SEC Conference Catchup: It’s Kentucky, Florida and everyone else again

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There may not be two college basketball programs in the country that are operating at a more efficient rate right now that Kentucky and Florida.

In the last four seasons, the Wildcats have been to three Final Fours while winning a title and losing in the national title game. Florida went to three straight Elite 8s before making it to the 2014 Final Four, and that was just seven years removed from when Billy Donovan won his second straight national title.

There is a valid argument to make that, right now, the Gators and the Wildcats are two of the top five college basketball programs in the country.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

And after that, the SEC may not have another programs that even deserves consideration for being a top 25 hoops program.

Arkansas can never seem to get it’s act together despite always having talent and perpetually filling Bud Walton Arena. Tennessee was on the verge of becoming a powerhouse before Bruce Pearl lied about having a barbecue with Aaron Craft. LSU can get talent into the program, they just don’t always turn that talent into wins. Missouri has been disappointing during their first two years in the conference. Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss.

Outside of the league’s top two teams, no one else in the conference seems to be capable of being a perennial NCAA tournament team, and that certainly won’t change this season. Someone will undoubtedly win enough games to put together a resume worthy of an at-large bid, but outside of Kentucky and Florida, there is no one in the SEC that I would feel comfortable betting on to make the 2015 NCAA tournament.

For a league that has so thoroughly figured out football, it’s amazing that they cannot find a way for the rest of the league to be competitive in hoops.


Kentucky: Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 team in the country last season, they made it to the national title game, and they are losing their two best players to the NBA Draft and … they’re going to be better next season? As weird as it sounds, it looks like it. Four of the six guys that had a chance to go pro this year decided to return to school, where they will be joined by another excellent recruiting class. The Wildcats will have a massive and deep front line, and with the Harrison twins returning to school, they’ll actually have some back court depth. The key, however, is going to be finding a way to distribute minutes while keeping everyone happy.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks didn’t make the NCAA tournament and they still lost 12 games last season, but here are two reasons to be hopeful for Mike Anderson’s club next season: They won three road games in the SEC (including at Kentucky!), none of which came at Auburn, and they return their top three scorers from last season, including potential lottery pick Bobby Portis. It will be a disappointment if Arkansas is back in the NIT next year.

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LSU: The Tigers should have been an NCAA tournament team last season. They lost in the first round of the NIT, and while they lose their starting point guard and center, LSU should be better next season. Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin will have a year of college basketball under their belt, Josh Gray, a JuCo transfer, should be able to step in and take over at the point, and the massive Elbert Robertson should provide enough of a low-post scoring presence to make up for the loss of Johnny O’Bryant.


Florida: The Gators spent much of the 2013-2014 season considered to be the best team in college basketball despite the fact that their season came to a close in the Final Four. That’s the biggest reason that they are slotted in the ‘down’ column here, because Florida will lose four senior starters — including Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young — from that team. They should still be good enough to, at the least, push Kentucky in the SEC standings, especially is Chris Walker and Kasey Hill live up to the hype they had coming out of high school.

Missouri: Last year was the year for the Tigers to make a run. And Frank Haith led them to the NIT before taking off for Tulsa. They lost both Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown to the draft while Earnest Ross graduated, leaving a roster that has some talent but is very, very young. Even in the watered down SEC it is tough to win with a roster stacked with freshmen and sophomores.

Tennessee: This is going to sound weird — especially if you read the paragraph below this — but Tennessee is going to have a tough time living up to that Sweet 16 that Cuonzo Martin led the Vols to last season. Jarnell Stokes went pro. Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon graduated. Martin went west. Robert Hubbs returns, as does Josh Richardson, and they add a nice crop of recruits, led by Detrick Mostella, but Tennessee will have a bit of rebuilding to do.


Bruce Pearl: Auburn needed someone to bring some life to a program that has all-but been dead for the last decade. They landed Pearl, who may be the single-most vibrant head coach in all of college basketball. At the very least, the city of Auburn, Al., just got a lot more entertaining.

Donnie Tyndall: Cuonzo Martin got out of town at the right time. He orchestrated a run to the Sweet 16 after a relatively disappointing season, leaving for Cal at a time when his team would be losing four starters. Enter Donnie Tyndall, a ball of personality from Southern Miss that has come into the program and, in less than a month, managed to convince seven players that will join the team next season or in 2015 to commit to the program while also preventing Robert Hubbs, a five-star recruit from the Class of 2013, from transferring. The Vols may not be better in 2014-2015, but the program is certainly heading in a positive direction.

Kim Anderson: The new coach at Missouri was a bit of a surprising hire. A longtime Big 12 assistant, Anderson spent over a decade as the head coach at Division II Central Missouri, winning the 2014 DII national title. He hasn’t had the immediate results that Tyndall has, but he did manage to keep star recruiter Tim Fuller around, and that, in turn, kept Jakeenan Gant from asking for a release. Anderson can really coach, but with a young team, early results may not be ideal.

Alex Murphy: The x-factor for the Gators this year is going to be Alex Murphy, a 6-foot-8 forward that was a five-star recruit coming out of high school. He spent two-and-a-half seasons with Duke — redshirting his first year — before transferring into the program that turned his brother, Erik, into an NBA player. He’ll be eligible in December.

Kentucky’s freshmen: The Wildcats bring in a four-man recruiting class that, once again, will be ranked amongst the best in the country. Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker in the back court. Karl Towns and Trey Lyles up front. But here’s the weird part: Kentucky may not start a single freshman.


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

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.