Sunday, April 08, 2012

2012-13 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

The talk about Kentucky every year is about winning with one-and-done freshmen. John Calipari courts this attention each year because of his recruiting and coaching style, though sometimes the media behaves like every player on Kentucky is a freshman. The reality is that older players have always been key contributors on Calipari's most successful teams. Derrick Rose was a key player on that Memphis team that made the National Title game, but the best and most important player on that team was senior Chris Douglas-Roberts. And this past year's Kentucky team not only got major contributions (particularly in the NCAA Tournament) from senior Darius Miller, but they also would not have won the National Title without Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb eschewing the NBA Draft to come back for another season.

John Calipari has another recruiting class chock full of blue chippers, but it's the returning experience that is a concern. Darius Miller graduates, as does Eloy Vargas. Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones are all definitely gone to the NBA Draft, while Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb are both projected to go in the first round. If they all go then the only returning player will be Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer is a really good talent who could be a big scorer next season, but I just don't see where all the hype of Kentucky being the #1 team in the nation next season is coming from. No batch of freshmen with Kyle Wiltjer is going to be the best team in the country. If all of the other players leave then Kentucky is going to take at least a little step back. So far, Calipari has signed three blue chippers: Archie Goodwin (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 12), Alex Poythress (Scout: 3 SF, Rivals: 19) and Willie Cauley (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 39). Calipari certainly isn't done, though. He is involved with top recruits like Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad, and I'll be surprised if he doesn't sign at least two more blue chippers. Certainly he needs them if he only has one returning player. I'll be sure to continue posting over the summer about these new signings.

The team that knocked off Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game was Vanderbilt. Kevin Stallings has done a great job of winning consistently at a school that didn't have much basketball history before he showed up, but now it's time to see how well he is able to replenish the coffers. Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley, Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne all graduate. Look for 2011 recruit Kedren Johnson to take over the point, and for Rod Odom to play a larger role in the paint. The other good returning prospect is 6'3" Dai-John Parker. Their top 2012 recruits are shooting guards AJ Astroth and Kevin Bright.

Florida was probably the most underrated team in the SEC, going only 2-5 in game decided by five points or less or in overtime. I heard a lot of folks in the media talk about Florida's Elite 8 run coming "out of nowhere". Yet from Midnight Madness through Selection Sunday, Florida was never rated worse than 19th in the Pomeroy ratings. They were always a contender to make a Tournament run. With Patric Young and Kenny Boynton both skipping the NBA Draft, they should be an excellent team again. Erving Walker is the only graduation from the regular rotation, and the only other potential loss is Brad Beal, who might not decided his NBA Draft status until the final week of April. Beal is a projected lottery pick, though, so I think he'll go. The backcourt will still have plenty of offense with Boynton, Scottie Wilbekin and Mike Rosario, along with Michael Frazier (Scout: 20 SG, Rivals: 87). The only concern is the point, where Billy Donovan will probably turn things over to star 2012 recruit Braxton Ogbueze (Scout: 5 PG, Rivals: 62). The front court, with every key player back, will be formidable next season. Patric Young and Erik Murphy both improved in a big way throughout this past season, and Will Yeguete can be a big contributor as well if he can avoid another injury.

The SEC adds two new teams, of course: Missouri and Texas A&M. Missouri had an unbelievable regular season last season. Frank Haith, who was an underwhelming head coach at the University of Miami and who was not Missouri's top choice after Mike Anderson left, ended up being named the Associated Press Coach of the Year. That said, there's no less meaningful award in any sport than the Coach of the Year, which might as well be named the "Coach who happened to be in charge of a high profile team that beat the media's preseason expectations the most" Award. We have seen other coaches take over another coach's players and have success in year one, Bruce Weber at Illinois being a classic example (Bruce Weber also won AP National Coach of the Year in his first season... and 7 years later was fired). Let's see what happens next season when Frank Haith has to start bringing in his own players. Marcus Denmon, Ricardo Ratliffe, Kim English, Matt Pressey and Steve Moore are all gone. The only returning players with experience are Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and Laurence Bowers (who missed last season with injury, but has been granted a medical redshift for one more season). With so many scholarships open, Frank Haith has a gigantic 2012 recruiting class in place, with at least six players already signed. But not one is a Rivals Top 150 player, so it's unlikely that any are going to be stars as true freshmen. It will take another year or two at least for Haith to get this team back near the top of a conference.

Alabama was the final SEC team to make the NCAA Tournament this past season. Alabama's defense was against excellent, but worries are beginning to crop up about Anthony Grant's ability to develop offense. They have been mediocre offensively in the half court every season that Grant has been there, without showing any clear improvement. And offensive player development hasn't been very good either. As good as their defense is, their ceiling will always be limited if they're not able to score efficiently. JaMychal Green is the only graduation, though it looks like Tony Mitchell will not be back after being suspended and missing much of the latter half of the season. Those losses put a lot of pressure on 2011-12 true freshmen Nick Jacobs and Rodney Cooper to be bigger producers next season. With everybody back, the Alabama backcourt should continue to be ferocious defensively, led by Trevor Releford. Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Andrew Steele are three other proven, quality perimeter players.

Tennessee turned their season around in a big way midway through Year One of the Cuonzo Martin era. The catalyst was the arrival of Jarnell Stokes, whose physical presence was tremendous for a player so young. Cameron Tatum graduates from the starting lineup, as does Renardo Woolridge off the bench, but Jeronne Maymon was better than either of them as a swing forward and will be back, as will Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson. The entire backcourt will be back next season, with Trae Golden developing into one of the best point guards in the nation and Skylar McBee as a strong outside shooter. Wes Washpun is a good backcourt prospect, as is 2012 recruit Armani Moore.

Mississippi State spent much of the year in the Top 25, though they were just the beneficiaries of some luck early in the season which evened out in February and March. Despite a couple of months in the Top 25, they were never rated higher than 50th in Pomeroy. They lost five of their final seven regular season games, and then lost their first round SEC tournament game to Georgia, and then a first round NIT game to UMass. We now enter a new era for a Mississippi State program that has been oozing with NBA talent but that has consistently struggled with attitude problems and maturity. Star Dee Bost finally graduates, as does Brian Bryant. Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie are going pro. Rick Stansbury is out as well, replaced as head coach by Rick Ray, the former Clemson assistant, who has never been a head coach before. Jalen Steele, Rodney Hood and Wendell Lewis are the three returners with extensive experience. Deville Smith, a 2011 recruit, will probably take over the point. DJ Gardner, a highly rated 2011 recruit, would be very useful right now, but he was booted off the team for being a knucklehead on twitter. The biggest concern now is recruiting. Rick Stansbury had a really nice and deep 2012 recruiting class in place. How many of those kids stay? Can Rick Ray add some new recruits? Those are the questions.

Ole Miss loses leading scorer Terrance Henry, but everybody else returns. And despite his size, Henry was actually not a good rebounder. Murphy Holloway led the team in rebounding. Reginald Buckner was very good as well, and was also the team's premier interior defender. I doubt Jelan Kendrick will be back after all of his misbehavior, but Andy Kennedy does add 6'9" Anthony Cortesia (Scout: 13 SF). Jarvis Summers was a capable point guard, and Ladarius White is a nice perimeter prospect. Their top 2012 recruit is arguably Martavious Newby (Scout: 24 SG, Rivals: 97). In my opinion, Henry was a bit overrated as a player - he didn't do anything but score, and wasn't a tremendously efficient scorer either. With some nice young talent, Ole Miss should be better next season.

Arkansas is another team that should be improved next season. They are on the same Mike Anderson plan that Missouri was on five years ago. Anderson was able to install his uptempo, aggressive defense right away, but he still lacks the personnel to execute it properly. This team in particular had problems turning the ball over on offense, which was similar to the case in his first couple of seasons at Missouri. Not only do they return all five starters, but four of their top eight minute earners were freshmen this past season. Anderson put together a sterling 2011 class, led by point guard BJ Young and 6'10" Hunter Mickelson (who was 5th in the nation with a 13.5% block rate). Their 2012 recruiting class is led by small forward JaCorey Williams (Rivals: 127). Mike Anderson is bringing in the players he wants, and now it's just a matter of seasoning.

Here is how I see the SEC ending up:

1. Florida - Even if Brad Beal goes pro, the Florida backcourt should still have plenty of weapons. And with everybody back in the front court, they are going to be very tough to keep off the boards, particularly with the way that Billy Donovan spreads the floor. By the time John Calipari is done with his 2012 recruiting class he'll surely have more NBA talent on his roster, but I don't think they'll have enough experience to beat an underrated Florida team.
2. Kentucky - It's hard to project Kentucky right now because they haven't finished recruiting yet. If Lamb and Teague leave, with only three 2012 recruits signed, Kentucky would basically have four players left. Of course, Calipari is surely going to sign at least two more blue chippers, and perhaps three or four. But my concern, as I said above, is the total lack of experience. If Lamb and Teague leave then the only returner with any experience will be Kyle Wiltjer. There will be no Chris Douglas-Roberts or Terrence Jones or Patrick Patterson on Kentucky next season.
3. Alabama - I'm worried about the ability of Anthony Grant to develop offense, but their defense is going to be excellent again next season. If they can have fewer off-the-court issues they should be a Top 25 team.
4. Tennessee - Depending on which recruits Kentucky lands between now and October, Tennessee could be the SEC team best able to bang bodies with Florida in the paint. Their biggest concern is offensive consistency. They finished dead last in SEC play this last season in offensive turnover rate. That can't all be on Trae Golden - the other players are going to have to learn that they can't win consistently on athleticism alone.
5. Arkansas - Even if Mike Anderson was bringing in blue chippers, it would still end up taking him a few seasons to build an SEC contender. It's just hard for young players to experience such a hectic game on defense without being hectic on offense. Missouri experienced the same problem in Mike Anderson's first few seasons. But if their defense is good enough, they'll win plenty of games even if their offense is sloppy.
6. Missouri - The Tigers obviously aren't going to be nearly as good next season. They aren't going to be bottom feeders, though, with three proven, experienced players in Bowers, Dixon and Flip Pressey. But now here comes the test for Frank Haith. He proved that he could win with Mike Anderson's players. But after that loss to Norfolk State, Missouri fans could turn on him quick if they struggle badly next season.
7. Ole Miss - Terrance Henry is gone, but every other key player will be back. Andy Kennedy has been building a talented roster, so now let's see if he can get Ole Miss to their first NCAA Tournament in more than a decade.
8. Vanderbilt - The roster is completely decimated, but Kevin Stallings is too good of a coach for this team to drop into the SEC cellar.
9. Texas A&M - This team really fell apart late in the season, losing 9 of their final 10 regular season games. They lose David Loubeau and Dash Harris, but will have Khris Middleton and every other key player back, plus a good 2012 recruiting class, led by point guard J-Mychal Reese and shooting guard Alex Caruso.
10. Georgia - Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was probably the best true freshman in the country that nobody heard of in 2011-12. The problem is, who does he have around him? Their offense was brutal, and things could get worse with starting point guard Gerald Robinson graduating.
11. Auburn - Tony Barbee put together a really highly rated 2011 recruiting class, and then got almost zero production out of them as true freshmen. That doesn't mean that they won't eventually turn into good players, but it means that I'm not going to overreact to a highly rated 2012 recruiting class.
12. LSU - The Tigers actually return everybody but Storm Warren, so they have the talent to be better next season. But they don't even have a head coach right now, so it's hard to move them too high in the standings.
13. Mississippi State - Obviously Mississippi State is hoping that a coaching staff change will clean up all of the off court (and on court) maturity problems. But Rick Ray loses his two superstars, as well as two other key contributors. Ray also has no head coaching experience. He may end up being a good coach, but expecting an immediate turnaround is too optimistic.
14. South Carolina - It's the Frank Martin era now in South Carolina. All things considered, it's a really nice hire. But Martin is the prototype of a tremendous recruiter, horrible game coach. People think he's a disciplinarian because of his animated screaming at players, but his players always show everything that a horribly coached team shows: a lot of turnovers, bad defensive rebounding, bad free throw shooting and show-boating. Unless he grabs a couple of blue chippers this summer, it's going to take a full recruiting class or two for Frank Martin to get South Carolina back to the middle of the SEC.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous whiny Mizzou fan here again. I don't expect you to know everything about our program, and you're certainly right that our team is in flux for next year. However, the cupboard is far from bare.

You forgot to account for our three transfers who sat this year and practiced with the team all season. Earnest Ross was a double digit scorer and big-time rebounder at Auburn his sophomore year and could step into Kim English's role as the small power forward or as the 3. He's more athletic but not quite the shooter that Kim is.

Keion Bell transferred from Pepperdine, where he had amassed well over 1000 points in his three years there. He was a 19 PPG scorer as a Junior, but he'll obviously have to learn not to be such a high-usage guy on a major conference team.

The most important of the three transfers is Jabari Brown, a five star guard that Oregon picked up last year. He played two games with the Ducks and decided to transfer. He's eligible after the first semester and will have 2 1/2 years with the Tigers.

Those three are obviously expected to play huge roles on next year's team, a lot more than the recruiting class that you accurately described--a class that might take some time to develop.

One last thing: with the final two available scholarships, Haith and staff are in on two huge guys: Devonta Pollard (top 10 SF from MS, McD's AA) and Alex Oriahki. If by chance both of those guys join up, along with the transfers, I see no way that Mizzou's NOT a Top 20 team and a top four team in the SEC.

Just thought I'd add that piece to the discussion, since you hadn't mentioned the transfers.

Jeff said...

Thanks, for some reason I didn't realize Earnest Ross was coming over. Keion Bell isn't a huge deal, so I didn't bother to mention him. And if Jabari Brown plays one game for Missouri that will be an accomplishment - he's a knucklehead, and the odds of him making it all the way to January (when he'd theoretically be eligible) without getting academically suspended, arrested or kicked off the team are 50% at best.

David Mann said...

Enjoyed your previews...Not to say that I particularly liked to see Mizzou all the way down at 6th, but at the time I thought that was about right. That said, Mizzou now has picked up Oriakhi. Does that move them up in your mind, and if so how much?


Jeff said...

You know, they say that Oriakhi can play right away because UConn is banned from the Tournament. But if that ban is overturned this summer, which is still possible, then does that mean that Oriakhi becomes ineligible again? Bizarre.

If Oriakhi can play right away then certainly that helps and will move them up at least a few spaces in the BP68. I'm not sure I'd move them ahead of Arkansas, but it would be close. I have almost 3 months before it's time for a new bracket projection, so I'll have time to see how things play out.