SEC Preview: Kentucky’s favored, but watch for Vandy, Texas A&M

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

As has been the case for much of the recent past, the SEC shakes out like this: Kentucky, and then everyone else. Part of that is a result of just how good the Wildcats are and have been. Part of that is due to the fact that the SEC is a football league with the hoops side of things playing catchup. And while the gap is closing, it may be a few years before the impact is truly apparent.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is loaded again … obviously: It’s standard at this point. This group is likely not going to be making a run at 40-0 like last year’s group, but they will be making a run at a national title. Skal Labissiere will be the nation’s best big man. Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe will make up the nation’s best back court. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress will get their shot, finally.

2. But they may not have the best freshman in the league: That title could end up going to LSU’s Ben Simmons, who, along with Skal, is a favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Tigers are loaded with talent this year. Along with Simmons, they bring in McDonald’s All-American Antonio Blakeney, top 40 recruit Brandon Sampson and Arizona transfer Craig Victor. Throw in returnees like Tim Quarterman, Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, and LSU, on paper, is a top 15 team. But head coach Johnny Jones has underachieved with talented rosters before. Is this the year they break through?

3. Vanderbilt will be the second-best team in the conference: It’s tough to call them a sleeper at this point because they’re getting plenty of pub, but the Commodores are the odds-on pick to finish second in the conference behind the Wildcats. They’re anchored by Damian James, who may be the most under-appreciated player in college basketball. The 6-foot-10 junior is a legitimate All-American candidate. Throw in talented sophomores Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance, and another promising recruiting class, and head coach Kevin Stallings has more than enough pieces to put together something special in Nashville. Vandy won eight of their last ten regular season games last year after starting SEC play 1-7.

4. Coaching turnover: There has been an impressive influx of coaching talent into the SEC this year, although the league did lose arguably the best coach in the sport.

  • Billy Donovan left for Oklahoma City, leaving Florida in an interesting spot with new coach Mike White. More on them in a minute.
  • Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland took over for Rick Ray at Mississippi State and immediately reeled in Malik Newman, a top ten freshman in the class.
  • Donnie Tyndall was fired due to the scandal he was involved in at Southern Miss, but Tennessee went out and picked up former Texas coach Rick Barnes.
  • Alabama missed on Gregg Marshall but they did land Avery Johnson.
  • And don’t forget, in his second season at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has things rolling on the recruiting trail

5. Keep an eye on Texas A&M, too: Billy Kennedy is not a new hire by any stretch of the imagination, but his new assistant coach — Rick Stansbury — is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail. The Aggies have a loaded recruiting class, one that is going to be afforded the luxury of a year’s worth of seasoning as veterans Danuel House, Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Alex Robinson lead the way this year. This is a group that can reach the Sweet 16.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Kentucky. For sure. One pro leaves, and any pro comes in. Skal is as good as anyone they’ve had and Jamal Murray can play either guard spot, but Tyler Ulis will make them go. He can lead, and he’s perfect in his role with those other guys around them.
  • Sleeper:
    • “Mississippi State is under the radar, with Malik Newman and Ben Howland coming in. But they’re starting to get attention, so I’ll go with South Carolina. They have a lot returning. Their ability to shoot is always a question, but [freshman P.J.]Dozier can really open things up.”
    • “Georgia. They’ve got really good guards and seemingly no one is talking about them.”
  • Best player: “Skal or Ben Simmons. Simmons versatility and his passing ability — he can use both hands as well as anyone — sets him apart.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “[Mississippi State’s Craig] Sword on the wing. He’s as athletic as can be. His shooting can be streaky at times, he’s kind of hit and miss, but he will be better this year. He’s a really good fit in their system. Also, [Vandy’s Luke] Hornet has grown. He can really shoot it from deep, and with Damian Jones focal point, Luke’s ability to stretch the court will be key.”
    • “Stefan Moody. Dude is the SEC’s leading returning scorer and can’t even make a preseason watch list.”

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

I’m still of the belief that Labissiere is the best player on Kentucky and, feasibly, the most talented player in the entire country. He’s a seven-footer with a back-to-the-basket game, perimeter skills and a soft jumper and that shows up when he squares up opponents. The Anthony Davis comparisons are going to flow because the they’re both No. 1 recruits and centers at Kentucky with similar body-types, but Labissiere is much more skilled offensively and much less dominant defensively. Think LaMarcus Aldridge.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Newman is a high-volume scorer that can drop 25 in a half without breaking a sweat. He’ll be playing on a team where he’s going to be asked to take a lot of shots. His efficiency numbers likely won’t be great, but he’s going to score a lot.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: For my money, Jones is the single-most underrated player in college basketball this season. He may be the best big man in the country this side of Labissiere.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not sold on Murray being a future NBA star, but based on his performance at the Pan-Am Games this summer, I think he’ll end up being a very good combo-guard in college.
  • Ben Simmons, LSU: Casual fans are going to love watching Simmons play. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward that is so talented. He’d be the National Player of the Year if he was in a different program.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
  • Tim Quarterman, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt

BREAKOUT STAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt was an intriguing pick here, but I’m going with Maten. The 6-foot-8, 240 pound big man was somewhat buried on Georgia’s bench as a freshman last season, averaging just 18.2 minutes while watching Marcus Thornton and Nikola Djurisic. But while his playing time was limited, Maten did manage to average 5.0 points, 4.3 boards and 1.4 blocks. He’ll now step into a starting role in Georgia’s front court.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson, Missouri

This is just Anderson’s second season in Columbia, but things have not gone well for him. The Tigers went 9-23 last season, finished just 3-15 in the SEC and lost their top two players — freshman Teki Gill-Cesear and sophomore Johnathan Williams III — to transfer. Does Anderson have what it takes to turn the program around? If the Tigers don’t show signs of improvement this season, he may not get a chance.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Kentucky isn’t the only team from the SEC eyeing a run to the Final Four. Ain’t that right, Vanderbilt?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching those freshmen play. Skal Labissiere — assuming he eventually gets eligible — and Ben Simmons could end up going Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2016 NBA Draft, while Jamal Murray and Malik Newman won’t be all that far behind.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • 12/6, Vanderbilt vs. Baylor
  • 1/30, Kentucky at Kansas
  • 1/30, LSU vs. Oklahoma
  • 1/30, Iowa State vs. Texas A&M

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @kyletucker_cj

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats have a very strong argument to be the No. 1 team in the entire country heading into the season. Of course they’re going to be No. 1 in the SEC power rankings.
2. Vanderbilt: It’s hard not to love what Kevin Stallings brings back this season. One of the best X’s-and-O’s coaches in the sport has one of the nation’s best big men at his disposal and surrounds him with a myriad of talented shooters and scorers on the perimeter. I think this is a Sweet 16 team.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies are in a great spot this year. Not only are they built for the future thanks to Billy Kennedy’s recruiting class, but they have enough veteran talent on their roster that they can make a run in an SEC that isn’t overly strong at the top. Daneul House and Alex Caruso get slept-on nationally.
4. LSU: From a talent perspective, LSU is second only to Kentucky in this league. But talent hasn’t kept Johnny Jones from underachieving before, so until this group proves that they can compete for an SEC title, I’ll expect them to be a borderline top 25 team that won’t feel comfortable about their NCAA tournament prospects until March.
5. Georgia: Georgia returns their veteran back court but graduates key pieces in their front court. The key to their season could end up being the development of YantTagse Maten. If he turns into an all-SEC caliber player, they should end up being a tournament team.
6. Florida: The Gators are one of the most interesting teams in college hoops this season. They lost Billy Donovan to the NBA after a disappointing year, but they also return plenty of elite talent from a team that was far more competitive than their record shows; no one in the country suffered more heart-breaking losses than the Gators last season, as it felt like they kept inventing new ways to lose basketball games. There’s talent, depth and athleticism on their perimeter (Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, KeVaughn Allen, Brandone Francis) and South Florida transfer John Egbunu will sneak up on some people on the interior. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike White led this group to a top four finish in the league. I can also see them heading to the NIT.
7. Auburn: I think Bruce Pearl is still a year or two away from really making Auburn competitive in the conference. That said, to me, Pearl’s presence on the sideline makes the Tigers two or three games better in league play.
8. Ole Miss: Stefan Moody is back for the Rebels this season, but they lose a ton of talent off of last year’s tournament team. Moody will put up some big numbers, but the Rebels would do well to finish in the top half of the conference this season.
9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have some sleeper potential this season. They return five of their top six players and add top 30 recruit P.J. Dozier to the mix. But will Dozier be the difference between finishing 6-12 last season and reaching the top half of the league this season?
10. Mississippi State: Ben Howland is a terrific coach and he has a dynamic lead guard in Malik Newman, but it’s going to take more than one year and one player to turn things around in Starkville.
11. Arkansas: Mike Anderson lost the underrated Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA and had three players get arrested for using counterfeit bills. It was a rough offseason in Fayetteville.
12. Tennessee: Rick Barnes takes over for Donnie Tyndall in Knoxville. The Vols overachieved last season and lost their best player, Josh Richardson, to graduation. Barnes will build Tennessee back up, but it will take a few years.
13. Alabama: Avery Johnson did a great job landing Terrence Ferguson, a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2016, but he really could use Ferguson this season.
14. Missouri: The Tigers went 9-23 in Kim Anderson’s first season and then proceeded to lose their two best players to transfer during the offseason. It’s going to be a long year in Columbia.

Clark, Gardner lift No. 3 Virginia past James Madison, 55-50

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Kihei Clark scored 18 points, Jayden Gardner had 14 points and eight rebounds, and No. 3 Virginia beat feisty in-state rival James Madison 55-50 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (8-0), who lost starting guard Reece Beekman to a right leg injury early in the first half, prevented the Dukes (7-3) from winning a second straight December game in Charlottesville. James Madison beat Virginia 52-49 last Dec. 7.

Clark had seven assists while playing nearly 39 minutes with Beekman sidelined.

“Kihei gave everything he had and I had to, you know, ride him,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Sure, he missed some free throws. And I know he made some mistakes, but you could just see him, you know, how tough-minded he was.”

Dukes coach Mark Byington said he told Clark – who’s playing his fifth season for Virginia – after last year’s game that he loved watching him play.

“He’s seen everything and nothing you’re going to do is going to surprise him,” Byington said. “There’s nothing Kihei Clark hasn’t seen out there, and he’s poised. I mean, you can’t rattle him. … So I told him this time I was like, `Look, I better never see you in college basketball again.’ But he’s one of my favorite players to watch just because he’s tough, talented, and he’s a winner.”

Takal Molson scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half for James Madison, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 42-all with 7:47 to play. Gardner responded for Virginia by scoring five straight points in a 9-1 run.

The Cavaliers kept the Dukes in the game by missing eight of 13 free throws over the last six minutes.

Molson made an acrobatic layup while being fouled with 1:51 left, but he missed the free throw. He scored again with 1:01 left, pulling the Dukes within 52-50, but freshman Ryan Dunn answered with a strong move on the baseline for Virginia with 35 seconds to play.

James Madison threw the ball away on its ensuing possession.

BIG PICTURE

James Madison: The Dukes came into the game leading the nation in scoring (93.3 points per game) and having scored as many as 95 points five times. They were shooting 52.7% for the year, but made just four of their first 19 shots and finished 15 of 55 (26.9%). Vado Morse scored 11 points, the only other JMU player in double figures.

“Yeah, we knew how good they were and they showed it in spots tonight,” Gardner said. “But I think you saw a lot of resiliency tonight on the defensive end getting crucial stops.”

Virginia: The Cavaliers played the final 36 minutes without Beekman and gave extensive minutes to freshman Isaac McKneely. Virginia will hope Beekman, its third-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler and defender, recovers in time for its showdown with No. 1 Houston on Dec. 17.

UP NEXT

The Dukes return home to play Gallaudet on Saturday night.

Virginia has a 10-day break before hosting the top-ranked Cougars.

No. 25 Villanova women beat American University 83-42

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Maddy Siegrist had 24 points and seven rebounds, Lucy Olsen added 14 points and No. 25 Villanova beat American University 83-42 on Tuesday night.

Siegrist scored 15 points in the opening 13 minutes as Villanova led 34-15. The Wildcats extended it to 46-23 by halftime before starting the second half on a 9-0 run for a 32-point lead.

Villanova added an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter for its largest lead of the game at 79-36. The Wildcats held American to 15-of-50 shooting (30%) and scored 21 points off 19 turnovers.

Christina Dalce scored 13 points for Villanova (8-2), which plays Saint Joseph’s on Saturday before taking a week off for final exams. Siegrist, who was coming off a 29-point performance on Sunday, made 10 of 17 shots as Villanova shot 56%.

Emily Johns scored 12 points for American (0-8), which hosts Marist (3-5) on Saturday.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.

New Mexico State suspends player after shooting

Nathan J. Fish/Sun News/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — New Mexico State’s athletic director says power forward Mike Peake has been suspended indefinitely from the basketball team in connection with last month’s fatal shooting of a student from a rival university.

Mario Moccia also told reporters that neither he nor the school could comment on Peake’s enrollment status as a student. The 21-year-old Peake has not been charged in the Nov. 19 pre-dawn shooting on the University of New Mexico’s campus in Albuquerque hours before the host Lobos were to play the Aggies. That game was canceled along with the Dec. 3 rematch in Las Cruces.

“Mike is suspended from our basketball team until the completion of the university’s investigation and the investigation of the proper authorities,” Moccia said. “When those investigations will be complete, I can’t say.”

State police investigators said 19-year-old Brandon Travis conspired with two other UNM students and a teenage girl to lure Peake onto campus.

The subsequent shootout left Travis dead at the scene and Peake hospitalized with a leg wound that has required several surgeries.

A brawl at an Oct. 15 UNM-NMSU football game in Las Cruces was a precursor to the shooting, police said.

First-year NMSU men’s basketball coach Greg Heiar was not made available to talk to media until 10 days after the shooting.

He expressed his condolences for Travis and his family and said he took full responsibility for the actions of multiple players who sneaked out of the hotel on that morning of the game.

But until Monday, NMSU officials had not spoken publicly about any specific discipline for Peake related to the shooting.

“If there is criticism over this decision, I am in a position to take it on myself,” Moccia said. “I’ve known this player for years and I know what kind of person he is. I didn’t feel a need to rush to judgment. I wanted to give the investigation time to play out before making any decisions.”

Peake, a 6-foot-7 junior from Chicago, played one season at Georgia before transferring to Austin Peay. He joined New Mexico State in 2021 and averaged 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds last season, helping the Aggies reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

No. 18 Gonzaga withstands scare from Kent State for 73-66 win

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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SPOKANE, Wash. – Drew Timme scored 29 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, and No. 18 Gonzaga closed the game on an 11-0 run to rally past Kent State 73-66 on Monday night.

The nation’s longest home win streak was extended to 69 games but not without a major scare by the Golden Flashes. Kent State led 66-62 with 3:38 left after Miryne Thomas’ 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs tightened on the defensive end and got a handful of big plays offensively to hold off the Flashes.

Julian Strawther added 14 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:19 left that started Gonzaga’s decisive run. Timme’s spinning basket in the lane with 2:29 left gave Gonzaga (6-3) the lead, and he added a key defensive play blocking Sincere Carry’s layup attempt at the other end.

Timme was fouled and split free throws with 1:55 left, but Malachi Smith grabbed the offensive rebound and his three-point play gave the Bulldogs a 71-66 lead. It was Smith’s first basket of the game.

“(Timme) was heroic. He wasn’t really looking for the ball much early and wasn’t demanding it . he was splitting the defense and scoring in a variety of ways like he does,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “To end up with 17 boards is monster and we needed every one of them.”

Nolan Hickman added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs, who held a 43-30 advantage on the boards. It was just the second home game inside the McCarthey Athletic Center for Gonzaga and first since Nov. 7 against North Florida.

Thomas led Kent State (6-3) with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Malique Jacobs added 11 points and Carry, who was averaging 18.5 points per game, was held to 10.

“I think in the second half we moved the ball well, we got some turnovers, got some easy shots and was able to give us a lead playing a great team and great program. . Unfortunately we couldn’t finish it off. Give them a lot of credit for that,” Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff said.

Kent State nearly pulled off a surprising upset on the road for the second time in two weeks but couldn’t withstand Gonzaga’s late surge. Kent State led No. 1 Houston by one-point with less than a minute to go nine days ago in Houston but couldn’t make the plays in the closing seconds to finish off the upset in a 49-44 loss.

“Coach Few has told us all week that this is a great team that could go to the Sweet 16. . We knew what they were capable of and we weren’t taking them lightly and we knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Strawther said.

JERSEY RETIRED

Kelly Olynyk’s No. 13 jersey number was retired in front of a sellout crowd. Olynyk played for Gonzaga from 2009-13 and led the Bulldogs to its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while earning first team AP All-American status as a senior.

“You’re almost speechless,” Olynyk said. “It’s just such an honor, especially with the names that you’re up beside. They’re unbelievable players.”

BIG PICTURE

Kent State: The Golden Flashes lost their third game of the season and their second against a ranked opponent. Kent State has three non-conference games left before beginning Mid-American Conference play at home against Western Michigan.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs bounced back from a one-point loss to No. 12 Baylor last week with the win. All three of Gonzaga’s losses are to teams ranked in the top 12 of the AP Top 25.

UP NEXT:

Kent State: At Cleveland State on Saturday.

Gonzaga: Host in-state rival Washington on Friday.