The SEC Freshman Report: A Look at the Newcomers in the WestPosted by Christian D'Andrea on January 14th, 2013
SEC play is underway, and the group of teams once known as the SEC West has already churned out some big surprises. The division is home to four of the five teams that are undefeated in league play so far, and while it’s early, it looks like there might be more depth to this side of the conference than analysts had thought. In just one week, the West has produced upsets like Texas A&M’s defeat of Kentucky and Ole Miss’ beatdown of Missouri.
There are still a couple of months to go before the postseason starts, but this overlooked division may help change the perception of the SEC as a top-heavy league. Though the conference certainly has a big gap between Florida and Missouri and the rest of the conference, teams like Mississippi and A&M will be the key to sending four or more programs to the NCAA Tournament. Rebuilding teams like Auburn and LSU may find their way to postseason basketball earlier than expected if they can rally towards NIT or CBI invitations.
However, these teams are going to need help from their young players to get there. The West is full of talented freshmen and junior college transfers who are having a big impact for their teams. As we did three weeks ago in the East, let’s break down who the top first-year players in the SEC West have been in 2012-13 so far.
Auburn was dealt a big blow when its freshman sharpshooter Jordan Price was sent to the injured list with a broken foot, but his team has churned on without him. The Tigers are a surprising 2-0 in SEC play after beating LSU and South Carolina to open up the league schedule. Part of that can be attributed to fellow first-year player Shaquille Johnson. While he missed most of the USC game due to foul trouble, his 11-point, nine rebound showing against LSU helped lift Auburn to a big victory in their conference opener. Ashaun Tatum-Dixon has recently proven that he can be an efficient scorer in limited minutes. He’s averaging only five points and 3.4 rebounds per game over the last two weeks, but he’s also shooting 69 percent along the way. Foul trouble is a big concern for the junior college transfer center, but he’s proven to be a solid bench presence for Auburn.
Clarke has had a limited impact in Arkansas’ 1-1 start to conference play, shooting inefficiently in 15.5 minutes per game. The Lawson State Community College alumnus has struggled against upper-tier opponents. He has made just one-third of his shots against programs from power conferences.
LSU has slowed down after a hot start, and you can say the same about its leading first-year players. Junior college transfer Shavon Coleman’s scoring average has dipped in the past two weeks as stronger opponents have started to devote defensive game plans to his play in the paint. The undersized forward has struggled against teams with tall and athletic defenders up front. His true freshman counterpart Malik Morgan has been the victim of inefficient play and inconsistent minutes for the Tigers. He’s been limited to fewer than 10 minutes of court time in four of his last six games. He’s shooting poorly and adjusting slowly to the NCAA grind in his first year of play at the college level.
Martavious Newby was supposed to be the Rebels’ savior in 2012-13, but it’s another freshman who is earning rotation minutes for the SEC’s most surprising team. Derrick Millinghaus has cut down on the turnovers that plagued him earlier this season to become a key bench player for 13-2 Ole Miss. Over his last six games, he’s made more than half of his three-point attempts, adding depth to an explosive Mississippi backcourt. Newby has fallen out of favor in Oxford, hardly playing for the Rebels since mid-December. He’s got the talent to emerge as another key option for Andy Kennedy as the season wears on, but he’ll need to adjust on the fly to earn that shot.
Mississippi State is a surprising 2-0 in conference play, even though their wins over South Carolina and Georgia aren’t entirely impressive. Rick Ray has started three true freshmen in each of those wins, and his strategy has paid off so far. Gavin Ware, Colin Borchert, and Craig Sword have been key players for the Bulldogs against SEC opponents. Sword has led the way offensively, scoring 34 points (on 21 FG attempts) in his last two games. While he turns the ball over too much, he’s emerging as the scorer that MSU desperately needs after last year’s player exodus. Ware and Borchert have been a capable duo in the frontcourt, with the JUCO veteran Borchert developing as a shot-blocker for the Bulldogs.
Texas A&M has started off SEC play on the right foot, but Billy Kennedy still has work to do when it comes to untangling a traffic jam of talent in his backcourt. He’s got three first-year performers who are jockeying for playing time in College Station. J’Mychal Reese, Alex Caruso, and Fabyon Harris are all players who could take a major role in a surprise run to the NCAA Tournament for the Aggies. Reese is the most highly decorated of these players, and he’s earned a starting role for A&M despite learning slowly on the job. Caruso is a long, tall combo guard with solid vision and the ability to create scoring opportunities for others, but his poor shooting is keeping him off the court. Harris, a JUCO transfer, has passed them both on the depth chart (in terms of minutes) thanks to his ability to provide Elston Turner Jr. with a second-option for the Aggies’ offense. All three should play an extended role for this team in 2013 and beyond. How they’re utilized for the next two months, however, isn’t quite as certain.
Alabama has turned to Devonta Pollard to help with this year’s rebuilding project, but it looks like the four-star recruit needs more experience before he can become a consistent player in the SEC. The Tide will need him to be a stronger presence around the rim before he’ll be included in Anthony Grant’s circle of trust. He’s an athletic forward who should have several good years in the SEC, but Pollard still has plenty to learn.