By Dennis Berry
For the first time since 2007 the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship is back in the Southeastern Conference. The University of Kentucky Wildcats won the eighth title in school history with a 67-59 win over Kansas in the title game. It is the first title for Kentucky since 1998.
Kentucky fans pointed to this season as the team's best chance to win a title. With freshman Marquis Teague, Kyle Wiltjer, Micheal Kidd-Gilchrist, and Anthony Davis coming in they knew they were great, unselfish players. Also mix in the return Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb they had players who had success in the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky dominated the regular season only losing at Indiana on a three point buzzer beating shot. Kentucky went 16-0 during SEC play. The Wildcats then lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Finals. Perhaps it was that loss to Commodores that refocused Kentucky for the run to the NCAA title.
So let's take a quick run down through the SEC. Where does each team do and where do they stand going into 2012-13.
Next year will mark the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC. How will they stack up?
Last year was a struggle for the Aggies in their final year in the Big 12. They went 14-18 during the season and only 4-14 in conference play in Bill Kennedy’s first year as coach. They struggled as their best player, Khris Middleton, was in and out of the line up with injuries.
The Aggies will lose Middleton to the NBA Draft, but will return last years leading score Elston Turner. Ray Turner will probably help pick up the scoring, but Texas A&M will not be a very big team. Unless Kennedy can make small ball work, the Aggies may struggle in their first year in the SEC.
The Tigers made plenty of noise in their final year in the Big 12. They went 30-5 during the regular season, which included a 14-4 record during league play. They won the Big 12 Tournament and were a two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Then they ran into Norfolk State, which upset them 86-84.
Still it was a success first year for Frank Haith, who will look to keep that success going in the SEC. He is losing seven seniors, but has Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey returning. He will also add transfers Jabari Brown, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, and Alex Oriakhi. The Tigers should be strong in their first year in the SEC.
Along with new teams, there will be new coaches in the SEC next year.
The Darrin Horn era is over in Columbia. After four seasons in which the win total went from 21 to15 to 14 to 10 and ending this year with six game losing streak it was time for a change. It did not help Horn that his best player, Bruce Ellington, missed part of the year playing football.
To replace Horn South Carolina brought in Frank Martin, formerly of Kansas State. Martin went 117-54 in five years as Kansas State coach. He rebuilt the program and made the NCAA Tournament four out of five years. It will take Martin a couple of years to turn around the Gamecocks and into the NCAA for the first time since 2004.
The Tigers were one of the SEC programs that appeared to be heading in the right direction. Trent Johnson had rebuilt the program around recruits like Anthony Hickey, Johnny O’Bryant III, and Ralston Turner. Before entering SEC play the Tigers were 10-4, highlighted by a win over then #10 Marquette. Then LSU struggled in SEC play going 7-9.
After the season, Trent Johnson decided to leave LSU and take the job at TCU. LSU turned to former player Johnny Jones to take over. In 11 years at North Texas he guided them to 2 NCAA appearances and a 190 wins. He has pieces to work with, but is still a couple of players away from competing for the top of the SEC.
After 14 years, Rick Stansbury was fired as coach at Mississippi State. The final few years were rough as the Bulldogs could not get seem to put it all together. At one point this year the Bulldogs were 19-5 and in position to make the NCAA Tournament. After going 2-5 down the stretch and losing in the first round of the SEC Tournament to Georgia, the Bulldogs missed out on the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round of the NIT Tournament.
To replace Stansbury Mississippi State hired Clemson assistant coach Rick Ray. He has tough job ahead of him. The Bulldogs have lost everybody either to the NBA Draft, graduation, or transfer. It appears that the Bulldogs are a few years away from becoming relevant in the SEC again.
The Bulldogs lost a lot when Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins went to the NBA. The Bulldogs had some success in the non-conference part of their schedule going 9-5. In SEC play is where they struggled. It appeared that Coach Mark Fox was holding the young Bulldogs back offensively.
Once Fox loosened up, the Bulldogs started to play better. They had wins against then #18 Mississippi State on the road and beat then #11 Florida at home. Next year look for the offense to go through Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but he needs help. Either by someone stepping up or by getting a big time recruit. If Caldwell-Pope does not get help, it will be another long year in Athens.
The second year for Tony Barbee saw minor improvement. The Tigers did when 15 games during the season – up from 11 in 2011-12 – and they won more SEC games. Although they did win only five games compared to four the previous season.
The season took a bad turn off the court when the NCAA and FBI began an investigation of point shaving. The player in question is Varez Ward, who played in the first 27 games. It is not know if he will be back next year.
In the mean time, the Tigers will look to build around Frankie Sullivan. The junior to be lead the team in scoring last year. Still the Tigers are still a few recruiting classes away from competing.
The first year under Mike Anderson showed flashes of what the future will hold in Fayetteville. The Hogs went 18-14. They went 12-4 in the non conference part of their schedule, although it should be noted that it was not the toughest. It was highlighted by a win over then #19 Michigan at home.
The Razorbacks only lose two players to graduation return all their key players. Next year Arkansas will look to build around BJ Young, who withdrew his name from the NBA Draft, and the return of Marshawn Powell from injury. Look for Arkansas to make a major leap next year in the SEC.
The Ole Miss Rebels were suppose to fall to the bottom of the SEC. They lost their two best playes – Chris Warren & Zach Graham – to graduation. They were the only players to average double figure in points last year. Andy Kennedy was able to get more balance scoring – five players average double figures – and get the Rebels to play team ball.
They went 20-13 during the regular season, 8-8 in conference play. They put themselves in position for an NCAA bid by winning their final four games in the regular season. In the end they made it to the NIT, where they lost to Illinois State in the first round.
Look for the offense next year to center around a core of Nick Willams, Murphy Holloway, Jarvis Summers, and Reginald Buckner. They will look to led the Rebels back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
The Volunteers were the surprise team in the SEC last year. They finished second in the league, when most figured they would finish at the bottom. Cuonzo Martin first year was a success after a rough start that saw the Vols go 3-6 to start the year.
The turning point for Tennessee was the addition of Jarnell Stokes. Stokes gave Tennessee a presence in the post and showed Martin can get big time recruits. If not for the struggles early in the year, Tennessee could have been a NCAA team.
Tennessee finished 18-13 overall with a 10-6 mark in the SEC. Look for the Volunteers to continue to rise as they only lose Cameron Tatum to graduation.
There were high points and low points this past season for Alabama. They started the year 7-0 and got to as high as number 12 in the polls. Then the offensive struggles started to happen and they lost three of their next four. Then came the suspensions. First it Tony Mitchell, then it was JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford, and Andrew Steele.
That only strengthened the team. They went 7-3 down the stretch and made the NCAA Tournament with a record of 20-10. They would lose to Creighton in the first round.
Next year the team will look to build around guards Trevor Lacey and Releford. They need to improve their outside shooting and replace Green in the post if they want to make it back to the NCAA.
It was a big step forward for Vanderbilt. They struggled early without their center Festus Ezeli and lost to Cleveland State and Indiana State at home. Despite the earyly struggles they did not lose focus of their goals, which was winning the SEC Championship and going far in the NCAA Tournament. Still they finished 21-10 and 10-6 in the SEC.
They won the SEC Tournament, being the only SEC team that was able to defeat Kentucky this year. Although when they got to the NCAA they fell short of their other goal. They would lose in the third round to Wisconsin and was not able to get out of the first weekend again.
Next year is a mystery of what Vanderbilt will do. They lose all five starters and have no proven back ups to replace them. Look for the Commodores to fall to the middle of the pack in the SEC.
It was another strong year for the Gators. They went 22-9 and 10-6 in the SEC. They lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament but rebounded to advance to the Elite Eight for the second straight year.
Just like the previous year that is as far as they would get. They would lose to Louisville, when the Cardinals would outscore the Gators by 15 points in the final 10 minutes of the game. Florida ran into the same problems as they did all year. The guards dominated the ball and forced shots.
Next year the Gators will lose not only Erving Walker to graduation, but super freshman Bradley Beal to the NBA Draft. They do have plenty of talent to coming back though. Florida returns Patric Young, Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, and Erik Murphy.
Kentucky is 101-14 since John Calipari became Head Coach. It has won two SEC regular season titles, two SEC Tournament titles, been to three Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and won a national title. Not bad for his first three years.
With that success it appears that the Wildcats will be losing six players – Darius Miller to graduation and Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague, Lamb, and Jones to the NBA draft.
So what does Calipari do?
He goes out and gets the number one recruiting class in the country for the fourth year in a row. So Kentucky will be starting over, but once again with plenty of young talent. The only question is can Cal do it again.
If this group of freshmen will buy into Cal system and play as a team, they can do big things. The SEC and NCAA appear to be down across the board. If this team does like this past year and plays as a team, Kentucky has a great shot at another March run.
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