Raborn: The NCAA Tournament was perfect this year

The 2017 NCAA Tournament was one of the best tournaments in recent years for one simple reason: there was a lack of early upsets. Upsets are the staple of the NCAA Tournament, no? However, an excess of upsets is damaging to the layout of the tournament and prevents viewers from seeing the matchups they really want to see.

This year, there was one No. 10 seed over No. 7 seed upset as well as a couple of No. 11 seed wins over No. 6 seeds, and one No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed. Outside of that, the first round was clean and made some great second round matchups. People got to see Kentucky and Wichita State in the rematch from 2016 and an improbable win with Wisconsin defeating the defending Champion Villanova Wildcats. Viewers also got to see one of the best matchups in the whole tournament when South Carolina’s stingy defense played against one of the most dangerous offenses in the nation in Duke. Upsets in the first round like were seen in in 2015 and last year would have prevented these matchups from happening.

The Sweet Sixteen featured a matchup between arguably the two best players in the nation: Malik Monk of Kentucky and Lonzo Ball of UCLA. The Sweet Sixteen was the highlight of the tournament this year when No. seed 11 Xavier upset No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 4 seed Florida stunned No. 8 seed Wisconsin on a buzzer-beating circus shot.

The Elite Eight did not feature any close matchups other than the No. 1 and No. 2 seed game between North Carolina and Kentucky. However, it forged one of the most interesting Final Fours in recent memory.

This year’s Final Four was one of the best I have seen in my lifetime. Two of the four teams, No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 7 seed South Carolina, had never been to a final four in their history as a basketball program. Also, No. 3 seed Oregon made its first Final Four appearance since the first NCAA Tournament in 1939 and No. 1 seed North Carolina returned to the Final Four in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2008-2009.

South Carolina nearly managed to complete a legendary comeback, but fell short in a close four-point loss to send Mark Few and Gonzaga to the national championship game. North Carolina won in a thriller as Oregon was unable to box out during the final free throws of the game. This made for the first matchup between two No. 1 seeds since 2015 when Duke and Wisconsin squared off.

Is this not what everyone wants to see? The best teams in the nation playing each other on the biggest stage?

Fans got to see the best Gonzaga team in history with guard Nigel Williams-Goss and two massive 7-footers in Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins take on guard Joel Berry and North Carolina, who returned to the championship game for the second year in a row. The result was exactly what you would expect from such a great matchup. It’s the kind of quality product that is produced when the NCAA Tournament plays out like it did this year. North Carolina clearly deserved the national championship because it had one of the toughest roads to the championship of any team. There was a perfect mix of Cinderella teams like Xavier and South Carolina, yet there were plenty of elite matchups that were noteworthy.

Until next year, folks.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image from wikimedia.org, courtesy of Creative Commons

Raborn: SEC Basketball isn’t getting better, just luckier

To say that the SEC is improving would suggest that there are more than five or six solid teams in the conference. Not only are there few successful teams in the conference, but only two can register as elite programs: Kentucky and Florida. These two teams are as consistent as it gets for the SEC. The rest continue to waiver and change through the years.

Yes, three of the five SEC teams that made the NCAA Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight. No, that does not mean the conference in its entirety is making progress. Three teams making a run in the tournament does not create success for the whole SEC. The NCAA Tournament itself is not a good litmus test of a team’s strength. The teams in the tournament quite literally take it game by game or they are at risk of slipping up and losing to anyone. Also, the way the NCAA Tournament is set up creates an easy road for some teams. Case and point: Florida.

No. 4 seed Florida started off their tournament against No. 13 seed East Tennessee State. Although ETSU was heavily outmatched in talent and size, it still managed to be down just 1 point at halftime. However, junior forward Devin Robinson was hot for the Gators and he tallied 24 points and 7 rebounds. In the end, Florida won 80-65 to move on to its round of 32 matchup with the No. 5 seed Virginia Cavaliers, who were 23-10 coming into the game.

The Gators managed to hold the Cavaliers to just 17 points in the first half and played stingy defense, holding them to just 30 percent shooting from the field. Robinson once again led Florida with a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds in the 65-39 blowout. There was a clear reason for the terrible play from Virginia. Their leader in rebounds, blocks and steals for the team, Isiah Wilkins, was out with strep throat. Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett called him the “heart and soul of the defense.”

The Gators finally met their first through-and-through solid team when they played the No. 8 seed Wisconsin Badgers, fresh off a win over the defending champion Villanova Wildcats. Once again, Florida managed to dodge a bullet by not having to play the No. 1 seed, and the Gators tabbed an 84-83 win in overtime on a buzzer beater. Florida met its fate when they played their fellow SEC member South Carolina, and were victim to the Gamecocks’ swarming defense in the 77-70 loss.

As seen by the path that the Gators had, it is fairly easy to receive an easy road to the Sweet 16 and beyond. A certain amount of the layout in the NCAA Tournament is chalked up to luck. Does that mean that every team in the SEC got lucky this year with their path? No. Kentucky and South Carolina both had pretty tough roads in the tournament, but three teams’ success in the tournament does not spell success for the whole conference.

The SEC is still not improving by any means. The conference is still very top heavy. The top teams in the conference (Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Florida) are seeing improvement, but there is not much to say about the rest of the SEC.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Chet White, courtesy of UK Athletics

Around the SEC: Men’s basketball weekly recap

Photo by Brad Blackwelder

Week of Feb. 20-26

Kentucky continues to roll

The Wildcats continued their conference dominance with a pair of wins over Missouri and Florida. Kentucky’s offense struggled with 17 turnovers against Mizzou, but freshman Bam Adebayo’s 22 points and career-high 15 rebounds lifted the Big Blue to a 72-62 win. Kentucky outmatched the Tigers in the frontcourt, which allowed Adebayo to go to work.

Kentucky was challenged at home by the Gators. These two squads were fighting for the top spot in the conference and gave the fans a show. Freshman star Malik Monk, exploded in the second half, scoring 30 of his 33 points in the second frame. Adebayo added 18 points and matched his rebound total from Tuesday with 15 boards. The conference title is Kentucky’s to lose with two games remaining on the schedule.

Vanderbilt extends win streak to four

The ‘Dores earned back-to-back wins to put themselves on the map for a spot in the Big Dance. Vanderbilt’s defense held the Vols to under 30 percent shooting from the field to lead them to a double-digit victory. This is the third year in a row the Commodores have beaten Tennessee in Knoxville, which hasn’t been done since 1955-57. Senior Luke Kornet, recorded a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

Vanderbilt had a blowout win against Mississippi State on Saturday, 77-48. Forward Jeff Roberson scored a career-high 23 points with five 3-pointers. The final stretch for the Commodores is against the top two teams in the conference with Kentucky and Florida. A win against one of these teams all but solidifies a spot for Vandy in the NCAA Tournament.

South Carolina stumbling down the stretch

South Carolina dropped to the fourth spot in the conference during the week with a loss against Florida, but avoided consecutive losses with a home victory against Tennessee.

South Carolina’s defense suffered against Florida. The Gamecocks allowed the Gators to shoot 49 percent from the field and 9 of 19 from behind the arc. This was South Carolina’s third loss in a row after what looked what to be a three-way race for the top spot in the SEC.

The Gamecocks got back on the winning side at home against Tennessee. They held the Vols to just one 3-pointer and forced 20 turnovers. South Carolina used everyone on the bench to earn an 82-55 win. It was almost panic time in Columbia when the losses started piling up, reminiscent of last year when they lost five of the last eight games to drop out of the NCAA Tournament. This win was huge for the Gamecocks to stay in the top four of the SEC and get the confidence back before the tournament.

All Results

Alabama Crimson Tide – L 60-55 vs Georgia, L 56-53 at Texas A&M

Arkansas Razorbacks – W 86-77 vs Texas A&M, W 79-68 at Auburn

Auburn Tigers – W 98-75 at LSU, L 79-68 vs Arkansas

Florida Gators – W 81-66 vs South Carolina, L 76-66 at Kentucky

Georgia Bulldogs – W 60-55 at Alabama, W 82-80 vs LSU

Kentucky Wildcats – W 72-62 at Missouri, W 76-66 vs Florida

LSU Tigers – L 98-75 vs Auburn, L 82-80 at Georgia

Mississippi State Bulldogs – L 87-82 vs Ole Miss, L 77-48 at Vanderbilt

Missouri Tigers – L 72-62 vs Kentucky, L 80-77 at Ole Miss

Ole Miss Rebels – W 87-82 at Mississippi State, W 80-77 vs Missouri

South Carolina Gamecocks – L 81-66 at Florida, W 82-55 vs Tennessee

Tennessee Volunteers – L 67-56 vs Vanderbilt, L 82-55 at South Carolina

Texas A&M Aggies – L 86-77 at Arkansas, W 56-53 vs Alabama

Vanderbilt Commodores – W 67-56 at Tennessee, W 77-48 vs Mississippi State

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Brad Blackwelder

No. 22 Kentucky at No. 7 South Carolina preview and prediction

SEC powerhouses collide on Sunday when Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 SEC) travels to Columbia to face South Carolina (23-4, 13-2 SEC) at 2 p.m. ET.

The two teams met once already this season, a 75-63 Gamecocks victory that knocked the then-No. 25 Wildcats out of the AP Top 25.

Fortune may have favored South Carolina in the previous meeting between the two teams, but it hasn’t favored the Gamecocks as much since. Both teams have played at least five games since the Feb. 2 showdown, but only one has gone undefeated during the stretch.

Kentucky is 5-0 in its last five games, its most recent victory coming in the form of an overtime win against No. 3 Mississippi State in Lexington. The 78-75 win against a top-five opponent should provide the Wildcats with plenty of confidence against the Gamecocks.

Senior Evelyn Akhator has been crucial for the Wildcats during their winning streak — during the five wins, she’s put up three double-doubles, including a monstrous 27-point, 16-rebound performance in the overtime win against Mississippi State. Akhator is averaging 17.8 points per game and 12.2 rebounds during the win streak.

On the other side of things, South Carolina has accumulated two of its four losses this season since beating Kentucky. While the losses came to quality opponents in No. 1 Connecticut and Missouri, it’s less likely that the Gamecocks will secure a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament following the two setbacks.

If the Gamecocks want to snag a top seed in the Big Dance, however, it needs help from junior forward A’ja Wilson. Wilson provides matchup problems for any team South Carolina faces, which is why Wilson is averaging 17.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in conference play.

Prediction

As impressive as Kentucky has been in recent games, winning on the road in Columbia is difficult for even the best teams. Akhator will put together another double-double for the Wildcats, but South Carolina’s crowd will push its team to a close 65-60 win.

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by Dfscgt21

SEC men’s basketball reactions of the week

It just keeps getting more interesting in the SEC. Here are a few reactions from this week’s SEC men’s basketball games.

It’s going to be a photo finish.

What was once a certainty is now the opposite.

Just a few short weeks ago, it seemed like the SEC was Kentucky’s league to lose. It looks like the Wildcats may have lost it. Although they’re tied for first in the conference standings, Calipari’s Cats look nothing like the Final Four contenders that they should.

As it stands, Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina all have identical records: 20-5 overall with a 10-2 record in SEC play.

Kentucky didn’t lose this past week, but they narrowly defeated LSU (9-15, 1-11 SEC), the worst team in the league, 92-85, at home. In their next game, the Wildcats only scored 67 against Alabama, but still came away with the win.

Where Kentucky was fortunate, South Carolina was not. The Gamecocks lost at home to the Crimson Tide this week, 90-86, in quadruple-overtime and struggled to beat Mississippi State on the road.

Florida, on the other hand, is playing like a league champion. The Gators have won six games in a row, including an 88-66 thrashing of Kentucky on Feb. 2 during that streak. This week they’ll face Auburn and Mississippi State, so their streak should jump to eight games if the Gators keep their focus.

The league’s top three teams may not all be playing their best basketball, but the race to the top is still neck-and-neck.

Tennessee is hanging on by a thread.

A head-scratching loss in Starkville on Feb. 4 looked bad at the time for the Vols, but a victory against Ole Miss in the next game seemed to right the ship, right?

Wrong.

Tennessee (14-11, 6-6 SEC) squandered a 14-point lead in the second half to the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, and probably squandered a ticket to the NCAA Tournament with it. Even with 30 points from freshman forward Grant Williams, Tennessee managed to lose, 76-75, to Georgia. The loss to the Bulldogs was the fourth time this season Tennessee has lost after leading by double digits.

The Vols’ NCAA Tournament hopes aren’t completely gone, but Tennessee has to work some magic the rest of the way if it doesn’t want those hopes to disappear.

The SEC might only have three teams in the NCAA Tournament.

With Georgia (14-11, 5-7 SEC) and Tennessee walking on eggshells and Arkansas (18-7, 7-5 SEC) losing games to teams like Missouri and Vanderbilt, the NCAA Tournament could see as few as three teams represented from the SEC.

Although it seems like the Razorbacks’ record would be enough to punch their ticket to the Big Dance, one or two more bad losses would likely squash their chances.

Tennessee still has two tough road games remaining against Kentucky and South Carolina, and the Vols will likely have to steal at least one of those games to keep their tournament hopes alive.

Georgia improved its chances of landing a spot in the NCAA Tournament with a win against Tennessee, but the Bulldogs have no true signature wins so far this season.

The door is open for six SEC teams to be in the NCAA Tournament, but for now, only Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina are locks.

Edited by David Bradford

Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Top SEC Men’s Basketball performers of the week

Week of Feb. 6 to Feb. 12

Sindarius Thornwell, Guard, South Carolina

It was quite a week for the SEC Player of the Year candidate. Thornwell scored 72 points through two games this week. In a quadruple-overtime loss to Alabama on Tuesday, he had a double-double with 44 points and 21 rebounds. Thornwell also broke Pistol Pete Maravich’s record of free throws made in a single game with 25 in the contest. South Carolina would not have been close in the game without Thornwell, as he scored over half of their 86 points.

It was a more modest effort for Thornwell in a win over Mississippi State on Saturday. He still led the Gamecocks with 28 points in the win, including scoring 10 of their 19 in the first half. At this point, it may be a two-horse race for SEC Player of the Year between Thornwell and Malik Monk from Kentucky. More weeks like this from Thronwell and he may very well be in the driver’s seat.

J.J. Frazier, Guard, Georgia

It’s been a rough slate of games for the Bulldogs this season. After facing Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida back-to-back, the Bulldogs became the first team in the SEC to face three straight ranked opponents this season. SEC minutes leader J.J. Frazier had a huge night against Tennessee on Saturday to get the Bulldogs back in the win column after three tough losses. Frazier. for the second straight year, killed Tennessee throughout the game. He had 29 points including a bucket and the foul in the last minute to secure the win for Georgia.

Frazier also put in a nice effort in a loss against the red-hot Florida Gators on Tuesday. He scored 18 points while also securing seven rebounds in the loss. Playing all but two minutes in the game, Frazier continues to be a guy who Georgia cannot leave out of the game.

Grant Williams, Forward, Tennessee

The freshman from Charlotte has continued to defy the odds for the Baby Vols this season. At only 6-foot-5, Williams is currently fourth in the conference in blocked shots with 2.0 blocks per game. He has scored in double figures in seven straight games and has arguably been the Vols’ best player during SEC play. In a come-from-behind win against Ole Miss on Wednesday night, he finished with 18 points and seven rebounds while holding his own against one of the best big men in the conference in Sebastian Saiz.

Williams’ best effort of the week, however, came in a losing effort on Saturday. Having to go against the third-highest scorer in the conference in Yante Maten of Georgia was not going to be an easy job for Grant Williams coming in. How did he end up performing against him? He absolutely dominated. Williams had arguably the best game of his career, tying his career-high with 30 points. It was an impressive showing for the first-year player, and one that may continue to vault him into the conversation for the SEC All-Freshman team.

Malik Monk, Guard, Kentucky

Where would the Kentucky be without Malik Monk? Time and time again this season, Monk has made big shots when the Wildcats have needed it most. Monk had another good week for 14th-ranked Kentucky, as they were able to bounce back from a 1-3 stretch of games. Monk performed well against LSU after a rough game against Florida by scoring 23 points and hitting a free throw late to secure the win.

After a shootout against LSU, Kentucky grinded out a win in Tuscaloosa against Alabama on Saturday. Monk led the Wildcats with 17 points on the day, again coming up big when he was needed. At 21.7 points per game, Malik Monk continues to lead the conference in scoring.

Edited by Robert Hughes

Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics