2008 SEC Conference Preview
By Adi Joseph
[img_assist|nid=3629|title=Jamont Gordon - Credit: Mike Carlson/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=450]Last season, the SEC was its own worst enemy. Despite being stacked with tremendous talent, SEC teams continuously beat up on each other to the point where only five teams were selected to the NCAA Tournament. The conference put four teams in the NIT, a byproduct of 10 teams with 7-9 or better in-conference records. Don’t expect that to change much this season. The Southeastern Conference is once again very balanced, with only Tennessee visibly standing above the pack. The conference has, on the other hand, experienced numerous other changes. Kentucky and Arkansas will have new coaches at the helm. Florida has only one returning player from the mainstay rotation of their back-to-back National Championships. And other superstars Derrick Byars (Vanderbilt), Glen Davis (LSU), Randolph Morris (Kentucky), Jermareo Davidson (Alabama) and Tre’ Kelley (South Carolina) are all gone. Expect new stars to emerge and another season of rigorous competition in the SEC race.
PROJECTED TEAM FINISH
1. Tennessee – NCAA
2. Kentucky – NCAA
3. Florida – NCAA
4. Vanderbilt – NCAA
5. Georgia – NIT
6. South Carolina
1. Mississippi State – NCAA
2. Arkansas – NCAA
3. Alabama – NCAA
4. LSU – NIT
5. Auburn – NIT
6. Ole Miss
Player of the Year: Chris Lofton, Tennessee
Newcomer of the Year: Nick Calathes, Florida
Coach of the Year: Rick Stansbury, Mississippi State
All-SEC First Team:
Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State
Chris Lofton, Tennessee
Patrick Beverley, Arkansas
Joe Crawford, Kentucky
Richard Hendrix, Alabama
It’s fitting that Alabama’s season ended the way it did last season: a two-point loss in the first round of the NIT to Massachusetts. After all, heartbreak and underachievement were the stories of last season for the Crimson Tide. No one can blame them – the team’s two biggest stars, Ronald Steele and Jermareo Davidson, were going through difficult personal struggles. Davidson lost both his brother and girlfriend to tragic incidents. And Steele suffered knee and ankle injuries that have led to his decision to take a medical redshirt this season instead of risking aggravating the injuries. As a result, the hopes of the Crimson Tide faithful rest on the broad shoulders of Richard Hendrix. Hendrix is a rising star, one of the best post players in the country. And he’s not alone, as wings Alonzo Gee and Mykal Riley return after both averaged 12.6 points per game last season. Gee has superstar potential and the Tide will need him to step up and replace some of Steele’s offensive production. Replacing Steele’s role on the team will likely be freshman Rico Pickett, a big, versatile lead guard. Freshman scorer Senario Hillman and junior combo guard Brandon Hollinger will provide depth behind Pickett and Riley in the backcourt, along with potential contributions from sophomores Mikhail Torrance and Justin Tubbs. While the Tide will still miss Steele, the depth, Hollinger’s experience and Pickett’s potential ease the loss. Replacing Davidson could be more difficult, as sophomores Yamene Coleman, Demetrius Jemison and freshman Justin Knox are hard workers and good rebounders but don’t offer much offensively. Coach Mark Gottfried may, then, choose to go with a smaller lineup with Hollinger alongside Pickett, Riley, Gee and Hendrix. Either way, the Crimson Tide won’t be challenging for a championship this season. But they should be strong enough to find their way back to the NCAA Tournament.
Jan. 8 vs. Florida – A win at home against the defending 2x National Champions would be a great way to kick off SEC play for the Crimson Tide
John Pelphrey is an SEC basketball legend already. His jersey hangs in the rafters at Rupp Arena in Kentucky as a former Wildcat team captain. Now Pelphrey finds himself back in the SEC, with a chance to produce a new legacy with a new team. And he can’t complain that predecessor Stan Heath left the cupboard bare. The Razorbacks are stacked with talent and, even more noticeable, experience. Six of the Tide’s top eight players are seniors, and that experience shines brightest in the frontcourt. Competing for time at the power forward and center spots are four seniors with beautifully contrasting games. Seven-footer Steven Hill is one of the top defenders in the nation. Though Hill needs to improve his toughness, he has a fast-developing soft touch and is a force with his shot-blocking abilities. Darian Townes is a hyper-athletic force who is probably the Tide’s most talented big, though his consistency must improve. Three-year starter Charles Thomas may give way to Townes in the starting lineup but he is more consistent and a strong rebounder. And Vincent Hunter is joined by sophomore Michael Washington to give the Razorbacks some extra depth up front. The Razorbacks are a little weak on the wings, but former juco-transfer Sonny Weems should have a big senior year. Meanwhile, sophomore combo-guard Patrick Beverley is the team’s star and has a well-rounded game to suit the role. And senior point guard Gary Ervin, a Mississippi State transfer, though inconsistent, has now had 5 years of SEC experience. Unfortunately, there is little depth at the guard positions and freshman Marcus Britt and sophomore Stefan Welsh will have to step up to provide some relief for the overused trio of Ervin, Beverley and Weems. If they can find suitable backcourt depth, though, the Razorbacks should contend for the conference title.
Feb. 23 @ Kentucky – Pelphrey goes home and the Razorbacks get a chance at a huge road win against a very good Kentucky team.
The least recognizable team in the SEC may also be the league’s deepest. Auburn, Alabama, will always be a football town. But there is reason for some optimism once the bowl games are finished. With nine players returning who averaged over 10 minutes per game last season, depth is the strength of these Tigers. In the backcourt, Quantez Robertson and DeWayne Reed are skilled playmakers, Frank Tolbert is a a great glue guy and Rasheem Barrett provides a strong shooting touch, though he must bounce back from a disappointing season. In the front court, the options are equally numerous. Quan Prowell and Josh Dollard are viable inside-outside threats and Korvotney Barber is a strong post presence despite a lack of size. Prowell has some star potential with a pretty jump shot and great penetrating abilities. Freshman Tyrell Lynch should add some bulk to the mix. But as a whole, size is a major issue for the Tigers. Aside from hyper-raw 7-feet-1-inch freshman Boubacar Sylla, the Tigers have no one taller than 6-feet-9-inches. Additionally, they don’t have wide-bodied bangers like Alabama’s Richard Hendrix or Ole Miss’s Dwayne Curtis. And as a whole, the team lacks the skill to compete with the league’s elite on a regular basis. Unless Powell really emerges, it seems unlikely that the Tigers will be able to find their way into the NCAA Tournament, even with their great depth. But the NIT should be a more-than-reachable goal.
Jan. 10 vs. Arkansas – Just as the SEC season is starting – and the bowl season is ending – what better way to grab their fans’ interests than a home win over the ranked Razorbacks.
Billy Donovan is the highest paid coach in America. But after back-to back National Championships, Donovan may have the most difficult coaching job of his career. Expectations don’t disappear as quickly as superstars in college basketball, and Donovan will have to bear the burden of those expectations in what reasonably should be a rebuilding year. Only junior guard Walter Hodge returns from the Gators’ primary rotation of last season. Fortunately, Donovan still has a lot of talent to work with this season. It starts with sophomore center Marreese Speights, who will be the focal point of the offense with his soft touch in the post. Speights showed a lot of promise in a very limited role last season, with per-40 minute averages of 28 points, 18 rebounds and 3 blocks. Joining Speights will be fellow sophomores Dan Werner and Jonathan Mitchell and freshmen Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Adam Allen. None of those five players are ready to play significant minutes as traditional power forwards, but the group should provide a decent enough group to rebound, defend and score at a reasonable rate, collectively. The backcourt is more set. Freshmen point guard Jai Lucas and big combo guard Nick Calathes ought to start immediately for Donovan, providing the team with strong distribution. Lucas is great in the open court and Calathes is a do-everything guard who will start on the wing but likely run the offense when Lucas is out. Hodge is a proven high-energy, lightening-quick scorer, though he isn’t much of a playmaker. The depth at guard is questionable so all three may end up playing over 30 minutes per game. Depth and size are the big question marks for the Gators. But if Speights and Calathes are as good as advertised and someone steps up from the bundle of competing forwards, Florida may even be able to exceed expectations. It’s not unreasonable to suggest Donovan may lead his team to the Sweet Sixteen. It’s also not unreasonable to suggest Florida may be fighting for another championship this season – the NIT championship. That’s what happens when a team is forced to start as many as three freshmen.
Dec. 22 @ Ohio State – The rematch of last season’s championship game will feature two completely different teams.
Something seems wrong with coach Dennis Felton’s rebuilding project at Georgia: It’s not going anywhere. The Bulldogs have been completely unable to step themselves out of the pack in any way, and continue to be that other team even as the Bulldog football program has gone through slightly rough times of late. And the Bulldogs have the appearance of an NIT team once again this season. Everything is solid enough and no one would accuse this team of being an easy win, but it is doubtful SEC teams are marking trips to Georgia on their calendar either. The frontcourt will showcase reliable Takais Brown, a skilled post scorer who needs to improve his rebounding. Alongside Brown, there is some competition. Senior Dave Bliss, junior Rashaad Singleton and sophomore Albert Jackson are all big and talented, but none have established themselves. If Felton does wish to push his team to the next level, he’ll need one of these three to establish themselves as a star. The backcourt is essentially completely set. Despite losing sharpshooter Levi Stukes, the rotation of point guard Sundiata Gaines and wings Mike Mercer, Billy Humphrey and Terrance Woodbury provides great stability. And if Mercer is at full health after missing the final 10 games last season, he may step up his game and provide some star power. Gaines is the star of the team, though. He provides a do-it-all presence at the lead guard spot, where he passes, defense, rebounds and shoots adeptly. Felton is getting to a point where one wonders how much longer he can hold onto his job. Granted, Felton is rebuilding after former coach Jim Harrick’s recruiting violations led to NCAA sanctions. But Harrick won, something Felton has struggled greatly with in his first four seasons with the Bulldogs.
Nov. 24 @ Wisconsin – The Bulldogs are likely a bubble team, and winning non-conference match-ups like this early-season game are big to the tournament committee.
When you are one of the elite six (North Carolina, UCLA, Duke, Kansas and Indiana being the other five) programs in college basketball, nine seasons without a Final Four is simply unacceptable. So Tubby Smith was forced on an up north trip, and Billy Gillespie, one of the most promising young coaches in America, was brought in to take his spot. Gillespie inherits a good, but not great team – recruiting never was Smith’s forte. Joe Crawford, however, was a top 10 recruit. In his senior season, the swingman seems primed to deliver on that potential. Crawford should become a star and the centerpiece of the team this year as the anchor playing either wing spot. Joining Crawford is fellow senior Ramel Bradley. Bradley is a good scorer with well rounded skills, but he was forced to the point guard position last season after Rajon Rondo left for the NBA. Bradley will be best off if Derrick Jasper or Michael Porter, both sophomores, develop their games enough to play consistent minutes at the point. Sophomore Jodie Meeks and freshman Alex Legion both have star potential in their own rights as wing players, and both will have big roles for the Wildcats. But it is another freshman who will have the biggest load to carry for Kentucky. Patrick Patterson was a late commitment under Gillespie, along with Legion. And now the forward will have to shoulder the load of Kentucky’s post scoring. With Randolph Morris jumping ship to the New York Knicks, Patterson is left as the most viable post scorer on the Wildcats. The center position battle looms large as well. Seven-feet-two-inch Jared Carter has a boatload of untapped potential to go along with a history of injury problems. And sophomore Perry Stevenson was unable to contribute much of anything on offense last season for the Wildcats. If one of those two steps into the role alongside Patterson, the Wildcats should contend for SEC Championship. But it doesn’t seem very likely that a regime change will mean the immediate end to the Final Four draught.
Jan. 5 vs. Louisville – There were a lot of choices for the Wildcats’ key game, but the battle for the state is always an intriguing one and winning in Lexington would be big.
No team collapsed quite as hard from 2006 to 2007 as the Tigers. Just one season removed from the Final Four, LSU failed to be selected to even the NIT field in a season where just about everyone put the group in the top 10 preseason. Now, 11th-year coach John Brady has a difficult job ahead of him, and no oversized big man (see Glen Davis and Brandon Bass) to lead the charge. But the Tigers do have talent. Swingman Tasmin Mitchell was a big time recruit. And after displaying his potential last season, he will be asked to become the team’s guiding force. Mitchell has the ability to play in the paint or on the wing, and will likely near the 20 points per game plateau this season if all goes well. The new big man is rail-thin freshman Anthony Randolph. At six-feet-10-inches and 220 pounds, Randolph doesn’t have the girth of Davis but he has even more promise as an inside-outside threat who compliments Mitchell perfectly. Even thinner junior Chris Johnson and juco transfer Quintin Thornton will provide depth in the frontcourt, but expect a lot of small ball from the wing-heavy Tigers. On those wings will be returnees Terry Martin, Dameon Mason, Alex Farrer and a fresh face in juco transfer Marcus Thornton (unrelated to Quintin Thornton). Marcus Thornton is likely the most talented of the group, a highly skilled scorer with slashing and shooting abilities. The biggest issue, then, is once again the point guard position. Garrett Temple played the position for much of last year, as Tack Minor proved inconsistent and incapable of handling full-time duties. But Temple thrives on the wing and is not enough of a playmaker to handle full-time duties himself. And all Brady has backing him up is unheralded recruit Bo Spencer. If the point guard situation doesn’t get itself straightened up, the Tigers would be fortunate to find themselves back in the NIT. But in terms of raw talent, this team could still find its way to the Big Dance.
Jan. 5 @ Texas A&M – The Tigers knocked off A&M last season, despite the Aggies having an immeasurably better season. A win at College Station would be big for LSU.
Jamont Gordon is college basketball’s answer to LeBron James. Yeah, I said it. The six-feet-four-inch Gordon is the nation’s most versatile and unheralded superstars. He led the Bulldogs in scoring, rebounding and assists, doing everything from a point-forward perspective. He’s also an outstanding defender who can guard four positions on the floor. It all starts with Gordon for Rick Stansbury’s squad. But there is plenty backing up the junior star. Big man Charles Rhodes flirted with leaving school for the NBA this off season, before realizing that he was in no way ready for the league. But he has outstanding athleticism and a big frame, so Rhodes should be ready for a tremendous senior season. At the other post position, there are some question marks. As a result, Gordon may be forced to defend power forwards at times. But hopefully for the Bulldogs, sophomore Jarvis Varnado, who made strides last season, will continue to improve. And Louisville transfer Brian Johnson should provide some additional depth. In the backcourt, Gordon will run the offense most of the time. But expect major contributions from Ben Hansbrough, Tyler’s little brother. Hansbrough proved to be a reliable ball-handler and playmaker as well as a strong shooter. And sophomore gunslinger Barry Stewart will occupy the wing. Freshmen Ravern Johnson, Kodi Augustus and Riley Benock will provide plenty of depth on the wings. So where is the limit for this team? I expect Gordon to become a frontrunner for National Player of the Year. And if that happens, this team could contend for a Final Four spot. Their frantic pace of play and athleticism make them a tough match in any one-game scenario. Expect a definite return to the NCAA Tournament, that’s for sure.
Feb. 2 vs. Tennessee – Mississippi State is looking to establish themselves as one of the SEC’s elite, and there is no better way to do so than to knock off the projected top dog.
Last season, the Rebels were one of the biggest surprises in the NCAA. Entering the season with projections putting them as potentially the worst team in the entire SEC, the Rebels instead found their way to 8-8 in conference, good enough to tie for the SEC West lead and grab an NIT bid. Now, second-year coach Andy Kennedy must work his magic once again, as Ole Miss has lost its entire starting backcourt from last season and must replace three of its top four scorers. There is reason for some hope, though. Center Dwayne Curtis and forwards Kenny Williams and Jermey Parnell provide three wide-bodied seniors who can clog the lane and control the boards. The Rebels, therefore, should have one of the SEC’s top rebounding units and frontcourts in general. Curtis will have to take a step forward this season in becoming a legitimate star. But after a season where he averaged 12.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, the leap isn’t farfetched. The backcourt is where the issues lie, though. Freshman Chris Warren and seldom-used senior Brian Smith are the two favorites to start at the point guard position. And neither seems capable of replacing Todd Abernethy’s leadership or production. On the wings, transfer David Huertas showed some ability in his time at Florida, and his impact should be felt in his first year with the Rebels. But at the other wing position sophomore Eniel Polynice has limited offensive potential and freshman Zach Graham and juco transfer Terrence Watson are likely not ready for a starting job yet. The freshman class is strong, but not top heavy. Forward Malcolm White was a late addition and should provide the centerpiece, playing both small and power forward. As a whole, expect big steps taken by this program for as long as Andy Kennedy is at the helm. He is one of the top coaches in America, and one of the most unrecognized at the same time. He may not be around for too much longer, but this season will likely be the final down year in a while for the Rebels.
Jan. 26 @ Mississippi State – You’ve got to love interstate rivalries, and this game could potential provide a big upset if Ole Miss sneaks one past the Bulldogs.
Of all the Division 1 basketball coaches in America, Dave Odom may be the most at risk of losing his job. South Carolina has reached the tournament a grand total of one time in Odom’s six seasons at the helm. And two NIT Championships and one NIT runner-up spot aren’t the ideal way to keep your job. The Gamecocks, unfortunately for Odom, simply don’t seem to have improved at all from last season’s last place finish in the SEC. South Carolina is hurting in the post, especially. Dominique Archie was fun to watch last season. The six-feet-seven-inch, 200 pound forward took on players like Al Horford and Richard Hendrix. And while his efforts were admirable, he cannot man the post alone. Unfortunately, with the departure of center Brandon Wallace, Archie may have to. The only player on the Gamecocks roster who weighs more than 220 pounds is seldom used Mitchell Carter, who doesn’t appear anywhere near ready for SEC-level basketball. It may come down to freshmen Michael Holmes and Sam Muldrow, both only marginally bigger than Archie, to contribute in the paint. On the wings, Evaldas Baniulis, Dwayne Day and Chad Gray return with some potential to offer but little in terms of on-the-court success. At least the Gamecocks should have no issues with ball-handling though, thanks to a pair of transfers. Devan Downey comes via Cincinnati and should be a contender for SEC Newcomer of the Year at point guard. He has tremendous potential despite a tiny, five-feet-nine-inch frame. And Zam Fredrick joins the bunch courtesy of Georgia Tech, where he played both guard positions. Fredrick is undersized at shooting guard but can do just about anything. The pair should be one of the fastest backcourts in the nation and will help the Gamecocks make up for their lack of size with their blinding speed. Archie should also benefit from their collective presence, if he can finally be taken out of the paint for a minute. This season has big implications for Odom. And unfortunately, there may not be enough talent around to do anything about it.
Dec. 1 @ Clemson – An early season win in Clemson would provide just the boost the Gamecock faithful needs to remain optimistic about this season.
Now that Florida’s “Big Four” have headed toward richer seas, the face of the SEC will be wearing an orange blazer. Bruce Pearl has certainly established himself as one of the top coaches in the NCAA. But after an embarrassing loss to Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen last season, the Volunteers have great expectations this season. Returning everyone but glue guy Dane Bradshaw and bringing in two of the top transfers in America should provide Tennessee with more than enough to lay their claim on the SEC crown. And the first player worth mentioning is shooting guard Chris Lofton. Now a senior, Lofton is one of the top scorers in the NCAA. He balanced out the best jump shot in the NCAA with more refined ball-handling skills last season, and now is primed to take his game to the only level remaining, superstar level. Complimenting Lofton will be a trio of Smiths: JaJuan, Ramar and Tyler. JaJuan Smith is a senior star in his own right, and after averaging 15.2 points per game last season Smith is clearly a highly skilled scorer who needs to be watched on the perimeter. Ramar Smith is the high-energy point guard who will be running the show for the Volunteers this season after a promising freshman campaign. But it is Tyler Smith who is the key to why Tennessee should compete for a Final Four this season. The Iowa transfer can do everything well and has first round potential. He should be all over the court and ease the load on Lofton, potentially taking over as the Volunteers’ second-leading scorer. Sophomore Josh Tabb, senior Jordan Howell and Arizona transfer J.P. Prince provide the best group of backup wings in the nation, with Howell also filling in behind Ramar Smith. And to think the frontcourt will slouch at all is simply incorrect. Sophomores Duke Crews and Wayne Chism showed tremendous potential all season and junior Childress does a little bit of everything. The three should anchor the fast break, with either one or two of the trio on the floor at a time. Tennessee fans should rightly expect nothing less than an Elite Eight appearance this season, after coming so close to one last year. And there is no one saying the Volunteers couldn’t scrap their way to a National Championship.
Jan. 19 vs. Ohio State – Revenge is a dish best served on national television. Make sure you check out CBS for this one, as Tennessee will have plenty of motivation.
One season after seniors Derrick Byars, Dan Cage and Ted Skuchas helped put Vanderbilt back on the national map with a surprising season and a Sweet Sixteen finish, the Commodores will rely again on a hardened group of seniors led by an All-SEC candidate. This season’s star is Shan Foster, who played the Human Torch to Byars’ Mr. Fanastic. Foster has considerable potential and if he can consistently play at a top-notch level, the results will be good for the Commodores. He is joined by senior point guard Alex Gordon, a strong defender and heady point guard with a good jumper, and Ross Neltner. Neltner is a forward with a rangy jump shot who proved more than willing to bang in the rough-and-tumble SEC last season. And this season, Neltner will have a new tag partner down low in freshman Andrew Ogilvy. Ogilvy is a very skilled true center with NBA potential whom made a major impact in the FIBA U19 World Championships for Australia, his native country. Rounding out the starting lineup will be a second point guard, sophomore Jermaine Beal. Beal follows in the tradition of role players who provide tough, gritty defense for Stallings. And with Beal and Gordon on the court at the same time, Byars’ versatility won’t be missed as much. On the bench, sophomore George Drake and freshmen Charles Hinkle and Andre Walker will provide depth on the wing while freshman Keegan Bell has the potential to become a very strong point guard in the future. Up front, the depth is thinner but senior Alan Metcalfe will be called on for his size and heralded toughness, and JeJuan Brown for his defense and rebounding. But neither provide much offensively. Still, this season should provide another NCAA Tournament birth for Vanderbilt. And the Commodores could easily prove to be the surprise of the SEC once again, as they may very well prove to be one of the top two or three teams in the conference.
Feb. 26 vs. Tennessee – The Commodores are universally considered the third best team in Tennessee, but a win at home against the Vols would be a good way to protect their pride.