SEC Hoops Would Do Well to Follow Big 12 Roadmap

Posted by Keith Hatfield on November 3rd, 2016

SEC basketball has long suffered from the perception that the league consists of Kentucky and a group of schools waiting for spring football to begin. While the league has begun to attack its image problem, there is still work to be done. If the SEC needs a blueprint for how to flip the script on the current narrative, it can look at the Big 12’s recent resurgence. While Kansas has been the unquestioned lodestar in that conference, the other schools have taken action and helped create a college hoops monster. Since many of the schools in the Big 12 are also football powers, their experiences have particular relevance to the pigskin-mad members of the SEC. Here are four steps the SEC can take to replicate the basketball success of their Big 12 counterparts.

SEC

SEC Basketball Should Look to the Big 12 for a Roadmap to Success

  1. Sell the Chase. Too often it seems as if the other 13 SEC schools are resigned to Kentucky’s dominance. That is not the case in the Big 12, a league that has done a great job in capturing fan interest by making sure everyone knows the worthy challengers to the Jayhawks (winners of 12 straight conference titles) each season. Sports fans love to see dynasties pushed to the limit. The SEC has to become more proactive in marketing that possibility to its core audience.
  2. Stay the Course. One of the main reasons the Big 12 has been able to improve its basketball brand is with its aggressive hiring of quality coaches. When half or more of your league coaches have been to a Final Four, you are on to something. The SEC has followed suit in the past couple of hiring cycles. Names like Ben Howland, Bruce Pearl, Rick Barnes, and Avery Johnson resonate with fans. The conference will benefit if every school with an opening makes a similar commitment to hiring a coach with some professional cachet. Doing that allows for the type of top-to-bottom strength that has served the Big 12 so well. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Texas A&M 77 (OT)

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

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Three Key Takeaways

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

  1. Ulis was the difference. Jamal Murray struggled more than he had in quite a while, as his 20-point game streak came to an end at 11 (he still had 17). His backcourt mate, Tyler Ulis, however, was there to pick up the slack. Ulis not only led Kentucky with 30 points, but also delivered the crucial baskets for the Wildcats. Ulis is able to penetrate and find good looks better than just about anyone we’ve seen at his size; in a game that was close the entire way, Ulis was the clear difference. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine Kentucky being in position to garner a #3 seed or making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. This was a quality SEC basketball game. The hoops side of the SEC gets made fun of plenty, and often rightfully so. This is a league that could get only two of its 14 members into the NCAA Tournament — an unfathomable consideration for a power five conference. But these two teams were anything but embarrassing today. Kentucky is the SEC constant and have dealt with a revolving door of challengers through the year; the Aggies are the newest one, and their balance, experience, and overall talent that was on display this weekend should not be taken lightly in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a shame there aren’t more such teams in the conference.
  3. Texas A&M acted like it had been here before. Despite the loss, the Aggies showed they belonged. Texas A&M is not used to being on this stage, but that certainly did not show. Senior Danuel House was exceptional for the Aggies in scoring a game-high 32 points, including the tying bucket that sent the game to overtime. Four seniors who log a lot of minutes will be gone next season, but the future is bright for Billy Kennedy’s program, as freshmen Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, and DJ Hogg showed strong signs that they will be able to grow into more prominent roles next season. It’s quite clear why Kennedy was given a five-year contract extension yesterday.

Star of the Game. Tyler Ulis. This was a no-brainer, as was Ulis’s selection as tournament MVP. Still, it simply can’t be overstated how good the sophomore guard was today. He had several critical drives for baskets during regulation, and he helped UK begin overtime on the right track with a three after a quick move forced his defender to fall down. Ulis vindicated his selection as both conference player of the year and defensive player of the year with a tremendous final week in the SEC.

Quotable.

  • “You’ve got to give Kentucky credit. They made the big shots to win the game.” – Billy Kennedy, on the difference in Sunday’s game.
  • “He’s played three straight days without coming out and he could probably play 40 more minutes right now if he needed to.” – Alex Caruso, on one of the things that makes Tyler Ulis special.
  • “We’re still not where we want to be defensively, but this team has gotten better all year. We’re finally healthy so when guys don’t play well, you look for the next man.” – John Calipari, on the improvement of his team.

Sights and Sounds. As it always is at the SEC Tournament, this was a de facto home game for the Wildcats. Big Blue Nation accounted for at least 95% of the fans in attendance, with Kentucky superfan Ashley Judd among them. Kennedy admitted after the game that the crowd was a big advantage for the Wildcats. “We knew that we were playing in basically Rupp Arena,” he said. Some things never change.

What’s Next. Both teams will await word from the Selection Committee as to where they go next. It’s reasonable to believe both will receive a 4-seed or better. While Kentucky may have improved its seeding with the performance this weekend, it’s hard to imagine that Texas A&M did anything in defeat that would harm its standing. The SEC may only get two teams into the Big Dance, but they’ll both be very tough outs.

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LSU’s Dreadful Performance Could Put Johnny Jones’ Future in Doubt

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2016

In Saturday’s first semifinal matchup at the SEC Tournament, things started out well enough for LSU. The Tigers got to the first media timeout with an 8-3 lead and otherwise looked ready to play. From there, things were, to put it mildly, a disaster for Johnny Jones‘ team. Over the last 15:47 of the half, the Bayou Bengals registered just one field goal — an Antonio Blakeney three-pointer at the 1:18 mark — and were outscored 32-5 on their way to a 35-13 halftime deficit. Ben Simmons picked up three fouls and sat for most of the frame, but using that as an excuse for the putrid effort his team collectively put forward would not be fair. LSU was outhustled in every way by a Texas A&M team that looked like it actually wanted to be in Nashville. The Aggies coasted to an astonishing 71-38 victory that puts them in Sunday’s championship game against the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal between Kentucky and Georgia.

After Saturday's 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it's time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

After Saturday’s 71-38 loss to Texas A&M, the case can be made that it’s time for LSU to move on from Johnny Jones (nola.com).

The first half was in many ways a microcosm of LSU’s entire season. This is a team from which much was expected but could not deliver on the hype. Simmons is regarded by many as the likely first overall pick in the NBA Draft, and while he showed why he’s so highly-regarded at times this season, there were plenty of moments when he did not. On Saturday, after sitting much of the first half, he essentially was a non-factor on his way to a 10-point, 12-rebound performance. After the game, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said he felt sorry for Simmons. “He’s a 19-year-old kid. He’s put on this pedestal; it’s just a lot to ask,” he said. For his part, Simmons said he wasn’t burdened by the pressure so many put on him. “For me, I just wanted to play. I didn’t tell myself where I was going to be, where our team was going to be,” he said after the game.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kentucky 78, #21 Arkansas 63

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2015

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SEC Microsite writer David Changas is covering the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville and filed this report following Sunday’s Championship Game.

Three Key Takeaways.

Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron Harrison celebrate the SEC Championship.

Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron Harrison celebrate the SEC Championship.

  1. If Kentucky Plays Like This… We have all known for a while that if Kentucky is going to lose a game this season, it’s going to take an extraordinary effort from its opponent and the Wildcats will have to deliver a subpar effort. Kentucky jumped out to an early 8-0 lead against Arkansas before the Hawgs clawed back to tie it at 19; from that point, the Wildcats outscored the Razorbacks by a 22-6 margin over the last 10 minutes of the first half to effectively put the game out of reach. While Arkansas made a valiant effort to get back into the game in the second half by cutting the lead to nine points a couple of times, the Wildcats pulled away again thanks to a 15-5 run over a five-minute stretch that started midway through the half. Kentucky was clearly ready to play and it is unlikely any other team in college basketball will beat the Wildcats if it plays like they did on Sunday six more times.
  2. Arkansas’ Perimeter Shooting Wasn’t Good Enough. For the Razorbacks to have had any chance of pulling off a monumental upset, they needed to be great from the perimeter. They weren’t, making only 4-of-13 shots from three-point range. They did not get a lot of great looks (thanks to the Wildcats’ defense), but they also did not capitalize when those opportunities arrived. That allowed Kentucky to go on its big run to close out the first half. Beating the Wildcats is difficult enough for a team that is within striking distance at the half. Doing so when the deficit is 16 points? Forget it. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the team performed on par with their usual production from the outside, but that just was not going to cut it in this game. It also did not help that the Wildcats went 7-of-12 on their own from beyond the arc. After the game, head coach Mike Anderson emphasized that no team will beat Kentucky if it does not make open shots. While that may seem rather simplistic, it could not be more true.
  3. 34-0 is Pretty Darn Good. So much focus has been placed on whether anyone can actually beat Kentucky that we have often lost sight of the fact that the Wildcats practically waltzed through their unblemished schedule. Sure, there were the close calls against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia, but given that no high-major team has entered the NCAA Tournament without a loss in some 39 years, it is simply incredible that Kentucky dominated its schedule like it did. As John Calipari pointed out after Saturday’s win over Auburn, the Wildcats’ depth is what allowed this team to go undefeated, especially when compared to some of his shorter-benched Kentucky teams. But even with such high-quality depth and a team that has been exceptionally unselfish, winning every game on the schedule to get to 34-0 is a feat that should be appreciated.

Player of the Game. Willie Cauley-Stein was once again a beast for the Wildcats, just as he had been in all three games in Nashville this weekend. The SEC Tournament MVP went for 15 points and 10 rebounds, leading the team in both categories, but his statistics do not tell the whole story. The 7’1″ Cauley-Stein showed his defensive versatility on Saturday when he guarded 6’4″ Auburn guard KT Harrell and was just as effective on the inside Sunday against Bobby Portis. He is a transformative defensive player, the kind of asset that makes him the most important guy on the roster. The Wildcats would not be 34-0 without him.

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SEC Championship Preview: Three Keys For an Arkansas Upset

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2015

Top-ranked Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets and improve to 34-0 in today’s SEC Tournament championship game in Nashville. Everyone knows that Arkansas faces a very tall order as it tries to pull what would be the biggest upset of the season in becoming the first team this season to beat the Wildcats. If the Razorbacks are to have a chance, most everything must go their way, but here we take a look at precisely what Arkansas must do to win.

Michael Qualls and Arkansas have the tallest of tasks ahead of them Sunday (athlonsports.com)

Michael Qualls and Arkansas have the tallest of tasks ahead of them Sunday (athlonsports.com)

  1. Win the Turnover Battle. In Arkansas’ 26 wins, it turned over the ball more than its opponents only four times; conversely, in the team’s seven losses, it won the turnover battle only twice. Against Kentucky, the Razorbacks cannot afford to waste any possessions. They customarily force tempo and were not afraid to do so when the teams met in Lexington just two weeks ago, but the Wildcats only lost the ball nine times and got way too many easy baskets en route to 48 percent shooting from the field. Kentucky ranks 32nd nationally in turnover rate at 16.3 percent so turning them over is much easier said than done, making it imperative that the Razorbacks take care of the ball on the offensive end. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Blue Nation Again on Display in Nashville

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2015

Jennifer Hay took the 240-mile drive from her hometown of Brookville, Kentucky, to be in Nashville for this week’s SEC Tournament. She spent $200 on upper level seats for Saturday’s semifinal matchup against a woefully undermanned Auburn team. If she is willing to spend that kind of money for a game the Wildcats had virtually no chance of losing, she sure wouldn’t balk at going a bit higher for a ticket to Sunday’s championship game. “I’d go to $350 for that,” she said outside Bridgestone Arena before Kentucky’s 91-67 annihilation of the SEC Tournament’s Cinderella. When asked why she would spend so much of her resources on the prelude to the main event, the NCAA Tournament, she was quick with a response. “Oh, we’ll go to that, too.” Hay’s story is no different than that of most diehard Big Blue fans. They will do anything and everything it takes to see their beloved Wildcats play. And while it might be easier for them to pinch pennies elsewhere to make sure it happens as the Wildcats march toward history, they’d be here even if their team wasn’t headed to the NCAA Tournament as a prohibitive favorite. They proved that fact two years ago when they took over Music City to watch an NIT team lose its quarterfinal game to Vanderbilt.

Kentucky Fans Have Filled Bridgestone Arena As Usual (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Fans Have Filled Bridgestone Arena As Usual (USA Today Images)

This week, though, is a little different than most years, even by the high standards of Kentucky fans. Tickets are harder to come by, as evidenced by the many empty-handed scalpers standing outside the arena 30 minutes before tipoff. Benny Paige, a Memphian who works for the broker Ticket Resource, said that there was very little to come by and he wasn’t even willing to stick around to see what kind of business he could do in advance of Sunday’s final. “Kentucky fans buy [the tickets] up at $250, so you can’t make enough money on that,” Paige said. According to StubHub.com, a pair of premium lower-level tickets for the championship game was selling for as much as $466 apiece as of Saturday afternoon. That game, in which the Wildcats will take on a team destined for the NCAA Tournament, figures to be far more competitive than today’s semifinal against the Tigers, whose presence may have led to the cost of admission being a bit lower than normal. Still, it’s clear that Wildcats fans will spend generously even for a game that their team is going to handily win and will not impact their position as the #1 overall seed in the upcoming Big Dance.

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Arkansas Seeking Long-Awaited Postseason Success

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2015

Earlier this week, Bobby Portis was named the SEC Player of the Year by the league’s coaches. He was the second-leading scorer (17.8 PPG) and fourth-leading rebounder (8.7 RPG) in conference play this season. More importantly, the sophomore forward took Arkansas from its status as NIT regular to its current position as the second-best team in the SEC, helping to put the program back on the national map. On Friday evening against Tennessee, Portis showed that the coaches weren’t wrong in giving him the award. The sophomore played like a man possessed in the game’s first 15 minutes, scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds to make certain that Arkansas did not fall victim to the SEC Tournament upset bug (five wins by lower seeds already) The Hawgs raced out to a 20-point halftime lead before turning back another furious second-half Tennessee rally to ultimately win, 80-72. Portis ended the night with 26 points and 11 boards, this sixth time this season he has notched a 20/10 performance. “He’s just so, so strong and athletic,” Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall said after the game. “He’s got great hands. His second jump is incredible.”

Bobby Portis (USA Today Images)

Bobby Portis (USA Today Images)

For Arkansas, this year’s trip to Nashville wasn’t about earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks’ play over the course of 31 games sealed that deal long ago. Instead, it was about showing that they are ready to not only make the Big Dance but to do some damage when they get there. Despite a second half lull that allowed Tennessee to get back into last night’s quarterfinal game, the way they came out of the gates was encouraging. Currently projected as a #5 seed in most brackets, the Razorbacks hope to do no worse than stay in that range. While this will be the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament under head coach Mike Anderson, this is a program that has accumulated a lot of talent since he arrived. Anderson has put together a deep team on which 10 players see double-figure minutes of action. Guards Michael Qualls and Rashad Madden lead the way from the perimeter, complementing the dominant low post play of Portis.

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Florida ‘Selfishness, Delusion’ Leads to Miserable Season

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

Florida dropped its quarterfinal matchup against No. 1 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament this afternoon in Nashville, and after the game, Gators head coach Billy Donovan did not mince words about what went wrong for his team. “I think it was a team that was maybe a little bit more wrapped up in themselves. Didn’t quite understand the level of sacrifice needed to beat a really good team. As a head coach, I think I really fell short in getting them to see how important it is for us to play as a team. And I think it was still a very, very humbling learning experience. It was a great experience, that I think and, I use the word maybe delusional or not in reality. These guys have never been in reality the entire year.” Harsh words to be sure, but given this year’s disappointment in Gainesville, it is hard to argue with them. Donovan, who just completed his 19th season at the school, will not lead the Gators into postseason play for the first time since 1996-97.

Billy Donovan did not mince words when talking about the Gators' struggles (AP/Phelan Ebenhack).

Billy Donovan did not mince words when talking about the Gators’ struggles (AP/Phelan Ebenhack).

The issues Donovan raised in his postgame commentary manifested themselves in the team’s season-long play, and things never really got any better. The Gators, coming off of a four-year run that included three Elite Eights and a Final Four, finished the season at 16-18 overall and were 6-7 in games decided by five points or fewer. The preseason top 10 team never scratched the surface of its potential, with its best win of the entire year a one-point home win over Arkansas. The early ranking was clearly not warranted, but neither was the woeful body of work that the Gators put together either. Donovan admitted earlier this week that he had overscheduled, and Florida might at least have had a winning record and a trip to the NIT ahead if he had not done so. Still, given the individual talent on the roster, most everyone agrees that much more was achievable.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kentucky 64, Florida 49

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

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SEC Microsite writer David Changas is covering the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville.

Three Key Takeaways.

Big Blue Marched On to 32-0 in Nashville Today. (USA Today Images)

Big Blue Marched On to 32-0 in Nashville Today. (USA Today Images)

  1. Wildcats Pull Away Late. Florida held its own with Kentucky for about 32 minutes this afternoon, as the Gators only trailed by five points with 7:40 left in the game. From that point, the Wildcats went on a 15-4 run to finish off the Gators’ disappointing season. As in all of the close games that Kentucky has experienced this season, the Wildcats’ size, strength and depth eventually wore down Florida. Eventually their size and ability to force a long series of difficult shots makes scoring nearly impossible, and that is precisely what happened in Friday afternoon’s game-ending stretch.
  2. Florida Limited from the Perimeter. For the Gators to have pulled off the major upset today, they would have needed superb performances from their guards. While Eli Carter reached double figures with 11 points, Florida made only two threes on the afternoon, and its best shooter, Michael Frazier II, was virtually invisible. Frazier missed seven games down the stretch before returning last weekend so it is not fair to put too much blame on him, but he was an offensive non-factor with only two made free throws in 28 minutes of action. If the Gators were going to have a chance to make a serious run at Kentucky, they needed Frazier at his best. And even that probably wouldn’t have been enough.
  3. Kentucky Dominates the Offensive Glass. The Wildcats gathered over 45 percent of their misses on Friday, even after Florida had held them in check on that front early in the game. The Wildcats continue to show that they do not have to be a great offensive team in the half-court — they shot a chilly 37.5 percent from the floor on Friday — so long as their third-best offensive rebounding percentage (40.3%) nationally remains robust. The Wildcat’s continued success on the glass allowed them to make 19-of-23 free throws, while the Gators were only 3-of-5 on the day. Ultimately, that was the difference in the game.

Star of the Game. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky. Stats hardly ever tell the story with Kentucky this season, and Friday’s game versus Florida was no different. Towns has been the Wildcats’ best player in the latter third of the year and he once again showed that he is the team’s best post presence, finishing the game with 13 points and 12 rebounds. He was especially assertive on the offensive end in the second half, as he scored nine of his points in that frame.

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SEC Championship Preview: Kentucky vs. #1 Florida

Posted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014

After four-plus months of basketball, we got the matchup we expected in the SEC Tournament final: Florida versus Kentucky. That’s about all that went as expected. It was supposed to be Kentucky as the favorite, the team whose coach publicly discussed the possibility of going 40-0, the team with the best recruiting class in history. Florida had the Wildcats on experience, but it was a group that couldn’t quite make it over the hump, having lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons. Fast forward to now, and the narratives have flipped. It’s Florida who’s #1 in the polls, the team that has won 25 straight games and become the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC, and which, for the first time ever, has a shot at beating Kentucky three times in a season. It’s Kentucky that has struggled, that has lost when it shouldn’t, that has the coach (the one who talked 40-0, recall) who now explains that his is a team relying on freshmen. Just eight days ago, Florida smashed Kentucky in Gainesville. Now they meet again.

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Florida is Attempting to Win 21 SEC Games For the First Time in History

Can Kentucky change the result? Well, they have played better in Atlanta this week than they have perhaps all season, thanks in no small part to the emergence of the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. The hugely anticipated duo struggled throughout their freshman year, showing flashes of talent along with a lot of pouting and inconsisten play. Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats’ primary ball-handler, totaled 23 points and 17 assists in his first two tournament games, while Aaron scored 36 points and hit more than half his three-point tries. John Calipari famously “tweaked” the offense, and whatever he did, the Cats have played two great games.

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