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    • SEC "Fast Break": February 26

      Apparently, eight Southeastern Conference teams were having so much fun last Saturday they didn’t want it to end.
    • SEC Fast Break with Chris Dortch

      The first month of the season was largely forgettable for the Southeastern Conference by almost any barometer. Where to start?
    • November Offers Challenges for SEC Teams

      It seems like only yesterday Kentucky players were cutting down the nets in the New Orleans Superdome after winning the Southeastern Conference’s third national championship in a seven-year span. But that was more than seven months ago, and now it’s time for college basketball to crank up again.
    • One on One with Chris Dortch: Marquis Teague

      Was there ever a question Marquis Teague could take his place among the elite point guards coached the last four seasons by Kentucky’s John Calipari? We profile Teague, a likely first round pick in this week's NBA Draft.
    • Instant Reaction: Kentucky Claims Title

      About a month ago, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari asked a question of his team.

    SEC Fast Break With Chris Dortch

    Kentucky coach John Calipari had better start limbering up.

    During the summer, Calipari told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook he would perform “two back flips” if heralded freshman Doron Lamb, then known more as a slasher/mid-range offensive player, were to shoot 35 percent from the three-point line for the season.

    It’s still early, but just in case, Cal might want to consult with Kentucky’s gymnastics coach about how best to perform those flips without tearing or breaking something. Because Lamb, described by his coach just four months ago as having “a lot of that middle game—runners in the lane, and he’s a great layup shooter,” is absolutely killing it from three.

    Try .540 (27-of-50). Those aren’t slasher numbers. Those are the second coming of Reggie Miller numbers.

    The rest of the college hoops world found out what Kentucky coaches and players already knew last week, when Lamb came off the bench—as he’s done in all 11 games this season—and torched a decent Winthrop team that’s known for defending the perimeter with 32 points on 11-of-12 from the field and 7-of-8 from behind the arc.

    “His stock is [soaring].” Calipari said. “There is less pressure on him than anyone on the team, and he just goes in and lets it fly. The biggest thing with him is his feel for the game is beyond a normal player. The second thing is that his motor, which wasn't moving early, and now you see a player that is playing more aggressive and faster, yet not losing his feel for the game.

    “I have to get him to practice a little bit harder and with more of a motor than he does. But when that ball is thrown up, he goes."

    Clearly, there’s some shot doctoring going on at Kentucky. When NCAA statistics are updated, the Wildcats’ team three-point percentage of .412 will probably place somewhere among the top 20 in the nation. For a team that had been inconsistent from three-point range in recent seasons, that percentage demonstrates remarkable improvement.

    Lamb isn’t the only Wildcat stroking it from three. Darius Miller is right behind Lamb at .486 (18-of-37). DeAndre Liggins, also formerly known as a slasher, is shooting .406 (13-of-32). Lamb’s fellow five-star freshman teammates Brandon Knight (.360, 27-of-75) and Terrence Jones .323 (10-of-31) are also shooting respectable percentages from behind the arc.

    The advice given to Lamb by Kentucky coaches was elementary, but vital, and it’s been well heeded.

    “[Assistant] coach [John] Robic always says, ‘Get your shot off quicker because in conference play they’re going to know you can shoot and they’re going to be up on you,’ ” Lamb said. “ ‘Get your shot off quicker or have faith and go by them.’ ”
    Lamb, who is averaging 14.4 points and shooting .518 from the field and .821 from the free-throw line, has become an early favorite to claim the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

    VOLS’ GO-TO GUY: The recent three-game losing streak that bumped Tennessee from a No. 7 ranking in both polls on Dec. 13 to out of the rankings two weeks later can’t be pinned solely on Scotty Hopson. But there’s no question as Hopson goes, so go the Vols.

    In losses to Oakland, Charlotte and USC, Hopson, a 6-7 junior guard, averaged 9.3 points and shot .258 from the field and .100 from three-point range. In victories that preceded and followed that losing streak, Hopson scored a career-high 27 points against Pittsburgh and 19 against Belmont, including the game-winning basket with 5.7 seconds to play. Earlier, Hopson scored 18 points as Tennessee defeated Villanova to win the NIT Season Tip-Off.

    Hopson is the antithesis of a volume shooter—he attempted just seven shots against Oakland and five against USC. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has had to urge Hopson to be more aggressive—selfish even—especially at crunch time.
    "Our great challenge is closing out close games, particularly on the offensive end,” Pearl said after the Belmont game, during which Hopson scored Tennessee’s final nine points. “Who do you go to? Scotty answered that question that he is certainly capable."

    In Hopson’s defense, the Vols found a way to lose to Oakland (late-game rebounding lapses), Charlotte (3-of-17 from three; 2-of-7 from the free-throw line) and USC (4-of-15 from three, 18 turnovers). But those three losses were by a combined nine points, and in the latter two the Vols had shots to win at the buzzer.

    Under Pearl, Tennessee had become a team that steps on opponents’ throats down the stretch. In Pearl’s first five seasons, the Vols were 106-9 (.921) when leading with five minutes to play.

    “You’ve got a lot of our guys out there who are closing games down for the first time at this level,” Pearl said. “That’s where our new faces have been challenged the most. To get stops. To make game-winning plays. You saw Oakland and a bunch of their guys make game-winning plays. You saw USC’s freshman guard [Maurice Jones] make plays. That’s what has to happen to win those close games.”

    STREAKING: It’s no surprise that three of the hottest teams in the SEC come from the Eastern Division, which some league coaches predicted would produce five NCAA Tournament teams. Georgia (10-2) has won seven games in a row, tops in the league, but has gotten no love (as in not a single vote), in the major polls because of consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Temple in the Old Spice Classic in late November. But those came when preseason All-SEC forward Trey Thompkins was still hobbled by a high ankle sprain.

    A 9-2 record was good enough to allow Vanderbilt to slip into the Associated Press poll (24th) this week. The Commodores have won seven of their last eight, their lone loss in that stretch coming in overtime at Missouri on a night when they shot an uncharacteristic 11-off-22 from the free-throw line.

    Only a two-point loss at North Carolina separates Kentucky, also 9-2, from a seven-game winning streak.

    And in the West, Arkansas is two overtime losses away from being undefeated and has won five of its last six. The Razorbacks end the non-conference portion of their schedule on January 4 at Texas, a game that will give coach John Pelphrey a good barometer heading into the SEC season opener Jan. 8 against Tennessee.

    DEBUT SHORT-LIVED: Mississippi State fans waited a full season and nine games to see heralded big man Renaldo Sidney play. Whether his career lasts any longer than two games is in the hands of Bulldog coach Rick Stansbury.

    After scoring 12 points in his debut against Virginia Tech, Sidney was suspended for State’s first game in the Diamond Head Classic for his conduct in a practice session, came back to lead the Bulldogs with 19 points in a second-round win over San Diego and then was quickly gone again, after he and teammate Elgin Bailey traded punches in the stands.

    If that weren’t bad enough, ESPNU cameras caught the fracas, and of course it was quickly seen all over the Internet. Both players were sent home and missed a game against Hawaii and another against Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas on the final leg of State’s pilgrimage of a road trip.

    Stansbury will decide the fate of Sidney and Bailey this week.



     
     

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    Chris Dortch Bio

    Chris Dortch estimates he’s covered close to 1,500 college basketball games since he was sports editor of his college student newspaper back in the late ’70s. “And it never gets old,” he says. “I always get pumped up to watch college hoops.”

    Dortch came to love basketball growing up in the basketball crazy state of Illinois, watching Missouri Valley Conference and Big Ten games every Saturday and pouring over the sports section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think I learned how to read a box score before I learned how to read,” he says.

    In college, first at George Mason and later at East Tennessee State, he came under the influence of two coaches that gave him a behind-the-scenes look at basketball from a coaching perspective. “After that I was hooked,” he says. “I knew I wanted to cover college basketball for a living.”

    And so he did, focusing on the Southeastern Conference at four newspapers and then for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, the famed “bible” of college basketball which Dortch began editing in 1996.

    In a 30-year career, Dortch has written for numerous publications and websites, served as a college basketball correspondent for Sports Illustrated, appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows and written five books, including String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball.

    Dortch has provided commentary for CSS, Fox Sports South, NBA TV and the Big Ten Network and also taught sports writing at East Tennessee State and Tennessee-Chattanooga, where his students call him “Professor D.”