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Monday, August 23, 2010
Best Case/Worst Case: SEC

By Eamonn Brennan

The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds, yours truly will be adding some related commentary on this here blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the SEC.

ALABAMA

Best case: The Crimson Tide is on the rise. Second-year coach Anthony Grant made strides with the program in 2009-10, and the continued improvement of forward JaMychal Green -- a talented rebounder looking to make the jump from productive sophomore to star junior -- along with the entry of No. 10-ranked point guard Trever Releford -- should give the Tide one of its most balanced teams in recent vintage. Balanced enough to compete for the SEC West? Maybe.

Worst case: Alabama is fortunate to be in the West, where most of the 2010-11 SEC's bottom-half teams will reside. That should be good for a few extra wins and a seeding bump in the SEC tournament, but the Tide still has to play the formidable East, and even with an improved Green and some young talent surrounding him, Grant's team is probably a year or two away. Worst case is another 17-15ish season and a stalled second-year rebuilding effort.

ARKANSAS

Best case: The No. 1 player in possessions used in 2009-10 wasn't Evan Turner or John Wall, or some other All-American. It was Arkansas sophomore Courtney Fortson. True story. Fortunately for the Razorbacks, coach John Pelphrey adds a couple of top 100 recruits in the 2011 class. Until then, Arkansas will have to hope it can replace Fortson's command on the ball while also getting more efficient outcomes (Fortson's offensive rating was 90.9 and he posted a 40.7 effective field goal percentage, neither of which is particularly good) from its possessions.

Worst case: Fortson wasn't an efficient player, but he was a comprehensive one, and his passing (the 5-foot-11 guard ranked No. 19 in the country in assist rate) will be difficult to replace. Until the 2011 talent arrives, Arkansas would have to consider 15 wins a relative success. The worst case -- and the more realistic one -- will see the Razorbacks win far more infrequently than that.

AUBURN

Best case: New Auburn coach Tony Barbee parlayed a 26-7 season at UTEP into a rebuilding job at Auburn, and that job won't be easy. The entrance of top 15 power forward Luke Cothron was supposed to be good news, but Cothron didn't qualify. The best case for Auburn probably tops out at a few encouraging wins sprinkled in among the losses. Hoping for anything more is the stuff of fantasy.

Worst case: Recruits or no, Auburn loses four seniors from a team that finished 15-17 in 2009-10. The only non-senior in the starting lineup, which was complemented by five freshmen, is 6-foot-1 guard Frankie Sullivan. Unfortunately, Sullivan tore his ACL -- a fate he now shares with sophomore forward Ty Armstrong -- so he won't have a chance to excel in a larger role. The young Tigers are almost certainly bound for an especially difficult rebuilding year.

FLORIDA

Best case: After a few years of impressive recruiting but little on-court success, the Gators got back to the NCAA tournament in 2009-10. That should be the baseline expectation in 2010-11, as another talented recruiting class joins a stocked lineup. Forwards Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus provide versatility and interior defense, and guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton should be more efficient with another year of experience. Florida has its sights set on an SEC crown, and for the first time since Billy Donovan's back-to-back titles, that desire seems realistic.

Worst case: For all of the talent in Gainesville, Florida struggled at times in 2009-10, and if it struggles again, it will be thanks to poor outside shooting from Boynton and Walker. Long misses are never good for an up-tempo, pressing team, and Florida's inability to get to the line made it an inconsistent scorer in 2009-10. If Florida can get more accurate outside shooting from its guards -- and the Gators can get better on the defensive end in just about every regard -- they should avoid their worst-case fate: Another good-but-not-great season, another fringe NCAA tournament berth, another early exit.

GEORGIA

Best case: Now here's a team with divergent scenarios -- as divergent as last season's Good Georgia/Bad Georgia team itself. If juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie make the expected sophomore-to-junior jumps, both of them could be among the SEC's best players. Forward recruit Marcus Thornton could be an impact player. Mark Fox coached his team up for big games better than any coach in the country last season. If Georgia can consistently recreate that Good Georgia form -- which saw it topple sundry tournament teams throughout the season -- it should be in the NCAA tournament, and not for the last time.

Worst case: For all of Georgia's flashes of competency, the Bulldogs were far more often an inferior team. They turned the ball over far too much. They didn't force any turnovers of their own. They weren't a particularly good shooting team. Their opponents grabbed far too many offensive rebounds. All of these things have to improve if Georgia is planning on doing much better than 14-17 -- as realistic an outcome as any.

KENTUCKY

Best case: It's always difficult to predict how a young, unproven batch of talented recruits is going to play, but Kentucky fans got a glimpse of this team's potential in its torrid run through three Canadian exhibition games in August. Brandon Knight looked particularly impressive. If all goes well, Knight will be the latest in John Calipari's remarkable streak of star point guards, and Kentucky will find itself at the top of the SEC for the second straight season.

Worst case: For all of Kentucky's talent, this year's Wildcats aren't a particularly deep team. Calipari and company are still waiting for the NCAA clearinghouse to approve forward Enes Kanter's eligibility. If Kanter doesn't get eligible -- or, perhaps, even if he does -- Kentucky could be relying on a handful of supremely talented youngsters (Knight, Doron Lamb, Stacey Poole, and injured forward Terrence Jones) to carry considerable loads. Can they do it?

LSU

Best case: The good news for LSU coach Trent Johnson, who presided over a two-win SEC campaign a year after winning the league title in 2008-09, is a stellar recruiting class. Three of Johnson's incoming players -- Ralston Turner, Andre Stringer, and Matt Derenbecker -- are ranked in the ESPNU top 100, and all three should make an impact as early as this fall. So, you know, that's good.

Worst case: And now the bad news: LSU lost its two key players -- senior Tasmin Mitchell, who graduated, and junior Bo Spencer, who is academically ineligible -- from last season's rather bad team. The recruits are nice, but LSU lacks the experience and depth to make much of an improvement in the new season.

MISSISSIPPI

Best case: Ole Miss' whiff on the NCAA tournament in 2009-10 came at a particularly bad time; it might have been the Rebels' best chance to get into the tourney for years to come. Andy Kennedy will need Indiana transfer Nick Williams to play better than during his days as a Hoosier, and senior Chris Warren will have to assume much of the scoring load. If so, the Rebels might be able to avoid their worst season in Kennedy's five-year tenure.

Worst case: But don't count on it. The Rebels simply lost too much from last season's team. Terrico White declared for the NBA draft. Eniel Polynice declared for the NBA draft and then transferred. Murphy Holloway transferred. Together, that trio (along with Warren) made up the majority of Ole Miss' productivity, and it's unclear who in the Rebels' pipeline can replace them.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Best case: It would have been better for the Bulldogs to get Renardo Sidney eligible last season, when he would have formed a formidable frontcourt alongside all-time NCAA leading shot-blocker Jarvis Varnado. Instead, Sidney had to sit a year, and will miss the first nine games of the 2010-11 season. Still, assuming the Bulldogs can convince the NCAA to reinstate guard Dee Bost -- who got confused about the new draft deadline rule -- Bost and Sidney could lead the Bulldogs over the NCAA tournament hump.

Worst case: Even if Bost is cleared -- or especially if he isn't -- the Bulldogs will miss Varnado's interior presence. Sidney won't be able to replicate it on his own. And if the Bulldogs take even a marginal defensive decline, they'll be back in an all-too-familiar position: on the bubble. Or worse.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Best case: Devan Downey did it all for the Gamecocks in 2009-10, including a thrilling performance in an upset win against Kentucky in January. Downey is gone now, but there is a bright side: For all of his ability, Downey was an inefficient player, a volume shooter whose points came with plenty of misses, too. Theoretically, South Carolina could tighten things up and make up for what, on its face, looks to be a devastating personnel loss simply by being more efficient. If it does, a holdover year is a possibility.

Worst case: Unfortunately, it's hard to see just who can do that. Sophomore Lakeem Jackson isn't ready yet, and forward Sam Muldrow is more of a defensive specialist in the paint. With a brutal schedule and tough competition in the SEC East, the Gamecocks will have to deal with a year -- and maybe more -- with little to get excited about.

TENNESSEE

Best case: Few teams lost quite as much as Tennessee did this offseason, but it's a testament to the Volunteers' depth -- and the job done by coach Bruce Pearl after the loss of Tyler Smith on Jan. 1 -- that most expect the Vols to be in the NCAA tournament yet again. That appearance will rely on more efficient play from highly touted junior Scotty Hopson, senior guard Melvin Goins, late-blooming senior Brian Williams, and a talented duo of newcomers in Tobias Harris and Jordan McRae. An SEC title is far from out of the question. Rather, the Vols probably expect it.

Worst case: The NCAA tournament expectation is legitimate and likely, but like any SEC East team, Tennessee will have a tough road to get there. Pearl will likely look to change his team's style from defensive to offensive, and that transition could be tricky. But even if the Vols falter in their conference schedule, they should be in the tournament.

VANDERBILT

Best case: It's going to be difficult for Vanderbilt to keep things humming in 2009-10 after losing frosted tip enthusiast A.J. Ogilvy to the NBA draft. The loss of senior guard Jermaine Beal also presents a challenge. Vanderbilt should have players ready for bigger roles, though. Sophomore guard John Jenkins was a remarkably efficient offensive player in limited usage last season, and juniors Brad Tinsley, Andre Walker and Jeffrey Taylor are undeniably talented.

Worst case: Ogilvy did a little bit of everything in 2009-10, and he did most of it well. Replacing versatile forwards with outside range -- who also grab rebounds and defend the post -- is never easy, and without a star recruit in the 2010 class, Vanderbilt will struggle to keep its offensive efficiency so high. A mid-level SEC finish is probably the most likely scenario, but if the Commodores don't figure it out early, they could be in for something even more disappointing than that.