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Conference Catchups: Three-team race in the SEC?

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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

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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

VIDEO: Roy Williams gets customized shoes from Michael Jordan

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 16:  Head coach Roy Williams of the North Carolina Tar Heels is presented with a gift as he celebrates after his 800th career victory with a 85-68 win over the Syracuse Orange at the Dean Smith Center on January 16, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Roy Williams became the second-fastest coach to get to 800 career wins last night, and to honor him, UNC did things like put together a video presentation, give him a jersey with the number 800 and bring him to the center of the Dean Dome floor to get cheered by everyone in attendance.

But it was Michael Jordan whose gift floored everyone.

Literally.

Because MJ got Ol’ Roy a pair of customized shoes, and it just about killed Brandon Robinson:

Here’s a closer look at those kicks:

No. 2 Kansas utilizes mismatches to outlast Iowa State

AMES, IA - JANUARY 16: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks battles for the ball with Monte Morris #11 of the Iowa State Cyclones, and Matt Thomas #21 of the Iowa State Cyclones in the first half of play at Hilton Coliseum on January 16, 2017 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
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Kansas used its size advantage to pound the glass as the Jayhawks outlasted Iowa State for a 76-72 Big 12 road win on Monday.

Using only a seven-man rotation once again, Kansas (17-1, 6-0) used its size advantage on the interior and on the wings to crush the Cyclones on the boards as they outrebounded Iowa State 41-22. With a huge advantage on the interior, Kansas focused on working the ball inside-out as they shot 54 percent from the floor.

Kansas did a great job of finding mismatches on the offensive end and had a balanced scoring effort as all seven players scored between 16 and six points. Senior Frank Mason paced the Jayhawks with 16 points and chipped in six rebounds while Landen Lucas (14 points), Svi Mykhailiuk (13 points) and Carlton Bragg (10 points) all finished in double figures.

Iowa State (11-6, 3-3) was able to hang with Kansas for the entire game but they just couldn’t get over the hump every time they would cut the lead to around four points. The Cyclones tried to use a little bit of Hilton Magic to make a late charge, as Monte Morris (23 points) made two free throws to cut the Kansas lead to three with under 20 seconds left but it ultimately wasn’t enough.

With Iowa State lacking the size to matchup with Kansas, the Cyclone offense had a lot of one-and-done possessions since they had no offensive rebounders that were a threat. The Kansas perimeter defense limited Iowa State to a lot of contested jumpers as the Cyclones shot 33.3 percent (9-for-27) three-point shooting. Deonte Burton added 21 points for Iowa State while Naz Mitrou-Long added 18 points.

It’s never easy to win at Iowa State, so the Jayhawks will certainly take this win and be happy with it as they just seem to have a huge matchup advantage against the Cyclones this season.

Jenkins, Brunson, lead No. 1 Villanova past Seton Hall 76-46

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Kris Jenkins scored 16 points and Jalen Brunson added 13 to lead No. 1 Villanova to a 76-46 win over Seton Hall on Monday.

The Wildcats (18-1, 6-1 Big East) looked every bit like a team that could win back-to-back national championships in their first game at No. 1 in The AP Top 25 poll following a one-week hiatus.

Villanova fell from the top spot to third in the poll following a Jan. 4 loss at Butler. But wins over Marquette and Xavier vaulted the Wildcats over the Kansas Jayhawks and back into the top spot.

Led by four 3s from Jenkins, the Wildcats set a school record 47 straight wins at the Pavilion. Under coach Jay Wright, Villanova has been nearly unbeatable at home for most of the last 10 years.

Seton Hall (12-6, 2-4) was just the latest to go down in front of the 177th straight sellout crowd. Villanova’s rare blemish on its national championship season was losing to the Pirates in the Big East Tournament title game.

No. 9 North Carolina beats Syracuse for Roy Williams’ 800th win

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On Monday night, Roy Williams became the ninth men’s Division I college basketball coach to reach 800 wins.

The only man that has ever done it faster is Adolph Rupp, who needed all of 976 games to get to 800 wins.

Williams, after a 85-68 win over Syracuse in the Dean Dome on Monday, has a career record of 800-212, and only Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Bobby Knight, Dean Smith, Jim Calhoun, Rupp, Eddie Sutton and Bob Huggins have more.

So while the 20 points that Isaiah Hicks scored tonight matter, as does the 19 posted by Justin Jackson and the double-double from Kennedy Meeks, this night was about Williams and this milestone in his career.

“Eight hundred wins means I’ve had very good players,” Roy said at a ceremony after the game honoring him. “It’s the players, players that have made me every day.”

“It was never a dream of mine to win 800 games,” Roy added. “But it was a dream of mine to coach guys like this.”

Whenever he finally decides to retire, Ole Roy’s legacy will be an interesting one. For starters, the man has had two head coaching jobs in his life: Kansas and North Carolina. Spend enough time at those two programs and piling up the wins is almost inevitable, which is one of the reasons that Williams has developed a reputation for being a guy that brings in talent and just rolls the ball out there. Put another way, people talk about the other names on that 800-win list as some of the greatest coaches that have ever lived, but when was the last time you heard someone put Williams in that conversation?

And all that comes before you consider that Williams has been the face of the UNC program while they’ve spent the last five years dealing with an academic scandal surrounding the fake classes in the African-American studies department and the association it had with the basketball team and keeping players eligible.

Is that what Williams legacy will be? An overrated coach that needed to cheat to keep his kids academically eligible at UNC? Or will people realize that 800 wins and a pair of national titles aren’t a fluke or an accident?

Lobos assistant apologizes for altercation with Rams player

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) New Mexico assistant coach Terrence Rencher has apologized for his role in a verbal confrontation with Colorado State forward Emmanuel Omogbo outside Moby Arena following Saturday’s game.

The Mountain West Conference admonished both schools on Monday, but took no action over the altercation. The league said the behavior after the Lobos’ 84-71 win was unacceptable and poor judgment was used by several individuals. It also said it was unclear how the incident began.

The confrontation between Rencher and Omogbo was caught on video by The Albuquerque Journal.

In the video posted on Twitter , Omogbo and Rencher scream insults at each other while standing between two Lobos assistant coaches. Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy is seen holding back Omogbo, who eventually leaves the parking lot.

The conference left any possible punishment up to the schools after its investigation failed to determine who was at fault, and New Mexico vice president of athletics Paul Krebs said Rencher would receive a letter of reprimand.

Rencher released a statement apologizing “to my family, UNM, CSU and everyone affected by the incident and I acknowledge my fault in the situation. I should have walked away. The situation could have been diffused and I am very regretful of that momentary lapse in judgment. I don’t know Emmanuel personally but he seems to be a good person and good teammate.”

Rencher added that he didn’t instigate the confrontation nor did he make light of Omogbo’s personal tragedy as some media outlets including ESPN have reported. Wednesday marks the anniversary of Omogbo losing his parents, a niece and a nephew in a house fire in Maryland.

Rencher, who had been ejected from the game, also said he didn’t “make racially derogatory remarks to him.”

Both men are black.

During the confrontation following the Lobos’ 84-71 win, Rencher tells Omogbo, “Learn how to lose, boy.”

Colorado State said Monday it would have no comment on the matter.

The incident was the latest embarrassment for the Mountain West Conference, which has seen a large number of technical fouls over taunting and trash talk in men’s games this season and three women’s players suspended for their roles in a brawl in a game between Utah State and UNLV .

During the confrontation between Rencher and Omogbo, Eustachy’s wife, Lana, suggests the three New Mexico assistants get on the Lobos charter bus to defuse the situation. Instead they stayed and watched as Larry Eustachy and guard J.D. Paige, among others, finally steer Omogbo toward the parking lot.

Lobos coach Craig Neal told ESPN hours after the confrontation that Rencher didn’t do anything wrong.

Rencher and fellow Lobos assistant Chris Harrima were ejected late in the game for leaving the bench when Lobos forward Joe Furstinger flexed after a hard screen and then made contact with Rams guard Anthony Bonner as he jogged back down the court. That flared tempers that were already on edge following pregame trash talk.

The Fort Collins Coloradoan reported that Rencher taunted the Rams during warmups at Moby Arena last year, according to former Rams forward Fred Richardson, and did so again Saturday.

Eustachy called Furstinger’s blind screen with 2:10 left a clean play but noted the bad blood began before the game.

Colorado State’s Prentiss Nixon and New Mexico’s Obij Aget were assessed technical fouls and Rencher and Harriman were ejected.

The league said it “examined all facets of the event, from pregame warmups through the postgame confrontation” and found “a number of conflicting perspectives … and, in some cases, there is no definitive proof as to the responsible party or parties.”

“What has been determined is the entire incident created an undesirable athletic competition environment and did not reflect favorably upon either basketball program, either member institution or the conference,” the league continued. “There were a number of errors in judgment throughout the course of the afternoon and poor decisions made by various individuals. Such conduct is unacceptable.”

The Mountain West added that the league’s board of directors and joint council “have been adamant in their emphasis on good sportsmanship and behavior. Those involved with this most recent incident will be under close scrutiny going forward – as will all Mountain West constituents.”

The Rams (11-7, 3-2) visit New Mexico (10-8, 3-3) on Feb. 21.