An early look at Southeastern Conference basketball, Part II
Today’s installment of our early look at Southeastern Conference basketball includes LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
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.
LSU is showing steady improvement under Johnny Jones, last season earning an NIT bid, and could continue on an upward path despite the early departure of post man Johnny O’Bryant to the NBA.
Three other players with eligibility remaining followed O’Bryant out the door, including guard Anthony Hickey, but luckily for the Tigers, 6-8 forward Jordan Mickey wasn’t one of them. Last season he earned second-team All-SEC honors and a spot on the league’s All-Freshman and All-Defensive teams after starting all 34 games and averaging 12.7 points, 7.9 boards and 3.1 blocks. He led the league in blocks average and also racked up nine double-doubles.
The Tigers continue to recruit better players under the well-connected Jones, picking up 6-11, 270-pound Elbert Robinson, rated by ESPN a four-star prospect and the No. 6 center in the nation, and Josh Gray, a four-star point guard from Odessa (Texas) Community College. Gray originally committed to Mississippi State, but switched to Texas Tech, where he lasted one productive season (9.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 spg) before leaving after former coach Pat Knight was fired. LSU can only hope Gray has finally made up his mind and stays put for a while—last fall he committed to Florida State but eventually signed with the Tigers.
Also joining the program is Keith Hornsby, the son of musician Bruce Hornsby and a shooter who averaged 15.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists for UNC Asheville in 2012-13.
The hiring of Rick Ray to replace Rick Stansbury after the 2011-12 seemed like a head scratcher at the time. How could State hire an assistant coach from Clemson who had never been a head coach on any level to take over a program that Stansbury, before player revolt sabotaged him, had made into a perennial postseason participant?
Talk to Ray and the decision seems sound enough. He’s personable, intelligent and funny. But the scorched earth program he inherited was going to take some effort to rebuild under normal circumstances, let alone his hellish first season, when injuries, suspensions and player defections doomed the ‘Dogs to a 10-22, 4-14 record.
But at least Ray’s team played hard, seemed coachable, and for the most part, competed. That was true again last season, but the league record was worse (14-19, 3-15).
It’s safe to say State fans will want to see improvement in 2014-15. Ray has decent guards at his disposal, a good head start. Craig Sword, though he’s no perimeter threat, led MSU in scoring (13.7 ppg), assists (88) and steals (60) last season. Ray would love for him to tack a few percentage points onto his 3-point numbers (.271) and cut down on his turnovers (96). I.J. Ready is a solid little point guard who can make free throws (.857) and 3-pointers (.354), always a plus. Trivante Bloodman was second on the team in assists.
Massive junior Gavin Ware (6-9, 268) gives the Dogs a solid interior threat. Last season he was second on the team in scoring (10.0 ppg) and sixth in the SEC in rebounding (7.2 rpg), collecting seven double-doubles. Roquez Johnson (8.8 ppg) can score a bit, but his assist-to-turnover ratio (1-5.8) was horrendous, as were his shooting percentages from 3 (.278) and the free-throw line (.596).
Ray found Ware some help in the spring when he signed Johnny Zuppardo, a 6-9, 235-pound junior who led Jones County (Miss.) Junior College to the 2014 NJCAA championship by averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds.
“He’s a 6-9 player that can handle the ball and step out and shoot the three,” said his coach at Jones County, Jay Ladner, now the head coach at Division I Southeastern Louisiana. “And he’s skilled enough that he can score with his back to the basket. He’s going to be a tough matchup problem for opposing bigs.”
Ray focused on bigs in his freshman class, too, signing 6-8 Travis Daniels, 6-9 Oliver Black and 6-7 Demetrius Houston. The Bulldogs also gain the services of 2013 signee Fallou Ndoye, a 6-11 native of Senegal.
Few teams in the league this side of Tennessee have undergone as much personnel change as Mizzou. Like Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin before him, former Tiger coach Frank Haith bolted ahead of what he imagined a headhunting posse and took the Tulsa job.
Not that Tulsa isn’t a tradition-rich program that spawned the careers of many great head coaches—Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, and Bill Self among them—but by anyone’s estimation, Haith took a step backward by leaving a power conference job.
Leaving right behind Haith were a pair of juniors who gave up their final seasons of eligibility for the NBA Draft, point guard Jordan Clarkson and shooter Jabari Brown. Clarkson landed with the Lakers, but Brown went undrafted. Also gone is rugged guard Earnest Reese.
Into the breach steps Kim Anderson, who played at Missouri and has been successful as a head coach, albeit at the Division II level. Last season his Central Missouri team won the NCAA DII championship.
Anderson dismissed his lack of DI experience at the press conference announcing his hiring.
“I was at Central Missouri for 12 years and as many of you know, UCM is a better job than a lot of Division I programs in the country,” Anderson said. “I had chances to look elsewhere, but working with them has made me more prepared today for this job than I was in 1999. My time at Central Missouri is an asset.”
Anderson didn’t have to scramble to rebuild a team the way Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall did, but there was some damage control to be done. Mizzou did lose a recruit—junior college guard Kevin Punter opted for the Vols—but Anderson was able to convince four-star guard Namon Wright to honor his original commitment to Missouri. The 6-4 freshman will have to help replace a ton of firepower lost when Brown (19.9 ppg) the SEC’s leading scorer, and Clarkson (17.5 ppg) left for the NBA, and Ross (14.0) graduated. Between the three of them, Brown, Clarkson and Ross attempted 657 free throws, a staggering number.
Anderson and his staff also plugged a backcourt hole by adding well-traveled graduate transfer Keith Shamburger, a 5-11 point who began his career at San Jose State and played last season at Hawaii, where he averaged 9.3 points and 5.4 assists.
Another late addition is 6-1 Tramaine Isabell, a three-star point guard from Seattle who signed with Washington State but asked out of his scholarship after former coach Ken Bone was fired.
Two sophomores, versatile forward Jonathan Williams (5.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.6 bpg) and point guard Wes Clark (4.1 ppg, 2.1) will be needed to step up their contributions.
Marshall Henderson lasted two seasons, and Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy lived to tell the tale. Not only did he live, he signed a contract extension after Henderson’s controversial junior season, during which the Rebels finally broke through and earned an NCAA tournament bid. Henderson was much quieter last season, and Ole Miss failed to make postseason play. Perhaps there was a correlation.
The Rebels also lost massive Demarco Cox, who graduated and decided to play his senior season at Georgia Tech, but they return a solid nucleus led by senior point guard Jarvis Summers (17.3 ppr, 2.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, .423 3PT), senior shooting guard LaDarius White (7.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg) and 6-9 senior post Aaron Jones (6.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.1 bpg).
Ole Miss also has a promising pair of international big men, 6-9 sophomore Anthony Perez (7.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, .333 3PT) of Venezuela and 6-9 sophomore Sebastian Saiz (5.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) of Spain.
To that mix Kennedy will add seven newcomers, including junior college and Division I transfers. JUCO guard Roderick Lawrence, who began his career at Miami (Ohio), is a good athlete. But another JUCO transfer, guard Stefan Moody, could be an even better athlete. Moody is a 5-10 point who started at Florida Atlantic, where he was chosen Sun Belt Conference freshman of the year in 2012-13. Kennedy calls him “as explosive a player as we’ve had in our program during my eight-year tenure.”
Other quick-fix recruits include a pair of graduate transfers from Tennessee schools that play in the Ohio Valley Conference. Terrence Smith, 6-4, averaged 14.6 points last season for UT-Martin and finished third in the OVC in 3-point percentage (.438).
M.J. Rhett, a 6-9 power forward from Tennessee State, averaged 10.9 points and 9.1 rebounds, fifth in the OVC last season, and was eighth in the nation with 14 double-doubles.
Frank Martin’s first two seasons at South Carolina have been frustrating. We know this because Martin, who in 2012 left a successful program at Kansas State, has never been one to keep his emotions bottled up. In 2013, after a homecourt loss to LSU, Martin said his players, other than point guard Bruce Ellington, could have been extras in a zombie movie (they played like stiffs, maybe?), and that he had never been so embarrassed to call himself a basketball coach.
Last season, Martin had to issue an apology after he lambasted his leading scorer, Brenton Williams, during a loss to Ole Miss, and he was suspended for one game for harsh language directed toward freshman guard Duane Notice. And that came in a game South Carolina won.
After 38 losses, 27 of them in the SEC, the last two seasons, anyone would get a little agitated, let alone the notoriously volcanic Martin. But at least the Gamecocks finished 2013-14 on a good note, winning four of their last five games, including two in the SEC tournament. Can they keep the momentum going in Martin’s third season? A little luck will help.
Last January, an injury to Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson (11.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.4 apg. .421 3PT in 16 games), a 6-3 combo guard, hampered the Gamecocks. A decision by Ellington to skip basketball to focus on the NFL Combine didn’t help either, considering it left USC point guard poor. Johnson is back this season to team with sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.1 spg, .370 3PT ), who lived up to his hype and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team.
Other experienced returning players include Notice (8.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, .362 3PT) and junior Michael Carrera (6.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), who led South Carolina in rebounding. Mindaugas Kacinas (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), a 6-9 junior, earned 27 starts last season.
South Carolina signed four freshmen, but the fate of 6-9 forward James Thompson, rated the No. 3 high school player in Louisiana last year, remains unclear. A week after he signed in early June, Thompson was arrested on charges of aggravated battery and domestic abuse by battery. Thompson was being counted on by Martin to provide the shot-blocking presence he hasn’t had at South Carolina.
Three-star guards TeMarcus Blanton (6-5) and Marcus Stroman (6-2), who’s from Columbia, S.C., will bolster Martin’s backcourt depth.
New Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall and his staff put on an impressive exhibition of recruiting, scrambling to sign eight players in about a month after they were hired in late April to replace Cuonzo Martin, who bolted for California.
That influx of personnel was required because all four recruits signed by Martin decided to play elsewhere, and two sophomores, A.J. Davis and Darius Thompson, transferred.
Tyndall has just four returning players left, and at least two of them should make considerable contributions. Some NBA scouts think 6-6 Josh Richardson (10.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg) might have a chance to play in the league, given his size, lockdown defensive ability and emerging offensive game. Tyndall and his assistants have had nothing but praise for Richardson, his work habits and his attempt, as the team’s only senior, to lead the disparate group.
Armani Moore, whom Tyndall tried to recruit when he was at Southern Miss, will plug into what Tyndall likes to call his “mismatch four” position, meaning the Vols could play small with the 6-5 Moore at the power forward spot. He’s not great at any aspect of the game, but he competes and makes plays.
Sophomore Robert Hubbs, a former five-star prospect, may have been overrated by recruiting analysts. His offensive game isn’t as good as some suggested, but Tyndall says he’s been coachable and cooperative. Better still, he’s recovered from shoulder surgery that limited his freshman season to 12 games (5.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg, .281 3PT).
Among the newcomers, Detrick Mostella, an off-the-charts athlete and former four-star recruit, can help, provided he gets past the NCAA Clearinghouse. He’s got a lot to learn about fundamental basketball, but Mostella has the rare combination of leaping and jump shooting ability.
Kevin Punter, a junior college transfer with an old-school midrange game, can play more than one position, as can another JUCO transfer, 6-5 Devon Baulkman.
Tyndall hopes IUPUI transfer Ian Chiles, who is immediately eligible after graduating, can recover from offseason hernia surgery and take over the point guard job.
Tennessee is thin, in more ways than one, up front. FGCU transfer Eric McKnight could help—he’s a 6-9 rim protector—but he’s not on campus yet. The three freshman bigs who are in Knoxville are all on the spindly side, though 6-8 Willie Carmichael, say the UT coaches, has been the Vols’ most impressive player in skills instruction work. Jabari McGhee is athletic and may be able to help in short bursts, and 6-10 Tariq Owens, who just moved to Knoxville last week, was reportedly impressive in his second day of pick-up games, blocking everything around the rim.
Aggies coach Billy Kennedy had a busy offseason, firing assistant coaches—John Reese and Glynn Cyprien—and hiring new ones—notably former Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury—signing players of various descriptions and backgrounds and bulking up his schedule by adding home-and-home series against Arizona State and Kansas State.
Texas A&M also lost a key player when Jamal Jones, who started his career at Ole Miss, then played for a junior college and averaged 13.4 points and 3.9 rebounds in his only season in College Station, opted to play his senior season elsewhere.
With all the new faces, an important constant is 6-5 junior Alex Caruso, who had to take over the point full-time last season after J-Mychal Reese was kicked off the team. Caruso wound up leading the SEC in assists (5.0 apg), but he may be better suited to play the two guard spot. That could leave the point to a couple of talented freshmen, Alex Robinson, rated by ESPN as a four-star prospect and the No. 13 point guard in the country, and Avery Johnson, Jr. If that name sounds familiar, it should—he’s the son of former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson.
Two transfers join the program, but it’s uncertain whether former Houston player Danuel House—who left after Kelvin Sampson took over as coach—will be eligible this season. A&M has appealed to the NCAA. One transfer who can play is 6-7 Jalen Jones, who averaged 14 points and 7.7 boards two seasons ago at SMU.
Two other freshmen, 6-10 native of Columbia Tonny Trocha-Morelos and 6-5 shooter Peyton Allen, a first-team all-state pick in talent-rich Illinois, join the program. Trocha-Morelos signed with the Aggies in 2012 but had trouble gaining entrance into school because his primary language is Spanish. If he’s finally able to play, the four-star prospect who was recruited by UCLA, Ohio State, Arizona, Kentucky and many others, will be able to contribute right away as a rebounder.
Kevin Stallings endured one of his most trying seasons in Nashville in 2013-14, a year that was diminished before it began when two key players—Kevin Bright left to play professionally in his native Germany and point guard Kedren Johnson was suspended from school for a year—departed. Injuries and the early-January dismissal of perhaps the Commodores’ second-best player, Tulsa transfer and point guard Eric McClellan, left Stallings and his staff scrambling to fill holes with walk-ons.
That Vanderbilt finished 15-16 overall, 7-11 in the SEC is a testament to Stallings’ coaching chops.
The Commodores will be in yet another state of flux, as four-year stalwarts Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller have left the program, but Stallings has a key piece to build around in 6-10 sophomore Damian Jones (11.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.4 bpg), who earned a spot on the SEC’s All-Freshman team.
The return of Johnson—if he meets all the conditions set by the university—will help, and two other experienced players, senior guard Dai-Jon Parker (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.1 apg) and senior forward James Siakam (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), figure to earn spots in the starting lineup.
To that group Stallings will add a recruiting class ranked by Rivals as the 24th best in the country. The haul includes three four-star guards, points Riley LaChance and Wade Baldwin and shooter Matthew Fisher-Davis. All were ranked among the top players at their positions in the country.
The Commodores picked up an added bonus in May when former Wake Forest signee Shelton Mitchell, a pure point guard, asked out of his scholarship after the firing of former coach Jeff Bzdelik and jumped to Vanderbilt. Rivals ranked him the No. 76 player overall and ESPN rated him the No. 26 point in his class.
After last season, Stallings clearly believes he can never have too many point guards on hand.
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