In an effort to leech off of the football frenzy that is going on now, I'll release this basketball preview for the SEC East. I figure it's probably best to slip in an "Alabama sucks" to really get people to pay attention to basketball, so Alabama sucks.
Just kidding, sort of. Anyway, here's a quick preview of the East. Before going into the team analysis I figured I should update on the basketball situation. The SEC decided that since the divisions were somewhat unbalanced last season to change the way that they play the games and rank the teams. This year, teams will still play as if they were in divisions, but after that there are changes. Rather than having the top two from each division, the top 4 will get the byes. Teams won't be matched up against a team from the opposite division just because, instead they will match up with based on their standings in a 12 team conference. Further, the rankings and standings are all done as if there are no divisions.
With Texas AM and whoever else coming to the conference, expect more changes to occur with both scheduling and the SEC tournament. This is probably going to be the last year that we play all of the West teams twice, though I think that's perfectly reasonable because if we have a good team I would rather see LSU play the typically stronger SEC East teams more than once and more frequently in Baton Rouge.
Opponent: Kentucky Wildcats
Date and Time: January 28 at 3:00 CT
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Coach: John Calipari
Preseason SEC Rank: 1st
2010-2011 Record: 29-9 (10-6)
Postseason: NCAA Final Four
I figure I will start with the team that defines SEC basketball, the Kentucky Wildcats. Owners of virtually every SEC record, multiple championships, and the most talented SEC team for the 2011/2012 season. The Wildcats open at #2 in the preseason rankings. They are virtually everyone's pick to win the SEC, from the SEC media as well as national media. With John Calipari at the helm, you're always going to see a ton of future NBA players on the floor. Not only that, Calipari has been dominant at home since joining Kentucky. Cal is yet to lose a game at Rupp Arena. Luckily for LSU, the game is in Baton Rouge this year.
Led by sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, the Wildcats are looking to win the championship for the first time since 1998. Experience may still be an issue for the Wildcats. With the losses of Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins, the 'Cats only have two seniors on the team, and one junior. Darius Miller will need to provide the leadership, as the only other senior is Eloy Vargas, a rarely used forward. Jon Hood is already lost for the season with a knee injury. Experience was an issue last year, as the Wildcats struggled to win on the road, going 4-7 overall.
With a big recruiting class that includes Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Kyle Wiltjer, the Wildcats are looking to win the SEC again, as well as defeat North Carolina and claim the #1 at the same time the LSU Tigers will hopefully be preparing to play in Atlanta. I think the Wildcats have enough to win the SEC, but I would caution on their hype. Their previous freshmen have been great and led them very well, but past success does not equal future success, especially for a completely different set of players.
In the end, though, it will be another successful season for Cal. It's a long way from when they will meet the Tigers, so it's really hard to predict what will happen. The 'Cats toyed with LSU last year in a 82-44 blowout, and there's no reason for me to believe LSU will have enough to beat UK this season. Hopefully they can keep it closer than last year, but I'm doubtful LSU has enough to take down a team with the talent of Kentucky. As I mentioned though, UK struggled on the road, so it's not a given they walk out of the Maravich Center with a win.
Opponent: Florida Gators
Date and Time: January 21 at 5:00 CT
Location: Gainesville, FL
Coach: Billy Donovan
Preseason SEC Rank: 3rd
2010-2011 Record: 29-8 (13-3)
Postseason: NCAA Elite 8
Although Kentucky looks like the team to beat this year, the Florida Gators are the reigning SEC regular season champions. They open at #10 in the preseason rankings. They won the league outright last year, finishing ahead of Alabama with a 13-3 league record. Although they have lost a lot of big men to graduation, their team is still expected to defend that title. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton lead the Gators at the point guard and shooting guard spots, and are among the best in the country. They are higher volume shooters, and will probably be counted on more this season with the inexperienced Patric Young and sparingly used junior Erik Murphy.
This Gators team, I feel, has the highest chance of being a disappointment this year in the SEC. They bring in highly touted freshman Bradley Beal, who some think could be the best incoming guard in the country, as well as transfer and former McDonald's All-American Mike Rosario from Rutgers. Those four guards are perhaps the best collection of guards in the country. But after that, there isn't a lot of beef. Patric Young was also highly rated, but had a very disappointing season last year and finished averaging less than 4 points and 4 rebounds. If he can't triple those numbers, and that's what might be necessary, the Gators will be getting minimal production from the forwards.
Even though the guards will win games by themselves early on, it's going to take something from the forwards to have a good season. I don't think that Young will be able to do it by himself, which is why I ultimately think they have a disappointing season. As for the game against LSU, I think we will be competitive. We were last year and despite losing by 7. The Tigers were able to cut it to 6 with only minutes left after trailing most of the game by double digits. At this time though, I'm not sure the young guards of the Tigers would be able to do enough to stop the experienced Gators lineup. I think Billy Donovan would employ a full court press that would be effective and put the game out of reach. Even so, I think this is the game in SEC play we are most likely to score an upset.
Opponent: Vanderbilt Commodores
Date and Time: February 8 at 8:00 CT
Location: Nashville, TN
Coach: Kevin Stallings
Preseason SEC Rank: 2nd
2010-2011 Record: 23-11 (9-7)
Postseason: NCAA 1st Round
It's not often that there's excitement in Nashville for a Vanderbilt sports team. Every year the basketball team seems to be the best, but every year they seem to disappoint with NCAA 1st round losses. 3 tournaments in a row they have been upset by mid major teams; Richmond in 2011, Murray State in 2010, and Siena in 2008. You have to go to 2007 to find wins, where they went to the Sweet 16 before losing to Georgetown.
Kevin Stallings, dare I say it, should be on the hot seat. At least, if Vanderbilt wasn't a traditional loser, he would be on the hot seat. This Vanderbilt team is among the most talented and experienced in the country, so another early round exit may leave Vanderbilt searching for a coach that can get them over the hump.
The 2011/2012 Vanderbilt team features a strong combination of experience and skill. 19.5 point per game scorer John Jenkins leads the guards, while Festus Ezeli leads the forwards. Leading rebounder Lance Goulbourne returns, as does leading assist-man Brad Tinsley. On top of that, Jeffrey Taylor, the second leading scorer and third leading rebounder returns. In all, they only lose one player that played in all 34 games last year, and he was the 7th leading scorer.
Vanderbilt is going to be tough to beat this year. With the odd home-court advantage, it wouldn't be shocking to see them win every game at home. They will be battle tested by the time SEC play starts, as they play 3 preseason ranked teams; Xavier, at Louisville, and at Marquette. I don't really forsee them winning all three of those games, but it's possible they start in 2012 with only one loss.
As for LSU's chances of beating Vanderbilt, I think they're slim to none. Vanderbilt is just too talented, too experienced, has the home-court advantage, as well as the recent games against us last year. LSU was competitive in the game in Baton Rouge, despite the lopsided score. LSU actually led at halftime last year before being blown out. Even though it was close, I don't see that as a reason for thinking LSU will win this year. Vanderbilt is legit. Now they just have to prove it to the rest of the country on the national stage in the NCAA tournament.
Opponent: South Carolina Gamecocks
Date and Time: February 18 at 12:30 CT
Location: Columbia, SC
Coach: Darrin Horn
Preseason SEC Rank: 12th
2010-2011 Record: 14-16 (5-11)
South Carolina is perhaps the team that I know least about off the top of my head. Very rarely are they seen on national TV, and I can't recall seeing a game in the last couple of seasons other than than when Devan Downey carried them to a victory over the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. Last year they had a losing record overall and in SEC play, and it doesn't look like that much will change. They are led by sophomore Bruce Ellington who led the team in scoring. However, Ellington's statistics were pretty much identical to Andre Stringer's. He scored a point a game more, but shot it at around the same average. At 5'9", perhaps he's Carolina's version of Stringer.
With only one senior on the team, the 'Cocks are very young. Darrin Horn is looking to get his team in place after two bad seasons. Horn's career seems almost like a shortened version of Trent's, as he took the job at South Carolina after a sweet 16 appearance with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Going into his fourth year, it's going to take a turn around to ensure that his job is safe, as he has yet to lead the Gamecocks to the NCAA tournament.
I don't think he has enough to do it though, at least not this year. The inexperience on the team will cost them a lot of games, especially knowing that they have six losses coming against UK, Vanderbilt, and UF. I think LSU will be able to go on the road and score a win against the 'Cocks with a healthy Storm Warren and decisive experience advantage.
Opponent: Georgia Bulldogs
Date and Time: February 22 at 7:00 CT
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Coach: Mark Fox
Preseason SEC Rank: 8th
2010-2011 Record: 21-12 (9-7)
Postseason: NCAA 1st Round
Georgia is a team similar to South Carolina, I don't really watch them too much. However, because they were a decent team last year, I did see them play last year. They were led by Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, who ironically were both drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers. They leave behind an awful lot of points and rebounds to the 2011/2012 Bulldogs. The team will probably be led by senior guards Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson, and possibly by hyped freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Robinson was the 3rd leading scorer and Ware the 5th.
Last year Georgia had a team that would be able to out muscle a lot of teams. In a way, I hope that LSU is able to play as UGA did last year. With Warren, White, O'Byrant, and Hamilton, we have the size similar to what the Bulldogs had. They were very efficient and also good free throw shooters. This year, it's really a toss up as to what could happen with the Bulldogs. Truth be told, I haven't seen enough of them to really figure out whether they will be able to maintain their 4th place spot in the East, or if they will fall back. I think that they will probably stay at that spot, though they certainly won't be as good as last year.
The Bulldogs will be in Baton Rouge for this game in late February, and ultimately, I think LSU is able to pull out a win. I don't think that they will be able to contain our forwards the way they were able to last year with superstars Leslie and Thompkins. Their guards will still be effective, but it remains to be seen how much so, as the Thompkins and Leslie drew lots of attention to themselves and provided that relief to the shooters. LSU pulls this one out in a close game.
Opponent: Tennessee Volunteers
Date and Time: February 29 at 8:00 CT
Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Coach: Cuonzo Martin
Preseason SEC Rank: 11th
2010-2011 Record: 19-15 (8-8)
Postseason: NCAA 1st Round
My goodness how quickly things went bad for Tennessee. Little more than a year after going to the elite 8, the Vols are now looking at finishing near the bottom of the SEC. They brought in a new coach named Cuonzo Martin after Bruce Pearl was fired for his numerous NCAA violations. Martin coached the Missouri State basketball team prior to taking the Tennessee job. The end of last season couldn't have gone any worse for the Vols. They were beaten down by Michigan in the NCAA tournament. It was a 30 point slaughter and probably should have been more. Tobias Harris, their highly productive freshman, went into the draft, along with Scotty Hopson, their best player who would have been the senior leader. They will now look to Cameron Tatum to provide that leadership and pretty much carry the team.
This game will be senior day for LSU, the first in two years since we didn't actually have a senior last year. It's a good game to close out Warren and White's senior years at LSU, though an NIT bid is possible and that would allow for possible home games in the postseason. Tennessee is perhaps the easiest game in SEC play and would be my choice if I had to pick a team to beat on senior day. A lot can happen between now and then, but I think LSU's seniors go out as winners.
If you missed any of the previous LSU previews and would like to catch up, here they are!