During the two weeks before Selection Sunday last March, I frequently heard these words (or something close) in conversation, "The SEC is going to get more than two or three bids to the Tourney. How can we not? We're the SEC." Of course, it took another surprising run through the SEC Tournament by a team nicknamed the Bulldogs to keep the Southeastern Conference from becoming (gasp) a two bid league. But Mississippi State became the league's second straight surprise auto bid winner. However, just like Georgia in 2008, the boys from Starkville also lost in the first round after getting a low seed.
But it's not like the two SEC teams who earned at-large bids did much better. Ninth seeded Tennessee fell to Oklahoma State in a tight first round contest, while eighth seeded LSU reached round two, where they were outclassed by North Carolina. Kentucky, Florida, Auburn, and South Carolina all ended up in the NIT, where none of the four managed to make it to New York. Vanderbilt won 19 games and didn't even get a postseason bid. All in all, it was a disappointing 2008-09 for a conference used to postseason success.
The good news for the SEC is that the league should be far better this year, thanks to a couple of major coaching hires (as explained in my Coaching Carousel column) and an infusion of new talent (some of whom are listed in my All-Transfer and All-Freshman team columns). But there's a lot more going on in the league than what happened in Lexington and Tuscaloosa this offseason, which I'll explain after the jump.
Let's first take a look at last season's SEC standings.
Southeastern Conference Standings
(updated 3.25.2009 at 10:42 PM EDT)
|South Carolina Gamecocks||10||6||21||10|
Now, here are my picks for 2009-10, presented in reverse order. If a school's name appears in red, that's a link to its SBNation site. You can go there for more detailed analysis throughout the season.
Auburn (last NCAA: 2003) The Tigers fell to Baylor in the NIT quarterfinals last season, a disappointing end to a good season that could've ended in the NCAA Tournament with a marquee win or two. It's going to take a lot for Jeff Lebo's team to reach that level of success this season. Even with the graduation of Rasheem Barrett (9.9 ppg) and Quantez Robertson (6.0 ppg, 3.2 apg), DeWayne Reed (13.2 ppg, 3.7 apg) and Tay Waller (12.1 ppg) anchor a solid backcourt that will give the opposition fits. However, Korvotney Barber and his contributions of nearly 13 points and 10 rebounds a game will be severely missed in the frontcourt, even in Lebo's guard-oriented system. Seniors Brendan Knox and Johnnie Lett will have to step up to fill the void left by Barber's departure, and freshmen Rob Chubb and Ty Armstrong can expect to see playing time as well. Junior college transfer Kenny Gabriel should also see significant time, as he can be a true inside/outside threat for Auburn.
LSU (last NCAA: 2009) Expect the Tigers, last year's SEC regular season champs, to take a step back after the loss of three key starters. F Marcus Thornton and his 21 points per game are gone, so is C Chris Johnson, and the team's heart and soul, PG Garrett Temple. However, LSU still has Tasmin Mitchell, who averaged 16.3 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, while spending time at both small forward and power forward. Guard Bo Spencer is the other returning starter. He's a good shooter (averaging 11.4 ppg while shooting 40% from beyond the arc), but is coming off wrist surgery. Beyond those two, head coach Trent Johnson has his work cut out for him, as none of the other returnees averaged more than 2 points per contest. Expect the newcomers, like G Aaron Dotson (coming off a patellar tendon injury) and Fs Eddie Ludwig and Garrett Green (a medical redshirt last year), to see significant time during the rebuilding process.
Arkansas (last NCAA: 2008) It hasn't been the greatest of offseasons in Fayetteville, where head coach John Pelphrey will suspend at least one player after an offseason rape investigation that resulted in no charges. The possibility of suspensions will make the Razorbacks task of recovering from last season a bit more difficult. The Hogs were in full rebuilding mode last year, but managed to get off to a 12-1 start, featuring wins over regional rivals Oklahoma and Texas. It didn't last, and Arkansas finished bottom of the SEC West with a ghastly 2-14 record. This season, the Razorbacks will again roll out a three-guard lineup in their search for more consistency. That quest starts at point guard, where sophomore Courtney Fortson did a great job of distributing the ball (nearly 6 assists per game), while turning it over far too often (4.4 per game). Rotnei Clark led the nation's freshmen in three point shooting (39.3%), and Stefan Welsh contributed 11.5 oints per game. PF Michael Washington decided to stay in school, which means the Hogs keep their leading scorer (15.5) and conference-leading rebounder (9.8). The biggest reason Arkansas is this low is depth, with only six returning players from last season, Pelphrey will need a lot out of his newcomers to move up the SEC ladder.
Alabama (last NCAA: 2006) Bama alum Mark Gottfried resigned as head coach last January, when it was clear that the Tide would spend a third straight year outside of the NCAAs. Anthony Grant left a good gig at VCU to take the head job, and he's going to try to implement a more up-tempo style in Tuscaloosa. Alabama's biggest issue over the past few seasons has been inconsistent point guard play, especially with Ronald Steele's injuries and eventual departure from the program. Senior Mikhail Torrance (10 ppg, 2.3 apg) moved to the 1 slot after Steele left the program and performed well, though he's more of a natural shooting guard. As Grant implements his offense, watch for 5-9 Anthony Brock and Andrew Steele, Ronald's brother, to get time at the point, so Torrance can move over to his natural position. In the frontcourt, Grant has two 6-9 guys who will need to step it up. JaMychal Green had a decent freshman season, but will need to better his averages of 10.6 ppg and 7.6 rpg. Justin Knox, who averaged 5.7 ppg and 5.1 rpg, should be able to increase both those numbers with more time on the court.
Mississippi (last NCAA: 2002) Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy made headlines for all the wrong reasons last season, when he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a cab driver the night before the Rebels faced his former employer, Cincinnati, in the SEC/Big East Invitational. Things only got worse from there, as Miss lost All-SEC guard Chris Warren to a knee injury during that outing. Add in the fact that the Rebels had already lost Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins to injuries, and it's amazing that they managed 16 wins last year. This season, all three guards are back, making the loss of Florida transfer David Huertas almost inconsequential. Zach Graham, the team's best three point shooter, is also back, giving the Rebels perhaps the best backcourt in the league. Kennedy's frontcourt isn't quite as strong. Sophomore Murphy Holloway will have to improve on his 8.4 points and 6.6 boards per game, while 6-8 freshman Reginald Bucker and 6-9 JC transfer DeAngelo Riley will have to contribute immediately. The fact the Rebels don't quite have the inside force to match Miss State's Varnado means they should finish behind their in-state rivals in the standings.
Mississippi State (last NCAA: 2009) Rick Stansbury recruited Renardo Sidney to provide some support for C Jarvis Varnado inside. However, it doesn't look like the NCAA is going to rule Sidney eligible. Stansbury also got a commitment from 7-2 Sudanese C John Riek, who was finally ruled eligible, but will have to sit out the first 9 games of the season. That means Varnado, who fell ill at one point this summer, will likely see some time as the lone big man on the court if Stansbury runs out a four-guard offense, as he did frequently last season. When you have guards like Dee Bost, Ravern Johnson, Barry Stewart, and Phil Turner who can shoot the three well, that offensive strategy isn't a bad idea. However, with the development of 6-8 Fs Kodi Augustus and Romero Osby (and Riek's eventual eligibility), you can expect to see Varnado get far more frontcourt help. Additionally, Varnado only needs 19 blocks to pass Shaquille O'Neal as the SEC's all-time leader in that category (though Shaq did it in fewer games).
Georgia (last NCAA: 2008) For some reason, Mark Fox decided to leave a Nevada program he (along with LSU head man Trent Johnson) made into a national name. Fox now replaces Dennis Felton at the helm of a Georgia program that has never fully recovered from the Jim Harrick era, which is now six years in the past. After the graduation of G/F Terrance Woodbury (14.0 ppg), Fox is left with only one double-digit scorer from last season. However, 6-9 F Howard Thompkins is a pretty good player to have on your roster. Thompkins averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 boards per game, and should be even better after an offseason spent on the USA's Under-19 World Championship-winning team. In the backcourt, Dustin Ware should start at point guard, as he averaged 7.2 points and 3.4 dimes per game in 2008-09. After that, Fox has a lot of decisions to make, and that means the Bulldogs will probably be rooted to the bottom of the SEC standings yet again.
South Carolina (last NCAA: 2004) In Darrin Horn's first year at the helm, the Gamecocks managed to tie Tennessee atop the SEC East. Even though they only lost guard Zam Fredrick and his 15.5 points per game, Carolina probably won't reach such heights this season. That's not to say that the Gamecocks won't manage to get back to the NCAAs, something they failed to do last year. Thanks to the return of G Devan Downey (19.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, SEC leading 89 steals) and F Dominique Archie (10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg), the Gamecocks still have some real star power in the lineup. Returning starters Mike Holmes (10.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Sam Muldrow (5.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) should provide even more help to Archie in the frontcourt this season, while JC transfer Johndre Jefferson will be expected to spend time at both small and power forward. In the backcourt, Evaldas Baniulis, after averaging a bit more than 6 points a game while shooting 48 percent from behind the arc, is expected to take a more active role in the offense with the graduation of Fredrick, as is 6-5 swingman Lakeem Jackson, a heralded recruit from Charlotte.
Florida (last NCAA: 2007) Has it really been over two years since the Gators last featured in an NCAA Tournament game? While the days of back-to-back championships may be in the rear-view mirror, Billy Donovan's latest group has the chance to finally get off the bubble. Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin will be eligible this season, and he'll slide into the center position. That will allow Alex Tyus to move back to his natural position, power forward, which will allow Dan Werner to move to small forward. Kenny Kadji should be better in his sophomore year as well, giving the Gators more of a presence inside. More consistency is expected out of swingman Chandler Parsons, whose performances alternate between brilliant and frustrating. In the backcourt, Erving Walker (10.1 ppg, 2.4 apg) will lead the offense after Nick Calathes' departure for Greece. Israeli newcomer Nimrod Tishman could also see time at the point if the NCAA rules him eligible. Impact freshman Kenny Boynton will start at shooting guard. He's expected to be the Gators new three-point threat, though he can also really drive to the hoop.
Vanderbilt (last NCAA: 2008) The Commodores sat at home last postseason, despite finishing the regular season with 7 wins in their last 10. Vandy shouldn't be so unlucky this season. Chemistry should be good, as head coach Kevin Stallings gave up a $100,000 raise so the team could take a scheduled trip to Australia, home country of star C A.J. Ogilvy. Ogilvy averaged 15.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and those numbers should improve if he stays healthier this season. The 'Dores frontcourt boasts an international flavor beyond their Aussie star with Swede Jeffery Taylor (12.2 ppg. 6.2 rpg) a fixture at small forward, 6-9 Cameroonian PF Steve Tchiengang (3.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg) expected to spend more time in the 4 spot, and 6-11 Nigerian C Festus Ezeli (3.8 ppg. 2.6 rpg) expected to both backup and spend time on the floor with Ogilvy. 6-7 Andre Walker may also return to the starting lineup, after suffering an ACL tear early last season. The backcourt may be more US-centric, but it's still talented. Jermaine Beal (12.5 ppg, 3.2 apg) amd Brad Tinsley (11.0 ppg, 2.8 apg) will take turns running the offense, but 6-4 John Jenkins, the USA's highest scoring high school player last season, will get plenty of opportunities to showcase his inside/outside game. Even if he only manages 25 percent of his senior year average, Jenkins should provide plenty of scoring punch for the Commodores.
Tennessee (last NCAA: 2009) The Volunteers return all five starters in their quest to improve on last year's NCAA first round exit. The best news for the Vols this offseason was Tyler Smith's decision to skip the NBA Draft and return for his senior season. Bruce Pearl is glad he doesn't have to replace Smith's 17.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Wayne Chism (13.7 ppg, 8 rpg) will continue to be a force inside, while 6-10 C Brian Williams will need to improve his scoring (5 ppg) to match his rebounding (5.6 rpg). Bobby Maze (8.2 ppg, 3.2 apg) will run the offense, while J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson, who were forces at both ends of the floor last year, are expected to continue their strong two-way play. Cameron Tatum (7.6 ppg) and Renaldo Woolridge, son of former NBA star Orlando, are going to be Bruce Pearl's key swingmen this season.. Woolridge, who only managed 2.6 points in a little more than 8 minutes a contest, should be improved in his sophomore season. The Vols only personnel loss is a sad story, as Nigerian F Emmanuel Negedu, as he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest last month.
Kentucky (last NCAA: 2008) During my Season Preview series, I've written a fair amount about John Calipari's arrival in Lexington and his stellar recruiting class. Patrick Patterson (17.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg) will lead a strong frontcourt that already features senior Perry Stevenson (7.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), and will be bolstered by the arrival of the 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins and 6-10 Daniel Orton, two highly coveted recruits. And the backcourt will feature the most highly coveted recruit for this season, 6-4 point guard John Wall, who will be responsible for running Calipari's dribble drive offense. If the chemistry works, the Wildcats will quickly be on their way, and the blue half of the Commonwealth will quickly forget about the Gillispie period.
I'm picking Kentucky to win the overall SEC title, so they'll take the league's auto bid in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9. To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-SEC team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-SEC Team
Player of the Year: Tyler Smith, 6-7 F, Sr. (Tennessee)
Remainder of the Team
Devan Downey, 5-9 G, Sr. (South Carolina)
Tasmin Mitchell, 6-7 F, Sr. (LSU)
Patrick Patterson, 6-9 F, Jr. (Kentucky)
Jarvis Varnado, 6-9 F/C, Sr. (Mississippi State)