Athlon Sports continues its countdown to the start of the 2012-13 basketball season, which begins with the first games on Nov. 9, with a countdown of the nation’s top conferences. We will release one conference preview each day, counting down to the top conference. For profiles of every team in each conference, check out the 2012-13 Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store.
The SEC did away with its East-West Division structure in basketball before last season, but don’t be fooled: This is a league divided.
Just compare the top of the league (Kentucky) with the No. 14 team (South Carolina). Kentucky is the defending national champion where attrition doesn’t seem to matter. The Wildcats lost four first-round NBA draft picks and two second-round picks but reloaded with another elite recruiting class with aspirations of returning to the Final Four.
At South Carolina, new coach Frank Martin immediately lost two of best players to transfers from a team that went 2-14 in the SEC last season. He’ll have an undersized team that may need a few years to rebuild. Unlike Kentucky, there will be no quick fixes with superstar freshmen.
The gulf between haves and have nots in the SEC is more than just the top and bottom teams. Kentucky, Missouri, Florida and Tennessee all ranked in the Athlon preseason top 25, and teams like Arkansas, Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are looking for the right breaks to reach the NCAA Tournament.
After that, the remainder of the league is in a stage of rebuilding. At LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina, that process begins with new coaches, and and Vanderbilt, that begins with a wholly new cast of characters on last season’s SEC Tournament champions.
SEC FACTS AND FIGURES
2011-12 regular season champion: Kentucky
Player of the Year: Phil Pressey, Missouri
2012 NCAA Tournament teams: Alabama, Kentucky, Florida,
Best Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Most Underrated: Ray Turner, Texas A&M
New coaches: Johnny Jones (LSU), Frank Martin (South Carolina),
Newcomer of the Year: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Rick Ray (Mississippi State)
Realignment: Added Missouri, Texas A&M (Big 12)
*won SEC tournament #won Big 12 tournament
ATHLON ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM
ATHLON ALL-SEC SECOND TEAM
ATHLON ALL-SEC THIRD TEAM
G Phil Pressey, Missouri
G Kenny Boynton, Florida
G Trae Golden, Tennessee
G BJ Young, Arkansas
G Michael Dixon, Missouri
G Ryan Harrow, Kentucky
F Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia
F Murphy Holloway, Ole Miss
F Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee
F Alex Poythress, Kentucky
F Alex Oriakhi, Missouri
C Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
F Marshawn Powell, Arkansas
F Patric Young, Florida
2012-13 SEC PREVIEW
1. Kentucky (38-2, 16-0)
The Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in our preseason rankings: Full preview
Kentucky, with three straight Elite Eights, back-to-back Final Fours and a national title, is enjoying its finest stretch since reaching three consecutive NCAA title games — winning twice — from 1996-98. John Calipari is the king of reloading, but is repeating a fair expectation? Since UCLA won seven in a row from 1967-73, only Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-07) have won back-to-back championships. But Calipari says: “I can tell you I like my team,” which he’s said at the start of the last three seasons, and those turned out pretty well. The guys who just helped UK win it all and have been back to watch the Cats work out this summer seem to think the next group will make another run.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Final Four
Related: Noel leads top freshmen for 2012-13
2. Missouri (30-5, 14-4 Big 12)
The Tigers are ranked No. 16 in our preseason rankings: Full preview
Missouri players believe they won’t just have more bodies this season but also more talent than they did a year ago. But to have a chance to meet or exceed last season’s accomplishments, they will also have to match the chemistry so integral to that success. The additional options could make it harder for players to fit into defined roles, but if Coach Frank Haith can get them to play together, the Tigers should be a more well-rounded team. The tandem of Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi figures to make them better at protecting the rim, and their improved depth should help them extend their defense on the perimeter. With Phil Pressey, one of the nation’s top playmakers, directing the offense, Missouri should also generate enough points to contend in a league race led by reigning national champion Kentucky.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
Related: Tigers among teams relying on transfers
3. Florida (26-11, 10-6)
The Gators are ranked No. 20 in our preseason rankings: Full preview
Florida has the pieces in place to contend with Kentucky for the top spot in the SEC. The Gators, however, must stay healthy and will need more productivity from two key juniors — Patric Young up front and Scottie Wilbekin at the point — and for Boynton to score as efficiently as he did in ’11-12. A lack of size will still be an issue, but Billy Donovan has proven that he can win with a perimeter-oriented attack. Anything short of a return to the Sweet 16 — or beyond — will be a disappointment.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Two and Out
4. Tennessee (19-15, 10-6)
The experts told Cuonzo Martin his first Tennessee team would finish near the bottom of the SEC last season. The new Vols coach merely shrugged. “Maybe they’re right,” he said with a wicked smile. “We’ll see.” Fast forward to Year 2, and some say Martin’s second Tennessee team is among those to beat for the SEC crown and won’t sneak up on anyone. Indeed, one of the bigger blue chips in recent Tennessee prep history fell to Martin in the form of mid-term enrollee Jarnell Stokes last January. Martin and the Vols have been rolling ever since. More than 80 percent of last season’s scoring is back in the form of four returning starters. Stokes has grown into his size 20 sneakers, polishing up low-post moves and footwork that make his 6-8, 250-pound frame all the more difficult for foes to handle. When 6-7, 265-pound senior power forward Jeronne Maymon stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Stokes, the two form an imposing wall. The backcourt starts with junior point guard Trae Golden, who ranked second in the SEC in free throw shooting percentage (82.7) last season. Martin’s system utilizes two wings, and the Vols are well-stocked at the position. Battles for playing time abound, with junior Jordan McRae, incoming junior college transfer D’Montre Edwards, senior Skylar McBee and sophomore Josh Richardson fighting for time. If some scorers on the perimeter emerge, Tennessee could be in the hunt for an SEC title.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament Two and Out
Related: Tennessee, Arkansas poised for return to NCAA Tourney
5. Arkansas (18-15, 6-10)
The key to Mike Anderson’s “fastest 40 minutes in college basketball” is having enough capable athletes ready to rotate in and out of the lineup to keep the pressure on. In Year 2 of his return to Arkansas, Anderson believes his roster is more equipped to thrive in his system. The Razorbacks retained the SEC’s top-scoring freshman from last season when guard BJ Young elected to return to school. He’ll team with forward Marshawn Powell, who is returning from knee surgery that cost him all but two games, to give Arkansas two of the most talented players in the league. Arkansas’ improved numbers should be evident on the perimeter. Young, one of the SEC’s best scorers, is primed for a big sophomore season. The 6-3 shooting guard ranked third in the SEC in scoring in league games with a 16.4-point average while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Junior Mardracus Wade led the SEC with 47.6 percent 3-point shooting and should get plenty of looks again this season with Powell back in the lineup in the frontcourt. Powell’s return will help on multiple levels. The junior from Virginia can score with his back to the basket but also has the ability to step out and hit the 17-foot jump shot. He has solid ball skills, as well, which enables him to take the ball the basket from different spots on the floor. Powell averaged 14.9 points and shot 50.0 percent from the field two years ago as a freshman, his only completely healthy season at Arkansas. His work on the boards — he’s averaged 5.7 per game in his career — will be a big boost for an Arkansas team that ranked last in the SEC and 291st in the nation with a minus-3.8 rebounding margin. The pieces are in place for Arkansas to make a significant jump in the SEC standings. Anderson has a nice mix of veterans and young players who should thrive in his up-tempo game. The Hogs, however, must improve on defense and at least hold their own on the glass. If that happens, Arkansas can expect to hear its name called on Selection Sunday for the first time since 2008.
Postseason prediction: NCAA Tournament First Four
6. Alabama (21-12, 9-7)
Anthony Grant’s tenure at Alabama hasn’t resulted in the immediate success most fans crave, but it’s represented steady progress through his first three seasons. Junior Trevor Releford will bring something to the table that has become elusive in this era of one-and-done college basketball — all-conference talent and experience. He’ll be the captain of an Alabama backcourt that still lacks a go-to shooter but includes a number of experienced options. Releford, who has started 66 games over the past two seasons, saw a slight increase in scoring last season (11 to 12 points per game), but his assist totals dropped (125 to 88). Though they provided plenty of headaches because of their off-the-court behavior, JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell will be missed. The two players, when they weren’t suspended for various dustups with Grant last season, combined to average more than 27 points and 14 rebounds per game. Now, they’re both gone, and Grant will try to replace their production from a four-man pool that features only one player, sophomore Nick Jacobs, who has logged significant minutes in an Alabama uniform. Five-star freshman Devonta Pollard certainly has the talent to start right away as Alabama’s swingman. Grant’s lone signee for 2012, the 6-8, 200-pound Pollard promises to be on the court in a number of different ways. All things equal, Alabama, which has been one of the SEC’s best defensive teams under Grant, needs Pollard to, at least, replicate the kind of production Green provided during his four-year career. Without that, Alabama’s lack of depth and proven talent in the paint and its lack of go-to shooters on the perimeter will be exposed regularly by the SEC’s elite.
Postseason prediction: NIT
7. Ole Miss (20-14, 8-8)
Ole Miss hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2002, the longest drought among the 14 teams in the SEC. The Rebels might have made the Field of 68 in 2012 had they been able to find a reliable 3-point shooter in their first season in the post-Chris Warren era. Instead they finished 20–14 with a first-round NIT loss after reaching the SEC Tournament semifinals. If all goes as planned, junior college transfer Marshall Henderson, will solve the Rebels’ problem of poor 3-point shooting that sabotaged their season. A former starter at Utah, Henderson was the NJCAA National Player of the Year in ‘11-12 after averaging 19.6 points at South Plains (Texas) College. Holloway, an athletic combo forward, and Reginald Buckner, a rugged post player, flirted with leaving school early to explore professional basketball, but both opted to return to Ole Miss. They formed the top one-two rebounding punch in the SEC last season, with Holloway ranking third (9.0 rpg) in the league and Buckner fourth (8.1 rpg). Murphy Holloway also averaged 11.2 points per game in his first season back from Ole Miss after a brief stop at South Carolina. On paper, the pieces are in place keep Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament conversation, but relying so heavily on newcomers, as the Rebels are with Henderson and fellow junior college transfer Jason Carter, is a dicey proposition.
Postseason prediction: NIT
Related: Ole Miss' Kennedy one of 10 coaches on the hot seat
8. Texas A&M (14-18, 4-14 Big 12)
Considering all of the adversity he encountered last season, second-year coach Billy Kennedy isn’t particularly worried about transitioning into a new conference. Or breaking in a new point guard. Or anything else, for that matter. He feels good physically. He likes the personnel changes he and his staff have made to the roster. And he believes his program is ready for a fresh start in the SEC. Indeed, if the Aggies receive solid play at the point, they should be tough enough to make its first season in the SEC much more enjoyable than their last in the Big 12. With all the uncertainties last season, Elston Turner was practically the rock of stability for A&M, starting 31 games and playing multiple positions. Turner is a good ball-handler and capable point guard, but he is most dangerous as a scorer. Turner could be a better pure scorer if first-year point guards Fabyon Harris and J’Mychal Reese can run the offense effectively. Kennedy says perhaps no player on the roster has improved more than Ray Turner, a 6-9 forward with tremendous athletic ability. Turner can alter games with monstrous dunks or blocked shots, but he must prove to be a more consistent scorer — especially with his back to the basket — for the Aggies to finish in the upper half of the SEC. The return of Roberson from an ankle injury last year should greatly improve A&M’s toughness. Roberson has proven to be a strong rebounder, and he brings a much-needed tenacity to A&M’s interior efforts. But if Fabyon Harris and Reese can handle the point guard duties effectively, Ray Turner and Elston Turner could have strong enough seasons to put the Aggies back into contention for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
Postseason prediction: NIT
Related: A&M, Missouri and Arkansas relying on players returning from injury
9. Georgia (15-17, 5-11)
Georgia has settled into an era of relative stability. Mark Fox is entering his fourth season as coach, with no turnover on his staff since he arrived, and he enjoys the confidence of his bosses. There has been little in the way of off-court trouble. And yet, the Bulldogs are still in a state of moving toward something — namely, consistent NCAA Tournament contention — rather than already being there. It has been two seasons since Fox guided the team to the NCAAs, where it went out in the first round. Georgia fans are waiting for Fox to show that he can recruit the caliber of players that can consistently contend in the SEC. Fox thinks his 2012-13 edition will show that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came to campus last year with as much hype as any recent Georgia player — and he largely lived up to it. Now, after Caldwell-Pope finished second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding, the team will basically belong to him. The bigger unknown for Georgia is what to expect in the rest of the backcourt. The point guard will be new. Senior Vincent Williams, who has barely been a member of the rotation, will get a shot to start. But he will have to beat out freshman Charles Mann, who at 6-4 is four inches taller. Georgia was one of the weakest rebounding teams in the SEC last season. Its frontcourt starters struggled to score, and other teams were able to score in the lane with near impunity. The problem was mainly that the team lacked a true center, and that problem hasn’t been remedied yet. This doesn’t appear to be a make-or-break year for Fox. But the next one is setting up that way, so at a minimum the Bulldogs need to show progress, and also show that they have the players in the program to eventually make a run.
Postseason prediction: NIT
10. Auburn (15-16, 5-11)
Tony Barbee hasn’t backed down from ambitious expectations for his third year at Auburn, even after losing one of his top players to a point-shaving investigation, enduring an offseason of massive turnover and welcoming as many as six new faces into the program. The changes were largely positive, Barbee says, and the team’s talent has been upgraded. Barbee is convinced the Tigers can move into the upper half of the league in 2013. But Auburn’s recent basketball track record — including just a 9–23 record in SEC play since Barbee arrived — will leave many skeptical until the Tigers validate their coach’s confidence by their play on the court. Varez Ward’s suspension amid a point-shaving investigation last March ended the season on a sour note and also created a vacancy at point guard. Barbee quickly offered a scholarship to Brian Greene Jr., who had been playing a post-grad year at IMG Academy in Florida. Barbee says Greene has unusual maturity for his age and that he impressed the coaching staff during summer practices. Rob Chubb was once a gangly freshman whose SEC future seemed dubious at best. Today, he’s a sturdy, 6-10, 245-pound senior who Barbee believes could be among the league’s best big men. Auburn needs Chubb to be more consistent and stay out of foul trouble, something that plagued him at times last season. While few expected Auburn’s attractive new arena to be an immediate solution to the Tigers’ decade-long basketball slump, the last two seasons have been especially grim. Auburn hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2003, and a return this year seems unlikely. But any trip to the postseason — even the NIT — would be a monumental step forward. The real measure of this year will come in the progress and development of the large and talented freshman class, on which much of Auburn’s hope for the future is staked.
11. Vanderbilt (25-11, 10-6)
Kevin Stallings’ biggest concern at this point last year was how his team, ranked by most in the top 10 in the preseason, would deal with high expectations. That, clearly, is not an issue this time around. With all five starters and the top reserve either lost to graduation or, in John Jenkins’ case, early departure to the NBA, Vanderbilt will field one of the most inexperienced teams in the nation in ’12-13. How inexperienced? Consider the following stat: Kedren Johnson, Vanderbilt’s leading returning scorer, averaged 2.3 points per game in SEC play. Johnson delivered the most memorable play of the 2011-12 season, converting a 3-point play in transition that gave Vanderbilt the lead for good in the final two minutes of the SEC Tournament title game. Now a sophomore, Johnson will be asked to emerge as a primary scoring threat on the perimeter. He has good size for a point guard and is an excellent passer, but his defense needs to improve and his 3-point shot is inconsistent. Johnson’s running mate will be fellow sophomore Dai-Jon Parker, a tremendous athlete who arrived last season as a ready-made defender. Josh Henderson, a 6-11 center, sat out the ’10-11 season as a redshirt then missed the bulk of last season with a stress fracture in his left foot. He was sidelined during the offseason as well after undergoing a second surgery to repair his foot, but Stallings expects his big man to be ready to practice. After averaging nearly 10 SEC wins over the past six seasons, Vanderbilt likely will take a significant dip in ’12-13. There is some solid talent on the roster — specifically on the perimeter — but there are no proven scorers and an alarming lack of size on the interior. Anything approaching .500 in the SEC should be considered a successful season.
12. LSU (18-15, 7-9)
To launch a new era in LSU basketball, the Tigers reached back to the most glorious part of their past. New coach Johnny Jones, hired in Baton Rouge after 11 season at North Texas, was a point guard at LSU in the early 1980s and an assistant coach after that when the Tigers twice advanced to the Final Four under Dale Brown and climbed into a spot among the national elite. That history fuels Jones’ optimism as he takes over a program with two key cornerstones back from last season’s NIT team — point guard Anthony Hickey and forward Johnny O’Bryant — along with three other veterans, including one who has started most of his first two years (Andre Stringer). That crew was fortified by a promising, under-the-radar recruiting class, anchored by junior college frontcourt teammates Shavon Coleman and Calvin Godfrey from Howard (Texas) College. Even with a five-man class on the way, though, the Tigers are poised to enter the season with only 10 scholarship players. For LSU to be a real factor in the SEC this season, O’Bryant needs to take a major step forward. Jones would love to see the former McDonald’s All-American average 16 points and 10 boards. Hickey and Stringer are nice building blocks and have shown the ability to operate at both guard spots. But neither cracks six feet, and that becomes a problem on the defensive end. With only one senior scholarship player on the roster, this is a team built with an eye on the future. The present could be a little rocky unless Hickey and particularly O’Bryant blossom into All-SEC-caliber players.
Related: Frank Martin, Johnny Jones among top hires for 2012-13
13. Mississippi State (21-12, 8-8)
Rick Ray shies away from the term “rebuilding,” but these are the parts he has to work with — two role players, a sophomore who averaged 3.5 minutes per game last year, an oft-injured junior, a foreign transfer still serving an NCAA suspension, and seven signees. This is clearly a rebuild. A former assistant at Clemson, Ray took over for Rick Stansbury, who retired after 14 years, and the roster took a big hit with four early departures. The only player with significant starting experience on the roster is junior Jalen Steele, a sharpshooter who has played his best coming off the bench. Steele made 39.3 percent of his 3-point shots last season and had some notable outbursts, in particular at Vanderbilt, when he knocked down four in a row during a second-half rally. Steele averaged 8.7 points per game on the season, and he’s working on becoming a more well-rounded scorer. The backcourt will be heavily populated by newcomers. Junior college transfer Trivante Bloodman and freshman Jacoby Davis will vie for the point guard spot vacated by four-year starter Dee Bost. Mississippi State’s post scoring will likely come from other sources, like junior college transfer Colin Borchert, a 6-foot-8, 225-pounder with a nice outside stroke.
14. South Carolina (10-21, 2-14)
Even by South Carolina’s modest standards, last season was an unmitigated disaster for the Gamecocks. They had their worst overall record since 1998-99, their third consecutive losing season and their fewest ever victories in the SEC, which they joined in 1991-92. Hired from Kansas State, new coach Frank Martin wants to make South Carolina matter again, but it might take a while for them to reach that point. South Carolina has two returning starters in the backcourt — point guard Bruce Ellington and shooting guard Damien Leonard — but Ellington is playing football again and won’t rejoin the basketball team until after the bowl game, Martin says. Ellington led the team in scoring two years ago and ranked second last season. The transfers of freshman Anthony Gill to Virginia and Damontre Harris to Florida and an injury to Carlton Geathers leaves South Carolina with only one true post player to start the season, seven-foot freshman Laimonas Chatkevicius from Lithuania. This is a foundation year for Martin, as he tries to get his players to embrace his pressure defense, which involves guarding opponents to the halfcourt line and being “mean as a pit bull,” Martin says.
More previews for the 2012-13 season can be found in the Athlon Sports College Basketball annual available in the online store
Athlon College Basketball Countdown:
8. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
11. NC State
14. North Carolina
15. San Diego State
19. Notre Dame