|Southeastern Conference Outlook|
|By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor|
OUTLOOK: Once again, the SEC is loaded with talent and will undoubtedly have several teams representing the conference come NCAA Tournament time. But even with a complete turnover in their starting lineup, the reigning NCAA Champion Kentucky Wildcats appear primed to be the league's top team once again.
Kentucky rode the success of several supremely-talented freshmen en route to cutting down the nets in New Orleans last April, and even with the likes of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist gone, John Calipari has a new class of highly-touted freshmen ready to show what they are worth. While the Wildcats continue to go young, the Florida Gators will try to find success with a veteran bunch, as several key contributors from last year's Elite Eight squad, including star senior guard Kenny Boynton, return to Gainesville. Coming from the Big 12, Missouri will likely join the elite in the SEC immediately, and at No. 15 in the preseason AP Poll, it rounds out the league's ranked teams for now (UK No. 3, Florida No. 10).
Arkansas wasn't very impressive last season without its top forward Marshall Powell, but with him returning from injury coupled with All-SEC First Team selection B.J. Young, the Razorbacks could be knocking on the leaders' doors all season long. Tennessee is fresh off a surprisingly successful season a year ago and returns a solid core of players. Alabama lost a lot of talent in the offseason but may have the conference's best non-Kentucky freshman in Devonta Pollard.
Ole Miss quietly had a very nice season a year ago, and it retains one of the deepest and most experienced lineups in the league. Texas A&M is coming off a poor performance in its last season in the Big 12 and the opportunity of a fresh start in the SEC is there with a nice mix of returning veterans and quality recruits. Georgia also took a step backward in 2011-12 and will hope guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will step up their performances to lead the Bulldogs back to the Big Dance. Vanderbilt was outstanding a year ago, but with the loss of all five starters, it appears to be a rebuilding year in Nashville.
It's difficult to imagine LSU improving upon its 18-win season with the loss its head coach as well of two of its top performers from last year. Although Auburn has won just nine total conference games over the past two seasons, it has seen positive growth in each of passing year of Tony Barbee's reign as head coach.
South Carolina has hope that it can eventually turn things around with new head coach Frank Martin, but it simply does not possess the type of talent to do so this season. Mississippi State was fantastic in stretches last year, but the loss of nearly 90 percent of its scoring production from 2011-12 will have crippling effects on the Bulldogs this season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kentucky
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kentucky, 2. Florida, 3. Missouri, 4. Arkansas, 5. Tennessee, 6. Alabama, 7. Ole Miss, 8. Texas A&M, 9. Georgia, 10. Vanderbilt, 11. LSU, 12. Auburn, 13. South Carolina, 14. Mississippi State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats were the nation's top team wire-to-wire last season, finishing an incredible 38-2 campaign off with the program's eighth national championship. If UK wishes to repeat, it will need to do so with an entirely new lineup as all five starters from the championship squad, including NBA Lottery picks Anthony Davis (14.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.7 bpg) and Michael Kidd- Gilchrist (11.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), have moved on. As proven last season as well as throughout his coaching career, John Calipari has shown no reservations giving big minutes to freshmen, and he will have the luxury of coaching one of the nation's top recruiting classes once again this season. It will be no easy task filling Davis's shoes at center, but Nerlens Noel will get the opportunity after being named the USA Today National Player of the Year during his senior season at Tilton High School (12.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.9 bpg). Archie Goodwin (6-4, 198) was a McDonald's All-America selection, as was Alex Poythress (6-7, 239). Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0, 244) rounds out the rookie class and will surely bring great depth to the frontcourt. The Wildcats also welcome former Wright State guard Julius Mays (14.1 ppg), who was one of the Horizon League's best players last season. Six players return from the championship squad, the most experienced being sophomore Kyle Wiltjer (5.0 ppg).
FLORIDA: Billy Donovan's 16th season as the head coach of the Gators was another outstanding one, Florida finishing as one of the SEC's best teams in 2011-12 (26-11, 10-6 SEC), culminating in an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and an improbable run to the Elite Eight. This season, Florida will be without stud shooting guard Bradley Beal (14.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), who was selected No. 3 in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards, but the squad will still enjoy some continuity with three returning starters. Last season's leading scorer Kenny Boynton (15.9 ppg) starts the year ranked eighth in program history with 1,589 points, and he is within striking distance of Ronnie Montgomery's school record (2,090). Also returning to the starting lineup is Erik Murphy (10.5 ppg), who connected on more than 48 percent of his three-pointers in 2011-12, and 6-9 center Patric Young (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg, .618 FG percentage). It also returns much of its bench depth, with Mike Rosario (6.6 ppg) showing promise from three-point land and Will Yeguete (4.4, 6.3 rpg) bringing experience to the frontcourt. Freshman Braxton Ogbueze (6-0, 182) should see plenty of action as well as he was one of the highest-rated point guards in the last recruiting class.
MISSOURI: Over the past four seasons, the Tigers have been a force to be reckoned with in the Big 12 Conference, and even in Frank Haith's first season as head coach in 2011-12 they did not slow down, finishing the year as one of the nation's top teams (30-5, 14-4 Big 12), although their potential was squandered as they lost the Big 12 Championship as well as their second-round NCAA Tournament matchup with No. 15 seed Norfolk State. Haith is the reigning National Coach of the Year, and his chops will be put to the test this season as he lost eight lettermen, including top scorers Marcus Denmon (17.7 ppg), Kim English (14.5 ppg), and Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 ppg). Fortunately, Missouri still has plenty of talent to be able to compete in its first season in the SEC, led by guards Mike Dixon (13.5 ppg) and Phil Pressey (10.3 ppg), both of whom will look to take over as the go-to guys in the UM backcourt. After being redshirted last season due to injury, 6-8 forward Laurence Bowers (11.6 ppg in 2010-11) will bring some much-needed size to the frontcourt. The Tigers will welcome an incredible 13 newcomers to the team this season, including transfers Earnest Ross (Auburn), Jabari Brown (Oregon) and Keion Bell (Pepperdine). The lack of depth at forward could mean immediate playing time for freshmen Ryan Rosburg (6-10, 250) and Stefan Jankovic (6-11, 230).
ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks put together a solid record overall in 2011-12 (18-14), but they underwhelmed in SEC play (6-10) and as a result missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. However, Mike Anderson's squad is in great position to improve in his second year as head coach, as Arkansas returns two of the league's top players. Guard B.J. Young had a fantastic freshman season, mostly in a reserve role, scoring 15.3 ppg on more than 50 percent field goal efficiency, which helped land him on the prestigious Preseason All-SEC First Team. Marshawn Powell was off to a great start through two games last season (19.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg) before his campaign was derailed by a knee injury, but he is fully recovered and is expected to make up one half of perhaps the most dangerous inside-outside combo in the league. Helping the Razorbacks' chances this season will be an impressive rotation of experienced role players. Ricky Scott (9.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.5 apg) and Mardracus Wade (10.8 ppg) should continue to play big roles in the backcourt, and Rashaad Madden (6.6 ppg) and Hunter Mickelson (5.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg) are valuable bench pieces. Freshman Jacorey Williams (6-8, 204) could see some immediate playing time after averaging 22.4 ppg as a senior at Central Park Christian High School in Alabama.
TENNESSEE: In Cuonzo Martin's first year as head coach taking over for Bruce Pearl, he led the Volunteers to a better season than most people anticipated, going 19-15 while finishing second in the SEC with a 10-6 mark. While they were left out of the NCAA Tournament, their season was rewarded with a trip to the NIT, and the turnaround is expected to continue in 2012-13 with the return of four starters. Trae Golden was one of the best point guards in the conference a season ago, leading the team in scoring (13.6 ppg) while handing out 4.5 apg. Jeronne Maymonn (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) brings invaluable senior leadership and stability to the front court. Jarnell Stokes played just 17 games as a freshman, but as Martin's first high-impact recruit, he proved to be a valuable piece to the puzzle with 9.6 ppg behind 53 percent field goal shooting to go along with 7.4 rpg. Among UT's crop of newcomers are 6-5 guard Armani Moore, who averaged 22 ppg and 9.3 rpg at Mount Paran Christian School in Georgia last year, redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous (6-5, 201) and juco transfer D'Montre Edwards (6-6, 206).
ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide continue to show improvement under current head coach Anthony Grant, the team putting together an impressive overall record (21-12) and conference mark (9-7) in his third year while earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. Overcoming the loss of their two best performers in JaMychal Green (14.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and Tony Mitchell (13.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg) will be a big hurdle to step over, but 'Bama returns four players with starting experience, led by junior guard Trevor Releford (12.0 ppg, 2.8 apg). While Trevor Lacey (7.3 ppg), Levi Randolph (6.5 ppg), and Andrew Steele (6.6 ppg, 2.7 apg) will undoubtedly continue to play big roles this season, perhaps the most important member of the Tide will be freshman Devonta Pollard. The 6-8 forward was a five-star recruit and a McDonald's All- American after putting up insane numbers as a senior at Kemper County High School in Mississippi (23.8 ppg, 15.7 rpg, 5.1 bpg). Retin Obasohan (6-1, 210) will also play a part in the backcourt after redshirting his freshman year.
OLE MISS: The Rebels had an impressive season in 2011-12, going 20-14 overall while more than holding their own in the rugged SEC (8-8), but the team still hasn't made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002. With an experienced lineup returning to Oxford this season however, seventh-year head coach Andy Kennedy will have a great opportunity of breaking that streak. Four starters are back, including seniors Murphy Holloway (All-SEC Second Team), Reginald Buckner (two-time SEC All-Defensive team), and Nick Williams. Holloway (11.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and Buckner (6.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.2 bpg) will make up one of the most physical frontcourts in the conference, while Williams (10.1 ppg) and Jarvis Summers (10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg) bring plenty of experience to the guard position. Ole Miss also welcomes South Plains College transfer Marshall Henderson, who averaged 19.6 ppg and shot 41 percent from 3-point range last season as the National Junior College Player of the Year. Adarius White (6-6, 210) and Demarco Cox (6-8, 72) were effective off the bench last season and are expected to play a similar role in 2012-13.
TEXAS A&M: The Aggies had made six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances prior to their disastrous 2011-12 campaign when they won just four games in the Big 12 and went 14-18 overall. Billy Kennedy did not have the type of success he was looking for in his first season as head coach, and he and his squad will be looking for a fresh start in the SEC this season. Texas A&M lost a trio of valuable starters in the offseason in Khris Middleton (13.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), David Loubeau (11.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Dash Harris (6.0 ppg, 4.1 apg), and replacing that production will not be easy, but last year's leading scorer Elston Turner (13.8 ppg) is back for his senior season to help shoulder that responsibility. A pair of consensus four-star recruits join the picture as J'Mychal Reese and Alex Caruso should be one of the conference's best guard tandems for years to come. After having a stellar season as a spot-starter and primary sixth man, Ray Turner (9.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg) should expect to see even more playing time this season for a team lacking size down low.
GEORGIA: After a great 2010-11 campaign that resulted in a berth in the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs took a significant step backward last season, finishing just 5-11 in the SEC while losing more games than they won overall (15-17). Mark Fox has inspired a new culture in the Georgia locker room in his first three seasons, and he certainly hopes last year was the exception and not the rule. The loss of top scorer Gerald Robinson (14.2 ppg, 3.6 apg) certainly won't help things, but five other players with starting experience will be back seeking redemption. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a multi-talented guard, netting 13.2 ppg and averaging nearly two steals per contest while leading the team in rebounding (5.2 rpg) despite being just 6-5, although he'd like to improve upon his sub par percentages from the field overall (.396) and 3-point territory (.304). Donte Williams (7.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg) provides a physical presence in the low post, and Nemanja Djurisic (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg) played well as a part-timer last year. Marcus Thornton's (3.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg) role will expand this year, and while the 6-8 junior forward has great potential, his woeful shooting percentage (.276) will need to improve.
VANDERBILT: The Commodores had a veteran squad in 2011-12, and while their 10-6 SEC record may have fallen short of expectations, they got hot in the conference tournament and actually upset No. 1 Kentucky to win the SEC Championship. A significant amount of turnover occurred after last season, as Vanderbilt lost star shooting guard John Jenkins (19.9 ppg) to the NBA and seniors Jeffery Taylor (16.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Festus Ezeli (10.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Brad Tinsley (9.0 ppg, 4.1 apg) and Lance Goulbourne (8.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) to graduation. Without a starter from last year remaining (and more than 85 percent of its scoring output), Vandy will need to rebuild with youth starting with Kedren Johnson (3.1 ppg), who saw time in all 36 games as a freshman. Rod Odom (6-9, 215) and Dai-Jon Parker (6-3, 190) also expect to be inserted into the starting lineup after seeing double-digit minutes per game a year ago. The freshman class will need to step up this season more so than in years past, led by three-star recruit Sheldon Jeter (6-7, 215), who was one of the best high school talents in Pennsylvania, averaging 22 ppg, 12 rpg, and five assists per game as a senior. In the loaded SEC, the Commodores figure to take a big step backward as they try to gain cohesion with an influx of new faces.
LSU: After four years of coaching the Tigers, Trent Johnson has moved on to TCU, leaving the reins to Johnny Jones, who had spent the previous decade leading North Texas where he won 18 or more games in six straight seasons. The Tigers put together a solid season last year (18-15, 7-9 SEC), but improving upon that mark in Johnson's first season will be difficult. If getting used to a new coach wasn't enough, LSU will need to overcome the loss of two of its top three performers in Justin Hamilton (12.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Ralston Turner (9.1 ppg). Andre Stinger (10.1 ppg) returns for his junior season and is expected to take over as the team's go-to guy, but in order to fill that void he will have to improve upon his poor percentages from the floor (.349) and from three-point range (.317). Stringer will be joined in the starting lineup by familiar faces Anthony Hickey (8.9 ppg) and Johnny O'Bryant III (8.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg). The incoming freshmen class is a bit light, but Corban Collins (6-3, 192) could be in position for immediate playing time after being named a prep school All-American last year at Massanutten Military Academy (25 ppg, 7.0 apg, 6.0 rpg). 1 AUBURN: The Tigers have never been a perennial power on the basketball court, but third-year head coach Tony Barbee is continuing to show improvement with each passing year. After going 11-20 in 2010-11, Auburn improved to 15-16 (5-11 SEC) last year, exceeding preseason expectations. Barbee and company have a solid foundation in place to try and improve upon its record for the third straight year. Frankie Sullivan is entering his senior season and led the team a year ago in scoring (12.6 ppg) and three pointers (60). Chris Denson (8.7 ppg, .464 FG percentage) also returns to the backcourt and should see more playing time with the departures of Kenny Gabriel (12.2 ppg) and Varez Ward (9.0 ppg, 3.8 apg), and senior center Robb Chubb (8.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) brings a veteran presence to the paint. Auburn also welcomes four-star recruit Jordan Price (6-5, 230), who has plenty of skills (22 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.0 apg as a senior in high school) to contribute immediately, and proved with an outstanding summer camp that he can play both the one or the two.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks were one of the few pushovers in the SEC last season, going 10-21 overall while winning just two games in conference. Hoping to breathe some life into the program, South Carolina introduced Frank Martin as its new head coach, and he was fantastic in five seasons at Kansas State, leading the Wildcats to a 117-54 record and four NCAA Tournament berths. Expecting a one-season turnaround with this squad may be setting unfair expectations, but the Gamecocks have several pieces in place to at least assure some hope of improvement. Eight players return to the rotation, led by junior guard Bruce Ellington (11.0 ppg, 3.1 apg). Although he is just 5-9, Ellington has shown the ability to both get to the hoop and drain outside shots, hitting more than a three-pointer per game. While not spectacular, Damien Leonard (6.8 ppg), Brenton Williams (6.1 ppg), R.J. Slawson (4.5 ppg), and Eric Smith (4.1 ppg) all bring valuable experience to the table. Southern Miss transfer LaShay Page (11.6 ppg) will be an immediate help in the backcourt, and 6-11 Lithuanian native Laimonas Chatkevicius has a great combination of size, skill and shooting touch.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: After a down year in 2010-11 (17-14), Mississippi State returned to form last season as one of the SEC's best, going 21-12 overall and 8-8 in conference play, culminating in a berth in the NIT. The Bulldogs have a lot of work to do if they want to qualify for their first NCAA Tournament since 2009 however, as Rick Ray takes over head coaching duties for the retired Rick Stansbury. Ray will have to overcome the loss of the team's four best players as Arnett Moultrie (16.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and Renardo Signey (9.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) declared for the NBA draft, Dee Bost (15.8 ppg, 5.5 apg) graduated, and last year's prized recruit Rodney Hood (10.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg) transferred to Duke. With all the departures, only Jalen Steele (8.7 ppg) and Wendell Lewis (3.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg) remain and they logged significant minutes last season and their production will need to increase as they are inserted into the starting lineup. The addition of seven newcomers will help change the landscape in the locker room, but it is still expected to be a long season in Starkville.