A quick look around the SEC, by the numbers:
Mississippi State (9-1):
Few if any transfers have produced this season as well as the Bulldogs’ Arnette Moultrie, the 6-11 former UTEP player who leads the SEC in rebounding (11.3 rpg) and double-doubles (five). We’ll discuss Moultrie in greater detail on this website in a couple of days. Check back. As good as Moultrie has been, freshman swingman Rodney Hood’s play has been just as important to State’s quick start. Hood is shooting as well as everyone expected (.543 FG, .421 3PT), but more importantly he’s rebounding at a high level for his position (5.1 rpg) and is a good passer. It’s rare that a freshman leads an experienced team in minutes played, but Hood (34.1 mpg) is doing so because of his solid, versatile game.
Kentucky lost its first game of the season at Indiana on a day when first-team preseason All-American Terrence Jones contributed little and drew criticism from, among others, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. Jones did miss an opportunity to perform on a gigantic stage, but it wasn’t his no-show that lost the game. Kentucky shot .588 from the free-throw line, and, despite having two fouls to give, failed to derail the Hoosiers’ momentum when they scrambled to set up Christian Watford’s game-winning 3-pointer. Tough as the loss was for Wildcat fans to endure, it was a teaching moment for coach John Calipari, who’s already done a good job with such an inexperienced team, as the stats show. Kentucky’s defensive field-goal percentage (.337) is fourth in the nation and off the charts considering how quickly freshmen and sophomores have bought into guarding.
Ole Miss (8-1):
The Rebels continue to add firepower as they try and build on a six-game winning streak. Junior forward Murphy Holloway—who played two seasons at Ole Miss before transferring to South Carolina and then back again—has been a huge addition, averaging nearly a double-double (11.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg). Freshman LaDarius White made his debut against Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 10 and quickly showed why he was recruited, scoring a team-high 16 points, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range. This week, the Rebels also gain the services of Memphis transfer Jelan Kendrick, a 6-7 former McDonald’s and Parade All-American. If Kennedy can find a way to keep everyone in his deep rotation happy, this could be the year Ole Miss finally gets back to the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels haven’t played in the Dance since 2002.
How hard is junior forward Tony Mitchell going to be to contain if he continues shooting so well from 3? A career .296 shooter from behind the arc, Mitchell is connecting at a solid .375 clip this season. That’s causing a dilemma for opponents, who now have to respect him from the perimeter. And if they do that, well, Mitchell can still attack the rim as well as anyone in the SEC, as this dunk against Detroit Mercy proves: http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=7344460&categoryid=2378529
The Tigers have played the fewest games in the country so far, and with good reason. Coach Tony Barbee set the schedule up so his team could play as many games as possible with Clemson transfer Noel Johnson, who becomes eligible for a Dec. 14 game against USF. Johnson, a consensus top 60 recruit in the class of 2009, shot 37 percent from 3-point range as a freshman and will give Barbee another weapon. “When you have a guy with his size and his skills, a 6-foot-7 guard who can handle it, who can shoot it, who can pass it, he is a matchup nightmare for teams,” Barbee said. “He is a big-time shooter. When he lets the ball go you think it is going in every time.” A win over the Bulls would give the Tigers their best start since the 2004-05 season.
Florida freshman guard Bradley Beal has already won the SEC’s freshman of the week award twice and the season is barely a month old. So far, Beal, a consensus top 10 recruit in the 2011 class, has played as well as coach Billy Donovan could have hoped, though he’s still trying to find the range from 3 (.320). The 6-3, 207-pound Beal is averaging 15.1 points, second on the team, and as an added bonus is also grabbing 6.6 boards a game.
As expected, freshmen are having to make significant contributions for coach Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks, who lost leading returning scorer and rebounder Marshawn Powell after two games when he suffered torn knee ligaments in a mid-November practice. The most impressive newcomer so far has been 6-3 guard B.J. Young, who’s averaging 16.5 points and shooting .510 from the field and .485 from 3. But 6-8, 255-pound Devonta Abram (team-high 5.1 rebounds per game) and 6-10 Hunter Mickelson (2.1 blocked shots per game) have also pitched in to replace Powell’s blue-collar contributions.
LSU got off to a bit of a rocky start with a loss at Coastal Carolina, but the Tigers have rallied in the last month, beating Western Kentucky and Georgia Tech in the Charleston Classic and bagging hard-to-come-by road wins at Houston and Rutgers. The key has been balanced scoring: LSU has six players averaging between 11.2 and 8.2 points per game. Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton (11.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and freshman Johnny O’Bryant have given coach Trent Johnson some size in the post and are leading LSU in scoring and rebounding respectively.
A look at Festus Ezeli’s season debut after missing eight games because of an NCAA suspension and knee sprain tells an important tale: the Commodores shot .484 from the field and .467 from 3 in winning at Davidson, which had to account for the big man’s presence. That extra defensive attention the Wildcats were forced to give Ezeli, who contributed 15 points, six boards and two blocks in 21 minutes, provided open looks for other Vandy players, notably Jeffrey Taylor (30 points) and John Jenkins (22).
A demanding schedule (Cal, Notre Dame, Xavier, Colorado, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech) and shooting woes have combined to tamp down Georgia’s progress. The Bulldogs, who have lost four in a row, are shooting just .378 from the field (319th in Division I) and .290 from 3-point range (254th).
South Carolina (3-5):
The Gamecocks’ 3-5 start that included losses to Elon and Tennessee State wasn’t hard to figure; they’ve had trouble scoring (62.4 ppg, 272nd in D-I). It’s also no coincidence that when point guard Bruce Ellington returned from his football duties, South Carolina won at arch-rival Clemson. “[Ellington] brings you a certain presence,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. Ellington didn’t start against the Tigers but scored nine points and handed out a couple of assists for a team that hasn’t been adept at setting itself up for easy baskets. The Gamecocks are 311th in the nation in assists per game (10.1).
Ironically, the Vols’ offense has been ahead of their defense in their first season under coach Cuonzo Martin, a disciple of former Purdue coach Gene Keady, whose teams were always known for in-your-face man-to-man D. Tennessee is tied for last (.450) in the SEC (with Vanderbilt, coached by yet another Keady protégé, Kevin Stallings) and 260th in Division I in defensive field-goal percentage. The Vols’ are also allowing opponents to shoot .388 from 3 (307th among 338 D-I teams). Their low point was surrendering .727 shooting in the second half in a home-court loss to Austin Peay, which had been 1-9 and had never beaten Tennessee. Meanwhile, the Vols are third in the SEC in scoring (79.2 ppg) and second in 3-point percentage (.402).
Games I’m watching this week:
Tennessee at College of Charleston:
Last season, the Vols were blasted out of their own gym by the Cougars, who shot .571 from the field and .560 from 3 in winning 97-78. This season Tennessee has been even more generous to its opponents, but coming off a home-court loss to Austin Peay, it badly needs a win on the road.
No. 17 Mississippi State at Detroit Mercy:
It’s an under-reported fact that State coach Rick Stansbury has never been afraid to play quality non-BCS league teams on the road. This game will be a good test.
No. 23 Alabama vs. Kansas State at Kansas City, Mo.:
Beating a quality opponent at a not-so-neutral site would be another step forward for Anthony Grant’s program.
Ole Miss at Southern Miss:
The Rebels have beaten a couple of bottom-tier power conference schools on the road, and it’s always good to win away from home. But this game will be much tougher and a better barometer of how much Ole Miss has improved.