2013-14 SEC Preview: Can anyone catch Kentucky?

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Kentucky is the most talented team in the SEC. Stipulated for the foreseeable future, counselor. It’s appropriate that a blue-blood program from the heart of horse country is stocked with powerful blue chip athletes who have obvious physical advantages. They can, should and probably will win the SEC. But there’s always a chance that Seabiscuit will emerge from the pack and energize the race. The Wildcats will get everyone’s best effort in every game, and the league is studded with contenders and wily veterans who can make things interesting. Kentucky’s stumble into and immediately out of the NIT last season has put the gleam of hope in the eye of every challenger the league has to offer.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky will put an NBA-caliber team on the floor every night: We can pick Kentucky No. 1 in the nation every year, that’s no joke. Some of us resisted that notion this season, because we’ve seen that work spectacularly (2012’s national title) and fail miserably (2013’s NIT washout). Michael Jordan said it best: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” We can see the talent, so if the other two sides of the triangle fall into place, well, quite frankly, nobody else has a chance.

2. Jeronne Maymon is back in Knoxville: I used the thoroughbred as a metaphor for Kentucky’s makeup, but Tennessee’s strength is different. Former Vols coach Bruce Pearl called Maymon a “junkyard dog” when he landed the Marquette transfer, and the burly forward pairs well with current coach Cuonzo Martin’s gritty style of play. Maymon redshirted last year with a persistent knee injury, but he’s back this season and ready to pair with Jarnell Stokes to form our No. 6 frontcourt in the nation.

3. The Marshall Henderson Show gets a tenative renewal: Marshall Henderson is a shooter. He can shoot you into a huge win with his gutsy deep stroke, or he can shoot himself in the foot with his own middle finger. Henderson will be sitting out three games this season, including his team’s first two SEC contests, and his notoriety is now a double-edged sword. Everyone knows Ole Miss has a star, including the refs and the NCAA’s shell-shocked PR department.

source: AP
AP photo

4. Haithers gonna Haith: When Frank Haith nabbed the Missouri job in 2011, two questions dogged his heels. First, was he better than his 56% winning percentage at Miami would seem to indicate? So far, the answer is yes to that one, as Haith has won 53 games in two seasons in Columbia. Second, would infractions from his time with the Hurricanes dog him in his new gig? That question was answered recently, when the NCAA suspended Haith for his first five games of this season. With another quality team in place, led by transfer Jordan Clarkson and junior Jabari Brown, Haith should be ready to put it all behind him and win 20-plus games again.

5. LSU is back: Standing 6-foot-9 and weighing in at 260 lbs., Johnny O’Bryant III may not be the second coming of Shaq, but he’s bringing back some of the excitement of the Dale Brown era in Baton Rouge. Second year Tigers coach Johnny Jones has three more of his top scorers returning to back up O’Bryant, and his recruiting touch has the Tigers sitting pretty for the future as well.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Julius Randle (Kentucky)

Well, duh. This guy could likely start in the NBA right now. He’s the combination of size, strength and speed that comes along extremely rarely, even in DI basketball. If his basketball IQ is on track, he will find plenty of room underneath alongside his massively talented teammates. He’s the very definition of “one to watch”.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • G Jordan McRae (Tennessee): When the media voted for preseason POY, Randle got the lion’s share of the votes, but McRae grabbed five votes to come in second on the ballot. The lanky 6-foot-6 wing had some monster games last season, scoring 34 on LSU and 35 at Georgia. With a solid team around him, he could steal some more of the spotlight.
  • F Johnny O’Bryant III (LSU): It’s been a while since Tiger fans had a big man to write home about. O’Bryant is on the cusp of a breakout season, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him average a double-double for the season and get LSU back to the NCAA tournament, where they last ventured in 2009.
  • G Trevor Releford (Alabama): Releford jacked up his scoring (14.9 ppg) and defense (2.1 spg) last season,  and he’s always been a pretty good distributor. He’s on the Cousy Award watch list this season, and he’ll be driving the bus in Tuscaloosa.
  • F Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): Stokes averaged nearly a double-double last season while holding down the post. Imagine what he’ll do with Maymon healthy and ready to step in next to him?

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss)
  • F Patric Young (Florida)
  • G Andrew Harrison (Kentucky)
  • G Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
  • C Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)

BREAKOUT STAR: Jordan Clarkson (Missouri)

Clarkson wasn’t exactly hidden under a bushel at Tulsa, where he averaged 14.2 points per game over two seasons, but he’ll definitely be on the biggest stage now that he’s eligible to finish out his career at Mizzou. He stands 6-foot-5 and definitely has a scorer’s mentality, but Clarkson revealed that he’s been working out at point and off-guard this summer, so his versatility and nose for the ball will have him in the mix from day one in Columbia.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tony Barbee (Auburn)

Auburn hasn’t been to the Big Dance in a decade, and make no mistake, they hired Calipari disciple Barbee away from a successful stint at UTEP to rectify that situation. Instead they’ve had a rash of transfers and three losing seasons in a row. Last season was the worst, as the Tigers limped to a 9-23 overall record. Nothing short of a 20-win season and a postseason appearance can save Barbee’s job.

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AP photo

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Has anyone seen my Marshall Henderson-to-English dictionary lying around?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Finding out what this year’s iteration of the Big Blue NBA Express can do.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 12: Kentucky vs. Michigan State (in Chicago)
  • December 10: Kansas at Florida
  • December 14: Kentucky at North Carolina
  • December 14: Tennessee at Wichita State
  • December 28: Louisville at Kentucky

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: I’m running out of new ways to say it: these guys are the ish. Their bench could beat 95% of DI teams.
2. Florida: Billy Donovan has another well-built roster in Gainesville, with size and toughness up front.
3. Tennessee: With experience, a towering frontcourt and a gritty defense, Cuonzo Martin has the Vols loaded for bear.
4. LSU: We’ll hear a lot about Johnny O’Bryant, but he’s not going to have to get it done by himself. Anthony Hickey (11.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) will have plenty of options to score or dish to an open teammate on this roster.
5. Missouri: Plenty of question marks with Flip and Laurence Bowers gone, but Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson should pick up the slack.
6. Alabama: Led by Trevor Releford, the Tide can roll this season, but can they make the tourney?
7. Mississippi: Could go higher or lower based on what side of the bed Marshall Henderson wakes up on any given day.
8. Arkansas: With Mike Anderson at the helm, running a legacy version of 40 minutes of hell, this team could easily make a leap this season.
9. Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings just doesn’t have the talent of years past.
10. Texas A&M: Does Johnny Football have a decent handle? I’m sure the Aggies would give him a try.
11. Georgia: They love Mark Fox in Athens, but he’s going to need to ramp up the recruiting to do business in the SEC consistently.
12. South Carolina: Frank Martin will have success wherever he goes, but this roster just isn’t there yet.
13. Auburn: See above, re: hot seat.
14. Mississippi State: Rick Ray has some talent on the roster, with Jalen Steele, Trivante Bloodman and Craig Sword sounding like characters in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Give him another couple of years before you judge what this program can do.

Government shutdown forces Air Force to cancel all athletic events

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The Air Force Academy has been forced to cancel all home and away games due to the government shutdown, the school announced on Saturday.

Announcing on the official Air Force Academy Twitter page, the school will attempt to reschedule as many missed events as possible.

Canceled games include a home men’s basketball game against Fresno State on Saturday and a home hockey game against Sacred Heart. According to a report from the Colorado Springs Gazette, the women’s basketball team is in Fresno, Calif., for a road game against Fresno State, but that game will also not be played.

This is an unprecedented measure for the Air Force Academy as they’ve been able to play through government shutdowns before. In 2013, the USAA gave a $230,000 check to help Air Force football travel to Navy for its game. Government shutdowns in the 1990s also never forced the cancellation of any major Air Force games in the past.

A source told NBC Sports that Army’s athletic department has not been affected as it is privately funded. Navy’s athletic department should also be able to operate and continue under the government shutdown since they are privately funded.

Without private sponsors helping, it looks like Air Force won’t be playing until the government shutdown is over. The Gazette also reported on Saturday that Air Force athletic officials knew that this could be a possibility and said it would be an “11th hour decision.”

Air Force men’s basketball is 8-10 with a 2-4 record in the Mountain West this season. While the Falcons haven’t been a major contender, they had the momentum of a small two-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s home game against Fresno State.

The Falcons are also scheduled to play on the road at Utah State on Wednesday and host Boise State next Saturday.

Bosnian professional team announces they have signed Billy Preston

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Billy Preston has signed with BC Igokea, a Bosnian professional team, according to a release put out by the club on Saturday.

“We are thrilled to welcome Billy Preston to our club,” the statement read. “We were watching his situation closely and reached out to his family to show interest and ultimately reached an agreement with the family attorney in California on a contract for the rest of the season. We know Billy is an NBA prospect so we will do our best to continue his development to help him excel for our club and fulfill his goal which is to be an NBA star in the near future.”

“Billy Preston is foregoing his eligibility to play at Kansas and has signed with a professional team in Bosnia,” head coach Bill Self said in a statement provided to NBC Sports. “Billy’s family has been very upfront telling us that his first choice was to stay at Kansas, but with the uncertainty of the situation they needed to look at other potential options. This opportunity in Bosnia came with a deadline for a decision, and the family reached that decision Friday afternoon.”

“We are all disappointed that Billy never had the opportunity to experience college basketball competition but we certainly support him and wish him the best. Although he has been frustrated with the situation, Billy’s attitude has been tremendous and he has developed as a person and as a player. I’m sure that will continue as he prepares for his professional career.”

Igokea’s roster also includes former UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, former Oregon and UTEP guard Dominic Artis and Katin Reinhardt, who played at UNLV, USC and Marquette.

Preston had enrolled at Kansas as a freshman this season, but he was involved in a car accident prior to the start of the season. He was held out from competition as the school attempted to find out who was paying for the vehicle.

Ugly growing pains: No. 18 Kentucky needs to fix mistakes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari warned the growing pains would be ugly for his youngest Kentucky squad.

It’s been an annual caution from the coach, but this time he may not have been exaggerating. Kentucky has two losses in its last three Southeastern road contests.

But all is not lost.

The No. 18 Wildcats (14-4, 4-2) return home to face first-place Florida (13-5, 5-1) Saturday night with a chance to erase a one-game deficit to the Gators. And after playing four of its first six SEC games on the road, Kentucky gets to close January with three of its next four at Rupp Arena.

The immediate goal is correcting mistakes in a loss to South Carolina, a setback that Calipari said revealed how green his freshman really are.

“My issue right now is we’re playing a really good team and we needed some time to focus on them, but at this point we can’t,” Calipari said Friday. “If we get this right and it’s not good enough, then we move on to the next game.

“But if we get it right, then I’m going to feel good. If I don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter. At some point this has got to change and we’ve got to focus.”

Though Calipari is accustomed to annually guiding a new group of talented yet inexperienced teenagers through high expectations, this particular group is his youngest with no upperclassmen among his regulars. The communication and unselfish play he has stressed was absent as Kentucky blew a 14-point, second-half lead in Tuesday’s 76-68 loss at South Carolina .

Already short handed with point guard Quade Green sidelined for a third straight game because of a back issue, the Wildcats had three players foul out in the contest. Kentucky was also outrebounded 40-35 and recorded a season-low seven assists — with none from Hamidou Diallo or fellow guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Calipari said the performance was the first time the Wildcats truly resembled freshmen but isn’t using youth as an excuse. If anything, he’s pushing players shake their youthful bad habits along with the memory of that defeat.

Calipari “just wants us to play harder the whole 40 minutes,” forward PJ Washington said. “We’ve been scrimmaging a lot more to get us in game-like situations. … You can never really try too hard. You just have to keep that mindset and just move on to the next opponent.”

One bright spot for Kentucky’s rotation was the debut of 6-foot-9 forward Jarred Vanderbilt after being sidelined with a left foot injury. The freshman had six points, five rebounds and a team-high three assists in 14 minutes against the Gamecocks, an encouraging start that has allowed the Wildcats to scrimmage more with him.

“He plays with a lot of energy,” freshman forward Nick Richards said of Vanderbilt. “We see it in practice a lot. He plays hard every possession. That could be one thing that could help us.”

Green’s availability meanwhile remains a game-time decision. If nothing else, Calipari would like him back to have another shooter, not to mention with someone who communicates with teammates. On the other hand, Green’s absence has allowed Gilgeous-Alexander to play the point alongside Diallo.

But after fouls and shaky play forced Kentucky to use a number of combinations at South Carolina, the mission this weekend is ensuring whatever lineup is out there plays more consistently to slow down a Florida squad seeking its eighth win in nine games.

“It just comes with your mental” approach, Washington said. “You just gotta be prepared every day in and every day out and just fight on a consistent basis, just get shots up in the gym and just continue to focus on you and getting better.”

No. 9 Michigan State bounces back and routs Indiana 85-57

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges scored 22 points and Nick Ward had 18 points and 13 rebounds to help No. 9 Michigan State bounce back with an 85-57 win over Indiana on Friday night.

The Spartans (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) had a confidence-boosting performance after going from a top-ranked team to a reeling one. They were slumping after a 16-point loss at Ohio State, an overtime win over Rutgers and an 82-72 setback to Michigan at home.

The Hoosiers (11-8, 4-3) lost for the first time in four games, falling into a fourth-place tie with the Wolverines and Nebraska.

Michigan State took control with an 18-0 run midway through the first half, led by as much as 23 and was ahead 42-23 at halftime. The Spartans stayed ahead by a comfortable margin in the second half by spreading the ball around and making it tough for the Hoosiers to make shots.

Cassius Winston had 10 points, eight assists and only one turnover, while Jaren Jackson had 10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three assists for the Spartans.

Indiana’s Robert Johnson had 21 points and the rest of his teammates struggled offensively. Josh Newkirk scored 14, but missed 12 of 17 shots and the Hoosiers were held to 34 percent shooting.

FAMOUS FAN

Alex Rodriguez, who was in Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, attended the game. He went to Michigan State’s shootaround earlier in the day and wore an “Izzone” T-shirt while standing in the student section behind coach Tom Izzo, his staff and players.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Izzo,” Rodriguez said.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers had a hard time competing without Juwan Morgan playing as he has lately. One of the Big Ten’s leaders in scoring, rebounding, steals and shooting before the game started was limited to two points on 1-of-5 shooting, three rebounds and one steal.

Michigan State: The Spartans desperately needed to get their swagger back and they did, suddenly looking like the team that was ranked No. 1 two weeks ago.

Weekend Preview: Big East showdown headlines an interesting slate of games

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

*(NOTE: Lines are not posted for Saturday or Sunday games as of publication. Spreads referenced are via Kenpom.com)

No. 11 XAVIER at No. 19 SETON HALL (-1), Sat. 2:30 p.m. (FOX)

The only game this weekend featuring two teams that are currently ranked in the top 25, Xavier and Seton Hall square off in a battle of programs trending in opposite directions. Now that Trevon Bluiett has rediscovered his shooting stroke, the Musketeers have reeled off back-to-back wins, including a beatdown of then-No. 25 Creighton. Seton Hall, on the other hand, lost by a combined 37 points at Marquette and Creighton in the last 11 days and struggled with a Georgetown team that was down 44 points at home against Villanova.

  • PREDICTION: Xavier’s new starting lineup will be interesting. The Musketeers are much more offensively oriented right now, but Kerem Kanter and Naji Marshall are not exactly known for their defense and physicality. Seton Hall has a big, old, tough and strong front line. I think they get this win they badly needed in front of a packed out. Seton Hall (-1)

No. 14 ARIZONA (-5) at STANFORD, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

First place in the Pac-12 is on the line as 5-1 Arizona squares off with 5-1 Stanford. And yes, you read that correctly. In their last five games in league play, the Cardinal have swept the LA schools at home, the Washington schools on the road and beaten Arizona State in their place. Now they get the best team in the Pac-12. Stanford is healthy and playing the best basketball they’ve played in a long, long time.

  • PREDICTION: If Stanford is getting five points at home I am all over the Cardinal. The problem is that I don’t think they will be. KenPom’s projections don’t factor in that Stanford is healthy and hot. I think the line will be closer to Stanford (-2), and I would still probably take them. Stanford (-5)

FLORIDA at No. 18 KENTUCKY (-3), Sat. 8:15 p.m.

This matchup is fascinating. Two teams that still have quite figured things out that play polar opposite styles of basketball. Florida is loaded with quick, veteran guards that fire up threes. Kentucky is loaded big, athletic forwards that can’t really shoot. Coming off of a loss at South Carolina, I think this game is probably more important for Kentucky, who finally looks like they are going to be healthy.

  • PREDICTION: Can Kentucky overwhelm Florida with their size or will the Gators exploit the mismatches with their guards? That answer really comes down to whether or not the Gators get hot from deep. I’m going to guess that they will since they have a tendency to show up in big games. Florida (+3)

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • No. 1 Villanova (-17) at UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (CBS): The big question in this game for me, beyond “Will UConn lose by enough for UConn to fire Kevin Ollie on the spot?”, is whether or not Villanova is the elite team in college basketball that we swear doesn’t exist. Villanova (-17)
  • No. 7 Wichita State (-1) at Houston, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU): The Shockers have turned into a defensive liability out of nowhere, and on Saturday they will be traveling to visit a Houston team that badly needs this win. Wichita State (-1)
  • No. 4 Oklahoma (-3) at Oklahoma State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Trae Young hasn’t been right for a couple of weeks, and now he gets a rival on the road. Is this the game that he figures it out? Oklahoma (-3)
  • BAYLOR at No. 10 KANSAS (-8), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): Kansas has actually had some issues at home this season, more than they’ve had on the road. Baylor tends to play the Jayhawks tough. Is this a letdown spot after that massive win at West Virginia? Kansas (-8)