Friday, April 06, 2007

2007-08 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

It's time to get to the BCS conferences, and we'll begin with the home of the two-time defending National Champions, Florida. Certainly they'd be a favorite to repeat again if they could get another year out of their "Big 4." But despite Billy Donovan's commitment to another year, the same can't be said for the rest of his team. Including the NBA defections (not counted in the "Returning Starters" stat in the file above) the Gators will lose their six best players. The only remaining player who got any real playing time will be Walter Hodge. They did have some good recruits this past year and for this coming year, some of whom will shine with the increased playing time. Rising-Sophomores Marreese Speights and Dan Werner should be good when given the chance to play. The best and most important recruit will probably be Nick Calathes (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 3 PG), and with both and calling this a Top Ten recruiting class, there will still be a lot of talent in Gainesville.

The next best team in the SEC was probably Tennessee, a team which other than the NBA will lose only Dane Bradshaw. Most likely Chris Lofton will go pro, but I think that's all. That means JaJuan Smith, Wayne Chism and several other stars will all be back. The Vols will look to replace Lofton with star recruit Cameron Tatum (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 21 SG). Overall they won't have the best recruiting class in the land, but they might return the most talent in the SEC. Bradshaw, as a leader and energy-creator, will be missed. But Bruce Pearl is an excellent coach, and he'll have this team ready to make a run at the SEC title.

Vanderbilt was probably the surprise (in a positive sense) in the SEC this past year. It will also probably be a bit much to expect a repeat performance as they lose three key players. They will potentially start three Seniors next year, which will give them a lot of experience as far as SEC teams go, but I don't expect them to have the athletes to run with a school like Tennessee.

The surprise in a negative sense in the SEC, of course, was LSU. They were better than their record, but just couldn't put together a good run all year. They kept losing winnable games and played their way right to the bottom of the SEC. Big Baby is going pro, but most of the other key parts will remain. Tasmin Mitchell should be a real star, and the Tigers bring in a good recruiting class highlighted by Anthony Randolph (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 4 SF). They will definitely be improved - the only question is how far up the standings they'll move.

Some other stories for the SEC: I think Kentucky made the wrong move in pushing Tubby Smith out the door. Billy Gillespie is a good coach, but not necessarily any better than Tubby. And you never know if players will transfer out and if recruiting will suffer with coaching changes. Arkansas, meanwhile, really seemed to grow as a team as this past year went on. With all of their key players returning this could have been a really elite team next year. Of course, Arkansas screwed it up by firing Stan Heath and still hasn't been able to find a coach. They seem intent on becoming basketball's answer to Alabama football.

Two teams that should be improved next year: Alabama and Auburn. Bama loses only Jermareo Davidson, with Ronald Steele and Richard Hendrix supposed to return. This past year they had an immensely talented starting five but absolutely no bench. Inevitably they lost when they had close games, or fast-paced games, or too many games in a week, or just as the season went on and they got worn down in general. Next year they should have more of a bench. Last year's bench will be a year older and better, and they bring in the 14th best recruiting class in the nation according to Auburn, on the other hand, has a pretty poor recruiting class. But they return every key player from this past year, and that alone should mean an improved team.

Overall, here's how I see the SEC:

1. Tennessee - They return the most talent, bring in a decent class of recruits, and have one of the best coaches in the country. I can't see any reason this team shouldn't be ranked in everyone's preseason Top Ten.
2. Alabama - With their starting five, this would have been a Top 25 team with any kind of a bench and without any injuries. Add in an excellent recruiting class and this team should definitely return to the Tourney.
3. Mississippi State - This might be a reach, but this was probably one of the Top 50 teams in the nation last year and they return basically every key part. They don't have Tennessee-level talent, but they should be a mature team that works well together.
4. Kentucky - Only this high because Billy Gillespie is a pretty good replacement. They return a lot of talent - this is Kentucky, after all. I can't drop them any lower than this.
5. Arkansas - This could change depending on who they eventually hire. Whoever gets hired will have a complete team in place. With a good replacement they could win the SEC West.
6. Florida - Can't drop this team any further. Let's remember that a lot of the returning players could have starred on the team this year last year if given the chance. If all falls right, this team could still work its way back to the Top 25. They just need to make sure not to have the post-Championship malaise that affects so many teams.
7. LSU - Nowhere to go but up. They still have a lot of talent and a good coach.
8. Auburn - They have struggled to get top-flight talent to show up, but Auburn should be a decent team regardless next year. They even have a shot at making a run to the Tournament if all falls right.
9. Vanderbilt - A great season, but no reason to expect it to continue. We know this isn't exactly Kentucky or Florida in regards to recruiting prowess, so Vandy can't expect to contend for an SEC title year in and year out.
10. Georgia - Might have enough talent to make the Tournament, but I don't really see it happening.
11. South Carolina - A rebuilding year for the Gamecocks. ranks their recruiting class 20th overall, possibly the payout from their NIT Championship.
12. Ole Miss - Someone has to finish last. This team made a real run at an at-large bid, but many of their best parts are gone. Definitely will take a step back.

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