gators

Conference Catchups: Three-team race in the SEC?

Leave a comment
source:
AP Photo

College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Jordan Clarkson, Missouri

Much was expected of the Tulsa transfer and thus far Clarkson has delivered, as he leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 ppg) and ranks second in the conference in assists (4.3 apg). And from an efficiency standpoint Clarkson ranks third in the amongst players with a possession percentage of at least 24% when it comes to offensive rating, according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Clarkson’s one of the big reasons why the Tigers are 10-1 heading into their game at N.C. State on Saturday.

All-SEC First Team:

  • Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
  • Jordan McRae, Tennessee
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri
  • Casey Prather, Florida
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky

Midseason Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida

Despite a roster in flux due to injuries and disciplinary issues the Gators are 9-2 and ranked 13th nationally. That says quite a bit about the coaching job that Donovan’s done to this point in the season, and Florida looks to be rounding into form just ahead of the start of SEC play. And the addition of McDonald’s All American forward Chris Walker will help Florida when it comes to their front court depth.

Favorite: Florida Gators

source:
AP photo

Kentucky was the prohibitive favorite entering the season, and given the amount of talent at John Calipari’s disposal it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Wildcats ended up being that team come March. But the pick here is Florida, a team that’s getting all of its parts in order and is the lone SEC team that ranks in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Point guards Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin are healthy, as is forward Will Yeguete, and in Casey Prather the Gators have one of the most improved players in the country. The addition of Chris Walker will only help matters, and they have enough talent to take things slowly with the freshman.

And three more contenders: 

  • It wouldn’t be wise to rule out Kentucky, with their stable of talented freshmen being supplemented by sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Two keys for the Wildcats moving forward: the emergence of a team leader (or leaders), and the aggression of Alex Poythress. Poythress clearly has skill, but he has to bring the intensity on a consistent basis in order to help this team.
  • The perimeter tandem of Clarkson and Jabari Brown has led the way for Missouri, and for that reason the Tigers should be considered when discussing the top teams in the SEC. They can use another bench contributor or two, especially in the paint, but this is a group that will be a factor.
  • LSU may be the dark horse, with Johnny O’Bryant III leading four players scoring in double figures. Freshman Jordan Mickey has been very productive for the Bayou Bengals, and classmate Jarell Martin has the skill needed to have a greater impact when conference play begins.

Most Surprising Team: Arkansas

Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have been more balanced and efficient offensively this season, with four players averaging at least 10.4 points per game and two others averaging at least 7.6 ppg. Alandise Harris and Bobby Portis have been good additions inside, and leading scorer Michael Qualls has raised his scoring average by almost ten points per game (14.1 ppg after averaging 4.6 ppg in 2012-13).

Most Disappointing Team: Kentucky

This one’s tough, because young teams need time to mesh and understand roles both on the court and in the locker room. But when you entertain preseason chatter about the possibility of going 40-0, the bar gets raised. The Wildcats have played a difficult schedule to date, so a couple losses were to be expected. The most disappointing thing at this stage in the season is that leaders have yet to emerge. That has to happen if Kentucky is to reach its full potential this season.

Most Important Player (in league play): Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

Kentucky’s lack of a definitive leader at this point means that the starting point guard, Harrison, will be their most important player in conference play. Harrison does rank fifth in the SEC in assists (3.5 apg), but that’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to being a team leader. If he can grab the reins and ensure that everyone’s headed in the same (and proper) direction, Kentucky can win the national title.

Who will slide?: Tennessee

The Volunteers’ best attribute thus far has their ability to hit the offensive glass, as they rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (43.0%). That has masked their shooting issues, as Tennessee is shooting just 31.4% from beyond the arc on the season. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes can be a load inside, but how will they fare against the more athletic front courts of the SEC? That, along with perimeter shooting, could be a concern come January.

Who is the sleeper?: LSU

Johnny Jones has a team more than capable of getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, and given the status of the SEC why can’t they make a run? LSU has plenty of talent, and their guards (especially Anthony Hickey) can get after teams on the defensive end of the floor. They’ve been tested in non-conference play as well, with their two losses coming to UMass and Memphis. If there’s any team outside of the Florida/Kentucky/Missouri triumvirate capable of surprising people it’s LSU.

New Power Rankings

1. Florida
2. Kentucky
3. Missouri
4. LSU
5. Tennessee
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss
8. Alabama
9. Vanderbilt
10. Texas A&M
11. Mississippi State
12. South Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Auburn

No. 1 Gonzaga loses their first game of the season at home to BYU

SPOKANE, WA - FEBRUARY 25: Head coach Dave Rose of the BYU Cougars works from the sideline in the first half against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at McCarthey Athletic Center on February 25, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
William Mancebo/Getty Images
6 Comments

The streak is over.

Despite jumping out to an 18-2 lead on BYU in The Kennel, No. 1 and previously undefeated Gonzaga found a way to lose their first game of the season late on Saturday night, falling 79-71 to the Cougars behind 29 points and 11 boards from Eric Mika.

Tyler Haws added 17 points and Elijah Bryant chipped in with 14, but this game was less about BYU than it was about Gonzaga.

The concern with this Zags team is that whether or not they have the guard play to be able to create offense in critical moments, and on Saturday, that looked like one of their biggest issues. Gonzaga’s offense went dead down the stretch. If they weren’t getting shots in transition, they were trying to run their sets through Przemek Karnowski in the post. That’s not an awful idea — he’s awesome — but BYU is not a good defensive team. If Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins struggled with their ability to beat Nick Emery and T.J. Haws off the dribble and couldn’t find a way to finish around Eric Mika and a member of BYU’s football team, what happens when they go up against, say, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk or Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham?

It’s a real concern, and every got a glimpse of that on Saturday night.

The other problem: Was I the only one that thought the Zags looked a little tight down the stretch, like they weren’t comfortable playing in a close game like that? Gonzaga shoots 73.8 percent from the free throw line on the season and shot 16-for-29 on Saturday. They’re 32nd nationally in three-point shooting and finishing Saturday 3-for-16 from beyond the arc. They missed makeable shots in the post. No one stepped up and took control down the stretch. Who is the alpha-dog?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that’s what the view looked like from my couch.

As far as how Gonzaga’s national title hopes are affected by this, I’m not too concerned. I think ditching the pressure of chasing a perfect season will probably be a net positive in the long run, and if anything, this loss made it painfully obvious for Mark Few what he needs to work on with this team. I don’t buy into the idea that “you need to lose” before the tournament, but I do think Gonzaga needed to get tested like this before the losses meant the end of their season.

The biggest concern is going to be whether or not this costs Gonzaga a No. 1 seed, but I still don’t think that it does, at least not yet. I’m not sure that Oregon, Arizona or UCLA has surpassed them, and the gap between Baylor and the No. 1 seed line only gets bigger with each passing loss. The Zags should be a No. 1 seed if they win the WCC tournament.

And to be frank, this loss doesn’t change the way that I feel about Gonzaga. They still are one of the two or three best teams in college basketball, a team that is good enough to win a national title.

But what this loss does do is make me less confident in the ability of the Zags to get it done.

Because all the issues we talked about with Gonzaga came to fruition Saturday night:

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

No. 5 UCLA dominates offensive boards to edge No. 4 Arizona

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 28: Bryce Alford #20 of the UCLA Bruins hits a shot over Dylan Ennis #31 of the Oregon Ducks during the second half of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Matthew Knight Arena on December 28, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
2 Comments

TUCSON, Ariz. — Thomas Welsh scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half and No. 5 UCLA dominated the offensive boards to beat No. 4 Arizona 77-72 in a Pac-12 showdown Saturday night.

The Bruins (26-3, 13-3) snapped Arizona’s 21-game home court winning streak and dropped the Wildcats (26-4, 15-2) into a tie with Oregon for first place in the Pac-12 heading into the final week of the regular season. The Ducks hold the tiebreaker by beating Arizona in the teams’ only meeting.

UCLA, avenging a 96-85 home loss to Arizona on Jan. 21, trailed 53-49 at the half but took control with a 19-4 second-half run.

Allonzo Trier scored a career-high 28 for the Wildcats. Parker Jackson-Cartwright added 11, and Lauri Markkanen had 10 for Arizona.

Five players reached double figures for the Bruins, led by Bryce Alford’s 15. TJ Leaf and Aaron Holiday added 12 apiece, and Lonzo Ball had 11 along with eight assists.

UCLA had 19 second-chance points to Arizona’s four. In the second half, the Bruins outrebounded the Wildcats 9-1 on the offensive boards.

The Bruins switched to a zone most of the second half and stretched the lead to 11 twice late in the game, the last at 73-62 on Welsh’s’ inside basket with 4:38 to play before Arizona managed one final charge, finishing the game on a 10-4 run.

Markkanen’s two free throws cut the Bruins’ lead to 75-72 with 29.2 seconds to play. Holiday missed the first of a one-and-one free throw opportunity and Arizona had a chance to tie it but Kadeem Allen, with a dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand, threw up an air ball from 3-point range.

After trailing by as many as seven points, Arizona outscored the Bruins 10-1 over the last 2 1-2 minutes of the first half to lead 43-39 at the break. Jackson-Cartwright scored seven in the surge.

UCLA took the lead for good, 54-53, on Welsh’s basket with 12:52 to play.

REVENGE

With the victory, UCLA had come back to beat all three teams that have beaten them this season. After a two-point loss at Oregon on Dec. 28, the Bruins came back to beat the Ducks in Los Angeles 82-79 on Feb. 9.

USC upset the Bruins 84-76 on Jan. 25 but UCLA came back to rout the Trojans 102-70 on Feb. 18.

PAC-12 REMATCH?

The outcome in Tucson could set the stage for a rematch between the two teams in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournaments.

Assuming, both teams win out, Arizona would be the tournament’s No. 2 seed and UCLA the No. 3. Oregon would get the No. 1 seed and, barring upsets, would face the UCLA-Arizona winner in the conference title game.

UP NEXT:

UCLA: The Bruins return home to face Washington on Wednesday night.

Arizona: The Wildcats play their final regular-season game of the season at Arizona State on Thursday.

No. 5 UCLA wins at No. 4 Arizona thanks to defense, rebounding?

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins moves the ball upcourt during the second half of the college basketball game against the Arizona Wildcats at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats 77-72.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
5 Comments

The Showtime UCLA Bruins, the team that has defined the pace-and-space movement in college basketball, the nation’s most lethal offensive attack, landed their second elite road win of the season on Saturday night, going into Tucson and knocking off No. 4 Arizona thanks to their ability to grind out stops defensively, milk the clock and crash the offensive glass.

Yeah.

Who saw that happening?

The fifth-ranked Bruins avenged a beatdown that they took at the hands of Arizona a month ago, going into the McKale Center and handing the Wildcats just their second Pac-12 loss of the season, 77-72. The difference came in the second half, with just under 15 minutes left, when head coach Steve Alford made the change from a man-to-man defense to a 3-2 zone that just had Arizona completely flummoxed. The rhythm that the Wildcats had offensively completely disappeared, but that wasn’t just the work of UCLA’s defense.

Part of it was their offense, too.

Let me digress, for a second: Part of what makes Virginia’s defense so consistently successful is that the Cavaliers make you work on the defensive end of the floor, using up as much of the shot clock as possible. The reason is mostly that Tony Bennett wants his team to control pace and to work the ball around until they have the perfect shot, not just a good shot, but the by-product is that is just takes the air out of the ball for the team that is forced to spend that much time defending. Every. Single. Possession.

This is what UCLA started doing. If they weren’t getting layups in transition, they were running their sets, working the ball into Thomas Welsh and T.J. Leaf, trying to get Lonzo Ball isolated against the smaller Parker Jackson-Cartwright, milking the clock for all that it was worth.

That was before the offensive rebounds.

TUCSON, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins attempts a shot between Dusan Ristic #14 and Rawle Alkins #1 of the Arizona Wildcats during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on February 25, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

UCLA grabbed nine of them in the second half — Arizona half just seven defensive rebounds in total, including three straight at the end of the game — and scored 14 second chance points in the second half. These weren’t just tip-ins at the rim. These were hustle plays, UCLA beating out Arizona’s big men to secure a board and work 30 more seconds off of the clock. Those are the back-breakers. Those are the plays that allow a visiting team to keep momentum in their favor and keep the home crowd from getting into the game. Those are the plays that helped prevent Arizona from looking like they had any clue how to attack a zone in the second half.

And that’s just not what we’ve become accustomed to seeing the Bruins do this season.

They run and they chuck threes and they let Lonzo Ball do what he can do and they don’t play much defense. That’s exactly who they were in the first half. They won this game because that’s who they weren’t for the final 15 minutes.

It brings us to a fascinating situation with the Pac-12.

Only one team from the conference is going to get a top four seed in the West Region. Whether it’s a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 seed, you will only see one of Arizona, UCLA and Oregon — all of whom have essentially locked up a top three seed at this point — in the same bracket as Gonzaga on Selection Sunday. That’s how the bracketing rules work. This is incredibly advantageous because of where their games would be played: In Sacramento (or Salt Lake City) the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and Phoenix for the Final Four. Not only would all of those games be fairly local — particularly for UCLA and Arizona — but they would be played on West Coast time, an underrated advantage for teams who don’t have to readjust their body-clock to a 10 p.m. ET tip-off time.

The only way that this scenario wouldn’t play out is if a Pac-12 team climbs up to the No. 1 seed line where undefeated Gonzaga also lurks, but as of today — which is a long, long, LONG way from Selection Sunday — it seems like those four No. 1 seeds are pretty set in stone.

UCLA has now won at Kentucky and at Arizona. That’s the best pair of road wins of any team in college basketball. They beat Oregon at home. They’re 26-3 on the season. If they’re going to win the Pac-12 tournament title, they’re probably going to have to go through Arizona and Oregon to do it.

And if they pull that off, the Bruins could very well end up being the top seed coming out of the conference.

They wouldn’t have to leave California until the Final Four in Phoenix.

And had they lost at Arizona on Saturday, I’m not sure it would have been possible.

So while the Bruins were already more-or-less out of the Pac-12 regular season title running, this win had oh-so-much more meaning that simply quieting a rival on their home floor.

No. 3 Kansas clinches outright Big 12 regular season title

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
Chris Covatta/Getty Images
1 Comment

AUSTIN, Texas — Josh Jackson scored 18 points and Frank Mason III added 16 to help No. 3 Kansas beat Texas 77-67 on Saturday night to secure its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season championship outright.

Devonte Graham and Dwight Coleby added 12 points apiece for the Jayhawks (26-3, 14-2 Big 12) who have won six straight games.

Jarrett Allen led Texas (10-19, 4-12) with 20 points. Andrew Jones added 18 for the Longhorns, losers of five straight games.

Texas committed 15 turnovers, six by guard Kerwin Roach Jr., and Kansas converted them into 28 points.

Kansas used a 12-0 push in the first half to take a 13-point lead before settling for a 40-31 edge at the break. Coleby, a little-used junior forward who averages 1.2 points a game, scored 10 in the half, converting 4 of 5 shots inside. Kansas had a 24-8 edge in points in the paint. His 12 points matched a career best.

Texas shot four air balls and committed nine turnovers in the half — five of them Kansas steals.

The Longhorns cut the lead to five with a 3-point basket by Jacob Young midway through the second half, but Kansas responded with an 8-1 run and eventually led by 15 with less than three minutes remaining. Mason and Jackson scored four points apiece during that span.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks have won 12 of their last 13 games against Texas, including seven straight, giving them a 29-8 edge since the Big 12 began competition in 1996-97. Texas did, however finish in a first-place tie with the Jayhawks during two of these 13 straight Kansas Big 12 regular season championships — in 2006 and 2008. The Longhorns beat Kansas in Austin both seasons.

Texas: The Longhorns are 4-4 in Big 12 home games. Before Saturday, their largest margin of victory or defeat was four points.

UP NEXT

Kansas is at home against Oklahoma on Monday. The Jayhawks beat Oklahoma 81-70 on Jan. 10 with Mason scoring 28 points, including five 3-point baskets.

Texas is at Texas Tech on Monday. The Longhorns beat the Red Raiders 62-58 on Feb. 1 in Austin. Eric Davis Jr. made a big 3-point basket with 28.8 seconds remaining for Texas, which does not have a road win this season.

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: North Carolina, Villanova get conference titles; Kentucky, Iowa State, Michigan, Miami win big ones

of the Florida Gators during the game Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

SATURDAY’S THINGS TO KNOW

The biggest game of the night: No. 5 UCLA landed their second elite road win of the season by going into the McKale Center and knocking off No. 4 Arizona, 77-72. UCLA’s comeback down the stretch was fueled by defense and rebounding … wait, what? It sets up for a fascinating situation in the Pac-12 down the stretch.

The ACC saw No. 8 North Carolina win on the road as they handled Pitt to claim at least a share of the ACC regular season conference title. CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on why this season might be Roy Williams’ best coaching job yet.

Things became a little bit clearer in the SEC as No. 11 Kentucky rallied behind a monster second half from freshman Malik Monk (30 of 33 points in second half) to beat No. 13 Florida. On a day in which De’Aaron Fox was out with injury, Monk and freshman Bam Adebayo (18 points, 15 rebounds) combined to give the Wildcats the conference lead with a week left. Dauster has more on Monk and Kentucky’s prospects heading into March.

Defending national champion Villanova clinched at least a share of the Big East regular season title as the No. 4 Wildcats used a late push to run past No. 23 Creighton. A balanced effort helped the Wildcats bounce back from this week’s loss against Butler as Eric Paschall led with 19 points.

Then things got crazy for ranked teams on the road during a 30-minute stretch.

It started in the Big 12 as Iowa State earned its seventh consecutive win by beating No. 9 Baylor with a little Hilton Magic. I have more on how the Cyclones have looked different since making a tweak to their lineup.

Michigan also looks more-and-more like an NCAA tournament team with a good home win over No. 14 Purdue. Senior Derrick Walton continues to play really well lately as I have more on the Wolverines here.

No. 6 Oregon survived at Stanford, getting a wild tip-in from Jordan Bell with 14 seconds left to gift them another one-possession road win this week. The Ducks won on a buzzer-beating three from Dillon Brooks at Cal on Wednesday.

And finally, Miami took advantage of No. 10 Duke being without Grayson Allen as the Hurricanes outlasted the Blue Devils in the ACC.

STARRED

Virginia’s offense — The Cavaliers were in a mighty slump during their four-game losing streak as the Cavaliers had failed to crack 55 points during the last three. That changed during a win Saturday on the road at N.C. State. Virginia shot 11-for-16 from three-point range (68.8 percent) and freshman Kyle Guy had more points in this one (19) than he did in his previous five games (17).

Malik Monk, Kentucky — Erupting in the second half was the freshman guard as he totaled 33 points in the Wildcats’ important SEC home win over visiting Florida. Monk only had three points at halftime and showed why he’s the country’s most electric player with just a few strong minutes to help Kentucky rally. Monk was 5-for-7 from three-point range and also added five assists and four rebounds.

Bruce Brown, Miami — Brown had 23 points to lead the Hurricanes to a win over the No. 10 Duke in Coral Gables. Brown has quietly been one of the ACC’s best freshmen all season long.

RELATED: Get caught up on all of today’s bubble action

REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 3 Kansas cruised past Texas in Austin without all that much trouble.
  • Surviving on the road was No. 12 West Virginia as they won by a point over TCU in Big 12 play. Jevon Carter paced the Mountaineers with 15 points.
  • Playing in front of former head coach Larry Brown, No. 17 SMU ran out to an early lead on UConn and never looked back. The Mustangs had 20 points from Shake Milton in the AAC road win as they’ve won 11 straight.
  • Looking more like the program we’ve seen the past few years, No. 18 Virginia played much better offensively in an ACC road win at N.C. State. Freshman Kyle Guy broke out with 19 points while Devon Hall (18 points) and London Perrantes (16 points) also played well.
  • Winning on the road hasn’t been easy for No. 19 Florida State this season but they held off Clemson to likely eliminate the Tigers from NCAA tournament contention. The Seminoles had 15 points from Xavier Rathan-Mayes in the win.
  • Iowa went into College Park and handed No. 24 Maryland by 14 points. The Terps, like Purdue, are now in a spot where they have really no chance to win the Big Ten regular season title. Might Wisconsin be the champions by default?
  • Continuing to pile up double-digit wins is No. 25 Wichita State as they ran past Missouri State for a Missouri Valley Conference road win. Landry Shamet had 23 points for the Shockers while Shaquille Morris had 20 points.

NOTABLE

  • The plunge continued for Georgetown as they fell to St. John’s after losing to DePaul earlier in the week. Freshman Shamorie Ponds led the Red Storm with 24 points, becoming the third St. John’s freshmen to register 500 total points in a season.
  • In the Big Ten, Minnesota beat Penn State for a home win as Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason each had 16 points.
  • South Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak with a blowout home win over Tennessee. P.J. Dozier had 19 points to pace the Gamecocks.
  • Oklahoma State continued its recent surge with an easy home Big 12 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys had 17 points from Jeffrey Carroll and 15 points each from Jawun Evans and Phil Forte.
  • Winning on the road in convincing fashion was Illinois State as the Redbirds ran past Northern Iowa. As a team right on the bubble, the Redbirds are now co-Missouri Valley Conference champs with Wichita State heading into Arch Madness.
  • Also hovering on the bubble is Seton Hall as they held off a late charge from DePaul for a Big East road win.