SEC Conference Catchup: Will someone step up behind Kentucky?

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Willie Cauley-Stein (Getty Images)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

Kentucky has made headlines this season for having one of the best defenses that we’ve seen at the college level in the KenPom era, and the sparkplug for that defense is Cauley-Stein. A shot-blocking presence around the rim, Cauley-Stein is so much more than just a rim-protector. He can switch ball-screens, he can guard an opponent’s best wing and he can play the point on their press.


  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis has looked like the best non-Kentucky big man in the conference this season, the centerpiece for an Arkansas team that may be the second-best in the league.
  • Jordan Mickey, LSU: Mickey’s led LSU’s bounce back from a rough start to the season, averaging a double-double and a league-high 3.6 blocks.
  • Levi Randolph, Alabama: There may not be a more improved player in the SEC this season than Randolph, who is averaging 16.2 points and has been Alabama’s spark.
  • Damion Jones, Vanderbilt: The Commodores have not been great this season, but Jones has been a bright spot, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 boards.


1. Kentucky has a real chance to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated: Kentucky’s doing it with their defense, which is about what we expected about of the Wildcats this season. Even without Alex Poythress in the mix — and even if their idea of a platoon has not exactly come to fruition — Kentucky has been absolutely overwhelming with their size, strength and athleticism on that end of the floor. Offensively, they have some things to work through, but their ability to get to the offensive glass and the improved shooting that freshmen Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles can provide should be enough to get them through SEC play unscathed.

2. But much of that has to do with the SEC’s relative weakness: Part of the reason that Kentucky looks like they’ll be able to run the table in the conference is that there really isn’t another team in the league that’s all that good. Arkansas is probably the second-best team, but they struggle on the road and don’t get Kentucky in Bud Walton Arena this year. LSU is talented, but they’re not trustworthy and their strength — the front line — will be overwhelmed by Kentucky’s bigs. South Carolina looked good against Iowa State, but their physical, tough style of play matches up with what Kentucky does best. And don’t forget about Florida, because …

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Kasey Hill (Getty Images)

3. Kasey Hill and Chris Walker were not ready to replace Florida’s seniors: The key to the Gators being relevant this season was getting their two top ten recruits from the Class of 2013 to play like it. They haven’t. Kasey Hill’s certainly a talented playmaker, but he’s still not hitting perimeter jumpers consistently enough and is a long way away from being able to replace Scottie Wilbekin. Walker’s an athletic freak, but he doesn’t quite know how to take advantage of that athleticism. At 7-6 on the season, Florida is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether.


1. Will Kentucky continue to embrace their limited minutes?: Right now, everyone on the Wildcats is fully bought-in on their team concept, the idea that playing nine guys for 20 minutes a night is how they’ll win games. That’s the key to everything that Kentucky does. That’s the reason that they have been so overwhelming on the defensive end. And it’s why this has been John Calipari’s best coaching job since he’s been with the Wildcats. But will it last? Will Andrew Harrison get affected by the notion that Tyler Ulis is a better point guard than him? Will Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson continue to be OK with seeing their minutes cut in close games?

2. How many teams will the SEC get into the Big Dance?: At this point, there really is only one team in the SEC that can provide the league with a quality win, and that’s if someone knocks off Kentucky. Maybe Arkansas joins that list if they can make a run early on in league play, but the bottom line is that there just aren’t that many quality wins available in SEC play. That’s a problem, because the SEC doesn’t have that many teams with strong resumes coming off of non-conference play. South Carolina put themselves in a good spot with their win over Iowa State, and LSU joins the Razorbacks as a team that can pass the eye-test on a good day, but that’s about it.

3. Who plays their way into early entry?: Bobby Portis seems to have done enough this season to ensure that he’ll have a high enough draft stock that the NBA will come calling in June, which means that this may be the best team Mike Anderson will have for a while. But the same cannot be said for LSU at this point. With a recruiting class that includes Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney coming in next season, the Tigers will have a chance to be very, very good — at least on paper — in 2015-2016 if Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin somehow wind up back in school.


1. Kentucky doesn’t take a loss in league play: The only thing standing between the Wildcats and an undefeated conference season is the failure to show up ready to play against a team they should beat. That’s how much more talented they are than the rest of the conference. The way they lose is by sleep-walking through, say, their trip to South Carolina or Florida. I’ll put my money on that not happening.

2. South Carolina ends the year No. 2 in the SEC standings: There’s just something about a team coached by Frank Martin. They exude toughness, and I know that sounds corny and cliche, but they do. And this year’s group actually has some real talent, particularly in their back court. Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson can matchup with anyone else in the conference, including the guys in Lexington.

3. The SEC is more likely to get three bids than five: The biggest reason that I have a hard time seeing the SEC put five teams in the NCAA tournament is that LSU and Arkansas have done an excellent job of developing a reputation for being untrustworthy in conference play. Arkansas never wins away from home, and LSU is always good for two or three head-scratching losses a season. One of those two teams will find a way to miss the Big Dance.


NCAA: Kentucky, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas

NIT/CBI: Alabama, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia

NO POSTSEASON: Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee

UConn adds former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer from transfer portal

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STORRS, Conn. — National champion UConn added some shooting depth to its roster Friday, announcing the signing of former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer from the transfer portal.

Spencer, who graduated last month with a year of eligibility remaining, averaged 13.2 points in his only season in New Jersey. The 6-foot-4 guard, who played his first three seasons at Loyola of Maryland, shot 44.4% from the floor, including 43.4% from 3-point range.

“Cam is the perfect addition to our basketball program,” UConn Coach Dan Hurley said. “He brings a unique combination of high-level skill and feel for the game, with a fierce competitiveness that has allowed him to enjoy a terrific college basketball career thus far.”

The Huskies lost their top 3-point scoring threat, sophomore Jordan Hawkins, to the NBA draft, along with wing Andre Jackson Jr. and post Adama Sanogo.

Guard Tristen Newtown gave the Huskies a boost last month when he withdrew his name from the draft pool and returned to Storrs.

The Huskies began summer workouts this week, welcoming a top recruiting class led by 6-6 point guard Stephon Castle, a McDonald’s All-American from Georgia. The class also includes 6-7 wing Jayden Ross and 6-4 guard Solomon Ball from Virginia, 6-7 wing Jaylin Stewart from Seattle, Washington, and 7-foot center Youssouf Singare from New York.

“I think that some of my strengths will stand out in UConn’s style of play,” Spencer said. “They have a lot of great movement and they play so well together, with great chemistry. I think that I can come in and hopefully contribute to that.”

NCAA tweaks rules on block/charge calls in men’s basketball

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INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA is tweaking how block/charge calls are made in men’s basketball.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved rule changes on Thursday that require a defender to be in position to draw a charge at the time the offensive player plants a foot to go airborne for a shot. If the defender arrives after the player has planted a foot, officials have been instructed to call a block when there’s contact.

Defenders had to be in position to draw a charge before the offensive player went airborne under previous rules.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee members made the proposal after NCAA members complained that too many charges were being called on those types of plays.

The panel also approved reviews of basket interference calls during the next media timeout – if the official called it on the floor – a shot clock reset to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound that hits the rim, and players being allowed to wear any number between 0 and 99.

A timeout also will be granted to an airborne player with possession of the ball, and non-student bench personnel will be allowed to serve as peacekeepers on the floor if an altercation occurs.

Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez resigns after winning CBI title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Sanchez resigned as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers.

Sanchez took over the 49ers on March 19, 2018, inheriting a team coming off a 6-23 campaign. In five years Charlotte went 72-78 under Sanchez, highlighted by winning the College Basketball Invitational championship this past season, the Niners’ first post-season tournament title in school history.

The 22 wins this past season are the most for Charlotte since 2001.

“Ron took over a proud but struggling program and carefully rebuilt it into a 22-game winner. He has led with class, dignity and devotion to our young men,” Charlotte director of athletics Mike Hill said. “His decision to step down from Charlotte was a difficult one for him and everyone associated with our program. We wish him and his family every happiness.”

Hill said the team has already begun a national search for a replacement.

“This is a bittersweet day for me and my family as I step down to pursue other opportunities,” said Sanchez, who came the 49ers after working as an assistant coach at Virginia under Tony Bennett. “It has been a tremendous privilege to lead the 49ers basketball program over the past five years and I want to thank Niner Nation for its support. I will be forever grateful to my staff, players and the university.”

Marquette extends Shaka Smart’s contract through 2029-30 season

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MILWAUKEE — Marquette coach Shaka Smart has received a contract extension after leading the Golden Eagles to their first outright regular-season championship and tournament title in the Big East.

Smart’s contract now runs through the 2029-30 season. This is the first extension Smart has received since signing a six-year deal when he took over as Marquette’s coach in 2021.

Marquette didn’t release financial terms of Smart’s deal.

“In a very short period of time, Shaka and his staff have done a tremendous job of establishing a winning culture, both on and off the court,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. “Shaka’s vision for the program is focused on extended, sustainable success. The individuals who interact with the team on a daily basis are able to observe frequent examples of growth and the excitement around the program is contagious.”

Marquette has gone 48-20 in Smart’s two seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament each of those years.

The Golden Eagles went 29-7 and won the Big East’s regular-season and tournament championships last season after the league’s coaches had picked them to finish ninth out of 11 teams. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.


TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.


KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.