SEC M5: Presidents Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Coach Cal took a step back from coach-speak to appreciate Kentucky’s program-record tying 25-0 start after the Wildcats walloped South Carolina on Saturday. “You just tied a record of the most storied program in the country,” he told his team. “You tied a record and you’re all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein, a junior).” A win at Tennessee will push these Wildcats past the 1953-54 Kentucky squad, but would only tie the best start for a team coached by Calipari. His 1995-96 UMass team led by Marcus Camby started 26-0 before losing at home to George Washington, and his Derrick Rose-led 2007-08 Memphis team got to 26-0 before losing at home to Tennessee in what was one of the biggest regular season games in recent memory. As fate would have it, if the Wildcats get to 26-0 they would face Bruce Pearl, the man who halted Cal’s 26-0 Memphis team, next Saturday. In any event, both of Cal’s 26-0 teams finished as the National Runner-up, and it would probably be considered a disappointment if this Kentucky squad followed suit.
  2. The SEC got plenty of ink in College Basketball Talk’s Saturday Bubble Banter. Texas A&M strengthened its profile, or at least avoided mucking it up, by holding on to beat Florida. Ole Miss and Georgia, on the other hand, took hits with home losses, but the Bulldogs will be dinged much more than the Rebels. Georgia’s loss at home to Auburn (RPI #162, KenPom #135) would be easier swallow had it happened on the road, but losing in Stegeman Coliseum to the Tigers was a surprise. The Bulldogs had generally taken care of business this season, going 7-2 against RPI 101-200 with the only other loss being their season opener against Georgia Tech. They should be fine, especially coming off a strong win at Texas A&M, but can’t afford another bad home loss with South Carolina coming to Athens on Tuesday. An unrelated statistical oddity about the Auburn-Georgia rivalry: the schools are 90-90 against each other in basketball and 55-55 against each other in football. Talk about not having bragging rights.
  3. Despite its inconsistencies, LSU can be a hard team to match up with since most nights the Tigers will have a huge athletic advantage in the front court. This showed in their win over Tennessee, where the Vols struggled to get good looks against LSU’s length. Jordan Mickey ended up with seven blocks and now has an NCAA-leading 91 blocks on the season, and as a team the Tigers have the sixth-most blocks in the country. Barring a late season collapse, it seems the Tigers are a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Even if they wind up with a 10 or 11 seed, they should be in shape to take advantage of their athletic advantage down low and frustrate teams in the early rounds.
  4. Alabama has quietly been one of the more disappointing teams in conference play. The Tide are now just 5-7 in league play after dropping a must-win game at home to Vanderbilt. This comes after a 10-3 non-conference mark that included a win over UCLA and one-point loss at Wichita State, which was a marquee win Alabama had in their pocket before coughing it up late. To be fair, the schedule makers did the Tide no favors. They’ve already gotten Kentucky twice and have had to travel to Arkansas and LSU. But at the end of the day the NCAA Tournament is out of the picture for a team that has yet again had its offensive struggles under Anthony Grant. This season has been an improvement over last, but Grant’s job security continues to be an interesting question.
  5. Something fishy is going on in Eastern Missouri airspace. The plane chartered by Mississippi State lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing in St. Louis as the Bulldogs were on the way home after a win in Columbia. This comes just a few days after a plane carrying Kim Anderson had to make an emergency landing outside of St. Louis for a similar reason. Fortunately, no one was hurt either time. After his nerves evened out, Rick Ray must have been more pleased than usual with his team’s win. The Bulldogs let an 18-point slip away but held on for the victory, and have now won three SEC road games this season, which is a far cry from the 22-game conference road losing streak the program endured up until the January 21 win at Auburn. Building a program is all about positive momentum, and the Bulldogs have plenty of that right now.
Share this story

SEC M5: 02.11.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. It’s hard not to really get the feeling that Kentucky is going to just keep riding out wins. How can you not feel that way after the Wildcats just survived a 21-2 run deep in the second half to hang on and beat LSU? Of all their close calls this season (Ole Miss, Texas A&M), this was perhaps the most impressive because the Wildcats were completely out of sync for a large chunk of the second half. But at the end of the game, there was Andrew Harrison calmly knocking down two free throws to tie the game, and there was Karl-Anthony Towns calmly tossing in a hook shot to take the lead for good. The Wildcats again made the winning plays when it counted (e.g., Tyler Ulis’ three in the second overtime against Texas A&M), and although they could still slip up, the only game that appears to be a real test is at Georgia on March 3. The road to regular season perfection is well within view.
  2. On the other side of last night’s game is an LSU team that missed out on a tremendous opportunity. Losses to Mississippi State, Missouri and Auburn have planted the Tigers firmly on the bubble, so holding on against Kentucky would have made up for several of those transgressions — finally knocking off the Wildcats cuts a marginal resume a lot of slack. It didn’t happen, of course, and like many times this season, Johnny Jones didn’t look good from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Why was Josh Gray — a player who has struggled taking care of the ball this year — driving the lane out of a timeout? Why didn’t Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin get the ball out of the final timeout? I understand the notion of going for the jugular with a Keith Hornsby three, especially in a game this big. But with a two-point deficit at home, it’s hard to fully understand a play call that doesn’t go to one of your two best players. LSU definitely showed out well in this game, but the Tigers will need to shake the loss off quickly with road games at Tennessee and Texas A&M up next.
  3. It’s difficult to label Texas A&M a “sleeping giant,” but the Aggies were a perennial top-third of the Big 12 type of program under Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon and a return to that level would provide a big boost for the SEC’s overall profile. The Aggies’ upcoming and well-timed home stand against Georgia, Florida and LSU represents a key stretch for Billy Kennedy’s club that could add some bulk to its NCAA Tournament profile. Texas A&M’s last home game attracted the largest crowd in the Kennedy era (12,722), so the next week is also a great opportunity to fire up the fan base for this and coming seasons.
  4. Billy Donovan coaching the Orlando Magic? It kind of happened once, and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi thinks that the timing is right for it to happen again — but perhaps this time for more than a single day. On some levels the timing does seem good for everyone involved. Florida is having its most frustrating season in years, and the Magic have promising young talent like Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic playing well. For comparison’s sake, the path to NBA championship contention for Orlando looks shorter and less challenging than Boston’s when Brad Stevens left Butler. But would Donovan walk away from his program after such a disappointing season? He certainly doesn’t have anything left to prove, having built three separate groups of title contenders during his tenure in Gainesville. These are some interesting questions for a guy who has had past and perhaps unfulfilled designs on the NBA.
  5. Missouri is mired in its worst losing streak since before Norm Stewart was in charge of the program (1966-67). The streak ran to 10 losses in a row after last night’s defeat at South Carolina. Things could be getting worse in a hurry too, as Wes Clark could be out for the season after seemingly dislocating his right wrist. It was an ugly injury that caused the arena to go silent and players on both sides were visibly shaken. This is a huge blow for the Tigers since Clark (11 points against USC, 15 points against Texas A&M) has been the most consistent source of offense and penetration for a team that often struggles to score. Right now it’s hard to find another win on the schedule for the Tigers.
Share this story

The SEC Week That Was: Volume VI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 10th, 2015

For the next six weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume VI, including games from February 3 to February 8.

Team of the Week. This week provides several compelling candidates. Kentucky could win this award every time and this week was no exception as the Wildcats handled a quality Georgia team on Tuesday and survived a difficult environment in Gainesville afterward. Arkansas got healthy with two comfortable wins after seemingly scratching by for weeks. Even Vanderbilt tossed its name into the conversation by shaking off a seven-game losing streak and going 2-0. Despite all these worthy choices, Ole Miss gets this week’s nod after notching a big win against red-hot Texas A&M and then following it up with a road win at Auburn (which itself was coming off an impressive win at LSU). The Rebels last week showed that they can win games in different ways. They needed a solid defensive performance to get past the surging Aggies and were especially effective using ball pressure to frustrate Alex Caruso. But it was the Ole Miss offense that showed up against Auburn (57.8% FG, 40.0% 3FG) to negate a great scoring night from Bruce Pearl’s backcourt. The Rebels may not necessarily be peaking right now, but they seem to be rounding into form. Anthony Perez has emerged as a solid wing/post hybrid who can stretch the floor. Dwight Coleby has developed into a reliable rebounding and shot-blocking presence. Those two, along with Sebastian Saiz and MJ Rhett, give Andy Kennedy a solid frontcourt rotation to support his veteran backcourt.

Karl-Anthony Towns had big games in Kentucky's wins over Georgia and Florida (chron.com).

Karl-Anthony Towns had big games in Kentucky’s wins over Georgia and Florida (chron.com).

Player of the Week. You can only seek alternatives to Kentucky in this league to a certain point. Karl-Anthony Towns gets the nod after leading the Wildcats to two hard-fought victories over Georgia (KenPom #33) and Florida (#35) last week. The Bulldogs surprisingly outrebounded Kentucky in their game, but Towns stepped up to grab more than half (13) of the Wildcats’ 24 total rebounds. Against the Gators, Towns was only the Wildcat who was able to generate consistent offense at the game’s start, which quietly helped Kentucky stay within contact of the fired-up Gators. Towns’ great week (34 points, 21 rebounds, four blocks, six assists, 10-of-10 FT) is an encouraging sign for John Calipari. The freshman recently went through a four-game stretch where he didn’t score more than seven points or grab more than four rebounds in any single game. Whether it was due to foul trouble, growing pains or some combination of both, it bodes well for the Wildcats that he has now strung together a few great outings. See how Kentucky focused on getting him the ball in this week’s edition of Freeze Frame.  Antoine Mason also deserves mention here for cracking 20 points against LSU (24 points) and then following it up with 23 against Ole Miss.

Tournament Chatter. Last week’s eight-team pipe dream proved to be too much to handle, and it will be difficult for either of Tennessee or Florida to make a case for inclusion again. But we’ll always have last week. Still, Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology contains six SEC teams in the fold, which would double what the league received in the last two seasons. Everyone will certainly take that if it comes to pass.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

RTC Weekly Primer: Road Warrior Week as Pressure Mounts at the Top

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 10th, 2015

As we approach Selection Sunday — and, yes, it is now a mere 33 days away — two ends of the spectrum dominate the college basketball conversation. One of those is the bubble. The other, of course, is the top line. And while it’s a bit too early to paint a decipherable picture of those teams vying for positions in the play-in games, the competition for the four No. 1 seeds is beginning to take shape. There appear to be three solid bets. Kentucky is near-lock. Virginia, with only one loss — a good loss, mind you — and a handful of impressive wins, is another. And Gonzaga, despite a relatively weak conference slate, is a third. Even if the Zags were to suffer one more defeat along the way, they might still be safe in a position on the top line. The fourth spot, however, is truly up for grabs. On the back of a splendid array of wins away from home, Duke would appear to be the front-runner. But Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Villanova aren’t too far behind the Blue Devils. If the Badgers run the table the rest of the way — a real possibility — they’d make the committee’s job on this decision excruciating. Villanova could also cause a few headaches if they enter the discussion as a two-loss team. And Kansas, with its top-ranked schedule and plethora of top-50 wins, could close the season at No. 1 in the RPI. The pressure is on at the top. We’ll see which teams can handle it.

Gonzaga Continues to Roll Along to a Likely #1 Seed (USA Today Images)

Gonzaga Continues to Roll Along to a Likely #1 Seed (USA Today Images)

Road Warrior Week

This week isn’t overflowing with marquee matchups, so we’ll forgo Three for the Money in favor of a more general theme. It’s road warrior week. Duke got things started on Monday night when it went to Florida State and escaped with a narrow victory in Tallahassee. Some other top-10 teams this week might not be so fortunate, as eight of those — including the Blue Devils — will play on the road at an unranked team between Monday and Friday. It starts on Tuesday night when Kentucky travels to LSU; Notre Dame makes the long trek to Clemson; Kansas plays at Texas Tech; and Wisconsin heads to Nebraska. Kentucky perhaps faces the stiffest test of all. LSU, an up-tempo squad with a big and physical front line, will try to get out in transition and score before Kentucky can set up its suffocating half-court defense. Notre Dame, however, is the most likely of the four to lose. The Fighting Irish are only three-point favorites against the Tigers, a hard-luck team that has lost a bunch of close games this year. Wisconsin revisits the site of last year’s memorable Cornhuskers upset on ‘no-sit Sunday.’

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Freeze Frame: The Improvement of Karl-Anthony Towns

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 10th, 2015

Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection is a notable storyline in college basketball this season, but the quest for National Championship No. 9 carries a lot more significance to Wildcats fans. Continued development from big man Karl-Anthony Towns might ensure both. Towns’ improved toughness, better passing, and a flurry of developing post moves gives Kentucky better offensive production from the low blocks and further opens up the three-point shot when opposing defenses are forced to collapse on him.

Karl-Anthony Towns production in SEC play.

Karl-Anthony Towns’ production in SEC play.

Towns has played his best basketball of the season in the last three games. His rebounding and shot-blocking have remained consistent, but he is scoring better than at any other stretch this year. Towns’ solid mid-range jumper gives head coach John Calipari the ability to use his big man at the top of the key, and his improved passing is evident in an accompanying increase in assists per game. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we look at the many different ways that Karl-Anthony Towns can hurt opposing teams, and why his sustained improvement on the offensive end of the floor could be key to the Wildcats cutting down the nets in April.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

RTC Top 25: Week Twelve

Posted by Walker Carey on February 9th, 2015

Fresh off losing its first game of the season to Duke last Saturday, #2 Virginia completed a week that has to put the Cavaliers in any weekly award discussions. Tony Bennett’s squad first went to Chapel Hill on Big Monday and earned an 11-point victory over #11 North Carolina. It then returned home on Saturday to face a hot #9 Louisville squad and emerged victorious with a hard-fought five-point victory. Virginia receives a great deal of credit for its stifling defense and you could see why in that game, as it held Louisville to just 13 measly first half points. All is not perfect in Charlottesville though, as star swingman Justin Anderson suffered a fractured finger on his left hand and is expected to miss four to six weeks. Elsewhere in the ACC, #4 Duke continues to rebound quite nicely from its three previous league setbacks. The Blue Devils scored a victory over Georgia Tech last Wednesday before avenging their January 28 loss to #12 Notre Dame, annihilating the Irish by 30 points in Durham . While Virginia still has a lead in the league standings, the ACC race is definitely one to keep an eye on as the second half of conference play progresses.

This week’s Quick N’ Dirty after the jump…

rtc top25 w12

Quick N’ Dirty Analysis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

RTC Rewind: Celebrating the Life of a Legend, Duke-Kentucky, Arizona’s #1 Seed Hit…

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 9th, 2015

One thousand. Two weeks ago, this column and many more around the country led with that number. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski had just become the first men’s college basketball coach to reach the 1,000-win plateau on an historic Sunday at Madison Square Garden, and in the aftermath, Coach K and that number were the talk of the sports world.

The Basketball World Paused on Sunday to Honor Dean Smith's Passing (USA Today Images)

The Basketball World Paused on Sunday to Honor Dean Smith’s Passing. (USA Today Images)

Today we celebrate another ACC legend. But we do so for a different reason, and in a different tenor. We’ll get to the basketball soon enough, but as you’ve probably heard by now, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith — a former rival of Krzyzewski’s — passed away on Saturday. He was 83. Since the news broke Sunday morning, messages extolling Smith’s many virtues have come from far and wide. They’ve come from former players and adversaries, columnists and commentators, even from the President of the United States. Many of us have mourned college basketball’s loss, but even more have celebrated a life that so special to so many people. And that’s what this should be: a celebration.

Like Krzyzewski, Smith was obviously an outstanding basketball coach. He was innovative, sharp and bold — and, without question, driven by his competitiveness. He too set a number of records while at the helm in Chapel Hill, but those accomplishments are only the subtext to the discussion. That’s because Smith wasn’t defined by his numbers, as good as they were. Ask anybody who knew the man, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Dean Smith was defined by the way in which he impacted the lives of others. He was defined by stories of grace, loyalty and sincerity. Smith coached before my time. But it’s through those stories that I have gotten to know him, and it is those stories that allow everybody — well beyond the entire college hoops community — to recognize how truly wonderful a man he was. I can’t relate those anecdotes myself, but others — like ESPN‘s Dana O’Neil and The Washington Post‘s John Feinstein — have. And they’re beautiful.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC M5: 02.06.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 6th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Ole Miss has some intriguing potential as SEC play nears the stretch run. The Rebels have proven that they can take care of business on offense and will be difficult to beat if they defend at a reasonable level. On Wednesday Ole Miss beat the red-hot Aggies despite an off night from Jarvis Summers (seven points on 2-of-10 shooting) and an overall sluggish shooting performance (38.7%). The Rebels held Texas A&M to just 0.82 points per possession and they did so primarily through man-to-man defense, which is notable because they have looked most effective this year when switching up zone defenses. Ole Miss could be destined to finish second in this league if it keeps defending the way it did Wednesday night.
  2. Bovada has Kentucky as an even-money favorite (1-to-1) to win the national championship, which is, in short, ridiculous. What’s more ridiculous is that it doesn’t seem that ridiculous. Despite a slew of close calls and sluggish performances, Kentucky has done nothing to shake off the perception that it is far and away the team to beat this year. Las Vegas’ confidence in the Wildcats is also an indirect compliment to the entire conference. Kentucky more than proved its mettle in the non-conference slate by beating Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville, among others. If those wins weren’t already in the books, then their less-than-dominant performances against what is perceived as weak competition would raise some eyebrows. Instead, competitive games against Georgia, Ole Miss and Texas A&M seem to say more about the quality of those teams than raise questions about the legitimacy of Kentucky.
  3. Prior to Kentucky and Georgia’s Super Tuesday showdown, you probably could have gotten great odds that the Wildcats would win the rebounding battle, especially with the Bulldogs’ bruising forward Marcus Thornton out of the lineup. But those odds would have been pantsed, as Georgia inexplicably outrebounded the Wildcats by 12. The main reason for that was freshman Yante Maten, who had far and away the best game of his young career, contributing 13 points to go along with nine rebounds. It was a tremendous stat line when you consider the front line he was battling, that he was hit by a car just a few weeks ago, and that he was filling Thornton’s rather huge void. As of Thursday night, Thornton had still not been cleared to play against Tennessee this weekend. If he can’t go, Mark Fox will look for Maten to build on his breakout performance against the Wildcats. If the rookie’s performance becomes a trend, Georgia could become a #9 to #11 seed that no team wants to face in the NCAA Tournament.
  4. There have been a number of reasons why Florida has struggled to live up to what appears to have been unrealistic expectations. One reason is certainly Kasey Hill’s inability to fill the large shoes left by Scottie Wilbekin. Let’s not be too harsh, though: Wilbekin was one of the most valuable players to any team in the country last year — a savvy veteran point guard who made winning plays seemingly every game. Expecting a sophomore to jump right in and replace his production is dumb. But Hill has had a rough year and has not shown improvement in the part of his game that needed the most work: shooting (38.5% on two-point shots; 49.5% last year). He’s still young and his quick first step is something that can’t be taught, but Florida’s offensive prowess is in large part tied to Hill’s development.
  5. Craig Sword is coming on strong for Mississippi State, perhaps setting himself up for a monster senior season. Up until a few weeks ago it looked like his junior campaign would be disappointing when it became clear that a preseason back injury was still ailing. But since the middle of January his minutes have steadily increased and he has gotten back to being the dynamic scorer many thought he could be. In the Bulldogs’ last two road games against Ole Miss and Tennessee – both quality opponents – Sword has averaged 26.5 points per game and shot 17-of-21 from the field. Mississippi State has developed a lot of positive momentum around its program in the last few weeks, and Sword is a big part of that upward trend.
Share this story

The SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 3rd, 2015

For the next seven weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume V, including games from January 26 to February 2.

Team of the Week. I want to preface this by saying that Kentucky could – and probably should – be the team of the week every week. You don’t get to 21-0 without that being the case. But the Wildcats get plenty of praise from all corners of the web, so why not challenge ourselves with this week’s selection? The nod goes to Florida, the same team that Billy Donovan declared as being dead in terms of the NCAA Tournament a little over a week ago. The Gators’ long-term resurrection is still something of a pipe dream, but if the miracle occurs, last week is where it all will have started. Florida enjoyed a perfect week in knocking off solid opponents Alabama (KenPom #44) and Arkansas (#43) in ugly fashion. These were probably the Gators’ two best wins of the season, which with an overall record of 12-9 overall underscores how much work they still have to do. From a bid perspective, Florida is 1-5 against the RPI top 50 and 4-3 against the next 50; contrast this with fellow bubble team Kansas State  — which is 12-10 overall but 4-6 against the RPI top 50 — and you can see that Florida’s resume may not have the requisite depth to compete for a bid. Despite the pair of victories, last week highlighted some of the Gators’ inconsistencies that have plagued them all year long. After a 27-point outburst against Ole Miss, Michael Frazier scored just 11 points on 2-of-13 shooting. Similarly, Chris Walker followed up one of the best games of his career against the Tide (12 points and four rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting) with a dud against the Hogs (one point, two rebounds). Still, Florida is trending in the right direction as it approaches the ultimate chance for a quality win: Saturday in Gainesville against Kentucky.

Alex Caruso is the SEC's leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Alex Caruso is the SEC’s leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Player of the Week. Danuel House was the SEC’s pick as Player of the Week, but we’ll give it to his slightly less-heralded junior teammate, Alex Caruso, as Texas A&M ran its winning streak to seven games with victories over Auburn and Vanderbilt. In both games Caruso was his usual stat-stuffing self, racking up averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. I firmly believe that the transitions of transfers House and Jalen Jones to their new team has gone so smoothly in large part because of Caruso’s play-making. He’s a bona fide SEC star who does not command the ball, and that is extremely valuable for a team looking to make the leap from also-ran to the NCAA Tournament. We may also be witnessing the rise of one of the great players in recent Texas A&M basketball history. Since 2009-10, no player in the conference has held as high of a career assist percentage (33.9%) or steal percentage (4.4%) as Caruso. LSU’s Jordan Mickey deserves mention in this space solely for his ridiculous 25-point, 20-rebound game in the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

RTC Weekly Primer: At Long Last, It’s Basketball Season

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 3rd, 2015

It’s basketball season. At long last, it’s basketball season. It’s a shame that the general sports-loving public takes so long to realize that’s the case, but regardless of their failures and inadequacies, it’s time to look ahead. Football is finally and definitively over, and it’s time for the roundball and the hardwood floor to take center stage on the American sports landscape. The Super Bowl was awesome — one of the greatest of all-time, and a phenomenal advertisement for the competitiveness of the NFL — but as always, it was a bit anti-climactic. After two weeks of buildup, it’s all over; and just like that, there is a major void on the sports scene.

There's No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

There’s No Better Environment That Those in College Basketball (USA Sports Images)

College basketball must fill that void. For the dedicated fans, it undoubtedly will. But a frequently posed question in recent years has been whether college basketball has become a “niche sport”? According to a recent Harris poll, the game has indeed declined in popularity. Currently only three percent of American sports fans identify college hoops as their go-to game — down from five percent in 2011, and 10 percent in 1989 — and only a seismic shift in popularity could see the sport return to its peak levels in the 1980s and 1990s. Does that matter? For those who attach themselves to the overall health and growth of the game, yeah, it does. But at least in the short run from now until April 6, no poll will inhibit the joy we derive from the on-court action of college basketball. “Niche” can be viewed as a demeaning word when it is used in this context, but niche is fine so long as it can produce compelling games like Duke-Virginia in Charlottesville on Saturday and atmospheres like Kansas-Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse last night.

Three for the Money

  • West Virginia at Oklahoma | Tuesday, 8:00 PM EST, ESPN2. After an explosive Big Monday of important (if not competitive) games, it’s a rather slow work week in the world of college hoops. But before we jump ahead to the weekend’s action, let’s not lose sight of this one on Tuesday night in Norman. It’s time to focus on the season that West Virginia is putting together. All of a sudden, the Mountaineers at 6-2 appear to be the biggest threat to Kansas in the Big 12 race. Bob Huggins has done a spectacular job in rebuilding this team after a couple of down years. He has possibly the conference’s best player in senior Juwan Staten but his true value with this year’s group has been molding them into a new identity featuring pressure defense all over the floor. Four West Virginia players rank among the nation’s top 100 in steal percentage, and the team prides itself on turning opponents over and getting out in transition. Tonight’s game could go either way. Oklahoma could get sucked into West Virginia’s traps and come out on the wrong end of a helter-skelter contest; or the Sooners could constantly be in attack mode, using the fast tempo and a raucous home crowd to play right into their hands.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC M5: The Super Bowl Hangover Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 2nd, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. John Calipari is on a never-ending assignment to poke holes in his Kentucky team. After cruising by Alabama on Saturday he told the Kentucky.com, “”One thing this team is not doing: Putting teams away when they have that opportunity.” Never mind that Kentucky has closed out three straight games to win by at least 15 points. On a micro level though, the Wildcats did struggle a bit handling the ball against Missouri, turning it over 14 times. They flipped the script against the Tide, turning it over just five times against a team that has turned over its opponents 11 times per game. Devin Booker showed the biggest improvement, as he didn’t turn it over at all after coughing it up four times in Columbia. At this point, however, it’s all nitpicking as the Wildcats are the last of the unbeatens left standing.
  2. Georgia’s five-game winning streak came to an end in Colonial Life Arena after a lackluster offensive performance against South Carolina. Marcus Thornton missed the game because of a concussion, and the Bulldogs were at a big disadvantage without their leading scorer and rebounder. Georgia actually won the rebounding battle by nine, but likely missed Thornton’s inside presence taking pressure off the guards. Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and JJ Frazier combined to go seven-for-28, and after the game Gaines said that the Gamecocks “out-toughed” the Bulldogs. Thornton is easily the Bulldogs most physical player, and they’ll be in an even tougher spot heading to Lexington if he is still out. Concussions are a serious and tricky thing, and his status looks uncertain for the Super Tuesday match-up.
  3. The SEC may get a lot of action outside the lottery of the upcoming NBA draft. Bobby Portis, Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and any slew of Kentucky Wildcats could hear their names called. Another somewhat unexpected name could be joining the fray: Damian Jones. NBADraft.net has the Vanderbilt sophomore going 20th in its latest mock draft, and Bleacher Report’s has him going 29th. Losing Jones would obviously be a big blow to a Commodores team that figures to take a big step forward next year given how many young players are seeing major minutes. Still, Kevin Stallings has six other freshmen or sophomores averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and the sheer amount of experience should allow Vanderbilt to survive the potential loss of Jones and still be competitive next season. Ideally, however, the 2015-16 Commodores are anchored by Jones, and if that’s the case they could be smart pick to vault into the upper third of the SEC.
  4. Signs of progress. That’s what Mississippi State fans would need to spend the rest of the year searching for after a 2-9 stretch that bled into SEC play. For the last three weeks, signs of progress haven’t been hard to find. The Bulldogs are 3-3 over their last six games after taking care of LSU at home on Saturday. In that span they have ended a 22-game conference road losing streak and been in each game until the final minutes. And the team seems like they have learned from close losses to Ole Miss, Georgia and Texas A&M, as they looked unphased after the Tigers took a 57-54 lead at the Hump with under four minutes left. Their zone did a nice job forcing the Tigers into difficult shots from their guards, instead of high percentage looks for Jordan Mickey. Two late fouls on made shots were inexcusable, but Mississippi State had built enough of a lead that it didn’t matter. The win was a nice culmination of what has been a positive few weeks for Rick Ray and his program.
  5. The season is beginning to spiral out of control for Missouri. A loss to Ole Miss was expected, but the Tigers got very little from their freshmen, and Tramaine Isabell missed the game after being suspended indefinitely. Kim Anderson didn’t mince words or hide behind coachspeak in saying that Isabell’s behavior towards teammates and coaches has been “unacceptable.” That doesn’t sound like a situation that will resolve itself quickly. It’s incredible in hindsight to think that this was a team some thought could compete for a NIT bid, even with its youth. The losses are now mounting (7-14) and none of the freshmen seem to be trending in the right direction, at least not consistently. To get some positive momentum the Tigers will need Montaque Gill-Caesar, Namon Wright or Jakeenan Gant to string together a few solid outings.
Share this story

ACC M5: 01.30.15 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on January 30th, 2015

morning5_ACC

  1. Raleigh News & Observer and Durham Herald-Sun: Duke very abruptly dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon from the team yesterday. There aren’t any details beyond that other than to say that it wasn’t related to academic or legal problems. But it appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s underselling how huge this dismissal is because Duke isn’t deep and does not appear to be struggling with chemistry issues (at least not during games). Sulaimon was doing well as a defensive specialist who also ran the team when the other two point guards weren’t performing well. My guess is that Coach K gave Sulaimon an ultimatum at some point last season (probably after his one-game hiatus that wasn’t officially a suspension) and Sulaimon finally struck out. It’s amazing to think that Sulaimon is the first player Krzyzewski has ever dismissed from his team.
  2. Washington Post: This article does a fair job of explaining why John Feinstein is the last man ranking Virginia ahead of Kentucky in the AP poll. Weirdly enough, I think both of those teams are much more similar than people let on. The main difference is that Kentucky doesn’t have to worry about teams outside of the top 50 by virtue of its depth and length, while a hot-shooting Virginia Tech team gave the Cavaliers quite a scare. Furthermore, Kentucky has the unique ability to crush a good opponent into oblivion. I expect both teams to lose to a good (at least average-height) team that gets hot from long range because they can be outscored. That said, I think Feinstein enjoys being a voting outlier and that’s why he’s still voting for Virginia even after its close call in Blacksburg.
  3. College Basketball Talk: Jerian Grant is really, really good. He allows Notre Dame to run offense instead of plays because he’s a tremendous playmaker and competitor. Rob Dauster does a good job in showing how important he is to the Notre Dame attack. Grant is terrific, and he’s probably got the inside track on ACC Player of the Year unless the Irish take a February nosedive. I admit I need to watch more of Mike Brey’s team (which should be a pleasure), because based on the statistics, the Duke victory was somewhat anomalous in terms of his usage, a little low for a Player of the Year contender.
  4. Louisville Courier-Journal: Don’t look now, but Louisville‘s defense in ACC play has actually been worse than its offense. That’s bonkers. A lot of the credit goes to the rise of guard Terry Rozier, who has been tremendous in conference bouts. He’s not turning it over nearly as much as he was and he’s scoring at a really impressive clip. Chris Jones has also risen to the occasion, turning into a legitimate offensive weapon rather than a liability.
  5. Raleigh & Co.: Here’s a satirical case to get rid of NC State head coach Mark Gottfried. While I agree that the Wolfpack should hold onto him, this team has dug a hole for itself with its three-game losing streak (Clemson at home???). What remains to be seen is whether Gottfried can sustain a consistent, high level program or whether his teams are always talented but never meet expectations (often in a good way). If he gets this year’s group to the NCAA Tournament, I’ll be pretty solidly on the side of Gottfried sustaining a high level over time.
Share this story