- It looks like we're in store for a fascinating race for the SEC crown, especially now that Kentucky appears to be arriving just in time for the start of conference play. Plus, Steve Alford's firing and more in the Midweek Rebound.
If you want an idea of the element that Kentucky freshman guard Ashton Hagans has been bringing to his team of late, you could look worse places than the tongues of the sneakers he wore during warmups before this past Saturday’s game at Louisville. On each was a white-gloved cartoon hand making a downward-pointing L gesture—or “L’s down,” a taunting inversion of Louisville fans’ traditional rallying cry. Though game officials forced Hagans to change out of his customized kicks, it was a fitting tone-setter from a nuisance of a defender and burgeoning offensive attacker who in recent weeks has become the Wildcats’ infectious two-way spark.
Hagans’s December breakout has fast made him a favorite among Big Blue Nation. More importantly it has helped transform Kentucky from a wayward preseason favorite sent off-course by an opening-night rout to a congealing contender back on the rise after its early tumble. And it’s far from just Hagans that has been coming on of late. Classmates Keldon Johnson (20.0 ppg, including 11-of-19 three-point shooting his last three games) and Tyler Herro (24 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the floor vs. Louisville) have emerged as scorers while forwards Reid Travis and PJ Washington, not necessarily complementary in playing style, have grown more effective in tandem.
And it’s all coming together at the perfect time—not only for Kentucky to pull off its first marquee wins of the season against the Cardinals and North Carolina, but also for the dawn of SEC play. Pegged as preseason favorites despite the usual uncertainty of how so many new faces might fit together, the Wildcats had taken a clear backseat in expectations to No. 3 Tennessee and No. 12 Auburn through November and much of December. The Volunteers and Tigers had shared last season’s regular season conference crown and returned what Kentucky so clearly lacked: a roster heavy on continuity and experience, with upperclassmen holding down just about every starting spot. Over the season’s first six weeks, those teams played accordingly, avoiding any major blemishes and ascending in perception accordingly.
Now though, with the Wildcats shaping up, the SEC has the makings of perhaps the country’s most compelling title race. It’s not that it will be the most wide-open among major conferences. (Does the Pac-12 even have a favorite?) It doesn’t feature the ACC’s duo of top-five teams, or even two top-10 in-state rivals like the Big Ten. Nor does it offer the potential changing-of-the-guard narrative that would accompanying Villanova or Kansas slipping in the Big East and Big 12, respectively.
But what the SEC may have is three fairly evenly matched top-tier teams with legitimate Final Four hopes—two of which, Tennessee and Auburn, don’t meet until the regular season’s final Saturday, offering the potential for the race to finish with a bang. And just behind the SEC’s top group are Mississippi State, off to an oddly quiet 12–1 start with wins over Cincinnati and Clemson, and a Florida team that can defend with the best of them and just beat the breaks off Butler by 34 points.
Of course, John Calipari is well aware of the SEC’s depth of contenders. As he pointed out after the Louisville win, the Wildcats will face each of the league’s other top four teams twice over the next nine weeks, making them the lone team among that group to do so. It probably won’t be a very enjoyable grinder for Kentucky to go through, but it should make for something good to watch.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Midweek Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Wednesday column on college hoops. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to share your excitement for Wrestle Kingdom 13, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Rare is the midseason coach firing in college basketball; rarer still is one happening at a blueblood program before December is through. But UCLA dismissed sixth-year head coach Steve Alford on Monday, two days after an embarrassing 15-point home loss to Liberty that dropped the Bruins to 7–6 and marked their fourth straight defeat. In the midst of yet another disappointing season—one that began with UCLA ranked No. 21 in the AP poll—in a string of them, Bruins brass had apparently had enough.
Alford’s tenure included three Sweet 16 trips—two of them coming in his first two seasons—and a number of highly-touted recruiting classes, but to many the legacy of his run will be how much success was left on the table. (The 2015 Sweet 16 trip, for reference, came only as a No. 11 seed after a regular season in which UCLA went just 19–12.) The most memorable of his six seasons will surely be 2016–17, when Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, and Alford’s son Bryce led the Bruins to the Sweet 16. Of course to many the memory of that campaign will be complicated by its introduction of the rest of the Ball family and the antics and shoplifting arrest in China (of LiAngelo Ball and two other Bruins players) that followed. In its uneven subsequent season, UCLA could only manage to reach the NCAA tournament’s play-in round, where it lost to St. Bonaventure. This year the program would have been glad to be heading even there.
Now UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero will again be charged with making one of college basketball’s most scrutinized and intriguing hires. This is no longer a program that can have its pick of the coaching litter, and as of now there are not a lot of obvious proven candidates that would leave their current jobs for this one. (Speculation immediately centered on former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, recently fired by the Chicago Bulls, whom UCLA would conveniently not have to lure away from a current employer.) Guerrero will have three months to plot his year’s most important move. The sport will be watching.
1. Western Kentucky: The talented Hilltoppers closed their uneven non-conference slate with their best win to date, knocking off Wisconsin at home as freshman Dalano Banton flirted with a triple double (eight points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).
2. Princeton: A week after the nation’s No. 1 team took an L in Tempe, the Tigers went to Arizona State and survived a grind-out win, highlighted by senior Devin Cannady’s 21 points and nine boards.
3. Seton Hall: The Pirates ended St. John’s undefeated run on a thrilling buzzer beater by former walk-on Shavar Reynolds Jr., capping a quietly solid December that also included wins over Kentucky and Maryland.
4. Virginia Tech: The Hokies kicked off ACC play in style by making 11 of 18 three-pointers in an 81–66 win over Notre Dame. They’re now the country’s most accurate three-point shooting team at 45.1%.
5. Creighton: The Bluejays’ 11-point win at Providence to begin Big East play bodes well for their chances to push toward the top of the league. Now they just need to tighten up that 100th-ranked defense.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Devontae Cacok, UNC Wilmington forward
A bright spot in the Seahawks’ CAA-opening loss to Charleston was their senior forward’s 27 points, on 12-of-16 shooting, and 19 rebounds—his eighth double-double of the season.
Junior: Ky Bowman, Boston College guard
The North Carolina native made sure to get in one last scoring binge before the new year, putting up 44 points to go with 10 rebounds, five steals, and three assists in the Eagles’ Dec. 31 overtime loss to Hartford.
Sophomore: Jacob Grandison, Holy Cross guard
Grandison flirted with his first career triple double at Iona, finishing with 25 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists in a 78–71 win.
Freshman: Josh LeBlanc, Georgetown forward
In his second game as a starter, the 6’ 7” Baton Rouge native was a model of efficiency, scoring 22 points on 7-of-7 shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing three assists.
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One to Watch: Kansas at Iowa State, Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2
The Jayhawks, unsurprisingly, enter Big 12 play in good shape to win at least a share of the league title for the 15th straight season. But this conference will offer no respite, and one of Kansas’s strongest challengers will be the Cyclones, who weathered a spate of early-season absences—most notably that of star guard Lindell Wigginton, who returned from a foot injury on Dec. 21 after missing 10 games—and are just now beginning to assemble into full form. The Jayhawks endured their own key injury when big man Udoka Azubuike sat out four games (including the Arizona State loss) with a sprained ankle, and Azubuike didn’t look too hobbled in his 23-points-in-20-minutes return against Eastern Michigan this past weekend. They’ll need all the firepower they can get on the always-difficult trip to Hilton Coliseum, which should be electric on Saturday afternoon.