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Scheduling improvements won’t occur overnight for the SEC

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Last season was not a particularly good one for the Southeastern Conference on the basketball court. The conference went through one of its worst seasons in recent history, managing to place just three teams in the NCAA tournament field. While the struggles of the league’s premier program (Kentucky) didn’t help matters, the true culprit for the conference was its non-conference scheduling.

While some programs scheduled ambitiously, putting together a slate that was designed to get them ready for conference play and (hopefully) give them a resume worthy of inclusion in the NCAA tournament field, others cobbled together slates that weren’t befitting of a power conference program. And with some of those teams losing games to programs that reside in the lower regions of Division I, the SEC’s computer numbers took a beating.

Auburn lost to Winthrop. Mississippi State lost to Troy and Alabama A&M. South Carolina lost to Elon. Texas A&M lost to Southern. Vanderbilt lost to Marist. Georgia lost to Youngstown State. Alabama lost to Mercer and Tulane.

And there were plenty of bad wins. The SEC played 30 games against teams Ken Pomeroy ranked 300th or lower out of 347, with every team but Kentucky playing at least one. Arkansas and LSU each played four 300-level teams, which is a virtual invitation to miss the NCAA tournament. Pomeroy rated five SEC schools between 302 and 344 in non-conference strength of schedule: Mississippi, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and South Carolina.

With that in mind SEC commissioner Mike Slive saw the need to make changes, hiring former NCAA tournament executive Greg Shaheen as a scheduling consultant and making Mark Whitworth the league’s associate commissioner for men’s basketball (a newly-created position). The conference that has won the last seven national titles in football would now focus on improving its basketball product. And given the way in which some programs have scheduled in recent years, these moves were necessary.

But Rome isn’t built in a day, and a list compiled by ESPN’s Jason King on the ten worst non-conference schedules among power conferences shows that there’s still some work to do in the SEC. Three SEC programs made the list (Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M), but to be fair each has significant question marks to address entering the 2013-14 campaign.

Arkansas has to replace its top two leading scorers (B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell), Mississippi State is in the second year of a massive rebuilding project and Texas A&M lost Elston Turner and Ray Turner (no relation). Those three being called out for their respective non-conference schedules is countered by Kentucky and Florida ranking among the nation’s best, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The SEC’s scheduling issue isn’t about all 14 members putting together brutally difficult schedules, but rather understanding the impact of their non-conference slates on the entire conference and scheduling accordingly. Accomplish that task and the SEC shouldn’t have to worry about going through seasons like the 2012-13 campaign in the future.

No. 3 Michigan outlasts Arkansas’ pressure defense to win Saturday afternoon

Trey Burke block
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Michigan’s biggest concern coming into Saturday’s game against Arkansas centered around pressure. Would they be able to neutralize the effectiveness of the Razorback’s style of play by limiting turnovers and controlling the pace?

Though they ran into some difficulties in the second half, the answer seemed to be “yes,” as a strong late push lifted the Wolverines to a win, 80-67, and kept their perfect record intact.

The Wolverines led by as many as 12 points with 6:23 remaining in the first half and led by double digits at halftime.

In the second half, though, increased Arkansas pressure led to a 12-5 run that cut the Michigan lead to just two points with 12 minutes to play. But, just before a timeout, Michigan’s Tim Hardaway, Jr., hit a fall-away three-point to extend the lead to five points.

All five Michigan starters scored in double figures, including Hardaway, Jr., with 14 points and nine rebounds. Freshman Glenn Robinson III led all Wolverines with 17 points.

Arkansas continued to stick around down the stretch, pulling to within one possession on three different occasions, but was never able to tie the game.

Arkansas cut the lead to one point, 56-55, with 8:48 to go, but a 14-4 run immediately followed, pushing the lead to double digits and putting the game away.

The Razorbacks got an unlikely contribution from junior Kikko Haydar Saturday. Prior to the game against Michigan, Haydar was averaging one point in under seven minutes per game. He starred Saturday with 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including 4-of-4 from three-point range.

Rickey Scott also starred coming off the bench with 10 points. Marshawn Powell led all scorers with 18 points.

Michigan has the pieces to be a Final Four team this season. They have the scorers—Robinson III, Burke, and Hardaway, Jr. They have an elite shooter who can stretch the defense in Nik Stauskas. And, as they showed Saturday, they have the paint presence to eliminate any liabilities on the inside.

Jordan Morgan finished with a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds. Freshman Mitch McGary had another solid game with six points and five rebounds.

And, though it could be overlooked, Jon Horford had two key blocks and rebound in the middle of the second half while Morgan and McGary were on the bench that helped to stop an Arkansas run.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

James Southerland, Syracuse holds on against Arkansas

James Southerland
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James Southerland tied a Syracuse school record, with nine 3-pointers, en route to a career-high 35 points off the bench, leading the No. 6 Orange over Arkansas 91-82 as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge.

Southerland had 28 points, including eight 3-pointers, when he picked up his fourth foul with 15 minutes remaining, with the Orange holding a 57-47 lead. The Razorbacks would get within five, before Triche, the other Cuse senior took over. The senior guard scored 10 straight Orange points, bumping the lead up to 13.

B.J. Young ended with 25 points for Arkansas. The Razorbacks are at .500 with a 3-3 record.

Syracuse is 5-0, asking the question: how good is Syracuse this season?

Indiana and Duke have headlined college basketball’s first month. Indiana outlasted the long, Georgetown zone and ran North Carolina off the floor earlier this week. In the meantime, the Blue Devils made it a habit running top-5 teams off the floor – Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State – to go along with wins over Minnesota and VCU.

Michigan, Louisville, Kansans, Florida, and Gonzaga are just a few of the teams that have also had impressive first months and will be around come March.

Syracuse is clearly in the mix with one of the more talented rosters in the country. Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche should be considered as good as any backcourt, especially on the defensive end when 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams and 6-foot-4 Triche can make it difficult for shooters (5-of-24 from behind the arc for Arkansas). With C.J. Fair, Dajuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas, James Southerland, and Bay Moussa Keita, Cuse also feature big bodies at the bottom of the zone.

More importantly, Cuse showed how balanced it can be in Friday’s win over Arkansas. Four players in double figures and had players step up when needed to. When Southerland went down with his fourth foul, Triche and Fair both made big plays to keep Arkansas from climbing back into the game.

The Orange struggled with the Razorbacks’ pressure, coughed the ball up 19 times and still was able to win on the road. And that will the last time Syracuse is on the road this calendar year. The Orange have nine-straight home games before a Jan. 6 matchup at South Florida.

Terrence is also the lead writer at NEHoopNews.com and can be followed on Twitter: @terrence_payne