The Crock Pot: SEC basketball fever? NCAA Tournament shows conference has something big cooking
Welcome to The Crock Pot, your one-stop shop for all the SEC news, notes, quotes and mishaps of the past week. Here’s what we’ve been stewing over …
Future still bright for SEC basketball, but it’s fun right now
The 2017 NCAA Tournament is boring, they said. Too much chalk, too few upsets.
“Hold our beer,” the college basketball gods replied. And on the fourth day, they delivered.
Or rather SEC basketball delivered, proving once again that 2017 is the year Earth became Bizarro World.
The conference has three teams in the Sweet 16. Florida destroyed Virginia, Kentucky held off a feisty Wichita State squad that was clearly under-seeded and South Carolina knocked off a Duke team picked by many to win the tournament (including yours truly).
Amazingly, Arkansas nearly made it four SEC teams advancing to the second weekend. The Razorbacks held a 5-point lead over top-seed UNC late, but the Tar Heels (aided by a bad charging no-call) went on a 12-0 run in the game’s final minutes to survive the upset bid.
Vanderbilt, too, had a shot at defeating tourney darling Northwestern and giving the conference another March Madness win.
So, that’s a 7-2 composite record for the SEC so far, with three of the country’s top 16 teams among its conquests (UVA, Duke and Wichita State, per KenPom). Not bad for a conference that at one point looked like it might only get three teams into the Big Dance.
South Carolina’s monster upset alone would have been a major statement for the SEC. The Gamecocks, as Coach K himself said, are clearly “building something special.” Their coach is outstanding, their defense posed major problems for a high-powered Duke squad and — with the notable exceptions of seniors Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice — they are mostly led by a nucleus of young up-and-comers like forward Chris Silva.
Five seasons ago, Frank Martin inherited a team that went 2-14 in the SEC. One that hadn’t won an NCAA tourney game since 1973. Now, South Carolina is in the Sweet 16, where the school has never won a game, and holds wins against Duke, Syracuse and Michigan this season — big-time schools with big-time coaches.
Martin has done one heck of a job reshaping Gamecocks basketball.
That’s not to discount the SEC’s non-tourney teams. Alabama coach Avery Johnson has the Crimson Tide recruiting with the best of them. Ben Howland has a young Mississippi State team on the rise. Bruce Pearl is starting to flex his recruiting muscles at Auburn (*insert compliance jokes here*). Ole Miss beat Syracuse in the NIT.
Even the SEC basement should get better. Missouri tabbed Cuonzo Martin as its new coach and you can expect LSU will at least pursue Tom Crean. VCU’s Will Wade is the purported Tigers front-runner.
Ken Pomeroy — a much smarter man than I’ll ever hope to be — might not expect a big jump in the conference’s level of play next season. But let’s be real: Projecting future college basketball performance is basically impossible. The “experts” can’t even make decent brackets, and they’ve had 30-plus games to evaluate these teams.
The SEC has one of the strongest basketball coaching rosters in the country, and they’re luring more talent to the conference every year. A few years down the road, assuming all goes as planned, John Calipari’s expectation of eight or even nine SEC reps at the Big Dance doesn’t seem so far-fetched. I agreed with him last week, well before this weekend’s madness had played out.
Look out, world: #SECHoopsFever is real and spreading fast.
Lurking on the NCAA Tournament horizon
So, the SEC put three teams into the Sweet 16. Can they keep winning? More importantly, could we actually see two SEC teams matched up against each other in the Elite Eight?
Here’s a quick look at the games this week:
Baylor vs. South Carolina (Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
- Key player: Johnathan Motley
- Key stat: 3 (number of games Baylor has lost when Motley scores fewer than 15 points)
- South Carolina can win if: The Gamecocks continue rebounding well and winning possession battles. On Sunday, they out-rebounded the Blue Devils, 37-34, and forced 18 turnovers. Motley, a 6-foot-9 stud who’s averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, won’t make life easy for Silva. Baylor is dangerous offensively when the Bears are humming, but the Gamecocks’ strong perimeter defense could allow them to isolate Motley, as he’s far and away BU’s top scorer. One wild card to watch is Baylor forward T.J. Matson, who went 7 for 13 from the field against the Trojans. Considering Baylor’s recent tourney pedigree and its 12-6 record in Big 12 play, this has the feel of a winnable matchup for South Carolina.
- Prediction: South Carolina, 82-78
Kentucky vs. UCLA (Friday, 9:40 p.m.)
- Key player: Malik Monk
- Key stat: 31.3 (Monk’s field goal percentage over the past six games)
- Kentucky can win if: Monk finds his rhythm and the Wildcats get more help from their bench. In the regular season matchup between these two juggernauts, Monk went off for 24 points and Kentucky scored in bunches against a Bruins defense that ranks 77th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. UCLA dropped 97 points in that game, but with UK playing better on the defensive end of late — Wichita State shot a mere 38.7 percent from the field Sunday — the ‘Cats have a chance to outpace Lonzo Ball & Co. Getting more production from guys such as Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Isaac Humphries, as SEC Country’s Kyle Tucker points out, will be just as key. That helped Kentucky early against Wichita State, and it should do the same in the UCLA rematch.
- Prediction: UCLA, 100-92
Florida vs. Wisconsin (Friday, 9:50 p.m.)
- Key players: Justin Leon and Devin Robinson
- Key stat: 29.6 (Virginia’s shooting percentage against Florida)
- Florida can win if: The Gators play like they did against Virginia. Wisconsin, another obviously under-seeded team, always plays tough defense. The Badgers might exhibit less potency on the offensive end, but consider this: Against Villanova, they shot 7 of 16 from the charity stripe and still won. Ugly basketball gave Villanova fits on Saturday, and it could do the same for Florida. The easiest way for the Gators to improve in the Sweet 16 rests upon the shooting arm of KeVaughn Allen, who was ice cold against UVA this weekend (2 for 10 from the field, 0 for 4 from 3-point range) despite UF making concerted efforts to get him going. Excluding Allen, Florida finished 8 of 17 from beyond the arc against the Cavaliers; expecting UF to repeat that would be foolish. But the biggest factor has to be how Leon and Robinson handle Wisconsin’s scoring threats in the post, Ethan Happ (6-foot-10, 230 pounds) and Nigel Hayes (6-8, 240 pounds). Hayes, a senior, is averaging 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game since Jan. 28. He’ll test Florida in ways Virginia center Jack Salt did not.
- Prediction: Florida, 70-68
4 SEC running backs to watch this spring, and one to follow in the fall
Spring football is all about one question: Who’s next?
Despite losing Leonard Fournette, Boom Williams and Alvin Kamara, the SEC returns a boatload of talent at the tailback position. Derrius Guice, Rawleigh Williams, Ralph Webb, Nick Chubb and Kamryn Pettway highlight maybe the deepest group of rushers in the country.
Thing is, SEC teams aren’t treating them like 400-carry-per-year workhorses. Webb led the conference in rushing attempts with 250 last season, the conference’s first without a 300-carry guy since 2012. Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky — the top three rushing attacks in 2016 — all had multiple backs go for 800-plus yards.
So, with that in mind, here are five guys who could be poised for a bigger workload in 2017:
- Jordan Scarlett: He was easily Florida’s best rusher last fall, and his position coach wants Scarlett to hit the 1,000-yard mark.
- Nick Brossette: With Fournette gone, Brossette stands to benefit. LSU running backs coach Tommie Robinson likes distributing the offensive touches among his players, and the seldom-used junior was productive when called upon, with a 9.6 yard-per-carry average on 15 rushes last season.
- Sihiem King: Boom Williams gave King glowing reviews. The junior has the skill set to be a versatile home-run hitter for Kentucky, much like his predecessor.
- Jordan Wilkins: Declared academically ineligible for 2016, he should emerge as the feature back for an Ole Miss running game that could use serious improvement.
- Kylin Hill: The 4-star freshman signee isn’t on Mississippi State’s campus yet. When he does arrive, Hill should immediately factor into the running back rotation with the Bulldogs graduating Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway.
You probably shouldn’t do this, Tennessee
Butch Jones received a social media ribbing when he made his “5-star hearts” comment on National Signing Day. Well, here’s Tennessee making a hype video that revolves completely around 5-star signee Trey Smith, whom the Vols bill as the No. 1 overall recruit in the nation.
I’m not sure which service ranked him No. 1, but the point is Tennessee emphasizing recruiting rankings when Jones specifically downplayed their importance.
On top of that, the school made a hype video about a freshman who hasn’t played one snap yet. … Pressure much? UT better hope he lives up to the billing.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 12, 2017
An interesting read over on DawgNation from Seth Emerson, who talked with several Georgia donors for a story about the athletic department’s spending on facilities (or lack thereof, depending on your point of view).
There has been much angst around the Bulldog fan base regarding the upgrades and whether athletic director Greg McGarity is doing enough to ensure UGA remains competitive with its SEC rivals. According to Emerson, Georgia has $77 million in reserve funds.
Alabama spent $132 million in 2014-15 fiscal year alone, according to USA Today. Florida followed at $125 million. Georgia? $96.6 million — 10th in the SEC — despite drawing $116 million in revenue (15th in the nation). So, the frustration is understandable in that sense.
At the same time, the SEC’s athletics amenities arm race has seemingly turned locker room waterfalls into the new norm. That’s the reality of modern college football, but we should simultaneously question whether that should be the reality of modern college football, no?
Highlight of the week
Plenty of options to sift through following this weekend’s tourney action. This clip of Robinson from the Florida-Virginia beat-down gets the nod for comedy value.
Notice the reaction from the Gators bench. He left that 3-pointer sitting on the table, though.
Most effective jab step ever? pic.twitter.com/2xav1UWkh7
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 19, 2017
Headlines from around SEC Country
- Wichita State talked, Kentucky listened and the Wildcats advanced (Kyle Tucker) — Pro tip: Don’t give John Calipari’s 5-star crew any reason to take the court with extra motivation.
- Gators reclaiming momentum, mojo while making statement in NCAA Tournament (Ryan Young)
- Kentucky coach John Calipari has a favorite player: his son, Brad (Kyle Tucker)
- WATCH: South Carolina basketball players soak Frank Martin in locker room (Mike Wilson) — March is the best.
- Arkansas played with fire all season but will come out the other side purified (Eric Bolin)
- Bear Bryant’s great-grandson, who plays QB, says he won’t automatically go to Alabama (Chris Kirschner) — Say what now?
- Tennessee football signee Princeton Fant represents ‘5-star heart’ (Mike Griffith) — There’s that Butch-ism, again.
- Once healthy, can Florida QB Luke Del Rio win back his starting job? (Zach Abolverdi) — That depends if Doug Nussmeier wants to start a freshman in the season opener vs. Michigan.
- Next Generation: Visit to imprisoned father brings ‘excitement, joy’ to Netori Johnson (Chip Towers)
- What to watch for when Auburn resumes practice this week (Justin Ferguson)
- Arkansas signee David Porter just beginning to understand his immense talent (Jason Kersey)
- The Best SEC Athlete of All Time: A 14-team bracket (Alex Martin Smith) — Hard to argue with the top 2 here, but choosing between them is tough, man.
- LSU gymnastics wins 2017 SEC Gymnastics Championship (Nick Suss)
What you need to know (besides football … and also basketball)
- Three-peat: Missouri wrestler J’den Cox became the first guy in school history to win three national championships, per the Kansas City Star. He finished his season with a 28-0 record. The real question: Would Cox ever join the Mizzou football team? Barry Odom is open to the idea and could absolutely use someone like Cox, a former all-state linebacker.
- Sandusky: Jury selection has begun for the trial involving ex-Penn State president Graham Spanier’s alleged mishandling of complaints about ex-assistant Jerry Sandusky, the Associated Press reports. He stands accused of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy, both felony charges. Of note: PSU’s former vice president and former athletic director have already pled guilty to a single misdemeanor count of child endangerment, and they could be asked to take the stand in Spanier’s trial. A report accusing Sandusky of child molestation supposedly reached the desks of all three men in 2001; Sandusky was not arrested until 2011.
- Out the door: Uber’s president Jeff Jones quit after six months on the job, CNN reports, citing concerns over the company’s management culture. It’s the latest in a string of high-profile departures for the rideshare company. Recently, CEO Travis Kalanick issued a public apology in which he said he “must fundamentally change and grow up.” The company is reportedly valued around $66 billion.
- North Korea: I have a strange fascination with this angry little communist nation, perhaps because it’s so resistant to any and all outside influence. Call it morbid curiosity. That said, I lost about an hour of my day watching Vice’s documentary about North Korea, in which the filmmaker actually travels to Pyongyang and takes a government-sanctioned tour of the country. It’s downright bizarre, and the propaganda films sound like they’re straight out of South Park.
Final word: Are all college athletes getting the same access?
ESPN’s Tom Farrey published a concerning story on The Undefeated last week entitled “The gentrification of college hoops,” which examines evidence that fewer first-generation students are playing the sport in college.
From 2010-15 alone, the number of first-generation students — i.e. those who are the first members of their family to attend college — dropped from 28 to 19 percent in men’s basketball. Women’s hoops fell from 24 to 17 percent, while softball and men’s tennis declined by 8 percent each.
The data directly refutes what we read so often, the “disadvantaged athlete gets a free education because he’s great at sports” story. Since providing free schooling is the NCAA’s strongest argument that its athletes are really amateurs, the big-wigs are rightly freaking out.
“I’m deeply attentive to what you’re describing,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told Farrey. “We need to make sure we’re not cutting off access.”
So, why is this happening? The issue is complex and the whole story is well worth the read, but one factor to consider is the cost of training. Take football, where players attend camps year-round and top guys like Blake Barnett train with George Whitfield for a whole summer.
You can’t teach athleticism, of course, but kids whose families can afford 1-on-1 coaching and the best equipment have a natural advantage — especially when it comes to the more expensive sports such as tennis, golf, hockey and gymnastics. That has to be a troubling trend.
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) March 18, 2017