SEC Season Preview
Believing the Bulldog hype, but not Kentucky’s.
Defending Champion: Kentucky
Defending Regular Season Champion: Kentucky
6) South Carolina
1) Mississippi State
2) Ole Miss
Summary: For reasons that actually have nothing whatsoever to do with my personal distaste for the program that ended my college basketball career, I was interested to hear that the SEC media picked a team other than Kentucky to finish on top of the standings in its recently released pre-season poll. While the order of my SEC picks differs slightly from the SEC media’s projection, we both see Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators ending up ahead of Kentucky in the SEC East. While most of the SEC is probably waiting to see whether Turkish import and potential “difference-maker” Enes Kanter is cleared by the NCAA, I’m confident in picking the Gators to be the SEC’s top team regardless of how the Kanter situation shakes out.
Kentucky, as John Calipari teams tend to do, has reloaded quickly now that half of last season’s Elite 8 squad is playing in the association this season. Freshman Brandon Knight is being handed the keys to John Wall’s old whip, and though he is a prized recruit and a tremendous talent, he doesn’t figure to be the game-changer Wall was for the ‘Cats (not many are). Other freshmen expected to contribute immediately include Terrence Jones (currently recovering from a cracked rib), Doron Lamb, and (maybe) Kanter. Calipari has already indicated multiple times in the preseason that this freshman class has not yet bought into the team defense that made last season’s team so hard to score on, though Ashley Judd shouldn’t lose any sleep over Calipari’s comments (that’s what months of pre-season practices and non-conference games are for). Unless last year’s role players like Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins can successfully step into an increased role, the Wildcats will be in a season-long struggle with both Florida and Tennessee in the SEC East.
Florida is probably the favorite in the recently released media poll because they have all five starters back. They are my favorite because three of those five starters are seniors. Alex Tyus, Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin lead a team that boasts the SEC’s greatest combination of experience and exciting talent. Combining these seniors with talented and improving underclassmen Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, and exciting McDonald’s All American freshman forward Patrick Young will turn a team that barely made the NCAA Tournament last year into one of the most improved squads in the country.
I don’t mean to ignore the SEC West, but the SEC East could easily have the top-5 teams in the entire conference. Tennessee, a young and dangerous Georgia team, and the Vanderbilt Commodores (possibly the most underrated major conference program in the country) make the East the true class of the conference. Mississippi State, sweating out the Dee Bost eligibility situation and relying on the long-awaited college debut of Renardo Sidney, is as close to a sure thing as you’ll find in the SEC West. Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas all have talented teams and post-season aspirations, but have too many holes to be considered more than potential bubble teams.
Team on the Rise: I’m really hopping on the bandwagon here, but it’s hard not to with the direction the Georgia basketball program is headed in. Though since-fired head coach Dennis Felton deserves a lot of credit for leaving the cupboard stocked for Mark Fox, the former Nevada coach was still clearly a home run hire. There is pre-season top 25 talk in Athens, and though that may be premature considering Georgia is coming off a 14-17 campaign, the Bulldogs showed glimpses of why there is so much hype going into this season (they were able to beat Tennessee, Florida and Vanderbilt in conference last year). Lead by Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie (owner of ’10-11 dunk of the season), Georgia will give SEC favorites Florida and Kentucky fits all season long.
Team on the Decline: It’s unfair that South Carolina had to lose Devan Downey, a player who seemingly scored 95 percent of the Gamecocks’ points each game, going into a season in which they are stuck in the especially unforgiving SEC East. South Carolina is competitive nearly every game and, as Kentucky found out last year, is always a dangerous team to play on the road, but Darrin Horn’s squad will need to find new ways to score this season. Downey was a great safety-net to hand the ball to at the end of the shot clock or close games last season, but with the scorer extraordinaire gone, it could be a long season until Horn finds a new go-to option.
Underrated Player: Florida point guard Erving Walker is more underrated on his own team than anything else. At times overshadowed by the scoring ability of Kenny Boynton or the late game heroics of Chandler Parsons, Walker is definitely not overlooked by opposing coaches when making up scouting reports. He’s Florida’s most consistent three-point threat (shot 35 percent last season) and his assist numbers doubled in his sophomore season. Erving’s turnovers rose as well, which isn’t uncommon for a young point guard jumping into an increased playmaking role. If Erving continues to be an effective offensive weapon while improving his decision making, the rest of the Gators will become that much more dangerous.
Keep an eye on: Renardo Sidney’s much-anticipated college basketball debut. It won’t come until the 10th game of the season (he will finish serving his NCAA suspension), but some, including Sidney himself, were not sure that day would ever come. When Sidney suits up for the first time as Bulldog, it will mean the Mississippi native will have come full circle in his life journey that took him from a high school prodigy in Jackson, MS to a cocky McDonald’s All American in Los Angeles to an ineligible and overweight freshman to now, when Sidney has, by all accounts, rediscovered his love of basketball and rededicated himself to the game. What remains to be seen if Sidney still possesses the pure skills and athleticism that made him one of the most sought after recruits in the country…as a freshman in high school. Mississippi’s State’s hopes in the SEC West may depend on it.