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 Feast Week Preview: Part II

Posted by David Changas on November 24th, 2016

Earlier this week, we took a look at four SEC teams in action at various tournaments around the country. Today we’ll take another look at three other teams that will be in action over the next few days (we won’t mention LSU, which was blown out by Wichita State in its opening round matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday).

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been as good as expected so far for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

  • Advocare Invitational (Lake Buena Vista, FL) – Florida. The Gators have easily disposed of four solid opponents in racing to a 4-0 start. They have been good on both ends of the floor and rank as the nation’s 11th best team overall, per KenPom. Things will get tougher today when Florida faces the defending Big East champion, Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 3-0 start of their own, including a nice win at Iowa. The teams appear to be evenly matched, and it should be a terrific game. Florida has thus far benefited from the solid production of graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who leads the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) off the bench. The Gators are also getting excellent play from Devin Robinson and preseason all-SEC pick KeyVaughn Allen, but could use more consistency from point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the Gators can beat the Pirates, they could earn an interesting match-up with Gonzaga in the semifinals, with Iowa State after that. So while Florida is off to a great start so far, we will know a lot more about the Gators after this weekend.

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SEC Team Capsules: The Top Tier (#4-#1)

Posted by David Changas on November 11th, 2016

Per usual in the SEC, there is very little question that Kentucky is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the league. While there is always some early-season speculation about how things will turn out, there is often little doubt that the Wildcats will roll into Nashville as the #1 seed at the SEC Tournament. We finish our capsule-sized preview of the league with a look at of course Kentucky, but also the three teams with the best shot of dethroning the SEC giant. Within the last week we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10) as well as the middle tier (#9-#5). Today we tackle the top tier.

No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 28-9 (13-5)
  • Key returnee – Tyler Davis, 11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG
  • Key newcomer – J.C. Hampton, graduate transfer from Lipscomb
  • Team Analysis: The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including their two leading scorers, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. But along with Davis, a preseason all-SEC selection who has a great chance to break out, and guard D.J. Hogg, expectations remain high in Aggie-land. Anything short of a return to the Big Dance this season will be a disappointment.
  • Burning QuestionCan Davis make the jump? Texas A&M had the luxury of two great scorers in House and Jones last season, but the 6’10” center Davis benefited most from an experienced point guard (Alex Caruso) who could deliver the ball to him in positions that allowed him to be effective. Much more will be expected from the sophomore this year, and for Texas A&M to come through on expectations, Davis will have to become one of the elite players in the SEC.

No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

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Rushed Reactions: Kentucky 82, Texas A&M 77 (OT)

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2016

rushedreactions

Three Key Takeaways

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

Tyler Ulis and Kentucky celebrate yet another SEC title.

  1. Ulis was the difference. Jamal Murray struggled more than he had in quite a while, as his 20-point game streak came to an end at 11 (he still had 17). His backcourt mate, Tyler Ulis, however, was there to pick up the slack. Ulis not only led Kentucky with 30 points, but also delivered the crucial baskets for the Wildcats. Ulis is able to penetrate and find good looks better than just about anyone we’ve seen at his size; in a game that was close the entire way, Ulis was the clear difference. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine Kentucky being in position to garner a #3 seed or making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
  2. This was a quality SEC basketball game. The hoops side of the SEC gets made fun of plenty, and often rightfully so. This is a league that could get only two of its 14 members into the NCAA Tournament — an unfathomable consideration for a power five conference. But these two teams were anything but embarrassing today. Kentucky is the SEC constant and have dealt with a revolving door of challengers through the year; the Aggies are the newest one, and their balance, experience, and overall talent that was on display this weekend should not be taken lightly in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a shame there aren’t more such teams in the conference.
  3. Texas A&M acted like it had been here before. Despite the loss, the Aggies showed they belonged. Texas A&M is not used to being on this stage, but that certainly did not show. Senior Danuel House was exceptional for the Aggies in scoring a game-high 32 points, including the tying bucket that sent the game to overtime. Four seniors who log a lot of minutes will be gone next season, but the future is bright for Billy Kennedy’s program, as freshmen Tyler Davis, Admon Gilder, and DJ Hogg showed strong signs that they will be able to grow into more prominent roles next season. It’s quite clear why Kennedy was given a five-year contract extension yesterday.

Star of the Game. Tyler Ulis. This was a no-brainer, as was Ulis’s selection as tournament MVP. Still, it simply can’t be overstated how good the sophomore guard was today. He had several critical drives for baskets during regulation, and he helped UK begin overtime on the right track with a three after a quick move forced his defender to fall down. Ulis vindicated his selection as both conference player of the year and defensive player of the year with a tremendous final week in the SEC.

Quotable.

  • “You’ve got to give Kentucky credit. They made the big shots to win the game.” – Billy Kennedy, on the difference in Sunday’s game.
  • “He’s played three straight days without coming out and he could probably play 40 more minutes right now if he needed to.” – Alex Caruso, on one of the things that makes Tyler Ulis special.
  • “We’re still not where we want to be defensively, but this team has gotten better all year. We’re finally healthy so when guys don’t play well, you look for the next man.” – John Calipari, on the improvement of his team.

Sights and Sounds. As it always is at the SEC Tournament, this was a de facto home game for the Wildcats. Big Blue Nation accounted for at least 95% of the fans in attendance, with Kentucky superfan Ashley Judd among them. Kennedy admitted after the game that the crowd was a big advantage for the Wildcats. “We knew that we were playing in basically Rupp Arena,” he said. Some things never change.

What’s Next. Both teams will await word from the Selection Committee as to where they go next. It’s reasonable to believe both will receive a 4-seed or better. While Kentucky may have improved its seeding with the performance this weekend, it’s hard to imagine that Texas A&M did anything in defeat that would harm its standing. The SEC may only get two teams into the Big Dance, but they’ll both be very tough outs.

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Tyler Davis’ Emergence Gives Texas A&M Hope For March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Texas A&M, which had not been known previously as a destination for college basketball’s top recruits, signed one of the nation’s best classes last year in bringing in four players ranked in the Rivals top 70. On Friday, in the Aggies’ 72-66 win over Florida, one of those highly-prized recruits was critical to Texas A&M’s advancement. All season, center Tyler Davis, the Aggies’ third-leading scorer (11.2 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (6.0 RPG) has been an important part of his team’s run to a share of the SEC regular season championship. Without Davis anchoring the middle, Texas A&M would likely not be where it is today. From that standpoint, Davis’ 15 point, eight rebound performance on Friday was not only not a surprise, but it was also expected — even against Florida’s stout frontcourt defense.

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

After the game, Florida coach Mike White could not stop talking about how impressed he was with the freshman from Plano. “He is just really good. It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s enormous. He’s strong. He’s physical. He likes contact. He knows how to seal [in the post], and he has great hands,” White said. Based upon the way he performed both against the Gators and in the Aggies’ six-game win streak to close the regular season, a strong case could be made that Davis has become A&M’s best player. While most of the attention is paid to Aggie seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House, Davis’s efficiency sets him apart. That was evident again Friday. Jones and House combined to go 11 for 35 from the field, while Davis was made six of his 10 field goal attempts. On the season he has shot over 65 percent from the field; when teammates get the ball to Davis in the post, good things happen.

At 6’10”, 265 lbs., Davis is no ordinary freshman. He has clearly been the biggest addition to a team relegated to the NIT a season ago. Pairing the talented freshman with a core of talented senior leaders has led to a successful regular season, as well as the potential for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Aggies were heavily reliant upon their perimeter offense. Now, however, when shots aren’t falling for Jones, House, and fellow seniors Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, Davis has been able to afford a steadying offensive alternative. He made the difference against Florida today, and if the Aggies are to make the sustained March push many believe them capable of, expect Davis to be as prominent a figure as any.

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Texas A&M Looks to History to Take the Next Step

Posted by Nate Kotisso on March 1st, 2016

The year 1893 gives us the first known record of then-Texas A&M College’s Glee Club, originally made up of nine students and faculty from the college. As the club entered the 20th century, membership grew modestly from the original nine to a club of 21. They also began traveling across Texas and the United States trying their luck at singing competitions. (There is no record of success from said competitions.) In 1908, the director of the club left the college and involvement started to fizzle out. Two years later the college decided to hire Frank D. Steger for the task of reorganizing the club “for the development of individual talent, and for furnishing music in Chapel Services, Easter, Commencement, and other similar occasion.” Despite already having a lot on his plate (Steger was also the director of the local YMCA), the college must have been pleased with his direction. Thus, in 1911, A&M hired Steger as its first-ever head basketball coach. In the context of college basketball’s infancy, Steger had a solid career, winning 22 of his 28 games from 1912-15. However, despite that early success, the school we now know as Texas A&M University hasn’t been able to win 20 or more games, go deep in NCAA Tournaments, send players to the NBA or even keep head coaches in College Station at a consistent rate.

Then-head coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV went 27-7 in 2006-07. (Paul Zoeller/Associated Press)

Then-head coach Billy Gillispie and point guard Acie Law IV went 27-7 in 2006-07. (Paul Zoeller/Associated Press)

Picture college hoops during the mid-to-late 20th century. Television was taking the sport to the next level and coaches had became synonymous with their schools — Dean Smith at North Carolina; Bob Knight at Indiana; John Wooden at UCLA; Al McGuire at Marquette. The financial pressures for success were different in those days, and at a football-first school like A&M, competitive basketball was often good enough. Shelby Metcalf was certainly that in College Station, coaching the Aggies to six Southwest Conference (SWC) regular season titles, five NCAA Tournament appearances and two Sweet Sixteens in his 26+ years at the school. Despite his infamous firing midway through the 1989-90 season, Metcalf is the longest tenured coach in the history of SWC basketball. After he was terminated, the program so disastrously spiraled through most of the next 15 years that there was hardly a pulse left. Then Billy Gillispie arrived on the scene.

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Alex Caruso’s Transformation Fueling Texas A&M’s Charge

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 14th, 2016

Alex Caruso is an accomplished player. The senior guard is so accomplished that it’s not a stretch to say he’s had one of the most impressive careers in Texas A&M basketball history. The active SEC leader in assists and steals has led the conference in both categories each of the past two seasons. That’s one heck of a career. But as this season tipped off, Caruso found himself playing alongside a new teammate who had dished more assists in his college career than even he had.

Alex Caruso's touches are down but he's remained productive (texags.com).

Alex Caruso’s touches are down but he’s remained productive (texags.com).

South Florida transfer Anthony Collins joined the program and brought his 569 career assists and a wealth of experience along with him. He became A&M’s primary point guard from day one and Caruso’s touches naturally dropped — as the table below shows, he’s using the fewest number of possessions and shots of his entire career. A new, reduced role would frustrate a lot of established players, but the senior has instead transformed himself into the grease on the wheels of a team charging toward March.

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SEC Burning Questions: Best Non-Conference SEC Games

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 11th, 2015

Kentucky was the team to beat a year ago — both in the SEC and nationally. And despite ultimately falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four, the Wildcats didn’t disappoint anybody on their way to a 38-1 record. But several SEC teams did, and it started in their non-conference schedules. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern; Mississippi State couldn’t get by USC-Upstate or Arkansas State; South Carolina fell to Charlotte and Akron; LSU lost a surprising game to Clemson; Missouri dropped its home opener to UMKC.

The SEC isn't just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returners to Nashville (AP/Wade Payne)

The SEC isn’t just Kentucky and everybody else this season. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings brings back a solid group of returnees to Nashville. (AP/Wade Payne)

Kentucky is again the team to beat in the SEC (and perhaps nationally). The conference appears to be significantly improved this season, so maybe several SEC teams outside of Lexington can string together enough non-conference victories to give the league some early credibility. The nation will be watching the following 10 games so there will be no better time than the next two months for the league to announce its legitimacy. Here are the 10 best non-conference games involving SEC teams this season.

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SEC M5: 02.27.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 27th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Could the SEC really get six teams into the NCAA Tournament? According to Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket, it looks that way and it doesn’t appear to be all that close. Kentucky and Arkansas are locks and the bracket guru lists Georgia, Texas A&M and Ole Miss as single-digit seeds with LSU as a #10. Given all the flak that the league has received for being weak this season, getting nearly half of its teams into the field of 68 would be quite an accomplishment. Sure, there’s plenty of basketball left to play, and every team other than the Wildcats and Razorbacks would do well to win several more games to ensure their bids. But as each of these teams played tough non-conference schedules, they’ve earned their placements in field.
  2. As the season draws to a close, it is time to start analyzing who will walk away with the various season awards and  all-conference honors. All jokes aside about the number of players who get selected to SEC all-conference squads, it looks like Kentucky’s balanced success could prevent any of its very deserving players from winning the league’s Player of the Year award. Instead, according to Sam Vecenie of CBSSports.com, that honor may end up in the hands of Arkansas’ Bobby Portis. The Razorbacks sit at 23-5 ahead of their huge tilt with undefeated Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday, and it is hard to argue that Portis is somehow undeserving. He is second in the SEC is scoring (17.6 PPG) and fourth in rebounding (8.5 RPG), but most importantly, his team has separated itself as the second-best group in the league in large part because of his leadership.
  3. Playing for a 28-0 basketball team in a state that loves the sport as much or more than any other may seem like it’s all fun and games. And while it mostly is, ESPN.com‘s Dana O’Neil took a look at what it is actually like to suit up for Kentucky. Anyone who follows the sport closely knows that there is no fan base more passionate than the Big Blue Nation, and when you sign up to play for the Wildcats — assuming you’re deemed worthy in the first place — you know that will come with hefty expectations. As O’Neil points out, playing for Kentucky is simply not for everyone, and living up to the lofty standards set by the school’s fans is often difficult. But as she also shows, John Calipari is able to sell players on coming to Lexington because they know it will prepare them for the rigors both on and off the court at the next level better than anywhere else. And in this day and age, that is what matters most.
  4. Florida went to the Elite Eight in each of the last four seasons and swept the SEC on its way to the Final Four a year ago. To say that the Gators have disappointed this season would be to drastically understate the case. Sure, Billy Donovan was right when he said that his team had no business being ranked in the top 10 to start the season. But no one could have foreseen the disaster that this season has become. The 13-15 Gators are currently a long shot to make the NIT, especially with a trip to Kentucky still in the offering. Gainesville Sun columnist Pat Dooley, who has followed the program longer than just about anyone, analyzed what has led to the Gators’ many woes after Tuesday night’s loss to Missouri. Dooley points out that Donovan overscheduled for such an inexperienced group, lost guard Devon Walker before the season even started, and hasn’t been able to win many close games. And while all of the points Dooley raises are accurate, no one could have foreseen such a dropoff coming. We are sure that Donovan will get things turned around in Gainesville, but the precipitous fall of Florida basketball over the past 11 months is nothing short of astonishing.
  5. Billy Kennedy has done a nice job turning things around at Texas A&M one year ahead of schedule, and the Aggies have a monster recruiting class set to enter that includes three top-50 players and a fourth just outside of it. They also have a roster that should return almost everyone of consequence, meaning that expectations will be sky high in College Station next season. However, the current and future on-court success has not translated into success at the turnstiles. Despite playing really well in SEC play and remaining in strong contention for an NCAA Tournament bid, the Aggies are drawing an average of only 7,368 fans per game, down significantly from the Billy Gillispie/Mark Turgeon teams that routinely packed over 13,000 fans into Reed Arena. If A&M can make the Big Dance and return juniors Danuel House and Jalen Jones, the Aggies should enter next season in the Top 25 and the larger crowds should return.
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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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