Five things to know this offseason
1. The eligibility of Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter: Kentucky has a chance to challenge Florida for the SEC East title if Kanter can clear up amateur issues from playing in his native Turkey before coming to the United States to finish high school. Kanter can be that much of a difference-maker for the Wildcats. He wasn't cleared in time to travel with UK on its foreign trip to Canada earlier this month. The Wildcats have the top-rated class again this season, and a lot of that has to do with Kanter and Brandon Knight. Knight performed quite well on the trip by scoring and dishing out, while not committing turnovers. Kanter has time to get eligible, but the NCAA has been known to drag these cases out for quite some time. It could be a daily watch on whether he will be eligible in time for Kentucky's trip west to play at the University of Portland and in Maui.
Fran Fraschilla's SEC predictions
1. Kentucky: Could the Wildcats be as talented as last year's 35-3 team? No, but don't feel bad for John Calipari. His one-and-done freshman class has everything, including another great point guard in Brandon Knight.
2. Tennessee: Even though graduation has taken its toll on the Vols, the talent is there to compete for an SEC title. Junior Scotty Hopson has the skills, but not the consistency (yet) to be the SEC Player of the Year. Freshman Tobias Harris is an animal.
3. Florida: Billy Donovan has his deepest Gators team in some time as five starters return to go with a cadre of top recruits. The offense will likely go through 6-foot-9 senior Chandler Parsons, but sophomore guard Kenny Boynton can carry the offense as well.
4. Georgia: Year 2 of the Mark Fox era should mark continued improvement for the Bulldogs. Six-foot-9 junior Trey Thompkins gained confidence this summer competing against NBA stars for the USA Select Team, and Travis Leslie undoubtedly has a few more highlight dunks in his bag of tricks.
5. Vanderbilt: I hate putting the Commodores this low because few coaches have done better jobs in the SEC recently than Kevin Stallings. An NCAA bid is a strong possibility because of a potentially explosive perimeter tandem of Jeff Taylor and John Jenkins.
6. South Carolina: Darrin Horn's rebuilding process is quietly going well, despite this projection in a brutally tough division. Hopefully, Gamecock fans are taking notice. Five-foot-10 freshman Bruce Ellington will get first crack at replacing the prodigious Devan Downey.
1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs' season will likely rest on point guard Dee Bost's eligibility. After declaring for the NBA draft, he went undrafted and is hoping for reinstatement from the NCAA. Sharpshooter Ravern Johnson is one of the country's most underrated players.
2. Ole Miss: Coach Andy Kennedy returns one of the SEC's deepest and most experienced backcourts. Senior Chris Warren shoots it as well as anyone, while Indiana transfer Nick Williams will add depth and talent at the guard position.
3. Arkansas: This is an important season for Hogs coach John Pelphrey, and a postseason appearance is a strong possibility. Sophomore Marshawn Powell and junior Rotnei Clarke are a nice inside-out tandem, and Iowa transfer Jeff Peterson should help immediately.
4. Alabama: Coach Anthony Grant will get the job done in Tuscaloosa. It is just a question of when, not if. There are many holes to fill, but if talented junior JaMychal Green becomes a junkyard dog, it will speed up the rebuilding process.
6. Auburn: The hiring of Tony Barbee, along with the opening of a new basketball arena, should have Auburn fans excited. However, injuries, especially to lone returning starter Frankie Sullivan, have already dampened expectations. Academic issues have sidelined two key recruits as well.
10 key players around the league
Erving Walker, Florida: While leading scorer Kenny Boynton had more hype, and Chandler Parsons certainly has been key in late-game situations, Walker's long-distance range for his size makes him as disruptive as any other Gator. He was a 35 percent 3-point shooter last season and can squeeze through a defense and find deep range. If he's on his game, it changes the way opposing teams defend him. Walker could end up being as big a key to the Gators' chances to win the SEC East.
Trey Thompkins, Georgia: Thompkins has been a hit on the national scene since he blossomed with USA Basketball two summers ago. He averaged nearly 18 points a game last season and gives the Bulldogs a major inside presence. With Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins now in the NBA, Thompkins should be the best big man in the SEC. He is considered the SEC's top returning player and is likely headed to the NBA after this season.
Travis Leslie, Georgia: Leslie is a tremendous athlete who can finish with a flurry on the break and flush with the best in the country. Leslie doubled his scoring and rebounding from one year to the next and gives the Bulldogs quite a 1-2 punch. If Georgia gets quality point-guard play, then it has the ingredients to mount a serious campaign in the SEC.
Enes Kanter, Kentucky: If Kanter is eligible, he immediately becomes one of the top big men in the SEC, if not the country. He's a lock for NBA first-round status if he decides to leave after this season. Kanter has already proved that he can produce, and now, like DeMarcus Cousins a year ago, he has to show he can handle the rigors of a long season.
Brandon Knight, Kentucky: Knight is not John Wall. Let's stop with those comparisons right now. He's a true point who can get the Wildcats into their dribble-drive-motion offense, but don't expect Knight to be the quickest guard who runs past opposing guards. The Canada trip was a bit of a misnomer for what should happen against elite college teams.
Tobias Harris, Tennessee: The Vols were desperate to come up with a major recruiting coup last spring and landed one in Harris. He should come in immediately and be one of the best players on the floor. He was a top-10 signee and has been cleared to play after a foot injury forced him to miss playing with USA Basketball in the summer. Harris should be the beginning of the Vols' offense.
Scotty Hopson, Tennessee: Hopson came in as the Vols' primary 3-point threat, but early in his career he deferred to players like Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince too much. But now it's Hopson's turn under the spotlight. He averaged 12 points a game last season but will be expected to produce a bit more, and he should.
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: Sidney has to sit the first nine games after missing his entire freshman year while the NCAA looked into his amateur status. If She returns to his form as a dominating high school forward, the Bulldogs will get one of the top big men in the country. Sidney has the ability, if he's in shape, to be a force inside. But he has to use November and December wisely while he sits out.
Chris Warren, Ole Miss: Warren made a remarkable comeback from an ACL injury from the previous year. He averaged 17.2 points a game last season and should be the top guard in the league. As a senior, he has a chance to break several school records, including most 3-pointers (he has 239 and the record is 278). He can get into the lane to create his own shot and is a threat to nail the long ball.
John Jenkins, Vanderbilt: Jenkins came in as a celebrated recruit and hasn't disappointed. He shot 48.3 percent on 3s last season, which ranks third in school history and 11th in SEC lore. He also set a Vandy freshman single-season record for 3s made with 72. If Jenkins can elevate the point production to more than the 11 ppg he produced last season, the Commodores should have a stud to feature throughout the year.
10 freshmen we can't wait to see
Enes Kanter, PF/C, Kentucky: The Big Blue faithful are excited about Kanter's arrival in Lexington. He will be called upon to fill the scoring -- and rebounding -- void left by DeMarcus Cousins but may have to be patient as the NCAA sorts through his eligibility issues. The European import is highly skilled, plays with a mean streak and could be the top player in Kentucky's vaunted class.
Tobias Harris, PF, Tennessee: The hybrid 4 brings a multidimensional skill set that should be a perfect fit in Bruce Pearl's system. After suffering an injury during the McDonald's All-American week, Harris has worked hard to get back on the floor stronger and better than ever. UT fans will love his old-school game and work ethic, while opponents will hate trying to figure out how to match up with him.
Renardo Sidney, PF/C, Mississippi State: Sidney toughed it out, sticking around after missing last season to deal with the NCAA. He wound up as a redshirt. The former McDonald's All-American, who is loaded with talent, is champing at the bit for the opportunity to show what he can do and should impact the Bulldogs' lineup immediately as one of the top newcomers in the league.
Patric Young, PF/C, Florida: Billy Donovan needed some beef inside to help shore up the Gators' front line, and he found the real deal in Young. The McDonald's All-American should provide instant help on the boards and be a defensive presence in the paint. As his offensive skills continue to develop, he should evolve into another one of Florida's all-conference performers.
Dundrecous Nelson, PG, Ole Miss: After a serious injury during his junior season, Nelson may have been operating under the radar nationally. However, it shouldn't take long for him to grab attention as one of the top incoming freshmen in the SEC. Ole Miss is high on this young guard's potential, and it won't take long for the rest of the league to see why.
Trevor Releford, PG, Alabama: Bama was in need of a leader to run Anthony Grant's up-tempo system. The Crimson Tide were able to attract one of the top point guards in the country, as well as one of the quickest in Releford. He should be effective forcing the action defensively, while also operating the offense at high speeds.
Marcus Thornton, PF, Georgia: After a coaching change at Clemson, Thornton opened up his recruitment and changed allegiances to the in-state Bulldogs. The active, face-up 4 is aggressive on the glass and has developed his game offensively. He should provide a welcomed upgrade to Georgia's overall talent pool. He'll be an important piece to Mark Fox's rebuilding project.
Matt Derenbecker, SF, LSU Derenbecker is a home-grown product who should be a natural fit for Trent Johnson's program and a fan favorite with the locals. His feel for the game, along with his ability to shoot the ball consistently from behind the arc, should help create opportunities for teammates, while helping the Tigers climb back up the ladder within the SEC West.
Damontre Harris, PF/C, South Carolina: The SEC has had its share of outstanding shot-blockers, and Harris has the potential to be the next great one. He is still developing as a consistent offensive threat, but his timing, length and athleticism will change the way opponents attack the interior versus the Gamecocks.
Rod Odom, SF, Vanderbilt: Odom's offensive versatility and intelligence should translate quickly within Vanderbilt's system. His combination of size, athleticism and skill level will allow him to find a role early on. He has the talent to be an all-conference freshman, and he'll have an impact on how far the Commodores will go in the postseason.
Nonconference games to watch
UNC Asheville at Auburn, Nov. 12: You're probably wondering why. This game will mark the debut of the sparkling, $85 million Auburn Arena. The Tigers can no longer complain about facilities in their attempt to become a major player in the SEC. By the way, had Auburn not fired North Carolina alumnus Jeff Lebo, then instead of Asheville it would have been UNC Chapel Hill opening the arena.
Ohio State at Florida, Nov. 16: The Gators are the pick in the SEC East. Ohio State is a serious candidate to challenge Purdue and Michigan State for the Big Ten title. This will be heralded freshman Jared Sullinger's first major test on a national stage and will be a game that could resonate in March for seeding purposes.
Murray State at Ole Miss, Nov. 17: The Racers are the pick in the OVC, a second-round NCAA tournament entrant a year ago, and have a chance to be a Top 25 team at some point during the season. If the Rebels win this game, it should be viewed as a quality win on their résumé come March.
Kentucky in the Maui Invitational, Nov. 22-24: Assuming the Wildcats get past rebuilding Oklahoma in the first round, the Wildcats are likely headed for a matchup against Pac-10 favorite Washington in the second round with the possibility of Big Ten co-favorite Michigan State in the title game. There are plenty of challenges in this field for the reloaded Wildcats.
Tennessee in the NIT in New York, Nov. 24, 26: The Volunteers should get out of their grouping and advance to the Big Apple. The NIT did the Vols a favor and put them in the bracket with Wake Forest. The tougher semifinal is UCLA vs. Villanova. So Tennessee could get to a final against either and improve itself and its power rating by Dec. 1.
Georgia vs. Notre Dame, Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 25: The Bulldogs, a trendy pick in the SEC East, may have one of the toughest first-round games in these November tournaments. Both teams are potentially NCAA-bound with the Irish looking to see Purdue transfer Scott Martin blossom while the Bulldogs put Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie on display.
Kentucky at North Carolina, Dec. 4: This is a game every season that NBA scouts circle -- the usual talent on the floor is worthy of a stop. It's also a good indicator. Two years ago, UNC squashed Kentucky in Chapel Hill and the Tar Heels were a title contender while Kentucky floundered. Last year, Kentucky won at home, and the reverse occurred. This season both teams will have a different look and the destination of each come March is less predictable.
Vanderbilt at Missouri, Dec. 8: The Commodores will face a brutal slate in the SEC East. If Vandy fancies itself an NCAA team, then picking up a few nonconference wins will be critical. The Mizzou game should be a good barometer. Vanderbilt is also in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic against Nebraska with a chance to play West Virginia in the second round. The organizers did Vandy a favor putting it in a bracket opposite of Minnesota-North Carolina.
Tennessee vs. Pitt, SEC-Big East Invitational in Pittsburgh, Dec. 11: Pitt is the favorite in the Big East and will be the home team at the Penguins' new arena. Tennessee has done a great job of rising up and winning big-time nonconference games lately. This will be a tall task, however, to take out Pitt on the road.
Florida vs. Kansas State in Sunrise, Fla., Dec. 18: K-State coach Frank Martin returns to his Miami-area roots for a high-level game. By this time the Wildcats will have figured out who replaces Denis Clemente in the backcourt next to Jacob Pullen. This could potentially be a top-10 clash in mid-December. It could end up being one of the best nonconference schedules the Gators have played since their championship run since it also includes games at rival Florida State and at Xavier, two likely NCAA teams.
Mississippi State vs. Virginia Tech, Bahamas, Dec. 18: This game matches two teams that feel they're NCAA worthy but will have to prove themselves prior to conference play. Renardo Sidney will be eligible by this time after sitting out the first nine games. The Bulldogs may not have the experienced guard play to handle the Hokies but Virginia Tech may have a hard time with Sidney in the post.
Mississippi State vs. Washington State, Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, first round, Dec. 22: Yes, you're reading this correctly: The Bulldogs are going from the Bahamas to Honolulu. It's quite the dream vacation for the program. But it won't turn out to be memorable if Mississippi State doesn't handle its business. The Cougars are a sleeper pick in the Pac-10 and this game will test the Bulldogs' defense in trying to contain Wazzu's big three in Klay Thompson, Reggie Moore and DeAngelo Casto. Winner likely gets Baylor in the second round.
A look around the league
Alabama: Right now, the Crimson Tide are dealing with the reeling news about the health of former point guard and leading scorer Mikhail Torrance, who collapsed Friday in Florida. So it's hard to start detailing the replacements for Torrance in 2010-11, but the Tide knew they had to do this anyway. On the court, Trevor Releford will replace Torrance. But for Releford and the rest of the Tide, the goal is to keep Anthony Grant's defensive mentality going (Alabama kept opponents to a league-low 64.5 points a game last season). The hope is that Andrew Steele, who was out with a stress fracture in November, will be fine and that forward JaMychal Green will live up to the hype as a major presence inside. Both Green and Steele added muscle over the offseason and must give the Tide more of a physical presence. Alabama has a tough slate of games in the Virgin Islands against Seton Hall and then possibly Xavier, as well as a visit to Purdue and Oklahoma State in Oklahoma City.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks have been one of the tougher teams to figure out recently. They have had their moments, like knocking off Texas and Oklahoma in nonconference games two seasons ago, only to flounder to a 2-14 mark in the SEC. Last season, they found their footing in the conference by going 7-9, but point guard Courtney Fortson declared for the draft and didn't return. Fortson had trouble avoiding issues that could get him a seat on the bench. However, his nearly 18 points a game will be hard to replace. The hope is that Iowa transfer Jeff Peterson will offset some of Fortson's loss/points. The return of shooter Rotnei Clarke helps, as does the changes on the staff after John Pelphrey brought in former Hog Scotty Thurman and former Florida guard Brett Nelson, who played under Pelphrey and Billy Donovan. Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Texas, UAB and Seton Hall are all quality barometer games for the Razorbacks prior to the SEC season.
Auburn: The Tigers are dealing with knee injuries to Frankie Sullivan and Ty Armstrong. They also lost recruits Luke Cothron and Shawn Kemp after neither qualified. That means Auburn is likely facing a last-place finish in the SEC and a major rebuilding job under new coach Tony Barbee. Most of the early pressure will focus on Josh Langford, a 6-foot-7 forward who comes in with a lot of local hype. The schedule shouldn't be rugged, but there are a couple of potholes in the way (Florida State and at South Florida). And as bad as the Tigers might be, they do at least have their new $85 million arena to showcase.
Florida: From 2007-09, the Gators lost six players early to the NBA draft. This offseason, they didn't get dinged by the draft as Alex Tyus rightfully returned to school. With three senior starters in 2010-11, Florida has leadership on the court (the Gators had only two seniors total in the last three years). Reaching the NCAA tournament last season after a two-year hiatus seemed to have changed the complexion of the program. Vernon Macklin, in his second season after transferring from Georgetown, will adjust more to Billy Donovan's system, and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario (who will sit out this season) will help push Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker in practice. Chandler Parsons remains an elite long-distance shooter (see wins over NC State and South Carolina). The sleeper to watch is Erik Murphy, who was highly recruited but took a bit longer to develop. The word out of Gainesville is he has had quite a summer and could be a solid rotation player this season.
Georgia: In assessing why Georgia should be a Top 25 team, there were two factors: Do the Bulldogs have NBA-level talent, and did they win key games last season despite not making the postseason? The answer is yes on both counts. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie are two of the top players in the SEC. Georgia also had quality wins over Saint Louis, Illinois, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida last season. The Bulldogs didn't do as well in games they should have won, which led to a 5-11 record in the SEC and 14-17 overall. UGA should be an NCAA team this season. Former coach Dennis Felton recruited awfully well and put this team in place for successor Mark Fox, who won with lesser talent at Nevada. Georgia is expecting this to be its best team in seven seasons. The Bulldogs lacked backcourt depth last season, and Dustin Ware and Ricky McPhee both averaged 32 minutes a game. The addition of Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson, who is a scoring point, should immediately help the position. Robinson was a 1,000-point scorer at Tennessee State and the word out of last season's practices is that he will have a major impact. Senior forward Jeremy Price has a great chance to be a classic glue guy. The addition of 6-foot-7 forward Marcus Thornton, who originally signed with Clemson but left after the coaching change, is a huge coup for Fox. Expect him to have a major contribution as well.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are trying to do something most programs can't even dream of doing: overcome the loss of five first-round picks and three seniors off an Elite Eight team that won 35 games. UK has the talent to pull it off. Kentucky used four guards quite a bit during its August trip to Canada. The play of Brandon Knight at the point, the improved play of role-playing returnees Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins and the sleeper status of a newcomer that didn't get as much pub in Doron Lamb means the Wildcats have a real shot to be a title contender again. Terrence Jones cracked a rib which caused him shoulder discomfort, so he'll be out in the early fall. Assuming Jones is back for the start of practice and Enes Kanter is eligible, the Cats have the pieces in place to be a major force again. They will resemble more of John Calipari's Memphis teams with versatile players who can play the dribble-drive-motion offense versus last season's Kentucky team that had a pound-it-in power game as well as a pair of jet-set point guards who were tough to defend in transition.
LSU: The Tigers had a precipitous drop from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Trent Johnson era. After winning the SEC West in Johnson's first season, LSU won just two league games all of last season. The Tigers also lost key players Tasmin Mitchell (senior) and Bo Spencer (academics/transfer) from last season's team. The hope is that Ole Miss transfer Malcolm White and a solid recruiting class led by Ralston Turner, Matt Derenbecker, Andre Stringer and Jalen Courtney can make up the difference. The word out of Baton Rouge is that this team could be more talented than last season's squad overall, but it may not have the singular star. It should be deeper, however. Playing Memphis in Tupelo, Miss., on Nov. 21 will be a good barometer for this crew.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs never do anything easy. Mississippi State is waiting to see if Dee Bost is eligible. Meanwhile, Renardo Sidney isn't eligible for the first nine games. But the biggest news in the offseason came completely out of left field when coach Rick Stansbury held an abrupt news conference to say he was turning down Clemson and staying at Mississippi State. Stansbury was a stealth candidate for the Tigers job, and he has been a bit underappreciated nationally. He continues to put the Bulldogs in a position to be an NCAA team, even if it has fallen short at times. The epic SEC tournament title game against Kentucky showed the Bulldogs were a better team in March. MSU has always had solid role players, and the return of Ravern Johnson to go with newcomers Jalen Steele and Brian Bryant should make the Bulldogs a threat to win the SEC West again.
Ole Miss: The Rebels are consistently on the NCAA bubble and have been unable to close the gap and get a bid. They lost Terrico White early to the NBA draft, while Eniel Polynice and coach Andy Kennedy parted ways. Polynice declared for the draft, withdrew and then transferred to Seton Hall to play immediately (he graduated). Also gone from last season's 24-11 team: Murphy Holloway and DeAundre Cranston. White was a game-changer who had the ability to finish on the break. So the onus could be on someone like Indiana transfer Nick Williams to produce. He started 29 games for the Hoosiers as a freshman. A pair of sleepers to watch? Terrance Henry and Reginald Buckner, who set a record for blocks last season. Both will be counted on to produce heavily in the frontcourt. But more than anything, Ole Miss must win some key nonconference games like Dayton, at Miami, against C-USA upstart Southern Miss and OVC favorite Murray State.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks are in a rebuilding mode after losing Devan Downey, who accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team's scoring last season. He was the reason the Gamecocks upset top-ranked Kentucky at home. Coach Darrin Horn wants to continue to play an up-tempo style, and he'll need help with newcomers. As a member of the SEC East, the Gamecocks are in one of the toughest collections of teams in the country. Five of the six schools, save South Carolina, are legit NCAA-bid contenders. To combat that, the Gamecocks need big man Sam Muldrow to add more of an offensive game to his prolific shot-blocking. Lakeem Jackson, who averaged 7.2 points and 5 rebounds, has to be an even more productive player, while Ramon Galloway needs to bury 3-pointers consistently in the absence of Downey. South Carolina has been dominant at home, but the nonconference slate is a tough go with games at Michigan State and Ohio State. Getting Clemson, Boston College and Wofford at home could bolster confidence.
Tennessee: Coach Bruce Pearl didn't hide the fact that he's in a brutal division having to play Kentucky, Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt twice this season. But he still said the Volunteers are an NCAA tournament team. Losing Wayne Chism, Bobby Maze and J.P. Prince hurts, but the Vols have reloaded with Tobias Harris and a few transfers. Expect Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon to be a major factor inside once he's eligible in mid-December. Getting UNC Wilmington senior big man John Fields to be eligible immediately was a coup. Fields was coveted by a number of programs (he graduated) and will give UT a shot-blocking presence. Putting Fields next to senior forward and glue guy Brian Williams helps the Vols. Williams is in the best shape he's been in during his career. The Vols also need veteran guards Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins to be much more consistent. They have shown they can produce but only in spots. Finding a consistent streak would do wonders for this squad.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores have quietly been one of the most consistent programs in the SEC. There are no major dips with the Dores under Kevin Stallings as Vandy has gone to the NCAA tournament four times in the last seven seasons. The Commodores were upset in the first round by Murray State last season and then lost center A.J. Ogilvy to the NBA draft, as well as senior guard Jermaine Beal. But Vandy has plenty left on its roster, led by John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor and players who will take over in larger roles. Taylor added 20 pounds in the offseason and should have a breakout season. Brad Tinsley will be the new point guard after Beal. Junior center Festus Ezeli will take over for Ogilvy. Ezeli is already ranked eighth on Vandy's all-time blocks list at 65 and should give the Commodores the necessary defensive presence. Expect freshman guard Kyle Fuller, center Josh Henderson and forwards Rod Odom and James Siakam to contribute and add depth.-- Andy Katz
Best case/Worst case
New Face, New Place
2009-10 SEC standings
|SEC record||Overall record|
* NCAA tournament berth