South Carolina coach Frank Martin warned us last season not to get down on the SEC, but that’s been hard as of late. Outside of Florida and Kentucky, there hasn’t been all that much to get excited over (although Tennessee did make a Sweet Sixteen run a season ago). Things appear to be turning the corner for the league, but how deep are they really?
Let’s take a look at how the South East Conference will play out this season.
14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last Year’s Record: 14-19 (3-15)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 4-14
Head Coach: Rick Ray
Key Players: Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas
The good news for MSU fans? The football team is currently one of the top teams in the country.
The bad news? Their basketball team will be bad again this season.
Rick Ray is trying his earnest to turn the program around, but he’s getting no results. The Bulldogs have four starters back, but those four starters are from a team that managed just three wins in league a season ago. However, even if the wins don’t come, Mississippi State should at least be more consistent. Craig Sword, their best player from a season ago, is back and ready to lead the team. Sword led the Bulldogs in nearly every important offensive category a season ago and the junior guard will likely have to shoulder the load again.
Mississippi State will have to learn how to play without Sword at the beginning of the season, as he will be out after having back surgery. While not having Sword will make things tough on the Bulldogs in the early going, it might help them in the long-run.
Joining him in the backcourt is Gavin Ware, a double-digit scorer from a season ago and all-freshman performer. He shot a very high percentage in the post and managed seven double-doubles, an impressive feat for a rookie player.
Ware and Sword will be asked to take this team to relevance, but they won’t have to do it alone. Two other returning starters, Fred Thomas and Trivante Bloodman (SEC name of the year??), are back and should take a step forward.
Thomas is a three-point threat that was a stalwart defensively as well for Ray a season ago. Bloodman, the point guard, is tasked with keeping the offense running smooth and not turning the ball over.
A fifth returner, Roquez Johnson, wasn’t a starter for most of the season, but did put up major numbers late, especially after he took over a bigger role. The big man scored in double-figures 17 times a season ago.
Ray is hoping that JUCO big men Fallou Ndoye and Oliver Black will come in and make an impact right away. Ndoye was a partial qualifier a season ago, meaning he got to practice with the team, and that experience should help the Senegalese big fill out this season.
Three-star guards Maruice Dunlap and Elijah Staley fill out the rotation. If they can hit shots, it will be a major benefit to the Bulldogs’ notoriously struggling offense.
Will Mississippi State be better? Probably. But they still don’t quite have the talent to make any major jumps. Next season if everyone important returns, MSU could have a breakthrough, but that is unlikely to occur in 2014-15 which could mean it’s already too late for Ray.
13. Vanderbilt Commodores
Last Year’s Record: 15-16 (7-11)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 4-14
Head Coach: Kevin Stallings
Key Players: Damian Jones, James Siakam, Luke Kornet
More likely than not, it will be another down season for Vanderbilt as Kevin Stallings continues to rebuild.
That doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have talent, but the players who are highly recruited probably aren’t ready to come in and make an impact right away, and there simply isn’t enough returning to make a difference.
Vanderbilt won only seven games in league a season ago, and now must replace both Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller from the rotation.
For now, Vanderbilt will need All-SEC Freshman selection Damian Jones to continue to lead them. Jones was excellent in his freshman season averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per-game. The big man will continue to try to improve and use his big body and athletic ability to score inside.
Forward James Siakam is a returning starter who scored in double figures six times last season and brings a senior presence to this mostly youthful team. Big men Luke Kornet and Josh Henderson were rotation bigs when they played a season ago, and will likely be ones again. If either can up their production and become a bigger factor (and stay healthy) that will be a huge benefit to Stallings.
Vandy was hoping for major contribution from senior Dai-Jon Parker, who likely would have been the teams’ second best player, but Parker was dismissed from the program in the offseason and will have to finish his career at a Division II school.
The veterans who do return will need to play major roles while Vanderbilt gives their younger players time to develop. Vandy brings in a top-30 recruiting class and four four-star recruits that should turn this program around, although not immediately.
Shelton Mitchell is a former Wake Forest recruit that comes in highly praised as a top-100 player at the point guard position. Wade Baldwin is an excellent passer and defender at two-guard. Matthew Fisher-Davis should help improve Vandy’s three-point shooting, and Riley LaChance is known for his defensive ability.
Any of those four could breakout, but for now it remains cautious optimism in Nashville that the Commodores have built a foundation for the future.
In terms of the present, Vanderbilt likely has enough to pull off a few upsets, but mostly will come up on the losing end of things in 2014-15. As the season goes along, Vandy fans would be smart to temper their expectations and look for improvement as opposed to wins.
12. South Carolina Gamecocks
Last Year’s Record: 14-20 (5-13)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 5-13
Head Coach: Frank Martin
Key Players: Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Johnson, Duane Notice
It’s a long process for Martin and company at South Carolina. It’s a build that will continue this year, as he slowly but surely tries to bring the Gamecocks to relevance in the SEC.
South Carolina will have to replace leading scorer Brenton Williams, but they have Sindarius Thornwell back, who started every game his freshman season and averaged 13.4 points per-game doing so. Thornwell topped the twenty point mark in seven different occasions and is a serious threat for an All-SEC spot this season.
Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson is another returner who played well in his 16 games last season before going down with an injury. Johnson averaged over eleven points before that foot injury sidelined him.
Duane Notice completes the impressive backcourt trio, and the sophomore starter is looking to build off his 23-point performance in South Carolina’s SEC Tournament win a season ago against Auburn.
Top-100 recruits Marcus Stroman and Termarcus Blanton round out a decent group of guards for Martin to play with. The backcourt is youthful and that will likely be its downfall, but USC fans have to be happy at least that the talent is there for a potential future run.
In the frontcourt, Michael Carrera is back as the starting three man after an up and down season last year. Starting center Demetrius Henry is back as well and will need to improve his scoring inside to be an offensive factor.
Backups include Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius, both of which will look to get better after a full offseason of work into building strength and developing post-moves.
South Carolina could potentially sneak into the top ten of the league if they can improve on their scoring efficiency and turnovers (they were last in the SEC in that category a season ago). It will be tough to do that with such a young team, but at the very least, things appear to be going in the right direction in Columbia.
11. Texas A&M Aggies
Last Year’s Record: 18-16 (8-10)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 6-12
Head Coach: Billy Kennedy
Alex Caruso, Kourtney Roberson, Jalen Jones
Like the teams below them, Texas A&M has reason for optimism, but serious questions about how they will perform this season. The Aggies bring back four starters from a team that played relatively well in league play last year, winning eight games. The issue is that they also lose their leading scorer Jamal Jones, and there is uncertainty about whether or not key replacement Houston transfer, Danuel House, will be eligible.
House will be a humongous boost if he is granted a waiver to play. He was the Conference USA Freshman of the Year in the 2012-13 season and averaged over 13 and a half points per-game as a sophomore last year. If he plays, he could be the teams’ top player right away.
If he doesn’t, it may be fellow forward Kourtney Robinson who returns for a fifth season. Robinson is the active SEC leader in rebounds and will be starting for the third straight season this year.
The frontcourt is rounded out by Antwan Space, a returning starter who came on strong late last season, and Davonte Fitzgerald, who went down with an injury last season but was scoring at 7.3 ppg as a freshman before getting hurt. 6’10” center Tonny Trocha-Morelos is a highly touted freshman big man who should get some minutes, as will Tarvario Miller, a good rebound and energy player.
The backcourt is led by Alex Caruso, who led the SEC in assists and steals last season. Caruso is a huge reason why Texas A&M was such a good defensive team last season, holding opponents to 62.8 points per-game.
His backcourt mate Jordan Green is also an elite defender, who is quick and agile on that side of the floor and can guard multiple positions.
Texas A&M got a huge boost when they found out that SMU transfer Jalen Jones would be eligible this season. Jones averaged 14 points for the Mustangs and should make an impact right away.
Young players such as Avery Johnson Jr. (yes, son of former Spurs point guard), and Alex Robinson will get their crack at things, especially if House isn’t eligible.
Texas A&M has the potential this season, especially if House is able to play, and Jones matches his production he put up with SMU. However, for a team that struggles so mightily to score points, it might be difficult to put together a winning streak good enough to be a serious NCAA threat.
10. Alabama Crimson Tide
Last Year’s Record: 13-19 (7-11)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 6-12
Head Coach: Anthony Grant
Key Players: Levi Randolph, Ricky Tarrant, Shannon Hale
I’ll be honest, trying to rank the teams sixth through eleventh in the SEC is a total crapshoot.
Alabama has been ranked at least as high as sixth by some experts coming into this season, and I have them barely cracking the top ten. Why? There are simply too many question marks to expect improvement, but I say that with the acknowledgement that it certainly could happen if Anthony Grant can somehow make it all come together.
Bama managed only 13 wins a season ago and that was with Travis Releford, one of the top scorers in the SEC. Now, the Crimson Tide will need Levi Randolph to be the leader in his senior season. Randolph has started 86 games over the course of his career, and last year he had his best season yet, averaging 9.6 ppg and 3.6 rpg. The versatile two guard will be tasked with upping his scoring in Releford’s absence.
Fortunately for him, he will have Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant to shoulder the load. Tarrant has twenty career twenty point games and made the All-Conference USA team twice.
Christophe Varidel was supposed to come in from Florida Gulf Coast, but he is medically unable to compete, which will mean Grant will need more from a couple of key returners.
Those returners are Rodney Cooper, who has been a glue guy in the past for Grant and provides stability in the starting lineup, and Retin Obasohan, who was a defensive force for Alabama who started 20 games last year an led the team in blocks and steals.
Grant has enough depth at guard to not rely on freshman Justin Coleman and Devin Mitchell, but if needed, those two should be able to make positive contributions.
In the frontcourt, the Crimson Tide don’t have that same depth and they may need to play four small more than they want to this season. The good news is that they have Shannon Hale, a 6’8″ sophomore who made the All-SEC Freshman team a season ago. The power forward can score in the post and is improving defensively.
Jimmie Taylor played last year and started 18 games, but he was entirely ineffective and will need to get better to stay in the rotation. A potential replacement for him is former Big South Freshman of the Year Michael Kessens, but at 6’9″, he is a stretch to play center and may instead trade minutes with Hale. Then there is Riley Norris, a 6’7″ forward who had nearly 1,800 rebounds in high school and is expected to be dynamic in that aspect.
Alabama is short (literally), and that is going to hurt them against teams with size. They also had a very stagnant offense last season and it’s tough to see improving too much without Releford.
That said, Grant has done a good job at least of bringing in guards with experience and talent, so if they can learn to play together and embrace a faster tempo, the Crimson Tide could surprise.
9. Ole Miss Rebels
Last Year’s Record: 19-14 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 7-11
Head Coach: Andy Kennedy
Key Players: Jarvis Summers, Stefan Moody, Terence Smith
Finally, the Marshall Henderson era at Ole Miss is over. Henderson was at times so good (like when he led to the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament in 2013) that it was possible to forget his antics, legal problems, and overall bad attitude.
Last year, it was tougher to forget those things and as his struggles continued, Ole Miss struggled on the court and limped to a 19-14 overall record.
Now with Henderson no longer on campus, Andy Kennedy will turn to a number of transfers and a couple of key returners to lead them, but it remains murky whether or not they will be good enough to compete for a trip to the big dance.
With Henderson departed, this is now firmly Jarvis Summers’ team. Summers is the active SEC leader in points, and assists and the veteran knows he will be relied upon this season in a major way.
Summers has the ability to be the focal point of the offense but also can create plays for teammates. One of which will be Terence Smith, a UT-Martin transfer who averaged 14.6 for the Skyhawks a season ago. Smith is a deadly three-point shooter and has leadership qualities that Kennedy values.
Another key transfer in the backcourt is Stefan Moody who was a freshman of the year in the Sun Belt league two years ago before moving to junior college. The point guard is explosive and athletic and has the ability to be on of the SEC’s best point guards.
Kennedy has other options in the guard rotation too, including JC transfer Roderick Lawrence who has the size to play the three as well, former starter LaDarius White who is a good defensive player, and Martavious Newby who was in and out of the rotation last season.
In the frontcourt, Aaron Jones will lead the Rebels, and is one of the better shot-blockers in the league. Part-time starter Anthony Perez stretches the floor and should get open looks off of guard penetration.
Spainard Sebastian Saiz had a decent freshman year, and gained valuable experience in the offseason playing with Spain’s Under-20 team that won a silver medal at the European Championships.
Finally, Tennessee State transfer M.J. Rhett and freshman Marcanvis Hymon are athletic bodies that Kennedy can bring in to rebound and play with energy.
Could Ole Miss be the SEC’s version of Iowa State? Maybe. Kennedy has brought some new energy to the program with all of the new faces, and the returning Summers should make Ole Miss competitive.
Still, many of the players coming in have only one year left of eligibility and if they can’t figure out their chemistry early, it could already be too late.
8. Tennessee Volunteers
Last Year’s Record: 24-13 (11-7)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 8-10
Head Coach: Donnie Tyndall
Key Players: Josh Richardson, Ian Chiles, Kevin Punter
Cuonzo Martin finally did what he had set out to do at Tennessee last season; make a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Vols surprised everyone as an 11 seed last season by making it to the Sweet Sixteen and almost dispensing second seeded Michigan to make it to the Elite 8.
But now, Martin has moved to Berkeley to coach Cal, and Tennessee has lost four of their top five scorers from a season ago. It will be up to Donnie Tyndall who comes in from Southern Miss, to keep things afloat as he waits for his first real crop of recruits to come in.
Despite what they’ve lost, Tennessee shouldn’t be bad this season. Senior Josh Richardson is on pace for 1,000 points and is a dominant defensive player who can score as well. With Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes gone, Richardson becomes the de-facto number one option offensively.
Tyndall was able to aid Richardson in the backcourt with a couple of key transfers. First, Ian Chiles, who was the leading scorer last season for IUPUI in the Summit Conference. If nothing else, Chiles will be a nice stop-gap at the two guard this season who is a proven leader and scorer.
Kevin Punter will have two years left of eligibility coming in from Junior College. Punter was an All-American on the JUCO level last year and averaged north of 20 points while shooting a gaudy 57 percent from the floor.
That trio should make for some interesting dynamics, and should be able to compete in the SEC. If one of them struggles, Tyndall can turn to returning reserves from a season ago such as Robert Hubbs III and Armani Moore, both of which have the talent to be starters. Then there is freshman and top-50 recruit Detrick Mostella who will have to work hard to get minutes, but has people buzzing in Knoxville.
The frontcourt, like many teams in the SEC, is where Tennessee will struggle. Tyndall will have to rely on several unproven players in order for the Volunteers to have success down low. Tariq Owens is a former top-100 recruit that should be able to make an impact and has the size at 6-10 to do so, but he will be playing his first college basketball this season after a year of prep school.
Power forward Jabari McGhee was dominant on the prep school level last season but now will have to much bigger task at hand and will need to bulk up to bruise inside. Tyndall brings over Southern Miss recruit Willie Carmichael to Tennessee and he is tough athletic player that plays hard but lacks size.
That’s it for forwards on this roster. Tennessee will have to go small at times, whether they like it or not, but it does play to their strengths. Tennessee’s guards will get them some wins against the back-end of the SEC, but against contenders, their lack of size and experience up front could be their downfall.
7. Auburn Tigers
Last Year’s Record: 14-16 (6-12)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 9-9
Head Coach: Bruce Pearl
Key Players: K.T. Harrell, Cinmeon Bowers, Antonie Mason
Whoa. It’s amazing how much a coaching chance can re-energize a fan base. Especially when that coach is a notorious winner (albeit a controversial one) who already has SEC coaching (and winning) experience.
Bruce Pearl comes back into the game and shows off his recruiting skills right off the bat. First, he managed to bring in the nation’s leading scorer. That’s right, Auburn has the leading returning scorer in the nation. Niagara transfer Antoine Mason averaged an astonishing 25.6 points per-game with the Purple Eagles last season. Granted, he was largely doing it in the MAAC, which is just a few steps down from the SEC, but still any player who can put up 25 a-game against Division One competition deserves attention.
Mason will get it now that he is playing under the rejuvenated Tigers and Pearl. The crazy part is even after being the leading scorer in the nation, Mason isn’t a surefire bet for being the top scorer on his team. That’s because K.T. Harrell has shown the capability already of being a dynamic bucket-getter in his first three seasons as a Tiger.
Harrell can shoot from anywhere and also can get around defenders and get into the paint, and he isn’t afraid to pass it off to a teammate if they have the better shot.
Add returning point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who had 85 assists a season ago, and New Mexico State transfer K.C. Ross-Miller, and you have the makings of a backcourt that is probably up there with anyone not named Kentucky in the SEC.
The frontcourt won’t be quite as good, but still could manage to surprise some people. Cinmeon Bowers is there, and he was a top JUCO big man last season. He can post-up and score and is an excellent rebounder. T.J. Lang is another newcomer with a high ceiling, and returners Jordan Granger and Matthew Atewe will need to play better with more minutes
Can Auburn actually make the tournament in Pearl’s first season? It’s entirely possible, but even if they don’t, Auburn basketball will be relevant for the first time in years, and all the credit has to go to Pearl.
6. Missouri Tigers
Last Year’s Record: 23-12 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 9-9
Head Coach: Kim Anderson
Key Players: Johnathan Williams III, Keith Shamburger, Jakeenan Gant
Frank Haith’s tenure at Missouri is finally over, and with Haith’s departure comes the departure of the teams three leading scorers from a season ago.
Still, former Missouri standout himself Kim Anderson is here to restore consistency with the Tigers, and they have enough pieces this year to be relevant.
Losing Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson, and Earnest Ross, who averaged over 50 points per-game combined last year, won’t be easy. That said, Missouri has a few options to turn to to help close the gap.
Their frontcourt is where their bread will be buttered this season. Johnathan Williams III is a key returner, and while his stats from his freshman season won’t jump off the page, there are more shots to be had now and the offense should run through him and utilize his athleticism from the post.
Starting center Ryan Rosburg is back too, and he was incredibly efficient from the floor (71 percent) last season while taking up space in the middle and holding his own against tough defensive assignments. Both Rosburg and Williams III should take major steps forward and could be double-double threats.
Freshman Jakeenan Gant is a 6-8 freshman known for his ferociousness around the rim. He was Mr. Basketball last season in the state of Georgia, and should make an immediate impact. Fellow incomer D’Angelo Allen was an impressive dual-threat in high school as well. Allen and Grant backing up Rosburg and Williams III gives Anderson some very solid options in his post rotation.
It should be noted that both Allen and Gant were suspended for third-degree assault in the offseason, but as of the beginning of this month they have both been reinstated. If more details should come out that negatively effect the team, don’t be shocked to see them suspended again. As of now however, they appear to be in the clear.
The backcourt is a little trickier. Thankfully, Hawaii transfer Keith Shamburger should help ease the growing pains. Shamburger was the leading assists man in the Big West a season ago, and the veteran point guard should give Anderson stability while helping the young players grow.
Wes Clark is the likely other starter at the guard spot, and the sophomore played a key role off the bench in his freshman season. Now Clark will be asked to take a major step forward and create more shot opportunities in the backcourt. It will be a tough task, but Clark has the ability to be successful.
Baylor transfer Deuce Bello should be able to help Mizzou add some depth at the guard spot with experienced players, while freshman Namon Wright is highly regarded and should be the next go-to scorer for Missouri once he adjusts to the speed of the game at the D1 level.
It would be easy to write off Missouri considering all they have lost, but if Kim Anderson can find better ways to utilize his returners, and incorporate the newcomers the correct way, the Tigers could be a sleeper.
5. LSU Tigers
Last Year’s Record: 20-14 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 10-8
Head Coach: Johnny Jones
Key Players: Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey, Elbert Robinson III
After getting to the NIT last season, LSU will look to take a step forward this year under third- year head coach Johnny Jones.
The Tigers must replace now NBA player Johnny O’Bryant from their frontcourt, and they lose other key players as well, including Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey.
Still, LSU has enough talent that a top five finish in the SEC seems quite realistic and the teams first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008 is an achievable goal.
LSU’s frontcourt is going to be dynamic. Jarell Martin is an exciting 6-10 forward who is tall, athletic, and can score around the basket. He has NBA scouts talking but he smartly decided to return to school this season. He should improve with another year under his belt, and Jones is looking at him for consistency (and hopefully a clean bill of health).
Jordan Mickey blocked 100 shots last season. The only other LSU player to do that? Shaquille O’Neal. He has proven an ability to get to the rack and plays with tremendous energy on defensive and on the glass.
Finally, 7-1 freshman center Elbert Robinson III was a big get for Jones and he has a game that translates well to the NCAA game. The big man is a great scorer and uses his footwork well around the basket, he is also noted for his passing ability and basketball IQ.
Those three along with freshman Aaron Epps, who can play both small and power forward spots, gives Jones a lot of talent in the key.
The backcourt will not be as stacked, and LSU will need young players to prove themselves early on if they want to be taken seriously as contenders.
Tim Quarterman is the returner with the most experience, and he played just 12 minutes a game last year. Now, he will likely be given a bigger role and Jones will have to hope he’s up for the task.
Freshman Jayln Patterson and Josh Gray will come in with no experience but a lot of hype. The success of LSU’s season may depend on how quickly Patterson and Gray come into their own and figure out how to be effective college players.
Depth will be limited, but UNC Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby (yes, the son of Bruce) and sophomore Brian Bridgewater will get some chances to get minutes.
If there exists such as thing as a pre-season bubble team, LSU is it. They have the frontcourt talent to be a success, but they lose a lot of experience, and are relying almost exclusively on freshman and sophomores to lead them to the promised land.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Last Years Record: 20-14 (12-6)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 12-6
Head Coach: Mark Fox
Key Players: Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines, Nemanja Djurisic
Mark Fox has Georgia prepped for a potential NCAA Tournament birth this season. Despite winning 12 SEC games, the Bulldogs non-conference performance was their downfall a season ago and they had to settle for the NIT. But with a group of experienced players with talent returning, Georgia should be able to take the next step this year.
It all starts in the backcourt. Fox brings back both Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, and they make up one of the best backcourts in all of the SEC.
Mann averaged just shy of 14 points per-game a season ago, and nearly three assists. He was put on the All-SEC Second Team and was picked there again in the preseason. Mann averaged less than thirty minutes played a season ago, and should see an increase in that category which should lead to an increase in numbers. Simply put, Mann is one of the best, and most underrated players in the league.
His backcourt mate Kenny Gaines isn’t too shabby either. Gaines has shown the ability to shoot the ball from deep and benefits from having a proving player like Mann next to him. Gaines has the ability to light it up on any given night and gives Georgia a solid number-two option. Juwan Parker and J.J. Frazier provide depth and have experience as backups.
While Mann and Gaines will be the key to Georiga’s success, big men Nemanja Djurisic and Marcus Thornton are back and will be a major factor in Georiga’s success this season. Djurisic should get an increase in touches with the third leading scorer from last years squad, Brandon Morris, dismissed from the team. Thornton broke out last season, proving he is a reliable scorer from inside and out and rebounded very well too.
Fox also brings in some depth at forward via his recruiting class. The Gatorade Player of the Year in Michigan, Yante Maten will come in and should get some minutes and a chance to gain valuable experience. 6-11 Fred Iduwe gives Georgia some much needed size and rim protection, and he could be a real player if he figures out his offensive game.
All in all, Georgia will be fighting tooth and nail with teams like Missouri, LSU, and Auburn to ensure an NCAA Tournament bid. However, with a pair of uber talented and experienced guards, Georgia has the pieces necessary to return to the big dance.
3. Arkansas Razorbacks
Last Year’s Record: 22-12 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 12-6
Head Coach: Mike Anderson
Key Players: Bobby Portis, Rashad Madden, Michael Qualls
Looking for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008, Arkansas has the talent this season to be one of the best teams in the SEC, and if Mike Anderson can put it all together, the Razorbacks should easily go dancing.
It starts in the middle with big man Bobby Portis, a future NBA player who should continue to grow and develop in his sophomore season. Portis was solid last season at 12.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg, but this year he needs to (and is more than capable) of taking a step forward and leading this team. Stops at the Nike Big Man Camp, and the LeBron James Skill Academy over the summer should lead to increased production from Portis.
The second frontcourt starter will likely be Alandise Harris, who was effective last season nearly averaging double figures while playing under 20 minutes per-game. If he learns to attack the rim more and settle for jumpers less, he could instantly take this Arkansas offense to the next level.
Depth in the frontcourt for Anderson will come from shot-blocking big man Moses Kingsley, West Virginia transfer Keaton Miles, and junior forward Jacorey Williams.
In the backcourt, Arkansas is also strong. Rashad Madden was the teams leading scorer and assists man last season. Now back for his senior season, Madden is a potential All-SEC player.
Michael Qualls is a super athlete who can sky above the rim. He is more than just a highlight though, as Qualls showed the ability last season to be a serious offensive threat. He was inconsistent with his jump shot, but when he is on, he is a difference maker.
Anthlon Bell is the teams three-point threat off the bench but his shot was off last season and he will need to make more jumpers to stay in the rotation. He is being pushed for minutes by young players Jabril Durham and Anton Beard.
Arkansas has their top three scorers returning and enough depth where they should be able to take care of business against most league foes. If they can get consistent outside shooting and create turnovers, and rebound effectively, they should be able to get in the 8-9 range of seeding in the NCAA’s.
2. Florida Gators
Last Year’s Record: 36-3 (18-0)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 14-4
Head Coach: Billy Donovan
Key Players: Michael Frazier II, Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith
Florida as a premiere NCAA program has got to be used to turnover, but losing as much as they have this season is tough for anyone to deal with.
Since Joakim Noah and co. left town, Florida’s best chance at a National Championship came last season. They did make it to the Final Four, an impressive feat in and of itself, but a title just wasn’t in the cards for the Gators.
Now, Florida must replace four starters from a thirty-win team, but there is plenty of talent there for Florida to make another deep run this season.
The lone returning starter, Michael Frazier II will likely be Donovan’s go-to scorer. Frazier II is a lights out three-point shooter and he should continue that trend this year. He averaged nearly seven shots from deep a game, and shot a fabulous 41 percent.
Point guard Kasey Hill will finally get his shot after Scottie Wilbekin graduated. Hill was good as a reserve last year, but now he will be asked to take a major leap into one of the best guards in the SEC. The good news is that the former McDonalds All-American has more than enough talent to make that happen.
Eli Carter left the Rutgers program amidst the Mike Rice scandal, and he has ended up in Gainesville. While with the Scarlet Knights, Carter was a proven leader and scoring at the guard position. Last season he played in only seven games with the Gators before redshirting while recovering from a broken leg. Now that he is back at 100 percent, he should make a big impact for Florida.
Another guard who will see some time is freshman Brandone Francis, who comes in another top-45 recruit. Francis is a great athlete at 6-5, who has some play-making abilities as well. Fellow freshman Chris Chiozza could also get minutes.
PF/C Chris Walker didn’t make much of an impact his freshman season, but with minutes now available, the former five-star recruit is expected to be a dominant big man.
Michigan transfer Jon Horford has a nice game inside and should be able to bring a veteran presence to the Gators frontcourt, while Duke transfer Alex Murphy is another former big-time recruit that Donovan could choose to utilize.
Dorian Finney-Smith is often referred to as Florida’s “glue-guy” a player who isn’t great at anything but is good at everything. He is the second leading scorer amongst returners at 8.7 ppg. He can be a stable force in the starting lineup, or a high energy sixth man depending on how Donovan wants to approach it.
Freshman Devin Robinson will have to fight for minutes, but as one of the most recruited forwards in the nation, you know he has the ability to make an impact when he gets on the floor.
Florida has lost a lot, sure. But they have reloaded in a big way and have plenty of players waiting in the wings for an opportunity to lead Florida back to the Final Four for the second straight season.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Last Year’s Record: 29-11 (12-6)
This Year’s Projected SEC Record: 17-1
Head Coach: John Calipari
Key Players: Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Karl Towns Jr.
Say what you will about John Calipari’s attitude, mentality, and recruiting habits (believe me, I have) but his results at Kentucky speak for themselves.
Last year, Calpari once again had the nation’s best recruiting class with names like Julius Randle and the Harrison twins coming to Lexington. With as much talent as UK had, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Wildcats would once again make a trip to the Final Four.
They did, of course, but their journey was much more rocky than anyone expected it to be. Kentucky had such an up and down regular season that their preseason ranking routinely fell from no. 1 into the 20s and at times were not even an AP Top 25 team.
When the Selection Show happened, Kentucky got stuck with a no. 8 seed, which was baffling, considering how much talent they had on their roster. Still, Calipari did what he does best, get results when they mattered most.
Kentucky managed to figure it all out when their backs were against the wall and rattled off five straight wins to advance to the National Championship Game. They include dramatic wins over teams like Wichita State, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which all seemed capable in their own rights of winning a national title.
UConn and Shabazz Napier were finally able to stop Kentucky, but although it was one game short of their ultimate goal, it was still quite the impressive run.
Looking ahead, Calipari has once again reloaded with some of the best incoming recruits in the country, but this time he didn’t lose all that much from last year’s squad.
Yes, Julius Randle left to go to the NBA, but both Andrew and Aaron Harrison, arguably two of the best players in the tournament a season ago, have returned. As did Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee, and Alex Poythress. If Kentucky didn’t have any freshman coming in at all, that team alone might be championship favorites.
As it stands, Kentucky does have plenty of freshmen coming in, including names like Karl Towns Jr. and Trey Lyles, both of which were two of the most heavily recruited players in the country.
Chemistry may be an issue and Calipari’s team will have the same growing pains that they always seem to have. However, with as much talent as he has coming in, plus the already proven talent he has returning, it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario where UK doesn’t make their second straight trip to the Final Four.
Ross Bentley (@ImRossBentley) is a contributor for The High Screen. He is a Graduate Sports Journalism student at Quinnipiac University and a graduate of SUNY Oswego.