SEC M5: It’s Finally March Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 2nd, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster had mostly good news for SEC basketball fans in his most recent Bubble Banter post. LSU, Georgia and Texas A&M all emerged from the weekend as bubble winners, with Ole Miss acting as the conference’s only loser (and just slightly, with a forgivable loss to the Tigers in Baton Rouge). The theme of the weekend for the Aggies and Bulldogs was to avoid the bad loss, and they both did so in beating Auburn and Missouri, respectively. A loss at home to the northern Tigers would have been especially devastating for a Georgia team which has already absorbed losses to Auburn and South Carolina in Stegeman Coliseum this year. LSU comes out the really big winner with a resume-enhancing win over the Rebels, earning the tiebreaker over Ole Miss in SEC Tournament seeding in the process.
  2. LSU got its big win in large part because Tim Quarterman did something no Tiger has done since Shaq was a slim and trim junior back in 1992: record a triple-double. Johnny Jones’ do-it-all, Swiss Army knife wing has been flirting with the distinction all season, and he finally picked it up on Saturday with 18 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds. He also did this while having to guard Ole Miss star Stefan Moody for large portions of the game. Quarterman may be one of the more underappreciated players in the SEC and the league’s most improved player (though Tennesee’s Armani Moore may have something to say about that). Given his all-around skill set and excellent length, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eventually get a crack at the NBA; but he should stick around for four years to be a great college player that ends up on multiple LSU all-time lists.
  3. This is a bit dated, but Team Speed Kills has an interesting post that argues that what happens to Texas A&M on Selection Sunday will reveal the Selection Committee’s overall opinion on the SEC. The Aggies’ entire resume is based on a good conference run (11-5) that is filled with expected wins and understandable losses — with the one exception a 21-point loss in Tuscaloosa. If Texas A&M finds itself in a First Four game (or the NIT), it’ll be clear the Committee didn’t buy into an improved SEC this season. We’ve maintained all season that the league is in fact better than last year, but the lack of ranked teams has probably dampened that opinion somewhat on a national level. We’ll find out if this is indeed the case in a few weeks.
  4. Kentucky’s abundance of athletic players has led to countless exciting, momentum-swinging moments this season, and Saturday’s win over Arkansas was no exception with a first half Trey Lyles alley-oop and Willie Cauley-Stein block on an Alandise Harris dunk attempt steering the momentum. It was a powerful Karl-Anthony Towns dunk last Wednesday against Mississippi State that punctuated the Wildcats’ second half run that put the game out of reach. There’s no way to measure how valuable these moments actually are, but you have to wonder the psychological effect they have on the Wildcats’ withering opponents. Kentucky’s elite defense makes the team frustrating enough to play against, but those jarring plays, especially at Rupp Arena, have to add to the difficulty of playing the nation’s top-ranked team.
  5. The third time was the charm for Florida head coach Billy Donovan as he picked up his 500th win against Tennessee on Saturday. In a practical sense, it might not be a bad thing that the Gators waited until coming home from consecutive road losses to record the historic win since they are already out of the NCAA Tournament picture. Still, I’m sure Donovan would have preferred to pick up his 500th victory as soon as possible. The question now becomes how high of a win total is realistic for him, since he’s the second-youngest coach (at 49 years old) to reach the milestone in college basketball history (only Bob Knight was younger). Perhaps Florida’s struggles this year will help keep his competitive flame burning; the big question, however, is whether Donovan will again feel the pull to the NBA, and start looking for options at the next level.
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Morning Five: 03.02.15 Edition

Posted by nvr1983 on March 2nd, 2015

morning5

  1. March is finally here. For those of you who have been slacking now is a very good time to cram in as much basketball before Selection Sunday. If the next two weeks seem overwhelming, we have an easy-to-use spreadsheet that lays everything out for you. Even if your team is in a conference that is not playing their conference tournament this week, it is worth keeping an eye on the games particularly later in the week because some of those could make a big difference in the bubble if a team that was expected to get an automatic bid is knocked off and then becomes a bubble team.
  2. The big news from this weekend came from Kansas where Cliff Alexander is being held out of games while the school and the NCAA work through questions regarding Alexander’s eligibility. While Alexander’s performance this year has been underwhelming–particularly in comparison to what some other similarly highly-touted freshman have done in recent years–his absence would be a big loss for Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament and beyond. Simply put, legitimate 7-footers big men with athleticism are extremely rare and despite Alexander’s current limitations he does have the ability to carry his team for brief stretches. Much like Rick Pitino last week, we are hesitant to question Bill Self, but the loss of Alexander would limit Kansas’ ceiling albeit to a much-lesser extent than what Chris Jones’ absence will do for Louisville.
  3. At this point North Carolina should just send the NCAA a drawing of a giant middle finger. The latest news from Dan Kane, who might be the least popular person in Chapel Hill, is that a senior associate athletic director helped a football player gain admission to a graduate school despite having a low GPA, no entrance exam score, and being several months past the application deadline. To make matters worse, the issue was brought up to the school’s provost, but instead of denying the admission he simply referred the official to the dean of the graduate school who admitted him in time after which he played in all but one of the team’s games, but regularly skipped classes while receiving Fs. While this appears to be the most egregious abuse of UNC’s graduate schools and the NCAA’s graduate school transfer waiver exception in this part of UNC’s ever-growing academic scandal, it was not the only case as it appears to have happened almost yearly with Justin Knox being another example, who may have been able to get into the graduate school anyways, but was past the application deadline and got in anyways. This probably won’t affect the NCAA’s decision given how many other things went on at the school, but it just makes the school look even worse and might be an issue that an accrediting body takes seriously.
  4. On Saturday, Billy Donovan won his 500th game with a win at home against Tennessee making him the second youngest to reach the figure (only Bobby Knight did it faster), but this might end up being his most disappointing season during his time in Gainesville. Coming into the season Florida was expected to be a top-10 team and potential Final Four threat. Now they will need to win the SEC Tournament to even make it to the NCAA Tournament and unfortunately for the Gators we suspect that a team from Lexington will be showing up for the SEC Tournament making that possibility seem like nothing more than a dream. The Gators did get one other piece of good news on Saturday with the return of Dorian Finney-Smith from a three-game suspension. Finney-Smith, who came into the game as the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 per game and leading rebounder at 5.8 per game, had 20 points and 10 rebounds and makes the Gators a threat to make a SEC Tournament run given all their talent, but in the end it probably will not matter.
  5. Dwayne Polee II‘s comeback suffered a setback when the senior forward was noted to have “abnormal” readings on his implanted cardiac monitor necessitating an adjustment in one of his cardiac medications. Polee, who collapsed during a game on December 22, returned to action last weekend, but with this setback we are not sure how much longer he will be out. It isn’t our place to tell Polee to play or not (that decision is up to Polee, his doctors, and his family), but whenever we hear about cases like this we always think of Hank Gathers, who died on March 4, 1990 (Wednesday will be the 25th anniversary). Dick Jerardi wrote an excellent piece on Gathers and his legacy for Philly.com, which only serves to reinforce our concern in situations like this.
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SEC M5: 02.11.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 11th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. It’s hard not to really get the feeling that Kentucky is going to just keep riding out wins. How can you not feel that way after the Wildcats just survived a 21-2 run deep in the second half to hang on and beat LSU? Of all their close calls this season (Ole Miss, Texas A&M), this was perhaps the most impressive because the Wildcats were completely out of sync for a large chunk of the second half. But at the end of the game, there was Andrew Harrison calmly knocking down two free throws to tie the game, and there was Karl-Anthony Towns calmly tossing in a hook shot to take the lead for good. The Wildcats again made the winning plays when it counted (e.g., Tyler Ulis’ three in the second overtime against Texas A&M), and although they could still slip up, the only game that appears to be a real test is at Georgia on March 3. The road to regular season perfection is well within view.
  2. On the other side of last night’s game is an LSU team that missed out on a tremendous opportunity. Losses to Mississippi State, Missouri and Auburn have planted the Tigers firmly on the bubble, so holding on against Kentucky would have made up for several of those transgressions — finally knocking off the Wildcats cuts a marginal resume a lot of slack. It didn’t happen, of course, and like many times this season, Johnny Jones didn’t look good from an X’s and O’s standpoint. Why was Josh Gray — a player who has struggled taking care of the ball this year — driving the lane out of a timeout? Why didn’t Jordan Mickey or Jarell Martin get the ball out of the final timeout? I understand the notion of going for the jugular with a Keith Hornsby three, especially in a game this big. But with a two-point deficit at home, it’s hard to fully understand a play call that doesn’t go to one of your two best players. LSU definitely showed out well in this game, but the Tigers will need to shake the loss off quickly with road games at Tennessee and Texas A&M up next.
  3. It’s difficult to label Texas A&M a “sleeping giant,” but the Aggies were a perennial top-third of the Big 12 type of program under Billy Gillispie and Mark Turgeon and a return to that level would provide a big boost for the SEC’s overall profile. The Aggies’ upcoming and well-timed home stand against Georgia, Florida and LSU represents a key stretch for Billy Kennedy’s club that could add some bulk to its NCAA Tournament profile. Texas A&M’s last home game attracted the largest crowd in the Kennedy era (12,722), so the next week is also a great opportunity to fire up the fan base for this and coming seasons.
  4. Billy Donovan coaching the Orlando Magic? It kind of happened once, and the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Bianchi thinks that the timing is right for it to happen again — but perhaps this time for more than a single day. On some levels the timing does seem good for everyone involved. Florida is having its most frustrating season in years, and the Magic have promising young talent like Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic playing well. For comparison’s sake, the path to NBA championship contention for Orlando looks shorter and less challenging than Boston’s when Brad Stevens left Butler. But would Donovan walk away from his program after such a disappointing season? He certainly doesn’t have anything left to prove, having built three separate groups of title contenders during his tenure in Gainesville. These are some interesting questions for a guy who has had past and perhaps unfulfilled designs on the NBA.
  5. Missouri is mired in its worst losing streak since before Norm Stewart was in charge of the program (1966-67). The streak ran to 10 losses in a row after last night’s defeat at South Carolina. Things could be getting worse in a hurry too, as Wes Clark could be out for the season after seemingly dislocating his right wrist. It was an ugly injury that caused the arena to go silent and players on both sides were visibly shaken. This is a huge blow for the Tigers since Clark (11 points against USC, 15 points against Texas A&M) has been the most consistent source of offense and penetration for a team that often struggles to score. Right now it’s hard to find another win on the schedule for the Tigers.
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SEC M5: 01.28.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 28th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. SI.com’s latest NCAA Tournament bracket projection is a welcome sight for SEC basketball fans. Four teams make the cut, including Kentucky (#1 seed), Arkansas (#7), LSU (#9) and Georgia (#10). There were times this year that when just getting two bids looked like a real possibility, so four bids (sad as it may be) right now looks very nice. The danger is that the non-Kentucky selections are far from locks and consecutive losses could easily knock any of those teams on to the wrong side of the bubble. The flip side is that with other teams like Texas A&M and Tennessee still within shouting distance of the bubble, five teams (gasp) doesn’t seem completely out of the question either. All joking aside, if the league were to get five bids it would be a nice step forward from the last two three-bid years, and confirm what we’ve been saying on this site all year: Even though it doesn’t show up in the rankings and Florida is down, the depth of the conference is in fact improving.
  2. There are a number of reasons why Florida has struggled this year, but transfers are not one of them. Billy Donovan recently defended the number of transfers on his current roster when asked if the Gators would be better off with more four-year players. “The transfers have been the ones that have really made sense for us because we know what we’re getting in terms of the kind of kids they are,” Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. Alex Murphy and Jon Horford are truly unique cases since both players had a brother who previously starred for Florida, but over-reliance on transfers can bite a program despite Fred Hoiberg’s seemingly endless pool of redemption stories at Iowa State. Just look at Missouri, which is largely in the situation it is now in because Frank Haith didn’t bring enough high school players into the program. But Florida doesn’t fall into that category because Dorian Finney-Smith and Eli Carter both brought three years of eligibility with them to Gainesville, and the Gators have plenty of potential four-year players in contributing roles – like Chris Chiozza, Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson.
  3. Marshall Henderson’s graduation left a big hole in the Ole Miss program. The Rebels lost a lot of scoring, and a lot of must-see-TV. But at least in terms of production, Andy Kennedy has replaced the void left by Henderson quicker than anyone would’ve thought with Stefan Moody. “Everyone in this league was going to be excited when Marshall Henderson left because you didn’t feel like they could get a guy who could shoot it as well as him,” Georgia coach Mark Fox told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. “But lo and behold they’ve done it as well added an element of athleticism to the position.” With comparable usage rates, Moody (23.7 PER, 55.7% true shooting, 48.6% effective field goal) is exceeding Henderson’s (19.5 PER, 52.5% true shooting, 48.6% effective field goal) offensive output from last year, and adds more athleticism to the team. Considering Moody hasn’t made headlines for the wrong reasons, the Rebels have clearly upgraded at the off guard position.
  4. Texas A&M is in the midst of its longest conference (Big 12 and SEC) winning streak since 2011, and Billy Kennedy thinks his team’s maturity is a big reason why. “We start three juniors and two seniors and they’ve all played high-level Division I basketball. Their consistency and maturity is why we’re enjoying some success.” Yesterday we pointed out that the Aggies’ influx of new players could mean they are yet to hit their peak. But the two most important players from that group, Jalen Jones and Danuel House, have high major experience, which has helped create that consistency. They’ve also pushed senior starters Jordan Green and Kourtney Roberson into complementary roles, which suits both players very well and makes for a strong all-around team.
  5. At 7-12, Missouri is smack dab in the middle of a rebuilding year, but Kim Anderson has not relaxed his rotations and played guys just to play them. “It’s not like if you’re in a high school situation where like seventh grade basketball gets to play because that’s what the superintendent says. It’s not like that. You’ve got to play — the guys that are playing the best get to play more,” he told the Columbia Tribune. One notable omission has been freshman Jakeenan Gant, who has lost his starting spot and played just 14 minutes in the last two games. The 2013-14 Georgia Mr. Basketball has not developed as expected, or at least in the way his 13 point debut against Xavier suggested he might. Still, it is important for Anderson to establish a culture even if it means one of his more talented freshmen sitting on the bench.
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Freeze Frame: Florida’s Pick-and-Roll Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on January 20th, 2015

This edition of Freeze Frame could have easily gone several different ways. We could have looked at Florida’s season-high 19 turnovers against Georgia on Saturday; dissected Michael Frazier’s inability to create his own shot off the dribble; analyzed Billy Donovan’s lack of a go-to guy; or even criticized his Gators’ struggles to get to the free throw line. Those takeaways, while all relevant, did not represent Florida’s most glaring issue in the 12-point loss. Florida senior Jacob Kurtz said it best afterward: “Our pick-and-roll coverage wasn’t very good.” We went back and analyzed the Gators’ defense on Georgia’s screens, and Kurtz was right. It’s just that simple.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Billy Donovan will need to shore up the pick and roll defense before the Gators meet up with LSU on Tuesday.

Georgia found a number of ways to exploit that defense, shooting 8-of-15 from beyond the arc, getting to the free throw line 29 times, and making Florida’s defenders appear completely lost for most of the game. But as you will see below, their best strategy was the complete variety in their screens. This Freeze Frame will slow down Mark Fox’s offense to determine exactly what they did to confuse the Gators.

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SEC M5: MLK Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 19th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. So many potential narratives started swirling around after Kentucky’s shaky outings against Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Had the Wildcats become unfocused and vulnerable? Would they respond? Was the sky falling? At least for now, it seems the close calls indeed got the ‘Cats attention. “I think those struggles just reset our mind,” Willie Cauley-Stein told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Now we’re back to like, ‘OK, we’re trying to shut people out.’ We’re not just trying to play with them. We’re trying to demoralize them.” After allowing Ole Miss to score more points per possession than it had any team this season (1.09), Kentucky broke Missouri’s soul (0.58) and then stifled a good Alabama squad (0.83). Given Alabama’s length, athleticism and desperation for a marquee win, the game in Tuscaloosa may have been one of the tougher road assignments Kentucky will face this year. They passed it easily, and it seems the appropriate narrative is that the Wildcats’ slow start to conference play may have in fact been a positive thing.
  2. Kentucky isn’t the only team that took something away from its SEC opener against Ole Miss. The Rebels weren’t intimidated in Rupp against a seemingly invincible opponent, and they brought that same confidence to Fayetteville when they whacked Arkansas 96-82. If you combine their shooting stats from both games, the Rebels shot 53.1 percent on 32 three-point attempts. That is precisely the way to give yourself a chance against good teams in tough environments. The abundance of bravado has to be tied to Ole Miss’ veteran backcourt of Jarvis Summers, Stefan Moody and Snoop White. The trio has guided the Rebels to a 2-2 record against arguably the best the SEC has to offer: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas. Ole Miss may be able to make some hay as the schedule eases up, especially if it keeps lighting it up from deep.
  3. Is Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones the most important player in the SEC? Probably not, but the Aggies are 2-0 with him in SEC play and 0-2 without him. Billy Kennedy’s leading scorer returned from an ankle injury to score 16 points in a win over Mississippi State and then 18 points in Saturday’s win over LSU. The latter performance was all the more impressive since it came against the Tigers’ ultra-talented front line. Would a healthy Jones have given the Aggies the slight edge they would’ve needed to drop Kentucky? We will never know, but with how Texas A&M has struggled to score this season, it needs Jones to remain healthy if it has any chance of ending up on the tournament bubble.
  4. Auburn’s big recruits a year away. The team was coming off a 20 point loss. Kentucky wasn’t in town. And this is Auburn, after all. Nonetheless, Auburn Arena was rocking Saturday night during the Tigers’ quality win over South Carolina. This is the Bruce Pearl effect. We heard about the spike in season ticket sales during the offseason, and actually saw it come to life against the Gamecocks. Cinmeon Bowers – who is becoming a star in the SEC – ripped down an offensive rebound and converted a tough layup to extend the Tigers’ lead to three with under four minutes left and the arena exploded. Last year, a scene like that seemed a world away. But there is truly excitement around Auburn basketball, and with home wins over Missouri and Carolina, not to mention the emergence of Bowers as a double-double machine, there is tangible progress on the court too. Again, this is the Bruce Pearl effect, and the entire league is better for it.
  5. Florida’s 24-game conference win streak came to an end with an unusual sight. Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith were glued to bench for a large swath of the second half in the Gators’ loss to Georgia, and not because of foul trouble. “For me, it was just, let’s play (freshman) Devin Robinson, Chris Chiozza. Let’s get them some experience. Let’s let them play. These older guys aren’t playing at the level we need them to play at,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. Despite the loss, Florida’s 3-1 conference record does not have it in a helpless position so the benching was a somewhat bold move from Donovan. It might signal that this season has become as much about building for the future as it is contending in the present. And that’s not a bad thing, because except for senior Jon Horford, this same Florida team will likely take the floor together next year.
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SEC M5: Christmas Eve Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 24th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky’s clash with Louisville this Saturday might be the most anticipated game until the NCAA Tournament, and according to ESPN’s Seth Greenberg, it also might be the last realistic chance for the Wildcats to lose a game before the Big Dance. Kansas, North Carolina, Texas and even UCLA (before the game, of course) looked like potential challenges, and Kentucky easily got by them all, so Greenberg has a point here. Nonetheless, I’m betting against the undefeated season. As great as it has been, this Kentucky team has not been immune to slow starts, as exhibited in the Boston University and Columbia games. And although it’s a cliche, the Wildcats will almost certainly get everyone’s best effort in the SEC — a slow start in Tuscaloosa or Athens or Columbia could prove fatal. But the fact that we are using a magnifying glass to find one potential loss among 18 chances tells you just how well the Wildcats have played this season.
  2. Slowly but surely, Florida is working its way back towards national relevance this season. The Gators beat Wake Forest over the weekend, and while that isn’t particularly noteworthy, their roster seems to finally be taking shape. Alex Murphy made his Florida debut with an impactful nine points, four rebounds and two blocks in 29 minutes. “I thought he played great,” Billy Donovan told the Gainesville Sun. “The best part about coaching him is he has got a really good feel and he can play multiple, different positions.” Versatility in the frontcourt might turn out to be one of the Gators’ calling cards this year. Murphy joins Dorian Finney-Smith and Devin Robinson as athletic, mobile bigs who can play on the perimeter. Depth down low is also something Donovan has to work with as Jacob Kurtz (4.5 points per game; 4.9 rebounds per game) played well while being forced into action, and Jon Horford and Chris Walker have seen significant minutes this year.
  3. Johnny Jones is being careful with his LSU Tigers, and it may pay off in the long run. Josh Gray’s injured ankle kept him out of the team’s recent win over College of Charleston, but according to Jones, he could have played if it had been a conference game. Jarell Martin was also held out of the starting lineup and played eight minutes under his season average (34.0) because he missed part of Monday’s practice due to a minor car wreck. Amid all of this, Jones used the opportunity to give minutes to several players who have sparsely played this season, such as Jalyn Patterson, Elbert Robinson and Aaron Epps. Patterson played eight minutes over his average, and Robinson played 14 minutes after not appearing in the team’s previous two games. LSU desperately needs more quality depth, and it’s nice for Jones that he can work players into the rotation while still winning games comfortably.
  4. Georgia is forging its way down a novel path. Instead of letting disappointing early losses to Georgia Tech and Minnesota compound themselves in a negative way, the Bulldogs have ripped off consecutive wins against Colorado and Seton Hall in the last week. In fact, the win against the Pirates is arguably the best non-Kentucky win of any SEC team thus far. If nothing else, it’s up there with LSU’s win at West Virginia, Arkansas’ win at SMU and Tennessee’s win over Butler. The Bulldogs look viable going forward and are more than a two-man show that depends entirely on Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines. Marcus Thornton has been a low post scoring threat (14.7 points per game), and J.J. Frazier has gone from little-used freshman to a dependable lead guard (8.7 points per game; 3.4 assists per game; 4.2 rebounds per game). Frazier has also been a consistent threat from three-point range (41.4%) which was a question mark for Georgia heading into the season.
  5. Several of SB Nation’s SEC basketball writers got together for a roundtable on the state of the league. One of the questions they discussed was which team has surprised the most, and answers included Vanderbilt (good), LSU (good) and Missouri (bad). You can’t disagree with any of those three, and two weeks ago I would’ve personally submitted Auburn as a surprise on the negative end of the spectrum. The Tigers were never going to compete for an NCAA Tournament spot this year, but with their experience (KT Harrell, Antoine Mason) and Bruce Pearl on the sidelines, losses to Clemson and Coastal Carolina were unexpected. Better late than never, but the Tigers turned it around in a big way with a double-overtime win over Xavier last weekend, showing the type of team it can become. Part of what has helped is the emergence of Trayvon Reed, who in his just his fourth college game helped cover the Tigers’ hole in the post with five rebounds and five blocks in 25 minutes. Auburn did, however, nearly undo that good will with a loss to a two-win Texas Southern team last night, but Pearl’s team was able to survive that one by the slimmest of margins.
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Questions Loom About Florida’s NCAA Chances

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 11th, 2014

Florida entered Selection Sunday last March with just two losses and was a mortal lock for a #1 seed. This season the Gators entered the second week of December with twice that many losses after letting a 15-point halftime lead slip away against Kansas. It seemed as if Florida might flip the script on its early struggles when the Gators jumped out to that lead in Allen Fieldhouse, and had they held on they may have briefly put to rest all the hand-wringing over injuries and missed players. Instead of grabbing the most impressive road victory of the young season, the Gators folded down the stretch, and that missed opportunity raises legitimate questions over whether Florida is in early trouble in terms of the NCAA Tournament.

Billy Donovan's Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

Billy Donovan’s Gators have a lot of work to do if they want to make their sixth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. (AP)

The name of the school on the front of the jersey and the coach walking the sidelines gives the Gators a benefit of the doubt that most other schools in this position would not receive. We’ve already seen this exhibited when voters in both polls put an inexperienced team with a lot of question marks in their preseason top 10. Over the last decade-plus, Florida has not only earned this respect and still, quite frankly, might be the second best team in the SEC. Their four defeats have all come at the hands of teams currently ranked in the top 22 of KenPom’s ratings, and three of these were away from the O’Connell Center. The concern, however, is whether Florida’ remaining schedule provides enough opportunities to put together a Tournament-worthy resume. The SEC doesn’t do the Gators any favors since its two games against Kentucky is their only real chance at a marquee win. It’s not ideal, but a lack of headline-grabbing wins shouldn’t be fatal for a school that doesn’t have to fight for respect.

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Two Burning Questions: Previewing Kansas vs. Florida

Posted by Brian Goodman & David Changas on December 5th, 2014

The Big 12/SEC Challenge will wrap up tonight at 9:00 ET as Kansas looks to exact revenge for a loss in Gainesville last year. Meanwhile, the Gators are in need of a signature non-conference win, and what better venue to get that win than in a raucous Allen Fieldhouse? RTC contributors Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman) and David Changas (@dchangas) are here to break down a tilt between two of the millennium’s best programs.

BG: The Jayhawks may finally have their answer at point guard after Frank Mason enjoyed a very successful Orlando Classic as freshman Devonte’ Graham continued to heal from a shoulder injury. The sophomore posted averages of 11.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game last week and has been the primary reason why Kansas has regained its footing despite Graham’s troubles, Wayne Selden‘s shooting slump, and Kelly Oubre‘s failure to find his way onto the court for more than a few minutes a night. In the other backcourt, Kasey Hill has come up big for a Florida team that has otherwise struggled out of the gate. How important is this match-up to the outcome of the game and how do you see it turning out?

Another steady game from Frank Mason would lend an added sense of security for a Kansas team that has occasionally struggled to find consistency in its backcourt. (AP)

Another steady game from Frank Mason would lend an added sense of security for a Kansas team that has occasionally struggled to find consistency in its backcourt. (AP)

DC: Mason was absolutely terrific in Orlando, and Kansas looked nothing like the team that Kentucky embarrassed two and a half weeks ago. On the other hand, Florida came away from the Battle 4 Atlantis with two losses and a mediocre win over UAB to show for it. Thus far, the Gators have a long way to go to become a good offensive team, shooting a highly inefficient 44.1 percent in effective field goal rate. With Eli Carter injured and likely to miss this game, Hill, who has finally begun to look more comfortable in his role as the team’s primary ball-handler, will need to have a big night for Florida. He showed some signs of offensive life with 20 points in Sunday’s loss to North Carolina, shooting the ball well and getting to the line 12 times (making 10) against the Tar Heels. If he can do the same against Mason while simultaneously taking care of the ball, Florida will have a chance at pulling off the big upset.

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Otskey’s Observations: On Duke’s D, Florida’s Struggles & Best Conference…

Posted by Brian Otskey on December 2nd, 2014

Throughout the season, RTC columnist Brian Otskey (@botskey) will run down his observations from across the nation.

Duke’s Defensive Hiatus Is Over

If you’re a Duke basketball fan, you have to be encouraged by your team’s 7-0 start to the 2014-15 campaign. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s top-ranked recruiting class has made, as expected, an immediate impact. Point guard Tyus Jones has been outstanding, averaging a six to one assist to turnover ratio in 27 minutes per game. When you have a steady floor general like Jones who can set up an offense with boatloads of talent, anything is possible offensively for Duke. But what I’d like to discuss is the Blue Devil defense, an area where we have seen the most change since last year’s Duke team was upset by Mercer back in March. Duke’s adjusted defensive efficiency has improved a whopping 101 spots year over year, from No. 116 in 2013-14 to No. 15 so far this year. The Blue Devils are back to being an elite defensive team, a staple of Coach K’s 34-plus year run in Durham. The biggest reason why is the roster turnover. Last year’s team had a non-traditional lineup, starting two 6’8” players and one listed at 6’9”. Specifically, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker were primarily offense-oriented players who liked to drift out to the perimeter and provided little on the defensive end of the floor. Once opponents were able to get by Duke’s guards, there was little to resist them in the paint. Without a strong front line to defend the basket, the Blue Devils’ interior defense suffered mightily. Duke allowed opponents to shoot 50.3 percent from two point range last season.

Duke's roster turnover has made it better defensively. (Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

Duke’s roster turnover has made it better defensively.
(Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

Fast forward to the current season and that number has dropped to 45.9 percent as we enter December. That one category is still not elite by any means, but Duke makes up for that by fouling considerably less than it did last year and forcing more turnovers. The result is an overall defense that is night and day from last year. While Jahlil Okafor is more known for his offense, he does provide a more traditional presence in the middle and that alters shots. Duke’s frontcourt that runs 6’6”, 6’9” and 6’11” this season as opposed to last year’s non-traditional lineup makes a big difference defensively. This group has a lot of room still to grow defensively and I expect them to become even better on that end of the floor as the season moves along. You have to have a strong defense to win a national championship and Duke is back to being a contender this year because of it. Last year, we could not say the same despite garnering a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida’s Early Season Struggles

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SEC M5: 11.24.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 24th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. Feeling down about LSU’s lackluster start to the season? Here’s something that should lift your spirits: Shaq and Dale Brown were inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City last night. Johnny Jones was an assistant during Shaq’s three years in Baton Rouge, when he scored 21.6 points per game and pulled down 13.5 rebounds per game. It’s surreal to think there was once a time when a player like Shaq actually played three college seasons. And speaking of Brown, if you missed Luke Winn’s story on him trying to recruit Arvydas Sabonis through the Iron Curtain, it’s definitely worth a read.
  2. It hasn’t been a smooth start to the season for Florida. The Gators have been undermanned all year with seemingly half their roster having missed time for various reasons. Friday night’s discouraging overtime win against Louisiana-Monroe continued that trend, as Billy Donovan was without Eli Carter and Dorian Finney-Smith. Carter injured his left foot in practice on Thursday, fresh off a coming-out-party-type game against Miami. It’s unclear at this point how serious the injury is, and Finney-Smith’s time table to return is equally murky as he wasn’t with the team on Friday night because of “academic issues.” If both these players miss significant you start to wonder whether Florida has the depth to put together a NCAA tournament-worthy resume. The good news for Donovan is that his team calls the SEC home, where even a mediocre team can feast like a king.
  3. While one Billy in the SEC loses players, another keeps adding them. Billy Kennedy and Texas A&M got news from the NCAA on Friday that Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos are eligible immediately. David talked about the big impact House could have, and Trocha-Morelos will help out too. Kennedy played him for 10 minutes right off the bat in the Aggies’ win over New Mexico. He was understandably rusty (four fouls, one turnover), but his presence gives Kennedy six serviceable bigs on a team that suddenly looks like one of the deepest in the SEC.
  4. Kentucky was in crisis on Friday night. The Wildcats led Boston University by just five at halftime, prompting questions over whether the platoon system, and John Calipari in general, were in the program’s best long-term interests. Sarcasm aside, Kentucky didn’t leave anything to doubt yesterday against Montana State, posting the fifth-largest margin of victory in Rupp Arena history by beating the Bobcats 86-28. There were a lot of eye-popping stats from this game, including Montana State scoring just 0.39 points per possession and getting to the line just twice. The Wildcats will have their ups and downs this season, and you feel for a team like Montana State that catches them on a night when their talent is on full display.
  5. The season is just over a week old and South Carolina is already flush with missed opportunities. The Gamecocks hold three losses, all by five or fewer points, including yesterday’s 68-63 loss to Akron in the Charleston Classic third place game. The good news for South Carolina is that Frank Martin is relying on a lot of young players, such as Marcus Stroman and Demetrius Henry, who both had turnovers late in the game but should learn from that experience. I still think Martin can build a competitive program in Columbia, but at some point close games like the ones in Charleston against Charlotte and Akron need to end up as wins.
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Five Impressions from Florida’s Loss To Miami

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on November 18th, 2014

There are several ways that you can frame Florida’s home loss to Miami. The popular way nationally is that yet another SEC team lost a non-conference game. That this loss included one of the league’s two flag-bearers just fuels the ubiquitous “sky is falling” narrative. There’s certainly no sugarcoating it: The SEC is off to a disastrous start. But all things considered, I don’t think this loss falls into a worrisome category. Florida’s frontcourt was decimated last night, with Dorian Finney-Smith, Alex Murphy and Chris Walker all out of the lineup for various reasons. This meant Billy Donovan had to provide 36 minutes of action to former walk-on Jacob Kurtz and 31 minutes to transfer Jon Horford, who was strictly a role player at Michigan. Horford played great (17 points, seven rebounds) and Kurtz more than held his own (six points, eight rebounds) but these are not the roles Donovan envisioned for this pair. With a full squad on the floor, Florida would have had a decided advantage on the glass against a smaller group of Hurricanes. Here are a handful of thoughts on a loss that shouldn’t leave Gators fans hanging their heads.

  • Michael Frazier. The Gators scored just one point over a four-minute stretch starting at the eight-minute mark in the second half, and this stretch coincided with Angel Rodriguez’s three-point barrage that got the Hurricanes back in the game. This was already an area of concern for Florida: When the Gators need a basket, who would go get it? Last year a combination of Scottie Wilbekin and near-flawless execution solved that problem. This year the de facto answer seems to be Frazier, the most experienced and accomplished scorer on the team. But the junior couldn’t answer the bell against Miami, missing four shots over that drought, including a few desperation jumpers late in the shot clock. One game doesn’t make a season, but Rodriguez got the better of Frazier last night.
The Gators need more from Michael Frazier, especially in crunch time (tampabay.com).

The Gators need more from Michael Frazier, especially in crunch time (tampabay.com).

  • Backcourt Potential. It was a mixed bag for the Florida guards last night. Eli Carter stole the show for the Gators, pouring in 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting and scoring from all over the floor. It was he, not Frazier, who got the Gators’ final shot (although it ended in a charge). Frazier had a pedestrian night (13 points) and Hill had a miserable shooting performance, including a crucial missed layup late in the second half, but he still handed out eight assists. Despite the so-so results, Carter’s return to the scorer he was at Rutgers gives Florida a dynamic-looking backcourt. We know Frazier will make shots and Hill will be able to break down the defense, so Donovan will have a dangerous backcourt that can score in bunches if Carter’s leg holds up and freshman Chris Chiozza proves serviceable.

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