SEC Preview: Two Horse Race
Another year, another impressive season by Florida coupled with an impressive tournament run by a Kentucky team led by young NBA lottery prospects. Can anyone else in the conference emerge and join them in the tournament? Tennessee made a surprise Sweet Sixteen run, but lost their coach and almost their entire rotation last year. Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia all look to be on the upswing with new coaches and rebuilding teams dotting the rest of the landscape. This isn’t a great conference, but it may be heading in the right direction.
Bruce Pearl is back! Replacing Tony Barbee at Auburn and already creating a lot of buzz from a program that really hasn’t had any in years. At the same time, Pearl also managed to anger Tennessee fans who had to replace Pearl’s replacement Cuonzo Martin with Donnie Tyndall. I actually think Tyndall is a good hire who should finally stabilize a Vols’ program that hasn’t really had any since Pearl was ousted.
Another odd coaching situation occurred in Columbia, Missouri where Frank Haith left a power conference job for Tulsa? I don’t think Missouri fans were too upset as he may have been on his way out anyway. Replacing Haith, Missouri made a rare move and grabbed Kim Anderson fresh off a national title at Division II Central Missouri. He’s an unknown, but is respected in college basketball circles. He’ll have a tough job rebuilding the Tigers.
Kentucky brought in four of the top twenty-five recruits, but actually had a down recruiting year compared to the prior year believe it or not. They’ll all battle for minutes on a deep Final Four team with top recruits from previous classes. Karl-Anthony Towns is likely the best of the bunch. Top 25 recruit Devin Robinson was sold by Billy Donovan that he has one and done potential and should play right away in the Gator frontcourt. The conference has seven more top 100 recruits according to ESPN marking a trend of talent infusion to the rest of the conference. With the establishment of the SEC Network, my theory is this conference keeps getting better and better in the next five years. Top 100 recruits Jakeenan Grant at Missouri and Anton Beard at Arkansas look to be big contributors from the get go. Also, Vanderbilt brought in four top 150 backcourt recruits.
Hot in here or just me?
Anthony Grant only has one NCAA appearance in five years in Tuscaloosa. He needs to at least qualify for the NIT to get another season with the Tide. Also, Billy Kennedy needs to gain some kind of traction with his veteran team at Texas A&M or the Aggies may move to another candidate. This is a wide open SEC and both coaches need to take advantage of that
Kentucky – Another year, another highly touted Kentucky team under John Calipari. However, this may be the best version yet. Yes they lose Julius Randle and James Young, but another top recruiting class coupled with the return of Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, and brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison twins make this team a favorite to bring home another title to Lexington. A frontcourt of Cauley-Stein, Johnson, Marcus Lee, and 5 star recruits Towns and Trey Lyles is likely the best in the country. This was a team that out-muscled teams at times on their way to a runner up finish last season. The highly sought after Harrison twins return to anchor the backcourt along with Dominique Hawkins and two more top recruits for good measure (Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis). Also, don’t forget about junior wing Alex Poythress who may be ready to come into his own after two up and down seasons. This team has an unfair amount of talent. The difference is this year they have quite a bit of experience to go along with that talent. If they can come together quickly, they’ll make yet another trip to the Final Four.
Florida – Florida didn’t lose a game in the SEC last year. An impressive feat, but Billy Donovan has to replace four senior starters from that team. That alone will place them a notch below Kentucky this season, but there is still a ton of talent in Gainesville. They’ll be led by junior guard Michael Frazier and sophomore PG Kasey Hill. Frazier is one of the best shooters in the country and Hill looks to emerge in his own right after an up and down freshman year. Billy Donovan loves using three guard lineups so expect Rutgers transfer Eli Carter to see some big minutes as well. Dorian Finney-Smith and former McDonald’s All American Chris Walker also return. The x-factors on this Florida team will be the newcomers. Alex Murphy arrives from Duke and will be eligible by mid-season and Jon Horford will add a big body to the frontcourt after transferring from Michigan. A talented freshmen class with three top 100 recruits will also need to contribute to the Gators’ rotation. Forward Devin Robinson is the most likely to contribute early.
Arkansas – Mike Anderson’s 40 minutes of hell philosophy will continue to give opponents problems in the SEC especially at home in Fayetteville where they rarely lost last season. They finished the year strong with two wins over Kentucky, but came up short of the tournament finishing with an NIT berth. Things seem to be trending up for the Razorbacks with All-SEC forward Bobby Portis returning after a breakout freshman year. In addition to Portis, they return their other two leading scorers in Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls. Third place in the SEC is very much up in the air, but if Arkansas can find an answer at their PG spot between freshman Anton Beard and returning junior Anthlon Bell, this team could be a dangerous out in the tournament.
Ole Miss – Ole Miss disappointed in Marshall Henderson’s final year of eligibility, and they will have to replace his scoring. However, you often see a team improve after an inefficient ball stopper like Henderson departs. The team has a capable returning scorer in Jarvis Summers who scored nearly as well as Henderson, but was much more efficient at 48% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc. Junior forward Anthony Perez and seniors Aaron Jones and LaDarius White form a veteran core alongside Summers that will be supplemented by an impressive group of transfers: sharpshooter Terence Smith (UT-Martin), PG Stefan Moody (FAU), F M.J. Rhett (Tennessee State) and G Roderick Lawrence (JC via Miami). I think this squad has enough talent to compete for Andy Kennedy’s second tournament berth in Oxford.
LSU – LSU has to replace two mainstays from their NIT team last year in All SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant and PG Anthony Hickey. However, they do return one of the best frontcourts in the SEC with Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin. However, the backcourt is filled with questions as the Tigers will rely heavily on JC and former Texas Tech PG Josh Gray with the departures of Hickey and shooter Andre Stringer. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by newly eligible Keith Hornsby who transferred in from UNC-Asheville. In addition to Mickey and Martin, LSU can bring two seven-footers off the bench in Darcy Malone and freshman Elbert Robinson. If Hornsby and Gray can prove to be an upgrade over last year’s backcourt this team may make the tournament. Even if they don’t things are certainly looking up for the Tigers under Johnny Jones with #1 recruit Ben Simmons set to arrive in 2015.
Georgia – Georgia quietly finished 2013-14 very strong, tying Kentucky with a 12-6 conference record. This was good for a relatively surprising NIT season for Coach Mark Fox. The backcourt of Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines is by the far the strength of this team. In order to make the tournament this year, those two will need to stay healthy and have some help from senior forwards Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic as well as freshman forward Yante Maten. Fox will at the very least need to build on the momentum gained from last season after an uneven first four years in Athens.
Alabama – The Tide were a dangerous team at home last year under Anthony Grant. Unfortunately, they didn’t win a single conference road game, falling to 7-11 in SEC play. To make matters worse, they have to replace leading scorer Trevor Releford and return a lineup without another double digit scorer. Sophomore F Shannon Hale and Senior G Levi Randolph return as well as PG Retin Obasohan and F Rodney Cooper. However, this team will need help from newcomers to take a step forward in the absence of Releford. Thankfully, G Justin Coleman, G Devin Mitchell, and SF Riley Norris are all four star recruits that will have to contribute. However, the most likely candidate to pick up Releford’s scoring might be Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant who averaged 15.7 PPG as a freshman in 2012-13. He’s now eligible.
South Carolina – It gets bad fast in the SEC. I’ve always had a soft spot in my nightmares for Coach Frank Martin’s crazy eyes and intensity and hopefully in year three his team is ready to contend. Sindarius Thornwell returns to lead this team in his sophomore season as one of the best guards in the SEC. He’ll be joined in a strong backcourt by senior Tyrone Johnson and top recruit Marcus Stroman. That alone should give Martin enough to have the best team in Columbia since Devan Downey left.
Auburn– Bruce Pearl returns to the SEC to take over an Auburn program that hasn’t shown a pulse in years. Immediately, he brings in the #1 JC recruit in F Cinmeon Bowers and two capable guards in K.C. Ross-Miller (New Mexico State) and Antoine Mason (Niagara). Mason averaged over 25 PPG last year for Niagara. They’ll likely join top returning scorer K.T. Harrell (18.3 PPG) to form a high scoring backcourt. They also lucked into top 100 Center Trayvon Reed after he failed to qualify at Maryland. Pearl is already attracting talent to Auburn. This team should be competitive in a weak SEC, but it may be a few years before the tournament is in the cards.
Texas A&M– It’s been a tough three years for Billy Kennedy as he tries to get some traction in College Station after replacing Mark Turgeon. He did score a big win as the NCAA declared talented SMU transfer Jalen Jones eligible for the start of this season. Jones will join four returning starters for the Aggies. Forwards Kourtney Robinson and Davonte Fitzgerald will lock down the frontcourt while PG Alex Caruso and SG Jordan Green will provide a steady presence in the backcourt. Also, entering the fold is top 100 recruit Alex Robinson and former five-star recruit Daniel House from Houston. Although House has to sit out this season, this may be the year for Kennedy to show that his program is up and coming.
Missouri– Missouri was a thin team that was over-reliant on Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown last season. Both departed early for the NBA and coach Frank Haith left before he could have allegedly been fired. Entering the fold is Division II National Coach of the Year in Kim Anderson. He’ll have a tough task this season returning PF Johnathan Williams and not much else. Guard Wes Clark will return in the backcourt, but this team needs big contributions from transfers Deuce Bello (Baylor), Keith Shamburger (Hawaii), and a talented freshmen class. Forwards Jakeenan Gant and Montaque Gill-Caesar highlight the class alongside wings Namon Wright and D’Angelo Allen. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of those freshmen leads this team in scoring in what should be a rebuilding season for the Tigers.
Tennessee –Cuonzo Martin departed and so did pretty much their entire team from their surprise Sweet Sixteen run leading to a tough first year task for new coach Donnie Tyndall. Josh Richardson returns to lead the backcourt as one of the best defenders in the SEC, but it’s unclear who will be joining him. The best candidates to emerge are transfers Kevin Punter (JC) and Ian Chiles (IUPUI). In the frontcourt more newcomers in Tariq Owens, Jabari McGhee, and Willie Carmichael will try to carry the load. Also top recruit Detrick Mostella will look to contribute in the backcourt. There will certainly be some struggles in Tyndall’s first year in Knoxville.
Vanderbilt– Kevin Stallings and the Commodores had a tough year in his fifteenth season in Nashville finishing under-.500 for the second consecutive year after an impressive run highlighted by four NCAA appearances in five seasons. He’ll be rebuilding this season after losing four of their top five scorers. Promising sophomore forward Damian Jones returns and is joined by a knockout freshman class featuring a lot of help on the wing and in the backcourt: PGs Riley LaChance, Wade Baldwin, and Sheldon Mitchell are joined by wings Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson. All are highly regarded and could contribute immediately. The Commodores also have Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler waiting in the wings for next season. There will be some growing pains this year, but this should be a team poised to return to the top half of the conference in 2015-16.
Mississippi State– Hey the Bulldogs are #1 in football! So at least there’s that. They actually return all five starters, but unfortunately those five starters finished last in the SEC last season and was the worst rebounding team in the league. G Craig Sword is their go to scorer for a team that regularly struggled to score. Another tough year for third year coach Rick Ray.