SEC Football Articles
SEC Basketball Preview
The SEC did away with its East-West Division structure in basketball before last season, but don’t be fooled: This is a league divided.
Just compare the top of the league (Kentucky) with the No. 14 team (South Carolina). Kentucky is the defending national champion where attrition doesn’t seem to matter. The Wildcats lost four first-round NBA draft picks and two second-round picks but reloaded with another elite recruiting class with aspirations of returning to the Final Four.
At South Carolina, new coach Frank Martin immediately lost two of best players to transfers from a team that went 2-14 in the SEC last season. He’ll have an undersized team that may need a few years to rebuild. Unlike Kentucky, there will be no quick fixes with superstar freshmen.
The gulf between haves and have nots in the SEC is more than just the top and bottom teams. Kentucky, Missouri, Florida and Tennessee all ranked in the Athlon preseason top 25, and teams like Arkansas, Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are looking for the right breaks to reach the NCAA Tournament.
After that, the remainder of the league is in a stage of rebuilding. At LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina, that process begins with new coaches, and and Vanderbilt, that begins with a wholly new cast of characters on last season’s SEC Tournament champions.
SEC FACTS AND FIGURES
2011-12 regular season champion: Kentucky
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: Alabama, Kentucky, Florida,
New coaches: Johnny Jones (LSU), Frank Martin (South Carolina),
Rick Ray (Mississippi State)
Player of the Year: Phil Pressey, Missouri
Best Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Most Underrated: Ray Turner, Texas A&M
Newcomer of the Year: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
ATHLON ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM
G Phil Pressey, Missouri
G BJ Young, Arkansas
F Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
F Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee
C Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
ATHLON ALL-SEC SECOND TEAM
G Kenny Boynton, Florida
G Michael Dixon, Missouri
G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia
F Alex Poythress, Kentucky
F Marshawn Powell, Arkansas
ATHLON ALL-SEC THIRD TEAM
G Trae Golden, Tennessee
G Ryan Harrow, Kentucky
F Murphy Holloway, Ole Miss
F Alex Oriakhi, Missouri
F Patric Young, Florida
1. Kentucky (38-2, 16-0)
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: John Calipari’s Kentucky team will be among the most talented in the country, but the big question is whether the Wildcats are too young to go all the way. That storyline is recycling for a fourth straight season — with one twist. Last year’s team closed the deal, bringing Calipari his first NCAA title.
Only one contributor from that team returns, but the Cats have reloaded with yet another top-ranked recruiting class. Calipari’s had four of those and 15 NBA Draft picks since coming to Lexington in 2009. Rinse, repeat. But repeat?
“I wish it was the ‘70s and ‘80s where I had guys for four years, because it would get kind of scary,” Calipari says. Still, “to start over every year, I’m going to be honest, it’s exciting.”
The Wildcats must replace Anthony Davis, who just polished off one of the most impressive runs in history — National Player of the Year, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, national champion, No. 1 NBA pick and Olympic champion — as well as first-round pick Terrence Jones. That’s a tall task, but Calipari took his best shot.
In comes the nation’s No. 1 recruit, 6-10 Nerlens Noel, said to be a better shot-blocker than Davis, who set an NCAA freshman record for swats. Calipari also landed 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who is athletic enough that he played wide receiver in high school.
“I’m just blown away by him,” Calipari says. “I knew he was good when I (recruited) him, but he … just blossoms and blossoms.”
So much so that Calipari is already talking about using some “Twin Towers” looks with both Cauley-Stein and Noel on the floor together. Other times, he’ll use his top returning player, 6-9 sophomore power forward Kyle Wiltjer, who also happens to be the team’s sharpest 3-point shooter.
Oh, and then there’s small forward Alex Poythress, merely a McDonald’s All-American who Calipari calls “a beast” and is already a projected top-10 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist went No. 2 overall in the draft, point guard Marquis Teague was a late first-rounder and shooting guards Darius Miller and Doron Lamb were both second-round selections. Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Replacing four pros in the backcourt is a tall …
Calipari brought in McDonald’s All-American Archie Goodwin for scoring, Wright State transfer Julius Mays for depth, and finally has a non-freshman point guard in Ryan Harrow. The last five guys to run Calipari’s offense were one-and-dones. Harrow, a transfer from NC State who sat out last season at UK and has three years of eligibility left, will be an interesting change.
“I’m happy because I have a feel for Ryan,” Calipari says. “He’s different than all the other point guards I had. How does he compare? Well how did Marquis compare to those guys? They were really good; he’s really good.”
While slight of stature, Harrow is quick, can jump out of the gym and “may be a little bit more of a shooter like Brandon (Knight) was,” Calipari says.
Goodwin impressed all summer and will start from Day 1, while Mays, a senior who began his career at NC State and led Wright State in scoring, assists and steals last season, offers not only a versatile backup but also a veteran presence. Other possible contributors are Twany Beckham and 6-7 Jon Hood.
Kentucky, with three straight Elite Eights, back-to-back Final Fours and a national title, is enjoying its finest stretch since reaching three consecutive NCAA title games — winning twice — from 1996-98. Calipari is the king of reloading, but is repeating a fair expectation?
Since UCLA won seven in a row from 1967-73, only Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) have won back-to-back championships. But Calipari says: “I can tell you I like my team,” which he’s said at the start of the last three seasons, and those turned out pretty well.
The guys who just helped UK win it all and have been back to watch the Cats work out this summer seem to think the next group will make another run.
“I’m really impressed,” Miller says. “They’re going to have a really good team and everybody’s going to enjoy watching them.”
Says Lamb: “I think they’re going to have a great team to win it all this year.”
2. Missouri (30-5, 14-4 Big 12)
After turning Missouri into the biggest surprise of the college basketball season — at least until its own shocking loss to No. 15 seed Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament — coach Frank Haith and the Tigers are starting over.
Missouri bid farewell to five seniors, including All-American Marcus Denmon and all-conference selections Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe, from last year’s team, which won 30 games while relying on a seven-man rotation. It also said good-bye this offseason to the Big 12 as it officially joined the SEC.
Guards Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon are the only Tigers who have logged minutes for Haith, so the team will have a distinctly different look as it wades into its new league. The Tigers regain the services of forward Laurence Bowers, who missed the ’11-12 season with a knee injury, and welcome in five recruits and four transfers. Missouri should be able to give opponents a lot of different looks, as well. That has Haith excited.
“We can play big, we can play small,” he says. “Having a little bit of ability to adjust to who you’re playing against, I think that’s something we could not do (last) year.”
He’ll try to use it to his advantage as he attempts to keep the Tigers in the thick of the conference race and in line for a fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Few imagined Missouri would have as much success as it did playing without Bowers last season after he tore the ACL in his left knee in early October. When last healthy, he was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) and top rebounder (6.1 rpg), a versatile forward with good shot-blocking skills, a dependable midrange jumper and a knack for making highlight plays around the rim. He’s been allowed to take his recovery slowly and is confident he can regain his old form.
Haith plans on having Bowers mentor freshmen big men Ryan Rosburg and Stefan Jankovic and junior college transfer Tony Criswell. With those four players, Haith already would have more options up front than a year ago when he was forced to start English out of position.
But the spring brought an unexpected gift in 6’9”, 255-pound transfer Alex Oriakhi, a three-year starter at Connecticut who averaged 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds while anchoring the Huskies’ frontline during their national championship season in 2011.
“He’s a rim protector, and that’s something we needed,” Dixon says.
The ability of the 5’11” Pressey to break down the defense off the dribble and find the open man didn’t just benefit Ratliffe but the entire team last season when the Tigers averaged a Big 12-best 80.4 points. But they must replace two lethal wing scorers in Denmon and English, who combined to average 32.2 points while shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
Michael Dixon (13.5 ppg), the team’s sixth man last season, seems poised to step into the starting lineup and assume a bigger part of the scoring load. Ross, a 6’5” transfer from Auburn, could fill the other open spot on the perimeter. He led those Tigers in scoring (13.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 ppg) as a sophomore, though Missouri needs him to become a more consistent shooter. His size and strength will give Haith the versatility to use a four-guard lineup when he sees fit.
Keion Bell, an athletic combo guard who averaged 16.4 points over three seasons at Pepperdine, could occupy Dixon’s old role off the bench. Jabari Brown, a former 5-star recruit who appeared in two games at Oregon, should also add punch to the Tigers’ offense when he becomes eligible in December.
Missouri players believe they won’t just have more bodies this season but also more talent than they did a year ago. But to have a chance to meet or exceed last season’s accomplishments, they will also have to match the chemistry so integral to that success.
The additional options could make it harder for players to fit into defined roles, but if Haith can get them to play together, the Tigers should be a more well-rounded team. The tandem of Bowers and Oriakhi figures to make them better at protecting the rim, and their improved depth should help them extend their defense on the perimeter.
With Pressey, one of the nation’s top playmakers, directing the offense, Missouri should also generate enough points to contend in a league race led by reigning national champion Kentucky.
3. Florida (26-11, 10-6)
Losing 11-point leads in the second half in the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons stings. But so does playing in the NIT, where Florida found itself in both 2008 and ’09.
Clearly, the Gators have returned to elite status. But can they take the next step? Can this program, which won back-to-back national titles in the mid-2000s, emerge as a legitimate threat to return to the Final Four?
“We’ll have to create an identity in the backcourt,” veteran coach Billy Donovan says. “We have experience in the frontcourt, but when you lose a top-three pick (Bradley Beal) and starting point guard (Erving Walker) it changes the complexion of your team.”
Two years ago, Florida was a force inside, led by the frontline of Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus. Last year, the Gators lived by the 3-pointer. Might this year be a combination of both? “We’ve got some experienced pieces coming back,” Donovan says. “I like this team.”
There was speculation that Patric Young might leave for the NBA. But Young, one of the most imposing players in college basketball, is aware that he has to work on his offensive game and believes another season at Florida will serve him well. He was solid as a sophomore — he averaged 10.2 points and shot 61.8 percent from the field — but sometimes struggled with his conditioning as he took on a larger role.
Erik Murphy, a 6-10 face-up power forward, is back for his second season as a starter. Murphy has always been able to shoot 3s (41.7 percent in his career), but he improved his inside game last year and led the team with 37 blocked shots.
Florida needs to keep Will Yeguete, a 6-7 junior, healthy. He isn’t much of a threat on the offensive end of the floor — he scored six points or fewer in 11 of his 12 SEC games — but Yeguete makes a huge difference defensively as the point man on the Gators’ press. He missed the final nine games last season with a stress fracture in his left foot.
One player to watch is Casey Prather, a 6-6 swingman who played his best basketball of the season in the NCAA Tournament. Prather, perhaps the team’s best athlete, scored a career-high 14 points in the 71–45 win over Virginia. His emergence would give the Gators a valuable weapon off the bench.
Cody Larson, a 6-9, 231-pound third-year sophomore, has played sparingly in his time in Gainesville.
Kenny Boynton struggled a bit down the stretch, but his junior season was his most productive as a Gator. His scoring average jumped from 14.2 points per game as a sophomore to 15.9 even though he attempted fewer shots. His 3-point shooting has improved from 29.4 percent as a freshman to 33.1 as a sophomore to 40.7 last season.
Florida expects better overall play from Mike Rosario, a transfer from Rutgers who struggled in his first season in the SEC. Rosario averaged more than 16 points in each of his two seasons at Rutgers but shot less than 40.0 percent from the field. In a limited role last season, he averaged 6.6 points with the Gators. He needs to limit his turnovers and improve his defense.
Scottie Wilbekin, who skipped his final season of high school to enroll at UF two years ago, likely will take over for Walker as the starting point guard. Wilbekin has a great handle and is the best perimeter defender on the team, but he will have to be more assertive on the offensive end of the court as his role increases.
The depth will have to come from a freshman class that includes three guards. Braxton Ogbueze, a 4-star point guard from Charlotte, is the best bet to play major minutes.
Florida has the pieces in place to contend with Kentucky for the top spot in the SEC. The Gators, however, must stay healthy and will need more productivity from two key juniors — Young up front and Wilbekin at the point — and for Boynton to score as efficiently as he did in ’11-12. A lack of size will still be an issue, but Donovan has proven that he can win with a perimeter-oriented attack. Anything short of a return to the Sweet 16 — or beyond — will be a disappointment.
4. Tennessee (19-15, 10-6)
The experts told Cuonzo Martin his first Tennessee team would finish near the bottom of the SEC last season. The new Vols coach merely shrugged. “Maybe they’re right,” he said with a wicked smile. “We’ll see.” Fast forward to Year 2, and some say Martin’s second Tennessee team is among those to beat for the SEC crown and won’t sneak up on anyone. Indeed, one of the bigger blue chips in recent Tennessee prep history fell to Martin in the form of mid-term enrollee Jarnell Stokes last January. Martin and the Vols have been rolling ever since. More than 80 percent of last season’s scoring is back in the form of four returning starters. Stokes has grown into his size 20 sneakers, polishing up low-post moves and footwork that make his 6-8, 250-pound frame all the more difficult for foes to handle. When 6-7, 265-pound senior power forward Jeronne Maymon stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Stokes, the two form an imposing wall. The backcourt starts with junior point guard Trae Golden, who ranked second in the SEC in free throw shooting percentage (82.7) last season. Martin’s system utilizes two wings, and the Vols are well-stocked at the position. Battles for playing time abound, with junior Jordan McRae, incoming junior college transfer D’Montre Edwards, senior Skylar McBee and sophomore Josh Richardson fighting for time. If some scorers on the perimeter emerge, Tennessee could be in the hunt for an SEC title.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Two and Out
5. Arkansas (18-15, 6-10)
The key to Mike Anderson’s “fastest 40 minutes in college basketball” is having enough capable athletes ready to rotate in and out of the lineup to keep the pressure on. In Year 2 of his return to Arkansas, Anderson believes his roster is more equipped to thrive in his system. The Razorbacks retained the SEC’s top-scoring freshman from last season when guard BJ Young elected to return to school. He’ll team with forward Marshawn Powell, who is returning from knee surgery that cost him all but two games, to give Arkansas two of the most talented players in the league. Arkansas’ improved numbers should be evident on the perimeter. Young, one of the SEC’s best scorers, is primed for a big sophomore season. The 6-3 shooting guard ranked third in the SEC in scoring in league games with a 16.4-point average while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Junior Mardracus Wade led the SEC with 47.6 percent 3-point shooting and should get plenty of looks again this season with Powell back in the lineup in the frontcourt. Powell’s return will help on multiple levels. The junior from Virginia can score with his back to the basket but also has the ability to step out and hit the 17-foot jump shot. He has solid ball skills, as well, which enables him to take the ball the basket from different spots on the floor. Powell averaged 14.9 points and shot 50.0 percent from the field two years ago as a freshman, his only completely healthy season at Arkansas. His work on the boards — he’s averaged 5.7 per game in his career — will be a big boost for an Arkansas team that ranked last in the SEC and 291st in the nation with a minus-3.8 rebounding margin. The pieces are in place for Arkansas to make a significant jump in the SEC standings. Anderson has a nice mix of veterans and young players who should thrive in his up-tempo game. The Hogs, however, must improve on defense and at least hold their own on the glass. If that happens, Arkansas can expect to hear its name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2008.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament First Four
6. Alabama (21-12, 9-7)
Anthony Grant’s tenure at Alabama hasn’t resulted in the immediate success most fans crave, but it’s represented steady progress through his first three seasons. Junior Trevor Releford will bring something to the table that has become elusive in this era of one-and-done college basketball — all-conference talent and experience. He’ll be the captain of an Alabama backcourt that still lacks a go-to shooter but includes a number of experienced options. Releford, who has started 66 games over the past two seasons, saw a slight increase in scoring last season (11 to 12 points per game), but his assist totals dropped (125 to 88). Though they provided plenty of headaches because of their off-the-court behavior, JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell will be missed. The two players, when they weren’t suspended for various dustups with Grant last season, combined to average more than 27 points and 14 rebounds per game. Now, they’re both gone, and Grant will try to replace their production from a four-man pool that features only one player, sophomore Nick Jacobs, who has logged significant minutes in an Alabama uniform. Five-star freshman Devonta Pollard certainly has the talent to start right away as Alabama’s swingman. Grant’s lone signee for 2012, the 6-8, 200-pound Pollard promises to be on the court in a number of different ways. All things equal, Alabama, which has been one of the SEC’s best defensive teams under Grant, needs Pollard to, at least, replicate the kind of production Green provided during his four-year career. Without that, Alabama’s lack of depth and proven talent in the paint and its lack of go-to shooters on the perimeter will be exposed regularly by the SEC’s elite.
Postseason prediction: NIT
7. Ole Miss (20-14, 8-8)
Ole Miss hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2002, the longest drought among the 14 teams in the SEC. The Rebels might have made the Field of 68 in 2012 had they been able to find a reliable 3-point shooter in their first season in the post-Chris Warren era. Instead they finished 20–14 with a first-round NIT loss after reaching the SEC Tournament semifinals. If all goes as planned, junior college transfer Marshall Henderson, will solve the Rebels’ problem of poor 3-point shooting that sabotaged their season. A former starter at Utah, Henderson was the NJCAA National Player of the Year in ‘11-12 after averaging 19.6 points at South Plains (Texas) College. Holloway, an athletic combo forward, and Reginald Buckner, a rugged post player, flirted with leaving school early to explore professional basketball, but both opted to return to Ole Miss. They formed the top one-two rebounding punch in the SEC last season, with Holloway ranking third (9.0 rpg) in the league and Buckner fourth (8.1 rpg). Murphy Holloway also averaged 11.2 points per game in his first season back from Ole Miss after a brief stop at South Carolina. On paper, the pieces are in place keep Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament conversation, but relying so heavily on newcomers, as the Rebels are with Henderson and fellow junior college transfer Jason Carter, is a dicey proposition.
Postseason prediction: NIT
8. Texas A&M (14-18, 4-14 Big 12)
Considering all of the adversity he encountered last season, second-year coach Billy Kennedy isn’t particularly worried about transitioning into a new conference. Or breaking in a new point guard. Or anything else, for that matter. He feels good physically. He likes the personnel changes he and his staff have made to the roster. And he believes his program is ready for a fresh start in the SEC. Indeed, if the Aggies receive solid play at the point, they should be tough enough to make its first season in the SEC much more enjoyable than their last in the Big 12. With all the uncertainties last season, Elston Turner was practically the rock of stability for A&M, starting 31 games and playing multiple positions. Turner is a good ball-handler and capable point guard, but he is most dangerous as a scorer. Turner could be a better pure scorer if first-year point guards Fabyon Harris and J’Mychal Reese can run the offense effectively. Kennedy says perhaps no player on the roster has improved more than Ray Turner, a 6-9 forward with tremendous athletic ability. Turner can alter games with monstrous dunks or blocked shots, but he must prove to be a more consistent scorer — especially with his back to the basket — for the Aggies to finish in the upper half of the SEC. The return of Roberson from an ankle injury last year should greatly improve A&M’s toughness. Roberson has proven to be a strong rebounder, and he brings a much-needed tenacity to A&M’s interior efforts. But if Fabyon Harris and Reese can handle the point guard duties effectively, Ray Turner and Elston Turner could have strong enough seasons to put the Aggies back into contention for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Postseason prediction: NIT
9. Georgia (15-17, 5-11)
Georgia has settled into an era of relative stability. Mark Fox is entering his fourth season as coach, with no turnover on his staff since he arrived, and he enjoys the confidence of his bosses. There has been little in the way of off-court trouble. And yet, the Bulldogs are still in a state of moving toward something — namely, consistent NCAA Tournament contention — rather than already being there. It has been two seasons since Fox guided the team to the NCAAs, where it went out in the first round. Georgia fans are waiting for Fox to show that he can recruit the caliber of players that can consistently contend in the SEC. Fox thinks his 2012-13 edition will show that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came to campus last year with as much hype as any recent Georgia player — and he largely lived up to it. Now, after Caldwell-Pope finished second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding, the team will basically belong to him. The bigger unknown for Georgia is what to expect in the rest of the backcourt. The point guard will be new. Senior Vincent Williams, who has barely been a member of the rotation, will get a shot to start. But he will have to beat out freshman Charles Mann, who at 6-4 is four inches taller. Georgia was one of the weakest rebounding teams in the SEC last season. Its frontcourt starters struggled to score, and other teams were able to score in the lane with near impunity. The problem was mainly that the team lacked a true center, and that problem hasn’t been remedied yet. This doesn’t appear to be a make-or-break year for Fox. But the next one is setting up that way, so at a minimum the Bulldogs need to show progress, and also show that they have the players in the program to eventually make a run.
Postseason prediction: NIT
10. Auburn (15-16, 5-11)
Tony Barbee hasn’t backed down from ambitious expectations for his third year at Auburn, even after losing one of his top players to a point-shaving investigation, enduring an offseason of massive turnover and welcoming as many as six new faces into the program. The changes were largely positive, Barbee says, and the team’s talent has been upgraded. Barbee is convinced the Tigers can move into the upper half of the league in 2013. But Auburn’s recent basketball track record — including just a 9–23 record in SEC play since Barbee arrived — will leave many skeptical until the Tigers validate their coach’s confidence by their play on the court. Varez Ward’s suspension amid a point-shaving investigation last March ended the season on a sour note and also created a vacancy at point guard. Barbee quickly offered a scholarship to Brian Greene Jr., who had been playing a post-grad year at IMG Academy in Florida. Barbee says Greene has unusual maturity for his age and that he impressed the coaching staff during summer practices. Rob Chubb was once a gangly freshman whose SEC future seemed dubious at best. Today, he’s a sturdy, 6-10, 245-pound senior who Barbee believes could be among the league’s best big men. Auburn needs Chubb to be more consistent and stay out of foul trouble, something that plagued him at times last season. While few expected Auburn’s attractive new arena to be an immediate solution to the Tigers’ decade-long basketball slump, the last two seasons have been especially grim. Auburn hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2003, and a return this year seems unlikely. But any trip to the postseason — even the NIT — would be a monumental step forward. The real measure of this year will come in the progress and development of the large and talented freshman class, on which much of Auburn’s hope for the future is staked.
11. Vanderbilt (25-11, 10-6)
Kevin Stallings’ biggest concern at this point last year was how his team, ranked by most in the top 10 in the preseason, would deal with high expectations. That, clearly, is not an issue this time around. With all five starters and the top reserve either lost to graduation or, in John Jenkins’ case, early departure to the NBA, Vanderbilt will field one of the most inexperienced teams in the nation in ’12-13. How inexperienced? Consider the following stat: Kedren Johnson, Vanderbilt’s leading returning scorer, averaged 2.3 points per game in SEC play. Johnson delivered the most memorable play of the 2011-12 season, converting a 3-point play in transition that gave Vanderbilt the lead for good in the final two minutes of the SEC Tournament title game. Now a sophomore, Johnson will be asked to emerge as a primary scoring threat on the perimeter. He has good size for a point guard and is an excellent passer, but his defense needs to improve and his 3-point shot is inconsistent. Johnson’s running mate will be fellow sophomore Dai-Jon Parker, a tremendous athlete who arrived last season as a ready-made defender. Josh Henderson, a 6-11 center, sat out the ’10-11 season as a redshirt then missed the bulk of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot. He was sidelined during the offseason as well after undergoing a second surgery to repair his foot, but Stallings expects his big man to be ready to practice. After averaging nearly 10 SEC wins over the past six seasons, Vanderbilt likely will take a significant dip in ’12-13. There is some solid talent on the roster — specifically on the perimeter — but there are no proven scorers and an alarming lack of size on the interior. Anything approaching .500 in the SEC should be considered a successful season.
12. LSU (18-15, 7-9)
To launch a new era in LSU basketball, the Tigers reached back to the most glorious part of their past. New coach Johnny Jones, hired in Baton Rouge after 11 season at North Texas, was a point guard at LSU in the early 1980s and an assistant coach after that when the Tigers twice advanced to the Final Four under Dale Brown and climbed into a spot among the national elite. That history fuels Jones’ optimism as he takes over a program with two key cornerstones back from last season’s NIT team — point guard Anthony Hickey and forward Johnny O’Bryant — along with three other veterans, including one who has started most of his first two years (Andre Stringer). That crew was fortified by a promising, under-the-radar recruiting class, anchored by junior college frontcourt teammates Shavon Coleman and Calvin Godfrey from Howard (Texas) College. Even with a five-man class on the way, though, the Tigers are poised to enter the season with only 10 scholarship players. For LSU to be a real factor in the SEC this season, O’Bryant needs to take a major step forward. Jones would love to see the former McDonald’s All-American average 16 points and 10 boards. Hickey and Stringer are nice building blocks and have shown the ability to operate at both guard spots. But neither cracks six feet, and that becomes a problem on the defensive end. With only one senior scholarship player on the roster, this is a team built with an eye on the future. The present could be a little rocky unless Hickey and particularly O’Bryant blossom into All-SEC-caliber players.
13. Mississippi State (21-12, 8-8)
Rick Ray shies away from the term “rebuilding,” but these are the parts he has to work with — two role players, a sophomore who averaged 3.5 minutes per game last year, an oft-injured junior, a foreign transfer still serving an NCAA suspension, and seven signees. This is clearly a rebuild. A former assistant at Clemson, Ray took over for Rick Stansbury, who retired after 14 years, and the roster took a big hit with four early departures. The only player with significant starting experience on the roster is junior Jalen Steele, a sharpshooter who has played his best coming off the bench. Steele made 39.3 percent of his 3-point shots last season and had some notable outbursts, in particular at Vanderbilt, when he knocked down four in a row during a second-half rally. Steele averaged 8.7 points per game on the season, and he’s working on becoming a more well-rounded scorer. The backcourt will be heavily populated by newcomers. Junior college transfer Trivante Bloodman and freshman Jacoby Davis will vie for the point guard spot vacated by four-year starter Dee Bost. Mississippi State’s post scoring will likely come from other sources, like junior college transfer Colin Borchert, a 6-foot-8, 225-pounder with a nice outside stroke.
14. South Carolina (10-21, 2-14)
Even by South Carolina’s modest standards, last season was an unmitigated disaster for the Gamecocks. They had their worst overall record since 1998-99, their third consecutive losing season and their fewest ever victories in the SEC, which they joined in 1991-92. Hired from Kansas State, new coach Frank Martin wants to make South Carolina matter again, but it might take a while for them to reach that point. South Carolina has two returning starters in the backcourt — point guard Bruce Ellington and shooting guard Damien Leonard — but Ellington is playing football again and won’t rejoin the basketball team until after the bowl game, Martin says. Ellington led the team in scoring two years ago and ranked second last season. The transfers of freshman Anthony Gill to Virginia and Damontre Harris to Florida and an injury to Carlton Geathers leaves South Carolina with only one true post player to start the season, seven-foot freshman Laimonas Chatkevicius from Lithuania. This is a foundation year for Martin, as he tries to get his players to embrace his pressure defense, which involves guarding opponents to the halfcourt line and being “mean as a pit bull,” Martin says.
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