HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — No. 25 Cincinnati had plummeted to the fringe of the rankings and needed a confidence boost. The Bearcats got it against a previously unbeaten team.
Jacob Evans III had 24 points and eight rebounds as Cincinnati recovered from its back-to-back losses and handed Mississippi State its first defeat, 65-50 on Tuesday night.
The Bearcats (8-2) were coming off losses to crosstown rival Xavier and Florida that dropped them from No. 11. They ended the slump with a solid defensive showing against the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team, blocking 11 shots.
“We needed to get this win for us to build our confidence and get this thing back on track,” Evans said.
Mississippi State (8-1) was off to its best start since 2003-04. The Bulldogs struggled to make shots in their first game against a ranked team. They missed 10 straight in the first half and 14 in a row in the second as Cincinnati blew open a close game.
“I think we took a multitude of things away from them,” said Kyle Washington, who added 16 points. “We knew what we wanted to do on defense. We were locked in on how they played well as a team. We just wanted to take all of that away.”
Aric Holman matched his career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 30 percent from the field. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for Cincinnati’s defense.
“We lost the game tonight because of our inability to attack that zone,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were standing way too much, not enough ball movement, not enough cutting and getting the ball inside.”
Cincinnati has won 31 straight home games , the longest streak in the nation. The Bearcats are playing this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University while their on-campus arena is renovated. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs can’t get that breakthrough win against a ranked team. They have dropped 18 in a row against teams in the Top 25. Their last such win was 67-57 over Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ offense was stymied during the losses to Xavier and Florida. Cincinnati shot 41 percent from the field against Mississippi State but scored 22 points off 14 Bulldogs turnovers.
“This was a defensive victory, no question about it,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We’re still searching on offense a little bit at times.”
Mississippi State went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal in the first half, managing only one free throw, as Cincinnati took control. The Bulldogs’ 14 straight misses in the second half helped Cincinnati pull ahead by 19 points. The Bulldogs shot 45 percent or better in their eight wins, including four games at 50 percent or better.
It was the first road game for Mississippi State, which was picked to finish 12th in the SEC preseason poll. Howland figured it will help get the Bulldogs ready for conference play.
“Cincinnati is like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it’s very similar,” Howland said.
QUOTE OF THE GAME
Cronin on the back-to-back losses: “I was just concerned about the guys’ confidence level. It’s hard to shield them from the social media and the outside world. Young people live in that world, and I’m sure the sky was falling in that world because we lost a few games.”
Mississippi State plays at UT Martin on Saturday.
Cincinnati plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, a rematch against the team that knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA Tournament 79-67 in the second round last season.
SEC Preview: Kentucky’s favored, but watch for Vandy, Texas A&M
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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.
The college basketball coaching carousel was in full effect last spring, as 40 head coaching positions changed hands. Of those 40 jobs, 12 major high major programs will enter this season with a new man in charge while six more teams that would be classified as mid-major plus had turnover in leadership.
Here are the coaches in the best position to succeed immediately, and those that will likely need some time before they see the kind of success they’re used to:
COACHES BEST SET UP FOR IMMEDIATE SUCCESS
Steve Prohm, Iowa State: With Fred Hoiberg making the move to the NBA, someone was bound to land a job coaching a team with the talent needed to play deep into the NCAA tournament. Prohm was the pick for Iowa State after a successful run at Murray State, and with players such as Monte Morris, Georges Niang and Jameel McKay, his first season in Ames can be a special one.
Will Wade, VCU: Yes, Wade has some personnel losses to account as the former Shaka Smart assistant returns to VCU; most notably, Briante Weber and Treveon Graham have graduated. The cupboard isn’t bare either, however, as Melvin Johnson is back for his senior year, as are JeQuan Lewis and Mo-Alie Cox. Look for the Rams to once again be a factor in the Atlantic 10 race. (And yes, I know my opinion differs from some of my colleagues.)
Tim Duryea, Utah State: Duryea’s definitely familiar with the USU roster, as he served as the now-retired Stew Morrill’s assistant for 14 seasons. And he’s got a good roster to work with, with all five starters returning led by forwards Jalen Moore and David Collette. Utah State exceeded expectations by finishing fourth in the Mountain West a season ago; they’ll be expected to contend this time around and have the pieces to do just that.
Mike White, Florida: Like Prohm, White arrives at his new gig after experiencing a lot of success at his last stop. But unlike Prohm he’s taking over for a coach in Billy Donovan took Florida’s program to heights never before reached in the history of the program. There’s some talent to work with, especially if he can get Kasey Hill going, and White also managed to hold onto most of Florida’s 2015 recruiting class.
Ben Howland, Mississippi State: While Howland’s resume surpasses that of any other coach on this list, and he’ll have Malik Newman at his disposal, that doesn’t overtake the fact that there’s a lot to be done with a program that struggled mightily in the three seasons prior. Howland put together a good recruiting class led by Newman, but if there’s a concern it’s the health of his front court (that wasn’t all too deep to begin with).
Matt McCall, Chattanooga: McCall’s first head coaching gig at the Division I level has the potential to be a very successful one, thanks to the talent due back on campus. Four starters, including guard Casey Jones and forward Justin Tuoyo, return from a team that won 22 games and finished 15-3 in SoCon play.
Eran Ganot, Hawai’i: Last season began with tumult for Hawai’i, but interim head coach Benjy Taylor was able to lead the Rainbow Warriors to 22 wins and a run to the Big West tournament final. Now former Saint Mary’s assistant Eran Ganot takes over an experienced group that returns three starters (seven who started at least two games) led by Big West Defensive Player of the Year Roderick Bobbitt.
Shaka Smart, Texas: A key question for some is how Smart’s pressure system will mesh with bigs who are best equipped to play in the half court. However the biggest issue in Smart’s first season at the helm in Austin is the strength of the Big 12, with perennial favorite Kansas leading what should be a deep race. There’s still talent, enough to make the tournament, but contending in the Big 12 may take a little time.
Rick Barnes, Tennessee: Barnes has relocated to Knoxville, where he’ll aim to rejuvenate a program that dealt with the Donnie Tyndall investigation (and ultimately, firing) for much of last season. Three starters return but the one true difference-maker, Josh Richardson, isn’t among those players. Add in a lack of size in the post, and this could be a difficult season for Barnes in an SEC that will be improved.
Avery Johnson, Alabama: Johnson and his staff have made some waves recruiting-wise, most notably reeling in Terrance Ferguson, and that certainly bodes well for the future. However, when it comes to this season he inherits a roster that lost its top three scorers from a season ago. That could prove difficult to overcome in a league that’s improved from last season.
Chris Mullin, St. John’s: To say that Mullin and his staff were left with a bare cupboard would be an understatement. Two of the remaining players (Chris Obekpa and Rysheed Jordan) didn’t exactly mesh with the new staff’s plans, so they moved on. The work done by Mullin and assistants Barry Rohrssen and Matt Abdelmassih to fill out the roster will help St. John’s in the long run, but this season could be a difficult one.
Brian Wardle, Bradley: Wardle’s move from Green Bay to Peoria, Illinois is a big one for a Bradley program that struggled in a big way under Geno Ford. Given Wardle’s accomplishments he’s got a good chance of turning things around. But it’s going to take some time to do so, especially with just one starter from last season’s nin win team back on campus. There was a lot of turnover on the roster, so the Braves will take their lumps as a result.
Bobby Hurley, Arizona State: Hurley put together two successful seasons at Buffalo before making the move west, and he inherits a roster doesn’t lack for experience. In a similar situation at Buffalo in 2013-14, he led the Bulls to 19 wins and had the MAC Player of the Year in Javon McCrea. The two issues this time around: while the Pac-12 may not have a dominant team as it did a season ago (Arizona) it is deeper, and the Sun Devils will have to navigate a tough non-conference slate as well.
Dave Leitao, DePaul: Since Leitao’s first run at DePaul came to an end in 2005, the Blue Demons have struggled mightily. Now he returns to the Windy City, and while there is some talent (Billy Garrett Jr. being one option) there’s a long way to go when it comes to making a move up the Big East standings and being a true factor in the conference.