Not sure why I decided to go to the SEC next, but I guess I can pretend it is because we started with the conference with the preseason #1 team in the country, so it’s only logical to move on to the conference with the current #1 team in the country (and preseason #2). Either way, it should be an interesting year, as always, in the SEC, especially because the conference finally made the obvious decision to do away with the divisions and just have one 12-team conference. There is still an unbalanced schedule, but at least it won’t wreak havoc with the SEC tournament seedings and whatnot.
The Favorite – Kentucky
For an unbelievable fifth consecutive season, John Calipari will coach a team that starts a freshman point guard. And, as usual, point guard is not the only position that will manned by a teenager for Coach Cal this year. And, also as usual, these are not your ordinary teenagers…they are on the verge of becoming household names. And, the talent that seems to grow on trees in Lexington is so immense that this UK team is, along with the loaded rosters in Chapel Hill and Columbus, one of the true favorites to cut down the nets this April.
The Guy. It is hard to say who “The Guy” is going to be come March because of all the young talent that could explode, but the smart money is on one of the “elder statesmen” in Lexington, sophomore swingman Terrance Jones. Jones, named as a preseason All-American, is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year, and on the short list for the Naismith Award. He is a ferocious scorer, who has the looks of easily scoring in double-digits on the next level. Plus, his long arms and elite athleticism and quickness make him a great candidate to develop into a big-time defender here in his second year on the collegiate level.
The Newcomers. As unlikely as it was the Jones is back for his sophomore year, and despite all of the hype that has accompanied him, the talk around town in Lexington has to do with this ridiculous recruiting class that, somehow, did the unthinkable, and is even better than the class that included Jones last year. The guy that has gotten the most noteriety is point guard Marquis Teague. Teague, an Indiana product who spurned Purdue, Kansas, and his father’s head coach, Rick Pitino at Louisville, chose Kentucky to make it five straight for Coach Cal. And, like his predecessors, Rose, Evans, Wall, and Knight, Teague can flat-out fly. His quickness is said to exceed all that of Rose, Evans, and Knight, and maybe even Wall. The brother of NBA lottery pick Jeff Teague, Marquis needs to live up to the billing, though, and some say that he is a little overhyped. Fortunately for Wildcat Nation, he is surrounded by a couple of other freshmen who may actually be underhyped.
While Teague was ranked as the #3 overall recruit in the nation, he actually was not the top-rated recruit to even choose Kentucky! As a sophomore in high school, Anthony Davis was a 6’2″ shooting guard, who was being recruited by several of the better mid-majors in the country. Two years and TEN INCHES later, Davis was the #2 recruit in the country. At 6’10”, Davis has retained all of his perimeter skills and just added a power forward’s body. And, unlike others who have had these late growth spurts (Matt Harpring is the one that comes to my mind), Davis didn’t just go froma 6’2″ perimeter player to a 6’10” perimeter player. His game, even at 6’2″ was a physical, aggressive game, which he enjoyed taking down low on both sides of the floor. Now, he has the 6’10” physique to match the style.
It is understandable that with the talent of Teague and Davis, the rest of the class would be overlooked, but that doesn’t mean that they should be. As good as Teague and Davis will be (and probably will be on the next level), the other two guys that round out this stellar class may provide as much punch to this team as the two blue chippers. This is especially true for 6’7″ swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. In fact, I will make the bold statement now that Kidd-Gilchrist is the better suited right now for domination on the collegiate level than either Teague or Davis. He has elite quickness and a soft jumper, so he must be guarded on the outside, but at a strong 6’7″, 232 pounds, he is not scared to back down any smaller defender. Now, while incredibly athletic 6’7″ wings are basically the norm in the NBA, they are pretty hard to come by in college, so on all but a handful of nights, Kidd-Gilchrist is going to be an absolute nightmare for his opposite number. (Oh by the way, he was the #5 overall recruit in the country and was a complete afterthought in his own class.) The other prize of this class is exactly what Coach Cal seems to never be able to land – a straight-up pure jumpshooter. Kyle Wiltjer won the three-point shooting contest at the McDonald’s All-American game last year as a high school senior from Oregon. Did I mention he is 6’9″? A total stud, yet forgotten, Wiltjer can provide just about anything UK needs off the bench, particularly someone to stretch the defense and give room to the scoring machines that abound on this roster.
What a class!
The Holdovers. While UK again produced a slew of NBA draft picks last year, and brought in an epic recruiting class, the cupboard wasn’t exactly bare in Lexington, providing the Wildcats with something else they have been lacking in recent years – actual depth. The one guy that has taken far too long to garner mention here is 6’4″ sophomore guard, Doron Lamb would probably be the star (and possibly a legend) on 99% of D-I programs in the country, but here at UK, he’s just another star that cannot be forgotten about. In fact, Coach Cal has said, on several occasions, that he believes that Lamb might actually be the best all-around player on this team. A very heady, multi-dimensional player, Lamb can dominate on either end of the floor and could thrive with all the attention given to the other stars.
And, then there are the seniors. If you are still at Kentucky as a senior, that means you just weren’t good enough to jump ship, right? Yes, that’s probably right, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t immensely talented. And, UK has two seniors that could play really prominent roles on the team this year in big-bodied and high-energy center Elroy Vargas and smooth, versatile swingman Darius Miller, who will probably find himself coming off the bench this year, after averaging 11 points per game last year.
Their Strengths. It is hard to envision a collegiate roster in the country this year (or in the past decade, even) that can honestly say to themselves that they match up well defensively with the collection of offensive talent in Lexington this year. The versatility and flat-out elite scoring ability of guys like Jones, Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Lamb is scary. Throw in the inside presence of Davis, and I definitely don’t see anyone being able to man-up and stop them for 40 minutes. And, while maybe not the most disciplined team on the defensive end, the length and athleticism on the wing, and the unbelievable shotblocking ability of Davis on the inside will give teams fits on their “weaker” end.
Weaknesses. It seems it is the same thing every year with Coach Cal, whether it be at UK or Memphis. What can sink this ship is inexperience and inconsistent shotmaking. While Wiltjer helps a lot in stretching defenses, and Lamb actually proved to be a much more capable shooter than expected, a good zone could cause problems to a team that prefers to go to the hoop. And, then there is the free-throw shooting. Would it shock you is I said Teague was a really poor free-throw shooter? Well, if you know anything about Rose, Evans, Wall, or Knight, you shouldn’t be surprised at all.
The Ceiling. There is no doubt that this team can be just as bullish on the 2011-12 season as anyone in the country. Anything short of a national championship will leave many people disappointed. While the reality is that six straight wins in March requires a lot of good fortune, it is true that coming up short before at least the Final Four would be, from any objective measure, a disappointment, considering the talent.
My Favorite – Vanderbilt
As you can probably tell, I developed my “rankings” for each conference before any games were played, and if I wanted to redo it, I probably would downgrade this Vandy team, based on their early-season results. But, I want to stick with my preseason thoughts here, and I really like this Vandy team…a lot. With experience and talent at several key positions and, quite possibly, the nation’s most underrated head coach, the Commodores might be able to make some real noise this year in both the SEC and on the national stage.
The Guy. This choice might surprise you because it is not the defending SEC scoring leader whom decided to forego the NBA to return to Nashville. It is also not the 6’11” elite athlete whom will most likely be an NBA lottery pick come April. Nope, I honestly believe that the best – and most important – player on this team is 6’7″ senior forward Jeffrey Taylor. The best passer and most versatile defender on this team, I think Taylor gives the Commodores so much in every aspect of the game that he is truly the star of the show.
The Other Two Elites. Surrounding the do-it-all Taylor is one of the country’s best scoring point guards and one of the most gifted frontline athletes anywhere. At 19.5 points per game last year, John Jenkins led the SEC in scoring and is, without question, on the short list for the best scoring guards in the nation. Manning the frontline is Festus Ezeli, an elite shotblocker and interior defender, who has developed an all-around, refined offensive game that could boost him into the lottery this year. Ammassing an incredible 87 blocked shots last year (including 15 games with 3+), Ezeli is one of the best post defenders in the nation. But, he also was second in the SEC in field goal percentage at 58.8%. The Taylor-Jenkins-Ezeli combination is pretty much the perfect purely balanced trio you can have. In fact, I am having a hard time coming up with a better guard-wing-center threesome in the entire country. I might pick Vandy to win the 3-on-3 championship this year.
The Supporting Cast. Now, that we’ve established that this roster contains a lights-out shooter, a do-it-all wing player, and a force inside, what would you add to the mix now if you could? Personally, the next thing I would add would be a pure pass-first point guard that can make the open shot, but generally plays good defense and allows Jenkins to run free on the offensive end. Enter: Brad Tinsley. Pretty much typecast for the role of point guard on this team, Tinsley is a steady, smart point guard who shoots too well leave unguarded, but mostly looks to orchestrate the offense. He also is an outstanding free throw shooter and a decent on-ball defender.
Okay, what do we add next? A big-bodied power forward who just loves to attack the glass. May I introduce Lance Goulbourne. Coach Stallings has been quoted as saying that Goulbourne, a 6’8″ senior power forward, truly has the ability to lead the league in rebounding. And, if Goulbourne doesn’t pan out like predicted, Stallings has a couple other options to play the “bruiser” role, most prominently is a 6’9″ senior from Cameroon, Steve Tchiengang, who is a real blue-collar interior player who is never going to make you notice him, but is a really nice guy to have. There are also a couple other nice pieces for Stallings to play with, but overall, this team will go as far as their “Big Three plus Tinsley” can take them.
Their Ceiling. This team should still be playing during the second week of the tournament and has a real chance to finish right behind Kentucky in the SEC standings. But, realistically, the talent is probably going to fall just short from being able to take them to the Final Four or beyond. And, it’s hard to imagine them winning enough games to seriously challenge Kentucky for the SEC title, though I would love to see it.
Elite – Florida
The Gators lost a lot from last year’s team – SEC Player of the Year, Chandler Parsons, as well as two very good big men in Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. But, trust me, Billy Donovan is not phased. This is not the first time he has had to replace a lot of talent. And, this time, unlike the two-year tournament hiatus that followed the departure of the core from the back-to-back title team, this team shouldn’t miss a beat. In fact, they might even be better than last year’s version.
The Guy. This might be another surprise because it is still up in the air whether he is going to start right away or not, but I think that by the time the meat of this season rolls around, the one guy the Gators will lean on most is 6’4″ freshman Bradley Beal. Beal, last year’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, is one of the best jumpshooters you will see on any level. If he is able to adjust his game to get himself open against elite SEC defenders, the sky is the limit for how much this kid can score. And, fortunately for him, he is not the only Gator that teams have to pay attention to.
The Backcourt. Joining Beal in the backcourt is a cast of guards that can rival any backcourt in America. In fact, I am hard-pressed to pick a backcourt anywhere in the country better than this one. As good as Beal is, he will not be the focus (at least right away) of opposing backcourt defenders. They have another trio of lights-out shooters that cannot be left alone anywhere inside halfcourt. Erving Walker, at just 5’9″, seems to be able to shoot over just about anyone and has unlimited range. Running the point for the first time last year, Walker broke out and was named the first-team all-SEC point guard. His running mate seems to alternate from enigmatic, frustrating gunner to unstoppable, electrifying scorer on almost a possession-to-possession basis. Kenny Boynton is one of the more fascinating players in the country to watch because, usually in just a matter of a few minutes, he will have you saying “he’s one of the most lethal shooters I’ve ever seen” just shortly after thinking “this guy is a total gunner who is just killing them out there.” Either way, Boynton can definitely put it in the basket and cannot be left alone. And, just when you start to think you might be able to stop the downpour of threes, the Gators can now turn to a guy who scored 1,000 points in just two seasons in the BIG EAST before transferring to Florida last year. Mike Rosario averaged 16.7 ppg as a sophomore for Rutgers two years ago, after averaging 16.2 as a freshman the year before. He is, as should come as no surprise, a deadly outside shooter who never saw a shot he didn’t like. And, with the additions of Beal and Rosario, the guy who seems totally lost in all of this is one of the most talented guys on the roster, Scottie Wilbekin. A heady guy who graduated high school early and, as such, is still an 18-year old sophomore, Wilbekin’s lightning quickness can compensate for his slight build. While still a kid, he seems to have a real calming influence on his elder backcourt mates. There is really no way to guard all of these guys all the time, so the only way to stop the Gators this year is to hope that the shots aren’t falling and that you can make some hay on the inside.
The Frontcourt. So, the backcourt is loaded and should be a steady force for the Gators. (Yes, I know that it’s hard to use the word “steady” when describing a unit with a jumpshooting freshman, a 5’9″ point guard, a transfer who sat out a year, and, well, Kenny Boynton, but the combination should be pretty consistent from night to night, actually.) But, it is the frontcourt of this team that will probably dictate where this team finishes – and it could be anywhere from championship contender to flop. And, it really revolves around two – maybe three – guys. With the roster composition, there is no way that Donovan won’t play at least three guards almost at all times, and the best lineup assuredly includes Erick Murphy and Patric Young – both of whom could be stars. Young, a 5-star recruit last year, didn’t get all that much playing time because )Tyus and Macklin were so good inside, but it wasn’t hard to see how good he could be when he was in there. He is truly man-sized, but has an agility that could make him scary good at this level and the next. Murphy is a true inside-outside threat (like they need more shooting prowess?), who is not afraid to mix it up down low. The third possible option in the frontcourt, as a starter or, more likely, a rotation player, is Casey Prather. Prather, who has espoused many a comparison to former Gator star Corey Brewer, did not exactly put the numbers with the hype last year as a freshman. But, the athleticism is there, so if he puts it together, he could be a gigantic addition to a team that could use just what he can potentially bring.
Strengths. No team in America has as many unafraid jumpshooters as the Gators. If there wasn’t a three-point line, they might be a middling SEC team. If there was a 4-point line, they might be the best team in America.
Weaknesses. While it’s hard to say a frontcourt with Murphy and Young is a “weakness,” it certainly is a question mark. They are both supremely talented, but the debate remains as to whether or not their performance can match their talent. If so, the sky is the limit this year.
Their Ceiling. This team has Final Four talent if it all comes together. In fact, if Beal is as good as advertised and the frontcourt guys – Murphy and Young – come into their own, this team could be as good as anyone. But, there are too many if’s to put them in the conversation with the UNCs and OSUs, as well as UK in their conference. I would say that, from what we know now, it’s safe to say that this team is probably the second-best team in the SEC and a legit Top 10 team. But, there is a wide potential variance with that assessment. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them grab another 2-seed in March, and it also wouldn’t surprise me to see them hoping just to play against a 2-seed in the second round.
Contender – Alabama
Anthony Grant can flat-out coach, and he has resurrected this program quicker than even I thought he would. And, this might be the year that he plants his Crimson flag among the perennially elite programs in America.
The Guy. Jamychal Green, aside from having one of the best names in college hoops, he also has one of the best games. This 6’8″, 240-pound senior is a serious contender for SEC Player of the Year for all the right reasons. He plays big and strong when he needs to, as well as agile and quick, if need be. He is about as true a “go-to guy” as there is in the SEC – probably the most reliable guy to get you a bucket when you need it.
The Frontcourt. Alongside Green inside is another incredible talent – 6’9″ forward, Tony Mitchell. Mitchell, who averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds last year, is probably best suited as a small forward, can easily man the power forward position in a small lineup. However, after Green and Mitchell, the frontcourt can get scarily thin, which runs the risk of foul trouble curtailing the Tide in the one-and-done world of March Madness. Off the bench, they will have to lean on 7’1″ Swedish project (and former handball star), Carl Engstrom, and still developing (though highly-rated and possibly super-talented) freshman Nick Jacobs. Engstrom is an athletic 7-footer who is very raw, while Jacobs is an excellent face-up shooter, who could use a few pounds of muscle and a few notches of “mean.”
The Backcourt. A potentially excellent backcourt will be led a really steady sophomore point guard, Trevor Relaford. Relaford, who was named to the SEC All-Freshman team last year, and should grow into maybe the league’s most complete point guard by season’s end this year. And, Relaford, who might be leading a 3-guard attack all year, will truly be the senior statesman because he is flanked by a trio of incredibly talented freshmen, highlighting one of the best recruiting classes in Alabama history. Joining Relaford in the starting lineup will be either (or both) the Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama last year, Levi Randolph, or the consensus top-rated college recruit coming out of Alabama, Trevor Lacey. Both Randolph and Lacey were top-50 recruits and broke a dubious streak of eight straight top-50 recruits from Alabama that left the state to play elsewhere (including, most recently, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, who went north to UK). And, it was almost a backcourt triumverate, as the Tide also landed instate product, Rodney Cooper, who was ranked just outside of the top 50. With Relaford running the point, Grant can now pick and choose the matchups he wants on both ends with these three outstanding freshmen. Randolph and Lacey will most likely start with Relaford in a three-guard attack that is made possible by the stellar frontcourt combination of Green and Mitchell inside.
Strengths. A halmark of Anthony Grant teams is their dedication on the defensive end, and that is where this team will earn its keep. Offensively, with Green and Mitchell inside and Relaford distributing, they present a daunting task for any defense to try and combat. If this stellar recruiting class can come through, then this team could really shine.
Weaknesses. Depth in the frontcourt could ultimately derail what, otherwise, is an elitely talented team. After Green and Mitchell, there really isn’t much there, unless Jacobs surprises people right away. Also, playing in a league with some of the best guards in the country, it will be interesting to see just how quickly this stable of freshmen acclimates to the college game.
Their Ceiling. It might be a bit of a stretch to say that this team could make a Final Four run, but I do think that they will be heard from before it’s all said and done this year. Green is too good to go quietly, and Grant’s stellar recruiting efforts can pay dividends. I like the Tide to crack the top 4 in a very good SEC and maybe pick up a 4- or 5-seed from the Committee. The NIT might just be a thing of the past for this sleeping giant of a program that landed itself a top-notch head coach.
Sleeper – Mississippi State
Given their talent, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if Mississippi State won 20+ games this year. Given their history, it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if they lost 20 games either. There is little reason to believe that this team can’t contend in even a solid SEC, but there is just as little reason to believe that they will because to do so, they will be relying on two of the most unreliable players in the nation. But, as good and underrated of a coach as I think Kevin Stallings is at Vandy, I think just as highly of Rick Stansbury here at MSU. And, if anyone can make this work, it’s Stansbury.
The Guy. Renardo Sidney. Just say the name to any avid college hoops fan and you will probably get the same reaction – a slow head shake coupled with either a wry smile or a frown of disappointment. And, to think – there are still several chapters to be written. If things don’t change for the 6’10”, 275-pound junior, he will be this generation’s poster-child for wasted talent. A world of potential (many thought he would end up being called by David Stern as the #1 overall pick) has been completely washed away – up to this point – by immaturity on and off the court. If weight issues were the only thing that derailed what could have been a brilliant career, it might be easier to feel some sympathy for a guy trying to emerge from a rough upbringing, but much of what has brought him down can be blamed on nothing else but immaturity (at best) and an utter lack of personal character (at its worst). To keep the focus on basketball, let us assume, for a minute, that Sidney has realized that he is running out of time before the expiration date on his talent is up, and he dedicates himself to the game. If so, the Bulldogs may have one of the best inside players in America. And, with that, a legit shot to make something of a season that could otherwise follow along the disastrous route that the first two years of the Sidney Era in Starksville have taken.
The Other Guy. If not for Sidney’s lightning rod of a college career, we may be spinning similar tales of disappoinment and wasted talent about the brilliantly talented 6’2″ point guard, Dee Bost. Bost, who can score with anyone in the country – you know, when the NCAA academic qualifications don’t swallow him up – is also a very underrated floor general and leader on the court. But, he has also shown signs of immaturity and a complete lack of commitment to the game. If he can focus and put together the senior year that his talents allow, he might even find himself on one of the All-American teams come March, and even an NBA team come April.
The New Guy. While Sidney clearly suffers from a distinct lack of “want-to” on the court, at times, Stansbury brought in another big guy to play alongside him that clearly does NOT suffer from the same anti-hustle affliction of his more-talented teammate. 6’11” junior Arnett Moultrie is eligible to play for the Bulldogs this year after transferring from UTEP and sitting out last year. Moultrie has great size and athleticism, but was also blessed with a non-stop motor and scrappy will that might be the ignition to light the fire under some otherwise undisciplined teammates. He can score and rebound inside, but he also loves to get after it on the defensive end. He is the quintessential scrapper on which Stansbury built this program up to the level that enabled him to pursue the bigger fish that now threaten to tear down what he built.
The Rest. After Sidney, Bost, and Moultrie, this roster is populated with a lot of unproven guys, who may have to learn on the job to develop their roles. Senior Brian Bryant is a steady point guard who doesn’t do anything spectacularly, but is a nice card to play if Stansbury wants Bost to be able to score off the ball. Other backcourt options are a pair of highly-touted freshmen, Deville Smith and Rodney Hood. While Hood, last year’s Mississippi Mr. Basketball, is probably more ready to step in and play right away, Smith may more talented and prove to be the better player down the road. The frontcourt will also exhibit a nice battle of semi-coveted freshmen, Roquez Johnson and Shawn Long, along with a Latvian import, Kris Zeidaks. All in all, after the Big Three, there are a lot more questions than answers on this roster, but if Sidney and Bost can be who they are capable of, Stansbury might not need all that many answers from this bunch.
Strengths. It’s pretty clear what MSU needs in order for this season to be a success. They need full buy-in from their mercurial stars. If so, this team can give even the best teams in the country a run for their money because their coach is that good.
Weaknesses. These are also pretty clear – they are rather thin all over and the “meat” that they do have is far from reliable.
Their Ceiling. All things considered, this team may have the widest range from ceiling to cellar of any team in America. If things go right, this could be a legitimate Sweet 16 team and possible contender for one of the top spots in the SEC. If things fall apart, this team could be a true train wreck…
As good as this league is at the top – and I think it’s one of the two or three best – it is borderline embarrassing how bad it is down bottom. And, after the five teams mentioned above (and maybe two or three more), it’s hard to find any other relevant teams from the SEC this year.
- Tennessee – While the Vols probably won’t be relevant on a national level this year, it should be really interesting to see how they turn out in the first year post-Bruce Pearl.
- Georgia – I am also really interested to see if Mark Fox can continue building down in Athens. This team almost made it into the “relevant” category for me, but are still probably a year away.
- Arkansas – Speaking of “sleeping giants,” this program might be the biggest sleeping giant in the country. There is a ton of interest and resources available in Fayetteville, they just need the right spark to ignite the kindling.
- South Carolina – The fact that there are two teams in a high-major conference that will probably finish behind the Gamecocks is a glaring indication of just how bad the bottom of this league is.
- LSU – I thought Trent Johnson was a great coach? Wha’ happened??? This team is abysmal.
- Auburn – Good news for Auburn basketball fans – they have nowhere to go but up after last year’s unmitigated disaster. The bad news – they might have to wait until next year to start that ascent.