The SEC is looking strong almost from top to bottom, with one team – Kentucky – being a legitimate National title contender. There are qualities players at every position and every class, and some great coaching minds. Even the teams that won’t compete for the conference title will not be easy games. This preview will be in 2 parts to give every team their due – First up, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky. Here is the NBA Draft Blog SEC Conference Preview – Part 1:
The Good: After a NIT finals appearance last season, Anthony Grant has his team poised to make the leap back to the NCAA Tournament, led by last season’s 3 leading scorers. JaMychal Green anchors the frontcourt, giving the Tide an athletic forward who is improving as an offensive player and is a solid shot blocker and rebounder. Junior forward Tony Mitchell is coming a great second year where he improved every part of his game. He does a great job getting to the basket and there are not many in the SEC who can finish like him. He is tenacious attacking the glass and shows great promise as a perimeter defender. Sophomore point guard Trevor Releford stepped right up and claimed the position as his own last season. He sees the court well, can change speeds quickly and attacks the basket well for his size. Grant is also debuting a stellar freshman class to join these returning players. Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph will provide some scoring punch from the wing, while forward Nick Jacobs is a solid scorer in the post. Rodney Cooper will help stretch defenses with his perimeter shooting and JUCO transfer Moussa Gueye is a long seven-footer who can protect the basket. Sophomore Charles Hankerson and junior Ben Eblen provide some depth in the backcourt, having played decent minutes last season.
The Not-So-Good: The frontcourt, especially post players, is very thin. Green operates mainly in the lane, but Gueye and Carl Engstrom are both still very raw. Gueye will contribute on the defensive end, but I don’t think you will get much out of Engstrom. Jacobs will add some offense, but he has to be ready to step up and defend and rebound. Perimeter shooting was a weakness last year, but hopefully the freshman wings will help alleviate that issue. Releford will need to be more consistent as a distributor this season, looking to get more people involved in the offense.
The Question Mark: Does the team have a go-to guy in close games? Green is a good offensive option, but he works best as an opportunistic scorer. Mitchell can get to the basket, but still has a tendency to force things. Releford has all of the skills and attitude to finish games off for the team, and I expect him to win a few games this season for the Tide.
What Will March Bring?: There are plenty of winnable games on the non-conference schedule, including games against other major conference teams. This should help them build momentum heading into the SEC schedule. This team should win 19-21 games, finish in the top half of the SEC and I expect to see them back in the NCAA Tournament this season.
The Good: Mike Anderson has replaced John Pelphrey and he hopes to change the Razorbacks’ fortune around. Leading scorer Rotnei Clark decided to transfer, but Anderson has some good returning talent and a fantastic freshmen class to help jumpstart his tenure. Junior forward Marshawn Powell uses his speed and size to get to the rim and he has the potential to be a fantastic rebounder and defender. Point guard Julysses Nobles is a steady point guard who will keep Anderson’s offense moving and he can also defend baseline to baseline. The freshmen are lead by guards BJ Young and Rashad Madden. Young is a complete scorer with good ballandling skills and a great first step. Madden is another great scorer who can be fantastic in the open court, which is a great fit for Anderson’s system. There are two very good freshmen in the frontcourt as well. Hunter Mickleson is still developing and adding bulk, but he is skilled with a very nice shot and good defensive instincts. Devonte Abron has a strong body and will add solid defense and rebounding to the team.
The Not-So-Good: The big men are a mixed bag. The potential for Mickleson and Abron is great, but it will take time for their games to mature. Michael Sanchez has come off of two injury plagued seasons, and will be hard-pressed to earn minutes under Anderson. Marvell Waithe is long and athletic, but he prefers to play on the perimeter. Defensively, the team really needs to improve. The freshmen will need to adjust to the speed of the college game, while the returning players will need to change their defensive style under Anderson.
The Question Mark: How will the players adjust to Anderson’s full court system? The returning players played at a much more controlled pace under Pelphrey, and the freshmen are going to have to adjust to playing at an almost frenzied pace. It will become more evident on the defensive end where the players will need deny more on the perimeter and look to jump passing lanes. The big men will be expected to be extremely mobile and the team will need to get deeper.
What Will March Bring?: Anderson will have a mostly winnable non-conference schedule, but the team is at least a year away from being competitive in the SEC. I would expect them to win 16-18 games, 4-6 in the SEC. No tournament this season, but I think they will be back soon.
The Good: Tony Barbee’s rebuilding project at Auburn enters its second year, and while I won’t predict a fantastic year, it will be a move in the right direction. Though leading scorer and rebounder Earnest Ross transferred after the season, every other key player from last season is back. Senior Kenny Gabriel proved to be a solid scorer with an improving mid-range game and a strong defensive game. Frankie Sullivan is back to re-claim the starting point guard job after a medical hardship last season. Sullivan was developing into a good scorer and distributor before his injury, but should look even better with an improving cast around him. Walk-on Josh Wallace was great in Sullivan’s spot last season and should provide some solid depth at the position. Center Rob Chubb has added some bulk to help him on both ends of the floor, and should be more productive with consistent minutes this season. Sophomores Allen Payne and Josh Langford are athletic wings who should continue to improve as scorers and defenders this season.
The Not-So-Good: The frontcourt is thin with Chubb and freshman Willy Kouassi. Kouassi has a good defender, but needs to add some strength, and neither are great rebounders. Perimeter shooting is a major issue with no dependable long-range shooting on the roster. The loss of Ross leaves the team with no explosive scorers, or anyone to take the ball down the stretch.
The Question Mark: What kind of impact will Varez Ward have? Ward showed excellent potential in just over 1 season at Texas before injuries derailed him. Look for Ward to accept a leadership position almost immediately on the court for the Tigers. While he may never fulfill his potential as a player, he could be the steady influence the young team needs.
What Will March Bring?: The loss of Ross hurts, but still enough talent and development here to win 11-13 games this season, and I’m thinking 4-5 in the SEC. Still 2 years away from seeing the post-season, but Barbee has them heading in the right direction.
The Good: Billy Donovan’s Gators are coming off last season’s Elite Eight run, but will be entering the season without 3 of the key components of that team. The backcourt is strong, with returning starters Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton joined by Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario and star freshman Bradley Beal. Walker is small and quick, can break down defenses and has good range on his jumper. Boynton has great scoring ability, but needs to really work on hi shot selection. Rosario is an excellent perimeter shooter, both as a spot-up shooter and in transition. Beal may turn out to be the Gators’ best player this season. He is also an excellent shooter, knows how to find holes in the defense and plays with an IQ beyond his years. Sophomore Patric Young has a NBA-ready body, has shown some good defensive and rebounding skills and is very athletic. Erik Murphy has size and a good offensive skill-set in the post. Scotty Wilbekin played some valuable minutes last year as a freshman in the backcourt and gives them added depth at the point.
The Not-So-Good: The loss of Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus in the lane, and Chandler Parsons on the wings and high post will be tough to replace. Murphy has some similar skills to Parsons and may be able to help out, but big man depth is poor behind Murphy and Young. With the depth at guard, look for Donovan to possibly go with a 4-guard lineup at times and look to push a fast-paced game. The downside to this is the guards will need be much more selective with their shots than they have been before. Young will need to make greater strides as an offensive player this year to give the Gators some semblance of a legitimate post game. Casey Prater, who was highly recruited out of high school, will need to take on a much bigger role on the wings. Defensively, Walker and Boynton will need to continue to be tough on the perimeter to help Young and Murphy avoid needless fouls.
The Question Mark: The development of Patric Young? There was a lot of hype behind young as he entered Florida, and though he showed some definite promise, especially on the defensive end, he also showed an offensive game which is far from polished. Part of it was being behind the more experienced Macklin and Tyus in a very guard-heavy offense, but he will need to develop more out of the post to help alleviate the pressure on the perimeter.
What Will March Bring?: The non-conference schedule has some road bumps in it, but will provide some good tests as Donovan sorts out his rotation before SEC play. If Young starts to show the promise we expect, 22-24 wins, 10-12 in the SEC may be possible. I expect the total to be somewhere around 20-21 wins and 10 in conference, with another possible Elite Eight run in them.
The Good: Coach Mark Fox is coming off a disappointing end to last season, but is looking to turn things around without NBA draft picks Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Point guard Dustin Ware is experienced and a solid leader, who sees the floor well and knows how to set up his teammates. Gerald Robinson is another quick point guard who uses his quickness to get into the defense and has the ability to finish strong at the basket. Freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could be the leading scorer for the Bulldogs this season. He has phenomenal range on his jumper and can create space in a variety of ways. Big things will be expected out of sophomore Marcus Thornton this season as he showed great flashes in short bursts of minutes last year. He is very athletic, is a good ball-handler for his size and can be effective around the basket. Donte’ Williams is another athletic sophomore who will need to provide greater minutes in a thin frontcourt.
The Not-So-Good: Read the last sentence above, the frontcourt is thin and inexperienced. Thompkins was the main post player last year and Leslie was also comfortable around the rim. Williams will get his shot to play power forward, and there are a few new candidates at center. Freshman Tim Dixon runs the floor well and is very good on the offensive glass. JUCO transfer John Florveus is a long and athletic big man who should help out immediately on the defensive end. Nemanja Djurisic is a versatile big man who can play inside-out. This group can do reasonably well, though I wouldn’t expect immediate results.
The Question Mark: Who will score outside of the guard rotation? Ware, Robinson and Caldwell-Pope will get most of the shots, but Fox is going to need some balance to pull off some conference wins. Thornton is talented, though he has yet to find his comfort zone on offense. A good possibility is the versatile Djurisic, but he will need to work on creating space for his mid-range shot.
What Will March Bring?: A fairly tough non-conference schedule will give the Bulldogs an opportunity for a signature win or two, though the big men will need to contribute fairly quickly. I think the Bulldogs win 15-17 games, 6-8 of them in the SEC. NIT bound this season.
The Good: Another year, another superstar freshman class for John Calipari, and this one may be his best yet. Freshmen won’t dominate this team though, as Calipari still has three returning starters in Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, and Doron Lamb. Jones has a strong body, can play inside and out, and is a very good rebounder on both ends of the floor. Miller and Lamb both have great size at the guard position and do a great job stretching the floor with their perimeter shooting ability. Freshman Anthony Davis is just tapping the beginning of his potential. He is very agile, moves his feet well on both offense and defense, and is a fantastic shot blocker. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a dangerous combination of power and skill on both ends of the floor and will make an instant impact. Marquis Teague is extremely quick and uses screens well to get into the lane and finish, or hit a big man off the pick and roll. Kyle Wiltjer is a versatile big man who can play with his back to the basket or step outside and hit from mid-to-long range. Add Mississippi State transfer Twany Beckham (eligible 2nd semester) to the mix and you have a potentially lethal offense.
The Not-So-Good: As with Calipari’s other Kentucky teams, freshman play a huge role, and as we have seen the last 2 seasons, there are a lot of problems to go along with that. Playing on the road in the SEC is tough, and with the exception of John Wall, all of the freshman players have been rattled by it. The big men will also need time to adjust to their role in Calipari’s dribble-drive “offense”, though Davis is agile enough to be very good in it. Defensively, the perimeter defenders will need to give a consistent effort and not just hope that Davis will block everything – Davis is a very good shot-blocker but he will be competing against players who know how to draw fouls.
The Question Mark: Can a freshman-dominated team win the NCAA championship? See below.
What Will March Bring?: As usual, Calipari may have the most-talented team in the NCAA, and most likely will lose only a handful of games all season. However, in a NCAA Tournament format, one bad game could end your run, and with freshmen making up most of your team’s minutes, they are particularly susceptible. However, the return of Jones, Lamb and Miller makes this team more dangerous than Calipari’s other Kentucky teams. There is definite Final Four potential and if Davis takes an even bigger leap this year than his senior year of high school, talent-wise they can win it all.
That wraps up Part 1 on the SEC Preview – make sure to check back tonight for the other 6 teams and predictions on standings and award winners. Leave your comments, email me at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter: @NBADraftBlog