Conference Catch-Ups: The SEC
Posted on: May 24, 2011 4:08 pm
Edited on: May 25, 2011 9:26 pm
Posted by Matt Jones
It may still feel like the Final Four just ended, but for most schools, the offseason is now more than two months old. With that in mind, all of us at the blog are going to take this week to give you what we’re calling “Conference Catch-Ups.” The motive is to recap the biggest storylines in college basketball’s offseason so far, plus keep your appetite whetted in what is the longest offseason in major American sports.
Previous Conference Catch-ups: ACC, Big East, Pac 12
The Big Stories:
Kentucky going for a championship: John Calipari's tenure in Lexington has followed a familiar pattern. Bring in the top recruiting class in America, coach them to success for one season and then watch them leave for the NBA draft. Rinse and repeat. This year however, one of Calipari's top players decided to buck that trend and has returned for his sophomore season. Terrence Jones's decision to reappear in Lexington for a second year places Kentucky as one of the co-favorites for the national championship next season and gives John Calipari potentially his best chance to win the elusive title. Jones and Calipari's other two returning starters, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, will have to share time with a recruiting class that may actually be the best in Kentucky's storied history. Michael Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer were all McDonald's All Americans and were ranked among the top 25 players in America by nearly every scouting service. Those seven players will combine to form the core of a team with major expectations from a fan base that can already taste a potential 8th national championship next season.
Turmoil in Knoxville: At this time last year, Tennessee basketball was at potentially its highest level in school history. The team was coming off an appearance in the Elite Eight and coach Bruce Pearl was bringing in a highly touted recruiting class that seemed poised to solidify his program's place among the top 15 in the country. Then came the series of poor decisions by Pearl that culminated in an NCAA investigation and the slow downfall of a program that had exponentially risen in such a short time. Now, new coach Cuonzo Martin is left to pick up the pieces with a disgruntled fan base and the lowest amount of talent the program has seen in over a decade. Martin has an almost impossible situation in which to confront and will have to do so in an ever-improving conference and with the unknown of future NCAA penalties on the horizon. Pray for him.
Pig Sooie is Back!: The SEC was never better than in the 1990s, when Arkansas joined Kentucky as a legitimate national powerhouse, bringing its impressive fan support to the table and drowning out the entire SEC with ear-pounding "Woo Pig Sooie!!!" calls during every big game. But then Nolan Richardson left Fayetteville and the Stan Heath/John Pelphrey regimes did little to hold on to the magic. Enter former assistant Mike Anderson, who left Missouri to try and recapture the glory and bring back the "40 Minutes of Hell" philosophy that made Arkansas basketball great. Over the years, a combination of consistent losing and the rise of the Razorback football program has made basketball somewhat of an afterthought in Arkansas circles, an almost unfathomable prospect a decade ago. Anderson is charged with bringing back the faithful and year one gives him a roster with a surprising amount of talent and the chance to make early waves in a week SEC West.
Anthony Grant keeps the Tide rolling: We all knew that Anthony Grant was a snappy dresser. No figure in college basketball keeps his shirts starched and his suit pressed with more regularity than the leader of the basketball version of Tide nation. But last year' he showcased a coaching prowess that matched his wardrobe, winning the SEC West before getting robbed by the NCAA selection committee. But the key to building a program is sustaining prosperity and this offseason, Grant showcased that he is ready to build consistency in Tuscaloosa. This spring he received a signed Letter of Intent from in-state prospect Trevor Lacey, a shooting guard who will see immediate minutes for the Crimson Tide. Lacey had been considering Kentucky, Kansas and Auburn, and locking down the in-state talent provides the most recent proof of the rise of the Alabama program. The state of Alabama produces an insane amount of basketball talent and for years, that talent has gone and benefitted top programs like Kentucky and Florida. If they follow the lead of Lacey and now stay in state, Grant and Alabama will remain a team at the top of the SEC rankings each season.
The Great Unknown
Will last season's train wreck of a regular season finally convince the conference to do away with its silly division format in basketball? With the conference's five best teams all in the Eastern division last year, Alabama finished the year with the second best record in conference and still did not make the NCAA tournament, thanks to a weakened schedule produced in part due to the pathetic SEC West lineup. The conference is considering moving to a regular 12 team league, with an 18 game season and unbalanced scheduling. That is not a perfect result, but it is better than a system that requires a team like South Carolins to play Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Tennessee twice, while Alabama sees Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State twice on its yearly rotation.
NBA Draft Report
The draft was a mixed bag for the SEC teams as the draft giveth and taketh away. Georgia and Tennessee both saw their two top players leave early for the NBA and will feel the effect on next year's teams. The Bulldogs lost both Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins, a one-two punch that sent coach Mark Fox's team to the NCAA tournament. Leslie and Thompkins have both seen their draft stocks fall, but the decision by both to forego a chance to return to Athens will make it difficult for Fox to repeat the performance next season. As for Tennessee, Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris decided to abandon Bruce Pearl's sinking ship, leaving new coach Cuonzo Martin with little help in his first go-around in Knoxville.
Terrence Jones's surprising decision to return to Lexington gives John Calipari a bit of experience in his quest to dominate the league with talent next season. He likely would have been a lottery pick in this year's draft, but a return will bolster the Wildcats' front line with Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. Brandon Knight stayed in the NBA draft, but with freshman Marquis Teague enrolling, Calipari will once again keep a top point guard at the helm. Perhaps the biggest draft winner in the league this year was Vanderbilt, who saw all three of their potential early entrees. John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli all made the decision to come back to Nashville and with their return, the Commodores will once again be a contender in the SEC East.
Murphy Holloway (Ole Miss)
Will Bogan (Ole Miss)
Aaron Dotson (LSU)
Ramon Galloway (South Carolina)
Trevor Gaskins (Ole Miss)
Donald Williams (Ole Miss)
My Commentary in 20 Words or Less:
Florida: Bradley Beal might lead the country in Freshman points next year...but he will most certainly lead it in shots taken.
Georgia: Overcoming the loss of Thompkins and Leslie is tough, but Mark Fox is the best coach you dont know in America.
Kentucky: The Cats might have 5 of the top 20 players taken in next year's NBA draft on their roster. Most talented team in Calipari's career.
South Carolina: Darrin Horn had South Carolina on the brink of making a move in conference. But all momentum has been lost and next season is crucial to his future.
Tennessee: Cuonzo Martin is talented but he is in a no-win situation early in Knoxville. The cupboard will be bare for next two years.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores will be the second most talented team in the SEC next season. Will they finally win a NCAA tournament game?
Alabama: With Tennessee now out of the top tier of SEC teams, Anthony Grant is primed to place the Tide there on a consistent basis.
Arkansas: Mike Anderson can coach and his style is exciting. There is top talent in Arkansas in next two years...keep them in state and he wins big.
Auburn: The most consistently irrelevant team in college basketball for the past decade. Where for art thou Chris Porter?
LSU: Basketball has fallen off the face of the map in Baton Rouge and talent is leaving the state in droves. Another program with little hope and dwindling recruiting fortunes.
Mississippi: Andy Kennedy's team has underachieved the past two seasons and was beset by a number of transfers this year. The future, like that of most of the SEC West, is murky.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were America's ultimate soap opera last season, including player fights in the stands of holiday tournaments. When everyone was on the same page however, it was clear that talent is still there in Starkville.