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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.

source:
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.

The Most Intriguing Bubble Profiles: Breaking down Wichita State, Syracuse, Clemson and more

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Daishon Smith of the Wichita State Shockers drives in for a basket against the Long Beach State 49ers during the first half on November 13, 2016 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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Wichita State (and Illinois State): The Shockers are, once against, going to be the most interesting bubble team, and test case for the Selection Committee, come Selection Sunday.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of it: The Shockers, by every measure that we use, are a good team, good enough to merit an at-large bid. They rank 13th in KenPom and 16th in Sagarin — both of which are predictive metrics — as well as 43rd in KPI and 45th in RPI — both of which are results-based metrics. They’re 25-4 on the season and they’ve been napalming everyone they come across in the Missouri Valley of late. They beat then-undefeated Illinois State by 41 points earlier this month and Northern Iowa, who is third in the league and who had won eight of their last nine games entering the game, by 29 points on Saturday.

It’s also Wichita State, a program that was in the Final Four in 2013, won 35 straight games in 2014 and has one of the most in-demand head coaches in the game in Gregg Marshall.

The problem, however, is that they haven’t actually done anything of note this season. Their best win on the year — their only top 95 RPI win on the season — came against league foe Illinois State. The Redbirds are 34th in the RPI, but they have the exact same problem as Wichita State: the Shockers are their only top 75 win.

Wichita State’s four losses on the season are to Louisville on a neutral, Michigan State on a neutral, Oklahoma State at home and at Illinois State. They don’t have a bad loss, but the only thing they’ve done outside of their league is beat a bad Oklahoma team and win at Colorado State, who is the leader of a mediocre Mountain West conference. (The difference, as it relates to this conversation, with Illinois State is that they have two sub-100 losses and also lost to San Francisco.)

Let’s assume that the Shockers end up winning out until the final of the MVC tournament, where they fall to Illinois State, a best-case scenario if they’re going to need an at-large bid. They’ll be 30-5 on the season without a single bad loss on their résumé, but they’ll only have one top 50 win and, depending on what Colorado State does down the stretch, that may end up being their only top 100 win.

Wichita State was in a similar situation last season, the difference being that they did have one elite win — Utah — while also have three bad losses to their name. That year was also different in the sense that there was quite a bit more competition for the Shockers to deal with. The lack of tournament caliber teams in the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, American and across the mid-major ranks has depleted this year’s crop of bubble teams. Simply not having bad losses may be enough this year.

That said, it’s also important to note that the reveal of the top 16 seeds 10 days ago slotted Gonzaga as the fourth No. 1 seed despite being undefeated. The committee showed us they value the presence of good wins over the lack of bad losses.

The Missouri Valley title game is eight days before Selection Sunday. Whoever isn’t holding the trophy at the end of Arch Madness is going to have a long, stressful wait for Sunday.

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The Bottom of the ACC (SyracuseGeorgia Tech, Clemson): Given the depth of the ACC this season and the lack of potential at-large candidates outside the power conferences, we’re getting some crazy profiles coming out of the bottom of that league.

Let’s start with the Orange. The bad: they lost to a bad UConn team, they were blown out at Boston College, and they lost to St. John’s at home by 33 points. There is no high-major team with that collection of awful losses to their name, and it doesn’t help that Jim Boeheim’s club has nine more losses to add to the mix. They have some good wins – Virginia, Florida State, Wake Forest, Miami – but they’ve only won two games away from the Carrier Dome: at Clemson and at N.C. State, who fired their coach three days ago. With FSU and UVA careening – combined, they’ve lost five straight games – neither of those wins look at good as they did two weeks ago. The Orange are 15-12, but they get Duke at home this week and Louisville on the road this weekend. Those are season-changers.

Georgia Tech is similar, with wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame. But they also won at VCU – which is now a top 30 road win – and their worst loss came against an Ohio team that looked like they could win the MAC before their best player went down with a season-ending injury. The Yellow Jackets don’t have the same volume of good wins, however, and one good road win doesn’t change the fact that most of their best work came at home.

Which brings us to Clemson. The Tigers are 14-12 overall and 4-10 in the ACC, which is not the kind of record that you typically see out of an at-large team. But they’ve won at South Carolina, they swept Wake Forest and they beat UNC Wilmington. All told, they have nine top 100 wins, four of which came away from home, and just one of their losses came outside the top 85. They need to win at least three, and probably all four, of their remaining games — at Virginia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, at Boston College — but those are all winnable. A 4-10 ACC record sounds bad, but an 8-10 ACC record is deserving, right?

Middle Tennessee: Like some of the other mid-majors on this list, Middle Tennessee State will have a long, long wait until Selection Sunday if they don’t find a way to win the Conference USA automatic bid. But unlike those other teams, the Blue Raiders do have some positives on their profile: They’ve beaten UNC Wilmington on a neutral. They beat Vanderbilt at home. They mollywhopped Ole Miss in Oxford. They beat Belmont in Nashville. The kicker for Kermit Davis’ program is that MTSU will have at least five losses on Selection Sunday if they need an automatic bid, only one will be a “good” loss. Tennessee State got them at home. Georgia State got them at home. They lost at UTEP, who only recently climbed their way out of the 300s in the RPI.

Alabama: South Carolina has been the most generous team in college basketball this season, handing out quality wins to bubble teams all over the place. Clemson got their best win courtesy of the Gamecocks. So did Arkansas, and so did Alabama, who went into Columbia and knocked off SC in four overtimes. As of this moment, Alabama is still on the wrong side of the bubble, but they still have games to play. Win these four games — Georgia, at Texas A&M, Ole Miss, at Tennessee — and suddenly Avery Johnson looks like he has an NCAA tournament team on his hands.

Bubble Banter: Clemson, Georgia Tech and Marquette with key games

MILWAUKEE, WI - JANUARY 24:  Head coach Steve Wojciechowski of the Marquette Golden Eagles watches action during a game against the Villanova Wildcats at BMO Harris Bradley Center on January 24, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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STILL TO PLAY

Clemson (RPI: 60, KenPom: 38, first four out) at Virginia Tech (RPI: 35, KenPom: 46, No. 8 seed), 7:00 p.m.

George Mason at Dayton (RPI: 27, KenPom: 33, No. 8 seed), 7:00 p.m.

N.C. State at Georgia Tech (RPI: 73, KenPom: 79, play-in game), 8:00 p.m.

Evansville at No. 25 Wichita State (RPI: 45, KenPom: 13, No. 10 seed), 8:00 p.m.

St. John’s at Marquette (RPI: 72, KenPom: 35, play-in game), 8:00 p.m.

Tom Izzo challenged to help Michigan State keep NCAA streak

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Eron Harris will not score another point for Michigan State this season.

The senior guard, though, did deliver an assist to the Spartans with a tear-jerking speech after finding out his college career was over because of a season-ending knee injury .

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, still emotional a day later, said Harris provided his inspirational perspective at a team meeting Sunday by sharing his thoughts while being taken off the court at Purdue on a stretcher.

“I realized my career is over,”‘ Izzo recalled Harris saying as the coach fought back more tears. “That was … that was hard.”

It will be really difficult for the Spartans (16-11, 8-6 Big Ten) to extend their Big Ten-record NCAA tournament streak to 20 if they can’t overcome the loss of Harris, who made a team-high 43 3-pointers this season and was just one of three players scoring in double figures.

Michigan State, tied for fifth place in the conference, hosts Nebraska on Thursday night and No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday. The Spartans close the regular season on the road against Illinois and No. 24 Maryland before the Big Ten tournament, where they may need some wins to avoid missing college basketball’s showcase for the first time since 1997 when Izzo was in his second season in charge of the program.

“We only have two weeks left on the regular season and a ton to play for,” Izzo said.

He knew this season would be a struggle before it started.

Izzo was without seven players from last year’s team, including national player of the year Denzel Valentine, in the biggest turnover he’s had since 2001 when he lost as many players off his team that went to a third straight Final Four and won four straight Big Ten titles.

The Spartans, already thin in the post with Deyonta Davis’ decision to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season, took hits when 6-foot-9 seniors Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter needed knee surgeries that relegated them to the sideline this entire season.

Miles Bridges, one of the top freshmen in the country, missed seven games during the middle of the season with an ankle injury. Harris, one of just two healthy seniors, getting knocked out of the lineup just adds to the season-long list of woes that leads Izzo acknowledging this has been his most challenging season .

Senior Alvin Ellis, who started one game as a freshman and one as a sophomore, may step into the lineup to replace Harris. The guard is averaging just 6.6 points, but scored 18 last week in a win over Ohio State and a career-high 20 in the Big Ten-opening win at Minnesota.

“I’m expecting to play a bigger role,” Ellis said. “I’m trying to pick it up for (Harris).”

Izzo has always appeared to be a coach that gets the most out of his players, who rarely are ranked among the nation’s best. He also thinks tough schedules set up his teams to have success in the NCAA tournament. This season, however, a grueling schedule and a string of setbacks before the Big Ten season might end up haunting him if the team’s overall record is not good enough to get into the tournament. And, traveling the team for 13,600 miles over 22 days in November may end up being one of Izzo’s regrets when he looks back at this season.

Michigan State lost to No. 4 Arizona, No. 9 Baylor, No. 11 Kentucky and then-No. 5 Duke along with Northeastern, without Miles, a defeat that looks worse now than it did back in December because the Colonial Athletic Association team has fallen to .500 by losing nine of its last 11 games. The Spartans do have a quality win from their nonconference schedule, beating No. 25 Wichita State.

As the regular season approaches the end with just 10 healthy players on scholarship, Izzo insisted he won’t mention the school’s NCAA streak to his team.

“I haven’t put that pressure on them,” he said. “Don’t plan on putting that pressure on them.”

 

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Frank Mason III goes #BIFM, takes control of race

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 28:  Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks dribbles the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats during the game against at Rupp Arena on January 28, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: For my money, Mason solidified his standing as the National Player of the Year front runner, the guy whose award it is to lose, this week. He was the spark of a comeback from 14 points down in the final three minutes against No. 12 West Virginia and led the Jayhawks back from 12 points down – six in the final three minutes – at No. 9 Baylor on Saturday, the win that solidified what will very shortly be the 13th straight Big 12 title for Bill Self.

Against West Virginia, he had 24 points, five assists and four boards. Against Baylor, Mason played arguably his best game of the season, finishing with 23 points and eight assists in a game where the Jayhawks struggled to find offense for long stretches.

But more to the point, what Mason provides this team is more than the numbers. There’s a competitiveness and a toughness that he brings. At the risk of being too cliché for my own good, he’s a winner and a leader that will drag his teammates along with him even when they aren’t playing well. He’s not the best player on Kansas — that would be Josh Jackson — and he’s probably not even the most valuable — hello, Landen Lucas — but there is no one that is more responsible for the fact that Kansas has won nine of their 12 Big 12 wins by seven or fewer points and seven of those nine by less than five points.

Mason’s numbers are sensational — 20.3 ppg, 5.0 apg, 4.2 rpg, 50.4 percent 3PT — but his numbers simply do not tell the whole story here.

#BIFM indeed.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Last week, I tried to make the point that Josh Hart’s Player of the Year bid was going to die on the vine because his season was devoid of moments. That happened before Frank Mason led Kansas to wins in two thrilling comebacks, both of which were games between top ten teams that were the most important matchups of that day. Hart? Played at the same time as Kansas-Baylor on Saturday. He’ll play at the same time as Louisville-North Carolina on Wednesday. Saturday’s matchup with No. 23 Creighton would’ve drawn every eyeball in the sport … if Mo Watson Jr. hadn’t gotten hurt.

He’s a terrific player having a career-year for an awesome team. I don’t think he’s going to be the Player of the Year.

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3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Swanigan had one of his best games of the season, going for 24 points, 15 boards and five assists as the Boilermakers beat Michigan State on Saturday. I’m not sure what else there is to say about Swanigan at this point in the season. He’s the best big man in the country, and I’m not quite sure it’s all that close.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Ball has changed the culture of the UCLA program, at least for this year, and he’s done it with his unselfishness and his ability to create offense out of nothing. But more important than that, since the comeback against Oregon, the one where UCLA game up 0.65 points-per-possession in the final 14 minutes of the game, the Bruins have allowed 0.915 PPP in wins over Oregon State and USC. They become a real title contender again when they are consistently buying in defensively like that.

5. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss averaged 24 points and seven assists in two wins last week, including a 30-burger against San Francisco. He’s the star and the go-to-scorer of the only undefeated team in the country.

6. Luke Kennard, Duke
7. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
8. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: I wrote about the ACC Player of the Year race in my weekly takeaways column on Monday, but I wanted to elaborate on it.

With all due respect to Bonzie Colson, John Collins and everyone else in that league, I think there is a pretty clear-cut top three for the ACC Player of the Year race. And if I had to pick ACC Player of the Year, it would probably be Justin Jackson over Donovan Mitchell by a whisker — depending on what happens Wednesday night — with Luke Kennard in third.

But if we’re ranking for National Player of the Year, I think that Kennard is first, Jackson is behind him and Mitchell is third out of that group. Hell, having Mitchell ranked eighth overall is somewhat debatable; that’s how poor he played, at least compared to his ACC counterparts, before the start of ACC play.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils battles for a loose ball against Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard and Justin Jackson (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

9. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ ranks fifth in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. My only issue with that: It doesn’t factor in that his foul shooting is a real problem, one that has, at times, forced him off the floor in crunch-time. That’s a pretty big concern for a guy that, in all other facets of the game, is criminally-underrated.

10. Josh Jackson, Kansas: What can’t Jackson do on a basketball court? He’s a pro shooting guard that is playing the four for Kansas. He blocks shots at the rim and gets steals on the perimeter. He’s lethal in transition. He’s a spot-up three-point shooter, he can make plays off the dribble and he’s a talented, albeit at times careless, passer. He’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s not afraid of a big moment or a big game.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that he’s been the best player for Kansas over the course of the last month or two. That’s the same Kansas team that Frank Mason III plays for.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Joel Berry II, North Carolina
Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
Alec Peters, Valparaiso