One on One: An SEC Preview With Chris Dortch

Posted by Walker Carey on November 4th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview with the SEC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an SEC expert in Blue Ribbon College Yearbook editor Chris Dortch (@cdortch).

Rush the Court: How good is Kentucky and what makes it that good? The Wildcats begin the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC title. Do you expect them to win both the conference title and the national title?

Chris Dortch: It would not surprise me at all if Kentucky wins both the SEC title and the national title. I think the team is so good that you can rank both its first five and its second five in the Top 25. The team has nine McDonald’s All-Americans and more talent than I can remember any team in the SEC possibly ever having. Having said that, the Wildcats do have a weakness or two. They have to prove that, other than Aaron Harrison, they have someone who can make outside shots. If they cannot do that, teams are going to try to pack it in the lane and negate their size and dribble-drive. I have said this a few times on some radio shows: If Kentucky shoots 35 percent or better from the three-point line for the season, I think the Wildcats will be undefeated going into the Final Four.

It's Gators and Wildcats at the Top of the SEC, Again

It’s Gators and Wildcats at the Top of the SEC, Again

RTC: Florida’s personnel losses are notable with Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete all moving on from Gainesville. However, Billy Donovan’s squad seems primed to have another impressive season. What is it about this year’s Gators that will make them a force to be reckoned with in the conference?

Dortch: I think Florida has some experienced personnel and some young guys who I believe are ready to step. Someone like Kasey Hill, who understudied Wilbekin last season, seems poised to take over the point guard position. I think Michael Frazier is one of the best shooters in the country and he is ready to take the next step in his development. Dorian Finney-Smith, who was eligible last season after transferring from Virginia Tech, is so versatile that he was used at the point a few times. He is going to be a guy who is going to be asked to do a lot more than he was last year. There are also a couple transfers who will help. Jon Horford comes over as a fifth-year eligible from Michigan and Alex Murphy comes over from Duke. I think those two will help fortify the team’s front line.

RTC: Arkansas is still waiting on its breakthrough campaign in the Mike Anderson era. With a talented team featuring star big man Bobby Portis, will this finally be the season that the Razorbacks find a way back to the NCAA Tournament?

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SEC M5: 11.03.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 3rd, 2014

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  1. SI.com released its SEC preview last week, and it’s worth a read to get ready for the upcoming season (in addition, of course, to all the content on this microsite). The only thing that’s ripe to nitpick is the prediction that Georgia will finish seventh in the conference with an 8-10 league record. It could be that I’m too high on the Bulldogs, but Mark Fox returns the core of a team that went 12-6 and finished tied for third in the SEC last season. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are two guards with upside who should be one of the more difficult-to-stop scoring duos in the conference. The Dawgs’ frontcourt may be thin, but Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic are still quality players, so seeing Georgia fall that far back just doesn’t seem likely.
  2. Scrimmage highlights should always be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s hard not to like what Karl-Anthony Towns showed at Big Blue Madness and during a recent scrimmage. His footwork and mobility for a guy that size are impressive, and his versatility could be a great asset for John Calipari and his cramped roster. Towns looks like he’ll be a threat away from the basket in addition to on the low blocks, whether facing up and driving to the rim or knocking down the occasional long jumper. That should allow him to play well with Kentucky‘s rim-centric players like Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein without stifling the offense.
  3. Marshall Henderson is gone from Oxford and no longer available for our college basketball viewing pleasure, but shocking as it may be, there will be basketball at Ole Miss this season, and as the Associated Press’ David Brandt points out, this may be Andy Kennedy’s deepest team yet. The Rebels return five of their top six players in minutes per game, and they could have the deepest SEC frontcourt in the league outside of Kentucky and LSU. Aaron Jones is a solid senior big man who can clean up the defensive glass, and sophomore Sebastian Saiz (20 points against LSU on January 15) and junior Anthony Perez (21 points against Kentucky on February 22) showed flashes with big offensive nights against strong frontcourts in 2013-14. This is a far cry from the beginning of last season, when Kennedy was trying to replace his two primary big men in Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway.
  4. Florida freshman guard Chris Chiozza is learning that playing for Billy Donovan is no walk in the park. “Got to run, every play, sprint,” Chiozza told GatorCountry.com. “If you stop sprinting, he’s going to make you run on the side, probably.” Donovan will need his freshmen ready to go this season because he no longer has the luxury of a senior-laden lineup. Junior Devin Walker (knee injury) and freshman Brandone Francis (academically ineligible) are out for the year, leaving Chiozza as the Gators fourth option at guard behind Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier and Eli Carter. It’s likely Chiozza and freshman forward Devin Robinson will be called upon to contribute right away, making every sprint worth it.
  5. CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander has Kentucky’s backcourt ranked as the fourth-best in the country, and it’s hard to find a beef with putting Duke, Arizona and North Carolina above the Wildcats. The development of Andrew and Aaron Harrison will be one of the more compelling SEC storylines this season, after their up-and-down freshmen years were capped off with solid performances (and big shots from Aaron) leading up to appearance in the national championship game. What makes the backcourt even more interesting, as Norlander points out, is the presence of 5’9’’ “passing wizard” Tyler Ulis. He’ll be an absolute change of the pace from the big-bodied Harrisons, and it’ll be fun to see him create looks for the all Kentucky big men.
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Three Takeaways From SEC Media Day

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 23rd, 2014

The SEC rolled out the red carpet for the media on Wednesday as part of #SECTipoff15 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The league’s basketball campaign may have kicked off in the heart of ACC country, but geographic proximity to the nation’s top college basketball conference did not detract from placing SEC basketball at the center of attention here. Rush the Court was there, well, when we weren’t searching for more of those delicious chicken biscuits from the breakfast spread. Here are the three key takeaways from a fun and interesting day of talking college basketball and hitting the buffet line.

The SEC Network studios and the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, NC played host for SEC media days.

The SEC Network studios and the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte played host for SEC media days.

1)    Platoon system – The word of the day was platoon. Of course, Kentucky coach John Calipari set the tone by talking about how and why he would implement two separate five-man squads to achieve better team chemistry among the 10 or 11 players he plans on putting on the court this season. On advice from other coaches, Calipari admitted that “most of them think I’m crazy,” but he further explained that he is considering the switch to allow players to become comfortable playing with the same group.

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SEC Offseason Reset

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 15th, 2014

The gym is open and the ball is bouncing. College basketball is here. Well, almost. The clang of the ball bouncing off the rim will soon turn into the sweet sound of the nothing but net shot that comes with practice, practice and more practice. The offseason was eventful in the SEC, and now that the dust has settled, here are a few conference predictions, observations, and questions for each team as they begin their 2014-15 journey.

John Calipari is in a good mood with this many All Americans on his roster (AP).

John Calipari is in a good mood with so many prep All-Americans on his roster (AP).

  1. Kentucky: Kentucky dominated the headlines this offseason, and for good reason. After a national title game run last April, expectations could not be higher for this group. The Wildcats played well in six games in the Bahamas during an August trip, earning high praise from observers despite a loss in their final game. The exhibition tour gave John Calipari‘s group of new highly-touted freshmen an opportunity to log significant minutes, a valuable advantage for this time of the year. The big story in Lexington is the possibility that Calipari will rely on a platoon system to provide sufficient minutes for the abundance of talent on his roster. Whether it works is something to watch for this season, but with returnees Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison joining another impressive recruiting class, it is hard to imagine this group failing to dominate the SEC.
  2. Florida: The Gators looked like a team that could have won it all last season on its way to a Final Four, a 36-3 overall record, and a perfect 21-0 in SEC play. The key pieces in that run are now gone, but coach Billy Donovan reloads yet again in Gainesville. Sophomore Chris Walker figures to play a more significant role, as do Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith. Florida has always thrived with the team-first approach, but it will rely heavily on the sharp shooting of junior Michael Frazier to carry the scoring load. The Gators will again find themselves in the upper echelon of the conference standings.

How will the rest of the conference shake out?

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SEC M5: Microsite Relaunch Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 15th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. For the second straight year, Andrew Harrison might be Kentucky’s most important player. And for the second straight year, there are many questions surrounding him. CBSSports.com‘s Gary Parrish writes about the opportunity Harrison has to bounce back from a largely disappointing freshman season. Granted, Harrison was the point guard for the national runner-up. He did have his moments in the NCAA Tournament (20 points against Wichita State; 14 points and seven assists against Louisville), but was still plagued with inconsistency throughout the event (24 turnovers in the six games). It’s been awhile since Calipari has had two seasons to work with a point guard, but developing Harrison may be the Wildcats’ surest ticket to another Final Four.
  2. Not much has gone right for Mississippi State‘s Rick Ray during his two-plus years in Starkville, as a seemingly constant stream of injuries and suspensions has been the theme. The latest injury might be the biggest blow of all, however, as news was released this week that junior guard Craig Sword will miss four to six weeks after back surgery to relieve a bulging disc. Backs are tricky injuries and who knows the effect it’ll have going forward, but as of now it is expected that Sword should be ready for conference play. The Bulldogs’ leading scorer became more efficient in his sophomore season, increasing his field goal percentage by eight points to 48 percent and cutting down on his turnovers from over 25 percent to 19 percent. Clearly there is still improvement to be had, so any missed time is crucial for a player that could develop into an excellent SEC scorer.
  3. Another coach who has dealt with personnel issues is Missouri‘s Kim Anderson. The first-year coach has already dismissed Torren Jones and watched Cameron Biedscheid leave the program before ever playing a minute in Columbia. On Tuesday it got worse, as freshmen Jakeenan Gant and D’Angelo Allen were charged with “peace disturbance” relating to a mid-September campus altercation. Theirs are misdemeanor charges, and it’s a relief for all involved that whatever was alleged to have happened didn’t amount to a felony charge. But eventually enough has to be enough for Missouri. This is the third legal incident for the basketball Tigers since last March (albeit two being under Frank Haith), and it has been a dark undertone to the good will Anderson has generated with the fan base and recruits.
  4. Luke Winn and Dan Hanner have a fascinating piece up at SI.com that predicts who the scoring, rebounding and assist leaders will be in 2014-15. What’s different about this piece is that the predictions are based on raw numbers generated by a system developed by Hanner that incorporates advanced statistics, a decade of player data, recruiting rankings and specific coach attributes (like playing distribution tendencies and quality), among other things. Their meticulous formula pegs Ole Miss senior guard Jarvis Summers as the nation’s sixth leading scorer, predicting that he’ll score 18.8 points per game. Summers has been overshadowed by Marshall Henderson over the last two years but should emerge as one of the better guards in the SEC this season.
  5. We’ve all seen high school kids put on hats, but Alabama signee Dazon Ingram brought a fresh take to his recent school announcement. “I told [Tide assistant Antoine Pettway] I wasn’t going to commit to Alabama and he got all sad,” Ingram told AL.com’s John Talty. “Then I told him I was just kidding. He started screaming and said ‘Oh my gosh. Can I call Coach Grant?’” No matter how it happened, the 6’5’’ point guard – the third ranked 2015 recruit in Alabama according to 247Sports – is a nice get for Anthony Grant as he had to fend off Gregg Marshall and Kelvin Sampson to sign him.
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SEC Well-Represented In NIT Field

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

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

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

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

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

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SEC M5: 03.12.14 Edition

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

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  1. AL.com’s Jon Solomon has some bad news about the perilous state of SEC basketball: average attendance (10,380 per game) was at its lowest point since 1984-85. The biggest drop was Missouri, which saw 22 percent less fans go through the Mizzou Arena turnstiles this season. The ice Frank Haith is walking on has gotten progressively thinner, and this is yet another mark against him. Fellow conference newcomer Texas A&M had the second biggest drop at 15 percent. Ole Miss likely benefited from last year’s postseason success, seeing the biggest increase at 21 percent. Surprisingly, 12-19 (5-13) South Carolina had the second biggest boost (17 percent).
  2. Texas A&M, a team that struggles to score, may be without leading scorer Jamal Jones(13.4 PPG, 51.5 TS%) when it takes on Missouri Thursday. Jone is apparently saddled with a 103 degree fever and, Michael Jordan flu game aside, that’s an understandable reason not to suit up. Being shorthanded is nothing new for the Aggies, who have been without arguably their most dynamic player, Davonte Fitzgerald, for a month. Fabyon Harris has also missed the last few games, and wasn’t in Columbia when the Aggies fumbled away a win last week. He will likely be back Thursday, but it was Jones who got the rim and put Texas A&M in a position to steal a win in Mizzou Arena.
  3. There is no drama for South Carolina as it heads into its SEC tournament opener against Auburn this evening. KenPom gives the Gamecocks a 0.04% chance of winning the tournament, so unless the most improbable of runs happens, their season will end in Atlanta. But winning even one game would be a step in the right direction, since South Carolina has not won a conference tournament game since 2008. Call it small steps, but it would be a positive end to the season for a team that has won two of its last three games. It would also be a nice sendoff for Brenton Williams, who has quietly had a great senior year (15.2 PPG, 21.8 PER, 63.9 TS%).
  4. SI.com’s team of college basketball writers released their All-America team, and not surprisingly it didn’t include any players from the SEC. Julius Randle made three of the individual writers’ second teams, and that sounds about right. Despite Kentucky’s offense getting progressively disjointed, Randle’s scoring and rebounding numbers have remained consistent (15.4 PPG, 10.4 RPG). Even though Florida has a great shot at being the number one overall seed, Seth Davis was the only writer to throw any love at the Gators, putting Scottie Wilbekin on his second team. That also sounds about right, since Florida’s strength is the sum of its parts, rather than an individual star.
  5. Staying on SI.com, Davis rolled out his annual All-Glue team recently. Florida did get a lot of love in this piece, as Patric Young took home a Glue Guy honor. The piece is an interesting reflection on Young’s transformation from sparingly used McDonald’s All-American to reliable starter that stayed in the college ranks longer than he initially expected he would. Young fits the glue guy profile to the extent he is a high effort bull of a low poster player. But as was pointed out in general terms on the main site yesterday, maybe Young has played himself out of glue guy consideration. He was named second team All-SEC this year, and seems like more than a role player. But it’s not as if rules for being a glue guy were handed down from the heavens written in stone.
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SEC M5: 02.28.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 28th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Chris Mannix’s NBA Big Board 4.0 has three SEC players on it, all of them Wildcats. None of the three, however, has the last name of Harrison. Mannix has Julius Randle at #4, James Young at #14 and Willie Cauley-Stein at #15. He writes that Cauley-Stein has the tools to be a solid defensive presence but his “lack of consistency is alarming.” This makes me wonder whether it would make sense for him to hold back on the NBA yet again? Cauley-Stein will always have a place in the league, at least for a few years; his seven-foot frame and athleticism virtually guarantee that. While going in the middle of the first round is attractive, if he were to stay another year and show a bit more consistency and development, he could potentially crack the lottery in a weaker draft class. That could be a decision worth several million dollars, but there’s also risk associated with it. In a somewhat smaller role, his rebounding and shooting percentages are down, and a similar setback next season could start to raise serious questions about his commitment. The point is that Cauley-Stein should at least consider hanging around Lexington another year. Again.
  2. LSU has gone over a week without a bad loss, and that’s an accomplishment in the SEC’s middle class. Their RPI is still too high (#66) to seriously be in the NCAA Tournament discussion, and as Brian pointed out yesterday on Twitter, Tennessee is the best bet for a third SEC bid. Still, LSU has a potential ace in its pocket. If the Tigers can somehow, someway, win at Florida this weekend, they’ll vault themselves right into the picture. It’s not likely, but LSU did play a great game at Rupp Arena last weekend and Florida hasn’t blown many teams away recently. Jarell Martin continuing the improvement he showed against Texas A&M could go a long way in LSU pulling off the upset. The freshman scored 20 points in part by tweaking his shooting form by going straight up more often and not falling back. “We had to double on Johnny O’Bryant so much that Jarell was just spotting up and shooting threes,” Billy Kennedy said. “He’s a McDonald’s All-American and played like it.” That’s the encouraging thing about LSU making a late run: The Tigers don’t lack for talent.
  3. Ole Miss will be without Derrick Millinghaus for the foreseeable future, as the sophomore guard has been suspended indefinitely. This caps off a disappointing season for Millinghaus. Despite getting six more minutes per game this season his usage rate has been virtually identical to what it was as a freshman. His PER (9.0) and true shooting percentage (37.7%) have both sharply declined, and his results have been especially poor lately. In the last three games he’s played 39 minutes, and scored five points on seven shots. Millinghaus has the ability to put up points, but is the type of player that needs a high volume of shots to do so. That simply isn’t a good fit alongside Marshall Henderson. But Henderson will be gone next season, and Millinghaus (if whatever spawned this suspension doesn’t linger) could be a candidate to replace some of those shots and points. In short, this suspension doesn’t hurt the Rebels much the rest of the way, but Millinghaus can still be a big part of their future.
  4. Matt Norlander has an interesting look at Billy Donovan’s career that is steeped in historical nuggets. Donovan will almost certainly get to 500 wins before he turns 50 and he has a legitimate chance to become only the sixth coach with three or more national titles. He definitely already gets recognized as a great coach, but Donovan seems to always slip through the cracks when the “elite coaches” discussion gets going. That’s obviously not a scientific statement, just based off a feeling. If Florida were to win the title this year, what would there be left for Donovan to prove? Putting together two completely different championship teams just about does it. To connect this team to the Al Horford/Joakim Noah teams, you need to go back to when these seniors were freshmen playing with Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes, who played with Walter Hodge and Mareese Speights when they were freshmen. That’s a lot of good recruiting and coaching. Would winning this year be enough for Donovan to finally make a (permanent) jump to the NBA? On a non-Donovan note, Norlander also mentioned Adolph Rupp’s “Cy Young-like unbreakable record” of being the fastest coach to reach 500 wins, in only 583 games. No matter in what era the achievement was reached, that is insanity.
  5. If you want to be called an idiot, just walk up to Kevin Stallings and suggest that Cuonzo Martin should be fired. The Vanderbilt coach went on the offensive to protect his in-state counterpart. “Hopefully, the powers that be over at Tennessee will tune those idiots out and give [Martin] the kind of time he deserves to do the job he needs to do,” Stallings said. This is an admirable coaching fraternity defense, but also goes deeper as Stallings and Martin both come from the Gene Keady-Purdue tree. On Wednesday we wrote about the growing calls for Bruce Pearl around the Tennessee program. And this makes sense, especially if Martin misses the NCAA tournament this year. It’s a difficult situation to really get a handle on because it is unique. Martin may be a good coach: he comes from a good coaching tree and did build a winning program at Missouri State, and you can’t always establish yourself in three years. But the pressure is ratcheted up on Martin with the fan favorite and uber successful Pearl still living in Knoxville and being visible on ESPN.
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SEC M5: 02.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 19th, 2014

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  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.
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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.

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Ole Miss and Kentucky Get Shots at Redemption

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

It’s hard to say tonight’s game against Kentucky is Ole Miss’ last shot at NCAA Tournament redemption. After all, it was only one year ago that the Rebels took the drama out of their Selection Sunday by running the table in the SEC Tournament. But the odds this season are heavily against another automatic bid for Ole Miss. That makes tonight’s match-up with the Wildcats in Tad Smith Coliseum something of a last stand for Andy Kennedy’s team. The Rebels (7-5 SEC) sit alone in fourth place in the conference standings, but they are coming off close road losses to RPI #116 Alabama and RPI #85 Georgia. Those were damaging, no doubt, but the Rebels are not completely dead as they currently rank #67 in the latest RPI. That’s certainly not an enviable position for mid-February, but it isn’t so far out of the picture that a late season run can’t fix their prospects. If such a run is to happen, it needs to start tonight at home against a team that pounded the Rebels a mere 14 days ago.

Ole Miss needs everyone to pitch in on the glass to combat Dakari Johnson and Kentucky's talented front line (bigstory.ap.com).

Ole Miss needs everyone to pitch in on the glass to combat Dakari Johnson and Kentucky’s talented front line (bigstory.ap.com).

So what needs to change for Kennedy’s squad since its loss at Rupp Arena? For one, they can’t get hammered on the boards (-15) like they did in that game, and their last two losses (-23). In their lone win in the last four games, the Rebels edged out Missouri on the glass by one and did so largely by fighting for loose balls and starting the game with better energy. With freshman Dwight Coleby seeing the floor more often in recent weeks, Kennedy now has five bigs he trusts in his regular rotation. The Rebels need these numbers to translate into relentless effort to counter Kentucky’s talented and athletic front line. Ole Miss doesn’t need to win the rebounding battle, it just needs to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. Of course, that’s easier said than done against the Wildcats. A return to normalcy for Sebastian Saiz would go a long way. If you remove the Missouri game from consideration, he’s grabbed only two rebounds in his last 44 minutes of game action. Saiz still has a healthy 15.7 percent defensive rebounding rate (the highest on the team) on the year, so he can be a big part of cutting into Kentucky’s advantage on the glass.

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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 KentuckyFlorida 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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