SEC Lookahead: Don't Be Blue, Kentucky
Predicting how the SEC teams will stack up in 2010-2011 before we even know exactly who will return, who will leave early for the NBA, and where the remaining top recruits will sign, is probably an exercise in futility. That's why these predictions are a bit like reading tea leaves or staring into a crystal ball. Make that reading a crystal ball and staring at tea leaves ... only less reliable.
What we can divine are a couple of themes that have emerged over the past few seasons and will continue in 2010. First, the SEC East will be much stronger than the SEC West. Last season the top four teams in the conference were Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Florida.
With apologies to Yogi, It's deja vu all over again.
The same four teams will be the class of the SEC again. And the fifth best team in the SEC? Probably Ole Miss. The sixth best? How about a much improved Georgia team in its second season under coach Mark Fox.
Of course, the SEC will also further prove why its divisional setup should be abolished leading to a 1-12 conference tournament (like every other major conference) so that the top four teams get byes as opposed to the top two teams from each division.
Lacking that, here are the predictions.
Right now Kentucky has four definite players on its roster. Other than Darius Miller none of these four players will have any significant impact on the 2010-2011 season. We're assuming that John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, and Patrick Patterson, who have all declared for the NBA, will remain in the draft. (Patterson has no choice since he previously declared, at least soon as Kentucky makes him aware of his draft declaration).
Fortunately for Wildcat fans, Calipari has locked down a commit from Turkish big man Enes Kanter, whose coach says he is better than DeMarcus Cousins, and small forward Stacy Poole. Assuming that the Cats lock up Brandon Knight, the nation's No. 1 player, and at least two other top recruits, Kentucky will be talented, but not as talented as last year's team.
What's the ultimate verdict?
Kentucky will go 12-4 if everything materializes correctly for them. If not? 9-7 isn't out of the question. For now, we'll go with the former.
The Vols have less uncertainty surrounding their team than Kentucky, but more than either Florida or Vanderbilt.
Departing seniors Bobby Maze, Wayne Chism, and J.P. Prince will leave a void. That void will be filled by what is currently the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation: Tobias Harris, Jordan McRae, and Trae Golden, all three ranked among the top 55 players in America with Harris, a McDonald's All-American, as the jewel of the class. As if that wasn't enough the Vols will also be adding another top 50 player, Jeronne Maymon, who left Marquette last December, at the end of the first semester and will bring some undersized punch into the Vols interior.
There is still a decent chance that another top five player in the country, Josh Selby, a former Vols commit, comes back on board, but even without Selby, Tennessee should be a top 15 caliber team entering the season.
Look for this projected starting line-up:
1. Melvin Goins
2. Scotty Hopson
3. Tobias Harris
4. Kenny Hall/Jerrone Maymon (December)
5. Brian Williams
And look for this record: 11-5
Florida returns all five starters, just graduates Dan Werner, and adds a couple of top recruits Patric Young and Casey Prather, both top 100 recruits.
So why doesn't this Florida team make a large jump in the SEC standings and give Billy Donovan another chance for a deep run in the tournament?
Because the Gators still lack toughness and will settle for the outside shot too often in close games. The result is a one-game improvement over last season, jumping to 10-6 from 9-7 in conference, but an eventual six seed in the NCAA tournament that will favor them to advance to the second round.
The Commodores graduate senior point guard Jermaine Beal, the straw that stirred the Commodore drink, and it will take a while to replace him. Indeed, many will wonder whether Brad Tinsley can play the point effectively in the SEC.
But what's more important? The Commodores will also lose Australian big man A.J. Ogilvy. Ogilvy declared for the draft and signed with the Wassterman group in the hopes that his best basketball might come somewhere other than Nashville.
Perhaps in Europe or an Australian pro league.
Last year the Commodores rode Jermaine Beal's leadership to a 12-4 conference mark. In 2010-2011, the team will take a step back, while still qualifying for the tournament, at 10-6.
The Bulldogs will be the sixth best team in the SEC next year. With Travis Leslie, Trey Thompkins, and Ricky McPhee returning alongside the other top six scorers on last year's team, the Bulldogs will contend for an NCAA spot all season.
Assuming the tournament expands, as seems likely, the Bulldogs will be dancing come March.
Want a name to keep in mind? Try Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson, Jr., who is going to provide the perimeter scoring, defending, distributing, and slashing that the Bulldogs desperately needed out of the guard position last year.
6. South Carolina
Darrin Horn is a good coach. At some point he'll lead a team that will advance deeper into the NCAA tournament than his Sweet 16 run at Western Kentucky. But it won't be at South Carolina.
With Devan Downey gone, the Gamecocks could hope to replace him. But losing Downey and their other top two scorers? Off a team that already went 6-10? There is way too much reliance on the No. 17 recruiting class in the country to be at all comfortable with the idea that the Gamecocks are going to be very good.
It's going to a long season in Columbia. Might as well go ahead and keep the DVR of the upset victory over Kentucky last season fresh.
4-12 will be the final tally.
1. Ole Miss
The top eight scorers on last year's team, which narrowly missed a trip to the NCAA tournament and advanced to the final four of the NIT, return.
The Rebels figure to be the class of the SEC West, a team that should hang around the bottom half of the Top 25 for most of the 2010-2011 season. Even without the tournament expanding to 96 teams, the Rebels should be in the field.
Look for point guard Chris Warren to become a household name and potential first team SEC selection.
10-6 is the conference record.
We project Courtney Fortson to be back. Which, in theory, should mean that the Razorbacks can actually win some games this season.
Because if the Razorbacks don't go to the NCAA tournament this year, John Pelphrey is gone at the end of his fourth season. In fact, even making the expanded tournament might not be enough.
Thus far, in three seasons at Arkansas, Pelphrey is 51-47 with a putrid 18-30 record in the SEC.
How does that compare with the man they fired him for, Stan Heath?
Stan Heath was 61-36 with a 27-29 record in the SEC in his final three seasons at Arkansas.
Somebody tell me what, exactly, Arkansas gained by this hire.
9-7 is the call.
3. Mississippi State
The loss of Jarvis Varnado and Barry Stewart, two of last year's top four scorers, will be difficult to overcome. Especially with Varnado's defensive presence. Given the ongoing drama surrounding Renardo Sidney who knows what he'll be able to bring to the table whenever he becomes eligible (theoretically after 30 pecen tof the the Bulldogs' games next year, if nothing else comes up). If, he becomes eligible.
Slot the Bulldogs here because Stansbury can likely wring a 7-9 or 8-8 record out of this group. But anything other than the NIT, assuming the current set up of postseason tournaments, is dreaming too big.
Mikhail Torrance is the biggest loss here, and he'll be difficult to replace. But the Crimson Tide showed some toughness down the stretch, coming from 18 down to beat South Carolina and then playing a tight tournament game with Kentucky.
What do these numbers from last season have in common?
1, 1, 1?
That's how much Alabama lost to Vanderbilt, Florida, and Auburn by last season.
Win those three games and 'Bama hits 20 wins in their first season under head coach Anthony Grant.
Trent Johnson has one of the most unbelievable records in SEC basketball history. Johnson entered 2009-2010 with a career SEC mark of 13-3, 10 games over .500. One season later, after a disastrous 2-14 regular season, he's now 15-17 for his career.
Sadly, for LSU fans and Johnson alike, things aren't going to get that much better next season.
To begin, LSU has lost its best player, senior Tasmin Mitchell. As if that wasn't enough, its second best player, point guard Bo Spencer, is currently suspended from the team for academic failings. That means Johnson is going to have to rely on his five 2010 commits, presently ranked the No. 20 class in America.
It's too early for those players to be very good.
Last year the Tigers went 6-10.
Four of the top five scorers on last year's team were seniors. The lack of production led to head coach Jeff Lebo's firing. This year the Tigers bring in a new coach but don't return much talent.
At least they'll have a new gym to play in.
Hopefully that makes the 4-12 regular season palatable.