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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SEC Week That Was: Volume VIII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 24th, 2015

For the next four weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume VIII, including games from February 16-23.  

Team of the Week. At long last, we relent. When a program with the history that Kentucky has checks off its best start ever (27-0), the award practically gives itself. The Wildcats weathered a poor shooting night and game effort from Tennessee last week to still beat the Vols by 18 on the road, and then didn’t let up against Auburn over the weekend. Kentucky ran out to a 30-4 lead and battered the much smaller-Tigers throughout the game right where they were supposed to with a 44-24 rebounding advantage. There are so many things this Kentucky team does well, including the small things that can help stop an upset bid in its tracks. Kentucky belies its youth by taking great care of the ball, as there isn’t a player on the roster turning the ball over more than 1.9 times per game. The Wildcats also have been fairly strong at the free throw line this season, an area which had been a problem for some of Coach Cal’s elite teams. All four guards plus Karl-Anthony Towns are shooting better than 77.8 percent from the line. In a late-game situation where a foul is coming, a lineup of Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Towns provides cover from a lot of angles. Ole Miss and Arkansas also deserve mention here for picking up wins at the Hump against a confident Mississippi State team.

Stefan Moody has stepped right in and replaced Marshall Henderson at Ole Miss (orlandosentinel.com).

Stefan Moody has stepped right in and replaced Marshall Henderson at Ole Miss (orlandosentinel.com).

Player of the Week. We will mimic the conference’s choice this week and give it to Stefan Moody, who starred in the Rebels’ close wins over Mississippi State (29 points, six rebounds, four steals) and Tennessee (22 points, four rebounds, six steals). The high-octane JuCo transfer comparison to Marshall Henderson is cliched but unavoidable, and this week was no different as Moody put up 23 three-point attempts over both games. He connected on 14 of them, and should continue to have the green light with that kind of success rate. The lift Moody gets on his jumper is incredible, and allows him to be lethal even when the defense knows what is coming. For example, in the second half against Mississippi State, Moody hit threes on three straight possessions, rolling off the same off-ball screen action each time. Henderson and Moody are both exceptional long-range shooting talents, but it’s probably no coincidence that both exploded with the underrated Jarvis Summers running the show next to them. Honorable mention goes to Moody’s intrastate rival Craig Sword (34 points), who seems to be rounding into form as a diverse scoring threat after being sidelined with a back injury early in the year.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume VII

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 17th, 2015

For the next five weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume VII, including games from February 9-15. 

Team of the Week. Kentucky tied a program record for the best start in school history (25-0) by overcoming a 21-2 second half run to sneak by LSU, and followed that up against South Carolina by running out to a 43-18 halftime lead before coasting home. So that’s why Arkansas is the team of the week. Like we say in this space in each rendition, there’s no fun in simply handing the award to the ultra-deserving Wildcats every week. That means the Razorbacks get the nod because Mike Anderson’s team has moved into rare air with a winning SEC road record. After hanging 101 points on Auburn and gutting out a one-point victory at Ole Miss last week, the Hawgs moved to 4-2 on the road in SEC play. Arkansas is finally playing well enough away from home to support its typically-impressive home record (15-1), and it’s showing up as a result in the national polls (#17 Coaches, #18 AP). The win in Oxford may have been Anderson’s best road victory since returning home, and the Razorbacks are doing the things that his best teams do: forcing turnovers and sharing the ball. Since league play began, Arkansas leads the SEC in both assists (179) and forcing turnovers (190), and while Bobby Portis deservedly receives the most praise, Rashad Madden and Jabril Durham have both been excellent facilitators in the team’s up-tempo motion offense.

Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden have had plenty to celebrate this past week (rantsports.com).

Bobby Portis and Rashad Madden have had plenty to celebrate this past week (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. This one is easy: flight crews. Separate planes carrying Missouri’s Kim Anderson on a recruiting trip and the entire Mississippi State team had to make emergency landings this week near St. Louis after experiencing engine troubles. Thankfully no one was hurt in either incident, but full credit must go to the pilots and crews involved to keep everyone safe. On the hardwood, we’ll stay in Fayetteville and give it to Michael Qualls this week. The junior had an efficient offensive week (34 points on 12-of-20 shooting), grabbed 11 rebounds and hit two critical late jumpers in the win over Ole Miss. After Portis, no other Arkansas player will be more important in terms of Arkansas’ showing in March. Qualls is the Razorbacks’ second option when defenses focus on Portis, and he has the tools to be a big-time defensive difference-maker. Tennessee’s Josh Richardson deserves mention as well for single-handedly carrying the Vols to a road win over rival Vanderbilt (27 points, seven rebounds).

Tournament Chatter. For the third straight week the SEC is holding strong with six teams in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology: Kentucky (#1), Arkansas (#6), Georgia (#8), Ole Miss (#8), LSU (#11) and Texas A&M (#11). While Florida and Tennessee have effectively faded from view, the current three-week consistency from these six teams should help with familiarity down the stretch. It’s still very possible that one or two of these schools will fall out of the picture, but the worst case scenario appears to be four NCAA bids from the SEC, and if nothing else, that is a clear improvement over the last couple of years.

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RTC Weekly Primer: UNC-Duke, No. 1 Seeds, and a Tight Bubble

Posted by Henry Bushnell on February 17th, 2015

They say time flies when you’re having fun, so by the transitive property, they might as well say time flies during college basketball season. But seriously, this season seems to have sped by. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because a busy schedule has eaten up my down time. Maybe it’s something subconscious. But I genuinely feel like conference play just started and yet we’re already approaching March. The logical explanation for that? Maybe it’s because the overarching narratives of the season have been in constant flux. Or — another way of putting it — maybe it’s because Selection Sunday is just 25 days away and we really only know one thing: Kentucky is good. Really good. After that, everything is tight — tight with two heavily enunciated ‘t’s. According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, eight teams have a 25 percent or greater chance at a No. 1 seed, but only Kentucky’s odds surpass 60 percent. And moving down the hierarchy, there’s just so much additional uncertainty. There’s been a definitive top eight for over a month now, and nobody below that threshold appears too intent on breaking into it. Teams like Iowa State and North Carolina have invariably followed up big wins with baffling losses, and teams like Utah and Louisville simply haven’t separated themselves in a meaningful way. Even further down the Top 25, the bubble is nothing more than a mess. But that’s the case every year. And even as all-encompassing as it is right now, there are bound to be teams that stage late surges to put themselves in contention. There are also bound to be teams that spin out of control in the other direction. To put it succinctly… there is bound to be madness. That might as well be a slogan for college hoops in general, but especially this year.

The Only Thing We Know For Certain is that Kentucky is Really Good (USA Today Images)

The Only Thing We Know For Certain is that Kentucky is Really Good (USA Today Images)

One for the Money

North Carolina at Duke | Wednesday, 9:00 PM EST, ESPN

No matter which team you root for, no matter where you live, there’s only one game this week that is must-watch television. And even if Dickie V. won’t be on the call, you have to tune in for the first of two battles between North Carolina and Duke. When you think of college sports, almost all of the notions of amateur athletics are embodied by the Tobacco Road rivalry. Games are played with passion and intensity. They are played with unrelenting pressure and in front of hostile crowds. They are played enveloped by the shadows of history, in front of legends and ghosts of years past. They are laden with folklore and religiously maintained traditions. They turn the otherwise forgotten into heroes and the otherwise successful into villains. The Duke-Carolina games are as singularly powerful as nearly any regular season game in any sport, and this year’s annual rite of passage begins Wednesday night.

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SEC M5: Presidents Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Coach Cal took a step back from coach-speak to appreciate Kentucky’s program-record tying 25-0 start after the Wildcats walloped South Carolina on Saturday. “You just tied a record of the most storied program in the country,” he told his team. “You tied a record and you’re all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein, a junior).” A win at Tennessee will push these Wildcats past the 1953-54 Kentucky squad, but would only tie the best start for a team coached by Calipari. His 1995-96 UMass team led by Marcus Camby started 26-0 before losing at home to George Washington, and his Derrick Rose-led 2007-08 Memphis team got to 26-0 before losing at home to Tennessee in what was one of the biggest regular season games in recent memory. As fate would have it, if the Wildcats get to 26-0 they would face Bruce Pearl, the man who halted Cal’s 26-0 Memphis team, next Saturday. In any event, both of Cal’s 26-0 teams finished as the National Runner-up, and it would probably be considered a disappointment if this Kentucky squad followed suit.
  2. The SEC got plenty of ink in College Basketball Talk’s Saturday Bubble Banter. Texas A&M strengthened its profile, or at least avoided mucking it up, by holding on to beat Florida. Ole Miss and Georgia, on the other hand, took hits with home losses, but the Bulldogs will be dinged much more than the Rebels. Georgia’s loss at home to Auburn (RPI #162, KenPom #135) would be easier swallow had it happened on the road, but losing in Stegeman Coliseum to the Tigers was a surprise. The Bulldogs had generally taken care of business this season, going 7-2 against RPI 101-200 with the only other loss being their season opener against Georgia Tech. They should be fine, especially coming off a strong win at Texas A&M, but can’t afford another bad home loss with South Carolina coming to Athens on Tuesday. An unrelated statistical oddity about the Auburn-Georgia rivalry: the schools are 90-90 against each other in basketball and 55-55 against each other in football. Talk about not having bragging rights.
  3. Despite its inconsistencies, LSU can be a hard team to match up with since most nights the Tigers will have a huge athletic advantage in the front court. This showed in their win over Tennessee, where the Vols struggled to get good looks against LSU’s length. Jordan Mickey ended up with seven blocks and now has an NCAA-leading 91 blocks on the season, and as a team the Tigers have the sixth-most blocks in the country. Barring a late season collapse, it seems the Tigers are a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Even if they wind up with a 10 or 11 seed, they should be in shape to take advantage of their athletic advantage down low and frustrate teams in the early rounds.
  4. Alabama has quietly been one of the more disappointing teams in conference play. The Tide are now just 5-7 in league play after dropping a must-win game at home to Vanderbilt. This comes after a 10-3 non-conference mark that included a win over UCLA and one-point loss at Wichita State, which was a marquee win Alabama had in their pocket before coughing it up late. To be fair, the schedule makers did the Tide no favors. They’ve already gotten Kentucky twice and have had to travel to Arkansas and LSU. But at the end of the day the NCAA Tournament is out of the picture for a team that has yet again had its offensive struggles under Anthony Grant. This season has been an improvement over last, but Grant’s job security continues to be an interesting question.
  5. Something fishy is going on in Eastern Missouri airspace. The plane chartered by Mississippi State lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing in St. Louis as the Bulldogs were on the way home after a win in Columbia. This comes just a few days after a plane carrying Kim Anderson had to make an emergency landing outside of St. Louis for a similar reason. Fortunately, no one was hurt either time. After his nerves evened out, Rick Ray must have been more pleased than usual with his team’s win. The Bulldogs let an 18-point slip away but held on for the victory, and have now won three SEC road games this season, which is a far cry from the 22-game conference road losing streak the program endured up until the January 21 win at Auburn. Building a program is all about positive momentum, and the Bulldogs have plenty of that right now.
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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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The SEC Week That Was: Volume VI

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 10th, 2015

For the next six weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume VI, including games from February 3 to February 8.

Team of the Week. This week provides several compelling candidates. Kentucky could win this award every time and this week was no exception as the Wildcats handled a quality Georgia team on Tuesday and survived a difficult environment in Gainesville afterward. Arkansas got healthy with two comfortable wins after seemingly scratching by for weeks. Even Vanderbilt tossed its name into the conversation by shaking off a seven-game losing streak and going 2-0. Despite all these worthy choices, Ole Miss gets this week’s nod after notching a big win against red-hot Texas A&M and then following it up with a road win at Auburn (which itself was coming off an impressive win at LSU). The Rebels last week showed that they can win games in different ways. They needed a solid defensive performance to get past the surging Aggies and were especially effective using ball pressure to frustrate Alex Caruso. But it was the Ole Miss offense that showed up against Auburn (57.8% FG, 40.0% 3FG) to negate a great scoring night from Bruce Pearl’s backcourt. The Rebels may not necessarily be peaking right now, but they seem to be rounding into form. Anthony Perez has emerged as a solid wing/post hybrid who can stretch the floor. Dwight Coleby has developed into a reliable rebounding and shot-blocking presence. Those two, along with Sebastian Saiz and MJ Rhett, give Andy Kennedy a solid frontcourt rotation to support his veteran backcourt.

Karl-Anthony Towns had big games in Kentucky's wins over Georgia and Florida (chron.com).

Karl-Anthony Towns had big games in Kentucky’s wins over Georgia and Florida (chron.com).

Player of the Week. You can only seek alternatives to Kentucky in this league to a certain point. Karl-Anthony Towns gets the nod after leading the Wildcats to two hard-fought victories over Georgia (KenPom #33) and Florida (#35) last week. The Bulldogs surprisingly outrebounded Kentucky in their game, but Towns stepped up to grab more than half (13) of the Wildcats’ 24 total rebounds. Against the Gators, Towns was only the Wildcat who was able to generate consistent offense at the game’s start, which quietly helped Kentucky stay within contact of the fired-up Gators. Towns’ great week (34 points, 21 rebounds, four blocks, six assists, 10-of-10 FT) is an encouraging sign for John Calipari. The freshman recently went through a four-game stretch where he didn’t score more than seven points or grab more than four rebounds in any single game. Whether it was due to foul trouble, growing pains or some combination of both, it bodes well for the Wildcats that he has now strung together a few great outings. See how Kentucky focused on getting him the ball in this week’s edition of Freeze Frame.  Antoine Mason also deserves mention here for cracking 20 points against LSU (24 points) and then following it up with 23 against Ole Miss.

Tournament Chatter. Last week’s eight-team pipe dream proved to be too much to handle, and it will be difficult for either of Tennessee or Florida to make a case for inclusion again. But we’ll always have last week. Still, Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology contains six SEC teams in the fold, which would double what the league received in the last two seasons. Everyone will certainly take that if it comes to pass.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 3rd, 2015

For the next seven weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume V, including games from January 26 to February 2.

Team of the Week. I want to preface this by saying that Kentucky could – and probably should – be the team of the week every week. You don’t get to 21-0 without that being the case. But the Wildcats get plenty of praise from all corners of the web, so why not challenge ourselves with this week’s selection? The nod goes to Florida, the same team that Billy Donovan declared as being dead in terms of the NCAA Tournament a little over a week ago. The Gators’ long-term resurrection is still something of a pipe dream, but if the miracle occurs, last week is where it all will have started. Florida enjoyed a perfect week in knocking off solid opponents Alabama (KenPom #44) and Arkansas (#43) in ugly fashion. These were probably the Gators’ two best wins of the season, which with an overall record of 12-9 overall underscores how much work they still have to do. From a bid perspective, Florida is 1-5 against the RPI top 50 and 4-3 against the next 50; contrast this with fellow bubble team Kansas State  — which is 12-10 overall but 4-6 against the RPI top 50 — and you can see that Florida’s resume may not have the requisite depth to compete for a bid. Despite the pair of victories, last week highlighted some of the Gators’ inconsistencies that have plagued them all year long. After a 27-point outburst against Ole Miss, Michael Frazier scored just 11 points on 2-of-13 shooting. Similarly, Chris Walker followed up one of the best games of his career against the Tide (12 points and four rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting) with a dud against the Hogs (one point, two rebounds). Still, Florida is trending in the right direction as it approaches the ultimate chance for a quality win: Saturday in Gainesville against Kentucky.

Alex Caruso is the SEC's leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Alex Caruso is the SEC’s leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Player of the Week. Danuel House was the SEC’s pick as Player of the Week, but we’ll give it to his slightly less-heralded junior teammate, Alex Caruso, as Texas A&M ran its winning streak to seven games with victories over Auburn and Vanderbilt. In both games Caruso was his usual stat-stuffing self, racking up averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. I firmly believe that the transitions of transfers House and Jalen Jones to their new team has gone so smoothly in large part because of Caruso’s play-making. He’s a bona fide SEC star who does not command the ball, and that is extremely valuable for a team looking to make the leap from also-ran to the NCAA Tournament. We may also be witnessing the rise of one of the great players in recent Texas A&M basketball history. Since 2009-10, no player in the conference has held as high of a career assist percentage (33.9%) or steal percentage (4.4%) as Caruso. LSU’s Jordan Mickey deserves mention in this space solely for his ridiculous 25-point, 20-rebound game in the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State.

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SEC Quotable & Notable: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 29th, 2015

Periodically throughout the rest of the season, we will use this column to take a look at who’s making history and who’s saying what around the SEC. Here’s Volume I of what’s Quotable and Notable right now in college basketball’s Southern reaches.

“I just went strong to the hole.” Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith on his game-winning dunk against Alabama.


No player in the country will have a minute as impressive and unlikely as Finney-Smith did in the final 60 seconds of Florida’s recent win against the Crimson Tide. His fierce drive and dunk ended up being the game-winner, and it was sandwiched around two crucial blocks: a body-straight-up rejection on Michael Kessens to keep the game knotted at 50, and a help defense block of Levi Randolph’s potential game-tying shot as time expired. This all coming after the junior had gone scoreless to that point.  Finney-Smith’s magical minute, which helped end Florida’s three-game losing streak, should be one of the highlights of Gators’ season.

Georgia is probably the second best team in the league and, by far, the most physical team.” Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray after his team’s loss to Georgia last weekend. “I thought they hurt us on the boards in the first half, but then you look down and see they hit 50 percent from the field in the second half and over 90 percent from the line… you can’t beat anybody like that.” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings after Georgia hit 23-of-25 free throws and outrebounded the Commodores by 10 in an eight-point victory.

Georgia is taking on the feel of a team that can grind out wins, and in this league, that can be the key to a shiny conference record. Just take care of business. The Bulldogs squeaked by Mississippi State because of a Herculean effort from J.J. Frazier (37 points), and against Vanderbilt, they were sloppy with the ball (16 turnovers) but did enough elsewhere to control the game throughout. Neither win is all that impressive alone, but SEC teams have perfected the art of losing winnable games. The Bulldogs will end up in the NCAA Tournament if they have finally bucked that trend.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 27th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume IV, including games from January 19-25.

Team of the Week. Welcome to the party, Texas A&M. The Aggies are riding a four-game winning streak after beating Missouri (home) and Tennessee (road) last week. It’s their longest conference winning streak since joining the SEC, and the win over the resurgent Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena was a nice exclamation mark. Tennessee’s match-up zone had frustrated Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina, but the Aggies – which have generally struggled to score in the Billy Kennedy era – were able to shoot 48 percent from the field in the victory. That’s obviously a good sign. Texas A&M’s development potential is also something to keep an eye on. Five key rotation pieces are playing their first year in College Station: Jalen Jones (transfer), Danuel House (transfer), Alex Robinson (freshman), Peyton Allen (freshman) and Tony Trocha-Morelos (freshman). Alex Caruso is again leading the conference in assists per game (5.3) and assist rate (36.7%), and the Aggies’ offense should continue to improve as he gets more experience playing alongside primary scorers Jones and House.

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

Player of the Week. Quick, who is Georgia’s best player? If you didn’t say J.J. Frazier than you’re probably wrong, at least as far the previous week is concerned. The Bulldogs’ point guard gets the nod almost solely for what he did in staving off Mississippi State last Saturday. The sophomore scored 37 points, including a blistering seven-for-seven from three. He told the AP that it was the best game of his career, and it came at a big moment for surging Georgia. The Bulldogs got just 24 points combined from Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic. That kind of production, or lack thereof, from a team’s main horses almost always results in a loss. And a loss to Mississippi State would’ve been bad for Georgia’s tournament hopes. But Frazier didn’t let it happen, and he may be battling Armani Moore for the title of most improved player in the conference. He is second in the league in true shooting percentage (65.3%), and is taking care of the ball very well (1.4 turnover per game) despite seeing his role as primary ball handler drastically increased over what it was last season.

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SEC M5: 01.23.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 23rd, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. South Carolina’s win over Iowa State in early January did wonders for its profile and the perception of where the program was heading. But it might not have done a lot of good for the players, at least not in the eyes of their coach.“We haven’t shot the ball worth a you-know-what since league play started. You’d think guys would find time to come in the gym and shoot balls,” Frank Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “They did in November and December; they’re not doing that now. All of a sudden, we’re too good, so we don’t need to come in here and work on our games.” Carolina is staring down the barrel at a 1-5 SEC start with Kentucky coming to town on Saturday. To pull off a season-resuscitating win, the Gamecocks will need to shoot better than the 29.3 percent from three that they have in conference play.
  2. One team sitting ahead of the Gamecocks in the standings is Mississippi State, which seemed impossible a few weeks ago. Things had taken an alarming turn for Rick Ray after a home loss to McNeese State followed by lopsided losses to Tennessee and Florida to start conference play. But the picture is now looking better after back-to-back wins and the end of a 22-game road losing streak. One big reason has been improved play from sophomore point guard I.J. Ready. His numbers are up virtually across the board in conference play, including a solid PER of 21.8 in five SEC games. He’s still a work in progress and not an ideal distributor (seven turnovers in the win over Vanderbilt), but he’s a natural scorer on a team desperate for talent.
  3. Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin get all the press (and rightfully so), but where would LSU be without Keith Hornsby? Johnny Jones recently joked that Tigers fans should start heckling Hornsby at home given how well he’s played on the road, and he may be on to something. In LSU’s three conference road games (Missouri, Ole Miss, Florida), Hornsby has averaged 18.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and has shot 45.8 percent from three. If the folks at the PMAC want to start thinking of some late 80s pop jokes, now might be the time. The Tigers rely heavily on Hornsby and Josh Gray, and while Gray has been up-and-down, Hornsby has done a solid job in his role as a third option and floor spacer. If he maintains that level, LSU will be one step closer to reaching its considerable ceiling.
  4. Texas A&M is riding a three-game winning streak after its Wednesday night win over Missouri, and the Aggies are suddenly one of the hottest teams in the SEC. They are looking for their first record above .500 under Billy Kennedy and have a manageable schedule the rest of the way (in other words: no Kentucky). A step forward this year would be huge for the program as it awaits a mammoth recruiting class to arrive next season. That step may be happening mainly because of two players in their first year in College Station: Jalen Jones and Danuel House. The two transfers are Kennedy’s top two scorers and were responsible for keying the 22-2 run that dropped Missouri. Jones nailed a three during that run and if he keeps adding that threat to his game (7-of-19 on the year), he’ll be a load to handle. Next year’s star-studded group cuts Kennedy a lot of slack for his lackluster tenure at A&M to this point, but his two transfers are doing their part too.
  5. Georgia is another SEC team riding a three-game winning streak. The Bulldogs’ rise, however, is due in part to a player who was on the roster last year but didn’t play much: J.J. Frazier. He has been the best ball-handler on a team stocked with good guards, and over the winning streak he’s dished out 14 assists while turning the ball over just three times. On the season, he has a 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio and has provided Georgia with the three-point shooting (39.4%) that it sorely needed. Charles Mann is having a solid junior year but hasn’t logged the step-forward season many thought he would, although part of the reason for that is probably because he’s still adjusting to playing off the ball more with Frazier in the fold (five percent decrease in usage rate). If Mark Fox can develop more chemistry between the two, Georgia should seriously threaten for an NCAA Tournament spot.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume III

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume III, including games from January 12-18.

Team of the week. It took three rounds of this column to get there, but the league Colossus finally gets the nod. Kentucky did in the second week of SEC play what so many predicted it would do in the first — thrash its opponents. The Wildcats beat Missouri by more points (49) than it allowed the Tigers to score (37), and, as Brian pointed out earlier this week, it was the best defensive (points per possession) performance in conference play in the Calipari era. The ‘Cats followed up that victory with an easy 22-point win against a good Alabama team. Its defense was again outstanding, but it was the Kentucky offense that caught my eye in Tuscaloosa. Just one week after a rough outing in College Station (28.1% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 25-of-35 FTs), the Wildcats were hyper-efficient in a slow-paced game (50% FG, 47% 3FG, 16-of-18 FTs). If that’s a sign of the Wildcats’ offense to come, it’s worth wondering whether this team may actually cut down the nets in early April sporting a goose egg in the loss column.

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Player of the Week. Let’s follow the crowd and hand it to Tennessee’s Armani Moore. The junior wing won the SEC’s Player of the Week award and it was well-deserved. He contributed solid scoring totals in last week’s wins over Arkansas (14) and Missouri (15), but more importantly scored crucial points late in both games. His two free throws sealed the Vols’ victory over Arkansas, and he broke a tie-game in Columbia with under four minutes to go with a contested layup. The 6’5″ Moore also helped an undersized Tennessee front line win the rebounding battle in both games. Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones, who played well in returning from an ankle injury, and Georgia’s Kenny Gaines, who guided the Bulldogs through a crucial undefeated week, also deserve mention.

Tournament Chatter. Can you say mediocrity? The league currently has seven teams sitting at 2-2, and the only 3-1 teams (Tennessee and Florida) appear to be well behind several of those in the NCAA Tournament pecking order. None of the fringe NCAA contenders have yet played their way out of the picture but we could be headed toward the league’s nightmare scenario. A team or two separating from the pack would lock in a few bids, but if the soft middle continues to beat up on each other without rhyme or reason, it risks damaging everyone’s profile. Still, 10 (10!) teams are worth mentioning and that’s not too bad.

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