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 …
The Florida Gators are here to stay
The Billy Donovan comparisons may never completely go away for Mike White. Succeeding a program legend at a place like Florida tends to put coaches in a tricky spot; just ask Ron Zook or Will Muschamp.
In just two seasons, however, the 40-year-old White has made tremendous strides in shaping to program to his liking, quickly distancing himself from the hovering shadow of Donovan.
The Gators hobbled into the Big Dance, losers in three of their last four games and without standout center John Egbunu. White had never before coached an NCAA Tournament game. To the casual observer, UF had “early exit” painted across its forehead.
But once the tourney tipped off, it felt like Florida hoops under Donovan — the teams that steamrolled their way to Final Fours and Elite Eights. The Gators walloped their first two opponents and then, in dramatic fashion, survived against a dangerous, tough Wisconsin team. Only the best South Carolina team in history kept them from Glendale, Ariz.
There’s an SEC basketball renaissance underway, and it would be easy for a (relatively) inexperienced coach to get lost in the shuffle. But this March, White served notice to the rest of the conference that his team is on a lightning-fast track back to dominance.
“We’ve got not only good young talent, we’ve got great kids now that have been a part of a culture recharge, a re-creation of the culture that coach (Billy) Donovan created here that obviously was very, very successful,” White said on Sunday. “We didn’t make all the right basketball plays today, we didn’t make all the right basketball plays this season, but I’m really proud of where our culture is today.”
Looking at next year, there’s little reason to think Florida will suddenly fall off. A handful of key seniors will graduate, sure, but Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes and Egbunu should return to anchor next year’s team. Should junior forward Devin Robinson return to the Gators for one more season, that would give the Gators another huge talent boost.
Talent will not be enough for Florida to muscle its way through the SEC as in seasons past. South Carolina returns a nucleus of great young players. Kentucky has loaded up another No. 1 signing class (more on that below). Alabama, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M all stand to improve.
“Our league is going to be, on paper, in my my opinion going into the next season, really, really good, and hopefully we’re one of those teams that does all the little things to do enough to be back here.”
As long as White is coach in The Swamp, however, Florida’s success will continue; he proved as much in this year’s tournament.
And then there was one
South Carolina and Gonzaga meet in the first ever Final Four appearance for both schools. The Zags, of course, are NCAA Tournament fixtures, while the Gamecocks entered this season on a decades-long March Madness winning drought.
Gonzaga opened as a 6.5-point favorite in this game and, despite a reputation for not winning “The Big Game” in March, could provide South Carolina its toughest test yet. The Bulldogs have the nation’s No. 1 adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and rely on monster Polish center Przemek Karnowski (7-foot-1, 300 pounds) wielding a commanding presence down low.
The Gamecocks rank just behind Gonzaga in adjusted ‘D’ (No. 2), but feature a far less-balanced offensive attack than their foes. Sindarius Thornwell is fantastic — duh — and has averaged nearly 26 points per game in the tournament. The question will be whether young starters PJ Dozier, Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, all of whom scored double-digits against Florida, can continue to find success.
The matchup between Kotsar (6-foot-10, 245 pounds) and Karnowski will be especially important, considering the size disadvantage. Gonzaga generally rebounds well, but Karnowski only snagged 3 boards against Xavier. On Saturday, the Musketeers came up with 13 rebounds on the offensive glass.
Provided the defensive excellence continues, that’s where South Carolina can really make a difference in this game. Even then, Frank Martin will need another complete effort for his squad to keep its crazy run going.
What’s next for Big Blue?
Kentucky, stuck in the tournament’s toughest region by far, came 0.3 seconds away from emerging unscathed. What could have been the culmination of another Final Four run on Sunday night turned out to be a crushing final loss for the Wildcats’ cast of talented freshmen.
The locker room? Incredibly emotional, as one would expect. Projected first-round picks Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo have almost surely played their final games at UK. Seniors Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder are on their way out. Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries are no locks to stick around, either.
John Calipari secured another No. 1 signing class, but even for Kentucky, this could be an offseason defined by incredible turnover. Of the 15 players currently on the roster, 9 of them could feasibly gone by next season.
SEC Country’s Kyle Tucker caught up with all of the underclassmen (minus Sacha Killeya-Jones) and asked them about next year. None of them are spilling which way they might be leaning, of course, but there are some pivotal decisions coming up.
Given how little production Kentucky got from its bench this past season, overall depth will be an area to watch in the coming months — especially given Calipari’s professed dislike of the graduate transfer rule.
Very emotional Kentucky locker room as expected. pic.twitter.com/ksNn4iOGHW
— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) March 26, 2017
Spring ball story lines
Vanderbilt: Still doing things differently
Maybe this is unsurprising, given Vanderbilt’s red-headed stepchild status in the SEC, but coach Derek Mason decided not to hold a spring game this year — at least in the traditional sense.
Instead, the Commodores capped off its final practice Saturday with a “spring showcase,” which more or less sounds like a glorified open practice. Mason’s reasoning?
“I think right now, the biggest thing that I’m running out of with this group is time,” he said, via GridironNow. “And so looking at where we were safety, human management of the process, production and just making sure that we can maximize spring. That’s exactly what I’m going to do, maximize it.”
We’re too far away from the season to tell whether there’s any cause for concern here. But given the pitiful way last season ended, with a 41-17 bowl loss to NC State erasing some of the team’s November mojo, Mason might be feeling some urgency entering Year 4 in Nashville.
For what it’s worth — and scrimmages often mean very little — tailbacks Jamuari Wakefield and Khari Blasingame both enjoyed 50-yard performances, and the Vandy offense scored 6 touchdowns on 18 drives. Wakefield has reportedly impressed this spring, as has Joejuan Williams, a sophomore cornerback with a 4-star pedigree.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur went 7 of 13 passing for 88 yards and a touchdown.
South Carolina: Garnet and Black scrimmage on deck
In case anyone forgot amid the Final Four hoopla, the Gamecocks also have a football team. They actually moved this Saturday’s spring game kickoff up to account for South Carolina’s 6:10 p.m. ET tip-off with Gonzaga. Weird, I know.
On that front, expect coach Will Muschamp to trot out several younger or less-experienced players during that scrimmage. Deebo Samuel, Hayden Hurst and other dependable starters won’t see the field as much because the coaching staff doesn’t need to evaluate them. Obviously.
“I wouldn’t see those guys get a bunch of snaps, from the simple standpoint that we’ve got to have guys that we know, going into fall camp, we need to rep this guy,” Muschamp said.
So who should you keep an eye out for? Safety Jaylin Dickerson, a 3-star freshman from Southern Pines, N.C., has drawn praise from Muschamp this spring. Sophomore D.J. Wonnum has emerged as the top candidate to replace Darius English at the “Buck” position — a pass-rushing linebacker/defensive end hybrid that South Carolina likes to move around the field.
And, of course, you have two big offensive additions in UNC transfer Ty’son Williams and mid-year enrollee OrTre Smith.
Arkansas: Kicking off spring football
The Hogs begin spring practice on Tuesday, and their impending move to the 3-4 defense will no doubt headline Bret Bielema’s agenda in the coming weeks.
“I’m not a guy who likes to throw a lot of stuff out there and see what works. I like to find one thing and do it really well,” Bielema said.
Perhaps no SEC team ended the year on a worse note than Arkansas, which finished 7-6 after blowing a 24-point halftime lead in the Belk Bowl. Gone are defensive coordinator Robb Smith, replaced by secondary coach Paul Rhoads, and defensive line coach Rory Segrest. The team returns offensive leaders Austin Allen and Rawleigh Williams, but several other positions will feature new faces — especially wide receiver and defensive line.
By all accounts, 2017 feels like a crossroads for Bielema at Arkansas. He’s not coaching for his job this season, but if the defense even remotely resembles the unit that gave up 543 yards rushing in one game, folks really won’t be happy in Razorbacks country. This is his chance to right the ship.
Horrible idea of the week
A new law allowing concealed weapons in “various publicly-funded buildings across Arkansas” has drawn heat for being very, very dumb.
The Razorbacks’ football stadium and basketball arena fall under the umbrella of this new law, and while it is true that the state senate voted to exclude sporting events from the law’s provisions, the house of representatives still needs to approve that vote.
Thus, we here at SEC Country now feel obligated to offer an opinion. Here are three reasons why the Arkansas gun law is a horrible, no good, very bad idea when it comes to sports:
- At a surface level, this seems to benefit no one involved. Players don’t. Many fans aren’t pleased, either. Referees, I’d imagine, are scared out of their minds, and coaches would probably agree if pressed. Who actually wants the law to include stadiums?
- Recruiting. If current players are uneasy about guns in stadiums, how would prospects feel? How would their parents feel? Would they want to send their star football player to Arkansas, only to have him play before thousands of potentially-armed fans?
- There are alternatives. If personal well-being is the concern, what’s wrong with beefing up game day security?
Highlight of the week
Surely everyone saw this, but it’s always worth re-watching Chris Chiozza scamper down the court in record time for the buzzer-beater. Don’t blink.
BUZZER BEATER ALERT! ???
CHRIS CHIOZZA WINS IT AT THE BUZZER WITH THIS ALL TIME WALK OFF 3!!!
IT'S EVEN BETTER W/TITANIC MUSIC! ??? pic.twitter.com/8CcrXDMzhE
— ?Titanic Hoops? (@TitanicHoops) March 25, 2017
Headlines from around SEC Country
- ‘How ’bout that?’ South Carolina basketball crashes into first Final Four (Mike Wilson)
- Not coach, not coach Martin: Gamecocks’ Frank Martin is just Frank (Mike Wilson)
- Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox gave family a gift so big they’re fans for life (Kyle Tucker)
- Kentucky basketball’s 3 seniors reflect on careers: ‘It’s everybody’s dream’ (Joe Mussatto)
- Florida basketball has some unknowns, but plenty to build upon after run to Elite Eight (Ryan Young)
- WATCH: Florida football coach Jim McElwain in NYC to root on Gators (Ryan Young)
- Frank Martin, Sindarius Thornwell cemented as South Carolina basketball legends (Alec Shirkey)
- Former Alabama receiver files fraud lawsuit against Lane Kiffin, FAU over staff position (Christopher Walsh)
- QB competition at Alabama? Nick Saban interested in improving Jalen Hurts (Marq Burnett)
- Arkansas spring football has so much to keep an eye on (Eric Bolin)
- The early word on changes to Georgia’s offense (Seth Emerson)
- Jim McElwain pleased with deep balls from Florida quarterbacks in scrimmage (Zach Abolverdi)
- Jarrett Stidham isn’t ‘Cam Newton or Nick Marshall,’ but he’s ready to run at QB for Auburn (Justin Ferguson)
- Will Wade hire could rewrite the book on Joe Alleva’s LSU tenure (Alex Hickey)
- A closer look at Tennessee’s spring position battles (Mike Griffith)
- No. 1 recruit Michael Porter Jr. picks Mizzou: ‘At the end of the day, I want to play with my dad’
What you need to know (besides football and basketball)
- More March Madness: While South Carolina captured the nation’s attention on Sunday, the Mississippi State women’s basketball team completed a shocking Final Four run of its own — also the first in school history. The Bulldogs needed overtime, but they knocked off an established Baylor program, 94-85, behind Morgan William’s 41-point effort. The Lady Gamecocks can give the SEC a second team in the women’s Final Four by beating Florida State Monday night; opening tip-off is set for 9 p.m. ET.
- Worst to first: In 2016, the Missouri and Arkansas baseball teams both finished last in their respective divisions, combining for just 52 total wins on the season. Now both schools are sitting at or near the top of the SEC standings. On Sunday, the Hogs matched their SEC win total from all of last season by beating the Tigers, 9-8, pounding three home runs in the series rubber match. They lead the conference in long balls with 36.
- No panic: LSU’s No. 6-ranked baseball team, meanwhile, dropped two of three against Florida in ugly fashion over the weekend. The Tigers were 1-for-28 with runners on base and 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position in the first two games, dropping Friday’s game despite Alex Lange spinning 8 innings of 1-run baseball. But, like my colleague Nick Suss points out, it’s still very early for LSU.
- Gymnastics: Eight SEC teams qualified for regionals competition in this year’s NCAA Gymnastics Championships, which will take place on Saturday. Florida, Georgia and Missouri make up half of one six-team region (Gainesville, Fla.), while Auburn and Arkansas will clash in another (Fayetteville, Ark.). Kentucky, LSU and Alabama round out the SEC squads with a shot at the national title. Only two teams can advance from each region.
Final Word: You know, Tony K’s actually spot on
Tony Kornheiser on PTI: Sindarius Thornwell "sounds like a character out of Game of Thrones"
— Alec Shirkey (@AShirkey) March 27, 2017