NIT Breakdown in the SEC: Arkansas and Missouri Open With Home Games

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 18th, 2014

It might not be Super Tuesday, but flip over to ESPN and ESPN2 tonight and you will find two SEC teams in action. Arkansas and Missouri both kick off their respective NIT campaigns with home games against teams from smaller conferences. Here’s all you need to know about Indiana State and Davidson ahead of this evening’s alternative March fun:

Indiana State at Arkansas, 9 PM ET, ESPN

Senior Jake Odum will be tasked with breaking the Arkansas press.

Senior Jake Odum will be tasked with breaking the Arkansas press. (Getty)

  • Indiana State’s Story: Last we saw the Sycamores, they had pulled within five points (55-50) of Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game. Getting that automatic bid was their only chance ending up in the NCAA Tournament, so the Shockers’ late surge (they won 83-69) sent Indiana State to the NIT. The Sycamores, however, were pretty clearly the second best team in the MVC, and the only realistic challenge to Wichita State. They picked up a win at then #21 Notre Dame in mid-November, which didn’t hold up given the Irish’s slide (they finished 15-17). Indiana State avoided a bad loss in its non-conference slate, losing only to Belmont and tournament teams Tulsa and Saint Louis. Unfortunately for the Sycamores, their resume simply lacked quality wins, and while they went 12-6 in the MVC, the down-nature of the conference outside of Wichita State doomed them. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC Well-Represented In NIT Field

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 18th, 2014

You were probably too busy rifling through your bracket and getting ready to take a stab at Warren Buffett’s billion dollars, but the 2014 NIT field was released Sunday night. As expected, the SEC was well-represented in the secondary tournament (Brian said the NIT would be the SEC Tournament revisited, and I thought that comment deserved a wider audience). In total, four SEC teams got the call: Missouri (2 seed), Georgia (2 seed), Arkansas (3 seed), and LSU (4 seed). As this SB Nation article points out, the NIT bubble was smaller this year due to many mid-major regular season champions not winning their conference tournaments.

Mike Anderson and Arkansas' trip to the NIT doesn't have to be a total downer. (Arkansas Business)

Mike Anderson and Arkansas’ trip to the NIT doesn’t have to be a total downer. (Arkansas Business)

Therefore, the Belmonts and Utah Valley States of the world may have cost Ole Miss a spot in the field. Given how highly the NIT committee apparently views Georgia, it’s possible Ole Miss could have secured an invite had they won its hard-fought quarterfinal Friday night in Atlanta against Georgia. Instead, Andy Kennedy was unable to follow up his most successful season in Oxford with another postseason appearance. We’ll have more in-depth coverage and breakdowns of the individual matchups as the week goes on, but a general theme heading into NIT competition is how it can be a positive for the teams taking part. Missouri, Arkansas and LSU all had varying degrees of favorable NCAA odds at different points this season, so to miss out is no doubt disappointing. Georgia also played itself to the brink of being in the bubble discussion. But there’s a glass-half-full outlook for all four of these teams. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC M5: 03.14.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Given the way Auburn AD Jay Jacobs fired Tony Barbee an hour after the team’s loss to South Carolina, the job got a lot of attention today among those covering the SEC Tournament. On the broadcast, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, who is handling sideline TV duties at the tournament, listed four candidates he has heard are on Jacobs’s list. They are former Tennessee coach and ESPN analyst Bruce Pearl, Duke assistant and former Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, Southern Miss coach Donnie Tyndall, and Louisiana Tech coach Michael White. Goodman joked that Pearl, who is his colleague at ESPN, would not give him any hints about whether he is interested in the job. While it’s certainly possible that Pearl will show interest, it doesn’t make sense to us. Auburn is a very difficult job, and it stands to reason that Pearl will have other options, either this year or next (his show cause expires in August). Of the four candidates Goodman named, we think Tyndall and White would make the most sense.
  2. There has been much discussion about how mediocre the SEC has been this year, and the tournament does not present many opportunities for quality wins. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi thinks that Kentucky has very little to gain from the event. He points out that the Wildcats, who come into the tournament with only one win against a top 50 opponent – a December victory over Louisville – and the only opportunity for one that will help their seed this weekend will come against Florida on Sunday, should both teams get there. Otherwise, Lunardi thinks Kentucky is stuck in the 6-7 seed range, and could drop if it were to drop a game against a lesser opponent. The Wildcats take on LSU, which defeated Alabama Thursday night, in Friday’s quarterfinal round. The Tigers beat Kentucky in Baton Rouge and should have duplicated that feat in Lexington a few weeks ago, as they dropped an overtime decision to the Wildcats. If Kentucky can make it to Sunday’s championship game, it likely will not hurt its seeding, but it’s hard to see the Wildcats beating Florida to jump up a line or two, given how they’ve performed against the Gators so far this year.
  3. Much has been made of Casey Prather‘s improvement for No. 1 Florida, and this piece from Franz Beard at GatorCountry.com chronicles the senior’s rise. Prather was recently named to the first team of the all-SEC squad, and he talked about how he persevered through difficult times early in his career. He even thought about transferring after his freshman season, but after talking every day with teammate and newly-minted SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin, Prather stuck it out in Gainesville. Now, as his career draws to a close, he has a chance to compete for the national championship on arguably the nation’s best team. It’s quite a turnaround for Prather, and his and the team’s testament to the bond the Gators’ senior class has formed.
  4. Missouri got by Texas A&M in overtime on Thursday to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round, where the Tigers will take on Florida. But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Bernie Miklasz talked about the future of the Missouri program, and didn’t pull any punches. Miklasz was less than complimentary of head coach Frank Haith and the way he has run the program, and he has serious questions about whether Haith is capable of turning things around. He suggests that Haith has one more year to do so, and if he can’t, it’s time to move on. Miklasz cited KenPom.com‘s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings in the column to support his point that Missouri hasn’t been particularly stellar on either end of the floor since Haith arrived. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s likely plenty of Missouri fans agree with Miklasz’s points.
  5. Most people expected Tennessee to play Arkansas in a Friday quarterfinal, in what many anticipated would be a de facto play-in game for the NCAA Tournament. However, after the Razorbacks almost certainly blew their chance for an NCAA bid with a loss to South Carolina, the Volunteers will now take on the lowly Gamecocks for a chance to most likely get another shot at Florida. Tennessee comes into the game as a double-digit favorite, but anyone who has followed the Volunteer program knows the SEC Tournament has been less than kind to them. Despite their recent failures in the event, this year’s team comes into the tournament playing well, and they are aiming to reverse the program’s trend. Tennessee is clearly a bubble team, and a win over RPI No. 150 South Carolina certainly won’t help its resume, but it would give it an opportunity for a third shot at Florida (assuming the Gators beat Missouri). Even with a loss there, the Volunteers would be in good shape to sneak into the Big Dance.
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SEC Bubble Action: Arkansas Takes Big Hit; Missouri Stays Alive

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 13th, 2014

Oh momentum, you are a fickle thing. It was only a week ago that Arkansas was pounding Ole Miss and seemed like an NCAA tournament lock. But after the Hogs’ loss to South Carolina in their SEC tournament opener on Thursday, the only thing they’ve locked up is a bid to the NIT. A lot needed to go wrong to undo Arkansas’ six-game winning streak down the stretch that included a statement win at Kentucky. Unfortunately for Mike Anderson, that’s exactly what has happened. The loss last weekend to RPI #116 Alabama was bad, removing any margin for error this week. But following that up with a loss to RPI #146 South Carolina probably won’t be forgiven by the committee. The offense never got going in Tuscaloosa (0.842 points per possession), and while the Hogs played a tad better against the Gamecocks (0.995 points per possession), they squandered several late chances to reclaim the lead. Close misses by Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden in the final minute were reminiscent of the end of Arkansas’ loss at Missouri in mid-February.

Arkansas' NCAA hopes took a big hit with its loss to South Carolina (utsandiego.com).

Arkansas’ NCAA hopes took a big hit with its loss to South Carolina (utsandiego.com).

Had either shot gone in, the Hogs would have faced a quarterfinal with a likely NCAA bid on the line. Instead, they’ll need to sweat it out until Sunday evening. “I’m hoping for the NCAAs,” Coty Clark told the Associated Press afterward. “But right now, I don’t know.” The late season fall is disappointing for Anderson and the SEC, since Arkansas looked like a team that could help redeem the beleaguered conference in postseason play. Clarke had begun to emerge as a dependable, versatile match-up problem of a forward, and Portis had shown that he could carry a team with his 35-point performance against the Tide in early February. Arkansas also has a bevy of guards that get consistent playing time, and they all chipped in offensively in the stream-rolling of the Rebels. Depth like that would be hard to contend with in a one-and–done tournament setting. That six-game winning streak now looks like nothing but a missed opportunity.

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SEC Tournament Preview: Rapid Fire Round

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 13th, 2014

The SEC tournament is underway, and the SEC microwriters have so many key questions to answer to preview the SEC Tournament. Today’s burning questions are a rapid fire round of all the major story lines we haven’t covered yet heading into the beginning of the tournament. Which potential matchup are you most looking forward to this weekend? Can Kentucky pull it together or is destined for an early exit? How many wins does Arkansas need for an NCAA berth? What about Missouri? Which team cuts down the nets on Sunday? The SEC microsite writers answer all of these questions in rapid succession as we head into round two of action in Atlanta.

Will John Calipari's "tweak" alter Kentucky's course? We'll know soon.

Will John Calipari’s “tweak” alter Kentucky’s course? We’ll know soon.

David Changas (@dchangas)

Which potential match-up are you most looking forward to this weekendTennessee-Florida.  Assuming the Volunteers have turned a corner and can get by likely quarterfinal opponent Arkansas, have they improved enough to take down a Gator squad that has certainly already secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

Can Kentucky pull it together or is destined for an early exit? Objectively, there isn’t a lot to be excited about with respect to Kentucky’s recent play. However, there are a few factors that make me think they’re going to reach the championship game on Sunday. First, they have an unmatched history in this event, and have been particularly good in Atlanta in the past. Second, they’ll have an overwhelming crowd advantage, as Big Blue Nation always descends upon the Georgia Dome in hordes. Third, they have a relatively easy draw. They avoid the Florida/Tennessee/Arkansas side of the bracket and should have only LSU and Georgia or Ole Miss standing between them and the title game. I’ll be surprised if they don’t make it there.

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SEC M5: 03.12.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on March 12th, 2014

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  1. AL.com’s Jon Solomon has some bad news about the perilous state of SEC basketball: average attendance (10,380 per game) was at its lowest point since 1984-85. The biggest drop was Missouri, which saw 22 percent less fans go through the Mizzou Arena turnstiles this season. The ice Frank Haith is walking on has gotten progressively thinner, and this is yet another mark against him. Fellow conference newcomer Texas A&M had the second biggest drop at 15 percent. Ole Miss likely benefited from last year’s postseason success, seeing the biggest increase at 21 percent. Surprisingly, 12-19 (5-13) South Carolina had the second biggest boost (17 percent).
  2. Texas A&M, a team that struggles to score, may be without leading scorer Jamal Jones(13.4 PPG, 51.5 TS%) when it takes on Missouri Thursday. Jone is apparently saddled with a 103 degree fever and, Michael Jordan flu game aside, that’s an understandable reason not to suit up. Being shorthanded is nothing new for the Aggies, who have been without arguably their most dynamic player, Davonte Fitzgerald, for a month. Fabyon Harris has also missed the last few games, and wasn’t in Columbia when the Aggies fumbled away a win last week. He will likely be back Thursday, but it was Jones who got the rim and put Texas A&M in a position to steal a win in Mizzou Arena.
  3. There is no drama for South Carolina as it heads into its SEC tournament opener against Auburn this evening. KenPom gives the Gamecocks a 0.04% chance of winning the tournament, so unless the most improbable of runs happens, their season will end in Atlanta. But winning even one game would be a step in the right direction, since South Carolina has not won a conference tournament game since 2008. Call it small steps, but it would be a positive end to the season for a team that has won two of its last three games. It would also be a nice sendoff for Brenton Williams, who has quietly had a great senior year (15.2 PPG, 21.8 PER, 63.9 TS%).
  4. SI.com’s team of college basketball writers released their All-America team, and not surprisingly it didn’t include any players from the SEC. Julius Randle made three of the individual writers’ second teams, and that sounds about right. Despite Kentucky’s offense getting progressively disjointed, Randle’s scoring and rebounding numbers have remained consistent (15.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG). Even though Florida has a great shot at being the number one overall seed, Seth Davis was the only writer to throw any love at the Gators, putting Scottie Wilbekin on his second team. That also sounds about right, since Florida’s strength is the sum of its parts, rather than an individual star.
  5. Staying on SI.com, Davis rolled out his annual All-Glue team recently. Florida did get a lot of love in this piece, as Patric Young took home a Glue Guy honor. The piece is an interesting reflection on Young’s transformation from sparingly used McDonald’s All-American to reliable starter that stayed in the college ranks longer than he initially expected he would. Young fits the glue guy profile to the extent he is a high effort bull of a low poster player. But as was pointed out in general terms on the main site yesterday, maybe Young has played himself out of glue guy consideration. He was named second team All-SEC this year, and seems like more than a role player. But it’s not as if rules for being a glue guy were handed down from the heavens written in stone.
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SEC Tournament Preview: Which Coach Has the Most on the Line During This Postseason?

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 11th, 2014

In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament all week by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question has to do with the personalities on the sidelines. Postseason tournaments can make or break a coach’s reputation. Which coach has the most on the line during this postseason?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Is Bruce Pearl primed to return to the SEC next season?

Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): The coach with the most on the line during this postseason is Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin. Volunteer fans are clamoring for former head coach Bruce Pearl to return to the sidelines in his orange blazer after serving time on a three year show cause penalty. Pearl took the Volunteers to six NCAA appearances in his six seasons in Knoxville, including an Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances. Pearl was wildly successful in orange, but one thing he never did was win an SEC tournament championship. Meanwhile, Martin hasn’t even made it to Saturday in the SEC tournament, much less Sunday for the championship game. Tennessee hasn’t won more than one game in the SEC tournament under Martin. The Vols didn’t make an NCAA tournament appearance either in his first two seasons at the helm, instead settling for early round exits in the NIT. Tennessee finally has a chance to return to the Big Dance as long as the Vols don’t slip up in the quarterfinals on Friday against fellow bubble team Arkansas, or worse, bottom dwellers Auburn or South Carolina. There is unrest in Knoxville, and it will only get louder with a slip up in the Georgia Dome. An untimely loss in the SEC tournament could ultimately leave Martin’s team on the wrong end of the bubble come Selection Sunday, and then the murmur among fans could become a full on uproar. The only way to quiet the desire for Pearl is to create your own success, and Martin and Tennessee have a chance to do that this March.

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Chaotic Weekend Builds Drama for Regular Season’s Final Act

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 3rd, 2014

It was a weekend that saw 11 ranked teams fall, an unlikely band of Shockers find a small slice of immortality (the regular season variety), and an already jumbled NCAA Tournament bubble grow exponentially more confusing. Ever predictably, the arrival of March meant great drama for college basketball fans. With one week now left in the regular season, here are three key storylines that emerged from a riveting weekend of action on the college hoops hardwood.

Last #1 Seed Up For Grabs

Syracuse Has Suddenly Lost Three Of Four After A 25-0 Start; Can Jerami Grant, Tyler Ennis, And Company Right The Ship In Time To Get Back On The #1 Seed Line?

Syracuse Has Suddenly Lost Three Of Four After A 25-0 Start; Can Jerami Grant, Tyler Ennis, and Company Right The Ship In Time To Get Back On The #1 Seed Line?

Presumptive #1 seeds Arizona, Florida and Wichita State were all able to avoid the upset bug this weekend, and barring multiple losses in the next two weeks, each seems adequately safe on the top line. But with Syracuse continuing its mini-slide in Charlottesville Saturday afternoon, that fourth #1 seed has no apparent owner heading into the season’s final week. By my count, no fewer than eight teams should still be in play for the honor, although scenarios for five of those squads — Creighton, Michigan, Wisconsin, Villanova and Virginia – would almost surely include winning out through their conference tournaments, and then also getting help from elsewhere. The trio with the firmest grasp on their own fate — Duke, Kansas, and the aforementioned Orange — may not be doing as much Championship Week scoreboard watching as those five teams, but all would still likely need to win out to earn that last #1 seed. But before those three schools face the gauntlet that will be the Big 12 and ACC Tournaments, there is still business to be tended to this week. Despite a date with surging rival UNC (at Cameron), Duke may have the easiest list of chores among the three: KenPom’s predictor gives the Blue Devils a 68 percent chance of finishing off the regular season with a pair of wins. Kansas faces Texas Tech at Allen Fieldhouse before concluding the regular season with a visit to West Virginia; the latter contest offers a challenge sufficient enough to leave KenPom predicting that a Jayhawks’ final week sweep will occur only 60% of the time (and that number probably does not account for the likelihood that Joel Embiid sits out). Syracuse shouldn’t look past Georgia Tech on Tuesday (don’t forget those Boston College Eagles!), but its Sunday trip to Tallahassee is a significant landmine — significant enough that the Orange are expected to polish off their regular season with two wins just 48 percent of the time. The margin for error is thin for all three of these teams; a loss – no matter where it comes from – would all but end dreams of that fourth #1 seed.

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SEC M5: 03.03.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 3rd, 2014

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  1. Kentucky‘s 72-67 loss at South Carolina Saturday night may rank as the most shocking result in SEC play so far this season. The Wildcats are now 11-5 in league play and 21-8 overall. The loss was their third in five games, and one of those wins was a near-miss against LSU at home. Given the preseason hype for John Calipari‘s collection of freshman, and the nonsensical talk about a 40-0 season for this team, it’s safe to say the Wildcats’ season has been a disappointment so far, and if things don’t get turned in the right direction soon, a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament is inevitable. Yahoo’s Pat Forde took stock of the situation and pulled no punches in his criticism of Calipari. Among other things, Forde criticized Calipari for his scapegoating of Ryan Harrow after last season’s disappointment, his unwillingness to take the blame for what’s gone wrong with this team, and his failure to answer tough questions in the face of the team’s struggles. Needless to say, Forde’s take will be the subject of much discussion in the Bluegrass state in the coming days, and we have a tough time finding too much to criticize about what the veteran writer had to say.
  2. Perhaps it was Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings seeking validation for his comments about Tennessee fans who want to see Cuonzo Martin fired after three seasons at the Volunteers’ helm that led to Tennessee‘s crushing 76-38 victory over the Commodores Saturday in Knoxville. Whatever it was, the performance was a welcome sight for Vol fans who have been frustrated with the level of performance they have seen for most of the year from a squad that appeared before the season to be a clear-cut NCAA Tournament team. Tennessee’s stifling defense forced Vanderbilt to make only 11 field goals on its way to shooting 22%. Meanwhile, the Volunteers shot 53% from the field, and 48% from three-point range, controlled the glass, and turned the ball over only 8 times. Tennessee also got a fantastic performance from Antonio Barton, the senior transfer from Memphis who has been mostly disappointing in replacing the departed Trae Golden. Barton was assertive on both ends of the floor and scored a season-high 21 points on 5-for-7 three-point shooting. If he can give the Volunteers more of that, perhaps they can finally become the team many expected prior to the season.
  3. Speaking of Tennessee, the Volunteers are one of three SEC squads fighting for the NCAA Tournament lives. It appears that they, as well as Arkansas and Missouri, will take things down to the wire as they try to make the field of 68. According to CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm’s latest bracketology, the Razorbacks and Tigers are in the field, with Missouri starting out in a “First Four” game in Dayton. Tennessee is the third team out, which means the Volunteers should have a chance to work their way back into the field. They travel to Auburn on Wednesday for a game that they simply cannot afford to lose, before coming home Saturday to host Missouri in what will be a crucial bubble matchup. As we chronicled here Friday, Arkansas’s win at Kentucky may have propelled them into the field, though it’s clear they must keep winning to stay there. The Razorbacks took care of business on Saturday against Georgia in winning for the eighth time in their last nine tries. While the SEC has seen plenty of mediocre basketball this year, with three teams squarely on the bubble, the final week of the regular season and the SEC Tournament will offer plenty of drama about who makes the field.
  4. With the SEC Tournament just over a week away, teams are jockeying for position in the Georgia Dome. The tournament is now a five-day event, and the top four seeds receive double byes to Friday’s quarterfinal round. Not only does securing one of those double byes give the teams who earn them extra rest, they likely eliminate the possibility of having to play a team with a low RPI in a second-round game. As it stands now, Florida has secured the top seed, and Kentucky looks good for the second spot. Georgia currently sits at third and looks to be in good shape to secure one of the double byes. Tennessee controls its destiny and will secure a double bye by winning out, given that the Volunteers own wins over most of the teams also in the running for the final double bye spot. A lot can happen in the next week, but for the league’s bubble teams, avoiding a game with one of the conference’s bottom-feeders is of paramount importance.
  5. In its first week as the nation’s top-ranked team, Florida acquitted itself well, pulling out a 57-54 win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday before coming home Saturday and trouncing a solid LSU team 79-61. The primary knock against the Gators this year has been their inconsistency from the perimeter, but they knocked down 13 of 23 threes (56.5%) against the Tigers and were never threatened. Dorian Finney-Smith, who came into the week having made one three-point attempt in his seven previous games, went 7-for-14 from behind the arc in the two games. Florida coach Billy Donovan knows having Finney-Smith shoot the ball this well is a big boost for the Gators, and for them to have any chance to win the national championship, it will need to continue. With the win, Florida extended its school-record winning streak to 21, and must only win at South Carolina and at home against Kentucky to finish the conference regular season at 18-0. Despite the mediocrity of the league, going through any power conference without a loss is quite an accomplishment, and it appears the Gators are well on their way to achieving it.
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Can Win at Rupp Propel Arkansas to the SEC’s Third NCAA Tournament Bid?

Posted by David Changas on February 28th, 2014

For the past several weeks, many have wondered if the SEC, a power conference with 14 teams, could actually only get two bids to the NCAA Tournament. The maddening inconsistency of teams other than Florida and Kentucky made it seems like a real possibility. After Missouri recently won three straight home games, it looked like the Tigers could be the third team to step up and solidify the conference’s standing. The Tigers proceeded to drop road games to Alabama and Georgia — the latter giving the Bulldogs a season sweep — and now again appear to be on shaky ground. Tennessee, which in the preseason was considered a lock by many to make the Big Dance, went to College Station last Saturday and lost to lowly Texas A&M for the second time this season, and, although a 4-0 finish to the regular season is possible, the Vols’ Tournament chances appear to be tenuous at best. LSU, another team many thought could compete for a bid, has been inconsistent, and does not have a resume that merits serious consideration at this point.

Is Mike Anderson on the verge of taking Arkansas back to the NCAA Tournament? (AP)

The only other hope the league has had for an at-large bid is Arkansas, and for most of the season, the Razorbacks have not been considered a legitimate contender because of their inability to win away from Bud Walton Arena. Prior to this season, Mike Anderson’s only two conference road wins came at Auburn, and this year started out no differently. After getting blown out in their first league road game at Texas A&M, Arkansas lost close but winnable games at Georgia and Tennessee, and began the conference season a chilly 2-6. That appeared to all but end any thought that the Razorbacks could make the NCAA Tournament this season. Since that time, however, the Hawgs have won six of seven, including three on the road. And none have been bigger than last night’s overtime win at Kentucky. Not only was it the first win for Arkansas at Rupp Arena since 1994, it was easily Anderson’s biggest win since taking over for John Pelphrey three years ago. Despite turning the ball over 20 times and giving up 26 offensive rebounds to the Wildcats, the Razorbacks, which led by double-figures for much of the first half and by seven at the break, were able to overcome a late five-point deficit to force the extra frame on their way to a 71-67 win. Thanks in large part to holding Kentucky to 34.2 percent shooting and a 16-of-16 mark from the line, Arkansas was able to get a win that will serve them very well with Selection Sunday just over two weeks away.

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SEC M5: 02.26.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 26th, 2014

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  1. Maybe Florida just plays down to its competition, or maybe the Gators’ grind-it-out defense lends itself to close games. Either way, Florida ran its winning streak to 20 against Vanderbilt in yet another game that had to be gutted out late. Vanderbilt outshot Florida 48% to 40%, but – as they have done so often this year – the Gators won the rebounding and turnover battles. You can have a less than stellar offense and put yourself in games if you limit your opponent’s chances by taking care of the ball and grabbing defensive rebounds. Florida has the second fewest turnovers per game in the SEC (11.2) and third best team rebounding percentage (54.2%). Pair that with an elite defense and it’s no surprise you’ve got a team that can rack up wins and rise to number one in the rankings. But as Luke Winn pointed out, the Gators offense can be more effective if Dorian Finney-Smith expands on the two made pick-and-pop he had made in conference play. It wasn’t of the pick-and-pop variety, but Finney-Smith found space and drilled a three with under 30 seconds left against the Commodores. It was the junior’s third three of the game, and the finishing touches on his game high 19 points. If that performance jump starts Finney-Smith, Billy Donovan suddenly has another offensive option to play with.
  2. Put a fork in the Tigers, they are done. Short of winning the SEC tournament, I don’t see a way Missouri can salvage a bid after losing by 15 in Athens. The Tigers will almost certainly drop out of the RPI top 50, and they’re a perfectly pedestrian 7-7 against the RPI top 100. That’s just okay, and just okay teams do make a 68 team field. But the Tigers don’t have the high-quality wins to punctuate a resume, going just 1-2 against the RPI top 25. Can that UCLA win from way back in early December stand up? Teams Missouri is competing with for a final spot, like Oklahoma State (Memphis, Texas) and St. John’s (Creighton), have eye-popping wins to spice up a mediocre resume. The Tigers didn’t execute well on defense against Georgia (allowing the Bulldogs to shoot 52.1%) and it could be that Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are wearing down. The two shot a combined 9-for-29 and Brown in particular had no lift on his shots. Georgia, on the hand, continued its surprise run through the SEC with its sweep of Missouri. Per Wildcat Blue Nation’s Corey Price, the Bulldogs are the first SEC team to reach 10 or more conference wins after finishing .500 or worse in the non-conference since 2007-08 Kentucky. With a RPI North of 80 the Bulldogs still aren’t in the bubble picture, but at the very least Mark Fox should’ve assured himself a NIT bid.
  3. Your first thought might “yeah right,” but the Bruce Pearl to Tennessee talk is gaining steam. There’s an online petition signed by thousands of people, and Gregg Doyel writes that as unlikely as it seems, rehiring Pearl makes too much sense for the Vols. “Tennessee should do it. If Tennessee has an opening, it should hire Bruce Pearl. Go ahead, Tennessee. He paid his price. You paid yours,” Doyel writes. “Bruce Pearl is a good coach who made a bad mistake and had to be fired — I was calling for his dismissal months before Tennessee finally did it — but who served his time and surely, surely learned from his mistake.” Sure, a reunion seems highly unlikely and against the norm, but there might just be the pieces in place to make it a reality: Pearl won big at Tennessee, still lives in Knoxville, and the program hasn’t taken a clear step forward in Cuonzo Martin’s third year. There’s also the matter of ticket sales, and from afar it seems like rehiring Pearl would spark the fanbase. Those are hard points to argue against, especially since college basketball in general is far from holy. The problem is that is that letting Martin go is not a no brainer. While the Vols are dancing around the bubble again, the bottom has not fallen out in the former Missouri State coach’s three years in Knoxville. But if Louisville can bring back Bobby Petrino, is the Pearl-Tennessee dream so ridiculous?
  4. It’s put up or shut up time for Arkansas, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. Winning at Rupp Arena is the last chance for Razorbacks to improve on their 65 RPI and grab the attention of those on the selection committee. Can Arkansas actually sweep the Wildcats? In the win at Bud Walton Arena, Kentucky missed a ton of free throws (26-of-40) and the Razorbacks, as they always do at home, won the turnover battle (17 to 6). While the Wildcats will probably miss a few more free throws (team 68.5% FT%) they probably won’t have a similar turnover binge without 20,000 screaming people in red against them. The Razorbacks will in all likelihood lose the rebounding battle in this game, so they’ll need to hit a higher percentage from three than they did in the team’s first meeting (28.6%). If Arkansas isn’t able to win this game and go on a run, barring a miracle weekend in Atlanta it looks like Mike Anderson will miss the tournament for the third straight year in Fayetteville.\
  5. There was a time not so long ago that Rick Ray was enjoying a very positive second season in Starkville. It was January 22 and the Bulldogs had just beaten Auburn to move to 3-2 in conference play. They also picked up their 13th win of the season, three more than they had gotten in 2012-13. But the positivity ended that day, and Mississippi State hasn’t won since. Its nine game losing streak could very well stretch to 12 with upcoming games against Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia. So, now that the bad part has set in, how are things really going in Ray’s second season on the whole? Their RPI is currently 204, which in no world is anything but dreadful. It is, however, less dreadful than the 292 the Bulldogs finished with last season. The good news for Ray? He’s got only one senior in the rotation (Colin Borchert) and his leading scorer (Craig Sword), rebounder (Gavin Ware) and assist man (I.J. Ready) are either sophomores or freshmen. Ready is good to go against Tennessee after getting poked in the eye against the Arkansas. The freshman point guard not only leads the team in assists, but is shooting 40% from three and has a respectable 1.5 assist to turnover ratio for a first year player. A strong finish from him would be a bright spot in another rebuilding year for the Bulldogs.
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SEC M5: 02.24.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 24th, 2014

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  1. Saturday may very well have been the day the SEC’s bubble burst. A third bid (at least) seemed relatively solid over the past few weeks, with Missouri and Tennessee exchanging that position. Saturday didn’t always seem like a dreary day. In fact, for a brief moment it seemed as if the league could possibly sneak five teams into the tournament. LSU’s gritty effort at Kentucky looked at it would produce a win that might have catapulted the Tigers past a handful of teams ahead of them on the bubble. But Julius Randle’s floater ended that dream around the same time Texas A&M (RPI #118) handed Tennessee a damaging loss in overtime. Several hours later Missouri took a damaging loss of its own at RPI #117 Alabama. This fatalism could be overly-dramatic, and the Tigers and Vols might be clinging to the fringes of the bubble. But what’s the likelihood both go through the rest of the season unscathed before the they play each other to close the regular season? It’s not good, and another loss before that game would probably be the nail in the coffin for either team.
  2. There’s little controversy over whether Florida deserves to be the number one team in the country when the polls are released later today. But if an argument needs to be made for the Gators over Wichita State, Andy Hutchins at Alligator Army has it. “Florida has handled the SEC about as well as Wichita State has handled the Valley, outscoring it by 0.197 points per possession; Wichita’s MVC number is 0.231 points per possession.” The Gators have simply handled every challenge thrown at them in SEC play, even if it hasn’t been pretty. Like Wichita State, the Gators haven’t been challenged as much from a talent standpoint in conference play like a Big Ten team that seemingly sees at least one ranked opponent a week. But Florida has played a lot of close games in conference, running the spectrum from at home against Auburn and on the road against Kentucky. Each time the Gators have found a way to win, and it’ll be tough to pick against that next month. Billy Donovan deserves kudos for (in all likelihood) reaching number one for the first time in seven years.
  3. There are some positive thoughts following LSU letting a potential season-changing win at Rupp Arena slip through their fingers. NOLA.com’s Ron Higgins writes that while the Tigers are flawed, they have battled hard this season, corrected some mistakes, and Johnny Jones is in position to get a postseason within his first two years on the job. Trent Johnson is the only coach to do that in program history. “Add a few more athletic bodies before next season, a couple more outside shooters and the Tigers will win a game like they lost on Saturday,” Higgins writes. LSU certainly could be a handful next season. Jordan Mickey need only add a post move or two and improve his mid-range jumper to be an all-conference player. Jarrell Martin likely hasn’t impressed enough to make the jump to the NBA, but his talent is undeniable. And then there is incoming five star freshman forward Ben Simmons. If Johnny O’Bryant returns, LSU would have a strong case for having the most talented frontcourt in the country. The junior is on the fringes of NBADraft.net’s latest mock draft (55th overall pick), and might be wise to come back and develop more finesse in his offensive game. He has improved his shooting percentage on two point jumpers (41.1%), but still relies heavily on strength and power. That rarely translates to the NBA (see: Thomas Robinson).
  4. For all the talk of Missouri’s limited scoring options this season, it will be its defense that keeps it out of the NCAA Tournament. In the Tigers last two losses, they have allowed sub-par three-point shooters to get loose and burn them. Against Ole Miss, 31% three-point shooter Ladarius White converted on five-of-six three’s . Saturday night, it was 34% three-point shooter Levi Randolph hitting five-of-seven three’s in route to a career-high 33 points. It’s fine to challenge a poor shooter to make shots and see a couple go down. But when a guy is clearly in rhythm it’s hard justify not sticking with him. For example, Randolph had an open back-breaking three to stretch out Alabama’s lead with a few minutes left. While Missouri has a respectable 32% team three-point defense overall, situational lapses like that helped doom them in a key game. It’s also worth questioning why Frank Haith took so long to abandon the zone defense with Randolph shooting like he was and Trevor Releford dealing with a banged up leg.
  5. Georgia’s win at South Carolina was quietly impressive. People keep waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Bulldogs, and their season took a step in this direction with a humbling loss to Tennessee last week. It would’ve been allow that loss to beat them twice. Instead, Georgia followed it up with a road win, albeit against the last place team in the conference. But any win away from home is challenging in conference play, and Mark Fox’s team (9-5), assured itself of finishing no worse than .500 in SEC play even if the wheels completely fall off. Would a Bulldog fan have been happy with an even conference mark given how the first two months of the season went? Probably so. The Bulldogs star on Saturday was yet again a player that will be around for years to com, sophomore Kenny Gaines (27 points, 9-of-14 shooting). The folks at Dawg Sports summed up the forward-looking optimism by writing, “Donte’ Williams is the only significant contributor who isn’t likely to be back in 2014-15. While there’s still some basketball to be played in this season, there’s every reason to believe that Mark Fox may have finally turned a corner in Athens.”
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