One on One: An SEC Preview With Chris Dortch

Posted by Walker Carey on November 4th, 2014

RTC interviews one on one

Rush the Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you throughout the preseason with previews of each of the major conferences.

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 with the SEC, RTC correspondent Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) recently had the pleasure of speaking with an SEC expert in Blue Ribbon College Yearbook editor Chris Dortch (@cdortch).

Rush the Court: How good is Kentucky and what makes it that good? The Wildcats begin the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC title. Do you expect them to win both the conference title and the national title?

Chris Dortch: It would not surprise me at all if Kentucky wins both the SEC title and the national title. I think the team is so good that you can rank both its first five and its second five in the Top 25. The team has nine McDonald’s All-Americans and more talent than I can remember any team in the SEC possibly ever having. Having said that, the Wildcats do have a weakness or two. They have to prove that, other than Aaron Harrison, they have someone who can make outside shots. If they cannot do that, teams are going to try to pack it in the lane and negate their size and dribble-drive. I have said this a few times on some radio shows: If Kentucky shoots 35 percent or better from the three-point line for the season, I think the Wildcats will be undefeated going into the Final Four.

It's Gators and Wildcats at the Top of the SEC, Again

It’s Gators and Wildcats at the Top of the SEC, Again

RTC: Florida’s personnel losses are notable with Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete all moving on from Gainesville. However, Billy Donovan’s squad seems primed to have another impressive season. What is it about this year’s Gators that will make them a force to be reckoned with in the conference?

Dortch: I think Florida has some experienced personnel and some young guys who I believe are ready to step. Someone like Kasey Hill, who understudied Wilbekin last season, seems poised to take over the point guard position. I think Michael Frazier is one of the best shooters in the country and he is ready to take the next step in his development. Dorian Finney-Smith, who was eligible last season after transferring from Virginia Tech, is so versatile that he was used at the point a few times. He is going to be a guy who is going to be asked to do a lot more than he was last year. There are also a couple transfers who will help. Jon Horford comes over as a fifth-year eligible from Michigan and Alex Murphy comes over from Duke. I think those two will help fortify the team’s front line.

RTC: Arkansas is still waiting on its breakthrough campaign in the Mike Anderson era. With a talented team featuring star big man Bobby Portis, will this finally be the season that the Razorbacks find a way back to the NCAA Tournament?

Dortch: I think so. I called for Arkansas to make the NCAA Tournament in my Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. I think there is enough talent to run Mike Anderson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” system. It requires depth, length, and athleticism, and I believe this Arkansas squad has all of those traits. Bobby Portis is a guy who is an anchor. I think this is probably the most prepared team of the Anderson era to run his system with success. I also need to mention that it needs to find a way to win the road. It started to do that a little bit towards the end of last year. Once you find a way to play as aggressively on the road as you do at home, that is when you arrive as a team.

RTC: LSU certainly possesses frontcourt talent in the form of sophomores Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, but are those two enough to offset the losses of Johnny O’Bryant and Anthony Hickey and make the Tigers a threat in the league?

Dortch: I think LSU has enough to be a threat in the SEC. The Tigers have themselves a legitimate point guard in Josh Gray. He started his career at Texas Tech before going to a junior college where he put up just eye-popping statistics. He is now running LSU’s team and I think the fact that they were comfortable in letting former starter Anthony Hickey use his final year of eligibility at Oklahoma State shows you just how good they think Gray is. I think he is a key to the team. They also have improved shooting. Keith Hornsby is now eligible after transferring from UNC-Asheville. He is a great three-point shooter and that should provide LSU with an additional dimension.

RTC: With a lot of coaching transition in the league right now, Alabama’s Anthony Grant seems to be the only coach under pressure to win right now. Does he have a chance to make that a reality in Tuscaloosa this season?

Anthony Grant (Bamahoops.com)

Anthony Grant (Bamahoops.com)

Dortch: It is going to be tough. I think when Bruce Pearl got the Auburn job that put more pressure on Anthony Grant. I think Grant is a good coach and a good man. He does things the right way. However, for whatever reason, the configuration of talent that he has put together has not seemed to get it done for him. Alabama’s perennial weakness since Grant arrived has been outside shooting and they really needed to fix that. A kid who could have done that for them this season is transfer Christophe Varidel, but he is not going to be able to play for them. They were really counting on him for some firepower. Grant’s teams have always defended really well, but they have not scored enough to win at a high level. A lot of people are saying that he is on the hot seat and I could see Alabama making a move if there is not enough upward mobility this season.

RTC: Things at Ole Miss will likely be much calmer this season with Marshall Henderson having exhausted his eligibility. Returning for Andy Kennedy’s squad is the ever-reliable Jarvis Summers. Summers is going to get his, but will he have enough of a supporting cast to potentially lead the Rebels back to the NCAA Tournament?

Dortch: Definitely. I think Ole Miss is really deep at guard. They brought in a few junior college guys that will really shore up that backcourt. Stefan Moody is a kid who is a true point guard and can contribute right away. Roderick Lawrence comes from the same junior college as Marshall Henderson and he will be in the mix. Terence Smith is a transfer from Tennessee-Martin. He led the Ohio Valley Conference in three-point shooting. If that can translate to a higher level of competition, that will give Ole Miss another dimension. Martavious Newby is another guy they have in the backcourt. He is a fireplug and a really great competitor. The frontcourt also has some contributors. Aaron Jones is a guy who can put up some numbers if he can continue to recover from a knee injury he suffered a couple seasons ago. M.J. Rhett is another transfer. He comes over from Tennessee State. He is very long. He averaged nearly a double-double last season. I do not think that will fully translate over to the SEC, but he is a guy who can really help and add some depth.

RTC: Bruce Pearl has made some waves since landing the Auburn job in April. He landed top JuCo transfer Cinmeon Bowers and notable mid-major transfers K.C. Ross-Miller from New Mexico State and Antoine Mason from Niagara. With all that offensive talent in place, what can be expected from the Tigers in year one of the Pearl era?

Bruce Pearl is Back in the SEC and Happy (Lauren Barnard)

Bruce Pearl is Back in the SEC and Happy (Lauren Barnard)

Dortch: One thing I have found out about fifth-year transfers from mid-major schools is that sometimes their skills do not translate well to high-major programs. Antoine Mason is a guy who finished second in the nation in scoring, but from what I have heard from the Auburn camp is that he may not have the athleticism to make a similar impact in the SEC. K.C. Ross-Miller is a guy who has bounced around. He originally committed to Kentucky as like a 15-year-old, but that did not work out. He started at New Orleans before ending up at New Mexico State. He is a true point guard who is going to have to play. Pearl inherited a roster that really only had a couple SEC-level players. He has really had to revamp the roster. If Bowers can step in and make the impact they are expecting, that will be huge for them. The two veterans that Pearl thinks can play for them in K.T. Harrell and Tahj Shamshid-Dean will be called upon to contribute and make some shots. Pearl has a way of taking less and accomplishing a lot with it, so I can definitely see Auburn being a team to be reckoned with. There really is no doubt about that.

RTC: Donnie Tyndall takes over a Tennessee program in a bit of a rebuilding mode after the departures of Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. Reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year Josh Richardson returns to the fold, though. Considering the talent at his disposal, what is the ceiling for the Volunteers in Tyndall’s first season in Knoxville?

Dortch: After having worked with his kids in the summer and through the beginning of fall practice, I think Tyndall likes the coachability of his players. He thinks each one has a weakness, so he will have to learn how to utilize these players as a group and negate those weaknesses. I think the Vols have depth and they will play hard. Tyndall’s teams always play an unusual defense. They like to press and then drop into a zone. It morphs into two or three different zones and they also play some man-to-man. I think Tennessee’s depth and its unusual defense could allow for a winning season even considering the fact that Tyndall had to rebuild almost an entire roster in only about a month.

RTC: South Carolina, Missouri, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State have all been widely projected to finish towards the bottom of the league. If you had to choose one of these five teams to surpass expectations, who would it be and why?

Dortch: I think Vanderbilt has a shot. Damian Jones is one of the better young post players in the conference. Sophomore Luke Kornet is a true face four. I am told that he has gotten bigger and stronger and he can shoot the basketball. Vanderbilt also has four really good freshmen guards. They are not the same caliber of say the Harrison twins at Kentucky, but they are all three- or four-star prospects that can all shoot it. Three of the four are combo guards that can guard both positions. Kevin Stallings also got a steal late in the recruiting cycle when Wake Forest fired Jeff Bzdelik. Shelton Mitchell was a kid who Bzdelik had signed at Wake Forest, and after Bzdelik was fired, he reopened his recruitment and ended up at Vanderbilt. Mitchell is a true point guard with great size. He is a great competitor and is really a pass-first guy. Getting him was quite the coup for Vanderbilt. I think Vanderbilt, while inexperienced, will end up being a lot better than people are projecting.

RTC: There have been a lot of negative opinions about SEC basketball over the past few years. Will this be a season where some of those opinions could change a bit?

Dortch: I think leagues run in cycles. One year the Pac-12 was dominant and then it fell back. The Big Ten, ACC and Big East have had their moments. People forget that of the last nine national championships, the SEC has a third of them. They had a chance to win a fourth last year with Kentucky in the final. Perception is sometimes different than reality. The reality is that the league has not done a good enough job to get more than three or four teams in the NCAA Tournament over the last few seasons. That is ultimately how a league is judged. I think that is one way to judge a league. The other way I would judge a league is in how far the teams that do get in advance. Last year, Kentucky went from being a #8 seed all the way to the final game, Florida got to the Final Four, and Tennessee went from the First Four all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Moving forward, I think some of the traditional league powers are coming back. LSU had a downturn and it is coming back. Arkansas had a downturn and it is coming back. Georgia finished second in the regular season standings last season and has a chance to be right back up there this season. There are also good coaches throughout the league. I think adding Donnie Tyndall only bolsters that. He has a chance to one day do a really good job at Tennessee. I think the league will get more teams into the NCAA Tournament this season and that will cause the national opinion on the league to change a bit.

RTC: Lastly, who do you believe will take home conference player of the year and conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?

Dortch: It depends on how they vote on the coach of the year. If John Calipari wins the league as everyone expects him to do, will it be him? If so, that would be an easy call. I am going to say Mike Anderson at Arkansas for coach of the year. I think Arkansas is going to be significantly better. If it is able to even finish .500 on the road in league play, I think that will be enough to secure an easy at-large bid. My choice for player of the year is Aaron Harrison. He is the most important player on that ultra-talented Kentucky team. He is going to be a guy who needs to make shots, so the opposition does not pack the lane and negate Kentucky’s size and dribble-drive. If he can keep defenses honest, he is going to average about 20 points per night. I think he is going to be seen as the most important and most valuable player in the league.

WCarey (255 Posts)


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