The SEC should be an interesting conference to watch. Most teams lost significant contributors from last year. Tennessee is still the favorite, but Florida looks to be emerging once again. After that, it is not real clear as to who will step up and challenge for an NCAA bid. I expect about 3 other teams to be there in March.
1. Tennessee – The Volunteers had a great season last year, but will be without a number of key contributors from last season. Leading scorer Chris Lofton is gone after a great career at Tennessee. JaJuan Smith, Ramar Smith, Duke Crews, and Jordan Howell are also gone. Good thing there is another Smith that stuck around. Tyler Smith will take over the role of team leader. He will be joined in the frontcourt by Wayne Chism, a matchup problem for opponents, and Brian Williams, a more conventional big man. Ryan Childress will have to finish recovering from offseason surgery before he makes a go. The backcourt will feature more new faces, but will have much more length than last year. JP Prince, listed at 6’7”, returns to join up with newcomers Cameron Tatum at 6’6” and McDonald’s All-American Scotty Hopson at 6’7”. The pressing defense is about to get that much better with so much length. The key for the Vols will be at point guard where Juco transfer Bobby Maze takes over for the dismissed Ramar Smith.
2. Florida – Losing Marreese Speights leaves questions in the frontcourt, but there is plenty of talent for Billy Donovan to work with. He will have to get the Gators to commit more on the defensive end this season. Nick Calathes makes this team go as a 6’6” point guard who will have help in the backcourt from the lone senior, Walter Hodge. Jai Lucas is transferring, so depth will have to come from the newcomers Erving Walker and Ray Shipman. Dan Werner is the veteran up front who seems to have found his shooting stroke, but the other frontcourt position will be by committee. Donovan will look for the right combination from freshmen Alex Tyus, Allan Chaney, and Kenny Kadji. Chandler Parsons will likely start at small forward, for added length but also an additional outside shooter and good athlete.
3. Kentucky – I am writing this after the Wildcats’ 0-2 start, but I still feel this is the right spot for Kentucky. It all starts with Patrick Patterson. Getting him involved early and often will be most important to get the offense going. He will be helped by Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris. Expect 6’4” guard Jodie Meeks to step up in his production, but the rest of the backcourt will be young and will have some growing to do. Head coach Billy Gillespie could elect to go with a very long backcourt by throwing newcomers DeAndre Liggins (6’6”), Darius Miller (6’7”), and Kevin Galloway (6’6”) into the mix. Otherwise junior Michael Porter will handle the point, until DeAndre Liggins becomes the primary point guard.
4. South Carolina – Darrin Horn takes over at head coach after leading Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16 last year. He will have a solid trio of players returning to provide the scoring punch for the Gamecocks. Point guard Devan Downey led the team in scoring, and is probably the best point guard in the country not named Ty Lawson. Zam Frederick is only 6’0” but is a good-fit to start alongside Downey who is quick enough to set anyone up for open shots. Brandis Raley-Ross, who is the only other guard with significant minutes, will give the Gamecocks a solid shooter off the bench. The frontcourt has a nice tandem in Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes who are undersized but athletic enough to fit in Horn’s system. There could be a nice role for Evka Baniulis to play as a 6’7” set-shooter. The Gamecocks are an experienced bunch, with mostly everyone back from last year, but that could mean a step forward or more of the same losing seasons.
5. Vanderbilt – The Commodores went 10-6 in the conference the last two seasons, but that kind of success will be difficult this year. Shan Foster carried the team on his back at times last year as the SEC Player of the Year. He is no longer around and the same goes for Alex Gordon and Ross Neltner. That said, Vanderbilt will be a team of sophomores and freshmen this year which doesn’t bode to well for head coach Kevin Stallings. His job will be made easier if AJ Ogilvy can maintain his production from the center position. Their could be some potential in the backcourt with Jermaine Beal returning and a pair of highly touted freshmen Jeff Taylor and Lance Goulbourne. Freshman Brad Tinsley is likely to start at point guard. Junior George Drake is athletic but hasn’t emerged for the Commodores yet, but he will get an opportunity this year.
6. Georgia – After a 4-12 record in the SEC, the Bulldogs ran through the SEC tournament to grab an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately it was probably not a sign of things to come for this year. With Sundiata Gaines, Billy Humphrey, and Dave Bliss gone, the Bulldogs will look to Terrance Woodbury to lead the team. Who joins him in the backcourt is a question, whether it is last year’s backup point guard Zac Swansey or incoming freshman Dustin Ware. Returnees Troy Brewer and Corey Butler as well as newcomer Travis Leslie should provide depth in the backcourt. Up front there is little to work with. Jeremy Price and Albert Jackson played in the rotation last year, but not much more than 20 minutes a game.
1. LSU – Even though the Tigers went 6-10 in the SEC last year, the West Division is up for grabs every year. Trent Johnson takes over at head coach for a veteran LSU team with the talent to get back to the tournament, even without Anthony Randolph who is now in the NBA. Leading scorer Marcus Thornton returns after averaging 19.6 points per game. Senior Garrett Temple returns as a defensive specialist in the backcourt who has started since his freshman year. Tasmin Mitchell’s return to health should really help out in the frontcourt, as he will team up with 6’11” Chris Johnson who averaged 11.6 points per game. Terry Martin provides a 3-point threat off the bench, but the key will be for the Tigers to find a solution at point guard. Either sophomore Bo Spencer or freshman Chris Bass will get their chance to run the point.
2. Ole Miss – Andy Kennedy did a wonderful job as coach of the Rebels last season, taking them to the NIT semifinals. He will have to follow that up with some more magic, as the Rebels lost their top three big men. Luckily, the backcourt remains in tact, including leading scorer Chris Warren. Throw in the former Florida transfer David Huertas and the team’s best defender Eniel Polynice, who each averaged 10.7 points per game last year, and that is a solid nucleus. Trevor Gaskins and Zach Graham provide depth in the backcourt after playing in all 35 games last year. The big questions are up front, where it is one sophomore and a bunch of freshmen. Answers will have to come from Malcolm White who is a terrific athlete, or freshmen Terrance Henry and Murphy Holloway whowere top-150 recruits. Junior college transfer DeAundre Cranston could be a more physical option in the frontcourt.
3. Alabama – After failing to reach the postseason last year, the Crimson Tide got some good news and some bad news. The bad news was that they would be without leading scorers Richard Hendrix and Mykal Riley. The good news is that Ronald Steele was coming back from his medical redshirt. After the knee problems, Steele may never be the same player, but he provides steady leadership and experience at the point. The other good news was that Hendrix’s old spot could be taken up by McDonald’s All-American JaMychal Green. There are another of other players who could emerge. Alonzo Gee returns at small forward after averaging 14.5 points per game. Ronald Steele’s younger brother Andrew is a freshman combo-guard that could contribute right away. Senario Hill, Mikhail Torrence, and Brandon Hollinger also return in the backcourt. Justin Knox, Demetrius Jemison, and Yamene Coleman also return in the frontcourt. On paper it seems Alabama has the pieces to get back to the tournament, but the last couple of years looked promising on paper only to end in disappointment.
4. Auburn – The Tigers are getting close to moving into their new arena in 2010, so it’s time they start getting closer to the postseason. First, Kovortney Barber will have to stay healthy this season after he broke his hand last year. Second, the Tigers will have to find the right mix of guys in the backcourt. DeWayne Reed, Quantez Robertson and Rasheem Barrett return, but they will be joined by promising junior college transfer Tay Waller and freshman Frankie Sullivan. With that there are plenty of scoring options in the backcourt. Third, behind Kovortney Barber and Lucas Hargrove, they will need to find depth from junior college transfers Brendan Knox, Johnnie Lett, Francis Aihe, or freshman Kenny Gabriel.
5. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs had a great season last year, going 12-4 in the SEC and giving Memphis a serious game in the second round of the NCAA tournament. However, they will be without Charles Rhodes, Jamont Gordon, and Ben Hansbrough this year – all big pieces on the team last year. The main returning contributors are Barry Stewart and Jarvis Varnado. Stewart hit 62 3-pointers last year, while Varnado was one of the top shot-blockers in the country. Phil Turner, Riley Benock, and Ravern Johnson played a little last year, but they will have to step up in the backcourt. The point guard position may come down to freshman Dee Bost. Varnado will be joined by a number of new faces. Brian Johnson, Kodi Augustus, and Elgin Bailey return but all played sparingly last year. Romero Osby and Jacquiese Holcombe are the newcomers who will be in that mix of players as well. There are a ton of question for the Bulldogs, but Barry Stewart and Jarvis Varnado provide the most clear answers.
6. Arkansas – The Razorbacks will be almost an entirely new team this year. They lost a ton of key contributors. That includes the frontcourt of Steven Hill, Charles Thomas, Vincent Hunter, and Darian Townes as well as the backcourt of Gary Ervin, Patrick Beverly and Sonny Weems. That said, there is a lot that is left to be answered. Michael Washington played a little in the frontcourt last year, and will be joined by newcomers Michael Sanchez and Andre Clark. Junior college transfer Montrell McDonald could be thrust into the small forward position. The backcourt returns Stefan Walsh, but gets a big lift from incoming freshman Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clarke. Fortson was Mr. Basketball in the state of Alabama, while Clarke scored 3,758 points in high school.