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SEC Conference Preview

November 6, 2003 Conference Notes No Comments



SEC Conference Preview

by Phil Kasiecki

Last season, the story of the Southeastern Conference was the Kentucky Wildcats, as the storied program did not lose a single game in the conference in 2002-03. The Wildcats were the team to beat entering the NCAA Tournament, not even cutting down the nets after winning the SEC Tournament. But they would not get back to New Orleans, losing to Marquette in the Midwest regional final.

That was more than could be said for the 4 other SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn surprised most when they made the Sweet 16, but Florida lost in the second round and Mississippi State and Alabama each had first round exits. All this after the SEC had the top RPI rating in the regular season.

The question entering the 2003-04 season is: Can anyone catch Kentucky? The answer looks like a resounding “yes”, but whether or not they will remains to be seen. The Wildcats suffered important personnel losses, and the conference will remain very competitive with several teams having the personnel to potentially overtake the Wildcats. But like most of the conference, the teams chasing them are young and/or have a lot of unproven talent.

This year shapes up as a building year for the SEC, in light of that. The conference lost many of its top players from last season. All five first team All-SEC performers are gone, including two who had another season of eligibility, and only one player from both All-SEC teams returns. If we look at the Associated Press selections, only three out of 15 All-SEC performers return this season. Looking over the teams, there are several that will rely on young talent, a couple being comprised mainly of freshmen and sophomores. While that has become a trend in college basketball, it will be more pronounced in the SEC this season.

While the talent and experience levels are down in the SEC, the fierce competition among its teams should be there as much as ever. It’s highly unlikely any team will run the table this season. The West Division should be up for grabs more than the East, as any of the projected top three teams could easily win the division, and don’t be surprised if upstart Arkansas jumps at least into the top three. The Razorbacks appear to be a year or two away from serious contention, but we’ve seen teams advance earlier than expected before.

First Team
Gerald Fitch, Sr. G, Kentucky
Matt Freije, Sr. F, Vanderbilt
Jamie Lloreda, Sr. F, LSU
Anthony Roberson, So. G, Florida
Lawrence Roberts, Jr. F, Mississippi State

Second Team
Timmy Bowers, Sr. G, Mississippi State
Chuck Hayes, Jr. F, Kentucky
Marco Killingsworth, Jr. F, Auburn
David Lee, Jr. F, Florida
Kennedy Winston, So. F, Alabama

Third Team
Brandon Crump, Jr. F, Tennessee
Christian Drejer, So. G-F, Florida
Justin Reed, Sr. F, Mississippi
Matt Walsh, So. G-F, Florida
Rashad Wright, Sr. G, Georgia

Player of the Year
Lawrence Roberts, Mississippi State

Newcomer of the Year
Brandon Bass, LSU

Best NBA Prospect
Lawrence Roberts, Mississippi State

Coach on the Hot Seat
Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt

Projected Finish

East Division
1. Kentucky (32-4, 16-0, 1st)
2. Florida (25-8, 12-4, 2nd)
3. Tennessee (17-12, 9-7, 4th)
4. Georgia (19-8, 11-5, 3rd)
5. South Carolina (12-16, 5-11, 5th)
6. Vanderbilt (11-18, 3-13, 6th)

West Division
1. Mississippi State (21-10, 9-7, 1st)
2. Auburn (22-12, 8-8, T2nd)
3. LSU (21-11, 8-8, T2nd)
4. Arkansas (9-19, 4-12, T5th)
5. Alabama (17-12, 7-9, 4th)
6. Mississippi (14-15, 7-9, T5th)

East Division

Kentucky

Kentucky is still the team to beat in the SEC, but the Wildcats will need several holdovers to step up. They’re also looking at going with a smaller team often, as they won’t have the reliable inside game of Marquis Estill or the presence of Jules Camara off the bench (though Camara never lived up to the potential he had). Junior Chuck Hayes, who plays as hard as anyone, is the key player up front. He should break out this season, especially after his summer experience in the Pan Am Games. More will be needed from senior Erik Daniels in what will be a smaller frontcourt unless some recruits pan out sooner than expected. The other holdover is sophomore Bernard Cote, but he showed little last season. Sheray Thomas is a sleeper prospect who could be a nice contributor at both forward spots, but the key may ultimately be how quickly 7’3″ freshman Shagari Alleyne develops. Alleyne can block shots, but he is very raw offensively and is a non-factor if he can be drawn away from the basket. Lukasz Obrzut and Bobby Perry also figure into the equation. The perimeter will be in better shape, led by versatile senior Gerald Fitch. He will need to be the go-to guy on this team unless Antwain Barbour plays up to his billing after struggling last year. Barbour did miss some time due to injury, but the Wildcats need him with All-American Keith Bogans gone. Senior Cliff Hawkins figures to be the point guard, though the Wildcats could go with Fitch flanked by Barbour and sophomore Kelenna Azubuike, a promising scorer who should get more time this season. This team will be balanced; they don’t possess the individual talents that some other teams do, but the experience, coaching and balance will keep the Wildcats on top. For all the press the Wildcats’ defense got, they led the SEC in field goal percentage and only Georgia scored more, two stats this year’s team might be hard-pressed to match. Don’t be surprised if they force the most turnovers or finish at or near the top in rebounding margin again.

Florida

Nipping at Kentucky’s heels will be Billy Donovan’s very young and talented Florida team. The Gators have just one senior and two juniors, so it will be mostly freshmen and sophomores driving this team. Super sophomore Anthony Roberson will head up the offense. He shoots the ball very well from long range and plays bigger than his size, making him one of the SEC’s top players. He should be flanked on the perimeter by more sophomores, versatile Christian Drejer and Matt Walsh. Both give them good size as well as skills on the perimeter and can cause matchup problems. Rasheed Al-Kaleem didn’t shoot as well as he’s capable of as a freshman, but he should figure into the attack, while freshmen Ryan Appleby and Lee Humphrey will get minutes, the former potentially getting good minutes at the point. The frontcourt will be anchored by two upperclassmen, junior David Lee and senior Bonell Colas. Lee could break out, especially as he gets moved to the power forward spot. Sophomore Adrian Moss returns, but look for talented freshmen Mohamed Abukar and Chris Richard to log plenty of minutes off the bench. Richard will play more inside, while Abukar can step outside at 6’9″ but needs to get stronger. The Gators were the top three-point shooting team in the SEC last year, and could do it again, but they’ll need to improve on the glass after barely out-rebounding opponents and losing Matt Bonner.

Tennessee

Tennessee lost three key starters, but the Volunteers might have enough to make the NCAA Tournament if they get some good contributions from newcomers. Sophomore C.J. Watson will be fine running the point, but he needs the recipients of his passes to put the ball in the hoop. His prime target on the perimeter figures to be Memphis transfer Scooter McFadgon, a good scoring wing. Sophomores Stanley Asumnu and John Winchester and freshmen Jordan Howell and Dane Bradshaw will need to contribute as well. Asumnu has the inside track, while Winchester is a great athlete whose jumper needs improvement. Junior Brandon Crump heads the frontcourt after a nice sophomore year. He has added strength and should continue to improve. His main help will likely be Clemson transfer Jemere Hendrix, though freshman Major Wingate has loads of potential. If Wingate can play like he’s capable of – a constant issue during his prep career – the Vols may be all right up front. The Volunteers were ninth in the conference in scoring last year and lost leading scorer Ron Slay and two more who combined to average over 17 points per game, so scoring is the foremost concern. Improving defensively would help as well, as they were in the lower half in scoring and field goal percentage defense and forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC.

South Carolina

South Carolina enters the season with question marks after a fifth-place finish last season. The Gamecocks lost two starters and three of their top five scorers, and off-court issues surround their second-leading returning scorer. While all of the players who departed were in the frontcourt, that is still the area with the fewest question marks. Junior forward Carlos Powell led the team in scoring with a nice improvement from his freshman year, while senior Kerbrell Brown also returns and could reach double digits in scoring. Freshman Brandon Wallace figures to contribute immediately, though he needs to get stronger to fully reach his potential, while fellow freshman Paulius Joneliunas adds size and should see minutes. The big question is with senior Rolando Howell, who hasn’t reached his potential but was third in scoring and led in rebounding last year. Howell was suspended indefinitely after being arrested in August, leaving his status up in the air. Also hurting was Renaldo Balkman failing to qualify. The backcourt is a real source of concern, with no scoring threats; the Gamecocks shot below 30% on three-pointers last season. At point guard, they could go with senior Michael Boynton, a disappointment who can’t score, or freshman Tre Kelley, who has potential but arrives with mixed reviews. Shooting guard will likely be manned by one of two junior college transfers, Jon Land or Josh Gonner, though sophomore Tarence Kinsey will figure into the mix as well. The Gamecocks were at or near the bottom in many statistical categories last season, even finishing last in rebounding margin with the frontcourt being the strength of the team. That did a lot to offset having the best turnover margin in the conference and forcing more turnovers than any SEC team except Kentucky.

Vanderbilt

It may be gut check time in Nashville for Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings. After a promising beginning in his first season, the Commodores have struggled, culminating thus far with last season’s poor showing. With almost no personnel changes, things could stay the same or change drastically for the better if the extra year means maturity. He has a star to build around in senior forward Matt Freije, a Player of the Year candidate save for the team’s struggles. His frontcourt help comes from junior center David Przybyszewski and sophomore forward Julian Terrell, the former of whom must be more of a factor on the glass. With Brian Thornton, last year’s leading rebounder, having transferred, they also need contributions from redshirt freshman Ted Skuchas, as the Commodores were next-to-last in the SEC in rebounding margin. The backcourt’s performance will hinge on two things: someone being able to shoot the ball, and the play of talented but erratic sophomore point guard Mario Moore. Moore is very quick and can be a good floor leader, and he should improve with a year under his belt. Senior Russell Lakey is a capable backup, so the point isn’t an area of concern. Shooting guard is, with junior Jason Holwerda and senior Scott Hundley being the incumbents, but with junior Corey Smith and freshman Dan Cage trying to get their chance. Besides the troubles on the glass and on defense, one area that could help the Commodores is if they take better care of the ball, as only Arkansas had more turnovers last season among SEC teams.

West Division

Mississippi State

In a division with no clear favorite, Mississippi State looks to have enough to come out on top. The Bulldogs were the biggest beneficiaries of the trouble at Baylor, as All-America candidate Lawrence Roberts transferred and is immediately eligible, giving life to a frontcourt decimated by defections to the NBA and an academic non-qualifier. Roberts is a Player of the Year candidate and should help junior center Marcus Campbell inside. Depth comes from seniors Branden Vincent and Lincoln Smith, and they’ll need more from them with Ontario Harper out for the season with a knee injury. The perimeter should be in good shape, anchored by underrated shooting guard Timmy Bowers. With Roberts joining, Bowers should still get some open looks, and he provides good defense as well. Freshman Gary Ervin should run the show, and while he won’t have Derrick Zimmerman’s court savvy right away, he is very quick and a scoring threat. Iowa State transfer Shane Power gives them another good shooter, and fellow junior Winsome Frazier and freshman Dietric Slater will also help off the bench. With the offense lost from last year’s team, the Bulldogs would do well to be the SEC’s top defensive team once again. With the thinner frontcourt, they aren’t likely to lead the SEC in rebounding margin again, and cutting down the turnovers is another area for improvement since only three SEC teams turned it over more.

Auburn

Don’t be surprised if Auburn takes the West Division title. The Tigers lost their best player in Marquis Daniels, but return a very good frontcourt that will carry this team. Junior Marco Killingsworth, the team’s top returning scorer and a tough inside player, led the team in rebounding and is the team’s top returning scorer. He gets good help inside from senior Kyle Davis and junior Brandon Robinson, who might get some time at small forward this season. Adding freshman Dwayne Curtis, a big body who can rebound, will help, as well as junior college transfer Quinnel Brown. The backcourt has questions, but still has capable bodies in juniors Lewis Monroe and Nathan Watson, the latter of whom is the incumbent to take over at shooting guard for the departed Derrick Bird, the team’s unsung hero last season. Two junior college transfers, Ian Young and Ronnie LeMelle, will get plenty of playing time there, and junior Troy Gaines is a serviceable backup at the point. The Tigers will likely improve on their rebounding margin of +2 per game last year, but they need to take better care of the ball after Arkansas was the only SEC team with a worse assist/turnover ratio and only two teams turned the ball over more.

Louisiana State

With three key starters gone, LSU might be too young to take the SEC West this season, but the talent and athleticism won’t be lacking. It starts with senior center Jamie Lloreda, who will anchor a very athletic frontcourt. The rest of the frontcourt is very athletic, but young, starting with McDonald’s All-American Brandon Bass. The jewel of one of the best recruiting classes in the country, Bass will be an impact player at either forward spot. Fellow freshman Regis Koundjia is a great athlete who will play small forward, while Ross Neltner and Darnell Lazare are freshmen who will get some time in reserve roles as well. In the backcourt, the main holdover is junior Antonio Hudson, who John Brady hopes will regain the form of his freshman year. With Torris Bright gone, junior Xavier Whipple is the incumbent at the point, but it could also go to Taurean “Tack” Minor, a quick and strong guard who tends to look for his own offense a lot. Sophomore Darrel Mitchell will get some minutes along with junior Tony Gipson. With over 38 points lost among the three starters, LSU will have to keep up its stellar defense, as they were second in the SEC last year in both scoring and field goal percentage defense.

Arkansas

Stan Heath has Arkansas on the rise again, and this season looks to be a good building one. Improvement in the backcourt will be a start, as point guard Eric Ferguson and wing Jonathan Modica figure to be better as sophomores. Modica has the potential to be a good scorer. Senior Charles Tatum and sophomore Kendrick Davis will get time off the bench, the latter more at shooting guard. The wing positions figure to be dominated by two freshmen, big-time athlete Olu Famutimi and Ronnie Brewer, the son of an Arkansas great. Famutimi is coming off a torn ACL, but showed no ill effects when the team traveled to Cancun over Labor Day weekend. Up front, senior Billy Pharis, sophomore Rashard Sullivan and junior Michael Jones are the primary holdovers, but look for freshman Vincent Hunter to get plenty of minutes. Hunter will need to add strength to reach his potential. The Razorbacks are a young team, with just three seniors and one junior, but the future is looking brighter in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks were last in almost every offensive category last season, so that’s where the improvement has to start, but it wouldn’t hurt if they could force more turnovers after all but two SEC teams forced more than the Razorbacks did last season.

Alabama

There probably isn’t a team more decimated by personnel losses than underachieving Alabama. The Tide was the country’s top-ranked team at one point last season, then fell apart in SEC play. This season doesn’t look much better, with three key starters gone. There is some experience, with three seniors likely to start, led by Antoine Pettway at the point. He’s very quick and shoots the ball well, and he’s solid at the defensive end. He’ll get help from fellow senior Demetrius Smith and junior Ernest Shelton, who needs to shoot the ball better. Freshmen Justin Jonus and LaKory Daniels will be the primary reserves, with senior Emmett Thomas also playing on the wing. The main scorer will be sophomore forward Kennedy Winston, who came on late last season. The Tide has a lot of unproven options in the frontcourt, from sophomores Chuck Davis and Evan Brock to talented freshmen Akini Adkins and Jamareo Davidson. Davidson figures to play a lot this year with his talent and size, as only freshman Shawn Taylor is taller, but Taylor badly needs to bulk up since he’s 6’11” and checks in at just 200 pounds. Only Arkansas shot worse from the field last season, and only two teams were worse behind the three-point line, so shooting the ball is clearly the foremost concern for this team aside from the loss of forwards Erwin Dudley and Kenny Walker.

Mississippi

Another team with heavy personnel losses is Rod Barnes’ team at Mississippi. The Rebels lost three starters and a key reserve, leaving them decimated in the backcourt. Senior Aaron Harper, their second-leading scorer last season, is the shooting guard, but who runs the show is a question mark. The top candidates are junior college transfer Ed Glass and freshman Todd Abernethy. Freshman Bam Doyne and junior Justin Johnson are also on the bench. The frontcourt may be in better shape, led by leading scorer Justin Reed, who considered the NBA in the offseason. But even here, the Rebels have largely unproven or untested bodies. The best look to be bulky junior college transfer Tommy Eddie, fellow junior Byron Burnett, and senior Richard Kirklin. Another junior college transfer, Lonny Jackson, has three years of eligibility and needs to add strength before being ready for the SEC. With scoring a question mark, the Rebels will need to improve on defense after being last in field goal percentage defense, though

     

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