The RTC Interview Series: SEC Preview with Dave Baker, Barry Booker and Chris DortchPosted by WCarey on November 4th, 2013
Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the offseason. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview of the SEC, we recently had the pleasure of speaking with three SEC experts in television analysts Dave Baker and Barry Booker, as well as Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook editor, Chris Dortch. (Ed. note – we spoke to each individual separately, but for the sake of expediency, combining their answers into a round table format made the most sense.)
Rush the Court: How good is Kentucky and what makes it that good? Do you expect the Wildcats to win both the SEC and the national titles?
Dave Baker: A lot of folks think that Cal can be a little blustery at times. I think he’s actually pretty frank in his assessments. Last year, he thought they were gonna be better than they were. He thought they were gonna be a good team; he didn’t they they could be a great team. But he’s really got that swagger back this year. And this team is an incredibly talented team. People can debate whether, coming into their college careers, this is the best recruiting class of all-time, but I can tell you, just in the couple of practices I’ve seen, there has been a marked difference in terms of talent level, attitude and the way these guys are working together. There are some natural leaders that have come in this class. Based on what I’ve seen, his confidence is well-placed. With what their expectations are, they certainly believe they should be in the mix at the end of the year.
Barry Booker: Kentucky has everything it takes to be extremely good. It has elite talent all over the court. I think Kentucky is the surefire favorite in the SEC and I believe it has to be considered one of the top contenders to win the national title. This 2013 recruiting class is just one of the best we have seen – by all reports. It seems like every year, Kentucky gets some of the best recruits. In a year like this, where Kentucky has an outstanding class and it has players like Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein returning, it would be hard to see the Wildcats not being a top-notch team. It is amazing what John Calipari is doing in bringing in that top flight talent to replace top flight talent every year.
Chris Dortch: This historically great recruiting class gives coach John Calipari his most talented team ever, with at least seven future NBA first-round draft picks. Kentucky is definitely favored in the SEC and will be a title threat come March, but there are a handful of teams with more experience that are capable of executing a game plan and sending the Cats home short of the championship game.
RTC: Florida lost its three leading scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team. Are this season’s Gators a legitimate challenger to Kentucky in the SEC?
Baker: I think Billy and Florida will have another really good team. He’s got a situation down there where he just finds people to replace the players who have moved on. They are just incredibly consistent year-in and year-out. I know that they would have liked to have made some deeper runs in the NCAA Tournaments since their championships, but other than that, they’re just really consistent.
Booker: Absolutely. The Gators have gone to the Elite Eight three straight seasons and they are at that level again this season. I am not sure if you can call them number two – maybe Kentucky is 1A and Florida is 1B. If Kentucky does stumble and does not get things figured out, Florida can come in and take over at the top of the league. Freshman Kasey Hill is a dynamic point guard. Even with the departures from last year, Florida is still very strong on the perimeter with Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier. The Gators also return Patric Young inside – who is the best interior player in the league. This is a very solid team. It just has to stay healthy this season. The injury to Will Yeguete really hurt the team last season. It was never able to get back to the same level that it was at before the Yeguete injury.
Dortch: I think so, once Billy Donovan has his entire team available to him. Injuries, the first semester ineligibility of freshman power forward Chris Walker and perhaps some early-season suspensions to key personnel could make for a slow start. But I think come March the Gators are capable of making their fourth consecutive deep NCAA Tournament run. They’ve finished one game shy of the Final Four the last three years, and this team, top to bottom, is more talented than the previous three.
RTC: Outside of Kentucky and Florida, do you believe there is a team that can rise to the occasion and challenge for the conference crown?
Baker: Tennessee is a team, with the way that they play, they have created some problems for Kentucky with just how physical they are, and the way that Cuonzo [Martin] wants them to play. I don’t know that it will create as many problems for this team this year because they have the guys who have the physicality and the emotional toughness to respond in the right way to physical play. They won’t turn it into a “respect me” thing, but they’ll look you in the eye and just compete.
Booker: I think Tennessee and LSU are two teams that are very good and can be challengers. Those two squads can step up in a situation where a team with four conference losses can win the league. Tennessee has a significantly easier schedule than Kentucky and Florida. Kentucky and Florida play each other twice, while Tennessee only plays each of those teams once. I have not studied everyone’s schedule too closely, but I think Tennessee’s schedule could be a factor in the league race.
Dortch: Tennessee has a chance to be heard from within the league. The Vols are tough and play good defense. The key is whether the return of power forward Jeronne Maymon, the addition of Memphis transfer Antonio Barton at point guard and a commitment to score more in transition will combine to help the Vols’ offense become more productive than last season, when they sometimes struggled to score.
RTC: LSU coach Johnny Jones has been killing it on the recruiting trail. What impact do you believe that will have on the program’s standing in the SEC?
Baker: I don’t know if you’ll have Mike the Tiger lowered from the ceiling for big games like Dale Brown used to do, but Johnny Jones was the perfect guy at the perfect time for that program. He’s an LSU guy through and through, and he can really coach. You could see it coming last year. Johnny O’Bryant is a true talent, and a guy you can build around. Because Jones has been at LSU for so long, he’s really comfortable with what he’s doing. They have to present a brand of basketball night in and night out that will get those people out to the Maravich Assembly Center, make that thing one of the best home courts in the SEC again. And if they keep getting recruits like Ben Simmons, that’s gonna happen. I thought it was a really good hire, and I think it’s showing that it’s even a better hire than people thought initially.
Booker: I think LSU can absolutely become a power within the conference. I think Johnny Jones is a sensational coach. He is very good at coaching up his players to perform at a high level, and from my understanding, the recruiting there in Baton Rogue is hitting another high cycle. It is getting back to when LSU was getting players like Tyrus Thomas, Glen Davis, Garrett Temple, and Tasmin Mitchell. This is another one of those cycles where LSU is getting a lot of those good local guys and bringing them into the program. LSU is at its best when it can get the local guys.
Dortch: All those who advocated for Jones’ hiring, from Shaquille O’Neal on down, have been proven correct. Jones was the man for the job after Trent Johnson beat the posse out of town and bolted for TCU. Jones told me last summer that LSU was the first job he’s taken where he didn’t need a GPS, his way of saying he knows the recruiting terrain. And sure enough, Jones has used his connections in his home state of Louisiana to help restock LSU’s roster. Just as important could be his astute hiring of assistant coach David Patrick, who has recruiting ties to Australia and has been able to land players from there everywhere he’s been, even Nicholls State. The Tigers already have one talented Aussie on the roster, 7’0″ freshman Darcy Malone, and have a commitment from class of 2015 big man Ben Simmons, another talent from Down Under who’s playing at Montverde Academy in Florida.
RTC: What do you expect this season out of controversial Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson? If Henderson stays on the straight and narrow, what is the ceiling for Andy Kennedy’s squad? [Ed. note: the interviews took place before details of Henderson’s three-game suspension were released last week)
Baker: I think Andy [Kennedy] is going to make him do certain things, and he’s not going to let him back on the team just to let him back on. Marshall’s AAU coach was one of Andy’s teammates down at UAB. I tell people that I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent with Marshall. He’s a very engaging young man, incredibly passionate. His watch is wound differently than everybody else’s watch. And it certainly needs to be managed. I’m not psychiatrist, but he loves basketball and goes at it really hard. I think he’s a guy that when those emotions are managed and manifested in the proper way, he adds to the game of college basketball. There are times when he goes over the line, and we’ve all probably had moments that Marshall has had, but he’s unfortunately having them in front of everybody in an age of Instagram and Youtube. Still, if it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be asking me about Ole Miss basketball.
Booker: Hopefully, Marshall Henderson will stay out of trouble and follow the requirements that are there for him to become eligible to play once again. I think he will be back on the court for Ole Miss by the middle of December. He is a very talented player and I expect him to have a very good season. I think he will calm down the antics a bit and maybe stop doing those things that made him such a target for opposing fans when Ole Miss was on the road last season. I expect Ole Miss to be a slightly above average team in the SEC. I do not think its interior guys are strong enough to help Ole Miss back to the NCAA Tournament, but I think the team will still be solid.
Dortch: The only sure thing about Marshall Henderson is that there is no sure thing. He is an emotional player who sometimes lets the moment get away from him. But he also feeds on that emotion and used it to lead the Rebels into the NCAA Tournament last season. If his summertime suspension helped him grow up some, Henderson could help a young team make a return to the NCAA Tournament. I have talked to Andy Kennedy three times in the last three months, and each time he has talked about how his young big men are capable of replacing Ole Miss’ lost production up front.
RTC: Do some schools in the league – such as Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and South Carolina – place too large of an emphasis on their football programs to make their basketball programs nationally relevant?
Baker: Commissioner [Mike] Slive has seen that and addressed that from the standpoint of working with the schools to consult with them and improve their non-conference schedules in an effort to try to help them build their national platform and become relevant nationally. I’m not going to go in the direction and say it will never happen because of football. It has nothing to do with football. They just have got to do a better job of recruiting. I think there’s a good group of coaches in the SEC right now, but they’ve got to get more consistency and bringing athletes to their campus and keep them there. I think the league is better this year, but you just gotta play it out.
Booker: No, I do not think so. I believe the popularity of SEC football is an absolute positive for SEC basketball. The profile of this league is so much higher because of it. The SEC brand is among the best in all of sports and much of that has to do with football. Football’s impact is nothing but a positive. When you look at the coaches in this league, Anthony Grant was the hottest name in the country when Alabama went out and hired him. I think Grant is going to be very successful at Alabama before he is done there. Frank Martin had Kansas State at a really high level before he came to South Carolina, so I think he is bound to do the same there. Give it a few more years and I think some of these programs are really going to move to a higher level and the SEC is going to be a very strong basketball league.
Dortch: I do not think the emphasis on football at those schools hampers the basketball team. It has been proven time and again that basketball can thrive at schools where football is king — Florida is a notable recent example. Of those four jobs, Auburn is easily the toughest. I am not sure what has to happen there for the program to break out of its long stretch of mediocrity. Alabama has been solid over the years but could use a deep NCAA run to excite its fan base. Georgia and South Carolina can improve just by keeping its best in-state high school players at home, something Mark Fox and Frank Martin have begun to do.