SEC Primer (Cont.)
5. Mississippi State
In theory, the Bulldogs should be much improved. They have lead guard Dee Bost and center Renardo Sidney from the start of the season, and are adding solid UTEP transfer big man Arnett Moultrie and heralded local freshman wing Rodney Hood. There is a lot of size and a lot of experience, which usually means good things. In actuality, things lately have seemed more complicated than necessary in Starkville. Last year's season was marred by an ugly teammate brawl in the stands at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. This summer, Sidney didn't travel with the team to Europe, instead staying in Houston to work with John Lucas. He needs to be better than he was last season, when he was a below-average offensive efficiency player and only went to the free throw line four times a game. Nonetheless, the seeds are there for success this season. Like Alabama, the Bulldogs will play 10 times against the former West division. They have finished 9-7 in the league the last three seasons. With the bottom half of the East down, too, that mark would be disappointing this year.
Mike Anderson returns to Fayetteville to try to rekindle the 40 Minutes of Hell attack that led the Hogs to a national title when Anderson was an assistant under Nolan Richardson. Losing gunner Rotnei Clark (transferred to Butler) and itinerant point guard Jeff Peterson (to Florida State) won't help the first-year transition to Anderson's preferred up-tempo attack. The Hogs will have to lean on forward Marshawn Powell and sweet-shooting point guard Julysses Nobles to lead a team that has some experience but not a ton of established scoring. Powell used almost 29 percent of Arkansas' possessions last season when he was on the floor, so a heavy workload shouldn't bother him and Anderson's system may get him more easy baskets than last season. Anderson won't have the depth (or quality) he needs for another year or two, but he has a decent young core to work with and the fans should enjoy the efforts, if not all of the results in Year 1.
The Rebels have gone the longest of any SEC team since their last NCAA tournament appearance, last making the bracket in 2002. Now they lose standout guard Chris Warren (and Zach Graham), but hope is not lost in Oxford. Diminutive guard Dundrecous Nelson is ready to step into the limelight. He'll join athletic big man Terrance Henry and two other returning starters from last season. Also, Memphis castoff and former McDonald's All-American Jelan Kendrick is eligible in December and forward Murphy Holloway has been ruled eligible after leaving for South Carolina and then returning. Still, the losses of Warren and Graham will hurt. They were Ole Miss' two most efficient scorers by a wide margin last season, while also using a significant number of the Rebels' possessions. Some of the youngsters will have to step up and carry a much more significant, efficient load, which is pretty tough to ask.
Mark Fox can't catch a break with NBA early entry. His Nevada teams were regularly undercut by guys leaving for the draft, and now he feels similar pain in Athens, where both Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie left with a year of eligibility remaining. Where does that leave the Bulldogs? Not in great shape, but there's some hope thanks to the backcourt. Guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware return to combo-guard it up and they'll be greatly helped by the arrival of much-heralded frosh Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a local scoring sensation. The frontcourt is much more unsettled. Sophomores Marcus Thornton and Donte' Williams will need to carry a much greater minutes burden and provide better production than they did in limited minutes last season.
Things will look a lot different on Rocky Top this season after Bruce Pearl exited following NCAA violations and a lot of the Vols' top talent, including Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, followed him out the door. Now Cuonzo Martin steps into the job with only guard Cameron Tatum as the only true part of last year's rotation back in the fold. Martin will need guys like forwards Kenny Hall, Jeronne Maymon and Renaldo Woolridge and point guard Trae Golden to really ratchet up production if the Vols are going to survive one of the nation's toughest schedules. These Vols are very small and not very experienced, which could be a difficult combination in this season's SEC East.
Auburn's woes helped distract a bit from how bad the Tigers were last season, but they should be improved. The offense has to get better -- it would be hard for it to get worse -- and that could start in the frontcourt, where 7-foot Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton and stud freshman Johnny O'Bryant arrive to provide size and skill. They will join up with several complementary returnees to make LSU much more formidable closer to the basket. In turn, better presence inside should help improve the efficiency of leading scorers Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer, both of whom return to spearhead the backcourt effort. Freshman guard Anthony Hickey has had a strong preseason and should also supply some much-needed shooting. Even playing the weaker league schedule for one more season, LSU's not ready to return to the NCAAs, but Trent Johnson's club should be more dangerous.
Last year? Well, the Tigers had a nice new arena. That's about all the positive that came from a season where Auburn was a historically bad major-conference team. The Tigers should be improved this season as guard Frankie Sullivan returns from injury and Texas transfer Varez Ward becomes eligible to join him in the backcourt along with Chris Denson. They'll need that improved firepower, as Auburn was a really poor offensive team last season in practically every area. The frontcourt remains a work in progress, with scrappy Rob Chubb and leading returning scorer Kenny Gabriel helping to show a couple of freshmen the ropes. Tony Barbee still has a ton of work to do, but Auburn should take a step or two forward.
12. South Carolina
Peruse any coaching hot seat list and Darrin Horn's name likely will be on it. Things have not gone as planned in Columbia and this season's version of the Gamecocks is not going to be very good. Leading scorer Bruce Ellington elected to play football this season, so he's not available for the time being. Ole Miss transfer Murphy Holloway returned to Oxford without ever playing for the Gamecocks. South Carolina also lost two other double-digit scorers from last season's 14-16 squad. Freshman Damien Leonard will need to immediately live up to billing for the Gamecocks to think about anything more than fighting their way out of the SEC East cellar.