Friday, October 30, 2009

NCAA Basketball Preview: The SEC

I have no idea what happened to the SEC.  This used to be a really, really good conference, but seems to have slipped since the Florida back-to-back championship teams and is now pretty much the worst of the major conferences.  Things are looking to turn, however, as there are a couple of big-time contenders here now and the conference as a whole looks like it is getting a whole lot better.  I also hate that they split out their conference into East and West divisions.  Unnecessary and annoying.  In protest, I will be listing them as a whole, not breaking it down by division.  Take that Robert E. Lee!

1.  Kentucky.  Well I for one can't wait to see this John Wall character.  You can't read anything about Kentucky or even the NCAA basketball season as a whole without him being mentioned.  The comparison I see a lot is "a better Derrick Rose" which like, whoa.  He's on everybody's award winner predictions lists, anywhere from the SEC Player of the Year all the way up to National Player of the Year, and he hasn't played a minute yet.  There's plenty of talent around him, that's for sure.  Patrick Patterson is insanely good, and for some strange reason is still in college rather than the NBA, and that recruiting class Calipari paid to come to Lexington is out of this world.  Other than Wall, who is #1 on the Rivals 150, they also got PF DeMarcus Cousins (#2), C Daniel Orton (#22), PG Eric Bledsoe (#23) who I desperately wanted to become a Gopher, and G Jon Hood (#55).  Holy god.  The talent is there, anything less than a final four appearance is going to be a disappointment (this assumes the eligibility issues with Wall are resolved and he ends up playing.) 

2.  Mississippi State.  I love Jarvis Varnado.  Love him.  I had a chance to watch him in a game a couple of years ago as a sophomore, and fell in love with his defense - he averaged 4.7 blocks per game last year to lead the nation and, barring injury, will almost certainly become the all-time leader in blocked shots in NCAA history.  But it gets better.  After being a defensive force his first two seasons, before last year he worked on his offensive game, developed some low-post moves, and increased his scoring from 8ppg as a sophomore to 13 per game last year.  Even more, I read this offseason he's worked tirelessly on adding a mid-range jumper.  Based on his ability to improve year over year, I can't wait to see his new offensive game, and he could be gunning for All-American status.  All this from a guy who already has a triple-double in his career and several other near misses.  The Bulldogs are hurt a bit by recruit Renardo Sidney (Rivals #16) being ruled ineligible, but there is a lot here surrounding Varnado.  The Final Four might be aiming a bit too high, but you can expect MSU to be a major contender. 

3.  Tennessee.  Despite losing a bunch of players last year, the Vols were a bit of a disappointment last year, finishing up an uneven season with five losses by 3 points or less, including their loss to Oklahoma State in the NCAA Tournament.  The good news is that everybody is back, and they add two key pieces in PF Kenny Hall (Rivals #74) who will help shore up the inside game, and juco PG Melvin Goins (#62 Juco), who can help at point guard - a weakness last year, especially in SEC play.  Another issue that needs to be fixed is the three-point shot, once a huge weapon for Tennessee it proved to be an achilles' heel last year - the Vols shot just 31.5% behind the line, worst in the SEC and 286th in the country.  The hope is that sophomores Cameron Tatum and Scotty Hopson, now with a year of college hoops under their belts, can improve, and that might end up being the difference between an average team and a great team.

4.  Vanderbilt.  I've managed to pretty much completely avoid Vanderbilt for years, except for when Derrick Byars was there, that guy was a freakin' stud. I wonder what he's up to, hold on.  Let's see, bounced around a few different NBA teams without ever sticking, and ended up playing the last couple of seasons in Germany and France before hooking on with the Bakersfield Jam in the D-League last year.  He averaged 18 points per game for them and made the all-star team, was invited to Bulls training camp this year, made the team and is on the opening night roster.  Sweet.  Oh, and all the magazines and previews and everything say Vandy is going to be really good this year.  I do know they have a beast down low whose name I can't remember.

5.  Arkansas.  I've been following Courtney Fortson closely since the Gophers were after him, and I still can't decide if I wish he was here or not - even with the current PG situation.  On the one hand, his stats are amazing - 14.5 points/5.9 assists/5.5 rebounds - incredible for a 5-11 freshman, and he notched a triple-double in just his seventh ever game, and nearly had two more against Oklahoma and LSU, not exactly horrible teams.  On the other hand, his turnovers are wildly high (4.4 per game) including a game where he turned the ball over 10 times in 29 minutes, he's not a very good shooter (31% from three, 60% from the line), and he once went 7-27 from the floor in a game.  All in all, the dude is wildly talented, and assuming he reigns in his game and continues to improve with age, he's going to be a star - so yes, I do wish he was a Gopher.  There is plenty of other talent back, including three other double digit scorers, and a very good recruiting class, so the Razorbacks should be in the NCAA hunt.  Of course, after their huge nonconference wins over top ten teams Oklahoma and Texas last year we thought that too, before they inexplicably went 2-14 in the SEC.  Well, not that inexplicable.  They had more turnovers than assists last year.  That's not good, FYI.

6.  Ole Miss.  This team is loaded on the perimeter.  If you haven't had a chance to watch Chris Warren play, I highly recommend you look for them on tv.  Warren is a driving force and is nearly unstoppable with the ball, but he got hurt last year and only played in 11 games, dooming the Rebels to a season that ended after the SEC tournament.  That shouldn't happen this year, assuming nobody gets hurt.  With all the injuries last year, Terrico White was thurst into a starring role and he thrived, winning SEC Freshman of the Year honors.  Assuming they get decent play from the front court, these guys are going to put a ton of points on the board.  It's if they can stop anybody that's in question - they were the worst defensive team in the SEC last season.

7.  South Carolina.  It turns out this conference is even deeper than I thought, because the Gamecocks feel like a team that should be much higher than 7th in their conference.  Two of their three big guns are back, and guard Devan Downey has the look of a player who will contend for the SEC Player of the Year.  He can score (37 against Baylor last year), but also turns the ball over way too much (8 TOs to 0 assists in that same game and just a 1.3 Ast/TO ratio).  If he can control the ball it will go a long way towards getting South Carolina back in the NCAA tournament.  Also I can never, ever, like this team since they stole Georgia Tech's "Lethal Weapon 3" nickname, when it was obvious to anyone that they were just a bunch of gunners and a total mirage - a belief completely vindicated when they went down as a #2 seed.  Karma, baby.  Karma.

8.  Florida.  I suppose losing your whole team after back-to-back national championships usually entails a rebuilding process, but it seems that it's not going all that well for the Gators.  Not that it's Billy Donovan's fault, since he's been hit by players leaving the program early the past couple seasons (Speights, Calathes, Lucas).  Even so, it doesn't feel quite right having Florida this low, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them in the NCAA tournament, especially if Kenny Boynton (Rivals #12) is as good as advertised.  He will pretty much have to be, because although Florida has some nice talent in their frontcourt - including transfer Vernon Macklin from Georgetown - the backcourt really needs some help.  Outside of Boynton, point man Erving Walker, who had a pretty good freshman year last season, is about all they have.

9.  Alabama.  I'm sort of thinking I have Alabama too low here, they could easily finish as high as fifth, but since I've already typed this out and the control key on my keyboard doesn't work, I don't feel like cutting and pasting.  Although he's not the team's leading returning scorer, sophomore JaMychal Green might be the key for the Tide this season.  He was a stud recruit last season (Rivals #21), and had a very good freshman campaign (10pts, 8 rebs, 2 blks per game), which included six double-doubles.  If he continues to improve and can become the offensive focal point it will go a long way towards a good season for the Tide.  Among a big and talented group of newcomers is Shawn Kemp, one of I assume several sons of THAT Shawn Kemp, one of my favorite NBA players of all-time.  (NOTE:  I am finding conflicting information, some sources say he is signed with Alabama, others say he has reopened his recruitment which seems weird since the season starts in like two weeks so I don't know what is going on except that there has been a hole in my soul since Kemp retired and it would be nice to have another Shawn Kemp to take his place). 

10.  LSU.  The Tigers had an excellent season last year, making it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, but the team has been gutted by graduation, and now they will return just two guys who averaged more than 2 points or 8 minutes per game last year.  Those two are pretty good - Bo Spencer is an excellent shooter and Tasmin Mitchell is absolutely one of the best inside/outside players in the country and will be in the NBA next season - but there isn't much else here.  A small recruiting class leaves the Tigers thin and inexperienced, and although Mitchell will be fun to watch, I don't see a whole lot else fun happening in the bayou this season.  They'll be back at the top soon enough - next year's recruiting class is a top 20 type of class already - but not this year.

11.  Auburn.  Remember last year, how Auburn won 10 conference games but still couldn't get an NCAA tournament bid because they went 10-4 through a non-conference schedule that would make Glen Mason blush?  Yeah, most of the good players from that team are gone.  Their leading scorer and assist man is back in DeWayne Reed, and he'll have a couple of guys to dish to on the wing who love to bomb the long ball in Tay Waller and Frankie Sullivan, but looking down low is going to be an issue.  Coach Jeff Lebo brings in a gaggle of 3-star players, three of them with good size, and will need one of them to play well or have one of the nondescript veterans step up.  They are still set up as a team that could get hot on the right night and knock off a much better team thanks to their shooters, but they aren't getting anywhere near the NCAA tournament.

12.  Georgia.  How bad is it for the Bulldogs right now?  CollegeHoops.Net does a preview of their top 144 teams every year, and this year Georgia failed to make the list [Gophers = #18].  Teams on the list include Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Jackson State, South Carolina State, and Iowa.  They're worse than Iowa - ouch.  Two minor reasons for optimism - new coach Mark Fox, who had a lot of success at Nevada, and sophomore forward Trey Thompkins, a top 30 recurit last year who had an excellent first year for the Dawgs.  My new favorite player though might be their center Albert Jackson, who played more than 19 minutes per game last year despite his incredible 1-to-5.2 assist to turnover ratio, thanks to his season total of eleven.  The next Yinka Dare, perhaps?

Other Previews
Conference USA
Atlantic 10 
Mountain West 
Atlantic Coast 
Big Twelve
Big East

No comments: