College Basketball Nation: SEC

3-point shot: Meet SEC in St. Louis

May, 28, 2014
May 28
11:09
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Andy Katz discusses all things SEC, including the 2018 tournament in St. Louis, scheduling and Billy Donovan’s future.

3-point shot: Pac-12 all-star team

May, 27, 2014
May 27
11:29
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video

Andy Katz on Larry Krystkowiak running the Pac-12 all-star team, Maryland and Mark Turgeon's interesting spring and basketball decisions at the SEC meetings.

3-point shot: SEC/Big 12 Challenge draws

May, 8, 2014
May 8
12:00
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video

Andy Katz looks at the SEC/Big 12 Challenge draws for Arkansas and LSU and off-the-field trouble for Oregon.

The pairings for the 2014 SEC/Big 12 Challenge were announced Wednesday afternoon.

In the event’s second year, it will again offer a variety of intriguing matchups. The Big 12 won the first Challenge last year by a 7-3 margin, and the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney last season compared to the SEC’s three, has the edge again.

Here’s a ranking of the 10 games in this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia will not participate this season):

1. Texas at Kentucky: Call your friends. Get your popcorn ready. This will be phenomenal. Well, at least it appears that way right now. When Myles Turner, the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, picked Texas, he transformed the Longhorns into a Big 12 title contender and potential national power. The Longhorns had a solid stable even before Turner's decision. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes helped the Longhorns orchestrate one of the most surprising runs to the NCAA tourney in the country last season, considering all the departures from the previous season’s team. It’s fitting that Texas' ridiculous frontcourt will face the “Voltron” of college basketball frontcourts. Kentucky will be a problem for the rest of the country. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would form the nation’s top frontcourt without any help. Add blue-chip recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. and, well, you can see this is a rare pool of NBA prospects in one frontcourt. Plus Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back. And a couple McDonald’s All Americans will come off the bench. Is Texas a legitimate contender? Is Kentucky the top team in America and the national title favorite? This matchup could answer both questions.

2. Florida at Kansas: Bill Self just lost two players, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could be the top two players selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But this is Kansas. Hit reset and continue to win Big 12 titles. That’s just what they do in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will reload with Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, a couple McDonald’s All Americans who will fill the voids. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and a starting-point-guard-to-be-determined will be on the floor too. Point guard is not an issue for the Gators with Kasey Hill returning. They have lost the senior crew that helped the Gators beat the Jayhawks in Gainesville during last season’s Challenge, though. That is an issue. But this is a good barometer for both programs, which will each rely on youth. Billy Donovan’s 13th-ranked recruiting class, per RecruitingNation, will have to mature fast and help Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, Chris Walker and the rest of the roster challenge Kentucky at the top of the SEC next season. Walker will have to be a primary piece of the offense, not a sub at the end of the bench. But Kansas’ edge in experience and overall talent could be the difference. Look for Selden to have an All-America moment or two in this matchup.

3. Arkansas at Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg signed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones to play for the Cyclones. Add him to a squad that also features Monte Morris, Naz Long, Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang and the Fighting Hoibergs should be Big 12 contenders again. Arkansas swept Kentucky last season, but the Razorbacks struggled on the road. And Hilton Coliseum gets rowdy. Can Arkansas handle that environment? Bobby Portis is one of three top scorers from last season returning for the Razorbacks. Four-star point guard Anton Beard could make an immediate contribution too. This should be a solid matchup, especially as both squads are figuring things out early in the season.

4. LSU at West Virginia: Prior to last season, both LSU and West Virginia looked like programs that would turn the corner in 2013-14. Although both improved, they still missed expectations. So this is a statement game. If they are serious about securing NCAA tourney bids, then they have to win games like this. Juwan Staten anchors a West Virginia team that returns most of the talent from a season ago. On the other side, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will be joined by four-star recruit Elbert Robinson in a strong frontcourt that must carry LSU this season. This is one of those matchups that might mean a lot more on Selection Sunday than it will in December.

5. Oklahoma State at South Carolina: Travis Ford and Frank Martin are in similar positions. They both need one player on their respective rosters to have a breakout season. The Cowboys are deeper than the Gamecocks, but there is a lot riding on Le'Bryan Nash. If South Carolina plans to make a move in 2014-15, talented sophomore Sindarius Thornwell will have to orchestrate that evolution.

6. Baylor at Vanderbilt: Two teams with interesting outlooks. Scott Drew lost every meaningful member of last season's Sweet 16 squad other than Kenny Chery, Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, and he didn’t sign a stellar recruiting class. But he does have a bunch of reserves who have been waiting to prove themselves. For Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings will get Kedren Johnson, who missed a year due to suspension, back in the mix and add a recruiting class ranked 28th nationally by RecruitingNation. This could be the season Vandy rises in the SEC. Johnson vs. Chery will be one of the best matchups in the Challenge.

7. Missouri at Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler and three other starters return for Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad. Plus, he will add a couple top-100 recruits. New Missouri coach Kim Anderson will need youngsters Johnathan Williams III and top recruit JaKeenan Gant to step up after the Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season.

8. Kansas State at Tennessee: Marcus Foster should be the early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors. He’s the reason Bruce Weber’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a threat in the conference. Donnie Tyndall doesn’t really have a roster right now, so this one is difficult to gauge. But if the young men who have requested releases from their scholarships come back to Knoxville, then this one will be more intriguing than it appears to be right now.

9. Auburn at Texas Tech: This game won’t feature the most talent from either league. But this will be Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn, where he’s blessed with great facilities and an administration that seems determined to make a stand in the SEC. Tubby Smith didn’t turn the Red Raiders into world beaters during his first season in Lubbock, but a few surprises -- upsets over Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas -- were promising. Nothing wrong with a matchup between a couple of veteran coaches who are trying to rebuild in unique locations.

10. TCU at Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson era is over, so Andy Kennedy will try to rebuild around Jarvis Summers, incoming young players and junior college transfers. TCU coach Trent Johnson lost talented guard Jarvis Ray. Both squads will start at the bottom and probably stay there all season. This isn’t the Challenge’s sexiest matchup.

Look back, look ahead: SEC

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
10:00
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Somehow, the SEC was the nation's most disappointing and successful conference in 2013-14. After a mad dash to Selection Sunday, LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Missouri failed to earn invites to the NCAA tournament.

The three SEC programs that did, however, thrived. Tennessee began in the First Four and made a run to the Sweet 16. Florida, the top team in the country for a chunk of the season, was the favorite to win the national championship but fell to Connecticut in the Final Four. Kentucky, after a turbulent season, rode a postseason burst all the way to the national title game.

Only three of the league's 14 members secured NCAA tourney bids and all three were fabulous.

What about the other 11, though?

That's the challenge here. The NCAA tournament is the ultimate chapter of each college basketball season. Because the bulk of the attention the game attracts each season arrives in March, its postseason is largely viewed separately from the regular season. The latter means little to most because so many squads -- 19 percent of the 351 Division I teams -- have a chance to win it all.

If that's true, then the SEC had a banner year. But it's also not that simple.

[+] EnlargeAlex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAlex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are returning to Kentucky.
Those three highlights didn’t erase the overall mediocrity that defined SEC basketball. Or that Tennessee and Kentucky fell short of expectations prior to Selection Sunday. The only thing buoying the season for the majority of the season was a Florida team that maintained the top slot in the polls and won every game it played between a Dec. 2 loss to Connecticut and another loss to the Huskies in the Final Four.

The late-season highs were impressive. But the overall SEC picture was rarely pretty.

What we saw this season: Everything about the SEC was connected to Kentucky before the season began. John Calipari signed six McDonald’s All Americans. Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, but the Wildcats didn't live up to the hype until the NCAA tournament began. They faced multiple Top-25 teams in the nonconference season but beat only rival Louisville.

Their finish, however, was remarkable. Somehow, this young Kentucky team defeated Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach the national championship matchup. Yes, the Wildcats lost. But they recorded one of the season's most impressive finishes in college basketball.

Florida, the first 18-0 team in SEC history, didn’t experience those struggles. The Gators were unstoppable once they got healthy. They dealt with injuries and suspensions at the start of the season, but won 30 consecutive games as a mostly complete unit, even though McDonald’s All American freshman Chris Walker didn't play most of the season. They didn't capture the crown but Billy Donovan's fourth Final Four appearance is worthy of kudos. For most of the year, Florida was the only program that made SEC basketball worth watching.

Georgia matched Kentucky’s 12-6 SEC record, a year after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope left the scene and Mark Fox made an argument for coach of the year.

It all got worse from there, though.

Tennessee's conclusion belied its overall season. Cuonzo Martin returned most of the standouts from a 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA tourney, but Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and a healthy Jeronne Maymon weren't supposed to stumble into the NCAA tournament through a First Four matchup with Iowa. That's what happened, though.

Stumble was the theme of SEC basketball in 2013-14.

In all, four squads cracked the RPI's final top 50. Seven finished in the 90s or higher. Auburn (165) and Mississippi State (243) were at the bottom.

Every league has a basement. But the SEC's was difficult to identify because of the heap of seemingly average squads in the conference.

Missouri, with Jabari Brown leading the way, had some talented players, but a late 2-5 stretch that included road losses to Alabama and Georgia helped knock them off the bubble. Arkansas swept Kentucky but couldn’t manage any other impressive road wins. Johnny O’Bryant III led a talented LSU frontcourt, but the Tigers couldn’t play their way into the tourney either. Same for Marshall Henderson (19.0 PPG) and Ole Miss.

The rest of the league -- Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina -- all finished with sub-.500 records in conference play.

Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee definitely helped the league, but they were anomalies in a subpar conference.

What we expect to see next season: Things could be similar next year.

Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back for Kentucky. They’ll join Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein along with another elite recruiting class (see Trey Lyles, Karl Towns).

[+] EnlargeBruce Pearl
Andrew Synowiez/USA TODAY Bruce Pearl returns to the SEC, but has some work ahead at Auburn.
The Wildcats certainly aren’t alone at the top, but coming off a run to the title game, they appear to have the pieces to win Kentucky’s ninth national championship. Life in Lexington is good.

Florida could also be a national title contender if Kasey Hill and Walker continue to develop. Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith are back, too. But Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Scottie Wilbekin are not. That’s a major blow. But five-star recruit Devin Robinson is the anchor of another strong recruiting class in Gainesville.

The rest of the league is filled with question marks.

Things are fluid at Tennessee, Missouri and Auburn. All three programs have new coaches who have to persuade current players to stay on board and find ways to boost their talent pools for next year in the ninth hour.

Tennessee lost its entire recruiting class -- all four prospects requested and received their releases -- after Martin left for Cal and Southern Miss' Donnie Tyndall replaced him. Bruce Pearl is working the phones now that he's back in the game at Auburn. It's too early to know how the hiring of former Central Missouri head coach Kim Anderson on Monday will affect Missouri’s future, but he won’t have Brown or Jordan Clarkson, who both declared for the NBA draft.

Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey return for LSU. That duo along with 6-foot-11 incoming freshman Elbert Robinson will lead one of the league’s top frontcourts. The Tigers should make a push for an NCAA tourney slot. Anthony Grant lost Trevor Releford, who will be hard to replace at Alabama, but Levi Randolph returns. Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls helped Arkansas beat Kentucky twice last season and could help Mike Anderson’s program earn an NCAA tourney bid next year.

Georgia's Charles Mann & Co. will give Fox the same talents he had on a 12-6 SEC squad last year. If his youngsters grow, the Bulldogs could finish near the top of the conference again.

The return of Kedren Johnson from a year-long suspension would help Kevin Stallings' cause at Vandy. Billy Kennedy has a solid nucleus at Texas A&M. The Marshall Henderson Era is over at Ole Miss. And South Carolina and Mississippi State will try to turn the corner. Again.

Still, Kentucky and Florida will be the teams to watch in the SEC. The rest of the conference? As always, it's difficult to say.


It’s here. Again.

The Kentucky buzz. The Wildcats hype.

You can’t stop it.

On Friday, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison announced their plans to come back for their sophomore seasons.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Harrison twins will provide leadership and even more elite skill to Kentucky's team next season.
On Friday, Kentucky again became the preseason favorite to win the national title.

Doesn’t matter what Las Vegas says. Doesn’t matter if the haters disagree.

Sorry Duke, Arizona and Wisconsin. Kentucky appears to be the team to beat in 2014-15.

Earlier this week, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress chose to return for another season, too. Injured center Willie Cauley-Stein had already committed to returning for his junior season.

Karl Towns and Trey Lyles, a pair of five-star prospects, are two of the top big men in the 2014 class. They’ll be in Lexington, too. But the Harrison twins were the missing pieces.

Who would toss the ball to the Wu Tang Clan of college basketball frontcourts (Marcus Lee will also be in the mix), many wondered, as the brothers considered their futures? Who would run things if the two young stars from Texas decided to turn pro?

Most of those concerns were dismissed Friday. Kentucky now has everything it needs to pursue its ninth national title. The Harrisons matured throughout the season, and by the end of the season, they were the stars who helped the Wildcats reach the national title game.

So, John Calipari has another gold mine. His greatest challenge will involve his rotations, especially in the frontcourt. But Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, a pair of McDonald’s All American guards, didn’t sign with Kentucky to sit on the bench. Any player who attends Kentucky in the Calipari Era probably expects a fight for minutes. Doesn’t mean they like it.

There was a similar concern last season, when Calipari signed six McDonald’s All Americans who didn’t figure things out until it mattered most.

But this year is different, now that the Harrisons are back.

This is Andrew Harrison’s team.

In both 2013 and 2014, Kentucky’s collection of prep superstars suffered from a lack of leadership. Underclassmen leading underclassmen is never the preference for any program. That was, however, the reality for Calipari’s programs in those two seasons.

But Andrew Harrison took control down the stretch last season. He’s young, but he’s also now respected in the locker room as a leader. And Poythress and Cauley-Stein will help him with that assignment, too.

That’s a significant component in the early discussions about Calipari’s rotations. First, rotations are always easier to create when the third and fourth guys off the bench are NBA prospects. That creates an opportunity for balanced substitutions and limited drop-off.

Plus, Calipari will bring more experience off the bench. That helped his team in 2013-14 when Poythress played a key reserve role.

Calipari is less important than Andrew Harrison, however, in regard to rotations and minutes. That’s a locker room issue.

And Andrew Harrison is a presence in the locker room. The Wildcats admitted that they had stretches last season when egos interrupted their progress. Then they all came together prior to the SEC tournament. They were selfless in the postseason. Finally.

Trey Lyles
Courtesy of Jerry HoltTrey Lyles is part of another top-level recruiting class and will be part of Kentucky's deep frontcourt.
Lee rarely played throughout the season, but when Calipari called on him in the NCAA tournament, he was ready. Poythress never pouted about coming off the bench. And when the team needed someone to take a big shot in the final seconds of tight games in the NCAA tourney, they all turned to Aaron Harrison, even though they all could have demanded the rock and the moment.

Some feelings might be hurt in 2014-15. That can happen with any team. But that won’t dominate the locker room and disrupt Kentucky’s potential.

Andrew Harrison won’t allow that to happen.

Sure, he’s still young. But he’s the catalyst for everything that could happen for Kentucky basketball in 2014-15. And his brother, Aaron Harrison, is the star among stars that fueled that run to North Texas.

With Kentucky, the hoopla usually becomes irrational at some point. There was talk about 40-0 last year. Outrage ensued as a result of that chatter.

Still, the Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the major preseason polls. We believed in them. Many expected them to run through the season and end the year with the national title.

That didn’t happen. They were also younger and less experienced than next season’s squad will bed. This stacked recruiting class won’t have to lead. They can just play. There’s less pressure now.

That combination of experience, talent and elite incoming prospects will create another Kentucky commotion in the months before the season. Some will subscribe to the anticipation that points to another Final Four and maybe more for Kentucky. Others will reference the stumbles of the two previous seasons and reject it.

That’s fine, but you can’t find another program that looks as strong as Kentucky does right now.

So you can hop on the bandwagon or dismiss it.

But it’s coming.

Well, really, it’s here.

3-point shot: Tommy Amaker's future

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
11:40
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Andy Katz looks at Tommy Amaker's future at Harvard and SEC-Big 12 challenge field.


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Police dogs sniffed the backpacks and purses of men and women who entered AT&T Stadium on Friday morning. One of the officers claimed that the black Labradors were deployed to search for bombs and other explosive devices.

But that might not be the full story about the security operation. Perhaps they were really there to protect "the tweak."

For weeks, John Calipari has discussed "the tweak." It’s a mystery, but he swears that the tweak changed Kentucky basketball in 2013-14.

It all started about a month ago, as the Wildcats were prepping for the SEC tournament. That’s when Calipari tweaked -- not to be confused with "twerked" -- something within his program. Even though Kentucky lost to Florida by a point in the conference tourney title game, it seemed renewed in Atlanta.

The Wildcats were jelling and connecting in ways that weren’t evident in the previous weeks and months. They were moving the ball and defending better than they had all season.

What changed? Tell us about the tweak.

"I’m not supposed to talk about it, but it has definitely changed the energy of the team and our chemistry," Julius Randle said. "It just improved the team."

Calipari has promised to divulge the tweak sometime in the future. Once the season ends, he said, he’ll discuss the alteration that morphed Kentucky into the juggernaut that it has become in recent weeks.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
AP Photo/David J. PhillipJohn Calipari isn't talking about the adjustments made by the Wildcats.
The media, however, won’t understand the tweak, even when Calipari finally blesses us with a full explanation.

"What I told these guys after I saw what it did, I just said, 'You know what? I screwed this up. Make me look good,'" Calipari said. "And they have. The media doesn’t have enough basketball savvy to figure it out, so …"

Who can blame Calipari for his approach to this? He’s in the middle of a battle for the national championship, and the goal is to maintain a shroud over any strategic maneuverings that could give his opponent the edge. He’ll face a veteran coach and a talented program in Bo Ryan and Wisconsin during Saturday’s national semifinal.

So it’s better to say less right now.

Reveal the tweak? Nah. This is secret societies stuff. Knights Templar. Freemasons. Skull and Bones.

The tweak might be something simple. Maybe Calipari gave Dakari Johnson a pep talk or granted Randle the freedom to annihilate any mortal who dares to stop him.

Who knows?

It’s obvious, however, that the tweak worked.

Randle has been more aggressive and effective in the NCAA tournament. Aaron Harrison has made nearly 50 percent of his 3-pointers in the Big Dance. Andrew Harrison has been a leader.

Johnson and Marcus Lee have contributed. James Young is confident.

The Wildcats snatched a spot in the Final Four after defeating Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.

No team in the Final Four encountered a more difficult path to Arlington, Texas.

No team in the Final Four made the U-turn that this program has experienced over the past month. On Selection Sunday, the Wildcats were a disappointing 8-seed that entered the season as one of the most hyped squads in recent college basketball history.

Then, they lost to Arkansas and South Carolina in SEC play. As a result, many doubted the program’s postseason potential. Inside the locker room, however, Kentucky still believed.

Look at the Wildcats now. Look at the power of the tweak. Tweakability.

Kentucky’s third trip to the Final Four in four seasons? Don’t credit the kids.

Thank the tweak, whatever it was.

"I mean, Coach said don’t give any details about it, so I can’t really say what it is," Aaron Harrison said.

OK, fine.

But what is the tweak? Is it tangible? Can you touch the tweak? Is it edible? Is there video evidence of the tweak? If we close our eyes, click our heels and dream, will the tweak appear?

And where is the tweak? A safe somewhere in Lexington, Ky? A vault in Dallas? Does Jerry Jones have access to the tweak?

"I cannot give any details," said Dominique Hawkins, who wore the look of a young man who knew far more than he disclosed. "I can’t say anything about it."

But maybe it’s not as complicated as Calipari suggests. Maybe it’s simple.

This isn’t the first time a group of young men have unified at the right time. The development of chemistry is a gradual process for most programs. That’s why juniors and seniors discuss their bonds according to years. These Wildcats have been together for only six months, and they’re all freshmen and sophomores.

That makes the tweak even more intriguing.

"I don’t know what the mystery is,” Alex Poythress said, "to be honest."

Young doesn’t mind sharing the secret behind the tweak: The Wildcats have embraced their individual roles and taken a more selfless approach to each game, he said.

"It really wasn’t a tweak," Young said. "It was just us playing hard, I guess, and getting open shots for each other. Just really penetrating."

Added Poythress: "We just came together as a team. We just try to look for open players more, try to play more team ball. Less is more."

Still, that only shows the impact of the tweak.

We still don’t know exactly what it is, and we may never know, because the Wildcats won’t talk about it. There’s a gag order.

And if they beat Wisconsin on Saturday, Calipari will probably mention the tweak again, but don’t expect him to ruin this covert operation.

Leave that to his players.

"I can’t give you details," Johnson said.

It was worth a try.
ST. LOUIS -- Wichita State backcourt mates Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton pondered the question together with forward Darius Carter.

As young fans of college basketball, what did you think of Kentucky?

Baker often watched the Wildcats, he said. His dad was a fan.

[+] EnlargeCleanthony Early
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesCleanthony Early and the Shockers, who are 35-0, face a talented Kentucky squad on Sunday in St. Louis.
"When you hear Kentucky," said Baker, who hails from Scott City, Kan., "you think of basketball."

Cotton, from Marietta, Ga., recalls admiring Jodie Meeks, who attended high school in suburban Atlanta and then starred at Kentucky.

"As a fan of basketball," Cotton said, "you’re going to watch Kentucky."

Carter, from Akron, Ohio, grew up an Ohio State fan, though he was "very aware" of the Wildcats.

So were any of you recruited by UK, even so much as receive a form letter?

“No.”

“No, sir.”

“No. I wasn’t, either.”

And there you have the first layer of irony in the delicious NCAA tournament matchup on Sunday at the Scottrade Center between Wichita State, seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Region and the first team ever to reach 35-0, and eighth-seeded Kentucky, the powerhouse program that began this season with more McDonald’s All-Americans than starting positions and a vision to go 40-0.

The Wildcats are 25-10 and playing better of late, though their performance in shooting 38 percent on Friday in a 56-49 win over Kansas State looked disjointed at times. Additionally, freshman point guard Andrew Harrison is questionable to play against the Shockers because of an elbow injury suffered late in the round of 64 win.

"At this point," Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "I just don’t want my team to make this game bigger than it is."

Imagine that, Calipari concerned that Kentucky -- which won its eighth national title in 2012 -- might make too much of a meeting with Wichita State, the Missouri Valley Conference champion.

Yes, the Shockers made an unexpected run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed last season before losing to eventual champion Louisville, but shouldn’t it be coach Gregg Marshall’s players who peer across the court on Sunday with a desire to make a statement?

After all, Marshall, too, holds UK history in reverence. He watched Jack Givens score 41 points in the 1978 title-game win over Duke and recalls fondly his trips to Rupp Arena as a coach at Winthrop and Marshall.

Marshall joked that with the help of a constitutional amendment, he could schedule a game in Wichita against Kentucky.

The Wichita State coach said he didn’t attempt to recruit any of Kentucky’s five starting freshmen. Probably no one else on its roster, either.

"I haven’t checked all the way down with the walk-ons," he said.

According to Marshall, Wichita State does not recruit even "the second level down from Kentucky."

A year ago, Marshall said, he couldn’t have identified Julius Randle, the Wildcats’ star power forward out of Dallas who signed with Kentucky over Texas, Kansas and Florida.

"It’s just a whole different level of recruiting," Marshall said. "They do what works well for them, and we try to do what works well for us."

It’s working.

To extend its success against an opponent bigger and likely more athletic at four positions, the margin for Wichita State error grows slimmer than normal. Marshall and his players mentioned in separate interviews the importance of rebounding well against Kentucky.

That's quite a task. The Wildcats ranked fifth in the nation in the regular season, averaging 41.3 rebounds against the nation’s No. 2 schedule. Wichita State was 25th in rebounding with a schedule strength of 111th.

On Friday, UK dominated Kansas State on the glass 40-28. Randle grabbed 15 boards to go with a game-high 19 points.

"I’ve never seen a 19-year-old as big as [him] in my life," said Baker, the Wichita State sophomore of the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle.

Even Kansas’ Bill Self, set to coach the second-seeded Jayhawks against No. 10 seed Stanford in the first game Sunday in St. Louis, which tips at 12:15 p.m. ET, recognizes the intrigue of Kentucky-Wichita State.

"It could be very cool," Self said.

"You have Wichita State, who has had the year. Nobody can deny that. They had as good a year [as] college basketball has seen in recent memory. And then you have one of the truest bluebloods. … It should be a fun game."

Just don’t paint the Shockers as an underdog. They don’t feel like the little guys, and the Wildcats know it.

"You know," Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said, "Wichita State has a bunch of swagger right now."

Cauley-Stein, raised in Spearville, Kan., 150 miles west of Wichita, moved for high school to Olathe, Kan., outside of Kansas City. He said he knew little about Wichita State until its recent run of success.

Quite the contrast to the Shockers and their awareness of big, bold Kentucky.

ORLANDO -- Fourteen years ago, No. 5-seeded Florida needed a buzzer-beater in overtime to avoid being upset by No. 12-seeded Butler in the first round of the 2000 NCAA tournament.

Former Florida star Mike Miller's last-second leaner against Butler helped propel the Gators to the Final Four, where they lost to Michigan State 89-76 in the championship game in Indianapolis.

The Gators, the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA tournament, didn't need another last-second miracle Thursday, but they had to work a lot harder than expected in a 67-55 win over No. 16 seed Albany in a second-round game of the South Region at Amway Center.

The Great Danes, who had to beat Mount St. Mary's 71-64 in a first-round game Tuesday night to earn a date against the Gators, made 10 of their first 15 shots, trailed by only six points at the half and then tied the score at 39 with about 14 minutes to play. Florida finally pulled away in the final 10 minutes to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.

[+] EnlargePatric Young
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsPatric Young helped power Florida past Albany on Thursday.
It was hardly the kind of NCAA debut the Gators wanted, but it was their 27th consecutive victory nonetheless. Florida coach Billy Donovan can only hope a closer-than-expected outcome has an effect on this team similar to the close win on the 2000 team.

"The point I made was that in 2000 we were dead in the water in a lot of ways against Butler," Donovan said. "Through that shot and that play, we had a chance to play for it all that year, and my point was that you can't really take anything for granted: a possession, a free throw, nothing. ... That team back there was like, 'Wow, this almost ended,' and it actually created a little bit more energy for our team the rest of the tournament."

The Gators, who haven't lost since a 65-64 defeat at Connecticut on Dec. 2, will certainly need more energy and effort in Saturday night's third-round game against No. 9 seed Pittsburgh. The Panthers walloped No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48 on Thursday. They're bigger, stronger and deeper than the Great Danes, who went 19-15 and finished fourth in the lightly regarded America East Conference.

"We didn't celebrate," Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin said.

For a team that rolled through the past 3 ½ months of the season, nothing seemed to come easy for Florida against Albany. The Gators shot only 3-for-12 on 3-pointers and had only one more assist (11) than turnovers (10). Meanwhile, the Great Danes didn't have much trouble breaking Florida's full-court press, and Albany point guard DJ Evans, a 5-foot-9 senior, scored 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting.

"The way we played -- both on offense and defense -- we weren't together and didn't get into a flow," Wilbekin said. "We all know as a team that we have to play together. We weren't getting it done. The way we played isn't going to cut it. We weren't executing on offense -- on the inside or the outside. We weren't really locked down on defense."

After the Great Danes tied the score at 39 on guard Peter Hooley's foul shot with 14:32 to play, the Gators scored the next nine points to break the game open.

"It's a blessing we get the opportunity to play another 40 minutes of basketball," said Gators center Patric Young, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. "But Coach Donovan was saying to us after the game that this isn't going to be enough to keep our season going. We just need to look at each other and say, 'We know that there's more inside of us and more that we need to give.' "

The Gators will certainly need a lot more against Pittsburgh on Saturday.


ST. LOUIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s sophomore forward, said it.

Apparently, it’s a good thing UK coach John Calipari wasn’t in the room to hear.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t think we can make a run at it,” Cauley-Stein said. “And you know, a lot of people don’t want to see us make a run at it.

“A lot of people think we’re not going to make it past the first round.”

He said the Wildcats, seeded eighth in the Midwest Region and set to face Kansas State on Friday night, expect to “shock the world” in this NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsJohn Calipari wants his players to focus on Kansas State and not on "shocking the world."
Calipari, the veteran of 14 tournaments and four trips to the Final Four, shrugged when told later of Cauley-Stein’s comments.

“Obviously, my 18-year-olds are not listening to me if that’s the statement they make,” Calipari said, a slight smile on his face before his team took the court at the Scottrade Center to practice. “But that’s OK. Now I will go back and kill them, and it will give me another opportunity to say something to them.”

Calipari said he’s harped on his young team not to worry about matters such as shocking the world. Focus on Kansas State, not the entire tournament. The coach said he did not pay attention to Thursday's games as play opened at other sites, though he admitted later to taking note of Tennessee’s comeback win Wednesday over Iowa.

Regardless, the coach, who took Kentucky to the national title in 2012, is locked in.

For a UK roster that includes nine freshmen, it’s not so easy to share Calipari’sense of perspective. Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer from Olathe, Kan., actually rates as an old man among his teammates at age 20.

Youth served Kentucky well two years ago, as it did Michigan last year in its run to the title game.

The Wildcats have shown signs of progress in recent weeks. Kentucky has lost three times to Florida since Feb. 15 but only twice in its past 11 games against other foes.

In the end, Calipari said he hopes his players hear his message but grow closer as a unit because of the pressure-filled circumstances of the postseason.

“I want them to listen less to me and more to each other,” he said. “That’s how they get empowered.”

ATLANTA -- It was an exciting finish in Atlanta, but thanks to that same old stifling defense, No. 1 Florida (32-2, 18-0 SEC) won its fourth SEC tournament championship with a nailbiting 61-60 win over rival Kentucky (24-10, 12-6) inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday.

The Gators, who will enter the NCAA tournament riding a school-record 26-game winning streak, beat Kentucky for the third time this season, a first in program history. Florida will sit down for tonight's NCAA Selection Show ready to likely accept its No. 1 overall seed.

Florida never trailed on Sunday, but almost let this one slip away, as the Wildcats outscored the Gators 30-21 in the second half. Florida shot just 39 percent from the court in the second and gave Kentucky the ball with 14 seconds left and a chance to win after two missed free throws.

Here are five things we learned from the Gators' championship victory.

1. Florida's energy was back: After two slow starts in their first games of the SEC tournament, the Gators were wide awake for the Wildcats. They started the game with two quick 3s from sniper Michael Frazier II and pressed Kentucky out of its offensive rhythm all half. The lackadaisical team that had trouble coming out of the gate the first two days was nowhere to be found, as the Gators laid 40 points on the Wildcats in the first half, shooting 14-of-30 from the floor. Frazier and point man Scottie Wilbekin combined to hit six 3-pointers and score 20 points, while leading scorer Casey Prather got out of his tournament slump by adding nine points. There was a feeling that the Gators might have hit a little bit of a wall with those sluggish starts in Atlanta, but Florida played with the exact energy and passion that a team with so much hype and expectations needs before heading into the Big Dance.

2. There's no quit in the Gators' defense: One thing that Florida can count on night in and night out is its smothering defense. Kentucky entered the game hot on offense after two impressive tournament wins, but its guards were not ready for Florida's press and the Gators' ability to clamp down on the other end of the court. Twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison combined to score 59 points through the first two games of the tournament, but combined to shot 2-of-10 in the first half. Florida forced 12 turnovers and scored 11 points off turnovers. The Gators collapsed down low to take away easy buckets and never let up on the press. Florida has shown time and time again that when its offense struggles, it can more than make up for it with its strong defensive game. Of course, ending the game by not allowing a final shot was a fitting end for the Gators.

3. Kentucky could be a tough team, but … The teamwork and cohesion it had in the first two games of this tournament can't disappear. When the Gators started to frustrate the Cats on the offensive end, they settled for poor shots. That's a quick way to leave the dance. After getting double-digit assist totals in the first two games of the SEC tournament, Kentucky had just nine against Florida. This team has all the talent and athleticism to make a deep run in March, but it has to play together. When the Cats cut Florida's lead down to one during a 14-0 run in the second half, they were working off each other and swinging the ball around to cut through Florida's defense. When they had a chance to win, they got there with teamwork blending with all that talent. Kentucky is playing its best basketball right now because of its new-found dedication to using each other. The Cats are maturing, but they have to stay consistent. A motivated Kentucky team could be very dangerous in March.

4. Florida doesn't panic: Even when Kentucky made things interesting and tried to snatch what seemed for the longest time to be a sure Florida rout, the Gators never panicked. Shots weren't falling and Florida was getting careless with the ball, but players never wavered. They stayed calm and stayed in their game as much as they could. Kentucky went on a 14-0 run in the second half and had the ball with a chance to win at the buzzer, making for a deja vu moment after last year's SEC championship game, when the Gators squandered away a 12-point halftime lead against Ole Miss and lost by three. But that smothering defense left Kentucky without a final shot. That's a very good trait to have in March. Florida now has the pressure of continuing its streak through March and April, but coach Billy Donovan has to be pleased with the fact that this team is prepared for runs. It's prepared for adversity and pressure. The second halves of games, which plagued the Gators in the tournament the last three years, aren't the concern they once were.

5. Florida has to improve at the line: The biggest weakness that Florida has is its free throw shooting. The Gators nearly gave this one away by shooting just 7-of-17 at the foul line. For the tournament, the Gators connected on 27 of 54 free throw attempts. That's not a number you want to take into the Big Dance. Shooting freebies like that will kill a team in March. The Gators have the defense and they go on nice offensive spurts, but they are bad at the foul line. It's hard to win against good teams when you struggle with free throws, and that could be the dagger that sends Florida packing early.


ATLANTA -- It’s the matchup that both sides wanted. It’s what fans lurking inside and outside of the Georgia Dome wanted.

And it’s what anyone with any interest in seeing the SEC tournament final wanted.

Florida and Kentucky.

It’s the nation’s No. 1 team against the preseason favorite to win it all. It’s the talk of “40-0” versus the whispers of Florida possibly making another Elite Eight run.

Kentucky, with all those fancy freshmen, was supposed to waltz through this season on the way to its ninth national championship in school history.

Florida’s road was built with so many unknowns that many still aren’t sure how the Gators got into the position of being the country’s top-ranked team and staring at the No. 1 overall seed, regardless of what happens Sunday.

With the Gators’ feisty 56-49 win over Tennessee and Kentucky’s 70-58 victory against Georgia on Saturday, the stage is set to showcase the SEC’s best teams and the league’s only assured NCAA tournament locks on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeJames Young and Kentucky are excited to get one more crack at Florida this season.
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsJames Young and Kentucky are excited to get one more shot at Florida this season. After losing twice to the Gators, "We want this game bad," Young said.
“I've had enough of Florida,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said jokingly Saturday. “For four years I've seen the same guys. Some of them I think five years. I think they got a special program down there where they keep guys for six years.

“But what a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that.

“My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again.”

Calipari laughed when he said that, but no one would be shocked if that statement carried more truth than anything. The Gators swept Kentucky during the regular season for just the fifth time in school history. The first game was a rugged 69-59 win in Lexington, Ky., while the second was an 84-65 shellacking in Gainesville, Fla., during the Gators’ senior night.

It was a game that stamped a 1-seed on Florida’s Gator head logo and left many wondering if Kentucky could even make any sort of postseason run.

“We played as a bunch of individuals on their senior day,” Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “Now, we’re sharing the ball, and that’s been our turnaround.

“It’s going to be a different feel, like it’s not even the same team.”

After two impressive team wins by the Wildcats and two slow first halves by Florida, Kentucky appears to be a more formidable opponent for the nation’s No. 1 team.

“We want this game bad,” said Kentucky guard James Young, who has averaged 17.5 points in two SEC tournament games. “We’re just going to treat it like every other game and just come out and fight.

“We’re going to come out with a little bit more energy in this game than what we had in the last two games.”

Florida got here with minimal flash and a bevy of teamwork, while the Wildcats took a bumpier, more frustrating path that seems to have smoothed a bit in Atlanta. The Gators have been a cohesive unit for most of the season, leading them to a school-record 25 straight wins and an unblemished conference record for the first time ever. Florida also became the first SEC team to go undefeated during an 18-game SEC schedule.

The question now is if Florida has hit a bit of a wall. The wins continue, but back-to-back shaky first halves have shown holes in the Gators’ armor. A loss Sunday wouldn’t jeopardize Florida’s seeding, but players say they’ve come too far and want the streak to continue into April with a trip to the Final Four and national championship.

“That’s the plan, but we have to do a better job of coming out ready to play because the deeper we get into the season -- the deeper we get into the tournament -- the teams are going to get better,” Florida guard Michael Frazier II said. “So we have to do a better job of being ready to play from the start.”

The thing about these two teams is that they operate in completely different ways. Until recently, the Wildcats have had too much individual play, while Florida has always focused on the unit. Kentucky has a core of high school All-Americans, while the Gators have greatly improved veterans.

Kentucky basketball is exciting and high-flying when it’s clicking. Florida ball is all about fundamentals, defense and control.

Think Miami Heat versus the San Antonio Spurs.

After two days, Kentucky has a little hotter hand, but Florida’s blue-collar approach hasn’t failed the Gators yet.

“We keep pounding the brick, keep pounding the brick,” Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “Eventually, we’re going to break through the wall.”

ATLANTA -- If you ask Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes how he feels about his team’s chances to secure a bid to this year’s NCAA tournament, he keeps it real and confident.

“I feel like the statement already was made before coming into this game,” said Stokes, who had 13 points and seven rebounds Saturday in the Vols’ 56-49 SEC tournament semifinal loss to Florida.

To Stokes, it’s an emphatic statement of, “Yes, Tennessee deserves to be in the field of 68 with our highlighter orange sneakers glistening on the dance floor.”

The 21-win Vols certainly would have all but locked up a spot with an upset of No. 1 Florida, but that didn’t happen after a furious defensive assault by the Gators in the second half. The Vols were 5-of-20 from the field in the final 20 minutes, scoring just 14 points and turning the ball over 11 times after leading by seven at halftime.

Florida totally threw Tennessee out of its rhythm in the second half as the defense clamped down, but losing forward Jeronne Maymon to an absurd technical foul and foul-out with less than five minutes remaining was a major killer.

[+] EnlargePatric Young
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFlorida and Patric Young received a good test from Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals.
But it shouldn’t be a dagger in the back of the Vols’ 2014 season, as Tennessee is playing its best basketball of the season. Entering Saturday’s semifinal, the Vols had won five straight games -- four by double figures – and had a solid RPI (No. 40) that shouldn’t change too much despite the loss.

Their strength of schedule (No. 25) is a plus, and they have big nonconference wins over fellow bubble team Xavier (neutral site) and No. 6 Virginia (87-52), a team that will play for the ACC tournament championship Sunday.

“There aren’t too many teams playing as well as us,” said Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, who scored a team-high 15 points against the Gators. “We fought Florida hard, probably gave Florida one of their closest games all year.

“We’re playing great right now.”

Being on the bubble and on the outside of tournament control has to be excruciatingly nerve-wracking for the Vols, but watching them dominate teams in March should show everyone just how tough this team is. The defense is one of the SEC’s best this year, and the Vols rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. Stokes and Maymon are forces in the middle, and McRae can be lethal when driving and shooting.

“They have two of the best offensive rebounders in our league – two huge bodies up front,” Florida guard Michael Frazier said of Tennessee. “Definitely, they’re a tournament team. They’re a great coached team. We might see them in the tournament again -- you never know.”

Frazier's coach agrees.

“Certainly, I believe they're an NCAA tournament team," Billy Donovan said. “They are going to be, I think ... a very difficult team in the NCAA tournament, from what I've been able to see this year, playing them three times.”

As for the Gators, they again overcame a slow first half to slip by another opponent fighting for an NCAA berth. Florida got its offense going in its second-half rout of Missouri on Friday, but the Gators relied on their suffocating defense Saturday to record their 25th consecutive victory.

When Florida’s offense became careless and lackadaisical and got pushed around Saturday, the defense clamped down, limiting the Vols to one-shot possessions. The Gators' hands were more active, disrupting passes and preventing the easy buckets that fueled Tennessee in the first half.

After giving up 35 points before halftime and yielding their largest deficit in SEC play (10 points) -- the biggest since their 59-53 loss to Wisconsin back in November -- the Gators (31-2) limited the Vols to 1-of-11 shooting with five turnovers in the final seven minutes.

“We wanted them to work for whatever they were going to get,” said Frazier, who had four steals and seven points. “The best thing we did in the second half was get our hands on a lot of balls -- a lot of deflections, steals -- and we were able to turn those into points.”

“We were the more hungry team, and it showed.”

The mystery for this Florida team is why the first half has been so difficult. Saturday marked the eighth time this season that Florida trailed at halftime. Two of those games resulted in losses.

But the Gators bailed themselves out with their defense to secure a spot in their second straight SEC championship game.

“That was the only way we had to get it done,” forward Will Yeguete said. “Only way we were going to get the win was getting done by defense.”


ATLANTA -- The start certainly wasn’t what Kentucky or its fans wanted, but after about seven minutes of watching LSU out-muscle and out-work the Wildcats, Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinal turned into a Big Blue highlight reel.

There were dazzling dunks, slippery steals and bodacious blocks that brought the Georgia Dome, disguised as a little Rupp Arena, to its feet, as the Wildcats thumped LSU 85-67.

“There for a while, I didn’t even realize we were up by 10,” said sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who had six blocks. “We were just playing with so much fun and energy that I didn’t even look at the clock. The game just kinda took care of itself.

[+] EnlargeJarell Martin, Julius Randle
AP Photo/John BazemoreThe Wildcats offense might get headlines, but Julius Randle said it was Kentucky's defense that keyed the win over LSU.
“First fun game in a while.”

A team that entered the SEC tournament as losers of three of their last four and as former Top 25 members, the Wildcats (23-9, 12-6 SEC) met a tenacious, upset-minded LSU team searching for a way to creep into the NCAA tournament. While this certainly isn’t the Kentucky team that John Calipari or Big Blue Nation expected to see at this point, it’s one that gained a little more confidence as it looks to navigate its way to an SEC tournament title before dancing into the NCAA tournament.

But what changed for a team headed by five freshmen that had a knack for playing alone, rather than as a unit?

Something about a “tweak” that Calipari has mentioned but wouldn’t dive into. It was implemented during the Wildcats’ practice Sunday, but the mystery behind it remains just that.

Maybe it was to get guards, starting with point man Andrew Harrison, to penetrate more inside and kick the ball out, which became a staple Kentucky’s offense against the Tigers.

The emphasis on spreading the ball around and finding different ways to score opened the floor up for the Cats, as four of Kentucky’s five starters ended the night in double figures, including Harrison, who had 11 points and eight assists.

The Cats finished the game with 15 assists to nine turnovers.

Maybe it was collapsing on LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant on defense to frustrate him and destroy his rhythm, which the Cats did. They hounded him even more by going right at him offensively, eventually getting him in foul trouble midway through the second half before he fouled out late.

Maybe it was to communicate more and use each other as opposed to going at it alone in a game that this team needed in order to rejuvenate a program that has had a baffling number of personalities all year.

“Regardless of whatever you think the tweak was, it started on the defensive end and that’s what led to us getting easier baskets and us getting a big lead,” said freshman forward Julius Randle, who scored 17.

Whatever the tweak was, it worked for Kentucky and it served as a confidence booster for a team looking to make a couple of postseason runs.

What might be the most impressive aspect of Kentucky’s win was the fact that it had to grind this one out a bit during both halves. The Tigers (19-13, 9-9) opened things up with a 6-0 lead that quickly mounted 22-14 with 12:59 remaining in the first half, until Kentucky rolled off an inspiring 23-3 run to make it 37-25 at the 3:54 mark.

“We knew they were going to make a run,” Randle said. “But, like coach says, when the raindrops hit your shoulders, how are you going to react? I think we reacted pretty good. We were able to bust it back open and ended up winning by 18.”

The Wildcats spread the wealth, as five players scored during their hellacious run, and put a stranglehold on LSU’s once-hot offense, helping them miss 10 of 11 shots during that span and forcing five turnovers.

“It just felt like new season for us,” said freshman guard James Young, who had a game-high 21 points, including 17 in the first half. “We put everything behind us. It started off 0-0, that’s what we feel like.”

There are two things to gain from Kentucky’s dominating win: There’s still work to be done, but this team looked a lot hungrier than the one that sluggishly closed the regular season.

And think of all the missed opportunities in this blowout. Kentucky missed 15 free throws and had a trouble hitting easy shots near the rim at times.

Despite the talent and athleticism the Tigers possess, LSU isn’t a tournament team, so the verdict is still out on how good Kentucky will look when it faces a team that will be playing later this month. But the selfishness and lack of identity that plagued this team all season vanished under the Georgia Dome lights for just one night.

The Cats must keep from reverting to their old, unsatisfying ways, but players say they’ve regained their focus.

This team is far from perfect and it’s probably going to need to play at this level from here on out to end things in a special way, but this team is maturing. It’s staying the course, regardless of its ups and downs.

“The biggest thing is we can’t be happy with it,” Randle said. “We gotta keep going and make a run.”

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