Resetting the SEC Race: A Look at the Seven “East” TeamsPosted by CNguon on January 4th, 2013
Christian D’Andrea is an SEC Microsite writer and can be found @TrainIsland on Twitter.
Non-conference play is wrapping up in the Southeastern Conference, and that means that the battle for SEC supremacy is about to begin. We’re two months into the college basketball season, and several teams are vying to be crowned as the SEC’s king. Florida and Missouri have carried the banner early in the season, but a talented program lies in wait in Lexington. Behind them, quietly successful squads like LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Texas A&M are also waiting to prove that their inflated records aren’t just the products of careful scheduling. This week, we’ll break down how each member of the SEC has started its 2012-13 campaigns, who their key players may be going forward, and whether they can carry their current pace into conference play. Today, we’ll start by looking at the conference known during football season as the SEC East:
Florida – Flaws May be Surfacing; The Gators are 2-2 after a 7-0 Start
- The Good: The Gators have shown off a balanced attack and are playing great team defense to start their season. Opponents are shooting woefully against them, averaging just 52 points per game through Florida’s first 11 match-ups. No team has scored more than 67 points against UF so far in 2012-13. Kenny Boynton is still around and doing Kenny Boynton things. This can be recorded as either as positive or a negative for the Gators. He’s leading the team in scoring and swagger, but like a 6’2” Antoine Walker he’s shooting over six three-pointers per game and making fewer than 30 percent of them. He’s regressed since a strong junior season, but he’s still clearly this team’s general when it comes down to on-court leadership.
- The Bad: Florida’s balance comes at the expense of not having an alpha dog to take over in tight situations. Boynton’s poor shooting tempers his status as a go-to player, while Erik Murphy and Patric Young have yet to prove themselves as consistent threats when the pressure is on. This is something that could fluster coach Billy Donovan when conference play brings more high-pressure situations.
- Player to Watch: Erik Murphy. Murphy, the pride of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, has come into his own as a senior, shooting a stellar 57 percent from the field and 45 percent from long range. The 6’10” forward is an inside-out presence who can stretch opposing defenses and use his length to provide passable defense in the interior. His ability to draw defenders away from the hoop helps provide openings for a strong backcourt led by Boynton and Rosario. If he can maintain this level of play, he’ll give the Gators plenty of options on offense.
- Can it Last? Yes, but… the Gators have been solid and have the talent to make a deep postseason run, but recent losses bring this team’s makeup and stability into question. Florida gave up the comeback of the 2012-13 season so far when turnovers and a missed Boynton free throw helped Arizona overcome a six-point deficit with 57 seconds left in the game. Two games later, they couldn’t get past a sneaky-good Kansas State team in Kansas City. The Gators have all the strength they need to get past the SEC’s lower-level teams, but they’ve still got to prove that they can handle the best the conference has to offer. Their reign at the top of the conference may be short lived.
Missouri – Their Talent Has Led to a 10-2 Record, But Can They Continue to Play as a Team?
- The Good: Laurence Bowers has returned stronger than ever from last season’s ACL tear, and a Missouri team filled with transfers have helped place the Tigers among the NCAA’s elite in 2013. Jabari Brown (Oregon), Alex Oriakhi (UConn), Earnest Ross (Auburn), and Keion Bell (Pepperdine) have all played well in their new hometown of Columbia, Missouri. The Tigers have nine players that have earned 10 minutes per game or more this year; of those, only Phil Pressey suited up for Mizzou in 2011-12. Point guard Pressey has proven to be an excellent distributor, leading the SEC with 7.3 assists per game. He sprung for an insane 19-of-19 line against UCLA in an overtime loss and has stepped forward as this team’s leader out of the backcourt. Oriakhi has been just as good at Mizzou as he had been at UConn, and Brown has shown off the chops that made him a five-star recruit coming out of high school. A talented roster has given this team a potent inside-out attack and the depth to hang with any opponent they’ll face in 2013. Additionally, they lead the NCAA in rebounds through a dozen games this season, pulling down 47.4 per game.
- The Bad: Phil Pressey also makes some terrible decisions when it comes to shooting the ball. Few other point guards have ever toed the line between distributor and chucker so well. The junior is shooting just 34.7 percent this season, and has tossed up lines like 3-of-19, 4-of-18, and 8-of-22 so far this year. Despite that sloppiness, the Tigers were able to win two of those games. It’s clear that Frank Haith and Mizzou have a contingency plan in place for their occasionally reckless court general – elite rebounding. Having players like Oriakhi, Bowers, and Ross around to clean up those misses has helped mitigate Pressey’s occasional lapses in shooting.
- Player to Watch: Jabari Brown. Brown is only three games into his sophomore campaign after transferring from Oregon, but it didn’t take him long to get comfortable and start putting up shots. He’s averaging just less than 15 points per game so far, but it’s still a mystery as far as how well he’ll acclimate to playing in the SEC. He performed well enough in games against Illinois and UCLA this season, but there’s still lots of room for the youngster to grow. Can he develop into Mizzou’s go-to scorer in the backcourt and relieve Pressey of some of his scoring duties?
- Can it Last? Yes. The Tigers have a ton of talent on their team and have experienced players with the postseason experience to carry this program when it needs help. They’re a diverse team of athletes who, like Kentucky, can shine or flame out depending on match-ups. Even so, they’re a surefire bet to make a decent run in the postseason.
Kentucky – A Team Chock Full of Freshmen is 9-4, But Wins Are on the Horizon
- The Good: Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, and Archie Goodwin have been as good as advertised. The trio gives the Wildcats a strong “Big Three” to rely on as the season wears, and supporting castmates like Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Mays, and Ryan Harrow round out what may be the SEC’s most talented, or at least most athletic, roster. Kyle Wiltjer, a holdover from last year’s NCAA Championship team, has become the team’s most hotly-debated topic. The 6’10” sophomore started his season slowly, but has turned in some confidence-building performances as Kentucky’s schedule took a turn towards easier match-ups. He’s averaged 15.5 points per game and made 16-of-27 three-point attempts in that span. If he can continue to shoot with confidence, his floor-spreading abilities could be the key to another Final Four run for the ‘Cats.
- The Bad: Baylor snapped a 55-game home winning streak at Rupp Arena, and that constituted only one of the preseason #3 team’s four losses in non-conference play. The Wildcats had a challenging schedule with teams like Duke and Louisville on the docket, but they emerged from their 13-game slate with only one win over a power conference opponent. That came in a season-opening 72-69 victory over 12-1 Maryland. Shooting can be a real problem for the Wildcats, and that’s why they’ll need Wiltjer and Mays to prove that they can be threats from the outside. The Wildcats will also need to develop defensively while they grow as a unit. This team has had trouble getting the stops they’ve needed in close losses, and those lapses could come back to haunt them in the postseason.
- Player to Watch: Archie Goodwin. Goodwin has become this team’s engine on offense, and he has begun to feel more comfortable from behind the arc as the season wears on. If he can become this team’s primary scoring threat, he’ll pull some of the defensive focus away from Poythress, Noel, and UK’s shooters.
- Can it Last? Unlikely – but in a good way. Kentucky’s 9-4 start is reason for concern in Lexington, but this team will ease into SEC play with a soft start to their conference schedule. The ‘Cats will face Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Auburn to open play, and they won’t meet a ranked team until the middle of February. That’ll give a supremely talented team the time and confidence they need to come together as a unit.
Tennessee – The Vols Are an Inconsistent 8-3, But Postseason Hopes Endure
- The Good: Jarnell Stokes has been able to build on a solid freshman half-season, giving Tennessee a big, thick presence in the paint and giving UT a balanced attack. He’s still got a lot to learn, but he’ll be one of the conference’s biggest interior threats this season if he can stay on the court and play aggressively without falling into foul trouble. The Vols have three losses, but none are the type that could haunt them when Selection Sunday rolls around (unless Virginia continues to lose bafflers to teams like Old Dominion). They’ve got a quality win over Wichita State on their record and wins over Xavier and UMass suggest that they’ll be able to take care of business against teams in the lower levels of the SEC.
- The Bad: Trae Golden is doing a little bit of everything for the Vols, but the less he shoots, the better. The junior has regressed this season, shooting just 37 percent from the field and 25 percent from long range. His biggest scoring asset is his ability to get to the free throw line, but Tennessee would benefit greatly from having a player like Josh Richardson or D’Montre Edwards be able to step up and lift some of the scoring burden from his shoulders. Additionally, Stokes has got to learn to be more consistent. Tennessee’s opponents have quickly learned that the key to stopping the Vols has been to stop their burly forward. He’s averaged just over five points per game in UT’s three losses this season despite playing 28 minutes per contest. Finally, Tennessee is vulnerable to offensive meltdowns that have cost this team opportunities for big wins. In three losses, Tennessee has averaged fewer than 40 points per game. The most troubling was a 46-38 loss to Virginia in which the Vols shot just 29 percent from the field.
- Player to Watch: Jarnell Stokes. He’s got grown-man size and strength, but he’s not mentally set to be an impact player twice a week for the Vols. If he continues to grow, then he can push this Tennessee team to a NCAA Tournament berth. Even if he just maintains his current level of play, he’ll be able to pace the Vols back towards the upper end of the SEC.
- Can it Last? Yes. The Volunteers will reap a reward from the new, division-less SEC. They’ll face Florida and Missouri – two premier teams they would have had to face twice in the old configuration – just once in 2013. Instead, they’ll get struggling teams like Vandy and Alabama for home-and-home match-ups. Factor that in with their solid level of talent, and you’ve got a team that should make a play for postseason consideration as the season wears on.
South Carolina – The Gamecocks are 9-3, But They Have Feasted on Lower-Level Competition
- The Good: Carolina has used its non-conference schedule as a building period, and it has given the Gamecocks a chance to shine against a bevy of lower-tier opponents. An undersized USC squad has emerged as a balanced team that has used a strong and athletic backcourt to outscore opponents. In nine wins, Carolina has scored 74 points or more eight times. The Gamecocks are also getting strong production from a relatively unknown freshman class. Michael Carrera and Mindaugus Kacinas have been efficient and effective in their first seasons of NCAA play.
- The Bad: That 9-3 record is more of a marvel of schedule engineering than a testament to this team’s ability. There aren’t many Presbyterians on the SEC schedule this year. While the Gamecocks showed that they can win the games they’re supposed to (mostly), they’ll face a stiffer challenge when conference play starts. Additionally, starting guard Eric Smith (26.7 MPG, 32.9 FG%, 25% 3PT) has been atrocious for South Carolina so far this season.
- Player to Watch: Bruce Ellington. One day after catching the game-winning touchdown in the Outback Bowl, Ellington returned to Frank Martin’s team to prove his worth on the basketball court. The diminutive guard has been a key player for the Gamecocks over his three-year career, and he averaged nearly 10 points per game in USC’s four games between the regular football season and the postseason. Ellington is the very definition of a gunner. In his first two years in Columbia, he averaged more shots than points scored per game. Despite his voluminous chucking, he’s also the kind of player that can shoot the Gamecocks into a big-time upset. Carolina will have their moments this year, but if they’re beating a team like Florida with less than two minutes to play, keep an eye on Ellington – he’s probably right in the thick of things.
- Can it Last? Unlikely. USC is getting plenty of support from unheralded freshmen like Kacinas, but their record is padded with wins from the dredges of Division I. The Gamecocks rounded out their non-conference schedule with the murderers’ row of Jacksonville, Appalachian State, Manhattan, and Presbyterian. The 207th-ranked Rider Broncs represent their best win of the season so far. South Carolina has played a schedule built to get them some early wins, and it’s worked. Whether or not it has prepared them for the rigor of the SEC schedule is another question. It looks like the Gamecocks will be falling back to earth once conference play unfolds.
Vanderbilt – The Commodores are 6-6 in a Season That Has Required Replacement of Their Top Players
- The Good: Vanderbilt has gotten the veteran leadership they’ve needed in spurts, most notably when junior Kyle Fuller, one of the team’s elder statesmen, exploded for a career-high 25 points in an overtime win at Xavier. Scoring has been a problem, but the Vanderbilt defense has been better than expected, especially from a young group.
- The Bad: Things pretty much bottomed out when this team scored just 33 points in a blowout loss to Marist. That Thanksgiving-break defeat led many fans to an unfamiliar Commodore refrain: “Thank god we’ve still got football.” Additionally, German freshman Kevin Bright is plateauing after a strong start, and a weak recruiting class has struggled to replace the six players that left Nashville in 2012. This team struggles to score against disciplined defenses, and they can’t hang with opponents in a shootout. Their best bet for conference victories will come in ugly, dragged-out affairs.
- Player to Watch: Kedren Johnson. Johnson, a sophomore point guard, has emerged as Vandy’s star player in the wake of 2012’s departures. His size and scoring ability have helped mold him into a cross between former SEC stalwarts Jamont Gordon and Jermaine Beal early in his career. His shooting needs some work, but he’s improving and should be a lock to make an all-SEC team if he stays at Vanderbilt for the next two-and-a-half years.
- Can it Last? Yes, but things may get worse before they get better. The Commodores are mired in a rebuilding year in 2013. They have the talent to pull a few minor upsets in the SEC, but Vandy fans should get comfortable with a spot towards the bottom of the conference and an early end to the season for Nashville’s team.
Georgia – At 5-7, the Bulldogs Are the East’s Only Team Under .500
- The Good: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is looking like an all-SEC player. The sophomore guard leads his team with 17.5 points and 7.3 rebounds so far this season, and he’d be even better on offense if he had a supporting cast to relieve some of his defensive pressure. He had 25 points in his team’s bellwether win over Southern California last week.
- The Bad: In short, their best win of the season has come over 5-8 Southern California. Georgia started their season 2-7 with losses to Youngstown State, Iona, and Southern Miss. That’s led to some serious rotation shakeups for Mark Fox and his crew. Caldwell-Pope is the only player on the team to have started all 12 games this season. Ten different players have started at least two games each as the Bulldogs look for the right combination to support their star guard.
- Player to Watch: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The way that UGA has been playing, you don’t want to watch anyone else. Nemanja Djurisic could end up becoming the ‘Dawgs #2 by default, but he’s too inconsistent to give this team the relief they need in order to sniff .500 in the SEC.
- Can it Last? Yes. Mark Fox is having his worse year in Athens, and while Caldwell-Pope has been a stud, the rest of his team has failed to follow suit. The Bulldogs tested themselves with a tough out-of-conference schedule and it backfired on them in 2012-13. They’ll face a similar slate when league play begins, and it’s tough to imagine things going much differently.