SEC Burning Questions: NCAA Tournament Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 21st, 2019

The SEC enjoyed another successful season, with the league earning seven bids and potential for a few of those teams to get to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Just a few hours before the first tip, let’s take a look at the biggest questions facing the league as the Big Dance begins.

P.J. Washington’s breakout season gives Kentucky a chance at a deep March run. (Courtesy: CBSSports.com)
  • Which SEC team has the best chance to go deep? Tennessee and Kentucky have been the league’s best two teams all year, despite LSU claiming the regular season title and Auburn winning the SEC Tournament. Both the Volunteers and Wildcats are capable of making a run to Minneapolis, but it says here that John Calipari‘s team has the best shot. With Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans leading the way in the backcourt, along with budding superstar P.J. Washington and graduate transfer godsend Reid Travis, the Wildcats are the league’s best bet to reach the Final Four and cut down the nets once they are there. This team is a far cry from the shaky group that got destroyed by Duke on opening night, and Big Blue Nation would salivate about getting another shot at the Blue Devils on an April Monday night.
  • Which SEC player will break out and make a national name for himself? Tennessee’s Jordan Bone did not earn first-team all-SEC honors this year, even though a case can be made that he is the Volunteers’ most valuable player. Many across the country already know that Bone is an excellent cog in Rick Barnes’ attack, but his importance to this team cannot be overstated. In Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game, Bone was not himself, dishing out only two assists while committing three turnovers — he averages six assists and two turnovers a game — and the rest of his team followed suit. Tennessee will only go as far as Bone can take them, and he has the chance to elevate his reputation from being a really good player to becoming a great one this March.
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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by David Changas on March 17th, 2019

The days of the SEC getting only three or four teams into the NCAA Tournament appear to be over. After getting a record eight bids last season, the league will send seven teams to the Big Dance this year, including a pair of #2 seeds, a #3 seed, and a couple of #5 seeds. The league hopes for a bit more success this year, however, when none of those eight squads advanced past the Sweet Sixteen a year ago. Here are our instant impressions on each team’s draw:

Grant Williams and Tennessee have a potentially dangerous second-round matchup ahead with Cincinnati in the Bearcats’ back yard (USA Today Sports/Randy Sartin)

Tennessee

  • Seed: # 2, South
  • Quick First Round Preview: Colgate is a relatively dangerous #15 seed that shoots 39 percent from deep. Tennessee struggles to defend the perimeter at times and will need to recover from Sunday’s debacle against Auburn to do a better job guarding the three.
  • Intriguing Potential Match-up: Virginia in the regional final. Tennessee would seem to match up better against the Cavaliers than the other #1 seeds based on athleticism alone. A game between the region’s top two teams would be a tremendous display of offensive efficiency.
  • Final Word: Assuming the Volunteers beat Colgate, a Second Round battle against an under-seeded Cincinnati team in the Bearcats’ backyard (Columbus, Ohio) would be a tall order. Another early exit is a real possibility for a team that has spent the entire season ranked among the nation’s top 10.

Kentucky

  • Seed: #2, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: A battle of Wildcats will take place, with Kentucky facing Abilene Christian. On talent alone, Kentucky should coast to a victory here.
  • Intriguing Potential Match-up: North Carolina in the regional final. The Wildcats handled the Tar Heels in Chicago just before Christmas, holding North Carolina to just 0.87 points per possession, one of its worst offensive outputs of the year. The Tar Heels have improved immensely since that game, however, although Kentucky could probably make the same case. This is a late March game that everyone who loves college basketball should want to see.
  • Final Word: Kentucky is good enough to win it all, and we will be mildly surprised if the Wildcats do not make it to Minneapolis with a somewhat favorable draw ahead in the Midwest region.

LSU

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Tennessee-Kentucky, Part III: Battle for a #1 Seed?

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2019

LSU won the SEC regular season championship, but anyone who has followed college basketball this season knows the conference battle that matters on the national scene is the seesaw between Tennessee and Kentucky for what could be the fourth #1 seed. With the Tigers getting dispatched by Florida on Friday afternoon, the stage is now set for the third installment of this season’s battle between the two hated rivals. Sure, it won’t get the fanfare and doesn’t have the star power of North Carolina vs. Duke, but when the Volunteers and Wildcats face off on Saturday afternoon, the implications may be just as great. Kentucky came into the weekend projected as one of the four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament by essentially everyone; likewise, Tennessee is viewed as a #2 seed in nearly every relevant bracketology. If the Volunteers beat the Wildcats for the second time this season, it stands to reason that they will instead have a claim on a top seed going into Selection Sunday.

A #1 seed appears to be up for grabs when Tennessee and Kentucky face off for a third time on Saturday (Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)

On Friday evening, both teams handled their business with relative ease. Kentucky, behind a swarming defense that forced Alabama into just 30 percent shooting, dispatched the Crimson Tide, 73-55. Tennessee faced a tougher challenge from a game Mississippi State team that is solidly within the field of 68, before showing the offensive efficiency they are known for on their way to an 83-76 win.

The first two match-ups between these two teams were mirror images of each other. Kentucky dismantled Tennessee in mid-February, handing the Volunteers their only double-figure loss of the season, 86-69. Two weeks later, Tennessee raced out to a 19-point win over the Wildcats in Knoxville. While Kentucky’s strength of schedule numbers are a bit stronger than those of Tennessee, the teams’ resumes are similar enough that a win in the rubber match should be enough to claim a #1 seed regardless of what may happen in Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game. Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes hinted after the game that the winner would indeed earn that top slot. “The league deserves a #1 seed. I’ll be disappointed if someone in our league doesn’t end up on that one line.”

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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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SEC Weekend Preview: Conference Openers

Posted by David Changas on December 28th, 2017

The last weekend of 2017 marks the first weekend of conference play for several SEC teams.Today we look at a few of the compelling match-ups that lie ahead on Saturday and Sunday.

Jaylen Barford (18.5 PPG) leads an explosive Arkansas offense that is averaging 90 points per game (ArkansasRazorbacks.com)

  • Tennessee at Arkansas. What looked before the season like a relatively nondescript opening game now appears to be the marquee SEC match-up on this weekend’s slate. The #19 Volunteers, picked to finish 13th in the preseason projections, head to a sold-out Bud Walton Arena for what could be one of the best games of the entire season. Tennessee has already won four games away from Knoxville, including two road wins against ACC competition. But beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville will require its best performance of the season. The key to this contest might be whether the Vols, which force a lot of turnovers, can do so against an Arkansas team that takes care of the ball as well as any group in college basketball.

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Tennessee Defying Preseason Expectations with Hot Start

Posted by David Changas on December 5th, 2017

On Monday morning of this week, Tennessee entered the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2010. And while it has been a very long road back into the national rankings for a program on its fourth head coach in those intervening seasons, things finally appear to be on the upswing in Knoxville. Under third-year coach Rick Barnes, the Volunteers are proving correct those skeptics around the program who scoffed at the SEC media’s  preseason 13th-place projection. Tennessee’s only loss to date came in a semifinal match-up against #4 Villanova at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and even that was a game in which the Vols led by double-figures at the half. Barnes’ team also owns a number of resume-enhancing wins against Purdue, NC State, Georgia Tech and a Mercer club that figures to spend much of the season in the RPI top 100. Another solid mid-major test looms on Saturday against a potent Lipscomb team before a December 17 home date with defending National Champion North Carolina. Even with a loss to the Tar Heels, Tennessee will likely be 9-2 and ranked heading into SEC play later this month.

Sophomore Grant Williams is a major reasons why Rick Barnes’ rebuild is ahead of schedule. (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Since his arrival in Knoxville three years ago, Barnes has regularly received criticism for his recruiting. He has countered with dialogue about finding players to fit his system, and the fruits of his efforts to build a nucleus of solid yet unspectacular players appears to be paying off. This is a particularly interesting turn of events for a coach who came from Texas with a reputation of being a better recruiter than floor coach. Instead, Barnes has built a roster of athletic players who have bought into a system stressing defense and rebounding. The Volunteers are turning opponents over on 25.5 percent of their defensive possessions — good for 12th nationally, per KenPom – and despite lacking significant size, are grabbing 37.2 percent of their misses (17th nationally) on the offensive end. These improvements from last season (126th and 82nd, respectively) can largely be attributed to greater experience and familiarity in Barnes’ system and the development of players who have spent multiple seasons learning it. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Feast Week Preview

Posted by David Changas on November 22nd, 2017

Feast Week is under way once again this year, and although a few SEC teams have already started their festivities — Texas A&M won the Legends Classic with convincing wins over Oklahoma State and Penn State, while LSU is finishing up a successful trip to Maui that includes an upset over Michigan – there is plenty of Thanksgiving weekend action ahead. Let’s take a look at what’s on the plate for SEC teams during the rest of the week.

Missouri and Michael Porter, Jr. got devastating news on Tuesday. (University of Missouri)

  • Battle 4 Atlantis (Tennessee). The Volunteers have cruised to two easy wins against lesser opponents and appear to have plenty of depth. Things will get really challenging in the Bahamas this weekend, however, as they take on #18 Purdue on Wednesday followed by a likely top-five team (with a win) in Villanova. The stacked field also includes Arizona, N.C. State and SMU this year. Needless to say, we will know a lot more about the fortitude of Rick Barnes’ club by Monday.
  • NIT Season TipOff (Vanderbilt). The Commodores are coming off a close overtime home loss to USC on Sunday and will battle Virginia in the semifinal round of the NIT on Thanksgiving day. On Friday, they will draw either Seton Hall or Rhode Island. This potentially very difficult trip to Brooklyn for two games is an opportunity for the Commodores to significantly enhance a resume that already includes a loss to crosstown rival Belmont.

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Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (cbssports.com)

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

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Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play Looms

Posted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016

Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.

The Favorite

  • Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.

John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

As usual, John Calipari and Kentucky are the heavy favorites to win the SEC (cbssports.com).

The NCAA Tournament Contenders

  • Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
  • Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
  • Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.

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