Ben Howland: An Odd Fit That Might Just Work Out For Mississippi State

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 24th, 2015

Several weeks ago I wrote on this microsite that it was shaping up to be the rare offseason where no SEC schools would be welcoming new coaches. That turned out to be a very incorrect notion. Anthony Grant was fired by Alabama on Selection Sunday and Mississippi State followed that up about a week later by announcing that Rick Ray would not be given a fourth year at the helm in Starkville. Ray’s firing registered higher on the “surprise meter” than that of Grant — the Bulldogs had just posted their best SEC record during his tenure (6-12), were expected to return an experienced nucleus of core players, and had signed a trio of three-star prospects in next year’s class. That clearly wasn’t enough for athletic director Scott Stricklin, and it did not take the school very long to name former Pitt and UCLA head coach Ben Howland as its next men’s basketball coach. Howland was loosely connected to seemingly every major job that opened a year ago but he was reportedly never seriously considered at any of Missouri, Tennessee or Marquette. He recently told USA Today that he regretted turning down three schools last offseason (one of these appears to have been Oregon State), two of which were in the process of rebuilding. This year Howland wasn’t willing to wait around, jumping on the first job opportunity that came his way.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland inherits a Mississippi State program that struggled under Rick Ray (Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire)

Is this a good fit? For one, the Bulldogs couldn’t have landed a more accomplished coach, what with Howland’s three Final Fours at UCLA, two Sweet Sixteens at Pitt and another NCAA Tournament appearance at Northern Arizona. At the same time, the Bulldogs would also be hard-pressed to find a coach with more baggage, primarily stemming from a 2012 Sports Illustrated story that alleged that Howland had let things spin severely out of control in Westwood. Also working against him is that he has no real ties to the SEC nor the South other than his hiring of former UCLA and LSU assistant Korey McCray, who made his name as the coach of the influential AAU program Atlanta Celtics. Still, the move has been roundly praised by writers. Howland’s adaptability to his geography seems to be a strong suit, as he’s won on the West Coast, Southwest and the Northeast.

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SEC M5: 02.25.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 25th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. I’m not ashamed to admit it: There are few things in my hoops world that I enjoy more than watching Willie Cauley-Stein move his feet. Observing a seven-footer glide across the perimeter in a defensive stance is art. Hyperbole aside, Cauley-Stein’s versatility is why NBCSports.com‘s Rob Dauster has him in the top five of his most recent Player of the Year rankings. By his logic, the junior should be the front-runner for the SEC POY award, but is he? My gut tells me that Arkansas’ Bobby Portis or LSU’s Jordan Mickey will get the honor based on their gaudier stats, but it probably should go to Cauley-Stein. As a team, Kentucky is on the verge of accomplishing something quite historic. Even if the Wildcats don’t run the table, their dominance has been the story of this year’s SEC and no one player captures that better than Cauley-Stein.
  2. As a point guard, Andrew Harrison is playing his best basketball of the season. The sophomore has averaged 4.4 assists and just 1.6 turnovers per game in his last eight outings, punctuated with nine assists and a single turnover on Saturday against Auburn. This uptick in production has coincided with a visit from his father, who also spent time with his brother Aaron last year before he caught fire in the NCAA Tournament. As good as Tyler Ulis has played this season, it must be reassuring to John Calipari that Andrew is playing so well too as the calendar nears March. He led the Wildcats to the championship game last year, and that kind of postseason experience is invaluable for a point guard.
  3. Stories about Memorial Gymnasium’s quirkiness at Vanderbilt are inevitable every year. But next year, those yarns will have a fresh angle. Vanderbilt is extending the coaching box up the sideline for the 2015-16 season, meaning that coaches won’t just be confined to the baseline as they have been in the past. Only head coaches will be allowed in the expanded box, so the solitary figure strolling up and down the sidelines above the first few rows of fans will be another unique part of the games at Vanderbilt. There will probably be some changes on the court for the Commodores next year too, at least from a win-loss perspective. There is a drastic disparity between the team’s KenPom (#47) and RPI (#117) ratings this season –eight of the Commodores’ 12 losses have come by four points or fewer, and Kevin Stallings’ group should be a much bigger threat next season if Damian Jones returns.
  4. The Macon Telegraph’s Seth Emerson has some interesting tidbits on Georgia’s NCAA Tournament resume as we enter the stretch run. We’ve also officially reached the point in the season when it’s not too early to talk about SEC Tournament seeding. Georgia stands at 8-6, nipping on the heels of 10-5 Texas A&M and 10-4 Ole Miss. Making up that difference in the standings to earn a double-bye will be difficult, but the Bulldogs have one thing going for them. They’ve already beaten Texas A&M and could sweep the Rebels with a win this evening, which would give Georgia the tiebreaker over both if it comes to that. That makes tonight’s game at the Tad Pad all the more important for a team looking to get back on the right track.
  5. One phrase is noticeably absent in SEC conversations right now: hot seat. Unless something strange occurs down the stretch, it doesn’t look like there will be a new SEC coach coming on board in 2015-16. Reviewing the hot seat scenario David Changas painted back in October, the two most at-risk coaches were Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Mississippi State’s Rick Ray, and both appear to be safe. Alabama has been somewhat disappointing given how well the Tide’s non-conference schedule went, but at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the SEC it isn’t likely that Grant will lose his job. The same can be said for Ray, as Mississippi State has clearly improved during the season and will have a senior-laden team (Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware) ready to roll next year. The hottest seat right now might actually belong to Kim Anderson, with Missouri trudging through a miserable season and current athletic director Mike Alden set to depart in August. But it’s ridiculous to think that the new administration would part ways with a native son after a clear rebuilding year.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 17th, 2015

For the next five weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume VII, including games from February 9-15. 

Team of the Week. Kentucky tied a program record for the best start in school history (25-0) by overcoming a 21-2 second half run to sneak by LSU, and followed that up against South Carolina by running out to a 43-18 halftime lead before coasting home. So that’s why Arkansas is the team of the week. Like we say in this space in each rendition, there’s no fun in simply handing the award to the ultra-deserving Wildcats every week. That means the Razorbacks get the nod because Mike Anderson’s team has moved into rare air with a winning SEC road record. After hanging 101 points on Auburn and gutting out a one-point victory at Ole Miss last week, the Hawgs moved to 4-2 on the road in SEC play. Arkansas is finally playing well enough away from home to support its typically-impressive home record (15-1), and it’s showing up as a result in the national polls (#17 Coaches, #18 AP). The win in Oxford may have been Anderson’s best road victory since returning home, and the Razorbacks are doing the things that his best teams do: forcing turnovers and sharing the ball. Since league play began, Arkansas leads the SEC in both assists (179) and forcing turnovers (190), and while Bobby Portis deservedly receives the most praise, Rashad Madden and Jabril Durham have both been excellent facilitators in the team’s up-tempo motion offense.

Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden have had plenty to celebrate this past week (rantsports.com).

Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden have had plenty to celebrate this past week (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. This one is easy: flight crews. Separate planes carrying Missouri’s Kim Anderson on a recruiting trip and the entire Mississippi State team had to make emergency landings this week near St. Louis after experiencing engine troubles. Thankfully no one was hurt in either incident, but full credit must go to the pilots and crews involved to keep everyone safe. On the hardwood, we’ll stay in Fayetteville and give it to Michael Qualls this week. The junior had an efficient offensive week (34 points on 12-of-20 shooting), grabbed 11 rebounds and hit two critical late jumpers in the win over Ole Miss. After Portis, no other Arkansas player will be more important in terms of Arkansas’ showing in March. Qualls is the Razorbacks’ second option when defenses focus on Portis, and he has the tools to be a big-time defensive difference-maker. Tennessee’s Josh Richardson deserves mention as well for single-handedly carrying the Vols to a road win over rival Vanderbilt (27 points, seven rebounds).

Tournament Chatter. For the third straight week the SEC is holding strong with six teams in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology: Kentucky (#1), Arkansas (#6), Georgia (#8), Ole Miss (#8), LSU (#11) and Texas A&M (#11). While Florida and Tennessee have effectively faded from view, the current three-week consistency from these six teams should help with familiarity down the stretch. It’s still very possible that one or two of these schools will fall out of the picture, but the worst case scenario appears to be four NCAA bids from the SEC, and if nothing else, that is a clear improvement over the last couple of years.

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SEC M5: Presidents Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Coach Cal took a step back from coach-speak to appreciate Kentucky’s program-record tying 25-0 start after the Wildcats walloped South Carolina on Saturday. “You just tied a record of the most storied program in the country,” he told his team. “You tied a record and you’re all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein, a junior).” A win at Tennessee will push these Wildcats past the 1953-54 Kentucky squad, but would only tie the best start for a team coached by Calipari. His 1995-96 UMass team led by Marcus Camby started 26-0 before losing at home to George Washington, and his Derrick Rose-led 2007-08 Memphis team got to 26-0 before losing at home to Tennessee in what was one of the biggest regular season games in recent memory. As fate would have it, if the Wildcats get to 26-0 they would face Bruce Pearl, the man who halted Cal’s 26-0 Memphis team, next Saturday. In any event, both of Cal’s 26-0 teams finished as the National Runner-up, and it would probably be considered a disappointment if this Kentucky squad followed suit.
  2. The SEC got plenty of ink in College Basketball Talk’s Saturday Bubble Banter. Texas A&M strengthened its profile, or at least avoided mucking it up, by holding on to beat Florida. Ole Miss and Georgia, on the other hand, took hits with home losses, but the Bulldogs will be dinged much more than the Rebels. Georgia’s loss at home to Auburn (RPI #162, KenPom #135) would be easier swallow had it happened on the road, but losing in Stegeman Coliseum to the Tigers was a surprise. The Bulldogs had generally taken care of business this season, going 7-2 against RPI 101-200 with the only other loss being their season opener against Georgia Tech. They should be fine, especially coming off a strong win at Texas A&M, but can’t afford another bad home loss with South Carolina coming to Athens on Tuesday. An unrelated statistical oddity about the Auburn-Georgia rivalry: the schools are 90-90 against each other in basketball and 55-55 against each other in football. Talk about not having bragging rights.
  3. Despite its inconsistencies, LSU can be a hard team to match up with since most nights the Tigers will have a huge athletic advantage in the front court. This showed in their win over Tennessee, where the Vols struggled to get good looks against LSU’s length. Jordan Mickey ended up with seven blocks and now has an NCAA-leading 91 blocks on the season, and as a team the Tigers have the sixth-most blocks in the country. Barring a late season collapse, it seems the Tigers are a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Even if they wind up with a 10 or 11 seed, they should be in shape to take advantage of their athletic advantage down low and frustrate teams in the early rounds.
  4. Alabama has quietly been one of the more disappointing teams in conference play. The Tide are now just 5-7 in league play after dropping a must-win game at home to Vanderbilt. This comes after a 10-3 non-conference mark that included a win over UCLA and one-point loss at Wichita State, which was a marquee win Alabama had in their pocket before coughing it up late. To be fair, the schedule makers did the Tide no favors. They’ve already gotten Kentucky twice and have had to travel to Arkansas and LSU. But at the end of the day the NCAA Tournament is out of the picture for a team that has yet again had its offensive struggles under Anthony Grant. This season has been an improvement over last, but Grant’s job security continues to be an interesting question.
  5. Something fishy is going on in Eastern Missouri airspace. The plane chartered by Mississippi State lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing in St. Louis as the Bulldogs were on the way home after a win in Columbia. This comes just a few days after a plane carrying Kim Anderson had to make an emergency landing outside of St. Louis for a similar reason. Fortunately, no one was hurt either time. After his nerves evened out, Rick Ray must have been more pleased than usual with his team’s win. The Bulldogs let an 18-point slip away but held on for the victory, and have now won three SEC road games this season, which is a far cry from the 22-game conference road losing streak the program endured up until the January 21 win at Auburn. Building a program is all about positive momentum, and the Bulldogs have plenty of that right now.
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SEC Stock Watch: 02.06.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 6th, 2015

We’re at the halfway point of conference play, and things are starting to take shape in the SEC. It’s time for our weekly look at who’s trending up, who’s staying flat, and who’s headed in the wrong direction. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Rick Ray’s Job Status. A few weeks ago, we wondered whether Mississippi State could win even a single game in the SEC. At the halfway point of conference play, the Bulldogs are just a game under .500, and are coming off of their first road win of the season. Ray’s club appears to have turned a bit of a corner, and things are looking good for him to earn a fourth year at the school.
Rick Ray is finally giving Mississippi State fans a glimmer of hope (Spruce Derden/USA Today)

Rick Ray is finally giving Mississippi State fans a glimmer of hope. (Spruce Derden/USA Today)

  • Ole Miss’ NCAA Tournament Hopes. The Rebels have quietly recovered from a couple of bad non-conference homecourt losses (to Charleston Southern and Western Kentucky), and have won four in a row in the SEC. They own blowout wins at Arkansas and Missouri, a near miss at Kentucky, and are 6-3 in conference play. Andy Kennedy’s team is squarely in the discussion for one of the league’s NCAA Tournament bids.
  • Andrew Harrison. Perhaps it’s a bit premature to put the Kentucky sophomore on this list, but Harrison had his best game of the season in the Wildcats’ win over Georgia Tuesday, as he scored 23 points, had seven assists, and went 3-of-6 from three-point range. Perhaps all of the talk about  Kentucky’s freshmen guards, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, has motivated Harrison, and his performance against the Bulldogs is a good sign for John Calipari.
  • Riley LaChance. The Vanderbilt freshman has been a find for Kevin Stallings, but he went through a rough patch recently and bottomed out when he went scoreless in the Commodores’ loss to Georgia on January 27. He has righted the ship, and led the team with 15 in Tuesday’s win over Florida, which broke Vanderbilt’s seven-game losing streak. For the Commodores to have success in the second half of league play, they’ll need superb play from LaChance.

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SEC M5: The Super Bowl Hangover Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 2nd, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. John Calipari is on a never-ending assignment to poke holes in his Kentucky team. After cruising by Alabama on Saturday he told the Kentucky.com, “”One thing this team is not doing: Putting teams away when they have that opportunity.” Never mind that Kentucky has closed out three straight games to win by at least 15 points. On a micro level though, the Wildcats did struggle a bit handling the ball against Missouri, turning it over 14 times. They flipped the script against the Tide, turning it over just five times against a team that has turned over its opponents 11 times per game. Devin Booker showed the biggest improvement, as he didn’t turn it over at all after coughing it up four times in Columbia. At this point, however, it’s all nitpicking as the Wildcats are the last of the unbeatens left standing.
  2. Georgia’s five-game winning streak came to an end in Colonial Life Arena after a lackluster offensive performance against South Carolina. Marcus Thornton missed the game because of a concussion, and the Bulldogs were at a big disadvantage without their leading scorer and rebounder. Georgia actually won the rebounding battle by nine, but likely missed Thornton’s inside presence taking pressure off the guards. Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and JJ Frazier combined to go seven-for-28, and after the game Gaines said that the Gamecocks “out-toughed” the Bulldogs. Thornton is easily the Bulldogs most physical player, and they’ll be in an even tougher spot heading to Lexington if he is still out. Concussions are a serious and tricky thing, and his status looks uncertain for the Super Tuesday match-up.
  3. The SEC may get a lot of action outside the lottery of the upcoming NBA draft. Bobby Portis, Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and any slew of Kentucky Wildcats could hear their names called. Another somewhat unexpected name could be joining the fray: Damian Jones. NBADraft.net has the Vanderbilt sophomore going 20th in its latest mock draft, and Bleacher Report’s has him going 29th. Losing Jones would obviously be a big blow to a Commodores team that figures to take a big step forward next year given how many young players are seeing major minutes. Still, Kevin Stallings has six other freshmen or sophomores averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and the sheer amount of experience should allow Vanderbilt to survive the potential loss of Jones and still be competitive next season. Ideally, however, the 2015-16 Commodores are anchored by Jones, and if that’s the case they could be smart pick to vault into the upper third of the SEC.
  4. Signs of progress. That’s what Mississippi State fans would need to spend the rest of the year searching for after a 2-9 stretch that bled into SEC play. For the last three weeks, signs of progress haven’t been hard to find. The Bulldogs are 3-3 over their last six games after taking care of LSU at home on Saturday. In that span they have ended a 22-game conference road losing streak and been in each game until the final minutes. And the team seems like they have learned from close losses to Ole Miss, Georgia and Texas A&M, as they looked unphased after the Tigers took a 57-54 lead at the Hump with under four minutes left. Their zone did a nice job forcing the Tigers into difficult shots from their guards, instead of high percentage looks for Jordan Mickey. Two late fouls on made shots were inexcusable, but Mississippi State had built enough of a lead that it didn’t matter. The win was a nice culmination of what has been a positive few weeks for Rick Ray and his program.
  5. The season is beginning to spiral out of control for Missouri. A loss to Ole Miss was expected, but the Tigers got very little from their freshmen, and Tramaine Isabell missed the game after being suspended indefinitely. Kim Anderson didn’t mince words or hide behind coachspeak in saying that Isabell’s behavior towards teammates and coaches has been “unacceptable.” That doesn’t sound like a situation that will resolve itself quickly. It’s incredible in hindsight to think that this was a team some thought could compete for a NIT bid, even with its youth. The losses are now mounting (7-14) and none of the freshmen seem to be trending in the right direction, at least not consistently. To get some positive momentum the Tigers will need Montaque Gill-Caesar, Namon Wright or Jakeenan Gant to string together a few solid outings.
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SEC Stock Watch: 01.23.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 23rd, 2015

We are now nearly one-third of the way through SEC play, and it’s time to take our weekly look at which teams, players and trends are heading in the right direction, who isn’t going anywhere, and who needs to turn things around. This is the SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Rick Ray. Last week, the Mississippi State coach looked to be well on his way to the unemployment line. A home win over Vanderbilt and a road win at Auburn — the Bulldogs’ first in their last 22 tries — have changed that momentum, however, and Ray’s program may finally have something cooking. Whether his squad can keep things heading in the right direction remains to be seen, as Mississippi State faces several of the league’s most capable teams over the next few weeks.
The emergence of Armani Moore is a big reason for Tennessee's success (sportsanimal99.com)

The emergence of Armani Moore is a big reason for Tennessee’s success (sportsanimal99.com)

  • Tennessee. Prior to the season, Donnie Tyndall’s squad was picked to finish 13th in the league by the media. The Tennessee coach guaranteed that would not happen, and so far, his prediction looks pretty good. The Volunteers have won their first three road games for the first time in six years, and play three of their next four contests at home. They sit alone in second place at 4-1 and could be 7-2 in league play before embarking upon a brutal second half of the SEC schedule.
  • Devin Booker’s shooting. The one real criticism leveled against Kentucky this season has been its relative inability to consistently knock down outside shots. Booker has silenced a lot of that yammering by shooting a robust 11-of-18 from beyond the arc in league play. The freshman’s keen ability to make long-range shots opens up the Wildcats’ dominant inside game, and makes John Calipari’s team even more lethal than it already was.
  • Georgia. The Bulldogs finally appear to be headed in the right direction, playing like a team many thought could make the NCAA Tournament. After an 0-2 start in which they blew large leads, Mark Fox’s team has now won three in a row and faces three more winnable games before a trip to Lexington on February 3. There is no good reason why Georgia can’t separate itself as the second-best team in the SEC in coming weeks.

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SEC Stock Watch: 01.16.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on January 16th, 2015

We are now nearly two weeks into conference play, so let’s take a hard look at which teams, players and other things are heading in the right direction, stuck in neutral or on the decline. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Florida. Perhaps all it took was conference play for the Gators to right the ship. After opening SEC play with a solid win at upstart South Carolina, the Gators easily dispatched conference lightweights Mississippi State and Auburn in Gainesville. Things get tougher on Saturday when they travel to Georgia, but Billy Donovan’s team is doing what it takes to tidy up its shaky resume for March.
  • Dominique Hawkins. The Kentucky guard went from not being part of either five-man platoon to starting against Missouri, and in his 20 minutes of action he gave John Calipari the perimeter defense the Wildcats needed. His entry into the starting lineup in place of Tyler Ulis was a bit of a surprise, but it obviously got the team’s attention as the Wildcats cruised to an 86-47 win over the Tigers, eradicating some of the bad vibe left over from last week’s overtime wins against Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Dominique Hawkins took advantage of his surprise start against Missouri (Bleacher Report).

Dominique Hawkins took advantage of his surprise start against Missouri (Bleacher Report).

  • Robert Hubbs. Anyone who saw Hubbs play earlier this year wouldn’t believe that the freshman would ever make a Stock Watch list, although there was clearly nowhere for him to go than up. The former five-star recruit was way overrated coming out of high school, but Hubbs needed to find a way to contribute for Tennessee to have any success this season. He has done just that, and his career-high 16 points against Arkansas was a huge reason the Vols were able to upset the Hogs earlier this week.
  • Alabama. Sure, the Crimson Tide lost at South Carolina on Tuesday night, but there is no shame in dropping a two-point contest to one of the league’s most improved teams on the road. Alabama clearly has moved on from last year’s disaster, and with two of its next five games against Kentucky, Anthony Grant’s team has a chance to really get things moving (finally) in the right direction.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

With the SEC’s 18-game conference schedule tipping off this week, it’s time to introduce our new The SEC Week That Was column. For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. We’ll start with Volume I, including games from December 29 to January 4.

Team of the Week. Could it go to any other team but South Carolina? The Gamecocks continued their trend of blowing out bad teams by beating North Carolina A&T by 37 points, and then picked up the league’s best non-Kentucky win by beating Iowa State on Saturday in Brooklyn. KenPom has liked Carolina’s defense all season, as the Gamecocks currently have the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball. It was on full display at the Barclays Center as Frank Martin’s team forced the high-powered Cyclones’ offense into 35.1 percent shooting from the floor and 0.79 points per possession, far and away its worst offensive showing of the year. Carolina also got excellent production from its backcourt, as Ty Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice scored at least 13 points apiece. Scrappy defense and solid guard play were the hallmarks of Frank Martin’s best teams at Kansas State, and it seems like his Gamecocks are rounding into that form. I think you can safely put South Carolina on the early NCAA Tournament bubble.

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. Jarell Martin, LSU. The Tigers’ sophomore enters league play as the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, and did nothing but pad that figure last week with strong stat lines in wins over Southern Miss (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Savannah State (26 points, eight rebounds, three assists). DraftExpress ranks Martin as the 42nd-best prospect in this summer’s NBA Draft, so you have to wonder if he will stick around another year. If he does, he’ll join five-star recruits Ben Simmons and the recently-committed Antonio Blakeney on an ultra-talented LSU roster. Honorable mention goes to Missouri’s Jonathan Williams, who starred in a loss to Oklahoma State (22 points, nine rebounds) and a win over Lipscomb (16 points, 10 rebounds). The sophomore forward has been more aggressive on the offensive end and seems to have realized that he needs to command the basketball for the Tigers to play well.

Tournament Chatter. Who made the biggest strides towards an NCAA Tournament invitation this past week?

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SEC M5: 12.22.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 22nd, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. When a team starts a game on a 24-0 run and leads 41-7 at the half, people will take notice. When that team is a Kentucky squad that had people already wondering if anyone could beat it, even prior to its dominant performance against UCLA, the college basketball world’s collective head will be left spinning. We could provide links to an endless number of columns that offer takes on just how good this Kentucky team can be, but this piece from FoxSports.com‘s Reid Forgrave will suffice. As he points out, if the Wildcats can survive next Saturday’s test at Louisville, it really is reasonable to think that this team could be the first to go undefeated in 39 years. At this point, the biggest problem John Calipari may have the rest of the way might be keeping his team focused and blocking out any distraction from its pursuit of perfection.
  2. As if Tennessee wasn’t thin enough on the front line, it was confirmed Friday that freshman forward Jabari McGhee will miss six to eight weeks after having surgery to repair the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. McGhee suffered the injury in Wednesday’s loss to North Carolina State. McGhee averaged 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in the team’s first eight games, and while those numbers may not seem like much, with the recent departure of center Dom Woodson, McGhee’s injury leaves only fellow freshmen Willie Carmichael and Tariq Owens as true post players. While Carmichael has been more productive, and played 27 minutes in Friday’s win over Tennessee Tech, both are raw. The team will now have to rely even more on do-it-all senior Josh Richardson as they draw near to SEC play.
  3. The end of the first semester means that players who transferred at mid-season last year are now eligible. At FloridaAlex Murphy made his debut against Wake Forest Saturday, and it was a successful one. The former Duke Blue Devil scored nine points in 29 minutes, and it is clear that Billy Donovan was pleased with his performance, saying that Murphy played “great.” Donovan is also pleased that Murphy can play so many positions. Given the team’s struggles thus far this season, as well as its lack of frontcourt depth, the addition of Murphy could help the Gators in their quest to return to the NCAA Tournament.
  4. Auburn got its first big win of the Bruce Pearl era Saturday when it toppled Xavier 89-88 in a double overtime thriller. The win moved the Tigers to 5-5. In the bigger picture, however, it was the SEC’s first win over the Musketeers, which had beaten Alabama at home and Missouri on the road. After the game, Pearl talked about how the win not only was big for his team and the goals it has set, but also for the conference’s profile. While Pearl should be applauded for being such a cheerleader for the league he coached in previously, and followed closely while working as an analyst at ESPN, it’s hard to imagine this game mattering much come Selection Sunday. Certainly, the win will help the league’s RPI, etc. to a small degree, but beyond that, it appears to be little more than a nice boost for his team and program.
  5. At the start of the season, we speculated that Rick Ray potentially could be on thin ice if things didn’t start to get better at Mississippi State, and, well, things clearly are not getting better at Mississippi State. On the heels of a home loss to Arkansas State on Thursday, the Bulldogs fell to South Carolina-Upstate in Jackson on Saturday. The loss was their fifth in a row, and though lowly McNeese State and Jacksonville come calling before year’s end, things do not appear to be getting better for Ray, whose team dropped to 5-5. While this is only Ray’s third year at the school, Mississippi State won a total of seven conference games in his first two seasons, and it doesn’t appear the team is well-positioned to add much to that total. Though he still has time to turn things around with this club, another woeful performance in the league may mean lights out for Ray.
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SEC M5: 12.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 19th, 2014

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  1. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan writes that John Calipari’s biggest challenge this season might be instilling enough doubt in his team so that they don’t completely buy the hype. There’s no doubt Cal needs to latch on to any struggle he can to keep the Wildcats on their toes, but I don’t think he’s going at it alone. A good part of the team was around for last year’s six conference losses. Willie Cauley-Stein was around for that and the epic disappointment that was 2012-13. These players may have confidence, but I doubt they have short memories, and Cal should have support keeping the team focused.
  2. Uttering the word “Clemson” around this microsite is risky business. Legend has it if you say the word three times Brad Brownell will appear and ruin the dreams of your favorite SEC squad. The Tigers have, after all, already beaten Arkansas, LSU and Auburn while losing to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Rutgers. South Carolina gets its shot at its arch rival tonight, and the importance of the game isn’t lost on Frank Martin. “Any time you play those kind of games, you’re playing for your school, first and foremost,” Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “But you’re also representing your conference. And we take pride in that.” The Gamecocks have a good chance to end the SEC’s Clemson skid as they looked good demolishing Oklahoma State almost two weeks ago. Duane Notice has also stepped up his game in a big way, scoring 47 points in his last two games.
  3. The sun probably hasn’t set on Alabama’s tournament chances, but the Tide need to get on a roll to (no pun intended) to truly get in the discussion. The folks at Roll Bama Roll suggest that more of the offensive game plan should involve Michael Kessens, and the numbers certainly back that up. He’s posted the best effective field goal percentage on the team, and looks comfortable with the ball anywhere on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Grant divides up minutes between Kessens and fellow sophomore Shannon Hale the rest of the way, especially since Hale is shooting three’s at a worse rate than last year.
  4. Jakeenan Gant’s debut was a bright spot in what has been a difficult opening season for Kim Anderson at Missouri. The freshman finally gained eligibility and was able to take the court in the Tigers loss to Xavier, scoring 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. This was a surprise to his coach. “I really didn’t expect that much from him just because he hadn’t really been playing with the first group of guys,” Anderson told the Columbia Missourian. “But I was really pleased with the way he came in.” This year will largely be about the development of Gant, Jonathan Williams and Teki Gill-Caesar. The Tigers looked good for portions of the Xavier game, and can build on this with a rivalry game against Illinois tomorrow.
  5. Until last night the only Division I team that Arkansas State, with an RPI of 339 and KenPom rating of 192, had beaten was Central Arkansas. Then they went to Starkville and beat Mississippi State. This was a truly damaging defeat. “Even beyond that, we’ve got to start giving a return on the investment. I think the administration; everybody’s invested in this program. We have to start giving a return on that investment,” Rick Ray told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In a league with no shortage of bad losses this season, this may have been the worst. As Ray said, it’s frustrating because you would have thought the program would be above this type of result at this point in his tenure. Maybe it was a bad outing, but the Bulldogs are mired in a four game losing streak and need to start building some positive momentum or questions about Ray’s job security may begin to surface.
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SEC M5: 10.31.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 31st, 2014

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  1. Who doesn’t love lists, especially preseason lists? SBNation put out a list of the top 100 players in college basketball this week and, without crunching the numbers, it seems the SEC is pretty well-represented. Karl-Anthony Towns led the way at #7, and he is joined by five other Kentucky stars. Outside of Big Blue Nation, legitimate pro-prospects Chris Walker (Florida – #20), Jordan Mickey (LSU – #27) and Bobby Portis (Arkansas – #75) also made an appearance. I give credit to SBNation for including the largely under-the-radar but certainly deserving Jarvis Summers (Ole MIss – #79) and Sindarius Thornwell (South Carolina – #82). The only “snub” I can think of might be LSU’s Jarell Martin, but he did get included in “50 more who just missed.”
  2. CBSSports.com‘s Jon Rothstein included two SEC players among his list of 20 under-the-radar freshmen. He writes that Georgia forward Yante Maten could end up as one of the better freshmen in the conference, and if this turns out to be true, the Bulldogs have a great chance to go dancing in March. Mark Fox returns a number of core pieces from last year’s surprising team, but there is a void in the frontcourt after Donte Williams graduated and Brandon Morris was booted from the team over the summer. Maten shouldn’t be pressed into a scoring role too early, though, with Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines and Nemanja Djurisic all still in the fold. Georgia, however, needs to replace Morris and Williams’ combined 8.5 rebounds per game, and Maten should be able to help in that area immediately.
  3. Mike Anderson has made rebounding a priority heading into his fourth and most pivotal season as the Arkansas coach. “Rebounding is the ending of the defense,” sophomore forward Bobby Portis told SI.com. “You can play defense for 33 seconds or 34 seconds and they can shoot, and they get the rebound back and there’s no point in playing defense.” Better rebounding would be a big way to reverse the struggles the Razorbacks have had away from Bud Walton Arena under Anderson. Incredibly, Arkansas still managed to go 8-1 when outrebounded at home last season, but this record flipped to just 3-8 when the Razorbacks were outclassed on the glass away from Fayetteville. Giving more playing time to Jacorey Williams (14.4 total rebounding percentage/9.2 minutes per game) and Moses Kingsley (13.1 total rebounding percentage/11.5 minutes per game) could be part of the answer this season.
  4. Kim Anderson faced an opponent for the first time as Missouri’s head coach on Wednesday, as the Tigers beat Division II William Jewell College, 72-31. One interesting tidbit from the game was that Anderson used all three of his point guardsWes Clark, Keith Shamburger and Tramaine Isabell – in the same lineup. “We practice it a lot, playing with two other point guards,” Clark told the Kansas City Star. “It makes it easier for me because the team has to spread out and play more, like, against the shooters, so it makes it easier for me to drive.” This type of tinkering and innovation will be especially important for Anderson as he replaces virtually all of Missouri’s scoring from last season.
  5. One of Mississippi State’s biggest problems in the Rick Ray era has been his team’s inability to hit the three. The Bulldogs were 321st in the country in team three-point percentage last season (30.7 percent) which was a slight tick up from 337th the year before (28.4 percent). Ray told the Associated Press that outside shooting will again likely be a struggle, so at least he is being honest. Junior Fred Thomas might be the best bet to help the Bulldogs turn around their long-range shooting fortunes. He seems to at least have the confidence and willingness to shoot the three (144 attempts, 31.9 percent), unlike fellow junior guard Craig Sword, who understandably only put up 44 three-point attempts (27.3 percent) last year despite a high usage rate. Thomas, or newcomers Maurice Dunlap and Travis Daniels, adding a three-point element would go a long way toward some improvement in Starkville.
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