Freeze Frame: Tyler Ulis in the Pick and Roll

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 18th, 2016

Everybody loves Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis. His teammates love his competitiveness. His coach thinks he should be one of the favorites for SEC Player of the Year as well as National Player of the Year. The national media is coming around too. NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster ranks the point guard sixth in his National Player of the Year power rankings. CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein recently said that Ulis is probably the best point guard in the country. Even Dan Dakich, who has feuded with Kentucky fans all year long, included Ulis among his top five point guards.

All the praise heaped on the 5’9” floor leader is with good reason. Ulis is averaging 16.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game on the season, but a switch seemed to flip on around Christmas. Since the Wildcats’ rivalry game with Louisville on December 26, Ulis has averaged 19.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, scoring at least 20 points in all but four of those outings. Nobody has been more valuable to his team this season, proven by the fact that Ulis has played in all but 38 minutes of game action since SEC play began. Where Ulis has been especially good is in his ability to utilize pick-and-roll situations at the top of the key. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze how Ulis so effectively uses screens to elevate the Kentucky offense.

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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 »
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Tyler Ulis is Not Kentucky’s Prototypical Defensive Game-Changer

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2016

Kentucky fans are used to having defensive game-changers. These are usually athletic behemoths like Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns — players who make entry into the paint a house of horrors for their opponents. But there’s another defensive game-changer on campus in Lexington this season, except that he’s over a foot shorter than his predecessors and does most of his defensive dirty work outside the lane. Tyler Ulis‘ control of the offense and Jamal Murray‘s scoring barrage have gotten a lot of well-deserved attention during the last week, but it has been Ulis’ keen ability to disrupt opponents’ offensive game plans that has been just as important. Just ask Florida head coach Mike White.

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

Tyler Ulis (USA Today Images)

“I thought it started, again, with Ulis,” he said last weekend after a blowout loss in Rupp Arena. “There were three or four plays that we called that were quick-hitting or with some movement in the first half that Tyler just blew up with the pressure on the basketball.” Kentucky followed up that win with another lopsided victory over a Georgia team that might have been playing for its NCAA Tournament life. But in the end, the box score was littered with ugly numbers. The Wildcats held the Bulldogs to a measly 0.76 points per possession and an astonishingly low 25.0% eFG, poor marks even for a team that has struggled to score this season. Ulis was again the main culprit, using his exceptional quickness in a variety of ways to frustrate Georgia.

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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.

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SEC 3-Point Shot: Big 12/SEC Challenge Takeaways

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 1st, 2016

Saturday gave us a break from league play for the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Here are three takeaways from a fun day of college basketball in which the SEC faced off with arguably the best conference in the country.

  1. Open Look: Hey Big 12, let’s do it again? Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s not easy being an SEC basketball fan. How many times can you be expected to generate excitement for a “showcase” game between two unranked teams? This event between the two power conferences was something fresh and each time slot seemed to have an exciting game. ESPN was not shy about marketing it all week long and the push seemed to work (based on an admittedly unscientific peek at social media). Heck, Arkansas’ Dusty Hannahs even found himself trending on Twitter during the afternoon. The attendance and atmosphere in SEC venues was good; even Auburn was near capacity for an uninspiring Oklahoma State team. Here’s hoping the two leagues get together and keep this format — playing the challenge in the middle of conference play — for years to come.Screenshot 2016-01-31 at 3.14.01 PM
  2. Over the Close Out: This was a good day for the SEC. A quick look at the overall record (3-7 is definitively not good) might suggest otherwise, but it’s hard to walk away from Saturday’s action and not be happy about the SEC’s performance. The league was a Tyler Ulis mishandle and Tim Quarterman drive away from washing out the challenge at 5-5 and plucking off wins against the Big 12’s two heavyweights. Kentucky and LSU are developing in their own ways, so to play well against great competition shows that things for both teams are heading in the right direction. Meanwhile, Florida (#22) and Texas A&M (#7) backed up their lofty KenPom ratings by taking care of business at home. Losses in either of those games would have opened the door for questions like “how good are they?” We also need to consider that the SEC didn’t necessarily bring its biggest guns to the fight. Swapping in South Carolina and Alabama for Auburn and Tennessee might have resulted in two more wins (we’ll ignore that Missouri and Mississippi State were also left sitting at the table). Read the rest of this entry »
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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.”

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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.

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Freeze Frame: Evaluating SEC Player of the Year Candidates

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 15th, 2016

If you tune into ESPN to watch college basketball sometime this season, there is a very good chance that you”ll hear about LSU freshman Ben Simmons during the broadcast. He has been the most discussed college basketball player this year, finding himself on the midseason short list for National Player of the Year even after LSU’s disastrous non-conference performance. Correspondingly, Simmons is without question the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year as well, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other outstanding players in the league. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we will evaluate several SEC players vying for the hardware.

Ben Simmons is the frontrunner for SEC player of the year (vavel.com)

Ben Simmons is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year (vavel.com)

The favorite – Simmons, LSU: It is hard to envision a scenario where Simmons would not be the SEC Player of the Year at the end of this season. The hype bestowed upon the freshman encourages a corresponding search for his flaws, but it’s impossible to deny his otherworldly talent. In nitpicking any weaknesses, (to wit: his lack of help side defense, as noted in an earlier Freeze Frame; and an inability to shoot the ball from the perimeter), we may have forgotten how historically good Simmons’ freshman year has been.

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LSU Looking to Surge to the Top in Wide Open SEC Race

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 6th, 2016

ESPN didn’t get the 30-point, 20-rebound eye-popping gem of a game from Ben Simmons it hoped to showcase on Tuesday night, but LSU nevertheless had a near-perfect night in its big win over Kentucky. No gaudy numbers from Simmons? No Simmons really at all in the first half? No problem. LSU jumped out early, led by 10 at the break, and coasted into an 85-67 victory that gave the Tigers’ many detractors pause about their long-term prospects.

Tim Quarterman was LSU's big star in its win over Kentucky (kentucky.com).

Tim Quarterman was LSU’s big star in its win over Kentucky (kentucky.com).

LSU’s biggest issue this season has been its defense, which could be termed as inconsistent at best, disinterested at worst. Neither of these terms applied on Tuesday night, however, as LSU put up an impressive defensive performance in turning the Wildcats into a jump-shooting team that scored 0.96 points per possession. Kentucky couldn’t get anything easy in the paint and its most reliable offense was Jamal Murray desperately trying to create off the dribble late in the shot clock. It was a great recipe for a win, but perhaps the biggest story of the night was the lack of significant impact from Simmons (who still put up a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, most of which came after the Wildcats were finished). It was instead Tim Quarterman who stole the show, notching 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a showcase game of his own talents. This scintillating performance came from a player who had not scored in double figures in the five previous games and whose role was becoming increasingly hazy with Simmons dominating the ball.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume VI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2016

Conference play is off and running in the SEC as some teams finished up their non-conference schedules and several others opened league play. Here’s what happened in the final week before it’s all SEC, all the time.

Team of the WeekLSU has caught a lot of flak on this microsite with good reason. Despite boasting arguably the best player in the country, the Tigers have spent most of the season trending in the wrong direction. Still, Johnny Jones‘ team deserves accolades when things go well, and the Tigers’ surprise win over Vanderbilt in Memorial Gym on Saturday merits such a mention. Jones’ club still has a steep hill to climb if it is to enter NCAA Tournament discussion, but consider the following: Ben Simmons (36 points, 14 rebounds, four assists) seems comfortable playing the two-man game with Keith Hornsby (23 points) and Craig Victor (11 points). That pair was not around for the majority of the team’s losses this season, so there is now some reason to believe that the Tigers can surge with a complete roster. There’s also equal reason to believe that they’ll continue to underwhelm. Only time will tell in Baton Rouge.

LSU out-muscled Vanderbilt for a big win in Nashville (lsureveille.com).

LSU outmuscled Vanderbilt for a big win in Nashville. (lsureveille.com)

Player of the Week. Ben Simmons may have aleady numbed the college basketball world to his gaudy statistics, but we need to continue to take notice. The line he put up against Vanderbilt isn’t his best of the season, but it still needs to be appreciated. He also notched a double-double in last Tuesday’s loss to Wake Forest (21 points, 12 rebounds), giving him an SEC-leading 10 such games for the season. It also hasn’t taken the freshman long to exploit the heavy attention he is receiving, as he attempted 35 free throws over the past two games. Compare that with 36 attempts over his first six games and a total of 72 prior to last week. Opponents will keep putting him in a position to draw fouls, and since he’s making his free throws at a respectable 74.8 percent, this represents a great source of offense on a team that has struggled to shoot the ball. Honorable mention goes to Florida freshman guard KeVaughn Allen, who scored 32 points in a loss to Florida State (the highest total for a Gators’ freshman since 2002) and followed it up with 18 in a win over Georgia. Read the rest of this entry »

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SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 30th, 2015

There were relatively slim pickings in terms of games over the holiday week, but there was still plenty of SEC action to digest. Let’s break down what went down in some of the final non-conference games of the season as we look ahead to the start of league play this weekend.

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky's win over Louisville (aseaofblue.com).

Tyler Ulis had it all going in Kentucky’s win over Louisville. (USA TODAY Sports)

Team of the WeekKentucky stole the show on the lightest college basketball weekend of the year with its narrow win in the Battle of the Bluegrass. The Wildcats lost Isaiah Briscoe to a turned ankle in pregame warm-ups and got very little from Skal Labissiere (for the entire game) or Jamal Murray (for most of the game). Yet they were still able to beat a top-25 team without any freshmen playing a starring role. It took a superb effort from Tyler Ulis (21 points, 8 assists/1 turnover) and good games from Alex PoythressMarcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins. Who knew a Kentucky win led by a sophomore, two juniors and a senior was possible in the Calipari era? That the Wildcats have that kind of depth and experience is why despite ups and downs from the freshmen class, this team will not go the way the team did during Poythress’ freshman year.

Player of the Week. Ulis was the marquee player in the win over the Cardinals, and it wasn’t close. He’s becoming about as complete a player as a college point guard can be, and displayed it all against Louisville. He was masterful breaking the Cardinals’ press and controlled the game offensively, especially by delivering a number of passes to Poythress that put him in position to score near the basket. He also played a big role scoring the ball himself and seems to have shrugged off the elbow injury that had been clearly limiting him since the UCLA loss. The sophomore was an efficient 4-of-7 from distance and scored around the rim as well. Kentucky needed its star point guard to step up against Louisville, and he did just that. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Champions Classic Lesson

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

Let’s get it out there: Kentucky and Michigan State collected MAJOR wins at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. If Kansas and Duke turn out to be anything close to the top five teams that they are expected to be, these are the type of victories that can separate #1 seeds from #2 seeds come March. For teams closer to peril (not that either Kentucky or Michigan State is likely to fall into this category), wins like these can redirect NIT-bound seasons into the field of 68. Nevermind that it’s only November, or that all four of these teams will evolve dramatically over the course of the season: These results will still matter in March. But with that note out of the way, we can also admit something that all four coaches seemed to know last night: These games don’t matter all THAT much. There’s no realistic way that last night’s results will define any of these team’s seasons, and all four coaches, given a chance to improve over the next five months, trust their own ability to mold a team — no matter how dysfunctional they may appear in November.    

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night's Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night’s Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

But that isn’t to say that any of these four teams looked especially bad last night. Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Grayson Allen, did look bad, but expectations should have been restrained in his first take in a starring role against elite competition. Allen and the other young Blue Devils — Brandon Ingram (1-of-6 from the field, four turnovers, four fouls), Derryck Thornton (3-of-7 FG, four turnovers) and Luke Kennard (0-of-5 FG) — are all good bets to steadily improve in the months to come. Kansas was the other team that left the United Center a loser last night, but Bill Self’s team displayed no signs of panic in the aftermath of Michigan State’s victory. Jayhawks junior Wayne Selden admitted that early season struggles had worried him in years past, but he said the more experienced composition of his current team quelled any such concerns this time around. Kansas handed away a game they held complete control of for 33 minutes — Bill Self admitted as much afterward — and the ball screen defense (or lack thereof) that enabled Denzel Valentine (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) to repeatedly break Kansas down will need significant revisions. However, the Jayhawks have the talent, experience and coaching to cure their November ills, not to mention plenty of time in which to do so.

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