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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

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

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Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.