The SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 13th, 2015

For the next 10 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 II, including games from January 5-11.

Team of the Week. There were three strong contenders for this award this week, but Arkansas gets the nod on the strength of a 2-0 record that included wins over KenPom top 55 teams Georgia and Vanderbilt. By beating Georgia in Athens, the Razorbacks achieved something that has been a rarity under Mike Anderson: beating a quality team on the road. And it wasn’t easy. Arkansas had to overcome an 11-point deficit against a confident Bulldogs team that was riding a six-game winning streak of its own, but the Razorbacks cut into the lead by imposing their frenetic style on Georgia and forcing 17 turnovers. They had been similarly disruptive in their other road win this season, at SMU (19 TOs), but not as much in losses to Iowa State (11 TOs) and Clemson (14 TOs). We know that Anderson’s press is highly effective in Bud Walton Arena, but whether it works when the Razorbacks are on the road will be something to watch as the season unfolds. Honorable mention this week goes to Florida, which earned a hard-fought win against South Carolina before pummelling Mississippi State.

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Player of the Week. Bobby Portis had his way with the Commodores’ front line on Saturday, scoring 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting and dunking on every other possession (or so it seemed). He might be the most offensively skilled big man in the SEC this season, and his athleticism provides a great asset guarding the in-bounder as the first wave in the Arkansas press. In the Hawg’s win over Georgia, Portis contributed 21 points and even hit a three-pointer during the game. He’s been exceptionally effective from deep, making 9-of-15 three-point attempts on the season, but the fact he’s attempted so few shows that he hasn’t gotten carried away in trying to show NBA scouts that he has range. Where he’s lethal is in using his athleticism around the rim and making himself available on cuts through the lane. If he keeps living in that sweet spot, the Razorbacks will remain very difficult to defend. Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith also deserves some love this week as he combined for 36 points and 13 rebounds in wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. Despite playing with an injured non-shooting hand, the senior is shooting very well from three (39%) and grabbing defensive rebounds at a ridiculous rate (22.3%) over the first two conference games. The Gators couldn’t afford to miss a beat from him and they haven’t.

Tournament Chatter. Let’s not dress this week up because it was not a kind week for the SEC’s hopes to get more than two teams into the NCAA Tournament. I thoroughly believe that the overall depth of the conference is better than last year, but if Selection Sunday were held today you might be looking at a two-bid league. Kentucky and Arkansas seem safe, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.

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SEC M5: 01.12.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 12th, 2015

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  1. The recruiting hits just keep on coming for Johnny Jones and LSU. On Friday, Arizona transfer Craig Victor committed to the Tigers, and will be eligible to play in the second semester of the 2015-16 season. Victor is from New Orleans, so his choice cannot be much of a surprise. He picked LSU over Oklahoma State. Victor was ranked No. 37 in the ESPN 100 Class of 2014, but never saw any important minutes at Arizona. Victor’s commitment comes on the heels of Jones signing Ben Simmons, the nation’s top-ranked player in the class of 2015, and of a getting a verbal pledge from another five-star recruit, Antonio Blakeney, earlier this month. So while the Tigers have not quite played up to expectations thus far this year – they came back from the dead to get their first SEC win at home against Georgia Saturday night – the future looks bright in Baton Rouge.
  2. Reality finally hit Tennessee squarely in the face during their offensive meltdown against Alabama Saturday, as the Vols scored only 2 points in the game’s last 13-plus minutes in their 56-38 home loss to Alabama. Tennessee was 9-4 coming into the contest, despite having only nine healthy scholarship players. On Friday, coach Donnie Tyndall changed that, as he surprised walk-on Galen Campbell, a Knoxville native, by awarding him a scholarship. The redshirt junior guard has played in only 14 games during his time with the Vols, and he did not see any action in the loss to the Crimson Tide. The move by Tyndall was a neat one, and as can be seen in the video, is one that was very popular among Campbell’s teammates.
  3. After Kentucky escaped its double overtime game against Texas A&M with a win, John Calipari wasted no time heading home and hitting the recruiting trail. He and assistant Kenny Payne were in Paducah within three hours of the Wildcats closing out their dramatic victory over the Aggies, checking out signee Skal Labissiere of Memphis, among others. Calipari and Payne were also there to see 2015 targets Malik Newman and Thomas Bryant, as well as Thon Maker and Josh Jackson, who are part of the class of 2016. Such is the life of a college basketball coach: pull out a tough double overtime win in the afternoon and jet 730 miles to catch high schoolers in the evening. Of course, when you’re Calipari, knowing you essentially have your pick of the best of each incoming class makes that grind a lot easier.
  4. Last week, Arkansas showed its faith in Mike Anderson‘s efforts in his three-plus years as the head man in Fayetteville, as well as the direction in which he appears to be taking the program by giving him a two-year extension through the 2019-20 season. From the moment the school hired Anderson, a long-time assistant under Arkansas’s most successful coach, Nolan Richardson, the fit appeared to perfect. Things have not quite gone according to plan, however, as Anderson did not make the NCAA Tournament in his first three years at the school. This year, though, the Razorbacks, who are 2-0 in the SEC and have separated themselves as the league’s clear second-best team, appear to be a shoo-in to make the Big Dance. Anderson has assembled enough talent and has had enough success graduating players that the powers that be are convinced he’s the right man to lead the program for a long time.
  5. Bruce Pearl got his first SEC win since 2011, when he was the coach at Tennessee, as Auburn downed Missouri 85-79 Saturday night at Auburn Arena. And while any win the Tigers get in conference play will be big news, as they likely won’t get many, the bigger story coming from the game was the presence of a famous basketball alumnus who was in attendance: Charles Barkley. As he did at Tennessee, Pearl will pull out all the stops to promote the program at Auburn, and he will especially work hard to honor former Tiger players who can bring positive recognition to the program. Inarguably, there is no one who can better do this than Barkley, who is not only the most famous player in Auburn history, but is still one of the biggest names in basketball. Having Barkley around can only help Pearl in his promotion efforts, and bring some much-needed attention to a program that likely will bring little to itself because of what happens on the court this year.
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Morning Five: 01.12.15 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on January 12th, 2015

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  1. According to a report from USA Today, the White House is planning a meeting later this week in which Obama administration officials, NCAA executives, and athletic directors from some colleges are expected to cover a range of topics involving both intercollegiate athletics as well as college issues that go well beyond the purview of athletic departments such as issues with sexual assaults on college campuses. The meeting, which neither side has confirmed yet, is expected to lead to a “Coalition to Save College Sports”. While we do think that the idea that college sports need saving is a bit of a stretch, there are certainly some issues which we would like to see addressed such as providing long-term health coverage for injuries sustained in college sports. Whether or not those types of issues need a White House council (stuff like sexual assault certainly does), is another matter, but we will leave that up to President Obama and his staff to decide what needs their involvement.
  2. The next big recruiting news for the class of 2015 might not be a recruit announcing where he will be going to college next season. Instead it might be Thon Maker announcing whether or not he he will reclassify to the class of 2015. According to Maker’s legal guardian, they are expecting to make a decision in early February after they review his grades and transcript for his most recent semester, which will end on January 28. If Maker is able to reclassify he is widely expected to as his guardian says that Maker is “overdominating the competition”. We are not aware of what specific requirements Maker needs to be NCAA-eligible or graduate from his high school, but it appears that his high school requirements will be a bigger issue especially since he was just moved to the school this year. If Maker does reclassify, he is expected to choose between Indiana, Kansas, or Kentucky, the schools his guardian has mentioned the most frequently.
  3. It has been years since LSU has been relevant in college basketball, but with the way they have been recruiting recently that could change very quickly. Johnny Jones already has commitments from five-star guards Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, he will also be adding Arizona transfer Craig Victor, who was a top-50 recruit in the class of 2014, but decided to leave the school after failing to crack the Wildcat rotation playing just 57 minutes this season. Victor, a 6’9″ power forward from New Orleans, had considered LSU, which beat out Oklahoma State for his services this time, when he was coming out of high school. With all the talent that Arizona is stockpiling, Victor’s decision probably is  not be that unreasonable. As for LSU, we are certainly intrigued with the talent they have coming in, but we are also hesitant to jump over bandwagon with how little they have done with some other NBA-level talent recently although they are off to a solid start this season.
  4. On Friday, Utah State coach Stew Morrill announced that he will be retiring at the end of the season. Morrill, who has been the head coach at Utah State since 1998, had also previously coached at Montana and Colorado State, but is best known for his time at Utah State where he is 393-149 thus far. While Morrill did not give a specific reason for his decision saying simply it was “the right time to make this decision” it appears that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Although it is somewhat unusual to have a coach announce his retirement this early in the season it does give the school plenty of time to perform its death and reassure its recruits.
  5. Last week, in one of our ACC Morning Fives, we mentioned the potential mess that Karl Hess might have created by making an ethnically insensitive (and incorrect) comment towards Wake Forest trustee Mit Shah. Hess subsequently admitted that he made the comment saying it was in jest, but that was not enough for the ACC, which has cut ties with him and he will no longer work any more ACC games. It appears that several other conferences have followed suit or are in the process of doing so. Hess, who has been a polarizing figure in some college basketball circles to put it mildly, is one of the most recognizable officials in college basketball, which is probably never a good thing.
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Who’s Got Next? Blakeney to LSU & UNC Gets a Felton…

Posted by Sean Moran on January 8th, 2015

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Who’s Got Next? is a weekly column by Sean Moran, the RTC recruiting guru. Once a week he will bring you an overview of what’s going on in the complex world of recruiting, from who is signing where among the seniors to discussing the recruitment of the top uncommitted players in the country. We also encourage you to check out his contributions at The Intentional Foul dedicated to recruiting coverage and analysis. You can also follow Sean at his Twitter account @Seanmohoops for up-to-date news from the high school and college hoops scene. If you have any suggestions as to areas we are missing or different things you would like to see, please let us know at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

Note: Scout.com used for all player rankings.

Antonio Blakeney Looks to Turn LSU into a Basketball School

LSU is a football power that signs five-star recruits and churns out top 10 recruiting classes on a routine basis, but with last week’s commitment from five-star guard Antonio Blakeney, the Tigers’ basketball program is now joining in on the fun. It’s rare for LSU to nab five-star recruits in roundball, much less two five-star recruits in one class, but LSU now has commitments from the No. 5 ranked shooting guard to go along with forward Ben Simmons, one of the top high school players in the country.

Blakeney, a 6’4” shooting guard, originally committed to Louisville after taking in the school’s first ACC football game but subsequently backed out of the decision. Rumors then ran wild that the Floridian, who played on a Nike-backed AAU team, had de-committed due to Louisville’s contractual shoe affiliation with Adidas. Blakeney went on to visit three different SEC schools — LSU, Kentucky and Missouri — before choosing the Tigers based on his relationships with head coach Johnny Jones and assistant coach David Patrick. In an interview with Scout.com, Blakeney discussed his reasoning behind the decision: “Kind of just the story and the plan he [Jones] has for the program, period. LSU is a football school and he’s trying to change it to a basketball school. Last few years he’s gotten good players like Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. All those guys were top 80 in the country.”

While Blakeney has clearly developed a bond with the coaching staff in Baton Rouge, he will also gets to play with his AAU teammate and friend, the uber-talented Simmons. The Australian-born senior is a 6’8” small forward who came to the United States during his freshman season and played with Blakeney last summer on the Nike EYBL circuit. Possessing the ball-handling skills of a guard, Simmons is listed as the first or second-best player in his class by every recruiting publication. He committed to the Tigers more than 15 months ago in large part because Patrick is Simmons’ godfather and had played professionally with Ben’s father in Australia.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

With the SEC’s 18-game conference schedule tipping off this week, it’s time to introduce our new The SEC Week That Was column. For the next 10 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. We’ll start with Volume I, including games from December 29 to January 4.

Team of the Week. Could it go to any other team but South Carolina? The Gamecocks continued their trend of blowing out bad teams by beating North Carolina A&T by 37 points, and then picked up the league’s best non-Kentucky win by beating Iowa State on Saturday in Brooklyn. KenPom has liked Carolina’s defense all season, as the Gamecocks currently have the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball. It was on full display at the Barclays Center as Frank Martin’s team forced the high-powered Cyclones’ offense into 35.1 percent shooting from the floor and 0.79 points per possession, far and away its worst offensive showing of the year. Carolina also got excellent production from its backcourt, as Ty Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice scored at least 13 points apiece. Scrappy defense and solid guard play were the hallmarks of Frank Martin’s best teams at Kansas State, and it seems like his Gamecocks are rounding into that form. I think you can safely put South Carolina on the early NCAA Tournament bubble.

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. Jarell Martin, LSU. The Tigers’ sophomore enters league play as the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, and did nothing but pad that figure last week with strong stat lines in wins over Southern Miss (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Savannah State (26 points, eight rebounds, three assists). DraftExpress ranks Martin as the 42nd-best prospect in this summer’s NBA Draft, so you have to wonder if he will stick around another year. If he does, he’ll join five-star recruits Ben Simmons and the recently-committed Antonio Blakeney on an ultra-talented LSU roster. Honorable mention goes to Missouri’s Jonathan Williams, who starred in a loss to Oklahoma State (22 points, nine rebounds) and a win over Lipscomb (16 points, 10 rebounds). The sophomore forward has been more aggressive on the offensive end and seems to have realized that he needs to command the basketball for the Tigers to play well.

Tournament Chatter. Who made the biggest strides towards an NCAA Tournament invitation this past week?

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SEC M5: 01.05.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

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  1. South Carolina’s win over Iowa State in Brooklyn on Saturday was significant for several reasons. First, it was easily the biggest victory of Frank Martin’s tenure in Columbia, and, second, it was a boost for the conference’s reputation as a whole. Remember the last time time the SEC put a league representative in front of the Cyclones? Needless to say that it didn’t end well. But as Garnet and Black Attack writes, it was also an important victory because the Gamecocks have so few chances left on the schedule for another marquee win. Two cracks at Kentucky could be the extent of it, but now South Carolina doesn’t necessarily need to win one of those two games to get some national attention. A good conference record (e.g., 11-7) even without a Kentucky win could be enough to garner some late season NCAA Tournament chatter — since the Gamecocks’ resume is now buoyed by the victory over Iowa State.
  2. With the Carolina win on our minds, is the SEC quietly improving? While only one team is currently ranked, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Jerry Tipton writes that, “10 SEC teams are in the top 104, six in the top 53 and four (UK, Georgia, LSU and Arkansas) in the top 28 of the RPI.” RPI, especially at this time of year, isn’t necessarily the best barometer, but if nothing else this suggests that the depth of the league is better than it was last year. Take Georgia and Alabama, for example. Neither might be viable NCAA Tournament teams, but both have shown enough fight against other major conference opponents that they won’t be pushovers either. This quiet league-wide improvement is also taking place as Florida undergoes an understandable rebuilding period, which should be encouraging to conference fans as a whole.
  3. Vanderbilt’s double-overtime win over Yale on Saturday may not have been pretty, but it pushed the Commodores’ non-conference record to 10-3, representing great progress over recent seasons. Kevin Stallings’ team should be fun to watch grow throughout SEC play, and their future promise screams from the box score, as all five players who reached double figures against Yale are either sophomores (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet) or freshmen (Riley Lachance, Shelton Mitchell, Matthew Fisher-Davis). A January 10 visit to Fayetteville will be a good test to determine how Kevin Stallings’ young team handles one of the league’s toughest environments.
  4. LSU got a late Christmas present late last week when five-star guard Antonio Blakeney committed to the Tigers. It has already been written on all corners of the Internet, but LSU will be overflowing with talent next season if Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey stick around with Blakeney and super-prospect Ben Simmons arriving on campus. But even if Mickey and Martin both leave for the NBA, the Tigers would still be able to field a competitive, NCAA Tournament-caliber team given how Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman have grown this season. Gray and Hornsby have been a complementary three-point shooting backcourt and Quarterman has been a unique, jack-of-all trades swingman. In this worst-case scenario for LSU, the team’s two new elite prospects would still be entering a team with a solid foundation.
  5. Missouri has had a frustrating season, and conference play could be much more difficult should Teki Gill-Caesar miss any time. The freshman, who has averaged 11.5 points per game this season, left the Tigers’ recent win over Lipscomb in the first half with a back injury and did not return. Kim Anderson said afterward that he wasn’t sure how serious his injury actually is. Gill-Caesar’s scoring has dipped recently as defenses focus their attention on him, but he’s a key piece to a team that showed some promise in close losses to Illinois and Oklahoma State. Missouri has an opportunity against a surging LSU team to open league play on Thursday night, but the Tigers from Columbia will be hard-pressed to win that game if Gill-Caesar is on the bench.
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Morning Five: 01.05.15 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on January 5th, 2015

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  1. The biggest news in college basketball this weekend came from the sidelines as Cincinnati announced that Mick Cronin would not coach the rest of the season and serve in an advisory role while dealing with what has been described as a non-life-threatening arterial dissection. Cronin has been out since finding out about the condition on December 19. While it appears that Cronin expects to return to his sideline duties at some point, but in the interim associate head coach Larry Davis will serve as the head coach. At Butler, they removed the interim title from Chris Holtmann and made him the head coach officially replacing Brandon Miller, who took a medical leave of absence just prior to the start of the season. Very little information about Miller’s condition has been released, but we wish him the best in recovering from whatever he is dealing with. Holtmann has lead the Bulldogs to an 11-4 record this season and appears to have the program headed in the right direction after a disastrous first season following Brad Stevens’ departure.
  2. While the coaching announcements stole the headlines there were also quite a few major developments involving significant players. The biggest news comes out of St. John’s where sophomore guard Rysheed Jordan (14 points per game) is taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with “personal and family matter” although some reports indicate that it might be related to disciplinary issues. At Stanford, freshman Reid Travis (7.5 points and a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game) will be out indefinitely with a stress fracture. At Virginia TechJoey van Zegeren (9.8 points and a team-leading 5.3 rebounds per game) was suspended indefinitely apparently as the result of an incident (or incidents) at practice. As for Dayton, nothing seems to be going right for the Flyers this season with the latest misfortune coming in to the form of point guard Ryan Bass having to miss the rest of the season due to concussion-related symptoms following a concussion in an early November practice.
  3. It might have been a rough week for the SEC in college football, but things are starting to look a little bit better for the conference in basketball. We all know about Kentucky and Florida even if the latter has been awful this season, but we will have to start keeping an eye on LSU starting next year. The Tigers, who already have the consensus #1 player in the class (Ben Simmons) coming in, appear to have added another five-star guard to their backcourt with Antonio Blakeney‘s commitment to LSU. You may remember Blakeney as the recruit who committed to Louisville before backing out soon after in a move that some recruiting analysts publicly claimed was driven by shoe companies (Blakeney plays for a Nike AAU team; Louisville is an adidas school). If that was in fact the reason for Blakeney backing out of his Louisville commitment then LSU fans can feel safe. If not, they might not want to get too excited quite yet.
  4. Texas got a big boost this weekend with the return of point guard Isaiah Taylor, who had been out the past six weeks after breaking his left wrist. Taylor, who had been averaging 15 points and 3 assists per game this season before his injury, had 8 points, 4 steals, and 2 assists, but also showed his rust with 6 turnovers. Although Texas managed to go 8-2 without Taylor, they clearly were not the same team without him as evidenced by their losses to Kentucky and Stanford. With Taylor back in the mix, the Longhorns might be the favorites in the Big 12 and should be a Final Four threat.
  5. As you may have noticed this has been a rough year for Kobe Bryant, who is climbing up the all-time NBA scoring list while being on a losing team and setting all kinds of new standards for inefficiency. That didn’t stop Bryant from opining on the state of basketball in American and laying the blame on AAU programs and the culture around them. While we agree with many of Kobe’s comments, we don’t see him offering many solutions outside of scrapping it for a European-style club system, which we are certain wouldn’t fly in the US with the established interests. Mike DeCourcy, who has never been known to mince words, also went after Kobe pointing out that for all the shortcomings of the American system we still manage to produce the best basketball in the world by far.
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SEC M5: Christmas Eve Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 24th, 2014

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  1. Kentucky’s clash with Louisville this Saturday might be the most anticipated game until the NCAA Tournament, and according to ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, it also might be the last realistic chance for the Wildcats to lose a game before the Big Dance. Kansas, North Carolina, Texas and even UCLA (before the game, of course) looked like potential challenges, and Kentucky easily got by them all, so Greenberg has a point here. Nonetheless, I’m betting against the undefeated season. As great as it has been, this Kentucky team has not been immune to slow starts, as exhibited in the Boston University and Columbia games. And although it’s a cliche, the Wildcats will almost certainly get everyone’s best effort in the SEC — a slow start in Tuscaloosa or Athens or Columbia could prove fatal. But the fact that we are using a magnifying glass to find one potential loss among 18 chances tells you just how well the Wildcats have played this season.
  2. Slowly but surely, Florida is working its way back towards national relevance this season. The Gators beat Wake Forest over the weekend, and while that isn’t particularly noteworthy, their roster seems to finally be taking shape. Alex Murphy made his Florida debut with an impactful nine points, four rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes. “I thought he played great,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. “The best part about coaching him is he has got a really good feel and he can play multiple, different positions.” Versatility in the frontcourt might turn out to be one of the Gators’ calling cards this year. Murphy joins Dorian Finney-Smith and Devin Robinson as athletic, mobile bigs who can play on the perimeter. Depth down low is also something Donovan has to work with as Jacob Kurtz (4.5 points per game; 4.9 rebounds per game) played well while being forced into action, and Jon Horford and Chris Walker have seen significant minutes this year.
  3. Johnny Jones is being careful with his LSU Tigers, and it may pay off in the long run. Josh Gray’s injured ankle kept him out of the team’s recent win over College of Charleston, but according to Jones, he could have played if it had been a conference game. Jarell Martin was also held out of the starting lineup and played eight minutes under his season average (34.0) because he missed part of Monday’s practice due to a minor car wreck. Amid all of this, Jones used the opportunity to give minutes to several players who have sparsely played this season, such as Jalyn Patterson, Elbert Robinson and Aaron Epps. Patterson played eight minutes over his average, and Robinson played 14 minutes after not appearing in the team’s previous two games. LSU desperately needs more quality depth, and it’s nice for Jones that he can work players into the rotation while still winning games comfortably.
  4. Georgia is forging its way down a novel path. Instead of letting disappointing early losses to Georgia Tech and Minnesota compound themselves in a negative way, the Bulldogs have ripped off consecutive wins against Colorado and Seton Hall in the last week. In fact, the win against the Pirates is arguably the best non-Kentucky win of any SEC team thus far. If nothing else, it’s up there with LSU’s win at West Virginia, Arkansas’ win at SMU and Tennessee’s win over Butler. The Bulldogs look viable going forward and are more than a two-man show that depends entirely on Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines. Marcus Thornton has been a low post scoring threat (14.7 points per game), and J.J. Frazier has gone from little-used freshman to a dependable lead guard (8.7 points per game; 3.4 assists per game; 4.2 rebounds per game). Frazier has also been a consistent threat from three-point range (41.4%) which was a question mark for Georgia heading into the season.
  5. Several of SB Nation’s SEC basketball writers got together for a roundtable on the state of the league. One of the questions they discussed was which team has surprised the most, and answers included Vanderbilt (good), LSU (good) and Missouri (bad). You can’t disagree with any of those three, and two weeks ago I would’ve personally submitted Auburn as a surprise on the negative end of the spectrum. The Tigers were never going to compete for an NCAA Tournament spot this year, but with their experience (KT Harrell, Antoine Mason) and Bruce Pearl on the sidelines, losses to Clemson and Coastal Carolina were unexpected. Better late than never, but the Tigers turned it around in a big way with a double-overtime win over Xavier last weekend, showing the type of team it can become. Part of what has helped is the emergence of Trayvon Reed, who in his just his fourth college game helped cover the Tigers’ hole in the post with five rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes. Auburn did, however, nearly undo that good will with a loss to a two-win Texas Southern team last night, but Pearl’s team was able to survive that one by the slimmest of margins.
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Assessing the Challengers to Kentucky’s SEC Crown

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 19th, 2014

It’s a month into the college basketball season and every conference has unanswered questions. For all its faults, the SEC more or less stands alone among the major conferences in that we know with reasonable certainty which team will be taking home the regular season and tournament titles. If you’re betting against Kentucky in this league this season, then you clearly haven’t been watching. But after the Wildcats at the top, there are at least six teams that can make a realistic claim as the second-best team in the conference. Here’s how the race stacks up as we slog through final exams:

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, but can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

  • Arkansas (7-2, Best Win: SMU, Worst Loss: Clemson). If nothing else it has been an eventful month for the Hogs. They stormed into the national polls after a 6-0 start. They won on the road at SMU. People were excited. But then Arkansas fell flat in a marquee game at Iowa State and followed it up with a perplexing loss to Clemson. So really, we are left with the same questions we had about the Razorbacks coming into the season. They look better, but are they NCAA tournament better? To its credit, Arkansas may have the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year in Bobby Portis, who is among the league’s top 10 in points per game (15.8), rebounds per game (6.8), blocks per game (1.6), effective field goal percentage (60.2%) and PER (26.7).
  • Texas A&M (7-2, BW: Arizona State, WL: Baylor). The Aggies’ most compelling argument is not the team they are now, but the one they could be in a few months. Billy Kennedy got an early Christmas present when Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos became eligible. House has immediately become a key cog for the Aggies, leading the team in minutes per game (29.2) and adding a jolt of athleticism to the perimeter. Any doubt about his role should have been erased when he got the last shot in a tie game against Sam Houston State. Freshman Alex Robinson has also at times looked like the best player on the team. The Aggies don’t have any eye-popping wins and recently got rolled by Baylor, but they have good potential as players get accustomed to playing together.

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SEC M5: 12.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 17th, 2014

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  1. Without a doubt, Alabama blew a gigantic opportunity for a statement win by coughing up a lead in the final seconds of last night’s loss at Wichita State. There is no way to sugarcoat it. The Tide held an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining, but a combination of missed shots, bad rebounding and turnovers against the press allowed the Shockers to come back and win. The moral victory of hanging close against a very good team on the road likely won’t have any positive impact on the Tide’s resume, but let’s look for a silver lining. Alabama defended very well, holding the Shockers to 53 points — 25 fewer than their season average — in stifling the 10th most-efficient offense in the country. Much of Alabama’s second half lead was built on Wichita State settling for three-pointers (5-of-18) over an effective zone. Not to peek ahead, but a formula utilizing the Tide’s length and athleticism, could potentially hold up well against a Kentucky team that struggles from the outside (it always comes back to the Wildcats, doesn’t it?). Circle January 17 (home) and 31 (away) on your SEC calendar.
  2. LSU held on to win a competitive game against Sam Houston State last weekend to run its winning streak to four games. It wasn’t all rosy, though, as Josh Gray left the game with an ankle injury, and was seen afterward walking on crutches. Johnny Jones said on Monday that Gray was receiving “aggressive treatment,” but it’s unknown as of this writing whether he’ll miss any games. Ankle injuries can be tricky to heal, and if Gray does miss time it’ll trim down an already thin roster (Jones used only eight players against Sam Houston State). Tim Quarterman, a player who is enjoying a breakout season, would likely slide into the starting point guard role, with freshman Jalyn Patterson also seeing more minutes. The injury does come at a good time of the season for the Tigers, as their toughest non-conference stretch is now behind them and they have games against beatable teams like UAB, College of Charleston and Southern Miss over the next two weeks.
  3. Arkansas got back on track with a win over Dayton last weekend in a game that saw Mike Anderson shuffle his starting lineup. JuCo transfer Jabril Durham got the start at point guard over senior Rashad Madden, who went scoreless and turned the ball over five times in 31 minutes against Clemson. This also came a few days after Anderson said that Madden was “trying to do too much.” Booting a senior from the starting lineup in favor of a first-year player is a precarious road to walk, but it seemed to work out well enough as Durham hit two three-pointers early and Madden scored 12 points (including 8-of-8 from the free throw line). So far, it looks like Anderson knew what buttons to push, and that’s important because Madden’s scoring ability is a key to the success of the Razorbacks’ season.
  4. Two SEC players made College Basketball Talk’s list of the 10 most important midseason additions: Florida’s Alex Murphy and Auburn’s Trayvon Reed. Of the two, Reed seems to be the one needed the most. The article mentions that the 7’1’’ center is incredibly raw and likely won’t contribute much this season, but the guess is that Bruce Pearl will throw Reed into the fire early since this season was always going to be more about development than contention. Reed logged eight largely unproductive minutes (four fouls, one block) in Auburn’s recent loss to Clemson, and he’ll probably consume at least part of the 11.0 minutes per game going forward that was going to Devin Waddell.
  5. Jerry Palm’s first update to his NCAA Tournament bracket projection has three SEC teams in the fold: Kentucky (#1), LSU (#10) and Arkansas (#10). Alabama and Tennessee are among Palm’s first four out, and Florida is nowhere to be found on his board right now. All things considered, this is a pretty generous view of the SEC given how the season has unfolded thus far. The Tigers and Razorbacks have both notched some nice wins, but they also have experienced setbacks that threaten to snuff them from the conversation (e.g., both teams have lost to Clemson). The simple fact that, in Palm’s view, they are still squarely into the Dance should be encouraging. Neither Alabama (sorta) nor Tennessee (very much so) were thought of as NCAA Tournament teams prior to the season, so seeing them on the fringe in December is encouraging for the league. And finally there is Florida, which many believe will right its ship and find a way into the party, especially given Dorian Finney-Smith’s recent resurgence.
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SEC M5: 12.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 5th, 2014

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  1. Arkansas’ showdown in Hilton Coliseum with Iowa State last night went, well, as you might have expected it to go. The Razorbacks weren’t able to build on their rare-in-the-Mike-Anderson-era road win at SMU and were instead trounced by the Cyclones. This might yet be a team that can consistently play well away from the friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena, but it wasn’t apparent last night. To be fair, the Cyclones were an offensive buzzsaw (64.0% FG, 10-of-19 from three), as it seemed they were either hitting threes or making transition baskets on nearly every possession en route to 95 points. Arkansas ended up shooting a respectable 36.0 percent from three, but what did the Razorbacks in was their inability to put a stop to a first half Iowa State run that pushed the lead out to 20. The silver lining? Bobby Portis looked right at home (19 points on 8-of-10 shooting) against top quality competition.
  2. LSU picked up a big win for itself and the SEC by knocking off West Virginia last night in Morgantown. In what was probably the biggest win of Johnny Jones’ tenure, the Tigers notched another nice win for their ultimate NCAA Tournament resume. Whether it’s lucky, encouraging or just strange, the Tigers were able to win without Jordan Mickey scoring until after the last media timeout. Jarell Martin (18 points, 14 rebounds) did a lot of the heavy lifting, but LSU wouldn’t have won without Tim Quarterman (21 points, seven rebounds) and Keith Hornsby (15 points, five rebounds). Quarterman has now scored 14 or more points in the last four games, and the Tigers suddenly look like more than a two-man show in Baton Rouge.
  3. Vanderbilt came back from a nine-point halftime deficit to pull within two points against Baylor in the final minutes of its game Thursday night, but the Commodores couldn’t pull out the victory, as Riley Lachance missed a game-tying three at the buzzer. It’s especially disappointing because a win against a team that currently holds the #14 spot in KenPom’s ratings was well within reach. Vanderbilt now gets nine days off before another resume-enhancing game at home against a major conference team, Purdue. The good news is that Damian Jones and Luke Kornet are emerging as one of the more underrated frontcourt duos in the country. Kornet has been great from deep (15-of-26) and is a good complement to Jones’ low-post ability.
  4. An opportunity slipped away at Ole Miss last night, as the Rebels turned in an ugly offensive performance in a home loss to TCU. Ole Miss shot just 29.8 percent from the floor and Jarvis Summers had his worst game of the season (2-of-12 shooting, three turnovers). Worth noting is that Andy Kennedy kept Summers on the bench with the Rebels trailing by 12 points in the final two minutes. A comeback at that point was more than improbable, but you never expect a senior like Summers (who didn’t appear to be injured) to be sitting at a time like that. This game might be a reflection of how improved TCU is this season, but you would have expected a better showing from Ole Miss at home after two big wins against Creighton and Cincinnati.
  5. The Naismith Award top 50 watch list was released on Wednesday and it features five SEC players: Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, LSU’s Jordan Mickey, Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison, Florida’s Michael Frazier and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. This number of SEC players seems about right, and I can’t think of any glaring omissions off the top of my head. LSU’s Jarell Martin could probably make a case to be on this list, but he didn’t jump off the charts last year so it’s understandable he didn’t make it. It is interesting that Aaron Harrison got the nod while brother Andrew did not, especially because Andrew plays what many consider the more important position. It could be that the difference is the impression still left by Aaron’s late-game heroics in the NCAA Tournament last year.
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SEC M5: 12.03.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 3rd, 2014

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  1. Kentucky continues to dominate the polls, as the Wildcats are the clear No. 1 in both the AP and Coaches’ polls again this week. Among the writers, the Wildcats garnered 62 of the 65 first-place votes, while 29 of the 32 coaches felt likewise. While John Calipari’s team hasn’t faced much of a challenge since demolishing Kansas at the Champions Classic two weeks ago, things are about to change in that regard. Starting with a game against Texas at Rupp Arena on Friday night, the Wildcats will face several quality opponents this month. In addition to taking on the No. 6 Longhorns, they get No. 12 North Carolina in Lexington, UCLA in Chicago, and they finish the month with a post-Christmas tilt on the road against arch-rival No. 5 Louisville. If Kentucky can survive this month without a loss, realistic talk of an undefeated season will begin in earnest.
  2. No. 18 Arkansas is the only other SEC team to be ranked, and the Razorbacks’ early success has largely resulted from the improved play of junior guard Michael Qualls. On Monday, Qualls was named the SEC Player of the Week after averaging 18.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in last week’s wins over SMU, North Texas and Iona. With four players averaging double figures, Qualls leads a very balanced attack that has allowed Arkansas to get off to an unthreatened 6-0 start. Things get tougher for the Razorbacks, though, on Thursday, when they travel to Iowa State to take on the Cyclones as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
  3. The first couple of weeks of the season have been tough to figure for LSU, which has been nothing short of a disappointment. Picked to finish among the top third of the league, the Tigers lost to Old Dominion and Clemson in the Paradise Jam followed by a close call against Texas Tech in overtime. On Tuesday, coach Johnny Jones’ team may have begun to right the ship, as it easily dispatched UMass in Baton Rouge by a score of 82-60. Junior guard Josh Gray led the Tigers with 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, and LSU also got 16 points and 10 rebounds from star sophomore Jordan Mickey. While this team has a lot of work to do to fix those early blemishes on its resume, a resounding win over a quality Atlantic 10 opponent is a good start.
  4. Another of the SEC’s group of Tigers had a much tougher time on Tuesday with a lesser opponent, as Missouri survived a 65-61 scare in Columbia against Southeast Missouri State. Nothing will be easy for Mizzou this season, but after losing its season opener to UMKC and getting drilled by Arizona and Purdue in Maui, a bad loss to an OVC opponent is the last thing it needed. The Tigers trailed by as many as 11 points late in the first half and were down by six at the break before finally taking the lead with fewer than four minutes remaining. They got a game-high 18 points from Johnathan Williams, while freshman Montaque Gill-Ceasar pitched in 15. Up next for Missouri is a trip to Norman to take on Oklahoma in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, and competing against a good team in that environment will be a tall order for Kim Anderson’s squad.
  5. We talked earlier about how Texas A&M would benefit from the immediate eligibility of Houston transfer Danuel House, who was granted a waiver and has now played his first two games for the Aggies. The early returns on House are very good, as he is already the team’s leading scorer at 16.0 points per contest. He has also added some outside shooting punch for a team relatively devoid of it by going 5-of-12 from three-point range in wins over New Mexico and New Orleans. The Aggies are a good defensive team — currently rated 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency — but were struggling to score prior to House’s arrival in the lineup. Going forward, there is no reason to believe that the junior cannot continue to provide much-needed offense, and in a league race that appears to be wide open — behind Kentucky, of course — his presence could allow the Aggies to exceed expectations.
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