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SEC Reset: Has Tennessee usurped Kentucky as favorites?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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 recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

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

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year now finds himself firmly in the National Player of the Year discussion after a stellar start. Williams is averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on the season as he’s improved nearly every facet of his game.

While the 6-foot-7 junior was mostly an interior force last season, he’s improved his range to become a decent perimeter shooter (41 percent from three on a small sample size). Passing has also been a revelation for Williams, as he’s made the Vols’ offense a lot better with his ability to create for teammates.

Zion Williamson still finds himself as the current NPOY favorite, but Williams is doing everything he can to close the gap.

THE ALL SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Grant Williams, Tennessee
  • Admiral Schofield, Tennessee: Schofield has been nearly just as good as Williams in a dominant Tennessee frontcourt. Putting up 18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, Schofield is a matchup nightmare who can make plays all over the floor.
  • Daniel Gafford, Arkansas: The sophomore big man has become a force on the interior. The NBA Draft prospect is averaging 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 66 percent shooting.
  • Keldon Johnson, Kentucky: On a loaded Kentucky team, Johnson has emerged as the team’s best player as he’s now considered as a potential lottery pick. The freshman guard is averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent three-point range.
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State: The senior leader of a dangerous Mississippi State team, Weatherspoon has helped the Bulldogs to a strong start. Weatherspoon is averaging 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, LSU
  • NIT: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama, Missouri
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. The SEC race is wide open

Not that this should come as any sort of surprise, but the SEC race is wide open at this point in the season. Defending co-regular season champions Auburn and Tennessee have returned to top-15 form from last season. Kentucky is starting to figure things out while looking like the potential juggernaut many believed they could be.

Mississippi State, LSU and Florida also have the look of very dangerous teams who could be sleepers in the SEC race. And the second tier of the SEC (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, and Missouri) are all off to decent starts.

Besides for Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina, seemingly every team is a threat in the league this year.

2. Auburn and Tennessee both have teams capable of repeating as SEC champions

Defending co-SEC champions Auburn and Tennessee have lived up to lofty preseason expectations so far as both teams find themselves ranked in the top 15 in the country.

The Vols and Tigers both sport top 35 offenses and defenses on KenPom and both have passed the all-important eye-test by playing well against elite teams. Tennessee has knocked off Gonzaga while hanging tough with Kansas while Auburn fought hard against Duke and knocked off teams they were supposed to beat like Washington, Xavier and Arizona.

Both veteran teams look like they’re well-positioned to be near the top of the SEC standings once again this season thanks to veteran teams that have won plenty of games.

3. Kentucky is starting to figure things out

After the opening night dominance of Duke over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, there were some serious questions about the Wildcats. More questions returned once Kentucky suffered a surprising loss to Seton Hall.

Over the last several weeks, the Wildcats have answered many of those concerns with notable results.

Kentucky is starting to figure out its rotation while also clamping down more on defense. The transfer of point guard Quade Green helped alleviate some perimeter logjams that have enabled sparkplugs like Ashton Hagans to come in and earn more minutes. That’s provided more stability for Kentucky overall while enhancing their perimeter defense quite a bit. Kentucky also has the luxury of having multiple guys who can take over a game as we’ve seen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have big recent outings against quality competition. The frontcourt play of Reid Travis and P.J. Washington remains solid as well.

Kentucky still has to get by Auburn and Tennessee to be the SEC’s premier team, but they’re in as good of a position as they could have hoped for given how embarrassing the season started.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Can Auburn and Tennessee reintroduce key pieces into the rotation?

For as good as Auburn and Tennessee have been this season, both programs are still trying to reintroduce double-figure scorers back into their rotations.

Auburn finally gets forward Danjel Purifoy back into the lineup after his suspension for his alleged involvement in the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal. The Tigers don’t need Purifoy to be great, but if he’s able to provide another lift in the frontcourt, then it adds another scary element to Auburn’s rotation.

Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner has also been sidelined most of this season as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year might be the Vols’ most important perimeter scorer as he would help the backcourt of Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden immensely by adding another playmaker.

It’s not a guarantee that either of these guys make a huge impact. Purifoy hasn’t played for a season and a half and Turner is clearly having issues with a surgically-repaired shoulder that has given him trouble before. But if either of these guys can regain previous form then it makes these two teams even more of a threat for the rest of the season.

2. Do any middle tier teams separate themselves from the pack and make the NCAA tournament?

At the start of 2019 the SEC had five teams ranked in the top 20 on KenPom with a sixth team, LSU, coming in at No. 40. Barring an extremely bad conference season, those teams should all be aiming to make the NCAA tournament.

It’s the second tier of SEC teams that will be intriguing to follow.

Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top 75 on KenPom after positive starts to the season. None of those teams are currently guaranteed NCAA tournament entry based on current standing. But all of them are going to have ample opportunities to earn huge wins since so many SEC teams are ranked and sitting in Quadrant 1 territory.

Last season saw the SEC create a basketball resurgence with eight NCAA tournament bids. Some work still needs to be done, but with the Pac-12 as down as it is, there is ample opportunity for the SEC to make another major push for the same number of NCAA tournament bids.

3. Can Mississippi State push the SEC’s elite?

Among the SEC’s four ranked teams, Mississippi State is by far the most unproven of the bunch.

Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee are all coming off of NCAA tournament appearances with deep and talented rosters. And although the Bulldogs have earned some notable non-conference wins over teams like Cincinnati and Clemson, they haven’t competed against elite national competition like the other top SEC teams.

Since the Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2009, they’ll need to earn the trust of everybody by proving themselves against top-flight teams. After years of building, it finally looks like Ben Howland has a veteran team who can take him back to the NCAA tournament. Quinndary Weatherspoon leads a team with five double-figure scorers. The Bulldogs have depth at multiple spots. Aric Holman has been tremendous in spurts. Mississippi State has a top-45 offense and defense. If this program is ever going to make a run for the top of the SEC, this is the time to do it.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The SEC gets seven teams in the NCAA tournament (and has a more successful March)

Last year was a banner year for the SEC when they had eight of its membership make the Big Dance. Although the SEC top-to-bottom doesn’t appear to be as strong as last season, it’s looking like the SEC should still have plenty of numbers in March. And more teams should also be poised for a deeper run.

The key will be if the middle-tier teams can pick off the ranked teams during conference play as happened last season. If the top SEC contenders run away with the league, and only lose to each other, then it significantly hurts the SEC’s chances for overall quality wins. But if the league is a bloodbath like last year, with no team clearly separating from the pack, then we should see plenty of SEC teams back in the field.

Either way, the SEC should fare better than only one Sweet 16 team from last season. Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee are all in potential position to earn great seeds and make runs and there are plenty of dangerous second-tier teams who could get hot at the right time.

2. Tennessee captures the SEC title

The SEC race is going to be a close one given how talented the league is at the top. But Tennessee has the difference of having arguably the two best players in the conference in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

The key for Tennessee could come down to guard play. Jordan Bone has been better than last season but he’s still struggling to shoot from the perimeter. Jordan Bowden has actually been slightly worse than last year — particularly shooting the ball from deep. And the SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner, has only played in three games this season as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery.

As long as Williams and Schofield keep playing at this level, and Tennessee’s perimeter attack can make some timely plays and shots, then the Vols should be in position to claim another SEC regular season title.

3. Florida makes a big push after a strange start

One of this season’s most perplexing teams has been the Florida Gators. Sitting at 8-4 with tremendous computer numbers thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule, it’s tough to get a read on Florida at this point in the season.

We know that Florida is one of best defensive teams in the country. The Gators turn you over and throw waves of bodies at you thanks to their depth and athleticism. It’s offense that’s the issue. Florida doesn’t have a go-to scorer and nobody on the roster seems like a natural takeover guy.

There are currently an astounding eight players averaging between 10.3 points and 6.6 points per game on this roster right now. If a veteran guard like KeVaughn Allen or Jalen Hudson starts to figure things out as a scorer, then Florida should elevate to another level.

Both Allen and Hudson have averaged at least 14.0 points per game over a full college season before, so it’s certainly possible. I believe that Florida gets one of those guys rolling and becomes a dangerous team heading into March.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.