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Mississippi State rides for the SEC

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NEW YORK – Within the first week of the college basketball season, we saw three of the SEC’s top five teams lose.

Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were dropped at home by Akron and Cleveland State, respectively. Florida went on the road and ran into the buzzsaw known as the Ohio State Buckeyes. The initial reaction was, naturally, that the SEC is once again down this season.

Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you if you did. I jumped to the same conclusion. After the way that the SEC has struggled over recent seasons, it made too much sense.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the answer isn’t so simple.

Vanderbilt is playing without Festus Ezeli, whose knee injury essentially extended the six game suspension he is currently serving through December. During their loss to Cleveland State, John Jenkins injured his ankle, and while he kept playing, it was bad enough that he didn’t suit up against Bucknell. I’ve been as harsh on Vandy as anyone, but even I can admit that judging them too harshly before they play at 100% is a bit unfair.

Florida’s loss to Ohio State is about as far from a bad loss as you can get. Road games are difficult regardless of opponent. Hanging within seven of a top three team on their home court in mid-November is a promising performance.

Which brings us to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs completed their run to the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship with a 67-57 win over Arizona on Friday night, all but erasing the doubts created by the memories of that loss to Akron.

But for the second straight night, this was more than simply a win for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs never trailed Arizona. Hell, the score was only tied once, at 23. The Bulldogs jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 21-11, over-powering the Wildcats on the interior. Arizona did battle back to tie the game and only trailed by one at the half, but the Bulldogs once again got off to a quick start in the second half. Arizona wasn’t blown out by any means — the lead didn’t hit double digits for the half — but it never felt like Mississippi State ever lost control of the game.

“I am proud of our team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “And I am proud from this standpoint: I think when the game was on the line in the second half, we survived. … Our team dug in defensively and the stats back it up. We held them to eight field goals in the second half and we had a plus-nine rebound margin. Those are winning plays.”

Arnett Moultrie led the way, finishing with 19 points (on 8-9 shooting), 10 boards and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Moultrie isn’t always going to be a big scorer like this, but the threat of having two big men capable of putting up 20 points and 10 boards is part of what makes Mississippi State so dangerous.

The other part of what makes the Bulldogs dangerous is there back court, and not simply Dee Bost. Stansbury’s star senior shot just 3-12 from the field, finishing with eight points and six assists to along with three turnovers. And while Stansbury will disagree with my assessment of how Bost played — he called me out during the press conference, saying that the effort and leadership that Bost played with is what they need from him — the bottom line is that the Bulldog’s best scorer wasn’t scoring well.

And Mississippi State still won.

A big part of that was due to the play of DeVille Smith, a diminutive freshman point guard. For the second straight night, Smith came into the game and created a spark. Smith, who was the third-leading scorer for the Bulldogs during their trip to Europe, had seven points and a pair of assists, scoring six points and handing out an assist in a five minute stretch of the second half in which the Bulldogs pushed the lead from one to nine.

“[Being a spark plug] is something that coach wants me to do, but its also something that I want to do. I’ll do whatever it takes to win the game,” Smith said.

Smith isn’t the only role player that stepped up for the Bulldogs. Wendell Lewis had six points and seven boards off the bench. Rodney Hood had nine points and hit a couple of big jumpers. Brian Bryant add six points and helped keep Arizona’s slew of perimeter players in check.

“We have a lot of different guys on different nights,” Stansbury said. “We have people on different nights who can step up and do big things for us.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

VIDEO: University of New Orleans aids area flood victims

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After over 20 inches of rain fell over three days and over 60,000 homes were damaged in southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger called his acquaintance, John Derenbecker, in the area to check in. Derenbecker and his family were fine, Slessinger learned, but many in the area were not.

I told (Derenbecker) to figure out who needed the help the most,” Slessinger told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “that I had my whole crew who could come help out on Saturday and Sunday.”

That led Slessinger and his team to the home of an elderly couple, Elbert and Ione Norred, whose house was ravaged by over four feet of flood water. The Privateers helped slog out debris, cut away wet insulation and whatever else needed removing from the soaked home.

“I appreciate everything you have done,” Ione Elbert told the Privateers. “Nobody knows how long it would have taken us to have done this.”

The Red Cross estimates that the relief effort for the flooding could cost upwards of $30 million in the region. To make a donation to the organization call 1-800-RED CROSS.

UNO’s baseball team also got in on the aid effort, heading to Baton Rouge over the weekend.

“We are proud to see our student-athletes, coaches and staff serve our fellow Louisianians in their time of need,” UNO Director of Athletics Derek Morel said in a statement. “The men and women of our program understand the importance of serving others and using our resources to help those in less-fortunate situations. We will continue to play for neighbors.”

Rutgers land 7-foot grad transfer from UNC Wilmington

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils drives to the basket as he is defended by C.J. Gettys #23 of the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks in the second half of their game during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Rutgers landed a commitment from seven-footer C.J. Gettys on Monday night.

Gettys is a graduate transfer from UNC-Wilmington, where he averaged 5.3 points, 5.1 boards and 1.4 blocks for a team that reached the NCAA tournament. Gettys is a slow-footed back-to-the-basket player, however, and that didn’t exactly fit with the way that UNCW head coach Kevin Keatts likes to play; think Shaka Smart’s VCU teams.

So Gettys opted for Rutgers, picking the Scarlet Knights over Dayton, Purdue and Chattanooga.

He is the fifth member of new head coach Steve Pikiell’s first recruiting class.

VIDEO: Seventh Woods dunks on UNC student

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Some poor UNC student decided that he was going to try and block Seventh Woods, a freshman point guard for the Tar Heels, on a dunk attempt.

What ended up happening was that he got windmilled on.

To quote Samuel L. Jackson, as portrayed the great philosopher Dave Chappelle, “You ain’t never seen my movies?” Woods was doing this as a freshman … in HIGH SCHOOL.

Former National Player of the Year Michael Brooks dies at 58

Brooks for All-American Brochure
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A Philadelphia basketball legend and a former National Player of the Year passed away on Monday night.

Michael Brooks, a 6-foot-7 forward who was named the NABC National Player of the Year in 1980, died in Switzerland on Monday night due to a massive stroke, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He was just 58 years old.

Brooks finished his career with 2,628 points and 1,372 rebounds. He never averaged less than 20 points in his four seasons in college. (Think about that for a second.) He was the No. 9 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft and averaged double-figures for four years before season-ending knee injuries sent him to Europe to play. Brooks was also named the captain of the 1980 Olympic team that missed out on the Moscow games due to the USA’s boycott.

Brooks, according to the Inquirer, had aplastic anemia, which required him to receive a bone marrow transplant last week. His body rejected the marrow, which resulted in the strokes that ended his life.

UCLA cruises in opener on Australian tour

UCLA head coach Steve Alford, second from right, watches action against Cal Poly with his assistant coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Baker)
AP Photo/Michael Baker
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UCLA, who will be the most interesting team in all of college basketball this season, played their first game of an Australian tour on Tuesday morning, and they won in pretty impressive fashion.

The Bruins had triple digits on the board early in the fourth quarter, eventually beating a club in Sydney by the score of 123-76. For comparison’s sake, Washington and potential No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz beat the same team 101-80 a couple of weeks ago, so the win and the margin of victory is somewhat impressive.

Also worth noting: None of UCLA’s freshmen started. Steve Alford rolled with Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton on the perimeter — Holiday and Hamilton combined for 27 points, 18 assists and 11 boards while Alford had 17 points on just 10 shots — with G.G. Golomon and Thomas Welsh up front.

But the noteworthy performances here were from the McDonald’s All-Americans that Steve Alford brought into the program. In his first game in the blue and gold, Lonzo Ball, a potential top ten pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, was just OK. He finished with nine points and four assists while shooting 3-for-9 from the floor. Leaf, however, was terrific, as he led the team with 21 points to go along with nine boards and three assists.

The first exhibition game is hardly a great way to predict how a season is going to play out, but given the pressure and expectations currently surrounding the program, everything the Bruins do this season is going to be scrutinized.

This isn’t a bad way to start.