Sunday, April 10, 2011

2011-12 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

Off or on the court, the story in the SEC the past few months might have been Tennessee, in a Bruce Pearl situation that I found really unfair. Sportswriters were tripping over each other to condemn Bruce Pearl, like they were trying to make up for the fact that they did nothing about Auburn football illegally buying a National Title or the constant slime that is whatever program John Calipari is running at the moment. Pearl's crime was having a couple of kids over to a barbeque at his house. I understand why the NCAA wants to be strict on recruiting violations, and punish Pearl if you want, but it should be a minor issue. Compared to kids cheating on SATs, or given straight A's at diploma mills even though they can barely spell their own names? Give me a break. Pearl's final crime was not being truthful with NCAA, but since when did being truthful matter. Nowhere else in life does that matter, except in sworn court testimony, which Pearl wasn't giving. If Pearl was arrested by police for drunk driving he could have lied to police with impunity, but he can't lie to NCAA bureaucrats? Again: give me a break. Seeing as how the vast majority of players, even on elite teams from BCS conferences, fail to make millions in the NBA, the real crime are all of these coaches telling their kids to skip class, or how to take the easiest classes... or looking the other way at kids that obviously cheated on exams to quality for college (like John Calipari did with Eric Bledsoe and Derrick Rose, among others). But the NCAA is scared to death of attacking that issue. So instead they aim all their guns at people like Pearl for irrelevant issues since they're easy targets. Remember that Pearl was already on their bad side for daring to expose the truth about the University of Illinois paying a recruit years ago. And the loser here is the University of Tennessee, which was finally relevant in basketball under Bruce Pearl. They hired as good of a coach as they could possibly get in Cuonzo Martin, but recruiting at Tennessee is very difficult, and Martin is just not at the same recruiting level as Pearl.

On the court, Tennessee is impossible to project at the moment because of the coaching change, and the fact that an exodus of players from the program is not improbable. Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson are both testing the NBA Draft waters, with Harris already putting his name in the Draft officially (though he has not hired an agent, so he can still come back). Kevin Ware has already asked out of his letter of intent, leaving only Chris Jones (Scout: 11 PG, Rivals: 37) from their 2011 recruiting class, although Jones could still ask out as well. And there could be transfers out of current players as well, including guys like Kenny Hall, Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, all of whom were highly touted recruits that still have at least two years of eligibility left, and may not want to stick around for a rebuilding job. In addition to all that, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams graduate from the starting lineup, and John Fields and Steven Pearl are both gone from the bench. If Tennessee has a total wipeout it's not out of the question for them to fall all the way to last place in the competitive SEC East.

A year ago, the big question was however was Kentucky going to replace John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins. Their first big signing, Enes Kanter, ended up being ruled ineligible and never played a minute. But John Calipari ended up reeling in Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, as well as Eloy Vargas and Stacey Poole. A huge development was the production of Josh Harrellson, who basically didn't play in his first three seasons and ended up providing a ton of quality post defense, rebounding and toughness in their 2011 Tournament run. Kentucky beat Ohio State and North Carolina to make the Final Four, and I doubt they'd have even survived that first game against Princeton without Harrellson. In fact, the freshmen were particularly awful against Princeton, as true freshmen often are in their first ever NCAA Tournament game, and it was the older players that carried Kentucky. Neither Brandon Knight or Terrence Jones have declared for the NBA Draft yet, but I think they'll both be gone. Josh Harrellson graduates, though Eloy Vargas is a capable replacement for him. Doron Lamb should be back, along with Stacey Poole in the backcourt. Frontcourt players DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller both have one year left as well. And, of course, John Calipari has another absurd recruiting class, with four McDonald's Americans: Marcus Teague (Scout: 1 PG, Rivals: 2), Michael Gilchrist (Scout: 1 SF, Rivals: 3), Anthony Davis (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 6) and Kyle Wiltjer (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 25). The most important of those will probably be Marcus Teague, since he will be the only true point guard on the team. As always, though, a team needs experience to win. Who will be this coming year's Josh Harrellson? If it's not Eloy Vargas then either DeAndre Liggins or Darius Miller is going to have to be that senior leader.

While I thought all throughout the SEC season that Kentucky was the best team, Florida won the regular season title by a game and ended up earning the higher NCAA Tournament seed - what I felt was a very soft 2 seed. They ended up with a very soft draw (UC-Santa Barbara, then UCLA, then BYU, then Butler) but fell in the Elite 8. They lose Chandler Parsons to graduation, but more importantly they lose their two premier bigs (Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus). Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker are both two very good guards, but Florida struggled most when they were trying to win the game themselves rather than working it through their bigs. That problem could get worse if they don't have quality bigs next year. Patric Young was a highly touted 2010 recruit, and he did come on late in the season and assuming he comes back (right now it seems more likely than not that he'll eschew the NBA Draft) he'll be a very good player in the paint. Erik Murphy and Will Yeguete are two decent bigs that haven't played much yet in their college careers. Cody Larson, a 2010 recruit who redshirt the 2010-11 season, is also a possibility. 6'9" Walter Pitchford is a decent 2011 recruit. In the backcourt their big addition is Mike Rosario, who averaged 16.4 points per game in two seasons at Rutgers, and will give Florida three very explosive backcourt scorers. Rosario may actually overshadow their newest McDonald's All-American, Brad Beal (Scout: 2 SG, Rivals: 7). Assuming Patric Young comes back, I think Florida will actually be better next season. If he goes pro then the frontcourt becomes a big question mark, and Florida could take a step back.

The most surprising team in the SEC this past season was Alabama, a team that ran away with the SEC West and came only a game short of earning a share of the SEC regular season title because of ferocious defense (Pomeroy rated their defense best in the SEC, and 7th best in the nation). They led the SEC in eFG% against, and also defensive turnover percentage and defensive steal percentage. They also led the conference in offensive rebounding percentage, in large part due to JaMichal Green (4.5 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes played), who has said he will return for his senior season. Tony Mitchell was their second best rebounder and he'll be back, and they also return point guard Trevor Releford, who was a true freshman. They do lose Charvez Davis and Chris Hines from the starting lineup, though neither was special by SEC standards, as well as sixth man Senario Hillman. But Anthony Grant has been doing a great job of recruiting and has oodles of young talent. Charles Hankerson and Jason Carter are among the true freshmen that didn't play much in 2010-11 but have a lot of potential. The 2011 recruiting class is the best that Anthony Grant has had yet, featuring Levi Randolph (Scout: 7 SG, Rivals: 29), Nick Jacobs (Scout: 20 PF, Rivals: 85) and Rodney Cooper (Rivals: 117). Alabama should be a better team next year, and considering the fact that they were playing better basketball over the final two months of the 2010-11 season than plenty of teams that earned at-large bids, I will expect Alabama to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2006.

Vanderbilt has made the NCAA Tournament in three of the past four years, and all three times they were a 5 seed or better and drew a mid-major... and all three times they lost that first game. It's got to be frustrating for Vanderbilt fans, even though those three seasons have been successful seasons by historic Vanderbilt standards. Next year's team is a question mark, though, because Jeffery Taylor, Fesus Ezeli and John Jenkins are all considering the NBA Draft. Right now I'm going to assume that all three come back, in which case this is going to be a really good Vanderbilt team. They had zero seniors on the roster this past season, so everybody will be back. The other returning starters are shooting guard Brad Tinsley and power forward Lance Goulbourne. They'll also have guard Kyle Fuller and forwards Rod Odom and Steve Tchiengang. If that wasn't enough they gain bigs Josh Henderson and James Siakam, who were highly rated 2010 recruits that redshirted the 2010-11 season. And on top of that, Kevin Stallings brings in two blue chip recruits as part of his 2011 class: Dai-Jon Parker (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 57) and Kedren Johnson (Scout: 20 PG, Rivals: 75). Assuming Ezeli, Taylor and Jenkins all come back, Vanderbilt will be a consensus Top 25 team, and will be picked in the Top 10 by some.

Georgia was a team that snuck up on a lot of people this year (including me), finishing 9-7 in the SEC East and making the NCAA Tournament. To graduation, they only lose Jeremy Price from the starting rotation, and Chris Barnes from their key bench players. But the problem is that their two superstars, Trey Tompkins and Travis Leslie are both declared for the NBA Draft. Tompkins has already hired an agent and is gone. Leslie hasn't hired an agent yet, but I think he will. They still will return point guard Dustin Ware and shooting guard Gerald Robinson. But they will need size to replace Tompkins and Leslie. Marcus Thornton and Donte Williams are two raw talents that were true freshmen in 2010-11. Tim Dixon and Nemanja Djurisic. Their star 2011 recruit is a shooting guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Scout: 4 SG, Rivals: 11).

South Carolina is a sleeper team because of how young they were. They started the season 4-3 in SEC East play before tailing off late, and they do lose star Sam Muldrow to graduation. But of their remaining eight players in their regular rotation, all but one was a freshman or sophomore - the core that Darrin Horn (one of the best young coaches in the country) has put in place. To pick one of those young players that I think has the highest potential would be to pick Damontre Harris, who was very efficient both offensive, defensively and on the boards as a true freshman. His development is particularly important since he'll likely replace Muldrow in the starting lineup next year. Their 2011 recruiting class consists of two quality players: Damien Leonard (Scout: 24 SG, Rivals: 86) and Anthony Gill (Scout: 18 PF, Rivals: 149). South Carolina will definitely be better next year, but it's hard to project them to make it all the way to the NCAA Tournament, partially because there's always uncertainty with the development of young players, and partially because the SEC East is going to be really good, and that's going to deflate their conference record.

One more team to discuss briefly is Arkansas, simply because they somehow stole Mike Anderson away from Missouri. I know that Anderson was a long time assistant at Arkansas and was Nolan Richardson's protege, but Richardson didn't exactly leave that school on the best of terms, and Missouri is a better job than Arkansas. Arkansas only loses one starter and their sixth man to graduation, but there really isn't a lot of talent there. Their best returner is clearly Rotnei Clark, who was the team's leading scorer, and is also efficient offensively all over the floor (43.8 3P%). But Arkansas is a tough team to project, because there could be a lot of good players coming in and out. Mike Anderson might be able to steal a player or two from Missouri (though obviously they'll have to sit out a season), but he also has to keep a really nice recruiting class that John Pelphrey put together - the class features five (yes, five!) of the Rivals Top 150. The class is led by BJ Young (Scout: 4 PG, Rivals: 18) and Rashad Madden (Scout: 9 SF, Rivals: 27). Even if Mike Anderson salvages this whole class it will take him a couple of years to bring in the players that fit his system, but the team will definitely be better than they were in 2010-11.

Here's how I see the SEC playing out:

1. Kentucky - The SEC East is going to be really good at the top, and you can't go too wrong with either Vanderbilt or Florida here, but I think Kentucky is going to be better. They have more returning than they did a year ago, and they have a better recruiting class than they had a year ago.
2. Florida - This is assuming that Patric Young comes back. They're going to have the best backcourt in the conference, and Patric Young will be able to neutralize any opponent's big. I really like what I saw from him late in the season.
3. Vanderbilt - Assuming they don't have any NBA defections, this is a team that could end up in the Top Ten nationally, and I'm still picking them third in the SEC East. It's just a sign of how good the top of the SEC East is going to be next year.
4. South Carolina - Darrin Horn has been building his team, starting with the 2009 recruiting class, the first that he got to fill by himself. They're still a little bit away from competing with the top of the conference, but I wouldn't be shocked if they make a run at an at-large bid.
5. Tennessee - I could see myself moving them up to fourth or down to last place in the SEC East depending on what happens in the next few weeks. Can Cuonzo Martin keep this team in tact?
6. Georgia - Assuming that Travis Leslie joins Trey Tompkins in the NBA Draft, and assuming Tennessee doesn't get completely wiped out in the next few weeks, I just don't think Georgia is going to have enough talent to compete with the rest of the conference.

1. Alabama - No question. They are the one program in the SEC West that will be able to compete with the best teams in the SEC East, simply because they can defend anybody. I'll be shocked if they don't go Dancing.
2. Arkansas - I'm assuming that Mike Anderson can hold onto John Pelphrey's recruiting class. If he doesn't then they'll tumble back in the standings until Anderson can bring in players that fit his system.
3. Mississippi State - I'm hesitant to put Mississippi State this high after what a debacle last season was, but if Renardo Sidney ever wakes up and gets in shape, along with Dee Bost and young players like Wendell Lewis and a really nice recruiting class, this actually will be a fairly talented team.
4. Auburn - This team was awful, but I'm willing to give Tony Barbee a one year pass - he inherited a mess. He's got a good recruiting class coming in, and he also returns every key player from this past year's team. They should at least not be awful again next year.
5. LSU - They're similar to Auburn in that they return all of their key players and bring in a blue chip recruit in Johnny O'Bryant. The problem is, Trent Johnson is entering his fourth year at LSU. Where exactly is he taking this team? What's their identity?
6. Mississippi - Ole Miss has to replace Chris Warren, who is a legend, as well as Zach Graham. Andy Kennedy is going to have to hope Dundrecous Nelson develops into the poor man's Chris Warren or they could really fall off the pace in a rapidly improving SEC.

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