Welcome to the Show: Identifying the Freshmen Primed to Make an Impact in the SEC “East”Posted by Christian D'Andrea on October 23rd, 2013
Fall isn’t just for football in the Southeastern Conference – it also means the start of hardwood action for some of college basketball’s most powerful programs in the South. The SEC suffered through a rough patch in 2012-13. The league sent only three teams to the NCAA Tournament, and one of those – Ole Miss – happened to be a bubble team that blasted its way into the field thanks to a Marshall Henderson-led victory in the conference tournament. This year will be different. A talented group of recruits is ready to help guide the league back to national prominence. Eleven of the nation’s top 25 high school seniors chose conference schools last spring, and they’ll take the court looking to make an impact for their teams as non-conference play begins in November. Today, we’ll look at those difference-making newcomers, starting with the teams of the SEC “East.” We’ll run through each program, along with the one true freshman who is most likely to have a significant impact for his team in 2013-14.
- Kentucky: Andrew Harrison. With six five-star recruits to choose from, Harrison’s spot at the top of the list for Kentucky is a tenuous one. However, the return of players like Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, along with John Calipari’s history of developing high-level guards, gives Harrison the edge for now. The Texan will step into Coach Cal’s long line of top-flight point guards with the Wildcats this season, joining luminaries such as Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague, and Eric Bledsoe. The departure of guards Archie Goodwin, Ryan Harrow, and Julius Mays should open up plenty of room in the UK backcourt for the nation’s top point guard recruit. Harrison has the size and athleticism to defend both guard positions and the basketball IQ to command an offense at the next level. He was especially proficient at running the fast break in high school, and he’ll look to push the tempo for the Cats this winter. He’ll have to improve his shooting to become a complete player, but he should have a successful freshman year with Kentucky.
- Vanderbilt: Damian Jones. Jones will immediately fill a role for a depleted Vanderbilt squad. The Commodores have been thin up front since Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne graduated, and the highly-rated Louisianan could usurp junior Shelby Moats’ minutes in the paint. The freshman is Vanderbilt’s first four-star big man since Steve Tchiengang came to town in 2008, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to shine for a Vandy team that lost its entire 2012 recruiting class and leading scorer Kedren Johnson in a three-month span this spring. He’ll team with still-developing center Josh Henderson up front to give the ‘Dores a potential-laden lineup around the rim. Henderson’s career has been limited by injuries so far, but his finesse game should complement Jones’ physical style of play.
- South Carolina: Sindarius Thornwell. The Gamecocks got an unexpected boost from two-star recruit Michael Carrera last season, and now they’ll look for another young player, Thornwell, to lift a USC team that struggled to score in 2012-13. His slashing style could add an extra dimension to an offense that returns only one player who averaged more than 10 points per game last season. Four-star center Demetrius Henry could eventually pair with Carrera to give USC a formidable 1-2 punch on the boards as well. The 6’9″ Henry needs to add bulk, but he’s earned a reputation as a strong rebounder and has a solid enough jumper to contribute as a true freshman for Frank Martin’s team.
- Missouri: Johnathan Williams III. Wes Clark will have big shoes to fill in replacing Phil Pressey, but the Tigers’ development may hinge on Williams’ ability to be a versatile presence on the wing and in the paint. The four-star forward earned his ranking thanks to his play around the perimeter, but he’ll be called on to add some depth around the rim for a Mizzou team that’s without Alex Oriahki or Laurence Bowers up front. Tony Criswell will help Frank Haith’s team rebound from those losses, but it could be Williams’ play as a facilitator in the frontcourt that is a difference-maker for the Tigers. He’ll have to get bigger and prove that he can stay healthy over the course of a rigorous NCAA season, but the young forward could be a spark for Missouri if he can handle life inside the arc.
- Tennessee: Robert Hubbs III. Hubbs, a five-star shooting guard, is the crown jewel of Cuonzo Martin’s 2013 recruiting class. He’ll team with Jordan McRae to give the Volunteers a pair of oversized guards who can play next to each other on the wing. Having McRae, a silky-smooth scorer who made a run at SEC Player of the Year honors in 2012-13, around to mentor the uber-athletic freshman is an ideal situation for Martin. Hubbs is a raw player who can jump out of the gym and use his speed and length to guard three different positions. If McRae can guide him through the woods and show him how to apply those skills efficiently, he could become one of the best players in the conference.
- Georgia: Juwan Parker. The Bulldogs were a one-man team in 2012-13, and that one man is now gone. Shooting guard Juwan Parker is one of four unheralded recruits that Mark Fox will rely on to try and replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s production. Parker is a strong athlete with decent size (6’4″) and a solid shot for a wing, but he’ll have to bulk up and prove that he can defend at the next level before he can have a positive impact for a NCAA team. He should have plenty of opportunities to show off his skills for a Georgia team that gave 11 different players 10 minutes or more per game last winter.
- Florida: Kasey Hill. After three years of volume three-point shooting from Kenny Boynton, #2 point guard prospect Kasey Hill will now have the chance to facilitate Billy Donovan’s offense in the O-Dome. Hill is an energetic athlete who can push the pace, get into the lane, and either finish at the rim or identify the open man once help defense arrives. He’ll be the face of a Gator makeover in the backcourt now that Boynton and Mike Rosario are gone. He’ll also give the team some much needed insurance in case recently (partially) reinstated guard Scottie Wilbekin finds himself in trouble again.
Coming Next Week: We take a look at the impact players who will be debuting in the SEC “West.”