Get To The Point: SEC EditionPosted by Brian Otskey on August 15th, 2011
Throughout the summer RTC contributors Zach Hayes and Brian Otskey will discuss the hot topics — or whatever comes to mind — around each major conference in college basketball. This week, they tackle the SEC. For the entire summer series focusing on each of the six power conferences, click here.
Brian: While football dominates the conversation when it comes to the SEC, most basketball fans know there is some quality hoops played in this league as well. The 2011-12 version of SEC basketball is no exception as three teams (Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida) should be top 25 mainstays while a fourth (Alabama) has the potential to make quite a bit of noise in its own right and crack the rankings. New coaches begin major rebuilding projects at Arkansas and Tennessee while LSU and Auburn should improve from disastrous seasons. There’s a renewed sense of optimism at Mississippi State but Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina have to start over after losing key contributors from last year. The SEC looks to be a very strong league at the top but full of intrigue from #1 to #12.
Perhaps the biggest news this offseason was the decision to scrap the East/West divisional format and rank the teams 1 through 12. In my opinion, this is the best setup and will result in better balance throughout the conference. However, the SEC athletic directors did not change the scheduling format for this coming year at their spring meetings back in early June. If it were up to me, I would have done away with the divisions and changed the schedule at the same time. What we will have this year is akin to what the Big 12 used for years before losing two of its members. While that isn’t the end of the world, it’s a bigger deal in the SEC. The three strongest teams resided in what was the East division while many of the weaker programs competed in the SEC West. With the scheduling format remaining the same for one more year, Alabama looks to be the biggest beneficiary. The Crimson Tide will play 10 games against Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi and Mississippi State while seeing Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt only once. While some of the West schools should be a bit better than they were, none will come close to matching what the top three East clubs bring to the table. Alabama went 12-4 in conference play last year and that would have been good enough for second place in the new setup. Does anyone really think Alabama was the second best team in the conference last season? I have nothing against Alabama but that simply wasn’t the case. I just don’t see why the conference ADs made this knee-jerk decision to dump the divisions without changing the schedule. Waiting one year and working it all out would have been the better approach. The East teams will benefit from playing each other twice (better RPI) but I’d like to see the league go to an 18-game schedule eventually. The rumblings about a true round-robin 22-game slate sound nice, but 22 conference games seems like too much to me. I’d label that as good in theory but unrealistic in a 12-team league.
My pick to win the league is Kentucky. John Calipari brings in his best recruiting class ever with four 5-star players heading to Lexington. With returnees Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas on board, UK is primed for a monster season. I expect Marquis Teague to take the reins at the point fairly easily while Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer headline the front court. Kentucky also has the luxury of the versatile Jones who, with added strength and quickness, can expand his game even further. He’s got an incredible shooting touch for a man of his size but I’m more interested to see how much better he gets in the paint with Davis now by his side to relieve some of the pressure. Despite all of this, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist may be Calipari’s best recruit. This kid is the type of player that scouts drool over, able to slash and take it inside or step out and knock down a mid-range shot. He needs to work on his shooting from behind the arc but Kidd-Gilchrist is an incredible athlete who will contribute right away on the defensive end as well as on the glass. Kidd-Gilchrist will bring a strong work ethic and commitment towards getting better to Kentucky and the Wildcats will reap the benefits all season long. I expect Kentucky to be one of the few national championship contenders despite all of their youth.
Zach: I’m not convinced that keeping the old schedule format is necessarily a boon for Alabama and Mississippi State, the only two teams that have a legitimate chance to “win” what was the SEC West this season. The selection committee today factors in non-conference and conference SOS, looking at the who/when/where of every win on the schedule, rather than just the record in isolation. It’s no coincidence the Tide won 12 SEC games last season, normally a total that automatically results in a bid, and were still relegated to the NIT. Alabama’s non-conference schedule this year consists of Georgetown, at Kansas State (in KC), Oklahoma State (Birmingham) and at Georgia Tech. None of those first three teams are considered definite contenders for the NCAA Tournament and Georgia Tech has close to no chance to dance. With JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Trevor Releford back in the fold, the Tide have the makings of a Top 25 team and should qualify for the field of 68 with ease, but their seed may take a hit because of the weakness of the SEC West schools. For a team with expectations, in a way keeping the old schedule format hurts more than it helps.
I’m more excited for this year’s SEC slate than I have been for any season in recent memory. The conference experienced a bit of a downturn two or three years ago, but the rejuvenation of Kentucky‘s proud program, Florida crawling back to elite status and schools such as Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Georgia all reaching the NCAA Tournament last year has boosted the SEC to more than just a football powerhouse. The Wildcats will enter the season as the clear preseason #2 behind North Carolina and may even garner some votes for the top spot for two primary reasons: 1) Terrence Jones spurned the NBA lottery for a sophomore season at Lexington and 2) John Calipari conjured up his best recruiting class yet. Marquis Teague is more in the Eric Bledsoe/slasher mold than Brandon Knight and I fully expect his penetration to free up open looks for pinpoint three-point shooters Doron Lamb (49%) and Darius Miller (44%). Anthony Davis is the near-consensus top player on the big board for the 2012 NBA Draft with his length, versatility and face-up skills that stayed with him during a seven-inch growth spurt in high school. And Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as you pointed out, is a coach’s dream with his humility off the floor and his complete repertoire on the floor that one rarely sees from a blue chip recruit.
What makes Kentucky so scary this season is their depth at every position, giving Calipari leeway to mix and match strategy depending on personnel and what works. Unlike last season when the Wildcats went seven deep, this year’s team has four potential All-Americans in Jones, Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Lamb and five more excellent rotation pieces in Miller, Teague, Vargas, Kyle Wiltjer and either Stacey Poole or Mississippi State transfer Twany Beckham. Playing at a quicker pace, thereby increasing the number of possessions in a 40-minute game, is usually beneficial to any team with an abundance of talent. With this deep pool of athleticism and speed on the roster, employing a pressing style is an intriguing possibility. In the halfcourt, Calipari could go back to his patented dribble-drive motion offense, or spread the floor and utilize Teague to find open jump shooters on the perimeter. As with most Calipari-coached teams that experience such dramatic turnover, halfcourt execution could suffer initially in the non-conference, but by SEC play this team should be cruising up the rankings. And take it to the bank that this team will defend, as Calipari doesn’t tolerate anything different. This roster has the makings of a #1 seed.
Vanderbilt and Florida have the best chances to upend Kentucky and win the SEC. Due to the Gators frontcourt subtractions, Vanderbilt deserves the edge, but I have major reservations about this team. First, can they defend? The Commodores finished 60th in defensive efficiency in 2009-10 and actually dipped to 88th in 2010-11, an inexcusable ranking given Jeffery Taylor‘s length against opposing wings and Festus Ezeli‘s shot-blocking capabilities when he can stay out of foul difficulties. That simply has to improve if Vanderbilt wants to compete with Kentucky. Second is point guard play late in games. Brad Tinsley’s A/T ratio improved last season, but it was often due to his passive play late in games, and I’m not convinced he’s more of a combo guard than a capable shot creator. Thirdly, and most importantly, is Vanderbilt tough enough? Their first-round stunners to Murray State and Richmond in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments are certainly warning flags. Taylor, Tinsley and Ezeli are now seniors, while John Jenkins could be off to the NBA after this season. Will Vandy finally take the bull by the horns, play up to their talent level and succeed when the chips are down in March? If the pieces come together and these questions are answered, the ‘Dores are Final Four-caliber.
Brian: I think you’re being too tough on Alabama’s schedule. Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, while not prime NCAA contenders, are not bad teams at all. In fact, I’d bet two of them end up in the field of 68 when all is said and done. The Crimson Tide will also participate in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, a tournament that includes Temple, Purdue, Iona and Wichita State. Your point about how the NCAA Committee selects teams is absolutely right but I’m saying that 12 conference wins (such as last year) usually gets you a long look no matter how you performed out of conference. If Alabama had won only 9 SEC games, they wouldn’t have been on the board. I actually agree with your point of view. All I’m saying is that the easier schedule gives them a better chance to rack up wins and, as a result, be considered for a tournament berth. However, if Alabama fails to make the NCAA Tournament this season, it’s not going to be because of their schedule.
Your idea that John Calipari may speed up his offense to take advantage of Kentucky’s incredible talent and athleticism is very interesting. On paper, it makes a ton of sense. It isn’t without precedence either. Cal’s 2005-06 Elite Eight Memphis squad played at an adjusted tempo of 71.8 possessions per game, a number that would have been good enough for 15th in the nation in 2010-11. Last year’s team, with Brandon Knight at the point, ranked just #210 in adjusted tempo. By contrast, John Wall’s 2009-10 team ranked #65. With a new point guard who’s able to break down a defense in the fold, I think Calipari will up the tempo and play quicker. You said this roster has the makings of a #1 seed. I’ll take that a step further and say I’d be stunned if Kentucky wasn’t on one of the top lines seven months from now.
I could not agree more with everything you said about Vanderbilt. Kevin Stallings welcomes a roster loaded with potential back to Nashville They’re primed for a Final Four run but this team absolutely needs to get tougher both mentally and defensively. With regards to their play late in games, I vividly remember the game at home against Tennessee where Vandy must have turned it over five times down the stretch. Great teams simply don’t do that. In that game, Bruce Pearl’s team executed a masterful defensive strategy against sniper John Jenkins and totally locked him down in the closing minutes. The Commodores, seeing their star rendered useless, got flustered and nobody stepped up to lead. Point guard Brad Tinsley disappeared and that’s a recipe for turnovers which is exactly what happened. I really like this roster but I need to see them perform more consistently before crowning them as a major threat to Kentucky. I do think they’ll get there but let’s be patient and see it happen first.
Florida’s back court will be stellar (among the best in the nation) but there’s a major void to be filled up front. Last year’s Gator frontcourt, with Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin, was sneaky good and highly experienced. I’m not convinced Patric Young can make a huge leap as a sophomore, nor do I have confidence in Erik Murphy and freshman Walter Pitchford to be major contributors. The Gators have a beyond loaded backcourt, bolstered by stud freshman Brad Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario but that by itself isn’t enough. Another question will be team chemistry. With such a guard-heavy team full of players who want the ball in their hands to shoot, will playing time and, for lack of a better term, ball-hogging, become an issue for this team? I think it’s a distinct possibility. Florida may become Villanova-south if Billy Donovan goes with four guards for long periods of time but they will need to coexist peacefully. Florida’s non-conference schedule, along with two games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, will earn them a very strong power rating but I’m not seeing a big time year out of the Gators. I believe this is a Top 25 team but I’m not as bullish on their prospects as most others are. Dates with Ohio State, Arizona, Syracuse, Texas A&M and Florida State could knock them out of the rankings before conference play begins and I’m very concerned about who becomes a leader on this team with SEC Player of the Year Parsons having moved on. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton just don’t do it for me from a leadership perspective and I’m afraid Billy Donovan will go back to a chuck-and-duck style with a limited frontcourt. All bets are off if Young makes a huge leap but I just can’t see this team doing big things with such a thin frontcourt.
We’ve discussed the top four teams in the SEC in great detail. Mississippi State seems to be next in line and then the picture becomes very murky. There’s an opening there for a bottom-level team to make a significant jump up the ladder with programs like Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia in rebuilding mode. Who will it be?
Zach: I distinctly recall that Tennessee choke job as well. It wasn’t the first or last time the Vandy offense was so hell-bent on finding Jenkins off of a screen that the play stalled and the possession broke down. Even last year we often discussed how we were pleading for Vanderbilt to play up to the level we thought was equivalent to their talent level and just when you felt they finally turned a corner, a disappointing loss to Arkansas or South Carolina followed. With nearly every main contributor back for another go-round, the excuses have run dry. Realistic expectations should be a second place finish in the SEC and a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
I have the same fears when it comes to Florida. On paper, the backcourt is loaded. Walker is a floor leader that upped his efficiency a season ago, it appeared as though Boynton found a consistent release point on his jumper towards the second half of SEC play, Rosario is two seasons removed from averaging nearly 17 PPG in the Big East and Beal may be the most complete guard in the 2011 class. That foursome should carry Florida to plenty of wins next season. But who takes the big shot late in games? Will Rosario, who is used to gunning at a high volume from his Rutgers days, happily defer to Walker? Will Boynton feel like he has to attempt his eight threes per game and will Beal, who may view himself as a one-and-done, try to take matters into his own hands to impress NBA scouts? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good problem for Billy Donovan to have. You assemble as many useful pieces as possible and let the crowded rotation solve itself with performance on the court. Still, there’s reason to believe problems could crop up, especially given Florida’s questionable shot selection in recent years. Donovan badly needs egos set aside and Patric Young to refine his game this summer to make an impact in the frontcourt. The Gators grueling non-conference schedule, which features a plethora of ranked teams, provides no time to waltz into the campaign either.
Mississippi State’s 2010-11 season was much more tumultuous than their 9-7 SEC record would indicate. From their curious schedule construction to the disastrous Vegas-Hawaii swing to Renardo Sidney‘s public fisticuffs, it wasn’t a smooth operation for Rick Stansbury last year. A fresh start is exactly what their program needs. Sidney skipping the team’s trip to Europe isn’t exactly an ideal start in terms of repairing chemistry, but I don’t see that as a major issue as long as he’s working hard back on campus. Conditioning limits his time on the floor, but the controversial Sidney did score in double figures in 15 of the 19 games he suited up for the Bulldogs last season and his 7.8 RPG was respectable. If Stansbury can somehow convince the rotund Sidney to trim some more weight and give a sustained effort level defensively, it’ll be a worthwhile risk not giving up on the big man. I expect point guard Dee Bost to garner all-SEC honors this year and it’s his job to take reins of this team and not allow them to veer off track. Bost will receive ample help on the wings from incoming freshmen Rodney Hood and D.J. Gardner, two tremendous talents that can really fill it up. This is an NCAA Tournament team on its face. Unfortunately, it remains plausible this could turn into a dumpster fire like they did last December. Stansbury and Bost must make sure that doesn’t happen.
The team that has the best chance of sneaking into the upper portion of the standings is Arkansas. Mike Anderson‘s primary goal will be to rekindle the glory days of Nolan Richardson’s coaching tenure in Fayetteville when Anderson was a top assistant. If he can incorporate his 40 Minutes of Hell, cause as much chaos as possible and even the playing field a bit against superior opponents, the Razorbacks will be competitive in more games than folks expect. The most important move of Anderson’s first week at Arkansas was keeping the heralded recruiting class that former coach John Pelphrey assembled before his dismissal. It was certainly a risky move by Arkansas AD Jeff Long to jeopardize the collapse of a fantastic five-man class when he fired Pelphrey, but it worked out for Arkansas and they could be a force to be reckoned with in 2-3 years. There will be growing pains this upcoming season, but the Arkansas faithful will allow Anderson more than one year to develop his freshmen and get the ship righted. Point guard B.J. Young is the blue-chipper of the group, an aggressive, quick and athletic show-stopper that should start from day one. Anderson also must maneuver Marshawn Powell back on track after a disappointing second season. A massive game if Arkansas is on the bubble could be Michigan coming to town on January 21, one of those late season resume-builders.
Brian: I’m not sure Arkansas can compete for a tournament bid after losing five of their top seven scorers from a team that could only manage an 18-13 (7-9) record. Rotnei Clarke is of course the biggest loss and they’ll need at least three freshmen to make a significant impact right away. B.J. Young can absolutely do that but there will be a lot of pressure on him, Rashad Madden and Hunter Mickelson to succeed immediately. Marshawn Powell has a ton of potential and is the Razorbacks’ best returning player but this isn’t a deep team at all. Outside of Powell and Julysses Nobles, nobody on this roster is an established name in SEC circles. A thin roster playing Mike Anderson’s style certainly isn’t a good combination. For Anderson, installing his system and laying the foundation for future success should be his two main goals in his first season at the helm of his dream program.
Mississippi is a team that catches my eye. The Rebels lose double figure scorers Chris Warren and Zach Graham but return an experienced senior in Terrance Henry along with blossoming sophomore Dundrecous Nelson. Nelson averaged 7.2 PPG in only 15 minutes of action as a freshman and should turn into a reliable scorer this season. He can really hurt opponents from deep but needs to improve his overall shooting percentage. Nelson shot only 38.9% from the floor last season with 61.6% of his attempts coming from beyond the arc. He has proven to be a very good three-point shooter but an expansion of his game is necessary in order to continue to improve. Andy Kennedy also welcomes back forward Reginald Buckner, second in the SEC in blocked shots last year. Memphis transfer Jelan Kendrick is also slated to join the team after the first semester. Ole Miss won’t be a great team but the pieces are in place to surprise some folks and maybe get a crack at the Big Dance. I wouldn’t bet on it but the opportunity is there even without Warren and Graham around anymore. Kennedy’s seat is getting warm and he may need to show major progress in what will be his sixth season (with no NCAA berths thus far) on the sidelines in Oxford.
LSU is a team some say will greatly improve this season. While the Tigers do return their top four scorers from a year ago, I just can’t see how the same players that finished 11-21 (3-13) in 2010-11 will make a significant jump. This team needs to learn how to win and while the future is a bit brighter, I see LSU struggling again. Freshman Johnny O’Bryant will add talent and depth to the roster, as will Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton, but the hole in Baton Rouge is quite deep. What’s your take on LSU and the rest of the league?
Zach: One could argue the coach that sustained the biggest gut punch during the early entry process was Mark Fox at Georgia (although Rick Barnes may beg to differ). Rather than return to a #10 seed returning basically every key component, juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie opted to remain in the NBA Draft as second round selections. Georgia is a preseason Top 25 squad with both of those all-SEC contenders back. Instead, Fox must rely on underrated point guard Gerald Robinson and sharpshooter Dustin Ware (44% from beyond the arc) to carry most of the load. Here’s a bold prediction: freshman scoring machine Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Fox’s signature recruit since taking the gig, will lead the Bulldogs in points next season. With either Thompkins or Leslie, nevermind both, back in the fold, a tournament bid could have been a realistic expectation in Athens.
I too expect LSU to improve incrementally, but still miss out on any postseason recognition. Trent Johnson is a solid coach and will eventually lead the Tigers back to respectability. Recruiting has been a stiffer test for Johnson than during his Pac-10 days and LSU has one of the worst home-court advantages right now in the SEC. It takes time to revive a sinking ship and Johnson has this program on the proper track. As you mentioned, O’Bryant is a coup and will immediately be Johnson’s best player, a 6’9″, 245-pound force with touch around the rim and a dependable face-up game. Point guard Andre Stringer is caught in between positions; at 5’9″, he’s much too small to play two-guard, but his woeful shooting totals don’t exactly fit the description of an ideal shooting guard. Playing 30+ minutes per game as a rookie will help Stringer this season. Ralston Turner should develop into a capable swingman for Johnson, as well.
The team whose season ended in total and complete disaster last year was Tennessee. They flat out folded in that game against Michigan. Whether or not Pearl was going to be canned at the end of the season (common sense would suggest yes), that white flag in the second half was the final straw. With Pearl went the perennially underachieving Scotty Hopson, the out-of-shape Brian Williams, offensive liability Melvin Goins, and first round pick Tobias Harris, leaving Cameron Tatum as the only returning player that averaged more than 3.0 PPG last season. Once highly regarded recruits Jordan McRae and Trae Golden are also back, along with Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon, Skylar McBee and Renaldo Woolridge. I think it’s fair to presume Pat Summitt’s program will once again own the spotlight in Knoxville for the near future.
As much as we can search desperately for reasons Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and these other middling programs will surprise, the likelihood is slim. The SEC is very strong this year with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Alabama and even Mississippi State all appearing quite formidable. It’s not an ideal season for an underdog to sneak up.
Brian: Unfortunately for Cuonzo Martin, I agree with your take. This could very well be the toughest rebuilding job in the nation after Bruce Pearl took that program to new heights only to see it all come crashing down in epic fashion over a photograph at a summer cookout. With NCAA sanctions likely staring the program in the face, the job will only get tougher from here on out for Martin.
The SEC will definitely be a top heavy league this season. While the bottom won’t be as bad, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU still figure to struggle mightily. I’m not convinced Mississippi State, the prime example of a dysfunctional team lacking leadership, can hang with the big boys. Sure they have some talent but Rick Stansbury and the roster he’s assembled doesn’t make me all warm and fuzzy from a chemistry perspective. Stansbury should take most of the heat for allowing the distractions to fester and enabling Renardo Sidney’s poor behavior, sacrificing principle and integrity for the chance to win basketball games. Sidney has no business being on this team after the embarrassment last Christmas in Hawaii. He’s received chance after chance and rewarding his bad behavior will continue to get this program nowhere.
I’ll finish this edition of Get To The Point by addressing Texas A&M‘s flirtation with the SEC. While the SEC decided on Sunday not to invite the Aggies, schools across the nation better be on notice. Expansion is going to happen again, probably sooner rather than later. When the big changes take do place, the domino effect will rock the world of collegiate athletics. The SEC is in prime position to expand its influence but conferences like the Big 12 and Big East seemed destined for major shakeups when the dominoes start to fall. While nothing seems to be happening this time around, I’m convinced we’re headed towards an era of four “super conferences” of 16+ teams at some point. It’s just a matter of when.