SEC Way-Too-Early 2015-16 Power Rankings

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 23rd, 2015

The SEC coaching carousel’s dust appears to have settled with Avery Johnson, Rick Barnes and Ben Howland having moved into their new offices at Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi State, respectively. Kentucky’s John Calipari is making the recruiting rounds with a new pitch after seven more of his players declared for this summer’s NBA Draft. Anthony Grant is getting re-acclimated to the assistant’s chair next to Billy Donovan at Florida that has worked out so well for both of them in the past. There’s still more to be determined about how the SEC will look heading into next season, but here are some way too early predictions on the season to come.

Tyler Ulis should contend for SEC Player of the Year honors next season (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis should contend for SEC Player of the Year honors next season. (AP Photo)

Coach of the Year

  • John Calipari, Kentucky

Player of the Year

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

Freshman/Newcomer of the Year

  • Ben Simmons, LSU

All-SEC First Team

  • Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky
  • Stefan Moody, SG, Ole Miss
  • Danuel House, SF, Texas A&M
  • Ben Simmons, SF, LSU
  • Skal Labissiere, C, Kentucky

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Battle For Alabama: Can Avery Johnson Catch Bruce Pearl?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 9th, 2015

Bill Battle’s wheelbarrow full of money simply wasn’t enough to lure Gregg Marshall away from Wichita State. But the Alabama athletic director had a bold backup plan up his sleeve, as he recently handed Avery Johnson a six-year, $18 million contract to become the Crimson Tide’s next men’s basketball coach. Johnson doesn’t lack for coaching experience from his stints as the head coach for the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets, but he’ll be making the rare coaching transition from the NBA to college ranks. The only coaches who come to mind having recently done this are Isiah Thomas at Florida International and Eddie Jordan at Rutgers. Jordan, however, spent five years as a college assistant in the late 80s and early 90s before a long coaching career in the NBA.

Avery Johnson has already met with Tuscaloosa's most prominent resident (al.com).

Avery Johnson has already met with Tuscaloosa’s most prominent resident. (al.com)

Thomas was a disaster at FIU (26-65 over three seasons) and Jordan’s first two years rebuilding Rutgers have gone about as well as expected (22-43). But that tiny sample size certainly doesn’t mean much as it relates to the 50-year old former NBA Coach of the Year, who might actually be exactly what Alabama needs right now. It’s easy to rattle off multiple reasons to be concerned. Does Johnson have requisite AAU and high school connections to recruit? Can he rally boosters as an Alabama outsider (he’s originally from New Orleans and went to Southern University)? Will he be able to adjust to the realities of the student-athlete environment? On the flip side, Johnson has a number of things in his favor that most other college coaches cannot match. He’s a basketball authority and familiar face after a long stint at ESPN, and his NBA credibility — with a championship ring on his finger as a player with the 1999 Spurs and as a successful coach of the Mavericks — could go a long way toward attracting elite talent to Tuscaloosa.

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What Jordan Mickey’s Early Exit Means For LSU

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 2nd, 2015

Jordan Mickey joined former teammate Jarell Martin in declaring for the NBA draft this week, forgoing two years of eligibility and depriving the college basketball world of an LSU team that could have legitimately given next year’s Kentucky team a run for its money in terms of talent. Here is a rundown of what his departure means for the Tigers.

Jordan Mickey will enter the NBA draft after two highly productive seasons at LSU (lsusports.net).

Jordan Mickey will enter the NBA draft after two highly productive seasons at LSU. (lsusports.net)

  • Surprise Factor: Low. It took him a little longer than his teammate Martin to announce his decision, but this was expected.
  • Legacy: Mickey certainly got his money’s worth during his two years in Baton Rouge. He racked up all-SEC honors both years (1st and 2nd teams) and landed on the all-defensive team twice. He also leaves LSU with the second-most blocked shots in program history (218), looking up only to Shaquille O’Neal. He’s meant a lot for Johnny Jones as well, who used his North Texas/Dallas connection to get the top-50 prospect to LSU. Mickey had become a legitimate NBA prospect after his freshman year, and while that’s not shocking for a guy with his pedigree, recruits ranked where he was can be somewhat hit and miss. Jones should use Mickey’s clear development as a selling point when sitting in future prospects’ living rooms.

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Freeze Frame: Neutralizing Kentucky’s Big Men

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 2nd, 2015

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Thirty-eight teams have taken their best shots at Kentucky this season but none have come away with a victory. Last Saturday night, Notre Dame became “another test” for coach John Calipari’s team en route to its fourth Final Four in the last five years. Much has been made over nothing regarding Calipari’s postgame comments following the 68-66 win (the guy just moved to 38-0 on his way to another Final Four; what do you expect him to say when asked questions about the Irish?), but while the Cats have had a few games that were as closely contested, none were more meaningful.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

The most efficient offenses this season against Kentucky.

Notre Dame’s defense last Saturday night was nothing particularly special. The Irish played with great toughness on that end of the floor, but so did every SEC team the Wildcats faced during the regular season. Notre Dame’s offense, however, was a completely different story. The Wildcats’ defense had only allowed five teams to score above a point per possession against it all season long, and Mike Brey’s team moved directly to the top of the list with its 1.16 PPP performance. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we analyze the three ways in which the Irish were able to neutralize Kentucky’s big men and do something that few other teams have been able to consistently do: score.

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The Non-Kentucky SEC Postseason Review

Posted by Greg Mitchell on April 1st, 2015

Only one of the SEC’s eight postseason teams is still playing, and you may have heard of them a time or two over the weekend. For the other seven schools, the season is now over. Let’s take a look at whether they met, exceeded or fell short of their postseason expectations.

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn't find the same shooting touch against Xavier (espn.com).

Jarvis Summers and the Rebels stormed back against BYU, but couldn’t find the same shooting touch against Xavier. (Getty)

Three That Exceeded Expectations

  • #11 Ole Miss (beat #11 BYU in the NCAA First Four; lost to #6 Xavier in the Second Round). The Rebels’ magical second-half outburst to beat BYU in Dayton was a real treat and it gave Andy Kennedy just his second NCAA Tournament win at Ole Miss. That alone has to qualify the Rebels’ postseason journey as a success, especially since the team had lost four of five to end the season and had to be feeling fortunate just to be there. It’s a shame M.J. Rhett has used all of his eligibility since his inside/outside game was instrumental in the First Four comeback and was one of the few players to perform well against the Musketeers.
  • #6 Alabama (beat #3 Illinois in the NIT First Round; lost to #2 Miami (FL) in NIT Second Round). The Tide’s underwhelming season ultimately cost Anthony Grant his job, but for the team to stick together to win at least one game just days afterward is impressive. There’s also no shame in losing to a Miami team that had several big wins this year and ended up reaching the NIT Semifinals in New York. The big question now is whether the gobs of money Alabama has reportedly thrown at Gregg Marshall will be enough to lure him to Tuscaloosa.
  • #5 Vanderbilt (beat #4 St. Mary’s in the NIT First Round; beat South Dakota State in the NIT Second Round, lost to Stanford in the NIT Quarterfinals): The Commodores looked primed for a run in the SEC Tournament but were knocked out in their opener against Tennessee. A run eventually came in the NIT, however, and the future appears bright for Kevin Stallings’ club. Vanderbilt opened with a road win in Moraga and fought to the bitter end against Stanford in Palo Alto. The Commodores’ are certainly pleased with this week’s news that Damian Jones intends to return. Stallings will pair him with a stockpile of sophomore guards (Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Shelton Mitchell, Wade Baldwin IV) that will keep Vanderbilt competitive.

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Ben Howland: An Odd Fit That Might Just Work Out For Mississippi State

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 24th, 2015

Several weeks ago I wrote on this microsite that it was shaping up to be the rare offseason where no SEC schools would be welcoming new coaches. That turned out to be a very incorrect notion. Anthony Grant was fired by Alabama on Selection Sunday and Mississippi State followed that up about a week later by announcing that Rick Ray would not be given a fourth year at the helm in Starkville. Ray’s firing registered higher on the “surprise meter” than that of Grant — the Bulldogs had just posted their best SEC record during his tenure (6-12), were expected to return an experienced nucleus of core players, and had signed a trio of three-star prospects in next year’s class. That clearly wasn’t enough for athletic director Scott Stricklin, and it did not take the school very long to name former Pitt and UCLA head coach Ben Howland as its next men’s basketball coach. Howland was loosely connected to seemingly every major job that opened a year ago but he was reportedly never seriously considered at any of Missouri, Tennessee or Marquette. He recently told USA Today that he regretted turning down three schools last offseason (one of these appears to have been Oregon State), two of which were in the process of rebuilding. This year Howland wasn’t willing to wait around, jumping on the first job opportunity that came his way.

Ben Howland, UCLA

Ben Howland inherits a Mississippi State program that struggled under Rick Ray (Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire)

Is this a good fit? For one, the Bulldogs couldn’t have landed a more accomplished coach, what with Howland’s three Final Fours at UCLA, two Sweet Sixteens at Pitt and another NCAA Tournament appearance at Northern Arizona. At the same time, the Bulldogs would also be hard-pressed to find a coach with more baggage, primarily stemming from a 2012 Sports Illustrated story that alleged that Howland had let things spin severely out of control in Westwood. Also working against him is that he has no real ties to the SEC nor the South other than his hiring of former UCLA and LSU assistant Korey McCray, who made his name as the coach of the influential AAU program Atlanta Celtics. Still, the move has been roundly praised by writers. Howland’s adaptability to his geography seems to be a strong suit, as he’s won on the West Coast, Southwest and the Northeast.

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What SEC Teams Seek This Weekend

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 18th, 2015

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The Southeastern Conference has been hit hard in the national media and on social media and everywhere else for its less than stellar basketball reputation. To be fair, it’s not completely unwarranted. Ole Miss opened the season with a loss to Charleston Southern. Mississippi State lost to Arkansas State and McNeese State. Missouri boasts a loss to UMKC. Those are bad losses to be sure, but the SEC is definitely not a one-team league, and the NCAA Tournament is a very good time to prove it.

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But, the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even folks in the south would agree that Kentucky carries the flag of SEC basketball. But the other four in the Big Dance have a great opportunity to add to the party. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Five SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament this season, including undefeated Kentucky, which is a step in the right direction. You have to wonder, though, how much the Wildcats running through the conference without a loss has tarnished the perception of the rest of the league. Close followers of the SEC recognize its depth of talent from top to bottom this year but college basketball success is often defined by how the conference performs in March. Whether you subscribe to that opinion or think it’s bunk, it is important for the SEC to prove its worth on the national stage this weekend. Below we will examine what each team stands to gain during the NCAA Tournament in addition to bolstering the overall perception of the conference.

  • Kentucky: ESPN has made you acutely aware that Kentucky is chasing history, but even though the Wildcats are on the pursuit of perfection, there are still plenty of doubters. Everybody knows haters are gonna hate, but there is really only one way to silence those detractors, and that’s to win. For Kentucky, anything short of a National Championship will bring out a chorus of “I told you sos” from the numerous Twitter trolls who have persistently claimed that Kentucky has benefited from a weak SEC slate. John Calipari‘s club is on a mission to achieve something much more substantial than providing trash talk ammunition for the Big Blue Nation to take on Louisville fans. The 2012 version of the Wildcats may very well have been a better team than this season’s crew, but the Anthony Davis Wildcats can’t claim a 40-0 record. With six more wins the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats will forever be remembered as one of the great teams in college basketball history. Lose, however, and this team might be categorized in the same breath as the 2009-10 John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins Wildcats; a talented team that fell short when it counted the most.

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Why Each SEC Team Will Win in the Round of 64

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 17th, 2015

You printed out your bracket and you were sly enough to carry it in your portfolio into the Monday morning staff meeting. All you need now is for the office suck-up to bring in kolaches (ask the College Station folks if you’ve never had one!), a working pen (you really forgot to bring a pen to the staff meeting?), and a reason to advance every SEC team into the Round of 32 and beyond.

How about a good luck kiss for your bracket? (photo via @ukphotogs)

How about a good luck kiss for your bracket? (photo via @ukphotogs)

The SEC put five teams into the Big Dance but the casual college basketball fan who started paying attention in March doesn’t realize that the conference actually packs a bit more of a punch this season. At the same time, do you really trust teams that are coming off a loss to Auburn to advance deep into the tournament? Before you decide to be the SEC homer that has Georgia vs. LSU in the Elite Eight, lets focus first on how each SEC team can get to the Round of 32.

Kentucky. If you need to be convinced that Kentucky can win its first game then consider saving the $5 you were going to put into the office pool and buy five of those chocolate bars that Lois from accounting is selling for her grandson’s school fundraiser. For the sake of a good argument, lets assume Manhattan beats Hampton tonight. Former Kentucky player Steve Masiello would love an opportunity to end the Wildcats’ pursuit of perfection on his mentor Rick Pitino’s home court. Masiello has something that none of the current Wildcats yet have, a degree from the University of Kentucky. So there’s that. Is there any valid reason to think the Jaspers could pull off a victory though? Well, to get to this point, Manhattan will have beaten Iona. Iona beat Wake Forest. Wake beat North Carolina State. NC State beat Duke. But Duke didn’t beat Kentucky. Nobody has. And there’s not much reason to think that Manhattan will either. Moving on.

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What’s Next at Alabama After Anthony Grant?

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 16th, 2015

Anthony Grant was the SEC’s lone coaching question mark heading into the offseason, but unfortunately for the sixth-year Alabama head coach, news of his firing was released shortly before Alabama received an NIT bid. This led commentator and former Providence head coach Tim Welsh to candidly hurl the following zinger toward athletic director Bill Battle during the NIT Selection Show (after hurling a true but strangely-placed zinger at the NIT itself).

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Welsh’s sentiment seems to capture the consensus on Grant as a well-liked and respectable guy. He was never surrounded by scandal or shadiness and Grant had clearly impressed Battle a year ago when he wrote the following in a blog post: “In every meeting we have had, I came away impressed with his character, with his knowledge and belief in his approach to the game, with his commitment to win championships at Alabama, and with his ability to recruit and develop players, both on and off the court.” Grant clearly didn’t win enough to keep his job; he exits Tuscaloosa with a 117-85 (54-48 SEC) record that includes one NCAA Tournament appearance (2012). Recruiting and player development at Alabama was a mixed bag — Trevor Releford was an excellent get and he also hit paydirt with Tony Mitchell and Levi Randolph. But there were others that never came around. His coaching strength was on the defensive end. Grant consistently built outstanding defensive teams, landing in the top-20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings each season from 2011-13. But offense was a problem. His teams were never better than 60th nationally (this year) on that end of the floor, and his preferred slow style of play turned off a lot of Tide fans.

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NCAA Tournament Instareaction: SEC Teams

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 16th, 2015

All things considered, the Selection Committee ended up being kind to the SEC this year. Kentucky grabbed the number one overall seed with no suspense and five league teams heard their names called. That’s a very welcome result after consecutive years of only three conference teams making the field. LSU’s inclusion as a #9 seed was especially interesting. The prevailing wisdom held that the Tigers’ SEC Tournament loss to Auburn had planted them firmly on the bubble. The fact that Johnny Jones’ team safely made the field could reveal that the committee had a high opinion of the conference. Here is a quick look at what these five SEC teams face in the coming days.

34-0. (USA Today Images)

34-0. (USA Today Images)

Kentucky

  • Seed: #1, Midwest
  • Quick First Round Preview: The Wildcats will play the winner of MEAC champion Hampton and MAAC champion Manhattan. There’s a reason they always play the games but this is not the instance where a #1 seed finally falls to a #16 seed. That said, there are intriguing storylines with both potential matchups. Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello (who played at Kentucky) was headed to South Florida before a lie on his resume cost him the job before he’d even started. Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua left John Calipari’s bench to take the job instead. The Jaspers should be able to handle sub-.500 Hampton, but the MEAC has a troubling history with the SEC. Two MEAC champions have taken down highly-seeded SEC (or soon to be SEC) schools: Coppin State over South Carolina in 1997 and Norfolk State over Missouri in 2012 (although both were #15 seeds)
  • Intriguing Potential Future Matchup: It would take a magical and seemingly improbable run, but a regional final matchup with Texas would be a fun one. The Longhorns have largely underachieved this season, but they are one of the few teams with the requisite size to match up with Kentucky. The two teams met in Lexington on December 5 and the Wildcats managed to pull out an 11-point win after a tie game at halftime. Texas, however, was without star point guard Isaiah Taylor at the time. Could he have made the difference? Maybe we’ll get to find out.
  • Final Word: The Wildcats have a few threats in this region but that’s a given for the NCAA Tournament. Kansas as a #2 seed is a much better fit than Wisconsin, Gonzaga or Virginia, since the Jayhawks have a banged-up frontcourt and were battered by Kentucky at the start of the year. It would be fun to watch Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton stretch the Wildcats’ defense in the regional final, but all things considered, the Wildcats are the clear favorite to get out of the Midwest.

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

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2015

rushedreactions

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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