RTC Conference Primers: #3 – Southeastern ConferencePosted by rtmsf on November 9th, 2011
Reader’s Take I
The SEC/Big East Invitational features all 12 SEC teams in action.
- Everything In Its Right Place: After several years of coaching changes and lackluster out-of-conference performance, the SEC is finally ready to jump back into the national discussion of powerful basketball conferences. The movement is powered by young coaches (Alabama’s Anthony Grant), older but new-to-the-SEC coaches (LSU’s Trent Green, Georgia’s Mark Fox) and the SEC coaching stalwarts (Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Mississippi State’s Rick Stansbury, Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy, Kentucky’s Johhn Calipari). Thanks to the solidifying of the coaching guard, the conference is flush with top talent: 13 McDonald’s All-Americans will be playing this season across six different teams. The national basketball pollsters have noticed and have rewarded the SEC’s upward mobility with four teams in the preseason Top 25 polls; the first time the conference has had four or more teams in a preseason poll since the 2006-07 season (incidentally, also the last time an SEC school won it all).
- Sit Down. Stand Up. (Snakes & Ladders): Kentucky head coach John Calipari brings arguably the greatest recruiting class in SEC history to join an already-talented roster. The hype for this season was already building in Lexington even before the 2010-11 season began when Calipari netted McDonald’s All-Americans Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer; when Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb elected to return for their sophomore seasons to rejoin senior Darius Miller, expectations were raised to national championship status. It remains to be seen if Calipari’s freshmen will wilt against more experienced teams that will play them tough physically and mentally. One thing is for sure: This Kentucky team will score in downpours not seen in Lexington since the 1995-96 National Championship team.
- My Iron Lung: After an infamous season that included fighting his own teammate, Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney realizes that the college basketball public is watching him for more screw-ups. He spent this summer working out in Houston with former NBA player/coach John Lucas in order to improve his conditioning and attitude. Sidney’s lackluster performance in MSU’s first game Monday (nine points and three rebounds in just 23 minutes of play) won’t easily squelch his critics. Unless he can finally meet the expectations of his talent level, the Bulldogs will be wheezing all season long.
- Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box: This season the Southeastern Conference removed the divisional formatting for its basketball conference standings. The teams with the top four overall conference records regardless of schedule strength will receive a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. The SEC East and SEC West divisional championships now exist only in the past. And perhaps the future: With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M in the 2012-13 season, going back to the two basketball division format may be necessary.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Kentucky (14-2)
- Vanderbilt (13-3)
- Alabama (12-4)
- Mississippi State (11-5)
- Florida (11-5)
- Arkansas (8-8)
- Mississippi (8-8)
- LSU (7-9)
- Tennessee (4-12)
- Georgia (3-13)
- Auburn (3-13)
- South Carolina (2-14)
- F: Terrence Jones, Kentucky (15.7 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.9 BPG). A few months ago he surprised the Big Blue Nation and college basketball fans in general by eschewing the NBA Draft (and lockout) and returning to school. He returns — 15 pounds of new muscle in tow and a year of the dribble-drive under his belt — as the best player in the conference and has shown up on several 1st- and 2nd-team All-America lists, including our own.
- F: Anthony Davis, Kentucky (As HS Senior: 32 PPG, 22 RPG, 8 BPG). John Calipari may be famous for his run of top-flight point guards, but it’s Davis who currently sits as the projected 3rd pick in NBADraft.net’s mock draft for 2012. He’s clocked in at 6’10” and 220 pounds, but his 7’4” wingspan and agility for a man of his size means you’ll see numerous occurrences of him blocking a shot at one end, then beating everyone down the floor on the break for a dunk. Trust us, it’ll happen a lot.
- G: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (19.5 PPG, 40.8% 3PFG, 15.2 Efficiency Rating). Jenkins is one of the best pure shooters in the nation, let alone the SEC. His 19.5 PPG last season ranked him in the top 30 nationally, and even though fellow double-figure scorers Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, and Brad Tinsley have also returned, we doubt Jenkins will be discouraged from attempting to at least equal that number this year. Pardon the cliche’, but it really is true here: his form on the jumper should be an instructional video.
- G: Dee Bost, Mississippi State (15.3 PPG, 6.2 APG, 1.6 SPG). Given the almost constant spotlight on Kentucky, this season’s extra expectations for Vanderbilt, and the increased interest in Florida, Bost sometimes gets left out of the talk. Don’t make that mistake; if Renardo Sidney can stay on the floor (or the team) and UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie has the impact he’s expected to have, Bost will again be among the nation’s best distributors — and he can fill it up, too. To wit: his 23 points (and six dimes) against Eastern Kentucky on Monday.
- C: JaMychal Green, Alabama (15.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.1 BPG). After last year, this is familiar real estate for Green. A strong junior season landed him on the All-SEC first-team. He’ll also be counted upon to anchor the Tide’s efforts on the defensive end; Green swats over two shots a game and snags a couple of steals, as well. Expectations are up for Anthony Grant’s third season at the helm, and it’s Green who will chiefly determine the outcome.
Impact Newcomer: Justin Hamilton, Jr, C, LSU; 7’0”, 255. Now here’s an interesting category. Those Kentucky freshmen have gotten their share of hype, and it would have been too easy to go there. Same for Brad Beal and Cody Larson. Arnett Moultrie is already making Mississippi State fans happy and everyone knew he’d make an immediate impact — again, too easy. We decided to go a little off the map this time because, in terms of impact, a man’s very employment may be on the line. LSU head coach Trent Johnson has four returning starters from an 11-21 (3-13) season, and he adds Hamilton, a 7’0”, 255-pounder from Iowa State, as the last piece, hoping the big fella will be able to provide scoring (LSU averaged a mere 62 PPG last year) and take some of the pressure off of the Tigers’ perimeter players. Hamilton played in 31 games for the Cyclones in 2009-10, averaging 6.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, and 1.1 BPG in an average of 21.1 minutes per contest. There are certainly newcomers to the SEC this year with more skill and higher expectations, but Johnson’s chair on the LSU bench is starting to take on a reddish glow, and he needs Hamilton to produce immediately while seamlessly integrating himself onto the squad. That’s significant weight to put on one new kid’s shoulders, and is impactful enough for us.
Sixth Man: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Fr, Kentucky (20.2 PPG as HS senior). Lots of ways to go, here. Jeffery Taylor, Brad Beal, Erving Walker, Marquis Teague, Tony Mitchell — all of them, and a few others, were considered. You may recall, though, that Kidd-Gilchrist was considered the top player in his high school class… until Anthony Davis grew eight inches before his senior year and other players in the class started to sign with colleges (the rankings always change after kids start signing). Fact is, MKG may wind up on some All-America teams as more than just a Sixth Man by season’s end. Kidd-Gilchrist is both physical and ferocious. If he has the ball within eight feet of the basket, we promise you, he will try to dunk that basketball. On the defensive end, he never shuts up, a trait coaches love and most college seniors have trouble acquiring. In Kentucky’s two exhibitions, the guy was absolutely EVERYWHERE on the court. And if you believe his high school coaches and teammates, you couldn’t have a better teammate.
Kentucky (NCAA Seed: #1) This isn’t going to help those RTC detractors who feel our SEC coverage slants a tad toward a certain shade of blue, but come on. We’re not exactly alone in this. Late last season, every fan, blogger, sportswriter and television expert in America anointed Kentucky the obvious pre-season #1 for 2011-12 until Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller decided to come back to North Carolina. It’s not like the Wildcats have gotten any worse since then. It won’t be the runaway that some believe, because Florida and Vanderbilt will by no means go quietly. But let’s be honest. This Wildcat squad possesses more talent than any other team in the SEC, and while you’ll hear a lot about their freshman, there’s experience here, too. Yes, we are in an age in which sophomores — say, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — are considered “experienced,” and one mustn’t forget senior Darius Miller. Finally, whatever your opinion of the man, the team is led by one of the craftier coaches in the game. Anything less than a #1 seed in the Tournament and another Final Four run for John Calipari’s 2011-12 edition will be considered a disappointment.
Other NCAA/NIT Teams
- Vanderbilt Commodores (NCAA seed: #2): Vanderbilt returns all five starters from a team that beat both North Carolina and Kentucky last year. The SEC’s leading scorer, John Jenkins, returns bringing his 19.5 points per game and proficient three point shooting (40.8 3PFG%) back with him. Once Festus Ezeli returns from a sprained MCL/PCL injury, the Commodores will have a true low post threat, and should be one of the best teams in the country. There is a lot for Vandy fans to be optimistic about. However, the ‘Dores haven’t advanced to the Round of 32 in the Big Dance since 2007. Kevin Stallings’ team lacked the toughness to close out tough games as they lost double digit leads in five of their 11 losses last season. The Commodores must improve perimeter defense if they are to make a run at the SEC Championship. A pair of freshmen, Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker, should be able to help in that area and provide much needed depth in the backcourt.
- Florida Gators (NCAA seed: #3): Florida has a nice problem, meaning its abnormally large corps of talented guards. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker return to the Gators and head coach Billy Donovan added dynamic freshman Brad Beal as well as Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario. Donovan has talked about playing at least three guards at a time, if not four. Florida must get low post rebounding and point production from Patric Young and either Erik Murphy or Will Yeguete in order to continue the Gator’s success from last season. Florida plays one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, and will get a chance early on to prove they belong among the nation’s elite.
- Alabama Crimson Tide (NCAA seed: #6): Alabama returns three double digit scorers (JaMychal Green – 15.5 PPG; Tony Mitchell – 15.2 PPG; Trevor Releford – 11.0 PPG) from a solid team a year ago. The Crimson Tide were undefeated at home in Coleman Coliseum, but just didn’t collect enough quality wins to make the NCAA Tournament. With matchups against Maryland (Puerto Rico Tip-Off), VCU, Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, the Tide’s RPI ranking and strength of schedule will improve significantly this year by putting more than a couple of those games in the “W” column. Green will once again be an All-SEC talent and lead Alabama into the postseason this time, after a season of challenging the SEC’s best.
- Mississippi State Bulldogs (NCAA seed: #10): Rick Stansbury’s Bulldogs have plenty of talent to make Mississippi State a contender for the NCAA Tournament. Senior point guard Dee Bost is one of the best point guards in the SEC, and junior Renardo Sidney could be one of the most dominate big men. Sidney, however, has struggled with numerous issues as everyone knows, and remains a question mark for MSU’s front line. Transfer Arnett Moultrie has been a huge bright spot for the Bulldogs since arriving. He averaged a double double in the team’s summer trip to Italy, and could be the go-to guy on a team that needs his consistency.
- Mississippi Rebels (NIT): Ole Miss needs to find a scoring source on a team that relied heavily on Chris Warren a year ago. Warren averaged 19.1 points and 3.8 assists per game last year, and always had the ball in his hands at the end of close games. Terrance Henry is the most likely candidate to bear some of the scoring load. Henry averaged 9.7 PPG last year, and showed signs of being able to take over games in spurts for the Rebels. If he can get help from junior forward Reginald Buckner and newly-eligible junior Murphy Holloway, the Rebels could have a solid enough team for an NIT berth and push towards the middle of the pack in the SEC. The wild card is freshman Jelan Kendrick. He has the talent, but does he have an improved attitude after being kicked off Memphis’ team before ever seeing the floor?
- Arkansas Razorbacks (NIT): Arkansas has a new coach (Mike Anderson) and several new faces (BJ Young, Ky Madden, Hunter Mickelson, Devonta Abron), and a fresh start may be exactly what this team needs. The Razorbacks may not have the depth to play a full 40 minutes of Anderson’s fast-paced style. Junior forward Marshawn Powell showed signs of stardom before injuring his foot last year. He averaged 14.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in his freshman year. His production dropped last year, but he will look to recover his old form under the new coach. Arkansas will rely heavily on its freshmen class to contribute, so this team is still somewhat of a mystery. Anderson has done more with less talent, so it will be interesting to keep an eye on Fayetteville to see how this team progresses.
- LSU Tigers: Trent Johnson enters his fourth season in Baton Rouge with his seat feeling a little warm. After a breakthrough first season where LSU won the SEC regular season title in 2008-09, Johnson’s teams have sputtered to consecutive 11-win disasters (five total SEC wins) as he’s tried to upgrade the talent and build a program there. One area where we can consider the talent upgraded is in the post, where Johnson will add 7’0″, 260-pound transfer center Justin Hamilton (6.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG in 2009-10 at Iowa State), and 6’9″, 260-pound McDonald’s All-American, Johnny O’Bryant. With size like that manning the inside, Johnson only needs some guards who can hit the occasional three and take care of the ball. Sophomore returnees Ralston Turner (12.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG) and Andre Stringer(11.2 PPG, 2.7 APG), LSU’s top two scorers a season ago, should be able to fill that role with a year of seasoned experience under their belts. Wing Storm Warren also returns from an injury-plagued season to provide scoring — he averaged 11.7 PPG two years ago as a sophomore. Johnson now has the pieces in place for a rebirth in Baton Rouge — the only question is whether he can put them together in a manageable and effective way.
- Georgia Bulldogs: In his second year at the helm, head coach Mark Fox rode his inherited NBA Draft picks, Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, to the NCAA Tournament, Georgia’s first at-large appearance in nine years. It’ll be tough to make a repeat performance, having lost the talented duo, but Fox has a couple of nice pieces to prevent a huge dropoff. Senior guard and playmaker Gerald Robinson (12.2 PPG, 4.0 APG) returns to Athens, and he’ll have freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing to provide scoring support (KCP is Georgia’s first Burger Boy in nearly 20 years). The key question for Fox’s team is what happens on the inside, where the top Bulldog returnees were little-used freshmen last year (Marcus Thornton, Donte’ Williams) and a junior college transfer (John Florveus). If Fox can find some surprise scoring and rebounding on the interior, the Dawgs have enough talent on the perimeter to surprise.
- Tennessee Volunteers: The Cuonzo Martin era begins in Knoxville in much the same way most new eras begin — with an overhaul. Four of UT’s starters have moved on, but the players that remain are promising if not experienced. It starts on the wing with Cameron Tatum (8.8 PPG, 3.1 RPG), a multifaceted player who often seemed lost in the Tennessee attack, but who may be poised to flourish in the more structured system employed by Martin. After Tatum, it’s difficult to say whether frontcourt returnees Kenny Hall and Jeronne Maymon, or backcourt returnees Trae Golden and Jordan McRae might step up. The Vols have more questions than answers, and in a rugged SEC East, that’s not a recipe for immediate success.
- South Carolina Gamecocks: Darrin Horn is most definitely on the hot seat in Columbia. In his three seasons, South Carolina has finished second, fifth, and last in the SEC East — not a trajectory that any fanbase tends to get behind. The other issue is that the Gamecocks’ best player and floor leader, Bruce Ellington (12.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.2 APG), is currently playing football for the fifteenth-ranked team in the country, and according to his coach Steve Spurrier, he can play basketball intermittently throughout December but a full release will not happen until after the bowl season. This is problematic for a team short on experience and scoring punch. The other issue relates to who Horn is planning on playing on the interior, as the Gamecocks have little experience beyond Damontre Harris (3.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG). There just seems to be too many moving parts on this team for Horn to pull a winner from this bunch.
- Auburn Tigers: Year two of the Tony Barbee era on the Plains begins and there is some reason for hope at this moribund program. An influx of talent in the form of former Texas guard Varez Ward, former Clemson wing Noel Johnson, and a return to full strength of scoring guard Frankie Sullivan gives the Tigers a starting five that actually resembles SEC talent. Another returnee at the forward position, senior Kenny Gabriel (10.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG) will provide a bit more scoring punch and aggressiveness inside the paint, and Barbee is hopeful that one of his freshman post players among Willy Kouassi and Bernard Morena will provide an additional boost. Auburn hasn’t been pretty the last several years, but it appears that they could be finally ramping up.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Honestly, we could do this entire section based on Kentucky players, but we will show some restraint and mix it up a little.
- Anthony Davis: The most hyped freshman in the country. A raw 6’10″ power forward who possesses some guard-like skills thanks to that growth spurt before his senior year, Davis has pro scouts drooling over his potential. It may take a while for him to get there, so don’t be surprised to see him used as the team’s second or third option, even though he may wind up as the #1 overall pick in next year’s NBA Draft.
- Bradley Beal: A well-rounded shooting guard who should be talented enough not to get lost in the overcrowded Florida backcourt. Beal is excellent coming off screens, but will need to work on his offense off the dribble to become an effective scorer in the NBA given his relative lack of athleticism. He will probably function as something like a combo guard, although at the next level he is more of an undersized shooting guard.
- Renardo Sidney: Sidney could be gone tomorrow, either because he declares for the NBA Draft or because he gets kicked off the team. A supremely talented big man who has dominated some of the best bigs in his age group at times over the past few years, Sidney’s off-court issues and conditioning are major concerns for NBA scouts. Still, his on-court skill set is substantial enough that he will get at least one shot at the NBA.
The SEC is one of the chosen few leagues along with the Big Ten and Pac-12 that already has enough power and money to pretty much dictate its own terms when it comes to conference realignment. Already Texas A&M and Missouri will be joining the league sooner rather than later, and it seems like nothing more than a matter of time before the SEC moves to a 16-team behemoth. Interestingly, even though these realignment moves are driven by the chase for football dollars and television deals, the addition of the Aggies and Tigers actually improves the basketball side of the shop more than the gridiron. Both schools currently have Top 25 programs in basketball and have shown a willingness to support the sport in some respects far more than several of the existing SEC schools. If A&M were playing an SEC “West” schedule this season, they’d probably win that division; and although Missouri wouldn’t be favored to win a theoretical SEC East division, it would certainly be competitive.
Reader’s Take II
A Spotlight On… the Elimination of SEC Divisions
The SEC eliminated divisional play this year in an effort to increase the number of teams from the league that get into the NCAA Tournament. The sentiment last year was that Alabama, a team that would have finished second in the conference had there not been divisional lines, wouldn’t have been overlooked by the selection committee, given its higher finish than Kentucky and Vanderbilt. As it happened, Alabama finished first in the weaker Western division and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. The primary reason Alabama didn’t make it to the Tournament last year, however, had nothing to do with East vs. West, but the fact that the Tide didn’t have many quality wins on its resume. The Crimson Tide finished with an RPI of #80 and a strength of schedule that ranked #114. Bama lost to Seton Hall, Iowa, St. Peter’s and Providence — just too many bad losses for a 12-4 SEC record to overcome. The SEC will probably get more teams into the Big Dance this year, but it won’t be as a result of going to one division. Alabama, which has greatly strengthened its non-conference schedule, will be armed with a significantly better Tournament resume and will easily gain admission for that reason. Regardless, the elimination of the East and West will take some getting used to for old school SEC fans.
After being ridiculed for years by fans jealous of the conference’s football success, the SEC is one of the best basketball conferences in the country this year. Everybody is talking about Kentucky, now, and with good reason, as they once again have a ridiculous number of future first round picks. They showed off that talent in their 85-point victory in an exhibition game Monday, but the conference is much more than just the Wildcats. They have quite a bit of depth with a veteran Vanderbilt team, a talented but slightly too perimeter-oriented Florida squad, an Alabama team that will be even better than expected, and a dangerous but enigmatic Mississippi State team. The Wildcats may be the favorites in the conference, but you would be missing out on a lot (including potentially the conference champion) if you just focus on the Wildcats all year.