Even though Kentucky ended up winning the National Championship last year, it was Vanderbilt who took home the SEC title. Can UK recover from five players leaving for the NBA Draft, or will another team pull off another major upset in the SEC?
1- Kentucky. Nerlens Noel will lead another star-packed Kentucky recruiting class, that was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Scouts say Noel is every bit the shot blocker Anthony Davis was, though his offensive game still needs some work. Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin will both get big minutes in their freshman years as well. Of John Calipari’s five recruits from the 2011 class, only Kyle Wiltjer elected to stay for a sophomore season. He averaged five points a game and will be the only contributor back from that National Championship team. NC State transfer Ryan Harrow will be Calipari’s most experienced point guard he has had in years. It’s hard not to pick Kentucky to win the conference with the way Calipari is able to rebuild teams quickly.
2- Missouri. With Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, Missouri will have one of the best starting backcourts in the country. The two combined for nearly 24 points and 10 assists a year ago. The Tigers had trouble with frontcourt depth last season, but 2010 starter Laurence Bowers (10.2 points, 5.7 rebounds per game in 2009-10) is back from a torn ACL, and they will also have UCONN transfer Alex Oriakhi, who has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience. They lost three players who averaged over 13 points a game, but with who they have coming back this is still a strong team.
3- Florida. The Gators are without two of the main backcourt members, including Bradley Beal who was the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft, but the cupboards are hardly bare. Shooting guard Kenny Boynton, who averaged nearly 16 points a game last year, will be counted on even more this year. Erik Murphy and Patric Young, who both averaged over 10 points and 4.5 rebounds a game last year return as well. This team will have a lot of depth and experience, including that of Mike Rosario and Brandon Ogbueze.
4- Tennessee. If the Volunteers can repeat what they did in their half season with freshman Jarnell Stokes, then this team will for sure be a top-five SEC team and borderline top-25 team in the nation. After Stokes was inserted into the starting lineup last year, Tennessee went 10-3. He provides a big physical presence that the Volunteers will need to rely on. He isn’t their only quality big man, as Jeronne Maymom (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) will be a good counter for Stokes. Trae Golden is one of the SEC’s best point guards as well, leading the team in scoring at 13.6 a game. It’s NCAA Tournament or bust for Tennessee, as they return over 80 percent of the scoring and rebounding.
5- Arkansas. A 3-9 stretch to end last year ended squashed any chance of the Razorbacks making the Big Dance, but this year should be a different story. Arkansas got a huge break when BJ Young decided to not turn pro and stay in college another year. He led the SEC freshmen in scoring a year ago, shooting 50 percent from the field. Marshawn Powell tore knee ligaments after just two games last year — two breakout games, suggesting he is in for a big year this year. Mardracus Wade, Rickey Scott and freshmen JaCorey Williams and DeQuavious Wagner give this team a lot of depth.
9- Ole Miss
11- Texas A&M
12- Mississippi State
14- South Carolina
Jarnell Stokes- In just half of a year last season, Stokes was a monster in the post, and a full summer with the team will pay huge dividends going into his sophomore season. He only averaged 9.6 points a game, but that’s in limited playing time. Look for that to increase upward of 15 a game, as he has a full summer of workouts. He helped Team USA to a gold medal at the U18 FIBA Americas during the offseason, averaging 15 points and 5.6 rebounds a game.
Nerlens Noel- It’s hard not to compare him to Anthony Davis, especially when there have been plenty of people that said his defensive game rivals Davis’. If that’s the case, pencil Noel in for an SEC first-team selection. He may not be totally polished on offense, but in a Calipari offense the offense will definitely be there for him to average at least 10 points a game. He doesn’t have to be Anthony Davis, just Nerlens Noel, and by the looks of it — that kid can play.
BJ Young- As a freshman last season, this guard was fourth in the whole conference in field goal percentage. You just don’t see that in freshmen, especially guards. Fayetville must be excited to get Young back for another season, one that is filled with high expectations for the Arkansas squad. He averaged 15 points a game last season, and with even just a little bit of improvement I’d be shocked if he didn’t leave for the NBA after this season.
Phil Pressey- Though he averaged just 1.3 points a game, Pressey did pretty much everything else last season. He was tops in the Big 12 in assists (6.4) and steals (2.1). His field goal percentage went from 38 percent in his freshman year to 43 percent last year, but he will still need to improve on that. Pressey was the lone Tiger who showed up for their first round NCAA Tournament game with Norfolk State, scoring 20 points with eight assists. Expectations are high with this Missouri team, and a lot of their success will depend on Pressey’s play.
Kenny Boynton- With apologies to Alex Poythress, Patric Young and Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Florida’s Young gets the nod for the fifth spot on this list because of his ability to take over games with his scoring. The SEC’s leading returning scorer, Boynton has averaged at least 14 points a game in all three years at Florida. Last season he had 13 games of at least 20 points. The biggest improvement Boynton made was in his field goal percentage, which jumped from 38 percent to 44 percent.
Most Underrated Team- Alabama
The Crimson Tide had a two-man monster in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell a year ago, but with both of them graduated Alabama will need a new identity. Look no further than Devonta Pollard, who may be the best freshman in the conference aside from UK’s. Pollard has tremendous athleticism and will fit in right away with Alabama. Returning for the Crimson Tide is Trevor Releford, who last year averaged 12 points a game on 48 percent shooting. There are no seniors this year, so if they finish in the middle of the pack this year, look for them to be in the top-5 in 2013-14.
Most Overrated Team- Vanderbilt
With all of the pieces they graduated, it’s hard to imagine the Commodores enjoying much success this year. Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli are all graduated, leaving a big hole on the Vanderbilt squad that won the SEC Tournament last year. Not many are picking the Commodores to do much of anything this year, but fans may look at this time as a top-half SEC team just by habit. But with their top six players graduated, that simply will not be the case.
This one was a toss up for me, but if Tennessee repeats what they did when they had Stokes in the starting lineup last year, then it should be their sophomore big man who takes home this award. Word in Knoxville is that Stokes has looked even more polished. He made his presence known in just his third game last year, pulling down 12 rebounds and scoring 16 points in an upset win over UCONN. I envision Stokes being a double-double machine this year. He is now used to Cuonzo Martin’s system and knows what to expect out of the team, including that of Trae Golden who will feed Stokes the ball early and often.
Coach of the Year- Cuonzo Martin
Not many people expected Tennessee to be good this soon after Bruce Pearl’s exit. But Martin has put the Volunteers in a position to contend for the No. 2 team in the conference behind Kentucky. With several players on his team recruited from Pearl’s team, Martin was able to keep the team focused enough to contend for the NCAA Tournament, and they will be better this year with most of their players returning. The biggest thing Martin has done was grab the aforementioned Stokes as a part of his first recruiting class.
Sleeper Impact Player- Marshawn Powell
Powell began the 2011-12 season as good as anyone, scoring at least 19 points with five rebounds in each of his first two games. His season was short lived, as he tore knee ligaments after in just the first week of the season. He’s back for an Arkansas team that has high expectations. Powell is a guy who averaged 14.9 points and then 10.8 points in his first two years at Arkanas, and the Razorbacks will need him to be a double-digit scorer again in what they think will be a big year for their team.
Photos: SEC Conference/Google Images
With Conference Tournament games just over a week away here is a look at some of the games that you should keep an eye on this week.
Monday: Connecticut @ Villanova (7pm ESPN) – ESPN’s Big Monday has a double-header worth watching. UConn and Nova both are in need of a confidence boost before they head to Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament. If you want a second game tonight, Baylor is at Texas at 9pm on ESPN
Tuesday: Kansas St at Missouri (7pm ESPN2) – The Big 12 leader host 5th place Wildcats. This games kicks off a tough week for both teams.
Wednesday: So many games to pick this week but a few to keep an eye on include West Virginia @ Notre Dame (7pm ESPN2), USF at Syracuse (7pm Big East Net.), Oklahoma State @ Oklahoma (8pm Big 12 Net.).
Thursday: Duke @ Florida State (7pm ESPN) – Two of the three teams at the top of the ACC meet in Durham. Murray State @ Tennessee State (8pm ESPNU), the top two in the OVC will battle it out, the Racers are coming off the win over St. Mary’s. Louisville @ Cincinnati (9pm ESPN) the long time conference rivals meet at Fifth Third Arena, both teams are currently at 9-5 in conference play.
Friday:Baseball is back; go watch your college program play our national past-time. If you really want to watch some hoops Butler @ Valparaiso (7pm ESPNU) and Marquette @ West Virginia (9pm ESPN) should settle that craving.
Saturday: Go on and clear your schedule it’s the last full Saturday of regular season basketball. The day starts with Vanderbilt @ Kentucky (Noon CBS), Iowa State @ Kansas State (1:30 Big 12 Net.), North Carolina @ Virginia (4pm ESPN), Creighton @ Indiana State (4pm ESPN2), and what could be the final meeting of Missouri @ Kansas (4pm CBS).
Sunday: It’s the Daytona 500 why do you want to watch basketball? Cincinnati @ USF (Noon Big East Net), Indiana @ Minnesota (1pm ESPN), Pittsburgh @ Louisville (2pm CBS), Florida State @ Miami (FL) (6pm ESPNU), Oregon @ Oregon State (7:30pm FSN).
If you can not find a game that peaks your interest this week then you might not be a college basketball fan.
Getting the March Madness itch? Selected members of the media gathered in Indianapolis Friday to get a feel for what it is like as a member of the selection committee. Let’s take a quick look at the simulated bracket that they released today.
The first round, which most know as the first four in Dayton include Alabama/Illinois and Seton Hall/Arizona as well as UTSA/Southeast Missouri State and Mississippi Valley/Stony Brook. The first two match-ups are the only two that seem like they would be good games.
Your number one seeds: Kentucky, Ohio State, Missouri, Syracuse.
In the South Region Kentucky is on the top line. This is the region that would be one to watch if this was the actual bracket. Other teams in the region include Louisville, North Carolina, Baylor and Wisconsin. A Louisville/Davidson match-up makes for a fun start to this region.
Syracuse claims the one seed in the East Region. This region has some match-ups that could be some of the best in the entire tournament. 8 Memphis/9 Purdue, 6 Vanderbilt/11 Texas, 7 Murray State/10 Connecticut. Other teams in this region include Duke and Indiana.
Ohio State is the leader in the West Region. Some of the teams that would try to advance to New Orleans include West Virginia, Iowa State, Florida, UNLV, Georgetown and Kansas. The first match-up in this region would be a classic 8/9 seed battle between West Virginia and Iowa State.
Finally in the Midwest Region Missouri is on the top line. Some of the other teams in this region include St. Mary’s, Florida State, Michigan, Xavier, Marquette and Michigan State.
Yet again the Big East led all of the Conferences with 8 bids. The Big Ten had 7 teams and Big 12 had 6 in the dance.
Now we just have to wait for the real bracket to be revealed. 2012 Media Mock Bracket
No. 23 Louisville 77, West Virginia 74
-Wayne Blackshear made his debut (24 games in) four Louisville, and scored 13 points. While there was a lot to talk about in this game — we’ll get to it — that has to be the most encouraging part for Louisville fans. Blackshear obviously kept himself in basketball shape while rehabbing. The future is bright…. Now, talk about going in opposite directions. The Cardinals (20-5, 8-4 Big East) reached 20 wins and have won six straight now, while the loss is the Mountaineers’ (16-10, 6-7) have lost five of their last six. WVU led for most of the game until a Kyle Kuric 3-pointer and a steal-and-score by Russ Smith on the ensuing inbounds play gave Louisville a 73-71 lead with 2:17 left. Kyle Kuric would steal a Gary Browne pass inside to Kevin Jones with 10 seconds left, hit two free throws after being fouled, and Truck Bryant’s left wing 3 went begging as time expired.
Butler 52, Cleveland State 49
-A big win for the Bulldogs (15-12, 9-6 Horizon League), who really needed this just for confidence heading into crunch time and the Horizon League tournament. The Vikings (20-6, 10-4) had a shot at an at-large bid, but those hopes are dashed now. All a matter of who gets hot in the tourney. Butler held Cleveland State to 26.3 percent from 3-point range and forced 16 turnovers, all the while overcoming an 0-for-8 3-point day and shooting 38 percent on their own.
No.5 North Carolina 70, No. 20 Virginia 52
-It was a game in the first half, with the Tar Heels (21-4, 8-2 ACC) leading just 35-32 at the half. The second half made a lot of people believe that the Cavaliers (19-5, 6-4) might not be the team everyone expected, what with Mike Scott getting completely owned and UNC showing no ill effects from that tough loss to Duke. Tyler Zeller had 25 points and nine rebounds for the Heels, with John Henson (10 and10) and Harrison Barnes (14 and 11) notching double-doubles. The bigs were obviously the difference in this one. Mike Scott has been carrying the Wahoos all season and had 18 in the loss.
No. 2 Syracuse 85, UConn 67
-I’m not saying that UConn (15-9, 5-7 Big East) can’t bounce back from a game that they basically quit in at Louisville, but they didn’t start with a loss at the ‘Cuse (25-1, 12-1). Four players finished in double-figures and Andre Drummond has 13 points and seven boards in the loss. But they never could match up athletically with the Orange, which if you’ve seen the Huskies, shouldn’t happen. They’ve got as much talent and athletic ability as any team in the nation.
No. 4 Missouri 72, No. 6 Baylor 57
-The Tigers (23-2, 9-2 Big 12) got the sweep over the Bears (21-4, 8-4) on the season, and wow, they did it quick. This team is guard-heavy, and they ran on Baylor’s athletic big men in the second half, using a 17-1 keyed by three 3-pointers midway through the second half to propel them to the W. Phil Pressey had 19 points and four three’s in the game and Mizzou shot 50 percent from 3-point range (14-for-28). They bombed it. Baylor still has to figure out it’s identity, which is scary considering it’s identity. They have long athletic forwards who play essentially like swingmen in Perry Jones III and the Quincy’s (Miller and Acy) but seem inept at finishing down low, though Acy has improved. Most telling stat? They out-rebounded Mizzou 35-22.
No. 17 Florida State 64, Miami 59
-The Hurricanes (15-8, 6-4 ACC) didn’t necessarily hurt their at-large hopes with this loss to the Seminoles (17-7, 8-2), but if they don’t get in, this is one game that Jim Larranaga will look at and shake his head. Reggie Johnson was held to four points (which can’t happen) to go with six rebounds, which really was the difference being that the game was never more than a three-possession game late. Bernard James ha 18 points, six boards and four blocks in the win.
Vanderbilt vs. No. 1 Kentucky (9 p.m., ESPN)
-A lot of folks taking Vandy (17-7, 6-4 SEC) in this one, especially being at home in Memorial Coliseum and the magic that seems to ensue in big games there for the Commodores. Kentucky (24-1, 10-0) is still Kentucky, they still have Anthony Davis and his Stretch Armstrong arms. It’s going to be tough for Festus Ezeli to be effective by himself, they’ll really need guys like Steve Tchiengang to show up down low and 6-8 Lance Gilbourne to provide a mid-range to draw out Davis and Kentucky’s other lengthy bigs.
No. 15 Creighton vs. Wichita State (5 p.m., ESPN2)
-Just another day in the Missouri Valley Conference. Creighton (21-4, 11-3 MVC) is somehow surviving in the Top-25 despite losses to Northern Iowa and Evansville on the road. Granted, they’ll fall come tomorrow, but a win over the Shockers (21-4, 12-2) would not only help them stay in the rankings, but also go a long way to help their confidence and steady their at-large hopes. Which to me, is the best a conference win can do, being that teams see these opponents automatically every year. Wichita State has won three in a row after a loss at Drake.
No. 16 UNLV vs. No. 14 San Diego State (4 p.m, The Mtn.)
-This one is set for a classic. The Rebels (21-4, 5-2 Mountain West Conference) losing at Wyoming in their last game took some luster off this game, but it’s still a battle of Top-20 teams. The Aztecs (20-3, 6-1) have only lost one game since Dec. 4, a bad one at Colorado State, but other than that have been soaring.
No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 12 Michigan State (6 p.m., ESPN)
-It seems like every week, the Buckeyes (21-3, 9-2 Big Ten) play the second-best team in the B1G. Whoever it is. This week, it’s Michigan State (19-5, 8-3). It’ll be Jared Sullinger vs. Draymond Green for the most part, but can any of the Spartan’s guards get past ball-hawking Aaron Craft? That will probably be a big reason if Tom Izzo’s bunch can get a win. Look for William Buford to have a big game for tOSU, he had a career-high 29 last game, a victory at Purdue.
Temple vs. Xavier (9 p.m., ESPN2)
-What do the Owls have to do to get some serious poll love? They’ve beaten Duke this season, have a KenPom rating of 30 and have won eight in a row after a bad loss to Richmond on the road. They’re 18-5 overall and 7-2 in the Atlantic 10 and also have wins over Wichita State and Penn, two teams deep in the NCAA Tournament conversation. They won’t help themselves that much with a win over the Musketeers (16-8, 7-3), but it would certainly make me look stupid if they took a loss. Chris Mack’s squad, on the other hand, desperately needs a confidence W, losing three of their last six.
-PHOTO: GOOGLE IMAGES