Recently, the SEC announced its decision to get rid of the divisional format, partly in response to the SEC West getting shut out of the tournament last year and partly in response to the annual absurdity of how the conference tournament is seeded.
For this year, the results of this change will be felt only during the SEC Tournament, as the schedules will remain the same with teams playing their former divisional foes twice and the other six teams just once. Consequently, I’m leaving them split up as I take my first look at each of the major conferences.
The division formerly known as the SEC West presents a gridiron gauntlet that gives college football coaches and fans nightmares. On the hardwood…um, not so much. Last season, Alabama won the West by three games, and their 12-4 record was the second-best in the whole league. Their reward? A trip to the NIT.
The Crimson Tide have the looks of a Top 25 team in 2011-12, and Arkansas and Mississippi State should be intriguing as well, hopefully moreso on the court than off in the case of the Bulldogs.
Anthony Grant’s squad shook off a few ugly early losses to surprise people during conference play, earning a spot on the bubble before ultimately being left out of the tournament field. Grant loses some contributors from that team, but he does manage to return his top three scorers, his top two rebounders, and his top assist man to go with a recruiting class ranked in the top fifteen.
JaMychael Green and Tony Mitchell form one of the SEC’s top frontcourt duos. Green led the team in points (15.5), rebounds (7.5), and blocks (2.1), while making better than 50 percent from the field. He reached double-digit scoring in 31 of 34 games and rattled off 23 straight at one point. Green got to the line nearly 200 times as a junior, making nearly 75 percent of his free throws, which leaves him poised for an outstanding senior season. Mitchell finished just behind Green in scoring and rebounding while besting his shooting percentage from the field. He had some scoring binges of his own, including one stretch where he scored at least 20 points in five of six contests. If Mitchell can improve on his three-point shooting, that would add yet another reliable dimension to his game.
Point guard Trevor Releford is third key returnee from last year’s squad after leading the team in assists and steals as a true freshman. He became a more reliable scorer around the midway point of the season and even registered a couple 20-point games in the NIT. Expect him to be a steadying influence in the backcourt. Andrew Steele was expected to be in the mix prior to ending his career due to concussion-related complications. Fellow returnee Ben Eblen provides additional backcourt depth, but the most likely scenario is that one of Alabama’s talented freshman will start alongside Releford.
Late signee Trevor Lacey seems the most likely candidate. He’s a two-time Mr. Basketball in Alabama whose team won three state championships. Lacey is a terrific scorer who can hurt you in a variety of ways and has a soft touch on his shot. Levi Randolph is the other freshman option, and even if he doesn’t start, expect him to play a key role in the rotation. Thanks to outstanding versatility, Randolph can play three different positions and is an able passer in addition to being a good shooter. He has a tremendous all-around skill set which will only be enhanced as he puts on some weight.
A pair of newcomers inside should also see significant minutes. Freshman Nick Jacobs has a solid back-to-the-basket game and soft hands, while juco transfer Moussa Gueye was one of the top junior college prospects in the game. He posted 10.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks during his first season but missed last year due to a dispute with the coaches over an injury he sustained. One of them will crack the starting five while the other will play big minutes off the bench.
Small forward Rodney Cooper’s terrific shooting should earn him minutes in his first year, particularly due to the team’s challenges from beyond the arc last season.
Alabama won’t be sneaking up on people this year, but then again, I don’t think they need to. They were impressive defensively last year and have added some solid pieces on offense to go with a strong returning nucleus.
The Hogs are one of just two SEC teams to change coaches in the offseason, and their hire of Mike Anderson was one of few coaching moves that wasn’t met with widespread skepticism. He does return a few key players and managed to reel in a Top 10 recruiting class. Thanks to a couple recent transfers, most notably sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke, Arkansas also looks to be in a position to serve their one scholarship penalty for poor APR performance this season.
Marshawn Powell finished second on the team in both scoring and rebounding but saw his numbers fall across the board compared to his freshman season. Look for a bounceback season from him as a junior. If he buys in, his skills should allow him to flourish in Anderson’s system.
Depth is key to the style of play Anderson learned from Nolan Richardson, and there are a few other returning players who will help in that regard. Julysses Noble led the team in assists and steals last season and hit better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott provide additional bodies in the backcourt.
Up front, Marvell Waithe and Michael Sanchez should be in the mix for the starting lineup, with both candidates to help out primarily on the glass.
With a deep and talented recruiting class, a number of first year players will see extended minutes. B.J. Young is listed as a point guard, but he’s also a terrific scorer who can attack the rim or knock down both deep and mid-range jumpers. Ky Madden is another highly regarded freshman with great athleticism and length. Expect both to be key players for the Razorbacks right away.
A trio of frontcourt freshman will also be in the mix. Hunter Mickelson has been lauded for his work ethic and competitive nature. He needs to put on weight but has a soft touch and solid faceup game. Aaron Ross can play inside and out, although his eligibility is in doubt. If he plays (and it sounds like a big if), Ross will create mismatches thanks to his combination of quickness and power. Devonte Abram pounds the glass and has a decent low post game, which Arkansas needs thanks to a lack of experienced depth inside.
There are definitely question marks for this team in light of the recent transfers, and you can’t help but wonder what an increase in tempo will do to a team that had more turnovers than assists. Still, Anderson should energize the program, and the talent is there to finish in the top half of the league.
Along with league mate LSU, Auburn was at the center of the discussion for the worst major conference team last season. The Tigers gained experience through last year’s struggles, but leading scorer and rebounder Earnest Ross decided to transfer, leaving a pretty bleak outlook for Auburn once again.
Forward Kenny Gabriel was the team’s second best player behind Ross last season, but he was very inconsistent, with consecutive double-digit scoring games routinely followed by single-digit efforts. Rob Chubb is also back up front, but he needs to become a more reliable option both inside and at the foul line.
After reaggravating his knee injury following ACL surgery, guard Frankie Sullivan opted to take a medical redshirt. He averaged 12.7 points and shot better than 37 percent from beyond the arc in 2009-10, so he’ll provide some scoring pop if he’s back to full strength. Texas transfer Varez Ward will join Sullivan in the backcourt. It’s been nearly two years since Ward played in a college game, but he should be one of the team’s top scorers.
Both Josh Wallace and Chris Denson averaged over five points last season, with the walk-on Wallace leading the team in assists. Allen Payne, Josh Langford, and Adrian Forbes all played at least 15 minutes per game last year, but none of them appear to be more than role players.
Tony Barbee adds a few new faces to the mix as well. Clemson transfer Noel Johnson was highly rated coming out of high school but has failed to live up to that billing. He will join the team after the fall semester. Center Willy Kouassi has a high motor and should help immediately with his rebounding and shot-blocking while his offense evolves. The other freshmen are guard Cedrick McAfee and forward Bernard Morena, both of whom will play reserve roles if they don’t redshirt.
While there is plenty of experience, last year’s team shot poorly both inside and outside the arc, and they had more turnovers than assists. Expect some improvement, but the talent level isn’t sufficient to consistently compete with the rest of the league.
Trent Johnson’s seat is getting warm after last season’s 3-13 performance in SEC play. The roster is largely the same as it was a season ago, with Johnson returning his top four scorers and rebounders along with his top three assist men.
Guards Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer return to form the starting backcourt. Turner led the team with 12.3 points per game, but his shooting percentages left a lot to be desired. He had a number of single-digit scoring efforts and was shut out in the season finale. Stringer led the team in assists as a freshman, but he had nearly as many turnovers as dimes. His shooting performance was also ugly, which led to inconsistent scoring from the 5-foot-9 point man.
Forward Storm Warren had a disappointing season overall as his production dropped off, but he did finish by averaging over 15 points in the final five contests. Despite his struggles, he still led the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks. Malcolm White finished second in rebounding in his first season with the Tigers and should provide continued help on the glass this year. Matt Derenbecker, Garrett Green, and Chris Bass provide additional experience and depth as role players.
A pair of new additions should help out in the frontcourt. Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton will vie for a starting spot up front. Hamilton averaged 6.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in just 21.4 minutes for the Cyclones in 2009-10. Highly regarded freshman Johnny O’Bryant has terrific size and a strong low post game. His power and soft hands will prove to be assets for the McDonald’s All-American as he transitions to the college game.
The overall talent is improved from last year’s poor season, but the team also lost its best outside shooter from a squad that struggled to consistently knock down shots. The turnover totals are also reason for concern, and while the Tigers should be better, don’t expect a huge jump in wins.
The Rebels look poised to take a step back after losing their top two scorers and their top three assist men, most notably guard and leader Chris Warren, who averaged nearly 20 points last year.
Forward Terrance Henry finished third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding. He finished the season with five straight double-digit scoring games, and given the steady improvement he has shown over his first three seasons, he looks poised to finish his career on a high note.
Fellow frontcourt player Reginald Buckner averaged 6.8 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds to go with 2.9 blocks, but despite his high field goal percentage, he was virtually non-existent on offense in some stretches. That has to change this year. Steadman Short also returns up front, and his field goal percentage and rebounding in limited action last season give some reason for optimism.
In the backcourt, Dundrecous Nelson returns and should slide in at the point. He averaged 16.0 points over a four-game stretch late in the season and will be counted on to run the show with Warren gone. Former Indiana player Nick Williams also returns for his second season as a Rebel. His biggest contribution may well be his work on the glass.
A pair of transfers will factor into the rotation. Jelan Kendrick never played for Memphis despite his lofty recruiting ranking, but he’s likely to start for Ole Miss. The talent is there, but some of the stories that came out from Memphis leave reason for concern. Dale Hughes joins the squad as well after scoring 7.8 points per game in just 18.8 minutes for Florida A&M.
As for freshmen, guard Ladarius White has been labeled as a great shooter, while point man Jarvis Summers is a solid passer who does his best work off the dribble. Both will join the litany of players trying to fill Warren’s big shoes. Maurice Aniefiok has solid strength and range on his jumper, which should allow him to earn some minutes on the wing.
Ole Miss has some pieces but may well find themselves in the SEC basement when all is said and done.
The Bulldogs made far too many headlines off the court and far too few on it last season. And despite the fact that they lost their leading scorer along with two of their top three rebounders and assist men, there is some reason for cautious optimism this year.
After a draft snafu cost him half of last season, lead guard Dee Bost will be suiting up from day one. His 15.3 points per game were second on the team, and he led the Bulldogs in assists and steals. Bost’s poor shooting leads to inconsistent performances in the scoring column, but if he can ever solve that issue and cut back on the turnovers, look out.
The much embattled Renardo Sidney wound up averageing 14.2 points and a team-high 7.6 boards. He scored at least 11 points in 13 of the final 16 games, including four double-doubles and one near miss. Sidney needs to improve his conditioning, which could lead to even gaudier offensive numbers.
Joining Bost in the backcourt are Jalen Steele and Brian Bryant, both of whom project as key reserves. The same can be said of big man Wendell Lewis, who posted 3.8 rebounds and a block in just 15 minutes per game.
A number of newcomers will play key roles, starting with UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie, who scored 9.8 points and grabbed 6.7 rebounds for the Miners in 2009-10. His play in practice last season earned rave reviews, and you can expect him to start immediately.
A slew of talented freshman will also factor into Rick Stansbury’s plans. First and foremost of those is Rodney Hood. Hood has been praised for his smooth stroke from the outside and his overall explosiveness as a scorer. Don’t be shocked if he is in the starting lineup early on. Fellow wing man D.J. Gardner adds another shooter to the mix, which is much needed after the team lost its top two three-point shooters. Point guard Deville Smith will have a great chance to learn from Bost as a true freshman and may see minutes sparingly. One potential sleeper in the class is forward Shawn Long, who has nice size and versatility based on somewhat limited scouting reports.
Predicting this team is pretty much a crapshoot after the last couple years, but you can’t argue that there is talent on the roster. What Rick Stansbury is able to do with that and how the team’s chemistry develops are complete unknowns, so keep an eye on how the Bulldogs look in the early going, because I’m not sure this team has the mindset to withstand a slow start.
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* – Anthony Grant photo credit: Dave Martin/Associated Press via GoVolsExtra