SEC Grades: Recapping the SEC “East” Season That WasPosted by Christian D'Andrea on April 22nd, 2013
The 2012-13 NCAA basketball slate is firmly in our rear view, and with that comes some valuable perspective. The SEC struggled through one of its worst overall seasons in recent memory, but ultimately the year will be remembered more for Marshall Henderson’s theatrics and another Elite Eight appearance for Billy Donovan than it will be for Mississippi State’s rebuilding or Vanderbilt’s 50-33 loss to Marist. The league may have sputtered in its first season with Texas A&M and Missouri on board, but a slew of promising performances across the south suggests that 2013-14 will bring a return to high-major basketball for the conference.
With that in mind, let’s look back at how each team in the “East” finished out its season, and what hope may lie ahead for these seven programs. Several of the East’s programs have young cores that will return with valuable experience in 2013-14, and at least five of the division’s teams look like they’ll improve on lackluster seasons. For reference, our mid-season look at the East can be found here.
- Season Summary: The Commodores got what they needed in 2013 – growth – even if it took a long and winding road to get there. Early in the season, Kevin Stallings’ team had been held to just 33 points on two separate occasions and was getting little from veterans Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller. Only Kedren Johnson displayed the proficiency to carry this team through stretches, and the bulk of his sophomore season was played under the stress of a nagging shoulder injury. In the season’s final weeks, things began to fall into place. Odom proved that he could be a key player on a winning team, while Fuller developed into a change-of-pace scorer off the bench. Freshmen Kevin Bright and Sheldon Jeter put together solid performances that showed that Stallings’ 2012 recruiting class may have been overlooked. In all, the ‘Dores finished light years from where they started, and that was the best fans in Nashville could have hoped for after losing their top six players from 2012.
- Grade: C
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Vanderbilt doesn’t lose anyone from its 16-17 squad, and will add four-star big man Damian Jones and former Tulsa guard Eric McClellan to the roster this fall. The Commodores are primed for a return to postseason play.
- Season Summary: This was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s team from the start, and the sophomore didn’t disappoint. His 18.5 points-per-game average was more than 10 points greater than anyone else on his own team. The dual-threat scorer proved to be effective inside and out, but he also made the Bulldogs an easy opponent for SEC programs to plan for. Teams that were able to limit Caldwell-Pope’s scoring were typically rewarded with a win. The ‘Dawgs were several things, but consistent wasn’t one of them. Georgia had four different losing streaks of three games or more. They balanced that off with a pair of winning streaks that stretched to over four games apiece. Caldwell-Pope kept them afloat in an underwhelming SEC, but a second-straight sub-.500 record and some underwhelming recruiting in 2013 suggests that head coach Mark Fox may not have the job security he did back in 2010.
- Grade: D+
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Caldwell-Pope might come back. If not, then Bulldog fans will be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the Nemanja Djurisic era (your mileage may vary).
- Season Summary: Mizzou was built for a big run in 2013. A wealth of ability remained from its 30-5 season in 2012, and key transfers Alex Oriakhi and Jabari Brown were a pair of X-factors that gave this team the depth to run any opponent off the court. However, this conglomeration of basketball talent failed to mesh, and the Tigers struggled to live up to their billing, often falling short on the defensive end and in pressure-filled situations. Seven of its 11 losses came either in overtime or by three points or less. Frank Haith’s team made it back to the NCAA Tournament, but a 12-point loss to Colorado State ended its postseason in ignominious fashion. This team had the talent to win a national championship; instead, the Tigers stumbled through a SEC schedule that was built for them to come in and dominate as a first-year member. This season was a terrible disappointment for Missouri.
- Grade: D
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Despite the losses of Oriakhi, Laurence Bowers, and Keion Bell, the Tigers are still filled with significant talent. Jabari Brown should develop into one of the SEC’s deadliest scorers, but losing Phil Pressey to a questionable decision to enter the draft will be difficult to overcome.
- The Gators quickly grabbed the reins as the SEC’s best team, and held that title well into the spring despite a SEC Tournament championship game loss to Ole Miss. Billy Donovan did what Billy Donovan does, piloting Florida to an Elite Eight berth and reminding recruits that his team is the strongest basketball program south of the Carolinas. Erik Murphy and Kenny Boynton both emerged as solid SEC Player of the Year choices (the award eventually went to Caldwell-Pope), and Will Yeguete proved to be an indispensable glue guy on the inside for the Gators. Florida played as a cohesive unit and ran most of the SEC off the court. All 16 of its wins over conference opponents came by double digits. While the Gators struggled away from the friendly confines of the O-Dome, they still managed to prop up a struggling league in 2013.
- Grade: A
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Donovan’s recruiting means that the losses of Murphy, Boynton, and Mike Rosario won’t sting for very long. Michael Frazier II, Braxton Ogbueze, and 2013 five-star players Kasey Hill and Chris Walker will be ready to step into significant roles for Florida when the fall rolls around.
- Season Summary: Things certainly ended better than they started for Cuonzo Martin. The Volunteers rolled out to a 9-8 start and were just 1-4 in SEC play halfway through its season. From there, Tennessee ripped off an 11-3 run that included wins over Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri and put their names firmly back in the NCAA Tournament discussion. Unfortunately, an SEC Tournament quarterfinal loss to Alabama was all it took to move the Vols onto the unhappy side of the bubble, and UT stumbled to an embarrassing NIT opening round loss to Mercer that ended its season. Despite a tumultuous finish, there’s plenty for Tennessee fans to be happy about. Jordan McRae developed into an All-America caliber player in the matter of weeks, grinding his way into a leadership role on this team alongside Trae Golden. Those two will return, along with sophomore stud Jarnell Stokes, to make the Volunteers a trendy preseason Top 25 pick next fall.
- Grade: B-
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Golden, McRae, and Stokes may give Tennessee the best three-man combination in the SEC in 2013-14. While questions remain about the supporting cast, Martin’s team should have the punching power to compete with the league’s heavyweights.
- The Wildcats were a top three program nationally when the season started. By the time it ended, they were the villains on the opposite side of Robert Morris’s Little Giants run. Kentucky was hampered by a lack of cohesive defense all season, and that point was exacerbated when SEC Freshman of the Year Nerlens Noel was lost for the season in mid-February after tearing his ACL. Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein played well in his absence, but the ‘Cats never built up enough momentum to launch themselves off the NCAA Tournament bubble. When they lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, it was enough to send Kentucky tumbling to the NIT. Things will be better in 2014, but it’s tough to view 2013’s finish as anything but a failure for a team with rational hopes of defending their NCAA title.
- Grade: D+
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Cauley-Stein and Poythress are returning for their sophomore years, and they’ll be joined by sharpshooting holdover Kyle Wiltjer. That core will be supplemented with a standard John Calipari recruiting class that includes #2 overall prospect Julius Randle and may still add the #1 player Andrew Wiggins before summer starts. Kentucky fans won’t be sad for too long.
- Season Summary: Frank Martin’s first year in Columbia was a disappointment when measured against all but the lowest of expectations. The Gamecocks won just three games against top 100 opponents all season and lost 14 SEC games by an average of over 13 points per contest. However, there was a silver lining in the midst of an otherwise forgettable season. While Martin struggled to find a lineup that worked – 12 different players averaged 10 minutes or more for USC this winter – some of his younger players emerged as potential threats for 2014. Junior Brenton Williams developed into a credible outside scoring threat for the ‘Cocks, and undersized forward Michael Carrera earned a reputation as a gritty player in the paint who should have three more good seasons to come in a garnet and black uniform. It’s not much for South Carolina, but it’s a strong building block for the first step forward in their run back to SEC relevancy.
- Grade: D+
- Reason to be hopeful in 2013-14: Martin is still head coach, and there’s little chance that he’ll let his second season be worse than his first. A roster stocked with returning players and a strong recruiting class in 2013 should make sure of that.