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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SEC Tournament Takeaways: Second Round

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Thursday was the first full day of action at the SEC Tournament, and even though the league’s top four teams have byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round, there were still plenty of important happenings that could impact which of the league’s teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday (John Bazemore/AP)

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Florida Stays Alive. In Thursday’s opener, the Gators took down Arkansas in a win that kept the Gators’ faintly flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty — the two teams combined to commit 50 fouls (thanks, Pat Adams) — but Florida played just well enough to get the job done. Center John Egbunu, who was expected to miss the game with an injured right hand, gutted out an eight-point, nine-rebound performance in 24 minutes, while also helping hold Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to just 10 points. Florida moves on to play #1 seed Texas A&M on Friday, in what will be quite surely be another must-win for the Gators’ still-faint Tournament hopes.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA Hopes Damaged. Vanderbilt came into its game against Tennessee as a 12-point favorite and its regular season sweep of the Vols hinted that this was a touch matchup for Rick Barnes’ team. After all, big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet had dominated Tennessee inside in both of the prior meetings. Things were different on Thursday, though, as Vanderbilt failed to consistently feed those mismatches in the post. The Commodores instead fired up 25 threes (making nine) and generally didn’t seem all that interested in battling as if its postseason life was on the line. A valiant second half comeback nearly saved Kevin Stallings’ team, but Wade Baldwin‘s game-tying layup at the buzzer was released fractions of a second after the horn sounded. Now the Commodores will have a few nervous days ahead, as a loss to a team that entered the SEC Tournament with six conference wins puts Vanderbilt squarely back on to the bubble.

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SEC Stock Watch: 12.04.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 4th, 2015

Now that the season is in full swing, it’s time for us to take a look at the coaches, teams, and players that we should be bullish on, and those we should look to unload as fast as we can.

BuyKentucky Being Beatable. The Wildcats’ big win over Duke last month had some people thinking that Kentucky could make another long undefeated run to start the season. Thanks to UCLA last night in Pauley Pavilion, any 40-0 talk is already over. The Bruins’ handling of John Calipari’s squad should give the rest of the SEC some hope this season. After watching the Wildcats cruise through the conference schedule last year, it is clear that this year’s version will not be quite as dominant. That has to be encouraging to the rest of a league that has grown tired of being beaten down by Big Blue.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky are the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC (Mark Zerof, USA Today Sports)

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky are still the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC (Mark Zerof, USA Today Sports)

SellAnyone Besides Kentucky Winning the SEC. While Kentucky’s loss will encourage the rest of the league, no one should be delusional enough to think the Wildcats are anything but the prohibitive favorite to win the regular season title. It is likely that they lose a game here or there, but Kentucky is still without question the team to beat. Vanderbilt and Texas A&M have shown that they are ready to win a lot of games in league play as well, but when everything is said and done, it’s still all too likely that the Wildcats will take home another SEC championship.

Buy: Vanderbilt. These Commodores have a chance to advance as far as any Vanderbilt team has since the 2007 squad that went to the Sweet Sixteen. Kevin Stallings seems to truly enjoy coaching this group, and the talent may fit his coaching style better than it did with the Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins group. With two solid NBA prospects in forward Damian Jones and guard Wade Baldwin, the Commodores should be athletic enough to compete with most teams. Assuming their defense continues to improve, anything short of a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament will be considered a disappointment in Nashville.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.27.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2015

Each week, we take a look at which teams, players, and coaches are on the rise, which are holding steady, and which are on the decline. This is SEC Stock Watch.

Trending Up

  • Kentucky Running the Table. With each passing week, the chances that the 28-0 Wildcats make it to the Big Dance with an unblemished record get prospectively better. Kentucky will face two tough challenges in the next five days — hosting Arkansas and traveling to Georgia — but if they can handle those , they’ll certainly arrive in Nashville for the SEC Tournament without a loss and be prohibitive favorites to remain so.

    Willie Cauley-Stein and his Wildcats have a tough test against Arkansas Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports)

    Willie Cauley-Stein and his Wildcats have a tough test against Arkansas Saturday. (USA TODAY Sports)

  • Georgia. After the Bulldogs inexplicably dropped a pair of home games against lowly Auburn and South Carolina, they bounced back with wins at Alabama and Ole Miss. Those two wins now put Mark Fox’s team at 10-5 in SEC play and in very good shape for an NCAA Tournament bid.
  • Six Teams to the Big Dance. Right now, it looks like the league is in good shape to receive six bids, as both bracketologists Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm have Kentucky, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M into their fields. There is plenty of basketball left to play, however, and no team other than Kentucky and Arkansas should get too comfortable, but for the SEC to be in this position is a dramatic improvement from a year ago.
  • Arkansas as the League’s Second Best Team.There was some debate a few weeks ago about the second-best team in the SEC, but that is no longer the case. Arkansas is now an impressive 12-3 in SEC play heading into Saturday’s big-time tilt in Lexington. The Razorbacks have separated themselves from the rest of the pack and are now playing for postseason seeding.
  • Vanderbilt’s Future. The Commodores started SEC play 1-7 but have since righted the ship, winning five of seven games. Thursday’s come-from-behind win at Tennessee, in which they hit an astonishing 84 percent of their attempts in the second half, is a great example of the improvement of Kevin Stallings’ team. With two winnable home games left against Alabama and Mississippi State, Vanderbilt will astonishingly have a chance to finish .500 in SEC play with a win at Mississippi to close out the season, something that didn’t seem possible a few short weeks ago.

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SEC Stock Watch: 02.13.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 13th, 2015

With just over three weeks to go in SEC play, things are starting to take shape. This is SEC Stock Watch, our weekly look at which teams, players, and coaches are moving in the right direction, which are holding steady, and which are trending down. 

Trending Up

  • Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns came to Kentucky as the most highly-acclaimed member of its latest heralded recruiting class, and while his numbers have been solid all year, he is now asserting himself as a dominant force in the post. Towns is averaging 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game over his last four outings, an increase of more than five points and two rebounds per game over his season averages. As if the Wildcats weren’t already scary enough, the rest of college basketball must deal with this emerging beast.
Karl-Anthony Towns has been a beast of late (Mark Zerof/USA Today Sports)

Karl-Anthony Towns has been a beast of late (Mark Zerof/USA Today Sports)

  • Georgia as an NCAA Lock. The Bulldogs got a huge win in College Station on Wednesday night, which should secure their ticket to the Big Dance. They will be favored in all but two of their remaining SEC games — home against Kentucky and at Ole Miss — and are the best bet to take down the Wildcats in SEC play. With a strong RPI ranking of #20, it would take a major meltdown for Mark Fox’s team to not make the NCAA Tournament.
  • Arkansas’ Road Chops. Don’t look now, but the Razorbacks have now won three SEC road games — more than all of last season — and are taking care of business against teams they should beat. They still must go to Ole Miss on Saturday and to Kentucky in two weeks, but Mike Anderson seems to have turned a corner in his fourth year in Fayetteville.
  • Tennessee Against the Spread on the Road. The Volunteers have somehow managed to go 4-2 so far in SEC play on the road, and their two losses (against Arkansas and Georgia, arguably the second- and third-best teams in the SEC) were by a total of seven points. Donnie Tyndall’s squad is 6-0 against the spread away from Thompson-Boling Arena, so it’s too bad that things haven’t gone so smoothly at home where the Vols are 2-3 with LSU and Kentucky coming to town in the next week.

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Josh Richardson Leading Tennessee to Surprising Season

Posted by David Changas on February 12th, 2015

When Donnie Tyndall took over at Tennessee last April, there was a great deal of turnover. He lost every recruit signed by his predecessor, Cuonzo Martin, and kept only four scholarship players from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team. One of the few players who decided to stick around was senior Josh Richardson, and without the longtime defensive stalwart’s flexibility and talent, it is hard to imagine where the Volunteers would be right now. Tyndall moved Richardson to the point, and for someone who had never played the position, he has done remarkable things. Last Saturday, in Tennessee’s 66-63 loss at Georgia, Richardson scored only two points on 1-for-13 shooting. Observers openly questioned whether all of his minutes this season — he averages a league-high 35.3 minutes per contest — were catching up with him. He answered that concern emphatically on Wednesday, leading the Volunteers to their fourth road win in SEC play, a 76-73 overtime thriller against arch-rival Vanderbilt.

The Volunteers and Richardson Were Smiling at Vandy (USA Today Images)

The Volunteers and Richardson Were Smiling at Vandy (USA Today Images)

Richardson played 42 minutes in the win, scoring 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting including 3-of-8 from three-point range, and turned the ball over only three times. He also grabbed seven rebounds. In the few moments he was not in the game to run the point, Tennessee struggled to get the ball past half court against Vanderbilt’s press. Tyndall wasn’t concerned with Richardson’s struggles against Georgia because he knew his senior leader would bounce back. Josh has had a phenomenal year. The other night he went 1-for-13 so people were being critical. This kid has been a stud all year long. He’s absorbed and embraced a position he’s never played in his life. He’s made big shot after big shot.”

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SEC M5: 02.09.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 9th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. After missing two games — both losses at South Carolina and Kentucky — Georgia forward Marcus Thornton returned to action for Saturday’s win over Tennessee. His presence gave the Bulldogs some much-needed stability, as the senior is an experienced leader who has been through a lot during his four years in Athens. There had been some concern that Thornton would be out for longer than the two games given the apparent significance of his concussion, but Thornton played 26 minutes and scored eight points. Georgia needed his leadership on the floor more than it needed his scoring, though, and, most importantly, the Bulldogs got the win.
  2. As we creep closer to March, the storyline that will continue to grow is Kentucky’s quest to become the first college basketball team since 1976 to run the table. The Wildcats passed one of their stiffest remaining tests by winning at Florida Saturday night, but the victory did not come easy. As USA Today‘s Nicole Auerbach writes, these are just the types of tests John Calipari’s team needs. While Kentucky coasted through its pre-conference schedule, the Wildcats have now been challenged three times in SEC play and have won in tough environments where they haven’t had their best. The Wildcats still have tough road tests remaining at LSU (Tuesday) and Georgia, plus Arkansas at home, so the odds continue to grow daily that they will run the regular season table.
  3. The story of Sunday was the passing of legendary North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, and several SEC coaches weighed in to pay their respects. Like so many others, Billy Donovan talked about how Smith’s impact on lives was far more important than the 879 wins he racked up. John Calipari took to Twitter to talk about how much he loved and admired Smith. Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall, Georgia’s Mark Fox, and South Carolina’s Frank Martin also used social media to express their condolences and offer kind words about the legendary coach. And while he spent his entire coaching career in the ACC, it goes without saying that Smith’s legacy transcends not only the conference he was in or even college basketball as a whole, but all of society.
  4. As if things haven’t been bad enough for Missouri this season, they got worse prior to Saturday’s 83-61 home loss to Texas A&M when two Tigers were suspended as a result of a violation of team rules. Montaque Gill-Caesar and Namon Wright, a pair of freshmen who average 9.6 and 5.5 points per game, respectively, will have their situations re-evaluated at some point down the line. The Tigers are also playing without Tramaine Isabell, a player who missed his third game after Kim Anderson found that his behavior toward teammates was “unacceptable.” Anderson’s first year at his alma mater has been very tough — Missouri sits at 1-9 in SEC play and almost certainly will finish in the league’s basement — but he is doing what is necessary to root out some of the problems that were created by his predecessor in an effort to establish that his program will be run the right way.
  5. Tennessee has struggled lately, losing four of five after starting SEC play at 4-1. Leading scorer Josh Richardson scored only two points in the Volunteers’ three-point loss at Georgia Saturday, with both of those coming in the final minutes. Despite the recent shakiness, Donnie Tyndall is not at all ready to give up on his undermanned club and refuses to believe that his team has hit a wall. Without much of an inside presence to speak of, Tennessee is forced to rely upon its limited good shooting to score enough points to win games. Although the Volunteers never seem to be out of a game, they face a very difficult closing stretch unlikely to present many opportunities for wins. Any postseason berth for this team would be an accomplishment, and anyone who has watched Tyndall operate knows he will get the best out of them.
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