SEC Primer (Cont.)
4. Florida: I want to like what the Gators bring to the table this season, but I'm simply not convinced that Billy Donovan's club will be able to effectively replace Erving Walker and Bradley Beal. It's important to note that both Kenny Boynton and Patric Young made significant strides last season, but if the Gators are to compete for the SEC title, both players are going to have to continue to improve this season. Young is an athletic freak, but he's still learning how to turn his wrestler's physique and leaping ability into on-court production. Boynton became a more efficient scorer as a junior, proving that he can be a consistently knock down jumpers from the perimeter, but he'll acquire more of the playmaking load this year especially if he wants to prove to NBA scouts he's more than just an undersized shooter. Mike Rosario is going to have to have a big year handling the ball for the Gators, because I'm simply not sold on Scottie Wilbekin being anything more than a possession point guard, as will power forward Erik Murphy. It should be noted that energy-guy Will Yeguete should be healthy after breaking his foot last season.
5. Arkansas: There is a real reason to be excited in Fayetteville this season, as the Hogs look like they have a team talented enough to make a run at the NCAA tournament. It starts with BJ Young who, presumably, will be starting this season after leading the Razorbacks in scoring a year ago. In addition to Young's return, Marshawn Powell will be back after tearing his ACL just two games into his junior season. Powell was a revelation as a freshman, but has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. In total, the Razorbacks return four of their top five scorers from a season ago -- and that's before you factor in Powell -- all of whom were either freshmen or sophomores. Add in another talented recruiting class this season, and it's obvious why there is hype surrounding this program. The problem? Road wins. If Arkansas can't win games away from home, they're going to forever be a middle-of-the-pack team.
6. Alabama: Last year, a season that started out so promising for the Crimson Tide, ended in disaster as it seemed like Anthony Grant was suspending key pieces on a weekly basis. Despite losing Tony Mitchell for the season and a number of other key players for a handful of games, Grant was able to lead that group to the NCAA tournament -- they lost in the opening round. This year's club will look very different. The Tide will have a solid group in their backcourt, with point guard Trevor Releford being flanked by Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph. But if Grant's team is going to make a run back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need a Herculean performance out of highly-touted freshman Devonta Pollard and sophomore Nick Jacobs in the paint.
7. Texas A&M: I want to be the first one on record saying this: No way does Texas A&M struggle as much as it did last season. Khris Middleton and David Loubeau may be gone, but the core of this team returns with a year's worth of experience with Billy Kennedy under its belt, which is even more significant given the health issues that Kennedy was dealing with last fall. Ray Turner and Kourtney Roberson are both healthy heading into the season, giving the Aggies one of the better frontlines in the SEC. Elston Turner, last season's leading scorer, is back to anchor the backcourt, as is the uber-athletic Jordan Green. They'll be joined on the wings by freshmen Alex Caruso and Shawn Smith, but the key for this group may end up being J-Mychal Reese, a top 75 point guard recruit from Texas who will slide into the starting role right away.
8. Ole Miss: The Rebels could end up being the sleeper in the SEC this season. Dundrecous Nelson and Jelan Kendrick are both gone, but both may actually be addition by subtraction. Outside of that, the only player that Andy Kennedy loses from his rotation is senior Terrance Henry. Murphy Holloway, Reginald Buckner and Demarco Cox provide an experienced and big frontline. Anthony Perez and Martavious Newby will provide some pop on the perimeter to a group that already includes Jarvis Summers, Ladarius White and Nick Williams. And don't forget about Marshall Henderson, who spent last season as one of the best JuCo players in the country. If everything comes together for this group, an NCAA tournament trip isn't out of the question.
9. Vanderbilt: Last year was the year for Vandy to actually make some noise in the postseason. Kevin Stallings had a veteran group on his hands, one that had three NBA prospects on it. The problem? Five of his top six scorers were seniors, and the one that wasn't left school for the NBA. What that leaves is a team that returns just three players from last season's rotation, none of who played more than 15 minutes per game and who averaged a combined 7.2 points. The good news is that those three players -- guards Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson and forward Rod Odom -- were probably good enough that they could have been more productive had more playing time been available. The bad news? They weren't good enough to force Kevin Stallings to make playing time available. It may be a while before Vandy is relevant again.
10. Georgia: How good is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? That's the biggest question that needs to be answered when talking about this Georgia team. He was a top 15 recruit coming out of high school and played like one of the best freshman in the country last season despite being forced out of his natural shooting guard spot. Mark Fox also brings back three other players -- forwards Marcus Thornton, Donte' Williams and Nemanja Djurisic -- who averaged more than 20 minutes last season, but unless Caldwell-Pope can play his way into being an all-american, it's unlikely that the Bulldogs will come close to deserving the votes they were given in the preseason coaches poll. The other issue Fox has? The point guard spot. Who will be playing it? Freshman Charles Mann? Senior Vincent Williams? Hopefully, he figures that out quickly.
11. LSU: New Tiger head coach Johnny Jones has a solid core to build around. Top 50 big man Johnny O'Bryant didn't turn out to be a one-and-done prospect like he wanted to be, but he did manage to put together a respectable freshman campaign. O'Bryant wasn't even the most impressive freshman on the roster, however, as diminutive point guard Anthony Hickey was a revelation on both sides of the ball. With Andre Stringer back for his junior season and Memphis-transfer Charles Carmouche immediately eligible, Jones has enough on his roster to avoid being embarrassed this season. What must be frustrating, however, is that if Ralston Turner hadn't transferred to NC State and Justin Hamilton hadn't gone pro, we might be talking about LSU as a potential bubble team. Seriously.
12. Auburn: Now in his third season with the Tigers, head coach Tony Barbee should be beginning to see his influence on the program. Unfortunately for him, the Tigers are still bad. Coming off of a season in which they once again finished below .500, Barbee loses his best player (Kenny Gabriel) at the same time that his third-leading scorer (Varez Ward) gets caught up in a point-shaving scandal. Frankie Sullivan is back to lead the way, and Chris Denson, Noel Johnson and Rob Chubb are all upperclassmen that have paid their dues at the collegiate level, but there's nothing on this roster that suggest the Tigers will be competitive, even as a bubble team. Barbee does bring in a good recruiting class, however, highlighted by Shaquille Johnson, who is worth watching just in case he does something like this.
13. South Carolina: The good news for the Gamecocks? They hired Frank Martin, which means that, at some point down the road, the South Carolina basketball program will start winning more games than it loses. And based on the way that Martin has started off his tenure on the recruiting trail, that date may come sooner rather than later. The bad news? It's certainly not going to be starting this season. South Carolina lost three of its top four scorers from last season, with lone returnee Bruce Ellington, who is as much a football player as he is a basketball player these days. LaShay Page, a Southern Miss transfer, should provide an immediate boost and Damien Leonard did some promising things as a freshman, but all in all, it will be a long season down in Columbia.
14. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are in all kinds of trouble this year. We'll start with the obvious, first: Everyone who was any good off of last year's talented-but-disappointing roster is gone. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney went pro. Dee Bost graduated. Rodney Hood transferred to Duke, and Deville Smith left school. Head coach Rick Stansbury is gone as well, with Rick Ray taking over for him. And my, does Ray have a work in progress on his hands. Not only did starting point guard Jacoby Davis tear an ACL, but freshman guard Fred Thomas needed surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot. Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis are the only two players on the roster that have seen major minutes at the SEC level. That's not a good sign, even for a top heavy league.