Paul Jordan of Wildcat Blue Blog is the RTC correspondent for the Southeastern Conference.
South Carolina 6-2
Mississippi State 7-2
It was a very slow week in the SEC as three teams did not see any action at all. Kentucky and Mississippi State represented the SEC well in the SEC/Big East Invitational while Florida and Georgia lost their matchups. Both Mississippi teams have been coming on strong and supplying some firepower to the West; Tennessee has only one setback and they should challenge UK all season. The big story for the rest of the year will be the race to 2000 wins between UK and North Carolina. Kentucky has pretty much assured themselves of being the first team to break the 2000-win plateau as they currently have 1998 wins to 1992 for UNC.
The final two-part edition of our Top 65 games delves into the exciting stretch run of the final five weeks. These highlighted games should have tremendous implications on seeding and conference standings with heated rivals doing battle in the final push towards March Madness. Here’s a preview of what’s guaranteed to be the best slate of games 2009-10 has to offer (top games of November/December, January and the first part of February/March in case you missed them):
February 16- North Carolina @ Georgia Tech(#36 overall)– Many believe Georgia Tech has assembled the talent to play with the supposedly rebuilding reigning champs. Still, UNC should be the favorite to win the ACC and Tech may be right on their heels (no pun intended). Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors make up a frontcourt composed of two possible lottery picks. Iman Shumpert (5.0 APG) returns to bolster the backcourt at the 1 or 2 position while Zach Peacock and Mo Miller provide depth for a Tech squad looking for a late-season impact win.
February 22- West Virginia @ Connecticut(#20 overall)– Whether Stanley Robinson is assigned Da’Sean Butler on the perimeter or Devin Ebanks in the post, Stix is the key for Connecticut this season and in this specific Big East battle. Robinson averaged 14.0 PPG and 9.0 RPG in his final ten contests last year and the UConn coaching staff strongly believes their athletic forward can replicate that success the entire season. He won’t be spending the first half in a sheet metal plant this time around, either.
February 23- Tennessee @ Florida(#62 overall)– The Gators could linger around the bubble this season in a difficult SEC East. Knocking off likely high seed Tennessee at home would send a message to the committee at this late date in the season. It’s imperative Kenny Boynton have an electric shooting game against Tennessee’s shaky defense for the Gators to have a shot. They’ll also need Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons to contain the Tennessee bigs inside and out.
February 24- Purdue @ Minnesota (#32 overall)– A difficult road contest for a Purdue team looking to capture the Big Ten title. Minnesota always plays at a different level defensively at the Barn, meaning this could be a battle of wills in the 50s that sends Big Ten haters screaming in the streets. How Minnesota’s youth, whether it be sophomores Colton Iverson and Ralph Sampson or their freshmen Royce White and Rodney Williams, develops into late February should reveal whether the Gophers can pull off this upset.
Tennessee’s Emmanuel Negeduunderwent surgery today to have a cardiac defibrillator placed inside his chest to monitor his heart and track any irregularities in its beat. This means he is assuredly out of the lineup for the 2009-10 season, and in all likelihood, his basketball career has ended.
But he has his life. And for what must have seemed like an eternity to people at the scene last Monday, he didn’t have that. After a weightlifting session, Negedu challenged UT guard Bobby Maze to a sprint on the indoor football field at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center on campus. After he won the race, he suddenly fell over when his heart inexplicably stopped beating. Teammate Scotty Hopson sprinted back to the training room, found trainer Chad Newman, who, along with director of sports medicine Jason McVeigh, shocked Negedu’s heart back to life.
He spent the last week undergoing tests both in Knoxville and the Cleveland Clinic, and the apparent schedule of treatment included today’s surgery. After Negedu gets used to the idea that the procedure will help him remain alive, we’re sure that he’ll learn to appreciate this choice even though it may mean his basketball life as a player is over. He wasn’t a major contributor to the UT team last season, but he showed a good amount of promise, and not having roundball in his life will undoubtedly be difficult for him. Negedu has had an eight-day period unlike that many 20-year olds will ever face, so we hope that his family and support network will be there for him when he’s trying to figure out what to do with a significant amount of additional free time on his hands. The good news is that Tennessee will allow him to remain on scholarship to finish his degree, and we commend the university for that. If he’s interested in remaining in basketball in some capacity, we’d love to see him near the UT bench as a student assistant of some sort.
Sidenote: what’s with UT and the serious health issues lately? Two seasons ago, all-american Chris Lofton was playing with cancer and now Negedu has a heart attack at age 20? ACLs and other minor sports-related injuries (i.e., Melvin Goins, today) make sense, but these are serious issues.
The hiring of John Calipari and the return of forward Patrick Patterson has rejuvenated Kentucky to the point of being widely considered the favorites in an improving SEC this season. The addition of two top-five recruits- point guard John Wall and power forward DeMarcus Cousins– along with Gillispie’s recruits staying on board and a decent core returning from last season’s squad means expectations are once again sky-high in Lexington. Nobody is thinking about Billy Gillispie but rather the school’s first Final Four berth since the Jeff Sheppard era of 1998.
Here’s the official schedule for a Kentucky team that may be the most exciting to watch this season in all of college basketball:
Non-Conference Schedule Rank: 7. The non-conference schedule in John Calipari’s first season features some big names and decent tests, but no overwhelmingly challenging road games are included on the slate. The only true road game is a trip to Bloomington in early December to take on a rebuilding Indiana squad that Kentucky should run out of the building. Emotions will be high for both the North Carolina and Louisville visits during the non-conference season. North Carolina has embarrassed Kentucky handily in two previousmeetings and the Wildcats will be eager to exact revenge on their rival Cardinals following last season’s Edgar Sosa miracle (not to mention the coaches aren’t exactly best friends). The schedule also includes a trip to Cancun to take on Cinderella Cleveland State and the Stanford/Virginia winner, none of those teams posing close to a threat. One team that could surprise Kentucky is their opponent in the SEC/Big East Invitational in New York: the Connecticut Huskies. UConn did lose a boatload of scoring and rebounding, but Jerome Dyson, Kemba Walker and Stanley Robinson could be enough to hang with Kentucky’s immense talent. At least for a while.
Cupcake City: While Gillispie was prone to the shocking early-season upset, we suspect Calipari will have his team 100% prepared offensively and defensively every single night throughout the campaign. Kentucky has eight games at home against mid-major or low-major competition this season and one visit to Louisville to take on UNC-Asheville. They should sprint through this slate and remain a decent bet to run the table in non-conference play.
Big East/SEC Invitational. This is so ridiculous. Tonight was the opening night of yet another conference challengeseries invitational that theoretically is a great idea, but is executed all wrong by the powers-that-be. Why don’t the Pac-10, Big 12, SEC and Big East realize that interest will be much greater in these things if they’re made into week-long EVENTS, similar to the way the ACC and Big 10 do it, and they let ESPN carry all the games throughout the week. The Pac-10/Big 12 Hardwood Series is bad enough, considering nobody even knows about it; but this Big East/SEC thing is an abomination. It only involves four teams from each conference, and somehow a team like South Florida gets invited. South Florida… most people don’t even realize that USF is IN the Big East or even carries a basketball program! Furthermore, they’ve decided to have doubleheaders in semi-neutral venues, which only serves to confuse people and create situations where half the stands are empty, even though two top 25 teams are playing (see: UT-Marquette tonight in Nashville). How cool would it be to have three legitimate made-for-tv challenges between all the power conferences in the first three weeks of December, leading into Bowl Week? Make this happen. FYI – the much-maligned SEC went 2-0 tonight, but who wouldn’t beat South Florida?
Tennessee 80, Marquette 62. The score was Marquette by 2 with just over ten minutes remaining. Then Tennessee and, more precisely, Mr. Headband as Yarmulke Wayne Chism, took over the game. The Vols scored on eleven of their next twelve possessions, and Chism was involved in seven of them. Game pretty much over. Chism, incidentally, set a new career-high with 26 pts and 11 rebounds, and it was clear that in the second half he was feeling it. The Vols didn’t get a huge amount of production from anyone else, though, (Tyler Smith had 14/3; Bobby Maze 10/6 assts) but their long arms and athletic defense did force Marquette into its worst shooting performance of the season (38%). Wesley Matthews continued to show his value, as he dropped 30 (15 from the line) on a myriad of drives and scoop shots in the lane. Matthews is #2 in the nation in FT attempts (97), behind only Blake Griffin, which shows just how frequently he gets into the paint and absorbs contact.
Vanderbilt 71, South Florida 52. We’re not going to spend too much time on this turd of game, but one interesting aspect of it was that the much-ballyhooed Mike Mercer (transfer from Georgia) and Gus Gilchrist (transfer from Maryland, sorta) made their tv debuts. Mercer had 10/3 assts, while Gilchrist added 12/8 off the bench. Anyone expecting these two players to turn USF into a Big East contender should have their heads examined. AJ Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal had twenty each for the Commodores.
This Sweaty Vol Fan Was Outworking Wayne Chism Tonight
It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp.
LMU’s Bill Bayno is taking a leave of absence due to a “serious medical condition” related to coaching-related stress. Maybe the 0-10 record with a trip scheduled to Pauley on Wednesday had something to do with it.
Mississippi State’s Rick Stansbury was hospitalized yesterday with migraines and flu-like symptoms, although further tests were being done.
Clemson 76, North Florida 36. In the past seven years, Clemson has had starts of 10-0, 17-0, 11-0, 9-0, and now in 2008-09, 11-0 again. In those other four unbeaten starts, the final result was two NITs, one NCAA first round loss, and one losing record. Woo. Hoo.
Texas 88, Texas Southern 72. We’ve said it before, but if Dexter Pittman (19/5) gets going, Texas is a whole different animal. One troubling aspect of tonight’s game is they allowed 0-9 TSU to shoot 58% against them – Rick Barnes cannot be happy about that.
On Tap Wednesday (all times EST). Nothing like a Duke v. UNC-Asheville game (w/o Kenny George) to keep us warm at night. We’re actually very intrigued with how Syracuse responds 48 hrs after losing at home, whether Pitt will dominate a good Siena team, and if St. Mary’s can go into Mac Court and beat a young Oregon team.
NC State (-9.5) v. East Carolina – 7pm
Syracuse (-25) v. Canisius (ESPNU) – 7pm
Duke v. UNC-Asheville (ESPN2) – 7:30pm
LSU v. Nicholls St. (ESPN FC & 360) – 8pm
Memphis (-22) v. Arkansas-Little Rock – 8pm
Arkansas (-6.5) v. Austin Peay (ESPN FC & 360) – 8pm
Okay, so the Southeastern Conference has…well…embarrassed itself. Kentucky got the party started with a home loss to VMI and as of this posting, only four unbeatens remain in what was formerly considered a “power conference.” This season is looking like a major reloading session for the SEC, as nearly every team is falling short of pre-season expectations. Stars like Shan Foster, Chris Lofton, Jamont Gordon and Marreese Speights have exited and the conference is feeling the losses in a big way. Let’s get to this week’s SEC rankings…
Week One Power Rankings
#12 Tennessee (3-0)
Mississippi State (4-0)
#17 Florida (3-1)
South Carolina (3-0)
Ole Miss (3-1)
For now, we’ll classify the teams in terms of how they are performing versus how they were expected to before the season. This category will change pretty often, depending on the week, but each one will feature a short snippet of each team in the conference.
While “expectations” are subjective, these are teams that are playing above the level they were expected to at this point in the season.
Mississippi State – The Bulldogs’ offseason seemed to be one gigantic nightmare. The most potent duo in the conference in Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes departed for the NBA (or not) and a third starter in Ben Hansbrough to transfer. Instead of taking a step backward, the squad has meshed surprisingly well on the shoulders of reigning National Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado, who is thus far averaging just short of a triple-double with 10.3ppg, 13.0rpg, and 7.8bpg. Varnado again leads the nation in blocks and has helped State lead the SEC in seven statistical categories thus far. Freshman point guard Dee Bost has been outstanding in early play, currently leading the SEC in assists per game with 6.75apg. The competition has been weak, but while other league teams are dropping those games, the Bulldogs have been owning their opponents so far.
LSU – The other West standout is in a very similar situation as Mississippi State, except that expectations for the Tigers are high considering their high talent level and experience versus the rest of the Western Division. LSU’s competition level has been similarly weak, but LSU is defeating teams by an average of 25.7ppg and is looking to be the surprise team of the SEC. The Tigers are stacked with potent offensive players in Bo Spencer, Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton, but are surprisingly stingy on defense as well. With the conference down, LSU could win enough conference games to make the NCAA Tournament as long as the squad stays healthy. LSU lacks depth, so any loss would be a disaster.
What You Need to Know. The name of the game for the SEC this year is youth. The Western Division in particular, as nearly every team loses some nucleus from squads that formed a comparatively weak conference half as it was. Tennessee once again looks to lead a strong Eastern Division despite the loss of All-American Chris Lofton. The nation will be looking towards this typically loaded conference with several questions heading into 2008-09. Can Florida’s sophomores have a breakout season similar to those of 2006-07? Can Kentucky put enough guards around all-SEC forward Patrick Patterson to compete for the East? And can the West avoid being stomped once again in head-to-head competitions with the East? My answers: yes, yes, and no.
Predicted Champion.Tennessee (#2 seed NCAA). It’s pretty easy to brag on Bruce Pearl. He’s one of the nation’s premier coaches, owning a ridiculous 394-108 (.785) record as a head coach, standing third amongst current head coaches. Despite losing popular 2007-08 preseason pick for National Player of the Year Chris Lofton and do-everything guard/forward JuJuan Smith, the Vols will benefit from huge losses across the board for the SEC. All-American forward Tyler Smith (13.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg) returns to provide the squad with a heavy-duty anchor inside (although the 6’7, 215 lb. junior hits 37.8% from behind the arc), while talented center Wayne Chism will be mopping up inside defensively. Hopping aboard the orange train are a pair of insanely talented newcomers. Everything-All-American out of high school Scotty Hopson will be challenging for the starting spot at shooting guard while junior-college All-American Bobby Maze looks to start at point guard. All in all, the talent, experience, and coaching level is the highest in Knoxville, and that’s why the Vols are picked to win the SEC regular season for the second consecutive season. Here’s some clips from the classic #1 v. #2 matchup Tennessee had with Memphis last season.
Florida(NCAA #3) – The Gators have once again put together a formula for a set of super sophomores. The league’s top freshman, as well as one of the conference’s best point guards in years, returns in Nick Calathes while a pair of star freshmen in Kenny Kadji and Eloy Vargas will attempt to fill the rather large shoes of NBA-bound Marreese Speights. Don’t be surprised if the Gators reclaim the SEC regular-season title for the third time in the past four years and show up knocking on the door of the NCAA’s Elite Eight.
Kentucky(NCAA #6) – The Wildcats have a lot of outside shooting to replace, after losing over 33 points per game in Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Patrick Patterson returns and looks to touch the ball on nearly every possession, and incoming freshman DeAndre Liggins should serve as this year’s heavily-relied upon freshman for the Wildcats at the point guard spot. UK could challenge for the Eastern Division (and thus, the overall SEC crown) and sneak into the NCAA Sweet Sixteen if the pieces fall correctly.
Vanderbilt(NCAA #9) – Replacing SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster won’t be easy for Kevin Stallings, but the Commodores have another potential POY candidate in A.J. Ogilvy to step into that leadership role. Ogilvy returns as the conference’s most efficient player and scorer, and Jermaine Beal will be the guy to pass inside to the talented post-man while remaining a scoring threat this season. Although the Commodores lose an immense talent in Foster, Ogilvy should be enough to push the squad into the first couple of rounds in the NCAA Tournament.
LSU(NCAA #11) – The Tigers return nearly every major contributor from last year’s 13-18 squad except for star freshman Anthony Randolph and head coach John Brady, who was replaced during the offseason with accomplished former Stanford coach Trent Johnson. Johnson inherits possibly the league’s most talented overall player in senior Marcus Thornton, the league’s leading returning scorer, along with a chance to get LSU back to the NCAA Tournament (if just so) for the first time since 2006’s Final Four run.
Mississippi State(NCAA #12) – The Bulldogs lose the most talented duo in the conference in multi-dimensional Jamont Gordon and dominating post-presence Charles Rhodes. In addition, State will need to find a replacement at shooting guard with sophomore Ben Hansbrough transferring to Notre Dame. The positive, however, is that MSU is loaded with talented and will anchor around National Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado, who led the nation in blocks per game and helped the team rank second nationally in field-goal percentage defense. Adding two big new pieces to the puzzle in freshmen Dee Bost and Romero Osby, the Bulldogs could win their share of the West for the third time in the past four season and make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in the past eight seasons.
Alabama (NIT) – I’ve predicted several SEC squads with similar in-conference records, and thus those with the weaker RPIs have been restricted to the NIT. Alabama is one of them. The Tide return former All-American Ronald Steele, but major questions still surround his ability to return to his former self after several complications with knee injuries. McDonald’s All-American freshman JaMychal Green will step into the spot of the league’s most dominant offensive post-man in departed Richard Hendrix. If Green can handle the post himself, or if little-known sophomore Justin Knox can step in to assist, the Tide could find themselves away from a top NIT seed and into the NCAAs.
South Carolina (NIT) – New head coach David Horn from Western Kentucky infamy will step into a very favorable position at the helm of the Gamecocks. USC brings back more firepower, at least percentage-wise, than any other SEC team and could post the biggest turnaround season the league has seen in quite some time. Junior Devan Downey returns as one of the league’s top point guards and toughest men to keep out of the lane along with ranking as the SEC’s second-leading returning scorer. With almost every piece seeming to come into place for a special season for USC, keep your eyes pealed for a potential Gamecock bubble squad.
Arkansas – Just as USC returns nearly everyone, Arkansas loses nearly everyone from a team that underachieved a season ago. Namely, the Razorbacks lose former SEC Freshman of the Year Patrick Beverly, who decided to try his luck overseas. Despite a solid recruiting class, this should be a rebuilding year for John Pelphrey.
Auburn – The Tigers simply have had a bare cupboard in both talent and depth constantly under Jeff Lebo, and this year is little different. The return of Korvotney Barber should help matters some, assuming he stays healthy, but Auburn won’t improve to any real degree until Lebo is let go.
Georgia – The Bulldogs under Dennis Felton have been comparable to Auburn under Lebo for quite some time, except that Felton recruits a bit better and has had some nominal success such as last year’s confusing SEC Tournament run. With mass suspensions and off-the-court issues, UGA should remain near or at the bottom of the conference this season – and Felton should receive his pink slip much like Lebo.
Ole Miss – The Rebels lost a lot last season, but were still anchored inside by solid and experienced forwards, especially Dwayne Curtis. With those losses, this team is almost entirely underclassmen and could sneak into the NIT if they catch some breaks.
Kentucky @ North Carolina (11.18.08) – If the Wildcats can pull a massive upset of the consensus #1 team in the nation in Chapel Hill, they will be well on their way to returning to national recognition.
Tennessee vs. Marquette (12.16.08) – The Volunteers get little or no breaks throughout the non-conference schedule, and this SEC vs. Big East matchup will be for conference bragging rights.
LSU @ Texas A&M (12.20.08) – If the Tigers want to prove they are rebounding, this will be one of few opportunities for them to so in the non-conference slate.
South Carolina @ Baylor (01.02.08) – The Gamecocks’ schedule is ridiculously light, and their schedule will be inflated by this point in the season. This game is a must-win if USC wants to take the step up into the NCAAs.
Tennessee @ Kansas (01.03.08) – Another heavyweight matchup for the Vols, who have a chance to take down a reigning national champ on their home court.
Kentucky @ Louisville (01.04.08) – The Cats could seriously bolster their NCAA seed and chances to advance in the NCAAs by taking down Louisville on the road.
Memphis @ Tennessee (01.24.08) – A quickly-heating rivalry as the amount of NBA potential on this floor could drown the common man.
LSU @ Mississippi State (01.11.09) – If the Tigers want to break through the cap and take the West, a win in this early conference game would be a huge advantage.
Kentucky @ Alabama (01.24.09) – The Tide must be able to win games at home against the top tier of the East if they have any serious hope of challenging for the overall SEC crown.
Mississippi State @ Alabama (02.21.09) – If the Bulldogs take care of the Tide at home, they have a shot to make it six in a row over their rivals and take a major step towards another West title.
Tennessee @ Florida (03.01.09) – The Gators must hold serve at home to compete in the East, while the Vols could wrap up the conference title with a win here.
Kentucky @ Florida (03.07.09) – We know the Wildcats can win at home, but can they win in Gainesville? This one could be for the East.
Neat-O Stat. The Southeastern Conference is one of the nation’s deepest and most competitive leagues. The SEC ranks second only behind the ACC in average conference RPI since 1999, and has put every single member into the NCAA tournament since 2002.
65 Team Era. The SEC has had a tremendous amount of success in this era, going 178-117 (.603) which is good enough for third behind the ACC and Big East. This includes thirteen F4s and five national titles. What’s particularly impressive is that only four of those F4s and two titles belong to Kentucky, the traditional standard-bearer of this league, which shows that the rest of the conference has taken basketball to heart and stepped it up.
Final Thoughts. The SEC was a huge disappointment on the national scene a season ago. Without major flag-bearers such as Kentucky or Florida dominating, expectations fell on Tennessee to take their #2 seed to the Final Four. Instead, the Vols served as the only team from the conference to make the Sweet Sixteen before falling on their faces to Louisville. While this year likely won’t be much of an improvement, consider it a gigantic top-to-bottom reloading of one of the nation’s premier men’s basketball conferences, with the league’s talent being tremendously youth-oriented. Three SEC teams look to have serious aspirations for getting past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and all are from the East: Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky. If a Western Division team can step up and compete better than expected and at least two of these teams make the Sweet Sixteen this season, it should serve as a useful springboard to a very potent year for the SEC on the national scene in 2009-2010.