SEC Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2018

The SEC has more teams in the NCAA Tournament than it ever has before, and big things are expected this postseason after placing three teams in the Elite Eight and South Carolina in the Final Four a year ago. Let’s look at a few of the burning questions facing the league on the eve of the Big Dance.

The pressure is on Billy Kennedy and Texas A&M this postseason. (CBS Sports)

  • Which SEC team has the best chance to go the deepest? This is a tough one, as there are no obvious candidates to make it to the Final Four despite the SEC placing eight teams into the field. In fact, none of the group has an easy path, assuming seeding holds, beyond the Sweet Sixteen. Kentucky is playing well but a very tough draw will likely require the Wildcats to beat Arizona to get out of Boise. Tennessee and Auburn have reasonable paths to advance from the first weekend but would need to likely beat Cincinnati and Kansas, respectively, to advance beyond that point. And even though Florida has been wildly inconsistent all season long, the Gators have enough shot-makers and experience to reach the Elite Eight for the second straight year (and six of the last eight).
  • Which SEC player will break out and make a national name for himself? Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield has been on fire recently as the most consistent offensive performer on his team, using his versatile and unique offensive game to lead the Volunteers in three-pointers made while shooting a healthy 39.5 percent from behind the arc. Because of his ability to both draw defenders away from the basket while getting good looks inside, he is an extremely difficult match-up for nearly any opponent in the field. If the Volunteers can make it out of Dallas this weekend, the rest of the country will get to see what the SEC has known for the last two months — that Schofield is worthy of his selection to various all-SEC teams.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2018

For the first time ever, the SEC has placed eight teams into the NCAA Tournament field. Here are some quick impressions of the draws each of those teams received.

Tennessee

Admiral Schofield has been a beast for Tennessee down the stretch. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

  • Seed: #3, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Volunteers draw Horizon League champion Wright State. The Raiders are solid defensively, ranking 53rd nationally in defense, per KenPom, but struggle mightily on the offensive end (#248). Tennessee needs to get guard Jordan Bowden going, but the Vols should be able to take care of business here.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Texas in the Sweet Sixteen. Sure, the Longhorns would have to upset both Nevada and Cincinnati to get to the regionals, but who wouldn’t want to see Rick Barnes take on the school he led to 16 NCAA Touranment bids in 17 seasons.
  • Final Word: The Volunteers need to be more efficient offensively, especially inside the arc, but they are a threat to make a deep run as they rarely play themselves out of games.

Auburn

  • Seed: #4, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Tigers open with College of Charleston and should be able to exploit the Cougars’ shoddy three-point defense to find immediate success.
  • Intriguing Potential Matchup: Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen. Bruce Pearl had his fair share of success at Tennessee against Bill Self, and if the Tigers can right the shaky ship to make it to the second weekend, they could be dangerous upon arrival.
  • Final Word: Auburn has struggled mightily on the offensive end down the stretch, and may have run out of gas this season. An early exit from the SEC Tournament this weekend might have been a blessing in disguise.

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Despite Thin Resume, Mississippi State Makes Late NCAA Push

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2018

With the regular season nearing its end, there is little drama remaining when it comes to the SEC bubble. Barring something unforeseen – and we are not referring to the FBI here, just surprises of the on-court variety – the league will get at least eight teams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Alabama has not helped itself with three recent straight losses, but the Crimson Tide remain solidly in the field in most projections and will almost certainly lock up a bid with a victory this week over Florida or Texas A&M. The only other SEC club with any real drama surrounding it is Mississippi State. Although the Bulldogs played a non-conference schedule that could accurately be described as embarrassing, they still have hope of securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Ben Howland’s team sits at 21-8 overall (9-7 SEC) and currently holds the tiebreaker in a four-way logjam for third place. If they hold that position in the standings, they would receive a double-bye into quarterfinal (Friday) action in the upcoming SEC Tournament.

Ben Howland hopes Mississippi State can overcome his soft scheduling (David Blair, Icon Sportswire)

Despite holding a resume with no wins of consequence prior to the start of conference play – a victory over #122 RPI Dayton is the best – Mississippi State still has a realistic chance to reach the Big Dance. The Bulldogs own four wins over RPI top-50 teams, counterbalanced by 10 over teams ranked below #150. Nonetheless, a strong late push in SEC play has at least elevated them into Joe Lunardi’s First Four Out, and they have an enormous opportunity to improve their position this evening with Tennessee coming to town. If Howland’s group can handle the Volunteers in Starkville and close out the regular season with another win at LSU, they will position themselves to earn an NCAA bid at the SEC Tournament in St. Louis next week.

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Ten Questions to Consider: Conference Play Heats Up

Posted by Matt Eisenberg on January 6th, 2018

As we turn the corner into 2018 and settle into conference play, let’s examine 10 questions heading into a busy weekend.

Texas Tech Looks to Build Off Its Huge Upset Win in Allen Fieldhouse (USA Today Images)

  1. Big 12, Part 1: Will Kansas leave Forth Worth with one or two conference losses? While Kansas was picked once again to win the Big 12 in the conference’s preseason poll, the Jayhawks are in serious danger of losing two of their first three conference games. Earlier this season, head coach Bill Self noted that “this is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here. Things have not improved since those remarks as Kansas currently owns the second worst defensive efficiency in the Big 12 and ranks last in opponents’ rebounding rate through two games.
  2. Big 12, Part 2: Who will stay undefeated at the top? While Trae Young shines every night out for the Sooners, Oklahoma has also received consistent contributions from his sidekicks Kameron McGusty, Christian James and Brady Manek. West Virginia will represent the Sooners’ second opponent this season with a defensive efficiency within the top 50. The Mountaineers will get an offensive boost with the return of Esa Ahmad, who was second on the team in scoring last year.
  3. Big 12, Part 3: Should Texas Tech be concerned with Kansas State? After beating Kansas in Lawrence earlier this week, Texas Tech is riding high with a 2-0 record in Big 12 play. With games to come next week at Oklahoma and versus West Virginia, it would be easy to overlook a Kansas State team that lacks a true marquee win. But the Wildcats have four double-figure scorers and are a year removed from having already beaten Texas Tech. Beating Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse was a program-defining win, but it will lose some of its luster if Texas Tech fails to show up against Kansas State.
  4. How will Notre Dame look without Bonzie Colson? While Notre Dame did not miss a beat without the services of an injured Bonzie Colson against NC State, the Irish must now deal with a tricky road game against the Syracuse 2-3 zone. ESPN.com‘s Jeff Borzello reported earlier this week that Colson — who accounts for approximately a quarter of Notre Dame’s points and rebounds this season — is likely to miss eight weeks with a foot fracture. TJ Gibbs stepped up with 22 points in the Irish’s first game without Colson, his fifth time with at least 20 points this season. Read the rest of this entry »
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Final Four Fact Sheet: South Carolina Gamecocks

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 28th, 2017

Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: South Carolina.

How South Carolina Got Here

South Carolina is headed to its first Final Four ever. (Photo Credit: Elsa/Getty Images)

East Region Champions. Despite entering Selection Sunday having lost six of its previous 10 games, South Carolina was given a surprisingly-high seed (#7) in a surprisingly-favorable location: Greenville, South Carolina. The Gamecocks took full advantage, crushing #10 seed Marquette before pulling off one of the biggest upsets of the NCAA Tournament against #2 Duke, scoring 65 points in the second half en route to an 88-81 runaway victory against the National Championship favorite. In its first Sweet Sixteen since appearance since 1973, South Carolina then held #3 Baylor to a season-low 0.76 points per possession; two days later, the Gamecocks put the finishing touches on their Cinderella run by upending SEC rival #4 Florida, limiting the Gators to 0-of-14 three-pointers in the second half on their way to a seven-point triumph.

The Coach

Frank Martin. In just five short years, Martin — a former nightclub bouncer and perhaps the scariest man in college basketball — has lifted a program from the depths of irrelevance to its first Final Four in school history. And he’s done it with the same hard-nosed, defensive-minded coaching style that made him successful in his first Division I coaching stint at Kansas State (2007-12). The former Bob Huggins assistant has clear stylistic similarities to his mentor, employing an aggressive, relentless brand of basketball intent on wearing down opponents mentally and physically. In eight of his 10 years as a college head coach, Martin’s teams have ranked among the top 40 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Miami native spent 15 years coaching high school basketball in his hometown before joining Northeastern as an assistant in 2000, so his decision to take the South Carolina job in 2012 — a program with only three Sweet Sixteen appearances in its long history — was not overly surprising. Martin knows how to be patient. After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first four seasons, that patience is finally paying off.

Style

For South Carolina, success starts on the defensive end. The Gamecocks rank second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, fourth in defensive turnover rate, 12th in effective field goal percentage defense, and perhaps second to only West Virginia — Huggins’ group — in sheer physicality. Led by a pair of elite defenders in 6’5” Sindarius Thornwell and 6’6” PJ Dozier, South Carolina presses and traps all over the court, making it difficult for opposing ball-handlers to cross the timeline, much less comfortably run offensive sets. In the half-court, the Gamecocks aggressively extend on shooters, preferring to commit fouls over allowing open shots from the perimeter. Their length and knack for swarming to the ball (often employing a half-court trap) makes clean interior looks nearly as difficult, especially with 6’9” Chris Silva — a good per minute shot-blocker — manning the paint. They simply deny everything. Offensively, aggression remains the name of the game: South Carolina scores a whopping 23 percent of its points from the free throw line and another 50 percent from inside the arc, attack the basket at will, often off of turnovers. Having big, physical guard/forwards like Thornwell and Dozier helps.

Strengths

Sindarius Thornwell has been Superman for the Gamecocks this season. (Getty Images)

  • Limiting three-pointers. South Carolina does an exceptional job of taking away perimeter jumpers, allowing opponents to score just 25.6 percent of their points from behind the arc. The Gamecock guards relentlessly press up on shooters, sometimes resulting in fouls, but often resulting in forced jumpers or haphazard drives late in the shot clock. Really, the same reason opponents have such a difficult time shooting three-pointers is the same reason South Carolina forces turnovers at a higher rate than all but three other teams in the country: opposing guards simply can’t breathe once they cross half-court.
  • Attacking the basket. Thornwell is in a class of his own when it comes to attacking the rim. The senior ranks 13th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, a testament to his bullish aggressiveness in the lane and willingness to push the ball as far and as fast as back-peddling defenders will allow. When South Carolina forces turnovers (which is often) he and his teammates waste no time getting downcourt—the Gamecocks average just 16.6 seconds per offensive possession. They also pound the offensive glass, cleaning up misses at the third-highest rate among SEC teams. Between free throws, offensive rebounds, and plain strong drives to the hoop, South Carolina is able to sustain itself offensively despite its poor shooting numbers.
  • Endurance. According to this account, South Carolina full-court presses during the majority of practices and often plays five-on-seven (advantage to the offense) in order to whip its dogged defense into shape. That grueling work ethic clearly pays off on game day. The Gamecocks are +54 in the second half during the NCAA Tournament, wearing down opposing offenses to such a degree that their offense — which, again, thrives on attacking the rim — can flourish. South Carolina’s second-half blitzes against Duke, Marquette, and Florida are shining examples. Conditioning, both mental and physical, seems to matter.

Weaknesses

  • Shooting. At 47.4 percent eFG, South Carolina ranks 299th nationally in effective field goal percentage. That’s not good. Outside of Thornwell (39.4% 3FG), there really aren’t any serious outside shooting threats on the roster. Guard Duane Notice (10.2 PPG) is capable of getting hot, but he’s also very streaky. Dozier (13.8 PPG) takes a lot of shots, but he’s usually not all that efficient. If Thornwell is off and Silva isn’t going to work inside, the Gamecocks can become very stagnant very fast.
  • Foul trouble. That aggressive defense has one glaring downside: free throws and foul trouble. Not only do South Carolina’s opponents score almost 27 percent of their points from the charity stripe, but several crucial Gamecock players — most notably Silva —are often forced to take a seat early. The 6’9” forward has fouled out 10 times this season, seven of which South Carolina lost. Dozier, another superb defender, also runs into similar trouble from time to time. Against talented offenses like Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon, free points and foul trouble could become an issue.
  • One-dimensionality. It may be oversimplifying things to say that South Carolina’s success boils down merely to defense and Sindarius Thornwell, but it’s not that far from the truth. Fact is, the Gamecocks must continue dominating on defense, and the senior sensation must continue to playing at a high-level offensively in order for Martin’s team to have a chance in Phoenix. If one of those two elements slips — say, the defense sputters like it did against Arkansas in Feburary, or Thornwell struggles like he did against Alabama in the SEC Tournament — it’s hard to envision South Carolina recovering.

Go-To Scorer

For South Carolina to succeed in Phoenix, PJ Dozier must keep performing offensively. (fansided.com)

Sindarius Thornwell (21.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 SPG). Before Duke’s Round of 32 loss to South Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski called Thornwell “the best, unheralded, great player in the United States.” And even that might be an understatement. The 6’5” in-state product is averaging nearly 26 points per game during NCAA Tournament play, showcasing his relentless aggression (he’s already attempted 39 free throws), shooting ability (42% 3FG over four games), and superb defensive skills. He’s also an outstanding offensive rebounder, once ripping down 10 offensive boards en route to a ridiculous 44-point, 21-rebound stat line against Alabama on February 7. Among players who have attempted 250+ free throws this season, only a handful of players boast a higher free throw percentage than the senior (83% FT). Thornwell also led the SEC in steal percentage during the regular season. There’s a reason he was the coaches’ choice for Conference Player of the Year (not to mention 7th in KenPom National Player of the Year rankings)—Thornwell is great.

X-Factor

PJ Dozier (13.8 PPG, 4.7 RPG). For better or worse, the talented sophomore takes a staggering 31 percent of his team’s shots while on the floor, which is roughly 70 percent of the time. That shot rate is higher than Thornwell’s (28.7%). When he shoots 50 percent or better from the field, South Carolina is 11-0; when he shoots under 40 percent, Martin’s team is 10-6. That seem like “picking and choosing” statistics, but it’s hard to deny that the Gamecocks’ offense is markedly better when Dozier is efficient. Silva, and bench production from players like forward Maik Kotsar (12 points vs. Florida), will also be key.

Outlook

When are we going to learn? South Carolina has entered each of its last three games as the underdog, yet won each contest by an average 11.3 points. It hadn’t scored over 1.1 points per possession since February 15 prior to Selection Sunday; in the four games since, Martin’s group has surpassed that mark three times. Tough, confident, and afraid of nobody, the Gamecocks now face their most difficult opponent yet: a Gonzaga team that boasts the nation’s most efficient defense with nearly an offense to match. Still, count South Carolina out at your own risk.

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NCAA Regional Reset: East Region

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on March 20th, 2017

Rush the Court is providing comprehensive coverage of the NCAA Tournament from start to finish over the next three weeks.

New Favorite: #4 Florida (26-8). Florida’s 65-39 drubbing of #5 Virginia on Saturday should put the rest of the remaining field on notice— the Gators are really, really difficult to score against. Mike White’s aggressive group held to Cavaliers to a paltry 0.65 points per possession, limiting its ACC foe to just 1-of-15 shooting from behind the arc and preventing any Virginia player from reaching double figures. Wisconsin, which is somewhat similar to Virginia stylistically, could be in for a rude awakening on Friday night. 6’8” swingman Devin Robinson, a supremely gifted athlete, is playing some of his best basketball of the season (19.0 PPG in the NCAA Tournament), and only West Virginia and North Carolina possess more depth than Florida of the teams remaining. Now ranked third nationally by KenPom, the Gators are as good a threat as any to win the National Championship.

Florida’ Defense Dominated Virginia This Weekend (USA Today Images)

Horse of Darkness: #8 Wisconsin (27-9). Despite being underseeded, Wisconsin outlasted Virginia Tech in the First Round before knocking off the reigning National Champion in the Round of 32. Saturday’s unexpected, high-drama victory over Villanova highlighted the Badgers’ strengths — patience, veteran leadership, stingy defense — and firmly establishes them as a threat in the East Region. Greg Gard’s club, now in its fourth straight Sweet Sixteen, will again enter Friday’s match-up with #4 Florida as an underdog. With a pair of seniors (Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes) and a First Team All-Big Ten forward (Ethan Happ) leading the way, bet against the dark horse Badgers at your own risk.

Biggest Surprise (First Weekend): #7 South Carolina (24-10). #11 USC shocked #6 SMU and #8 Wisconsin upended the reigning National Champion — both huge surprises in their own right. But it was the other USC — #7 South Carolina — that pulled off the biggest stunner in the East, and perhaps the entire Big Dance. #2 Duke entered the Thursday as the betting favorite win the NCAA Tournament, a testament to both its supreme talent and undeniable momentum heading into the event (the Blue Devils had just won the ACC Tournament). The Gamecocks, meanwhile, entered Friday having lost six of its previous nine games, including an 11-point stinker against Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. And yet, Frank Martin’s defensive-minded group pounded Duke in the second half on Sunday night, scoring 65 points in the final 20 minutes and knocking off the Blue Devils in front of a home-state crowd filled with South Carolina fans and North Carolina fans (otherwise known as Duke haters) alike. Few people saw this coming.

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Three Takeaways from Kentucky’s Big Win Over Florida

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 27th, 2017

The SEC regular season championship was most likely on the line Saturday when SEC co-leaders Kentucky and Florida met in Lexington. Both teams entered the game at 13-2 in conference play (23-5 overall), but somewhat trending in opposite directions. The Gators entered Rupp Arena on a nine-game winning streak, including an 88-66 shellacking of the Wildcats in Gainesville. Kentucky, on the other hand, had lost three of four in late January and early February before putting together a shakier five-game winning streak that included tougher than expected games against SEC doormats LSU and Missouri. In the end, the blue mist of Rupp Arena worked its magic, as Kentucky rode Malik Monk to the 30 second-half points to prevail with a 76-66 victory. With one week left in the regular season, this game effectively decided the SEC regular season crown, but it also told us a lot about what we can expect from the SEC’s best this postseason. Here are three takeaways from this weekend’s game.

Malik Monk is heating up (photo via The Big Lead).

1. Malik Monk can shoot Kentucky into the Final Four. It is rare for the Big Blue Nation to be critical of its Wildcats, but Kentucky fans have been overly pessimistic lately about the likelihood of John Calipari advancing to his fifth Final Four in the last seven years. It is easy to see why. Kentucky’s tendency to become offensively stagnant because of its inconsistent three-point shooting means even its wins are not coming easily. The first half on Saturday was more of the same, with the Wildcats shooting less than 30 percent from the field. Then Monk happened. The gifted freshman blew up to score 30 of his game-high 33 points in the second half, proving once again that Kentucky is never out of a game so long as he is on the floor. The scary part for the rest of college basketball is that Monk has gotten even more dangerous since conference play began. His three-point shooting percentage has increased to 45 percent in SEC play (from 42 percent on the entire season) and he is drawing an absurd 6.0 fouls per game. Monk’s rapidly developing arsenal as more than just a catch-and-shoot player could make him unstoppable down the stretch. Calipari would love to find some additional offensive consistency outside of Monk (Bam Adebayo could be the answer), but the freshman is already good enough to carry the Wildcats for long periods as it is.

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Bryce Drew’s First Vandy Win Offers Blueprint For Future

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 16th, 2016

Luckily for Bryce Drew, no memorable coaching tenure has ever been defined by its first game. The good vibes surrounding the Vanderbilt program and its new coach quickly dissipated on opening night last Friday, as Marquette sprinted past the Commodores in the second half of a 24-point rout. The shaky debut raised the stakes for Tuesday night’s inter-Nashville battle between the Commodores and Belmont, as an 0-2 start and a loss to a crosstown little brother would possess the potential to leave a lasting impact on Drew’s first season at Vanderbilt. However, Drew’s veteran outfit responded to the challenge at hand, posting a ship-righting victory that may be more crucial than the calendar and opponent would suggest.

Luke Kornet was the best player on the court Tuesday night. (USA Today Sports)

Luke Kornet was the best player on the court Tuesday night. (USA TODAY Sports)

At this point, no program in America should treat a win over Belmont as a given. The Bruins have proven to be more than just a pesky mid-major for over a decade now, and they pushed another high-major team on its home floor last night. Quite certainly, Drew’s first win is one he didn’t take for granted until his team extended its lead into double figures in the game’s final minute. However, the win revealed a blueprint for how his teeam might win games moving forward. Luke Kornet was the centerpiece, scoring 20 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and harassing 2016 OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds into an unusually inefficient 6-of-15 night from the field. On a team with little in the way of overwhelming talent, Kornet will need to be this sort of difference-maker on a nightly basis. The four upperclassmen that join him in the starting lineup are all competent complementary pieces, but junior Matthew Fisher-Davis is the only other Commodore starter with the talent to truly concern opposing SEC coaches. Given these limitations, it is not only imperative that Kornet find consistency as a focal point of the offense, but also that the group around him finds a way to make him a successful centerpiece of an elite defense. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Where 2016-17 Happens: Reason #12 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on October 31st, 2016

As RTC heads into its 10th season — Season X, if you will — covering college basketball, it’s time to begin releasing our annual compendium of YouTube clips that we like to call Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball. These 30 snippets from last season’s action are completely guaranteed to make you wish games were starting tonight rather than 30 days from now. Over the next month you’ll get one reason per day until we reach the new season on Friday, November 11. You can find all of this year’s released posts here.

#12 – Where Small in Stature But Not in Game Happens.

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-092009-10, 2010-112011-122012-132013-142014-15 and 2015-16 preseasons.

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