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
Some random and some not so random thoughts while working on videos, and the NIT and CBI on in the background.
Rare news came out, Shaka Smart is going to stay with VCU and not go after the bigger dollar amounts that were probably being thrown toward him, and rumor is over $2 million per season. It’s easy to sit in the arm-chair say what you would do if you were in the situation, but until you really are it is hard to say what you would do. With Smart staying it provides a little light of commitment in a sport that is full of jumping ship when dollar signs arrive at your door.
Coaches are not the only ones that are moving on, Athletic Directors are doing so as well. Western Kentucky AD Ross Bjork, in his 2nd year in Bowling Green, left for the greener and deeper pockets of the SEC and Ole Miss. The athletic program seems to be a feeder for the SEC, Dennis Felton to Georgia and was fired in the middle of the 2008-09 season. Darrin Horn took the Sweet 16 run from the Hilltoppers to South Carolina and was fired after this season.
Coaches are getting fired with large buyouts. Look at Horn, his buyout was around 2$.5 million (sorry assistant coaches). For a program like South Carolina, they felt that they would rather pay the money and hope to boost revenue to cover their loss. (I would guess ticket prices are probably going to be going up). With commitments constantly being broken is it any surprise that players are doing the same?
Every year you hear the stories of players that have committed to play for a coach who was fired, or left the school ask for a release from their commitment or current players ask for a transfer. The argument always comes up, are the players committing to play for a coach or for the school? I used to say school, but recently turned to the thought process that they are choosing a coach that fits their style of play.
UConn’s big man Alex Oriakhi plans on transferring because of possible sanctions from the NCAA due to the programs low APR scores. His father told media members in Connecticut that the reason for the transfer is “because of the Tournament.” The NCAA has aided the student-athletes in this situation, if a program is banned, the player can transfer and not sit out a year. So if a student-athlete is with a program that is not meeting APR standards a kid can leave with no punishment, even if he was on the roster for the teams with the low grades.
Next you have the “one and done” players, those that enroll for the one year of college that the NBA now requires players to complete. These players in my opinion have ruined the game, yes they are great players and are fun to watch, but are they really good for college sports?
College basketball is a business, I understand that, and for some schools it is the money-maker. The phrase, “money talks” is true, I have no problem with coaches, AD’s or anyone taking the larger offers, I’m sure I would do the same. I’m still undecided how I feel about the ‘one and done players” I really wish the NBA would add a rule like MLB, players can be drafted after their junior season if they don’t go pro out of high school. I am sure of one thing, I am glad to know that there are some people like Coach Smart and Brad Stephens at Buter who are willing to stick with the schools that have given them the opportunities that they have had.
Enjoy the tournament tomorrow!
Don’t look now, but the Tennessee Volunteers are creeping up the ranks as a possible bubble team for the NCAA Tournament.
Winners of eight of their last nine games, Tennessee found a way to grab the No. 2 seed for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, despite five teams lower than them having better overall records.
With a strong finish to the regular season, including wins at Florida and at home over Vanderbilt — two locks for the tournament — the Volunteers have surprised a lot of people under first-year coach Cuzono Martin.
Nobody expected this for the Vols — many thought they would dwell in the cellar of the SEC. After early season losses to Austin Peay, Charleston and Oakland, that prediction seemed likely.
But something changed, all it took was a 69-44 blowout victory to national title perennial favorite Kentucky to put a spark into this team, as they have just lost once since that game at the end of January. Sweeping the season series with the Gators and beating the Commodores shockingly gave them the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed in the SEC.
This year’s Vols don’t necessarily have the star power they have had in the past, with Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris both leaving early after last season’s drama involving Bruce Pearl. But they have had a couple guys come out of nowehere to provide big lifts. Trae Golden, a guy who averaged all of three points a game last year, is currently leading Tennessee in scoring with 13.4 per game. He posted 17 points in each of the most recent Florida and Vanderbilt games.
Jeronne Maymon, in his second season at Tennessee after transferring from Marquette, has seen his minutes increase from just 9.1 last year to 27.8 this year. He has been the main post-presence for the Vols, averaging 12.6 and 7.8 a game. He picked it up when it counted too, scoring at least 12 points in every SEC game.
Perhaps the best player of the three is Jarnell Stokes, who came to Tennesee in January after graduating high school early. In his first start, he posted 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in an upset win over UConn. He’s scored in double figures six times this season, and is still just two months removed from his 18th birthday. Stokes has perhaps been the wild card on this team, as they have lost just three times since his first start nearly two months ago. He has quickly become one of the best freshman in the conference this side of Lexington.
What Martin has done this year in his first year at Tennessee coach is pretty remarkable, considering they lost 70 percent of their scoring from last year. They have had unknowns step up big, and that takes a special kind of coach to make that happen.
Those bad early season losses won’t go away, however, and that’s what will hurt Tennessee the most when it comes time to determine if they are good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament. But with those big conference wins, as well as the non-conference win over Connecticut, things are looking good in Knoxville.
They aren’t in yet, but a win or two in the SEC Tournament this weekend will surely help their cause. They’ve got Ole Miss on Friday, a team they beat 73-60 last month. If they win that one they will likely play Vanderbilt, who they beat just last weekend. They are on the outside looking in at the moment, but that can change this weekend. And don’t be surprised if they keep on with their surprises.
We are in the Final Countdown of the regular season, so that means the final what to watch for because if you don’t know what you’re watching next week, well you need to turn in your fan card.
Monday: Notre Dame @ Georgetown (7pm ESPN) – The last Big Monday game of the season, always hate to see this happen since they have one of the best announcing crews. Back to the game the 3rd place Irish and 4th place Hoyas have the coveted double-bye, for now, at Madison Square Garden but can still drop to a single-bye so expect this to be a great game. If you wanted to the Daytona 500 may be on (I really need to invent a tarp for NASCAR) to flip to during the media timeouts.
Tuesday: Michigan St at Indiana (7pm ESPN) – Sparty comes to Bloomington where the Hoosiers have had some success (cue the Kentucky video) against ranked opponents.
Wednesday:The first conference tournament starts with the Atlantic Sun on ESPN3. Marquette visits Cincinnati (7pm ESPN), the Bearcats have played well ever since the fight vs Xavier earlier this season including wins over Louisville, Connecticut, Pitt and Georgetown. USF will be looking for a resume building win as they visit the KFC Yum! Center (can’t forget the !) to take on Louisville (7pm Big East Network). 8pm Iowa State travels to Missouri (Big 12 Network).
Thursday: Michigan takes on Illinois (7pm ESPN), in what could be Bruce Weber’s last game as head coach of the Fighting Illini. The Missouri Valley and the West Coast Conference tournaments appear on the screen.
Friday: Murray State is playing in the Semifinals of the OVC Tournament (7pm ESPNU). If you want to find me I’ll be watching a great college baseball series of Pepperdine vs Louisville (two weeks in a row with a baseball plug, sue me).
Saturday: The first tickets are punched as the Big South, OVC and Atlantic Sun all determine a champion. Memphis @ Tulsa (Noon CBS) in a C-USA match-up of the top teams in the league, Louisville travels to Syracuse (4pm CBS), who knows what Louisville team will show up.
Sunday: The last day of games for the regular season and Kentucky travels to Florida (Noon CBS) and in state rivals Purdue @ Indiana (6pm Big Ten Net). A champion will be crowned for the MVC (2pm CBS).
Every week leading up to the NCAA Tournament we will feature several bubble teams with their current chances of making the tournament and key games ahead for them.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini have had a free-fall as of late, losing six of their last seven conference games. This is a team that has a solid resume though, with wins over Michigan State and Ohio State heading it. They still have three more games against top-20 teams. If they take care of the games they should win (Nebraska, Iowa) and win one of those three games against ranked teams, they should be in. If they don’t, losses to Penn State as well as fellow-bubble teams Northwestern and Purdue could be crucial. They play Purdue again on Wednesday night — a loss to them for the second straight time this year could be detrimental, especially if bracket-builders are forced to decide between the two. Feb. 14 status: In
Purdue: Speaking of the Boilermakers, they have a solid 6-6 conference record, but those six wins won’t impress many, as none of them have been against teams with winning records in the conference. They are 0-6 for the year against top-25 teams and aside from solid-but-not-astounding victories against Miami and Illinois, don’t have many wins to brag about. They face three more ranked Big Ten foes this year, which may be the difference for the Boilermakers. Feb. 14 status: Out
Texas: The Big 12 has been a very top-heavy conference, and surprisingly Texas has not been one of those teams at the top. They have lost to all of the teams at the top of the conference this year, the last three coming by a combined nine points. The Longhorns best victory this year is against Temple, but a win over the weekend against bubble-team Kansas State did help. They face both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this week on the road, and although those two teams are in the bottom tier of the conference, they would still be two quality and much-needed wins. Feb. 14 status: Out
Alabama: The Crimson Tide could be on the down slope, as coach Anthony Grant suspended four of his top players over the weekend due to a violation of team rules. The timing was bad, as they have a home date with Florida tonight. Alabama is in desperate need for a big one — they have some of the top teams close, but haven’t gotten that marquee win. If they don’t beat the Gators, a win over the suddenly surging Tennessee Volunteers this weekend will be necessary to keep their chances alive. Feb. 14 status: Out
Connecticut: The reigning champion Huskies surely still have some work to do. They sport the top strength of schedule in the nation and the No. 19 RPI, but are just 15-9 for the year and 5-7 in the Big East. They’ve beaten Florida State, Harvard and Notre Dame, but they have double-digit losses in their last three games against ranked foes. They are sitting in the bottom-half of a weakened Big East, but a win against Marquette this weekend may put them in for the time being. Feb. 14 status: Out
Notre Dame: The Irish are rolling right now, winning six straight games, including three over top-15 teams. Right now they should be in, especially since they sit third in the Big East at 9-3. Five of their last six games are against unranked teams, and although that might sound good, if they drop a couple of those this is suddenly a team that might need to win a couple of games in the Big East Tournament to get into the dance. They have the victories (Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette) but have also suffered conference losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers. They face Rutgers tonight, which will be a big revenge game for the Irish. Feb. 14 status: In
Miami: The Hurricanes will always have that win over Duke, but that’s their only marquee win. They missed out on a chance against Florida State over the weekend, but will get another chance this month to beat them. Miami faces the Tar Heels at home tomorrow night, hoping to avenge a 17-point loss to them last month. If they upset the Tar Heels, there shouldn’t be much doubt about letting the Hurricanes in, but if not, there won’t be many more chances to impress the committee. Feb. 14 status: Out
Virginia: The Cavaliers sport a solid 19-5 record, but just one win over a ranked team (Michigan). If they win their four games against teams with sub-500 ACC records and one of their games against Florida State and UNC, it will be hard to bypass Virginia. I don’t see both Miami and Virginia getting in, however, so their 52-51 win last month over the Hurricanes could be a deciding factor. Feb. 14 status: In
Will the real Vanderbilt Commodores please stand up? Seriously, I can’t get a grip on this team, and that’s the way they have been for the last few years.
This team is talented enough to make the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, as shown by their No. 7 preseason national rank. But they tend to have mental lapses, which could see them falling in the first round (for the third straight year).
When they finally started to show they are a threat in the Southeastern Conference (going 6-1 to begin conference play), they lost two road games at Arkansas and Florida. Neither loss is necessarily bad, as both teams are in the top third in the SEC standings, but if they can’t beat those two teams, they will have an awfully tough go against Kentucky.
The Commodores face the Wildcats twice in February, the first one coming Saturday on their home court. Vandy should be in the tournament with their current record, but they could use a marquee win against a team like UK (who couldn’t?). They have beaten just one ranked opponent all year, a convincing 74-57 win at Marquette. But that’s it. They have fallen to three ranked teams in overtime (Xavier, Louisville and Mississippi State), and also boast a couple home losses that could be resume killers (Cleveland State and Indiana State).
Vanderbilt’s success lies on the talented wing-duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, one of the top duos in the country. Jenkins averages 19.7 a game and has the ability to make three’s from any spot on the floor. Taylor averages 17.7 points a game, as the slasher on the team. Vandy can go as far as their wing-tandem can take them.
Vanderbilt will need improved play from their post players in order to see more success. They rank just 136th in the nation in rebounding for the year. One of their post-players, Festus Ezeli, missed 10 games early in the season with a knee injury, but he
still has not been able to put up the numbers he did in his junior season when he averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.
This is the year for Vanderbilt, as they have six seniors with loads of experience on their team. The Commodores have been known as an underachiever for quite some time now, and this is the last chance Kevin Stallings’ team has to quiet the critics.
I’ve picked the Commodores to make it to the Sweet 16 in my bracket each of the last two years, only to see them be upset by a mid-major both years. Odds are, I’m going to pick them to advance to at least the second round again this season, but would anyone be surprised anymore if they don’t?