its big men, and they have received it in recent outings. Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere have been more potent offensively of late, while also providing Kentucky a defensive presence that better approximates what we are used to seeing from a Calipari-coached team.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 12.23.44 PM

Skal Labissiere is finally giving Kentucky the rim protector it needs. (Photo: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports)

If you can’t defend Missouri, you can’t defend. In conference play, the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in both offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. However, Kentucky hasn’t exactly played well defensively for much of the year. In the seven games after its loss to Ohio State and on through the loss at Auburn, Kentucky allowed more than a point per possession five times. For a point of reference, last season’s undefeated Kentucky team only allowed four teams to score above a point per possession during the entire regular season. But since the loss to Auburn, the Cats have held Arkansas, Vanderbilt, and now Missouri under that mark, including a season-best .77 PPP to Mizzou. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we are looking for the change that sparked the sudden improvement in Kentucky’s defense.

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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

SEC_morning5

  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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