Jared Quillen is the RTC correspondent for the SEC.
A Look Back
The biggest story out of the SEC this week is the Southeastern Conference’s suspension of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl for the first eight games of conference play. Pearl hosted recruit Aaron Craft at his home contrary to NCAA rules and misled investigators about a picture that was taken with Craft during the visit. Pearl also admitted to making excessive recruiting phone calls. For his sins, the Tennessee will reduce Pearl’s pay by a total of $1.5 million over the next five years and he is not allowed to recruit off campus for one year. Pearl got a pretty stiff punishment here, but this should come as no surprise. The NCAA is still considering the matter and may impose additional penalties in December when it releases its findings.
Tennessee has no desire to let Pearl go despite his misdeeds. He has won a lot of games in Knoxville and he is a great recruiter. The problem now is that there is a question mark as to how good he is at recruiting if he plays by the rules. Pearl is on a short leash and the university has made it clear – any more violations, and he’s out.
Pearl should have known better from previous incidents and it is likely the NCAA will impose additional punishments. There are two universal truths in this life: one, the NCAA hates being left out of the punishment game when a violation has occurred, particularly for repeat offenders, and two, the NCAA hates recruiting violations. If you want to get your team in a heap of trouble, the fastest way to do it is through recruiting violations. Indiana is still suffering from the Kelvin Sampson disaster, a fellow repeat offender. Indiana is likely to miss the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year due to Sampson’s cheating. Time will tell if the NCAA’s sanctions will have such an effect on Tennessee. The moral of the story, keep it clean out there, coaches.
In other news, Georgia is playing well despite the loss of star Trey Thompkins who is out with a high ankle sprain. The Bulldogs got a good win against a talented Colorado team that should make the NCAA Tournament this year. The Bulldogs are currently 4-0, but Thompkins was recently cleared to practice.
In the preseason primer, I predicted Enes Kanter would be eligible for Kentucky. Seeking to make me look the fool, the NCAA saw otherwise. While the NCAA and Kentucky do agree on the facts of the case, that Enes Kanter received payment for play while in his native Turkey, they disagree on the interpretation of NCAA rules, Kentucky obviously believing Kanter deserves to play. The NCAA ruled that he received benefits over and above necessary expenses and declared him “permanently ineligible,” a big blow to the Wildcats’ plans to win a second straight SEC crown and an eighth National championship. John Calipari stated that he was not happy with the NCAA’s decision but that he respected it. Following Kentucky’s 88-65 win over East Tennessee State, Alan Cutler, a Lexington sports reporter, opened the press conference by asking Calipari’s opinion on the matter. Calipari was noticeably frustrated and responded, “Didn’t we just play a game?” The school will appeal the decision.
- Kentucky (3-0) opened the season with a pasting of East Tennessee State 88-65 in which freshman Terrence Jones recorded a double-double scoring 25 points and collecting 12 rebounds. On Monday night against Oklahoma, Jones recorded his second double-double by scoring 29 points and pulling down 13 rebounds to go along with 3 assists, two steals, and four blocks. Apparently, Jones doesn’t like to see anyone else’s name on the stat sheet. In between those two games, Kentucky trounced Portland 79-48 in a game in which the Wildcats scored the first 15 points of the game and were never challenged. After three games, Kentucky leads the SEC in three-point field goal percentage and assist/turnover ratio, both weak points on last year’s squad.
- Arkansas (2-0) While I don’t expect the Razorbacks to remain at number two for very long, it’s hard to drop them lower than number two when they won their first two games against Grambling State and Florida Gulf Coast by an average margin of 33 points per game. That’s the highest scoring margin in the SEC, and it’s not even close. Guard Rotnei Clarke picked up right where he left off last year making five three pointers in his first game this season. Through two games, Clarke is 10-23 from three point range and leads Arkansas in scoring at 17 points per game.
- Georgia is 3-0 record despite playing without preseason SEC POY pick Trey Thompkins. Mark Fox can flat-out coach. Underestimate him at your own peril. He will have the Bulldogs competing all year long and no game against the ‘Dogs will be an easy one, with or without Thompkins. In Thompkins’ absence, guard Travis Leslie has taken it upon himself to pick up the slack by leading Georgia in both points and rebounds at 18 and 8.3 per game, respectively. Georgia will need Thompkins back soon, however, as the road gets tougher from here. They next face Notre Dame in the Old Spice Classic which also features Temple, Wisconsin, California and Texas A&M.
- Mississippi State’s (3-0) Kodi Augustus is leading the SEC in rebounds at 11.0 RPG and is second in scoring at 20.0 PPG behind fellow Bulldog Ravern Johnson’s 25.5 PPG. While they didn’t win big against Tennessee State, Appalachian State or Detroit, whom they defeated 75-65, 76-74 and 82-76, respectively, the Bulldogs are playing without guard Dee Bost and power forward Renardo Sydney. Mississippi State will be very, very good once Sydney and Bost return and should be an exciting team to watch.
- Vanderbilt (3-1) whipped Presbyterian 88-47 in the Commodores season opener then beat Nebraska 59-49 and followed that up with a hard fought loss to West Virginia, 74-71. The ‘Dores got what might have been a nice win against North Carolina if it had not been tainted by the fact that UNC had previously lost to Minnesota two days before. Vanderbilt fans frequently chanted “overrated” as they taunted the Tar Heels in a game that Vandy led for all but a few moments. The pollsters seemed to agree, dropping UNC to the 25 spot. Regardless, Vanderbilt made touted UNC freshman forward Harrison Barnes look bad as they held him to just 4-12 shooting.
- Tennessee (3-0) Well, the Volunteers are undefeated but have yet to leave Knoxville. They got a 20 point win over Chattanooga. Beating Belmont by nine at home could be a little better, but it will do. A lot of folks sounded alarm bells when the Vols lost their exhibition game against Indianapolis. You can stop ringing the bells. Exhibition wins and losses are meaningless. These are tune-ups and coaches use them as such. Tennessee’s real problems are off the court where Bruce Pearl’s indiscretions may prove costly down the road. For now, Tennessee is playing well enough and should reach the finals of the NIT Preaseason Tip-Off following a win against VCU which I think they will get. Oh, and that Tobias Harris kid is everything he was hyped up to be. He currently leads Tennessee in scoring at 16.3 points per game, though he also leads in turnovers with 3.7 TPG.
- Florida (3-1). How does the preseason SEC favorite end up number seven? I think Doug Gottlieb summed it up well on Sunday when he said, “And then I saw them get pounded by Ohio State and I realized why all five starters returned.” Florida easily handled UNC Wilmington, 77-60, in the Gators’ season opener but they followed it with an ugly loss to Ohio State in which they played the same uninspired defense that they played last year. The Buckeyes easily beat Florida’s press and shot 62.9% in the game. The Gators had no answer for Jared Sullinger inside who went 13-17 from the floor, nor for David Lighty who went 9-11. You will recall that I expressed skepticism over Florida being tabbed as the SEC preseason favorite. They appear to be the same team as last year in many respects, which makes sense as they have all the same players. They still lack defensive intensity particularly inside. Yes, they did pummel North Carolina A&T 105-55 following their loss to Ohio State and they got a quality win against NBA-bound Kenneth Faried’s Morehead State team, but I remain skeptical. Florida shot only 26.3% from three point range and 38.9% overall in that game and Faried had his wicked way with Florida’s bigs scoring 20 points and pulling down 18 rebounds. Patric Young was supposed to provide the inside game Florida was lacking but in four games for the Gators, he has yet to prove he is up to the job. Get it together, Gators, or you’re going to make a lot of media folks feel very silly for picking you number one, not to mention those that picked the Gators as National Championship contenders.
- Mississippi (2-1) Ole Miss opened the year with a meaningless win over Arkansas State, which is currently 0-4 but then got a quality win over Ohio Valley Conference favorite Murray State behind guards Zach Graham‘s career high 22 points and Nick Williams’ 21 points. The Rebels then lost a tough one against a quality Dayton team that came back from a 15 point second half deficit to win 78-71 by taking advantage of a 33 to 16 free throw opportunity disparity. In the end I don’t expect this loss to cost Mississippi as a bad loss. The problem, however, was this was Mississippi’s last chance to get a quality win against a non-conference opponent. The rest of Ole Miss’s preseason schedule is cupcake city and since I expect the Rebels to be a bubble team this year, picking up another quality non-conference win was crucial. It may take ten conference wins to make the Tournament now. It sounds silly to say that so early, but that’s the situation that Mississippi puts itself in every year by continually playing one of weakest preseason schedules of any team in a major conference.
- South Carolina (2-1) After watching the Gamecocks lose to Michigan State 82-73 in a game they were never supposed to have a chance of winning anyway, I realized I really liked this team. They played hard throughout and were never intimidated by the number two-ranked Spartans. Michigan State forced them into 20 turnovers and the ‘Cocks shot poorly making only 35.7% from the field, but were able to get off 70 shots to State’s 53. They battled and impressed me with their hunger. The reality is that they just didn’t have the talent to keep up. Spartan’s loaded team. This loss was sandwiched by dominating wins over Elon 95-79 and Radford 85-56. If South Carolina continues to play this way, I may have to rethink the four SEC wins I predicted, even in the loaded SEC East. Hard play always pays dividends. Hey did anyone else notice that South Carolina replaced 5’9 leading scorer Devan Downey who shot 40% last year with 5’9 leading scorer Bruce Ellington, who is shoots 35.1% this year. Ellington also averages three rebounds, 2.3 assists and four turnovers, nearly identical to Downey’s marks in the same categories.
- LSU (2-2) Well, it’s getting ugly down here towards the bottom. What is there to say about LSU? They opened with an 87-78 win over Northwestern State, and then lost to lowly Nicholls State 62-53. LSU held Nicholls State to only 35.8% from the field and only seven assists, outrebounded the Colonels and blocked more shots, yet they still lost. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that NSU stole the ball from them 12 times. When you can hold a team to only 35.8% and outrebound them by nine and still lose to that bad team, it’s going to be a long year. There is some great young talent on this team in freshmen Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner who are leading the team in scoring at 15.8 and 12 points, respectively, but their shooting is horrendous at only 34 and 37%. LSU managed to get a win over Tennessee-Martin 79-56 — no reason for excitement there — and a loss against Memphis. It’s early, but I think the Tigers are still a year away.
- Alabama (2-3) While LSU is disappointing, Alabama is inexcusable. Between talented players like JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell, and Senario Hillman there is no reason Alabama should be on a three game losing streak to the likes of Seton Hall, Iowa and St. Peters. Seton Hall was picked to finish seventh in the Big East and Iowa was picked last in the Big Ten in the Rush The Court conference primers. Folks, I like Anthony Grant, but it’s getting ugly out there. Alabama shot only 32.5% from the field in that loss to St. Peter’s, a game that was supposed to be a walk through. Well, at least Alabama has wins against Florida A&M and Troy. That’s got to count for something right?
- Auburn (1-3) When you open up with three straight losses to basketball giants like North Carolina-Asheville, Samford and Campbell, and your only win is a two point victory over a bad Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders team, it’s hard to find something to be positive about. Because I like to find things to build on, I found something good. Sophomore guard Andre Malone is shooting lights-out from three point range, making 14-25 shots thus far. Last year he shot a mere 20.7% from three. After him, the Tigers are nothing to write home about. Auburn is currently last in the SEC in scoring offense, scoring margin, field goal percentage and turnover margin, and are eleventh of twelve teams in field goal percentage defense, three point percentage defense, assists, steals, and turnover margin. All of that amounts to Pomeroy’s lowest-ranked team in the Big Six conferences. Those numbers aren’t exactly against stellar teams. Good luck to you Auburn, those predicted three SEC wins are all of a sudden looking pretty hard to come by.
A Look Ahead
Here are the key matchups for Southeastern Conference teams this week:
- Georgia has a game they should win against Notre Dame in the Old Spice Classic on Thursday. Assuming they do, they will face the winner of Temple and California on Friday, a quality opponent either way. If they lose they face the loser of that same game. A good early test no matter the outcome, but the win is necessary as the Old Spice Classic is Georgia’s last chance for some good non-conference wins.
- Tennessee next plays a tough VCU team on Wednesday at 7:00 Eastern. Win that and they take on the winner of Villanova/UCLA, (likely ‘Nova) in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday. These two wins are important for Tennessee to keep their momentum going and stay positive in the face of the punishments handed down against their coach.
- Kentucky’s foe tonight is Washington, a team that surely will want vengeance against the Wildcats for stealing away Terrence Jones and the now ineligible Enes Kanter, both of whom had previously committed to Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar before backing out and pledging allegiance to Calipari. It’s must-see hoops TV tonight at 9:30 Eastern.
Other Points of Interest
- The SEC named Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins SEC Player of the Week after he averaged 21.7 points and 3 rebounds per game in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off in San Juan in games against Nebraska, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
- Tennessee’s Tobias Harris, was named SEC Freshman of the Week after leading the Volunteers in scoring and rebounding at 16 and 7 in wins against Belmont and Missouri State.
- Vanderbilt’s Brad Tinsley just barely got the triple double against Presbyterian in Vandy’s season opener with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but it was good for Vanderbilt’s first one ever in its 110-year history.
- There is a little disparity between the SEC East and the SEC West. Maybe you’ve noticed. Currently the SEC is 29-12 overall, but 17 of those wins and only three losses come from the SEC East against slightly superior competition than the West is playing. The West is now 12-9. It’s time that the SEC adopt a conference tournament that seeds the best team against the worst rather than pitting the number one team in the East against the number six in the West. This hurts the conference’s chances at getting five to six bids. It also severely hurts the West’s chances of getting multiple bids as the top West teams must play the bottom East teams which while still at the bottom of the East are considerably better than the bottom of the West. I am sure that come conference tournament time Mississippi State would much rather be facing off against the likes of Auburn or LSU than Vanderbilt or South Carolina, either of which could very well win a game or two in the conference tournament.