SEC Tournament Preview: What Teams Are Playing For

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2015

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

SEC tournament bracket 2015

The Outsiders

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

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SEC Most Valuable Players, Part I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on March 9th, 2015

The regular season has flown by, but before the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders this postseason, it’s time to honor individuals for their valuable play this year. Even the teams that fell short of expectations had most valuable players, so let’s honor each of them below. Today we’ll present the team MVPs from Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Tennessee, in no particular order.

MissouriKeith Shamburger

Keith Shamburger was a steady hand in a rocky season for Mizzou (zimbio.com).

Keith Shamburger was a steady hand in a rocky season for Mizzou (zimbio.com).

Shamburger was a good soldier on a miserable team this season. He ran the point respectably (3.9 APG, 24.4 assist percentage) and acted as the Tigers’ lone ball-handler for a stretch after Wes Clark got injured and Tramaine Isabell was suspended. After spending the bulk of his career at San Jose State and Hawaii, a 9-22 season wasn’t what he expected during his only taste of high-major basketball but his body language remained consistently positive. His signature moment of the season was hitting the game-winner against Auburn on Senior Night.

AuburnCinmeon Bowers

Cinmeon Bowers was Auburn's lone threat down low this season (al.com).

Cinmeon Bowers was Auburn’s lone threat down low this season (al.com).

It’s hard not to write great things about K.T. Harrell, who ended up being the SEC’s leading scorer this year at 18.1 PPG. But as great as he was, the Tigers featured several perimeter scorers. Other than Bowers, however, who nearly averaged a double-double (12.6 points per game, 9.7 rebounds per game) on the season, Bruce Pearl’s inaugural team on The Plains simply didn’t have any reliable size. He prevented the Tigers from getting eaten alive in the paint and on the glass all season long. The better news is that he should have more help coming next year as Trayvon Reed develops and Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy arrive on campus.

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SEC M5: 02.25.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 25th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. I’m not ashamed to admit it: There are few things in my hoops world that I enjoy more than watching Willie Cauley-Stein move his feet. Observing a seven-footer glide across the perimeter in a defensive stance is art. Hyperbole aside, Cauley-Stein’s versatility is why NBCSports.com‘s Rob Dauster has him in the top five of his most recent Player of the Year rankings. By his logic, the junior should be the front-runner for the SEC POY award, but is he? My gut tells me that Arkansas’ Bobby Portis or LSU’s Jordan Mickey will get the honor based on their gaudier stats, but it probably should go to Cauley-Stein. As a team, Kentucky is on the verge of accomplishing something quite historic. Even if the Wildcats don’t run the table, their dominance has been the story of this year’s SEC and no one player captures that better than Cauley-Stein.
  2. As a point guard, Andrew Harrison is playing his best basketball of the season. The sophomore has averaged 4.4 assists and just 1.6 turnovers per game in his last eight outings, punctuated with nine assists and a single turnover on Saturday against Auburn. This uptick in production has coincided with a visit from his father, who also spent time with his brother Aaron last year before he caught fire in the NCAA Tournament. As good as Tyler Ulis has played this season, it must be reassuring to John Calipari that Andrew is playing so well too as the calendar nears March. He led the Wildcats to the championship game last year, and that kind of postseason experience is invaluable for a point guard.
  3. Stories about Memorial Gymnasium’s quirkiness at Vanderbilt are inevitable every year. But next year, those yarns will have a fresh angle. Vanderbilt is extending the coaching box up the sideline for the 2015-16 season, meaning that coaches won’t just be confined to the baseline as they have been in the past. Only head coaches will be allowed in the expanded box, so the solitary figure strolling up and down the sidelines above the first few rows of fans will be another unique part of the games at Vanderbilt. There will probably be some changes on the court for the Commodores next year too, at least from a win-loss perspective. There is a drastic disparity between the team’s KenPom (#47) and RPI (#117) ratings this season –eight of the Commodores’ 12 losses have come by four points or fewer, and Kevin Stallings’ group should be a much bigger threat next season if Damian Jones returns.
  4. The Macon Telegraph’s Seth Emerson has some interesting tidbits on Georgia’s NCAA Tournament resume as we enter the stretch run. We’ve also officially reached the point in the season when it’s not too early to talk about SEC Tournament seeding. Georgia stands at 8-6, nipping on the heels of 10-5 Texas A&M and 10-4 Ole Miss. Making up that difference in the standings to earn a double-bye will be difficult, but the Bulldogs have one thing going for them. They’ve already beaten Texas A&M and could sweep the Rebels with a win this evening, which would give Georgia the tiebreaker over both if it comes to that. That makes tonight’s game at the Tad Pad all the more important for a team looking to get back on the right track.
  5. One phrase is noticeably absent in SEC conversations right now: hot seat. Unless something strange occurs down the stretch, it doesn’t look like there will be a new SEC coach coming on board in 2015-16. Reviewing the hot seat scenario David Changas painted back in October, the two most at-risk coaches were Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Mississippi State’s Rick Ray, and both appear to be safe. Alabama has been somewhat disappointing given how well the Tide’s non-conference schedule went, but at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the SEC it isn’t likely that Grant will lose his job. The same can be said for Ray, as Mississippi State has clearly improved during the season and will have a senior-laden team (Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware) ready to roll next year. The hottest seat right now might actually belong to Kim Anderson, with Missouri trudging through a miserable season and current athletic director Mike Alden set to depart in August. But it’s ridiculous to think that the new administration would part ways with a native son after a clear rebuilding year.
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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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SEC M5: 02.18.15 Edition

Posted by David Changas on February 18th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. Kentucky extended its unbeaten streak to 26 in a row on Tuesday night with a 66-48 win over Tennessee in Knoxville. While the Wildcats struggled to put away the Volunteers for a good portion of the evening, they continued their march toward perfection by setting a school record for consecutive wins to start a season. The previous mark of 25-0 matched Adolph Rupp’s 1953-54 squad (which declined a bid to the NCAA Tournament). It is difficult to imagine that John Calipari’s team won’t continue to extend the school record given what is mostly a soft schedule the rest of the way. Arkansas comes to Rupp Arena in 10 days and the Wildcats then travel to face a floundering Georgia squad four days later. The odds are that the Wildcats will win those two games and will roll into the SEC Tournament in Nashville boasting 31 straight wins.
  2. Despite the success Kentucky has already achieved, the question of whether it will run the table and win the national title with a perfect 40-0 record is college basketball’s hottest topic. The Huffington Post’s sports columnist, Jordan Schultz, recently set forth three reasons why the Wildcats might not cut down the nets in April. Schultz believes that the Wildcats’ guard play, half-court offense, and “youth” may lead to their downfall. With regard to their backcourt, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker have provided what the Harrison twins have not been able to, so production from the perimeter does not appear to be an issue. The so-called “youth” concern is an overrated factor, too, given the great experience so many players on this roster got last year in the team’s run to the national championship game. The half-court offense, though, continues to be a legitimate area of concern, as the Wildcats don’t always shoot the ball very well and rely so heavily on offensive rebounding that an off night in either area could lead to trouble.
  3. As we continue our Kentucky-themed M5 (and hey, why shouldn’t we go this route?), Karl-Anthony Towns, who was dominant down the stretch of the team’s three-point win over LSU last week, was named the SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday. He averaged 10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game in victories over the Tigers and South Carolina. Unfortunately for Towns, he did not continue his stellar play in last night’s win over Tennessee, as he scored only three points and grabbed four boards in 16 minutes of action. For his part, Arkansas’ potential SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis was named Player of the Week for his efforts in his team’s two road wins over Auburn and Ole Miss last week. Portis, who leads the league in scoring, averaged 17.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
  4. South Carolina coach Frank Martin suspended two of his players for the remainder of the regular season on Tuesday. Sophomore Demetrius Henry, who has started 19 games and is averaging 6.0 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, and Shamiek Sheppard, a seldom-used freshman, were punished for unidentified violations of team rules although each could be reinstated before the SEC Tournament begins in three weeks. The suspensions certainly did not hurt the Gamecocks on Tuesday night as they upset Georgia by six points in Athens. The win gives South Carolina a season sweep over the Bulldogs.
  5. On the other end of the suspension scale, Missouri will welcome freshman guard Tramaine Isabell back for tonight’s game against Arkansas. Isabell had been suspended in late January for what head coach Kim Anderson called “unacceptable” behavior. On Saturday, they welcomed back Montaque Gill-Caesar and Namon Wright from their own suspensions. The Tigers are 1-11 in SEC play and are without injured leading scorer Wes Clark, but they now have gotten all three players back who had been previously suspended. While having three freshmen available may not translate into more wins for Missouri, it does give Anderson the opportunity to use the team’s final six games to begin building for next 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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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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SEC M5: The Super Bowl Hangover Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 2nd, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. John Calipari is on a never-ending assignment to poke holes in his Kentucky team. After cruising by Alabama on Saturday he told the Kentucky.com, “”One thing this team is not doing: Putting teams away when they have that opportunity.” Never mind that Kentucky has closed out three straight games to win by at least 15 points. On a micro level though, the Wildcats did struggle a bit handling the ball against Missouri, turning it over 14 times. They flipped the script against the Tide, turning it over just five times against a team that has turned over its opponents 11 times per game. Devin Booker showed the biggest improvement, as he didn’t turn it over at all after coughing it up four times in Columbia. At this point, however, it’s all nitpicking as the Wildcats are the last of the unbeatens left standing.
  2. Georgia’s five-game winning streak came to an end in Colonial Life Arena after a lackluster offensive performance against South Carolina. Marcus Thornton missed the game because of a concussion, and the Bulldogs were at a big disadvantage without their leading scorer and rebounder. Georgia actually won the rebounding battle by nine, but likely missed Thornton’s inside presence taking pressure off the guards. Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and JJ Frazier combined to go seven-for-28, and after the game Gaines said that the Gamecocks “out-toughed” the Bulldogs. Thornton is easily the Bulldogs most physical player, and they’ll be in an even tougher spot heading to Lexington if he is still out. Concussions are a serious and tricky thing, and his status looks uncertain for the Super Tuesday match-up.
  3. The SEC may get a lot of action outside the lottery of the upcoming NBA draft. Bobby Portis, Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and any slew of Kentucky Wildcats could hear their names called. Another somewhat unexpected name could be joining the fray: Damian Jones. NBADraft.net has the Vanderbilt sophomore going 20th in its latest mock draft, and Bleacher Report’s has him going 29th. Losing Jones would obviously be a big blow to a Commodores team that figures to take a big step forward next year given how many young players are seeing major minutes. Still, Kevin Stallings has six other freshmen or sophomores averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and the sheer amount of experience should allow Vanderbilt to survive the potential loss of Jones and still be competitive next season. Ideally, however, the 2015-16 Commodores are anchored by Jones, and if that’s the case they could be smart pick to vault into the upper third of the SEC.
  4. Signs of progress. That’s what Mississippi State fans would need to spend the rest of the year searching for after a 2-9 stretch that bled into SEC play. For the last three weeks, signs of progress haven’t been hard to find. The Bulldogs are 3-3 over their last six games after taking care of LSU at home on Saturday. In that span they have ended a 22-game conference road losing streak and been in each game until the final minutes. And the team seems like they have learned from close losses to Ole Miss, Georgia and Texas A&M, as they looked unphased after the Tigers took a 57-54 lead at the Hump with under four minutes left. Their zone did a nice job forcing the Tigers into difficult shots from their guards, instead of high percentage looks for Jordan Mickey. Two late fouls on made shots were inexcusable, but Mississippi State had built enough of a lead that it didn’t matter. The win was a nice culmination of what has been a positive few weeks for Rick Ray and his program.
  5. The season is beginning to spiral out of control for Missouri. A loss to Ole Miss was expected, but the Tigers got very little from their freshmen, and Tramaine Isabell missed the game after being suspended indefinitely. Kim Anderson didn’t mince words or hide behind coachspeak in saying that Isabell’s behavior towards teammates and coaches has been “unacceptable.” That doesn’t sound like a situation that will resolve itself quickly. It’s incredible in hindsight to think that this was a team some thought could compete for a NIT bid, even with its youth. The losses are now mounting (7-14) and none of the freshmen seem to be trending in the right direction, at least not consistently. To get some positive momentum the Tigers will need Montaque Gill-Caesar, Namon Wright or Jakeenan Gant to string together a few solid outings.
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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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Veterans Lead Tennessee’s Unexpected Success

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 23rd, 2015

Missouri and Tennessee spent this past offseason as kindred spirits, and not in a good way, as both Frank Haith and Cuonzo Martin bolted for new jobs. The pair left for different reasons — Haith was likely staying one step ahead of the mob, while Martin was looking for more job security — but both left their former schools in the same position. And both schools were already going to be facing challenges in 2014-15. The Tigers lost essentially all of their scoring with the early departures of Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown as well as Earnest Ross’ graduation. The Vols’ Sweet Sixteen squad was also decimated, as Jarnell Stokes left early and Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon ran out of eligibility. All of this turnover on the court and sidelines seemed to launch both programs into full-blown transition years, and transition years can be ugly.

Armani Moore has tripled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season (tricitiesports.com).

Armani Moore has tripled his scoring and rebounding averages from last season (tricitiesports.com).

Except that’s not always the case. The two programs that seemed destined for lockstep this year are now trending in very different directions. In some ways, the Vols’ win over the Tigers last Saturday was a microcosm of this notion. Knotted at 46 with under four minutes to play, Missouri turned over the ball on three straight possessions while juniors Armani Moore and Derek Reese made consecutive tough baskets at the rim to lead the Vols to their second conference road win. On Tuesday night, it was senior Josh Richardson and junior Kevin Punter who shined offensively as Tennessee notched its third SEC road win at South Carolina. At the risk of oversimplifying, that has essentially been the story of both teams’ respective seasons. Tennessee finds itself on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament discussion because its veterans have stabilized what could have been a very difficult rebuilding year. Missouri, on the other hand, does not have any returning upperclassmen playing significant roles, and the freshman and sophomore-heavy Tigers have struggled as a result.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume I

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 5th, 2015

With the SEC’s 18-game conference schedule tipping off this week, it’s time to introduce our new The SEC Week That Was column. For the next 10 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. We’ll start with Volume I, including games from December 29 to January 4.

Team of the Week. Could it go to any other team but South Carolina? The Gamecocks continued their trend of blowing out bad teams by beating North Carolina A&T by 37 points, and then picked up the league’s best non-Kentucky win by beating Iowa State on Saturday in Brooklyn. KenPom has liked Carolina’s defense all season, as the Gamecocks currently have the sixth best defensive efficiency rating in college basketball. It was on full display at the Barclays Center as Frank Martin’s team forced the high-powered Cyclones’ offense into 35.1 percent shooting from the floor and 0.79 points per possession, far and away its worst offensive showing of the year. Carolina also got excellent production from its backcourt, as Ty Johnson, Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice scored at least 13 points apiece. Scrappy defense and solid guard play were the hallmarks of Frank Martin’s best teams at Kansas State, and it seems like his Gamecocks are rounding into that form. I think you can safely put South Carolina on the early NCAA Tournament bubble.

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Frank Martin picked up his biggest win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Iowa State (rantsports.com).

Player of the Week. Jarell Martin, LSU. The Tigers’ sophomore enters league play as the SEC’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, and did nothing but pad that figure last week with strong stat lines in wins over Southern Miss (24 points, nine rebounds, four assists) and Savannah State (26 points, eight rebounds, three assists). DraftExpress ranks Martin as the 42nd-best prospect in this summer’s NBA Draft, so you have to wonder if he will stick around another year. If he does, he’ll join five-star recruits Ben Simmons and the recently-committed Antonio Blakeney on an ultra-talented LSU roster. Honorable mention goes to Missouri’s Jonathan Williams, who starred in a loss to Oklahoma State (22 points, nine rebounds) and a win over Lipscomb (16 points, 10 rebounds). The sophomore forward has been more aggressive on the offensive end and seems to have realized that he needs to command the basketball for the Tigers to play well.

Tournament Chatter. Who made the biggest strides towards an NCAA Tournament invitation this past week?

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