The SEC East supplied all five of the league’s NCAA Tournament teams last season, and while the top-to-bottom strength isn’t what is was a year ago, it still boasts the conference’s top three teams according to most early rankings.
The Gators return their top two scorers in guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, but they lost a ton in the frontcourt, including SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons and their top three rebounders. In fact, Walker and Boynton are the only returnees who averaged over 4.3 points.
Walker led the team in assists and saw his field goal percentage rebound from a dismal 2009-10 level. He also knocked down 38.5 percent from beyond the arc and scored at least eight points in 35 of 37 games. Still, his turnovers have remained an issue, and he can appear out of control at times. With limited inside options and a number of relatively inexperienced players in the rotation, Walker’s leadership will be critical.
By finishing the season with 16 straight double-digit scoring games, Boynton ended the year on a high note. He shoots a ton of three-pointers (487 in two seasons), but the Gators need him to improve upon his 31.2 percent success rate from deep. Boynton also cut back on his turnovers as a sophomore and will be counted upon even more this year.
The team’s top two newcomers both call the backcourt home. Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario scored over 16 points per game during both seasons as a Scarlet Knight. He was more of a volume shooter at Rutgers, but he does provide another impact scorer.
Freshman Brad Beal is the highest-rated SEC recruit not heading to Kentucky. The five-star prospect is an elite shooter with great range, which should help Florida spread out opposing defenses. He has solid size at 6-foot-4 and will likely start from day one.
The fact that I have yet to reference an inside player speaks to Florida’s biggest question mark. Patric Young came into last season as a highly ranked recruit, but he struggled against Jared Sullinger early on and wound up scoring in double figures just twice. His 55.6 field goal percentage is reason for optimism along with the fact that he grabbed nearly four boards per game in just under 18 minutes of action.
Erik Murphy and redshirt freshman Cody Larson will also figure prominently in the rotation, so long as their spring arrest and subsequent suspension are resolved before the season starts. Larson’s prior off-court issues make him the less likely of the two to emerge from this unscathed. Murhpy, a 6-foot-9 forward, averaged 4.3 points in 10.8 minutes last season and was the team’s top three-point shooter, albeit with limited attempts. Larson redshirted largely because of Florida’s frontcourt depth last year, but he was expected to see significant minutes this year. Stay tuned to this situation over the summer.
Freshman Walter Pitchford originally committed to DePaul as part of their 2010 class but attended prep school instead. He is somewhat raw offensively but can help with defense and rebounding. Soph Will Yeguete played sparingly last year but may see time as well.
The lack of established height means the Gators will have to go small, but that could become challenging on the defensive end given that they don’t have a lot of “big guards.” There are a number of players in the mix up front, but some combination of Young, Murphy, Larson, Pitchford, and Yeguete has to come up big if Florida wants to live up to their early ranking.
The Bulldogs spent most of last season on the bubble before getting into the tournament, but after losing their top two scorers and top four rebounders, a return trip to the Big Dance seems unlikely. In fact, they return just two players who averaged better than three points per game, which will make it that much more important for Mark Fox to integrate a number of new pieces into the mix.
Guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware were the team’s top two assist men and will be asked to lead this year’s inexperienced squad. Robinson’s scoring was very inconsistent once conference play started, and he has proven to be turnover prone both at Tennessee State as well as Georgia.
Ware, on the other hand, posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1 last season. He canned 43.5 percent of this triples but wound up averaging just 8.0 points due to the presence of other offensive options like Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. The Bulldogs will ask more of Ware as a senior to offset those scoring losses.
The top incoming recruit, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, should start immediately at shooting guard. He’s a terrific shooter with good size who should give the team another guy who can consistently knock down perimeter shots. Sophomore Sherrard Brantley should be the first guard off the bench.
Up front, Marcus Thornton is essentially the lone returnee after averaging just 1.5 points and 1.9 rebounds. He may start by default, but a number of other newcomers will factor into the equation.
Freshman Tim Dixon runs the floor well and impacts the game with his high motor, particularly with rebounding and shot-blocking. His offensive game needs to develop, but a redshirt year is a luxury the Bulldogs don’t have.
Fellow frosh Nemanja Djurisic can do a number of things well and projects as a solid role player. John Cannon brings great size to the table, but his offense is a work in progress. Juco transfer John Florveus averaged 8.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks for Hillsborough Community College last season.
The early departures of Thompkins and Leslie have left Georgia with limited depth and virtually no experience inside. The guard play should be adequate, but expect a step back while the frontcourt players develop.
John Calipari’s team reached the Final Four with essentially a six-man rotation, but half of those players are gone now. As has become customary though, the Wildcats have restocked with the nation’s top recruiting class, leaving them in the discussion with North Carolina as the top-ranked team in the country.
Forward Terrence Jones surprised many people when he spurned the NBA to return to school, but the decision should benefit him from a basketball standpoint. He got off to an impressive start, but as opponents started to notice his tendencies, his scoring became more inconsistent. Even so, he wound up averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds to go with nearly two blocks and one steal, numbers which he should at least approach this year.
The other key returnees are guards Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. Lamb knocked down a staggering 48.6 percent of this three-pointers last year, and his role should be largely unchanged this year. Like Lamb, Miller also averaged double-digit points and connected on better than 44 percent from deep. During one stretch from mid-February to mid-March, Miller posted 10 straight games with at least 10 points.
The four-man recruiting class is absolutely loaded with talent. Forward Anthony Davis is the top-rated player by some services, and he provides an extremely tough matchup for opponents based on his range of skills. He had a huge growth spurt in high school so the former guard has terrific ballhandling skills compared to other bigs. Davis needs to add a little weight, but he proved to be a talented rebounder and shot-blocker at the high school level. His versatility and toughness will allow him to make an instant impact for the Wildcats.
Look for freshman Marquis Teague to start at the point. He boasts a great first step that allows him to get into the paint with ease. His leadership and quickness will help him pick up where the departed Brandon Knight left off.
Small forward Michael Gilchrist was the nation’s top-rated high school player at one point and will bring tremendous athleticism to the wing. He is an accomplished rebounder and defender who is a fierce competitor. Gilchrist is also a prolific scorer, and if he improves his outside shooting, look out.
Kyle Wiltjer is the final member of the class and would be the highest rated recruit at virtually every other school. He is a matchup nightmare at the power forward spot thanks to his ability to score from anywhere on the floor.
The Wildcats also return Eloy Vargas and Jon Hood, but I don’t foresee either of them being a major factor in the rotation.
Say what you will about the merits of recruiting numerous potential one-and-done players, but no one has done that better than Calipari. The key will be Teague’s play at the point guard spot, but as long as he acclimates well to the college game, Kentucky will be in the Top Five all season.
The Gamecocks were the lone member of the SEC East to miss the tournament last season, and after losing their top two scorers and their top rebounder, that isn’t likely to change this year. In fact, the football season could have a large impact on their 2011-12 season.
Why, you ask? Leading scorer and assist man Bruce Ellington has decided to play for Steve Spurrier this fall, and while it sounds like he should be available for most basketball practices and games, the remote possibility that he won’t return to the hardwood is a frightening one. As a freshman, the 5-foot-9 Ellington suffered through the normal ups and downs before being held to single digits in five of the final six games. On the downside, his 32.6 field goal percentage is a blemish on his resume, as is the fact that he posted nearly as many turnovers as assists.
Despite a lack of height, many of South Carolina’s top players are in the frontcourt. Malik Cooke finished second on the team in rebounding and saw his production improve over the course of the year. The Nevada transfer will be asked to shoulder more of the scoring load as a senior.
Lakeem Jackson had some injury issues during conference play, but he’s an above average rebounder despite his 6-foot-5 height. The final frontcourt piece is Mississippi transfer Murphy Holloway. Like Cooke and Jackson, Holloway is a bit undersized at 6-foot-7. Still, he posted 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in 2009-10 while hitting nearly 56 percent of his shots. This trio will have to battle inside to make up for their lack of size, but there are some nice pieces here.
A few other returning players should see a bump in playing time. Guard Brian Richardson had nine double-digit scoring games and provides depth in the backcourt. Up front, Damontre Harris grabbed 3.6 rebounds in 16.9 minutes per game while converting on 57.3 percent from the field. Nearly half of Harris’ boards came on the offensive end. R.J. Slawson also returns inside along with 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman Carlton Geathers.
Three new faces will also be in the mix. Power forward Anthony Gill has strong fundamentals and a solid back-to-the-basket game, which should earn him minutes given the lack of true inside players. Shooting guard Damien Leonard’s ability to knock down three-pointers may well earn him a starting role, and junior college transfer Brenton Williams averaged nearly 12 points at Santa Fe College last year.
Even is Ellington returns to the hardwood, this team has a ton of question marks. They lack size up front but also don’t have many guys adept at hitting outside shots either.
Change has been the theme of the offseason for the Vols. Bruce Pearl is gone along with five of the team’s top six scorers, their top four rebounders, and their top assist man. I have a ton of respect for Cuonzo Martin and don’t view the hire as negatively as others out there, but this is a big-time rebuilding year in Knoxville no matter how you slice it. He has the toughness to turn things around, but it will take time.
Cameron Tatum is the only returning player who averaged better than three points last season. His 37.5 percent shooting left a lot to be desired, and the overall consistency just wasn’t there. With so little experience on the team, he’ll be looked upon to lead the team during a challenging season.
Other backcourt returnees include Skylar McBee and Trae Golden, whose 2.2 assists per game were good for third on the team last season. That should earn him first crack at the starting point guard spot. Jordan McRae will also factor into the rotation after playing in just 10 games as a true freshman.
Jeronne Maymon, Kenny Hall, and Renaldo Woolridge return at forward. Maymon grabbed nearly three boards per game in just over nine minutes, so he’ll be asked to help out immediately on the glass. Hall has shot better than 52 percent from the field in both of his seasons as a Vol (albeit in limited minutes), so look for him to be a key player up front.
Woolridge, who to this point has been known more for his rapping as SwiperBoy, played in just eight games last season and is pursuing a medical redshirt, which would leave him with two years of eligibility. He’s shown a few flashes in his career and has a decent shot to start this season.
Pearl’s departure left the Vols without any impact recruits, but a handful of new faces have a shot to earn playing time. Wing man Josh Richardson has the makings of a solid glue guy based on his high motor and ability to do a number of different things. Point guard Wesley Washpun is an able penetrator and defender who will add backcourt depth. Quinton Chievous has genetics on his side, as his dad is the all-time leading scorer at Missouri.
Inside, big man Yemi Makanjuola will help primarily with shot-blocking and rebounding while his offense evolves, but with just one player on the roster over 6-foot-8, the Vols need all size they can get inside. Tennessee also added juco transfer and former Pitt Panther Dwight Miller, who posted 8.2 points and 5.4 rebounds last season.
There are far more questions than answers for Tennessee as you look at this roster, and it figures to be a long year for Cuonzo Martin and the Vols. If he can quickly get them to buy into his defensive-minded toughness, they should at least lay the foundation for a solid future under his direction.
In terms of experience, Vandy is the anti-Tennessee. Their only losses are a pair of players who both averaged fewer than five minutes, and they return their top nine scorers, rebounders, and assist men. Commodore fans are hopeful that this group can put a stop to the string of early tournament exits.
Sharpshooter John Jenkins led the team with 19.5 points per game last season, and his 40.8 percent three-point shooting was actually worse than the mark he posted as a freshman. He reached double figures in all 32 games last year and nearly tripled his free throw attempts in his second season, converting on almost 90 percent of his freebies.
Forward Jeffrey Taylor has already had a terrific career at Vanderbilt with over 1300 points and over 550 rebounds. For all his accomplishments, there were still games where Taylor struggled, as evidenced by his nine single-digit performances and a number of games where foul trouble hindered his ability to contribute. Still, his versatility is vital to what Vandy likes to do offensively.
Big man Festus Ezeli was one of the most improved players in the country last season. His scoring went up almost 10 points per game while his rebounding nearly doubled. He made close to 60 percent of his shots from the field and rejected 2.6 shots per game. Look for continued development in his game as he closes out his college career and anchors things down low.
At the point, Brad Tinsley led the squad in assists and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5. He’s also shown the ability to score when needed, although with the talent on this team, that may not be very often. Rounding out the starting lineup is Lance Goulbourne, who grabbed 7.3 rebounds in 25 minutes per game.
Forward Steve Tchiengang continues to improve and should contribute off the bench along with sophomore Rod Odom. Even though they are 6-foot-9, both guys can step out and knock down three-pointers as well. Kyle Fuller also returns in the backcourt and should serve a similar role as last season.
Kevin Stallings does have a few new players to work into the rotation. Guard Dai-Jon Parker is the highest rated of the bunch and gives the Commodores another terrific shooter. Kedren Johnson is likely to serve as the backup point guard, with his size and power giving him an added dimension at the position. Redshirt freshmen Josh Henderson and James Siakam could work their way into the mix up front, with true freshman Shelby Moats a candidate to redshirt this year.
Ezeli was a revelation inside last season, and Vanderbilt would be well served if someone else could step up to provide additional toughness inside. There is enough experience and talent to make this a Top 10 team and trendy Final Four pick.
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* – Kenny Boynton/Erving Walker photo credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America via Zimbio.com