Sports, Thrill of Victory

Around the SEC: March Madness on the horizon

Between the opening of baseball season, the NFL Combine and the drive towards conference and NCAA basketball tournaments, there’s plenty of news to go around in this week’s Around the SEC.

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SEC has a huge presence at the NFL Combine

Perhaps no conference has a better record of producing NFL players than does the Southeastern Conference, and once again, the league has a huge presence at the NFL Combine, which kicked off this week.

Courtesy of Adam Stites of SECCountry.com, here’s a list of the SEC’s 74 players who were extended invites.

Derrick Henry, showing off his Heisman pose for the president, will now show off his skills at the NFL Combine. PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA

Derrick Henry, showing off his Heisman pose for the president, will now show off his skills at the NFL Combine. PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA

The chase towards March Madness

The period that spans late-February through the conclusion of the NCAA basketball season is one of the most fun in all of college sports. With the winding-down of regular seasons, discussion centers around who belongs in the NCAA Tournament and who does not, and after spending many hours scouring the résumés of virtually every team remotely in contention for an NCAA bid at the moment, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

  1. Kentucky is a four-seed as of now. The NCAA seems to look at three computer rankings—the RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin—and the Wildcats do well (12, eight and 10, respectively). It also doesn’t hurt that the young ‘Cats have played quite well over the last month. On the downside, UK has a couple of bad RPI losses (116-Tennessee, 140-Auburn) and also fell to three teams (UCLA, Ohio State and LSU) that wouldn’t be in the NCAAs as of today.
  2. Texas A&M has earned a six-seed.  “Solid,” is the best way to describe the Aggies’ season. True, A&M spent much of February slumping, but it has wins over four teams (Kentucky, Iowa State, Baylor and Texas) that are all solidly in the NCAA field, plus, nice computer numbers (22-26-22) that support that kind of a seed. 
  3. South Carolina seems a solid eight right now. The computers (32-51-47) aren’t convinced that the Gamecocks are a legitimate NCAA Tournament team, and honestly, neither am I; the Gamecocks have built a 22-5 record in no small part due to a woeful out-of-conference schedule. That said, Carolina has lost just five times—only eight teams have lost fewer games, though 13 others have lost exactly five—and Carolina has the requisite good wins over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams (Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Tulsa, Florida and Alabama), though it does have two 100-plus RPI losses (Tennessee, 203-Missouri). It’s a flawed resumé, but do the homework and see for yourself—there’s basically no way you could argue against the Gamecocks’ inclusion right now.
  4. I’m not sure what to do with Vanderbilt, Florida or Alabama. ‘Bama (45-78-78) was a virtual lock a week ago, but despite a good number of quality wins (Wichita State, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Florida, South Carolina) I’m convinced the Crimson Tide have been more lucky than good. Vanderbilt (53-27-20) is just the opposite, but could potentially secure an NCAA bid with home wins over Kentucky and Tennessee in the next week. Florida (42-43-38) falls somewhere in between.

For a great discussion of this, check out this week’s Around the SEC Podcast.

Roughing the Punter

Tennessee’s up-and-down basketball season took another bad turn when the Vols announced that guard Kevin Punter has a stress fracture in his right foot. He’s missed a pair of games and though the timetable of a return could be anywhere from this weekend to next season, the Vols will certainly miss Punter, who ranks 11th in the country in scoring average (22.2 points). 

Vandy's Jeren Kendall was named baseball's National Player of the Week for his three-home-run first weekend. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

Vandy’s Jeren Kendall was named baseball’s National Player of the Week for his three-home-run first weekend. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

Baseball’s underway

The SEC is also arguably the most dominant baseball conference, and last weekend’s hot start for the league did little to temper enthusiasm for the 2016 season.

Twelve of the league’s 14 teams enter Friday above .500, with Auburn and Mississippi State exactly at .500. Five teams—Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Texas A&M—are perfect at 5-0.

The most impressive weekends belonged to Vanderbilt (a three-game sweep of San Diego, projected by Baseball America to make a regional, by a combined 38-11 score), Alabama (a 2-1 series win over a Maryland team that D1Baseball.com projected in its preseason poll as a two-seed in a regional) and Florida (a three-game sweep of Florida Gulf Coast, which both BA and D1 Baseball project as a four-seed in a regional.)

Kentucky’s 2-1 start wasn’t eye-popping in regards to who it beat (George Mason, Dayton), but, the Wildcats had to be encouraged by a start from pitcher Kyle Cody, who went seven innings, struck out eight, walked one and yielded three hits. 

Cody, who was projected as a first-rounder for the 2015 MLB Draft this time a year ago, had an underwhelming 4.91 ERA last season in 66 innings, causing him to fall all the way to the No. 72 overall pick. But the now-senior couldn’t come to terms with a contract that would have been well into six-figures (and certainly closer to seven) and therefore spends another year in Lexington. 

If Cody’s that effective all season, the No. 22 Wildcats could be a factor in the SEC this year. 

Meanwhile, there was minor cause for concern in Starkville, where Mississippi State, coming off a disastrous 2015 season, dropped a pair of games to Florida Atlantic, which isn’t seen as a regional-caliber squad. 

Auburn, under new coach Butch Thompson, also lost a pair of one-run games to unheralded Sacramento State.

Several big series come this weekend, headlined by No. 1 Florida heading to No. 6 Miami in a battle of top-10 teams, closely followed by No. 2 Louisville traveling to No. 21 Ole Miss. Perennial power Rice travels to Arkansas (both teams are unranked, but projected for regionals), plus, a pesky Illinois-Chicago team, which averages 16.5 runs per game, heads to Nashville to take on the No. 7 Commodores. 

Tennessee may, or may not be, without guard Kevin Punter for a while. PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE

Tennessee may, or may not be, without guard Kevin Punter for a while. PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE

BASKETBALL POWER RANKINGS

  1. Kentucky (21-7, 11-4)
  2. Texas A&M (21-7, 10-5)
  3. South Carolina (22-5, 10-5)
  4. Vanderbilt (17-11, 9-6)
  5. Florida (17-11, 8-7)
  6. Alabama (16-11, 7-8)
  7. LSU (16-12, 9-6)
  8. Ole Miss (18-10, 8-7)
  9. Arkansas (14-14, 7-8)
  10. Georgia (14-12, 7-8)
  11. Tennessee (13-15, 6-9)
  12. Mississippi St. (12-15, 5-10)
  13. Auburn (11-16, 5-10)
  14. Missouri (10-16, 3-12)

BASKETBALL PLAYER OF THE YEAR

  1. Ben Simmons, SF, LSU
  2. Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky
  3. Wade Baldwin, PG, Vanderbilt
  4. Jamal Murray, SG, Kentucky
  5. Retin Obasohan, SG, Alabama 
  6. Kevin Punter, SG, Tennessee
  7. Damian Jones, C, Vanderbilt
  8. Dorian Finney-Smith, SF, Florida
  9. Moses Kingsley, C, Arkansas
  10. J.J. Frazier, PG, Georgia
  11. Michael Carrera, SF, South Carolina
  12. Alex Caruso, PG, Texas A&M
  13. Gavin Ware, PF, Mississippi St.
  14. Stefan Moody, SG, Ole Miss
  15. Danuel House, SF, Texas A&M