SEC West Preview: The Great Unknown

    
October 10th, 2008
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Yesterday, we looked at the SEC East, where Tennessee appears to be a clear-cut favorite. Today, we dive into the SEC West, where the picture is a little murkier. Early defections to the NBA and graduation snagged some of the top players, and newcomers will be counted on heavily if teams want to make a run at the postseason. Here’s how it should shape out.

 

 

SEC WEST

 

1)  ALABAMA

 

2007-08 results :  17-16  (5-11 SEC)

Players lost: Richard Hendrix, Mykal Riley, Rico Pickett

 

While the lure of the NBA may have pulled Hendrix out of Tuscaloosa, it wasn’t strong enough to entice Alonzo Gee or Ronald Steele, who should anchor this team. Steele, who has battled injuries and sat out all last season, is one of the premier point guards in the conference when healthy, and Gee is an athletic freak who has only scratched the surface of his talent. A deep rotation last year enabled plenty of players to get minutes, and a solid recruiting class will add more depth.

 

In the backcourt, the Tide welcome back Steele with open arms. Steele doesn’t blow you away with physical ability, but he plays poised and is a good decision maker with the ball. He’ll be joined by Mikhail Torrance, Brandon Hollinger and Senario Hillman, as well as incoming freshman Andrew Steele, his younger brother, in a deep rotation. Look for Coach Mark Gottfried to try to push the pace this season with so many guards.

 

Up front, Gottfried returns forwards Demetrius Jemison and Yamene Coleman, who will play major minutes this year with the loss of Hendrix. However, help is on the way in the form of freshman forward JaMychal Green, an elite recruit who should start from the first day. Green lacks Hendrix’s strength, but he is a better athlete and can run the floor. Gee mostly operates out of the small forward slot also, which allows him to take advantage of his tremendous athleticism by crashing the glass. Gee can play out of control at times, but another year of experience should help him become a more mature player, and he could turn some heads this year.

 

The return of Steele and Gee should give the Tide the experience needed to win the West. With plenty of athletic guards and the addition of Green up front, the Tide may run more this season. The key will be Steele’s health. If he’s back on his game, the Tide will be dramatically improved from last year’s disappointment. They’ll miss the steady play of Hendrix down low, but there’s still enough talent here to think about an NCAA berth.

 

2) LSU

 

2007-08 results: 13-18 (6-10 SEC)

Players lost: Anthony Randolph, Dameon Mason

 

 

Despite the loss of lottery pick Anthony Randolph, the Tigers should actually improve this season. The return guards Marcus Thornton, Terry Martin and Garrett Temple, as well as big man Chris Johnson, but the most important returnee may be forward Tasmin Mitchell, who played in only three games last year before being injured.

New coach Trent Johnson has plenty of pieces to work with to put the Tiger back into contention.

 

The backcourt should again be good, as Thornton, Temple and Martin return for another year. Thornton ‘s shot selection could use some work, but he did put up nearly 20 points per game last season, and showed he’s capable of scoring on anyone at any time. Martin, Temple and Alex Farrer also return to offer experience and give the Tigers one of the tallest backcourts in the SEC.  Look for Chris Bass, the younger brother of former LSU All-American Brandon Bass, to get a chance at the point. Getting consistent effort and intensity will be the key here.

 

Johnson’s Stanford teams were built around powerful post players like the Lopez twins, so this will be an adjustment for him. Chris Johnson is the most experienced post player, but he’s painfully undersized to bang down low. A lanky, explosive athlete, he needs to play more under control this year if he’s going to help replace Randolph. Quinton Thornton also will have to step up, as will Garret Green. However, the return of Mitchell to small forward is huge for LSU. A talented athlete who can play inside or out, Mitchell creates a lot of matchup problems, and if he’s fully healthy, could challenge for All-SEC honors. The Tigers were hurt by the defection of talented recruit J’Mison Morgan to UCLA.

 

The Tigers had a lot of talent last year, but often played uninspired and undisciplined ball. That won’t fly this year under Johnson, who should help them maximize their potential. If he can coax more effort and consistency out of them, the Tigers could challenge Alabama for the West title. There’s too much talent here for the team to have another 13-win season.

 

3) OLE MISS

 

2007-08 results: 24-11 (7-9 SEC),  NIT Semifinals

Players lost: Dwayne Curtis, Kenny Williams, Jeremy Parnell

 

The second year of the Andy Kennedy era was a surprising success, led by talented point guard Chris Warren. The Rebels stumbled a bit in SEC play, which led to the NIT instead of the NCAA, but their 45 wins in the past two season show that Kennedy has them on the right track.

 

Even with all of the recruiting services, blogs, rankings, scouting, summer camps, televised tournaments…some players still are overlooked out of high school. Lucky for Ole Miss, one of those overlooked was Warren, an undersized point out of Florida who immediately took over the team, leading them in scoring and assists. A feisty playmaker, Warren wasn’t fazed by big-time college ball, and he should only be better this year. Joining him will be Eniel Polynice and David Huertas, who have lots of ability but need to show more consistency. Trevor Gaskins and Zach Graham should provide depth, as will freshmen Will Bogan and Terrico White, an explosive athlete. But there’s no mistaking that this team will go as Warren goes.

 

The Rebels attack worked well last year because of the inside-outside balance, provided by Warren and Dwayne Curtis. With Curtis gone, along with frontcourt mates Kenny Williams and Jeremy Parnell, the Rebels are looking for help in a big way. Malcolm White and Wesley Jones are the only returning players over 6’7”, so Kennedy hopes incoming forwards Terrance Henry and DeAundre Cranston are ready to contribute early. Henry is the more highly-touted, but Cranston has a bigger body that may hold up better in SEC play. Redshirt freshman Kevin Cantinol will also help in the frontcourt. However, Williams and Curtis combined to average nearly 24 points and 15 rebounds per game, and those numbers simply won’t be replaced this year.

 

After two solid seasons, the Rebels won’t sneak up on anyone this year. Kennedy is quietly building a solid foundation, and they’re looking to take the next step toward an NCAA Tournament berth. They’ll be thin up front, but the backcourt has the potential to be one of the best in the conference, led by Warren.  In the depleted SEC West, they’ll be tough.

 

4) MISSISSIPPI STATE

 

2007-08 results 23-11 (12-4 SEC), NCAA 2nd round

Players lost: Jamont Gordon, Ben Hansbrough, Charles Rhodes

 

When do-everything guard Jamont Gordon elected to keep his name in the NBA Draft, the Bulldogs’ season took a big hit. Gordon was the unquestioned leader of the team, and his versatility allowed him to dominate games from all over the court. The Bulldogs have a few returning players to provide experience, but it’s hard to envision this team making any kind of post-season run without Gordon.

 

The Bulldogs do return guards Barry Stewart and Phil Turner, who will have to step up and play bigger roles this year. Both have proven to be solid role players, but they’ll be asked to do much more. Not only do they have to replace Gordon, but they also will miss the toughness of Hansbrough, a feisty competitor who also was one of their top outside threats. Swingman Ravern Johnson will also have to start living up to his potential if the Dogs want to make nay noise. A wiry athlete, Johnson can create matchup problems if he puts his mind to it. Freshmen Dee Bost and Antiquawn Beckham will also likely see big minutes. Both have big time scoring ability, something the Dogs desperately need.

 

Up front, the loss of Rhodes is just as devastating as Gordon. Rhodes provided a lot of toughness and leadership in addition to his 17 points per game, and he’ll be hard to replace. However, the return of Jarvis Varnado is a good place to start. Varnado is a terrific defender, blocking six shots or more in game 12 times last year, including three games with 10 blocks. His offense is still limited, but his effort and defensive intensity will be crucial to the Bulldogs up front. After Varnado, there are some question marks though. Can Brian Johnson, Elgin Bailey and Kodi Augustus handle the additional minutes? Will freshman Romero Osby be ready to play right away? There’s plenty of potential here, but until they tip-off, Bulldogs fans have to be feeling a little ansty.

 

The Bulldogs have some talent, but the loss of Gordon and Rhodes can’t be overstated. If they even want to think about making another postseason run, they’ll need terrific efforts from guys who were used to being role players last season. They’ll be a solid team, but it’s just hard to imagine a deep run without their two best players from last year.

 

5) ARKANSAS

 

2007-08 results: 23-12 (9-7 SEC) NCAA 2nd round

Players lost: Sonny Weems, Steven Hill, Darian Townes, Vincent Hunter, Charles Thomas, Gary Ervin, Patrick Beverly

 

Hogs fans will need to keep their media guides handy next year just to identify all the new faces. Coach John Pelphrey will essentially be starting over after losing so many key players, but he still has some talent to work with, and he’s hoping a talented freshmen class will be ready to step in right away.

 

The Hogs knew they would lose Weems and Ervin last year, but the loss of Beverly (reportedly due to academics) was salt in the wound. A talented combo guard, Beverly was destined to be the focal point of the Hogs’ offense; now he’ll play in Europe for a year or two before trying to make the NBA. The loss of Weems and Ervin hurt also. Weems was a terrific athlete capable of carrying the team at times last year, while Ervin was a steady playmaker who rarely got rattled. Pelphrey will first look to Stefan Welsh, who all of a sudden is the new face of the program. Welsh is a versatile guard, and they’ll need every bit of experience they can squeeze out of him. Freshmen Courtney Fortson and Rotnei Clark come in with reps as explosive scorers, and both will get the chance to prove that early.

 

Like in the backcourt, the Hogs have only one returning player with any experience up front, and they’ll need him to step up in a big way. Michael Washington has the versatility to be a good player in the league, and now he’ll get the minutes to prove it. To fill the rest of the holes, Pelphrey is again counting on freshmen, specifically Jason Henry, Montrell McDonald, Brandon Moore and Andre Clark. Henry is the best of the bunch, and he could start right away. Redshirt freshmen Michael Sanchez is also an option here, he’ll see plenty of minutes as well.

 

The Hogs certainly are bringing in some talent, but even the most optimistic fan can’t imagine a postseason run this year. There’s way too many question marks and way too much inexperience on the roster. They’ll be fun to watch, and they pull a few surprises along the way, but the Hogs are probably at least a year away from thinking about the postseason.

 

6) AUBURN

 

2007-08 results: 14-16

Players lost: Quan Prowell, Frank Tolbert

 

Thankfully, Tigers fans should at least be able to enjoy football season, because it doesn’t appear that basketball season will be any more enjoyable than it has been in recent years. The Tigers lost their best all-around player in Prowell, and just don’t have the horses to compete in the SEC this year. Barring some surprises, they’ll likely hover around the .500 mark once again.

 

The backcourt loses Tolbert, but returns nearly everyone else, making this the strength of the team. Quantez Robertson, Rasheem Barrett, DeWayne Reed and Larry Williams provide plenty of experience. Barrett was the team’s third-leading scorer last year, and Roberston led the team in assists, so the Tigers have talent coming back. But so far, that talent just hasn’t proved capable of consistently making the Tigers competitive. Until that happens, it’s hard to place a lot of stock into them, no matter how experienced they are.

 

Up front, the Tigers will look for Kovortney Barber to replace Prowell. Barber has been solid, but he’s hardly lived up to the hype he generated as an elite recruit, and he needs to play to his potential this year if the Tigers have any shot of winning. Barberr looked to be putting it together early last year before being lost to a broken hand. Lucas Hargrove is another solid player, albeit undersized, who the Tigers are counting on. Hargrove is a tough competitor and won’t back down. Beyond them, there’s a lot of newcomers the tigers will county on. Francis Alhe, Brandon Knox, Kenny Gabriel and Johnnie Lett are all at least 6’8”, and if the Tigers can get any contributions from them, it will be a plus.

 

The Tigers aren’t a bad team – just not necessarily a good one. They have some talented pieces, but they haven’t been able to put them together in the right way, and consistent play has been a pipe dream in recent seasons. It’s always possible that the light bulb will go on in Barber’s head, and he’ll provide a steady post player to complement the guard play. However, recent history says otherwise. Look for another season  with as many wins as losses, and another postseason of sitting at home for the Tigers.              

 

ALSO: Yesterday's SEC EAST PREVIEW