College Basketball Nation: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

1. Men's college coaches are starting to figure out a new practice schedule for the first time and seeking out advice. Georgia coach Mark Fox said he spent time with long-time women's coach Andy Landers about how he handled the ability to start practice early in late September. The new rule allows men's teams to have 30 days of practice in the six weeks prior to the first game. The previous rule allowed teams to practice four weeks before the first game. Fox said the Bulldogs will start on Sept. 27 (like many other teams). He said Landers told him having the longer time frame to practice allows for more flexibility if a player gets hurt, and to offer overall rest. The start of practice in late September will mean a shorter time period for individual workout sessions once the fall semester starts and will mean a longer season, essentially extending nearly the entire school year (with the last six weeks of the second semester for most schools being the only free time). The Bulldogs are trying to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a top 10 NBA draft pick, and have candidates in Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines, and Brandon Morris, whom Fox said had a "great offseason.'' Add in Marcus Thornton coming back from an injury and Nemanja Djurisic, and this team has a chance to move up in a wide-open middle of the SEC. Fox added it's the first time in the past two years "we've got some experience and a lot more balance.''

2. Utah was once an elite program under the late Rick Majerus. The Utes were feared. The Huntsman Center was a destination, not a stop over en route to tougher road spots. There was a Sweet 16 run under Ray Giacoletti in 2005, and a No. 1 draft pick in Andrew Bogut. But the times have been lean recently, notably in the two years since the Utes joined the Pac-12. The Utes have won a combined eight league games in two seasons, and haven't had a winning season in the past four (the former two in the Mountain West). Larry Krystkowiak has a rebuilding process going on that is in constant construction mode. But to pick up a key in-state player like Brekkott Chapman, who is listed as a top 50 player by ESPN, is critical in regaining the trust and confidence within the state. The mood, according to a source, around Utah basketball Tuesday was one of euphoria after landing a top player in the state, and to some extent you could add relief to prove that they are making progress. Utah used to produce a number of high-profile players. BYU wasn't the only competition for them. Utah had to fend off other national poachers. That's what occurred in the recruitment of Chapman, according to our Reggie Rankin. Utah fans have had to be patient through three coaching changes since Majerus left. Krystkowiak has a towering presence. He won at Montana. It will be interesting to see if he can collect enough talent at Utah what he can accomplish.

3. We had another informative conversation during our ESPNU podcast Monday with Creighton's Doug McDermott. He had a number of insightful points on playing with Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart (winner) during the Team USA men's basketball mini-camp, playing under Davidson's Bob McKillop (working with stretch forwards), South Carolina's Frank Martin (got mad once about poor defense), and Michigan's John Beilein (was a bit uncomfortable as an assistant for the first time in his coaching life), a new rivalry with Marquette (a New Year's Eve Big East opener) and how good old rival Wichita State will be really good once again with guard Fred VanFleet someone to watch. You can listen here (about 20-plus minutes in).
1. Character does count. Of course, it matters when it is put alongside talent. But the two players in the NBA draft lottery who continue to get high marks for character, performance and readiness are Indiana's Victor Oladipo and Georgetown's Otto Porter. In a draft that may lack franchise players, teams are searching for low-maintenance players who can help. And Oladipo and Porter are fitting that more than others, according to a number of a teams. Oladipo can come in and contribute in more than one way, offering up a high-energy second-unit player. Porter can be a scorer who may flourish more in an open game. Neither Oladipo nor Porter will likely last long on draft night.

2. NBA teams are like college coaches in that they will buy into the latest trend. And the search for the next Paul George is the latest example. The player who is creating a George-like buzz is Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The 6-foot-5 Georgia wing was a high-level scorer for the Bulldogs. Now, Georgia is obviously a higher-profile school than Fresno State where George played, but the Bulldogs, like their same mascot named team to the West, were hardly known nationally the past two seasons. Caldwell-Pope isn't someone who was featured much at all nationally. But there are already comparisons being drawn between the two players. Don't expect Caldwell-Pope to last late in the lottery.

3. Indiana's Cody Zeller is a perfect example of a player who won't be affected at all by one poor performance on a national stage. I was in Washington, D.C., in March when Zeller played small and short against Syracuse's zone. He had no lift against the zone and couldn't find his shot, let alone get out and be effective as a big man. That is now deemed much more of an aberration than the performances Zeller had during the season when he did run the floor and was effective. Zeller's athleticism on display in Chicago at the draft combine last month and his workout regimen is making him much more of a safer pick than other big men. Zeller didn't look like an NBA player during that Sweet 16 loss, and the media didn't hold back in referencing his in ability to stand out. But he'll be one of the first big men to hear his name called on June 27, making his decision to leave look like the right one.
1. The NCAA offered up an explanation as to why there can be a difference between the Memphis-Derrick Rose and Duke-Lance Thomas case when the person in question chooses not to cooperate and talk to the NCAA. According to NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn, if there is more information to allow the enforcement staff to allege a major violation through information gathered then it can go forward. Osburn said if there is a case in which there is no other information to suggest a violation without cooperation then the case cannot go forward. "You can't tell someone you violated a rule if they're not a member of the NCAA or if there is no other evidence to suggest a rule was broken. If there was a major violation there has to be evidence. It can't just be he said/she said. If you have folks who have information and they haven't said anything like an agent or a jeweler they don't fall under NCAA rules. So they don't have to talk to you. If they're no longer a student athlete they don't have to, either unless the school says it will disassociate you from the school. We don't have the subpoena power so we can only do so much." Translate: The NCAA claims it had other evidence in the Rose-Memphis standardized test case (it ultimately forced Memphis to vacate the 2008 Final Four) without talking to Rose but didn't have anything else in the Thomas case and never got Thomas to talk.

2. Harvard made my early-season Top 25 and with good reason. The Crimson beat New Mexico in the round of 64. The assumption was the two best players -- who were suspended for the year with a number of other students from the general student body over an academic scandal -- would be returning next season. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said Wednesday that Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey will be back as expected. That was always the plan but there could have been a hiccup with neither player being on campus during the past year. Harvard has a few high-profile games next season with the series continuing against UConn and a return games against UMass and Boston College. The Crimson are in the Great Alaska Shootout, a tournament that has waned in importance recently. But the 2013 field is decent with a few teams that could end up in the NCAAs in 2014 like Iowa, Denver, Indiana State and Tulsa. TCU, Pepperdine and host Alaska-Anchorage are the other three in the field.

3. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said he'll know in a few weeks who might be his replacement for Shane Larkin at the point. But he now knows who will be the lead guard in the fall of 2014 with the arrival of Kansas State transfer guard Angel Rodriguez. There's always a chance Rodriguez will appeal to play immediately since he wanted to be closer to his family in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Georgia coach Mark Fox said he has the player ready to take over for his early-entrant sophomore and leading scorer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Fox said freshman Kenny Gaines, who averaged 3.7 points or almost 15 fewer than Caldwell-Pope, would take over. "He had many solid nights as his backup (last year)," said Fox. "He's a good player."

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

March, 8, 2013
Another attempt, my final attempt to rank the SEC. … It’s been real.

  1. Florida. The Gators are still the kings of the SEC. Yes, they’ve fallen a few times this season. But they’ve been the most dominant team in the conference. They’ve suffered three SEC losses, all on the road, against Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. But they’ve also achieved the league’s top scoring margin (plus-18.8 points per game). The Gators already have won the SEC crown, but a win at Kentucky on Saturday would truly stamp their supremacy within the league.
  2. Missouri. I can’t tell you whether Mizzou will make a run in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers are just too inconsistent. But they’re 4-1 in their past five games. And Tuesday’s 93-63 win against Arkansas -- in Columbia, of course -- allowed the Tigers to display their potential. Phil Pressey has become a more efficient distributor. He has finished with eight or more assists in Mizzou’s past four games. He also has recorded 14 turnovers combined in the same stretch. Saturday’s road game at Tennessee is a serious test for a Missouri squad that has been shaky off campus. But its ceiling is high, especially if Pressey continues to play maestro and limits his mishaps.
  3. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin’s team faces Missouri on Saturday in a critical game. A loss to the Tigers won’t destroy its NCAA tourney hopes. But a win might seal an at-large bid. The Vols lost to Georgia this past weekend, but that didn’t nullify the momentum they have amassed in the past month. They have won seven of their past eight entering the weekend. Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden anchor a team that has outplayed most of America’s bubble teams in recent weeks.
  4. LSU. The SEC tournament is wide open. Any team could reach the final, it seems. And in a league with so many bubble squads vying for an at-large bid, the tournament's action should reflect the stakes. Johnny Jones’ program is not one of the SEC’s bubble teams. But it’s certainly a sleeper to make a run and spoil the postseason plans of its conference colleagues. The Tigers have won three of their past four and are 8-3 since Jan. 30. With Johnny O'Bryant III (13.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG) inside and its ability to defend the perimeter (SEC squads are shooting just 28.9 percent from the perimeter against LSU, second in the conference), LSU could shock the field in Nashville next week.
  5. Kentucky. Still talented. Still a mess. Still on the bubble. Somehow. After Thursday night’s 72-62 loss at Georgia, John Calipari blamed himself for the loss. "I've done a crap job with this team," he said. Well, it’s not completely Cal’s fault, but it’s refreshing to hear a coach accept blame. The Wildcats are young. The Wildcats lack veteran leadership. The Wildcats lost their best player during the most important stretch of the year. But they’ve had so many chances to play their way off the bubble and they’ve stumbled. Taking that L at Georgia hurt their NCAA tournament hopes and might have guaranteed an NIT berth. But a win against Florida on Saturday could lead Kentucky to the Big Dance.
  6. Alabama. Let me say this. Trevor Releford (15.5 PPG, 2.1 SPG) could carry Bama to the SEC championship. At this point, I’m convinced any team could win that thing. But Anthony Grant’s program also could lose its first game and go home with nothing more than an NIT berth. There’s just nothing about the Crimson Tide that makes me a believer. They have lost three of their past four matchups (all road games). This lukewarm stretch sums up Alabama’s entire season. So-so. Defense has helped Bama stay alive all year (59.8 PPG allowed in SEC play, No. 2 in the conference). But the team is so inconsistent everywhere else that it has reached the end of the season with minimal mojo.
  7. Georgia. So … Mark Fox’s team is 8-4 since Jan. 26. The Bulldogs have knocked off Kentucky and Tennessee in their past two games. Fox’s young squad has matured in recent weeks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (18.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.1 SPG) is a star. But without an offensively astute crew around him, the Bulldogs have focused on defense (56th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). Georgia hasn’t even cracked the RPI’s top 100. This is not a bubble team. But it’s certainly a dream killer right now.
  8. Ole Miss. Last week, a few Ole Miss fans told me they didn’t like my placement of the Rebels in the most recent rankings. They were justified in their frustration. Ole Miss should have been lower. This is an average team (at best). We were all blinded by the Marshall Henderson Show earlier this season. For once, Ole Miss was fascinating. Then Andy Kennedy’s program caught an allergy to defense (71.2 PPG allowed in SEC play, 12th in the league). Sure, the Rebels are a bubble team. But they’re not playing like a tournament team (see Saturday’s inexplicable 73-67 road loss to rival Mississippi State).
  9. Arkansas. The Razorbacks aren’t that different from the rest of the conference. They’re a dazzling spectacle at home. Just bad whenever they’re on the road. That’s the story of the entire conference -- the nation, really. But Saturday’s 30-point loss at Missouri was enough to send any bandwagon into a ditch. Arkansas has lost three of its past four. Not exactly the kind of convincing conclusion to the regular season that the selection committee would like to see from a bubble squad. But … this is Arkansas. A lot of teams have lost on the road this season. Few, however, have matched the extremes of Arkansas’ Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde routine.
  10. Texas A&M. I wanted to trust the Aggies. Really, I did. That January road win against Kentucky and an early February victory against Missouri convinced me that Elston Turner (17.7 PPG) & Co. would end the season on a high note. Didn’t happen. Things fell apart for this program.
  11. Vanderbilt. The bad news is that Kevin Stallings’ program sits at the bottom of the SEC. The good news is that his top five scorers should return next season. And incoming four-star recruit Damian Jones should help in his first season with the squad.
  12. South Carolina. Can Frank Martin build something special with the Gamecocks? We’ll see. His first year was a rough one.
  13. Auburn. Bottom line is that Auburn’s administration will soon decide whether it’s going to give Tony Barbee more time to rebuild after another tough season.
  14. Mississippi State. Last night, Rick Ray sent me a text message that simply said, “Can’t make this up. Jalen Steele tore his ACL last night. That’s FOUR season ending knee injuries.” I know you think your favorite team has endured tough times in 2012-13. But I don’t think any team in the country has matched Mississippi State’s situation. Still, MSU’s fan base will feast on last weekend’s win against Ole Miss for months.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

February, 15, 2013
One man’s attempt to decipher the ongoing chaos that defines the SEC in 2012-13:

1. Florida. The Gators were questioned following a surprising road loss to Arkansas last week. But they revealed their prowess in recent lopsided wins against Mississippi State and Kentucky. Florida’s greatest quandary is its competition. When it looks good (second in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), many suggest that it's not facing premier opposition. When it loses? Panic and “I told you so.” But the Gators are still one of America’s best teams. There shouldn’t be any debate about that.

2. Missouri. I don’t know if the Missouri squad that stomped Ole Miss in Columbia on Saturday (98-79) is the real Missouri. The Tigers, however, proved what they’re capable of when they smashed the Rebels last weekend. Three players topped 20 points. They shot 52 percent from the 3-point line. They followed that with a 42-point road win against Mississippi State on Wednesday night. But I’m still evaluating those road losses to Texas A&M and LSU. You should do the same. I have no doubt that Frank Haith possesses a roster that has the potential to contend with any team in the league. Even Florida. But only at home. If Haith’s squad can get its act together once it leaves campus, then Missouri could finally become the team we thought it would be entering the 2012-13 season.

3. Alabama. After Florida, the SEC becomes a confusing assortment of squads that are difficult to assess because of their collective inconsistency. So you have to reward a team -- for the purposes of these rankings -- when it hits its stride. Bama’s offense is what it is (58.1 ppg, 12th in the league). It’s been that way all year. The Crimson Tide scored 37 in a 12-point road loss to Auburn on Feb. 6. I’m still digesting that. But, Anthony Grant’s program has won four of five to secure a third-place slot in the SEC. It won three of those games by four points or less. You can look at that multiple ways. Either Bama is just an average SEC team that is squeezed by other mediocre teams, or Trevor Releford (14.6 ppg) leads a gritty squad that is winning with an aggressive defense (55.5 ppg allowed) that has masked its offensive challenges.

4. Arkansas. I think Florida is really good. So I’m still impressed by the Razorbacks’ win against the Gators last week. Yes, they followed it up with a loss at Vanderbilt. But they’ve won three out of four. And Mike Anderson commands an offensive unit that is as potent as it is inconsistent. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell? That is serious talent. The Razorbacks have struggled on the road. So has the rest of the league, the rest of America. But they’ve demonstrated their ceiling in this four-game stretch. Arkansas could finish the season strong.

5. Texas A&M. Oh, Texas A&M. Your ability to baffle is quite baffling. The Aggies beat Ole Miss on Wednesday night because Elston Turner scored 37 and went 7-for-10 from the 3-point line. The Aggies are not a good 3-point shooting team (32.3 percent, ninth in the league). Yet they shot 50 percent from beyond the arc in their past two wins (against Ole Miss, Missouri). With so many single-digit losses and wins (every game in February), Texas A&M’s free throw shooting (71.8 percent, second in the SEC) and rebounding (39th nationally in offensive rebounding rate) position the Aggies to win those tight games. But there is danger every night for the Aggies. They seem to embrace it.

6. Ole Miss. The Marshall Henderson (19.5 ppg) buzz has decreased in recent weeks. And the Rebels have revealed their flaws. They are an offensive gem (74.8 ppg, No. 1 in the SEC). Four of their past five opponents, however, have shot 46 percent or better from the field. That’s why they have lost four of their past five. Andy Kennedy’s offensive tools are fluid and potent. Yet his defense (71.8 ppg, 13th in the SEC) has been absent in recent weeks. Really, all year (2013). The good news for the Rebels is that they will not play Missouri or Florida in their last seven SEC games. The bad news is that their defense is so uncertain, they could still finish the season in the bottom of the standings.

7. Kentucky. I hate what happened to Nerlens Noel. As Dana O’Neil pointed out this week, it’s a devastating injury for him and his experience as a young man. Surgeons will repair the ACL. And Noel will probably enter the NBA draft and make millions in the coming months. But the program is obviously hurt by the loss. The Wildcats had not orchestrated a convincing argument for an at-large bid even when they had Noel. What now? John Calipari’s youngsters must dig deep. The selection committee will likely consider Noel’s injury. But I think the next seven games (and whatever happens in the SEC tournament) will dictate Kentucky’s fate on Selection Sunday, since it has not really justified at-large status to date. It’s unfortunate that the Wildcats won’t have Noel down the stretch, because they were improving with him, especially on defense.

8. Georgia. Billy Donovan will probably win it. But perhaps Mark Fox will ultimately be the SEC’s coach of the year. The Bulldogs endured one stretch that included losing seven of eight in November and December. However, the Bulldogs have won five of six. Fox has one double-figure scorer (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is averaging 17.7 ppg). The Bulldogs have the worst scoring offense in the league (57.2 ppg), but they have enhanced their defense, which is fourth in the conference (60.6 ppg allowed). And they are second only to Florida in 3-point shooting (37.3 percent). Overall, it’s a major improvement for the program. The Bulldogs are still fighting after losing four of their first five SEC games.

9. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin’s crew scored a win against rival Vanderbilt on Wednesday night in Nashville. Yes, the Commodores have struggled all season. But an Arkansas team that defeated Florida couldn’t win there last weekend. The Vols are just 5-6 in league play. Jarnell Stokes, however, can lead Martin’s squad up the SEC standings. He’s a bully right now. And I’m not surprised. Stokes has finally accepted his leadership role with the team. The Vols will go as far as he takes them. That’s a lot of pressure for a sophomore, but it’s the reality. After that 58-46 win against Vandy, (Stokes finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and a steal), Martin said, “Jarnell has really stepped us as our guy. Now our offense flows through Jarnell.” Stokes has recorded double-doubles in seven of eight games. In Stokes the Vols should trust.

10. LSU. Johnny Jones’ team has won four of five. Sophomore Johnny O'Bryant III has rivaled Stokes in recent games. He finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and a block in a 64-46 win at South Carolina on Thursday, and he has double-doubles in seven of the past eight games. The Tigers defend the 3-point line better than any team in the league (opponents are shooting just 26 percent). This is a good example of the challenges I face each week with these rankings. On Jan. 30, the Tigers defeated Missouri. They are 10th right now, but they could be fourth in these power rankings. That is the scenario each week when you have so many teams with similar records, resumes and struggles.

11-12. Vanderbilt/Auburn. Last weekend, the Commodores beat Arkansas by 18. It was just the second time Vandy scored 67 or more in regulation in SEC play. The Commodores, however, are in the top half of the league in scoring defense. Tony Barbee’s program won its first two SEC games. But the Tigers have lost eight of their past nine.

13-14. South Carolina/Mississippi State. These schools have won four games combined in the SEC. South Carolina and Mississippi State are 13th and 14th, respectively, in field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense in the SEC.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

February, 1, 2013
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.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

January, 25, 2013
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.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

January, 11, 2013
Just when we thought we understood the enigma known as the SEC -- just when I’d felt comfortable with my weekly rankings -- SEC play began. And the madness continued. We’ll get through this together.

1. Florida -- The Gators have the most complete team in the SEC right now. They opened up SEC play with a 33-point win against Georgia on Wednesday night. They’re balanced, experienced and talented. Few teams in this league can say that. Their losses (Arizona, Kansas State) weren’t bad losses. And I still think that this team is growing. Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Patric Young anchor Florida’s core, but they’re also assisted by talented reserves such as Will Yeguete.

2. Missouri -- The Tigers were more efficient in their Tuesday victory against Alabama than they were in a nail-biter against Bucknell over the weekend. But they lost Laurence Bowers to a knee injury in that game. That’s clearly a concern as they prepare for an Ole Miss team that is more than capable of pulling off the upset, especially at home. I still think that the Tigers rely on Phil Pressey too much, and that’s going to cost them at times this season, possibly as soon as Saturday when they face the Rebels without Bowers.

3. Ole Miss -- The Rebels had such a poor nonconference strength of schedule (No. 241 per’s RPI rankings) that their impressive stats (top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) have been difficult to trust. But Ole Miss opened up SEC play with a dominant win at Tennessee. No, the Vols aren’t the crème de la crème of the conference. But they’re definitely better than Mississippi Valley State and East Tennessee State, two teams the Rebels faced during their nonconference slate.

4. Kentucky -- As I watched the Wildcats on Thursday night, I realized that I’d given the hype more credit than it deserved. Yes, I still believe Kentucky could be the best team in the conference by the end of the season. But what evidence do I really have to assume that the Wildcats will come anywhere close to their potential? They blew a 47-31 lead at Vanderbilt, a team that lost to Marist by 17 points. So I’m still waiting for Kentucky to prove that it’s more than a bunch of NBA prospects that can’t play together.

5. Tennessee -- Tennessee’s offense has been a concern all season. But in its past two games, its defense has been the issue. The Vols gave up 85 points to Memphis and 92 points to Ole Miss in back-to-back losses. I still think Tennessee is one of those squads that could give any team in the conference trouble. But the Vols haven’t put together a run that has showcased their potential. This pattern will lead to an average finish in the SEC if Cuonzo Martin can’t find a way to reverse it.

6. Auburn –- So, I’m surprised, too. But I think Auburn deserves a slot in the top half of the league. Why not? Tony Barbee’s program knocked off LSU in its SEC opener Wednesday night, even though leading scorer Frankie Sullivan (17.2 ppg) fouled out after scoring 10 points. Junior Allen Payne has played well during a stretch that’s featured five wins in seven games (the Tigers suffered a two-point loss at Illinois on Dec. 29).

7. Texas A&MElston Turner (15.5 ppg) and Co. have won three in a row since a 53-51 home loss to … Southern on Dec. 22. The Aggies crushed Arkansas 69-51 in their SEC opener Wednesday night. So perhaps that loss to Southern won’t define their season. The Aggies have held their opponents to 58.6 ppg, second in the conference. But like so many teams in this league, they amassed that sexy stat against a lukewarm nonconference slate. Their dominance Wednesday night, however, suggests that they might be one of the best average teams in the conference. A road win against Kentucky on Saturday would send a message to the league.

8. Alabama -- I was searching for signs of progress on Tuesday night. I mean, Bama has to do something. Fast. And the Crimson Tide had their chance in Columbia. The team was down 40-36 at halftime. And then, Bama arrived. Anthony Grant’s squad was outscored 44-32 in the second half. Alabama finished with 16 turnovers and shot 5-for-17 from the 3-point line. This isn’t an issue with injuries. This is just a team that apparently can’t complete games. They’re talented enough to play with any team in the conference in stretches. Winning, however, is still a problem.

9. LSU -- Johnny Jones’ squad didn’t commence SEC play with a bang. Instead, the Tigers lost on the road to Auburn. They didn’t accrue any meaningful wins during a weak nonconference slate. So I never believed the 9-2 record that they took into that game. I figured if they couldn’t handle the ball against McNeese State (19 turnovers) and Houston Baptist (15 turnovers), then they’d probably have trouble in the SEC. Their 12 turnovers in the Auburn loss were costly. They missed 6 of 10 free throws. LSU’s inflated nonconference record might have been debunked in the SEC opener.

10. Arkansas -- The Razorbacks average 80.6 ppg, ranked 11th nationally. That offense is their only ticket to any respectable finish in the SEC. BJ Young and Marshawn Powell average 31.4 ppg for Mike Anderson. So how did Arkansas end up with 51 points at Texas A&M? Well, Powell’s foul trouble and zero points certainly didn’t help. This squad had won five in a row against a lackluster assembly of nonconference opponents entering the game. Meaningless. They barely cracked 50 points against a midlevel SEC squad. It’s not the end of the world for the Razorbacks. But Anderson has to figure out what’s up with Powell (17 points combined in past three games) going forward.

11. Mississippi State -- Speaking of effort, how about the Bulldogs winning their SEC opener against South Carolina 56-54? After the win, Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray tweeted, “Thank you to the Bulldog fan base for all of the congratulatory tweets. I appreciate it. Prepping for Georgia now. Grindin' for my State!” He should be pumped for his program, which has struggled all season. The Bulldogs have won three of four.

12. Vanderbilt -- Kudos to Kevin Stallings’ squad for nearly knocking off Kentucky at home Thursday night. The Commodores overcame a 16-point deficit and put themselves in a position to pull off the upset. But they fell short. Now, it should be noted that the finish was corrupted by an obvious shot-clock violation on a Nerlens Noel bucket with 17.3 seconds to go. But the true moral of the story is that you should always avoid a 16-point deficit when possible. Vandy’s effort in the second half was commendable. But the SEC standings don’t have an “effort” column.

13. South Carolina -- Frank Martin, this is your team. The Gamecocks, like most of the league, grabbed 10 nonconference wins against a poor schedule. So they entered SEC play as a mystery. They hadn’t proven anything. What did they do in their first conference test? They committed 24 turnovers. The Gamecocks have been fumbling all season against lesser programs. And that weakness affected the outcome in their conference opener. Check the box scores. Turnovers have plagued this program all season. And it will be its biggest issue in SEC play.

14. Georgia -- Mark Fox has a really, really good player named Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17.0 ppg). He’s a star. But he doesn’t have much to put around him. So the Bulldogs are averaging just 59.4 ppg, No. 321 in Division I. In their 33-point loss to Florida on Wednesday night, Caldwell-Pope (11 points) was the only player who cracked double figures. Now, the loss did stop a four-game winning streak. But it’s just difficult to see how Fox’s program will avoid the league’s basement if it expects one player to carry the load every night.

Legends Classic primer

November, 19, 2012
This four-team tourney went from "interesting" to "all eyes will be turned to Brooklyn" on Friday, when the NCAA cleared Shabazz Muhammad to play. The UCLA freshman, rated tops in his class, will make his collegiate debut against Georgetown, with a potential matchup looming on Tuesday against No. 1 Indiana. The Bruins sans Muhammad have looked a little wobbly -- needing overtime to beat UC Irvine -- while Indiana has steamrolled like a No. 1 team. Georgetown, a sort of unknown quantity, should have its leader, Otto Porter, back after a concussion, and Georgia, the outlier here, has a chance to upset everyone’s apple cart with a win.

The basics: Monday and Tuesday, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The set matchups: Indiana vs. Georgia, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU), UCLA vs. Georgetown, 8 p.m. (ESPN2)

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
AP Photo/Jae C. HongThe NCAA on Friday reinstated UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad.

Shabazz Muhammad: Muhammad has probably merited more attention and news clippings than anyone in the country, and he hasn’t even played yet. But he’s that good, a dynamic and athletic left-handed wing who was easily the most sought after prospect in his class.

Cody Zeller: He’s the preseason national player of the year. That’s the simple explanation as to why you should watch Zeller.

Otto Porter: Georgetown coach John Thompson III said on a Friday teleconference that he was "hopeful" that Porter would return from a concussion sustained against Duquesne. He needs him. The Hoyas lost almost all of a 23-point lead against Liberty without him last week. UCLA isn’t Liberty.

Kyle Anderson: The Robin to Muhammad’s Batman, Anderson is dealing with a bone contusion on his wrist. He played against James Madison, pulling down 12 rebounds, but hit just 1 of 10 shots.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: If the Bulldogs are going to have a chance at an upset here, Caldwell-Pope will be the reason. Easily the best weapon Mark Fox has, he’s done just about everything early here, averaging 20 points, six rebounds and two assists.


Can either Georgetown or Georgia spoil the expected title game? Well, the Bulldogs have never beaten a No. 1 team, so the odds don’t seem stacked in their favor. It doesn’t bode well, either, that Georgia is ranked 281st in scoring and Indiana No. 1. On the flip side, the Hoyas getting a win isn’t entirely crazy talk. Georgetown is young, but then again, so is UCLA, and the Hoyas' style of play could be enough to give an inexperienced Bruins team angina.

How will Muhammad play? The expectation meter is somewhat near the roof for the No. 1 recruit, but will the real Muhammad show up in Brooklyn? He’s missed much of the Bruins’ practice time -- an ankle injury kept him out of summer workouts, he wasn’t eligible for the team’s European trip and a recent shoulder injury took him out of some of the preseason.

Just how good is that Indiana defense? Most everyone agreed that if the Hoosiers had an Achilles heel this season, it was the inability to stop people. We still have no idea if the defense is better, what with the walkover wins to start the season. But here we might get a better clue, especially if the Hoosiers meet the Bruins in the championship game. The game sizes up as a potential track meet, with both scoring at will in the early going, so stops -- any stops -- will be vital.

Is anyone going to help Caldwell-Pope? He’s better terrific, as expected, averaging 20 points per game. The problem is the Dawgs are averaging just 60. That’s not going to win you many games, as evidenced by Georgia’s back-to-back dismal losses to Youngstown State and Southern Miss. Until someone else chips in, it’s going to be a long season for Fox.

Will a co-star steal the show? Everyone is talking about Muhammad and Anderson at UCLA and Zeller at Indiana, but could one of their teammates emerge as the difference-maker here? The results say yes. Jordan Adams has been sensational for the Bruins early, averaging 25 points per game, and his 16-of-16 free throw night helped save UCLA from a debacle loss to UC Irvine. Meanwhile, Zeller has been terrific, but how the Hoosiers fare here might come down to the play of Yogi Ferrell. The freshman point guard has been a great playmaker, dishing out 5.7 assists per game.


Monday: Indiana over Georgia; UCLA over Georgetown
Tuesday's title game: Indiana over UCLA

3-point shot: Hope, sadness at Georgia

August, 13, 2012
1. Georgia coach Mark Fox needed the team's trip to Italy to get a handle on his freshmen and returnees to see if there was improvement and hope for the upcoming season. School hasn't started yet, but he returned to the United States on Sunday with loads of optimism. Sophomore Tim Dixon, who averaged nine points and nine rebounds on the trip after averaging 0.3 points and 0.9 rebounds last season, showed tremendous progress, while returning starters Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Donte Williams and Nemanja Djurisic all played well in limited minutes, according to Fox. Fox said he leaned more on freshman guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines to give the pair a quality look. Marcus Thornton, arguably the team's best player, didn't play because he hadn't been cleared since having surgery in the spring. Fox said the trip came at the perfect time for the Bulldogs, who finished 15-17 overall, 5-11 in the SEC last season, so that he could get a read on the young players instead of studying the returnees.

2. My condolences go out to the family of Patricia Davison, wife of Georgia basketball operations director Kent Davison. Pat Davison, 60, died unexpectedly Aug. 5 while the team was in Italy. Kent rushed back to Athens, Ga. Fox said it was simply awful for everyone involved. Tragic.

3. Central Florida starts the fall semester Aug. 20, and as of Sunday the school had no word on if star senior forward Keith Clanton plans to transfer. He can play elsewhere right away because of the Knights' one-year postseason ban, but each day that goes by without a word from Clanton means it's more likely he'll return to play in front of family in his native Orlando. In an unrelated transfer situation, South Carolina coach Frank Martin said the school hasn't received word if Southern Mississippi's LaShay Page (11.6 points, 3.4 rebounds per game) will receive a waiver to play his senior season with the Gamecocks. Page left after a coaching change in Hattiesburg and can seek a waiver if he has graduated and enrolls in a graduate program that is not available at Southern Miss. Though the SEC does have a policy of no one-year players, a waiver of this sort is usually granted.
NEW ORLEANS -- After a nightmare finish to the 2012 regular season, Mississippi State entered the SEC tournament needing some wins to bolster its tournament resume.

Unfortunately, the Bulldogs didn't get the memo, instead dropping a 71-61 upset loss to the tournament's No. 11 seed, Georgia.

The Bulldogs (the ones from Georgia) established early on that they wouldn't be rolling over or playing dead for Mississippi State's bubble prospects. Gerald Robinson set the pace, as usual, putting up 12 points to help Georgia to a 31-29 halftime lead. That scrappiness continued into the second half, where the teams traded the lead in the opening minutes.

Where Georgia got production from Robinson, as well as freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and senior Dustin Ware, Mississippi State couldn't find consistency from anyone. It took the Bulldogs (the ones from Starkville) until the 7:59 mark of the second half to have a scorer reach double digits. Mississippi State's bedrock trio of Dee Bost, Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney accounted for just 21 total points.

Turning point: With 16:25 to play, Brian Bryant tied the game at 34. Georgia then ripped off a 9-0 run highlighted by two consecutive jumpers from Ware, who finished with 13 points. Robinson and Donte Williams each tacked on a basket to make it 43-34. Jalen Steele's 19 points helped Mississippi State get it as close as three, but the Bulldogs couldn't bring it all the way back.

Key player: Robinson led the Bulldogs as he always does, notching 23 points. But Ware was the key to the second half surge that pushed Georgia in front. Ware finished with 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting, but he had no points at halftime. He accounted for 11 points of Georgia's 15-2 run that seemed to kill Mississippi State's morale.

Key stat: Sidney contributed as many fouls as he did points (4). The Bulldogs' big guy only managed 19 minutes, and didn't come close to his season scoring average. Moultrie got into foul trouble as well and finished with four of his own. He managed to play 39 minutes, but only scored 7 points after averaging 16 this season.

Miscellaneous: It's fitting that State's final setback happened at the hands of Georgia. The Bulldogs have had a rough month, going 2-6 since a Feb. 11 overtime loss to? Who else but Georgia.

What's next: Georgia moves on to face No. 3 seed Vanderbilt, who beat the Bulldogs by 11 and nine in two meetings this year. Mississippi State, which spent a good chunk of the season in the top 25 and at one point seemed to be playing for tournament seeding, will now go home and hope for an NCAA bid.

Highlights: Georgia 76, Florida 62

February, 25, 2012

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scores 18 points to lead Georgia to a 76-62 victory over No. 11 Florida.

What we learned from Saturday night

February, 12, 2012
Saturday afternoon transitioned into Saturday night as smoothly as Kentucky transitions from an Anthony Davis block to the fast break. In the process, we saw Michigan State defend like crazy at Ohio State, Creighton take a beatdown by Wichita State and the aforementioned Wildcats again assert their dominance, this time at Vanderbilt. That and more in the evening edition of What We Learned.

[Editor's note: For recaps of all the afternoon games, click here.]

No. 12 Michigan State 58, No. 3 Ohio State 48: As far back as August, Tom Izzo -- in typical Izzonian fashion -- proclaimed far and wide how much he loved his team. Not necessarily because he knew the Spartans would be good or because he knew they would keep getting better (although he often seemed to assume as much), but because this Michigan State team, perhaps more than any other in recent years, does the two things Izzo seems to value most: It rebounds. It defends.

The Spartans began Saturday allowing the fourth-fewest points per possession in the country (adjusted, per Ken Pomeroy). They also ranked in the top 10 in both relevant rebounding categories, chasing down 39.9 percent of their misses on offense and yielding second chances on just 26.1 percent of opponents' possessions. Throw in the focused vocal leadership of forward Draymond Green, the back-from-the-dead reclamation of Derrick Nix, one of the toughest point guards in the country in Keith Appling and a batch of dedicated supporting pieces, and, well, no wonder Izzo loves this team. Compared to last season's incoherent, apathetic bunch, he must occasionally feel like he's coaching an entirely different game.

For as consistently as Michigan State has demonstrated those qualities throughout this season, never have they been more clear than Saturday night. Izzo's team held the third-ranked Buckeyes -- in Columbus, mind you -- to a mere .75 points per trip. How? How do you stop a team with so many weapons, with one of the best forwards in the country anchoring it all, in a building where it has won 39 in a row? The Spartans know how: You scrap. You claw. You fight. You make everything difficult for that team's best player. You frustrate him at every turn.

Jared Sullinger was, of course, the focal point of MSU's defensive strategy, and it worked. Sullinger still scored 17 points and grabbed 16 boards, but he needed a 5-of-15 performance to get there, and he committed 10 turnovers in the process. (The 17-16-10 is the first turnover-laden triple-double of the college basketball season, per ESPN Stats & Info. Former Buck Evan Turner had two of them in his final season. The Evan Turner Special lives!) Sullinger was noticeably frustrated throughout the game, arguing for fouls (sometimes rightly, oftentimes wrongly) and forcing shots into the teeth of State's interior defense, anchored brilliantly by forward Adreian Payne (who was also 6-of-6 from the field).

The performance reminded me of Ohio State's loss to Kentucky in last season's Sweet 16, when UK forward Josh Harrellson harassed and harangued Sullinger into a performance far below his usual standards. Harrellson was one of the few players in the country with the size and strength to hold his ground against Sully's girth. Nearly a year later, Payne and Nix demonstrated the same abilities. It's a testament to Sullinger's ability that he still grabbed 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive, but every putback was challenged, every touch contested, every dribble met with reaching slaps.

Sullinger didn't get much help from his teammates. William Buford and Deshaun Thomas combined to shoot 4-of-24 (!!), Aaron Craft was 3-of-7, and all told, the Buckeyes shot 2-of-15 from beyond the arc and 26 percent overall -- its third-worst shooting performance of the past 15 years. Yikes.

The Spartans weren't great on offense (.91 points per trip). Ohio State's defense is its best quality, and the Buckeyes were again good on that end of the floor. But Michigan State didn't have to light it up to get this victory. When you defend this well, when you execute your defensive game plan this perfectly, when you thoroughly dominate one of the nation's elite teams in its own building, you don't have to put up points in bunches to get the job done. No team in the country this season has posted 40 minutes of defense this strong against a team this good.

So, yeah, Tom Izzo loves this team. Can you blame him?

No. 1 Kentucky 69, Vanderbilt 63: You have to hand it to the Commodores: They didn't go away.

That's the biggest positive Kevin Stallings' team can draw from this loss. From the opening tip, UK's brilliant defense was again, well, brilliant. As late as the 4:42 mark in the first half, Vanderbilt had scored just 13 points. The Commodores finished the first half with a whopping 23 as Kentucky led by 13. Terrence Jones was engaged. Anthony Davis was dominant. As it has so often in the past three weeks, John Calipari's team appeared ready to roll to another very impressive SEC victory. Ho and hum.

Then, only a few moments into the second half, things just sort of ... opened up. The Dores not only started finding open shots, they started making them. Brad Tinsley, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins came alive on the perimeter, while Festus Ezeli started finishing things down low. Soon -- almost before you knew it -- what "GameDay" host Rece Davis called Kentucky's "aura of invincibility" fell away. By the 8:26 mark in the second half, the Commodores led 55-51, the culmination of a 32-17 run.

They would score just eight more points the rest of the game. No one could have known it at the time, but Tinsley's jumper at the 4:09 mark would be Vanderbilt's last bucket of the day. Just as soon as VU had opened the game with solid man offense, crisp passing and accurate shooting, Kentucky shut it down. Davis recorded four blocks in the final seven minutes of the game; he finished with seven total. One of the major themes of the broadcast was Calipari's stated desire to see his team challenged, to see how it would respond. The Wildcats were. Vanderbilt kept swinging. Kentucky took Vandy's best punch. It absorbed a combo or two. And then, as all great fighters do, it emerged stronger and stronger as the game wore on. If Calipari wanted to see how his team would react to a challenge, he had to be thrilled with the result.

Kentucky played a solid, experienced team. It played said solid, experienced team in said team's unique building, with its weird sight lines and elevated court and baseline benches. It did so in front of a crowd that had spent all day goosed by "GameDay," hyped for the glorious chance at knocking off No. 1, something this school has done six times over the years. It didn't matter. Kentucky went 3-of-14 from 3. And it still emerged unscathed.

If Christian Watford's last-second shot doesn't fall in Assembly Hall on Dec. 10 -- back when Kentucky was still figuring things out -- the Cats are undefeated and we're talking less about this sudden surge of brilliance than whether UK could make it to the NCAA tournament with an unbeaten record. This team is one shot -- one 10-second defensive breakdown -- away from legendary comparisons.

Oh, well. As it is, Calipari's team is rounding into one of the most complete -- if not the most complete -- of his career. Davis is a transcendent force anchoring a team with zero defensive holes. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the best two-way players in the country. Jones can dominate when he wants. Doron Lamb is a lights-out shooter. Darius Miller is an underrated offensive presence and an all-around glue guy extraordinaire.

There's a reason this team is awash in that so-called aura of invincibility. The Wildcats aren't actually invincible, of course. But right now, they're the closest thing going.

Wichita State 89, No. 15 Creighton 68: When you've got a national player of the year candidate ripping through each and every opposing defense he sees with a rare blend of volume and efficiency, it's easy to disguise your team's warts. After Wichita State's end-to-end dismantling of the Bluejays on Saturday, those warts are now fully exposed.

The score line tells the story here, but it's nothing new: Creighton is, at best, a fairly mediocre defensive team. The Bluejays entered this Valley showdown ranked No. 119 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. They force turnovers on just 16.3 percent of their defensive possessions, which ranks them No. 336 out of 345 Division I teams. This so-so defense has been hidden well all season because Creighton outscores everybody. Doug McDermott and company have the nation's highest effective field goal percentage and its sixth-most efficient offense overall. But in the past three games -- losses to Northern Iowa, Evansville and now Wichita State -- the Bluejays' offense has suddenly cooled off. Creighton's effective field goal percentage figures in its past three games are 46.5, 44.2 and 44.7 percent.

And therein lies Saturday's problem: Wichita State is not a one-way team. Rather, Gregg Marshall's squad combines excellent defense (KenPom rank: No. 26) with efficient offense (KenPom: No. 11), tops in MVC play in both metrics. Despite their hugely impressive per-possession stats, the Shockers have flown below the radar recently thanks in large part to that triple-overtime loss at Drake in late January. But in basically every other Valley affair, even the 68-61 loss at home to Creighton in this series' first game, the Shockers have been comprehensively good.

Does that mean Wichita is 21 points better than Creighton, home, away or neutral? No. Is its offense as good as the 1.4 points per trip it poured in Saturday night? Probably not. But this lopsided result in front of a huge crowd in Omaha does reveal some notable truths about both teams. For Creighton, it laid bare just how important the Jays' offense is to their chances of making a run in the NCAA tournament; it's no coincidence this three-game losing streak came in three mediocre shooting performances. Greg McDermott's team can't afford to miss shots, because it can't get the stops it needs to keep things close.

For Wichita State, well, if you didn't know, now you know: The Shockers are good. Not "dangerous." Not "plucky." Just flat-out good.

Temple 85, Xavier 72: If you're still waiting for a team to round into its full form on Feb. 11, there's a good chance you'll still be waiting on March 11. That appears to be the case with Xavier. The Musketeers haven't been bad in Atlantic 10 play -- they ranked fourth in A-10 efficiency margin as of this week -- but they haven't been particularly good, let alone their usual brand of good, the one that led them to a 15-1 league record last season. Instead, these Musketeers are just sort of, well, mediocre.

Which is to take nothing away from Temple, which blitzed Chris Mack's team early and never looked back. Guard Ramone Moore went off, scoring 30 points on 9-of-16 from the field, while Khalif Wyatt put up 18 points, four assists and three steals, and Micheal Eric contributed 11 points and 16 rebounds. The Owls' backcourt is the undisputed strength of the team, and Fran Dunphy's squad continues to look more and more like the A-10's clear favorite each time that backcourt makes life so difficult for opponents on both ends of the floor. Temple is alone atop the league at 8-2.

The contrast between these two teams is glaring. One is whole, complete, playing its best basketball at the right time. The other is scattershot, struggling, not bad but far worse than it has any right to be, given its talent. The temptation to connect X's continued struggles to the Dec. 10 brawl is worth resisting here. Does it play a part? Maybe. Has guard Mark Lyons (who didn't start) been unpredictable and frustrating since? Oh yeah. But at this point, it's also possible Xavier just wasn't all that good in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the Musketeers -- perennial NCAA tournament fixtures -- are running out of time to figure it out.

A few more observations from the night of hoops:
  • Harvard's preordained run to its first NCAA tournament in decades -- the Crimson are clearly the best team in the Ivy League and were the heaviest of favorites to win it outright -- got just a little shakier Saturday night. Tommy Amaker's team fell to the old-world perennial Ivy favorite, Princeton, 70-62. It's a sign of Harvard's changed status that Princeton students -- who are fans of a program that is the historical Ivy elite, and which just beat one of the league's longtime losers -- rushed the court after their team's 23rd consecutive home victory over the Crimson. Despite the loss, Harvard's chances of winning the league are still very good. Its schedule -- which features Yale, Princeton and Penn at home before a season-ending two-game road swing at Columbia and Cornell -- is a major advantage. Plus, the No. 21 Crimson still own a one-game lead in the standings. But they will be eager to avoid any further slip-ups. If they end up in another one-game tiebreak (the Ivy League awards its NCAA tournament bid to the regular-season winner), anything can happen. Amaker's bunch, which lost its trip to the tourney to Princeton on a tiebreak buzzer-beater last season, knows all too well what can happen when you leave the preordained to chance.
  • We let this one slip by in the afternoon frenzy, but Mississippi State's loss to Georgia probably deserves a mention. The Bulldogs were undone by freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's big-time step-back 3 in overtime (not to mention his other 17 points and eight rebounds), and hey, yeah, sometimes you take a tough OT loss. But Mississippi State's inconsistency is a bad sign for a team with major tournament aspirations. Not a good performance at all.
  • Southern Miss held on for a 78-74 home victory over UCF, yet another gritty, close win in a Golden Eagles season full of them. Don't look now, but Southern Miss is 21-4 on the season with a top-15 RPI. Wednesday night's loss at UAB is certainly a black mark -- especially considering the Blazers lost by 34 to Memphis on Saturday night -- but other than that, this team has a shockingly strong at-large case. Larry Eustachy is reborn!
  • Phil Martelli's team picked up another A-10 home win, as Saint Joseph's took down upstart UMass 73-62 and damaged the Minutemen's outside chances of an at-large bid. Massachusetts could have gone to 8-3 with a win. Instead, it moves backward, into the thick of the league's muddled middle, alongside the Hawks and many others.
  • If there is any justice in the world, tiny Wabash College will find its way to the "SportsCenter" top plays in the coming days. Why? Because of Aaron Zinnerman's shot, one of the more insane and unlikely you'll ever see. The YouTube clip is here. Enjoy. (Important correction! This post incorrectly cited Wabash as the alma mater of Butler coach Brad Stevens. Rather, as numerous alums have informed me, Stevens actually went to rival DePauw. I always mistake the two, but nonetheless regret the error. My bad, everyone.)

Highlights: Georgia 70, Miss. St. 68 (OT)

February, 11, 2012

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope comes up clutch in overtime as Georgia knocks off No. 18 Mississippi State, 70-68.

Rapid Reaction: Georgia 61, Notre Dame 57

November, 22, 2011
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Here’s a quick recap of Georgia’s 61-57 victory over Notre Dame in the consolation game of the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center.

How it happened: Georgia hardly showed any lingering effects from Monday’s 24-point loss to Cal. The Bulldogs were patient and poised on offense, rarely taking a bad shot. Defensively, they held Notre Dame to 34.8 percent shooting. Pestered by UGA's length, Fighting Irish star Tim Abromaitis scored just six points on 1-of-12 shooting. His only field goal game on a dunk. Abromaitis had 22 points against Missouri on Monday night. Notre Dame battled back from a nine-point deficit in the second half and forced a 53-53 tie on a pair of free throws by Jerian Grant. But Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope responded with a 3-pointer that made it 56-53. The Irish never threatened again.

Star of the game: Caldwell-Pope, a freshman, continues to show why he was a consensus top-20 recruit coming out of high school. He scored a team-high 16 points Tuesday and made four of his nine 3-point attempts. While other freshmen across the country struggle, Caldwell-Pope is appearing more and more at ease. He entered Tuesday’s game averaging 12.5 points.

What it means: Georgia lost some key players -- mainly Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins -- from last season’s NCAA tournament team. Still, even though the Bulldogs are in what some would call a “transition” season, they’ll be able to finish in the middle of the SEC if they continue to improve. There are some good players on this squad who simply lack experience. Freshmen Caldwell-Pope and Nemanja Djurisic (10 points Tuesday) were two of the best players on the court Tuesday. Senior point guard Gerald Robinson averaged 12.2 points last season. His backcourt mate, Dustin Ware, appears to have taken more of a leadership role. An NCAA tournament berth may be out of range for this team, but the Dawgs will pull some upsets and get better as the year goes on.

Meanwhile, the CBE Classic turned out to be a disaster for Notre Dame, which turned in another disappointing effort following Monday’s blowout loss to Missouri. Once again, Notre Dame’s lack of athleticism and overall toughness was exposed. The Fighting Irish deserve credit for keeping it close despite an atrocious performance by Abromaitis. Still, Notre Dame struggled to find good shots and seemed rattled and rushed when it finally got open looks. To be fair, this is a team incorporating a lot of new pieces. Guards Grant and Pat Connaughton are inexperienced and forward Jack Cooley is having to play a bigger role than ever. It’s too early to judge the Irish, but the early outlook suggests that this season has “NIT” written all over it.

What’s next: Things certainly won’t get any easier for Georgia from here. The Bulldogs have back-to-back road games against Atlantic 10 favorite Xavier (Friday) and then Colorado (Monday) before hosting Cincinnati on Wednesday. Head coach Mark Fox is hoping the tough nonconference schedule pays off when UGA begins league play. As for Notre Dame, it hosts Bryant University on Sunday before hitting the road for back-to-back road games against Gonzaga (Wednesday) and Maryland (Dec. 4).