Thursday, September 29, 2011

30 In 30: The SEC

Two-time national champion Billy Donovan has a deep and talented roster this season as he looks to deliver title No. 3 to Florida. (Photo courtesy of New York Daily News)

BCS league number two gets its moment in the sun tonight, as next up is a closer look at the twelve-team Southeastern Conference. Last year, Kentucky rode a roster mixed with talented freshmen and experienced guards to a Final Four appearance; but the Wildcats will be hard pressed to replicate that result this year. Divisional picks will also be made at the end of this post after the overall predictions.

1) Florida - When the Gators advanced to a Final Four under Lon Kruger in 1994, it was somewhat of an aberration. Since Kruger left for Illinois, his replacement has advanced to three more national semifinals; and became the first coach to win consecutive national championships since Mike Krzyzewski did it fifteen years prior. This year, Billy Donovan has arguably his deepest group since the second national title triumph in 2007, despite losing three starters. Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus are no longer around in Gainesville; but Donovan's strength lies within his guard play this year. Point man Erving Walker may only stand 5-8, but can score with the best of them just as well as he can distribute to backcourt partner Kenny Boynton, who will enter his junior season playing off the ball. Burgeoning big men Patric Young and Erik Murphy will get the chance to move into the starting lineup as they replace Macklin and Tyus; and swingman Will Yeguete could have a breakout season with the right playing time, but that's not all. Donovan also retains defensive specialist Scottie Wilbekin to spell Walker and Boynton in the backcourt, and freshman Brad Beal arrives with equal loads of hype and potential. Oh, by the way, there is one more addition to the Gators this year; and he happens to be a former McDonald's All-American with two years of experience in the Big East. Former Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario has two more years of eligiblity left, and should see a majority of minutes off the ball alongside Walker immediately. Under Donovan's tutelage, Rosario could be a future NBA lottery pick, and could end up being the best player on this team.

2) Vanderbilt - If not for the abundance of talent on Florida's roster, the Commodores would be the pick to win the SEC going away with everything that Kevin Stallings has coming back to Nashville this season. Even with the Gators' depth, Vandy can still win this conference AND make a long run in the NCAA Tournament. Not many programs this good have the luxury of all five starters coming back, but guards John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor spearhead the effort from the backcourt while senior center Festus Ezeli could very well be the best big man in the country. On top of that, point guard Brad Tinsley returns for his senior campaign while Lance Goulbourne is the second option for Ezeli on the glass from the power forward position. Forwards Steve Tchiengang and Rod Odom come back to lead a solid Vandy bench as well.

3) Kentucky - To borrow a line I've heard in reference to the Big East, John Calipari doesn't rebuild. He simply reloads, and this year will be no exception in Lexington just six months removed from the Wildcats' latest Final Four appearance. Whether or not it will be vacated remains to be seen, but what will live on in the minds of Big Blue Nation is the play of guards Brandon Knight and DeAndre Liggins; as well as do-it-all big man Josh "Jorts" Harrellson. Power forward Terrence Jones flirted with the NBA draft last season before deciding to stay in school and reaffirm his status as one of the ten best players in the country. The sophomore now becomes the face of the team, and will join fellow second-year player Doron Lamb in the quest to bring Kentucky its first national championship since 1998. Lamb anchors the backcourt along with senior Darius Miller, while incoming NC State transfer Ryan Harrow should learn a lot while he sits out this season. Calipari once again has the nation's best recruiting class coming in, led by swingman Michael Gilchrist of St. Patrick's in New Jersey and guard Marquis Teague. However, the best piece of the group of incoming freshmen is 6-10 forward Anthony Davis, a Chicago native that many are comparing to Kevin Garnett, not to mention already considering as a potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick when he is ready to leave Kentucky.

4) Alabama - Anthony Grant may have missed out on a Final Four by leaving VCU to take over the Crimson Tide, but that doesn't mean he missed out on a successful career. Last year may have only been the beginning for Grant in Tuscaloosa, as the Tide rolled all the way to the NIT championship game. Three starters from the team that lost to Wichita State in Madison Square Garden return, led by versatile senior forward JaMychal Green, who could be in SEC Player of the Year consideration by the end of the season. Small forward Tony Mitchell is Grant's diamond in the rough, averaging fifteen points and seven rebounds per contest while also serving as one of the team leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Alabama's other returning starter is point guard Trevor Releford, who enters his sophomore campaign looking to improve his ball control after accumulating 96 turnovers in his rookie year. Combo guards Andrew Steele and Charles Hankerson could get the opportunity to start in the absence of guard Senario Hillman, who graduated following last season.

5) Mississippi State - After finishing 17-14 in a season where big man Renardo Sidney was suspended for part of the season, Sidney returns for the Bulldogs as Rick Stansbury's unit looks to climb into the top third of the SEC. Although limited to just seventeen games last season, point guard Dee Bost averaged over six assists per game; and enters his senior year looking to finish among the nation leaders in that category. Bost can score as well, and will share the backcourt with two reserves looking to make an impact as full-time starters this year in Jalen Steele and Brian Bryant. Mississippi State's X-factor will reside up front, though; as UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie is eligible after sitting last year out. A junior with two years of eligibility left, (including this season) both Moultrie and Sidney have the potential to be double-double per night players in the SEC this season.

6) Mississippi - In Andy Kennedy's fifth season in Oxford, the Rebels won twenty games and made a return trip to the NIT only to be eliminated by Cal in their first game. This season, both Zach Graham and point guard Chris Warren are gone; but Ole Miss brings back most of their role players from last season along with freshman Jelan Kendrick, the swingman who transferred from Memphis before even playing a game. Junior forward Reginald Buckner could be the most underrated on the Rebels' roster. At 6-9, Buckner may only have averaged nearly seven points per game last year; but backed it up with an average of over six rebounds and almost three blocked shots per contest.

7) Tennessee - The Bruce Pearl era is over in Knoxville following a landslide round of 64 loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, and Cuonzo Martin arrives from Missouri State intent on reversing the Vols' fortunes and returning them to the talent level they were at when they were an Elite Eight team in 2010. The loss of "Fresh Prince" lookalike Scotty Hopson and talented freshman Tobias Harris gives swingman Cameron Tatum the keys to the car as he enters his senior season. Center Brian Williams' departure leaves the Tennessee inside game weakened, with 6-9 forwards Kenny Hall and Renaldo Woolridge the sole returning big men. Trae Golden should get the start on an everyday basis at point guard, replacing Melvin Goins.

8) South Carolina - The loss of big man Sam Muldrow will not hurt the Gamecocks as much as you would think on the surface this year. If he can become a steadier hand on the dribble, 5-9 sophomore point guard Bruce Ellington will showcase a new facet to his already explosive offensive game, which was put on display last year when he led South Carolina in scoring. Sharpshooter Brian Richardson also enters his second season and returns to the starting lineup along with forwards Lakeem Jackson and Damontre Harris, the other three of the Gamecocks' four returning starters.

9) Arkansas - John Pelphrey was dismissed and ended up in Florida along with former St. John's head man Norm Roberts as the assistants to Billy Donovan after Richard Pitino moved to join his father at Louisville in the wake of Steve Masiello taking the head coaching job at Manhattan. Replacing Pelphrey in the program that won the national championship in 1994 is former Nolan Richardson assistant Mike Anderson, whose "40 Minutes Of Hell" philosophy will help the Razorbacks compete sooner rather than later in the top-heavy SEC. The Hogs lose the services of Rotnei Clarke after his transfer to Butler, but junior forward Marshawn Powell is back with the ability to play both small forward and power forward inside, a versatility that will give Arkansas an advantage against SEC teams with a defined swingman and a weak inside presence. Point guard Julysses Nobles is back for his junior season, and will anchor a backcourt featuring emerging players in Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott, who saw limited minutes on the bench a year ago.

10) Georgia - Mark Fox loses Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie from his frontcourt, yet returns point guard Gerald Robinson for his senior season to lead the Bulldogs' offense. Sherrard Brantley, Connor Nolte and sophomore forward Marcus Thornton are role players looking to step up and earn a spot in the starting lineup, but the most important piece of the Georgia puzzle this season could be sharpshooter Dustin Ware. A 5-11 combo guard who demonstrated a solid ability to run the point and maintain a steady hand with an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 3:1, Ware is better suited to play off the ball alongside Robinson; as his 44 percent shooting from three-point range led the Bulldogs and was good enough for a third-place tie in the SEC behind Doron Lamb and Darius Miller of Kentucky.

11) Auburn - Tony Barbee's rebuilding project enters its second season since the coach left UTEP following an NCAA Tournament appearance in which the Miners lost to Butler in the round of 64. Senior forward Kenny Gabriel is the top returning scorer on a deceptively talented team that will welcome former Texas transfer Varez Ward into the fold; and after sitting out a year and receiving a medical redshirt upon his arrival from Austin, Ward still has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning he will compete for the Tigers as a sophomore this season. Sophomore guard Josh Langford could be an assassin off the bench with increased playing time, as he shot 36 percent from long range while averaging a mere fifteen minutes of playing time per game. Junior guard Josh Wallace will join Ward and Langford among the many backcourt faces while anchoring the offense from the point guard position.

12) Louisiana State - Trent Johnson enters this season potentially on the hot seat in Baton Rouge after the Tigers finished 11-21 last season and only won three games in the SEC. The good news for Johnson's job security is that there is really nowhere to go but up for LSU with four returning starters taking the court this season, led by point guard Andre Stringer and shooting guard Ralston Turner. If used the right way, forwards Storm Warren and Malcolm White could be double-double per night players sharing the paint with seven-footer Justin Hamilton, who is eligible once again after transferring from Iowa State.

Southeastern Conference East Division Picks
1) Florida
2) Vanderbilt
3) Kentucky
4) Tennessee
5) Georgia
6) South Carolina

Southeastern Conference West Division Picks
1) Alabama
2) Mississippi State
3) Mississippi
4) Arkansas
5) Auburn
6) Louisiana State

No comments:

Post a Comment