Big 12 Q&A: Previewing The SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2016

The SEC and Big 12 regular season races are taking shape, but the leagues take a break on Saturday for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This year’s format has all 10 games on the same day and gives the SEC a rare mid-season chance to measure itself against arguably the best conference in the country. It’s also a penny from heaven for teams like LSU and Vanderbilt that are desperate for marquee wins, if they can take advantage. The Big 12 microsite’s Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) was nice enough to catch us up on the Big 12 and preview a few of Saturday’s match ups.

Kentucky will face something familiar in Lawrence: a team that has struggled to find consistent front court production (Photo: KUSports.com).

Kentucky will face something familiar in Lawrence: a team that has struggled to find consistent frontcourt production (Photo: KUSports.com).

It’s almost February and Kansas hasn’t locked up the regular season title. What gives? Is the Jayhawks’ streak actually at risk? 

CS: Very much so. Kansas is now 5-3 in Big 12 play despite having played only the seventh toughest league schedule so far. Bill Self and company still have to travel to Baylor, Oklahoma, and Texas before the season is up. Recent numbers from KenPom suggest the Jayhawks now have only a 10 percent chance of winning at least a share of a 12th straight regular season title. Honestly, that sounds about right.

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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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Vanderbilt’s Surprising NBA Prospect

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 20th, 2016

There will be no perfunctory press conference several days after Vanderbilt‘s season ends. The beat writers won’t need to trudge to campus to hear Kevin Stallings and Damian Jones announce something that was inevitable. Jones put the faux suspense to rest before the season had even started: he was turning pro after his junior year. “This is my last go-round. But all that means is that I want to give it all I’ve got. I want to push this team and get to that next step while I’m here,” he told the Tennessean in October.

Up to this point, a talented Commodores team has not taken that “next step.” They sit at 10-7 after a frustrating non-conference season that featured missed opportunities for statement wins against Kansas, Dayton, Purdue, and Baylor. On a personal level, Jones hasn’t exactly taken that next step either. He didn’t make the cut for our mid-season SEC Player of the Year watch list and his statistical output is generally the same across the board as compared with last year. He has struggled with foul trouble, particularly in conference play, and had rough outings against Baylor’s and Purdue’s talented front courts.

Luke Kornet has become a blocking machine this year (collegebasketball.nbcsports.com).

Luke Kornet has become a blocking machine this year (collegebasketball.nbcsports.com).

This isn’t to say Jones isn’t still a good NBA prospect with a long career ahead of him. The way he moves with his 7’0” foot frame and 7’2” wingspan isn’t any less appealing to NBA scouts, and he’s generally done a great job passing out of double teams this year. He’s an athletic big who could develop into a Taj Gibson-like reliable NBA forward and to his credit hasn’t tried persuade the world that he’s a three-point shooter. But when scouts come out to Vanderbilt games this year, Jones isn’t the only Commodore that they’re looking at. Junior center Luke Kornet has developed into a legitimate NBA prospect in his own right, and while he lacks lottery (or even first round) buzz at this point, he’s a highly intriguing player.

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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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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.

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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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SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 21st, 2015

The week before Christmas provided stocking stuffers for fans of SEC teams, as the league picked up a number of wins against power conference competition. But there was some coal too, highlighted by Kentucky‘s buzzed-about loss to an underwhelming-to-this-point Ohio State team. Here’s the rundown of the SEC’s penultimate non-conference week of action.

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs (onlineathens.com).

J.J. Frazier dropped 35 points over Georgia Tech in a big win for the Bulldogs. (OnlineAthens)

Team of the Week Texas A&M has had a good time playing old Big 12 foes this year. The Aggies had wins against Texas (doesn’t that look better now?) and Kansas State under their belt, and then went and handled a good Baylor team at home this past week. Texas A&M did what Vanderbilt couldn’t a few weeks ago and controlled Taurean Prince, holding the versatile senior to just eight points on 2-of-8 shooting. In all, Texas A&M continued defending at the level it has all season, keeping an efficient Bears offense to 0.90 points per possession. On an individual level, this was a nice game for Danuel House. He helped the Aggies build an early lead and drilled a couple of three’s in the process. He’s a far better shooter than his numbers this year suggest (32.5 percent from three), but a lot of that is due to a dreadful 3-of-15 three-point shooting night against Arizona State. We’re talking about a potential future NBA wing, so confidence shouldn’t be an issue, but Billy Kennedy has to be pleased seeing House trend back up from distance. Read the rest of this entry »

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Baylor’s Man-to-Man Defense a New Wrinkle With Promise

Posted by Kendall Kaut on December 8th, 2015

Baylor scored its biggest victory of the young season on Sunday night, beating Vanderbilt, 69-67. The Bears played to a key strength against the Commodores, forcing 17 turnovers in an effort that has propelled Scott Drew‘s team all the way to seventh nationally in turnovers forced per 100 possessions. But Baylor wasn’t proficient in every area on the defensive end, as Vanderbilt made 10 of their 21 relatively clean looks from three-point range. Moving forward, Baylor’s focus should be to design a defense that still allows it to play to its strength in forcing turnovers but avoids giving opponents open opportunities from three-point range. Drew is sure to switch between zone and man to find the perfect amount of each strategy, but a full-time man-to-man approach may be most likely to maximize turnovers while also defending the perimeter.

Rico Gathers and Baylor pulled off the victory Sunday against Vanderbilt. (Cooper Neill – Getty Images Sport)

Rico Gathers’ And The Bears Snuck By Vandy On Sunday. (Cooper Neill – Getty Images Sport)

Baylor has primarily been a zone team over the last seven years. Drew’s current defense of choice is a 1-3-1 zone that is usually anchored by one of the country’s best rebounders in Rico Gathers. After a rough start against Oregon in Eugene three weeks ago, Baylor switched to man-to-man and nearly came back and won. In four home blowouts of less talented teams, Baylor stuck with the man-to-man. On Sunday, the Bears mixed defenses against Vanderbilt, switching from zone to man as part of a strategy that included alternating looks on the first eight possessions.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume III

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 7th, 2015

Don’t look now but the congealed middle that has defined the SEC the last few seasons is beginning to take shape. Nearly half the conference (six teams) have at least three losses, and part of this jumble are two teams in LSU and Mississippi State that we expected to be better. The league also whiffed on two opportunities for statement road wins this past week as Vanderbilt fell to Baylor and Texas A&M lost to Arizona State. Let’s get to the weekly roundup.

The Gators turned in a dominant performance against Richmond (sportspyder.com).

The Gators turned in a dominant performance against Richmond. (sportspyder.com)

Team of the Week. There were relatively slim pickings this week with the Commodores and Aggies falling on the road along with Kentucky losing to UCLA. What is left is Florida, which was borderline dominant in a win over Richmond. The Spiders may not be great, but they were coming off a win over a good Cal team and haven’t had trouble scoring this year (33rd in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings). The Gators squashed this momentum by dominating the boards and holding Richmond to just 0.78 points per possession for the game that included allowing just a single offensive rebound in the first half. Florida’s athletic front line of Dorian Finney-Smith, John Egbunu and Devin Robinson has been a load on the glass this year and that should continue to be an advantage the Gators hold over most teams. The big question for Mike White’s team will continue to be the point guard position until either Kasey Hill or Chris Chiozza clearly grabs the reins. Chiozza had arguably his best game of the season in hitting a pair of threes and handing out five assists. There’s still room for improvement, but the Gators have some margin for error on offense when they defend and rebound as well they did against Richmond. Read the rest of this entry »

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Baylor’s Battle With Vanderbilt a Chance to Show Bears Belong

Posted by Chris Stone on December 6th, 2015

Baylor has jumped out to one of the more interesting starts in college basketball. The Bears entered the season solidly ranked in the Top 25 but now voters aren’t sure what to make of them. They smashed a solid Stephen F. Austin team by 42 points on opening night before falling short in a true road game against Oregon in their second contest. Since then, Baylor has recorded four blowout home victories over the softest stretch of its non-conference schedule but Scott Drew’s squad has another chance to prove itself against Vanderbilt tonight in Waco. This game, sprouting out of the two teams’ meeting in the 2014 Big 12/SEC Challenge, represents an opportunity for the Bears to pick up their first non-conference win over a ranked opponent since defeating Kentucky in 2013-14. A win here would establish the Bears as a league contender alongside Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State.

Rico Gathers and Baylor can establish themselves in the Big 12 race with a win over Vanderbilt. (Cooper Neill – Getty Images Sport)

Rico Gathers and Baylor can establish themselves in the Big 12 race with a win over Vanderbilt. (Cooper Neill – Getty Images Sport)

Vanderbilt, a team that should challenge Kentucky for the SEC title, will quite literally be a big test for Baylor, as the Commodores are anchored by seven-footers Luke Kornet and Damian Jones. Although the Bears boast one of college basketball’s best rebounders in Rico Gathers, the senior big man has rarely faced the kind of size he’ll see tonight. To date, Gathers and fellow forward Johnathan Motley have helped Baylor collect 42.2 percent of their own misses, a mark that ranks sixth best nationally. If Kornet and James can succeed in keeping the Bears off the offensive glass, Baylor could be in for a difficult night that has to rely on forcing turnovers and its half-court offense.

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SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 30th, 2015

Feast Week is in the books and there’s plenty of good and not-so-good happening throughout the SEC. Here’s the good: The league boasts two undefeated teams and four teams with just a single loss. On the flip side, there are two teams siting at .500 and two others already under .500. Here are the nuts and bolts of the previous week in SEC basketball.

The Aggies didn't win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless (cbssports.com).

The Aggies didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis, but they impressed nonetheless. (AP)

  • Team of the WeekTexas A&M didn’t win the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but the Aggies nonetheless made a statement. They started with an emotional win over intrastate rival Texas in the opener, and while the Longhorns are in a transition year, that win may improve as the year wears on. A&M then knocked off top 10 team Gonzaga in its second game, notching a win that will pay dividends the rest of the year. The experience that young players such as Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos got against the Bulldogs’ elite frontcourt should be a good primer for future games against Kentucky. And while the team ran out of gas against Syracuse in the championship game, what stood out most might have been the Aggies’ depth. Over the three-game tournament, Davis, Morelos, Jalen JonesDanuel House and Anthony Collins all played starring roles at various times. The team has been extremely balanced in both contributions and results, ranking among KenPom’s top 30 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency — a combination that can be useful in predicting March success.

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