Summer School in the SEC

Posted by Brian Goodman on August 7th, 2010

Jared Quillen from Big Blue Cats is the RTC correspondent for the SEC.

News: At the spring meetings in Destin, Florida, SEC officials discussed scrapping the divisional format in conference tournament play. Under the current system, the top two teams in each division get a bye in the opening round of the SEC tournament. Going to a one-through-twelve seeding instead of two groups of one-through-six would effectively protect the top teams in the SEC, and increase the likelihood of the SEC getting five, six, or even seven teams in the NCAA tournament (the goal should be eight). Last year Mississippi State and Mississippi finished first and second, respectively, in the Western division, but only fifth and sixth overall in the conference behind Eastern division teams Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida, yet both teams were awarded opening round byes in the conference tournament and still missed the NCAA Tournament.

The West as a whole finished a putrid 9-27 against the East. Take away the West’s five wins against Georgia and it gets really ugly. Despite the uneven seeding the Eastern division managed to go 8-3 in the SEC tournament, so there is a strong case for going to a one-through-twelve tournament.

As you might expect, SEC West coaches wanted to keep the status quo. As Arkansas coach John Pelphrey put it, “There was a lot of discussion about it. I was for the way things are right now. Year in and year out, the fairest way to do it was to seed it by how you fare in your division,” which is pretty much what you would expect from a coach whose team finished third in the West but only seventh overall. “The problem is….you could have a team in the East that has a similar or same record as a team in the West, but it’s really a different record because of the teams you’re playing.” SEC teams play teams in their division twice and non-division opponents once. “What happens when you have two teams vying for a bye, and they have the same record?” as Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “That’s where we came to a stalemate. We didn’t know what direction to go.”

Donovan highlights a good point as all of the coaches prefer keeping the current divisional format for league play and, as Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl explained, “There was some concern that if they re-seeded the SEC tournament one through twelve (like the Big 12), it would be the first step to doing away with the divisions.” In the end the SEC opted to do just as they did when other conferences were trading teams — nothing. It remains the opinion of Rush The Court, however, that the best and fairest system is to reward the teams with the best records and play a one through twelve tournament.

Coaching Carousel: On March 24th Tony Barbee was hired to replace Jeff Lebo at Auburn whose teams went 96-93 during Lebo’s six-year tenure. Barbee will be one of six coaches in the SEC with three years or less in the league, a list that includes up-and-comers Pelphrey (three years), Anthony Grant (two), Darrin Horn (two), Trent Johnson (two), and Mark Fox (one). With this crew in place, the SEC has a glut of rising coaches equaled by no conference in America.  The sad reality, however, is that there are only so many wins to go around, and some of these coaches are going to lose their up-and-coming status just as Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie and Georgia’s Dennis Felton did.

Recruiting: The SEC boasts 18 players in ESPN’s top 100, a number matched only by the ACC. Indeed, five of twelve SEC teams brought in at least two players in the top 100, including Kentucky with five. That’s the kind of talent the SEC’s going to need if the league is to reestablish itself as a dominant basketball conference.

Trent Johnson Has His Work Cut Out...

Power Rankings The following rankings are not necessarily a prediction of order of finish as much as an indicator of which teams have done the most to improve and to address deficiencies in the off-season.

  1. Kentucky – Kentucky’s entire team (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Pattrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton) went to the NBA. Kentucky also lost Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Mark Krebs to graduation, and Darnell Dodson is gone for the season for undisclosed reasons. So what did John Calipari do? He signed the number one class in the America, again. Calipari’s haul includes five top 50 players in point guard Brandon Knight, shooting guard Doron Lamb, small forward Stacey Poole, power forwards Terrence Jones and Enes Kanter, and center Eloy Vargas who comes to Kentucky after playing one year at Florida and one year at Miami Dade College. The new Cats will be asked to contribute immediately as Kentucky will enter the 2010-11 season with only four returning scholarship players, two of which played less than five minutes per game last year. Time will tell, however, if number one in the summer power rankings translates into another SEC championship and deep NCAA run.
  2. Tennessee – Tennessee had as turbulent a season as any team in America last year, losing Tyler Smith for the season and Cameron Tatum, Melvin Goins and Brian Williams to suspension early in the year. After the Volunteers barely lost to Michigan State — just missing their first Final Four in the process — they also lost seniors Bobby Maze, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince. Coach Bruce Pearl has proven himself one of the better recruiters in the nation, however, and this year is no different. Pearl brings in top flight power forward Tobias Harris and talented shooting guards Jordan McRae and Trae Golden. Pearl also adds John Fields, a transfer from UNC Wilmington. Fields, a 6’9” forward who played one year after Wilmington after playing two years at East Carolina, will have one year of eligibility remaining and should be able to play immediately as NCAA rules allow a transfer player who has graduated to play immediately if he is enrolling in graduate school. Last year Fields averaged 10.2 points per game and 8.7 rebounds in one season at Wilmington where he also set the school single game rebounding record with 21 against Towson.
  3. Florida – Florida could use a little depth up front and that’s about it. The Gators return their entire starting five and all but five of their 72 points per game. After just slipping into the NCAA Tournament last year, Florida enters the 2010-11 season as the SEC favorite and a legitimate top ten team. With no significant losses, freshmen power forwards Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Cody Larsen will fill the final pieces in Florida’s march back to relevance after three less-than-stellar years following its two championships. Coach Donovan also brings in shooting guard Casey Prather and early high school graduate Scottie Wilbekin at point guard. Donovan is already adding talent for 2011, as well. Rutgers’ leading scorer Mike Rosario will sit out this season and be eligible for next year. Look for Donovan’s critics to hush now that the Gators are back on track.
  4. LSU – The Tigers suffered through a dismal season in 2010, finishing last in the conference following a first place finish in 2009. Making the situation more difficult, they lost leading scorer and rebounder Tasmin Mitchell, a senior last year. Trent Johnson is no recruiting slouch, though, and has gotten work done. He adds three ESPN top 100 players in shooting guard Ralston Turner, point guard Andre Stringer and small forward Matt Derenbecker. Johnson also brings in high scoring former Kentucky commit K.C. Ross-Miller. Promising forward Malcom White, who played two seasons at Mississippi before transferring to LSU, will be eligible to play this year and should be able to contribute immediately. Johnson also brought in center Justin Hamilton, a transfer from Iowa State who will sit out this season. One final note —  Johnson dropped point guard Bo Spencer from his roster in the offseason, but as Coach Johnson so stoicly put it, “We won two league games with him last season.” Now that’s the attitude.
  5. South CarolinaDarrin Horn would seem to have his work cut out for him at South Carolina. What looked like a top 25 team going into the 2009-10 season suffered major setbacks after losing Dominique Archie to injury and Mike Holmes to dismissal. The Gamecocks finished 15-16 and suffered an offseason setback after they requested and were denied a sixth year of eligibility for Archie on account of his injury five games into the season. The Gamecocks also lost seniors Brandis Raley-Ross and Devan Downey. While Downey’s SEC leading 22.5 points per game will be tough to replace, he was also tenth of twelve starting point guards in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio and ninth of twelve in overall offensive rating. He also shot an ugly 40% from the field. That hurts when he takes 30% of the team’s shots. Coach Horn brings in six quality freshmen in point guards Bruce Ellington and Eric Smith, power forwards Damontre Harris and R.J. Slawson, center Carlton Geathers and shooting guard Brian Richardson. Malik Cooke, a transfer from Nevada who is eligible this season after sitting out last year, averaged 9.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. If Mississippi transfer forward Murphy Holloway (10.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG) can get eligible this year on a hardship waiver he’s requesting for moving closer to his daughter in his home state of South Carolina, the Gamecocks could end up with a better record in 2011 and have an outside shot at making the NCAAs again after a six year hiatus.
  6. Mississippi – Mississippi needs to replace Terrico White, who was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, and Eniel Polynice who declared for the NBA draft but ultimately pulled out and transferred to Seton Hall after finishing his degree at Ole Miss this summer. Murphy Holloway also elected to transfer to South Carolina. Not significant, but Mississippi also loses DeAngelo Riley and Kevin Cantinol to transfer. That’s three of Mississippi’s top five scorers and the loss of Holloway leaves a hole inside on an already guard-heavy team. Freshman center Demarco Cox should provide help right away but will it be enough? Coach Andy Kennedy hopes that one of two freshmen Isaiah Massey or Steadman Short can provide some help at forward. Juco transfers Dundrecous Nelson, a point guard and shooting guard Donald Williams, a former Kentucky red shirt freshman, could also see significant minutes in their first year in Oxford.
  7. Auburn – Look, I like Tony Barbee and I wish him the best at Auburn, but he’s got a lot of work to do. The Tigers lost four of their top five scorers from a team that only won six games in league play last year. Barbee’s first team will be young, with seldom used Larry Williams Jr. the only senior on the roster. His best returning player, Frankie Sullivan, is a legitimate talent who averaged 12.7 points per game at guard, but after Sullivan the Tigers’ leading returning scorer is Earnest Ross at a paltry 2.8 points per game. Honestly, when you consider Auburn’s recent basketball history, having made three NCAA tournaments in the last twenty years, the last one coming in 2003, being seventh on this list really is a step in the right direction. Barbee created an immediate splash at Auburn by adding Alabama native Luke Cothron at power forward. Cothron will contribute immediately and is joined by freshmen small forwards Allen Payne and Josh Langford and center Shawn Kemp Jr. (yes, that Shawn Kemp), as well as junior college transfer Adrian Forbes, a power forward who will be expected to produce right away. Barbee also brings in freshman point guard Chris Denson to join his bevy of inside players. Despite the heavy losses from last year’s team, Barbee did a great job at UTEP, compiling an 85-52 record in four years at UTEP including a 15-1 conference mark last year. Auburn will also open a brand new $92 million arena this season. With a new coach, new players, new arena, everything is new in Auburn.
  8. Alabama – Alabama lost talented point guard Mikhail Torrance after a great senior season for the Tide. Coach Anthony Grant also must add some depth in the frontcourt after losing Justin Knox to transfer. Talented freshman-to-be Trevor Releford could compete for the spot as Torrance’s replacement right away. With the loss of forwards Knox and Demetrius Jemison to transfer, Alabama has serious depth problems in the frontcourt. Grant signed 4-star forward Jason Carter in the hopes of filling that hole, and added late Swede signee Carl Engstrom, a 7’1 center, in June as he scrambled to replace his departing forwards
  9. Georgia – Mark Fox really may be the only coach in the SEC other than Florida’s Billy Donovan with a strong core of returning talent. The Bulldogs’ only significant loss is senior guard Ricky McPhee. With leading scorers Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie with another year under their belts, plus Jeremy Price and Dustin Ware returning, the Bulldogs are poised to improve upon their five SEC wins last year. Georgia showed promise in Fox’s first year with wins against Tennessee, Florida, and Vanderbilt. The Dogs also led Kentucky at the half in Lexington. Georgia will add juco transfer point guard Sherrard Brantley and freshmen power forwards Cady Lalanne, Donte Williams and Marcus Thornton, the number one player in the state of Georgia. Fox’s best addition, however, may be Gerald Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State who becomes eligible this season after sitting out last year. Robinson averaged 15.2 and 17.6 points in his freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively, and should easily replace McPhee’s 9.6 points per game. Expect Mark Fox to do big things at Georgia, and quickly.
  10. Vanderbilt – The Commodores are going to really feel the loss of leading scorers Jermaine Beal and A.J. Ogilvy — the latter of which had no business entering the NBA draft — and coach Kevin Stallings just has not done enough to address the huge hole left by Ogilvy in the frontcourt. While center Josh Henderson and forwards Rod Odom and James Siakam will add depth to the frontcourt, there is no one on this team that can consistently get under the basket and bang, score and rebound against elite talent. Coach Stallings also adds point guard Kyle Fuller to his roster. He will probably have to wait a year before he sees significant minutes, as Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins will be expected to shoulder a heavy load in the backcourt this year.
  11. ArkansasI like John Pelphrey. I think he’s a good coach and a good guy, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of breaks in his time at Fayetteville. His teams have been riddled with injuries and disciplinary problems the past two seasons. Last year the Razorbacks did not have a full roster for any one of their 32 games. Four players missed a total of 25 games due to suspension, including starting point guard Courtney Fortson who missed 14 games. Three players missed 32 total games due to injuries, including key power forward Michael Sanchez, who played in only four games. Mike Washington missed three games due to injury and sharp shooter Rotnei Clarke missed one. After the season, Fortson declared for the draft and went unselected. Fortson’s loss is bad at first sight as he led the team in scoring and assists, but, much like South Carolina’s Devan Downey, he also had deficiencies. He was turnover prone and shot a dismal 36% from the field. Look for junior transfer Jeff Peterson to pick up the load in both scoring and assists. Peterson is a capable guard who averaged 10.6 points and 4.2 assists in his sophomore season at Iowa. Arkansas adds Peterson to juco transfer shooting guard Rickey Scott and freshman shooting guard Mardracus Wade. With those players and the long-range threat in Clarke, Arkansas may have a high-scoring backcourt this season despite the loss of Fortson.
  12. Mississippi State – Well, here we are, last place. Not where Mississippi State generally belongs, as Rick Stansbury has consistently brought in new talent during his 12 seasons as head coach of the Bulldogs, but this year is a little different, as State only brings in three players in juco transfer point guard Brian Bryant and shooting guards Michael Carr and Jalen Steele, a former Auburn commit. Gone from last year’s team are Barry Stewart, Jarvis Varnado and Phil Turner. Dee Bost is trying to get eligible on appeal after missing the NCAA’s deadline for withdrawal from the NBA draft. If he’s eligible, then Mississippi State could make some noise in the SEC West because there’s this whole issue of that Renardo Sidney character finally becoming eligible to play in State’s game against Virginia Tech on December 18, a year and a half after arriving in Starkville. Mark your calendars, folks. He’s going to be exciting to watch. He will step right in and fill the spot left by Varnado under the basket and will be a better scorer than Varnado ever was, even if he fails to lead the NCAA in blocked shots.

What’s Next?

  • While SEC teams have made strides improving the coaching talent, and the SEC East has become a power in college basketball in the same way it has in football, the cold reality is that the West remains relatively weak and, for lack of a better way of putting it, is dragging the conference down of late without a single team making the NCAA tournament last year. This year the gap between East and West will probably widen. Ironically, the bottom two teams in the power rankings could very well end up as the top two teams in the West division. Hopefully the league will see the wisdom in changing their conference tournament format in the interest of compatibility and NCAA tournament representation. SEC teams also need to upgrade their scheduling as both Mississippi and Mississippi State suffered from weak RPIs last year. Too many SEC teams play too many cupcakes in the early season.
  • The SEC East should be bloody this year with no easy games. Expect Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and perhaps even Georgia to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament next Spring. There are several question marks in the SEC, regarding Holloway’s, Bost’s and Fields’ eligibilities, and these players could make or break their teams’ seasons.  That said, the SEC could send five or even six teams to the NCAA tourney next season if everyone gets qualified and stays healthy and out of trouble.
Brian Goodman (983 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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2 responses to “Summer School in the SEC”

  1. porkchopexpress says:

    Is it too early to nominate Dundrecous Nelson for the preseason All-Name team?

  2. jstevrtc says:

    No way, man. We’ll be putting together our “Cooler Than You, Version Two” article listing the best names in the game, greatest long-range bombers, best shot-blockers, and best slam dunk artists for the upcoming season some time in late September or early October (a link to last year’s is below), but we’re always accepting nominations. Thanks for that one.

    Cooler Than You, Version One:

    John from RTC

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