Saturday SEC Storylines: Vanderbilt’s Big Blue Opportunity

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 27th, 2016

The bubble is becoming overcrowded with SEC schools. Feel safe, Alabama? Turned your season around, LSU? Not so fast. If nothing else, all of the desperate teams in the conference could set up an intriguing final regular season stretch and SEC Tournament. With that in mind, here are three storylines to watch this weekend:

Damian Jones has been on top of his game lately (sportsandentertainmentnashville.com).

Damian Jones has been on top of his game lately. (sportsandentertainmentnashville.com)

  1. Will Vanderbilt put a bow on its NCAA Tournament bid? The Commodores have won four of their last five games and are on the path toward another late season surge. Damian Jones is arguably playing the best basketball of his career, combing for 42 points on 18-of-23 shooting and 23 rebounds over the past two games. Lo and behold, Vanderbilt gets the best shot the league can give it for a marquee win: Kentucky. Nothing could be better for a team trying to put the final stamp on a resume that isn’t as strong as many expected it to be. The Wildcats did a great job containing Vanderbilt’s guards in the first meeting, and they’ll need to do that again to make sure Vanderbilt doesn’t build momentum from three early. The Tyler UlisWade Baldwin match up is must watch TV, and good material for those wondering if Ulis can match up with the size and athleticism he’d face in the NBA. It’ll also be interesting to see how Kentucky deals with a confident Jones, especially since Alex Poythress played just 17 minutes in his return against Alabama. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

SEC Rundown: Volume XII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2016

Kentucky and LSU separated themselves from the pack on a pivotal weekend in the SEC title race. If both teams hold steady the rest of the way, we could have a gigantic game between the pair in Rupp Arena to close out the regular season. Plenty of drama is also heating up near the bubble, with Alabama staking a claim to a spot in the conversation. Here’s what went down last week in the SEC and what to look for in the week ahead.

Retin Obasohan and Alabama won in Gainesville for the first time since 1995 (rolltide.com).

Retin Obasohan and Alabama won in Gainesville for the first time since 1995 (rolltide.com).

Trending Up. Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s RPI surged up to #37 after four straight wins, including two victories last week over likely tournament teams (Texas A&M and Florida). It’s easy to forget that Avery Johnson’s club started SEC play at 1-4, but that looks understandable in hindsight, considering those games included losses to Kentucky, Vanderbilt and LSU. The fourth loss (at Auburn) is really the only dark spot on the resume, although the Tigers had the services of Kareem Canty in that one. Welcome to the bubble, Alabama.

Trending DownTexas A&M‘s seed. Just a few weeks ago the Aggies looked like a solid #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with a realistic shot of climbing up to the top line if things broke their way. Their recent four-game losing streak hasn’t put an invitation at risk, but it has done great damage to what could have been a historic placement for the program. With the exception of a home game against Kentucky, the schedule eases up quite a bit and should allow A&M to build some confidence before heading to Nashville.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

SEC Saturday Storylines: Is Alabama Really On The Bubble?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 12th, 2016

This Saturday will contain more conference title drama in the span of just a few hours than the SEC has had over the past two seasons. The top four teams play each other on a day that could go a long way toward determining which squad arrives in Nashville as the SEC regular season champion. Here are three stories to keep track of with a lot at stake this weekend.

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial match up with Kentucky (thestate.com).

P.J. Dozier and South Carolina downed LSU to set up a crucial matchup with Kentucky (thestate.com).

  1. Which team will have a leg up in the title race on Sunday morning? With the top of the SEC standings muddled as we enter mid-February, the schedule-makers have smiled on us this weekend. KentuckySouth Carolina and LSU all sit at 8-3 with Texas A&M and Florida right behind that trio at 7-4. The Wildcats and Gamecocks will meet in Columbia while the Tigers and Aggies face off in Baton Rouge. The most pressure of the weekend might be on Billy Kennedy’s club, since a fifth straight SEC loss — a situation nobody would have thought possible just a few weeks ago — could put an end to the Aggies’ championship hopes. South Carolina might have the most to gain, however. A win for the Gamecocks could put Frank Martin’s team in a commanding position since its remaining schedule is the most manageable. South Carolina’s remaining road games? At Missouri, Mississippi State and Arkansas. That’s hardly a murderer’s row, even with the trip to Bud Walton thrown in there. There’s a lot of basketball still to come this season, but we may look back on this Saturday as the most pivotal day in the SEC race. Read the rest of this entry »
Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Is It Time to Worry About South Carolina?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 4th, 2016

In a cramped spare room somewhere in Stegeman Coliseum, Frank Martin was asked about whether a loss to Georgia concerned him. “We’re 22 games into this. Who we are as a team has already been formed.” So, 22 games in, who are the Gamecocks? If you’re playing word association for this season, you might think “South Carolina, success.” That wouldn’t be wrong. The Gamecocks had an undefeated non-conference season, are in the SEC race, have been in and out of the polls and are easily Martin’s best team at South Carolina. But even at 19-3, there are reasons to be concerned about the Gamecocks going forward. 

Are the Gamecocks in trouble despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

Are Frank Martin’s Gamecocks in trouble, despite their great record? (rantsports.com).

In isolation, Tuesday night’s loss in Athens is not that big of a deal. The Bulldogs were desperate for a good win and the Gamecocks presented a rare opportunity to get that. Yet South Carolina was beginning a brutal four-game stretch – at least for SEC standards – against Georgia, Texas A&M (road), LSU (home) and Kentucky (home). With no marquee non-conference wins and an uneven 1-2 road SEC record going into the game, the Gamecocks were out to prove their lofty record had some substance behind it. The loss to the Bulldogs didn’t get this crucial stretch started on a good note, and also raised concerns about how the South Carolina offense will hold up against better defenses.

The Gamecock defense, like that of many Martin-coached teams, has been predictably excellent (KenPom #27). South Carolina’s offense has lagged behind, however – particularly against the better defenses it has played. The chart below shows that the Gamecocks worst shooting nights have come against some of the better defenses that they’ve faced. This may not be a groundbreaking discovery; after all, most teams don’t as well against good defenses because those defenses are, well, good. But the concern is that South Carolina hasn’t been able to do enough against the better defenses it has faced to take advantage of its great defense. That’s what makes its admittedly lackluster offensive effort against the Bulldogs puzzling. The plan against Georgia was simple: attack the middle of the Bulldogs’ zone and make Yante Maten defend the ball handler to try to get him in foul trouble. Somehow though, the Gamecocks generated their third fewest free throw attempts of the year (19) and struggled mightily to score from anywhere in the first half. “We came out lazy and chillin’, and it got us beat,” Sindarius Thornwell told The State after the game. A similar effort in College Station on Saturday against an elite, long Texas A&M that forces plenty of mistakes will not get the Gamecocks the statement win they may desperately need.

Screenshot 2016-02-03 at 10.34.52 PM

South Carolina’s offense depends heavily on getting to the line (third highest point distribution from free throws in the NCAA) and creating offense off of turnovers. Whether or not this formula is sustainable is a debatable point, but it goes without saying that the Gamecocks need to be constantly looking to drive off screens and create contact near the basket, especially against better competition. Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas have been less effective offensively in conference play, and Chris Silva hasn’t shown much on offense yet. One solution could be going to more three-guard lineups that feature some combination of Thornwell, P.J. DozierDuane Notice and Marcus Stroman. This could also require more minutes from freshman guard Jamall Gregory, who Martin has not shown much confidence in yet. The downside of getting more shooting and slashing on the court is that it takes away the Gamecocks’ size, which has been such an asset to them this season (ninth best offensive rebounding rate in the country).

Being able to find this balance is going to be crucial for Martin. Between its great defense and experienced core, South Carolina has a lot going for it. Conventional wisdom says a team that has reached 19-3 at this point in the season in a power conference is a lock for the NCAA tournament, but what if the Gamecocks drop the next three games? They don’t have any great non-conference wins to fall back on and have the weakest in-league strength of schedule in the SEC to this point. Legitimate questions could be asked about whether they are truly worthy of a bid. To this point, this season has been a validation tour for the ground level rebuild Martin had to put together in Columbia. It would be a shame for him, the program and seniors that have been there from the start – like Michael Carrera, Chatkevicius and Kacinas, if the season didn’t end with a trip to the tournament.

Share this story

SEC Rundown: Volume X

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 2nd, 2016

After a fun Saturday hanging out with the Big 12, SEC teams return to league action starting this evening. Waiting for them is a conference race with the potential to heat up considerably over the rest of the month. Quite the change from the last two years, right? Here’s a look back at last week’s SEC action and what to watch for ahead.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida made a bold statement against West Virginia (smokingmusket.com).

Dorian Finney-Smith and Florida made a bold statement against West Virginia (smokingmusket.com).

Trending UpFlorida‘s likelihood of returning to the NCAA Tournament. The Gators’ resume previously lacked a marquee win but that problem was solved by convincingly beating West Virginia at home on Saturday. KeVaughn Allen is also on the upswing, as he has been for most of his freshman season. The freshman is becoming the most important part of Florida’s offense and looked comfortable beyond his years against the Mountaineers’ unrelenting pressure. If he continues his scoring tear, he and Dorian Finney-Smith could be enough to keep Florida afloat on the nights when the team’s shots aren’t falling.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Examining Elite Eight Profiles: Who Looks Poised to Go Deep Into March?

Posted by Will Ezekowitz on January 8th, 2016

As conference play heats up, the identities of teams become increasingly apparent. As we invariably figure those teams out, we also start thinking about which teams are poised to make a run in March. To take a deeper view of postseason success, we looked at the KenPom statistical profile of five years of Elite Eight teams (perhaps a little arbitrary, but it’s hard to sneak into the national quarterfinals without being actually good) and compared it with this year’s teams that currently fit that profile. In the past five years, Elite Eight teams have ranked an average of 18th in offensive efficiency and 31st in defensive efficiency. Offense is clearly more important, as only two teams in the last three seasons have managed to crack the quarterfinals from outside of the offensive top 40 (both of which, coincidentally, were Louisville). The table belows shows the 10 teams this season that fit the Elite Eight profile as of January 8.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 11.56.33 AM

If your favorite team is not on the above list, it appears that it still needs work. Let’s examine some of those missing teams, many of which are highly-ranked.

Teams that Must Improve Defensively

Purdue. The Boilermakers’ dream season has taken a couple of recent hits in losses to Butler and Iowa. What should worry Matt Painter, though, is that during the four-game stretch that included wins over Vanderbilt and Wisconsin in addition to those two losses, Purdue never posted an offensive efficiency that was above the Division I average. The team ranks first in defensive efficiency but is only 41st on the other end of the floor. Rick Pitino’s recent Louisville teams have shown that it is possible to advance in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of defense alone, but it’s generally easier to get there by finding greater balance with the offense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story