SEC Offseason Recap
by Rainer Sabin
Scandal, controversy, and an overall poor performance in the Big Dance and NIT made the 2001-2002 campaign one to forget for the Southeastern Conference. While nine of the 12 teams in the SEC made the postseason, their lack of success in the season-ending tournaments was a true disappointment. This poor showing coupled with the acrimonious departure of former Arkansas Coach Nolan Richardson, the birth of “Team Turmoil” in Kentucky, and a rape investigation involving two Georgia players, overshadowed most of the good stories that came out of last season.
‘Dogs March through Atlanta
In a season of surprises that saw Arkansas miss the postseason for the first time since 1986 and Georgia rise to the top of the SEC East standings, it seemed appropriate that winner of the conference tournament was not among those picked to win it. Rick Stansbury’s Mississippi State Bulldogs took the crown at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta by beating Alabama in the final, 61-58. The Crimson Tide, which was seeded first in the tournament, transformed into a juggernaut by season’s end and was ranked as high as fifth in the nation. Nevertheless, both teams fizzled in the NCAA Tournament, like the rest of the SEC schools that broke into the field of 64.
Big Dance is Big Disappointment
The NCAA selection committee invited Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Florida, and Georgia to the Big Dance. Yet, even with six teams in attendance, not one SEC school managed to make it past the Sweet Sixteen. Even worse, five teams – Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Georgia – were gone before the second weekend. Three mid-majors waved goodbye to the Bulldogs, Crimson Tide, and Gators. Overall, it proved to be a terrible performance by a conference that traditionally has succeeded in college basketball’s biggest event.
Meanwhile, in the National Invitational Tournament, one team from the conference experienced a taste of success, and it wasn’t Vanderbilt, which was eliminated by Louisiana Tech in the second round. South Carolina, which struggled all year under first-year head coach Dave Odom, earned a trip to Madison Square Garden, where the Gamecocks lost to Memphis in the championship game.
The lack of success in the NCAA Tournament was reflected in the fact that Tennessee forward Marcus Haislip and Kentucky guard/forward Tayshaun Prince were the only SEC players taken in the first round of the NBA Draft. Yet, it bodes well for the SEC that only three of the five players selected to the All-SEC First Team have left the collegiate ranks. Tennessee forward Vincent Yarbrough, Florida center Udonis Haslem, and Prince all moved on to different places. Alabama center Erwin Dudley and Georgia guard/forward Jarvis Hayes will be returning to their respective squads this year.
Moving Out, Moving In
It was one of the messiest departures in the history of sports and became nothing short of a public relations fiasco for the University of Arkansas. The firing of Coach Nolan Richardson and the events preceding his dismissal made national news and served as fodder for sports talk show hosts around the country. In late February, the combustible Richardson exploded in front of a contingent of Arkansas media in a Monday press conference. Chastising the reporters that were in attendance, Richardson made a series of negative remarks about the university that were aired on ESPN. Richardson, who two days prior to the public outburst had indicated that a buyout of his contract was something he would consider, got just that when he was handed a pink slip on March 1st. Twenty-seven days later, former Kent State coach Stan Heath was hired as Richardson’s replacement.
Down Time? Not Exactly
The off-season proved to be a little more active than SEC teams would have liked, and it had nothing to do with the conference tournament moving to New Orleans this year. Arkansas lost both of its freshmen in the aftermath of the Richardson ordeal. Guard/Forward J.J. Sullinger transferred to Ohio State, while Berry Jordan left the Razorbacks, despite having not yet selected a new school to attend. Heath was able to replace Sullinger and Jordan with two recruits he lured to Fayetteville in the late signing period – New York point guard Eric Ferguson and Texas shooting guard Kendrick Davis.
“Team Turmoil” continued to have problems after last season ended with a loss in the Sweet Sixteen. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith dismissed sophomore center Jason Parker in August after he violated university athletic department policy. In other bad news for the Wildcats, center Jules Camara is nursing a broken hand that will force him to sit out until late October or early November.
Meanwhile, unlike Kentucky, Georgia had a productive summer, as it was able to clear up its off-the-court problems. Forwards Tony Cole and Stephen Thomas were cleared of rape charges that stemmed from an investigation that began during the season. While this happened, guard/forward Ezra Williams and guard/forward Damien Wilkins had their one-game suspensions rescinded by the NCAA after the collegiate governing body originally punished them for playing in an unsanctioned summer league.
Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes was enjoying his off-season until Justin Reed, the Rebels’ leading scorer, and teammate Emmanuel Wade were arrested on assault charges September 21st after they threatened security guards at a college party. Barnes, who has led the Rebels to four consecutive postseason tournaments and compiled an 86-46 record, was rewarded with a six-year contract extension in August.
Kentucky lost only two players to graduation. All-SEC forward Tayshaun Prince and J.C. Blevins each earned their degrees after productive stints with the Wildcats…A young Florida Gators team lost its main low post threat – center Udonis Haslem. However, forward Matt Bonner, Guard Brett Nelson, and forward Justin Hamilton all return this year.
Everybody will be back for Georgia this year, while South Carolina will be looking to replace its starting backcourt. Aaron Lucas and Jamel Bradley graduated last year leaving the Gamecocks vulnerable at the two guard positions.
Tennessee will be missing two of its impact players from last season after Vincent Yarbrough graduated and Marcus Haislip fled to the NBA…Meanwhile, Vanderbilt will be looking to fill the holes left by three of its top four scorers – Brendan Plavich, Chuck Moore, and Sam Howard.
Alabama returns everybody with the exception of guard Rod Grizzard, who was selected in the second round of the NBA Draft…Mississippi State will be looking to replace guard Marckell Patterson and forward Michael Gholar.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss will be losing only one player – diminutive point guard Jason Harrison, who graduated in May…LSU said goodbye to Jermaine Williams, who maximized his eligibility at the conclusion of last season.
Auburn lost nobody, while Arkansas is undergoing a complete overhaul. Guards Brandon Dean, Jannero Pargo, Teddy Gipson, and T.J. Cleveland all graduated in the spring. Meanwhile, freshmen forwards J.J. Sullinger and Berry Jordan skipped town after new coach Stan Heath arrived.