You’re Not Mistaken: Conference Races Are Tighter This Season

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on February 19th, 2016

We are quickly approaching March and that means the regular season is almost over. Usually by this point in the season there are a few teams running away with the crowns in the power conferences, but it hasn’t quite gone that way this year. Analysts have described the level of parity this year in college basketball as unprecedented, but we decided to look into it ourselves. Exactly how close are the conference races this season as opposed to in previous years? Here’s a look at the last six years of the power conference races three weeks from the end of the regular season.

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A quick glance at each league reveals that the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and especially the SEC are having some of the most contested conference races in recent memory. Interestingly, for every conference other than the Big East, the current first place team (e.g., Kansas at 10-3 in the Big 12) has as many or more losses than any first place team the past five years has had on this date. That also means that second and third place teams across the board have a better chance of winning their leagues than they usually would.

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What’s Trending: Just Another Week of Insanity

Posted by Griffin Wong on February 11th, 2016

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Griffin Wong (@griffwong90) is your weekly host.

Seriously, Another Trip?

Not cool, Grayson Allen. Having fallen to the floor after a missed shot, the Duke sophomore tripped Louisville freshman Raymond Spalding on his way upcourt.

Though the officials initially missed the call, the trip was ruled a flagrant foul upon further review. Duke ultimately got a much-needed win, but Allen definitely suffered a loss in the public eye.

93%

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Stopping at College Station: The Balance of Texas A&M

Posted by Shane McNichol on February 4th, 2016

So much has been made of the parity in college basketball this season. So-called top teams continue to lose to lesser competition; home courts haven’t been defended well; and prognosticating the future has become an exercise in futility. As we inch closer to March, it’s easy to wonder what sort of teams are capable of surviving this climate. A case can be made for any number of teams that can get hot for a month, riding good shooting to a string of consecutive wins. Oklahoma or Villanova are two such squads, for example, that could ride hot shooters all the way to the Final Four. Or maybe Louisville or West Virginia, teams that rely on pressure defense, can put together enough stops to find their way to Houston. Anything seems possible.

Texas A&M (USA Today Images)

Texas A&M Closed Out Iowa State in Impressive Fashion Last Weekend (USA Today Images)

Either of those avenues to the sport’s final weekend could work out, but the most likely survivors are usually the teams that can employ a variety of ways to win — teams with balance in their rotations and devoid of major weaknesses. There may not be a team that better encapsulates this concept than Texas A&M. The Aggies have been among the most consistent teams in America all season long, losing only three games to good competition along the way (Syracuse; Arizona State; Arkansas). They are 10-3 against the KenPom top 100 and have lost only once since early December. Their success begins with a defense that ranks second nationally, thanks to very good defensive turnover and free throw rates. Few things prove more reliable in March than the ability to generate stops, and four of Texas A&M’s last five opponents have failed to reach 65 points — most notably an Iowa State team that plays fast (37th nationally) and ranks seventh in the country in offensive efficiency.

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What’s Trending: A Month Away from March!

Posted by Griffin Wong on February 4th, 2016

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Griffin Wong (@griffwong90) is your weekly host.

SEC/Big 12 Challenge

The midseason SEC/Big 12 Challenge took place last weekend, giving teams from both conferences a chance to prove themselves in a high-profile event. The highlight of the weekend was surely Oklahoma’s surge to beat LSU in overtime, as senior Buddy Hield poured in 32 points and pushed still closer to legendary 50-50-90 Club (50% 3FG, 50% FG, 90% FT). While Hield’s late flourish stole the show, it may have been Texas A&M that proved the most. Behind 20 points from guard Danuel House, the Aggies, lacking a signature win, cemented themselves as one of the best teams in the nation with a 10-point win over Iowa State. Overall, the Big 12 took the bragging rights with a 7-3 victory, and the event was a resounding success.

More Tragedy Strikes

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SEC Is Texas A&M’s To Lose

Posted by William Ezekowitz on January 19th, 2016

As it often is, the SEC was supposed to belong to Kentucky this year. But now, five games into the conference season, should we already be penciling in current conference leader Texas A&M as the SEC’s presumptive champion, given the Wildcats’ struggles? Perhaps we should. The SEC schedule is kinder to Texas A&M than it is to any other contending team down the stretch, so the Aggies are poised to extend their advantage in the standings as the season progresses. KenPom provides a helpful conference SOS statistic, but that only covers games a team has played, which makes it only moderately valuable five games into the conference season. However, in order to gauge the difficulty of remaining schedules, we can still use KenPom’s game difficulty ratings. Starting this year, Pomeroy has given a game an “A” rating if it is equivalent to playing a top 50 team on a neutral court, and a “B” rating for top 100. As Pomeroy himself explains, these ratings account for home court advantage, which has large effects on how hard a game is to win.

So how do the teams with even somewhat realistic chances to win the SEC stack up in terms of difficulty of remaining games? Here it is:

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The disparity is so large because the SEC has 14 teams but 18 conference games, so each team must play five other teams twice. This is where South Carolina and Texas A&M receive a clear advantage. The Gamecocks don’t play a single team in the top half of the conference twice; Texas A&M, meanwhile, must play Vanderbilt, LSU and Arkansas plus cellar-dwelling Mississippi State and Missouri, which is slightly harder. Compare that to Kentucky, though, who gets Florida, Vanderbilt, LSU, Tennessee and Alabama. None of these are cupcake games – especially on the road – and for a team that just lost at Auburn. Read the rest of this entry »

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Where Missouri Basketball Heads Now Is Anyone’s Guess

Posted by Nate Kotisso on January 15th, 2016

I did not grow up in Missouri. I am not a longtime Missouri sports fan or a Missouri, well, anything. In fact, my parents got married and lived in Kansas for the first half of the 1980s. Both Mom and Dad remember fondly watching the likes of Rolando Blackman, Danny Manning, Mark Turgeon, Antoine Carr and Xavier McDaniel bring color to their old black-and-white TV. Eventually, the two of them pulled some money together and moved to Houston back in 1985. That’s where I grew up and my favorite thing to do as a kid was watch Big 12 basketball. I was familiar enough with Missouri basketball but I didn’t become a Mizzou fan until it was time to look for a college. Missouri was the first school I applied to and got into four years ago. It didn’t hurt that the basketball team looked pretty good too.

Tulsa head coach Frank Haith learned he would not be penalized in an NCAA investigation that turned up violations during his time at MIssouri. (USA Today Images)

Tulsa head coach Frank Haith learned on Wednesday that he would not be penalized in an NCAA investigation that turned up violations during his time at Missouri. (USA Today Images)

From that point, I was all in. When Mizzou played its last home game against Kansas in 2012, my emotions were predictable. I had no problem trolling Mom and Dad about how Mizzou were heroes and Kansas were zeros on that particular night. The last Border War game later that season was the most emotionally draining game I’ve ever experienced. The Tigers built a 19-point lead — at Allen Fieldhouse — only to watch it melt away with yet another devastating loss in the Phog. My voice was gone at halftime. My legs were tired from running around the living room. I was spent. The subsequent NCAA Tournament loss as a #2 seed to Norfolk State was a humiliating way to end a memorable regular season, but as we look back now, it was also the beginning of an era of shame for a once-proud basketball program.

The season after that should have been a redemptive one. The team had a healthy mix of transfers and experienced holdovers from the Mike Anderson era. This included Alex Oriakhi, a UConn transfer who eventually became a late second-round pick in 2013, and Phil Pressey, a diminutive and talented point guard who would spend the better part of the next three seasons playing in the NBA. It wasn’t. Six players scored in double figures but the Tigers underachieved their way to a #8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, bowing out to Colorado State in the Round of 64. In 2013-14, the Tigers continued to regress by earning an NIT bid. A month after the season ended, Frank Haith texted then-Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden by saying he was leaving to take the Tulsa job.

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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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SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 30th, 2015

Feast Week is in the books and there’s plenty of good and not-so-good happening throughout the SEC. Here’s the good: The league boasts two undefeated teams and four teams with just a single loss. On the flip side, there are two teams siting at .500 and two others already under .500. Here are the nuts and bolts of the previous week in SEC basketball.

The Aggies didn't win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless (cbssports.com).

The Aggies didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless. (AP)

  • Team of the WeekTexas A&M didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but the Aggies nonetheless made a statement. They started with an emotional win over intrastate rival Texas in the opener, and while the Longhorns are in a transition year, that win may improve as the year wears on. A&M then knocked off top 10 team Gonzaga in its second game, notching a win that will pay dividends the rest of the year. The experience that young players such as Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos got against the Bulldogs’ elite frontcourt should be a good primer for future games against Kentucky. And while the team ran out of gas against Syracuse in the championship game, what stood out most might have been the Aggies’ depth. Over the three-game tournament, Davis, Morelos, Jalen JonesDanuel House and Anthony Collins all played starring roles at various times. The team has been extremely balanced in both contributions and results, ranking among KenPom’s top 30 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency — a combination that can be useful in predicting March success.

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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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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 23rd, 2015

We’re less than two weeks into the season and the losses are starting to mount in the SEC, as just five of the 14 teams remain undefeated. If we’re looking on the bright side of things, there is really only one truly inexcusable result: Mississippi State falling to Southern. Keeping with the positive vibes, Kentucky yet again dominated the Champions Classic, and LSU and Texas A&M have tantalized with promise. Let’s hand out some hardware for the first week and a half of action.

Jamal Murray and Kentucky are off to a great start (bleacherreport.com).

Jamal Murray and Kentucky are off to a great start. (Getty)

Team of the WeekKentucky is probably going to get ink in this space more than a few times this season, so why not start right away? The Wildcats’ win over Duke is easily the best the league can offer thus far, and freshmen Skal LabissiereJamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have all shown dynamic flashes. Kentucky is already defending at an elite level even though John Calipari lost his entire starting frontcourt and didn’t add an elite defensive big man (as he often does). On a micro level, Alex Poythress has settled very well into a “supporting” role, putting up at least nine points and seven rebounds in each of the last three games. Labissiere is going to need help in the paint and on defense, but Poythress and Marcus Lee have been up to the task thus far.

Player of the Week. Ben Simmons. LeBron James, Magic Johnson and — on the “low” end — Lamar Odom, are just a few of the comparisons we’ve have heard for Simmons. With the understanding that these were more about a skill set than anything else, the Aussie freshman has nonetheless lived up to expectations in his first three games. He has proven to be an alley-oop waiting to happen so far and is averaging 18.7 points, 12.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. He has also been the main presence for LSU on the glass despite frequently being featured in the pick and roll on offense. His matchup with Marquette’s super freshman Henry Ellenson this week will be our first glimpse at whether he has lockdown defender potential in him, as well. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume II: Opening Weekend Overreactions

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 16th, 2015

The opening weekend is in the books and with the exception of Georgia’s surprising home loss to Chattanooga, the SEC emerged unscathed. Nothing is more fun than analyzing microscopic sample sizes, so this edition of Quotable and Notable is chock full of overreactions. Let’s jump right in.

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn's win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (al.com).

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn’s win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (al.com).

  • “And I’m not comparing him to them two, as far as he’s as good as them, he’s different.” – John Calipari on comparing Skal Labissiere to Karl-Anthony Towns. And oh boy, could you ever see against NJIT on Saturday why the Haitian big man has drawn rave reviews on the recruiting circuit. Labissiere went off for 22 second half points and scored from seemingly everywhere on the floor. This came after a lackluster opening night effort against Albany, but the freshman’s offensive versatility and touch suggests that Calipari has a player on this year’s roster unlike any he has coached in the past. It’ll be interesting to see how Calipari uses Labissiere and whether his veteran big men, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, can be utilized to shore up any rebounding or defensive issues. Many people are going to harp tirelessly on whether Labissiere’s defense can catch up to his offense, but for now it might be best to sit back and appreciate what he can do. That said, Labissiere becoming an effective player on both ends of the floor would make Kentucky an even tougher team to beat in March.

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SEC Burning Questions: Five Breakout Candidates

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 11th, 2015

Before we dive into some candidates, let’s define what we mean by “breakout.” Preseason All-American Ben Simmons is a pretty safe bet to have a great season. The same goes for potential first overall pick in next year’s draft, Skal Labissiere. Predicting that the freshmen we’ve been hearing about for years will step in and excel doesn’t make for interesting reading. Instead, here are several returning SEC players who saw little action last year that could become major parts of their respective teams this season.

Devon Baulkman's shooting touch could make him a key part of Rick Barnes' first team at Tennessee (scout.com).

Devon Baulkman’s shooting touch could make him a key part of Rick Barnes’ first team at Tennessee (scout.com).

  • Devon Baulkman, Tennessee. The JuCo transfer only averaged 14.7 minutes per game last year under Donnie Tyndall, but could be poised to become a key cog in Rick Barnes‘ offense. Barnes has talked about playing up-tempo and letting his players shoot the three at will. This was borne out in the Vols exhibition win over Alabama-Huntsville where they launched 38 three pointers. Baulkman took eight of those shots, and showed promise from deep last season by making 38.2 percent of his 68 three-point attempts. While Robert HubbsKevin Punter and Armani Moore will be the focal points of the Tennessee offense this year, Baulkman could carve himself a valuable niche on the perimeter.
  • Moses KingsleyArkansas. Kingsley has been an advanced stat nerd’s dream, posting an elite block percentage (11.7%) and solid total rebounding percentage (13.9%) in limited minutes over his two years in Fayetteville. Mike Anderson‘s system by its nature precludes players, especially big men, from playing 25 plus minutes per game. But Anderson is playing with a light deck after an offseason of roster turnover and Kingsley is all of sudden one of his few frontcourt options. He should get plenty of minutes, and has demonstrated enough rim-protecting potential to predict that he’ll have a very productive year.

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