Conference Report Card: SECPosted by Brian Goodman on April 18th, 2011
Jared Quillen is the RTC correspondent for the SEC conference. We will be publishing a series of conference report cards over the next week for conferences that got multiple NCAA bids to recap the conference, grade the teams, and look at the future for the conference.
- It was a good year for the Southeastern Conference. After a weak showing in the NCAA Tournament last year, the SEC was the only conference with multiple teams (Kentucky and Florida) in the Elite Eight. The SEC also got five teams into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. It was a major improvement over the sad slump that was 2009 when the SEC only qualified LSU, Tennessee, and Mississippi State at 8, 9, and 13 seeds, respectively.
- When the season started, I predicted the conference could get five and possibly six teams in the tournament and I still contend that Alabama was snubbed. But regardless of that, five teams is a good showing and a sign of improvement for a conference that lost a little respect as an elite conference in the past few years.
- Florida was consistent all year, winning close games by playing calmly even when trailing late, but the biggest turning point for the conference came when Kentucky finally was able to win those same close games. The Wildcats were sitting at 7-9 in conference play and likely facing a first-round game in the SEC when they won close games against Florida, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee finishing the regular season 10-6 and easily marching through the conference tournament. Kentucky was the favorite at the Final Four in Houston, but poor shooting likely cost the Wildcats their eighth national championship. And the debate about John Calipari’s ability to win it all with young teams goes on.
- Kentucky – Kentucky came into the season with high expectations, assuming Enes Kanter was cleared, but he never suited up. After all, Josh Harrellson was the backup plan who played a total of 80 minutes in the 2009-2010 season. The Wildcats were very mediocre at times in conference play until they pulled it together in the last three games and Harrellson emerged as a great defender, holding his own against such celebrated big men as Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller. Kentucky will lose Harrellson and is likely to lose star freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones to the NBA although neither has declared yet. In addition, there are whispers that junior DeAndre Liggins is considering testing the waters. I believe he returns for his senior year at Kentucky to play with the top incoming class in the nation that includes Anthony Davis, Mike Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, and Kyle Wiltjer, all of whom will be immediate contributors. Darius Miller and Doron Lamb should also return and give Kentucky another championship contender. GRADE: A+
- Florida – Coming into the season, most felt that the Gators were a Final Four contender, but not a championship team. That’s exactly how they ended: Contending for, but just missing, the Final Four. All in all, this was a vast improvement over three disappointing seasons without a single NCAA Tournament victory following their back-to-back championship teams. Florida will lose much of its core, and nearly all of its interior production, as seniors Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus, and All-Conference player Chandler Parsons leave Gainesville. The backcourt, however, will be loaded with Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker returning to play with Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario and freshman phenom Brad Beal. Patric Young will be back, but will have to find a way to get touches from a stacked backcourt that isn’t shy to fire at will. GRADE: A
- Alabama – While I expected the Tide to do well in the West, I certainly didn’t expect a second place conference finish. A conference tournament loss to Kentucky probably cost the Tide an NCAA Tournament bid, but getting to the NIT Final indicates that they could have held their own in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama will lose Senario Hillman, Charvez Davis, and Chris Hines, but will return its three leading scorers in JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell, and Trevor Releford, the latter of whom could be one of the best point guards in the country next year. The Tide also add freshmen blue chips Levi Randolph and Nick Jacobs. The future looks bright in Tuscaloosa. GRADE: A-
- Vanderbilt – Vanderbilt suffered a disappointing finish to an otherwise successful season, losing in the first round to Richmond. Jeffrey Taylor may test the NBA waters, as could John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli, but I think it is likely that at least two of the three will return. That leaves Vanderbilt with a very talented team with Brad Tinsley returning to join freshmen Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson. With talent and experience, Vanderbilt will do a better job of closing out close games, something the Commodores had trouble with this year. GRADE: B+
- Georgia – Georgia’s season didn’t quite measure up to potential. Injuries prevented the Bulldogs from really being a force in the SEC East. The Bulldogs lost to Alabama in the conference tournament and failed to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament, leaving them 1-3 in their final four games. Regardless, coach Mark Fox has them headed in the right direction. Losing Trey Thompkins to the NBA hurts, but it is hard to measure how much his loss will cost Georgia as he was never really played up to expectations this season due to nagging injuries. Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes are seniors and if Travis Leslie also leaves for the NBA, Georgia will need someone to step up big next year. Freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should provide immediate help. GRADE: B-
- Arkansas – The Hogs probably should have done a little better than its 7-9 conference mark, but Arkansas was never going to make the NCAA Tournament this year. That said, why fire coach John Pelphrey after he signs the sixth best class in the country? Well, this way, the new coach (Mike Anderson, formerly of Missouri) can come in with no prior criticism and do well in his first year with a bevy of talent returning and a bunch of great freshmen. It is likely that the Razorbacks will win the West in 2012 and depending on the breaks with their freshman, could make some real waves in the postseason. Anderson will look like a star by benefiting from someone else’s work. It doesn’t seem right to me, but that’s the coaching carousel. GRADE: C
- Mississippi – Chris Warren leaves Mississippi as one of its all-time greatest players and a fan favorite. He carried this team as far as he could, but ultimately, there just wasn’t enough team talent to go get a post-season bid. Losing Zach Graham in addition to Warren is very costly. Next year could be tough in Oxford even if coach Andy Kennedy is able to somehow woo forward Otto Porter to go with commits Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White, neither of whom is expected to be a difference maker in his freshman year. Jelan Kendrick, a Memphis transfer, should provide some help once he becomes eligible in the spring semester, but he’s also known as a troublemaker as he was dismissed from Memphis by Josh Pastner without ever playing a game. GRADE: C
- Auburn – Coach Tony Barbee got his team to play great defense and believe they could win, and that’s about as much as you could ask of a team that was decimated by defections, decommitments, and injuries. Finishing the regular season on a two-game winning streak was an accomplishment in and of itself. Next year, Frankie Sullivan should be healthy and the whole team comes back. Transfers Varez Ward (Texas) and Noel Johnson (Clemson) should help bolster the roster, but I still think Auburn is a year away from doing any damage in the SEC. GRADE: C
- Tennessee – What a mess this season was. The ability to play at a very high level was clear as evidenced by their win at Pittsburgh early in the season. Inconsistent play, coaching scandals, coaching dismissals, new hires, home losses. Just ugly. Now, the Bruce Pearl era, which at one point was a basketball renaissance unequaled in Knoxville, ends with a bang or perhaps a slap as the NCAA is likely to place restrictions on the program. It is never an easy situation for a new coach to come into, just ask Dennis Felton, but there were some positives this year. Freshman Tobias Harris played very well and Scotty Hopson emerged as the team leader the Volunteers were hoping he could become. New coach Cuonzo Martin, who takes over after a successful run at Missouri State, will have his work cut out for him as mass defections are common when coaches get fired and NCAA sanctions are looming. Just ask Indiana how that turned out. GRADE: C-
- South Carolina – A good year when you consider the losses from last year and the relative youth of this team. When the Gamecocks started conference play with wins over Vanderbilt and at Florida, I thought this might be the beginning of a surprising season, but South Carolina couldn’t get over the dearth of experienced talent. If the Gamecocks are to be a factor in the East next year, Bruce Ellington must elevate his shooting percentage after finishing the season at a dismal 32.6% from the field. South Carolina’s only loss is forward Sam Muldrow and coach Darrin Horn is bringing in freshmen Anthony Gill and Damien Leonard, and both should contribute immediately next season. I like Coach Horn and think he will get things right at South Carolina. GRADE: C-
- Mississippi State – Much like Tennessee, the Bulldogs’ season turned into a complete mess. Suspensions, fights in the seats (between players, no less), more suspensions, inconsistent play, out-of-shape players, and a general lack of interest cost this team what could have been a very good season. After Hawaii, when the Bulldogs saw fit to suspend Renardo Sidney and let Elgin Bailey go, this team never got on track. Disappointing from start to finish, these guys really let me down. I was very excited to see how a veteran team with guys like Ravern Johnson, Kodi Augustus, and Dee Bost would fare after Sidney became eligible. Instead, all we got was a bunch of bad attitudes and losses. The Bulldogs lose Johnson and Augustus, but will add small forward Rodney Hood. Maybe a little better chemistry and a strong trio of Hood, Sidney, and Bost will translate into more wins next year. GRADE: D
- LSU – LSU started 2-0 in conference play, but was only able to win 1 of its final 14 games in the SEC including the conference tournament. It may be that some of the shine is wearing off of coach Trent Johnson, who had successful stops at Nevada and Stanford before coming to Baton Rouge, but everyone returns next year and he adds McDonald’s All-American Johnny O’Bryant, who should be a difference-maker in his freshman season with the Tigers. LSU should be better next year, but how much better remains to be seen. GRADE: D
- With significant coaching upgrades in recent years and a corresponding upgrade in talent, the SEC looks to have championship contenders on a regular basis. I expect the league to be more balanced next year with the East and West being much more evenly matched.
- Expect Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi State to fight it out in the West with Arkansas emerging as the champion. The East will be led by national championship contender Kentucky and followed closely by Vanderbilt and Florida. Georgia and South Carolina could make some noise also, but we are in a wait and see status on those teams. The jury is still out on Tennessee as well, due to the possibility of defections and sanctions. I for one can’t wait for the 2011-12 season to begin. Only six months until practice begins.