The biggest news in Southeastern Conference basketball last week came off the court, with the announcement of an expanded Big East/SEC Challenge.
The Challenge begins next season and replaces the four-year-old Big East/SEC Invitational, which included only four teams from each conference and was played at two neutral sites. Though all four of those games were televised by ESPN, the event was sometimes lost amid the network’s smorgasbord of hoops coverage, notably the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. (Though Kentucky’s victory over Notre Dame and Tennessee’s win over Pitt at the not-so-neutral site of Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center earlier this month provided compelling theater and the SEC’s first series victory.)
It may still take a while to barge in on the ACC and Big Ten’s territory, but the new SEC/Big East soiree—the leagues will trade out top billing each season—is going about it the right way. First and foremost, all 12 SEC teams will be invited, leaving only the gargantuan Big East—16 members and counting with the recent addition of TCU for the 2012-13 season—to pick and choose its representatives.
Second, the ESPN family of networks will televise every game over an entire weekend (the week after Thanksgiving). That gives the SEC unprecedented wall-to-wall national coverage for an extended period.
Finally, games will be played on campus sites. The previous competition had been homogenized a bit on the neutral courts; even when Vanderbilt and Tennessee played in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in 2008, the atmosphere was more subdued than raucous. Home-court environments will add considerably to the viewing experience and show the country that SEC schools other than Kentucky can get enthused about hoops.
NEW SEC SWAT KING:
Call Arkansas senior Delvon Johnson
the most improved player in the SEC and few could argue. The 6-9, 220-pound senior has the numbers in his favor.
Nothing in Johnson’s previous playing history, not from high school, to Western Illinois (2.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg)—where he began his Division I career—to junior college (6.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) to his first season at Arkansas (2.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg) suggested that, through nine games this season, he would be averaging close to a double-double (11.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and be third in the nation in blocked shots (40, 4.4 bpg).
Certainly injuries to last season’s freshman sensation Marshawn Powell
and junior Michael Sanchez
have paved the way for Johnson and allowed him to play a team-high 31.1 minutes per game, but he’s made the most of his time on the floor. And he seems to be getting better and better. Johnson, who’s also shooting .563 from the floor, has racked up three straight double-doubles and four in his last five games.
Defensively, Johnson has become a worthy successor to former Mississippi State star Jarvis Varnado
, blocking shots with impressive frequency. In his last three games, Johnson rejected eight shots against Seton Hall in the SEC/Big East Invitational, four against Mississippi Valley State and seven at Texas A&M.
Johnson is a big reason the Hogs are 7-2 (and their only losses have come in overtime to UAB and Texas A&M).
“Delvon Johnson worked tremendously hard on his body and his academics over the spring and summer and earned the opportunity to be a starter,” Arkansas coach John Pelphrey
said. “He’s taken full advantage of it. It’s something you really like to see as a coach—a young man who comes in and plays the role he’s asked to play.
“Last year he played in every game but was in a reserve role. This year we’ve asked him to do different things. We always tell our players, ‘whenever you get your chance, be ready.’ Delvon Johnson has been tremendous, and he deserves every bit of praise he gets. He’s taken advantage of his opportunity.”
ONE TOUGH HOMBRE:
It’s been a rough season so far for Auburn and first-year coach Tony Barbee
—injuries to two key returning players and the loss of two highly regarded recruits cast a pall on the program well before the season began.
But amid the losses to UNC Asheville, Samford, Campbell, Jacksonville and Presbyterian, a little good news emerged. Junior guard Frankie Sullivan
, who underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL on July 27, returned to the court for a Dec. 15 game against USF, playing 10 minutes and contributing four points (on a four-point play), two assists and two steals.
Sullivan’s minutes doubled the next game against Presbyterian, and he provided five points, three assists and two steals. He may not have been able to prevent that stunning loss to a team that had never before beaten a power conference school, but Sullivan’s return has given a lift to a team that needed one.
"I'm excited,” Barbee said after the USF game. “I think we all are to see Frankie back on the floor. Even though we have to temper our expectations because of the type of knee injury he's coming back from. It's like I told Frankie, he has given our team a boost and the crowd and the fans a boost. … I told him, ‘right now, do what you can do. You aren't the Frankie of a year ago, and it's going to take you awhile to get there.’ ”
MORE MID-SEASON ADDITIONS:
Last week we mentioned the long-awaited debut of Mississippi State big man Renardo Sidney
. Just as Bulldog coach Rick Stansbury
predicted, it’s clearly going to take a while for Sidney to get back in game shape after sitting out all of last season and the first nine games of this year because of an NCAA suspension.
In his first game, an exhibition against Belhaven, Sidney scored 10 points and grabbed six boards but was limited to 15 minutes because of cramping.
Sidney’s first official game came three days later against Virginia Tech. His minutes were again limited, this time by foul trouble, but he managed a team-high tying 12 points, along with three rebounds, an assist, a blocked shot and a steal. Sidney’s play was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary day; State was hammered by the Hokies, 88-57.
The guy the Bulldogs can really use right now is Dee Bost
, the junior guard who’s sitting out his own nine-game NCAA suspension and was also academically ineligible the first semester. Able to play in the Belhaven game, Bost produced 26 points (knocking down 5-of-11 three-pointers in the process), nine assists and three steals. He also logged seven turnovers into the box score, but the game was a tantalizing display of what the Bulldogs are missing.
The other mid-season arrival of note in the SEC made his debut for Tennessee in an upset loss at Charlotte. Jeronne Maymon
, a 6-7, 258-pound sophomore transfer from Marquette, scored six points and grabbed eight rebounds in 16 minutes. Maymon displayed the skills that have impressed Tennessee coaches in practice since last January. He uses his bulk and strength to grab rebounds away from taller opponents—four of his boards were on the offensive glass—he can finish with authority and he knows how to pass.
Along with freshman star Tobias Harris
, Maymon will give the Vols depth and skill at power forward, which Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl
uses as a hybrid position from which his offense sometimes originates.
If Alabama coach Anthony Grant
wanted to re-energize junior forward JaMychal Green
by suspending him for three games earlier this month, the strategy worked to perfection.
Green was reinstated for the Crimson Tide’s game at Providence, and he wasted little time asserting himself. Though he didn’t start, Green played a team-high 30 minutes and contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds. He was even better the next game, producing a 16/15 double-double against Southeastern Louisiana. Limited by foul trouble in his third game back against Oklahoma State, Green still produced 16 points and five rebounds.
Green has acknowledged to the Alabama press that his suspension was a “lesson learned” and his return to the court a “relief.”