- Paul Biancardi, Basketball Recruiting
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The Southeast always has been fertile basketball recruiting ground, and this year's SEC haul has produced solid recruiting classes. Three teams -- Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi State -- brought in classes that deserve to be nationally ranked, but the league, after a two-year hiatus, should take another step back in the direction of consistently producing teams of Elite Eight and Final Four caliber.
With John Calipari at the helm, it seems as though Kentucky has revived its recruiting momentum and should reclaim its usual perch atop the conference as the annual favorite. Getting Memphis commits DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson to follow Calipari to the Bluegrass State quickly moved this class toward the top of the list.
However, Billy Donovan and his Florida Gators will not concede the role of the best recruiting staff in the league. They chose quality over quantity. Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy should keep Florida in the thick of things immediately.
The biggest story has to be the whirlwind recruiting saga of Mississippi State and its signing of talented post players Renardo Sidney and John Riek. If those two can get through the maze of NCAA scrutiny regarding their eligibility, coach Rick Stansbury will have a team that is capable of making a strong run in the NCAA tournament.
Vanderbilt and Tennessee did not experience much matriculation or defection and thus added only one player each. A few other teams (Arkansas, Auburn and South Carolina) may not have attracted an All-American but brought in a few quality players whom they hope will develop into stars.
Let's take a quick look at the schools in the SEC and see where they stand heading into next season.
Alabama signees: three
Alabama is excited for the Anthony Grant era to begin. He has impeccable credentials and brings an assistant's work ethic to the recruiting process that should help re-elevate the Tide to the upper tier of the SEC. However, Grant and his staff have much catching up to do to make up for lost recruiting time between the resignation of Mark Gottfried and the hiring of the new regime. Alabama, which graduated key performers Alonzo Gee and Ronald Steele, signed Shawn Kemp Jr., a 6-foot-8 post player with a ton of potential and obvious bloodlines as well as Chris Hines, a 6-7 athletic combo forward, during the early signing period. Ben Eblen (6-0, 185, PG), who originally pledged to VCU, changed allegiances and followed Grant to Alabama. Alabama typically can throw a net around its state borders and keep the majority of the best players at home. It took a major hit when it failed to land McDonald's All-American DeMarcus Cousins from Leflore High School (Mobile, Ala.) or Eric Bledsoe form Parker High School (Birmingham, Ala.). Both players pledged for Kentucky. This class is average at best by SEC standards, but give Grant & Co. a little time to solidify relationships and gain trust around the state. Afterward, we should see the talent flow back into Tuscaloosa.
Arkansas signees: five
Because the Razorbacks don't have a senior on the roster and have seven freshmen (five true), it would seem that by bringing in another large class of freshmen, coach John Pelphrey is a glutton for punishment. Last season, the Razorbacks finished in the basement of the SEC West because they went through the growing pains of fielding first-year players. With the majority of the team back and Michael Washington returning for his senior season after declaring for the NBA draft, Pelphrey's biggest problem may be shuffling the roster to find enough space to fit everyone. Arkansas should be deeper, more athletic and more experienced than last year's squad. The headliner of the recruiting class is Marshawn Powell (6-8, 225 pounds, PF) of the Miller School (Charlottesville, Va.). He may have the greatest opportunity to impact the program right away. The Razorbacks hope that Glenn Bryant (6-6, 200, P/SF) of Oak Hill Academy and Anthony Borden (6-10, 210, C) will surprise some people and contribute early in their careers. The Razorbacks also brought in local product Julysses Nobles (6-0, 165, PG) from Callaway Senior High School (Jackson, Miss.) to shore up the backcourt. Jemal Farmer (6-5, 215, SF) from Cloud County Community College (Concordia, Kan.) is the elder statesman of the group and will be called on to provide some experience and depth on the wing. As everyone knows, patience is not a virtue of the SEC fan bases, and there will be some pressure on the coaching staff to get things moving in the right direction for this once-elite program.
Auburn commits: five
Life on the plains has not been easy for Jeff Lebo. He inherited a difficult situation, has been hit with some unfortunate injuries and has had to deal with a large number of defections during his time at Auburn. The Tigers put together a great run late last season and barely missed an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They have lost three key players in Korvotney Barber, Rasheem Barrett and Quantez Robertson. Auburn has continued its search to find that dynamic post player to fit its guard-heavy roster. The Tigers hope they have answered their needs by bringing in three players to shore up the loss of Barber. Robert Chubb (6-9, 210, PF) from Montverde Academy (Montverde, Fla.), Kenny Gabriel (6-7, 205, P/SF) from Paris Junior College (Paris, Texas) and Ty Armstrong (6-8, 200, PF) from Eastside High School (Gainesville, Fla.) will all have the opportunity to compete for playing time. This class won't wow anybody, but it may have the complementary players Lebo was looking for to take the next step with the program. With a new facility almost completed and a new staff at the in-state rival, the time is now for Lebo and his staff to make a legitimate run at the NCAA tournament.
Florida signees: two
The Gators' two-year absence from March Madness after back-to-back national championships has not sat well with Donovan. However, he has worked tirelessly to get Florida back into contention for conference championships and NCAA tournament runs. McDonald's All-American Kenny Boynton (6-2, 185, S/PG) was a huge in-state pickup for Donovan during the early signing period. The explosive scoring combo guard from American Heritage School (Plantation, Fla.) should fit Donovan's up-tempo system to a tee. Erik Murphy (6-9, 215, PF) of St. Mark's School (Southborough, Mass.) is a skilled face-up 4 who should develop into a solid contributor as he adjusts to the faster college game. If Nick Calathes returns, Donovan's team could push Kentucky and Tennessee for supremacy in the SEC East.
Georgia commits: two
This teacher does not like to give a failing grade, so that saves the Bulldogs from getting flagged, but nothing spells doom in recruiting better than an interim-tagged head coach and a longer-than-expected coaching search. Georgia coach Mark Fox has his work cut out for him, and the task of gaining ground on Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee isn't easy because he has had a late start and is a relative unknown in the Southeast. Backcourt recruits Vincent Williams (6-1, 160, PG) from South Dade Senior High School (Homestead, Fla.) and homegrown DeMario Mayfield (6-3, 180, SG) from Franklin County High School (Carnesville, Ga.) are two solid players who will shore up the guard positions, but to compete nationally, Georgia will have to sign higher-level players. An improved relationship with the state's club programs (e.g., Atlanta Celtics, Georgia Stars and the South Georgia Kings) will go a long way toward making up some lost ground.
Kentucky signees: six
That loud groan heard south of Kentucky on March 31 was the collective sound of the 11 other SEC schools at the news of John Calipari's hiring by the Wildcats. Calipari's entrance made recruiting a whole new ballgame in Lexington. His impact on the trail was apparent immediately when C DeMarcus Cousins (Mobile, Ala./LeFlore) committed to Kentucky soon after Calipari took over. On Tuesday, Calipari landed the other superstar of this class when PG John Wall (Raleigh, N.C./Word of God) picked the Wildcats. That development, which gave Kentucky two recruits ranked in the national top five, put the Wildcats over the top in our final recruiting rankings. This class is deep and has a few strong suits. One is the power forward/center positions. Cousins and big man Daniel Orton (Oklahoma City/Bishop McGuinness) give the Wildcats two of the top incoming post players in the country. With the return of Patrick Patterson, Kentucky will have a front line that can compete with the elite programs nationally.Two weeks ago, Kentucky was hurting at the point guard position. Now the Wildcats have two of the best in the class. Wall's prowess has been well documented. (He has frequently been compared to Derrick Rose.) Although he's a bit less lauded, 6-0 point guard Eric Bledsoe (Birmingham, Ala./Parker) will be a major contributor from day one in Lexington. The strong-bodied leader with the ability to get into the paint will be a key player in Calipari's dribble-drive offense. Junior college small forward Darnell Dodson (Miami-Dade College) is long and skilled. He should give Kentucky a quality wing player who can break his opponent down off the dribble. Six-5 shooter Jon Hood (Madisonville, Ky./North) will provide the Cats with a consistent threat from behind and will help spread the defense.
LSU signees: two
Coach Trent Johnson surprised many in the basketball world when he left Stanford for LSU. Then he got everyone's attention when LSU won the SEC regular-season championship in his inaugural season. His ability to sustain that kind of excellence will hinge on the staff's capability to sign its share of top-level recruits. Although this class may lack a national high-profile recruit, Johnson and his assistants brought in two players who will fit the system and should develop into solid SEC players. 6-4 shooting guard Aaron Dotson (Seattle/Rainier Beach) is an athletic scorer who will knock down open jumpers and get to the rim in transition, while 6-7 combo forward Eddie Ludwig has a great feel and skill level that should translate into heavy minutes early in his career.
Mississippi signees: three
The Ole Miss fans are excited about this incoming class but probably are even more pumped over the return of Chris Warren, Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins, three of the Rebels' best players who suffered season-ending injuries early on. The headliner of this class is 6-8 forward Reggie Buckner (Memphis, Tenn./Manassas), an outstanding get because he can to rebound the basketball and score inside-out. He should help strengthen this young front line and put the Rebels back in contention within the SEC West. The Rebels also added 6-6 small forward Aaron Davis (Huntsville, Ala./Johnson), an under-the-radar player who looks as though he just walked off the football field but can stoke it from deep and finish around the basket. Six-9 junior college post player DeAngelo Riley (Memphis, Tenn./Southwest Tennessee) also will provide size and experience around the basket. Add these six players to the group that overachieved last season, and it is safe to say Ole Miss will be a tough out next season.
Mississippi State signees: four
If recruiting were a poker game, this would be the point in the evening when coach Rick Stansbury would stand up and proclaim "I'm all in." Signing 6-10 power forward Renardo Sidney (Los Angeles/Fairfax) and 7-2 center John Riek (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy) may be big gambles, but the reward if one or both of these players is certified eligible will be enormous. With Jarvis Varnado returning for his senior season, the Bulldogs could have a front line that, along with Kentucky's, will be as talented as any in the country. Sidney is as talented as they come. He has a nice face-up game, can really pass and can dominate the boards when he puts his mind to it. He has some bad habits, but if he matures and figures things out, his time in college will be short. Riek is a long shot-blocker and rebounder who has started to develop his offensive game. Mississippi State also added 6-5 shooting guard Shaunessy Smith (Macon, Miss./Noxubee County), who can knock it out from behind the arc and can guard multiple positions, while 6-8 power forward Wendell Lewis will provide solid play down low.
South Carolina signees: four
Darrin Horn did an outstanding job taking over the reins at South Carolina and leading the Gamecocks to 21 wins. The SEC East is as tough as any conference in the nation with Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee fighting for supremacy, Vanderbilt slowly building a strong challenger and Georgia heading in a new direction. For the Gamecocks to stay relevant, they must bring in some horses. High-energy, 6-5 small forward Lakeem Jackson (Arden, N.C./Christ School) headlines this class. He is an ambidextrous terror on the court who will fill a box score and do the little things that help a team win. The Gamecocks will bring in their potential future backcourt in 6-2 point guard Ramon Galloway (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer), who has good ball quickness and knows how to run a team. Joining him will be 6-5 shooting guard Steve Spinella (Pennsauken, N.J./Apex Academy), who can stroke it from deep. Junior college 6-9 big man Johndre Jefferson (Niceville, Fla./Okaloosa-Walton Community College) will add some experience to the Carolina front line.
Tennessee signees: one
Coach Bruce Pearl has been a master at finding players with a particular skill and using it to fit his system of in-your-face basketball. The Volunteers did not have many holes to fill but signed 6-9 power forward Kenny Hall (Stone Mountain, Ga./Redan). Hall is an athletic post with bounce who should fit in well because he can guard multiple positions and be active on the glass.
Vanderbilt signees: one
Coach Kevin Stallings and the Commodores return all their key players from last season. The team was talented but inexperienced and showed a lack of consistent outside shooting, which has been integral to past success. Vandy is another team with a one-man class, but it filled its need with 6-4 shooting guard John Jenkins (Gallatin, Tenn./Station Camp). Jenkins has a big-time stroke with range and should provide the outside threat the team was missing.
Mike LaPlante has spent nearly 20 years coaching college basketball. Most recently, he was the head coach at Jacksonville State University.
Which SEC schools have the top 2009 classes? Scouts Inc. breaks them down.