Saturday, April 10, 2010

2010-11 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

The story of the SEC in 2009-10, of course, was Kentucky. John Calipari came in from Memphis and brought what some called the greatest recruiting class of all-time to Kentucky. But despite having possibly the most talented team in the nation, and despite actually have a couple of good older players (Patrick Patterson was one of the three most important players on the team, and he was a junior) they ended up falling in the Elite 8 because they just did not have enough seasoning. Kentucky won't lose any players to graduation that earned more than 11 minutes per game this past season, but the NBA Draft will kill them. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton have already declared for the NBA. Cousins and Patterson have already signed with an agent, and it's automatic than Wall eventually will as well since he's the near consensus #1 pick in the upcoming Draft. Most people expect Bledsoe to stay in the Draft, so the one question is Orton, who is projected as at best a marginal first round pick. While most experts think Orton could use another year in college, the reports are that John Calipari has been telling recruits he expects Orton to go pro, so I'll take Cal's word for it for now. If Orton does go then the only players returning who got any real playing time this year will be Darnell Dodson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, all of whom have two years of eligibility left. So far Kentucky has only signed Stacey Pool (Rivals: 27, Scout: 11 SF) and Enes Kantor, a 6'10" Turkish center who does have some minor eligibility issues because of teams he's played for in Europe, although Kentucky insiders seem confident that he won't have to miss any games. Needless to say, Kentucky still needs to sign more players, which means that it will be hard to project Kentucky until they're done signing recruits, which might be a few more months. But despite what some think, Kentucky will not continue to refresh its entire roster each year: Calipari will have to build a base of three- or four-year players who can provide the experience any team needs to win a National Championship.

Vanderbilt finished in second place in the tough SEC East, completing yet another impressive regular season with yet another disappointing NCAA Tournament result. They only lose one regular player to graduation, although it's leading scorer Jermaine Beal. And their best overall player, A.J. Ogilvy, is leaving for the NBA Draft. They will look to Festus Ezeli to fill some of the loss of Ogilvy. Beal will be a tough loss because not only was he the leading scorer, but he was also a very efficient ball handler. Brad Tinsley will get a lot of the ball in 2010-11, but he is not nearly the player that Beal is. They have a quality recruiting class, highlighted by Rod Odom (Rivals: 88, Scout: 22 SF). The other elite team in the SEC was Tennessee, which overcame some damaging suspensions and the removal of star Tyler Smith from the team altogether to beat both the #1 and #2 teams in the nation during the regular season, and then to make it all the way to the Elite 8. Their toughest loss is do-everything forward Wayne Chism, although they also lose Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince. Scotty Hopson could also choose to go pro, although I think he'll stay. Despite those losses, Tennessee will still return plenty for next season. Because of the suspensions many people mistakenly thought Tennessee was a very thin team, when in fact they were quite deep. They return Melvin Goins and Skylar McBee to the backcourt. Their key returning forwards are Scotty Hopson, Cameron Tatum, Kenny Hall and Renaldo Woolridge. Brian Williams will start again down low. Josh Bone and Steven Pearl will provide depth at the backcourt and frontcourt positions, respectively. So Tennessee will definitely have depth again. They bring in Jeronne Maymon, a Marquette recruit who had off-the-court problems and had to transfer out. In addition they have another quality recruiting class led by Tobias Harris (Rivals: 5, Scout: 2 PF) and Jordan McRae (Rivals: 42, Scout: 6 SG).

The final NCAA Tournament team from the SEC was Florida, although they really weren't any better than the Florida teams that just missed the NCAA Tournament over the past couple of years. Florida should be better with only Dan Werner graduating, although they could potentially have an NBA defection or two. Alex Tyus has actually declared for the Draft already. In the end, however, I'd be surprised if any of those Florida guys left early. I expect Tyus to be back along with the rest of the team's core of Chandler Parsons, Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Vernon Macklin. While that's a very good starting lineup, the bench is a question mark with several players who have shown potential but haven't really done much yet at the D-I level: Ray Shipman, Erik Murphy and Kenny Kadji. They do have two very good recruits, led by Patric Young (Rivals: 28, Scout: 5 PF). Mississippi State was one of the last teams left out on Selection Sunday, and they have a very tough loss to graduation in the form of Jarvis Varnado, who was arguably the best shot blocker in the history of college basketball. Barry Stewart is the other key graduation. Dee Bost, the primary ball handler, will probably be the floor leader of this team next season and their offense will be at least as good as it was this past season (Varnado was never much of an offensive weapon anyway), but their whole defense is going to struggle without Varnado cleaning up everybody else's messes. One big question mark will be Renardo Sidney, who was a highly hyped recruit but didn't play a minute for Mississippi State this past season because of eligibility concerns. He could play next year after only sitting at some early season games to finish his suspension, but I think he'll just go into the NBA Draft. They'll obviously be better if they can convince to stay for at least one more season.

Ole Miss is an intriguing team for next year because of who they return, with their top eight scorers returning, including the electric Chris Warren. The biggest question mark is Terrico White, who is still weighing whether or not to enter the NBA Draft, although at this point I think he'll stay at Ole Miss. The biggest worry for them is size, with Murphy Holloway the only returner over 6'6" who got more than 18 minutes per game this past season, and he's only 6'7". They do have a 6'8" recruit, Demarco Cox, although he isn't expected to contribute too much as a true freshman. The team will get some added scoring from Nick Williams, who had 8.9 points per game as a 6'4" guard at Indiana in 2008-09, and who has the size and rebounding ability to play some small forward. South Carolina is a team that will have a lot of changes, after a disappointing season where they had expected to make a legitimate run at making the NCAA Tournament. They graduate star Devan Downey, as well as Brandis Raley-Ross and Dominique Archie (Archie had missed almost the entire season with an injury and was hoping for a medical redshirt, but found out this past week that the NCAA had denied his appeal and his South Carolina career is over). They do add Malik Cooke, an athletic and talented swing forward from Nevada, who will get to play his former coach twice a year (Mark Fox is now coaching at Georgia). They also add a very good and deep recruiting class, highlighted by Damontre Harris (Rivals: 56, Scout: 10 C) and Bruce Ellington (Rivals: 94, Scout: 12 PG). I do think Darrin Horn is a very good coach and he'll make his team competitive next season, although they might need another year of seasoning to make a serious run at the NCAA Tournament... unless 96 teams get in next year.

If there's a sleeper team in the SEC it's LSU. They lose Tasmin Mitchell to graduation, but I don't think he ever lived up to the potential he showed early in his LSU career. And not only will every other key player return, but they have an excellent and deep recruiting class, highlighted by Matt Derenbecker (Rivals: 71, Scout; 19 SF) and Andre Stringer (Rivals: 93, Scout: 27 PG). Stringer will back up a very good returning backcourt of Bo Spencer and Chris Bass. They're just going to need some shooters to clean up was what a pretty awful offense in 2009-10. With the caveats that we don't yet know who Kentucky will sign between now and Midnight Madness, here's how I see the SEC ending up:

1. Tennessee - The top of the SEC East will be close, but I'm giving the edge to Tennessee because of how deep they'll be. They'll again be very athletic, and Bruce Pearl has proven this past season that they can lose a key player and not really lose a beat because of the style of basketball they play.
2. Kentucky - Coach Cal's team could move up or down depending on who he signs over the next few weeks or months. But without any star players who will be anything other than a freshman (unless Darnell Dodson dramatically improves over the offseason) they could potentially be even younger and more raw than they were this past season. There won't be any Patrick Patterson next season.
3. Florida - The Gators should definitely be better next season, and I expect them to get back to the NCAA Tournament. But they don't have the overall talent that Tennessee has, and that Kentucky will probably have when Cal is done putting his recruiting class together.
4. Vanderbilt - I can't drop them any further than this, despite the loss of Beal and Ogilvy. Vandy has an excellent chance of getting back to the NCAA Tournament.
5. South Carolina - Devan Downey will possibly the toughest player to replace in the entire SEC this coming season, but South Carolina has a ton of fresh talent coming in, and they'll be players geared toward Darrin Horn and what he is trying to do. I figure that he should have his team back to the NCAA Tournament within the next couple of years.
6. Georgia - I think Mark Fox has done exactly what everybody expected he would do when he took the job a year ago. He's an excellent game coach, and it was no surprise that his teams were pesky despite vastly inferior talent compared to some of the teams they beat or almost beat. But at the same time he's never been a great recruiter and he had exactly zero ties to the southeast part of the country when he took this job, and so it's no surprise he's had a ton of trouble recruiting states like Georgia. Georgia has what is probably the worst incoming recruiting class in the SEC, and there's just no way they're going to be more than a pesky 5-11 or 6-10 team in the SEC until they land better players. All of this backs up why so many college basketball experts were so confused by the Mark Fox hire: why would Georgia hire him, and why would he the take the job when he'd have been better off waiting for a Pac-10 job.

1. Mississippi - They should be improved and I think they'll get back to the NCAA Tournament after their heartbreaking Selection Sunday a month ago.
2. Arkansas - John Pelphrey is doing a very good job of rebuilding Arkansas, and he's put together a decent recruiting class along with the transfer of Jeff Peterson from Iowa to put into a solid young core he's putting together. But that said, it's hard to see this team making a serious run at the NCAA Tournament in 2011. They might get there in 2012, depending on how this team develops.
3. Mississippi State - They'll jump ahead of Arkansas if Renardo Sidney stays for another season, but otherwise I just think it's going to be so tough to replace Jarvis Varnado. Every other player on the team will become a worse defender without him taking care of things in the paint.
4. LSU - They should definitely be improved over last season, but while they'll have nice depth they do not have a clear set of scorers and leaders. Their shooting could improve dramatically and they will still be a poor offensive team, which is why I can't take them seriously as a potential bubble team in 2010-11.
5. Alabama - Even assuming JaMychal Green comes back alongside Senario Hillman, this is still a rebuilding job at Alabama. I do think Anthony Grant did a very good job in his first season since leaving VCU, but he was handed a real mess and still has a lot of work to do.
6. Auburn - While teams like Alabama, LSU and Arkansas are in the middle of rebuilding efforts, Auburn is just beginning their own rebuilding effort with new hire Tony Barbee from UTEP. The SEC West shouldn't be quite as awful as it's been the last couple of years, but Auburn should be worse, so they're the favorites to finish in last place.

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