Tuesday, October 28, 2008

COLLEGE HOOPS PREVIEW: The SEC


Fear not, there is still time for me to do all the previews I had planned, and we continue today with the SEC, a conference, I'm sad to say, which looks like it will be down, down, down this season. Honestly, after Tennessee there really isn't a very good in the bunch, but I'll be brave and take a look anyway.

1. Tennessee
I was big on them last year, and still believe they are the clear class of the conference despite heavy loses including Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, and Ramar Smith (kicked off the team due to "substance abuse.") Plenty remains, especially former Hawkeye Tyler Smith and 6-7 guard JP Prince. I love Prince's game, and think with most of the guard scoring gone he can kick up his game and really step forward this year. Freshman Scottie Hopson (#5 on Rivals Top 150) is supposed to be out of this world, though I'm hoping for a nice Dennis Hopson flat top. Their only weakness is in the front court, where just Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism are worth mentioning, and undersized. A handful of talented freshmen could help.

2. LSU
Three years ago in the final four, and then two years of crap, but the Tigers look to be on the rise again. The biggest reasons for optimism are returning guard and leading SEC scorer Marcus Thornton, who broke 35 points three times last season, and the return of injured forward Tasmin Mitchell, who missed all but three games last year with an injury. Add in solid guards Garrett Temple and Terry Martin and underrated center Chris Johnson, who looked very good in a game I saw last year but I don't remember who against, and LSU looks to be the best of the rest.

3. Florida
The Gators are a lot of people's picks to win the SEC, but I'm not quite buying it - although I think they'll be in the NCAA bid hunt. Nick Calathes is an excellent all around player (he reminds me a lot of Mike Miller), but there just isn't much else here that really impresses me. Jai Lucas and Walter Hodge are good guards, but Hodge is kind of blah and Lucas needs a lot of work. There isn't much in the paint, and even though they have two highly touted prospects coming in Eloy Vargas (#26) and Kenny Kadji (#27), it sounds like they both need more muscle and could get pushed around. Look for sleeper freshman forward Allan Chaney to make a big impact.

4. Mississippi
Remember how Ole Miss was on fire at the beginning of last season and looked like they were on their way to a huge year, but then tanked towards the end and finished up by missing the NCAA tournament? That probably sucked for them. They'll probably be a bubble team again this year, led by super sophomore point guard Chris Warren (not the old Seattle RB) and a pair of swingman types in Eniel Polynice (Olden's son?) and David Huertas. Warren is a stud and the other two guards can score, but there is essentially no front court presence whatsoever. 6-9 Freshman Terrence Henry (#65 Rivals) is going to have to contribute immediately for the Rebels to have success this year.

5. Kentucky
Patrick Patterson is an absolute beast, assuming he's all healed up from the ankle injury that kept him out at the end of last season, but Kentucky has a lot to replace. The loss of guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford not only takes away a lot of points (33.8 ppg between them) but also leaves the Cats without an established ball handler. Junior Michael Porter will get a chance, but he's more the back up type. It could fall on a couple of wing players, freshmen DeAndre Liggins (#28) and transfer Kevin Galloway to take on a more point foward type of roll. Maybe we can trade them Kevin Payton.

6. Alabama
At this point it's a crapshoot between a mess of teams, and Alabama comes first alphabetically so I guess the Crimson Tide is my pick for fifth. The have a decent returning player in small forward Alonzo Gee, although looking at his game log it's easy to see why magazines call him "mercurial" and "enigmatic." He scored 32 against Florida and 27 against Tennessee last season, but then 1 against Arkansas and 4 against Ole Miss with just 2 and 3 shot attempts. Wacko. If Ronald Steele is recovered from major knee surgeries and is back to his old form, and freshman Jamychal Green (#21) is as good as advertised they'll be decent. Otherwise they'll suck.

7. Vanderbilt

Still an awesome home floor, but the Commodores come crashing back to earth a bit this year following two very good seasons with the loss of three starters, including Shan Foster, SEC Player of the Year. There is hope for the future, however, as Vandy snagged four top 100 players this season, and have former PJS favorite Festus Ezeli coming off his redshirt season. Their ability to play right away, along with the continued development of center A.J. Ogilvy (think Aaron Gray from Pitt) will determine their success.

8. Mississippi State
I was a big fan of this team last year, and they didn't disappoint by getting to the Sweet 16, but there is a lot gone, and I mean a lot. Three double digits scorers (Ben Hansbrough - 10.5, Jamont Gordon - 17.2, Charles Gordon - 17.4) are going to be tough to replace, but at least they have defensive machine and triple double getter guy Jarvis Varnado back. Varnado led the nation in blocks with 4.6 per game, and recorded a triple double in points, rebounds, and blocks against Kentucky in a game I watched in a Dallas bar with 10/12/10, and came close on two other occasions (9/9/10 and 8/7/10). Watching a guy like that makes me long for the days of what I hoped Antoine Broxsie would be. There's not much else here, though I guess the boringly named Barry Stewart is ok.

9. South Carolina
Remember when Dave Odom was a hot coach at Wake Forest? He probably should have capitalized on that fame and gotten some big money, because after sucking for a bunch of years with no Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress, or Rusty LaRue he was canned and a new coach is installed at SC who I've never heard of. Much like most of his players. Ok, I know Devan Downey is a terror at point guard from his days at Cincinnati, and Zam Frederick can score form his days at Georgia Tech. I don't know any other Gamecocks because they have always been a boring team who sucked and it was hilarious when they're totally overrated ripoff of Lethal Weapon 3 lost to Coppin State that year they were a #2 seed.

10. Auburn
This program just can't seem to get going, and the little bit of optimism will probably be crushed by the first weekend of SEC play. They have a good core coming back, but this is the same group that hasn't as much as made the NIT in their time together. Returning guards Raheem Barrett, Quantez Robertson, and Dewayne Reed are a nice perimeter grouping, and help take the defensive focus off top player Korvotney Barber, the teams leading scorer who missed most of last season due to injury. He's just 6-7, and is the sole contributing big man in the lineup. Add to that the best two incoming players for the Tigers are guards, and you are looking at a huge ole mess, whose upside is probably the NIT bubble.

11. Georgia

Is this still the Jim Harrick effect? When are these guys going to be good again? Yes, they made the tournament last year, but that was because of their miracle run in the SEC tournament, not because of any sustained success (they were 4-12 in conference last year). Additionally, they have basically nobody back from that squad, and not a whole lot in the pipeline. Right now I'm wondering how I don't have these guys ranked dead last.

12. Arkansas
Oh yeah, this is why. The Razorbacks were the most disappointing team for me last season, falling well short of expectations due in part to a lackluster performance from potential superstar Patrick Beverly. Well, they won't have to worry about that this season, because Beverly was kicked off the team for undisclosed reasons and has chosen to play in Europe this season. And he's not the only subtraction, as Arkansas lost essentially the whole team to graduation. The Razorbacks return just 10.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game from last season, so the whole lineup is wide open. Good news for familiar name Courtney Fortson, the headliner of a not terrible class for Arkansas. Fortson is #50 on the Rivals Top 150, and is joined by three other incoming players on the list. Add in JuCo Montrell McDonald (#20 JuCo player) and redshirter Michael Sanchez (#111 last season) and there is hope for the future. But absolutely none for this season.