The Make or Break series will tell us what we need to know about each SEC team by looking at the three most important non-conference games on each team’s schedule. Depending on the outcome, these three games could make OR break that team’s season because of the strengths it shows or weaknesses it could expose. This post features the South Carolina Gamecocks.
One must wonder if South Carolina coach Darrin Horn just swung by Gigi’s to fill out his non-conference schedule. Most of the mid-majors scheduled — including Southeastern Louisiana, Wofford, Presbyterian and South Carolina State — are predicted to struggle in their own conferences. (If you’re a smart RTC reader, you’d already know this thanks to our awesome Conference Primer series.) In games with preseason #1 North Carolina and preseason #3 Ohio State, USC will get a strength-of-schedule boost but will be heavy underdogs. With a slew of transfers and guard Bruce Ellington‘s availability for the team in question, don’t blame the Gamecocks for wanting to schedule lightly while they piece together a team that can compete in a much-stronger Southeastern Conference. Coach Horn’s team might need to rely on a hard-working defense during November and December while they learn who can score on a consistent basis. Then the team must hope Ellington can play major minutes when the SEC schedule starts up.
This is what Bruce Ellington looked like in a basketball jersey during last year's SEC Tournament. We won't see him looking like this again until probably the end of the Gamecocks' football season.
Three Four key non-conference games that will make or break the Gamecocks’ season:
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our latest update comes courtesy of our SEC correspondent, Gerald Smith. This season he will be covering the NCAA Basketball with zeal, nerd-culture references and a fistful of silliness at halftimeadjustment.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@fakegimel).
One Big, Mostly-Happy Conference: After several years of divisional lopsidedness in conference scheduling and tournament seeding – to the dismay of programs like Alabama — the SEC has merged the West and East divisions for basketball. A 16-game conference schedule, consisting of the same pairings within and across old divisions, remains for the 2011-12 season. Starting with this year’s SEC Tournament, teams will be seeded and awarded first-round byes by their overall conference record. The most vocal dissenter against peace, conference unity and love was Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury. He argued unsuccessfully that divisional championships create excitement for the fans. MSU athletics must have sold some awesome merchandise for Coach Stansbury’s six SEC West Division championships.
Too Much of a Good Thing? – Stansbury also argued that a united 12-team conference won’t produce a true champion unless each team plays a full 22-game home and away conference schedule. In July’s coaches’ conference call, some SEC coaches (South Carolina’s DarrinHorn & LSU’s TrentJohnson) agreed, but wonder if such a schedule is feasible. Other coaches (Kentucky’s John Calipari & Alabama’s Anthony Grant) believe that teams should worry more about strengthening their non-conference scheduling and RPI ratings. Increasing the schedule to at least 18 games would placate athletic directors and the SEC’s broadcast partners, but would add further scheduling imbalance and hysteria.In meetings, the decision to increase the number of conference games was postponed until after the 2011-12 season. The SEC coaches will meet again later in August to debate their options.
Missouri Newbies – Two coaches previously employed in the Show-Me State join the SEC during this period of conference remodeling. As an assistant under former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, new Arkansas coach Mike Anderson became very familiar with the “40 Minutes of Hell” system (and Coach Richardson’s snakeskin boot collection). After stops with UAB and Missouri, Anderson returned to Fayetteville to replace John Pelphrey.
Caught lying to cover-up his impermissible BBQ — mmmm… impermissible BBQ… *gurgle noise* — Tennessee was forced to fire Bruce Pearl. Missouri State’s CuonzoMartin was hired to fill Pearl’s vacated orange blazer. With his athletic director resigning and additional NCAA penalties applied to his program, Martin may long for his past days in Springfield.
A major growth spurt led to a similar shoot up the 2011 high school rankings for Kentucky's Anthony Davis. (Sam Forencich/USA Basketball)
Jared Quillen of BigBlueCats.com is the RTC correspondent for the Southeastern Conference.
Predicted Order of Finish
T1. Florida (11-5)
T1. Kentucky (11-5)
T1. Georgia (11-5)
2. Tennessee (10-6)
3. Vanderbilt (7-9)
4. SouthCarolina (4-12)
1. MississippiState (12-4)
2. Mississippi (9-7)
T3. Alabama (7-9)
T3. Arkansas (7-9)
4. LSU (4-12)
5. Auburn (3-13)
G BrandonKnight – Kentucky
G ChrisWarren – Mississippi
G KennyBoynton – Florida
F EnesKanter* – Kentucky (if eligible)
F TreyThompkins – Georgia
Travis Leslie – Georgia
G BrandonKnight – Kentucky
G GeraldRobinson – Georgia
F PatricYoung – Florida
F TobiasHarris – Tennessee
C RenardoSidney – Mississippi State
Kentucky's Brandon Knight was a hot commodity as a late signee.
What You Need To Know
There are a few things that the casual observer of the SEC may not be aware of but should consider: Mississippi State in November is not the same Mississippi State that you will see in December, nor the one that you will see in January. The Bulldogs will play their first nine games without RenardoSidney, who will have waited out a lengthy suspension by the time he plays his first game. Then, after five more games, Dee Bost will return to the lineup. You recall that he declared for the NBA Draft, failed to pull out by the NCAA’s deadline, lost his eligibility, went undrafted, and subsequently was reinstated with a 14-game suspension. Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs drop a game or two early in the season to a team they should beat. It means nothing. This will be a very good team that will be fun to watch as the season progresses.
Florida brings back a lot of experience. That would be all five of Florida’s starters, to be exact, plus they add the very talented McDonalds All-American PatricYoung. Young will provide the size inside that Florida lacked last year. That said, count me as one who is still a little skeptical of Florida’s chances at winning the league. Lest we forget, Florida was not one but two Chandler Parsons prayers from missing the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year. Furthermore, Florida lost in the first round to a good but not great BYU team that played a good but not great game. Will Florida be good? Definitely. Great? Well, that remains to be seen.
For those expecting Kentucky to repeat what they did last year because they replaced four freshmen stars with four new freshmen stars — think again. This team is even younger than last year’s and noticeably smaller. Look for the Wildcats to play much faster than last year and shoot better. But DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Eric Bledsoe, and John Wall are hard to replace. If EnesKanter becomes eligible (as most believe he will) by conference play, then they will challenge for the league title; if not, they fight for second or third in the SEC East. It all comes down to Kanter.
The SEC East is going to be very good this year. Mississippi State gets the nod as champion simply because the East teams are going to beat up on each other like no other group of six teams in America. I could see any one of Florida, Kentucky, Georgia or Tennessee winning the East. I hate predicting only seven conference wins for a talented Vanderbilt squad, but I just don’t know where to place them when they have to play eaach of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky twice, plus Mississippi State.
Mississippi State (NCAA #2-Seed) – Mississippi State is the favorite by default as the East is going to be a bloodbath and the Bulldogs only play each Eastern division team once. Playing in the weaker West division is certainly going to benefit Mississippi State as they won’t have to play Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and even Vanderbilt but once. Renardo Sidney is going to be a force, especially in a conference light on dominant big men this year. Add Dee Bost and RavernJohnson in the back court to an improving KodiAugustus and that’s a team that easily wins the West. If the Bulldogs manage to win half of their games against the East, they probably win the overall league crown.