October 31, 2011

League preview: SEC

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we'll work backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns have become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

2. SEC

Maybe this is the season that SEC basketball is something that SEC football programs can be proud of.

The SEC rules the college football landscape, but it certainly isn't that way in basketball - at least not yet. This season, though, three teams look to have legitimate hopes of finishing in the top 10: Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt. And Alabama and Mississippi State look to have enough talent to finish in the top 20.

Kentucky returns F Terrence Jones, who bypassed the NBA draft to stay in school, and adds yet another top-flight recruiting class, one filled with a stud point guard (Marquis Teague), a stud forward (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and a stud big man (Anthony Davis). Throw in shooting guard Doron Lamb, and the Wildcats look to have five future NBA players. Depth looks good, too.

Florida might have the nation's best backcourt, with holdover Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker joined by newcomers Mike Rosario (a transfer from Rutgers who averaged more than 16 points in each of his two seasons with the Scarlet Knights) and Brad Beal (a highly touted freshman who might be the best pure shooter in the recruiting class).

Vanderbilt returns all five scorers, including super-smooth G John Jenkins, rapidly developing big man Festus Ezeli and all-around talent Jeffery Taylor. But Kevin Stallings needs to get his team to stop underachieving in March.

Alabama has an excellent frontcourt duo in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, and coach Anthony Grant has a whole bunch of premier athletes who bear down on defense. But he has to find a consistent 3-pointer shooter - or two or three.

Mississippi State has a nice core group with G Dee Bost and enigmatic F Renardo Sidney. UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie should team with Sidney for a dynamic duo up front, but the Bulldogs are another team that needs to find a couple of outside shooters.

The race for the final spot in the top half of the conference should be exciting. Arkansas, with new coach Mike Anderson, might have the advantage. Former coach John Pelphrey, who again is an assistant at Florida, reeled in some talented players, but things never seemed to mesh. Perhaps Anderson, who enjoyed success at Missouri, can make that happen. He has an OK group of returnees and a solid freshman class. Ole Miss, which has yet to make the NCAA tourney under sixth-year coach Andy Kennedy, should be the Hogs' top competition for sixth place.

Georgia and Tennessee lost a lot of talent, and Tennessee also lost its coach when Bruce Pearl was shown the door in the wake of NCAA violations. Cuonzo Martin, who had been at Missouri State, takes over at Tennessee.

Auburn, LSU and South Carolina look as if they will be battling to avoid the cellar. LSU has the best incoming recruiting class among that trio, while South Carolina's best player, G Bruce Ellington, will arrive late, after the end of - what else? - the football season.

F Anthony Davis, Kentucky (6-10/220, Fr.)
F JaMychal Green, Alabama (6-8/228, Sr.)
F Terrence Jones, Kentucky (6-9/252, Soph.)
G Brad Beal, Florida (6-3/207, Fr.)
G John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (6-4/215, Jr.)
C Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt (6-11/255, Sr.)
F Tony Mitchell, Alabama (6-6/210, Jr.)
F Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State (6-10/280, Jr.)
G Dee Bost, Mississippi State (6-2/176, Sr.)
G Doron Lamb, Kentucky (6-4/210, Soph.)

Kentucky F Terrence Jones
Kentucky F Anthony Davis

1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Vanderbilt
4. Alabama
5. Mississippi State
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss
8. Georgia
9. LSU
10. Tennessee
11. Auburn
12. South Carolina

New coaches: Mike Anderson at Arkansas (had been coach at Missouri), Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee (had been coach at Missouri State)
Regular-season winner last season: Florida
Tournament winner last season: Kentucky
League RPI in each of past 3 seasons: 6th in 2010-11, 4th in 2009-10, 6th in 2008-09
NCAA bids the past five seasons: 23
2012 conference tournament: March 8-11, New Orleans

Best frontcourt: Kentucky. Sophomore Terrence Jones is an imposing figure all by himself, and UK adds two stud freshmen - Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. They also added yet another five-star recruit, Kyle Wiltjer, but he doesn't seem as likely to play important minutes this season. Senior Eloy Vargas is another big body coach John Calipari can throw at opponents.
Best backcourt: Florida. This looks to be the best group of guards in the nation. Senior Erving Walker and junior Kenny Boynton are heading into their third seasons as starters, and that duo is a good one. Then you add in Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, a junior who has been a big-time scorer, if not necessarily a good shooter, and freshman Brad Beal, the No. 4 overall recruit in the nation and perhaps the best pure shooter among all incoming freshmen. Sophomore Scottie Wilbekin is a willing defender and a good distributor, and rounds out the guard corps.
Program on the rise: Alabama. Coach Anthony Grant just needs to find a competent outside shooter or two this season; if he does, the Tide - who usually play ferocious defense - could challenge for a second-place finish. Grant has turned the program around quickly, and given his reputation as a big-time recruiter, they should be hanging out near the top of the league as long as he remains in Tuscaloosa. Indeed, the question could become whether he wants to stay at Alabama or try his hand at a "basketball school."
Program on the decline: Tennessee. Former coach Bruce Pearl got the Vols in trouble with the NCAA, and that's not good news. He was let go shortly after the end of last season, and the Vols' two best players - Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson - left early for the NBA. Into the breach steps Cuonzo Martin, who proved he could X and O when he quickly rebuilt Missouri State. But winning the Missouri Valley is one thing; you have to have big-time players to win the SEC, and the question is whether Martin can reel that type of talent in. Pearl made the Vols an annual NCAA tourney participant. It could be a few (lean) seasons before that happens again.
Coach on the rise: Alabama's Anthony Grant. We talked about Grant when we talked about Alabama. He is a former long-time assistant for Billy Donovan who also did good work in a short stint at VCU.
Coach on the hot seat: South Carolina's Darrin Horn. South Carolina hired him after he had led Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16. The hire looks to have bit a bit premature. He too often seems overmatched on the sideline, and his recruiting hasn't kept pace with the other teams in the division. He never has taken the Gamecocks to the NCAA tourney, and though this is just his fourth season, this may be his final chance to do so. And he'll try it with the least-talented roster in the league.
Most overrated player: Mississippi State F Renardo Sidney. Sidney arrived with a ton of hype. Alas, he also arrived with a ton of baggage and a ton of weight (not literally, of course - at least we don't think so). When he wants to be, like down the stretch last season, Sidney shows the talent that led to many declaring he would be an NBA star. Too often, though, he seems uninterested. If he gets it together this season, he, UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie and holdover PG Dee Bost could be a quite dangerous trio.
Most underrated player: Kentucky G Doron Lamb. When folks talk about the Wildcats, they talk about sophomore F Terrence Jones' decision to remain in school. They talk about three five-star frontcourt players: Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Wiltjer. They talk about five-star PG Marquis Teague. No one ever seems to mention Lamb, who is just one of the best shooters in the SEC - and maybe the nation. The guy averaged 12.3 points per game last season and drained 48.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Lamb added strength in the offseason in an attempt to develop a more well-rounded game. That's bad news for the rest of the SEC.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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