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
The Pac-12. After a number of, well, let’s just call it like it was, laughable, years, it’s back on the rise. There are 4-5 legitimate NCAA Tournament teams and definite enough impact players to make this league noticeable on a the national stage again, and they don’t just play for UCLA.
PAC-12 PRESEASON RANKINGS
1.) Stanford – Johnny Dawkins is about to take the Cardinal to the NCAA Tournament. Chasson Randle returns, as does Aaron Bright (11.7 ppg, 3.7 apg) and three of their top four rebounders. Standford made a charge to the NIT championship last season and have a bulk of that team back. Four-star forward Roscoe Allen comes to campus, as does fellow four-star Grant Verhoeven. Dawkins proves he can do more that back up Mike Krzyzewski.
2.) Arizona – The Wildcats have a ton of talent and not any real question marks. Solomon Hill and his 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds are back, as is Nick Johnson, even if his play was sporadic at times. Their biggest improvement will be in the additions they made. First, the transfer of Mark Lyons from Xavier into the program gives the guard play an instant shot of intensity. Then the freshman recruiting class was a consensus Top 3 for 2012, headlined by three five-stars including 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski. Look for Kevin Parrom to have a big year on the boards, too.
3.) UCLA – This is the make-or-break season for Ben Howland. He’s clearly thrown all his weight into the 2012 recruiting class with Kyle Anderson, Shabazz Muhammad , Tony Parker and Jordan Adams, three five-stars and a four-star, and Muhammad hasn’t been cleared by the NCAA yet. If this class can co-exist with the likes of twins David (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Travis Wear (11.5 and 5.9) and Joshua Smith can keep the weight off and improve on his 9.9 points per game last season, this team could be a Final Four team. There’s not going to be a middle ground. Either they thrive or collapse.
4.) Colorado – There’s really only one name you need to know on the Buffaloes roster, Andre Roberson. Everyone else has memorized it. Roberson’s 11.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per game last season could’ve allowed him to take his game pro, but he opted to return for his junior season. He does have a solid cast of role players around him in Spencer Dinwiddie (10 ppg) and Askie Booker (9.1 ppg, 40.2 percent from the field). The big boost is supposedly coming from a six-man recruiting class, lead by three four-star recruits, including the likes of Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon. Tad Boyle is aiming for a second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
5.) California – Don’t look now, but there’s a stout program in NoCal. The Golden Bears return leading scorer Allen Crabbe (15.2 ppg) as well as top facilitator Justin Cobbs and his 5 assists per game. It’s not beyond the imagination for people to believe that Cal could make a run to the Pac-12 tournament title in March. There’s a lot of talent coming into this program (more on that lower in this post) and there’s something about Mike Montgomery that makes you think he can get the best out of an unexpected situation.
9.) Oregon State
10.) Washington State
11.) Arizona State
Andre Roberson, Colorado – It’s almost an unwritten rule: If you average a double-double and return for another season, you should be on any all-conference team. Roberson is the best player on an improving Buffaloes team that is poised for a big jump in the Pac-12.
Solomon Hill, Arizona – The best rebounder in the Pac-12 resides in Tuscon, and it’s not even close. Hill averaged 12.7 points and 7.7 boards and he might average a double-double if all the new faces within the Wildcats program give him the help he needs this season. The guy just flat makes plays down low and with another solid season he’ll have a legitimate shot at being an NBA lottery pick. He could also improve his already impressive assist numbers (2.6 per game) with the added weapons around him, if he learns to pass out of the post, which can be a lost art.
C.J. Wilcox, Washington – Hard to believe that a guy who averaged 14.2 and 3.4 rebounds per game was just honorable mention all Pac-12, but Wilcox, a rising junior, was. I can’t imagine that happens this season and if everything goes like it should, this will probably be Wilcox’s final season on campus. He’s a 6-5 shooter that looks like a prototypical NBA 2-guard.
Kyle Anderson, UCLA – I also said this in my Impact Freshman post on College Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, but Anderson will be the most important piece to Ben Howland’s squad this season. He’s a pure passer that loves to facilitate and that’s been a staple of the UCLA team’s that have thrived under Howland — see: Farmar, Jordan or Collison, Darren. Also, if Shabazz Muhammad isn’t eligible? The Bruins will rely on Anderson even more on the perimeter, especially on defense.
Chasson Randle, Stanford – You can’t necessarily blame Randle for not getting any publicity as one of the nation’s best freshman in 2011-12. He played in a down Pac-12 on a team that played in the NIT (albeit an NIT TITLE team). But quietly, the 6-1 Randle averaged 13.8 points per game for the Cardinal, which led the team. The scoring may not spike, but look for the Rock Island, Ill. native’s rebounding and assist numbers to jump as teams will look to key on him as a scorer.
MOST UNDERVALUED TEAM – California
Mike Montgomery somehow makes it happen in Berkeley. Leading scorer Allen Crabbe and his 15.2 points per game return, as does Justin Cobbs (12.6 ppg, 5 apg) and David Kravish and his 5.6 boards per game. Couple that with a three-man recruiting class that includes four-star guard Tyrone Wallace, and the Golden Bears still have the wherewithal to stay at least on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth.
MOST OVERRATED TEAM – USC
I’ve just heard too much on this team. I understand they had to deal with injuries like the torn ACL of Jio Fontan and a lot of inexperience, but I can’t imagine that this season, given the amount of transfers they’re bringing in, that they magically jump from conference bottom-feeder to NCAA Tournament team. Orlando Woolridge is immediately eligible from Tennessee and they also get guys like UC-Irvine transfer Eric Wise. Even looking at all that, I can’t see Kevin O’Neill pulling a Fred Hoiberg. A 12-14 win season is a definite possibility, but I’m not putting them on any bracket as of now.
SLEEPER IMPACT PLAYER – Kevin Parrom, Arizona
Parrom isn’t really a sleeper. His story has been well-documented — his grandmother passed, he was shot and his mother passed from cancer all last year — and he’s rebounded incredibly from it. His averages from his junior season were modest — 4.9 points, 2.9 rebounds per game — but he also was battling all those unforeseeable challenges. I see a second-team all-Pac 12 season from the New York native. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead the Wildcats in rebounding, he’s a 6-6 jumper, who averaged 4.2 rebounds as a freshman.
PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR – Andre Roberson, Colorado
I don’t bet against a player who finished with a double-double in a ‘Big 6’ conference and returned for another season, even if it is at Colorado. The Buffaloes got a huge boost when Roberson decided to return. There’s a lot of great players in the Pac-12, but none with the type of skill set Roberson has. Lots of points, lots of rebounds, lots of minutes. He barely edged out Hill for this, mainly because of all he can do for the Buffs.
PAC-12 COACH OF THE YEAR – Johnny Dawkins, Stanford
I don’t think a lot of people saw this coming. Dawkins lead the Cardinal to the NIT title last season and it’s a safe bet that with all the talent coming back, an NCAA Tournament berth is within reach. Some believed that after Dawkins left a long-time assistant job at Duke, it was a huge risk. Not many Coach K disciples have left the Cameron Indoor bench. However, Dawkins has done an outstanding job, despite the fact the Pac-12 has been down. The Cardinal should take a nice leap this season, and Dawkins work and system are a big reason.
PHOTOS: PAC-12 CONFERENCE/COLORADO UNIVERSITY/GOOGLE IMAGES
Miss us? Well we’re back. This week we’ll be previewing the six major conferences, beginning with the Big Ten.
1- Indiana. Not only will they be the team to beat in the Big Ten, but they will likely begin the season ranked No. 1 in the country. The Hoosiers bring back most of their team, including some talented newcomers, that went 27-9 in a breakout year last season. Cody Zeller, perhaps the favorite to win the Naismith Award, is back to man the middle, with Indiana also returning three more players that averaged at least 10 points per game (Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Victor Oladipo). This is as deep as any team in the nation, as Indiana will have Yogi Ferrell compete for the starting point guard position with Hulls. In what will likely be a 10 or 11-man rotation, the Hoosiers will likely get back Maurice Creek, who has had his share of injuries three years removed from leading Indiana in scoring. This may be Indiana’s best chance at getting back to the Final Four, and anything less would be considered a disappointment.
2- Michigan. I’m a firm believer that the Wolverines have the best backcourt in the country in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Those two led Michigan to a 24-10 record a year ago, both scoring over 14 points a game. With Burke opting to come back for his sophomore year, expectations will be high in Ann Arbor. The frontcourt is a different story, as they had several graduate, but Mitch McGary will likely start down low and I think he will be one of the best freshmen in the conference. Burke and Hardaway, Jr. will lead the way, but for the Wolverines to make a run this season they will need guys like McGary and Glenn Robinson III to not play like freshmen.
3-Ohio State. The Buckeyes come into the 2012-13 season with maybe more question marks than anyone. Graduating Jared Sullinger will certainly hurt, but they also lost another solid starter in Willam Buford. But if Deshaun Thomas does what he did in last year’s NCAA Tournament, then there may not be much of a reason to worry. Thomas scored at least 14 points in four of Ohio State’s five tourney games, including 31 in their opening-round win over Loyola. He will get the ball often from Aaron Craft, who may be the best floor-general in the country. For the Buckeyes youngsters, including Shannon Scott and Amir Williams, it will be trial-by-fire because Thad Matta will need them to contribute right away.
4-Michigan State. The Spartans return most of their team, except of course Draymond Green, who was an All-American last year in his senior season. Replacing a player of Green’s caliber is tough, but Tom Izzo will look to Keith Appling to step up his production for his junior year, as he is the leading returning scorer at 11.4 a game. Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix all averaged at least seven a game, but Nix is coming off a rocky summer as he was involved in a drug arrest. Michigan State has one of the deepest teams in the country, along with Indiana, and will also look from solid production from freshman Gary Harris. Losing Green won’t be the end of the world for a Wolverine team as deep as any they’ve recently had.
5- Wisconsin. Even without Jordan Taylor, the Badgers will still contend for a top-five spot in the Big Ten thanks to Ryan Evans, a swingman who averaged 11 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds a year ago. Jared Berggren (10.5 ppg., 4.9 rpg) will also be back, but Sam Dekker is who they’re really excited about in Madison. The talented freshman will likely make an instant impact, as he was rated the No. 17 recruit in the nation by ESPN.
Cody Zeller – The 7-foot big man did a little bit of everything last year, averaging over 15 points and six rebounds, while also getting one steal and one block per game. That was in his freshman year, and we can expect a big improvement for Zeller’s sophomore year. It has been said for five years that Cody is the most talented of the Zeller brothers, and with his older brothers graduated, the spotlight is on Cody to prove he’s not only the best Zeller, but the best player in the nation.
Trevor Mbakwe– Now in his sixth, yup sixth, year at Minnesota, this selection all depends on Mbakwe’s health. After already missing two years due to injury, he only played ten games last year, averaging a near double-double with 14 points and 9.1 rebounds. Last year it was his ACL, but he appears like he will be ready to go by the start of the season. If he’s fully healthy, a spot on the first-team Big Ten seems like a lock.
Aaron Craft– Is there a better point guard in the nation? You could argue Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, but he is also counted on as the Racers’ go-to scorer.Pierre Jackson and Shabazz Napier are two more popular names, but I’m not sure if anyone brings what Craft brings. He’s not known for his scoring (8.8 ppg.) but with 4.6 assists to only 2.2 turnovers a game, Craft does a good job of managing the game. What he’s best known for is his ability to be a shut-down defender, averaging 2.5 steals a game a year ago. Thad Matta may count on more offense this season from Craft, but his defense will still be there.
Trey Burke– Perhaps the most talented freshman guard in the nation last year, Burke decided to come back for his sophomore year. He helped fuel a Michigan turnaround with nearly 15 points and five assists a game, and as a sophomore he will look to lead the Wolverines deep into the NCAA Tournament. He has a ton of weapons around him, and if he matures and improves on his decision maker, Burke could challenge Craft as the best point guard in the conference.
Deshaun Thomas– You can count on Thomas to provide the scoring that is lost for Ohio State after Jarred Sullinger’s departure. He scored 16 points a game a year ago with Sullinger, and for the incredibly athletic forward, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he upped that to the low-20s. Ohio State will need that out of Thomas, as they will be a very inexperienced team besides him and Craft.
Most Undervalued Team
Iowa– With 18 wins a year ago, I wouldn’t be surprised for the Hawkeyes to make a big splash this season. This will be a young team, likely starting two freshman, a sophomore and two juniors, and they lost their leading scorer in Matt Gatens, but the youngsters will carry them. The good thing for those young players is an easy schedule to begin the year. It would be tough for the Hawkeyes to go undefeated in their non-conference slate, but all of their games appear to be winnable. Iowa has a solid backcourt in Josh Oglesby and Roy Marble, and the frontcourt will be led by freshman center Adam Woodbury, a top-40 recruit, along with Aaron White. Iowa usually isn’t a team mentioned with the best of the Big Ten, but this team has all the talent to be in the top half of the conference and grab an NCAA Tournament berth.
Most Overrated Team
Northwestern– I don’t see Northwestern repeating their surprising year from last year when they went 19-14. 20-point per game John Shurma is gone, and starting two-guard JerShon Cobb has been suspended for the season for a violation of team policy. Drew Crawford will carry the scoring load, but I’m not sure if they have much behind him. They have two transfers manning their frontcourt in Jared Swopshire and Nikola Cerina, two guys who never did much impressing at their previous schools. David Sobolewski will be one quality big man for the Wildcats, but I just don’t think they have enough pieces to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Even last year they didn’t impress me, only beating one ranked team all season. With losing their go-to guy, the 2012-13 season won’t be as pretty for Northwestern.
Sleeper Impact Player
Maurice Creek– The Indiana junior could be a huge x-factor this year for the Hoosiers. Three years ago when IU was the laughingstock of the Big Ten, Creek averaged 16 points a game in his freshman season. He got hurt just before Big Ten play began, and was out the rest of the season. He wasn’t his normal self for his sophomore season, clearly not at 100 percent. He only played half of that year, and none the past season. Creek appears to be healthy now, and no one expects him to average 16 points a game, but he still be a big weapon off the bench for the Hoosiers. If he stays healthy, Creek is a guy who provide 10 points a game in a reserve role. IU is a deep team, and to have a guy like Creek as your 7th or 8th man on the bench, they will be in good shape.
Michigan’s John Beilein, like Indiana’s Tom Crean, helped turnaround a dismal Michigan basketball program. But the thing with the Wolverines, no one quite expected it. They should be one of the top teams in the conference this year because a load of depth. They have stars in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., but also quality freshmen that will make this a special team. Michigan won their first Big Ten title since 1986 last season, and though they may not win it this year, they will be right in the thick of the race.
Photos courtesy of Fox59.com and whenlarrymetmagic.com