Friday, April 12, 2013

2013-14 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

The story in the SEC this past season was, of course, Florida. In every statistical sense they were one of the four best teams in the nation. They absolutely dominated the SEC this past season, outscoring opponents by 0.29 PPP. For comparison, 2011-12 Kentucky outscored the SEC by only 0.27 PPP. Now, the SEC was a little bit stronger in 2011-12 than 2012-13, but not by much. The problem for Florida was that they went 0-6 in games decided by single digits. So my regular readers know that this means they're unlucky and underrated. But the media declared that they were "not clutch" and "couldn't win close games". And the people in the media who really hate modern statistical analysis (Seth Davis, Jeff Goodman, etc) actually argued that Florida was overrated as a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That was, of course, nonsense. Florida did the media a favor by being upset in the Elite 8 by Michigan, which allowed them to crow that they knew all along that Florida "couldn't make the Final Four", as dumb as that concept is. Florida "didn't beat anybody on the road" because they didn't play anybody on the road. Who did Wichita State beat on the road prior to the NCAA Tournament? Oh, and who did 2010-11 VCU beat? Of course, if Florida had won the National Title then it wouldn't have proven that they were the best team in the nation. As I always say, the NCAA Tournament doesn't really prove anything. It's a ton of fun, but it's (at most) six games out of a 30-40 game season. There is a ton of randomness. And that, really, is the difference between the stats based community and the "Dinosaur community". You wouldn't see Ken Pomeroy or John Gasaway (or me, for that matter) thumping their chest if Florida had won the National Title. They'd recognize the randomness of it all.

Anyway, the point of that last paragraph is to tell you that Florida is going to be underrated heading into next season. Teams are always projected by taking where a team was this past season, rating the additions and losses, and then moving them up or down the rankings. If you think Florida was only the 15-20th best team in the country this past, you're probably going to underrate them. So what about those additions/losses? Well, getting Patric Young back is huge. Their graduations were Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erik Murphy. All are tough losses, of course, but the Gators do return point guard Scott Wilbekin, shooting guard Michael Frazier, and forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguette. So Florida's front court defense should still be excellent. To replace Murphy, they save several options. First, they bring 6'8" Dorien Finney-Smith, who averaged 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game for Virginia Tech in 2011-12, and 6'10" Damontre Harris, who averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game for South Carolina in 2011-12. They also bring in Chris Walker (Scout: 4 PF, Rivals: 9).

The backcourt is a little bit more of a question mark, which only two proven returners. Billy Donovan will be looking to Brandon Ogbueze, DeVon Walker and Dillon Graham, all of whom were highly touted 2012 recruits who could not crack the rotation, and who rarely played outside garbage time. To be fair, Billy Donovan had a really good team and a tight rotation, and the fact that those guys didn't play doesn't mean that they're not good. Florida also adds Kasey Hill (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 9). Of these five relative unknowns (the 2013 recruits and the three 2012 recruits that didn't play much), Florida only needs one or two of them to be decent rotation players for Florida to have a real chance to be a Top 5 team yet again. So for all of the hype Kentucky is getting, do not sleep on Florida for a potential SEC title.

Let's talk about that Kentucky team now. Why are they going to be seen as the almost-unanimous #1 team in the nation heading into next season? It's their recruiting class, which is just ridiculous. Let's assume for now that they aren't getting Andrew Wiggins, the top high schooler in the 2013 class (since at least as far as the media seems to think, he's leaning elsewhere). Even without him, here are their top five recruits: Andrew Harrison (Scout: 1 PG, Rivals: 5), Aaron Harrison (Scout: 1 SG, Rivals: 4), James Young (Scout: 1 SF, Rivals: 10), Julius Randle (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 2) and Dakari Johnson (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 13). Yes, that's the #1 PG, the #1 SG, the #1 SF, the #1 PF and the #1 C, all of whom are among the top 15 recruits in the nation. Oh, and they also have Marcus Lee (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 18), Derek Willis (Scout: 29 PF, Rivals: 129), and a 6'3" recruit in Dominique Hawkins who isn't an Rivals Top 150 player (the horrors!). It's probably the greatest recruiting class ever assembled. And they still have a chance to sign the #1 overall recruit in the nation, small forward Andrew Wiggins.

The thing is, you can't win a title with just freshmen. I mean, you can, but it's awfully difficult. You can win with a team that gets a ton of minutes from freshmen, but you need some more experienced role players. That 2011-12 Kentucky team got key contributions from non-freshmen like Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. So the most underrated news regarding Kentucky is the fact that Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer all say that they will be back. The ability of Wiltjer and Poythress to score efficiently is good, but Cauley-Stein's defense is essential. With these very young teams, their biggest problem tends to be defense. 2012-13 Kentucky was undone by a  defense that was mediocre even before Nerlens Noel went down with his injury. Can these freshmen play defense? We'll find out. The other concern is ball distribution. All of these freshmen are used to scoring a whole lot. Can they work well off the ball? Also, can they find a good distributor? Andrew Harrison is not known as a true point guard, and with all of this talent I can't fathom that we're going to get another ride on the Jarred Polson Experience. So there are a lot of question marks around this Kentucky team. No team in the nation will have as much raw talent as Kentucky. But would it shock me if they end up losing a bunch of games and falling to a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament? No.

Ole Miss was, in short, a Marshall Henderson Show all season long. He only hit 35% of his three-pointers this season, but he launched an absurd 394 of them (10.9 per game). The thing with taking so many difficult shots is that at least one is going to inevitably go in during a clutch moment of the game, and so Henderson got absolutely all of the credit for any win Ole Miss had, even though he generally wasn't his team's best player and often shot them out of games. The Rebels were really powered by big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, both of whom will be gone next season. They also lose swing man Nick Williams. They do return starting point guard Jarvis Summers, along with Marshall Henderson. Their other key returner is backup point guard Derrick Millinghaus. They also have a backcourt prospect in shooting guard Martavious Newby, who played very limited minutes as a true freshman. The big need, though, is in the front court, where they have no proven returners. They get back 6'8" Demarco Cox, who averaged 3.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in 2011-12, but missed almost the entire 2012-13 season with injury. They also add 6'8" Jason Carter, who averaged 6 minutes per game for Alabama in 2011-12. Ole Miss can also look to Terry Brutus and Anthony Perez, a pair of highly touted 2012 front court recruits who played very limited minutes as true freshmen. Their top 2013 recruit is also a big man: Dwight Coleby (Scout: 26 C, Rivals: 149).

Missouri was a team that was over-hyped early in the season, but after they became another one of those teams lazily described as "they can't win a close game" by the media, they became one of the most underrated teams in the nation late in the season. They finished second in the conference in efficiency margin (+0.11 PPP, compared to +0.06 PPP for Ole Miss and +0.04 PPP for Kentucky and Alabama), and were in the Top 20 in the computers when handed a 9 seed by the Selection Committee. They lose their starting front court (Alex Oriakhi and Lawrence Bowers) to graduation, though, and also shooting guard Keion Bell. And Phil Pressey will be leaving early for the NBA. That leaves Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown and Tony Criswell as the only returners from their regular rotation. They do get a big addition from 6'5" Jordan Clarkson (14.2 ppg over two seasons at Tulsa), but Missouri's success or failure going forward is going to come from Frank Haith's recruits. Mike Anderson's players are now almost entirely gone. They do have a couple of good big man prospects from Haith's 2012 recruiting class - Stefan Jankovic and Ryan Rosburg - and also add Johnathan Williams (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 50), Wes Clark (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 71) and Torren Jones (Rivals: 117).

The story for Alabama has remained the same every season under Anthony Grant: they play good defense but can't score. This past season, they were the second best defense in the SEC (behind only Florida), but scored only 0.97 PPP in conference play. You would think that would improve next year, however, with the return of their top eight minute earners, led by point guard Trevor Lacey and leading-scorer Trevor Releford. While the team will be very experienced next season, they do have a really nice young prospect in 6'8" Devonta Pollard. As a true freshman he was terribly raw offensively, but he showed great raw athletic talent. Another young prospect to keep an eye on is 6'8" Nick Jacobs, who played very effectively in 21 minutes off the bench this past season. Grant's recruiting class features a pair of bigs: Jimmie Taylor (Scout: 10 C, Rivals: 60) and Shannon Hale (Scout: 23 PF, Rivals: 93).

Tennessee is another team that should expect to be stronger next season. From their regular rotation, they only lose Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall. Hall's rebounding and defense is probably the bigger loss of the two. Hall wasn't Tennessee's best big man, Jarnell Stokes was, but the Vols only have question marks among their other bigs. Jeronne Maymon is a ferocious rebounder when healthy, but that's continued to be a problem for him and he missed the entire 2012-13 season with another injury. Yemi Makanjuola and Derek Reese are a pair of big man prospects who were okay in limited minutes this past season as well. The backcourt is a much more stable situation for Tennessee. Trae Golden and Jordan McRae are a strong pair of starters, and they have a blue chipper coming in 2013: Robert Hubbs (Scout: 2 SG, Rivals: 15).

Arkansas was a team that disappointed a little bit, because I thought they'd make more progress in Year Two of the Mike Anderson era. Their two biggest areas of struggle were shooting (dead last in the SEC with a 28.2 3P% in conference play) and rebounding (bottom three in the SEC in both OR% and DR%). They didn't have a single senior on the roster, but will be losing Marshawn Powell and BJ Young to the NBA Draft. Their front court should still be fine with Hunter Mickelson and Cotey Clarke, though neither was a great rebounder. They add 6'6" Alandise Harris, who averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for Houston in 2011-12. Backcourt play will be a bigger concern for Arkansas, though, particularly because of the tempo Mike Anderson likes to play. Young ball handlers tend to turn the ball over a lot in Anderson's system. Rashad Madden and Mardracus Wade should be solid backcourt players. Anthlon Bell, a true freshman in 2012-13, is a good prospect for the future, as is 6'5" Michael Qualls. Those young ball handlers are going to have to step up, because Mike Anderson clearly put together his recruiting class with his team's front court woes in mind, signing Bobby Portis (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 17) and Moses Kingsley (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 62).

Vanderbilt had the dictionary definition of a "rebuilding season", after losing the top six minute earners off their 2011-12 team. This young team got off to a really slow start to the season, but finished strong. They ended up with an efficiency margin of -0.00 PPP (very narrowly outscored) in conference play, and won six of their final eight games, including upsets of Kentucky and Arkansas. Their computer numbers (Pomeroy and Sagarin) rose from around 150th early in conference play to well inside the Top 100 by the end of the season. Everybody will be back next season, too, led by primary playmaker Kedren Johnson and big man Rod Odum. They have a really nice prospect in 6'7" Sheldon Jeter, who was a true freshman in 2012-13. They have a couple of nice incoming prospects in 6'5" Eric McClellan (8.5 ppg for Tulsa in 2011-12) and Damion Jones (Scout: 26 PF, Rivals: 82).

Georgia is a team that would likely be improved if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returns, but it's looking more and more like he won't. He's done absolutely everything for that team the past couple of years, and they'll be in trouble if he goes. So if there's a sleeper for next season, it's an LSU team that returns their top six minute earners. LSU returns star big man Johnny O'Bryant, primary playmaker Charles Carmouche and defensive menace Anthony Hickey. 2012-13 true freshman shooting guard Malik Morgan is a nice prospect for the future, and Johnny Jones has a nice recruiting class signed, headed by Jarell Martin (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 12), Jordan Mickey (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 41) and Tim Quarterman (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 66).

In the end, here's how I see the SEC playing out:

1. Florida - I don't think there's much to separate Kentucky or Florida. There's a chance that both will end up as Top 5 teams in the nation. I'm giving the slight edge to a Florida team that is much more certain and has much clearer roles and a much clearer identity.
2. Kentucky - If they sign Andrew Wiggins then I'll move them over Florida, but for now I think that ball distribution and defensive efficiency are too large of an uncertainty, despite the ridiculous amount of raw talent that John Calipari will have at his disposal.
3. Tennessee - Assuming Jeronne Maymon can get healthy and can play a full season (which he's only done once in his college career), Tennessee should get back to the NCAA Tournament, even if they really have no chance of challenging Florida and Kentucky at the top of the league.
4. Alabama - Another team that should be better and has a good chance of making the Tournament. But at some point they've got to become efficient offensively, because there's only so far you can get by being really good defensively.
5. Vanderbilt - A team that definitely should be improved. They don't have really have high end raw talent, though, so they might need another year of seasoning before they can challenge near the top of the SEC.
6. Ole Miss - If Marshall Henderson can be put on a leash, he really has a lot of talent. But I have never seen a player take dumber shots than he does. He shoots more than Jimmer Fredette, Steph Curry or Adam Morrison did, and all three of those guys had far nicer touches with their shot than Henderson does.
7. LSU - A team with a realistic shot to make the NCAA Tournament. Johnny Jones knows how to recruit, so now let's find out if he can coach players effectively at this level.
8. Missouri - A rebuilding year for Frank Haith's team. It's time for Haith to prove that his success in his first two seasons at Missouri was due to his coaching and recruiting, and not just to riding Mike Anderson's players.
9. Arkansas - The NBA defection of BJ Young really hurts. I'm a huge Mike Anderson fan, but there's a real risk of him not making the NCAA Tournament in any of his first three seasons at Arkansas.
10. Texas A&M - Do-everything star Elston Turner is gone, but the Aggies really shouldn't have a significant drop off. They have a very good big man in rising-junior Kourtney Roberson. 
11. Mississippi State - If Wendell Lewis can get a medical redshirt and can be back next season, Mississippi State really might not be that bad next season. They were awfully young in 2012-13. Five of their top six minute earners were freshmen or sophomores.
12. Georgia - They'll slide up a few places in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope comes back for another season, but he's being projected by a lot of people as a potential lottery pick, so he's probably gone. It's hard to overstate just how much better Caldwell-Pope was at playing basketball than everybody else on his team.
13. South Carolina - My regular readers know that I'm not a big fan of Frank Martin. For all of his screaming, his players tend to be horrible at basic basketball fundamentals. He won at Kansas State by recruiting some really elite talent, but so far he doesn't even any of that at South Carolina.
14. Auburn - This team was flat out awful this past season, and lost games to teams like Winthrop, DePaul and Rhode Island. And they somehow did this with three seniors in their starting lineup. There's a reasonable chance that next season will be Tony Barbee's last at Auburn.

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