SEC M5: 02.17.14 Edition

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

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  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.
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SEC M5: 02.12.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2014

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  1. Florida may have sealed its last two wins as much at the beginning of those two games than at the end of them. Against Tennessee, an early 10-0 run by the Gators allowed them to stabilize an otherwise lackluster first half (36.4% FG) and only trail a hot-shooting Vols team by one at halftime. To be sure, a couple of late threes from Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin put the game out of reach, but the Gators might not have been in that position if not for that early turnover-fueled surge. The same can be said for their game last Saturday against Alabama. The Gators had an 8-0 lead before the Tide had even gotten the ball across midcourt. This early surge similarly allowed them to withstand some frustration with Alabama’s zone and 16 first half points from Trevor Releford. Sometimes it’s not only about how you finish, but also how you start. Where does Tennessee go from here? The Vols are out of chances for a sparkling Florida/Kentucky resume-enhancing win, but their NCAA Tournament situation is far from dire. They should be favored in all of their remaining SEC games other than next weekend’s contest at Missouri, and currently at 6-5, they could be in good position to rack up an impressive conference record. Pair this with their solid overall RPI and a win or two in the SEC Tournament, and Cuonzo Martin may get his first invitation to March Madness while living in Knoxville.
  2. Momentum was there for Ole Miss to grab. The Rebels had beaten a fellow bubble buddy in Missouri, and then faced manageable road games against Alabama and Georgia before massive back-to-back home dates with Kentucky and Florida. A three-game winning streak followed by a statement win would surely have been what the resume doctor ordered. But it wasn’t meant to be, as the Tide upended Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa last night. Trevor Releford (26 points on 8-of-16 shooting) refused to let another game slip away for the Tide when the Rebels regained the lead with just under 10 minutes left. The senior went on to score 14 of the Tide’s last 16 points, including a game-winning three with under a second left. He won’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament (or NIT, barring a minor miracle) in his final amateur season, but he can contribute to Anthony Grant’s program in a big way by playing hard and showing leadership despite the team’s struggles. There aren’t many young players on Alabama’s roster (just two freshmen and a sophomore), but he has set a great example nonetheless. The Rebels, for their part, essentially face a must-win game in Athens on Saturday. If they were to lose that one they could conceivably be stuck with a 7-7 record after the Kentucky/Florida gauntlet. That’s not a good look for a team that appears to be on the outside looking in right now. It’ll help if Jarvis Summers, who has had an excellent season, breaks out of his mini-road slump. In the Rebels’ last two losses at Kentucky and Alabama, he’s only 6-of-22 from the field and 1-of-6 from three despite shooting 50 percent (and that’s not a typo) from distance on the season. Marshall Henderson may be the Ole Miss wildcard, but Summers has been the steady hand that Andy Kennedy needs to return sooner than later.
  3. Johnny Jones has to plug a hole in his rotation after losing Malik Morgan for the rest of the season. The sophomore injured his knee during LSU’s weekend win over Auburn, and had surgery Monday evening. “It’s certainly a blow to us,” Jones said. “That’s an area we are certainly going to have to look at and find out exactly how we will dispatch those minutes. He was able to give us positive minutes.” Jones indicated that freshmen Tim Quarterman (12.5 MPG) and Shane Hammink (6.3 MPG) will be counted on to replace Morgan’s 15.5 minutes per game. This isn’t a crushing blow to LSU since Morgan wasn’t relied on heavily on either end of the floor. But it does limit Jones’ options, and takes away a high energy player and occasional starter. Morgan’s length (6’4’’) and energy was valuable when the Tigers went to a zone look. Quarterman and Hammink do both have length, which is good for Jones. The other angle to this injury is how it’ll affect Morgan’s development. Andre Stringer and Shavon Coleman are seniors so there will be an openings on the perimeter next season, and a full season of games would’ve been ideal for Morgan and LSU.
  4. Kentucky has won three straight games. Up next is an Auburn team against which the Wildcats own a 15-game winning streak. And after them? The third-ranked team in the country and the SEC’s biggest game to date. That game would lose a tiny bit of luster if the Wildcats are caught overlooking Auburn and suffer a letdown. “There’s no risk in overlooking Auburn. We all know that Auburn can beat us. We know that we’re going to get their best game. We know that they’re a very, very good team who has two guards who are really playing well,” said Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne. Count tonight as an unexpected measuring stick in the great experiment that is the 2013-14 Kentucky Wildcats. It’d be hard not to be excited for the upcoming game against Florida at home, and how hard the Wildcats play against Auburn will reveal a lot about their team maturity and development. It’s an easy game to look past, but Kentucky has already been burned on the road by a tandem of high-scoring guards. KT Harrell and Chris Denson average more combined points per game (39.6) than Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, who went for 61 against the Wildcats. This also might be another good chance for John Calipari to work on the zone defense he’s flashed recently. Harrell has been effective from deep this season (39.1 3P%) but that’s been it for the Tigers. As a team they’ve shot 31.9% from three, and two of the three players that dominate the ball (Denson and Tahj Shamsid-Deen) shoot under 30.7%. A final interesting angle to a game that looks mundane on the surface is the relationship between Calipari and Tony Barbee, who got his coaching start as a graduate assistant under Calipari at UMass, and was on his Memphis staff for six years. Since Barbee is sitting on the hot seat, this could be the last time the two face off in the SEC.
  5. There were some upgrades for the SEC this season after Mike Slive mandated tougher scheduling outside conference play. For one, despite not actually winning any of its tough games, Alabama did jump from the 69th toughest nonconference schedule in 2012-13 to the ninth toughest this season. They weren’t the only teams to upgrade. According to the Associated Press, “Kentucky (59th to 14th), Mississippi (271st to 103rd) and LSU (234th to 137th) are also among the teams who made big leaps in strength of nonconference schedule.” This still wasn’t enough, as the SEC nonconferene RPI on the whole was bad, and only Kentucky and Florida have tournament spots seemingly locked up. Slive’s policy should start to see greater returns over the next few years when coaches have greater flexibility to add more name-brand opponents. It’s unlikely anyone schedules like the Tide this year: they played Wichita State, Duke, UCLA, Oklahoma and Xavier. But their fate shouldn’t be a cautionary tale that scares off other SEC coaches. Had the Tide won even one of those difficult games (and they were close) their season could’ve taken on a different feel RPI- and momentum-wise. The SEC doesn’t currently have the cache to get their teams in based on conference play alone. Risks like Anthony Grant’s aggressive nonconference schedule need to be taken to build national respect.
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SEC M5: 02.10.14 Edition

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

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  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.
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SEC M5: 02.05.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 5th, 2014

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  1. The most unlikely of Wildcats played the starring role in Kentucky‘s win over Ole Miss last night. A guy who had lost his starting spot and grabbed 13 total rebounds in the last five games suddenly looked like an NBA prospect again. I’m talking about Willie Cauley-Stein, who put up a great stat line (18 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks) to bust out of his slump in a big way. His effort contributed to Kentucky’s dominance on the glass (+15) despite Andy Kennedy starting a big lineup that included Aaron Jones, Anthony Perez and Sebastian Saiz. Cauley-Stein’s out-of-nowhere performance is part of what makes the Wildcats so dangerous. They’ve been inconsistent, but there are seven players on that team who will play professionally, and each can break out and carry the team for a few moments at a time. That’s something opposing coaches just can’t prepare for. On the Rebels’ side, Jarvis Summers had a disappointingly quiet 11 points and three assists. The junior has been one of the best guards in the SEC this season, and it was a shame he wasn’t able to make his mark on national television.
  2. There are teams that grind you to a nub, and there is Florida, which grinds you into oblivion. The Gators were sloppy with the ball in the first half and let Missouri hang around in Gainesville until deep into the second half. But Florida’s high-energy, effective defense finally wore the Tigers down, forcing them into a prolonged scoring slump midway through the second half that allowed the Gators to reach a comfortable lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Jabari Brown ended up with a decent stat line (15 points, six assists), but the Gators did a great job chasing him off of screens and denying him open looks. Florida’s offensive balance also showed up big time in this game. Casey Prather was held to a season-low five points, but Scottie Wilbekin got to the line 16 times while Michael Frazier had four second half threes to bury the Tigers. There are a variety of ways the Gators can score, and Chris Walker is now in that mix too. The freshman only played seven minutes, but snuck behind Missouri’s zone for two lob dunks in that brief time. Billy Donovan simply has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal this season. Earnest Ross’ play is somewhat concerning for Missouri. The senior scored just three points and is 3-of-15 in his two games (after scoring 24 points on 7-of-12 shooting against Arkansas). A two-game slump isn’t a death sentence, of course, especially when it comes against Kentucky and Florida, but Missouri doesn’t have the offensive firepower to overcome another low-output game from Ross.
  3. Jordan Mickey was bound to eventually get some national credit, and he finally broke through by winning last week’s Wayman Tisdale Watch’s Freshman of the Week award. He outclassed Kentucky’s bigs during the week, then outperformed Arkansas’ Bobby Portis over the weekend. CBSSports‘ Jeff Borzello writes, “He will continued to be overshadowed within the SEC by Kentucky’s stud group of freshmen and on a national level by the future top-five draft picks, but Mickey has shown for three months that he is one of the best freshmen in the country — at both ends of the floor.” He was also initially overshadowed in his own class by Jarrell Martin, but at this point it’d be hard to keep him off the SEC’s lengthy all-conference first team. Mickey is leading the conference in blocks per game (3.8), eighth in rebounds per game (7.3) and averaging a healthy 13.6 points per game. It’s nice to see him get some well-deserved recognition after spending all that time in the shadows.
  4. Alabama‘s tumble can be seen in a lot of places, one of which is the current RPI standings. The Tide dropped 27 spots to #114 after lopsided losses to Auburn and Tennessee in the last week. According to AL.com‘s Andrew Gribble, no team in the current top 175 took a bigger hit last week. Anthony Grant’s squad entered SEC play with a fair number of understandable losses (five losses against teams in the RPI top 25), but they can no longer hang their hat on that qualifier. The Tide now have four losses to teams with worse RPI ratings, and that is the real disappointment. It’s a shame that Trevor Releford, one of the SEC’s more productive four-year players in recent memory, is having to wallow through such a frustrating senior season. What’s scary for Grant is that he has only three players on his roster that are either freshmen or sophomores and he loses Releford’s stabilizing presence after this year.
  5. Apparently Billy Kennedy hasn’t shown much emotion since arriving in College Station, but he showed a sense of humor recently. That’s probably a good thing, since his team’s offense has been depression-inducing. The Aggies have averaged fewer than 0.77 points per possession in three of their last four games. This culminated in their 36-point, 0.57 points per possession performance on Saturday against Florida. What needs to change? For one, Kennedy could use a true point guard that would allow Alex Caruso to play off the ball, and he might have that next season in incoming four-star point guard Alex Robinson. Caruso is a great creator, but not a true point guard in terms of speed, and putting his abilities off the ball could really open up the offense. This all assumes that Kennedy is still the coach next season, which is not a sure bet in Aggieland.
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SEC Weekday Primer: Chris Walker Is Free Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 4th, 2014

Thank goodness for Tuesday. The weekday portion of the SEC schedule features a bunch of games that don’t move the needle all that much. But Super Tuesday this week brings Chris Walker’s long-awaited release from NCAA limbo and Kentucky’s follow-up to its impressive weekend win over Missouri. There’s also Marshall Henderson on national TV. Yes, thank goodness for Tuesday.

Ole Miss will be in a tough spot if the Wildcats play with the energy they did against Missouri (msn.foxsports.com).

Ole Miss will be in a tough spot if the Wildcats play with the energy they did against Missouri. (Getty)

Don’t Miss This One, Part I

Ole Miss @ Kentucky (Tuesday, 7:00 PM ET). If you’re scratching your head, I get it. Kentucky is fresh off arguably its most complete team effort of the season against Missouri. The Wildcats played hard, played together and got big games from each of their three talented freshmen guards. Ole Miss, on the other hand, got rolled in Knoxville and needed a late rally to beat South Carolina at home. The Vols’ frontcourt overwhelmed the Rebels in the win, and Kentucky isn’t lacking for talented big men. But let me make a case for Ole Miss or, if nothing, at least an intriguing game. The Wildcats enter this game under much different conditions than in their game against Missouri. They are at home; they’re not coming off an embarrassing loss; and they have been patted on the back since Saturday. That could lead to a dip in their overall energy, especially from a young team. The Wildcats almost allowed Missouri to beat them with nothing more than two guards doing most of the scoring. The Rebels have two talented guards themselves in Jarvis Summers and Henderson, and Summers could feast on opportunities if Kentucky’s transition defense is as bad as it was in Columbia. Maybe Kentucky turned a developmental corner in Columbia over the weekend, and if so the Rebels are in trouble. But the chance at an upset is possible here if the Wildcats don’t come to play.

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SEC M5: 02.03.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 3rd, 2014

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  1. Kentucky isn’t the only SEC team playing with greater energy these days. LSU‘s effort had been similarly questioned after being pasted at home by Tennessee in their conference opener, and more recently, they had fallen behind by 19 points in a loss to wishy-washy Alabama. But the Tigers followed up their big win against Kentucky last week by racing out to a 15-point halftime lead against Arkansas over the weekend. “We didn’t want to be the team that comes out and gets hit every game,” said Jordan Mickey. “We want to do the hitting ourselves. We want to come out with a lot of energy and hit teams first.” This aggressive play is also attracting more fans to the Maravich Center, as NOLA.com‘s Ron Higgins wrote that the biggest crowd of the season watched the win over Arkansas. Johnny Jones is trying to reinvigorate the Tigers’ fan base, and building on the attention-grabbing Kentucky win with another solid performance should help his cause. It also helped the Tigers’ NCAA cause because they avoided a letdown after an important resume-building win (LSU lost to Alabama after beating Missouri).
  2. Michael Frazier‘s emergence as a reliable scoring option for Florida has been largely overshadowed by Casey Prather’s SEC Player of the Year level season. The sophomore guard led the Gators in scoring (21 points) against hapless Texas A&M, and the way he got those points indicates significant growth in his offensive attack. “Frazier matched a career high with 21 points but only got nine of those points on three-pointers (3-of-11 from beyond the arc),” writes Kevin Brockway of the Gainesville Sun. “Frazier went to the free throw line eight times and if he can do that while making three-point shots, it will boost both his scoring and UF’s scoring.” Frazier has essentially been a three-point specialist this season (taking 75 percent of his shots from deep), and a very good one at that (43.3% 3FG). It’ll be interesting to see he continues to explore driving opportunities as the season winds on. A game against an overmatched opponent like the Aggies is certainly a good chance to try new things.
  3. Auburn is going streaking. The Tigers won their second straight game by beating Georgia on Saturday, and had five players score in double figures in a conference game for the first time since 2010. That’s a stark change from a team that has been in a dead heat with Missouri to see which can get the highest percentage of their offense from the fewest players. The Tigers now head to South Carolina, where a third-straight win is not inconceivable. Despite these recent wins, Tony Barbee‘s job is still probably in jeopardy. The folks at College and Magnolia offered up Toledo’s Tod Kowalczyk as a potential replacement. While they make a good point about his history building up moribund programs (Wisconsin-Green Bay and Toledo), he has no connection to the South. This isn’t a fatal strike against him, but his entire Division I coaching career has been spent on the East Coast (Rutgers, Rider, New Hampshire) or the Midwest (Marquette, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Toledo). He’d be at an immediate recruiting disadvantage because at the moment Auburn is probably best served by recruiting regionally. Some hard work and a couple smart assistant coaching hires could fix this, but Kowalczyk would still be coming from behind at the start.
  4. Don’t look now, but Vanderbilt is on a three-game winning streak and in the thick of the SEC race. Kevin Stallings dipped into his bag of tricks and used a zone more against Mississippi State for a number of reasons. The Tennesseans‘ Nick Cole wrote, “Although typically a man-to-man team, Vanderbilt utilized a zone defense for much of the game to shield against fatigue for its seven-man rotation, as well as to force the Bulldogs, who are last in the league in three-point shooting percentage, into being a jump-shooting team.” Using the zone to save the Commodores’ legs isn’t a bad idea, since Vanderbilt’s season has essentially become a prolonged tournament with their small rotation. Kyle Fuller has been one the hardest working men in the South, logging 40 minutes in five of Vanderbilt’s eight conference games. But maybe enough is enough when it comes to that storyline. The Commodores have played well in the SEC, regardless of how many players see the court every night.
  5. Last week nearly spelled the end of Ole Miss’ NCAA tournament bid. The Rebels were roughed up by Tennessee in Knoxville, and then trailed South Carolina by nine with under 6 minutes left… at home. But Jarvis Summers led an Ole Miss rally, and Red Cup Rebellion summed up its importance. “The importance of winning this game can’t be overstated. Well, let me rephrase: The importance of not losing this game can’t be overstated. The Gamecocks came in with an RPI of #127, and losing to them on the Rebels’ home court could have doomed any shot for the Tournament.” This was the second time the Rebels staved off a potentially resume-tanking loss to South Carolina, as they won earlier by only one point in Columbia. The Rebels play Missouri, Florida and Kentucky (twice) in February, so winning the games they are favored in is even more important. They did that on Saturday, but not without some tense moments in Oxford. LaDarius White (12 points) reached double figures for the third time in four games, and has been nice perimeter counterpart to Summers and Marshall Henderson.
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SEC Weekday Primer: Tennessee, Ole Miss Fight for Conference Position

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 28th, 2014

Another week in the SEC brings another slate of games that will play a big role in determining whether the conference has more than two bids to the NCAA Tournament. But there’s also a cannibalistic aspect to the upcoming weekday games: Ole Miss and Tennessee play in Knoxville, while Missouri and Arkansas face off in Fayetteville. Each team is in need of a big win, but two are guaranteed to fall further back in their search for a resume-booster.

Jarnell Stokes needs some perimeter help when he faces Ole Miss.

Jarnell Stokes needs some perimeter help when he faces Ole Miss.

Don’t Miss This One, Part IOle Miss @ Tennessee (Wednesday, 8:00 PM ET)

The Rebels face their stiffest conference test to date in Knoxville, but have built up some momentum with a four-game winning streak. Tennessee, on the other hand, is coming off a 26.8 percent shooting performance in a loss to Florida. The Gators are an elite defensive team, but there’s no excuse for the Vols to only get five field goals (five!) from players other than Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Two seniors will need to shake off their recent struggles to provide Tennessee with a spark on the perimeter. Jordan McRae is coming off an understandably-deflating 1-of-15 shooting performance, and Antonio Barton is 3-of-19 from three over the last five games. The Vols do need a spark, because a loss would drop them to 3-4 in league play before they embark on two consecutive road games. The game is equally important for Ole Miss, which has an opportunity to pick up just its second quality win of the year (the other being at home to LSU). The Rebels’ interior defense is a key to this game. Sebastian Saiz (20 percent defensive rebounding percentage) and Aaron Jones (9.9 percent block percentage) will be a big part of the Rebels’ effort to contain Stokes and Maymon. And of course there is Marshall Henderson, who after a recent shouting match with Rick Ray, could be on the verge of something Deadspin-worthy.

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SEC M5: 01.27.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 27th, 2014

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  1. Florida has been a saving grace for the SEC this season, and its defense could lead the Gators all the way to the final weekend of the NCAA TournamentSI.com‘s Michael Beller outlined the reasons Florida has frustrated teams this year so much on offense. “What is it that the Gators do so well defensively? First, they generally force their opponents into tough two-point shots. Teams have shot 41.4 percent on two-pointers against Florida this season, which ranks ninth-best in the country. Second, they take the ball away with aplomb, forcing turnovers on 21.9 percent of their opponents’ possessions. In other words, they don’t allow many easy buckets, and create transition opportunities for themselves by turning over their opponents on a regular basis.” Florida flustered Tennessee’s Jordan McRae into one of the worst shooting days of his career on Saturday, holding him to 1-of-15 shooting from the field. Not only do they have the ability to shut down perimeter players, but their frontcourt is incredibly versatile. Patric Young has the size to match up with other low post bruisers, while Will Yeguete and Dorian-Finney Smith are quick enough to stay with stretch fours and still contribute on the glass.
  2. We’re far enough into the season where a weakness narrative has emerged for each of the nation’s elite freshmen, and one of the knocks on Kentucky’s Julius Randle is his relatively short wingspanSBNation’s Jonathan Tjarks described Randle as being “built like a Tyrannosauras Rex: all torso and no arms.” CBSSports.com‘s Matt Moore wrote a great defense of Randle’s offensive game, with a ton of GIFs that show his creativity in finding ways to score. Moore likes the freshman forward’s touch around rim, muscular frame, and driving potential, thinking that there’s a chance he could be “a natural at finding ways to score,” much like Zach Randolph. At this point most NBA general managers probably view Randle as a clear cut below Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins given his athletic “limitations,” and the effect they have on his long-term potential. But unlike Wiggins, and to a lesser extent, Embiid, the player he will ultimately become isn’t a mystery. Your favorite NBA team probably isn’t winning a championship with Randle as its best player. However, he’s got a refined offensive skill set and enough potential that he could become a key cog in a perpetual playoff team.
  3. Is Marshall Henderson‘s game evolving? The easy answer is no, as the senior launched 12 three-pointers in the Rebels’ win over Mississippi State over the weekend. But while only two of those threes went down, Henderson still scored 19 points by attacking the basket seemingly more than any other game this season. Sinking treys or not, he helped Ole Miss avoid a potential trap game with one of its toughest games of the SEC season looming Wednesday night in Knoxville. That was the fourth straight win for Andy Kennedy’s team, and they went into halftime with an 11-point lead. The Rebels seem dialed in, but the schedule begins to pick up with that trip to Tennessee followed by games against Kentucky and Missouri in the following week.
  4. Alabama flipped its 2013-14 script on Saturday and actually came out on the winning end of a close game. The Tide gave up a 19-point lead against LSU, and it looked like it’d be another close loss for Anthony Grant but a late Shannon Hale three saved the day for Alabama, much to his relief. “It was a tough, physical battle,” Grant said. “For our guys to step up in the end, the last four minutes, I thought we showed grit and heart and courage and all the things we’ve been looking for all year.” The Tide are still playing hard, which is a good sign for a team with more talent than its 9-10 record would suggest. Hale might also be a bright spot for Grant, as the big man has shown the ability to shoot from distance (36% 3FG), which should fit well alongside Retin Obasohan over the next few years. Hale also showed some play-making abilities against LSU: He had six assists after recording just 16 total in his previous 18 games.
  5. Kevin Stallings‘ team is hovering just above .500 and is only a few games removed from a 23-point loss to LSU. Nonetheless, the Vanderbilt coach needs to be lauded for how his team has overcome its roster pitfalls. The Commodores went on the road and beat Texas A&M Saturday, getting a big performance from James Siakam. At Anchor of Gold, RTC’s very own Christian D’Andrea wrote, “The shorthanded ‘Dores lost Damian Jones to fouls in 24 minutes and battled through below-average showings from Rod Odom and Dai-Jon Parker on Saturday. Fortunately, Siakam was able to put together a huge showing in the paint and at the free throw line to lead his team to victory.” The roster crunch could turn out to be a big boost for Vanderbilt next season and beyond. Stallings won’t reap the benefits of the increased minutes for seniors Odom and Kyle Fuller, but the rest of the team has the opportunity for games like Siakam’s in College Station — opportunities that may not have been there under normal circumstances. In terms of this season, Vanderbilt has only been non-competitive in one SEC game (LSU), and owns a quality win over Missouri as well as the road win in College Station. That’s not bad considering Stallings has to play multiple players 40 minutes a game.
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Missouri Set to Enter a Season-Defining Stretch

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 24th, 2014

Missouri’s NCAA chances will be decided in the next two weeks. Okay, maybe that’s hyperbole, but how the Tigers do in their upcoming five games will play a gigantic role in whether they receive a school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament invite this season. South Carolina visits Columbia on Saturday, but after that the Tigers face the Gamecocks, they will go through about as difficult a four-game stretch as there is in the current edition of the SEC. Here are the games:

Jabari Brown and Missouri face a five game stretch that might decide their NCAA fate (kbiasports.com).

Jabari Brown and Missouri face a five game stretch that might decide their NCAA fate (kbiasports.com).

  • January 28: at Arkansas
  • February 1: Kentucky 
  • February 4: at Florida
  • February 8: at Ole Miss 

Even the South Carolina game, struggling as the Gamecocks are, might not be a layup since Frank Martin has abused Missouri in the past. Before losing to Georgia two weeks ago, the last time the Tigers lost in Mizzou Arena was to Martin’s Kansas State team in 2011-12. The problem for Missouri isn’t just that they’re 2-3 in SEC play and about to enter a brutal stretch. The bigger issue is that after the February 8 game in Oxford, there isn’t another good opportunity for a truly eye-grabbing win left on the schedule. Sure, there are two games against Tennessee remaining, but the Volunteers have been up-and-down. Wins at Alabama or Georgia don’t spruce up a resume much either this season.

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An Under the Radar Marshall Henderson is Good for Ole Miss

Posted by David Changas on January 23rd, 2014

Maybe it’s because his team isn’t as talented as last year. Maybe it’s because we’re used to him now and his act has worn thin.  Maybe he’s simply more mature. Whatever the case, the Marshall Henderson who entertained us with heroic shots, crazy antics, and endless taunts just doesn’t seem to be stirring the pot like he did a year ago. Sure, he still likes to put on a show and pound his chest after a big three or a pretty pass. It appears, though, that Ole Miss’ efforts to have the senior guard tone down his act have succeeded. Prior to the season, the school made the decision to suspend him for three games for his behavior – he missed the season opener and the team’s first two conference games. He completed that suspension, and proceeded to win SEC Player of the Week honors immediately upon his return after wins over LSU and South Carolina. While his scoring average is slightly down from last year (from 20.1 to 19.2 PPG), his assist and turnover numbers are slightly better. His team, which lost frontcourt stalwarts Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway to graduation, relies on him more than ever, and if it is going to make a run at a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, will need the formerly volatile, now docile guard to be at his best.

Marshall Henderson Under the Radar? (US Presswire)

Marshall Henderson Under the Radar? (US Presswire)

The efforts that coach Andy Kennedy has made to rein in Henderson’s behavior have been well-chronicled. Kennedy has indicated that the fifth-year senior has not caused any problems whatsoever this year. On Wednesday night, he returned to the place where he first burst onto the scene when the Rebels visited Vanderbilt. His performance Wednesday was subpar – he scored only 11 points, going 3-of-10 from three-point range – but he showed he still has a flair for the dramatic. After Vanderbilt overcame a 13-point deficit early in the second half deficit to take a one-point lead with just over six minutes remaining, Henderson did his thing. “We turn it over, and he gets a three in transition and then he comes back and hits another one right after that. Those were both daggers,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said after the game. “Dai-jon [Parker] did as good a job as you could do on him, and the kid still probably hits the two biggest baskets in the game.” It was yet another example of Henderson displaying his keen ability to come up big in important moments.

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SEC M5: 01.22.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 22nd, 2014

  1. If it’s Super Tuesday, it’s a good bet Kentucky is on center stage. Last night against Texas A&M, Kentucky let the Aggies hang around for most of the first half before coasting to a 68-51 victory to push their conference record to 4-1. The Wildcats got their usual strong performances from Julius Randle (13 points, 11 rebounds) and James Young (15 points, seven rebounds), but also got a game- and season-high 16 points from reserve Alex Poythress. The sophomore forward has been inconsistent since he arrived in Lexington, but has shown signs over the past several weeks that he’s ready to become a more regular contributor. After struggling in the period leading up to conference play, Poythress has now scored in double figures in three of the first five league games and looks to be more comfortable in John Calipari’s system. The head coach has said that Poythress’ biggest hindrance to becoming a more productive player is his own lack of confidence. If he is able to build on his recent performances, he will make Kentucky that much more dangerous as March approaches.
  2. In a game between teams that still have their sights set on the NCAA Tournament, LSU topped Missouri, 77-71, Tuesday night in Baton Rouge. LSU got 14 points and 13 rebounds from stellar freshman Jordan Mickey. The highly-touted freshman has lived up to the hype for head coach Johnny Jones, as he is second on the team to Johnny O’Bryant in both scoring (13.1 PPG) and rebounding (6.9 RPG). This game was a contrast in styles, as LSU’s strength is its frontcourt, while Missouri boasts one of the league’s strongest backcourts but struggles with production up front. It wasn’t surprising, then, that Mickey, O’Bryant, and Shavon Coleman combined for 49 of LSU’s 77 points, while Missouri got all but eight of its points from the guard trio of Jabari Brown (28 points), Jordan Clarkson (19), and Earnest Ross (16). LSU moved to 3-2 in the conference with the win, while Missouri, which came into league play with only one loss, dropped to 2-3.
  3. Although we’re less than a quarter of the way through the conference race, it is difficult to overstate the importance of the meeting between Tennessee and Arkansas tonight in Knoxville. The Vols, which are coming off a solid performance in a loss at Kentucky on Saturday, can ill-afford a home loss, as their NCAA Tournament hopes are tenuous at best. In the latest Rush the Court bracketology, the Vols, though not in the “First Four,” are projected as a 12-seed, meaning they have little room for error themselves. They have a number of games remaining against teams with weak profiles, so a win over the Razorbacks here is imperative. Arkansas, for its part, remarkably has only two conference road wins in Mike Anderson’s tenure in Fayetteville, both of which came against Auburn. The Hogs fell short in overtime against Georgia in Athens on Saturday, and though the beginning of their conference slate has been more difficult than most SEC teams’, a 1-4 start in the league would likely be too much overcome. Given their resume (RPI No. 66), a loss would give them little room for error (they are currently in RTC‘s “First Four Out”), and at some point, Anderson is going to have to win a big game away from Bud Walton Arena if he is going to get Arkansas to the Big Dance for the first time since his arrival.
  4. After missing the previous two games against Auburn and Mississippi State, the SEC’s biggest enigma has returned with a vengeance. Marshall Henderson was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 22.0 points and 3.5 assists per game in Ole Miss’ overtime home win over LSU, and the Rebels’ first win in Columbia since 2001. Henderson, who launched nearly 11 three-pointers per game last year but has increased that number to 11.5 per game this season, went 9-of-24 from beyond the arc in those two games. For Ole Miss (12-5, 3-1), which has seen its RPI profile (No. 66) improve since the beginning of SEC play, to have any chance of making its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, it knows that it largely will go as Henderson goes. And Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, whose team faces the Rebels in Nashville tonight, knows that stopping Henderson will be the Commodores’ key to victory. The head coach knows all too well what Henderson is capable of doing after witnessing first-hand the craziness in last year’s Ole Miss win at Memorial Gymnasium.
  5. The saga of Florida’s Chris Walker continues unabated, and Florida head coach Billy Donovan indicated on Tuesday that he will not address the situation anymore. Walker, who was Rivals’ No. 6 player in the class of 2013, was admitted to school in December, but is still awaiting clearance by the NCAA Clearinghouse relating to possible impermissible benefits during his AAU days. If he finally becomes eligible, he will add an important piece to an already formidable Gators’ front line. For his part, Donovan has clearly tired of discussing Walker’s status, and knows all he can do is play the guys who are available to him. Still, not many programs can look at the possibility of adding a top-10 recruit this far into the season. With Tennessee’s talented frontcourt duo of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon coming to Gainesville on Saturday, Donovan would certainly love to have Walker available for that key contest. It’s reasonable to assume that Florida will take care of business at Alabama tonight even without him.
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Ole Miss Emerging as a Dark Horse Candidate for an NCAA Bid

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 21st, 2014

Kentucky and Florida will hear their names called on Selection Sunday — all hell would have to break loose for those two bids to become undone. But is there a third bid, or (gasp) more, out there for the SEC this season? It’s not hard to envision the conference cannibalizing itself to the point that that a potential third bid disappears altogether. But if it does exist, it’s dangling out there for a number of teams to pursue. Tennessee (home loss to Texas A&M), LSU (2-3 in its last five games), Missouri (losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt), and Arkansas (loss to Georgia) are all still viable candidates to do so, but each has slipped lately in its pursuit of it. Ole Miss, however, has built some momentum and is a dark horse for that third bid — assuming, of course, that a third bid turns out to exist.

Jarvis Summers and Ole Miss are a few quality wins away from being a legitimate tournament contender (bigstory.ap.com).

Jarvis Summers and Ole Miss are a few quality wins away from being a legitimate tournament contender (bigstory.ap.com).

The Rebels are a road loss to Mississippi State away from being off to a 4-0 SEC start. That loss in Starkville isn’t a good one, but it came down to the wire and rivalry games are always tricky. Before that, Ole Miss can explain most of its other losses. The Rebels fell in overtime to Oregon (RPI #18) and Dayton (RPI #51), and lost in the final minutes at Kansas State (RPI #32). Not as easy to explain away is a home loss to Mercer, but their RPI (#70) isn’t as bad as it might have seemed (although that will certainly drop during their Atlantic Sun schedule). There are warts, of course, starting with a lack of other quality wins. Ole Miss’ best current win is against LSU (RPI #66), and after that it falls off to Georgia Tech, Penn State or Western Kentucky, each with RPIs north of #120.

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