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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.

THREE UP

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.

THREE DOWN

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.

FIVE NEW FACES

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.

POWER RANKINGS

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

Before he won an Academy Award, Mahershala Ali played at Saint Mary’s

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Actor Mahershala Ali accepts Best Supporting Actor for 'Moonlight' onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the film ‘Moonlight’ on Sunday night.

How does that tie into college basketball?

It’s simple: Ali played college basketball for four years at Saint Mary’s, from 1992-1996.

Now, this was before Saint Mary’s turned into the Saint Mary’s that Randy Bennett has built. At the time, Ernie Kent was the program’s head coach, and the teams that Ali — whose used his given last name of Gilmore at the time, although he was already using the shortened version of his first name, Mahershalalhashbaz — played on weren’t really all that good. They finished under .500 in the WCC three of the four season, finding a way to finish in a tie for second place in his junior year.

As a senior, Ali averaged 7.0 points for the Gaels.

This would probably make Ali the most famous player that Kent has ever coached. He’s more famous than Aaron Brooks, who had about two good NBA seasons, and he’s definitely more famous than Luke Ridnour, who is best known either for getting traded four times in a week or being name-dropped in a song by the rapper Wale, who bragged about being able to turn ‘Ducks into Bucks [like] Luke Ridnour.’

 

VIDEO: Tom Izzo’s touching senior day tribute to Eron Harris

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Eron Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans kisses the midcourt logo on senior day during the second half of the college basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury in a game at Purdue earlier this month, meaning that he would not be able to take the floor for his Senior Day.

Tom Izzo made sure to rectify that, as he called a timeout with just 12 seconds left in Michigan State’s win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday, giving Harris a chance to go out to the center of the court, get a standing ovation and give the Spartan logo a smooch.

He was also greeted by the Wisconsin team. All around great moment:

Nick Ward-led Michigan State beats No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Nick Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds, Miles Bridges had 17 points and Matt McQuaid added a season-high 15 to help Michigan State beat No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74 on Sunday.

The Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) have won six of their last eight games, moving them into a third-place tie in the conference and perhaps sealing their spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers (22-7, 11-5) have lost four of five and lost a chance to pull into a first-place tie with No. 14 Purdue.

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, Bronson Koenig had 17 and Zak Showalter added 15. Ethan Happ fouled out with eight points, more than six points below his average for the Badgers.

Michigan State went on an 11-1 run midway through the second half, building a 12-point lead that it was able to maintain unlike a big lead in the first half.

In the first half, the Spartans led 36-23 only to allow the Badgers to come back with a 15-4 run to pull within a point at halftime.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 10 points and eight assists and Joshua Langford had nine points.

In the last game of the season at Breslin Center, senior guard Eron Harris checked in late in the game a little more than a week after he had a season-ending knee injury. Harris, with a brace on his right knee, went to center court and kissed the Spartan logo to follow a senior tradition Shawn Respert started in 1995.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been shooting poorly and it is catching up with them. They were held to 43.1 percent shooting against Michigan State, a ninth straight game of connecting on 44 percent or fewer of their shots. They made 13 of 25 free throws at Michigan State after shooting 67 and 57 percent from the line the previous two games.

Michigan State: The Spartans are surging at the right time and are gaining confidence perhaps allowing them to position themselves for better seeding at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

POLL IMPLICATONS

With Wisconsin’s losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers will likely plummet from No. 16 in The Associated Press poll on Monday.

UP NEXT

Wisconsin: The Badgers end the regular season at home, hosting Iowa on Thursday night and Minnesota on Sunday.

Michigan State: The Spartans close on the road, playing Illinois on Wednesday night and No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Update: Creighton’s Watson turns himself into police

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 31: Injured guard Maurice Watson Jr. of the Creighton Bluejays looks on during the game against the Butler Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on January 31, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Creighton defeated Butler 76-67. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Update: Later Sunday, Watson turned himself into the Douglas County Jail, a law enforcement official told the Omaha World-Herald. Watson’s attorney told the paper that Watson was driving back to Omaha from his native Philadelphia and was slowed by the snowstorm that hit parts of the country this week.

Law enforcement has been unable to arrest Creighton guard Maurice Watson since a warrant for his arrest on the charge first-degree sexual assault was issued last week, according to police.

“The U.S. Marshals Service and the Omaha Police Fugitive Unit continue to look for Mr. Watson,” Omaha Police said in a statement Sunday. “At this point in time, Mr. Watson is dodging law enforcement efforts to arrest him.

“Until he is located and arrested by law enforcement, or turns himself in, the entire Douglas County Court system is operating off of Mr. Watson’s time frame.

“Neither OPD nor the Douglas County Attorney’s Office is part of any specific arrangements for Mr. Watson to turn himself in.”

Watson was accused by a 19-year-old acquaintance, who reportedly is also a Creighton student, of sexual assault in the bathroom of an Omaha residence around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4. A report was filed later that day.

The point guard was in the midst of a banner season for the Bluejays before he tore his ACL in January, which ended his collegiate career. Creighton announced on Feb. 13 he was suspended from the team and not allowed to participate in senior night act due to  “alleged actions that are contrary to university policies and core values.”

The warrant for his arrest was issued Thursday.

 

Seventh-ranked Louisville dominates Syracuse

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The hint arrived early that Louisville might be no kind of matchup for Syracuse when the Cardinals jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead. The Orange, though, appeared to steady and seemed intent on delivering an interesting Sunday afternoon and a maybe another resume-changing win after beating Duke earlier in the week as the roared back to take a lead.

Everyone should have taken the early hint.

Louisville used a 21-4 first-half run to gain separation and never looked back as the Cardinals dominated Syracuse, 88-68, on Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.

The win was the fourth in five games for Louisville, which shot 56.9 percent from the floor and held the Orange to 35.7 percent shooting.

Donovan Mitchell was sensational, going for 25 points on 9 of 16 shooting, including 6 of 10 from deep, while also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out four assists. It was his third-straight game with at least 20 points.  He also had an absolutely dynamic one-handed alley-oop late that was just fantastic.

The Cardinals showed no ill effects of a hangover stemming from the loss earlier this week at North Carolina, but instead it was as dominant a performance as they’ve had in weeks.

On the losing side of the ledger are the Orange, who looked to be building some momentum after a three-game losing streak by beating Duke on Wednesday. Then, the Blue Devils went and lost to Miami and Syracuse just got smashed by another ACC contender. That doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

For Syracuse, it looks destined to spend another Selection Sunday sweating, though there’s certainly enough time for it to go either way. The Orange can really only hurt themselves until the ACC tournament with Georgia Tech heading to the Carrier Dome this week. That’s a game Syracuse will need to win, lest they really want the pressure ratcheted up in Brooklyn.

A big part of the issue for Syracuse pinning its hopes on the ACC tournament is its total lack of depth. Tyler Lydon and Andrew White both went at least 40 minutes for the 11- and 10-straight games, respectively. Syracuse played seven and got 28 minutes total from its bench.

With a few days typically between days, that’s pretty sustainable for the regular season, but those minutes are sure to weigh on players going on back-to-back (and maybe longer) days.