SEC Rundown: Volume XI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 9th, 2016

What a difference a few weeks can make. It wasn’t too long ago that the big mystery in the SEC was which team would finish second to Texas A&M. Instead, LSU now finds itself in sole possession of first place, and the Aggies’ defense has shown some cracks during a three-game conference losing streak. Here’s what happened last week in SEC hoops and what to look for in the week ahead.

Antonio Blakeney had the best game of his young college career against Mississippi State (theadvocate.com).

Antonio Blakeney had the best game of his young college career against Mississippi State (theadvocate.com).

  • Trending Up. Antonio Blakeney, LSU. Even when his shots weren’t falling early in the season, Blakeney was still playing hard and bringing value on defense. In SEC play, the shots have been falling more frequently (+5.5% eFG), however, and the freshman put together his best game to date (31 points on 4-of-8 from three) last week against Mississippi State. If he continues to cash in on his lofty potential, defenses will have one more dynamic playmaker to contend with along with Ben Simmons.
  • Trending Down. Confidence that the SEC will have many teams playing past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M, LSU, Kentucky and Florida all showed potential against high quality opponents in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Yet last week the Aggies dropped two games, Florida’s normally stout defense was lit up twice, and the Wildcats coughed up a 21-point lead in a loss to Tennessee. These teams’ potential is there, but there’s plenty of inconsistency right alongside it.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IX

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 26th, 2016

The regular season title is solidly Texas A&M‘s to lose at this point as the Aggies are two games clear of a trio of second place teams. But if college basketball has taught us anything this year it’s that the game can be fickle. Here’s what the Aggies and rest of the league were up to last week.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida are hanging around in the race for the regular season title (zimbio.com).

Team of the Week. For now the storm has passed in Lexington. Kentucky followed up the loss at Auburn with a good win over Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena and a dominant performance at home against Vanderbilt. Lost amid the hand-wringing over the front court has been another very good Wildcat defense. They were excellent in that regard on Saturday, making non-factors out of Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance, and Mathew Fisher-Davis. “That’s the best defensive game we’ve had,” Tyler Ulis told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “That’s what we need to do every game because in order for us to win, we have to be a defensive team.”

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Saiz Injury May Mean No Moody or Ole Miss in March

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 21st, 2016

If Ole Miss‘ current three-game losing streak didn’t put the fire out on the Rebels’ already-slim NCAA tournament chances, then Sebastian Saiz‘ torn retina might do the trick. Andy Kennedy will be without his best big man for at least two weeks as Saiz recovers from surgery for an injury he suffered back in December against Memphis. The eye issue didn’t affect the junior’s play as he stayed in line with what has been a breakout year. Saiz is nearly averaging a double-double (12.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and hasn’t wilted in SEC play, scoring in double figures and grabbing at least six rebounds in every game.

Sebastian Saiz' absence could be devastating for Ole Miss (bleacherreport.com).

Sebastian Saiz’ absence could be devastating for Ole Miss (bleacherreport.com).

A player like Saiz is a big loss no matter the circumstance, but is especially painful for Ole Miss for a number of reasons. First, Saiz is the Rebels only consistent offensive threat in the post and is by far Kennedy’s best rebounder. Second, the Rebels are about as thin a power conference team as you will find. Kennedy’s rotation generally has maxed out at eight players and only six players average more than 20 minutes per game. Also thin? The Rebels’ shot at making a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament. The picture looked fairly rosy a week and a half ago when Ole Miss ran out to a 2-1 SEC start and stood at 12-3 overall. The aesthetics of the overall record covered for the fact that the Rebels’ best win was an away game at Memphis and that they were carrying a disappointing loss to George Mason (KenPom #196).

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SEC Week That Was: Volume VIII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 19th, 2016

There is suddenly uncertainty everywhere in the SEC, as league representation in this year’s NCAA Tournament is still very difficult to predict. At one end of the spectrum, the league could realistically see as few as three teams get the call on Selection Sunday. But on the other end, if a bubblelicious group of SEC teams finishes strong, the league could see as many as seven teams in the field of 68 if things break right. There’s a lot left to settle, but here’s what we learned over the past week.

A shorthanded Auburn picked an emotional win over Kentucky (auburntigers.com).

A shorthanded Auburn picked up an emotional win over Kentucky (auburntigers.com).

Team of the Week. It hasn’t been an easy year for Bruce Pearl and Auburn. His 2016 recruiting class generated buzz, but injuries and eligibility issues have kept it from transforming into production on the court. This, coupled with a string of injuries to the back court (including Tahj Shamsid-Deen being officially ruled out the rest of the way), have put Auburn in a tough spot. The lowest point of the trying season came in a blowout loss to Mizzou ten days ago, but what a difference a week makes. The Tigers beat Kentucky for the first time since 2000 in front of a rabid crowd at Auburn Arena. This was the first signature win for Pearl on the Plains, and for that, the Tigers have earned team of the week honors.

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Alex Caruso’s Transformation Fueling Texas A&M’s Charge

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2016

Alex Caruso is an accomplished player. The senior guard is so accomplished that it’s not a stretch to say he’s had one of the most impressive careers in Texas A&M basketball history. The active SEC leader in assists and steals has led the conference in both categories each of the past two seasons. That’s one heck of a career. But as this season tipped off, Caruso found himself playing alongside a new teammate who had dished more assists in his college career than even he had.

Alex Caruso's touches are down but he's remained productive (texags.com).

Alex Caruso’s touches are down but he’s remained productive (texags.com).

South Florida transfer Anthony Collins joined the program and brought his 569 career assists and a wealth of experience along with him. He became A&M’s primary point guard from day one and Caruso’s touches naturally dropped — as the table below shows, he’s using the fewest number of possessions and shots of his entire career. A new, reduced role would frustrate a lot of established players, but the senior has instead transformed himself into the grease on the wheels of a team charging toward March.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 12th, 2016

The SEC began last week with the long-awaited Ben Simmons against Kentucky showcase and ended with the annual reappearance of John Calipari to the Nets rumors. Here’s what happened in between.

Team of the Week

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

It was an exciting first week for Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss in the Pavilion (uga.rivals.com).

Sign Andy Kennedy up for a few more weeks like that. The Rebels had loud, capacity crowds for their first two games in the Pavilion and the players on the floor didn’t disappoint. Ole Miss first overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to down Alabama, and then erased Georgia’s four-point lead with less than a minute to eke by the Bulldogs. As usual, Stefan Moody played a starring role in both wins, including a whirlwind game-winning layup against Georgia. The contributions of Sebastian Saiz shouldn’t be overlooked either, as he continued to be an active force in the paint with a pair of double-doubles. The Ole Miss program has some serious energy surrounding it right now.

Player of the Week

You could hand this to a number of guys — Moody, Saiz and (as always) Simmons come to mind. But this week’s honor goes to Anthlon Bell whose torrid three-point shooting and 51 points over two games led Arkansas to home wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Bell spent his first three seasons in Fayetteville as a solid but unspectacular option that Mike Anderson utilized in short bursts. With increased playing time during his senior season, he’s exploded in production. Bell leads the SEC in three-point percentage (47.1%) despite taking the third most three-point shots (104) in the conference.

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LSU Looking to Surge to the Top in Wide Open SEC Race

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 6th, 2016

ESPN didn’t get the 30-point, 20-rebound eye-popping gem of a game from Ben Simmons it hoped to showcase on Tuesday night, but LSU nevertheless had a near-perfect night in its big win over Kentucky. No gaudy numbers from Simmons? No Simmons really at all in the first half? No problem. LSU jumped out early, led by 10 at the break, and coasted into an 85-67 victory that gave the Tigers’ many detractors pause about their long-term prospects.

Tim Quarterman was LSU's big star in its win over Kentucky (kentucky.com).

Tim Quarterman was LSU’s big star in its win over Kentucky (kentucky.com).

LSU’s biggest issue this season has been its defense, which could be termed as inconsistent at best, disinterested at worst. Neither of these terms applied on Tuesday night, however, as LSU put up an impressive defensive performance in turning the Wildcats into a jump-shooting team that scored 0.96 points per possession. Kentucky couldn’t get anything easy in the paint and its most reliable offense was Jamal Murray desperately trying to create off the dribble late in the shot clock. It was a great recipe for a win, but perhaps the biggest story of the night was the lack of significant impact from Simmons (who still put up a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, most of which came after the Wildcats were finished). It was instead Tim Quarterman who stole the show, notching 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a showcase game of his own talents. This scintillating performance came from a player who had not scored in double figures in the five previous games and whose role was becoming increasingly hazy with Simmons dominating the ball.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 30th, 2015

There were relatively slim pickings in terms of games over the holiday week, but there was still plenty of SEC action to digest. Let’s break down what went down in some of the final non-conference games of the season as we look ahead to the start of league play this weekend.

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky's win over Louisville (aseaofblue.com).

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky’s win over Louisville. (USA TODAY Sports)

Team of the WeekKentucky stole the show on the lightest college basketball weekend of the year with its narrow win in the Battle of the Bluegrass. The Wildcats lost Isaiah Briscoe to a turned ankle in pregame warm-ups and got very little from Skal Labissiere (for the entire game) or Jamal Murray (for most of the game). Yet they were still able to beat a top-25 team without any freshmen playing a starring role. It took a superb effort from Tyler Ulis (21 points, 8 assists/1 turnover) and good games from Alex PoythressMarcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins. Who knew a Kentucky win led by a sophomore, two juniors and a senior was possible in the Calipari era? That the Wildcats have that kind of depth and experience is why despite ups and downs from the freshmen class, this team will not go the way the team did during Poythress’ freshman year.

Player of the Week. Ulis was the marquee player in the win over the Cardinals, and it wasn’t close. He’s becoming about as complete a player as a college point guard can be, and displayed it all against Louisville. He was masterful breaking the Cardinals’ press and controlled the game offensively, especially by delivering a number of passes to Poythress that put him in position to score near the basket. He also played a big role scoring the ball himself and seems to have shrugged off the elbow injury that had been clearly limiting him since the UCLA loss. The sophomore was an efficient 4-of-7 from distance and scored around the rim as well. Kentucky needed its star point guard to step up against Louisville, and he did just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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Alabama Poised to Seize an Opportunity in SEC Play

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 23rd, 2015

If you’re an Alabama fan, you couldn’t have been blamed for feeling underwhelmed when athletic director Bill Battle introduced Avery Johnson and his infectious smile as the next Crimson Tide basketball coach. Battle had swung hard for Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and had come up empty. The former NBA Coach of the Year (Dallas Mavericks) was a good back-up plan in the sense that he brought some name-brand appeal to the program, but would he be a good fit for rhythms and demands of the college game? His last coaching stint did not go well with the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, and his last experience in college was as a player. It was easy to speculate that this was an experiment unlikely to pan out for Alabama, especially since Mississippi State (Ben Howland) and Tennessee (Rick Barnes) hired proven college winners.

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide's loss to Oregon (rolltide.com).

Justin Coleman had a career night in the Tide’s loss to Oregon (rolltide.com).

But as we near the start of conference play, the early returns on Johnson’s performance have been great. There have been wins on the recruiting trail, such as adding five-star shooting guard Terrance Ferguson to his class of 2016. That part was more or less predictable since few other college coaches can sell as much NBA know-how and connections as Johnson. The Tide’s results on the court, though, have been the bigger surprise. Sitting at 7-3 with games against Jacksonville State and Norfolk State before conference play begins, Alabama looks poised to become a legitimate player in an SEC race that looks as open at the top as it has been in years. That’s not necessarily something many saw coming in the preseason.

Blowout losses to Xavier and Dayton in November exposed two big weaknesses: poor rebounding and ball control. Over those two games, the Tide turned the ball over 38 times and were destroyed (-29) on the glass. They were able to right the ship with a subsequent five-game winning streak that included victories over Wichita State (without point guard Fred VanVleet), Notre Dame and Clemson. But Johnson’s offense generally struggled and starting freshman point guard Dazon Ingram was lost for the season with a fractured left foot. There were still a number of questions about Alabama heading into Monday’s game against Oregon in Birmingham. And although the Tide blew a 12-point halftime lead to lose a close contest to a team that has become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, their effort against the Ducks nevertheless showed that they are not a fluke.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 21st, 2015

The week before Christmas provided stocking stuffers for fans of SEC teams, as the league picked up a number of wins against power conference competition. But there was some coal too, highlighted by Kentucky‘s buzzed-about loss to an underwhelming-to-this-point Ohio State team. Here’s the rundown of the SEC’s penultimate non-conference week of action.

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs (onlineathens.com).

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs. (OnlineAthens)

Team of the Week Texas A&M has had a good time playing old Big 12 foes this year. The Aggies had wins against Texas (doesn’t that look better now?) and Kansas State under their belt, and then went and handled a good Baylor team at home this past week. Texas A&M did what Vanderbilt couldn’t a few weeks ago and controlled Taurean Prince, holding the versatile senior to just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting. In all, Texas A&M continued defending at the level it has all season, keeping an efficient Bears offense to 0.90 points per possession. On an individual level, this was a nice game for Danuel House. He helped the Aggies build an early lead and drilled a couple of three’s in the process. He’s a far better shooter than his numbers this year suggest (32.5 percent from three), but a lot of that is due to a dreadful 3-of-15 three-point shooting night against Arizona State. We’re talking about a potential future NBA wing, so confidence shouldn’t be an issue, but Billy Kennedy has to be pleased seeing House trend back up from distance. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume III: Simmons’ Big Night

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 3rd, 2015

This edition of SEC Quotable and Notable reviews Ben Simmons’ Herculean effort, a midweek offensive explosion, an assists record in College Station, Georgia’s razor-thin roster, and some interesting warm-ups in Columbia. Let’s jump into it.

Ben Simmons is living up to the hype. LSU is not. (philly.com).

Ben Simmons is living up to the hype. LSU is not. (philly.com).

“I felt like they couldn’t stop me in the post.” — Ben Simmons on his 43-point outing against North Florida, the first time a Tiger has scored 40 or more points in a game since Tasmin Mitchell in 2009 (courtesy @codyworsham). Yes, the Tigers scored well over 100 points (119) and Simmons may have put together a statistical night that won’t be topped for the rest of the year (43 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, five steals). By anyone. But this doesn’t remove the serious concerns surrounding this team. The Ospreys, led by Beau Beech (31 points, 8-of-12 from three), got off to a torrid start from deep and kept up the offensive onslaught for most of the game (finishing 19-of-33 from three-point land). LSU had to know that bombing from deep would be the nation-leading three-point team’s modus operandi, but the Tigers still struggled to close out and cover all the open looks. The defensive performance was reminiscent of the kind of effort that had doomed LSU against the College of Charleston. The offensive side of the equation, however, was considerably more encouraging. Simmons played off the ball while Tim Quarterman and Josh Gray typically ran the point. This allowed the Tigers to get Simmons the ball closer to the basket so that he could operate in the post, a strategy that clearly worked out very well. For a team that often relies upon its transition game to provide offense, a sustainable half-court approach involving Simmons in the post might be something to carry forward from this game.

Notable: Hanging those 100s. Several SEC offenses have had a banner scoring week already, as LSU (119 against North Florida), Arkansas (117 against Northwestern State) and Vanderbilt (102 against Detroit) all topped the century mark in midweek games. Arkansas and LSU also put together ratings above 100.0 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics. All of this great offense came against inferior competition, of course, but that doesn’t prohibit those performances from creating some momentum.

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Lithuanian Duo Fueling South Carolina’s Hot Start

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 27th, 2015

A dark horse is emerging in the SEC, as South Carolina knocked of Tulsa to win the Paradise Jam and cap off its first 5-0 start since 2003-04. Two of the main reasons for the great start have been a pair of senior forwards from basketball-crazed Lithuania — Laimons Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas. One of the storylines coming into the season was whether the Gamecocks’ senior-laden frontcourt could support its rotation of dynamic, big-bodied guards. Early on, the bigs have done far more than just support.

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina's Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Mindaugas Kacinas and Sindarius Thornwell took home all tournament honors en route to South Carolina’s Paradise Jam championship (photo courtesy @GamecockMBB).

Chatkevicius has been an offensive force, scoring 17 points a piece against Hofstra and Tulsa, and dropping 27 in a home win over Oral Roberts. The 6’11” center struggled to stay on the court for long stretches in his first two years, but showed improvement sustaining minutes last season (22.8 MPG). He is never going to be a 30-plus minute per night player given his giant frame, but he appears to be at a point this season — in terms of conditioning and avoiding foul trouble — that Frank Martin can rely heavily on him. He’s got an efficient back-to-the-basket game (seen in the video below) and range out to the three-point line, making him the type of player that can help the Gamecocks withstand cold nights from the perimeter. Read the rest of this entry »

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