Now that the NBA early entry draft deadline has passed and teams have all but concluded their recruiting for the 2010 class, I thought now would be the perfect time to post my very early SEC predictions for next season. Obviously a lot can happen between now and then (late additions to the recruiting class, injuries, academics, discipline, etc.), but this is how I see the SEC shaping up as of today. Let's start with the West since that concerns Alabama fans the most.
The SEC West, as usual, should be a wide open race. Ole Miss and Mississippi State appeared to be runaway favorites a few weeks ago...that is, before Terrico White and Dee Bost declared for the NBA Draft. Their decisions have now made predicting the West a rather tricky endeavor. Therefore let it be known that I will probably change these predictions 2 or 3 more times before next season arrives......and then deny all knowledge of this post when my predictions crash and burn. Here goes:
1. Ole Miss - The Rebels lose three starters but return a nice backcourt of Chris Warren, Zach Graham, Trevor Gaskins and Indiana transfer, Nick Williams. The frontcourt is young but promising with returnees Terrance Henry and Reginald Buckner and incoming recruit, Demarco Cox. Andy Kennedy has quietly done a good job recruiting to keep his team competitive year in and year out, but the Rebels have failed to make the NCAA tournament during his tenure. If the frontcourt grows up quickly, Ole Miss should be in contention to break their tournament drought.
2. Mississippi State - State would have been the easy pick for number one in the West if Dee Bost had returned to school. Now with him and Barry Stewart gone, the guard play could be a weakness for State next season. Fortunately for Rick Stansbury, Ravern Johnson withdrew from the NBA draft and Renardo Sidney never entered, ensuring State will have a nice inside-outside combination next season. Johnson was quietly the Bulldog’s leading scorer and one of the best perimeter shooters in the conference. Sidney remains a wild card after sitting out last season due to questions about his eligibility. He was considered one of the top big men in the 2009 class despite questions about his weight and endurance. If he is in shape and ready to play, he can be one of the top players in the league next season and help keep Mississippi State near the top of the West division.
3. Alabama - While the 2011 class looks promising so far, Alabama couldn't lock down a few important recruits for the 2010 class (Ricardo Ratliff, Marcus Thornton & Luke Cothron) that would have bolstered a solid, but not imposing, frontcourt. There will also be questions at point guard. And while Bama returns experience at shooting guard, none of that experience has been exactly consistent. As a result, Alabama may not be able to make significant improvement from last season. The team must remain healthy this season, Green and Mitchell will have to be go-to guys, and the team will need to continue the defensive play that established it as the conference's best a year ago if they do hope to make a move in Anthony Grant's second year.
4. Arkansas - One gets the feeling that next season will be an important one for John Pelphrey as far as the Arkansas fan base goes. After several seasons of mediocrity, the Razorback program seems once again at a crossroads, with Pelphrey possibly entering next season on the hot seat. Fortunately for him, the knucklehead element that has seriously hindered his rebuilding project may finally be gone with Courtney Fortson's decision to enter the draft. What was considered a blow to the program could prove to be addition by subtraction.......or the same Arkansas team that was less than mediocre without Fortson early last season will show up again. The team will need Marshawn Powell, who was the best freshman last season not named John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, to continue his development. Rotnei Clarke remains one of the best shooters in the country, but he may be required to handle the ball more next season due to the shortage at point guard. A lot will also be expected of Iowa transfer guard, Jeff Peterson. If the bench can be productive, Arkansas can finish higher.
5. LSU - The rebuilding continues for Trent Johnson. The team loses its best player in Tasmin Mitchell, and its leading scorer from a year ago, Bo Spencer, has been ruled academically ineligible for the first semester. Not the best way to start a season. The good news is Johnson has a solid recruiting class coming in along with Ole Miss transfer, Malcolm White, who will be eligible after sitting a year. If Spencer returns for the second semester and the recruits contribute, LSU should easily improve on last year's abysmal season.
6. Auburn - Okay, I'll admit it: Tony Barbee was a great hire by Auburn. He's already locked up several nice recruits (Luke Cothron, Josh Langford) for his first season and there is excitement surrounding the Auburn program for the first time in a while. There is no doubt Auburn's talent level will be higher next season (Langford and Cothron are both capable of being impact players, Frankie Sullivan is a proven scorer and Barbee is high on incoming recruit, Chris Denson), but this will still be a young team lacking the experience and probable depth needed to make a serious push in Barbee's first season. If his recruiting efforts continue however, Auburn should be in the thick of things within a couple of years. Perhaps the most important accomplishment to earn in Barbee's first season will be to lure Auburn's notoriously apathetic fan base (to be fair: Alabama's isn't much better) to the new arena.
The SEC East is expected to be one of the most competitive races in conference history. While Calipari's recruiting efforts (and subsequent investigations) have no peer at the moment, the rest of the division does appear to have held steady or improved from last season, which should make for some great games. The level of potential NBA talent in the division is mind-boggling so expect the SEC to be well represented in next season's draft.
1. Kentucky – Cal has done it again: the number one recruiting class for the second year in a row. Enes Kanter, Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and perhaps even Eloy Vargas might be NBA draft picks next season. UK won't be as deep as they were a year ago, but no other team in the conference can match the talent Calipari will be able to put on the floor. Once again a lack of experience could prove detrimental on the national stage, but Kentucky seems poised to continue atop the SEC.
2. Florida - The Gators will be the most experienced team in the conference (all five starters return), which means Florida appears to be the biggest challenge to Kentucky.......on paper.Not only are they experienced, but Donovan has brought in another highly rated recruiting class led by Casey Prather and Patric Young. This is definitely Donovan's best looking team since the national championship years. If they can improve on the defensive end, Florida should be a top 25 team, at least.
3. Tennessee - This team will be young, but also deep and talented. Bruce Pearl proved himself to me last season with how he handled the adversity that hit the team at mid-season; it was a travesty he was not voted SEC coach of the year. There's no question he will find a way to win, but what is a question is who will lead the team now that Chism and Prince (and, heck, throw in Bobby Maze) are gone? For all of their attributes, players such as Scotty Hopson, Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams haven't shown much leadership, though to be fair they haven't been called upon to do that. Players to watch: Marquette transfer, Jeronne Maymon, and incoming recruit, Tobias Harris. If someone steps up as a leader, Tennessee has the pieces in place to contend for the SEC title.
4. Georgia - There is a lot of kool-aid being mixed for the Georgia Bulldogs so far. Andy Katz placed Georgia in his preseason top 25 based largely on the fact that Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins are returning. However, Leslie and Thompkins were a force a year ago and the team still finished three games under .500 overall and 5-11 in the conference. While there is no argument that Leslie and Thompkins are the real deal (both will probably be first round picks next season), I have serious reservations about their supporting cast. That prevents me from predicting them to finish too high.
5. Vanderbilt - Losing Ogilvy hurts, but this team has enough talent returning to compete in the East. The bench will be a question, as well as who will take over the point guard reins now that Jermaine Beal has finished his college career (my guess is Brad Tinsley). Finishing in the bottom half of the East division next season will not be an indictment on the teams that end up there, but someone has to finish there. Picking Vanderbilt to finish this low is probably stupid (Kevin Stallings has done a wonderful job in Nashville year in and year out) but I'm going to stick with it for right now as I think the teams in front of them have just a bit more overall talent to work with.
6. South Carolina - Darrin Horn is in a tough situation. He's recruiting well and slowly making progress, but trying to rebuild in the East division is not going to be easy for the young coach. There's no doubt Horn is killing it on the recruiting trail, but will Gamecock fans be patient enough? With that said, Carolina returns some talent in guys like Ramon Galloway, Lakeem Jackson and Sam Muldrow while adding Nevada transfer, Malik Cooke, and brings in a legitimate recruiting class led by Damontre Harris. This team will be a pain in the ass for teams to play night in and night out, but they might be another year or two away from being a serious challenger.