Rushed Reactions: #1 Kentucky 78, #21 Arkansas 63

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2015

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SEC Microsite writer David Changas is covering the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville and filed this report following Sunday’s Championship Game.

Three Key Takeaways.

Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron Harrison celebrate the SEC Championship.

Willie Cauley-Stein and Aaron Harrison celebrate the SEC Championship.

  1. If Kentucky Plays Like This… We have all known for a while that if Kentucky is going to lose a game this season, it’s going to take an extraordinary effort from its opponent and the Wildcats will have to deliver a subpar effort. Kentucky jumped out to an early 8-0 lead against Arkansas before the Hawgs clawed back to tie it at 19; from that point, the Wildcats outscored the Razorbacks by a 22-6 margin over the last 10 minutes of the first half to effectively put the game out of reach. While Arkansas made a valiant effort to get back into the game in the second half by cutting the lead to nine points a couple of times, the Wildcats pulled away again thanks to a 15-5 run over a five-minute stretch that started midway through the half. Kentucky was clearly ready to play and it is unlikely any other team in college basketball will beat the Wildcats if it plays like they did on Sunday six more times.
  2. Arkansas’ Perimeter Shooting Wasn’t Good Enough. For the Razorbacks to have had any chance of pulling off a monumental upset, they needed to be great from the perimeter. They weren’t, making only 4-of-13 shots from three-point range. They did not get a lot of great looks (thanks to the Wildcats’ defense), but they also did not capitalize when those opportunities arrived. That allowed Kentucky to go on its big run to close out the first half. Beating the Wildcats is difficult enough for a team that is within striking distance at the half. Doing so when the deficit is 16 points? Forget it. Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the team performed on par with their usual production from the outside, but that just was not going to cut it in this game. It also did not help that the Wildcats went 7-of-12 on their own from beyond the arc. After the game, head coach Mike Anderson emphasized that no team will beat Kentucky if it does not make open shots. While that may seem rather simplistic, it could not be more true.
  3. 34-0 is Pretty Darn Good. So much focus has been placed on whether anyone can actually beat Kentucky that we have often lost sight of the fact that the Wildcats practically waltzed through their unblemished schedule. Sure, there were the close calls against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia, but given that no high-major team has entered the NCAA Tournament without a loss in some 39 years, it is simply incredible that Kentucky dominated its schedule like it did. As John Calipari pointed out after Saturday’s win over Auburn, the Wildcats’ depth is what allowed this team to go undefeated, especially when compared to some of his shorter-benched Kentucky teams. But even with such high-quality depth and a team that has been exceptionally unselfish, winning every game on the schedule to get to 34-0 is a feat that should be appreciated.

Player of the Game. Willie Cauley-Stein was once again a beast for the Wildcats, just as he had been in all three games in Nashville this weekend. The SEC Tournament MVP went for 15 points and 10 rebounds, leading the team in both categories, but his statistics do not tell the whole story. The 7’1″ Cauley-Stein showed his defensive versatility on Saturday when he guarded 6’4″ Auburn guard KT Harrell and was just as effective on the inside Sunday against Bobby Portis. He is a transformative defensive player, the kind of asset that makes him the most important guy on the roster. The Wildcats would not be 34-0 without him.

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SEC Championship Preview: Three Keys For an Arkansas Upset

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2015

Top-ranked Kentucky is the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets and improve to 34-0 in today’s SEC Tournament championship game in Nashville. Everyone knows that Arkansas faces a very tall order as it tries to pull what would be the biggest upset of the season in becoming the first team this season to beat the Wildcats. If the Razorbacks are to have a chance, most everything must go their way, but here we take a look at precisely what Arkansas must do to win.

Michael Qualls and Arkansas have the tallest of tasks ahead of them Sunday (athlonsports.com)

Michael Qualls and Arkansas have the tallest of tasks ahead of them Sunday (athlonsports.com)

  1. Win the Turnover Battle. In Arkansas’ 26 wins, it turned over the ball more than its opponents only four times; conversely, in the team’s seven losses, it won the turnover battle only twice. Against Kentucky, the Razorbacks cannot afford to waste any possessions. They customarily force tempo and were not afraid to do so when the teams met in Lexington just two weeks ago, but the Wildcats only lost the ball nine times and got way too many easy baskets en route to 48 percent shooting from the field. Kentucky ranks 32nd nationally in turnover rate at 16.3 percent so turning them over is much easier said than done, making it imperative that the Razorbacks take care of the ball on the offensive end. Read the rest of this entry »
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Big Blue Nation Again on Display in Nashville

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2015

Jennifer Hay took the 240-mile drive from her hometown of Brookville, Kentucky, to be in Nashville for this week’s SEC Tournament. She spent $200 on upper level seats for Saturday’s semifinal matchup against a woefully undermanned Auburn team. If she is willing to spend that kind of money for a game the Wildcats had virtually no chance of losing, she sure wouldn’t balk at going a bit higher for a ticket to Sunday’s championship game. “I’d go to $350 for that,” she said outside Bridgestone Arena before Kentucky’s 91-67 annihilation of the SEC Tournament’s Cinderella. When asked why she would spend so much of her resources on the prelude to the main event, the NCAA Tournament, she was quick with a response. “Oh, we’ll go to that, too.” Hay’s story is no different than that of most diehard Big Blue fans. They will do anything and everything it takes to see their beloved Wildcats play. And while it might be easier for them to pinch pennies elsewhere to make sure it happens as the Wildcats march toward history, they’d be here even if their team wasn’t headed to the NCAA Tournament as a prohibitive favorite. They proved that fact two years ago when they took over Music City to watch an NIT team lose its quarterfinal game to Vanderbilt.

Kentucky Fans Have Filled Bridgestone Arena As Usual (USA Today Images)

Kentucky Fans Have Filled Bridgestone Arena As Usual (USA Today Images)

This week, though, is a little different than most years, even by the high standards of Kentucky fans. Tickets are harder to come by, as evidenced by the many empty-handed scalpers standing outside the arena 30 minutes before tipoff. Benny Paige, a Memphian who works for the broker Ticket Resource, said that there was very little to come by and he wasn’t even willing to stick around to see what kind of business he could do in advance of Sunday’s final. “Kentucky fans buy [the tickets] up at $250, so you can’t make enough money on that,” Paige said. According to StubHub.com, a pair of premium lower-level tickets for the championship game was selling for as much as $466 apiece as of Saturday afternoon. That game, in which the Wildcats will take on a team destined for the NCAA Tournament, figures to be far more competitive than today’s semifinal against the Tigers, whose presence may have led to the cost of admission being a bit lower than normal. Still, it’s clear that Wildcats fans will spend generously even for a game that their team is going to handily win and will not impact their position as the #1 overall seed in the upcoming Big Dance.

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Arkansas Seeking Long-Awaited Postseason Success

Posted by David Changas on March 14th, 2015

Earlier this week, Bobby Portis was named the SEC Player of the Year by the league’s coaches. He was the second-leading scorer (17.8 PPG) and fourth-leading rebounder (8.7 RPG) in conference play this season. More importantly, the sophomore forward took Arkansas from its status as NIT regular to its current position as the second-best team in the SEC, helping to put the program back on the national map. On Friday evening against Tennessee, Portis showed that the coaches weren’t wrong in giving him the award. The sophomore played like a man possessed in the game’s first 15 minutes, scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds to make certain that Arkansas did not fall victim to the SEC Tournament upset bug (five wins by lower seeds already) The Hawgs raced out to a 20-point halftime lead before turning back another furious second-half Tennessee rally to ultimately win, 80-72. Portis ended the night with 26 points and 11 boards, this sixth time this season he has notched a 20/10 performance. “He’s just so, so strong and athletic,” Tennessee head coach Donnie Tyndall said after the game. “He’s got great hands. His second jump is incredible.”

Bobby Portis (USA Today Images)

Bobby Portis (USA Today Images)

For Arkansas, this year’s trip to Nashville wasn’t about earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks’ play over the course of 31 games sealed that deal long ago. Instead, it was about showing that they are ready to not only make the Big Dance but to do some damage when they get there. Despite a second half lull that allowed Tennessee to get back into last night’s quarterfinal game, the way they came out of the gates was encouraging. Currently projected as a #5 seed in most brackets, the Razorbacks hope to do no worse than stay in that range. While this will be the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament under head coach Mike Anderson, this is a program that has accumulated a lot of talent since he arrived. Anderson has put together a deep team on which 10 players see double-figure minutes of action. Guards Michael Qualls and Rashad Madden lead the way from the perimeter, complementing the dominant low post play of Portis.

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Auburn’s Surprising Run Carries it to Clash with Kentucky

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

Earlier this season, Bruce Pearl was brutally honest with his height-challenged squad. To make his players feel like they could compete with almost any team in the SEC, Pearl told his Auburn club that it could beat any team on its schedule. Well, any team besides No. 1 Kentucky. “The reason why I said that was because I truly wanted them to believe that we could beat Ole Miss or LSU or Arkansas or Georgia. Because to just say we could beat any team in the league, I don’t know that that would be a hundred percent,” Pearl said. It may have taken a while to come together, but after the Tigers’ stunning overtime quarterfinal victory against LSU, Auburn is on a roll, having won nearly as many SEC games in three days (three) as it did during the regular season (four).

Bruce Pearl knows that beating Kentucky will be a very tall task (USA Today Images)

Bruce Pearl knows that beating Kentucky will be a very tall task (USA Today Images)

That Auburn has advanced to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament isn’t just surprising; anyone who might have suggested such a thing earlier this week would have been laughed out of Bridgestone Arena. But here they are, and their reward for pulling off three straight upsets? That very Kentucky team that Pearl told them they could not beat. Lest anyone think that Pearl was being unfair to his team by suggesting that it is incapable of beating a fellow SEC school, there’s nobody in America who would disagree with his premise. The Tigers are one of the smallest teams in the country and the Wildcats are the biggest. Pearl knows that getting past the vaunted Wildcats is something too hard to even contemplate. In his postgame comments, he talked about the Tigers being “short-handed,” admitted it will be a “tough matchup,” and said his team “will try to represent.”

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Florida ‘Selfishness, Delusion’ Leads to Miserable Season

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

Florida dropped its quarterfinal matchup against No. 1 Kentucky in the SEC Tournament this afternoon in Nashville, and after the game, Gators head coach Billy Donovan did not mince words about what went wrong for his team. “I think it was a team that was maybe a little bit more wrapped up in themselves. Didn’t quite understand the level of sacrifice needed to beat a really good team. As a head coach, I think I really fell short in getting them to see how important it is for us to play as a team. And I think it was still a very, very humbling learning experience. It was a great experience, that I think and, I use the word maybe delusional or not in reality. These guys have never been in reality the entire year.” Harsh words to be sure, but given this year’s disappointment in Gainesville, it is hard to argue with them. Donovan, who just completed his 19th season at the school, will not lead the Gators into postseason play for the first time since 1996-97.

Billy Donovan did not mince words when talking about the Gators' struggles (AP/Phelan Ebenhack).

Billy Donovan did not mince words when talking about the Gators’ struggles (AP/Phelan Ebenhack).

The issues Donovan raised in his postgame commentary manifested themselves in the team’s season-long play, and things never really got any better. The Gators, coming off of a four-year run that included three Elite Eights and a Final Four, finished the season at 16-18 overall and were 6-7 in games decided by five points or fewer. The preseason top 10 team never scratched the surface of its potential, with its best win of the entire year a one-point home win over Arkansas. The early ranking was clearly not warranted, but neither was the woeful body of work that the Gators put together either. Donovan admitted earlier this week that he had overscheduled, and Florida might at least have had a winning record and a trip to the NIT ahead if he had not done so. Still, given the individual talent on the roster, most everyone agrees that much more was achievable.

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Rushed Reactions: #1 Kentucky 64, Florida 49

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

rushedreactions

SEC Microsite writer David Changas is covering the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville.

Three Key Takeaways.

Big Blue Marched On to 32-0 in Nashville Today. (USA Today Images)

Big Blue Marched On to 32-0 in Nashville Today. (USA Today Images)

  1. Wildcats Pull Away Late. Florida held its own with Kentucky for about 32 minutes this afternoon, as the Gators only trailed by five points with 7:40 left in the game. From that point, the Wildcats went on a 15-4 run to finish off the Gators’ disappointing season. As in all of the close games that Kentucky has experienced this season, the Wildcats’ size, strength and depth eventually wore down Florida. Eventually their size and ability to force a long series of difficult shots makes scoring nearly impossible, and that is precisely what happened in Friday afternoon’s game-ending stretch.
  2. Florida Limited from the Perimeter. For the Gators to have pulled off the major upset today, they would have needed superb performances from their guards. While Eli Carter reached double figures with 11 points, Florida made only two threes on the afternoon, and its best shooter, Michael Frazier II, was virtually invisible. Frazier missed seven games down the stretch before returning last weekend so it is not fair to put too much blame on him, but he was an offensive non-factor with only two made free throws in 28 minutes of action. If the Gators were going to have a chance to make a serious run at Kentucky, they needed Frazier at his best. And even that probably wouldn’t have been enough.
  3. Kentucky Dominates the Offensive Glass. The Wildcats gathered over 45 percent of their misses on Friday, even after Florida had held them in check on that front early in the game. The Wildcats continue to show that they do not have to be a great offensive team in the half-court — they shot a chilly 37.5 percent from the floor on Friday — so long as their third-best offensive rebounding percentage (40.3%) nationally remains robust. The Wildcat’s continued success on the glass allowed them to make 19-of-23 free throws, while the Gators were only 3-of-5 on the day. Ultimately, that was the difference in the game.

Star of the Game. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky. Stats hardly ever tell the story with Kentucky this season, and Friday’s game versus Florida was no different. Towns has been the Wildcats’ best player in the latter third of the year and he once again showed that he is the team’s best post presence, finishing the game with 13 points and 12 rebounds. He was especially assertive on the offensive end in the second half, as he scored nine of his points in that frame.

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SEC Tournament: Day Two Observations

Posted by David Changas on March 13th, 2015

It was an interesting second day of basketball at the SEC Tournament on Thursday. These are a collection of observations and thoughts from the day’s action, both on and off the court, in Nashville.

Observations

  • Alabama’s Jimmie Taylor looks to be a player with a bright future. Although he only averaged 5.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game this season, he matched his season- and career-high in scoring with 15 points against Florida on Thursday. It was his third consecutive game in double-figures. For a team that is not overly talented in the post, Alabama fans must hope the 6’10” sophomore can build on his performance next season. “[He] continues to show he’s going to be a force in the league for years to come,” head coach Anthony Grant said after the game.

    Anthony Grant may get another season on the bench after all. (AP/Mark Humphrey)

    Anthony Grant may get another season on the bench after all. (AP/Mark Humphrey)

  • Speaking of Grant, there was plenty of scuttlebutt about whether he will return for a seventh season despite having reached the NCAA Tournament only once in his first six. The prevailing sentiment around those close to the situation is that the Alabama administration likes and respects him — Florida coach Billy Donovan said as much in his postgame press conference after the victory — and that he likely will get another shot at coaching the Crimson Tide next season.
  • Auburn may have had a disappointing season but earning its first two SEC Tournament wins since 2010 is a step in the right direction for Bruce Pearl’s program. Without second-team all-conference guard KT Harrell on the floor, the Tigers would not be playing LSU in the quarterfinals. Harrell was terrific against Texas A&M, scoring a game-high 25 points and leading the Tigers to an improbable comeback victory.

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Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament Hopes Vanish in Nashville

Posted by David Changas on March 12th, 2015

For Texas A&M, things started out well enough. The Aggies opened a 10-point lead against lowly Auburn in Thursday’s SEC Tournament Second Round, only to see that lead quickly evaporate when the Tigers opened the second half on a 26-7 run en route to a 66-59 victory. The Aggies’ halftime lead was not the only thing that went up in smoke in Nashville today. Their case for an NCAA Tournament bid, which appeared strong prior to last week’s losses to Florida and Alabama, is all but over now. With few legitimate wins upon which the Aggies can hang their hats — before today, their strongest argument in favor of inclusion was the avoidance of bad losses, but that is no longer the case – head coach Billy Kennedy is left scratching his head at what went wrong.

KT Harrell and Auburn di in Texas A&M's NCAA Tournament chances (John Locher/AP)

KT Harrell and Auburn did in Texas A&M’s NCAA Tournament chances (John Locher/AP)

To be sure, playing without second-leading scorer Danuel House did not help, but Texas A&M is the more talented team, having completed a sweep of the Tigers just 12 days ago. Ultimately, though, the Aggies were done in by their inability to consistently score. “Danuel House, I mean, he’s our go-to guy. He’s a big moment guy. He’s handled the pressure for us for the most part all throughout the season. We really needed somebody else to step up,” Kennedy said afterward. Nobody else did, as only Alex Caruso (11 points) and Alex Robinson (11 points) reached double-figures, and the team as a whole contributed 0.83 points per possession. For Kennedy’s club, the loss probably ends the notion of an NCAA Tournament bid that seemed so likely just a few days ago. The future is still very bright in College Station. Kennedy signed what is currently ranked as the nation’s third-best incoming freshman class, including four players ranked in Rivals.com’s top 66. Additionally, the Aggies are expected to only lose Kourtney Roberson and Jordan Green from this year’s team. Still, Texas A&M had a really good chance to get a head start on that bright future with a scouting trip to the Big Dance this year. Now the Aggies will almost certainly head to the NIT, wondering how it all went wrong and what could have been.

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SEC Tournament Preview: What Teams Are Playing For

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2015

As Nashville awaits the inevitable Big Blue mist that will descend upon it Friday afternoon, let’s take a look at what each of the 14 SEC teams has to play for with the start of tonight’s SEC Tournament.

SEC tournament bracket 2015

The Outsiders

  • Missouri (9-22, 3-15). After winning its SEC opener against LSU, Missouri earned only two more conference victories all season — at home against Florida and Auburn. Kim Anderson’s first year at his alma mater has been a trying one, and there likely will not be much sadness when this campaign comes to a merciful end sometime soon.
  • Mississippi State (13-18, 6-12). Given that Rick Ray won seven league games in his first two seasons in Starkville, this year’s six-win campaign is a substantial improvement. This appeared to be a team that would struggle to win any conference games, so getting six has surely earned Ray the right to coach a fourth season at Mississippi State. While the Bulldogs have nothing to play for beyond Nashville, expect them to be motivated to move into Thursday’s round against Texas A&M.

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SEC M5: 03.09.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on March 9th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Where else could we start this M5 besides the Bluegrass State, now that Kentucky has become the first major conference team to go undefeated in the regular season since Indiana in 1976? Now that John Calipari’s team has completed the task – something that was a mere formality after the Wildcats’ comeback win at Georgia on Tuesday – there is much reflection on what got them here. As Kentucky.com‘s John Clay opined the biggest aspect of the Wildcats’ run was the lack of selfishness among players. While that may be a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy – would it be discussed if the Wildcats had a blemish or two on their record? – there is no question that what Calipari did to get buy-in from the bevy of McDonald’s all-Americans that comprise his roster is impressive. Now, the obvious question is whether his team can finish the job and cut down the nets on April 6. If it can’t, that won’t make what it has accomplished thus far meaningless, but winning it all is necessary to make this run historical.
  2. As evidence of the selflessness Kentucky displayed, that junior center Willie Cauley-Stein could be named a finalist for the Wooden Award is proof positive that statistics do not tell the story with this team. Cauley-Stein averages a mere 8.9 points and 6.4 rebounds while playing 25 minutes per contest, numbers that ordinarily would disqualify him from consideration for such a player-of-the-year award. But it’s nice to see someone who is such an important part of a great team get recognized, in a sport that often pays too much attention to stats. And it says a lot about Cauley-Stein that a player who ranks 44th in the SEC in scoring and eighth in rebounding could be included on this list, and that no one could reasonably argue against his inclusion.
  3. Going into Saturday’s action, there was a lot to be decided as far as the SEC Tournament bracket was concerned, and there were a few surprises that changed things around. The bracket is now set, and Georgia and LSU received the final two double-byes, to go along with those held by Kentucky and Arkansas. The Tigers’ stunning win at Arkansas, coupled with Ole Miss’s and Texas A&M’s home losses to Vanderbilt and Alabama, respectively, will force those bubble teams to play Thursday. For the Aggies, the loss is doubly painful. A win not only would have gotten them the 3-seed and the double-bye, with the loss, they play Thursday, and are stuck on Kentucky’s side of the bracket.
  4. Speaking of the Tigers, Aggies, and Rebels, they all now find themselves squarely on the bubble, according to, among others, ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan. In addition to Saturday’s loss to Alabama, the Aggies also lost at Florida last week. To say they could have ill-afforded either, given their position, is accurate. LSU has to feel much better about its position after the Arkansas game, as a win like that is a resume booster that will pay huge dividends with the selection committee. For Ole Miss, a win against a resurgent Vanderbilt team might have sealed the deal, but the Rebels will now have to get something done in Nashville to feel good about where they stand. At the end of the day, there do not appear to be enough wins available at the SEC Tournament to think that all three of these clubs will make the Big Dance, but there is little doubt that Texas A&M now has the most work to do, and likely will get a chance to beat LSU for a third time on Friday, in what could end up being a de facto play-in game.
  5. LSU’s win at Arkansas, under any circumstance, would have been impressive. Given that the Tigers were coming off an inexplicable and embarrassing 15-point home loss to Tennessee on Wednesday, expecting a win certainly would have been foolish. But when you consider that they did it without likely all-conference forward Jordan Mickey, who Johnny Jones decided to rest after he injured his shoulder late in the Tennessee game, you likely are even more dumbfounded. In hindsight, Jones’s decision seems like a stroke of brilliance: give your ailing star rest before the SEC and (hopefully) NCAA Tournament runs, and play a game that the committee will not penalize you for losing. In this case, Jones got the bonus of a surprising win that may just be enough to get his up-and-down team into the Field of 68.
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Belmont Returns to the Big Dance After a Year Away

Posted by David Changas on March 8th, 2015

There has been much discussion this season about the lack of scoring in college basketball and what needs to be done to fix the issue. It is a bit ironic, then, that the first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was earned on a Saturday night when Belmont won a fast-paced back-and-forth shootout in Nashville over Murray State to take the OVC Championship and return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. The 88-87 game featured a combined 26 made three-pointers and 12 lead changes, the last of which came when Belmont’s Taylor Barnette made a fall-away three with 3.2 seconds left that proved to be the game-winner. It was a thrilling finish to a thrilling tournament in which the final three games were decided by a total of five points.

Belmont can celebrate another return to the NCAA Tournament  (USA Today Images)

Belmont can celebrate another return to the NCAA Tournament (USA Today Images)

At the end of the day, though, a familiar face left with the hardware. Belmont lost in last year’s OVC championship game to Eastern Kentucky, but it had avenged that loss on Friday night to reach the final. Unlike last year, though, the Bruins were not expected to earn the league’s automatic bid. Murray State came into Saturday riding a 25-game winning streak, rolling through OVC play with a perfect 16-0 record. Though it is widely believed that the Racers now have no realistic shot at an at-large bid, they feature a future NBA guard in Cameron Payne who averages over 20 points and five assists per game. Belmont coach Rick Byrd knew that pulling off this upset would be a tall order. “I was prepared to say I’m proud to say we made eight of 10 conference championship games over the past 10 years, and at halftime I was really prepared to say something like that, because the last 10 minutes of the first half, it looked like men and boys,” Byrd said after the game, referring to a dominant 30-10 run the Racers put together over the last 10:06 of the first frame.

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