College Basketball Nation: Rick Ray

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.

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.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 14, 2012
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Finally, some movement in the SEC power rankings. Tennessee secured a nice win over a mid-major power Thursday. Ole Miss, however, lost to a non-power-six standout over the weekend. Feels good to finally make a few changes.

1. Florida: If the No. 5 Gators score a convincing win at No. 8 Arizona on Saturday, they could enter next week as a top-three team. They’ve been as dominant as any squad in the country. But the Wildcats will be the toughest team that they’ve faced to date. Arizona is deep enough inside to limit Patric Young’s production, a rare trait for the teams the Gators have played thus far.

2. Missouri: Frank Haith’s squad has one blemish, an 84-61 loss against Louisville on Nov. 23. But the Tigers have yet to play another nationally ranked squad (224th nonconference strength of schedule per ESPN.com’s InsideRPI). That will change Dec. 22 when they face undefeated Illinois.

3. Kentucky: Its most recent wins over Samford and Portland may have helped it recover from the back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor that cost the team its spot in the Associated Press' Top 25. But they’re just appetizers for the Dec. 29 matchup against rival Louisville, the nation’s most efficient defense. Kentucky’s point-guard problems will be scrutinized in the buildup to that game.

4. Texas A&M: This is where the league’s makeup gets murkier. Yes, Elston Turner (16.3 points per game) has led the Aggies to four consecutive wins. But a one-point neutral-site triumph over Washington State is their best victory. Three of the Aggies’ first four SEC games will include roads trips to Kentucky and Alabama, plus a home matchup against Florida. So this streak could end soon.

5. Tennessee: Cuonzo Martin needed Thursday’s night’s 69-60 win over previously undefeated No. 23 Wichita State, and forced 17 turnovers to hand the Shockers their first loss of the season. The Vols have been one of the top defensive teams in the country all season. But they’ve averaged just 39.7 points in their three losses. So putting up 69 and avoiding a third consecutive loss must have been a refreshing moment for Vols fans.

6. Alabama: I think the Crimson Tide (30th in defensive efficiency) will climb these ratings soon. But Alabama has to prove that it belongs in the SEC’s top tier. And a loss at the buzzer against Cincinnati and a follow-up loss to Dayton at home -- 11-for-36 from the 3-point line in the two games -- didn’t help Anthony Grant’s cause. And now that center Carl Engstrom is out for the season, Alabama has one legit center on its roster, Moussa Gueye. But the program can get back on track with a win at Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday.

7. LSU: Friday is a significant day for Johnny Jones’ squad. The undefeated Tigers have registered a 6-0 mark against a weak slate so far. Seton Hall (No. 80) is the only opponent they’ve faced that’s ranked higher than 190th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. And they haven’t left Baton Rouge. So Friday’s matchup at Boise State will be a better barometer for LSU’s progress, especially for a Tigers squad that has somehow gotten away with an average of 18 turnovers per game.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels were off to a furious start until they ran into Middle Tennessee State last weekend. They had recorded 90 or more points in four of their first six games, all wins against mediocre opposition. But they scored just 62 points (5-of-21 from beyond the arc, 17 turnovers) against the Blue Raiders. Beware of inflated statistics in November and December.

9. Arkansas: If the Razorbacks' porous defense (205th in efficiency) matched their offense (80.3 ppg, 19th in the nation), they’d be a contender for the SEC title. But the two aren’t equal. So they continue to prove that they score (82 points in loss to Syracuse, 81 in a victory over Oklahoma) but they really can’t stop anyone.

10. Vanderbilt: A year after contending for the SEC title with the help of a veteran rotation, Kevin Stallings must rely on a multitude of underclassmen this season. And it shows. The Commodores are near the bottom of every meaningful statistical category in the conference. But last week’s 66-64 win at Xavier might mean that the young squad is growing up fast.

11. South Carolina: Frank Martin’s team is 6-3. And with matchups against Appalachian State, Manhattan, Presbyterian and South Carolina State preceding its SEC opener Jan. 9 at Mississippi State, it will probably be 10-3 soon. But the Gamecocks (228th SOS according to ESPN.com’s BPI) could come down to earth once league play begins, especially if they continue to average 19 turnovers per game.

12. Auburn: So, the Tigers have lost five of their past seven games. Not all bad losses. A double-overtime loss against 2-7 Rhode Island and a 49-point effort in a loss to Boston College, however, were. It might be a really tough year for Frankie Sullivan (18.5 ppg) & Co.

13. Mississippi State: Rick Ray is essentially relying on six guys with Jalen Steele sidelined by a wrist injury. So the Bulldogs’ struggles have continued. This is how most rebuilding jobs start. It’s probably going to be a rough season. But Ray has been a successful coach at other stops. He can certainly pull the Bulldogs out of this basement in the coming seasons. The program’s supporters need foresight so that he’s given the proper time and resources to do it.

14. Georgia: When I talked to Mark Fox at the Final Four, he was excited about this team. But it’s hard to have an optimistic outlook on the Bulldogs’ 2012-13 campaign based on how they’ve started. They’ve lost six of their past seven (a streak that includes defeats to Youngstown State, South Florida and Southern Miss) and their only two victories have come against East Tennessee State and Jacksonville.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

December, 7, 2012
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So, the Gators are even better than I thought, an assessment I made after their lopsided victory over Florida State on Wednesday night. The rest of the SEC, however, is quite confusing. Most of the league's programs still have a lot of work to do. Good thing it’s still early.

1. Florida. The Gators are definitely the best team in the SEC right now. The annihilation of Florida State was another showcase of their dominance thus far. They’ve defeated Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State by an average of 25.3 points.

2. Missouri. The Tigers slipped early against Southeast Missouri State -- they were down by 10 at halftime of Tuesday’s 81-65 victory -- but eventually recovered. But it was another effort that exposed their backcourt limits (Frank Haith’s three starting guards were 5-for-22), an issue they’ll have to address without the services of former standout Michael Dixon Jr.

3. Kentucky. With so many potential pros on the roster and John Calipari on the sideline, I’m confident the Wildcats can fix their kinks in the coming months. But their losses to Notre Dame and Baylor illustrated their ballhandling woes (28 turnovers in the two games).

4. Ole Miss. Its strength of schedule (324) is clearly a factor in its 6-0 start. The Rebels have averaged 87.0 points per game in that stretch (No. 2 in the country) and they’ve also been relentless on defense (17th in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). But their nonconference schedule is so light that we really won’t know what they’re made of until SEC play begins, although Saturday’s matchup at Middle Tennessee won’t be an easy test to pass.

5. Texas A&M. The Aggies’ 62-54 win over Stephen F. Austin on Wednesday was their fourth consecutive victory. They’re ranked 68th in adjusted offensive efficiency and they’ve compiled a nonconference slate that’s rated 20th nationally in strength of schedule, according to ESPN.com. They’re 2-0 against squads in the top 25 of the RPI.

6. Alabama. I think they’ll end up much higher by the end of the season. But the Crimson Tide lost 58-56 to Cincinnati on Cashmere Wright's buzzer-beater Saturday and against Dayton, 81-76, Wednesday. The first week of December has been a rough one.

7. Tennessee. The Vols played two of the top defensive teams in the country in their past two games. But they were still very disappointing in Friday’s 37-36 loss at Georgetown and Wednesday’s 46-38 defeat at Virginia. They’re better than this, but might not really prove it until Jeronne Maymon returns from injury.

8. LSU. Johnny Jones’ new program is off to a 5-0 start against a pedestrian slate (328th SOS). But without any signature victories, it’s tough to peg the Tigers. Their best nonconference opportunity to validate the unblemished record will come Dec. 22 when they face Marquette in Milwaukee.

9. Arkansas. BJ Young (19.5 points per game) is a special talent. But the Razorbacks can’t rely on him alone. The supporting cast has been inconsistent in a rough stretch that’s featured three losses in four games, although they’re coming off an 81-78 victory over Oklahoma on Tuesday.

10. Vanderbilt. The young Commodores earned a crucial road win over Xavier, 66-64 in overtime, Thursday night. It was just their second win in their last six games, but it’s a noteworthy divider in a conference that’s tough to sort at the bottom.

11. Mississippi State. At this point, Rick Ray’s depleted squad just needs wins. And with Tuesday’s 53-42 victory over UTSA, the Bulldogs secured their second in three games.

12. South Carolina. The Gamecocks had won five of their first six matchups to open the 2012-13 season. But they’ve lost back-to-back games to St. John’s (89-65 on the road) and Clemson (64-55).

13. Auburn. Frankie Sullivan is one of the top offensive performers in the country (19.7 ppg). But that hasn’t been enough to pull Auburn out of the SEC’s basement -- the Tigers have lost four games in a row.

14. Georgia. The Bulldogs have lost six of their past seven games. Mark Fox has been unable to find any momentum in the first month of the 2012-13 season.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

November, 30, 2012
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By now, many assumed that Kentucky would own the No. 1 post in the SEC. As I compile the first edition of ESPN.com’s power rankings for the conference, however, I’m not even sure they’re No. 2. The Wildcats have faced some tough teams but they’ve been inconsistent. It’s early, so these rankings will change. But the Gators are on top. It might be tough for the rest of the league to knock them off their perch, too.

1. Florida. The Gators destroyed Wisconsin and crushed Marquette in the SEC/Big East Challenge. Kenny Boynton is one of four players averaging double figures for the 6-0 squad. Plus, Florida has been one of the nation’s most efficient offensive and defensive units in November.

2. Missouri. Michael Dixon Jr. leaving the program is certainly a blow for the Tigers, but they’re still one of the league’s best teams. Phil Pressey (15.0 points, 6.2 assists per game) and Laurence Bowers (14.2 ppg, 6.3 rebounds per game) have led Frank Haith’s squad to victories over Stanford and Virginia Commonwealth in recent weeks.

3. Kentucky. John Calipari’s young squad has been battered by some of the nation’s top teams, suffering losses to Duke and Notre Dame (on the road). The 14-point loss against the Fighting Irish on Thursday was a blow to its ego but the Wildcats could shake it off Saturday if they get a win over Baylor.

4. Alabama. I’m not sure whether I believe Alabama’s 6-0 start but I believe in Trevor Releford (18.6 ppg) and the leadership he’s provided for Anthony Grant’s squad. The Crimson Tide have been tough on defense. And they can prove that this start hasn’t been a fluke when they visit No. 17 Cincinnati on Saturday in the SEC/Big East Challenge.

5. Tennessee. The Vols were overmatched against Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico but they bounced back with a victory over UMass and then crushed Oakland, a Summit League contender, by 27 points. A win at No. 20 Georgetown on Friday would certainly elevate Tennessee nationally.

6. Ole Miss. The Rebels haven’t played a high-major opponent this season, but they’ve crushed the non-BCS opponents on their schedule by an average of 29.2 ppg. Andy Kennedy’s 5-0 squad has looked good thus far, but this start won’t mean much until it starts SEC play in January.

7. Arkansas. The Razorbacks lost to Wisconsin and Arizona State during the Las Vegas Invitational. But I still think this Arkansas team, led by BJ Young (20.5 ppg) and Marshawn Powell (12.2 ppg), is better than most of the teams in the SEC. Friday’s home matchup against No. 6 Syracuse will be an opportunity to show it.

8. Texas A&M. Elston Turner (15.7 ppg) is one of three players averaging double figures, and freshman J'Mychal Reese (7.3 ppg) has been a young standout for a 5-1 Aggies squad that’s beaten teams it’s supposed to defeat. The Aggies did give up 70 points (and only recorded 49) against a Saint Louis squad that’s rarely recognized for its offense.

9. LSU. Johnny Jones’ tenure has started off with five wins and zero losses, including Thursday’s 72-67 victory over Seton Hall. And with a small sample size, the Tigers are top-100 in defensive efficiency. Could be worse for a program that’s struggled in recent years.

10. Georgia. The Bulldogs need to stop the bleeding after losing four of their past five games, although two of those losses came against Indiana and UCLA. They’ll play at South Florida on Friday in the SEC/Big East Challenge. Few SEC squads need a win as badly as Mark Fox’s.

11. South Carolina. Frank Martin’s team is in a bad spot. The Gamecocks lost to Elon last week and suffered a 24-point defeat to St. John’s on Thursday. Bruce Ellington’s return, until the football team begins prep for its bowl game, is a plus for the squad.

12. Auburn. The Tigers have lost close games to Boston College (50-49) and Rhode Island (double overtime). Frankie Sullivan (18.3 ppg) shoulders the bulk of the offensive burden and that’s one of the 2-4 team’s problems: It lacks balance.

13. Vanderbilt. The Commodores, who lost every significant player from last season's rotation, get a pass for losses at Oregon and to Davidson (at a neutral site). Scoring 33 points against Marist? Ugh.

14. Mississippi State. Rick Ray walked into a messy situation when he accepted the head-coaching job last spring. These Bulldogs have struggled on both ends of the floor. It’s worth noting, however, that Marquette, Texas and North Carolina were responsible for three of their four losses.

3-point shot: Scoping out BracketBusters

November, 15, 2012
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1. Participants for 2013's BracketBusters and the home/road breakdown were released Wednesday, and already it's easy to pick out what should be the best matchups for the Feb. 22-23 event. The home-road split works out for a Creighton-at-Murray State matchup. If the two teams continue to perform well during the next two months (before actual pairings are announced Jan. 28), that will be a natural game. Davidson and Valparaiso are the other marquee home teams and the Wildcats and Crusaders probably should get either a team from the Missouri Valley (Illinois State), the Mid-American Conference (Ohio or Kent State) or Horizon (Detroit). The other two teams to keep an eye on over the next two months to see if they are worthy of a high-profile game are road teams Albany (won at Washington) and UC Irvine (lost in overtime at UCLA).

2. The surprise of the Tip-Off Marathon might have been Wichita State upsetting Virginia Commonwealth. Sure, Xavier playing as hard as it did and dominating Butler was a shocker. The Bulldogs being so offensively challenged and without a game-changing guard was disappointing. Gonzaga's shutdown of West Virginia was the most significant development. But the Shockers' two-point victory in Richmond should send shock waves in the Valley that Wichita State will be a player in the race behind Creighton. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said Tuesday that he is playing with eight newcomers and that they "competed their ass off. (VCU) had not lost in November since 2002. In the last two-plus seasons we have the best winning percentage on the road in the country now at 21-3.'' If Marshall's stats are correct, they indicate how much he has his team ready for foreign courts. And if the first week is any indication, the Shockers will have shelf life through the winter.

3. Let's just give Mississippi State a pass for the season. This simply won't be fair. New coach Rick Ray is down to six scholarship players for next week's Maui Invitational. The latest setbacks are an injury to Jalen Steele (fractured right wrist) and a suspension of Colin Borchert; Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis are already out. Ray said Wednesday that he'll have two walk-ons to use against North Carolina on Monday in Hawaii. The Bulldogs split the first two games -- a loss at Troy and a win over Florida Atlantic. But to expect much out of this Bulldogs team is simply not right. Ray deserves a freebie this season as he establishes his program.
Rick Ray is never afraid to pick up the telephone.

One day, the new Mississippi State coach may call Purdue’s Matt Painter to ask for advice. The next afternoon it could be Brad Brownell of Clemson or former Indiana State coach Royce Waltman.

“Everyone has their mentors,” Ray said, “and those are mine. You’re a fool if you don’t lean on some of the guys you’ve been around that have had success.”

Considering the situation he inherited, no one could blame Ray for seeking a little guidance during his first few months with the Bulldogs. Mississippi State averaged 21 wins in 14 seasons under Rick Stansbury, but the past three years were disasters, as the underachieving Bulldogs missed the NCAA tournament despite boasting top-25 talent.

[+] EnlargeRick Ray
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisReplacing numerous key players will be just one of the challenges that awaits Rick Ray in his first season at Mississippi State.
Stansbury “resigned” last spring and State plucked Ray from Brownell’s staff at Clemson. He had previously worked under Painter at Purdue. Ray, though, had never experienced a scenario as dismal as the one he stepped into in Starkville.

Leading scorer and rebounder Arnett Moultrie left school early for the NBA draft, where he was the 27th overall pick. So, too, did forward Renardo Sidney, who went undrafted. Starting point guard Dee Bost graduated and standout freshman wing Rodney Hood transferred to Duke.

Just when it appeared as if things couldn’t get any worse, freshman point guard Jacoby Davis, a projected starter, tore his ACL during summer workouts.

“The injury to Jacoby was more devastating than anything,” Ray said. “We felt like he was really going to help us on both ends of the floor.”

Bleak as things may appear to outsiders, Ray refuses to let the situation dampen his spirits.

“At the end of the day, you play only eight or nine guys,” he said. “Obviously you’d like to have some depth so you can have competition at practice. But when it’s all said and done you’re only going to play eight or nine guys. And we’ve definitely got some kids that know how to play.”

One of them is leading returning scorer Jalen Steele, a junior shooting guard who averaged 8.7 points last season. More than any player, Ray is counting on Steele to be the Bulldogs’ catalyst this season. Not just on the court, but off of it, too.

“I don’t know if I’ve been around a more professional kid as far as his approach to basketball as Jalen Steele,” Ray said. “He gets to the gym early and is already in a full sweat before we ever begin our workouts. Then he stays afterwards. He’s very attentive and has been correcting everyone else’s mistakes. On top of that, he’s probably one of the better shooters I’ve ever been around.”

Steele is one of just two returning players who saw significant minutes last season. The other is 6-foot-9, 260-pound forward Wendell Lewis, who is regarded as one of the top shot-blockers in the SEC. Lewis averaged 3.8 points off the bench last season, but with Moultrie and Sidney gone, he’ll likely be MSU’s top player in the paint in 2012-13.

“The biggest thing about Wendell is that he has to mature as a kid,” Ray said. “He has to have a much more serious approach to the game of basketball. Athletically, you’re talking about a guy with an SEC body, SEC athleticism and SEC length. He has all of that. The physical part isn’t the problem.

“But mentally, can he make the transition into being a front-line guy? If he takes the game a little more serious, he’s going to be a good player for us.”

The biggest question mark for the Bullies is at point guard. With Bost no longer on the roster and Davis out for the season, Ray said freshman combo guard Craig “Chicken” Sword will have to play exclusively at the point, where he’ll compete for minutes with Juco recruit Trivante Bloodman. Sword is the highest-rated prospect in Ray's first recruiting class.

Whoever ends up starting, Ray understands that his first season in Starkville will be full of ups and downs. The SEC is loaded with Kentucky, Florida and Missouri all expected to open the season in the top 25. Tennessee could have one of its best teams in years and Arkansas and Ole Miss should be much improved.

Still, Ray is confident the Bulldogs can win their share of games, too. Ray said he feels fortunate that former bosses such as Painter and Brownell didn’t pigeon-hole him as a recruiter and instead gave him opportunities to run individual workouts and have input when it came to Xs and Os.

“I’ve learned from some of the best,” Ray said. “With Matt Painter, you’re talking about a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year -- and he’s going against guys like Tom Izzo and Thad Matta. Those are some heavy hitters.

“To the common fan, the name Brad Brownell won’t resonate. But anyone who is around basketball knows that Brad is one of the finest Xs and Os coaches in the game right now. He probably does a better job of developing kids as anyone in the nation.”

Ray said his goal is to play an up-tempo style that will keep opponents “on their heels.” But he realizes that’s sometimes easier said than done.

“At the end of the day, coaches get paid millions of dollars to stop you from doing it,” he said. “The surest sign of a bad basketball team is a team that gives up points in transition. When the opportunities aren’t there, I'll run motion offense. I want to give guys freedom and give guys who have a lot of versatility a chance to make plays.”

Pleased as he is with the work ethic of his current players and the response he’s getting on the recruiting trail, the thing that encourages Ray the most is the support he’s received from fans. When the Bulldogs are winning, there aren’t many home-court advantages in the SEC as strong as the one in Starkville.

Ray said he senses an eagerness among the MSU fanbase to get the program rebuilt in a hurry. He’s going to try his best to make it happen.

“Mississippi State is one of the few schools in the SEC where basketball matters,” he said. “The SEC has a huge reputation in football. They’ve won six or seven straight national championships, so that’s justified. But at places like Vanderbilt and Kentucky, basketball really matters.

“It’s like that here in Starkville, too. That’s the main reason I took the job and the main reason I think we can get it done here.”

Ranking the coaching jobs: SEC

June, 6, 2012
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It's Coaches Week on ESPN.com and today we're going conference by conference to rank the best and worst coaching jobs, as voted on by 14 of our writers and television analysts.

A few important notes: This is not an attempt to rank the programs or their histories. A school's tradition was taken into account of course, but more emphasis was given to recent years and how hard or easy it is for a new coach to win there. Current recruits don't remember much beyond, what, 2008?

When voting, our 14 panelists were asked to take into consideration facilities, expectation level, athletic budget, wins and losses, recruiting base, fan support/pressure and all of the other factors that go into determining the "best" jobs in the ever-crazy profession of college basketball coaching.

In short: If you were an agent and every single job was open in a particular conference, where would you direct your client? Where would you tell him to avoid if there are better options?

There's no right or wrong answer of course. These rankings are very much up for debate and we're sure you'll do so in the comments section. But at the very least, this polling of 14 people clued into the inner workings of college basketball offers a glimpse into how the coaching position at your favorite school is perceived on the national scene.

Full breakdowns of the rest of the Big Six conferences can be found here: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.

(Editor's Note: Realignment makes the college landscape a confusing one these days, but for the purposes of this poll, panelists were asked to vote based on what each conference would look like for the 2012-13 season.)

1. Kentucky: No school in the country has as loyal and passionate a fan base -- the Big Blue fans will camp out for practice. Kentucky’s job pays as much if not more than any other job in the country. Local talent in the state isn’t an issue since UK recruits nationally. There have been blips in recruiting, but that was on the coach, not on the school. If the right coach is in place, Kentucky can and should be in contention for any player it wants, regardless of locale. Rupp Arena could use some more frills (and will get plenty in the near future), but it has history and is as loud as any arena. The Joe Craft Center is a top-notch practice facility. And the Wildcats are coveted by tournaments and television executives looking for a ratings winner.

2. Florida: Billy Donovan has made UF the second-best job in the SEC. Florida has always been a solid destination for recruits. There is talent in the region, but the Gators can and do recruit nationally. The school is a big-time draw with its football program a national name. The fan base gets up for big games and the O-Dome can get rocking for special opponents. Athletic director Jeremy Foley is easily one of the most respected administrators in the country. He takes care of his own and rewarded Donovan with one of the richest contracts in the country after his two national titles. The Gators have their own practice facility that is more than enough for their needs. Expect Florida, coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, to remain a national program.

3. Missouri: The Tigers immediately leap into the top three in the SEC. The fan base is passionate and Mizzou Arena will be one of the toughest places to play in the SEC. The salary structure at Missouri can be an issue due to the budget constraints at the school. You’re not going to see Mizzou outbid other schools for a coach. The Tigers will never be able to compete with Kentucky and Florida in salaries, but the facilities can match the two schools. Mizzou is also in a hot recruiting territory with the ability to draw from St. Louis to Chicago to the Southeast, as well as Texas.

4. Tennessee: The Vols have traditionally been able to recruit, but talent-rich Memphis is six hours away from Knoxville and the Tigers are an institution there, so that can be a tough nut to crack. Thompson-Boling Arena was remodeled a few years ago and has the look of an NBA facility -- and the surge in fan interest that began under Bruce Pearl has continued as the Vols were again among the nation's leaders in attendance during Cuonzo Martin's first season. The athletic programs at Tennessee are usually high end, but it's been a rough go lately. Still, the commitment to winning in men’s basketball is much more apparent at UT than it was before this past decade. This has become a solid job.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks have a rich talent area that it can draw from in the region. Arkansas also has as rich a basketball tradition of any program in the SEC outside of Kentucky. The fan base, when there is a worthy product on the floor, can be as passionate as any in the country -- their traveling party in the 90s was truly a sight to see. Bud Walton Arena gives Arkansas one of the toughest homecourts in the country, let alone in the SEC. Arkansas has also been willing to pay its coaches well. This should always be a top-five job in this conference.

6. Vanderbilt: Vandy is one of the few schools in the conference where basketball is a high priority. The high academic standards does mean recruiting is a little trickier, but it also ensures the Commodores remains unique. Getting talent to Vanderbilt, which recruits nationally, hasn’t ever really been an issue. Memorial Gym may be quirky, but it also can be a nuisance to opposing teams. The fan base has been superb in creating a chaotic atmosphere. Salaries are competitive, but never going to be elite in the SEC.

7. Georgia: The talent in the region has been there for years, but the competition for it has always been intense. Getting players to stay in Georgia is a tough sell with so many options. Basketball has had its moments in Athens, but it’s never going to be No. 1. The facilities aren’t top-notch in comparison to the rest of the league, either. Salaries are competitive, but never going to be in the upper echelon. UGA will have its moments of success, but expecting the Bulldogs to be an NCAA tournament team on a regular basis is unrealistic.

8. LSU: Getting players in the area to come to Baton Rouge hasn’t been much of a problem. Louisiana has plenty of players for LSU and others (see: the 2006 Final Four team). But basketball is always going to be playing a deep second in the athletic department. LSU had its run under Dale Brown and had a few runs of success since. Alum Johnny Jones will attempt to rekindle that era, but he’s going to be at a program where modest success should be celebrated not scorned.

9. Texas A&M: The Aggies were brutal as a basketball destination until Billy Gillispie helped revitalize the program with Mark Turgeon continuing to make the Aggies relevant as an NCAA team. Now Billy Kennedy has to do the same in the SEC. The arena upgrade was a must and if the fans continue to support this program at a high level then this job has a chance to climb a lot higher than No. 9 in this league. The fan base is more committed to the program than some of the others mentioned above. Texas is a feeder ground for plenty of programs and the Aggies should be able to get their share. If you’re looking for a program and job that could become more coveted in the future in the SEC, this could be this one.

10. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have the program of record in the SEC -- in football. The basketball program has been dwarfed for years by its big brother in pads, and rightfully so. Alabama fans tend to pay attention to the sport in the time wedge between the last bowl game and spring football. That puts even more pressure on Alabama to be relevant during those months. Getting talent to Tuscaloosa hasn’t been an issue. Salaries have improved, but aren’t going to be at the top in the SEC. The facility has never been a home run, but it has improved over the years.

11. Mississippi State: MSU is one of the few schools in the bottom part of this list where basketball is very much relevant. Football has had its time in the spotlight but the basketball program has been successful enough, and certainly newsworthy, to generate interest. The Bulldogs haven’t had any problems securing NBA-level talent. And the Hump can be one of the loudest arenas in the league. The problem is the salaries are never going to be too high in Starkville and the perception of one of the smallest and more remote college towns can push this job down a few notches. Mississippi State had trouble replacing Rick Stansbury with a comparable head coach. The Bulldogs went for an assistant in Rick Ray. He may turn out to be a huge hit, but he was an obscure choice for what had become a consistent winner in the SEC.

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have gone through a revolving door of sorts, trying to settle on a longtime head coach to ensure the program matters nationally, let alone in the SEC. South Carolina is football-first. The facilities are improving and so are the salaries. There is a renewed commitment. Frank Martin wouldn’t have left Kansas State if he couldn’t make more money the way he did this spring. But luring talent to Columbia has never been an easy chore. The Gamecocks, who haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 1973 (how crazy is that?), have a way to go to become one of the best jobs in the league.

13. Auburn: The Tigers have had a few moments of relevance since their run of success in the mid-80s -- with an emphasis on the word few. Building a new arena was a major commitment upgrade and likely prevented Auburn from finishing last in voting. But the fans haven’t been flocking so far. They need a winner. Tony Barbee is recruiting well, but he has his work cut out for him to pack the arena and ensure that Auburn becomes one of the better jobs in the SEC.

14. Ole Miss: The Rebels play in what has never been a beloved arena. The Tad Pad is basically a dump. The state of Mississippi produces plenty of talent, but keeping and luring elite, NBA-level talent has always been an issue. Salaries for the coaches aren’t close to the top of this league. And as a result winning has been extremely difficult on a consistent basis. Ole Miss hasn't been dancing since 2002, the longest drought in the conference.

-- Team blurbs written by Andy Katz

So, about Mississippi State

April, 9, 2012
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There are rebuilding programs, and then there's this.

That's the immediate and obvious reaction I had when reading the latest out of Starkville, Miss. Sunday night, just after whatever it was that happened on "Mad Men." (To be honest, I'm not really sure. I'm a couple of episodes behind, and I spent most of the night ducking Twitter's all-hours spoiler routine.) Indeed, it went from bad to worse at Mississippi State: Freshman guard Rodney Hood is transferring out of the program, newly appointed head coach Rick Ray announced in a statement:
"Obviously, we are disappointed in Rodney's decision," Ray said. "I was looking forward to getting a chance to develop and coach him. This decision, unfortunately, was made before my hire. The Hoods were forthright and honest about where they were when I met with them, and I appreciate their honesty.

"I look forward to putting together a team with the current members, rolling up our sleeves and recruiting new Bulldogs."
At least Ray isn't sugar-coating it. Because right now, there aren't many Bulldogs to speak of.

That's meant as no offense to Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis -- who immediately become the Bulldogs' leading returners in points (12.5, combined) and minutes (44.8, again combined) per game. Both Steele and Lewis proved themselves in 2012 as completely competent Division-I men's basketball players. And there are a couple of freshman, most notably DeVille Smith, in the program right now. So, you know, there's that. (Update: DeVille Smith left the program in late March, so nevermind that part.)

But the exodus of talent has been breathtaking to behold. Arnett Moultrie, gone. Dee Bost, gone. Renardo Sidney, gone in a blaze of glory:
"So, I was thinking, he’s going to sit me out until about four or five minutes left in the second half. I still didn’t get in the game. There were two overtimes. He turned his back on me, so after the game I just left. I said I was out, meaning I was not going back to the school or playing for Mississippi State."

Anyway, now Hood, a 6-foot-8 SEC all-freshman team member and a top-40 player in his ESPNU recruiting class, who managed to average 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds despite playing in the vortex of bad vibes that was Starkville last season, has wisely seen that the program is in a relative shambles and has decided to ply his trade somewhere less bombed out and depleted. And can you blame him? Of course not. This is, unfortunately, where Mississippi State is. Rick Stansbury is gone, the players who formed the backbone (ahem) of what could have been an excellent team in 2011-12 have fallen away, and what is left is Rick Ray's elbow grease and pluck.

Really, let's wish him the best of luck. It's going to be a long offseason -- and, barring a relative miracle, an even longer 2012-13.

(Oh, and hi there. My mini post-Final Four blog siesta is over. Welcome to the offseason, everyone. Let's see if we can't keep ourselves entertained over the next few months, huh?)
1. Baylor coach Scott Drew said an NBA draft early-entry decision from Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller will come at some point this week after he sits down and meets with the families. If both were to return then the Bears would be one of the favorites again in the Big 12 and possibly a Final Four.

2. Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said Tony Wroten Jr., would likely make up his mind sometime this week, as well. The Huskies lost Terrence Ross to the NBA Sunday when he officially declared for the draft. The Huskies underachieved this season by failing to reach the NCAA tournament despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title.

3. Mississippi State pulled a sleeper out of the coaching carousel when they hired Clemson associate head coach Rick Ray. This was a stunner. But it also shows how difficult a time it is for these schools to lure a high-major coach away from another significant gig, let alone a head coach who is comfortable at a conference outside the power six. Times have changed in coaching as more coaches are content to stay put if they’re winning, compensated well, and have a chance to make the NCAA tournament.

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