An early look at Southeastern Conference basketball, Part I

Here’s part one of a two-part early look at SEC basketball. Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky are in this first installment, to be followed by the rest of the league.

Full profiles, from 2,000 words to 5,000 words, of all Tennessee’s SEC opponents will be featured in the 2014-15 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, which ships in October.

Alabama

Last season Anthony Grant’s program building effort suffered a derailment, so much so that rumors circulated his job was in jeopardy. Those rumors proved unfounded, but the job got tougher in April, when Auburn hired former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. The soft-spoken Grant will have to rally while being compared to the effusive Pearl this season.

The Crimson Tide came within a whisker of losing 20 games (13-19, 7-11 SEC), done in by unexpected loss of personnel (Trevor Lacey, Devonta Pollard), crummy shooting (214th in the nation in 3-point percentage, 147th in two-point percentage, 233rd in free-throw percentage) and a tough early-season schedule that included losses to Oklahoma, Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA, the latter three in succession at the end of December.

Alabama was also hurt by the lack of an experienced post presence. According to KenPom.com, it was ranked 178th in effective field-goal percentage (.494), 225th in offensive rebound percentage (30.0) and 305th in block percentage (11.8), numbers that could have been improved by a big man with a modicum of offensive and rim protection skills.

It didn’t help that 6-8 Nick Jacobs took a leave of absence in February and didn’t play the rest of the season. He was released from his scholarship in May, and in early June announced he was headed for Georgia Tech.

Alabama loses its best player, point guard Trevor Releford, but returns guards Levi Randolph (9.6 ppg), Retin Obasohan (9.5 ppg) and Rodney Cooper (7.5) along with sophomore forwards Shannon Hall and Jimmie Taylor.

To that mix Grant will add seven newcomers, including, oddly enough, two transfers who are natives of Switzerland. Michael Kessens, a 6-9 forward who averaged 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds for Longwood in 2012-13 and was voted Big South Freshman of the Year, sat out last season. Guard Christophe Varidel started his career with FGCU, played last season at Division II Chaminade, where he scored 42 points against Baylor, and then transferred to Alabama, choosing the Tide over UCLA.

Another transfer who sat out last season is 6-2 guard Ricky Tarrant, a second-team All-Conference USA pick at Tulane in 2012-13. He’s racked up career highs of 30 points (Rice), eight rebounds (Hofstra) and nine assists (Marshall), so he could be helpful. He was the C-USA Freshman of the Year in 2012.

Bama also brings in four freshmen, though none are taller than 6-7 Jeff Garrett. The highest rated is 5-10 point guard Justin Coleman from Birmingham, given four stars by Rivals and ESPN, which also rated him the No. 16 point in the country.

Arkansas

The Razorbacks haven’t flourished under coach Mike Anderson the way many fans had hoped. The former Arkansas assistant under Nolan Richardson had used the “40 Minutes of Hell” style he learned from his mentor to achieve more immediate results at his previous two head-coaching stops, UAB and Missouri, but in three seasons he’s yet to lead the Hogs to the NCAA tournament.

They got close last year, finishing 22-10 and 10-8 in the SEC, and accepted a bit to the NIT, where they reached the second round. It was the first 20-win season and postseason tournament berth since 2008, an unusual dry spell for such a tradition-rich program.

The numbers produced by Arkansas were typical of the system: It led the SEC in scoring (80.1 ppg), turnover margin (+5.5) and steals (8.4 spg). The Hogs were the only BCS team to rank in the top 30 in Division I in scoring (16th), assists (28th), steals (12th) and blocked shots (18th).

The fact that eight players return, including six of the top seven scorers, bodes well. Arkansas will be led by 6-10, 242-pound sophomore post Bobby Portis (12.3 ppg, 6.8), who last year finished second on the team in scoring and rebounding. He was the only freshman in the nation to rack up at least 50 assists and 50 blocked shots.

Also returning are Arkansas’ first- and third-leading scorers from a year ago, 6-5 senior Rashard Madden (12.7 ppg) and 6-6 junior leaper Michael Qualls (11.6 ppg), along with 6-10, 230-pound sophomore Moses Kingsley, who blocked 49 shots as a freshman.

Anderson and his staff recruited some point guard help, signing 6-1 junior Jabril Durham from Seminole (Okla.) Junior College and 5-11 Anton Beard, from Little Rock (Ark.) Parkview High School. ESPN rated Beard a four-star recruit, the No. 1 player in Arkansas and the No. 19 point guard in the class of 2014.

Auburn

Three years on the sidelines was enough for Bruce Pearl. He jumped from his cushy gigs as a marketing director for a Knoxville grocery company and ESPN game and studio analyst for the first power conference job he was offered. In mid March, Pearl accepted a $15.2 million, six-year deal from Auburn, which was equal parts surprising and fitting. If he has any regrets for tarnishing his image, receiving a three-year NCAA show-cause penalty that kept him from coaching, and derailing the Tennessee program he’d worked so hard to build into a perennial NCAA tournament team, he didn’t show it at his introductory press conference, as he cracked wise on topics ranging from teaching an ethics class to the big bucks Auburn threw at him.

Pearl’s immense skills as a game-to-game tactician and motivator will be put to the test at Auburn. He’s won big everywhere he’s coached, from Division II Southern Indiana to Milwaukee to Tennessee, but Auburn is a different animal. If Pearl thought Tennessee was a so-called “football school,” he hasn’t seen anything yet. Football is No. 1 in Alabama, and football recruiting and spring practice run a close second and third. Can Pearl, who isn’t afraid to paint his chest and mix it up in the student section, make boisterous proclamations on national television and rub elbows with fans and boosters, move Auburn basketball past spring practice into the Big Three?

If he does, he’s earned that 15 mil. The Tigers have enjoyed only sporadic pockets of success, and the program has chewed up and spat out coaches with consistent regularity. Years ago, after then-Duke assistant Mike Brey agreed to take the Auburn job, his boss Mike Krzyzewski compelled him to change his mind. There was a good reason for that.

Tony Barbee found that out. Fired last March after four seasons with an SEC record of 18-50, his program was a revolving door, with players coming and going constantly. The Tigers never could blend into a cohesive unit, a task that awaits Pearl’s steady hand.

He inherits Auburn’s second (K.T. Harrell, 18.3 ppg) and third-leading (Tahj Shamsid-Deen, 9.5 ppg) scorers and not much else in the way of experienced talent.

Pearl and his staff had to scramble to find bodies and firepower. Their key get, in early June, was 6-3 guard Antoine Mason, a graduate transfer from Niagara who is immediately eligible. Mason, the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason, averaged 25.6 points last season, second in the nation behind Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

Pearl also landed the well-traveled K.C. Ross-Miller, whom SEC fans may remember as one of former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie’s way-too-early commitments during his doomed two-year tenure. Like Mason, Ross-Miller, who began his DI career at New Orleans, is eligible immediately. Last season at New Mexico State, he averaged 8.3 points and 3.5 assists and shot .393 from 3 and .820 from the free-throw line. He figures to start at the point.

Auburn also landed 6-7, 260-pound Cinmeon Bowers, a transfer from Chipola (Fla.) College and former Florida State signee. An arrest for allegedly eating marijuana during a traffic stop in Marianna, Fla. cost him his scholarship at FSU but apparently didn’t bother Pearl.

Florida

Weep not for the Gators, who were bumped out of the Final Four last season after having lost in the NCAA tournament regional finals the previous three years. They lose four starters, including SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin and stalwart post man Patric Young, but they return plenty of talent, including transfers and incoming freshmen.

Most coaches in the country would trade their starting backcourt for the Gators’ tandem of point guard Kasey Hill and shooter deluxe Michael Frazier. And Florida got a big boost when 6-10 sophomore Chris Walker decided to return after a freshman season that didn’t begin until February.

Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg), the talented inside-outside threat who couldn’t crack the veteran starting lineup last season after transferring from Virginia Tech, should be in the first five this season.

Speaking of transfers, Florida’s front line will gain the services of three of them, though one will be available only for practice as he sits out 2014-15.

Alex Murphy, brother of former Gator star Erik Murphy, transferred from Duke last December and will be eligible after the first semester. He’s not the outside shooter Erik was, but he’s considered to be more athletic and versatile.

Another transfer whose brother played for Donovan at Florida is Jon Horford, brother of Al, who stayed four years at Michigan, graduated and decided to use his final season of eligibility in Gainesville. Last season he averaged 3.8 points and 4.2 rebounds, bagged a career-high 14 points against Minnesota and grabbed 10 or more rebounds three times, including a personal best of 15 against South Carolina State. He’ll come in handy as the Gators seek to replace Young.

Yet another transfer, 6-10, 245-pound John Egbunu, left USF after coach Stan Heath got fired and will sit out this season. He averaged 7.4 points and 6.2 boards and earned a spot on the American Athletic Conference All-Rookie team.

And yes, Donovan and his staff have signed talented freshmen, too, including 6-8 forward Devin Robinson, a Chandler Parsons play-alike, 6-5 guard Brandone Francis and 5-10 point guard Chris Chiozza of Memphis.

Georgia

It’s not fair when a good coach gets branded by the media as a “hot seat” candidate, but that’s exactly the situation in which Georgia’s Mark Fox found himself last season, despite the fact his program in the previous three years had lost more early entries to the NBA Draft than any team in the SEC except Kentucky.

Unlike Kentucky, Georgia can’t rebuild every year with five-star recruits. Ironically, after losing the likes of Travis Leslie, Trey Thompkins and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and not having a true go-to player last season, the Bulldogs flourished, finishing 20-14 overall and 12-6, tied for second, in the SEC. That was just the fourth time in 82 years of SEC basketball Georgia finished as high as second. The ‘Dogs played in the NIT and advanced to the second round.

Accordingly, Fox was awarded a two-year contract extension. Given that new lease on life, he made some moves that could keep things going. One was parting company with former assistant Stacey Palmore and replacing him with Atlanta native Yasir Rosemond, who came from Samford. If he can help Fox recruit some of the best players in Atlanta, Georgia can sustain a postseason tournament-type team for years to come.

Except for post player Donte Williams, Georgia returns every key player from 2013-14, including the top three scorers: Charles Mann (13.9 ppg, 2.9 apg), Kenny Gaines (13.0 ppg, .375 3PT) and Brandon Morris (8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg). Also back is oft-injured Marcus Thornton, who as a junior finally got to play an entire season, starting 33 games, and wound up leading the ‘Dogs in rebounding and blocked shots.

The Bulldogs fortified their front line with spring recruits Yante Maten, a 6-8 forward who was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Michigan and was also chosen to the Detroit Free-Press’ All-State Dream Team, and 6-11 Osahen Iduwe, a Nigerian who spent a post-graduate season at a military academy.

Maten is a true post player. “Seems to be the kind of inside player who has few illusions about the strength of his game,” wrote ESPN.com. “Will catch, seal and put someone in the cylinder. Uses his strength to his advantage and seems to operate well using the angles.”

Iduwe’s defensive skills are probably ahead of his offense, but Fox was excited to get him. “He has a dynamic future in front of him,” Fox said. “He has terrific length and athleticism. He’s a great runner of the court and shot blocker.”

Kentucky

Kentucky coach John Calipari once told this writer, in answer to a question about whether he enjoyed losing so many players to the NBA every year and starting from scratch, that he would rather keep them around for more than one season “and be UCLA.” The implication was that he thought he could dominate. In 2014-15, he may be right.

As usual, Kentucky lost two good players to the NBA Draft, Julius Randle and James Young, but four other former five-star recruits decided to stay in school: the starting backcourt of twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, 6-10, 260-pound center Dakari Johnson and 6-9 Marcus Lee, an off-the-charts athlete who may yet become the most impactful player on the team. They join still another former five-star recruit, junior Alex Poythress, and 7-0 junior center Willie Cauley-Stein to give Cal his most veteran team yet.

To that mix Kentucky adds the usual array of five-star studs: 6-10, 245-pound power forward Trey Lyles, 6-11, 240-pound center Karl-Anthony Towns and 5-8 point guard Tyler Ulis, along with four-star shooting guard Devin Booker.

If you’re counting at home, that’s eight five-star recruits and two more four-star guys. It’s an embarrassment of riches and the most talented team in the country.

But as the young Cats showed last year, talent doesn’t always translate into success. Kentucky struggled for the better part of the SEC season, even losing at South Carolina, before the Harrison twins, especially point guard Andrew, began to assert themselves. The result was a trip to the Final Four, the third in Cal’s five-year Kentucky tenure.

If the Harrisons continue their improvement into 2014-15, Kentucky can be hard to deal with, given its size and athletic ability.

A key, as it always is with Cal’s teams, will be whether the Cats can make enough outside shots to keep defenses from packing the lane. Aaron Harrison, who knocked down several huge shots in the NCAA tournament run, will be an important piece, as will the freshman Booker, about whom ESPN.com wrote, “this is not your typical wing guard,” and went on to cite his high basketball IQ and prudent shot selection. He’s more a jump shooter than a driver.

Next: LSU through Vanderbilt

 






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