Sunday, April 13, 2008
2008-09 Preview: SEC
And we finally get to the BCS conferences. As usual, I'll begin with the bottom of the alphabet and work my way to the top. The SEC did have a bunch of interesting teams this past season. Both Mississippi State and Kentucky started poorly before playing great in conference, while Ole Miss started out great and then tanked against SEC competition. But before we get to those teams, we should start with the only consistently dominant team in 2007-08, Tennessee.
The Vols will certainly be hit by the graduation of Chris Lofton, who has been the star of the team for a few years now. JaJuan Smith is also gone, as is backup guard Jordan Howell. At the moment I am writing this preview, Tyler Smith is still undecided on the NBA draft. The rumors are that he will go, however, and so I'm going to assume that for the sake of this preview. Now, Tennessee will still have a couple of stars left. Wayne Chism and Ramar Smith will start next season. A backup who will be a key next season is 6'10" Brian Williams (3 ppg, 4 rpg). As usual, Bruce Pearl brings in a very nice recruiting class, headlined by 6'5" swingman Scotty Hopson (Rivals: 9, Scout: 3 SF). Tennessee will still be a Tournament team, and probably even Top 25. But they're going to take a step back - no recruit is going to come in and immediately replace Chris Lofton, it's just not possible.
As for Billy Gillispie's interesting Kentucky team, it was clear last season that it took a while for his influence to sink in. Early on, the team just did not want to play for him. I'd never seen a SEC team putting in that little effort on defense and offense. But at some point Gillispie found a way to get through, and Kentucky started playing up to their potential. They were probably one of the 25 best teams in the country over the last four-to-six weeks of the season. Now, Ramel Bradley is a tough player to lose to graduation, but no loss will be as big as Joe Crawford. He was the heart and soul of this Kentucky team and will be impossible to replace. It is expected, however, that all of Kentucky's underclassmen will return next season. Patrick Patterson had an outstanding freshman year and should be one of the best players in the SEC next season. Michael Porter and Derrick Jasper are going to have to step up and become an elite back court. Those two combined to average 3.5 assists per game last season, and they're going to have to more than double that for Kentucky to challenge the top of the SEC. Gillispie also brings in a Top 20 recruiting class, although an odd one at that. All three recruits are listed as 6'6" small forwards. Clearly, Gillispie has seen the future and it's teams like Tennessee and Memphis that can just throw out a whole bunch of athletic swing players that can get to the basket at will. Gillispie is a very good coach, and he'll have his guys ready to go next season.
As for Vandy's dream season, it won't be repeated. Shan Foster (20 ppg) is one of three starters that graduates, and they also lose more off the bench. Arkansas and Ole Miss will also be in rebuilding modes, as both teams lose a couple of seniors and will be very, very young next year. A team that might be very good, on the other hand, is Florida. I think Billy Donovan did a great job with his team this year. Teams so often have massive psychological down periods after a Final Four appearance or championship. Just look at the littered carcasses of successful schools this century: Maryland, LSU, Georgia Tech... I could keep going. But by the end of this past season, Donovan had gotten through to his kids that the national titles were a thing of the past. Now, Donovan's intensity isn't for everybody, and the lack of any seniors on last season's roster doesn't mean that everybody will be back. Marreese Speights has already entered the NBA draft (although as of this posting had not yet signed with an agent), and Jonathan Mitchell has transfered out. But Donovan can afford to lose a player or two, because he already had plenty of good talent on his bench, and he brings in five players off the Rivals 150 list. Florida has a real potential to be a Top Ten team again next season.
Another team I want to look at is LSU. I'm not sure whether the chemistry problems on this team were between the players and Coach Brady, or between the players themselves, but it was clear that this team has been severely underperforming when you consider the talent on the roster. Obviously Trent Johnson is a great hire, and the team was already showing signs of life towards the end of last season. Nobody in the regular rotation will graduate, although Anthony Randolph has signed with an agent and will be gone to the NBA next season. Still, LSU retains stars like Marcus Thornton and Garrett Temple, and they expect to bring in three nationally ranked high schoolers listed as power forwards or centers. So LSU will have the bodies to bang with the rest of the conference, and it will be a question of perimeter defense and scoring whether the Tigers can work their way back to the Tournament.
The final team I'm going to discuss before I get to the team rankings is Alabama, a squad which was not that bad despite the season-ending injury to Ronald Steele. Steele has declared for the draft, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense considering how he went through the effort to get the medical redshirt. Richard Hendrix has also declared for the NBA, and Mykal Riley will graduate. For the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that Hendrix stays in the draft but Steele comes back. If that's the case then the Crimson Tide will still have a nice starting lineup that will include names like Alonzo Gee and Brandon Hollinger. In addition, the Tide brings in a consensus Top 20 recruiting class featuring three of the top 50 players in the country, according to Rivals.com.
With all of those facts in mind, here's how I see the SEC playing out:
1. Florida - Donovan brings in so many talented players, and also finds a way to make them play like a true team more than just about any coach in the country. Hard to see this team not being right back in SEC title contention next season.
2. Kentucky - Gillispie had his rebuilding year, and now they reload and will continue where they left off late last season.
3. Tennessee - The Vols will still be an outstanding team, mind you. The SEC East is just going to be beastly next season.
4. South Carolina - A couple straight solid recruiting classes have allowed the Gamecocks to steadily improve as a program. We'll see if Darrin Horn can be successful in a larger conference.
5. Vanderbilt - Too many graduations, and not enough top recruits coming in.
6. Georgia - A great run to win the SEC Tournament, but Sundiata Gaines is just absolutely irreplaceable. If they needed that miracle run to make the Tournament with him, I don't see how they will be any better next season without him.
1. LSU - This is probably a bit of a surprise pick, but I think this team has a potential to finally realize its potential next season. Of course, it helps that the SEC West stinks. There's almost no chance that LSU will be as good as Tennessee, a team which I've picked third in the SEC East.
2. Alabama - This depends on Steele coming back. Alabama is another team that has underachieved for two straight seasons, and is going to have to get out of that funk at some point.
3. Mississippi State - Really don't lose too much talent from last year's squad to preclude them from another Tournament run next season.
4. Mississippi - Another rebuilding year for the Rebels, who have a lot of young talent and could make another Tournament run in 2010.
5. Arkansas - Just lose too much to graduation.
6. Auburn - A decent recruiting class, but it will take a couple more of those to make Auburn respectable in the SEC again.