The Bottoms Line: SEC Season Preview, Predictions, POY Pick, and All Conference Team

As my series of major conference previews continues, the SEC is up next.  The league did away with its East and West divisions, but the schedules will stay the same this year with teams playing their former divisional foes twice and the other teams once apiece.

Before we hit the predictions, here’s a quick rundown of the key news items impacting the SEC since my two-part look at the league back in June.

  • Alabama: Junior college transfer Moussa Gueye tore his ACL in a pickup game over the summer.  This leaves the Tide with very little depth behind the dynamic frontcourt duo of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell.
  • Arkansas: As many people expected, freshman-to-be Aaron Ross didn’t qualify and will head to prep school.  The 6-foot-7 forward was a Top 150 recruit according to Rivals.
  • Florida: Both Erik Murphy and Cody Larson have been reinstated after being suspended following their arrest for burglary.  Murphy took a plea deal and was allowed back in September, while Larson was sentenced to two additional years of probation and was reinstated in October.  Both players give the guard-heavy Gators some much-needed height.
  • Georgia: The Bulldogs got some good news when their top recruit, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, was declared eligible.  He was an explosive scorer at the high school level and has a great chance to start immediately.
  • Kentucky: Reserve Jon Hood tore his ACL over the summer, but with another wave of talented newcomers on the roster, the impact should be negligible in Lexington.
  • LSU: Forwards Matt Derenbecker and Garrett Green both transferred out of the program in the offseason, with Derenbecker heading to Dayton and Green enrolling at San Diego State.
  • Mississippi: Murphy Holloway was cleared to play this season after leaving the Rebels a couple years ago to play for South Carolina and be closer to his young daughter.  He walked on for a season for the Gamecocks before deciding to transfer back.
  • Mississippi State: There’s no such thing as a quiet offseason for MSU.  First, seldom used center John Riek transferred out of the program, and then freshman D.J. Gardner got the boot for his profanity-lace tirade on Twitter related to his impending redshirt.  Of course there has been no shortage of news on Renardo Sidney, who did not accompany the team on their trip to Europe.  Instead, he continued to work on his conditioning with John Lucas and has earned praise from Coach Rick Stansbury for actually being able to finish conditioning drills.  In on-court news, UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie played extremely well on the team’s trip to Europe, averaging a double-double in Sidney’s absence.
  • South Carolina: Forward Damontre Harris sprained his toe during a conditioning session and will miss about four weeks leading up to the season.  Guard Bruce Ellington has continued to see increased playing time for the football team, so it’s unclear when he will join the squad.
  • Vanderbilt: Center Festus Ezeli will miss the first six games of the season after accepting a meal and a hotel room from a Vandy alum over the summer.  Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne will be asked to pick up the slack in Ezeli’s absence.

SEC Predictions: Standings

1. Kentucky

The Wildcats are loaded once again and have been ranked second nationally in pretty much every Top 25 I’ve seen.  In addition to another crop of highly touted recruits, Kentucky returns a few other key contributors.

terrence-jones-sec-2011-12-season-preview

Terrence Jones would have been a lottery pick but surprised many by returning to Lexington for his sophomore season.  If he can maintain the level of production he showed early last year, the sky is the limit.  John Calipari has called fellow soph Doron Lamb the best player on the team; he’s certainly the best shooter.  Senior Darius Miller also returns in the backcourt and will look to build on his MVP performance in the SEC Tournament last year.

The gem of the freshman class is big man Anthony Davis who can do just about everything on the floor and was the top-rated incoming freshman according to some services.  The latest in the line of talented young point guards is Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a fierce competitor who will do whatever it takes to help the team win.

While there are a number of other talented teams in the league, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Cats down win the title.

2. Vanderbilt

With virtually everyone returning from last season’s team, Vandy is a trendy pick this season despite their struggles to win in the post-season.

The trio of John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor, and Festus Ezeli gives the team three impact players worthy of all-conference consideration.  Jenkins scored nearly 20 points per game last season while displaying a newfound ability to get to the stripe along with his smooth jumper from the outside.  Taylor does a little bit of everything for the Commodores, and Ezeli had a breakout junior season with 13.0 points, 6.3 boards, 2.6 blocks, and a 58.8 field goal percentage.  They boast a solid point guard in Brad Tinsley and have guys like Steve Tchiengang and Rod Odom ready to contribute inside.

In short, the roster is loaded with talent and experience, and the biggest question mark is whether Vanderbilt can get over the hump in close games as well as the post-season.

3. Florida

The Gators have an impressive glut of guards, which makes the biggest concern whether there will be enough shots to go around.

Backcourt mates Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are the only returnees who averaged over 4.3 points.  Walker led the team in assists and hit nearly 39 percent from beyond the arc, but his ability to limit turnovers and stabilize the team will be critical.  Boynton shot way too many threes for someone who hit only 31 percent from deep, but he did finish strong last year.  Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario gives them another shooter/scorer, and freshman Brad Beal is one of the top guards in his class.

Look for a breakout year from soph Patric Young inside, but he needs guys like Cody Larson, Erik Murphy, and Walter Pitchford to step up and contribute alongside him.  That, along with shot selection in the backcourt, will determine Florida’s fate this year.

4. Alabama

With JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, Coach Anthony Grant has one of the top frontcourt duos in the nation.  Green is an absolute monster who posted 15.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks last season while getting to the stripe nearly 200 times.  Mitchell finished second to Green in both scoring and rebounding, and he also proved to be a terrific defender in terms of both steals and blocks, all of which led to a stellar offensive rating.

Trevor Releford had an underrated freshman year, leading the team in assists and steals, and he also tallied a pair of 20-point performances in the NIT.  Talented freshmen Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph should factor prominently into the rotation while providing some much-needed three-point shooting for the Crimson Tide.

The team ranked seventh in overall defensive efficiency last year, and if the newcomers gel quickly, the potential is there to finish even higher than fourth.

5. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs made headlines for all the wrong reasons last year, but there is reason to believe the talent-to-drama ratio is headed in the right direction.  That all starts with returning starters Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney.

Bost can look like one of the top point guards in the country at times, but he could stand to cut down on his turnovers and ill-advised shots.  Still, he posted nearly six assists per game and is a tremendous on-ball defender.  Sidney’s trials and tribulations have been well-publicized, but he seems to have committed to his conditioning this summer.  For all the heat he took last season, Sidney actually played pretty well down the stretch, scoring at least 11 points in 13 of the final 16 games with four double-doubles.

A couple newcomers will play key roles for this team.  UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie averaged nearly 10 points and seven boards in 2009-10 and gives them another active big man.  True freshman Rodney Hood has a nice touch from the outside, which MSU desperately needs after losing their top two three-point shooters.

Those guys will form the core of the team, but a number of other returnees and freshmen will be counted on to step up as well.  The talent is absolutely there for this team; the question is what Rick Stansbury can do with it.

6. Ole Miss

Despite the losses of Chris Warren and Zach Graham, the Rebels still have some reasons for optimism heading into the season.  The biggest of those is their returning frontline.

Terrance Henry averaged 9.7 points and 6.0 rebounds and finished the season with five straight double-digit scoring games.  Reginald Buckner provides a presence on the glass and as a shot-blocker, and Murphy Holloway posted 10.1 points and 7.6 boards in 2009-10.  In the backcourt, look for sophomore Dundrecous Nelson to pick up some of Warren’s scoring slack.  He averaged 16.0 points over a four-game stretch late in the year and is poised for a breakout season.

Memphis transfer Jelan Kendrick will be eligible after the first semester, and it will be interesting to see if he can stay out of trouble and live up to his lofty recruiting rankings.  Nick Williams also returns for the Rebels, and freshman guards Maurice Aniefiok, Jarvis Summers, and LaDarius White will also factor into the backcourt rotation.

7. Arkansas

I’m not sure Mike Anderson has the depth he needs to play his uptempo style, but there are a few interesting pieces to work with in Fayetteville.

Forward Marshawn Powell had a disappointing sophomore year, but part of that can be attributed to injury and ongoing issues with former coach Doug Pelphrey.  Julysses Nobles is back to run the point after leading the squad in assists and steals last season while showing a nice touch from beyond the arc.

Returnees like Michael Sanchez and Marvell Waithe should see expanded minutes inside along with freshman Hunter Mickelson.  In addition to Mickelson, Anderson managed to retain key members of a talented recruiting classes, most notably guards B.J. Young and Ky Madden.  Young is a combo guard who can beat defenders in a number of ways, while Madden is a terrific athlete who excels in the open floor.

With so much youth, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Hogs, but Anderson’s teams are always tough to play against.

8. Georgia

The Bulldogs lost their two best players from last year’s squad, so a return invite to the Big Dance would be shocking.  Their strength lies in the backcourt with Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware.  They were the team’s top two assist men, and Ware hit 43.6 percent from beyond the arc.  Joining them is the aforementioned Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has good size and a sweet stroke from the outside.

The front line is full of question marks.  Marcus Thornton came in highly regarded but barely contributed last season.  Georgia will need a lot more from him along with true freshman Tim Dixon and juco transfer John Florveus if they want to finish much higher than this.

9. LSU

On paper, the fact that LSU returns its top four scorers looks pretty good until you see that the team went 3-13 in SEC play last year, which has Coach Trent Johnson firmly on the hot seat heading into this year.

The frontcourt will be the strength with returnees Storm Warren and Malcolm White, Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton, and McDonald’s All-American Patrick O’Bryant.  Warren is looking to bounce back after a disappointing season, but he did finish the year with five straight double-digit scoring games.  White finished second on the team in rebounding but may be relegated to a reserve role if Hamilton and O’Bryant play well.  At least in O’Bryant’s case, that seems like a given.  Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer both return in the backcourt, but they struggled with turnovers and outside shooting.

The team should be better, but the record may not reflect that at the end of the year.

10. Tennessee

I really like Cuonzo Martin’s chances to succeed long-term, but this has all the makings of a long year.  Cameron Tatum is the only returnee to average over three points, so he’ll be asked to shoulder the scoring load.  Trae Golden projects as the starting point guard, and sophomore wing Jordan McRae lit it up during summer league play, which may propel him into a starting role as well.  Renaldo Woolridge, Kenny Hall, and Jeronne Mayonne will see drastically increased minutes in the frontcourt, and Martin needs at least a couple of them to become reliable contributors.

As you might expect, there are also plenty of newcomers, with Josh Richardson and big man Yemi Makanjuola the most likely to play prominent roles in the rotation.  Martin will certainly rachet up the defensive intensity, but there are just too many question marks heading into the season.

11. Auburn

The Tigers played better down the stretch than they 4-12 conference mark would suggest, but leading scorer Earnest Ross transferred after the season.  In the backcourt, Frankie Sullivan is back after missing most of last season with a knee injury, and Texas transfer Varez Ward should also give the team some much-needed scoring.

Forward Kenny Gabriel finished second on the team with 10.3 points per game, but he needs to be a more consistent contributor.  Rob Chubb gives the team another big body inside, while former walk-on Josh Wallace led the team in assists and steals a season ago.  Clemson transfer Noel Johnson will become eligible after the fall semester, so we’ll see if he can live up to his status as a former Top 100 recruit.

The Tigers return a few other role players from last year’s team, and true freshman Willy Kouassi provides additional athleticism inside.  If everything comes together, Auburn could best last year’s win total, but the Tigers are still in rebuilding mode.

12. South Carolina

After leading the team in points and assists last season, guard Bruce Ellington has spent this fall on the gridiron and won’t be with the team to start the season.  Even though his efficiency numbers were brutal last season, it’s still a huge blow to the team.  Forwards Malik Cooke and Lakeem Jackson both do a solid job on the boards despite standing under 6-foot-7, but they need the aforementioned Damontre Harris and a number of newcomers to step up inside.

The Gamecocks don’t really have any reliable outside shooters to make up for the lack of size, so this should be a long season for Coach Darrin Horn.

SEC Predictions: POY and All-Conference Team

All-Conference

  • Anthony Davis, F, Kentucky
  • JaMychal Green, F, Alabama
  • John Jenkins, G, Vanderbilt
  • Terrence Jones, F, Kentucky
  • Erving Walker, G, Florida

anthony-davisPlayer of the Year: Anthony Davis, F, Kentucky

You could argue that picking him as POY is a reach, but I can’t fathom how he wasn’t voted onto the first team during SEC Media Day.  For a 6-foot-10 player, he has an extremely versatile skill set since he was “only” 6-foot-3 as a junior and had already developed his ball-handling and other perimeter-oriented skills.  Consequently, Davis is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.  He can step out and make shots or put the ball on the floor and drive past bigger defenders, or he can take smaller players into the post.

Davis is extremely active inside as a rebounder and shot-blocker, and I have yet to hear about anyone who hasn’t walked away even more impressed with his athleticism and impact on the game after seeing him in person.

Freshman of the Year (Not Named Anthony Davis): Brad Beal, G, Florida

Obviously if Davis is the POY, he would naturally be the freshman of the year as well, but I’m not going to take the easy way out and copy my comments from above.  I think Beal is going to be phenomenal for Florida and may eventually force Bill Donovan to make some tough lineup decisions.

As Rob Dauster of Ballinisahabit pointed out, what sets Beal apart from the other Gator guards is the fact that he doesn’t dominate the ball and is effective at using screens to get open.  I would be shocked if he isn’t the team’s top three-point shooter, as well as one of the squad’s most efficient players.  The Gators are going to have to play at least three guards to get their best players on the floor, but I have a hard time believing this team can be successful playing Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario together for long periods of time, which is only good news for Beal’s playing time and potential production.

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About the Author

Andy Bottoms

While Andy was born and raised in Indiana, he would like to point out that he grew up shooting hoops in his driveway and not against the side of a barn like you see in all the March Madness promos or in the middle of a field like Jimmy Chitwood. Andy ranks among the top bracketologists according to the Bracket Matrix and has provided his projections to Fox Sports for the past three seasons. When not compiling excuses for missing work during the NCAA Tournament, Andy enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He is a proud IU graduate and co-hosts The Assembly Call postgame show following every IU game. Twitter: @AndyBottoms