CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Florida and Kentucky are both coming off Final Four seasons.
The two heavyweights are expected to contend for a Southeastern Conference title again this season. The question remains: Can the rest of the league close the gap in talent and performance?
“I believe that you will see five or six teams from the SEC in the NCAA Tournament this season,” first-year Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
Last year, the SEC only qualified three teams for the NCAA Tournament, with all three having success. In addition to Florida’s run to the Final Four and Kentucky’s ascent to the NCAA title game, Tennessee reached the Sweet 16.
Kentucky, with three starters returning from its national championship team, was picked to finish first in the SEC in the preseason media poll. And for good reason.
Kentucky returns 12 players (including walk-ons) from a team that went 29-11 overall and 12-6 in SEC play. The current roster includes nine former McDonald’s All-Americans.
For Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 team in USA Today poll, the season will be about managing expectations.
“We can’t really listen to it,” said Kentucky sophomore guard Aaron Harrison, who was named SEC preseason player of the year. “We just have to go out there and play. And no matter what anyone says about us or how good they think our team is, we don’t really know how good we are.”
But Kentucky was able to get a sneak peak of its talent level during a 10-day trip to the Bahamas in August that included scrimmages against professional teams.
Calipari said he intends to play two five-man units during the course of the season in an effort to utilize all of the talent on the roster.
“These kids have bought in,” Calipari said. “They’re fine. These kids are all within five percent of each other. When we go in and practice, there are no blowouts.”
Florida went 36-3 last season, winning a school-record 30 straight games before losing to Connecticut in the Final Four.
The Gators, picked to finish second in the SEC in this year’s preseason media poll, were the first team in SEC history to finish an 18-game regular-season schedule unbeaten and went on to win the SEC Tournament.
Florida coach Billy Donovan is concerned that the success from last season could create unrealistic expectations for his returning players that are stepping into new roles to replace four former senior starters.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and I’ve never been a part of a team that won 30 straight games and went 125 straight days without losing a game,” Donovan said. “It’s so far removed from reality and I have to help them stay in reality.”
The Gators’ lone starter returning, junior guard Michael Frazier II, was named to the All-SEC first team. Frazier shot an SEC-best 44.7 percent from 3-point range last season.
The Gators also return SEC sixth man of the year Dorian Finney-Smith, a 6-8 forward, and McDonald’s All-American sophomores Kasey Hill, a 6-1 guard, and Chris Walker, a 6-10 forward-center.
Hill will likely start at point guard and Walker in the frontcourt.
“We can learn from last year’s team,” Frazier said. “But we can’t duplicate it.”
— New Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said he’s grateful for a second chance in coaching after leading Tennessee to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances before being fired in 2011 because of NCAA recruiting violations. His three-year show cause from the NCAA expired in August.
“I’m accountable for what I did, but I’m really proud of our record,” Pearl said. “And I’m not talking wins or losses. I would put our record for graduating student-athletes, for service in the community, up against anyone. So it’s really not about any redemption in that regard.”
On the court, Pearl hinted that he could play as many as four guards at the same time with the addition of Niagara transfer guard Antoine Mason, who led Division I in scoring last season at 25.6 points per game.
— Georgia coach Mark Fox said expectations should be higher for the Bulldogs this season.
The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth in the SEC in the preseason media poll.
Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win
CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.
Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.
“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”
But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.
“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”
No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.
The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.
Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.
“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”
The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.
Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.
Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.
“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”
Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.
“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”
Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.
A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.
In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.
NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time
SMU outmuscles Connecticut to take AAC title
HARTFORD, Conn. — After a crushing omission from the NCAA Tournament last season, the 20th-ranked Southern Methodist Mustangs didn’t have any worries during this year’s Selection Show. They are dancing for the first time since 1993.
SMU’s deep and talented frontcourt frustrated the Connecticut Huskies on both ends of the floor, paving the way for the team’s first conference title in 27 years with a 62-54 win in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday.
SMU earned a No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 UCLA in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.
“This is big for all of us,” said senior guard Ryan Manuel, “not just the seniors but it’s as big for SMU as a school, as a basketball program. When coach (Larry) Brown got here, he wanted us to put it back on the map, and I think we made great strides in that.”
UConn (20-14), the defending national champion, came into the AAC tournament needing four wins in four days just to return to the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of their goal, the Huskies are headed to the National Invitation Tournament.
“It’s postseason play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If it’s NIT or NCAA, they’re going to learn from it and they’re going to come back better from it. I’m still coaching them the way I coach them, they’re still going to play the way they’re going to play.”
SMU (27-6) was expected to receive an at-large bid if it lost Sunday, but the victory guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament field after being one of the final teams left out last season.
“Last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get,” Brown said. “Fortunately we’ve got another opportunity, and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”
As it had all weekend long, it was SMU’s frontcourt that anchored the win.
The conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Markus Kennedy, capped off a strong weekend by leading his team with 14 points, one of four Mustangs players in double figures. He earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts. The 6-foot-10 junior and his fellow forwards helped SMU to a 43-30 advantage on the glass, with sophomore Sterling Brown pulling in 12 rebounds to lead the team.
Sophomore guard Rodney Purvis had 29 points and was the only UConn player in double figures in scoring.
“I was trying to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” he said.
For a while, it appeared this game would not be close. The SMU zone defense that Connecticut had carved up for 81 points just two weeks prior locked things down this time around, and the Mustangs took a 33-19 advantage into halftime by holding UConn to 5-of-24 shooting (20.8 percent) from the floor over the opening 20 minutes.
The Huskies, who made more than 53 percent from the floor and knocked down nine 3-pointers in that win, were just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in that first half.
Usual leading scorer Ryan Boatright would manage just seven points on 1-of-12 shooting for the game.
“I’m just disappointed in my play,” he said. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. I didn’t show up and be the player I know I can be, I can be better than that. But my teammates fought, they played a tremendous game.”
UConn made it a game in the second half by doing similar things on the defensive end, thanks in large part to the presence of sophomore Amida Brimah. The 7-foot center, limited to just four first-half minutes because of foul trouble, played the entire second half, blocking seven shots during that time and altering numerous others.
The Huskies were able to get within five points with just over three minutes to play, but the Mustangs would hold on.
“He’s a shot blocker, so it made it a little difficult,” Manuel said about the difference Brimah made in the second half. “UConn, they have a tradition of coming back, and we knew they weren’t going to go down with a fight, so for us to stand there as a team and get the
Alabama fires head coach Grant
Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.
The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.
Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.
“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”