SEC M5: 11.29.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 29th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. Eastern Michigan trapped and swarmed Kentucky’s Julius Randle on Wednesday, holding the big man scoreless in the first half. “If they’re going to do that, they’re going to have to live with other guys stepping up and having big days,” he said. Aaron Harrison was the other player stepping up, scoring 22 points and going 9-of-11 at the free throw line. Part of Randle’s immense value is that he affects the game even when he isn’t scoring. Harrison took advantage of the attention focused elsewhere, and did a great job attacking the basket. His two big scoring nights (the other being a 28-point outing against Robert Morris) have been aided by 10-plus free throw attempts in each game. Kentucky has no shortage of athletes, so there should be plenty of slashing opportunities at the rim when defenders are out of the lane denying Randle the ball.
  2. The temperature will be in the low 50s this weekend in Fayetteville, Arkansas — that’s not unbearable, but the Razorbacks will likely miss the Maui sunshine. They also missed an opportunity in Maui, going 1-2 with losses against California and Gonzaga sandwiched around a win against Minnesota. The trip wasn’t a disaster because the Gophers are a team with solid metrics and a decent win over Richmond. But Gonzaga was Arkansas‘ last chance to make a non-conference splash, and 34 points from Kevin Pangos ended that dream quickly. Mike Anderson must avoid any non-conference setbacks and has some work to do in SEC play to make his first NCAA Tournament appearance with the Razorbacks. A bright spot was Bobby Portis, who began to assert himself offensively in the latter two games, scoring 12 and 18 points, respectively.
  3. A few thousand dollars can buy you a piece of Texas A&M basketball history. G. Rollie White Coliseum, the Aggies’ basketball home from 1954 to 1997, was demolished in August. Workers uncovered the original playing floor during the process, the existence of which was unknown prior to the demolition. Texas A&M began auctioning off portions of the floor yesterday, which include a NCAA logo, school name and logo, and a retro-Southwest Conference logo. The top bid on the baseline floor section is currently over $2,000. This is a neat story that probably won’t repeat itself very often. The vintage, yellowed Southwest Conference logo would be an especially great addition to a living room or office, if you’ve got a some money to burn.
  4. Mississippi State barely avoided disaster Wednesday, hanging on to beat KenPom #280 Jackson State by two points. It was an ugly, low-scoring affair marred by 19 Bulldog turnovers and plenty of missed shots. “We shouldn’t need evidence that this can happen,” head coach Rick Ray said. “We need to embrace who we really are, and until we do that, we’re going to struggle.” Mississippi State missed its freshman point guard, I.J. Ready, who had been playing well before “severely” injuring his hamstring. Without him, the Bulldogs had six assists against those 19 turnovers in escaping with the win. Gavin Ware has established himself as a credible low post threat and he’ll see plenty of double teams, but Mississippi State can’t capitalize on this if they keep fumbling the ball away. Their blowout loss at Utah State wasn’t a cause for alarm, but performing so poorly at home against a bad team does not bode well for the rest of the season.
  5. Tennessee suffered a setback in the Bahamas, losing to UTEP by eight late last night. The shooting backdrop in the Atlantis ballroom must be difficult, but it’s no excuse for the 38 percent shooting performance from the Volunteers. This included a putrid 3-of-21 from beyond the arc. Jordan McRae had a particularly rough shooting night, missing seven of his eight three point attempts. Not much is known about UTEP at this point: the Miners have two losses, but (oddly) both are to a decent New Mexico State team. Conference USA has already had Charlotte step up and surprise last weekend in Puerto Rico, but this was not a game Tennessee should have lost. They now find themselves with a rematch against a Xavier team that already beat them once to open the season. Semaj Christon got to the basket with ease in that game, so it’ll be interesting to see what adjustments Cuonzo Martin makes to prevent this from happening again.
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SEC M5: 11.15.13 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 15th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. NOLA.com‘s Randy Rosetta had a brief LSU basketball chat yesterday and mentioned a couple of interesting Tiger nuggets. Rosetta said Johnny Jones has been vague on the timetable for Jarrell Martin‘s return, but given the iffy, inconsistent nature of ankle injuries, that isn’t too surprising. He also suggests that seven-foot Australian freshman Darcy Malone may be in line for a redshirt because he didn’t see the floor against UMass despite injuries and foul trouble in the frontcourt. This would make sense, as the Tigers’ training staff is desperately trying to get Malone bigger and stronger, and a year of conditioning would benefit both player and program in the long run. Finally, Rosetta suggests that this LSU team is more talented than the 2006 version. That’s a big statement: the 2006 Tigers made the Final Four behind the services of future pros Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas. Garrett Temple and Chris Johnson have also bounced around the NBA, and Tasmin Mitchell was on that team too. That’s a lot of talent, and a pretty high and likely unrealistic bar for the current team.
  2. Don’t tell Frank Martin that South Carolina’s close call against Baylor was a moral victory. “Let one get away the other afternoon,” Martin said to open his Thursday afternoon press conference at the Colonial Life Arena. “We did some things well, but we also are not anywhere near who we need to be in order to win high-level games here. We’ve got to find a way to be a little more disciplined.” But the fact is that the Gamecocks should feel good about what happened in Waco. A win would’ve obviously been ideal, but competing on the road against a good team this early in the season is an encouraging sign for a rebuilding program. Last season, the Gamecocks lost by 10 or more in six of the their 10 road games. It’s an important sign that they established a competitive road precedent this early. If nothing else, the Gamecocks enter their rivalry game on the road against Clemson with some confidence.
  3. SI.com‘s Luke Winn discussed some interesting defensive metrics from the Kentucky-Michigan State game in his weekly power rankings. Winn writes, “On the Kentucky side, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein combined to force 16 misses, but there was little-to-no turnover creation, and starting guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison had negative defensive impact. Perimeter and transition D are the areas where the Wildcats have the most room for improvement.” This looks like the rare time experience was in Kentucky’s favor, as their sophomores contributed the most defensively against the Spartans. As Winn notes, Kentucky certainly needs to get better on the perimeter, but with Cauley-Stein’s ability to clean up a lot of mistakes,  even a small amount of improvement over the course of the season can go a long way.
  4. Mississippi State picked up its second win of the season against Kennesaw State last night, a team that has already played an ironman-like five games by virtue of an opening weekend tournament. A couple of things stand out from this game, both from the Bulldogs’ backcourt. First, Craig Sword led the league in turnovers last season, partly offsetting an otherwise promising freshman year. This problem has carried into his sophomore season as he turned the ball over six times in Mississippi State’s first game against Prairie View A&M, and another three times last night. Second, I.J. Ready has indeed been ready to contribute as a freshman, and has shown the ability to adapt in his first two games. Fred Thomas was suspended for the opener and Ready looked to score more, with 14 points on 10 shots. With the scoring-minded Thomas back in the lineup (17 points on 14 shots), Ready assumed more of a distributor role, attempting only two shots and handing out six assists with only one turnover.
  5. Welcome back, Trevor Releford. After a quiet opening game against Oklahoma, the Alabama senior roared back with 29 points on only 14 shots in the Tide’s win over Texas Tech. This included 5-of-7 from the three-point line. Also impressive was that Releford only committed one foul in 33 minutes, a game after he was stuck to the bench with foul trouble against Oklahoma. The Tide in general avoided the referee’s whistle, only getting called for nine fouls. Anthony Grant’s Big 12 week is over, and the Tide can now tune up against lower division teams before a December 7 game against rebuilding South Florida, and a December 17 match-up with Wichita State.
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SEC M5: Opening Day Edition

Posted by Justin Bridgman on November 8th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. ESPN’s Paul Biancardi did a fantastic job breaking down the individual skill sets of Kentucky’s hyped freshman class. His breakdown reveals a group of ultra-talented basketball players who should play wonderfully together. Last year’s Kentucky team suffered because the freshman did not mesh together the entire season, and their games were not well suited for one another. Based on their scouting reports as well as preseason reports, it appears that will not be the case this season. Offensively it seems obvious that the Harrison twins have games that will compliment each other. James Young will thrive in two roles, either as a spot up three point shooter or as an extra rebounder. The easy layups and dunks that Julius Randle gets his two centers will give teams nightmares every night. At least headed into the season, it seems like the chemistry and fit questions that faced Kentucky last season will not face them this season.
  2. Going into this season, one that will likely decide the coaches’ future, Auburn’s top scorers are excited about their two point guardsMalcolm Canada and Tahj Shamsid-Deen are praised by Tony Barbee for their chemistry with one another and the way it will benefit the entire team. Barbee thinks that the combination of Shamsid-Deen shooting from the outside and Canada slashing towards the basket will give the Tigers an exciting offensive dimension. Obviously, the time right before the season is when everyone is a great player and everything is supposed to go well. Hopefully for the sake of Barbee’s employment, these two talented guards can turn into the dynamic duo he is projecting them to be. He will need them to be able to open up space for the two best scorers on the team, KT Harrell and Chris Denson. Harrell and Denson are both very good scorers that can carry a team for a night at times. Without help from their teammates though, opposing defenses will lock in on those two and try to take them out of the game.
  3. Brace yourselves SEC fans, there are new rules in the NCAA this season, and the amount of fouls called per game is going to go up. With an emphasis on cutting down on physical play, it is likely that free throw attempts will be high at the start of the season. This is an idea that excited Auburn coach Tony Barbee, who thinks the game has been too bogged down the last few years and needs to be more open for offenses to run. Meanwhile, Billy Donovan admits he has changed the way he calls fouls during his practice to help his team adjust to the new rules. Donovan in particular is going to have to adjust his team to the new rules, because he is missing almost half of his team right now. With SEC Men’s Basketball officiating coordinator Jake Bell estimating 45 to 60 fouls will be called a game at the start of the season, teams without much depth will be forced to adapt. Big men in particular will be challenged to stay out of foul trouble while the officials are adjusting to the new points of emphasis. Eventually, I would expect the foul calls to cut back down, especially if a controversial incident occurs towards the end of a big game. For now though, coaches need to be prepared to deal with foul issues earlier in the game than usual.
  4. LSU has still not gotten word if freshman power forward Brian Bridgewater can play this season or not. Bridgewater needs clearance from the NCAA, and in a shocking turn of events, that is taking longer than expected. Bridgewater is an undersized power forward who relied on brute strength in high school to impose his will. As he transitions to the collegiate level Bridgewater will need to increase his basketball skills, because his 6-6 frame will not allow him to overpower all of his opponents. Even if Bridgewater cannot make a big impact on the court this season, the NCAA delay keeps him out of practice, which is where he needs to be. Developing skills is the next step in his career, and for right now, that is all on hold.
  5. Buried in this piece about Mississippi State coach Rick Ray admitting his team needs to win more games is a very interesting nugget. Ray says that he felt his team struggled to rebound last season in part because of the way he ran practices. Now instead of stopping a play to correct every fundamental flaw, Ray is going to let the play run until completion and then make his corrections. It will be interesting to see if this small adjustment actually makes an impact on the team’s rebounding ability. As they say, repetition breeds success, so the practice can’t hurt. Still, it reads as the type of preseason optimism that is running rampant across SEC basketball blurbs right now. It will be great to finally get the season started tonight and let the results do the talking.
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The New Hand-Check Rule and Its Probable Effect on SEC Teams

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 7th, 2013

Larry Brown calls it “scary.” Herb Sendek thinks it’ll be “revolutionary.” These longtime and venerable coaches are talking about the NCAA’s new hand-check rule, which will no doubt be a nagging storyline throughout the upcoming season. Many believe that an increased emphasis on hand checks will lead to more fouls. “Tons of fouls, a lot of free throws, long, ugly games. Hopefully fans can prepare for that. It is going to be frustrating.” That’s Lon Kruger’s take on the effect of the new rules. Given the concern that many coaches have about the change, it’s worth looking at which SEC teams and players could be affected most by the difference.

Craig Sword had the third-most fouls in the SEC last year and the new hand-check rule could be tough on him (photo courtesy bigstory.ap.com).

Craig Sword had the third-most fouls in the SEC last year and the new hand-check rule could be tough on him (photo courtesy bigstory.ap.com).

Fouls: The following players led the league in fouls last year, and could be in for even more foul trouble and time off the court if they don’t show more discipline to adapt to the new rules:

  • Dont’e Williams, Georgia, 98 total fouls
  • Alex Caruso, Texas A&M, 93 total fouls
  • Craig Sword, Mississippi State, 92 total fouls
  • Rodney Cooper, Alabama, 91 total fouls
  • Allen Payne, Auburn, 89 total fouls
  • Johnny O’Bryant, LSU, 89 total fouls
  • Alex Poythress, Kentucky, 88 total fouls
  • Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss, 87 total fouls
  • Michael Carrera, South Carolina, 85 total fouls
  • Patric Young, Florida, 85 total fouls

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SEC M5: 11.05.13 Edition

Posted by Justin Bridgman on November 5th, 2013

SEC_morning5

  1. This season the SEC is a bottom-feeding league during the non-conference season. According to the article, eight SEC teams had a RPI of #80 or worse last season. Weak non-conference scheduling is a big part of this, and the conference needs to come together and stop the practice. The problem is that a school like Georgia or Mississippi State wants to pad its win total instead of playing tougher competition; otherwise, coaches of those schools know they will lose their job. Every school in the conference should look at what John Calipari does with his non-conference schedule and make an effort to imitate it. Athletic directors should agree to give coaches some leeway in regards to job security when a coach puts together a more aggressive non-conference schedule. This will raise the overall reputation of the conference and lead to more quality wins that matter come NCAA selections. In the long run, coaches will find that tougher non-conference games will result in better outcomes for the entire SEC.
  2. Speaking of non-conference schedules, this list of the top non-conference games includes a number of Kentucky games as well as a few involving Florida. While the rest of the SEC is likely to be ignored nationally for most of the non-conference season, these two teams have plenty of big games before January. Kentucky plays Michigan State, Louisville, and North Carolina before Christmas. It will be fascinating to see how Kentucky’s freshman play against those teams, especially since Kentucky usually needs some time to gel defensively. Calipari will need to have his team ready to go from day one, and since the expectation in Big Blue Nation is a 40-0 season, the pressure won’t let up all year long. Florida’s schedule will be crucial in its bid to earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The fact is, the SEC schedule does not give Florida many chances to bolster their RPI, so winning these tough non-conference games is incredibly important. When it comes down to getting a #2 or #3 seed, a win over Kansas or Wisconsin can make all the difference on the resume.
  3. The AP Preseason All-America Team was announced yesterday, and it surprisingly did not include Kentucky freshman Julius Randle. While fellow freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins did make the list, Randle was left off in favor of Michigan sophomore Mitch McGary. Of course the list means nothing since there has not even been a game played yet, but it makes little sense for Randle to have been omitted. By all accounts he is one of the five best players in college basketball this season and it would be stunning if he isn’t on this list at the end of the season. All due respect to McGary, who had a great NCAA Tournament, but Randle is already a more polished player. The bottom line is this, the best player on the best team should be on the All-American team. AP voters might be rethinking this exclusion after watching Randle tear apart the competition all season long.
  4. Mississippi State coach Rick Ray is expecting a number of his players to take a big jump in their second season of college basketball. Ray claims that players improve the most during the summer after their first season. He doesn’t provide statistics to actually back up that claim, but for Ray’s sake I hope he is correct. It looks like Mississippi State will struggle to score again this season, a year after having the second worst offense in the league. Representative of that struggle is the fact that freshman point guard IJ Ready is acknowledged as the top addition to the team. However, as the author points out, Ready is not much of a scorer. This is going to be another long season for the Bulldogs unless a number of their players start making more shots; otherwise, look for another season of low-scoring games and a pile of losses. Good defensive teams will feast on this lineup, in all likelihood packing the paint and daring the Bulldog guards to shoot three-pointers. On top of their offensive struggles, advanced metrics rate the Bulldogs as the worst defensive team in the SEC — marginal improvement by three sophomores is just not going to be enough.
  5. Grantland posted its SEC preview, and the entire article is worth a read. What stood out was the placement of Missouri’s Frank Haith on the hot seat. By all accounts the administration and fans like Haith, and he has been fairly successful in his two years at the school. However, as the author points out, Haith’s teams have shown a disturbing tendency to fall apart at the end of games. That happened to him at Miami too, and in two NCAA Tournament games at Missouri, Haith’s team has yet to give a good effort. Some fans could protect Haith by pointing out that Phil Pressey was always mentally volatile during his Missouri career, but nonetheless this will be a pivotal season for the head coach. If Missouri does not have a successful season and win an NCAA tournament game, Haith will start to lose some of the legion of defenders that he has right now.
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SEC Optimism: Best Case Scenarios in the “West”

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2013

Optimism. It’s what makes this an exciting time of year. You may have an idea what lies ahead for your team, but you don’t know for sure. Surprises happen. A freshman proves that the recruiting services were wrong, an underachieving group of seniors plays with new urgency, or the third-year coach’s offensive system finally clicks. In honor of this cliched “everyone has the same record” feeling, let’s take a glass half-full look at the 14 teams of the SEC. Here’s why each SEC “West” team will exceed their expectations in 2013-14.

To take a look at the SEC “East” teams’ best-case scenarios, click here.

Alabama

The Expectation: Middle of the pack SEC + NCAA Tournament bubble

Why They’ll Exceed It: Many feel that Julius Randle winning SEC Player of the Year is a foregone conclusion. Trevor Releford challenges this idea in becoming one of the top scorers in the country. As the returning SEC assists leader, he adds to this total by also setting up Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper, both of whom become more reliable perimeter shooters. Seven-footer’ Carl Engstrom shows no ill effects from his torn knee ligaments, and uses his size to create match-up problems on both ends. Forward Nick Jacobs builds on his improved play at the end of last season, and fills the rebounding void created by Moussa Gueye’s transfer. Anthony Grant rides his star point guard off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament.

Trevor Releford is the active SEC leader in points, assists and steals.

Trevor Releford is the active SEC leader in points, assists and steals.

Auburn

The Expectation: Bottom tier SEC + no NCAA Tournament

Why They’ll Exceed It: Yes, a three-win team replacing its leading scorer and best player (Frankie Sullivan) can exceed expectations. Virginia Tech transfer K.T. Harrell will be a big reason why. He was a 42 percent three-point shooter during his freshman year, and he recaptures his magic. Chris Denson provides a slashing counterpart and Tony Barbee finds himself with an offensively versatile backcourt. Freshman Tahj Shamsid-Deen grabs the point guard position and makes it all work. Change is inevitable with nine newcomers. Seven-foot freshman Ronald Delph and Brinas Griciunas join incumbent seven-footer Asauhn Dixon-Tatum to create a giant rotation other teams simply don’t have. Auburn fights its way to a .500 SEC record.

Arkansas

The Expectation: Middle of the pack SEC + NCAA Tournament bubble

Why They’ll Exceed It: Mike Anderson has elite talent in the form of freshmen forwards Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. The duo join Coty Clarke to form a shot-blocking unit that can cover for aggressive defense by Razorback guards. This leads to steals and turnovers that fuel Anderson’s up-tempo system. Upperclassmen Mardracus Wade, Rashad Madden, Kikko Haydar and Rickey Scott improve as their collective eligibility ticks away. Even if none takes a giant step forward, they all play well enough to become the effective wave of players Anderson needs to pressure opposing guards. A reliable distributor must be found, and either Madden or Wade, the top two assist percentage returnees, grab that role. Arkansas finally wins a handful of road games, and Anderson returns to the NCAA Tournament with his high-pressure system in full gear.

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Welcome to the Show: Identifying the Impact Freshman for Each Team in the SEC “West”

Posted by Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) on October 29th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is an SEC microsite contributor and Managing Editor of Vanderbilt’s SB Nation site Anchor of Gold.

After suffering through one of the worst overall seasons in conference history, the Southeastern Conference is ready to rebound behind a strong group of freshman newcomers. SEC teams constituted six of ESPN’s Top 25 recruiting classes for 2013, and that includes Arkansas and LSU, two “West” programs that are looking to regain past glory after a disappointing start to this decade. Four and five-star big men like Jarrell Martin, Bobby Portis, Jordan Mickey and Moses Kingsley will join a league that seems to be shifting away from the small-ball lineups that dominated most of the conference’s rosters in 2012-13.

Mike Anderson now has an intriguing young duo to work with. (AP)

Mike Anderson now has an intriguing young duo to work with. (AP)

Last week, we took a look at the incoming players who could lift their squads to new heights in the former SEC “East.” Today, we’ll take a look at the new guys who will be cutting their teeth on the other side of the conference. Here are the true freshmen – one per team – who are slated to have a major impact for their new teams this winter.

Alabama: Jimmie Taylor. Anthony Grant had very little to rely on up front in 2012-13, but he still guided the Crimson Tide to the NIT with an unorthodox four-guard lineup last winter. Now, raw center Moussa Gueye has transferred to Valparaiso, giving 6’10” forward/center Taylor the chance to play a major role for Alabama from the outset. The in-state recruit is a long, lean player who has great instincts for shot-blocking and solid athleticism for a big man. He should provide a consistent presence in the paint and on the boards for a team that was hurting for rebounds in conference play.

Arkansas: Bobby Portis. Mike Anderson’s 2013 haul was small, but potent. The Razorbacks added two big men who combined to receive nine stars between them from both ESPN and Rivals last spring. That’s a huge boost for a team whose best rebounder was 6’7″ combo forward Marshawn Powell, pulling down fewer than six rebounds per game in 2012-13. Portis, a five-star power forward, will give the Hogs some much-needed bulk up front, and 6’10” center Moses Kingsley will provide an imposing presence next to him. Anderson was forced to play plenty of small-ball last season, but the addition of two impact players who can thrive in the paint will give Arkansas some much needed flexibility. While the team will still feel the sting of losing Powell and B.J. Young to NBA Draft declarations, the future is bright in Fayetteville.

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Morning Five: 09.18.13 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on September 18th, 2013

morning5

  1. New Jersey’s effort to legalize sports gambling within the state took a hit yesterday as a federal appeals court upheld a prior ruling that New Jersey’s proposed legalization of sports gambling conflicted with current federal law. As we have mentioned before in this space the heart of the issue is the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that only allows gambling on sports in any form in just four states–Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana. New Jersey has questioned the constitutionality of this law on several levels and although they lost the appeal 2-1 they appear to be encouraged (at least publicly) by the lone dissenting vote, which they claim is the first public vote against the law. We still are not sure what the overall outcome will be and what the NCAA’s response will be (it has threatened to stop allowing NCAA postseason competition in the state), but with the huge amount of money on the line we have no doubt that this case will drag on for years as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has already stated that the state will appeal the case to the US Supreme Court.
  2. The report that opposing coaches were using Billy Kennedy‘s battle with Parkinson’s Disease against him on the recruiting trail has generated plenty of criticism for the unidentified coach(es). While we understand that the approach will make almost everybody uncomfortable and would be classified as distasteful by nearly everybody we have a hard time finding it quite as offensive as many others have. Although few media members are willing to publicly acknowledge it, the health of a coach, who is theoretically going to be one of the guiding forces in your life the next four years, is something that should be under consideration for any recruit in the same way that the likelihood that the coach is going to leave the school for another job–NCAA or NBA–should be a consideration. Kennedy’s health issues, which are a private matter on some level, are made into a public one because of his job whether the fans and media like it or not.
  3. We have no idea why the Jalen Steele‘s departure from Mississippi State had to be so messy, but given the recent history of the program it should not come as a surprise. Early yesterday, the school put out a release stating that Steele would forego his senior year at Mississippi State to focus on graduating. On the surface this appeared to be nothing more than an unfortunate end to Steele’s injury-plagued college career. That is before Steele went off on the program on Twitter. Mississippi State later attempted to clarify the issue by saying it was an issue of open roster spaces for the 2014-15 season as Steele was wanted to redshirt this season and come back next season. Unfortunately, Mississippi State supposedly had already filled all of its roster spots for next season meaning that Steele was left on his own to try to move on to another school (Hello, transfer waiver!), which is a situation that clearly did not sit too well with Steele.
  4. Terry Lanier’s commitment to VCU on Monday may not have made major headlines, but it is another sign of how far VCU has come as a program since making it to the Final Four in 2011. This might seem like a fairly straightforward association that players want to play for successful teams, but as Borzello notes it has not necessarily been the case for other teams that have made surprise runs to the Final Four recently. There are multiple potential explanations for this–the most obvious one and also the most politically touchy–is that Shaka Smart, an a young, well-educated African-American, appeals more to recruits, who are predominantly African-American than his two Caucasian counterparts (Jim Larranaga and Brad Stevens), who also happened to both leave the schools they led to the Final Four. Whatever the reasons for his recruiting success are, Shaka Smart’s ability to continue to build on that Final Four run is another reason why he is among the most coveted coaches in college basketball.
  5. The NIT may have fallen off in terms of prestige for early season tournaments, but we have to give them credit for being one of the few that still requires you to win to advance to the showcase rounds. This year’s NIT field will be headlined by Arizona and Duke with the two schools hosting the opening round games along with Rutgers and Alabama. Looking through the fields Arizona, Duke, and Alabama should advance fairly easily, but the road for Rutgers appears to be much more challenging. One other interesting aspect of NIT Season Tip-Off is the fact that it includes two schools–Metro State and Stillman–that are not even Division I schools. Although we doubt that this tournament will be interesting until the championship game, we have to give them credit for making it a real tournament unlike most of the other ones out there.
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Tennessee Inches Closer to NCAA Bid, Win Over Alabama Could Seal Deal

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2013

David Changas (@dchangas) is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Thursday afternoon’s SEC Tournament game between Tennessee and Mississippi State.

While the SEC has endured a significant amount of well-deserved criticism for its share of mediocre (well, bad) basketball this season (the fact that Mississippi State not only didn’t finish last in the league and was even able to win a game in the conference tournament – albeit against equally woeful South Carolina – is Exhibit A of the league’s futility), perhaps no conference presents more bubble scenarios as we roll towards Selection Sunday. Thus, while the usual Kentucky-related buzz is absent from this weekend’s festivities in Nashville except to the extent the Wildcats are on the bubble themselves,  there is a lot of intrigue about which teams will emerge and land a spot in the field of 68. As of now, it is assumed that only Florida and Missouri are locks for the field, with Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Alabama, and Tennessee seeking bids.

Tennessee Bowled Its Way One Step Closer to the NCAAs

Tennessee Bowled Its Way One Step Closer to the NCAAs

Clearly,  no team is more squarely on the bubble than the Volunteers, who dispatched of the significantly undermanned Bulldogs 69-53 behind 17 points from Jordan McRae Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena. The win arguably will do nothing to help the Vols’ standing in the RPI and with the committee, but a loss would have crippled Tennessee’s chances to receive a bid. Now, they must face a much tougher test on Friday, as they take on co-bubble dweller Alabama. While some view the contest as a “play-in” game of sorts, Tennessee comes in with a better resume than the Crimson Tide, which has no wins over the RPI top 50. And Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t think the bid is in question any longer. “I said after we beat Mizzou that we’re in the NCAA Tournament, so I’ve moved past that,” Martin said, unconvincingly, after the game. Still, for Tennessee, Friday’s game is an opportunity to win another game against a quality opponent and solidify its standing with the selection committee.

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SEC M5: 03.12.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on March 12th, 2013

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  1. It’s been exactly one month since Nerlens Noel last suited up for Kentucky, but his time on the sidelines couldn’t keep him off ofthe Sporting News All-Freshman team. Despite playing 6-7 fewer games than most of his competitors, Noel still finished the regular season as the nation’s fifth-leading shot swatter with 106. He exhibited an unpolished (at best) offensive game, but he still scored 10.5 points per game to go along with his 9.5 boards. Marcus Smart (Freshman of the Year), Shabazz Muhammad, Ben McLemore, and Anthony Bennett join Noel on the All-Freshman team, a quintet that comprises 5 of the top 6 picks in NBADraft.net’s most recent mock draft.
  2. Just as the case may be when the real bracket is revealed, the SEC is struggling for representation in Grantland’s yearly alternate bracket. That may not be so bad though. In “The Most Hated College Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years” bracket, Florida‘s Joakim Noah is the only SEC player judged to have been loathsome enough to make the field, “earning” a 2 seed in the 2000’s region. The ponytailed, headstrong Noah didn’t endear himself to opposing fans as he led the Gators to consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007. Let’s break down his chances, based almost solely on personal biases: Noah is a heavy favorite over Aaron Craft, the bracket’s only active player, in the first round. Either Adam Morrison or Luke Walton await in the Sweet 16, but their current irrelevance will hand Noah a victory. Next, we’re in for a clash of titans as Tyler Hansbrough and Joakim Noah meet for the right to go to the Final Four. It’s too close to call for me, but if Noah advances, he’ll challenge Jalen Rose or Larry Johnson for the right to lose to the Duke representative in the final.
  3. Tennessee‘s Jarnell Stokes earned his second SEC Player of the Week honor of the season, tallying two double-doubles in must-win games. Stokes led the way for the Volunteers as they outrebounded Missouri (ranked 6th in rebound rate nationally) by a count of 40-27. He is the only SEC player to average at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in conference play. Elsewhere, Mississippi State’s Craig Sword was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his instrumental role in the Bulldogs’ regular season-ending OT win against Auburn. Sword tallied 19 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds and made two crucial free-throws in the extra period to keep Mississippi State out of the SEC basement.
  4. Florida looked like the SEC’s lone Final Four threat through much of the year, but Billy Donovan isn’t a fan of his team’s current trajectory. “I’m disappointed, to be honest with you, in our team’s fire,” he said Monday. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it. That’s concerning to me.” Donovan also noted that he had been far from impressed with his team’s effort in practice leading up to the trip to Lexington. The Gators limped to the regular season finish line, winning only three of their last six games. Although they remain atop Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, recent poor performances from perimeter scorers Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario are contributing to Florida coming up short in regards to the so-called eye test.
  5. Alabama has struggled to get any production from their frontcourt for most of the season. Carl Engstrom was lost to an early injury, highly-touted frosh Devonta Pollard has failed to live up to expectations, and Moussa Gueye has zero offensive touch. Sophomore forward Nick Jacobs, however, has stepped up for the Tide when they needed it the most. “Nick has shown improvement,” says coach Anthony Grant. “His play is showing that. He’s more mentally and physically ready to handle what he needs to be able to handle.” Jacobs didn’t see many minutes at the start of the season, failing to reach double-digit points until the last game of 2012. He’s rounded into form over the past month, including a career-high 18 points against Ole Miss. Alabama will most likely face Tennessee in their first SEC Tournament game, and given Jarnell Stokes’ recent play, Jacobs will be counted on to match some of that offensive output.
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A Puncher’s Chance? Breaking Down the Teams Driving the 2013 SEC Tournament

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on March 11th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland.

The SEC Tournament is upon us, and thanks to the league’s new 14-team format, fans get a whole extra day of win-or-go-home basketball in the south. The 2012-13 season hasn’t been particularly kind to the SEC. The conference suffered through a plague of upset losses and a dearth of quality wins which led to speculation that Florida would be the league’s only representative at the NCAA Tournament.

That course has been corrected over the final three weeks of the season thanks to some big wins across the conference’s second tier, but there are still plenty of teams battling for postseason slots. Tennessee and Kentucky will be looking to one-up each other as they duel for what might the last at-large invitation to the Big Dance. Alabama and Ole Miss will look to re-enter the postseason conversation with legitimizing wins. Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt will try to rally hard and extend their seasons one day at a time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 14 teams that will be competing for conference honors when Wednesday rolls around.

The Prohibitive Favorite: Florida

 (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

Florida Seeks Another SEC Title in Nashville (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

Billy Donovan’s team hasn’t been perfect against a downtrodden conference, and that has cost the Gators a shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their best recourse for that will be to put together a dominant run in Nashville, and an easy Friday match-up against LSU or Georgia will give them the opportunity to get off on the right foot. Much like the rest of the season, this will be a high-risk, low-reward endeavor for Florida. They won’t face a top-50 opponent until a theoretical Sunday match-up in the title game. They’ll have to hold court and prove that they can reclaim the dominance that led them to a string of double-digit wins to open league play.

The Savvy Bet: Missouri 

Mizzou may have the richest depth of any team in the SEC, but Frank Haith’s squad has been vulnerable against the conference’s good and mid-level teams in 2013. The Tigers have struggled to play well as a team despite the wealth of experience on their roster, but they’ve been able to regroup (4-2 in their last six games) as the SEC Tournament approaches. Mizzou has the scoring, ball movement, and rebounding to push any opponent to the limit. Players like Alex Oriakhi, Laurence Bowers, and Phil Pressey can create mismatches against any team they face. Can they ratchet up the defense and come together as a cohesive unit when the pressure is on? The Tigers are just a #6 seed in the SEC bracket, but they have the potential to do so much more — especially with a relatively weak draw on the road to the conference championship game.

The At-Large Brawlers: Tennessee, Kentucky

Tennessee and Kentucky represent the conference’s best candidates for a third and possibly fourth NCAA Tournament bid, but it may be a case of one-or-the-other when it comes to the selection committee’s final bracket. Both of these teams proved that they can beat Florida over the past two weeks, but their victories came with the help of home court advantage. Now, they’ll have to prove that they can travel to a neutral court and roll that momentum into a season-sustaining run through the SEC Tournament. The Volunteers and Wildcats will be pitting their resumes against each other for a chance to make it to the Big Dance, and while either team can make a case for inclusion based on their regular season performances, another significant win would all but ensure their spot in one of the NCAA’s four regions.

Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)

Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)

The only way these two would meet in Nashville is in the SEC title game, and both teams would be likely locks for the 68-team filed at that point. Kentucky has the better collection of talent, but no team has been hotter over the past month than Tennessee. The Volunteers are at the tail end of an 8-1 run that rallied the team from CBI territory and on to the happy side of the bubble. However, they may have been pushed down to NIT status after Saturday’s UK win over the Gators and Middle Tennessee State’s surprising Sun Belt Tournament loss. Is there room for both of these teams in the NCAA bracket?

The Forgotten Bubble Contenders: Ole Miss, Alabama

Ole Miss and ‘Bama belonged in the previous group until late-season slumps effectively tanked their seasons. For the Rebels, February and March represented a precipitous fall from grace. Marshall Henderson and his teammates plummeted from a potential five-seed or better all the way off the NCAA Tournament bubble with a 6-6 record down the stretch that included losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State. Still, Henderson, Murphy Holloway, and Reginald Buckner could lead the third-seeded Rebels to a big weekend if they can regain their early-season magic.

The Crimson Tide didn’t have a bad spring, they just failed to produce any resume-defining wins. Anthony Grant’s team is solid across the court and strong enough to hang with the SEC’s best teams, but they’ve been unable to lock down an impressive top-50 victory in 2013. This rebuilding Alabama squad has the pieces in place for a big 2014 run, but they might not have the gas this week to get to the SEC title game and back to the bright side of the bubble.

Puncher’s Chances: Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU

The SEC Tournament occasionally fails to follow rhyme, reason, or tradition. Some years, a tornado hits the host arena and wills a 4-12 Georgia team to the Big Dance. In others, a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t known much beyond abject failure in the conference bracket wins their first postseason title since 1950. Five teams at the lower end of the Southeastern spectrum could end up adding to that legacy in 2013.

Vanderbilt, thanks in part to the emergence of freshman Sheldon Jeter, is finishing its season better than they started it. A team that can shoot from three-point range and play hard-nosed defense on the perimeter is always dangerous in tournament play, and that will give Kevin Stallings’ team a shot. Same goes for Texas A&M, a squad that could ride Elston Turner Jr.’s hot hand to a marquee match-up on Sunday.

Arkansas, with wins over Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri, may have the best resume of the group when it comes to the league’s third tier and a high-paced style that could wreak havoc in a four-day tournament setting. Georgia has been streaky all year and could be an upset of Florida away from an easy path to the SEC title game. Finally, LSU has been wholly unpredictable in 2013 and that volatility could result in a surprising run to a weekend match-up or a Thursday exit at the hands of Georgia.

Saving Money on Costly Weekend Hotels in Nashville: Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina

Frank Martin’s team has some young talent, but doesn’t have a path to a Friday game unless Bruce Ellington or Michael Carrera catch fire for the Gamecocks. Even with a big, slightly inexplicable win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State is still a rebuilding team with just seven scholarship players to count on in Nashville. Auburn held Alabama to just 37 points once and also beat Florida State this season, but that’s about it for bright spots in a season that’s ending on a 1-14 skid.

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SEC M5: 03.11.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on March 11th, 2013

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  1. In one of the best weekends of college basketball that we’ve seen this year, the SEC may be able to lay claim to the top highlight. Trevor Releford hit a half-court shot as time expired to give Alabama a 61-58 win over Georgia, keeping the Crimson Tide in consideration for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Bama appeared well on its way to an easy win when they took a 14-point lead into halftime, but the Bulldogs stormed back in the second. “I felt like in the second half they really picked their tempo up and really attacked us,” coach Anthony Grant said. “The zone caused us some problems.” Releford put the finishing touches on a strong regular season, adding an iconic moment to his case for SEC Player of the Year.
  2. Florida went into Lexington over the weekend looking for its first win at Rupp Arena in six years. A back and forth game had finally swung in the Gators’ favor after Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein was forced to bench with four fouls, but even with a seven-point lead with eight minutes to play, Florida went ice cold. The Gators did nothing with their last 14 possessions the rest of the way, committing five turnovers and missing all 11 of their field goal attempts. “In these situations, someone has to step up and make a play,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Someone has to make a shot.” Florida couldn’t get that shot to fall, doing nothing to dispel the notion that they can’t deliver in close games.
  3. Kentucky’s win over Florida certainly had a do-or-die feel, but Gary Parrish believes that Kentucky shouldn’t rest easy just yet. The Wildcats’ Tournament resume remains marginal. A 21-10 overall record, a 7-9 record against the RPI top 100, and only two wins against the top 50 doesn’t exactly scream “lock.” “There’s a tendency in college basketball to react strongly to every single thing that happens,” writes Parrish, “and the byproduct is that analysts and fans are constantly punching everybody’s tickets for the Big Dance.” A win over Florida filled a big hole in Kentucky’s argument, but a loss to Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament would cancel out a lot of that progress and put the Cats right back on the fringes of the bubble.
  4. The teams at the bottom of the SEC needed overtime to settle their season finale, with Mississippi State beating Auburn, 74-71, putting Bulldogs coach Rick Ray in a celebratory mood. “Just finding a way to gut out a win and to go in the locker room to see so many people happy,” he said after the game. “You read some things were they say we are the worst team in SEC history, so I guess we can’t be that if we finished 13th out of 14.” Touche, Rick. Mississippi State has been ridiculed all season as one of the worst power conference teams in college basketball, but thanks to a strong start and finish to the conference schedule (book-ending that 13-game losing streak), the Bulldogs finished outside of the SEC cellar.
  5. Tennessee overcame an eight-point second half deficit to beat Missouri, 64-62, on Saturday, maintaining its status as the conference’s hottest team. The Vols have won eight of nine to turn what appeared to be a lost season into a potential at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Tennessee is currently on the outside looking in according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, meaning that the Vols are another SEC team in need of SEC Tournament success. “I feel like we’re an older group,” forward Jarnell Stokes said. “We know that we have to do damage in the SEC Tournament. I’m not going to let another one slip away like we did last year.” A year ago, Cuonzo Martin’s team was in an almost identical position. Tennessee had ended the year winning eight of nine, but were upset by Ole Miss in their first SEC Tournament game, relegating the Vols to the NIT.
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