Monday, April 06, 2015

2015-16 Preview: SEC

Southeastern Conference

The reality is that going undefeated all season in a major conference is so, so difficult. There's a reason it hasn't happened in the modern era. The SEC didn't have any elite opponents to test Kentucky, yet the Wildcats were still pushed to overtime twice and had a couple of other games come down to the final minute. Was Kentucky the best team in the nation this past season? I think so. But if you can take "the best team" or "the field" in any NCAA Tournament, you always go with the field. It's just so difficult to win six games straight. And if there was one team that was built perfectly to beat Kentucky, as I said all season long, it was either Virginia or Wisconsin. Kentucky was turned into a jump shooting team, and they came up just barely short.

The rest of the SEC was very much an afterthought, but it was better than it got credit for. The league definitely closed the gap to the Big Ten, Big East and ACC. A team like South Carolina had an elite defense, finished around 60th in the computer ratings, beat teams like Iowa State and Oklahoma State, and still finished just 6-12 in the SEC. Vanderbilt and Florida both finished in the Top 50 in the computer ratings despite not being in consideration for an at-large bid. The league simply had more depth than it's had in several seasons.

At the date this preview is going live, I have to guess at Kentucky's NBA defections. Almost everybody on scholarship could potentially go pro. At this point, the only two that seem very likely to go are Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein. Considering the fact that Trey Lyles is a likely lottery pick, I think he ends up going also. And for the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume that Devin Booker leaves also. That would the Harrison twins would return, along with Tyler Ullis, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. So far, John Calipari has three blue chippers signed: Skal Labissiere (Scout: 1 C, Rivals: 4), Isaiah Briscoe (Scout: 3 SG, Rivals: 10) and Charles Matthews (Scout: 21 SG, Rivals: 58). If I'm right and four players leave, that means Calipari would have one more scholarship left to give out. One of the interesting things to consider next season is whether the Harrison twins will get to start again. It already seemed that Tyler Ullis was the best point guard on the team, and Briscoe is a stud. Does Calipari continue to automatically start the non-developing Harrison twins over those two?

It seemed like half of the SEC was on the tourney bubble in late February and early March. The one team other than Kentucky that was a safe at-large team a week out from Selection Sunday was Arkansas. The Razorbacks lose Rashad Madden and Alandise Harris to graduation, while Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls are considering their NBA Draft stock. Portis is considered a borderline lottery pick, so for the sake of this preview I'm going to assume Portis goes while Qualls stays. Even if Portis goes, Arkansas will have a deep roster next season, but if they lose Portis then they lack a star, and they already lose their primary offensive playmaker in Rashad Madden. They need a new point guard, though Anton Beard could step into that role. They get a key transfer in 6'2" Dusty Hannahs, who averaged 7.7 ppg as a sophomore at Texas Tech in 2013-14. Mike Anderson also adds Ted Kapita (Scout: 12 C, Rivals: 38) and Jimmy Whitt (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 52).

LSU is going to be a fascinating team next season. It's not often that a program like LSU lands the near-consensus #1 recruit in the nation (6'9" Ben Simmons). With zero seniors on the roster, LSU fans were starting to get very excited about next season. Unfortunately for them, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey are off to the NBA. LSU's backcourt will be back, featuring Keith Hornsby, Josh Gray and Tim Quarterman (and they also add Antonio Blakeney - Scout: 5 SG, Rivals: 14), but the front court returns zero proven players. 7-footer Elbert Robinson was a raw 2014 recruit who could play a bigger role next season, but most likely their starters will be Ben Simmons and Craig Victor. 6'7" Victor was a bluechip 2014 recruit at Arizona who transferred after playing just 8 games. He won't be eligible until the end of the fall semester, so LSU's starting lineup could be pretty small until he's eligible. Don't be surprised if Johnny Jones adds another big this summer.

Georgia fixed the scheduling problem that allowed them to miss the 2014 NCAA Tournament despite a 12-6 conference record. They lose a pair of starters in Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic this offseason, but return their starting backcourt of JJ Frazier, Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines. The front court is a question mark, though. The top returners are 6'8" Yante Maten and 6'7" Cameron Forte, both of whom played significant minutes off the bench this past season. They also have one 2015 recruit signed who could play in the front court: 6'8" Derek Ogbeide. If Georgia gets back to the NCAA Tournament, it's going to have to happen with development of the current players. There are no big time talents coming on board.

Mississippi was the fifth and final NCAA Tournament team from the SEC, and with a miraculous second half comeback they managed to win a game, knocking off BYU in the play-in round. They are hit hard by graduations, though, losing three starters and two key bench players. Point guard Jarvis Summers and shooting guard LaDarius White are the toughest losses. They do return leading scorer Stefan Moody and have a couple of good front court returners in Sebastian Saiz and Dwight Coleby. Shooting guard Martavius Newby is another proven returner off the bench. Their top incoming recruit is 6'4" Terence Davis (Rivals: 128).

The one SEC bubble team that was denied on Selection Sunday was Texas A&M. They lose two starters: leading rebounder Kourtney Roberson and shooting guard Jordan Green. They will get one more season out of combo guard Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones, and leading-scorer Danuel House, who missed the last few weeks of the season with an injury. Alex Robinson played very well as a point guard off the bench as a true freshman, and should see added time next season. Shooting guard Peyton Allen was another effective freshman this past season. Front court depth is a concern with the loss of Roberson. Tavario Miller and Tonny Trocha-Morelos were two bench players who will see more time next season. But Billy Kennedy is addressing that problem primarily with his recruiting class, which is deep with front court talent: Elijah Thomas (Scout: 10 C, Rivals: 21), Tyler Davis (Scout: 8 C, Rivals: 29) and DJ Hogg (Scout: 8 SF, Rivals: 34). It's a recruiting class that is pretty much a consensus Top Five class in the nation, and it's why Texas A&M should expect to be improved next season.

Florida was jokingly called #TeamBadLuck among the analytics crowd this past season. They had bad luck in close games (6-10 in games decided by seven points or fewer) and also had bad luck with injuries and suspensions, losing players like Eli Carter, Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith for significant stretches of games. Even so, they finished the season in the Top 50 in both Sagarin and Pomeroy. What about next season? Jacob Kurtz and Jon Horford graduate, while Michael Frazier II is off to the NBA. Without Frazier, Florida loses the ability to stretch the floor with threes (Finney-Smith is the only returning regular over 32% on threes), but they have plenty of backcourt playmakers in Eli Carter, Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. They also add KeVaughn Allen (Scout: 18 SG, Rivals: 64), and hope to get back Brandone Francis, a 2014 recruit who was ruled academically ineligible. The front court is going to be full of a lot of players with talent, but not a lot of talent yet proven in the SEC. Chris Walker and Devin Robinson were both big time recruits, but neither has done too much significant yet. They also return DeVon Walker, who averaged 2.4 ppg and 1.2 rpg in 2013-14 but should receive a redshirt after tearing his ACL this past season. They add 6'11" John Egbunu (7.4 ppg and 6.2 rpg as a freshman at South Florida in 2013-14), as well as Noah Dickerson (Scout: 18 C, Rivals: 65), Keith Stone (Scout: 25 SF, Rivals: 129) and Kevarrius Harris (Scout: 26 C, Rivals: 140).

Vanderbilt was one of the most underrated team in the nation this past season, finishing with an RPI outside the Top 100 despite being rated one of the 50 best teams in the nation by both Sagarin and Pomeroy (a 2-10 record in games decided by six points or fewer will do that). They looked good in the NIT, as well, knocking off Saint Mary's and South Dakota State before losing by just 3 points to eventual champion Stanford. They are also set to lose just James Siakam from their regular rotation. I really like their backcourt of Riley LaChance, Wade Baldwin, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Shelton Mitchell, all of whom were true freshmen this past season. They get even stronger there, adding 6'4" Nolan Cressler (16.8 ppg as a sophomore at Cornell in 2013-14). The backcourt isn't great, but there are two very solid returners in leading-scorer Damian Jones and 7'0" Luke Kornet. 6'6" Jeff Roberson was pretty good off the bench as a true freshman also. They need more front court depth, and will hope to get it from Joseph Toye (Scout: 27 SF, Rivals: 115), Samir Sehic (Scout: 21 C, Rivals: 147) and Djery Baptiste (Scout: 33 C).

A sleeper team for next season has to be that South Carolina team that was up around 60th in the computer ratings.  They had success with a defense ranked, by Pomeroy, 26th best in the nation. But they were dead last in the SEC in 3P% and eFG% in conference play, so they will have to find a way to score more efficiently. Their only graduation is Tyrone Johnson, though they're over-signed, so I'd expect a couple transfers at some point. Tyrone Johnson's minutes will be taken in large part by Marcus Stroman, who was an effective point guard off the bench as a true freshman. Top returners are combo guard Duane Notice, wing Sindarius Thornwell and 6'11" big man Laimonas Chatkevicius. They also add one blue chip recruit in PJ Dozier (Scout: 6 PG, Rivals: 35). But somebody on this team is going to have to hit shots for them to contend for one of the top few spots in the SEC.

If there's a deep sleeper for next season it's Tennessee. They had such a messy off-court situation this past season with the Donnie Tyndall situation, and Rick Barnes should be a significant upgrade. They lose just Josh Richardson to graduation (also Tariq Owens off the bench as a transfer) and have several scholarships open for Barnes to do work this summer.  It's not a roster built to make a postseason run right now, but Barnes has proven to be a very strong recruiter at Texas. He gets a lot of grief for not getting far in the NCAA Tournament with players like Kevin Durant and Myles Turner without anybody giving him credit for getting players like Kevin Durant and Myles Turner on campus.

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

1. Kentucky - I doubt we'll see the same type of 40-0 hype next season, but Kentucky is still going to be playing a likely NBA Draft pick everywhere in their rotation. They're still the most talented SEC team.
2. Texas A&M - Billy Kennedy should finally break through and take Texas A&M to the NCAA Tournament. If that recruiting class comes halfway toward living up to the hype, the team will be borderline Top 25.
3. Vanderbilt - It's always good to bet on teams with bad luck in close games the previous season. Particularly when the roster gains significantly more than it loses.
4. LSU - If Ben Simmons turns into Jabari Parker or Karl Towns then LSU could easily end up in second place in the SEC. But it's a lot of pressure to expect a true freshman to carry a front court with almost no depth.
5. Florida - The loss of Michael Frazier II is a tough one for Florida. They're going to need to find somebody else who can consistently hit outside shots to open up the court offensively. Just Dorian Finney-Smith isn't enough.
6. Arkansas - The Razorbacks should still be an NCAA Tournament quality team, but the assumed loss of Bobby Portis is going to make them much more inconsistent offensively.
7. South Carolina - At some point they've got to hit some shots, and I'm not sure if they have the players to do it. But the Gamecocks are going to play elite defense again, and they're going to beat some good teams with that alone.
8. Georgia - There's no reason to expect a significant drop off for Georgia, but they're going to need significant development from the current roster to repeat this past season's success with no significant incoming recruits.
9. Tennessee - This is a projection that could fluctuate a lot in the next few months. Rick Barnes already has three scholarships to work with that he could use on some of the talent still available. At the same time, he could easily lose some more transfers and just bank his scholarships for next season.
10. Mississippi - The Rebels lose five players from their regular rotation without any transfers or blue chips coming on board. It's hard to see how they don't drop off next season.
11. Alabama - This will be a rebuilding season for Alabama. Avery Johnson has been hired to be the next head coach, which is... unexciting. We will have to see if he is able to do some work on the recruiting trail this summer.
12. Mississippi State - Ben Howland is a fantastic hire, but he's being handed a bad roster that is already over-signed. Unless we see a few kids transfer out in the next few weeks, it's going to take Howland some time to fix this program.
13. Auburn - Bruce Pearl is upgrading the recruiting classes, but it's not going to be a quick fix. He has a pair of Rivals Top 100 recruiting coming (6'7" wing Danjel Purifoy and 6'8" power forward Horace Spender), but he's also losing four of his top six minute earners to graduation.
14. Missouri - Missouri has one very nice up-and-coming talent in Montaque Gill-Caesar, but overall this is just not a roster with a lot of SEC quality talent. JaKeenan Gant, another 2014 recruit, is probably the next best prospect on the Mizzou roster.

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