As a new year begins that means one thing for SEC basketball teams. The non-conference part of the season is over with and it is time for some conference showdowns. This year the SEC is wide open. The East could be won by any of the five teams. The West could turn into a 2-3 team race.
Before the season started, there were many different picks for who would win the SEC East.
Going into the start of SEC play, the team to beat right now is the Kentucky Wildcats. The defending SEC champs are starting to gel as a team. John Calipari had to start over after losing 5 players to the NBA draft, but having the number one recruiting class helps. The hype was around point guard Brandon Knight (18 points per game, 4 assists) but perhaps the best freshman addition is Terrence Jones. Jones averages 17 ppg and 9 rebounds and has added an inside presence that many would have thought the Wildcats would lack with freshman center Enes Kanter being ruled permanently ineligible, pending appeal. The Wildcats main weakness is a lack of depth. The Wildcats only play 7 players and if the Cats get in foul trouble, they could be in a bind.
A popular pick by many were the Florida Gators. The Gators may be one of the most talented teams in the country. But they are still young and so far are too up and down. Unlike Billy Donovan's back to back NCAA Championship teams, these Gators are not consistent. Florida just seems to lack focus and relies heavily on guard play. Junior Walker is more of a scorer than a true point guard; he averages almost 14 points a game, but only has one more assist (43) than turnover (42). Sophomore shooting guard Kenny Boynton loves to shoot the 3 ball, but only hits 28% of his shots from deep. Plus a lack of inside presence hurts; no Gator averages more then 7 rebounds a game.
Another popular pick to win the East was the Tennessee Volunteers. Talk about a roller coaster team. The Vols started the season by winning the preseason NIT. Then went and were able to beat the Pittsburgh Panthers in Pittsburgh. They appeared to be a team to make serious noise in not only the SEC, but the NCAA tournament too. Then came a three game losing streak to Oakland in Knoxville, Charlotte on the road, and Southern Cal at home. They were struggling on offense. Then they were able to bounce back to win their last three games heading into league play, including a dominant win over Memphis. Tennessee has started to hit shots again. Junior Scotty Hopson (16 ppg) and freshman Tobias Harris (15ppg) lead the Vols in scoring and Senior Brian Williams anchors the post. It will be interesting to see how Tennessee handles losing Head Coach Bruce Pearl to the first eight games of SEC play due to suspension because of NCAA violations.
There could be a few underdogs for the East title and one of them is the Georgia Bulldogs. The Bulldogs are an unknown team going into conference play. They do have a good record (11-2) coming in, but they really have not played the toughest schedule and lost to the teams that are solid (Notre Dame and Temple). But the Bulldogs are a good team. Coach Mark Fox has a solid group of juniors. Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie, and Gerald Robinson are the top scorers. There is enough talent on this team to compete in the SEC, what they will have to prove is if they are ready to take the next step in the conference.
Another team to watch in the east is the Vanderbilt Commodores. Kevin Stallings has put together another talented team and any time you have to play Vandy in Memorial Gym, it's going to be tough. The Commodores have 4 players averaging in double digits. They are lead in scoring by sophomore guard John Jenkins (18 ppg) and junior forward Jeffery Taylor (15ppg). Junior Festus Ezeli (13 ppg) adds an inside presence, but at 6-11 only averages 7 rebounds in 21 minutes. As a team they average close to 80 points a game. The Commodores will be able to outscore most teams they play. If they can continue to hold teams to 63 points a game, they will make a lot of noise in the SEC.
The South Carolina Gamecocks had to replace their leader from last year Devon Downey and it looks like coach Darren Horn found a replacement in freshman point guard Bruce Ellington. Ellington is the only Gamecock averaging double digits in points,14, and averages 4 assists a game, but also averages 3 turnovers a game. The Gamecocks may not win a lot of games in the SEC, but they will no doubt give teams trouble. South Carolina is a scrappy team and will play a full 40 minutes, if a team over looks them, they will be in real trouble.
As good as the SEC West was in football, it may be as bad in basketball. Only a couple teams have a shot for the West title.
Mississippi Rebels have the most wins of any west team going into league play, but they have not really played anybody. Senior point guard Chris Warren leads the way for the Rebels. He is averaging close to 19 points and 4 assists a game. Warren is able to control the tempo and gives coach Andy Kennedy a leader on the floor. Joining Warren in the backcourt is fellow senior Zach Graham, averaging 14 points a game. He is the only other Rebel averaging double digits points. Ole Miss is not a tall team, the tallest player being 6' 9". The Rebels will go as far as Warren and Graham can take them.
The Arkansas Razorbacks is another team that could win the West and coach John Pelphry could use a SEC West title to help make Razorback fans happy. Last year was a complete mess and it landed Pelphry right on the hot seat. Junior Rotnei Clark is the best scoring threat for the Razorbacks. Averaging 14 points, he is the only Arkansas player averaging double digits. Delvon Johnson does add an inside presence for Arkansas averaging close to 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks a game. Arkansas will need to make a big run and probably get in the NCAA tournament to keep Pelphry as head coach.
After those two teams the West is an unknown.
The Alabama Crimson Tide have a young team. Nine of the 14 players on the team are freshmen or sophomores. Head Coach Anthony Grant has a young team, but are lead by junior JaMychal Green. He shares the team lead in points (15) and rebounding honors (7) with sophomore Tony Mitchell (15ppg and 7 rpg). The Crimson Tide had a rough middle stretch in the non conference schedule losing 6 of 9 games, but coming into league play with a three game winning streak. As a team Alabama only averages 68 points a game, so coach Grant will hope his young team plays solid defense or finds some offense.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs are a team many thought could repeat as SEC West champs. Rick Stansbury was finally going to have Renardo Sidney eligible after sitting out all of last year because of NCAA rule violations. Only to have him suspended for violating team rules. Upon his return, he was caught in a fight with former teammate Elgin Bailey. Bailey has since left the team and Sidney's suspension for the fight is over. This team will have to come together if it wants to repeat as West champs. Senior Ravern Johnson leads the team in scoring, (20ppg), Sidney adds 15 ppg and senior Kodi Augustus adds 13 ppg and leads the team in rebounds at 8 a game. The talent is there, but will this team come together and make a run?
The LSU Tigers are in the third year under coach Trent Johnson who has been trying to rebuild the LSU program. After winning 27 games his first year, the Tigers only won 11 last season including going 2-14 in the SEC. It is a young team with no seniors on the roster, but there are four juniors to provide leadership. But the talent is young. The top scorers are freshmen. Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner are the only players averaging double digits at 14 points a game. With a lack of experience going into league play, how will the Tigers respond? LSU may struggle early, but could be a dangerous team come SEC tournament time.
The Auburn Tigers looked like they could be the worst team in the SEC. But fans are too busy with a BCS National Championship game to worry about. After early season losses to North Carolina-Asheville, Jacksonville, and Presbyterian, it looked like a long season for first year coach Tony Barbee. But the Tigers will be riding a four game winning streak coming into league play, including a win over Florida State. The Tigers are another team with no seniors. Sophomore Earnest Ross leads the team in scoring at 12 points and rebounding at 7. He will need some help if the Tigers do not want to finish last in the SEC.
1. Kentucky - Regular Season Champs
6. South Carolina
3. Mississippi State
SEC Tournament Final
Kentucky over Tennessee
NCAA Tournament Teams
Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi
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