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Good 'N Plenty: SEC has been underwhelming in early going

by | College Basketball Insider
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The Pac-12 took a beating the last couple of years. Now it's the SEC's turn. One coach has gone to the NCAA tournament 14 consecutive seasons, but that streak is in jeopardy right now. Minnesota is off to a 9-1 start, but we're still not buying the Gophers -- unless one player gets back closer to what he once was -- and Josh Pastner's move is quickly paying dividends.

Here's the latest edition of Good 'N Plenty:

SEC strength? So much for that

John Calipari was optimistic about the strength of the SEC following the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. In fact, Kentucky head coach -- at media day -- uttered the following:

"Think about what happens now. Now we start moving up a notch in where everybody is. I think, again, seven teams in our league, half of our league is going to be in the NCAA tournament. That's what I believe. And I think that will be from here on in."

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Seven? Half the league? Not a chance, John. Not this year. You'll be fortunate to get a handful at this rate.

The SEC has been downright pathetic thus far. We won't put the league in the realm of the Pac-12 the last few years, but it would be difficult to justify more than three or four teams for inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point in the season. Maybe that will change, but league resumes are often built in November and December -- and the SEC is running out of time. Florida is a lock, clearly the most deserving team in the league. The Gators haven't just beaten all comers, they have pounded them. Billy Donovan's team has crushed Wisconsin and Marquette at home, and drilled Florida State in Tallahassee on Wednesday night.

Florida is a Final Four contender for certain and the flagship program for the league this season. Missouri may have the most impressive single victory of any team in the league, a neutral-court win over Virginia Commonwealth in the Bahamas. However, the Tigers won't be getting senior guard Michael Dixon back -- and now look more like a Top 25 team rather than a Final Four contender without someone to help Phil Pressey. Mizzou's best win? Against a Stanford club that will likely wind up in the NIT. Then there's Kentucky. The most impressive win for the Wildcats, who have dropped out of the Top 25, came in the season opener against Maryland. Besides that, it's Morehead State at Rupp. Calipari's young group has lost to Duke (neutral), Notre Dame (road) and Baylor (home). Tennessee was chosen fourth in the preseason poll, but the Vols won't be able to win games scoring in the 30's -- which has been the case in the last two games, losses to Georgetown and Virginia. Cuonzo Martin's team is now 4-3 without a resume victory to date.

Arkansas and Alabama were also considered potential NCAA tournament teams, but the Crimson Tide have lost at Cincinnati and at home against Dayton in the past week. Anthony Grant's team beat Oregon State and Villanova in New York a couple weeks ago, but those are hardly resume wins. The Razorbacks are 4-3 with a loss to Arizona State and their signature win coming at home against a mediocre Oklahoma squad. Mississippi and LSU are both undefeated, but neither have played anyone of note yet. Well, that's not entirely accurate. Andy Kennedy's team beat Rutgers and the Tigers took care of Seton Hall. Last I checked those two Big East teams will be somewhere toward the bottom of their league. Texas A&M is 7-1 and Billy Kennedy's Aggies have gotten off to a nice start, but the lone loss came against Saint Louis -- and the wins haven't exactly been against high-caliber competition (i.e. Washington State, Houston, Louisiana Tech).

South Carolina is 5-3 under Frank Martin and has lost to Elon and Clemson at home. Georgia is 2-6 and has dropped games to Youngstown State and Southern Miss at home, Vanderbilt is 2-4 and has lost to Marist, Villanova, Davidson and Oregon. Auburn and Mississippi State are both terrible with the Tigers losing to Rhode Island, DePaul and Boston College and the Bulldogs at 3-5 and dropping one to Troy.

The SEC is a football league. Not that there was ever any doubt, but it's even easier to figure it out this year.

What happened to Texas?

If I didn't know better, I'd have thought Rick Barnes brought his junior varsity team to New York City. Maybe in a year or so, Barnes and the Longhorns will be nationally relevant once again. But it's highly unlikely it'll be this season.

Myck Kabongo will make a difference, but it won't be enough. Not with this Texas team.

Texas was atrocious on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic. The Longhorns didn't just look like a team missing its point guard; they looked like a team that was missing its entire starting unit. I'm not sure what's gone on in Austin over the last couple years, but the talent level just isn't what we're accustomed to seeing from Barnes and Texas. I'm used to seeing high-level athletes, big-time players. Guys like Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Tristan Thompson, T.J. Ford and plenty of other pros.

I understand that the Longhorns could have had Tristan Thompson and/or Cory Joseph, both of which left early, but these days you've got to prepare for early departures -- especially in a place like Austin.

Sheldon McClellan is a pretty good shooter, but he's not a guy who can carry this team. I know the Longhorns are still young, but there's no excuse for losing to Chaminade out in Maui, coming up short against a USC team that has been pitiful thus far this season and getting blown out by Georgetown. Texas is now 5-3 and the wins have come against Fresno State, Coppin State, Mississippi State, Sam Houston State and UT Arlington.

Kabongo, the team's starting point guard, will certainly help if and when he returns, but he won't solve Texas' issues. That's a laundry list right now and it starts with toughness. There's also a lack of leadership -- and that's an area that Kabongo, the speedy Canadian, will definitely help. But for now he remains in limbo as the NCAA continues to investigate whether he accepted impermissible benefits from agent Rich Paul (aka LeBron's Boy) while working out in Ohio this past summer.

This team likely isn't an NCAA tournament squad -- which would be the first time that a Barnes-led group in Austin hasn't gone dancing. That's right. Barnes has gone to the NCAA tournament in all 14 of his seasons at the helm, which is why he should be completely safe in terms of job security. He's well-liked, has a terrific relationship with athletic director DeLoss Dodds and most of all, basketball doesn't really matter all that much in Austin.

The Longhorns do have some decent young talent, but there are no lottery picks on this roster -- which is what we've become used to with this program over the past few years. Now the question becomes whether this team can grow and develop into a veteran team. Cameron Ridley, a highly regarded recruit, has been disappointing thus far. Javan Felix, filling in for Kabongo, isn't ready to handle the starting point guard duties. Honestly, there's just one player in a Texas uniform right now that looks like he can play. Really play. That's McClellan -- and he's limited.

Who thought that Barnes would miss J'Covan Brown and his poor leadership skills or Jordan Hamilton and his lack of defense? The Longhorns barely cracked the 40-point barrier against Georgetown at The Garden. The final was 64-41 and the game wasn't nearly as close as score indicated. Texas was never in the game and it's doubtful we'll see Barnes and the Longhorns dancing this season for the first time in his tenure.

Pastner flips switch in backcourt

It didn't take long for Josh Pastner to end the Joe Jackson Point Guard Experiment this season. Four games, in fact.

Pastner had seen enough of the local kid, the one who came into college widely regarded as The Savior for the Memphis Tigers, running the team. It had been downright disastrous down in the Bahamas, so he moved Chris Crawford to the point and told Jackson he'd be playing off the ball.

"I told him to score the ball, but also create for others," Pastner said.

Thus far, the move -- and the addition of talented guard Geron Johnson, has made a difference. The Tigers had little difficulty with a strong Ohio team on Wednesday night at the FedEX Forum. Jackson's numbers have been stellar over the past three games: Nearly 13 points per game with 16 assists and just five turnovers. Crawford is averaging 13 points, 7.3 rebounds and has a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"Joe's way more comfortable," Pastner said. "He's just playing free now."

It's not solely the Jackson-Crawford swap, though, that has Pastner and Memphis fans more relaxed. It's also the integration of talented, yet maligned guard Geron Johnson, who has averaged 17 points over the past two games. Johnson has had his share of legal troubles and will make his share of mistakes on the court as he adjusts, but one thing he does is play hard.

Pastner has also gone with highly touted freshman Shaq Goodwin in the starting lineup and Tarik Black is coming off the bench.

For now, it's working -- and as I said a week or so ago, it'll continue to work as long as the Tigers are in Conference USA.

Mbakwe's explosion

I feel for Trevor Mbakwe. I know some think I'm crazy, that Minnesota's sixth-year senior big man has made his own bed, one that features mistakes and red flags, but it's still hard to watch.

Mbakwe used to be one of the most feared and fearless forwards in the country. Now he's become, for the most part, just another player.

At the time he went down with a torn ACL in the seventh game of the season a year ago, the undersized power forward was averaging 14.7 points and 10 rebounds per contest. That was coming off a campaign in which he put up 13.9 points and 10.5 boards. Mbakwe was a legitimate early-entry candidate. He was relentless on the glass, ultra-athletic and played with a high-motor. A legitimate All-American candidate. Now he's become a below-the-rim guy -- and it's almost sad to watch.

I know he's still working his way back and maybe he'll get closer to the player he once was, but it's been nearly a full year since Mbakwe had surgery on his right knee. Gophers coach Tubby Smith tried to sell me on the fact that Mbakwe's explosiveness isn't much different than it was prior to the procedure, but I'm not buying it. Mbakwe is not the same player. He knows it, everyone knows it. He's averaging 8.4 points and 6.7 rebounds and has been inconsistent, going for 19 points and 12 boards against Stanford one game to six points and four rebounds against Florida State the next.

Without the Mbakwe of old, it's difficult to imagine this Minnesota team doing anything come March. Could this team, one out to a 9-1 start, make the NCAA tournament and win a game? Sure, but the Gophers could also just as easily struggle in the Big Ten and wind up in the NIT. The victory at Florida State doesn't look quite so impressive now and there are wins over Memphis and Stanford down in the Bahamas -- which could also wind up being a pair of NIT clubs.

Minnesota has a good basketball team with Rodney Williams Jr., and the all-Hollins backcourt of Andre and Austin. However, this team needs the old Trevor Mbakwe.

Double dribbles

North Texas rookie coach Tony Benford has gotten off to a rough start. The Mean Green are 3-6 despite boasting a potential lottery pick in Tony Mitchell. Benford has to figure out a way to get the 6-foot-7 ½ Mitchell on track. He's putting up solid numbers (14.1 points, 8.2 rebounds), but he can't have games like the ones against UT Arlington and Louisiana-Lafayette. Mitchell had just one field goal attempt against ULL and finished with three points and four rebounds. He was 3-of-13 in a loss to UT Arlington.

  Miami (Fla.) is 3-0 since the return of Durand Scott. The versatile senior has scored 15 points in each of the three games, is averaging six rebounds and three assists. Jim Larranaga's team could be dangerous with Scott, big men Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji and point guard Shane Larkin.

  Credit is due to both Wyoming and Charlotte, two teams I recently labeled as "frauds" despite their undefeated start. The Cowboys had a crazy come-from-behind win against Illinois and Alan Major's 49ers came away with a win at Davidson.

  With all the attention going to guys like Kevin Pangos and Elias Harris, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk has been terrific thus far after serving a three-game suspension. The 6-foot-11 Canadian is averaging 13.8 points and seven boards per game after redshirting last season.

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