Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland saluted Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray as not only the best backcourt in the Southeastern Conference, but also the best guard tandem in the nation.
“Ulis, especially,” Howland said Wednesday. “Everybody talks about him, but they don’t talk about his ball pressure enough. He takes out the other team’s point guard with his ability to pressure the ball.
“And Murray is an absolutely phenomenal shooter, scorer and competitor.”
Kentucky has noted that Murray and Ulis are the highest-scoring guard duo in the country. They enter the SEC Tournament averaging 40.8 points.
The second-highest scoring pair of guards is Duke’s Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram at 39.3 points per game.
“Murray is a freshman, but he’s really improved,” Howland said. “And Ulis is special. Both those guys are NBA guys.”
A basketball axiom has it that guards make the critical difference. More than ever, Howland is a believer.
“That’s the way the game is played now,” he said. “I still like the big guy with his back to the basket. But that’s a thing that seems to becoming lost in the game.”
The low-post presence is not extinct.
“That’s how Kansas plays,” the Mississippi State coach said. “That’s why I think they’re so good.”
Florida center John Egbunu tore a ligament in his right thumb during practice Tuesday. He participated in a shoot-around Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena with a protective wrap on his right hand.
When asked how Egbunu looked, Florida Coach Mike White said, “He looked like his thumb hurt. He had trouble catching the basketball and holding on to the basketball.”
Egbunu is Florida’s second-leading scorer (11.5 ppg) and rebounder (6.3 rpg). He also leads the Gators in blocks with 48. Against Kentucky last week, he had a team-high 27 points.
White did not try to downplay the significance of Egbunu’s injury.
“It’s big for us,” he said. “He’s really our best interior defender by far, and (best) interior rebounder and really our best interior scorer. … It’d be a blow for this team.”
Florida plays Arkansas in Thursday’s first second-round game. Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said his team would prepare as if Egbunu will be playing “full blast.”
Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings laughed when asked about his team’s mindset going into the SEC Tournament.
“I don’t guess about my team’s mindset anymore,” he said.
Stallings addressed the theme when asked if his players understood college basketball was moving to the win-or-go-home phase.
“I don’t know what they think,” he said. “And I’ve actually stopped caring.”
When asked how often in the past he stopped caring about what his players thought, Stallings said, “Not very often. I care too much. That’s sort of my issue. I had to rearrange my level of caring, and it’s not really caring. It’s how much I was trying to affect and influence their thoughts and their mindset.
“I’ll let them take care of their mindset. I’ll take care of making sure they’re prepared, and then we’ll continue to hope for the best.”
Vandy point guard Wade Baldwin IV spoke confidently.
“I’m probably the most confident guy you guys probably know … ,” he told reporters. “I don’t believe in losses. I’m the most competitive guy on the court at all times, I think.”
Baldwin sounded eager for Vandy’s game against the Tennessee-Auburn winner on Thursday.
“I can’t wait to get this (started),” he said, “and compete my (butt) off.”
Size doesn’t matter
Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy dismissed the importance of height. What prompted his comment was a question about his star guard, Stefan Moody, and Ulis being 5-foot-9.
Ulis is one of two finalists for the Bob Cousy Award. The other is Kay Felder of Oakland.
When asked about the importance of size, Kennedy said, “I think it’s grossly overvalued, sometimes.
“Sometimes, you have big kids who play small. You’ve got little kids who play big.”
“You can’t just look at size,” he said.
At this time of year, coaches talk about teams playing with a desperate attitude. Not Georgia Coach Mark Fox.
“It implies that you’re panicking,” Fox said. “And I don’t think we have a reason to panic. And desperate athletes don’t consistently perform well.”
When asked the difference between a team being “desperate” and playing with a “sense of urgency,” Fox said it was the difference between being desperate and determined.
“It’s a different definition,” he said. “You’re a writer. C’mon.”