SEC East Preview: Tennessee is the Team to Beat

    
October 9th, 2008
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Yes, football season is here, and as per usual, a good deal of the national talk is centered around the SEC. Tim Tebow, Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, Percy Harvin, Brandon LaFell, Arian Foster...the list of talented SEC players, and future first-round draft picks, is endless.

 

But the SEC also plays some hoops too, producing three national champions, five Final Four appearances, and 24 first-round draft picks since 1998. Despite a down year last season where only a late season run by Georgia through the SEC Tournament earned the SEC five bids into the NCAA Tournament, the league is poised to bounce back this year with an infusion of young talent. Here’s a look ahead at the SEC East.


SEC EAST

 


1. TENNESSEE

 

2007-08 results: 31-5, (14-2 SEC), Sweet 16

 

Players lost: Duke Crews, Jordan Howell, Chris Lofton, JuJuan Smith, Ramar Smith

 

Despite the off-season dismissals of Crews and Ramar Smith, the Vols are poised for another big season under Bruce Pearl. Pearl is building a perennial contender in Knoxville, and expectations will be high this year, despite the loss of so many key players.

 

There’s no question who the leader of the team will be…versatile forward Tyler Smith. At 6’7”, Smith has the size of a small forward, but often initiates the offense with his passing and ball-handling ability. He’ll likely look for his shot a little more this season considering all the firepower the Vols lost. Swingman JP Prince and Wayne Chism will also be counted on heavily as returning players. Chism is a load down low when he plays under control, and Prince’s slashing and athleticism are a great fit in Pearl’s offense. Brian Williams also return up front, giving the Vols some strength to bang down low, although he must watch his fouls more this year. Freshmen Renaldo Woolridge and Philip Jurick will also be asked to contribute, especially if Chism and Williams can’t stay out of foul trouble. Smith and Prince, although not typical post players, also have the athleticism to play down low for stretches when Tennessee goes with a smaller lineup.

 

The reason for optimism in Knoxville lies in the recruiting class, led by stud guard Scotty Hopson and wing Emmanuel Negedu. Hopson is a terrific athlete with good range on his jumper and should be an impact player from the first day of practice. They’ll be joined by Bobby Maze and Cameron Tatum, who should see plenty of minutes in a depleted Volunteer backcourt. Point guard has been a problem for Pearl’s team in the past, but if Maze or Tatum can effectively run the offense and get the ball to Smith and Hopson, the Vols will be tough to beat.

 

All in all, Tennessee looks ready to have another great season. Although they lost a ton of experience, they return enough upperclassmen to help guide them through the SEC. Mix in the talented freshmen, and the Vols are a threat to go deep in the NCAA Tourney once again. How far they go will depend on how quickly Hopson and the young guys catch on, but it looks like Tennessee basketball is on the map to stay.

 

2. FLORIDA

 

2007-08 results: 24-12 (8-8 SEC), NIT semifinals

Players lost: Marreese Speights

 

After back-to-back national championships, the Gators crashed back to Earth last season, failing to reach the NCAA Tourney with a roster full of untested players and freshmen. However, it’s hard not to think that they won’t be vastly improved this year, thanks to the experience gained last season by so many young players.

 

The Gators backcourt could prove to be one of the SEC’s best, led by combo guard Nick Calathes. As a freshman, Calathes led the team in scoring and assists, displaying a high basketball IQ and a versatility that makes him a great fit for Coach Billy Donovan. Calathes has the size to play off the ball, but also frequently runs the point and sets up the offense. He’ll be joined by Jai Lucas and Walter Hodge, two quality players who make up for their lack of size with basketball savvy. Lucas is adept at using his exceptional speed to get into the lane, while Hodge is a solid outside shooter. Incoming freshman Ray Shipman and Erving Walker will be asked to provide depth.

 

Up front, the Gators will miss Speights, who was selected 16th in the 2008 NBA Draft, but maybe not as much as many think. Speights was a talented player, but he often found himself in Donovan’s doghouse for lack of effort, and he sometimes appeared disinterested on the court. If the Gators can get inspired performances from sophomore Alex Tyus, as well as freshmen Eloy Vargas and Kenny Kadji, they should be able to replace Speights. The wildcards are Chandler Parsons and Dan Werner, both highly-skilled shooters who thrive on the perimeter despite having the height to play down low. If they’re able to provide an inside presence while still capitalizing on their outside skills, the Gators offense will be tough to stop.

 

They’re still too young and lack the depth to think about a deep tourney run, but the Gators should be much improved this year. Donovan is hoping the mental mistakes and lack of confidence that plagued them in the conference play last year will be cured by a year of seasoning. With another solid recruiting class on the way in 2009, the Gators fall from grace should be short-lived.

 

3. KENTUCKY

 

2007-08 results: 18-13 (12-4 SEC), NCAA 1st round

Players lost: Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford, Derrick Jasper

 

As Coach Billy Gillispie prepares for his second season, there are still a lot of questions in Lexington. Is sophomore Patrick Patterson going to be healthy? Can Perry Stevenson build on his late-season success? How do you replace the experience and leadership of Bradley and Crawford? Will stud recruit DeAndre Liggins be eligible? The sooner Gillispie can answer these, the sooner UK should be able to rebound from a rollercoaster season.

 

It’s no secret where the Cats will look for leadership this year. As a freshman, all Patterson did was average 16 points and seven rebounds per game and shoot 57 percent from the field, all while being the only low-post option much of the season. Patterson is extremely strong, has great hands, can finish around the basket, and has soft touch on his jumper. If he is fully recovered from ankle surgery, and by all accounts he is ahead of schedule with rehab, he should challenge for SEC Player of the Year.

 

Joining Patterson up front will be Stevenson, the rail-thin shotblocker who played well down the stretch in Patterson’s absence. If he can continue to play with energy and confidence, he’ll be the perfect compliment to Patterson’s brute force around the basket. Junior-college recruit Josh Harrelson, bouncy sophomore AJ Stewart and oft-injured giant Jared Carter should provide depth, but don’t expect to see Patterson on the bench too long.

 

The backcourt picture is a little more complicated, where only juniors Jodie Meeks and Ramon Harris have any real experience. The Cats will lean heavily on freshmen Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins (if academically eligible), as well as juco transfer Kevin Galloway. While they can’t replace the experience of Crawford or Bradley, they should be more athletic and could provide mismatches with their size.  Junior Michael Porter also returns, but his minutes will likely be limited.

 

This year’s Cats are long on talent, but short on experience. If Patterson is healthy, and the freshmen contribute in the backcourt, they could be a dangerous team. But they also could be prone to bouts of inconsistency during the season. A tough schedule won’t do them any favors, but there’s no reason the Cats aren’t dancing again this year.

 

 

4. VANDERBILT

 

2007-08 results 26-8 (10-6 SEC), lost 1st round NCAA Tournament

Players lost: Shan Foster, Alex Gordon, Ross Neltner

 

It would be easy to write off the Commodores this season, despite the return of talented big man AJ Ogilvy and steady point guard Jermaine Beal, After all, Foster was one of the best shooters in the country last year, and a guy who came through in the clutch again and again. Gordon and Neltner weren’t superstars, but both were solid, dependable SEC players who provided plenty of toughness and experience. On top of that, they were blown out by Siena in the tournament, 83-62.

 

But Vanderbilt has quietly established themselves as a threat in the SEC by recruiting solid players, playing together, and playing smart, efficient basketball. They’ll have some fresh faces this year, and likely won’t get 26 wins again, but this is a team capable of pulling some surprises along the way.

 

It will start with Beal in the backcourt. Beal is an underrated point guard who makes smart decisions, plays great defense and knows how to direct the offense. He’ll have to step up his scoring more this year to replace Foster, but he’s certainly capable of that, having dropped 17 in a late-season win over Tennessee. George Drake played limited minutes last year, but is a capable shooter who know the offense. Freshmen Brad Tinsley and Jeff Taylor will also see plenty of minutes, and Tinsley could earn a starting nod with his range.

 

As important as Beal is, Ogilvy may be even more vital. The sophomore big man lived up to the hype last year, averaging 17 points per game and showing solid footwork in the post. He struggled with foul problems during the year, but another year of experience in the rough-and-tumble SEC should help eliminate that. In what is likely his last year before jumping to the NBA, Ogilvy could challenge for conference POY honors.  He’ll certainly get plenty of touches with Foster gone. Help for Ogilvy is still an unknown. Sophomore Andre Walker and Darshawn McClellan have plenty of potential, but both saw only limited minutes last season. The best addition may be redshirt freshmen Festus Ezeli, a physical specimen who, while raw, could provide the perfect balance for Ogilvy’s finesse game.

 

The Commodores have averaged almost 22 wins per year the last five seasons by playing solid, steady basketball and riding their strengths…shooting and teamwork. They’ve certainly got some holes to fill, but if some of the freshmen step up around Beal and Ogilvy, this could still be an NCAA Tournament team.

 

5. SOUTH CAROLINA

 

2007-08 results: 14-18 (5-11 SEC)

Player lost: Dwayne Day

 

The Gamecocks will take the floor this year under a new coach, and with most of their offense returning. Darrin Horn replaces the retired Dave Odom at the helm, and his arrival has breathed some new life into a program that seemed to have sputtered.

The Gamecocks’ fortunes rest on guards Zam Fredrick and Devan Downey, who combined for  over 33 points and eight assists per game last year. The cat-quick Downey is fearless going to the hole, and Horn is likely to give him the green light to run even more this season. Frederick is capable of big scoring nights, having dropped 28 on Clemson and 24 on Tennessee, but he must work on shot selection. Brandis Raley-Ross also returns to bolster the backcourt.

 

Up front, Dominique Archie, Mike Holmes, Evaldas Banuilis and Sam Muldrow all return…which may not mean much. Archie is a talented wing who can score, but like Fredrick, his shot selection needs work and he’s too thin to play in the post. Holmes and Archie tied for the team lead in rebounding last year at a paltry 5.7 per game. Horn would love to get something out of big man Mitchell Carter, who has great size and at one time was a highly touted recruit, but he simply hasn’t produced. As it is, the Gamecocks will again be a perimeter-oriented team that will likely get pounded on the glass.

 

The backcourt is good enough to get some wins, but up front, the Gamecocks are woefully short on talent. Horn will turn up the tempo and let his guards have freedom to make up for their front-court deficiencies, but there’s just not enough here to think they can challenge for any sort of post-season berth. Horn may get things back on track in Columbia, but it likely won’t be this season.

 

6. GEORGIA

 

2007-08 results:  17-17 (4-12 SEC) Lost 1st round NCAA Tournament

Players lost: Sundiata Gaines, Billy Humphrey, Dave Bliss

 

After a surprising run to the SEC Tournament title last season, Dennis Felton’s Bulldogs will be lucky to avoid the basement this year. Despite their late season run, this was a team that struggled all year to score the ball, and their top two scores are now gone. A solid recruiting class will help, but Bulldog fans shouldn’t expect a repeat run to the postseason.

 

After what seemed like an eternity in Athens, Gaines finally exhausted his eligibility, leaving a sizable void in the backcourt. Terrance Woodbury will have to step up in a big way to replace the scoring of Gaines and Humphrey, who was dismissed from the team. Corey Butler, Troy Brewer, Zac Swansey and freshmen Dustin Ware and Ebuka Anyaorah will form a platoon in the backcourt, although none are very proven. If Woodbury falters, this could be a long season in Athens.

 

Opposing players are glad to see Bliss gone this season. Bliss didn’t do much statistically, but he was a hard-nosed player and didn’t mind roughing things up a little. Albert Jackson and Jeremy Price return as solid big men, but neither is likely to scare opponents much. It will be interesting to watch Chris Barnes, a bruising forward who showed flashes of potential, who returns this year after sitting out last season. But the biggest impact may be from freshman Howard Thompkins. The 6’8’ stud forward chose Georgia over Kentucky, Florida and Michigan State, and he has the athleticism to be a factor right away. 

 

The run to the SEC Tourney title may have saved Felton’s job last year, but this year probably won’t help his case to keep it. Georgia always defends well and keeps games close, but they haven’t been able to get over the hump in recent years, and heavy personnel losses this year make it unlikely again. Thompkins and Woodbury are talented players, but they won’t be enough to keep Georgia out of the basement.

 

 Part Two: Jason’s SEC West Preview