RTC Summer Updates: Southeastern ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on August 1st, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our SEC correspondent, Gerald Smith. This season he will be covering the NCAA Basketball with zeal, nerd-culture references and a fistful of silliness at halftimeadjustment.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@fakegimel).
- One Big, Mostly-Happy Conference: After several years of divisional lopsidedness in conference scheduling and tournament seeding – to the dismay of programs like Alabama — the SEC has merged the West and East divisions for basketball. A 16-game conference schedule, consisting of the same pairings within and across old divisions, remains for the 2011-12 season. Starting with this year’s SEC Tournament, teams will be seeded and awarded first-round byes by their overall conference record. The most vocal dissenter against peace, conference unity and love was Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury. He argued unsuccessfully that divisional championships create excitement for the fans. MSU athletics must have sold some awesome merchandise for Coach Stansbury’s six SEC West Division championships.
- Too Much of a Good Thing? - Stansbury also argued that a united 12-team conference won’t produce a true champion unless each team plays a full 22-game home and away conference schedule. In July’s coaches’ conference call, some SEC coaches (South Carolina’s Darrin Horn & LSU’s Trent Johnson) agreed, but wonder if such a schedule is feasible. Other coaches (Kentucky’s John Calipari & Alabama’s Anthony Grant) believe that teams should worry more about strengthening their non-conference scheduling and RPI ratings. Increasing the schedule to at least 18 games would placate athletic directors and the SEC’s broadcast partners, but would add further scheduling imbalance and hysteria. In meetings, the decision to increase the number of conference games was postponed until after the 2011-12 season. The SEC coaches will meet again later in August to debate their options.
- Missouri Newbies - Two coaches previously employed in the Show-Me State join the SEC during this period of conference remodeling. As an assistant under former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, new Arkansas coach Mike Anderson became very familiar with the “40 Minutes of Hell” system (and Coach Richardson’s snakeskin boot collection). After stops with UAB and Missouri, Anderson returned to Fayetteville to replace John Pelphrey.
- Caught lying to cover-up his impermissible BBQ — mmmm… impermissible BBQ… *gurgle noise* — Tennessee was forced to fire Bruce Pearl. Missouri State’s Cuonzo Martin was hired to fill Pearl’s vacated orange blazer. With his athletic director resigning and additional NCAA penalties applied to his program, Martin may long for his past days in Springfield.
- Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt returns every important piece of a talented-yet-underachieving team from last year. Dropping that “yet-underachieving” descriptor this season will take a few tweaks hopefully learned from last season’s hard knocks. Senior forward Jeffery Taylor and senior guard Brad Tinsley will need to be great every game instead of just most games. The team will need to discover a killer instinct late in games on both offense and defense, especially on the road — the Commodores were 5-5 in away games and 4-3 on neutral courts. The gap between the talent levels of Kevin Stallings’ team and those of Kentucky can be bridged with Vanderbilt’s seniors playing to their full potential. Of Note: Of Vanderbilt’s freshmen, guard Dai-Jon Parker is most likely to crack the rotation. An excellent shooter, Parker is working on his defensive skills this summer so he can find playing time locking down opponents.
- Kentucky: After losing three starters to the NBA Draft, head coach John Calipari collects his best recruiting class ever. Forwards Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are physical specimens that will amaze basketball fans, regardless of loyalty. Guard Marquis Teague is John Wall-esque and similar comparisons can be made between forward Kyle Wiltjer and Keith Van Horn. This team is not merely freshmen, though. Sophomore forward Terrence Jones, sophomore guard Doron Lamb and senior forward Darius Miller all return for another season. Junior guard Twany Beckham, who transferred from Mississippi State, will be eligible in the second half of the season as a potential backup point guard. Oh, and Ryan Harrow packs his things for Lexington in a move from NC State, though he won’t be eligible to play until the 2012-13 season. Still, talent is no guarantee to the SEC Championship. These newest Wildcats will need to suffer the same rough lessons that their one-and-done former teammates had to learn on the road in the SEC. Of Note: The NCAA would like to remind you that John Calipari has not yet achieved 500 wins. This is very, very important.
- Alabama: The Crimson Tide returns two players in what could be a nationally top-25 frontcourt: Junior forward Tony Mitchell and senior forward JaMychal Green. Freshman center Nick Jacobs further strengthens the Crimson Tide interior and may start. Jacobs has only been playing basketball for six years but will thrive as the third option within the great Crimson Wall. Sophomore guard Trevor Releford grew into his role as the point guard last season and should be a reliable distributor. Starting alongside Releford should be freshman Trevor Lacey, who has a silky scoring touch. Freshman guard Rodney Cooper could also see significant playing time as a three-point threat. This year the stakes are higher for ‘Bama and Anthony Grant. This assembled talent should compete for an SEC championship and make waves in the NCAA Tournament. Of Note: Former Alabama guard Andrew Steele will not be playing basketball this year due to multiple concussions. His brother, Ronald Steele, also suffered multiple injuries while playing for Alabama.
- Mississippi State: Perhaps Rick Stansbury wanted to keep the SEC West together because he felt like he has a team that could win it this year. Troubled yet talented junior center Renardo Sidney spent two months training with former NBA star John Lucas, and will miss his team’s upcoming trip to Europe for another stint with Lucas, but he’ll still have to stay out of his own way. Sidney shares an improved frontcourt with UTEP transfer Arnette Moultrie and Wendell Lewis. Senior guard Dee Bost also has a reinforced backcourt with freshmen guards Rodney Hood and D.J. Gardner. Both freshmen are three-point threats and could punish teams that try to double-team Sidney. With senior guard Brian Bryant projected to start, Bost calls this MSU team “more versatile” than previous versions. Of Note: MSU will be traveling to Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam for a five-game exhibition tour starting August 7, but Renardo Sidney will stay behind in Starkville.
- Florida: Florida returns their amazing guard duo of senior Erving Walker and junior Kenny Boynton. Last year, the Florida offense worked more efficiently running through forward Chandler Parsons and not through Walker and Boynton. Billy Donovan’s troops will be able to shoot their way out of most trouble — former Rutgers guard Mike Rosario and freshman Brad Beal can score in droves — but neither player is well-suited as a facilitator. Only Patric Young remains from the powerful Florida frontcourt from last year. Junior forward Erik Murphy is currently suspended from the team after trying to break into a car with teammate Cody Larson. If Murphy returns, he will be used in a rebounding and scoring role, unlike Parsons’ point-forward position. For Florida to seriously compete for an SEC championship, Walker will need to improve his decision-making skills and turnover rate. Of Note: As a member of the USA team that competed in this year’s U-19 World Championship, Patric Young averaged 9.7 points per game on 72% FG shooting and 6.8 rebounds per game.
- LSU: Trent Johnson’s Tigers are one of the few teams returning a majority of last season’s top scorers. They’ve also gotten a head start on this season with an exhibition trip to Italy. In-between sightseeing and running into some Staten Island divas, the Bayou Bengals are implementing a new motion offense to better complement their personnel. The new offense moves the ball into the post to involve senior forward Storm Warren and freshman McDonald’s All-American Johnny O’Bryant. After grinding every start last year, sophomore guards Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner should benefit from their experience and improve their shot selection and decision making. Of Note: Junior center Justin Hamilton (a transfer from Iowa who sat out last season) was the most impressive Tiger in Italy. He averaged 14.5 and 8.8 rebounds in three games, a performance deserving of the finest of fried pickles.
- Arkansas: Roster turnover is expected when schools change coaches, but few are quite as dramatic as Mike Anderson’s takeover of the Razorbacks. After securing highly-rated recruits B. J. Young, Rashad “Ky” Madden and Hunter Mickelson, Anderson dealt with the messy exodus of guard Rotnei Clarke. Now incoming freshman forward Aaron Ross may not meet eligibility requirements due to missing his specialized ACT exam. The team roster already has one scholarship excluded due to repeated low APR scores; the possible loss of Ross leaves just ten scholarship players to run Anderson’s “Fastest 40 Minutes of College Basketball.” Of Note: The development of junior guard Julysses Nobles’ three-point shooting might be the linchpin of a successful season. The freshmen Young and Madden aren’t known for their range and Nobles is the only guard left from last season who attempted more than 30 three-pointers.
- Tennessee: The fallout from the university’s run-in with the NCAA has yet to settle in Knoxville. Even if there are no further penalties from the Committee of Infractions, the Volunteers’ roster will be hurting. Guard Chris Jones — the Vols’ best guard prospect from this year’s destroyed recruiting class — will attend a junior college this season instead of joining the team. The players remaining will need to rely heavily on each other for success this season. To free up sophomore guard Trae Golden’s drives, senior guard Cameron Tatum must become a consistent scoring threat. Senior forward Renaldo Woolridge may be forced to play and defend bigger opponents so that junior forward Kenny Hall can work from the power-forward position. Most importantly, the lack of bench depth will require the Vols to defend efficiently. Of Note: Sophomore guard Jordan McRae may see big minutes this season due to his potential scoring ability. Last season he played scarcely due to his lack of defense and inappropriate language in front of donors on the team bus.
- Ole Miss: The trio of savvy guards that anchored the Rebels last year have graduated (Chris Warren, Zach Graham) or transferred (Trevor Gaskins). The responsibility of running the offense — and feeding senior forward Terrance Henry — now relies on a set of inexperienced guards. Sophomore guard Dundrecous Nelson must provide a more consistent management of scoring output and facilitating the offense. To allow Nelson to play more as a shooting guard, freshman guard Jarvis Summers may see significant minutes at point guard. Freshman guard Ladarius White could provide an additional shooting threat from the bench. The frontcourt will be anchored by Henry and junior forward Reginald Buckner. Henry, an improving offensive threat, needs Buckner to share the scoring load. Forward Murphy Holloway (returning from South Carolina) is awaiting NCAA clearance to be able to play in the 2011-12 season. Of Note: Jelan Kendrick, a 2010 McDonald’s All-American originally committed to Memphis, will be eligible to play for coach Andy Kennedy in December. If Kendrick has tempered his disruptive attitude that led to his dismissal from Memphis, he could provide an additional post & perimeter scoring threat — and a lot of headaches in his SEC opponents.
- Georgia: The early departures of guard Travis Leslie and forward Trey Thompkins is forcing Georgia coach Mark Fox to admit that scoring is “an area of concern” for the Bulldogs. Replacing the scoring and assists contributed by Leslie should be the relatively easier task: Senior guard Dustin Ware will increase his field-goal (and three-pointer) attempts while senior guard Gerald Robinson should work on game management and reducing turnovers. Replacing Thompkins will be more difficult. Marcus Thornton has never been much of an offensive threat, and the rest of Georgia’s frontcourt players (including freshman center Tim Dixon) will need time to develop. Of Note: Freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is involved in the Jarvis Jones/Columbus Parks and Recreation Department scandal. According to a police investigation, a cell phone bill for Caldwell-Pope’s mother was paid by a bank account controlled by Caldwell-Pope’s AAU basketball coach. If he is ruled ineligible, it would add even more worry lines to Coach Fox’s brow.
- Auburn: Last year, the Tigers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn (62.4 PPG, 39.8 FG%). Guard Earnest Ross, one of the few players who could hit the barn, left one school of Tigers for another (Missouri). This won’t be another aimless year, as coach Tony Barbee has some recruits and transfers that should complement senior guard/forward Kenny Gabriel. Guard Varez Ward, a transfer from Texas, will be eligible and healthy. Junior guard and 3-point threat Frankie Sullivan will be healthy. Former Clemson forward Noel Johnson will be available after the end of the fall 2011 semester. Freshman center Willy Kouassi will add much-needed size inside. Auburn will surprise teams if they find the scoring they sorely missed and can still replicate last year’s defensive intensity. Of Note: Former Texas player Damion James highly praised his former teammate Varez Ward back in 2010. James emphasized Ward’s floor leadership and smart decision-making in the offense. Coach Barbee will need the player in James’ description for any sort of remarkable season.
- South Carolina: After an underachieving 2010-11 campaign, several key Gamecock players slated to contribute this season decided to evacuate Columbia: Guards Ramon Galloway and Stephen Spinella and former Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway (transferring back to Ole Miss). Star sophomore guard Bruce Ellington asked for and has received permission to play on Steve Spurrier’s football team and could possibly not return to the basketball roster. These departures have fueled Gamecock fans’ impatience concerning coach Darrin Horn’s management of the team. For the Gamecocks to succeed, they must find offensive production from Horn’s class of sophomores: Forwards RJ Slawson and Damontre Harris and guard Brian Richardson. Freshman guard Damien Leonard’s three-point accuracy may move him into a starting role. Of Note: If Ellington does not return after the football season is completed, South Carolina will only have four guards on the roster: sophomores Richardson, Eric Smith, Brenton Williams and freshman Leonard.
The last time at least three SEC teams advanced to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen was the 2007 tournament. In the four NCAA Tournaments since 2007, 12 of the 18 SEC teams that participated were seeded sixth or worse. This is due to a flux of leadership: since 2003, there have been 14 coaching changes across nine teams. Traditional basketball powerhouses Kentucky and Arkansas have each changed their coaches twice. New Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told reporters during the coaches’ July conference call that the recent coaching turnover is strengthening the conference and that, “once you get stability, our league will really take off.”
The recruiting success from the past four years seems to confirm Anderson’s confidence. Since 2008, ten of the 12 SEC teams have appeared in the Top-25 or Top-30 team recruiting ranking lists for ESPN and Rivals. Eight teams (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) have appeared at least twice in these ratings. You can expect that the four best SEC conference records this season will come from members of this group.
The real sign of the SEC taking off as a basketball power will be results from the 2011-12 non-conference schedule. The league’s overall non-conference winning percentage has been trending downwards — from 71.4% in 2008-09 to 67.1% in 2010-11. A significant increase in that percentage will indicate that the SEC has improved itself dramatically and is worthy of ESPN’s massive broadcasting deal.
New Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin might be the living antithesis of former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. Where Pearl is prideful and demonstrative, Martin is humble and reserved. Martin’s acceptance speech for the MVC Coach of the Year is nothing like Pearl’s self-accolading (and quite entertaining) history lesson with Erin Andrews. Despite his undertaking in NCAA violations, Pearl is beloved by Tennessee fans and still resides in Knoxville. The potential public and private clashes over these coaches may divide more Tennesseans than Interstate 40.
Mark Your Calendar
The Big East/SEC Challenge matchups have been published. In this new 12-game format, every SEC team will be tested and broadcast nationally on the many ESPN networks. (Game start time and broadcast details not available at the time of this post.) The following should make for must-see TV:
- St. John’s at Kentucky (Thursday, Dec. 1) — The Academy Award for “Best Dramatic Sideline Performance by a Head Coach” could be at stake if St. John’s keeps the game close late.
- Mississippi at DePaul (Thursday, Dec. 1) – For a few years, Andy Kennedy (a former assistant at Cincinnati) and Oliver Purnell (then the head man at Dayton) waged recruiting battles in Ohio.
- Vanderbilt at Louisville (Friday, Dec. 2) — With a win in “The Bucket” against a likely Top-10 Cardinal team, Vandy can make a statement that they will be a contender for the Final Four.
- Florida at Syracuse (Friday, Dec. 2) — Billy Donovan might allow his team to shoot 50 three-pointers against Syracuse’s zone. A tried and true way to bust a zone is to shoot the lights out, and the Gators can do that with the best of them.
- West Virginia at Mississippi State (Saturday, Dec. 3) — West Virginia will bring their trademark physical and active defense. Will Mississippi State’s offense thrive or wilt from the pressure?
Outside of the annual challenge, Kentucky loaded its schedule with a test against Kansas, the annual showdown with North Carolina, and an in-state battle against Louisville. Tennessee will look to make a strong showing in a brimming Maui Invitational field, and Florida will lock up with an Ohio State team expected to be the preseason #3 team when the initial polls are released.