A Quick Look Around The League
By Andy Katz
New coach Anthony Grant is a winner. He has been his entire career. Bringing in strength coach Andy Weigel was a key move to improve the basketball-specific conditioning. Alabama will need to figure out its identity early in the season, especially at the winnable Old Spice Classic in Orlando. Grant will focus on ensuring this is a defensive-minded team. He was successful in making VCU into a stingy bunch during his tenure.
There really are no excuses for this squad. The talent is all in place for the Hogs to be a threat in the SEC West. Michael Washington
is an All-SEC player. So, too, is Courtney Fortson
at the point. Rotnei Clarke
is one of the better 3-point shooters (39.3 percent) in the league. The addition of newcomers Marshawn Powell
, Delvon Johnson
and Glenn Bryant
gives Arkansas the size inside that it lacked a season ago. Like Georgia Tech, which also won only two conference games in 2009, the Hogs have a real shot at a major upswing.
The Tigers were the surprise team in the SEC last season with a 10-6 record and a 24-12 finish overall. But they were built for last season. The issue for Auburn this time will be whether JC transfer Kenny Gabriel
and incoming freshmen Andre Malone
and Earnest Ross
can deliver early and often. And if Tay Waller
can be an offensive force, the team might not suffer much of a drop-off. The SEC is significantly better now, meaning this isn't the year for a rebuilding team. At least the nonconference schedule isn't daunting, with winnable games against NC State and Virginia before a more challenging one against Florida State.
The strangest thing that happened to the Gators was the transfer and then the return of Alex Tyus
. The Gators got their second-leading scorer back from last season -- a must for a team that needs to have experience up front. When Kenny Boynton got cut from the under-19 team heading to New Zealand, it humbled him for the first time in his basketball career. Getting an edge for Boynton should help the Gators flourish early. This is a team that has quality parts, but still needs the fall to find its identity and eventually return to the Big Dance after back-to-back NIT appearances.
Dennis Felton gave the Bulldogs credibility after Jim Harrick torched the place with an NCAA investigation. But the wins were still hard to find consistently, so he was canned. Mark Fox was one of the more surprising hires in the offseason. Fox had been a Big 12 assistant and then created his own coaching identity at Nevada after following his mentor Trent Johnson. Fox has a tougher job because of the division's current state. Having Trey Thompkins
back is big, but rising sophomore Dustin Ware
is also receiving plenty of praise for his improved play over the summer.
The talent level isn't in question. John Calipari has as much if not more than any other team in the country, including top-ranked Kansas. But the issue will be how he is able to massage egos, manage minutes and deal with plenty of inexperience and immaturity. The heavy lifting will fall on Patrick Patterson's shoulders and someone like Darius Miller
will have to assume more responsibility. But the star will be John Wall. If he's as good as advertised and lives up to his hype of being the top pick in the 2010 draft, then Kentucky should be one of the favorites to get to nearby Indianapolis for the Final Four.
The only thing surprising about last season was the way in which the Tigers were hammered at Utah by 30 points and couldn't win a key nonconference game. LSU was the class of the SEC because of the coaching of Trent Johnson and a veteran team that was finally healthy. But the Tigers lose Marcus Thornton, Chris Johnson
, Garrett Temple
and Terry Martin
. The rebuilding has officially begun for Johnson. At least getting Mitchell to return from the NBA draft gives him a bridge to his future classes.
The Rebels were one of the unluckiest teams in the country last season. Coach Andy Kennedy lost three key players with knee injuries -- Trevor Gaskins
, Eniel Polynice
and Chris Warren
. And then over the summer Zach Graham
had knee surgery. He's expected, like the other three, to return for the season. If the Rebs are healthy, they'll have the deepest, most talented perimeter outside of Kentucky in the league. Terrico White
is a star on the squad and if Kennedy can deal with everyone's needs for minutes and find someone who can rebound, Ole Miss will be just fine.
Starkville isn't exactly Las Vegas or New York, but the Bulldogs seem to generate plenty of news. The eligibility of Renardo Sidney
continues to be a major story. Getting 7-2 John Riek
eligible after he declared for the draft, went to Cincinnati, had knee surgery and found his way to Starkville was another story. Riek can play, but the big man will have to sit the first nine games. Jarvis Varnado
, who declared for the draft, then returned, should easily become the NCAA's all-time leader in blocks. And if the rest of the role players are as good as Rick Stansbury promotes, the Bulldogs should be a top-15 team throughout the season.
The Gamecocks appeared to be on the verge of an NCAA berth in Darrin Horn's first season after sweeping Kentucky in the season series. But South Carolina couldn't win key games over the next two weeks. If the Gamecocks are to live up to the expectations of being a Top 25 and NCAA team, Devan Downey
and Dominique Archie
, who both flirted with the NBA draft, need to be All-SEC performers. Downey has a shot to be the top guard in the league not named Wall. He is a constant threat every time he's on the court. If he can continue that then the Gamecocks will remain a tough out.
The Vols finished a solid 10-6 in the SEC, 21-13 overall after playing one of the tougher schedules in the country. But Tennessee met its match with a similar team in Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament. UT lost its identity as a defensive, pressing team throughout last season. If Bruce Pearl's team can reacquire that in the fall and carry it into the winter, Tennessee has a shot to be a thorn for Kentucky. The return of Tyler Smith
, J.P. Prince
, Scotty Hopson
and Bobby Maze
means the Vols have no excuses. They return at least 98 percent of every major statistical category.
Australian center A.J. Ogilvy
has beefed up to 260 pounds and is primed for an All-SEC season. He didn't play with the Australian national team this summer, the first time he's failed to do so since arriving at school. That meant he could focus solely on being at Vandy. Having Ogilvy, Jermaine Beal
, Jeffery Taylor
and Brad Tinsley
, the top four scorers a season ago, together on the trip to Australia should be a catalyst for an NCAA-bid season. The Commodores will know if they're for real early on, with a trip to the the Maui Invitational and then games against Missouri, Illinois and Western Kentucky.
By Fran Fraschilla
It's never too early for predictions. Fran Fraschilla offers up his thoughts on the upcoming season in the SEC:
It took about four weeks for John Calipari to take a Wildcats program that was reeling and put it in a position to compete for a national championship this season. This Kentucky team is loaded and it starts with Patrick Patterson, the only player in the SEC to rank among the top five in scoring and rebounding. Freshman guard John Wall is perfectly suited for the dribble-drive motion offense. And the confidence of 6-foot-6 soph Darius Miller should skyrocket after a summer with the U.S. under-19 team. Outside shooting may be UK's Achilles' heel, but Calipari had similar issues at Memphis and he did just fine.
Five starters return for a Vols team that, quite frankly, underachieved a season ago. The really good news for Bruce Pearl is that if the defense improves and this team matures, Tennessee can make a serious run at the SEC title, because there's loads of talent on this roster. Seniors Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince are the team's heart and soul and sophomore Scotty Hopson has the ability to be one of the SEC's best players. I expect this team to hover around the top 15 all season if the team chemistry is solid.
Kevin Stallings' team has a great mix of youth and experience. The 6-foot-11 A.J. Ogilvy has been one of the league's most consistent players since he arrived from Australia and senior Jermaine Beal is a high I.Q. player. Sophomores Jeffrey Taylor, a high-flier, and Brad Tinsley should build on double-figure scoring seasons a year ago. Incoming freshman John Jenkins, a Tennessee high school legend, is a scoring machine. A recent trip to Australia should be a great team-builder for a club with top-25 aspirations.
For the third season in a row, the Gators are the league's mystery team and their coach, Billy Donovan, may feel the same way. Kenny Boynton will be one of the nation's top incoming freshmen. He can score at will and provides Florida with a swagger that it hasn't had since the '04s left town. Dan Werner still has the residue of the back-to-back NCAA championship teams, but he needs to have a big senior season. Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin also has Final Four experience and needs to make an immediate impact.
5. South Carolina:
Last season, 21 wins and a 10-6 record weren't enough to get the Gamecocks into the Big Dance. Instead, a first-round loss at home to Davidson ended their season. The good news for second-year coach Darrin Horn is that he returns one of the SEC's most exciting players in 5-foot-9 senior Devan Downey, a nightmare on both ends of the court for conference opponents. Freshman Lakeem Jackson, an ESPNU top-100 recruit, is built like a tight end and plays with the same disposition.
New coach Mark Fox has an uphill climb out of the SEC East basement, but like any new coach, is trying to change his team's culture. He inherits one of the SEC's best young players to build around in 6-foot-9, 247-pound sophomore Trey Tompkins, who averaged almost 13 ppg as a freshman. For a player with a huge frame, he'll have to play closer to the basket as he averaged fewer than three free throw attempts a game.
1. Mississippi State:
When the discussion begins about who is the best defender in college basketball this season, Jarvis Varnado's name will come up early in the conversation. If his offensive game were at the level of his D, he'd likely be in the NBA right now. Fortunately for Rick Stansbury, Varnado is back, along with four other starters. The X factor for the Bulldogs is the NCAA eligibility of mega-talented freshman Renardo Sidney, who would be a force inside and make the Bulldogs a co-favorite with Kentucky to win the SEC.
2. Ole Miss:
A 16-15 record looks like a backward step for Ole Miss after 45 wins in Andy Kennedy's first two years as head coach. But considering the devastating season-ending injuries to three key Rebels and the coach's off-the-court distractions, things could have been worse. The silver lining that comes out of last season was the development of a future NBA player in 6-foot-5 shooting guard Terrico White, who was the SEC Rookie of the Year. If Chris Warren can return from ACL surgery, he'll re-establish himself as one of the league's best point guards.
: After two surprising early-season wins over Texas and Oklahoma, expectations were raised for John Pelphrey's young team. Then everything fell apart as the Razorbacks won only two SEC games. Now all five starters return, including 6-foot-9 senior forward Michael Washington, a potential NBA first-rounder who has improved every season in Fayetteville and is a major league talent. Pelphrey's young backcourt of Courtney Fortsen and Rotnei Clark suffered through serious growing pains in its first SEC season but should be more consistent in its sophomore season.
It's a new era for the Crimson Tide as rising coaching star Anthony Grant takes over. He'll get to build around 6-foot-9 JaMychal Green, who is an animal on the glass. Freshman Ben Eblen, out of Sunshine State power Air Academy High, will get a chance to win the point guard spot early because it was an area of weakness the past two seasons, in part because of the injury-prone career of Ronald Steele. Leading scorer Senario Hillman returns, but the junior will have to play with more consistency.
The multitalented Tasmin Mitchell has been around Baton Rouge almost as long as Mike the Tiger and will have to play with the same ferocity as always if LSU is to get even close to last season's 27-win squad. Graduation has wiped out Trent Johnson's team. Point guard Bo Spencer was a revelation a season ago and should be even better this season. Freshman Aaron Dotson, who attended Seattle's famous Rainier Beach High School, should have immediate impact at the shooting guard spot.
It was a turnaround season for Auburn basketball as the Tigers came excruciatingly close to an NCAA bid. Unfortunately, like LSU, AU has lost much of its depth to graduation. Top scorer DeWayne Reed returns, as does sharpshooter Tay Waller, who connected on 100 3-pointers a season ago. Forward Lucas Hargrove had a solid freshman season and has a chance to develop into a key player for coach Jeff Lebo.