Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said that his "fears came"true" after the Tigers' conference-opening loss to South Carolina. Fortunately, for now, he was talking about the spectacular performance put forth by Gamecocks point guard Devan Downey and not about his team as a whole.
The Tigers showed that they could at least compete against tougher SEC competition, but that, alone, wasn't enough to overcome a definitive talent edge between Downey and anyone else on Auburn.
The games aren't going to get much easier. A trip to No. 16 Tennessee is set for Thursday before undefeated Kentucky comes to Auburn on Saturday. And even though he might have been too enamored with Downey to focus on his team's shortcomings Saturday, Lebo acknowledged just how difficult the next few games might be.
"Is there one we don't need? We need them all," Lebo said.
Yes, Downey had 33 points in South Carolina's 80-71 win, but the Tigers didn't just lose because of him.
Auburn wasn't able to do what it is most comfortable doing: hoist threes. The Gamecocks played tight perimeter defense, forcing Auburn's guards to drive to the hoop instead of work the ball around to an open shooter. The Tigers attempted a season-low 13 three and made just two, which was also good for a season-worst.
Tay Waller made them both, his last one coming with 13:23 in the first half. Auburn attempted just four threes in the second, as the Gamecocks and Downey pulled away.
"I wouldn't say it threw us off, because we practiced it all week long," forward Lucas Hargrove said. "I would say the half court turnovers were just too much. We had 14 turnovers and that's too many."
Auburn isn't close to panicking yet, especially after a promising performance from forward Brendon Knox (22 points), Auburn's lone inside scoring threat.
And even though there's talent like Downey everywhere you look in the SEC, the Tigers likely won't see a point barrage like that for a while.
"He's a great player. He had it going tonight," Hargrove said. "That's pretty much the end of the story."
DeWayne Reed's stat line Saturday looked like the same old, same old, but the senior point guard simply didn't establish a rhythm against a South Carolina defense that forced him to penetrate to the hoop. Reed finished with a team-high 19 points and eight assists, but his six turnovers were costly. He also hoisted 20 shots, many coming early in the shot clock or deep under the basket in the teeth of the Gamecocks' defense.
Coach Jeff Lebo wasn't too concerned about his best player's performance. "It's hard because you have to be spread out and pressure man-to-man so it's tough to drive the ball to the basket," Lebo said. "He got some shots blocked against him and he got in there a bunch and blocked a few shots and didn't finish in there. I wasn't real concerned in the meat part of the game that he was holding the ball too much."
Aside from Brendon Knox, who is basically a starter, Auburn got zero scoring from its bench Saturday. Lebo has yet to anoint a sixth or seventh man from the freshman-laden group, which has become a constant concern. "I think all of them have different things that they bring to the table, but as a group, I think we still have a lot of work to do as freshmen," Hargrove said. "But I think they can get there because they are very talented."
On the spot: All indications are pointing toward Knox finally coming into his own as a senior. The junior-college transfer has been tougher around the hoop and with the ball in his hands, while also exercising much more caution with picking up careless fouls. He's now upped his career high in scoring four times this season, his latest a 22-point effort coming in Saturday's loss to South Carolina. Don't look for Knox to start anytime soon, though. Lebo doesn't want to jinx Knox's strong play of late, instead making him the sixth man Auburn desperately needs.
Quote to Note:
"We're becoming mature as a team. The confidence level doesn't waiver too much. It's just a matter of executing and not executing." -- forward Lucas Hargrove, on Auburn's tough stretch ahead.
Strategy and personnel season recap:
Considering that the Tigers didn't have much on their non-conference schedule to boost their RPI to begin with, the real season has just begun. If Auburn has any hopes of making postseason play, it will have to prove itself within the confines of the SEC.
The first showcase of the season was a repeat performance of the many stagnant efforts it put forth during the non-conference schedule, but it also indicated that the Tigers won't be a pushover. Auburn typically plays up to the level of its competition--something it definitely did in Saturday's 80-71 loss to South Carolina. That brand of basketball might not be a recipe for consistent success, but it might bring a number of exciting finishes to games most would assume to be lopsided.
Auburn 95, Georgia Southern 75
Auburn 96, West Georgia 72
South Carolina 80, Auburn 71
at Tennessee, Thursday, Jan. 14
vs. Kentucky, Saturday, Jan. 16
at LSU, Wednesday, Jan. 20
at Vanderbilt, Saturday, Jan. 23
vs. Mississippi, Thursday, Jan. 28
In Focus: Auburn typically hasn't been a great road team, but it may have been blessed with an early, golden opportunity when it faces Tennessee in Knoxville. The nationally ranked Volunteers are without four major players from last year's team with forward Tyler Smith gone and three others indefinitely suspended because of looming gun and drug charges. The game will be Tennessee's first in conference and might present a letdown scenario coming four days after its biggest game of the season against Kansas. That likely won't prevent the Tigers from being underdogs, but it certainly makes the game appear a bit more winnable than it was at the beginning of the season.
Tay Waller might still be feeling the effects of an early-season quad injury. Waller has yet to have one of his trademark lights-out games, where everything he shoots goes in. Waller is still showing no hesitancy from beyond the arc (more than 72 percent of his field goal attempts have been 3-pointers), but has yet to crack 20 points in a single game. After making two 3's early against South Carolina, he was a non-factor the remainder of the game.
G Tony Neysmith might be the odd man out among Jeff Lebo's bench players. The Oklahoma transfer has seen sparse action throughout the year and didn't see the court against South Carolina. Lebo said earlier in the season that he'd like to pare down his rotation to nine or 10 players. Eleven saw the floor against the Gamecocks, but Neysmith wasn't one of them.
After missing the first 14 games of the season, Fortson scored 19 points and handed out seven assists as the Hogs dropped a 96-85 decision to the No. 2-ranked Longhorns.
Fortson's contributions go beyond mere numbers. He adds a spark to the offense and also frees up his class and backcourt mate Rotnei Clark on the perimeter. Clarke scored a game-high 24 points for the Hogs.
It wasn't coincidence that the Longhorns were able to pull away for their final 11-point margin of victory when Fortson had to spend some time late on the bench trying to get over cramps.
But while Fortson will be a big addition as the Hogs enter SEC play, they also need to get 6-8 forward Michael Sanchez back on the court. Sanchez has missed the last six games and has only four appearances this season because of a foot injury.
He averaged just under six points and five rebounds a game as a freshman last season, starting 28 games, and the Razorbacks need him to help with frontcourt depth.
The lack of muscle was particularly seen against the Longhorns, who out-rebounded the Razorbacks 43-27. The mitigating factor there for the Hogs, of course, is that they aren't going to be facing the kind of power up front in the SEC West that they did when they took on the 'Horns.
The Hogs will make their conference debut when they end a nine-day layoff with a trip to Mississippi State on Jan. 14.
Razorback Notes, Quotes:
*Fortson was back on the court for the first time after serving a 14-game suspension for as of yet unrevealed reasons and was 5-of-16 from the field (2-of-6 in threes) on his way to 19 points against Texas. He had a game-high seven assists, but he also was charged with six turnovers, a problem that he had a year ago as a freshman when he had 172 assists and 128 turnovers.
"In the past few months, Courtney has worked hard to address personal issues and meet objectives to facilitate his return to active competition," Coach John Pelphrey said in the announcement that he was reinstating Fortson.
*Clarke is shooting 50 percent from three-point range (55-of-110) after compiling a 39.3 mark (83-of-211) as a freshman last year. As a team, the Hogs are shooting 37 percent from three-point range (95-of-257) after shooting 33.2 percent on treys last season.
*After getting outrebounded by 16 in the loss to Texas, the Hogs are being beaten on the boards by more than two a game for the season. Among SEC teams, they ranked 11th, ahead of only South Carolina.
Quote to Note: "This loss was certainly not from a lack of effort. Both teams competed at a very high level, and when you flinch against really good teams and players, they will capitalize." --Coach John Pelphrey, after the Razorbacks' loss to Texas.
Season Recap: Getting Courtney Fortson back will make a big difference for the Razorbacks, who finished non-conference play with 7-8 record after losing to Texas. The Hogs seemed to be getting things back together during a five-game winning streak that was capped by a win over previously unbeaten Missouri State, but they have lost their last three since then.
Player Rotation: Usual Starters--F Marshawn Powell, F Michael Washington, G-F Jemal Farmer, G Rotnei Clarke, G Courtney Fortson. Key Subs--F Delvon Johnson, F Glenn Bryant, G Stefan Welsh, G Stephen Cox, G Julysses Nobles.
Baylor 70, Arkansas 47
UAB 73, Arkansas 72
Texas 96, Arkansas 85
at Mississippi State, Thursday, Jan. 14.
vs. Alabama, Saturday, Jan. 16.
vs. Florida, Thursday, Jan. 21.
at Kentucky, Saturday, Jan. 23.
vs. Mississippi State, Thursday, Jan. 28.
In Focus: The Razorbacks are a different team from the one that slogged its way through December, but they face a tough conference opener at division favorite Mississippi State. They need to come up with an answer for State's Jarvis Varnado at both ends of the court, especially on the boards.
Freshman G Julysses Nobles, who had started the first 14 games, did not play against Texas. The return of Courtney Fortson bumped him from the starting lineup, and senior Stefan Welsh provided backup at the point guard spot. After averaging 8.0 points through his first eight games, Nobles has scored only 11 points over his last six appearances.
Forward Marshawn Powell, a 6-7 freshman, scored 18 points in the loss to Texas and is averaging 15.1 for the season. He leads the Razorbacks in rebounding at 6.5 per game.
LSU coach Trent Johnson summed it up best after his team's SEC-opening loss to Alabama. "They are flat-out better than we are," Johnson said.
Credit the Tide (11-4, 1-0 SEC West) with beginning to understand head coach Anthony Grant's concept of pressure defense and an offense that starts from the inside and works its way out.
Again, against LSU, the Tide offense was at its best getting the ball to forward JaMychal Green, who had a game-high 14 points on 6 of 11 shooting. Alabama out-scored LSU 38-16 on points in the paint. But once the Tigers focused on stopping Green, Alabama was able to kick the ball back out to the perimeter where guard Scenario Hillman scored 13 and guard Mikhail Torrance added 12.
Alabama forced 15 turnovers and out-rebounded LSU 37-27. The Tide had a 19-8 advantage in points off turnovers and an 8-0 advantage in fast break points.
"Right now we're a team that is trying to figure ourselves out and I think with every game we learn a little bit more about what it takes to be successful," Grant said. "For us, we've got eight healthy guys and with every game we've had to adjust and make changes and our guys have responded well."
In its final three games before conference play, Alabama outscored its opponents by an average of 16 points per game and shot 51.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range and averaged 17.3 assists per game.
"For us, the thing we talk about is we want to be an up-tempo team, so the ability to score and convert is critical for us to play the way we want to play on both ends of the floor," Grant said. "The thing I've been pleased with is that our assists are up. The last two or three games we've shared the ball well." Notes, Quotes:
--Freshman guard Tony Mitchell, out for three games while recovering from mononucleosis, played 11 minutes in the SEC opener against LSU and had six points, hitting three of 11.
"It turned out that Tony had a case of (mononucleosis)," Grant said. "We held him out until the doctors cleared him. Obviously, he was not 100 percent yet, but he was excited to be out there."
--Alabama has now won its last three SEC regular-season road games after beating Ole Miss and Tennessee to end last season under then-interim head coach Phillip Pearson. If the Tide can win Wednesday against Vanderbilt, Alabama would start out 2-0 in SEC play for the first time since the 2002 season.
--Green is second in the latest SEC stats in field goal percentage (.555); Torrance is first in free throw percentage (.878) and third in assists (5.1 per game).
On the Spot: While Alabama is getting good scoring from its guards, that scoring is not coming from beyond the three-point line. The Tide made just three of 14 (.214 percent) against LSU in the conference opener. Alabama is 10th in the SEC in scoring at 72.1 points per game.
Quote to Note: "Guys are beginning to understand what we're trying to do."--Alabama coach Anthony Grant, after the Tide held LSU to just 49 points to win for the fifth time in the last six games.
Strategy and Personnel:
Season Recap: Alabama continues to get more comfortable in Anthony Grant's pressing, trapping defense, forcing LSU into 15 turnovers in the SEC opener for both teams. Not that the Tide was that far away all along: of the four defeats this season, two were close losses to two ranked teams, Purdue and Kansas State.
Kansas State 87, Alabama 74
Alabama 90, Mercer 71
Alabama 77, Tennessee State 65
Alabama 67, Toledo 50
Alabama 66, LSU 49
vs.Vanderbilt, Wednesday, Jan. 13
at Arkansas, Saturday Jan. 16
vs. Tennessee, Wednesday, Jan. 19
vs. Mississippi State, Saturday, Jan. 23
vs. LSU, Wednesday, Jan. 27
In Focus: Alabama lost another guard, sophomore Andrew Steele, for the season with a stress fracture in his left ankle. However, since Steele has been out since the seventh game of the season, all that did was make the current playing rotation official. With eight scholarship players available, the Tide will continue to play an up-tempo, pressure style game. However, how long this team will last playing at that pace against SEC competition will determine the success of this season.
Roster Report: --Sophomore G Andrew Steele is out for the remainder of the season with a stress fracture in his left ankle that required surgery. Steele developed the injury in late November and has not played since a holiday tournament in Orlando. Steele started the first six games of the season, averaging 3.8 points.
--Senior F Demetrius Jemison is out for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon during preseason workouts.
As hot as LSU was in a 23-point pounding of McNeese State in its previous game, the Tigers were just as cold in their conference opener against Alabama. Coming off a 59.6-percent effort against McNeese, the Tigers shot only 37 percent in losing 66-49 to the Tide.
Then they compounded their shooting woes with 15 turnovers that they saw as mostly self-inflicted.
"It wasn't their press that bothered us at all," junior guard Bo Spencer said. "We could've cracked the press, but we were just being lazy with the ball. It wasn't their pressure that bothered us. We were just being too casual with the ball."
Senior forward Tasmin Mitchell agreed. "I think it was mainly us," he said. "There wasn't anything too major that they did. They defended very well on the half-court when the press was broken. We just couldn't convert on the other end."
It was a tough way to start conference play for the Tigers, who are on the road for their next two games at South Carolina and Florida.
"For us on the road, it is going to be a similar game," coach Trent Johnson said. "We are going to have to handle their pressure, manage the clock and do all the little things to give us a chance."
--LSU's loss to Alabama marked the fourth consecutive year the Tigers have lost their conference opener. Three of those years they lost to the Tide, including last season and in 2006-07. In 2007-08 they lost to Mississippi State. They recovered from last season's loss in Tuscaloosa to win their next 13 conference games on their way to the overall SEC championship.
--Freshman F Dennis Harris was one bright spot for the Tigers in the loss to Bama. He came off the bench to hit all five of his field goal attempts, including one three-pointer, on his way to 11 points. He also had three rebounds and didn't have a turnover in 15 minutes of play.
On the Spot: The Tigers were only 5-of-18 on three-point tries against Bama after going 10-of-21 in their previous game against McNeese. For the season, they are shooting only 30.2 percent from behind the arc after shooting 37.2 percent last season.
Quote to Note: "We weren't ready to play. We weren't as mentally ready as the other team." -- G Bo Spencer, after the Tigers' loss at home to Alabama.
Strategy and Personnel:
Season Recap--The Tigers have lost four of their last five games going back to three days before Christmas when they dropped an overtime affair to Washington State in Seattle. They were pounded 89-65 at Xavier, lost at home to Utah, and then ended the three-game slide by beating McNeese State in their final non-conference game before losing to Alabama.
Utah 61, LSU 59
LSU 83, McNeese State 60
Alabama 66, LSU 49
at South Carolina, Wednesday, Jan. 13.
at Florida, Saturday, Jan. 16.
vs. Auburn, Wednesday, Jan. 20.
vs. Ole Miss, Saturday, Jan. 23.
at Alabama, Wednesday, Jan. 27.
In Focus: South Carolina is depleted up front with the loss of F Dominique Archie and dismissal of F Mike Holmes, but that may be negated by the Gamecocks' strength in the backcourt. Spencer is going to have his hands full if he is matched up against Carolina's Devan Downey.
--F Tasmin Mitchell just missed registering his seventh double-double of the season after scoring 11 points and gathering nine rebounds in the loss to Alabama. His sixth came in the previous outing against McNeese State when he had a 19-point, 11-rebound effort.
--Plagued with foul problems, F Storm Warren played only 19 minutes against Alabama after getting on the floor for just 18 against McNeese. He had only 14 points and six rebounds in the two games combined compared to his season averages of 14.1 and 9.9, respectively.
--G Chris Bass had four assists and made no turnovers against Bama, giving him a team-high 51 assists against only 19 turnovers for the season.
A week that started with an ugly road loss at Western Kentucky ended about as sweetly as a regular-season week can for a Mississippi State basketball team -- with a win at Oxford against arch-rival Ole Miss.
What an up-and-down six days, huh? The Bulldogs looked bad in losing to the mid-major darling Hilltoppers. It was certainly no awful loss, given Western Kentucky's tradition, recent success and current RPI, but it wasn't what State needed to cement itself as a Southeastern Conference contender and help build a case for a third-straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Then came Oxford, as State played to its strengths -- Jarvis Varnado dominating the post with rebounds and blocked shots and point guard Dee Bost smoothly running the show.
The Bulldogs' win at Ole Miss, which was ranked as high as No. 14, came at a critical time for a team that could have wobbled off the tracks with a bad loss to cap a bad week.
Instead, State fans are optimistic about their team's future. The Bulldogs' next two games are at home before a mid-week stint off and a trip to Alabama. State probably won't be an underdog again until at least a week-long road swing at Vanderbilt and Florida to open February, and for sure when Kentucky visits Humphrey Coliseum on Feb. 16.
Coach Rick Stansbury has long stressed to his team that how it plays on the road is the true measure of judging its worth. He had to like not just the result Saturday in Oxford but the way it was accomplished -- his best player, Varnado, dominating in the paint and his sophomore sensation, Bost, making the right decisions. Keep this up, and more road wins -- and certainly some home ones, too -- are sure to follow.
--Coach Rick Stansbury is all about defense and rebounding, so he has to be all about his Bulldog team: It leads the SEC in defense, allowing just 59.6 points per game, and is second in the league to No. 3 Kentucky in rebounding margin, up 8.4 per game in that category.
--State is the SEC's worst team, statistically, in terms of turnover margin. The Bulldogs are a negative 2.81 in that category.
--State plays its next two games, and six of its next 10, in the friendly confines of Humphrey Coliseum.
On the Spot: The fewest minutes played by any of State's starters Saturday were 29. That spells trouble for State if it gets into foul trouble. Stansbury's biggest concern heading into conference play is likely his bench. Only four players came off the bench against Ole Miss. They played just 34 total minutes.
Quote to Note: "It doesn't mean they added a lot, but they maintained. And that's been a struggle for us. ... We were able to buy a lot of time." -- Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury to The Clarion-Ledger about his bench's contribution against Ole Miss.
Strategy and Personnel:
Season Recap--The win at Ole Miss erases a lot of the bad feelings around this team for its three previous losses -- all of which came at the hands of mid-majors. Now, State feels like it's the team to beat in the SEC's Western Division.
Mississippi State 77, San Diego 68
Western Kentucky 55, Mississippi State 52
Mississippi State 80, Ole Miss 75
Arkansas at Mississippi State, Thursday, Jan. 14
Georgia at Mississippi State, Saturday, Jan. 16
Mississippi State at Alabama, Saturday, Jan. 23
Mississippi State at Arkansas, Thursday, Jan. 28
LSU at Mississippi State, Saturday, Jan. 30
In Focus: After a two-game homestand, Mississippi State has a midweek break before traveling to Alabama. Under first-year coach Anthony Grant, the Crimson Tide handily beat LSU on the road to begin conference play. And given the nature of the MSU-Alabama rivalry in hoops in recent years, this game hardly disappoints when it comes to drama.
Roster Report: --State continues its pursuit of freshman big man Renardo Sidney's eligibility. The NCAA ended its investigation into his amateurism last week, and its findings are now in Mississippi State's hands. Few close to the situation predict a quick outcome, however. Sidney has missed 16 games.
--G Dee Bost's emergence in Oxford is reminiscent of his big game in the SEC opener last year at Arkansas, and is even more impressive considering that his 2009-10 season got off to a rough start with ankle and groin injuries.
--Coach Rick Stansbury gave 7-foot-1 center John Riek four minutes of playing time in Oxford. The minutes marked a meaningful contribution for the freshman from the Sudan, who sat out the first nine games of the season to fulfill an NCAA suspension.
Ole Miss had the perfect chance to establish itself as the leading team in the Southeastern Conference's Western Division Saturday, but the Rebels blew it by losing at home, of all places, to arch-rival Mississippi State 80-75.
Sure, there are 15 conference games remaining, and these two teams both lost on their home courts in this intense series last year. But today, the result just means that the Bulldogs -- and not the Rebels -- are now the presumptive favorites in the West.
And it shows Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy that his team still has many holes to fill, despite the lofty early season praise and the No. 14 national ranking.
Mississippi State's dominance in the paint meant a 46-39 rebounding advantage, and that's been a sore spot for the Rebels all season long. When they face good competition, they have a hard time contending on the glass. Against No. 6 Villanova in November, they were out-rebounded by 15. Against No. 6 West Virginia in December, they were out-rebounded by 19.
Ole Miss simply must get better play from its post players since help isn't coming until at least the offseason. The Rebels showed flashes of front-court dominance during a first half run against the Bulldogs but weren't able to contend in the second half.
UM has some of the Southeastern Conference's best guards, but it'll have a hard time making the leap from decent team to contending team without some help in the post.
--The hallmark of this hot-shooting, run-and-gun team has been high scoring. The Rebels lead the SEC in points scored per game at 83.6, a full point ahead of unbeaten Kentucky. UM's guard-oriented team is third-best in the league with 16.2 assists per game, too.
--Even more impressive for Ole Miss is that it's running up and down the floor and not turning the ball over that much. The Rebels lead the league in turnover margin -- they're 3.9 in the positive in that category. And UM leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio, with 1.31 assists per turnover. Only half of the league is in the positive in that category. In a loss to Mississippi State, UM still only committed nine turnovers.
--For the fourth time in his four-year tenure in Oxford, Andy Kennedy is 0-1 in the SEC.
ON THE SPOT: It's a wonder Ole Miss was even in the game, considering what two of its top players did: Murphy Holloway started, played 15 minutes and didn't score. Guard Terrico White scored about half his average, nine, in 30 minutes. Even Chris Warren missed 12 of his 17 shots in scoring 15 points. UM needs its stars to play like stars as the SEC schedule gets tougher.
QUOTE TO NOTE: Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado blocked five Ole Miss shots Saturday and altered a handful more. UM coach Andy Kennedy wasn't exactly surprised, but he did think his team could contend with him better. "At the end, we thought we could score through him. And as a result, he does what he did. He blocked shots, which leads to transition opportunities," Kennedy told to The Clarion-Ledger.
Strategy and Personnel
Season Recap--A puzzling trend is starting to develop with this Ole Miss team: Against quality competition, it has a hard time winning. The Rebels' lone quality win remains its Nov. 20 win in Puerto Rico against Kansas State. UM has lost to West Virginia, Villanova and Mississippi State, all of which had top-50 RPIs according to realtimerpi.com. After the Kansas State win, UM's next most meaningful win was against RPI No. 133, Southern Miss.
Player Rotation: Usual Starters -- G Chris Warren, G Terrico White, F Murphy Holloway, F DeAundre Cranston, G Eniel Polynice. Key Subs -- G Zach Graham, F Reginald Buckner, G Trevor Gaskins, F Terrance Henry.
Ole Miss 90, Jacksonville State 75
Ole Miss 84, UCF 56
Mississippi State 80, Ole Miss 75
at Georgia, Wednesday, Jan. 13
at Tennessee, Saturday, Jan. 16
vs. South Carolina, Wednesday, Jan. 20
at LSU, Saturday, Jan. 23
at Auburn, Thursday, Oct. 28
In Focus: Don't sleep on this Georgia team. Under first-year coach Mark Fox, the Bulldogs have wins over Illinois and Georgia Tech. Saturday in Rupp Arena, Georgia gave No. 3 Kentucky a game before falling, 76-68. A trip to Athens is just what could send UM into an 0-2 SEC hole.
--UM's guard trio of Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice and Terrico White combined to go 12-for-42 from the field against Mississippi State.
--The Rebels' guard tandem of Warren and White are tied for fifth in the SEC in terms of points per game. Both have 251 points through 15 games for an average of 16.7.