The RTC Interview Series: SEC Preview with Dave Baker, Barry Booker and Chris Dortch

Posted by WCarey on November 4th, 2013

Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the offseason. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at rushthecourt@yahoo.com.

With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview of the SEC, we recently had the pleasure of speaking with three SEC experts in television analysts Dave Baker and Barry Booker, as well as Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor, Chris Dortch. (Ed. note – we spoke to each individual separately, but for the sake of expediency, combining their answers into a round table format made the most sense.)

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Booker, Baker and Dortch Shared Their SEC Thoughts With Us This Preseason

Rush the Court: How good is Kentucky and what makes it that good? Do you expect the Wildcats to win both the SEC and the national titles?

Dave Baker: A lot of folks think that Cal can be a little blustery at times. I think he’s actually pretty frank in his assessments. Last year, he thought they were gonna be better than they were. He thought they were gonna be a good team; he didn’t they they could be a great team. But he’s really got that swagger back this year. And this team is an incredibly talented team. People can debate whether, coming into their college careers, this is the best recruiting class of all-time, but I can tell you, just in the couple of practices I’ve seen, there has been a marked difference in terms of talent level, attitude and the way these guys are working together. There are some natural leaders that have come in this class. Based on what I’ve seen, his confidence is well-placed. With what their expectations are, they certainly believe they should be in the mix at the end of the year.

Barry Booker: Kentucky has everything it takes to be extremely good. It has elite talent all over the court. I think Kentucky is the surefire favorite in the SEC and I believe it has to be considered one of the top contenders to win the national title. This 2013 recruiting class is just one of the best we have seen – by all reports. It seems like every year, Kentucky gets some of the best recruits. In a year like this, where Kentucky has an outstanding class and it has players like Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein returning, it would be hard to see the Wildcats not being a top-notch team. It is amazing what John Calipari is doing in bringing in that top flight talent to replace top flight talent every year.

Chris Dortch: This historically great recruiting class gives coach John Calipari his most talented team ever, with at least seven future NBA first-round draft picks. Kentucky is definitely favored in the SEC and will be a title threat come March, but there are a handful of teams with more experience that are capable of executing a game plan and sending the Cats home short of the championship game.

RTC: Florida lost its three leading scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team. Are this season’s Gators a legitimate challenger to Kentucky in the SEC?

Baker: I think Billy and Florida will have another really good team. He’s got a situation down there where he just finds people to replace the players who have moved on. They are just incredibly consistent year-in and year-out. I know that they would have liked to have made some deeper runs in the NCAA Tournaments since their championships, but other than that, they’re just really consistent.

Booker: Absolutely. The Gators have gone to the Elite Eight three straight seasons and they are at that level again this season. I am not sure if you can call them number two – maybe Kentucky is 1A and Florida is 1B. If Kentucky does stumble and does not get things figured out, Florida can come in and take over at the top of the league. Freshman Kasey Hill is a dynamic point guard. Even with the departures from last year, Florida is still very strong on the perimeter with Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier. The Gators also return Patric Young inside – who is the best interior player in the league. This is a very solid team. It just has to stay healthy this season. The injury to Will Yeguete really hurt the team last season. It was never able to get back to the same level that it was at before the Yeguete injury.

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Pac-12 M5: 03.26.13 Edition

Posted by AMurawa on March 26th, 2013

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  1. A day after the news came down that Ben Howland’s days as the UCLA head coach were over, there he was, back in front of the media at the Westwood campus on Monday, giving a farewell press conference. Howland, as expected, was gracious, thanking players and athletic department personnel, including the athletic director who just fired him. Howland said he hopes to continue coaching, although he realizes that his next job will take a step back in prestige. While the growing consensus seems to be that UCLA was right to part ways with the coach, he still gets a lot of respect and will likely kill it wherever he winds up next. Here’s hoping he takes a year off, finds some nice fly-fishing spots and comes back in 2014-15 at either a mid-major or a struggling major conference team and undertakes a successful rebuilding job.
  2. As for the next UCLA head coach, until a contract is signed, sealed and delivered, this coaching search is going to be in the news almost daily. But for now, no real news has come out, other than a ton of marginally sane suggestions s to who the next Bruins coach will be. For instance , when writers from around the Tribune Company (the owner of the Los Angeles Times, among others) came up with their list of potential names, John Calipari was one of the suggestions, along with Anthony Grant, Andy Kennedy and Andy Enfield. Enfield’s probably too green yet to get the UCLA job, Kennedy certainly ain’t happening, and Calipari? Yeah, not buying that at all. But Grant is an intriguing name, should UCLA strike out on their first few targets. Oh, and N.C. State fans? No need to worry.
  3. Arizona is on its way to Los Angeles this week to compete in the Sweet Sixteen at the Staples Center on Thursday. The last time this Wildcats team was in Los Angeles, to face USC and UCLA the week spanning the end of February and the beginning of March, they came away with a pair of losses. And yet, both head coach Sean Miller and sophomore guard Nick Johnson point to that road trip as the time when things started to come together for the team. Johnson in particular says the Wildcats have been a different defensive team since that trip, and the results seem to show it, as they’ve allowed just 0.95 points per possession against four NCAA Tournament teams and one NIT team.
  4. The other Pac-12 team still alive in the NCAA Tournament is Oregon, but they’ve got a tough task ahead as they face the Tournament’s number one overall seed, Louisville, on Friday night. While just getting this far is a success for the Ducks, they’re still focused on getting even further. But in order to do that, they’ll need to take better care of the ball against the Cardinals’ defensive pressure after turning it over 36 times last weekend in their two dominating wins in San Jose. They got away with it last week, but it is likely that if they turn it over 18 times against Louisville, they’ll be back in Eugene on Saturday.
  5. Lastly, we circle back around to the coaching situation, as Percy Allen goes through all the Pac-12 jobs and tries to determine who is and who is not on the hot seat. He lists the obvious ones: Ken Bone, Craig Robinson and Johnny Dawkins, and although the expectation is that all will be back next season, the 2013-14 year will certainly be make-or-break years for each. Also on Allen’s list is Herb Sendek, but he earned himself the benefit of the doubt with this season’s improvement, although if Jahii Carson winds up going pro this season, they’re likely back to square one. And then the final name on his list is Larry Krystkowiak, who is in no way on the hot seat whatsoever, as Utah will almost certainly give him the entirety of his five-year contract to turn things around.
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With Kentucky Loss, SEC Fan Apathy For Basketball Exposed Again

Posted by David Changas on March 16th, 2013

David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report while covering the SEC Tournament in Nashville this weekend.

You’ve heard the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” When it comes to Kentucky fans and the SEC Tournament, it goes more like this: “Wherever you hold it, they will come.” Everyone knows that the Wildcats have struggled all season with almost an entirely new team, and chances are, they will miss out on the NCAA Tournament. But if you happened to be in downtown Nashville Friday evening, you would think John Calipari’s team was a prime contender for the national championship. For Friday’s blowout loss to Vanderbilt, whose campus is two miles from Bridgestone Arena, the SEC Tournament drew its largest crowd of the weekend, and of the 18,000+ in attendance, at least 15,000 were part of the “Blue Mist,” the affectionate name given to Wildcat fans who take over whatever city the annual extravaganza is being held in. The Commodores would have felt more at home if the game had been in Rupp Arena, not that it was evident from their play.

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Kentucky’s surprising ouster from this tournament was not only bad for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, which was looking forward to a St. Patrick’s Day weekend with thousands of Wildcat fans in town, but it once again brought to light an embarrassing issue for the SEC.  Bridgestone Arena had plenty of empty seats for Saturday’s semifinals, and Sunday’s championship likely will be no different.  Mike Slive has made more money for this league since he took over as commissioner in 2002 than you can count. He’s overseen expansion into Texas and Missouri, massive television contracts, and rumor has it that he’s on the verge of announcing the formation of the SEC Network, expected to launch in August 2014.  But make no mistake: That money has been made because of football. It is the cash cow of college sports in every league, but there’s no question that the pigskin is more important to the SEC than any other. And there’s no clearer of example of that than the conference’s dominance of the BCS, which it was won seven consecutive times.

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Rushed Reactions: Florida 61, Alabama 51

Posted by David Changas on March 16th, 2013

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David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after the SEC Tournament semifinal game between Florida and Alabama in Nashville.

Three Key Takeaways:

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The Gators Survived Alabama’s Upset Bid on Saturday

  1. Florida Run.  The Gators trailed by 10 early in the second half before going on a 13-0 run to completely change the momentum of the game. Florida looked lethargic at that point, and it appeared they may be heading home a day earlier than most expected. However, led by senior point guard Kenny Boynton, the Gators made their run in less than three minutes, and Alabama never got closer than three the rest of the way. Florida outscored the Crimson Tide 34-14 after trailing by 10. “Boynton stepped up to the plate.  He gave them that spark and they kept building on that,” Alabama guard Trevor Releford said after the game. The run the Gators made was similar to the one they made two weeks ago in Gainesville, where they also trailed by 10 to the Tide in the second half. And that was certainly on Alabama players’ minds. Guard Trevor Lacey admitted that he discussed it with his teammates. “We knew we needed to keep attacking them,” he said.  The Gators clearly were not deterred when they fell behind, and showed again why they won the league’s regular season title.
  2. Good Kenny Boynton.  There is no shortage of enigmatic point guards in the SEC, and Boynton may be the leader of that club. The senior often takes shots out of the offensive flow, and has hit only 32.5% of his three-point attempts on the year. As the Gators practiced this week, coach Billy Donovan advised Boynton and fellow senior Mike Rosario to let the game come to them and to take shots only within the flow of the offense. While Donovan has expressed concern with the way Rosario has responded to that admonition, Boynton appears to have taken his coach’s advice. Even though he struggled shooting the ball in Friday’s blowout win over LSU, Donovan was pleased that Boynton dished out seven assists, and didn’t force anything on the offensive end. In this game, Boynton’s play sparked the Gators’ run, as Boynton scored seven of their 15 points. On the day, he led Florida with 16 points, and Donovan has made it clear that he has no problem with Boynton continuing to shoot the ball when he gets good looks, and if he continues to do that, the Gators chances to make a deep March run in a wide-open field are pretty good.
  3. Did Alabama’s Bubble Burst?  With Kentucky falling outside the RPI top 50 after last night’s loss to Vanderbilt, Alabama owns no wins over top-50 teams.  When compared to other bubble teams, that may do in the Crimson Tide. In most years, their resume wouldn’t even merit contention for a spot. But this year, given that the committee is considering so many unimpressive resumes, there’s always a chance. Alabama coach Anthony Grant was quick to point out when asked about the Tide’s chances after the game that whether his team has done enough to make the Big Dance is not his concern. “I don’t deal in that.  [The committee has] a tough enough job,” he said. Instead, he’ll sit back and wait to see what happens, but it’s much more likely that his team will be hosting a first-round NIT game than playing in the Big Dance.

Star of the Game.  Kenny Boynton.   Gators center Patric Young was too much for Alabama to handle, but Boynton keyed their turnaround, and sent Donovan’s team to the championship game for only the second time in six years.

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Alabama Positions Itself to Make a Run at an NCAA Bid

Posted by David Changas on March 15th, 2013

David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Friday afternoon’s game between Alabama and Tennessee at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

Some called today’s SEC Quarterfinal match-up between Tennessee and Alabama a “play-in” game for the NCAA Tournament. The reality was, though, that it was more likely a play-in for Tennessee. Most observers agreed that a win by the Volunteers would put them in the Big Dance, as they would have notched their 10th win over an RPI top-100 team. Most agreed, too, that Alabama would need to do more to make itself worthy of a spot in the field. What the Crimson Tide’s 58-48 victory, which came as the result of stifling defense that held Tennessee to 32% shooting from the field, did was put them in a position to secure a bid. Alabama, which currently sits at No. 62 in the RPI and owns only one victory over a top-50 RPI team (against No. 48 Kentucky), will now get a shot at a big one.

Alabama Held On to Come Out On Top Regardless

Alabama Held On to Come Out On Top Regardless

It takes on SEC regular season champion Florida, which sits at No. 7 in the RPI, in Saturday’s first semifinal. Given the difficulty other teams firmly on the bubble have had with taking advantage of their respective positions this week, the door is open for Anthony Grant’s team to make a run. Just today, the likes of Virginia, LaSalle, and, of course, Tennessee, all considered to be in the “Last Four In/Last Four Out” merry-go-round, lost. Earlier in the week, Boise State and MTSU, also among that group, lost. Ole Miss and Kentucky have yet to play here, but Alabama’s path to the field of 68 is clearer than it could have anticipated coming into the tournament.

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A Puncher’s Chance? Breaking Down the Teams Driving the 2013 SEC Tournament

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on March 11th, 2013

Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland.

The SEC Tournament is upon us, and thanks to the league’s new 14-team format, fans get a whole extra day of win-or-go-home basketball in the south. The 2012-13 season hasn’t been particularly kind to the SEC. The conference suffered through a plague of upset losses and a dearth of quality wins which led to speculation that Florida would be the league’s only representative at the NCAA Tournament.

That course has been corrected over the final three weeks of the season thanks to some big wins across the conference’s second tier, but there are still plenty of teams battling for postseason slots. Tennessee and Kentucky will be looking to one-up each other as they duel for what might the last at-large invitation to the Big Dance. Alabama and Ole Miss will look to re-enter the postseason conversation with legitimizing wins. Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt will try to rally hard and extend their seasons one day at a time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 14 teams that will be competing for conference honors when Wednesday rolls around.

The Prohibitive Favorite: Florida

 (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

Florida Seeks Another SEC Title in Nashville (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

Billy Donovan’s team hasn’t been perfect against a downtrodden conference, and that has cost the Gators a shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their best recourse for that will be to put together a dominant run in Nashville, and an easy Friday match-up against LSU or Georgia will give them the opportunity to get off on the right foot. Much like the rest of the season, this will be a high-risk, low-reward endeavor for Florida. They won’t face a top-50 opponent until a theoretical Sunday match-up in the title game. They’ll have to hold court and prove that they can reclaim the dominance that led them to a string of double-digit wins to open league play.

The Savvy Bet: Missouri 

Mizzou may have the richest depth of any team in the SEC, but Frank Haith’s squad has been vulnerable against the conference’s good and mid-level teams in 2013. The Tigers have struggled to play well as a team despite the wealth of experience on their roster, but they’ve been able to regroup (4-2 in their last six games) as the SEC Tournament approaches. Mizzou has the scoring, ball movement, and rebounding to push any opponent to the limit. Players like Alex Oriakhi, Laurence Bowers, and Phil Pressey can create mismatches against any team they face. Can they ratchet up the defense and come together as a cohesive unit when the pressure is on? The Tigers are just a #6 seed in the SEC bracket, but they have the potential to do so much more — especially with a relatively weak draw on the road to the conference championship game.

The At-Large Brawlers: Tennessee, Kentucky

Tennessee and Kentucky represent the conference’s best candidates for a third and possibly fourth NCAA Tournament bid, but it may be a case of one-or-the-other when it comes to the selection committee’s final bracket. Both of these teams proved that they can beat Florida over the past two weeks, but their victories came with the help of home court advantage. Now, they’ll have to prove that they can travel to a neutral court and roll that momentum into a season-sustaining run through the SEC Tournament. The Volunteers and Wildcats will be pitting their resumes against each other for a chance to make it to the Big Dance, and while either team can make a case for inclusion based on their regular season performances, another significant win would all but ensure their spot in one of the NCAA’s four regions.

Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)

Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)

The only way these two would meet in Nashville is in the SEC title game, and both teams would be likely locks for the 68-team filed at that point. Kentucky has the better collection of talent, but no team has been hotter over the past month than Tennessee. The Volunteers are at the tail end of an 8-1 run that rallied the team from CBI territory and on to the happy side of the bubble. However, they may have been pushed down to NIT status after Saturday’s UK win over the Gators and Middle Tennessee State’s surprising Sun Belt Tournament loss. Is there room for both of these teams in the NCAA bracket?

The Forgotten Bubble Contenders: Ole Miss, Alabama

Ole Miss and ‘Bama belonged in the previous group until late-season slumps effectively tanked their seasons. For the Rebels, February and March represented a precipitous fall from grace. Marshall Henderson and his teammates plummeted from a potential five-seed or better all the way off the NCAA Tournament bubble with a 6-6 record down the stretch that included losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State. Still, Henderson, Murphy Holloway, and Reginald Buckner could lead the third-seeded Rebels to a big weekend if they can regain their early-season magic.

The Crimson Tide didn’t have a bad spring, they just failed to produce any resume-defining wins. Anthony Grant’s team is solid across the court and strong enough to hang with the SEC’s best teams, but they’ve been unable to lock down an impressive top-50 victory in 2013. This rebuilding Alabama squad has the pieces in place for a big 2014 run, but they might not have the gas this week to get to the SEC title game and back to the bright side of the bubble.

Puncher’s Chances: Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU

The SEC Tournament occasionally fails to follow rhyme, reason, or tradition. Some years, a tornado hits the host arena and wills a 4-12 Georgia team to the Big Dance. In others, a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t known much beyond abject failure in the conference bracket wins their first postseason title since 1950. Five teams at the lower end of the Southeastern spectrum could end up adding to that legacy in 2013.

Vanderbilt, thanks in part to the emergence of freshman Sheldon Jeter, is finishing its season better than they started it. A team that can shoot from three-point range and play hard-nosed defense on the perimeter is always dangerous in tournament play, and that will give Kevin Stallings’ team a shot. Same goes for Texas A&M, a squad that could ride Elston Turner Jr.’s hot hand to a marquee match-up on Sunday.

Arkansas, with wins over Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri, may have the best resume of the group when it comes to the league’s third tier and a high-paced style that could wreak havoc in a four-day tournament setting. Georgia has been streaky all year and could be an upset of Florida away from an easy path to the SEC title game. Finally, LSU has been wholly unpredictable in 2013 and that volatility could result in a surprising run to a weekend match-up or a Thursday exit at the hands of Georgia.

Saving Money on Costly Weekend Hotels in Nashville: Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina

Frank Martin’s team has some young talent, but doesn’t have a path to a Friday game unless Bruce Ellington or Michael Carrera catch fire for the Gamecocks. Even with a big, slightly inexplicable win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State is still a rebuilding team with just seven scholarship players to count on in Nashville. Auburn held Alabama to just 37 points once and also beat Florida State this season, but that’s about it for bright spots in a season that’s ending on a 1-14 skid.

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SEC M5: 03.11.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on March 11th, 2013

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  1. In one of the best weekends of college basketball that we’ve seen this year, the SEC may be able to lay claim to the top highlight. Trevor Releford hit a half-court shot as time expired to give Alabama a 61-58 win over Georgia, keeping the Crimson Tide in consideration for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Bama appeared well on its way to an easy win when they took a 14-point lead into halftime, but the Bulldogs stormed back in the second. “I felt like in the second half they really picked their tempo up and really attacked us,” coach Anthony Grant said. “The zone caused us some problems.” Releford put the finishing touches on a strong regular season, adding an iconic moment to his case for SEC Player of the Year.
  2. Florida went into Lexington over the weekend looking for its first win at Rupp Arena in six years. A back and forth game had finally swung in the Gators’ favor after Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein was forced to bench with four fouls, but even with a seven-point lead with eight minutes to play, Florida went ice cold. The Gators did nothing with their last 14 possessions the rest of the way, committing five turnovers and missing all 11 of their field goal attempts. ”In these situations, someone has to step up and make a play,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Someone has to make a shot.” Florida couldn’t get that shot to fall, doing nothing to dispel the notion that they can’t deliver in close games.
  3. Kentucky’s win over Florida certainly had a do-or-die feel, but Gary Parrish believes that Kentucky shouldn’t rest easy just yet. The Wildcats’ Tournament resume remains marginal. A 21-10 overall record, a 7-9 record against the RPI top 100, and only two wins against the top 50 doesn’t exactly scream “lock.” “There’s a tendency in college basketball to react strongly to every single thing that happens,” writes Parrish, “and the byproduct is that analysts and fans are constantly punching everybody’s tickets for the Big Dance.” A win over Florida filled a big hole in Kentucky’s argument, but a loss to Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament would cancel out a lot of that progress and put the Cats right back on the fringes of the bubble.
  4. The teams at the bottom of the SEC needed overtime to settle their season finale, with Mississippi State beating Auburn, 74-71, putting Bulldogs coach Rick Ray in a celebratory mood. “Just finding a way to gut out a win and to go in the locker room to see so many people happy,” he said after the game. “You read some things were they say we are the worst team in SEC history, so I guess we can’t be that if we finished 13th out of 14.” Touche, Rick. Mississippi State has been ridiculed all season as one of the worst power conference teams in college basketball, but thanks to a strong start and finish to the conference schedule (book-ending that 13-game losing streak), the Bulldogs finished outside of the SEC cellar.
  5. Tennessee overcame an eight-point second half deficit to beat Missouri, 64-62, on Saturday, maintaining its status as the conference’s hottest team. The Vols have won eight of nine to turn what appeared to be a lost season into a potential at-large NCAA Tournament berth. Tennessee is currently on the outside looking in according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, meaning that the Vols are another SEC team in need of SEC Tournament success. ”I feel like we’re an older group,” forward Jarnell Stokes said. “We know that we have to do damage in the SEC Tournament. I’m not going to let another one slip away like we did last year.” A year ago, Cuonzo Martin’s team was in an almost identical position. Tennessee had ended the year winning eight of nine, but were upset by Ole Miss in their first SEC Tournament game, relegating the Vols to the NIT.
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SEC M5: 03.04.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 4th, 2013

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  1. Free throws haven’t been a source of pride for the Florida Gators of late, but success at the charity stripe sealed the win for Billy Donovan’s squad against Alabama on Saturday. Alabama coach Anthony Grant admitted Florida’s newfound confidence at the line made the game plan difficult to execute. “We weren’t able to take away the free-throw line today,” said Grant. “In the second half, their whole thing was to drive the ball and to attack the rim, and they had success with it. Twenty-two points at the free-throw line at home is going to be awfully hard to overcome.” The Gators shot just 68.2 percent from the line coming into the game, but were 22 of 26 (84.6 percent) on Saturday afternoon.
  2. Senior guard Kenny Boynton has 1,927 points in a Florida uniform, but he has had to work very hard for every point lately. “Guys project how a guy is playing or not playing based on whether or not the ball is going in the basket and certainly here the last few games he hasn’t made the number of shots that he has made,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He had a stretch there to start the year where he really wasn’t shooting the ball, and then he went on a tear for a little bit and maybe here lately, he’s not.” In the month of February, Boynton averaged under 10 points per game and shot just 24 percent from three-point range. Boynton hasn’t scored 20 points or more since a January 12 game against LSU. If Florida is going to make a deep run into March, it will need its senior guard to return to form.
  3. One thing a coach never wants to admit is that his team got out-hustled, but that is exactly what Kentucky coach John Calipari said after Saturday’s loss to Arkansas. “We weren’t as tough as them, we didn’t play as hard as them and they wanted the game more than us, and that team usually wins,” Calipari said. A huge key to the game was turnovers. The Wildcats turned the ball over 19 times because of the Razorbacks’ press and general hectic pressure.  “We tried to make the game as chaotic as we could,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “That was the difference in the game.” Not that a loss is ever acceptable or needed, but this was exceptionally bad timing for Kentucky as the Cats are in hot pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid. A less than impressive showing did some damage to the Kentucky’s case, but there’s still time with a game at Georgia on Thursday and a home date with Florida on Saturday.
  4. Saturday was a big win for the Razorbacks. They are guaranteed a .500 record in SEC play for the first time since 2008. They beat Kentucky for the first time since 2011 in a hard fought overtime win. But Saturday was big for Arkansas because Kentucky is still a rivalry game, and one in which Razorback fans circle on the calendar with a strong desire to walk out victorious. As Doc Harper of Arkansas Expats writes, “there’s a part of me that always wants to beat Kentucky because of the wars of the early/mid 90s, so today was incredibly sweet.” This type of history and animosity makes the SEC better, and one can only hope that Kentucky takes a potential rematch in Nashville in a couple of weeks a little personal.
  5. Sometimes teams don’t necessarily need to excel to win, but they might just need to make fewer mistakes than their opponents. That’s exactly what the Commodores did in their win over the Auburn Tigers on Saturday. “We’re very happy to get a very ugly road win,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “I don’t know if both teams had really bad offense, and I certainly don’t want to speak for their side, but it didn’t feel like either side played very well tonight for me.”  In the SEC, victories no the road are very hard to come by. Prior to their win on Saturday, the Commodores had just two road victories in the SEC. Neither of the wins were against top-tier SEC competition as they had beaten cellar-dwellers South Carolina and Mississippi State. Overall, Vanderbilt is turning the corner at the right time with four victories in its last five games.
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SEC M5: 02.27.12 Edition

Posted by DPerry on February 27th, 2013

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  1. The red-hot Tennessee Volunteers extended its winning streak to six games Tuesday night, handing Florida their second loss in three games. Jordan McRae provided most of the offense with 27 points, while Jarnell Stokes (14 rebounds) dominated the glass in a game that was almost a must-win for the Vols to make the NCAA Tournament field. Florida began SEC play with 11 straight victories, looking almost infallible in comparison to the rest of the weak conference. However, injuries have taken their toll (Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II, most recently) and the Gators have lost some of that shine, maybe enough to completely excuse themselves from the #1-seed conversation. With the loss, Billy Donovan’s record against Cuonzo Martin fell to 0-3.
  2. Anthony Grant charged Trevor Releford with putting the offense on his back through the rest of the season, and he started out in style. Behind 21 points from the junior guard, Alabama avenged an ugly February 6 loss to intrastate rival Auburn with an easy win Tuesday night. Nick Jacobs chipped in with 10 points and 10 rebounds. ”We talked about the importance of every game going forward, but obviously any time you get a chance to play your in-state rival that adds a different meaning,” Grant said after the game. Alabama travels to Gainesville this weekend with, unbelievably, a chance to tie the Gators atop the SEC standings.
  3. Believe it or not, Georgia still has a chance to grab a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Show of hands: Who thought the Bulldogs would be able to say that at the end of February? Really? Really? Coach Mark Fox will face a challenge tonight, as he brings his young backcourt into the uncomfortable environment that is Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, the only venue in the nation that features benches along the baseline. “I’m probably more worried about it this year with such a young perimeter group,” Fox said of the Commodores’ court configuration. “There’s a lot of the game they’ll have to manage on their own on the floor.” Freshman Charles Mann has been seeing more time at the point, while classmates Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris have earned their share of minutes as well. The Bulldogs have lost three of four games after a previous five-game winning streak.
  4. Andrew Wiggins, the top recruit in the class of 2013 according to both Rivals and ESPN, will take an official visit to Kentucky, probably while you’re reading this. He’s visited the Lexington campus before, but expects to see more than he did on his previous unofficial trip. ”He’ll have a chance to meet different people: the academic people, the athletic director,” said Rob Fulford, Wiggins’ coach at Huntington (WV) Prep. “It’s more official as far as what you’re looking for and getting a feel for the school.” The forward originally from Canada is also considering Florida State, Kansas, and North Carolina. Also, watch this.
  5. Frank Haith hasn’t been hesitant to criticize his team this season. His most recent target is his team’s subpar defense on the road against Kentucky. “We had nobody play on that end of the court,” Haith said. “And when you have nobody play on that end of the court, you don’t have a chance. We had so many breakdowns where we didn’t rotate, we didn’t shrink the gap and allowed them driving lanes and loose balls and poor closeouts.” Kentucky entered Saturday’s game with Missouri without any momentum, but the Tigers’ lax defense allowed the Wildcats to shoot over 50% from the field, as well as over 40% from long range. Haith believes that his team only plays quality defense when their offensive game is on, which may help to explain much of the Tigers’ road struggles this season.
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SEC M5: 2.26.13 Edition

Posted by DPerry on February 26th, 2013

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  1. After scoring 20 and 32 points against LSU and Texas A&M respectively Tennessee junior Trae Golden was been named the SEC Player of the Week. The Volunteer point guard has struggled through an up and down season, struggling to find consistency with his shot and decision-making. That wasn’t the case last week however as he shot  almost 50% from the field and a cool 19 for 20 from the free throw line. “He’s like the leader of our team, especially from the standpoint that he can get his own shot and create for others,” junior guard Jordan McRae said. “If you don’t have your floor general out there, it’s kind of hard for someone else to step in and duplicate what he’s been doing for us.” It’s no coincidence that Tennessee’s best stretch of the season has come at a time when Golden and sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes are playing their best basketball.
  2. Tennessee has a chance at a huge resume-padding win tonight when Florida comes to town. The Gators have absolutely dominated the SEC this season, with a scoring margin of over 20 points/game, but the Volunteers may have caught Billy Donovan’s team at the right time. Michael Frazier II will miss out with a concussion he suffered over the weekend, and Will Yeguete won’t yet be back from knee surgery. However, both could be healthy for the Gators home game against Alabama this weekend. ”Frazier’s going to come back at some point. So is Will Yeguete,” Donovan said. “When that actually is, no one really knows right now but I think they’ll be a point where we have our team fully back and we’ll have a full complement of players.” The Gators finish out the season with Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
  3. Willie Cauley-Stein followed in the footsteps of his fallen frontcourt mate and was named SEC Freshman of the Week. The freshman from Kansas put together his best two-game stretch of the season, scoring 20 against Vanderbilt midweek before grabbing 12 rebounds and swatting 7 shots against Missouri on Saturday night. Kentucky looked helpless against Tennessee without Nerlens Noel patrolling the paint, but Cauley-Stein has proved to be a decent replacement for Noel’s lost production. The recognition is Cauley-Stein’s second of the season, his first coming after posting a double-double against Eastern Michigan heading into conference play.
  4. LSU doesn’t have many periods of sustained success in their basketball program’s history, but Glenn Guilbeau of the Shreveport Times thinks that may change under the guidance of first-year head coach Johnny Jones. Jones was involved in the program during its best years, as a player for the 1981 Final Four team, and as an assistant for the successful run from 1985-87, all under coach Dale Brown. “Jones’ team plays a lot like most of Brown’s teams — fast and high scoring with hustle and opportunistic defenses that tend to “freak” opponents,” writes Guilbeau. “It’s fun to watch, and people are gradually returning to the Assembly Center. There were 8,200 — a good crowd this century — on a beautiful Saturday with LSU coming off a loss, below .500 in the SEC and neither team ranked.” Jones is making progress on the recruiting trail as well. He’s making sure that his pitches are heard outside of LSU’s immediate surroundings, and has had his hard work rewarded with a commitment from McDonald’s All-American Jarell Martin, only the second to head to Baton Rouge since 2005.
  5. Trevor Releford has been Alabama‘s go-to guy much of the season, but should he be shooting even more? Probably. Trevor Lacey and Rodney Cooper are threats to score from the perimeter as well, but neither is nearly as efficient as Releford. The junior guard is shooting 49% from the field (trailing only reserve forward Nick Jacobs) and leads the team in shooting 42% from distance. “I’ve said this before: When he’s locked in, he’s as good as any guard in our league or across the country,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said Monday. “Here lately, he’s really been playing his best basketball, and we need him to continue.” Despite the heartbreaking loss to LSU over the weekend, Releford was in top form, scoring 36 on 14-18 shooting. The Tide are currently outside the tournament according to most bracket projections, but they have the opportunity for quality wins, with road trips to Florida and Ole Miss before the end of the year.
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SEC M5: 02.08.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 8th, 2013

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  1. Florida’s Will Yeguete will undergo surgery to repair loose pieces of cartilage in his right knee. The devastating news means Yeguete will be out for four to six weeks, meaning it’s possible he could return in time for the NCAA Tournament. “It’s Will’s decision,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He wants to do what he can to play this season.” The forward has been a huge boost for the Gators this season, acting as the second leading rebounder with 6.3 rebounds per game and providing excellent defense. His defensive rebounding percentage is the best on the team and ranks in the top 100 in the nation. This is a bad loss for Florida, which didn’t at all look like itself without Yeguete in a road loss to Arkansas on Tuesday.
  2. That sound you heard last night was the pop of Alabama‘s thin NCAA bubble bursting after a 49-37 loss to rival Auburn. The Crimson Tide managed just 37 points in the game after leading at halftime by the score of 23-13. Coach Anthony Grant had no explanation. “I can’t explain it,” he said. “I can’t. I have no explanation for that.” A performance like that has to bring about disappointment. “I’m concerned about my team,” Grant added. “The opportunities that we had in front of us, to come out – I expect more out of our guys.” Any chances of an NCAA berth just went out the window with this embarrassing loss, and has to be of concern moving forward.
  3. Ole Miss announced that center Demarco Cox, who hasn’t played since December 23, will be out for the rest of the season after a stress fracture in his foot hasn’t healed properly. This announcement comes on the heels (no pun intended) of 6’9″ sophomore Aaron Jones also announcing he would miss the remainder of the year with a torn ACL. Head coach Andy Kennedy has an issue in the frontcourt if he has to go to his bench. “I told Reg (Buckner) and Murph (Holloway) that they got to be prepared to play 40 minutes,” Kennedy said. With any additional injuries, he may no longer be joking.
  4. Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope always finds a way to get his points, but he insists that Georgia’s recent four-game winning streak isn’t about him. ”The difference is we’re playing together,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We’re helping each other through adversity when we’re down, when we’re not playing well. Our defense got better. We’ve just been finishing out games.” KCP still found the bucket, scoring 24 on 9-of-12 shooting, but it’s clear he’s now getting help. Tennessee’s Jordan McRae noticed the other players surrounding Caldwell-Pope. ”We didn’t expect everybody else to shoot as well as they did,” McRae said. “We knew Caldwell-Pope, he could shoot.” The Bulldogs haven’t won four straight SEC games since winning the SEC Tournament in March 2009 and haven’t put together a streak this long in the regular season since 2003.
  5. One of Kentucky’s undergraduate assistants isn’t just a young college student taking game notes for coach John Calipari, but he has a wealth of experience to draw from and teach Kentucky’s young roster. Former Wildcat Marquis Estill, who played for former coach Tubby Smith at UK from 1999-2003, is finishing up his degree and helping Calipari as an undergraduate student assistant coach. Estill’s relationship with Calipari has the potential to create an eventual opening for him. “I would like to stay around here,” he said, “but Cal knows a lot of people and has great connections.” But perhaps before talking about a job in the future, Estill and Calipari can start at the beginning. “He actually knows my name now, which is a good sign,” Estill joked.
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SEC M5: 02.04.13 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on February 4th, 2013

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  1. Scottie Wilbekin received a generous amount of recognition for his defense recently, but his offense is making strides as well. He scored 13 points and dished out seven assists in a much anticipated clash with Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson. “Since the year has gone on I have gotten more comfortable out there,” Wilbekin said. “It has been slowing down. The reads become easier as I’ve grown up. When I just slow down it seems something always opens up.” However, Wilbekin’s defense earned universal acknowledgment for a reason. His defense on Henderson played a large part in forcing Ole Miss’ enigmatic guard into four turnovers. 
  2. Henderson was extremely complimentary of Florida after the Gators’ 78-64 win, despite his 25 points on 7-11 shooting from beyond the arc. “I think (Florida) will contend for the national championship,” Henderson said. “We have seen how they have been blowing people out. They execute perfectly.” He didn’t exactly speak as favorably of UF’s student section, the Rowdy Reptiles. “I had to give it to them — I thought they’d be a little bit more mean than they were. There were some funny signs.” The O’Connell Center might be the most volatile environment Henderson and the Rebels have remaining on the schedule, with just a trip to Missouri that could even come close.
  3. Kentucky’s freshman laden team has been in desperate need of leadership. Saturday in College Station, senior Julius Mays stepped up as the veteran the Wildcats have been missing. Cat killer Elston Turner would most likely attest to Mays’ excellent defense. ”Julius did a great job on Turner,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Because Archie (Goodwin), if Archie ever sees Turner again, leave. If it’s a pickup game, go home. Don’t go near the guy. Julius played him pretty good, and made it hard. He scored some baskets, but (Julius) made it hard.” Turner ended the game with 21 points, including the game tying three pointer in regulation, but Mays impact on the road was invaluable. “Julius, without him, we don’t win today,” Calipari said.
  4. It takes a certain level of confidence and toughness to go on the road and win in the SEC. Vols center Kenny Hall says Tennessee just doesn’t have what it takes. ”I feel like we still lack mental toughness,” Hall said. “I don’t even feel like we’ve got it down all the way. As a team, it’s about being consistent, staying focused, not turning the ball over, making plays, getting stops without the defensive breakdowns. At home we do a great job of it, but on the road, that’s when we when we really have to step it up, really tighten up our screws.” The Vols are 0-6 away from home this season, and they have five more road games left in SEC play. That is quite a few more defeats if Tennessee can’t put together the mental fortitude to steal one away from the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena.
  5. Alabama coach Anthony Grant is confident going to the bench when his team needs composure and leadership. That’s because that’s where fifth year senior Andrew Steele resides. Steele came off the bench with 13 points to steady the Tide in a 58-54 win over Vanderbilt. “The numbers speak for themselves … but the other stuff, just his leadership, his communication, just the respect that he get, I can’t tell you how valuable it is,” Grant said. “For our young guys, they’re learning the lessons of what leadership is all about in terms of what he provides for them. Tonight, he got shots to fall. He had a season-high 13 points. He’s always going to give you the effort and the intangibles. … It’s great to see the ball go in, as hard as he works at it. The other things to me supersede the points, the rebounds and anything else. The intangibles, the leadership, the passion that he has for his team, for this university shows, and it’s contagious.” The numbers Grant refers to is Alabama’s winning percentage with Steele, which is 12-2, as opposed to its 2-5 record without him.
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