Tag:SEC basketball
Posted on: February 10, 2011 3:38 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2011 7:02 pm

Tonight Alabama can earn its respect

Posted by MATT JONES

Tonight is respect night for the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide come into a road game at Vanderbilt in first place in the SEC, sitting 7-1 in conference and holding impressive victories over Kentucky and Tennessee on its resume. But to the average college basketball fan, Alabama is completely unknown and exist as nothing more than an oddity on the college basketball landscape.

“You mean to tell me Alabama is in first place in the SEC?  Well that’s not going to last.”

When I have brought up the Tide’s success on radio or in writing over the past couple of weeks, disbelief has been the near unanimous response. Even when confronted with the best arguments for taking Alabama seriously, and there are quite a few, excuses are made as to why they are not worthy of consideration. Well they play in the ultra-weak SEC West. They lost six games out of conference, mostly to weak teams in the other major conferences. If they hadn’t caught fire from three-point range and taken out Kentucky, no one would care about the Tide whatsoever. No matter what the response, some rationale will be created to leave Alabama in its rightful place in college basketball…as a football school on a bit of a hot streak.

But tonight’s game in Nashville may be a chance for Alabama to change those perceptions. With no real prior road victories of substance to speak of, the Tide went into Knoxville last weekend and took out Tennessee. However the game wasn’t on national television, the Vols’ best scorer Scotty Hopson was out and Bruce Pearl’s suspension ensured that all victories over Tennessee were tainted. But this game is different. Vandy is ranked, the game is on ESPN2 and Memorial Gym may be the most underrated difficult road environment in college basketball. Win here and even the most passionate disbelievers have to be impressed.

Alabama coach Anthony Grant (right) knows this. He told me this week that “the Vanderbilt game is the most important we have faced thus far and will tell us a lot about our team.” The cool, calm and collected coach (who incidentally has the best starched shirt collection in all of college basketball) isn’t quite sure what to make of his team at this point either. But he likes that they have become a team that fits his personality and coaching philosophy. Just the way Grant wants it, Alabama is all about defense.

Coming into Thursday night’s game, Alabama stands fourth in the nation in overall defense according to kenpom.com, behind only Ohio State, Texas and Florida State. The Tide are second in the nation in opponent’s field goal percentage and stand first in the nation in steal percentage, cementing their status as potentially the best overall defensive team in the half court in America. Grant says that “the consistency in the way we defend no matter what the score” is the trait he is most proud of with his team and it has been the impetus for Alabama’s unbelievable turn around in conference play.

Going into the SEC schedule, there was no reason to assume that Alabama would even be a factor in the league race, must less the leader at halfway. Grant’s team started the league schedule at 8-6, with no marquee wins and an 0-5 record against the teams from BCS conferences. But Grant says the early problems, specifically in the Virgin Islands holiday tournament where the Tide went 0-3, were a key to the success in conference.

“We went into that part of our schedule wanting to know about our team and sometimes you don’t necessary like what you find out. We found out what we needed to change both on and off the court, and we did that. And now we are playing much better.”

Grant didn’t elaborate on what needed to be changed, but an observer of Alabama can now clearly see a team that is much more committed to defense and shares the basketball significantly more on offense. The Tide often looked early on like a group of players who had just met moments prior to the game. Each player attempted to score off the dribble individually and taking poor shots seemed to be a communal disease. But now their passing has improved significantly and the better shot selection has enabled them to set up their stifling half-court defense more effectively. The result has been players like JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell reaching their vast offensive potential, while also showcasing leadership that previously had been non-existent.

Still, the doubters remain. Many see Alabama as an unworthy conference leader and a team ready to crumble as the season comes to a close. But the haters may not get their desire. Alabama’s schedule is favorable after Thursday’s game in Nashville, with five straight games against SEC West opponents in which the Tide will be heavily favored. Win those games and Alabama could go into its final two games at Florida and home against Georgia needing only one win to steal the most surprising conference crown in league history.

That storybook finish is still a long way away, but first Alabama would just settle for some national respect for its league-leading record. Thursday night at Vanderbilt is a chance to make it happen. While many in the country expect them to falter, the Tide’s top 5 national defensive status suggests that they will be in every game through the rest of the season and aren’t prone to a late collapse. Even with a loss in Nashville, the smart money is on Alabama being a factor in the SEC race until the end. But if they were somehow able to steal another impressive win in Nashville…well at that point, even the biggest Tide critic will have to show them some respect.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: February 4, 2011 3:11 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2011 7:03 pm

Don't look now, Alabama could win the SEC

Posted by MATT JONES

Guess who is leading the SEC at the halfway point of the season. No, it's not John Calipari's Kentucky team, with its three future NBA first round draft picks. It's not Florida, with its five returning starters constituting the most experienced roster of virtually any team in a BCS conference. No, it's not Tennessee, with its dynamic coach's suspension overshadowing a tremendously underrated Tobias Harris freshman campaign. And no, it's not Georgia, the media darling that was predicted to be everyone's sleeper pick for SEC success due to a masterful turnaround from coach Mark Fox.

Instead, the team leading the SEC at the halfway point is Anthony Grant's Alabama Crimson Tide , who go into a crucial two-game Tennessee two-step with a 6-1 conference record and a legitimate path to a potential SEC regular-season championship. Alabama goes on the road against Tennessee and Vanderbilt in tough environments this week, but if Grant's group can find a way to pull off one upset, they sit on the precipice of a potential shocking regular season title. Alabama's success is built upon a surprising mix of defense, rebounding and a fortuitous conference schedule that has folks in Tuscaloosa looking up from their National Signing Day rosters to notice the most basketball excitement in the area since Wimp Sanderson was turning the sidelines his own unique form of plaid.

The fact that this Alabama team is even in the conversation in the SEC is amazing. The Tide struggled mightily early in the season, dropping an embarrassing game to St. Peter's and failing to get a victory against a string of major conference also-rans in Seton Hall, Iowa, Providence and Oklahoma State. While the Tide remained competitive in every game, it was unable to get over the hump until back to back conference home wins over South Carolina and Kentucky announced that Grant's team was the class standout in comparison to its mediocre SEC West brethren.

Following those victories, Alabama has simply taken care of business, disposing of SEC West teams one game at a time, while its rivals in the East have taken turns knocking each other off. The Tide has capitalized on a conference schedule that forces it only to play against the East teams once, while they play each other twice, producing a built in scheduling advantage that can roll the Tide over to the conference championship. While the final flurry encompasses games against Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, it also includes another winnable round versus the SEC West rivals.

That is what makes this two-game road swing so important. At this point, Tennessee and Kentucky both have three conference losses, and Vanderbilt sits with four. Florida has only two losses, but also has a tough sweep through the East remaining, including road games in Lexington and Nashville. If Alabama can come out of this week with a split, it will sit at 7-2, with only one road game against the East remaining (at Florida).  Then it must only sweep through the SEC West in order to win the SEC regular season title, a previously unfathomable thought.

Having watched every team in the SEC play a number of times, there is no real argument that Alabama is the best team. While JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell are both tremendous talents, the team is offensively challenged, as showcased in part by its 31-percent season shooting from three point range. But they are big and they are physical and in a league with teams that are soft as tissue, Alabama has used its muscle to steal games it probably should not have been able to win.

Let's be clear, because of its offensive woes, the odds are that Alabama will falter and the early hot start will be seen as a promising run for the future, rather than a season-defining change in fortune. However, if the Tide can win just one of these two games in Tennessee, the possibility of a shocking finish becomes a step closer to reality. One road upset, followed by Alabama taking care of business against the weakest SEC West in recent memory. That is all it takes to move us a step closer to the most shocking conference championship the league has ever seen.
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: February 1, 2011 1:43 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2011 7:04 pm

Big four game stretch coming for Florida

Posted by MATT JONES

Don’t look now, but the Florida Gators are sitting atop the SEC East. After being dismissed by most pundits following early season losses to Central Florida and Jacksonville, the Gators have bounced back to take the lead in the SEC East (the only division that matters in the conference), and have the two most important victories so far in conference play, road wins at Tennessee and Georgia. With most considering the conference to be a balanced five team race between those three teams, Kentucky and South Carolina, road wins are at a premium and the Gators have a leg up with two against the other top contenders.  

However Billy Donovan’s problem, both this season and in past years, has been holding serve at home. In the last decade, no team has gone on the road in the SEC and stolen more wins than the Gators, but very few have also lost more needless games at home. Tuesday night marks the beginning of a four game stretch for Florida that will feature three home games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee, which as a group will determine whether Donovan’s club can be considered a real conference contender.  

The Gators come into the stretch playing their best, but also most inconsistent, basketball of the season. Florida has the most balanced talent and scoring of any group in the SEC, with four starters averaging in double figures and the fifth, Alex Tyus, providing leadership and controlling the paint underneath.

They have shown a trait often lacking in non-Joakim Noah Florida teams, mental toughness, fighting back in Athens and Knoxville to win overtime battles in hostile environments. But a home loss to South Carolina and two horrific performances on the road in a win versus Auburn and a loss versus Mississippi State, have showcased that Florida seems to raise its play to the level of whatever name happens to be on the front of the opponent’s jersey.

Even with this inconsistency, Donovan’s team has an opening and a path to win the SEC East and stake its claim as the best team in the conference. With Erving Walker, Chandler Parsons and Kenny Boynton, Florida has a dynamic set of perimeter scoring options, each of whom creates significant matchup issues for its opponents. While the Gators are vulnerable to a talented post presence, none of the three teams coming to Gainesville are situated to truly exploit that weakness.

That means that the table is set for Florida to go on a streak that could bring the Gators their first shot at a conference championship since its dynamic back-to-back NCAA title run. But in order to reach that goal, it must take care of business at home…something Billy Donovan’s team have shown a propensity to be unable to do in the last three seasons.

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: December 27, 2010 7:22 pm
Edited on: March 6, 2011 7:05 pm

The SEC is hurting my soul

Posted by Matt Jones

It has not been a stellar year for the SEC on the basketball court.  While their football brethren are basking in the glow of a potential fifth straight national champion from the conference, the basketball teams have taken a decidedly different direction in the start of their 2010-2011 campaigns.  In fact, to say that SEC basketball has performed “poorly” thus far this season is an understatement as large as saying that the NCAA is “inconsistent” in the way it hands out punishments for rules violations.  The SEC has been downright pathetic and an embarrassment to the good names of Wimp Sanderson, Sonny Smith, Hugh Durham, Dale Brown and even Don Devoe.  Take a look at a partial list of teams that have notched a victory over an SEC opponent thus far this season:

UNC Asheville
St. Peter
Nicholls State
Coastal Carolina
North Texas
Florida Atlantic
East Tennessee State

That is a list of teams so bad that ESPN wouldn’t even package them together, stick them on a random Caribbean island and try to sell them as a viable “holiday tournament.”  It is a group so poor that only one has even been invited to participate in "Bracket Buster" weekend.  Yet they all were invited into an SEC team's home arena and came away with a victory.  As bad as the losses have been however, the wins have not been much better.  As of now, the conference as a whole only has three wins against teams that are currently ranked in the Top 25, and the two biggest marquee victories (Tennessee’s upsets of Villanova and Pittsburgh) are muted a bit by later losses to Oakland and Charlotte.

The SEC East has been awful, with the Vols losing three of their last four, Florida falling at home to an Artis Gilmore-less Jacksonville squad and South Carolina taking a 16 point stoning at home to Furman that caused South Carolina fans to yearn for the return of Devan Downey.  But the SEC East has looked like the 1985 Big East in comparison to the SEC West, which may have the most miserable collection of BCS teams in a division in the history of major college basketball.  The best team in the division is likely Arkansas, whose most distinguishing quality is that they are the only team in the division not to have lost to a team outside the RPI Top 100.  While at the bottom, Auburn has celebrated the christening of its new arena by insulting the good name of Chris Porter and taking the early lead over Oregon State and Depaul for worst BCS program in the land.

How did it get this bad?  In theory, the SEC should have some real potential.  One could make the argument that it has its best assortment of coaches in the last 15 years, with three of the top 15 in the game (Calipari, Pearl and Donovan), four rising up and comers that were coveted by a number of programs (Anthony Grant, John Pelphrey, Darrin Horn and Andy Kennedy) and four solid X and O guys who have had sustained success in the past (Kevin Stallings, Mark Fox, Rick Stansbury and Trent Johnson).    Over the last few years, many of these programs have kept good Southern talent in-state and the rise in national exposure that has come with Florida’s national championships, Bruce Pearl’s emergence as a media darling and John Calipari’s explosion of talent at Kentucky would seem to have benefited the conference to such a degree that it should be contending for top spot in all of America.  Instead, the conference is at best eighth in the country and an argument can be made that if the NCAA Tournament were held today, only three teams (Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) would be a lock to be a part of the festivities.

To be fair, it isn’t all bad.  Kentucky will be one of the ten best teams in the nation come NCAA Tournament time.  Vanderbilt and Georgia have played a bit above their preseason rankings and could make some noise in conference play.  And one has to assume that Tennessee and Florida will get out of their December funks to create a solid SEC East.  But with the Western Division giving the conference more dead weight than “Blades of Glory” in a Will Ferrell movie marathon, the prognosis for the SEC does not look bright.  We all know that with the exception of Kentucky and occasionally Vandy, none of these schools care one bit about basketball and would rather obsess over the inseam measurement of a Defensive Line prospect out of Alabama than celebrate the talent of Trey Thompkins or Chris Warren.  But for those of us who do care about basketball in the SEC (meaning Kentucky fans and random old men in stuffy gyms watching high school games throughout the South), couldn’t they fake it just a little bit better?

Photo: AP
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com