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    SEC "Fast Break": March 5

    By: Chris Dortch
    SEC Digital Network

    It was perhaps overlooked amid all the NCAA Tournament talk, but Florida, which long ago secured its bid, got whole again on Saturday.

    No team that has been mentioned as having Final Four potential this season has endured as many injuries at the Gators. The most crippling may have been the knee problems of Will Yeguete, but a concussion suffered by freshman shooting guard Michael Frazier was critical, too, given that he missed the Tennessee game, which the Gators lost after shooting just 23 percent from 3. Frazier is leading Florida in 3-point percentage (.483) and had become a weapon off the bench few teams could match.

    Both players returned to action in a win over Alabama on Saturday, and though neither figured in the outcome, the fact that they’re able to get back into the flow before postseason play begins is significant.

    Florida is 5-3 in its last eight games. Coach Billy Donovan hasn’t dwelled on the injuries his team has dealt with as much as he has the flow of his offense. Donovan wants better movement.

    RAY, BULLDOGS PERSEVERE: He has no chance to be voted the Southeastern Conference’s coach of the year, but Mississippi State’s Rick Ray deserves to have some sort of trophy sitting on his mantle after his first year coaching a program that basically imploded after last season.

    Most courageous coach, perhaps? Ray knew what he was stepping in to when he took the job, but no one could have forecast the uncanny amalgam of injuries and suspensions that would reduce his roster to six scholarship players and eventually lead to a 13-game losing streak in conference play.

    Through it all, Ray maintained his sense of humor and stuck to his principles. And that paid off last Saturday when the Bulldogs won a game that even Ray might admit they had no business of winning, dealing NCAA Tournament hopeful Ole Miss a crippling blow in the process.

    “We had lost 13 in a row,” Ray said. “Our guys could have not given an effort and kind of packed it up for the season. But they came out and played hard, executed the game plan well and just played with a lot of heart.”

    Ray took no credit for any great oratorical effort before the game. This is no coincidence given his background in the Purdue/Gene Keady/Matt Painter system that he shares with Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin, but Ray coaches a lot like Martin. Both, publicly at least, seem unflappable after losses. And both of them believe in repetition and adherence to the basic principles of basketball as the means to improvement.

    “If anybody can figure out the psychology of 18-, 19-year-old guys on your team, they’d get out of coaching and be a consultant,” Ray said about his pre-Ole Miss game speech. “We just talked about the things we need to do in order to have success against Ole Miss. The one thing I pointed to was the fact that we did score against them when we played at Ole Miss.”

    HENDERSON HIT OR MISS: Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson is still the SEC’s leading scorer, but, predictably in a league filled with good athletes and defensive-minded coaches, he has been targeted and his production has been inconsistent in the final third of the season. And because the Rebels have become so dependent on Henderson, they’ve struggled on the road, losing NCAA-resume damaging games the last two weeks at Texas A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State.

    Ray pointed to State’s defense on Henderson as a key to his team’s upset. Henderson launched 18 3-pointers and made just three of them. “I thought we made way too many correctable mistakes on Henderson in the second half [of a loss at Ole Miss],” Ray said. “I thought if we eliminated mistakes on their screening action we would have a chance.”

    Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has analyzed those road losses relative to Henderson’s performances and hasn’t come up with an answer.

    “We watch a lot of tape before during and after,” Kennedy said. “We look at the quality of his looks, we look at time, score space, where are we getting the shots. The shots he’s missing are the same ones he hits day in and day out. It’s just a matter of making the plays that are there.”

    Ole Miss won its first three SEC road games and has now lost five straight, with one more to go at LSU.

    “Obviously, what was working early is not working now,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got to examine that and make the necessary adjustments.”

    A BRIGHT SPOT FOR VANDERBILT: The so-called “freshman wall” is a frustrating phenomenon for players and their coaches. So it was for Vanderbilt and Kevin Bright, who early in the season looked like the heir apparent to departed Jeffrey Taylor—even nabbing an SEC freshman-of-the-week award for a 12-point, 12-rebound effort at Xavier—before lapsing into a period of struggle.

    But recently Bright has emerged, as his second league rookie-of-the-week award, handed out on Monday, attests. What Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings like most about Bright’s two games last week was the fact he was aggressive offensively. Aggression usually leads to higher shooting percentages because players shoot to try and make, rather than trying not to miss. Bright was 8 of 14 from the field in wins over Georgia and Auburn, but even more impressive, 7 of 12 from 3 (.583). He hit the game-winning shot against Georgia.

    “Kevin started off the year in an atypical fashion as a freshman,” Stallings said. “He was very steady, very consistent, very solid. And then he sort of went through a wall where he didn’t play as well. Now he seems to have bounced back and is playing a lot better.

    “He’s always been one of our better defenders. He’s making shots now. He’s started to make them from 3 like he did earlier in the season. He’s being more aggressive looking at the goal.”



     
     

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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.”