SEC M5: 03.03.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 3rd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  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.
Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC M5: 02.26.14 Edition

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

SEC_morning5

  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.
Share this story

SEC M5: 02.24.14 Edition

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

SEC_morning5

  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.”
Share this story

Putting Together the SEC Puzzle, Knockoff Style

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 22nd, 2014

Seth Davis has the Jigsaw Man, his alter ego that finds unheralded players and plugs them into more high-profile teams with a distinct need. I don’t have a creative nickname for this, but I do have some SEC puzzles to solve and following Davis’ lead sounds like a good idea. Joe Lunardi currently lists Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee in his field of 68. Each team has its holes, so to get creative, I tried to plug them with one player from a conference foe that won’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Saying something like “Missouri can’t score inside, add Julius Randle” is too easy, though, and the knockoff Jigsaw Man likes to challenge himself. Here goes…

Florida gets: Brenton Williams, South Carolina

Billy Donovan could use Brenton Williams free throw prowess at the end of games in March (beachcarolina.com).

Billy Donovan could use Brenton Williams free throw prowess at the end of games in March (beachcarolina.com).

You have to search high and low to find something Florida doesn’t do well. One thing that stands out, however, is the Gators’ relatively poor team free throw shooting percentage (67.6%, ninth in the SEC). Foul shots become trickier in postseason play as the pressure of closing out a game intensifies. Florida doesn’t have anyone other than Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin who Billy Donovan can feel confident about taking those big shots. Those limited options could make inbounding the ball to a reliable shooter at the end of a close game difficult. So why not give the Gators a player who has only missed three foul shots all season? Brenton Williams has not only been the best foul shooter in the SEC (78-of-81, 96.3%) but he is also a senior who fits Florida’s experienced theme. He’s also one of the best three-point shooters in the conference (42.8%) which addresses another area of relative weakness for the Gators. Let Casey Prather inbound the ball at the end of close games, and with Williams, Wilbekin, and Frazier making cuts, he’s sure to find a guy among the trio who can seal a win.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC M5: 02.21.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 21st, 2014

  1. For possibly the first time since the start of conference play, each of the four SEC teams that arguably should be considered to be on the bubble won their midweek games. Tennessee downed Georgia on Tuesday night, and LSU, Arkansas, and Missouri all followed with wins on Wednesday. Granted, each of the four teams was at home and was favored, and had any of them lost, it would have been considered an upset. Still, given the numerous times SEC teams have lost games unexpectedly since early January, nothing would have been a surprise. Of course, of the four “bubble” teams, only Missouri, which has an RPI of 35, can consider itself to be safe for the moment. The Tigers, who swept their three-game home stand against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt — each win coming in narrow fashion — have a favorable schedule leading up to their season finale at Tennessee. They go to Alabama and Georgia, which beat them in Columbia in early January, before getting bottom-feeders Mississippi State and Texas A&M at home. Given the softness of the bubble, it’s reasonable to expect that if Missouri can finish out with wins in four of those five contests, they should safely be in the field for the NCAA Tournament. Nothing in this league should be taken for granted, however, so while things look good for the Tigers at the moment, a lot can change over the next three-and-a-half weeks.
  2. As you’re likely already aware, earlier this week Rick Pitino voiced his opinion about social media, saying it often “poisons” athletes’ minds. Some took Pitino’s comments out of context, and a lot of what he said on the subject made sense. The Louisville coach has banned his team from Twitter, and said it was “insulting” for people to use it, given the amount of time spent on it. It didn’t take long for Kentucky coach John Calipari to weigh in. Not surprisingly, Calipari disagreed with Pitino’s assessment, saying that coaches who hate social media “know nothing about” it. Unlike Pitino, Calipari instructs his players on how to use social media, and has a Twitter account with over 1,250,000 followers. Since he arrived in Lexington prior to the 2009-10 season, Calipari has used the medium to hype his program and communicate with fans. Given his ability to connect with recruits, it’s not surprising Calipari is familiar with how to effectively use social media. It’s also not surprising that he would take the opportunity to dust things up with his archrival.
  3. The road for Florida to be ranked No. 1 when the polls are released next Monday is clear, given Syracuse’s stunning loss at home to a woeful Boston College team on Wednesday. The Gators need only win at Ole Miss on Saturday to set themselves up to be at the top of the polls. Still, as the scare they received in their 61-56 home win over lowly Auburn Wednesday night showed, Billy Donovan’s team can take nothing for granted in its quest to finish the SEC season unbeaten. Thanks to a late Auburn meltdown, the Gators were able to improve their conference record to 13-0, and face a capable Rebel squad coming off a somewhat embarrassing home loss to Kentucky. While it’s reasonable to expect Andy Kennedy to have his team ready to bounce back from its lackluster effort, it’s also likely that its performance against Auburn served as a wake-up call for Florida. As The Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley pointed out in this piece, Donovan knows his team can’t take any opponent lightly. The Gators have now won a school-record 18 games in a row, but to make it 19, they’ll have to bring a much better effort against Ole Miss.
  4. It seems that everyone is looking for ways to improve the level of play in the SEC, and there’s no doubt that league commissioner Mike Slive is concerned about the fact that, in late February, the league has only two NCAA Tournament locks. The Lexington Herald-Leader’s Mark Story thinks one way to fix the league is to return to divisional play. The league abandoned the East/West format it follows for football prior to the 2011-12 season, and subsequently moved to an 18-game schedule in which each league team only has one permanent opponent it plays twice. While Story makes some good points – the best one being that the elimination of divisions limits the number of home-and-homes each team consistently plays – it’s more likely that no longer having division play has nothing to do with the league’s poor collective performance, and that improvement in the quality of play would make this a moot argument. The reason the SEC is burdened with so many uninteresting matchups is that too many of its teams simply aren’t very good. No one seems to mind that Kentucky and Florida aren’t geographically close when those two squads get together. While the SEC is more spread out than it used to be, there is plenty of interesting basketball being played in the much more geographically-diverse ACC. There’s no question that expansion has diminished or eliminated a lot of classic rivalries, but the SEC’s decision to follow what all other power conferences were doing by getting rid of the divisional format was the right move.
  5. The weekend ahead doesn’t bring too many glamorous SEC games, though Florida’s visit to Ole Miss could get interesting. The other matchup that could be worth watching involves LSU traveling to Lexington to take on Kentucky. In late January, the Tigers handed the Wildcats one of their three conferences losses. Johnny O’Bryant was dominant for LSU, scoring 29 points and grabbing nine rebounds. The Tigers, whose struggles mostly are attributable to an inconsistent backcourt, got an excellent performance from point guard Anthony Hickey, who handed out six assists without a turnover. Hickey was the most effective guard on the court that night, outshining Kentucky’s Harrison twins. More importantly for the Tigers, though, was the job they did bottling up Julius Randle. The sensational freshman had his worst offensive output of the season, scoring only six points, and it was the only time in the Wildcats’ last 11 games in which he didn’t score in double figures. Kentucky comes into the game as a double-digit favorite, and given LSU’s inconsistency of late, it’s probably too much to expect the Tigers to win in Rupp Arena. But they may be the type of team that presents matchup problems for the Wildcats, and a win would go a long way toward enhancing LSU’s resume.
Share this story

SEC M5: 02.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 19th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Everything was working for Kentucky during the first half of last night’s game in Oxford, and I mean everything. Jarrod Polson threw an alley-oop and made a three; Alex Poythress was getting in on the three-point action; and Julius Randle already had a double-double. With a 17-point lead it looked like Kentucky had answered any question about how they’d bounce back from a tough loss. Oh, but questions persist. The Rebels put up 45 points in the second half and were able to cut the game down to two possessions with under two minutes left. Like they did against Missouri, the Wildcats again let a big early lead slip, and allowed an opponent back into a game it had no business being in. The issues weren’t only on the defensive end. College Basketball Talk’s Matt Giles points out that only four of Kentucky’s two-point fields goals weren’t at the rim, and for an eight-minute second half stretch the Wildcats only scored on free throws. The lackluster defensive effort in the second half needs to be a learning experience for the Wildcats, since they likely won’t be able to escape a game like this against better teams (see: teams that make the NCAA Tournament). The shooting woes, however, are a bigger issue.
  2. So this writer may need to eat a little crow. Yesterday I wrote that I expected Georgia to do just fine as it entered a difficult stretch. Well, it didn’t start out that well for the Bulldogs, who took a 19-point loss to Tennessee in a game that got shuffled to ESPN due to a crumbling arena in Bloomington, Indiana. In front of a national audience, Georgia wasn’t able to validate its great SEC record. Early on the Vols did something they didn’t do Saturday against Missouri: get the ball to Jarnell Stokes, who scored 20 points and led Tennessee to advantages in rebounds and points in the paint. The Vols also have to be encouraged that they won this game without Jordan McRae having a big impact (11 points, 2-of-5 shooting). Antonio Barton made more three’s in this game (four) than he had in the last ten SEC games combined. If that sparks him out of his prolonged shooting funk it would add another dimension to Tennessee’s offense. This was the bounce back performance the Vols needed to kick off a stretch of four winnable games that could boost their resume.
  3. Frank Haith remembers all too well Vanderbilt’s three-point barrage early in Missouri’s loss in Nashville. But after forcing Arkansas and Tennessee into a combined 8-of-37 from deep, he thinks his team is on the right track defensively. “We’re doing a great job of understanding where shooters are at and personnel and doing our work early and getting there and having high hands,” Haith said. “I thought we had some slippage in that area … particularly Vanderbilt. They made some shots, but we didn’t do what we needed to do in terms of getting to their shooters, and Odom and Parker, those guys had really good games against us.” Missouri may be defending the three better of late, but its defense in general is a concern. The Tigers entered conference play with solid defensive numbers, but have sunk to 10th in the SEC in two-point field goal defense (allowing 47%) and 11th in three-point field goal defense (allowing 35.4%). They’ve also lost games in which they scored 79 and 88 (!) points. But it’s not surprising they are improving. Few teams can put the length at the top of a zone than Missouri can with Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. Thursday’s game against the Commodores will be a good litmus test of the Tigers’ progress, since Missouri did give up 12 three pointers in the first meeting.
  4. South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell has stood out amid a thoroughly disappointing season in Columbia. The freshman has Mike Anderson’s attention ahead of tonight’s game in Fayetteville, and has drawn high praise from his own coach. “He’s the guy everyone pencils in when they prepare a scouting report against us,” Frank Martin said. “I’m extremely proud of him. Not only is he performing, but he’s taking on the leadership role of our team. He’s also taking on defensive responsibilities against the better players on the other team.” Thornwell has also taken on a leadership role on the court, as he has the ninth highest usage rate (27.3%) in the SEC. Despite that much exposure he’s still been efficient shooting the ball (56.8 TS%), and though generally thought of first as a scorer, he also has the the eighth best assist percentage (22.6%) in the conference. Thornwell has had to grow up quickly with the personnel losses South Carolina has had, and it appears he’s done a great job of this on and off the court. He’s the type of just-a-cut-below-an-early-draft-entry talent that could stick around and be a tremendously accomplished four year player, and perhaps a building block for better days in Columbia.
  5. James Moran of The Daily Reveille conducted a “post-mortem” on LSU’s NCAA Tournament chances, and identified the cause of the Tigers untimely death. He writes, “The Feb. 6 loss to Georgia was actually the fatal blow to the Tiger’s season. LSU had finally gotten some momentum going for it, and losing a relatively uncompetitive game in a dead arena to a team that was 10-10 at the time killed all of it.” Can reasonable minds disagree on whether this patient is actually dead? Probably not. The Tigers sit at #70 in the RPI and just whiffed on a week that featured road games at Arkansas and Texas A&M. It’s incredible how quickly a season can turn. It was just two weeks ago that the Tigers picked up impressive back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. At this point it seems the only chance for LSU to resurrect itself would be by splitting road games against Kentucky and Florida, and winning their remaining four games (at Vanderbilt, home against Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M). We’ll see if there is one drastic change of momentum left in Johnny Jones’ talented team.
Share this story

Dawgs Eating Just Fine in Dog-Eat-Dog SEC

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 18th, 2014

For Georgia, the “a-ha moment” seemed to come on February 6. After racing out to a surprising 4-1 SEC record (with wins over Missouri and Arkansas), the Bulldogs had lost three straight, punctuated by a loss at cellar-dweller Auburn. That looked like the end of a nice flash of a Georgia storyline. But it wasn’t. Mark Fox’s team has since reeled off four straight wins, underlining this positive streak with a quality win against Ole Miss on Saturday. This begs the question in SEC basketball circles: Is it now time to drop the second part of the “Well, Georgia is off to a good start, but they’re still not that good” sentiment that’s been discussed over the last month and a half?

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia's 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

It may be too late to dismiss Georgia’s 8-4 conference record as a fluke (atlallday.com).

At some point a sample size gets too big to be simply dismissed. It’s now mid-February and the Bulldogs are four games above 0.500 in SEC play, so we may have reached that point with this team. They haven’t compiled that record by only beating the dregs of the conference — they’ve gone 4-4 against RPI top-100 SEC teams — and they haven’t won those four games with smoke and mirrors either. Georgia has the second best field goal defense (39.4%) and rebounding rate (55.3%) in the league right now, trailing only Florida and Kentucky. This is also a young team led by sophomores Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines who should be gaining confidence. To sum it up, their solid conference play to date doesn’t appear to be a fluke.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC M5: 02.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 17th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. SI.com’s Andy Staples had one of the many good takes on the Kentucky-Florida game that are floating around the internet. Staples listed a number of interesting tidbits like Patric Young having more college games under his belt than Kentucky’s starting lineup combined and that Florida hadn’t won in Lexington since the Joakim Noah-Al Horford days. I expected Florida to struggle this past week, and am getting close to being convinced they will break their recent Elite Eight ceiling. As great as their defense has been, they had “played down” to their competition for a concerning amount of the conference season. There were the sluggish first halves against Alabama and Mississippi State, and a close call against Auburn. I figured that rough starts in charged environments in Knoxville or Lexington would send the Gators to their first (or first and second) conference loss. But it didn’t happen. Both games were difficult and close throughout, and in both Florida found ways to win. Casey Prather’s play on Saturday was encouraging. He had struggled recently (three-of-four single digit scoring games) because of his injured ankle, but was aggressive at the beginning of the game and helped calm Florida and avoid another sluggish start. In the end, the Gators got through a tough week with two wins. So much for my concern.
  2. Resilience has been a theme to Vanderbilt’s season. On Saturday the Commodores were resilient on an in-game basis, regrouping from a putrid shooting performance through much of the game to catch Texas A&M and win in overtime. It was an ugly contest in which both teams kept fans entertained by scoring under 0.900 points per possession. Vanderbilt was especially ugly shooting the ball for three-fourths of the game, and Kyle Fuller, Dai-Jon Parker, and Rod Odom combined to go 10-for-45 from the field. James Siakam (12-of-14 FT’s, 16 points) kept the cold-shooting Commodores in the game, and probably wishes Texas A&M was on the schedule more. In two games against the Aggies he’s averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds, shot over 60 percent and gotten to the free throw line 27 times. All of these numbers are well above his season averages. The Commodores lose a lot of scoring after this season with Fuller and Odom departing. Siakam will be one of the elder statesmen in 2014-15, and should use his performances against Texas A&M as confidence building blocks to play a larger offensive role.
  3. This microsite has had a lot of “Tony Barbee hot seat” chatter over the last few weeks, and how it could it not? Auburn has been stuck in an incredibly deep rut. The Tigers did just have a respectable week, with a closer-than-expected loss against Kentucky and a win over Mississippi State. Does Barbee deserve more time? The 2012-13 Tigers finished the season on a 10-game losing streak, won only three SEC games and sunk all the way to #249 in the RPI. This season’s version is currently 100 spots higher in the RPI, has four SEC wins, and has a more efficient offense despite losing leading scorer Frankie Sullivan. Things do look better, but the real question is the potential for long-term improvement. Senior Chris Denson is in the top 15 nationally in scoring and Auburn also loses Asauhn Dixon-Tatum’s rim protecting presence after the season. Barbee’s prospects will look a lot better if Tahj Shamsid-Deen continues to play well, and fellow freshmen role players Matthew Atewe and Dion Wade flash potential. Atewe may be on that path with 21 rebounds the past two games, which includes 13 against Kentucky’s talented front line.
  4. Rob Dauster’s Saturday Bubble Banter column was littered four with SEC teams. Every team but Missouri fell into the losers section. He had the Tigers as the bubble’s biggest weekend winner after beating Tennessee, since the two teams only had two opportunities for top 50 left in the regular season: the two games against each other. Missouri earned at least a split of those games, making the regular season finale in Knoxville a crucial game for the Vols. LSU and Ole Miss fell into the losers column, but Arkansas was noticeably absent. Though maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Razorbacks RPI (#73) might be too high warrant legitimate bubble status right now. If nothing else, the LSU win did diminish the resume of a team in front of them and sets Mike Anderson’s team up for a chance to redeem their case for a tournament invite. They have two winnable games in front of them (South Carolina at home and Mississippi State on the road), before a trip to Rupp Arena. If Arkansas can win the next three they’ll start to get some serious consideration.
  5. Speaking of Arkansas, if you’re a Razorback fan and had to pick one game to go to this season, Saturday might have been it. The Kentucky game was exciting (and “the Kentucky game” for any SEC fan base is generally a must-attend), but the chance to see Bill Clinton, Nolan Richardson and a number of players from the 1994 championship team is hard to top. Matt Norlander points out that Clinton is still the only sitting president to attend a Final Four. Given President Obama’s affinity for basketball, he’d seem a good candidate to break that streak. But it might take an epic turnaround (and no coaching change) at Oregon State to make that happen. But back to Clinton, who saw the Razorbacks put on a clinic from the three-point line (10-of-17). The three-point line has been part of Arkansas’ struggles away from Bud Walton Arena. The home/road splits for some of their outside threats are not pretty: Rashad Madden (46.7% home, 33.3% road), Michael Qualls (38.9% home, 23.5% road), and Mardracus Wade (46.2% home, 30% road) have each been much worse away from Bud Walton. Boosting those percentages just a little will help not only those players, but Bobby Portis as well. Portis has shown a reliable mid-range shot and back-to-the-basket game, and the loosening up the middle of the floor will make him more dangerous.
Share this story

SEC M5: 02.14.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 14th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The Missouri and Arkansas series is off to a good start if it’s ever going to deserve the rivalry week spot ESPN has given it. Three of the team’s four games as SEC opponents have come down to the final seconds and had dramatic finishes. That’s a good way to get fan bases juiced about playing one another. The stakes were pretty high in last night’s match up in Columbia as both teams desperately needed a win to keep their NCAA hopes alive. Missouri and its three-game losing streak probably needed it a bit more, and got it after Jabari Brown’s game-winning teardrop with 10 seconds left. Brown (25 points, 14-of-15 FT’s) and Jordan Clarkson (27 points, 11-of-13 FT’s) deserve the headlines. But in small steps, Ryan Rosburg has quietly handled the ball and finished better around the rim recently and deserves mention too. In his last three games he’s scored 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting. Yes, that’s as many as Clarkson scored against Arkansas alone, but Rosburg is averaging 5 points a game and has struggled catching the ball cleanly at times this season. Help defenses will collapse like a house of cards on Clarkson the rest of the way, so having Rosburg gain confidence taking dump off passes is important for the Tigers.
  2. Garnet and Black Attack has an excellent breakdown on a game that probably flew under most of college basketball’s radar: the snow-delayed afternoon tilt between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. They write about a dominant Gamecock effort on the offensive glass (26 offensive rebounds, 14 more than Vanderbilt), and how it allowed South Carolina to win a game in which it shot only 38 percent. That type of hustle is key in a game at an odd time and with a strange feel. This is only the Gamecocks’ second conference win, and they’d probably have more if Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson were still available. But there’s a silver lining. Those few wins aren’t as valuable as the heavy minutes freshmen Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice are logging (they played 36 and 37 minutes, respectively, against Vanderbilt). Notice struggled through a 1-for-7 first half performance that likely would’ve put him on the bench under normal circumstances. But he was needed on the floor, and played solid defense on Kyle Fuller and hit a key three in the Gamecocks 17-5 second half run. That’s valuable situational experience.
  3. LSU has bounced back well this season, going 6-1 following losses. The Tigers desperately need to keep that up Saturday in Fayetteville after dropping a head-scratcher in College Station. Or maybe it wasn’t such a head-scratcher, since the Tigers are riding a four-game road losing streak. Either way, the win was damaging to LSU’s tournament chances and raised a few concerns. For one, they let a largely underwhelming Texas A&M offense shoot 48.3% and go 10-of-23 from three (LSU has the SEC’s worst three point defense). Another issue is their backcourt depth after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. Tim Quarterman (0-for-3, two turnovers) added virtually nothing, and if he isn’t contributing LSU is entirely reliant on two players (Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer) to contribute from the guard spots. When those two struggle, as they did against the Aggies, the Tigers are in trouble.
  4. CBSSports’ Jeff Borzello talked to several coaches about Florida, and touched on a number of topics like the Gators style of play, the best way to score on them, and their biggest weakness. It’s a fascinating read (as is his whole series on championship contender breakdowns), and not something that gets put out there everyday. One coach said a concern for the Gators is that they don’t have a guy who can “overtake” a game by himself. “You know, a guy where, if you needed buckets, he can automatically get you buckets. They say to win a national championship, you need three pros. I don’t know if they have three pros,” the coach is quoted as saying. That’s definitely a legitimate concern, but Florida is so unlike modern contenders that that adage might not apply. How often in today’s college basketball does an elite team have as many seniors – with as much experience (see, three straight Elite Eight appearances) – as the Gators? And if we are being hyper-technical there probably are three pros on the roster. Chris Walker will make it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier develop into legitimate prospects. But I realize that’s not the point: there’s no ball-dominant future pro who can currently get his shot on the roster, and that’s an issue. Florida’s best bet in those situations is probably Wilbekin, who has shown big-shot chops and the ability to get to the line in recent weeks.
  5. Casey Prather and Julius Randle are the only SEC players to land on the Naismith Midseason 30. Prather makes the list despite scoring in single digits in three of his last four games, but an injured ankle has caused that speed bump and it shouldn’t take away from his season on the whole. Randle has largely lived up to the colossal expectations put on him, and he should make the cut for that alone. So let’s get to everybody’s favorite part, the snub discussion. Not to be boring, but I have no real qualms with these two being the SEC’s only representatives. Scottie Wilbekin is probably more important to Florida, is fourth in the conference in assists, sixth in steals and one of the best defenders the SEC has to offer. But that’s understandably not enough to crack the top 30. Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown might both have an argument, but Missouri isn’t winning and and it’s hard for players from middling teams to get attention.
Share this story

RTC Bracketology: February 10 Edition

Posted by Daniel Evans on February 10th, 2014

Daniel Evans (@bracketexpert) is Rush the Court’s resident bracketologist. He will update his brackets at least twice a week through the rest of the regular season here at RTC, but his updated brackets can be viewed daily at Bracketology Expert. As we approach March Madness, he’ll also provide occasional blind resumes. Evans has been ranked by the Bracket Matrix as the nation’s 11th-best bracketologist out of hundreds of entries. 

The movement in my latest bracket is not at the top.

  • The No. 1 seeds remain the same with Syracuse, Arizona, Florida and Wichita State on the top line. After winning at Northern Iowa, the Shockers have survived all of their major regular season hurdles and appear destined to be an outstanding 34-0 going into the NCAA Tournament.
  • Most of this week’s changes are at the bottom. The difference between the last eight teams in and the first eight teams out is minimal. For instance, LSU, Missouri and Tennessee are all among the last few teams in, while Ole Miss is among the last four out. That’s how close the SEC is to only having two teams — Florida and Kentucky — make the field this year.
  • A big winner this week includes SMU, a team that dominated Cincinnati Saturday night. On the flip side, Oklahoma State is now a No. 8 seed following another loss and the Marcus Smart situation, which leaves the Cowboys without their best player for the next three games. Of course, I’m not projecting those games (potential losses) into the field here.

Bids by Conference: Big 12 (6), ACC (6), Big Ten (6), Pac-12 (6), SEC (5), AAC (5), Big East (4), Atlantic 10 (4), Mountain West (2), WCC (2)

First Four Out: Dayton, Oregon, Georgetown, Ole Miss

The full bracket is after the jump:

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC M5: 02.10.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 10th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The book is written on Florida. All you have to do is throw a zone on the Gators, and it won’t matter how stifling their defense is. Well, maybe not. Florida’s offense largely struggled against Missouri’s zone during the week, and then scuffled early against Alabama’s zone on Saturday. But Casey Prather’s ability to find driving lanes (15 points) and effective interior passing (leading to a number of Will Yeguete layups) at the end of the first half forced the Tide to collapse the zone, which opened things up for Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin (three three-pointers each). Florida doesn’t have an abundance of three-point shooting, as Frazier, Wilbekin, and (at times) Dorian Finney-Smith are the only players capable of scaring opponents. But against Alabama they showed they can poke holes on the interior of zone defenses, and make up for that lack of outside shooting.
  2. You don’t have to look far to find big offensive numbers for LSU in its win against previously-streaking Auburn. The Tigers scored 55 second half points. They had five players in double figures. Anthony Hickey had five three-pointers. Jarell Martin’s 11 point performance would be pretty far down the list, but it was an unsung contribution to the LSU win, and kept the Tigers in the game early. NOLA.com’s Randy Rosetta writes, “Martin lit a fire when he followed a Jordan Mickey miss with a slam-dunk and that began a torrid stretch of the 6-foot-9 freshman scoring 10 of LSU’s 15 points over 7 minutes, the last coming on a feathery jump shot from the circle that put the home Tigers in front 16-15 and finally forced Auburn to loosen up inside.” Like with his performance against the Tigers from the Plains, Martin has been quietly coming on lately. Saturday was his third straight game scoring in double figures, after he scored 15 apiece against Arkansas and Georgia. There are a lot of reasons LSU has the look of a team built for March, their recent letdown against Georgia aside. Martin is one of them. The 6’8’’ freshman can score from any point on the floor, and is becoming more consistent. He could be a match-up nightmare down the line, especially since Johnny O’Bryant and Jordan Mickey demand so much attention.
  3. Finally, Arkansas did it. At long last the Razorbacks beat a not-so-terrible opponent on the road by winning at Vanderbilt on Saturday. Doc Harper at Arkansas Fight estimates this was the Hogs first road win over a RPI top #100 team (Vanderbilt is currently #66) in four years, and writes that the win will only mean something if Arkansas builds off of it. They’ll get their chance on the road against Missouri on Thursday, in a game with a little extra juice for Mike Anderson. The third year Razorback coach must be pleased with how his team has regrouped over the last week. The situation in Fayetteville looked dim after a home loss to Missouri, followed by a loss to LSU in which Michael Qualls and Alandise Harris were suspended. But Arkansas responded with wins over Alabama and then shook the road monkey off their back in Nashville. Qualls especially must be feeling good after the Vanderbilt game. In his second game back from his suspension he scored 17 points and hit three-of-five three pointers, helping offset a down offensive night from Bobby Portis (8 points). Momentum has been fickle for the SEC’s bubble brethren, but as of right now Arkansas is headed in the right direction.
  4. South Carolina’s season has been as forgettable as they come. The Gamecocks dropped their 13th game in a row to Tennessee Saturday in Knoxville, and were out of it early. They managed only one field goal in the game’s first eight minutes en route to a 23-point halftime deficit. At 1-9 in conference, their stretch of solid play at the end of December, in which they knocked off previously-unbeaten Saint Mary’s and won five-of-six, seems like a decade away. No one should be piling on Frank Martin in his second year though: the Gamecocks are exceedingly young, have lost Bruce Ellington and Ty Johnson, and have actually been competitive in the majority of SEC games. But the 1-9 record is still unsightly, especially since “parity” has been a common theme in conference play. Every other team has at least three wins and there have been plenty of surprises (i.e., Georgia beating Missouri and LSU, Texas A&M beating Tennessee, Auburn beating Alabama). You would think South Carolina would have come up with at least one more win in such a rocky and underwhelming conference.
  5. SEC teams are littered across Jerry Palm’s latest bubble watch. He has Missouri and Tennessee “on the fence” and Ole Miss, Arkansas, and LSU with “work to do.” It’s hard for me to put see Missouri as being in better shape than two teams it recently lost to in Ole Miss and LSU, however. The Vols and (Missouri) Tigers, do however, own non-conference wins that look better now than they did in the past. Virginia’s ascent into the rankings (RPI #20) and second-spot in the ACC standings will certainly help Tennessee, which drilled the Cavaliers in Knoxville. To a much lesser extent, West Virginia’s (RPI #69) recent string of good play (until an understandable beating in Allen Fieldhouse) could help Missouri. The tournament picture is muddy for the SEC, but at the very least there are a handful of teams in the bubble mix. That’s about all you can ask for given where the conference stands right now.
Share this story