Tuesday, April 08, 2014
2014-15 Preview: SEC
Well, the SEC had its brief moment in the sun, opening up the NCAA Tournament 7-0 in its first seven games. As I always say, you don't want to draw conclusions about conferences by the results of a single elimination tournament. And as you can see from the computer ratings above (those ratings are all pre-tourney), there was reason to expect big things from Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. But of course, the league didn't deserve a fourth tourney team - there wasn't even anybody else particularly close. The conference's next four teams went a combined 4-4 in NIT games. And if you have a 14 team league that only has three deserved tourney teams, it's hard to really compare it to the Big Ten or Big 12, or even to the ACC or Pac-12.
I want to actually start with Florida, who might have been the best team in the country (it was either them or Arizona or Louisville, in my opinion). And it's worth asking whether this class of seniors will feel like a disappointment after making the Elite 8 in all four seasons, including the Final Four this season. It certainly seems absurd, and it is statistically absurd. If we go by PASE, Florida should have expected 8.45 tourney wins over the last four seasons and ended up with 13. They have overperformed in the NCAA Tournament. But still, you could make the argument both this past season and the season before that they were the best team in the nation. And when you have a two year window like that, it has to feel like a letdown to not get at least one shot at a title game. Now, a quick note for readers who might not be regulars to my blog, and who might be wondering why I said last year's team was arguably the best in the nation. They were a 3 seed. Well, the thing is, statistically they were nearly identical. Both teams outscored the SEC by precisely 0.19 PPP. The difference was that last year's team was a horribly unlucky 0-6 in games decided by six points or less while this year's team was a lucky 9-2. There were plenty of narratives to explain this gap. I like to make fun of ESPN's Jimmy Dykes for this, because he'd give the same speech six times a game about how this year's team was "more experienced" and "were better on defense", so they "knew how to win" and "could get a stop when they needed it." The only problem being that last year's team was actually better defensively and more experienced. Results in close games are mostly random statistical chance, Jimmy.
Anyway, there will be a lot of turnover with this Florida roster, as Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguette all graduate. The only returners from the regular rotation are sharpshooter Michael Frazier III, big man Dorian Finney-Smith, backup point guard Kasey Hill and 6'6 wing DeVon Walker. Chris Walker is debating going to the NBA after basically not playing as a freshman, so we'll have to see what comes of that. Two players who aren't technically "additions" but basically didn't play this past season are Alex Murphy and Eli Carter. The 6'8" Murphy barely played at Duke over two seasons, while the 6'2" Carter averaged 14.9 points per game as a sophomore at Rutgers, but took a medical redshirt after just 7 games this past season at Florida. Billy Donovan also has three blue chippers signed up for his 2014 class: Devin Robinson (Scout: 5 PF, Rivals: 20), Brandone Francis (Scout: 8 SG, Rivals: 26) and Chris Chiozza (Scout: 11 PG, Rivals: 38). Florida will certainly be an SEC contender again next season, but it's hard to see how they can replace four starters without taking at least a little bit of a step back.
Kentucky, as always, is a tough roster to figure out. There's going to be a lot of turnover, even assuming that Rex Chapman didn't know what he was talking about when suggesting John Calipari will take the Lakers job at the end of the NBA season. No player has announced that they're going to the NBA yet, but most people believe that Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young and the Harrison twins will be gone. That leaves Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson on the bubble, and for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume that they're back. But obviously I'll come back and re-evaluate Kentucky this summer after we know the NBA defections for sure. The returners we know will be back are power forward Marcus Lee and combo guard Dominique Hawkins. Calipari has already signed Trey Lyles (Scout: 1 PF, Rivals: 8), Karl Towns (Scout: 4 C, Rivals: 11), Devin Booker (Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 30) and Tyler Ulis (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 33). And don't expect that to be it, as Calipari is still in the mix for another recruit or two, as well as a transfer like Bryce Dejean-Jones. So as always, Kentucky's starting lineup is still a guess in mid-April.
The third NCAA Tournament team was Tennessee, a team that was probably the best 11 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Their resume deserved the 11 seed, but they entered the NCAA Tournament 13th in Pomeroy, finishing it 7th. They were deservedly a big favorite over 6 seed UMass, and arguably should have been a narrow favorite over 2 seed Michigan. They had a better efficiency margin in conference play (+0.13 PPP) than Kentucky (+0.11). The key question for them is Jarnell Stokes, and whether he leaves for the NBA Draft. If he does go, and it seems like he's leaning that way, then they lose four starters, Jordan McRae being the toughest. McRae not making first team All-SEC was ridiculous, by the way. I don't care who you take off that team, but McRae has to be on there. They return 6'6" Josh Richardson from the starting lineup, along with point guard Darius Thompson and shooting guard Armani Moore off the bench. They will get back shooting guard Robert Hubbs, their top 2013 recruit, who missed most of the season with injury, and also add a recruiting class featuring Larry Austin (Scout: 29 PG, Rivals: 111) and power forward Phil Cofer (Rivals: 113).
A big reason the SEC wasn't that good of a conference this past season was because a team like Georgia, who lost to five Pomeroy 100+ opponents, finished in third. But though they weren't particularly good this past season, they should be stronger next season, losing only big man Donte' Williams from their regular rotation. Top returners are point guard Charles Mann, shooting guard Kenny Gaines and 6'8" Marcus Thornton. The concern for them, though, is top end talent. They just don't have the blue chip raw talent that teams like Florida and Kentucky have, and they don't have any blue chippers coming in next season either. So you have to wonder whether the ceiling for this team is higher than the bubble.
The SEC team in the NIT that came closest to going Dancing was probably Arkansas. The Razorbacks lose two starters (Coty Clarke and Fred Gulley), but the concern is really the NBA prospects of Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls. Assuming that both return (and they should, as neither will likely be drafted early), Arkansas should be significantly stronger last season. Mike Anderson played a massive rotation (12 different players earned at least 8.6 minutes per game), so he has plenty of options. But Portis is really the one high-end, blue chip talent that Anderson needs to take this team to the next level. They add 6'7" Keaton Miles, who averaged 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds per game over two seasons at West Virginia, as well as Anton Beard (Scout: 25 PG, Rivals: 110) and small forward Nick Babb (Rivals: 131). Assuming Portis and Qualls come back, Anderson has a team that can get back to the tourney.
LSU was a team that actually got its fan bases hopes up for a few weeks about an at-large bid before fading late. That said, they lose a pair of starters to graduation, and lose Johnny O'Bryant to the NBA. Both 6'8" Jordan Mickey and 6'9" Jarell Martin should return, though both are at least considering the NBA Draft, and those two will give LSU a strong starting front line again. They also return point guard Anthony Hickey. After that, they don't return much. LSU adds 6'4" Keith Hornsby, averaged 15.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game as a sophomore at UNC-Asheville in 2012-13, and a recruiting class led by Elbert Robinson (Scout: 7 C, Rivals: 51).
Missouri only had one senior in the starting lineup (Earnest Ross), but Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson are off to the NBA. Also, Wes Clark and Tony Criswell both had off the court issues that left them suspended from the team at the end of the season, as did 6'10" Louisville transfer Zach Price, and so all three are question marks for next season. So the only players from the regular rotation who we know will be back are 6'9" Johnathan Williams and 6'10" Ryan Rosburg, neither of whom is much of a scorer. Missouri does add 6'4" Deuce Bello (2.8 ppg over two seasons at Baylor) and 6'7" Cameron Biedscheid (6.2 ppg as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012-13). They have Jakeenan Grant (Scout: 13 PF, Rivals: 47) and Namon Wright (Scout: 11 SG, Rivals: 87) signed for next season. If all of those suspended players come back, Missouri should still be decent, but if they don't then they could have a long 2014-15 season.
Mississippi is a team that could be better next season. Marshall Henderson and his absurd number of three-point attempts per game are gone, but there's some addition from that subtraction. He was clearly a great shooter and talent, but his obsession with taking every shot often hurt his team. The only other regulars they lose are Demarco Cox and Derrick Millinghaus. They should get back point guard Jarvis Summers, starting center Aaron Jones, and an up-and-coming big man in Sebastian Saiz, who might have been the team's best rebounder as a true freshman. They'll be looking for more production from their highest rated 2013 recruit, 6'9" Dwight Coleby, and their 2014 recruiting class is led by 6'7" Marcanvis Hymon (Rivals: 132). The big need next season is going to be more offensive playmaking from the perimeter.
You get the feeling that Anthony Grant will get one more season at Alabama to show some improvement or he'll be gone. And that might be tough to do, as his team will be very dependent on incoming players. Star Trevor Releford is graduating, combo guard Algie Key will transfer, and 7'1" Carl Engstrom will leave to go play pro ball in Europe. The team does return a core of five guys from the regular rotation, including Levi Randolph and a pair of impressive bigs from the 2013 recruiting class in Shannon Hale and Jimmie Taylor. But after that? There's not much else, particularly if Nick Jacobs ends up transferring off the bench. They do have five quality additions, though: 6'9" Michael Kessens (13.7 ppg and 8.8 rpg at Longwood as a freshman in 2012-13), Ricky Tarrant (15.3 ppg and 3.4 apg over two seasons at Tulane), Justin Coleman (Scout: 18 PG, Rivals: 82), Riley Norris (Scout: 27 SF, Rivals: 116) and Devin Mitchell (Scout: 22 SG, 129).
Two more teams likely to improve next season are Texas A&M and South Carolina. The Aggies lose just Fabyon Harris from the regular rotation, getting stars Jamal Jones and Kourtney Robertson back for one last season. Point guard Alex Caruso is a player who should be much better known by casual fans next season, and they add another quality point guard in Alex Robinson (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 58). Frank Martin has been raising the level of talent at South Carolina. 9 of the 11 players that got non-garbage time minutes were freshmen and sophomores, and only one graduates (combo guard Brenton Williams). They should also get back shooting guard Tyrone Johnson, who missed most of the season with injury. Their top two returners are probably Sindarius Thornwell (their primary playmaker as a true freshman) and 6'7" Mindaugus Kacinas. Expect Tyrone Johnson to take over the point with Thornwell moving back to his more natural shooting guard position. Shooting guard Duane Notice didn't do much as a true freshman, but he's a talent who could be a sleeper for next season. Their 2014 recruiting class is headed by Marcus Stroman (Scout: 26 PG, Rivals: 83).
In the end, here's how I see the SEC playing out:
1. Kentucky - I'm assuming that Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson are back. If either of them leave then they'll drop. But even with them back, I don't think Kentucky will be quite as strong next season unless Calipari can add another big talent or two before the season starts.
2. Florida - It's going to be a very different Florida team next year, but one that still has a lot of high end talent all over the court.
3. Arkansas - This rating is assuming that Portis and Qualls return. Portis, in particular, is the one player that Arkansas cannot afford to lose if they're going to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
4. Tennessee - I'm assuming that Jarnell Stokes leaves. If he comes back then they'll pass Arkansas for third place.
5. Georgia - The Bulldogs should be better next season, but they just do not have a high end talent who can be a 1st team All-SEC player, and I think that limits their ceiling.
6. Texas A&M - The Aggies definitely will be stronger, and will enter next season believing that they can get back to the NCAA Tournament.
7. South Carolina - Frank Martin is going to continue upgrading the talent level at South Carolina. The problem is that those talented players are going to be coached by Frank Martin.
8. Alabama - This has the feeling of "one more run" for this Alabama program. Either it ends in an at-large bid or a new coach and a very different roster in 2015-16.
9. Mississippi - It will be interesting to see how Ole Miss responds to losing Marshall Henderson. Was he the one superstar that held them together, or will his absence be a bit of addition by subtraction because of the way he hogged the ball?
10. Missouri - The Tigers roster is hard to figure out with all of the off-the-court issues at the end of this past season. But unless all of those suspended players come back next season, it's hard to see them making a run at an at-large bid.
11. LSU - Johnny O'Bryant leaving means that LSU just won't have a whole lot returning.
12. Vanderbilt - Getting back Eric McClellan will help in a big way, but they're going to need a whole lot of production from a deep recruiting class.
13. Auburn - Bruce Pearl will upgrade the talent level at Auburn and will do it fairly quickly, but until he starts actually adding those players to the active roster it's impossible to rate the team higher than this. Auburn is not a program that can be fixed in a single season.
14. Mississippi State - There's not a whole lot of positive momentum for the Mississippi State program under Rick Ray. They should be a little bit better next season, but are unlikely to be significantly improved.