SEC Hoops - Alabama, Kentucky The SEC Choices

The Southeastern Conference lost a lot of underclassmen to the NBA Draft last June . . . most of which were blanked on draft night. But the conference will still be plenty strong across the board, with Alabama and Kentucky looking like the best in the SEC's respective divisions.



Seven underclassmen from the Southeastern Conference entered the NBA draft pool last spring and only one of those (LSU sophomore forward Brandon Bass, a second-round choice of the Hornets) was selected.

 

Nice advice and/or decisions, fellows.

 

The losses did put a dent into the conference's Class of 2006 (four of the players would be seniors now) but shouldn't affect the number of teams that will be sprinkled among the NCAA tournament field of 65 in March.

 

The projection from this corner says that there will be at least five SEC members – equal the number who participated last March – playing when first-round games get under way on March 16-17.

 

And, especially if they can roll up impressive non-SEC records and approach .500 in conference, there could be two or three others being tabbed as well.

 

A closer look at the SEC

Projected finish:

EASTERN

1. Kentucky

Frank's Spin: This is one of those programs whose teams are always good. The annual question is just how good? I'm not going to be convinced that the Wildcats are one of the half-dozen or so squads with the best opportunities to get to Indianapolis on the first weekend of April until I can judge how capable Tubby Smith's team is of accounting for the firepower that left with Kelenna Azubuike and Chuck Hayes, and the inside determination and leadership skills of the latter. And when will center Randolph Morris be reinstated by the NCAA and how much has he improved from his so-so freshman season? There's no nit-picking Smith's perimeter players, though, led by returning starters at guard in Rajon Rondo and Patrick Sparks, and a sophomore wing (Joe Crawford) who seems likely to replace Azubuike.

Postseason possibilities: Some might think we're soft-selling the Wildcats but, as of now, they appear to be, at best, a Sweet 16 team.

 

2. Vanderbilt

Frank's Spin: The Commodores won a couple of NCAA tournament games in 2004. And, two seasons later, Kevin Stallings – one of the most nationally underappreciated coaches – may have an even better team on hand. Senior guard Mario Moore (nearly as underrated as Stallings) returns for what only seems his eighth year in Nashville . And Stallings has three players (Shane Foster, Alex Gordon and DeMarre Carroll) who were solid as freshmen and should be exceptional as sophomores.

Postseason possibilities: The Commodores will snag one of those 34 at-large bids on March 12.

 

3. Tennessee

Frank's Spin: Did you check out Bruce Pearl's team in the NCAA tournament last March, when the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers pressed and shot their way into a Sweet 16 game against Illinois by upsetting Alabama and Boston College ? Look for the Volunteers to exercise the same style on both ends of the floor – only, at least for a season or two, minus quite the number of caliber players Pearl coached at the Horizon Conference school. Guards C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton, who combined to average 25 points per game last season, should flourish in Pearl 's system.

Postseason possibilities: The NIT* (or whatever it's being called in March), for sure.

 

4. South Carolina

Frank's Spin: In case you weren't paying attention, the Gamecocks went 15-13 during the regular season in 2004-05, then reeled off consecutive victories over Miami , UNLV, Georgetown , Maryland and Saint Joseph 's to claim the title of "NIT champions". The best player off of that team (forward Carlos Powell) has departed, leaving returnees Tre' Kelley, Tarence Kinsey, Renaldo Balkman and Brandon Wallace as the front-runners to claim that tag for this team.

Postseason possibilities: The Gamecocks will be presented the opportunity of successfully defending their NIT* title.

 

5. Florida

Frank's Spin: The Gators haven't missed out on NCAA tournament festivities since 1998 (Billy Donovan's second season as the program's coach) but they are in reasonable danger of doing so in 2006 following the loss of three players in David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson who combined to average nearly 46 points per game. Corey Brewer and Al Horford are a couple of sophomores who will keep the Gators snapping at the heels of one of those 34 precious at-large bids.

Postseason possibilities: NIT*, unless Donovan's guards prove better than they appear to be.

 

6. Georgia

Frank's Spin: The Bulldogs averaged 12 wins in Dennis Felton's first two seasons as the program's coach. They'll be fortunate to win that many games in Season III. But Felton has a couple of freshmen guards (Mike Mercer and Billy Humphrey) good enough to start, although he returns three quality backcourt players in Levi Stukes,  Sundiata Gaines and Channing Toney.

Postseason possibilities: Check again 12 months from now.

 

WESTERN

1. Alabama

Frank's Spin: Coach Mark Gottfried lost the bulk of his perimeter scoring attack (in the persons of Kennedy Winston and Earnest Shelton), as well as the guy he recruited to compensate for their departure when JC All-America Ravone George failed to quality academically. So why do I think Alabama , and not Kentucky , could prove to be the best team in the SEC? Because Gottfried (in returnees Chuck Davis and Jamareo Davidson, along with 2005 McDonald's All- America Richard Hendrix) has the best post play in the conference. He's also got a sophomore point guard who is every bit the equal of his more nationally touted counterpart in Lexington , Ky. And look for freshman Alonzo Gee to provide the jump shooting that left with Winston and Shelton .

Postseason possibilities: Something will have to go seriously haywire for Alabama not to win 25 or so games (with a couple of them in the NCAA tournament) this season.

 

2. LSU

Frank's Spin: SEC Player of the Year Brandon Bass departed for the NBA draft after his sophomore season but the Tigers are still fully capable of exceeding last season's 20-victory/but bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament-performance. Sophomore Glen Davis, he of the NFL offensive left tackle's frame, and Tasmin Mitchell (who could produce the best freshman stats in the conference), will give Coach John Brady a post presence to rival Alabama 's.

Postseason possibilities: An NCAA tournament experience that should last longer than last season's.

 

3. Arkansas

Frank's Spin: The Razorbacks won 18 games last season but only six of them were against SEC competition, which neatly sums up why they didn't get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. With the conference's best all-around player in 6-7 Ronnie Brewer, a quality scorer in Jonathon Modica and an underrated sophomore trio of big guys in Darian Townes, Charles Thomas and Steven Hill, there seems, barring injury or other calamity, little room for excuses for not winning at least 10 SEC games this season.

Postseason possibilities: I would guess that anything short of a spot in the NCAA tournament would leave a lot of folks disappointed in Fayetteville .

 

4. Mississippi State

Frank's Spin: Let's see, what did the Bulldogs lose from a 23-win, NCAA second round-season? Ah . . . just about everything. Coach Rick Stansbury has an entire starting lineup to replace and some very good freshmen – Vernon Goodridge, Jamont Gordon and twins Richard and Reginald Delk – who figure to do a lot of the replacing.

Postseason possibilities: A non-conference schedule built to offer up 10 or 11 victories should help the Bulldogs get into the NIT*.

 

5. Misssippi

Frank's Spin: Surpassing or equaling last season's 14 victories (only four of those coming against SEC foes) could take some doing, unless several newcomers, including Auburn transfer Dwayne Curtis (who averaged just 2.9 points per game in his one season at the other SEC school), can kick start an offense than accounted for just 63.8 points per game last season.

Postseason possibilities: They don't appear to be likely.

 

6. Auburn

Frank's Spin: Coach Jeff Lebo, the former McDonald's All-America and North Carolina guard who I'm guessing is still a better jump shooter than anyone on his squad, returns just one starter in sophomore Frank Tolbert. And he dropped in all of 6.9 points per game during the team's 14-17 (4-12 in the SEC) debut under Lebo. A quality group of newcomers, including another McDonald's selection (forward Kovortney Barber, who said "no" to Tubby Smith before signing with the Tigers), obviously, will be a major part of any success the team enjoys this season.

Postseason possibilities: They're about as sturdy as Mississippi 's.

 

Projected All-Conference first team

  • Ronnie Brewer (6-7, Jr., Arkansas )
  • Glen Davis (6-7, So., LSU)
  • Ronald Steele (6-2, So., Alabama )
  • Chuck Davis (6-7, Sr., Alabama )
  • Rajon Rondo (6-1, So., Kentucky )

Projected All-Conference second team

  • Corey Brewer (6-8, So., Florida )
  • C.J. Watson (6-2, Sr., Tennessee )
  • Mario Moore (5-11, Sr., Vanderbilt)
  • Jermareo Davidson (6-10, Jr., Alabama )
  • Patrick Sparks (6-1, Sr., Kentucky )

Most influential newcomers

  • Tasmin Mitchell (6-7, Fr., LSU)
  • Vernon Goodridge (6-9, Fr., Mississippi State )
  • Richard Hendrix (6-8, Fr., Alabama )
  • Kovortney Barber (6-7, Fr., Auburn )
  • Mike Mercer (6-3, Fr., Georgia )

Most nationally underrated player

  • Chuck Davis (6-7, Sr., Alabama)

Best NBA prospect

  • Ronnie Brewer (6-7, Jr., Arkansas )

An April inductee into the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach ( Calif. ) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.FrankHoops.com


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