College Basketball Nation: Andy Kennedy

After cops found cocaine and marijuana in a car that Marshall Henderson was driving over the summer, Ole Miss fans feared the worst for the SEC star. Andy Kennedy had previously announced an indefinite suspension for the troubled standout who’d been reprimanded for a variety of antics since his arrival last season.

On Tuesday, Ole Miss threw the book at Henderson. A three-game suspension for incidents in the postseason and his behavior late last season -- a penalty that will cost Henderson the team’s first two SEC games.

The opponents in those league matchups? Auburn and Mississippi State.

[+] EnlargeMarshall Henderson
Benjamin Lowy for ESPNAfter a lot of talk about punishing Marshall Henderson, it seems as if the oft-troubled guard got off light with his suspension.
Harsh, I know.

But it’s typical.

Throughout the offseason, there has been more smoke than fire with regard to possible suspensions of significant players. The punishments will ultimately prove to be meaningless because players involved probably won’t miss a significant chunk of the season or contests that will matter much on Selection Sunday.

In July, North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston was cited for reckless driving weeks after an arrest for marijuana possession and driving without a license. Roy Williams promised “serious consequences” after Hairston was suspended indefinitely following his July citation. But Hairston will return.

He was the star of North Carolina’s “Late Night with Roy” preseason event last week. During the team’s media day earlier this month, Williams told reporters that he’s still undecided on Hairston’s punishment but earlier reports confirmed that he will play at some point in 2013-14.

“He’s been assigned some things that he has to do,” Williams told reporters. “He’s achieved some of those already -- he’s got some more -- and I promise everybody we’re not going to go in on game night and say, ‘Oh yeah, P.J., you’re not playing tonight.’ We’ll make an announcement before that, but right now he’s still going through the process, we’re going through the process and we’ll wait and see what happens.”

Got it.

Rick Pitino seemed furious at Louisville standout Chane Behanan when he recently announced that the forward had been suspended indefinitely and that the earliest he’d return would be early December. He also said that it was “not probable” that the junior would rejoin the defending national champions. That was mid-October. About a week later, Pitino announced that Behanan would return “in a short period of time.”

Oh.

Purdue’s A.J. Hammons, a Big Ten player of the year candidate, will miss two exhibitions and the season opener against Northern Kentucky due to a suspension for misconduct. Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin was suspended for the second time in seven months in June, but he’s back practicing with the Gators.

A memo to the mischievous: If you’re going to mess up, do it during the offseason.

Offseason problems give college coaches the ability to chastise players privately because there are no games for them to miss and there’s less overall chatter about the sport. The timing of the issues allows them to reprimand players without putting them in situations that require them to miss meaningful games. And they can shroud the entire process under the “rules violation” and “internal punishment” tags.

The players involved in some of the offseason’s high-profile mischief haven’t necessarily escaped punishment.

Perhaps Hairston has to run to Charlotte every week and Behanan has to do pushups outside the KFC YUM! Center with the national championship trophy on his back to make amends.

We’ll most likely never know the extent of the chastisement for them or other players in similar situations.

But they’ve avoided predicaments that would have potentially forced them to miss significant matchups had their challenges occurred in the middle of the season.

The offseason fuss has exceeded the actual aforementioned penalties thus far -- although we’re still not clear on the fate of Behanan and Hairston.

Overall, it seems as though the punishments won’t do a lot of damage to the programs that have disciplined key players.

Missing time against the Northern Kentuckys of the college basketball world is trivial.

The suspensions all warranted headlines when they were announced. But come March, we’ll barely remember them if the players return and thrive during the season without creating additional drama.

Seems to work out for everyone involved.
1. Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson is expected to be in class when fall semester starts next week in Oxford, coach Andy Kennedy confirmed. Henderson was suspended earlier in the summer for reportedly failing a drug test. Henderson hasn't been cleared yet. The plan is for him to work on regaining the trust of the department and school before being reinstated. Henderson has been quiet this summer since the suspension. He led the Rebels to the Round of 32 last March and was the leading scorer in the SEC. The Rebels won the SEC tournament, too.

2. UCLA coach Steve Alford said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Monday that he was willing to play his old team, New Mexico, and best friend Craig Neal sometime in the future. But Alford wouldn't commit to a year. Alford should get the game done while his son Bryce and Neal's son Cullen are still in school. The two had a budding rivalry to go along with their close friendship when they were Albuquerque scoring studs. This is a new era out West. In the past, UCLA wouldn't play New Mexico for fear it wasn't a quality game. But now the Lobos are as much of a high-profile game as any game beyond the traditional powers. Playing New Mexico at the Pit -- where Alford said he would be willing to play for a true home-and-home -- would be arguably a better game for the Bruins then their recent series with Missouri. Playing UCLA for the Lobos would be a big deal and another sign the program has arrived on a larger stage.

3. The Super Tuesday schedule was released with two interesting side notes: The amount of exposure for LSU in the SEC and Iowa in the Big Ten. LSU got two high-profile home games against Tennessee (Jan. 7) and Kentucky (Jan. 28). This is a golden opportunity for the Baton Rouge faithful to show their true spirit and ensure the Tigers are a feared road spot. LSU enters the season as a bit of a sleeper in the SEC. Win one or both of those home games on a night when it will be the featured game could give the Tigers shelf-life NCAA-type wins. Iowa is a trendy pick in the Big Ten and was rewarded with three games -- two at home against Michigan State (Jan. 28) and Ohio State (Feb. 4) and one on the road at Indiana (Feb. 18). Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he has an NCAA team. The Hawkeyes won't be short chances with an opportunity to produce advantageous home crowd situations against a few of the top teams in the league.
1. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, appearing on our ESPNU Katz Korner special Thursday night, still hasn't ruled out a return for Marshall Henderson. Henderson is suspended after a violation of team rules (ESPN and media reports cited a failed drug test). But there doesn't seem to be any indication that Henderson has played his last game for the Rebels. If Henderson can stay straight and behave over the next few months, as well as handle all of his requirements that are being placed on him, then don't be surprised at all if he returns to the Rebels in some form next season. That doesn't mean he wouldn't have any kind of game suspension. But I didn't get the idea that Henderson is done playing for the Rebels -- yet.

2. Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, who said he's feeling great now nearly two years after being diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson's, would love to rekindle the rivalries from the Big 12. He said he wants to play Texas but the interest is not reciprocal. He said he wanted to play Baylor in Dallas to start the season but the Bears didn't want to play the Aggies. The SEC's Aggies are playing one former Big 12 school -- Oklahoma -- in a game in Houston next season. Kennedy said he could play eight of the 10 Big 12 schools if the schedule permitted, but the resistance from long-time rivals Texas and Baylor is still too strong. He said he's hopeful that he can one day get the Aggies to play their tradition-rich schools.

3. Air Force coach Dave Pilopovich was on our Katz Korner show as well, but off-air repeated what the NIT told the Falcons last March. The Falcons were deserving of an NIT bid, but their best player Michael Lyons (45 points in a game against Colorado State) was done for the postseason with a knee injury. Pilopovich said the NIT asked him if Lyons could play. He said no. And the NIT then didn't invite the Falcons. They were then forced to go to the CIT. Air Force deserved better and as Pilopovich said the entire Falcons team was punished because of Lyons' injury. The Falcons finished in sixth place at 8-8 in the MWC, one spot behind Boise State. Pilopovich said he thinks the Falcons would have had a shot with a healthy Lyons to earn an NCAA berth. Air Force knocked off UNLV and New Mexico during the regular season. In the CIT, the Falcons won at Hawaii before losing at Weber State. The NIT has to a tough job to field the event, especially with taking automatic qualifiers that didn't win their conference tournaments. But the Falcons deserved a rare NIT berth, even with Lyons being out. I'm not a fan of the selection committee asking if a player can play, an honest answer being given and the rest of the team being relegated to a lower-level tournament.
1. The ACC's commitment should hold off any major expansion or alignment issues, assuming the Big Ten doesn't see the need to raid a lesser conference. This doesn't mean the ACC won't decide independently to go to 16 schools and potentially add Connecticut and Cincinnati. This is still more than plausible since 16 is a more manageable number than 15. Neither makes sense for the Big Ten since that league already has the Cincinnati market with Ohio State and doesn't need Hartford-Storrs. So, if UConn and Cincinnati have to stay in the newly named American Conference they shouldn't be sentenced to purgatory. Having each other, Louisville for a year, and perennial NCAA teams Memphis and Temple will give the two former Big East programs at least three top 50 games every season. If these teams schedule right outside the league -- and they likely will -- then making the NCAA tournament shouldn't be an issue. For those who squabble about the lack of quality opponents in the conference season then remember this: All that matters is tournament access. And UConn and Cincinnati will have a legitimate shot every season to make the field.

2. Providence coach Ed Cooley said it was worthwhile to have Ricky Ledo practice with the team for a season, even though Ledo will never play for the Friars after being declared academically ineligible and he decided to declare for the NBA draft. "The year off helped him see the game differently," said Cooley. "I told him to come to practice with a purpose and within the purpose what is his plan. He definitely improved defensively. We would have loved to have had him. Had he played for us he would have been one of the leading scorers in the country next season. But our guys got to play against him and got better. Our scout team was unbelievable.''

3. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said Marshall Henderson is staying in Oxford this summer, taking classes and working on his game. The high-volume shooter is working on his ballhandling and strength, according to Kennedy. Henderson has to diversify his game if he wants to play in the NBA. He returns for his senior season as one of the storylines and with plenty of hype to lead the Rebels back to the NCAA tournament.
If there was a common meme underlying Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson's various antics his regular-season Auburn-bro-taunting jersey-popping, his Internet photos with alcoholic beverages, his brief postseason flirtation with something like mainstream sports fame, his be-middle-fingered departure from the NCAA tournament's first weekend besides "this dude's crazy!" and "I wonder if I can be the first one to make a GIF of that, for then I shall bathe in a sea of retweets!" it was the one where everyone realized maybe part of the reason Henderson was allowed to do whatever he wanted was because Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy's job was very much on the line.

[+] EnlargeAndy Kennedy
Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY SportsA late-season run, including an NCAA tourney win, helped coach Andy Kennedy earn a new contract at Ole Miss.
Before we go any further, these are not the words of a scold. A lot of the things that rubbed people the wrong way about Henderson were sort of thrilling to me. You can't bemoan modern players' lack of personality and then blanche when the kid wants to have an adult beverage after a first-round tournament win. There are lines, obviously, and the line is probably short of "flipping off the entire crowd after you lose because they said something mean to you." But still. Get over it.

Anyway, as all of that was happening back on that glorious first tournament weekend, there was a certain subtext attached: This chicanery is only being allowed because Henderson is going to -- pause for dramatic effect -- save Andy Kennedy's job.

On Friday, Ole Miss announced Kennedy had signed a new four-year contract, the maximum allowed for state employees, worth $1.8 million per year. Previously, Kennedy made $1.4 million. And so the prophecy had been fulfilled: Henderson was worth all the craziness, all the explanations to media and live-TV scoldings, because he had saved his coach's job.

Except that it's not quite that simple. Yes, Henderson's outside shooting gave Ole Miss a weapon it desperately needed on the perimeter these past, what, five years? Pairing him with big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gave the Rebels a new dynamic they hadn't had in a while, and while Henderson was hardly a model of efficiency (he made 138 of his 394 [!] 3s and shot just 45 .8 percent inside the arc, too) he finished the season with a 113.5 offensive rating on 27.9 percent usage and a 31.6 shot percentage. That's a pretty solid year.

Even so, Ole Miss was a bubble team from January on. In the waning days of the season, the Rebels' at-large tournament odds dwindled to the extent that their run through the SEC tournament where Florida became the only "marquee" victory in the field anyway eventually became a necessity. And while the Rebels pulled it off, it wasn't like Henderson played all that well -- he had more turnovers (seven) than made field goals (six).

Which brings us to the whole point of this story: If Kennedy is in any way going to credit Henderson (and his teammates, obviously) for saving his hide, he better be sending something nice to Bo Ryan's office at Wisconsin, too. Because not only did Ole Miss break Kennedy's tenure-long tournament drought, it got its first NCAA tournament victory in 12 years thanks pretty much primarily to the fact that Wisconsin couldn't lob a pebble into Lake Mendota.

Seriously: Wisconsin, a top-30 efficiency offense for most of the season, finished with .74 points per possession in its lone tournament game of 2013. Traeveon Jackson and Jared Berggren combined to shoot 1-of-13 inside the arc; Ben Brust and Sam Dekker went 4-of-19 from beyond it. The Badgers had one worse performance, a dreadful outing at Michigan State, a month or so prior all season. Henderson, meanwhile, missed 16 of his first 17 shots. He made a couple of key 3s in the late going that helped Ole Miss build a lead, but let's be real. Dude finished with 19 points on 21 shots. That's not exactly single-handedly willing your coach to his four-year extension.

I have a feeling this meme will continue, particularly when we get to November and December and get to see the new and slightly less insane Henderson in action. But if you're going to credit Henderson with saving his coach's job, let's give some love to the Wisconsin Badgers, too. They shot Kennedy into a four-year extension. A fruit basket is the least he could do.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At their shoot-around on Thursday and again during Friday’s win over Villanova, the North Carolina Tar Heels received rousing ovations from an unlikely group of supporters.

Kansas fans.

For nearly a decade almost anyone who called themselves a Jayhawk held resentment toward former coach Roy Williams for leaving KU in 2003 and returning to North Carolina, his alma mater. But if this week is any indication, Kansas fans have moved on and come to appreciate Williams for what he accomplished during his 15 seasons in Lawrence.

“Time heals all wounds,” Williams said Saturday. “The people have been really nice. There have been people driving by on the streets when we’re out walking in the morning that have been yelling and saying nice things.

“I’ve only had one person yell something that wasn’t quite as nice, but that’s part of it.”

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Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsUNC coach Roy Williams hasn't had any success against Kansas, the school he once led. Will that change on Sunday?
Williams’ Tar Heels -- the No. 8 seed in the South Region -- will take on top-seeded Kansas at the Sprint Center on Sunday for a chance to go to the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels are 0-2 against the Jayhawks since Williams became their coach. KU beat UNC in the national semifinals in 2008 and again in the Elite Eight last season.

A lot of the attention leading into each of those games centered on the ill will that some Kansas fans held toward Williams for leaving in 2003, just two years after vowing he’d retire at Kansas. “Benedict Roy” shirts were a hot seller in Lawrence. One barbershop owner went so far as to hang Williams’ picture above his toilet.

This season, though, most of the buzz during Saturday’s news conference centered around the actual game. That had to have been refreshing to both Williams and KU coach Bill Self, who coached for three seasons at Illinois before taking over for Williams.

“Nobody can ever take away that he did a fabulous job and ran a first-class program [at Kansas],” Self said. “Anybody that doesn’t feel that way isn’t real, because that’s the reality of it.

“Since we’ve had a chance to play a couple of times in the tournament, I think there were some story lines [before] that probably aren’t as good of a story line now.”

Self has certainly made it easy for KU fans to move on. By beating No. 16 seed Western Kentucky Friday, Self became the first coach in history to guide his team to four consecutive 30-win seasons. (It should be noted that John Calipari accomplished the feat from 2006-09, but the Tigers’ wins from the 2007-08 season were vacated.)

Kansas has also won nine straight Big 12 titles under Self and one national championship. Self is 299-58 (.838) during his tenure at KU, while Williams is 282-78 with six ACC championships and two NCAA titles at North Carolina.

As much as he hopes to win Saturday’s game, Williams has made it clear that he doesn’t enjoy playing Kansas.

“It’s not immoral to love two schools,” Williams said. “Someone asked me the other day if I would ever consider coming and playing a home-and-home against Kansas. I said no. My athletic director would understand and the Pope will understand, because I will never walk out of that far tunnel. That will never happen.

“I said this before I left Kansas: 'The day I ever walk into Allen Fieldhouse and don’t get cold chills, I’ll know it’s time to stop.' I feel the same way about the Smith Center. If I walk out on game night and don’t have cold chills, I’ll quit."

Kansas City news and notes:

  • North Carolina’s switch to a smaller lineup earlier this season could make things difficult for KU center Jeff Withey, who will likely have to guard players such as James Michael McAdoo outside of the paint from time to time. Withey said the shortage of true centers in the Big 12 has forced him to become a better perimeter defender. “I’ve definitely gotten used to it,” Withey said. “I’ve had to learn to guard and move my feet.”
  • Kansas leading scorer Ben McLemore is averaging just seven points in his past three games -- more than nine points below his average of 16.2. He had just 11 points in 32 minutes against Western Kentucky on Friday, when he only attempted five shots. “He’s young,” Self said of McLemore, a redshirt freshman. “Obviously this is his first time on a big stage. He’s capable of doing it all. When he’s aggressive, we’re better. We’ve just got to get him to be more aggressive.”
  • Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson celebrated Friday’s victory over Wisconsin by hanging out with some of his friends at a bar across the street from the arena. Photos of Henderson (who was holding a clear cup containing a red drink) ended up on Twitter, which prompted Rebels AD Ross Bjork to summon Henderson back to the team hotel. “It wasn’t like he was guzzling a beer,” Bjork said. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy was asked if he approved of Henderson hanging out in bars in between NCAA tournament games. “He’s 22 years old,” Kennedy said of Henderson. “I didn’t give him an alcohol sobriety test. We didn’t make him recite his ABCs backward, but I know this. I know we had a pretty intense 10 o’clock meeting and he was involved in it, as they all were.”
  • LaSalle coach John Giannini said playing in the “First Four” has been beneficial to his team. The No. 13 seed Explorers upset No. 4-seeded Kansas State on Friday. “You’re certainly in a better rhythm,” Giannini said. “If you look at yesterday’s game, it perfectly demonstrated the advantages and disadvantages. One team was really in a rhythm in the first half. There is an advantage to having played, working out some nerves and being comfortable on the court.”

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The NCAA tournament is must-see TV no matter who’s in and who’s out.

The same goes for Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson, whose raw emotion, in-your-face bravado and gunslinger mentality make him one of college basketball’s most entertaining players.

Suffice it to say that Henderson is ready for a little March Madness.

He rebounded from a slow start Saturday to score a game-high 23 points, leading Ole Miss past Vanderbilt 64-52 in the SEC tournament semifinals at Bridgestone Arena.

More importantly, Henderson said there should be absolutely no debate now. In his mind, the Rebels (25-8) are solidly in the Big Dance.

“We’re pumped. We know we made the NCAA tournament now,” Henderson said. “If we didn’t, it would be the biggest snub ever and for the rest of the NCAA tournament.

“We know we made it. We’re in the [SEC] championship and may as well go win it and get us a fat ring.”

[+] EnlargeMarshall Henderson
AP Photo/John BazemoreMarshall Henderson gave Ole Miss fans plenty to scream about last season, including an NCAA tourney win.
Ole Miss will face top-seeded Florida on Sunday in the championship game. It’s the Rebels’ first appearance in the SEC tournament championship game since 2001.

This is the same Ole Miss team that lost to Mississippi State on March 2, the kind of loss that can ruin an entire season. But the Rebels have now won four in a row and six of their past seven, and Henderson said they’re playing their best basketball of the season.

“Everybody in the entire world, even our own fans, thought we were dead and wanted to put our heads on a stake [after the Mississippi State loss],” Henderson said. “We just said, ‘Forget it.’ We really didn’t have any pressure anymore and controlled what we could control.”

There are times when Henderson looks completely out of control. He launches off-balance 3-pointers. He taunts opposing fans (and sometimes the opposing bench) and says exactly what’s on his mind.

The one thing he’s not is boring.

He put on a dribbling exhibition in the final minutes Saturday that Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters would have loved.

“That’s just who I am,” said Henderson, who missed his first five shots Saturday but came roaring back to make seven of his last 12.

He admits that he enjoys being the villain and is keenly aware of what a successful run in the NCAA tournament would do for his legacy.

“People come up to me off the court and talk about this and that,” Henderson said. “Off the court, I like to wear my hat, my hoodie and some shades. It was cool at first, but kind of annoying now. But the last couple of NCAA tournaments, you’ve seen a Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette.

“I’m trying to be them and get a run and make a name for myself ... so I can get this money.”

Noticeably, Henderson wasn’t brought to the podium for the postgame news conference Saturday. That was after he put on a show Friday night.

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy hasn’t wanted to do anything to dampen Henderson’s passion, but Kennedy has reminded him at every turn that he can’t get carried away.

“His passion comes from a good place. It really does,” Kennedy said. “It’s a matter of staying focused. He can easily get distracted and turn his energy into things that are not as productive for anyone.

“I’m constantly challenging him to be focused. I’m really proud of the way he’s grown throughout the course of the year.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The SEC bubble teams had been dropping like flies on Friday.

Tennessee fell flat on its face and so did Kentucky, both double-digit losses that were major blows to their respective NCAA tournament hopes.

With just more than 13 minutes to play in the final SEC tournament game of the day at Bridgestone Arena, Ole Miss found itself in a similar predicament.

The Rebels were down 13 points to Missouri, and the NIT was calling their name.

“We’ve been down so many times this season, but we fight back. That’s what we do,” Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson said. “We’re not dumb. We watched ESPN all day and saw all those other teams lose.

“We were like, ‘Dang, let’s just come here and take what was ours.'"

Henderson, the SEC’s pre-eminent lightning rod, poured in a game-high 27 points for the Rebels. But it was freshman guard Derrick Millinghaus who was the hero. His floater in the lane with 1.1 seconds to play capped a furious Ole Miss rally and lifted the Rebels to an emotional 64-62 victory over the Tigers.

“He made a New York point guard play, splitting those defenders and floating it above 6-[foot-]9 guys trying to swat it out clear to the bleachers,” said Henderson, who dumped the ball off to Millinghaus after being doubled on the play.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Millinghaus, Marshall Henderson
P Photo/Dave MartinDerrick Millinghaus, who hit the winning basket, and Marshall Henderson, left, who scored 27, celebrate Ole Miss' victory over Missouri.
The Ole Miss players, with Henderson leading the way, celebrated like they’d just won the NCAA tournament and piled on top of Millinghaus at center court. Henderson even jumped up on the scorer’s table and whooped it up "Hotty Toddy" style with the Ole Miss fans.

“I play with that emotion all the time, but we wanted that game,” Henderson said. “We knew that was a huge game for us. That was a huge message we sent out to the rest of the country.”

Obviously, the only guarantee will be if the Rebels (24-8) can win two more games and gain the automatic NCAA bid by winning the SEC tournament. Still, it’s difficult to see them not getting an at-large bid at this point regardless of what happens in Nashville the next two days. They face Vanderbilt on Saturday in the semifinals.

In his latest projection, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Ole Miss as one of the “last four in.” The Rebels have won five of their past six games.

“I know the NCAA tournament doesn’t officially start until next [Tuesday], but we just gave you a precursor,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “That was a first-round NCAA game between two NCAA tournament teams.”

Millinghaus was filling in for starting guard Jarvis Summers, who suffered what Ole Miss officials think was a concussion during the game. Millinghaus’ game winner wasn’t his only big shot. He drained a 3-pointer with 31 seconds to play to tie the game at 62-62 after Phil Pressey had put Missouri ahead with a 3-pointer just seconds earlier.

Millinghaus scored all 11 of his points in the final 6½ minutes of the game.

“I just wanted to win. That’s what I wanted to do,” Millinghaus said.

Missouri (23-10) again found a way to lose a game away from home, which has been a recurring theme for the Tigers this season. They made just two baskets in the final 8:49.

No play, though, was any more costly for Missouri than an errant inbounds pass by Laurence Bowers, giving the ball back to Ole Miss with 27 seconds remaining and setting the stage for Millinghaus’ game winner.

“We were on death row, and in order to get off death row, you’ve got to make a play,” Kennedy said. “We were fortunate to make one at the end.”

Henderson said the Rebels aren’t taking anything for granted and want to take the decision out of the selection committee’s hands. Ole Miss last went to the NCAA tournament in 2002 and has never been under Kennedy despite winning 20 or more games six times.

“We’re still not done,” Henderson said. “There are no guarantees. We’re Ole Miss. Everyone likes to hate on Ole Miss. We know it’s difficult at Ole Miss to get something done, so we need to come back in here tomorrow and play with the same energy and same aggression.”

That’s never a problem for Henderson, who was still screaming in the hallways as he strolled to the postgame news conference. He never quits talking on the court, either, and revels in taunting fans and players.

A couple of different times Friday he was warned by officials, and Missouri assistant coaches were incensed when he gestured to the Tigers bench heading to a timeout.

“I’m a manipulator of sorts and love messing with people’s minds,” said Henderson, who has scored 20 or more points 16 times this season. “It’s pretty funny to mess with people like that. It’s a freakin’ game, and people take it so seriously. It’s funny for a little white guy like me to come around and talk trash to people in the stands.”

He was still chirping after the game -- and accused most of the Missouri players of not shaking the Ole Miss players’ hands.

“We didn’t expect it. We hate each other,” Henderson said. “I think we just created a really big rivalry in the SEC between Ole Miss and Missouri. That’s good.”
In addition to plenty of just-plain-great games -- Louisville's win at Syracuse, Marquette's big home win over Notre Dame, that amazing Duke-Miami thriller at Cameron Indoor Stadium -- Saturday was also filled with bubble action, from the start of the day to its finish.

That's typical, of course; this is the time of year when NCAA tournament at-large selection very rapidly shifts from the theoretical to the concrete. What isn't so typical is the level of carnage wrought on this Saturday, the sheer number of teams with bubble hopes that suffered losses -- some of them devastating.

How do I know Saturday was a bubble massacre? Your Tennessee Volunteers -- a new bubble entity this week after their victory over Florida -- managed to lose at Georgia (RPI: 142), 78-68, and, according to our own Joe Lunardi, moved into the bracket. Yeah. That happened.

That is one of the things worth remembering about the bubble, of course: It's all relative. We need to get to 68 teams somehow. And if everyone falls apart, maybe, in the end, no one does.

Here is your Saturday Bubble Watch update:

WINNERS

Creighton: For months, Creighton had no place in the bubble conversation. It was assumed, and not unfairly so, that the Bluejays and star forward Doug McDermott would rather effortlessly coast through Missouri Valley Conference play, maybe suffer an upset or two, and not have to worry much or at all about locking up an at-large bid in case Arch Madness proves to be exactly that.

And then things came apart. Creighton dropped a game at Drake. McDermott's scoring dried up in a hard fall at Indiana State, which was followed by a close home loss to Illinois State and a 61-54 upset at Northern Iowa. The Bluejays barely got past Evansville -- a fourth straight loss would have started a major panic -- and last Saturday's trip to Moraga, Calif., for a BracketBusters matchup with Saint Mary's didn't go so well, either. All of a sudden, Creighton, a lock in our Bubble Watch since the month-old first edition, was at semi-serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament.

Its fans can breathe easier now. McDermott's 15-of-18 shooting, 41-point masterpiece led the Bluejays to a 91-79 win over Wichita State -- another surefire tournament team in its own right -- Saturday afternoon. If there was any doubt in the selection committee's mind, having your All-American reclaim his status with a Bill Walton-esque shooting performance over the best competition your league has to offer should just about shore everything up. Finally.

Boise State: Boise State will be just as thrilled about the aforementioned Bluejays' big win -- all season, Boise State's best bubble credential has been its surprising late-November win at Creighton. That win looks much better now.

But Boise State should mostly thank itself, and by "itself," I mean Derrick Marks. Marks had a McDermott-like day: 38 points on 13 of 18 from the field with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Most important is he did it in a 78-65 win over Colorado State, a top-20 RPI team and a very good one to boot. (It's worth making a distinction, as teams ranked in the top 20 in the RPI aren't always actually good, but CSU definitely is.) Marks put his team on his back, to steal a phrase from that awesome Marshawn Lynch YouTube video, and the combination of a win over Colorado State and Creighton's big win will put Boise back into the serious at-large conversation -- the fifth team from the nine-team Mountain West to deserve such talk.

Oklahoma: The Sooners snuck up on us this season. It's OK to admit it: No one really expected much in Lon Kruger's second year in Norman, and if there was any expectation at all, it was to keep getting better and maybe surprise a few people in an otherwise-down Big 12. But Kruger's group of unheralded, workmanlike guys has done much more than that. By now, the Sooners have all but locked up an NCAA tournament bid. Sure, sure: There was that loss at Texas earlier in the week, but Oklahoma's convincing win over bubble-stuck Iowa State on Saturday was huge, and the Sooners' computer numbers -- a No. 29 RPI, a No. 9-ranked SOS, a No. 28 nonconference schedule figure -- and big wins over Kansas and Oklahoma State make them impossible to ignore. They have West Virginia and TCU left. If they handle business, they're in.

Massachusetts: It is worth noting, of course, that even after beating Memphis at home this week, Xavier's RPI is still just No. 87. It is also worth noting that the Minutemen's only top-50 win came at La Salle, which, while a decent team, is nobody's idea of a season-defining power. But even after noting all that, we should also note that UMass won at Xavier on Saturday, something the touted Memphis Tigers were unable to do just a few days prior. That definitely counts for something. With a home game against Butler next on the docket, Derek Kellogg's team still has time to make some noise — or at least reverse the damage of last week's loss at St. Bonaventure.

Arkansas: So, what's a home win over Kentucky worth these days, anyway? It's a good question: The Wildcats beat Missouri in their own building just seven days ago, but that's their only top-50 win of the season, and it's safe to say the selection committee won't hold John Calipari's team in vaunted regard with injured forward Nerlens Noel out. So it's hard to know how much this victory can aid Arkansas' late push toward the bubble finish line. But I do know this: It can't hurt. On a day when so much of the rest of the bubble, particularly the SEC versions, seemed intent on imploding, a win over a fellow bubble team counts as a totally positive development. (A win at Missouri on Tuesday would be even better.)

California: Hey, remember when Cal was kind of bad? It happened this season, I swear it did -- it was just Dec. 29 when a depleted Harvard toppled the Bears in Berkeley, after all. You can be forgiven if you don't quite remember, because it hasn't been the case for weeks. On Saturday, Cal rattled off its seventh consecutive win, a 62-46 destruction of visiting Colorado. This stretch began with a win at Arizona and included a home victory over UCLA and a win at Oregon. With no bad losses weighing them down, I'm not sure how the Bears could miss out on the tournament now.

UCLA: The Bruins completed their season sweep of Arizona Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA wasn't really on the bubble -- not like some of these other poor, desperate souls -- but even so, it's safe to say sweeping the Wildcats makes you a lock. This file is officially closed.

LOSERS

Kentucky, Tennessee, and — gulp — Ole Miss: Does anyone from the SEC actually want to go to the NCAA tournament? Is everybody already thinking about spring football? What on Earth is going on?

We talked about Kentucky in the Arkansas blurb; the Wildcats remain one of the more intriguing at-large cases for the committee to handle, but I'm not sure their status as a just-above-the-bubble squad was totally damaged by a loss at Arkansas. And Tennessee, as we mentioned in the intro, managed to lose at Georgia and still move into the bracket. Wait, what? Huh? How does that happen?

[+] EnlargeAndy Kennedy
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndy Kennedy has seen Ole Miss turn a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mark after Saturday's ugly loss.
The answer brings us to Ole Miss.

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State. It's a little bit difficult to explain how bad this loss is without sounding a little bit mean to the Bulldogs, but I don't live in the South, so I don't have to couch my insults with the written equivalent of "Bless your heart": Mississippi State is horrible. Awful. The Bulldogs were riding a 13-game losing streak, to no real fault of theirs or their coach's, as -- thanks to injuries and being at the start of a rebuilding process -- Rick Ray has just seven scholarship players at his command this season. Mississippi State's RPI is No. 236. It began Saturday ranked No. 277 in the KenPom.com efficiency rankings, just one spot below mighty Samford. Many fans believe this to be not only the worst Mississippi State team, but the worst Southeastern Conference team of all time.

That team beat Ole Miss on March 2.

Not only is it a disaster for the Rebels, who have lost in recent weeks at Texas A&M and South Carolina and have turned a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mess, it's also a disaster for coach Andy Kennedy, who began the season on the proverbial hot seat and needed this Ole Miss team to be the redeemed group that got back to the NCAA tournament. It looks less likely than ever that is going to happen. And why? Mississippi State. It doesn't get much worse than that.

Arizona State: Speaking of stalled redemption songs, it's been hard to not root this season for the Sun Devils, who soaked up freshman point guard Jahii Carson's dynamic skill like a sponge en route to a very legitimate spot in the at-large conversation, a far cry from the depths of the let's-just-pretend-it-never-happened 2012 campaign. But Herb Sendek's team appears to be fading a bit late: It fell at home to Washington last Saturday, missed a close one at UCLA on Thursday, and suffered an absolutely brutal 57-56 loss at USC on Saturday. The Washington loss was easily the worst, but because USC began the season so poorly (before it fired coach Kevin O'Neill), a one-point loss looks worse for bubble purposes than it actually is (as USC has been playing really good basketball for about a month). Just tough breaks here.

St. John's: This week, the Red Storm suspended D'Angelo Harrison, one of its most gifted and frustrating players. Whether that departure can be blamed for Saturday's loss is questionable; what I do know is a loss at Providence for a team with an already very shaky bubble case is not a good thing. You probably know that, too. Failing two wins in its final two regular-season games -- at Notre Dame, versus Marquette, good luck -- Steve Lavin's team may well miss the tournament.

Iowa State: Poor Cyclones. Really. Sure, Saturday's 86-69 loss at Oklahoma was ugly on the score line, but a) Oklahoma's good, and b) can you really blame Iowa State? After what happened in Hilton Coliseum this week? Being on the receiving end of one of the worst calls of the season -- in a sport that feels ever more infected by awful officiating -- hurts. Not beating Kansas when you should following an emotionally intense performance. Seeing Fred Hoiberg's young child crying on the sideline hurts. Of course, no one in that locker room will be throwing a pity party, nor should they: Iowa State still has a very good chance of getting into the Dance. But the Wednesday home game against Oklahoma State looms large.

Indiana State: Ah, Sycamores. You thrilled us with your win over Miami at the Diamond Head Classic; you dazzled us with victories at Wichita State and against Creighton. Unfortunately, you've now lost five of your past six, including Saturday's loss at Evansville (RPI: 100) and defeats to Missouri State (RPI: 212), Bradley (RPI: 171) and Drake (RPI: 131). Failing a deep run in Arch Madness, the dream appears to be over.

Akron: Before Saturday's shocking loss at Buffalo, a 12-17 team with an RPI of 241, Akron's last loss came on Dec. 15. Hopefully the committee takes that into account, because this really is a good team. But the margin for error for mid-majors like Akron is always razor-thin. You can't lose random league games to bad opponents, and when you do, you should probably pick a team that isn't Buffalo. It'll be really interesting to see how this résumé will be viewed going forward.

SURVIVORS

Temple: Temple had just regained its footing. The Owls had a rough, wild February, wherein they played five consecutive one-point games in conference play, a stretch that included a home loss to Duquesne. But things were looking up: A win at UMass, a home non-one-point-win over La Salle, a double-digit win at Charlotte, and Thursday's solid home victory over Detroit all injected a little life into an at-large profile that included a big win over Syracuse, a nice win over Saint Louis, and not much else. And surely the Owls would take care of things at home against Rhode Island on Saturday, right? Wait … right?

Right. Phew. Temple held on for a 76-70 victory over a Rhode Island team that has played a lot of its Atlantic 10 foes really tight in the past two months; shaking the Rams off is no easy feat. (Just ask Saint Louis, which last lost when Rhody upset the Billikens in Saint Louis. True story.) That Temple was able to do so must have elicited a major sigh of relief from fans, and coach Fran Dunphy, and not necessarily in that order.

Cincinnati: It's hard to say Cincinnati would have been in bubble trouble with a home loss to Connecticut on Saturday, but our eyebrows would have been ever so slightly raised. It would have been Cincinnati's fourth straight loss, after all, albeit to three solid-to-great (UConn, Notre Dame, Georgetown) Big East teams. The Bearcats held on for a five-point win over Kevin Ollie's scrappy guys, and there's little reason to raise eyebrows now.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Alabama: When you're a bubble team in the SEC -- oh god, here we go again -- you don't get many opportunities for marquee wins. Missouri is decent but not great, whether in the RPI or otherwise. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss don't come anywhere close. (Obviously.) Really, your only opportunity to drastically change the perception of your team or the trajectory of your season -- or both -- is to beat Florida. Florida's really good. If you can knock the Gators off, you deserve to be viewed differently. If you can do it at Florida? You should probably get into the NCAA tournament on sheer principle, which is why Alabama's 12-point loss in Gainesville on Saturday, while expected, is still a missed opportunity: Shockingly enough, the Crimson Tide had Florida well within striking distance as late as the final two minutes of regulation. That final score is a mirage; this game was close, and Alabama just couldn't quite get there when it counted.

Baylor: It's been easy to poke fun at Baylor this season. The Bears play a wacky zone defense. They've probably underachieved. Those uniforms. Etc. But I refuse to make fun of Baylor after Saturday's absolutely brutal last-second loss. It would be easier than ever. The Bears did inbound the ball out of bounds over the the full length of the court without touching it with one second left, and then allowed Rodney McGruder to get free and fire a game-winning 3-pointer within that one second on the ensuing baseline out-of-bounds play. That's a borderline-comical way to lose. But it's also incredibly brutal.

That is, of course, in part because Baylor desperately needed a big win to buttress its bubble case; the Bears are directly atop the bubble right now, and the biggest flaw in their résumé is their lack of marquee wins. The visit from Kansas State was a plum opportunity to knock off a really good team with a really good résumé, and Baylor was just that close.

"Ouch" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Coach 'envious' of Marshall Henderson

February, 18, 2013
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Andy Kennedy gets it.

He understands that college basketball’s must-see one-man act boosts his program and its profile.

Sure, the Rebels have warranted national attention after a strong start that led to a national ranking. But Ole Miss is often mentioned in college basketball’s daily dialogue in part because we’re all waiting to see what Marshall Henderson will do next.

Well, in case you missed it, Henderson did this following Saturday’s 84-74 win over Georgia in overtime (Nick Birdsong, AL.com, Birmingham News):
Marshall Henderson didn't stand up, stretch out both his arms, drop the mic, point at those facing him and exit stage right like Eddie Murphy's character "Randy Watkins" in "Coming to America" but the always confident and sometimes, cocky, depending on who you ask, might as well have.

Following his 25-point performance, including 10 straight at a critical juncture in the second half of the Rebels' 84-74 overtime win against Georgia, the skinny 6-foot-2 junior, who leads the SEC in scoring at 19.5 points a game, gave media members just one quote.

But boy was it memorable.

"If it's all the same," Henderson said. "It's Saturday night. I'm out."

Then, he proceeded to evacuate the premises at Tad Smith Coliseum.

Henderson, a junior in his first season in the league after leading South Plains College Texas) to an undefeated record at 36-0 and a JUCO national championship last season, has made a name for himself with his play and propensity to exercise his freedom of speech and say whatever he pleases.

He's a large reason why the Rebels began SEC play 6-0 and were ranked as high as high as No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll before dropping four of their past six.

He's the same guy who said his team would beat Tennessee "ten times out of 10" and popped his jersey in front of Tigers fans after sinking a pair of free-throws to beat Auburn on the road last month.

When Kennedy was asked about the latest “Marshall being Marshall” moment on Monday’s SEC teleconference, he chuckled.

But he didn’t criticize the SEC’s top scorer (Henderson is averaging 21.3 ppg). He’s embraced him and his persona, which fueled Saturday’s “The King has left the building” moment.

“Marshall and I have constant dialogue about making good decisions,” Kennedy said during the teleconference. “That was all in fun. … He just has fun with a lot of things. Sometimes, I’m envious of his nature. He seems to be enjoying it a lot more than I am.”

But Kennedy is enjoying it, too.

Henderson is an enigma that’s made college basketball more interesting and intriguing in 2012-13.

Kennedy could police his star and provide public critiques of his antics. Instead, he acknowledges that he knew what he was getting into when he signed Henderson.

Is Henderson over the top sometimes? Yep. And I’m sure Kennedy challenges him when necessary.

He also recognizes, however, that it’s OK to have a little swagger, even at the collegiate level. He’s also smart enough to know that we wouldn’t be talking about his program as often if Marshall wasn’t so busy being Marshall.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Fourth-ranked Florida was finally tested in Southeastern Conference play on Saturday night.

The Gators had a little trouble, but they still aced it.

Florida never trailed and led by double digits for more than 30 minutes in a 78-64 victory over Ole Miss in front of 12,522 at the O’Connell Center. The 14 points was the lowest margin of victory the Gators have had in SEC play -- and they still were never in danger of losing the game.

"This was our toughest game, by far," point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "They didn’t make it easy on us. We had to come out and play our best basketball. They had a lot of different weapons and we just had to try and shut them down."

Florida (18-2, 8-0 SEC) had won its previous seven SEC games by an average of 28.3 points. The Gators had beaten four opponents by 31 or more points and the closest game they had played was a 17-point victory at Georgia -- a team they had beaten by 33 points to open league play.

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
AP Photo/Phil SandlinFlorida's Scottie Wilbekin shoots a 3-pointer on his way to 13 points against Ole Miss.
Florida took a double-digit lead with 10 minutes, 20 seconds remaining in the first half and Ole Miss (17-4, 6-2) never got closer than 12 points in the second half. That’s despite getting 25 points from Marshall Henderson, who made 7-of-11 3-pointers. The SEC’s leading scorer had to work for his points, though, and made several leaners and tough shots over Wilbekin and guard Kenny Boynton.

"He’s going to get his shots up," UF forward Erik Murphy said. "He’s going to get to the free-throw line. He’s really good at that. He’s crafty. We just wanted to try to limit his open shots. I think we did a pretty good job of that. He hit some tough ones. Some of the shots he hit, up-and-under, step-in, floater 3s, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody do that."

But even with Henderson and Murphy Holloway (15 points, seven rebounds), the Rebels were no match for the Gators. Murphy scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds, center Patric Young had a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) and Wilbekin added 13 points and seven assists. Boynton had a career-high 10 assists and only two turnovers.

UF forced 13 turnovers and Ole Miss had just five assists on 21 baskets. Henderson went 8-for-15 from the floor, but the rest of the team went 13-for-40 from the field (32.5 percent) -- including 0-for-6 from 3-point range.

Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said he’s never seen anything like the Gators’ defensive performance Saturday.

"This is my seventh Florida team to play [and] one of those was the national championship team that had NBA lottery picks on it," Kennedy said. "I don’t even remember a Florida team guarding with that intensity. I was really impressed with the way they defended.

"… I was hoping that Florida would have a little drought. Just a two-, three-minute phase where they go bored -- and they never got bored."

Florida is now in control of the SEC. The Gators have a two-game lead over Ole Miss, Alabama and Kentucky, all of whom are 6-2. UF’s 8-0 start to league play is the school’s best since the second of the Gators’ back-to-back national championship teams started 11-0 in 2007.

"We’re happy where we are, but it’s just so quick," Boynton said. "There are 18 games in the SEC schedule so it could change. We’ve got to take each game one at a time."

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

February, 1, 2013
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Here we go again. This week’s SEC power rankings:

1. Florida. In the 1980s, Mike Tyson was a brutal force who tore through boxing’s contenders with an ease that few, if any, pugilists had ever achieved. But Tyson had a problem. He didn’t beat guys who would have been considered contenders in more vibrant eras in the heavyweight division. So it’s tough to assess his legacy. Yes, he was dominant. But whom did he fight? That’s Florida’s challenge right now. The Gators are destroying the SEC. They’re one of three teams in the past 25 years that have defeated their first seven conference foes by 15 points or more, according to Elias. But they’re in a league that’s clearly one of the worst conferences in America. Still, they held a high-major program (South Carolina) to 10 points in the first half of a 39-point victory this week. That’s impressive regardless of whom they were playing.

2. Ole Miss. So Destiny’s Child just dropped a new track called “Nuclear.” The song created a buzz because folks were convinced that Beyonce & Co. would get back together. But that hasn’t happened. The bottom line is that the track is like every other “group” effort by the pop trio: a lot of Beyonce and a little bit of the other two women/members whom most folks can’t name (Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland). Marshall Henderson turned into Beyonce when Kentucky visited Ole Miss on Tuesday night. He made the night about Marshall Henderson instead of his team. He took bad shots. He played to the crowd. He got into a verbal spat with coach Andy Kennedy. And he threw a piece of ice toward fans. Great theater. But he didn’t lead the Rebels to a win. There was just too much of him and not enough of everyone else in that crucial game.

3. Kentucky. About a decade ago, Dr. Dre promised hip-hop fans that he would deliver one of the greatest rap albums of all time: “Detox.” He has teased with a variety of leaked tracks. But he hasn’t delivered the full project, only glimpses of what it might be. That’s how I feel about this Kentucky team right now. I think the Tuesday victory at Ole Miss was a great showcase for a Wildcats squad that could emerge as Florida’s greatest threat in the coming weeks. It was a dominant performance, especially for Nerlens Noel (12 blocks). But we shouldn’t forget the loss to Alabama. Or Texas A&M (at home). Or Baylor (also at home). The Wildcats have potential, and they proved it again when they beat the Rebels. But I’m weeks away from believing that it was anything more than one impressive effort by a team I can’t trust yet.

4. Alabama. The Crimson Tide beat Kentucky last week, lost to Tennessee over the weekend and squeezed past Arkansas for a 59-56 victory that was decided in the final seconds Thursday night. Where would you rank them? I could leave Bama here. I could also move Anthony Grant’s squad down two or three spots. I’m not sure that this is the fourth-best team in the SEC. But I don’t have any evidence that it’s not the fourth-best team in the league, either. And that’s the problem with this conference. By now, Bama over Arkansas should mean something. It should have offered proof that one team was moving forward and the other was moving in the opposite direction. It didn’t really do that. Neither team played well. Arkansas went 3-for-19 from beyond the arc. Bama committed 19 turnovers. I’m not sure one team is really better than the other. And that’s the story of the SEC -- after Florida of course -- right now.

5. Missouri. Here’s the essence of the conversations I’ve had with Mizzou fans for the past two weeks via the Twittersphere. Me: “Missouri is not as good as its ranking suggests. The Tigers have bigger issues than Laurence Bowers’ injury and absence.” Mizzou fans: “You’re wrong. We’ll get Bowers back. We’ll be fine.” Me: “But their ballhandling is inconsistent, they’re not defending the 3-point line and … ” Mizzou fans: “Dude, Bowers will be back. And we’ll be fine.” Well, Bowers returned … and the Tigers lost at LSU 73-70 on Wednesday night. LSU is 12th in the league with a 39.3 percent overall mark from the field. But LSU -- which has lost to Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina -- shot 55 percent against Mizzou. This is the same Tigers squad that averaged 0.9 points per possession through the first six games of SEC play, 12th in the league according to John Gasaway. Confused yet?

6. Tennessee. The Vols might the most intriguing team in the conference after Kentucky. They lost their first three SEC games but they’ve won three of their past four, a stretch that includes a win over Alabama. Jarnell Stokes finished with double-doubles in those three victories. When he plays to his full potential, the Vols are clearly a different team -- one that’s capable of competing with most of the squads in this league.

7. LSU. Yep, the Tigers beat a nearly complete Missouri squad (Keion Bell did not play) Wednesday night. But they’ve also lost to Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia. … And they’ve beaten a Missouri team that entered the conference slate as Florida’s toughest competitor. So I guess they’re seventh. Why? Because the SEC just doesn’t make much sense, especially after LSU pulled off one of the biggest wins by a team in the bottom tier of the league.

8. Arkansas. The Razorbacks are a solid offensive group that struggles in games that aren’t track meets. They’re averaging 66.4 points per game in SEC play, fifth in the league. Yet they’re last in 3-point shooting (23.9 percent). And they’re really limited to whatever Marshawn Powell and BJ Young can give them each night. The duo accounts for 41 percent of Arkansas’ offensive production. So every night is a toss-up, especially for a program that’s ranked 104th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.

9. Georgia. Mark Fox has only one scorer averaging double figures (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at 17.5 points per game). But he’s making up for those offensive gaps with the 3-ball. The Bulldogs, who’ve won three of their past four, have hit 36.2 percent of their 3-pointers, third in the SEC.

10. Texas A&M. Between now and Feb. 13, the Aggies will play Kentucky (again), Missouri and Ole Miss. This is an important stretch for a program that has disappointed since a Jan. 12 victory at Kentucky. The Aggies are holding SEC opponents to 58.0 PPG (tied for second in the conference) but they’re only scoring 58.4 PPG (12th). Elston Turner's recent turn of inconsistency hasn’t helped.

11. Vanderbilt. Four of the Commodores' past six games have been played on the road. So the young program’s fortunes could change in the coming weeks, because four of its next five games are at home, a stretch that does not include matchups against Kentucky, Ole Miss, Florida or Missouri. The Commodores have lost two SEC games by two points or fewer. They lost to Ole Miss in overtime. Their 61.5 percent mark from the charity stripe (last in the SEC) won’t help the Commodores secure future wins in similar scenarios.

12. Mississippi State. The Bulldogs kicked off the SEC with promise by winning their first two games. But they’ve lost their past five. Their greatest challenge? Turnovers. They’ve averaged 18.3 per game in SEC play. That and a defense that’s giving up an SEC-worst 70.7 PPG.

13. Auburn. Tony Barbee's program isn’t much better. Auburn’s SEC opponents have averaged 70.0 PPG in league play. The Tigers are also on a five-game losing streak.

14. South Carolina. The Gamecocks scored 10 points in the first half of a loss to the Gators this week. I know, I know. They played Florida. But even Southeastern Louisiana managed 26 in the first half of its 82-43 loss to the Gators this season.

3-point shot: Rough patch for Ole Miss

January, 31, 2013
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1. Ole Miss spent Wednesday dealing with a double dose of bad news. The Rebels were still stunned over Nerlens Noel's dominating 12-block performance for Kentucky in a humbling 87-74 home defeat by the Wildcats. Then came word that forward Aaron Jones was done for the season with a left anterior cruciate ligament injury. “The team is really down that AJ is out for the year,’’ said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. “It was a one-point game and Nerlens Noel blocked three straight shots at the rim (two on Murphy Holloway and one on Reginald Buckner) and it was game, set, match. We’ve just got to move forward.’’ Kennedy said the Rebels will replace Jones by committee, since Ole Miss is already down Jason Carter (dismissed), Demarco Cox (stress fracture) and now Jones. Particularly with Nick Williams out indefinitely, too, with a foot injury, Holloway and Buckner will need to stay on the court.

2. Gonzaga coach Mark Few loves the improvement of Kelly Olynyk and doesn’t dismiss his numbers. But Few wants Elias Harris to get his due. Harris has had a sensational career at Gonzaga and has quietly put together an outstanding season, averaging 15.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Harris has had more than 200 rebounds in each of his first three seasons and will likely make it four in a row. Still, if I had to pick my All-America five, this week I would have Olynyk in my top five.

3. There is so much to be done before the Big East 7 can start their own league, likely in the summer of 2014 when the fall sports start practice. The group has to exit the conference; deal with the financial issues; pick a commissioner; decide on which schools to invite and how many; cut a TV deal; hire staff; pick a location; create bylaws; and make schedules, to name just a few line items.
1. The Big East-SEC Challenge wasn't going to continue next season with the changing membership of the Big East. That's why the SEC had long been in negotiations with the Big 12 for a new challenge, and that challenge will begin in 2013-14. The SEC and Big 12 can coordinate a challenge for the next two seasons because the membership will be unchanged. Overall, the idea of challenges is a good one to drum up support for the conferences and create made-for-TV matchups in late November and December. Forcing these schools to play true home-and-home series helps the sport as well as the power-ratings for the nonconference schedules. The Big Ten-ACC Challenge has been the standard. If there is going to be a new one then I would love to see the Pac-12 look to look east and do one with the Mountain West. The Pac-12 actually would be the conference that would benefit, since lately MWC teams overall have had stronger profiles than Pac-12 schools. Pac-12 and MWC schools play each other (see Arizona's and UCLA's schedules) so making the official commitment and creating the competition shouldn't be an issue.

2. This is the biggest week of Andy Kennedy's career at Ole Miss. If the Rebels sweep Kentucky and Florida then they become the SEC favorite and a top 10 team. A split is fine, too, and should put the Rebels on track to being an NCAA tournament team. But get swept and suddenly the reservations about the Rebels are enhanced. Kennedy has had a hard time with luck during his time at Ole Miss. He finally has the team to be a real challenger. The question will be can the Rebels finally embrace the moment and excel?

3. Missouri coach Frank Haith said Laurence Bowers had a strong practice Monday and should be ready to play Wednesday against LSU after missing the past five games with an MCL sprain. Haith had no reason to push Bowers back early. The Tigers will only reach their March potential if Bowers is healthy, and losing a few games while he was out will not derail that goal. They need Bowers or else they have no shot to extend their season deeper into March.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

January, 25, 2013
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We’re here. You know what we do. We rank the SEC. And it’s a collective effort. We’ll get through this week’s SEC rankings together.

1. Florida. The Gators aren’t just the best team in the SEC, they might be the best team in the country right now. Check out the numbers: first in adjusted defensive efficiency and second in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Check the results. Florida’s 83-52 win over Missouri was one of the worst beatdowns of the season. The Gators displayed their versatility and overall ability to execute in ways that few teams in America can. They have few weaknesses. They’re in their own league.

2. Ole Miss. So the Rebels averaged 80.2 ppg through their first four conference matchups. Then they score 18 in the first half of Thursday night’s win over the Vols. Such is life in the SEC, I guess. The bottom line is that Andy Kennedy’s crew might be the only team that can turn the league into anything more than a one-team race (Google Florida and Beast Mode). But that first half against Tennessee was a rare display of imbalance for the program. Marshall Henderson, however, made it right in the second half. He’s a stud.

3. Alabama. I know. I don’t know how this happened either. But this Bama squad has overcome injuries and limited depth to surge up these power rankings in the last week. After Anthony Grant lost Carl Engstrom (out for the year with a torn ACL) and Andrew Steele (sports hernia) to injuries last month, the Crimson Tide hit a wall. From Dec. 1 through Jan. 8, Bama lost six of eight games. Then the program began to play defense. Only one SEC team (Florida) has held its conference opponents to a lower average (59.2 ppg allowed).

4. Missouri. The Tigers have issues that are bigger than life without Laurence Bowers. Yes, the team has missed the talented forward. But the weekend’s Florida loss exposed Missouri as a team with serious ballhandling issues (21 turnovers in that game). The Tigers are also lost whenever Phil Pressey struggles. How “deep” are they? We’ve heard so much about this team’s depth and potential. But Missouri looks like a disorganized team that’s not as tough as it should be. I know the Tigers beat Alabama a few weeks ago. I’d pick Bama right now, though.

5. Arkansas. The Razorbacks have been better defensively than I figured they’d be in SEC play (39.4 field goal percentage defense, second in the league). I thought they’d just shoot for 80 and hope that would be enough to squeeze by most of the teams in this league. They had a chance to prove they’re more than just one of the best among the mediocre squads when they faced Ole Miss. What did they do? They went 6-for-20 on 3-pointers and committed 16 turnovers. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell were the only players who cracked double figures. Those two talented players need consistent help.

6. Kentucky. The second half of Kentucky’s loss at Alabama exhibited every struggle this team has had this year. The Wildcats weren’t resilient when they had to be. Their guards struggled. A program that features multiple first-round prospects for the NBA draft went 8-for-27 after halftime. I don’t think John Calipari has one problem; I think his program has a bunch of problems. The Wildcats are inconsistent. They’re inexperienced and it shows whenever they find themselves in tough late-game situations. And they appear to be losing confidence. Yet other than Florida and perhaps Ole Miss ... Kentucky, like the rest of the SEC, can contend with any team in the conference. Weird.

7. Texas A&M. The Aggies have really struggled since their Jan. 12 road win over Kentucky. That might be the highlight of their season. They’ve lost three consecutive games since that victory. Their challenges? Top scorer Elston Turner has scored just 22 total points during this three-game losing streak. Remember him? He’s the guy who scored 40 in that win in Rupp Arena. He was the hero. But the Aggies are limited on offense (60.4 ppg in the SEC, 11th in the league). They’re not good enough to overcome their best player’s struggles.

8. Tennessee. The Vols were good enough to hang with Ole Miss on Thursday night. But they couldn’t do more than that. They had a great opportunity to beat one of the SEC’s best. They couldn’t finish. Tennessee was outscored 44-31 in the second half of that 62-56 loss. Now they’ve lost five of their last six games. And I just don’t see how Cuonzo Martin’s program rights this ship when he has one of the worst defensive units (117th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) in the SEC.

9. Vanderbilt. Kevin Stallings is rebuilding with this young group. The Commodores have encountered a multitude of obstacles. But they’re riding a two-game winning streak after beating South Carolina and Auburn by a combined 19 points. And three of their next five games are winnable (Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee). Vandy is limited in a variety of areas. But the Commodores lock up the perimeter (25.5 3-point field goal percentage defense) better than any team in the SEC. That’s going to be key going forward.

10. Auburn. Tony Barbee’s crew is trying to fight its way out of the bottom tier of the SEC. But that’s a tough task with a porous defense (74.0 points per game allowed is the worst mark in the SEC; 158th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.) The Tigers have excelled at times during the past month. But their last three games, all losses, are another example of the program's extremes. And it starts with its defense.

11. Mississippi State. If you've followed these rankings, then you know Rick Ray's story. He's currently leading a program that can barely practice because it's so short-handed. Ray is limited in what he can fix right now. But the Bulldogs have won two SEC games, even though they're near the bottom of every meaningful statistical category in the league. They're even on top of the conference with 18.8 turnovers per game. Doesn't make much sense. But the SEC doesn't make sense.

12. LSU. Remember the team that looked vibrant and hopeful entering SEC play? Well the Tigers played such a poor nonconference slate that it really wasn't fair to judge the program at that point. Now seems like a more appropriate time to measure this LSU squad, which just won its first SEC game on Wednesday when it defeated Texas A&M. With so much parity in the bottom of the league, every bucket helps. So LSU's 58.3 free throw percentage, last in the league, definitely hurts.

13. Georgia. Mark Fox's squad landed its first SEC win when it defeated LSU over the weekend. The coach has one of the tougher tasks in the league. He has one high-level player in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But he doesn't have a strong supporting cast around him. So the Bulldogs currently possess the worst scoring offense in the SEC. And that's going to be an issue all year. Fox could use a midseason trade right now. But Saturday's win could be something they eventually build on.

14. South Carolina. Pitbull can't save his biggest fan right now. Frank Martin, however, could use the help. The team he left, Kansas State, is off to a strong start. The team he joined, South Carolina, is at the bottom of one of the worst leagues in the country. Only two teams are shooting worse than the Gamecocks (37.9 percent) in SEC play. Perhaps Martin will turn South Carolina into a contender. The program is light years away right now.

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