Monday, December 30, 2019

SEC Hoops

SEC Conference play starts on Saturday, with the Cats at home to face Missouri.  I like starting the conference portion of the schedule with Missouri, because I can just pretend that it's still a non-conference game.  But anyway, it's time to check in on the league and see how it's doing (numbers reflect current Ken Pom rankings):

14.  Kentucky:  9-3.  The Cats are actually one of the most difficult teams in the country to analyze.  They have played three powerhouses:  Michigan State, Ohio State, and Louisville.  They beat MSU and U of L, and they gave OSU a close game.  But they have terrible losses against Evansville and Utah, neither of whom is in Ken Pom's top 100.  They have also made only 29.3 percent of their three-point shots this year.  And they are ranked #292 in what Ken Pom calls "luck" -- meaning that their record is significantly worse than their record indicates.  (In other words, if they had pulled out those games against Evansville and Utah, they would now be 11-1, but they wouldn't actually be a better team.)  Against Louisville, the Cats went 7-15 on three's, and they were lucky in a very close game as U of L made only 9-20 free throws.  If the Cats' three-point shooting, and their luck, continues to improve, they could be dangerous after all.

15.  Auburn:  12-0.  This column has always had great respect for Bruce Pearl's coaching ability, and he has put together another good team down on the Plains.  The Tigers haven't really played anyone -- their best victory is a 79-73 home win over North Carolina State -- but I think it's safe to assume that they will be very dangerous all year.  Kentucky has to play them twice.

24.  Florida:  8-4.  This team looks almost exactly like last year's Florida team -- it's in for a season of slow, grinding defensive contests with scores that will mostly be in the 60's.  I find this type of basketball almost unwatchable, so I probably won't see much of Florida this year.  Kentucky has to play them twice, and the Cats will end their season in Gainesville this year.  That's almost always a disaster for UK.  Here are the last few year-end match-ups in Florida for the Cats:

03/03/2018:  Florida 80 - 67 Kentucky
03/08/2014:  Florida 84 - 65 Kentucky
03/04/2012:  Florida 59 - 74 Kentucky
03/07/2009:  Florida 60 - 53 Kentucky (Gillespie's last regular season game)
03/04/2007:  Florida 85 - 72 Kentucky (Tubby's last regular season game)
03/06/2005:  Florida 53 - 52 Kentucky

So unless we get Anthony Davis back, I would be extremely skeptical about our chances in Gainesville this year.

32.  Arkansas:  11-1.  I believed in the Mike Anderson hire, and I wasn't surprised when he took Arkansas from nowhere in 2012 to the second round of the NCAA's in 2015.  But he stalled after that, and the Razorbacks were unable to break into the top rung of the SEC.  Now they have Eric Musselman, who did very well at Nevada, and he has Arkansas looking sharp.  Their only loss was at Western Kentucky in overtime, and almost anything can happen down there.  They just beat Indiana 71-64 in Bloomington, and I expect them to be very tough when the Cats go to Fayetteville on January 18.

37.  Louisiana St:  8-4.  LSU went 16-2 in the SEC last year, and their victory in Rupp Arena probably cost UK a number-one seed.  That team imploded at the end of the year due to allegations of scandal surrounding their coach, Will Wade.  But Wade somehow survived, and the Tigers are looking like they will return to the NCAA's.  This will be a brutal game for UK when the Cats go down there on February 18.

48.  Tennessee:  8-4.  Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone are all gone from last year's Vol team, and I won't miss any of them.  So far, the Vols have looked pretty shaky -- they were just hammered 68-48 at home by Wisconsin on Saturday.  But they have beaten UK four years in a row down in Knoxville, and (of course) the Cats have to play them twice.  For some of us, these games will be significantly more meaningful than the annual grudge match against Louisville.  It's hard to overstate how unfortunate UK has been in its conference schedule.  The five best teams in the SEC -- other than UK -- are Auburn, Florida, Arkansas, LSU, and Tennessee.  The Cats will play all five of these teams on the road, and will also play Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee at home.  So these teams account for eight of UK's 18 conference games.

53.  Missouri:  7-4.  There are three current or present Tennessee coaches in the SEC.  Two of them, of course, are Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes.  But don't forget Cuonzo Martin, who almost took UT to the Elite Eight in 2014 and who has now brought his brutal defense to Missouri.  Last year, the Tigers weren't very good -- but they managed to injure Reid Travis and create a problem from which UK never fully recovered.  This year, they have the number 21 defense in the country and they will turn UK's conference opener into a physical slugfest.

57.  Alabama:  7-5.  I believed in Alabama's last two hires -- Anthony Grant and Avery Johnson.  but neither of them could find enough offense to turn the Tide into a serious contender.  Now it's up to Nate Oats, who did a terrific job at Buffalo.  Oats likes to play up-tempo, which will make for a nice contrast with the boring teams Alabama has fielded in the past.  The Cats will host Alabama on January 11.

62.  Mississippi St:  8-3.  Ben Howland took over a complete train wreck in Starkville, and it took him only four years to get MSU a 5-seed in last year's tournament.  But Howland is re-building this year.  The Cats will play MSU at home on February 4.

79.  Mississippi:  9-3.  Kermit Davis, Jr. came to Ole Miss after 16 very successful years at MTSU, and last year he surprised everyone with a 20-13 record and a trip to the NCAA's in his first season.  He's a great coach, and it won't surprise me if the Rebels do better than their current ranking would indicate.  Trips to Oxford are often unpleasant for the Cats, and their game at Ole Miss on February 15 will likely be full of stress.

83.  Georgia:  8-3.  Tom Crean has had a very strange career.  For nine years, he was at Marquette, where he delivered five tournament appearances, one Final Four, and two NCAA wins over Kentucky.  Then he went to Indiana for nine more seasons.  These years included four tournament appearances, three trips to the Sweet 16, and a 1-1 record against UK in the Big Dance.  For awhile he could do no wrong in Hoosier-land, and I thought he would be there forever.  But IU missed the tournament in 2017 and the Hoosiers decided to go in a different direction.  So Crean went to Georgia, where he took over a team that Mark Fox had built around slow play and solid defense.  Crean likes to play fast and likes to score.  Last year, he and his team were not a good mix, and the Bulldogs went 2-16 in the SEC.  But he will win and he will give UK headaches.  He gets two games against the Cats this year, and the one in Athens (on January 7) will be very annoying.

103.  South Carolina:  8-5.  I don't know what's up with Frank Martin.  The Gamecocks improved in every year from the time he arrived in 2013 until they went to the Final Four (!) in 2017.  But they missed the tournament in 2018 and 2019, and they're off to a poor start this year.  On the other hand, they went to Virginia on December 22 and beat the National Champions 70 to 59, so UK's trip down there on January 15 could be dangerous.

140.  Vanderbilt:  7-4.  For 17 years, from 2000 to 2016, Vandy was one of the most stable programs in the country.  Kevin Stallings took Vandy to the NCAA's on seven occasions from 2004 to 2016, and while they almost always lost in a painful upset, you thought that both the coach and the school were satisfied with this relationship.  Then Stallings left for Pittsburgh, where he quickly destroyed the program.  In 2018, he went 0-18 in conference play, and he hasn't coached since.  Meanwhile, the Dores hired Bryce Drew -- who quickly destroyed their program.  Last year, Vandy went 0-18 in conference play with what was almost certainly the worst team in Vandy history.  Who would have thought that Vandy and Stallings were so good for each other, or that things would go so badly once they split up?  Anyway, Vandy made a splash by hiring UNC legend Jerry Stackhouse to reboot the program.  The nice thing about hiring a UNC guy is that you know the type of system you're going to get, and sure enough Vandy is playing at its fastest tempo since 2010.  That will get some attention in Nashville, but the Dores probably need more time to rebuild the talent cupboard.  In the meantime, they will get their usual two games with the Cats -- UK's trip to Memorial Gymnasium is set for January 29.

154.  Texas A&M:  5-5.  I thought Billy Kennedy did a good job in College Station.  He took the Aggies to the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2018, and gave UK fits almost every time he played them.  But the Aggies went 6-12 in SEC play last year, and the Powers That Be in Aggieland wanted a bigger name.  They got one in Buzz Williams -- the guy who replaced Tom Crean at Marquette back in 2009.  Williams took Marquette to the Sweet 16 in 2011 and 2012, before reaching the Elite Eight in 2013.  Two years later, he left for Virginia Tech.  It took him awhile, but last year he took the Hokies to the Sweet 16.  Then he decamped for College Station.  He will undoubtedly succeed down there -- he's too good a coach not to.  But it may take awhile.  So far his guys are struggling to score -- they rank number 270 (!) in offensive efficiency.  The Cats will visit College Station on February 25, and both UK and A&M will likely be very different than they are now.

On paper, this does not appear to be a very impressive list of teams.  And I don't expect a repeat of last year, when four SEC teams made the Sweet 16 and UK battled Auburn for a trip to the Final Four.  But I think the SEC schools have spent their money well, and the league now has one of the strongest collections of coaches that I can remember.  This year will feature a lot of intense, physical play -- and as these coaches bring in more talent, the league will improve.

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't realized that Anthony Grant -- who left Alabama after the 2015 season -- has been the coach at Dayton since 2018. In 2018, Dayton went 14-17 and was ranked 172 by Ken Pomeroy. Last year, Dayton went 21-12 and was ranked 62 -- losing in the first round of the NIT. So far this year Dayton is 11-2 and is ranked NINTH by Ken Pomeroy. So my faith in Anthony Grant may be justified after all.