SEC OVERVIEW: A look at the league in 2007-08

For the Southeastern Conference, the 2006-2007 basketball season was one of the best in history.

Florida's Gators won 35 games and brought its second consecutive national title banner to Gainesville to go along with the national football championship, becoming the first-ever NCAA school to hold both major national titles simultaneously.

Seven other schools won at least 20 games. There were All-Americans and first-round NBA Draft picks.

Then, came the tumultuous offseason.

Where do you start?

How about Florida where five starters were lost, all after averaging double figures in scoring?

And their coach? Well, Billy Donovan flirted with Kentucky prior to having a full-scale affair with the Orlando Magic before leaving them at the altar and returning to Gainesville.

Why could Donovan flirt with Kentucky? That's because Wildcat fans, not satisfied with another 22-win season, pressured Tubby Smith, along with his past National Coach of the Year award and national championship ring, to leave for Minnesota.

So, Kentucky hired Billy Gillespie, known for leading hardcourt turnarounds including Texas A&M, where the doormat Aggies became a national contender. Of course, that was after he had flirted with Arkansas, or vice versa, and then re-pledged his loyalty to the folks in College Station.

With Gillespie off the board, the Razorbacks hired former Kentucky star John Pelphrey, who engineered the best turnaround in the nation at South Alabama, taking the 10-18 Jaguars to a 24-7 mark and an NCAA bid.

Why was there an opening in Fayetteville? Because Hog fans were not satisfied with two consecutive NCAA Tournament seasons, including last year's 21 victories. But Pelphrey was only hired after Creighton coach Dana Altman turned down the job. He actually went to Fayetteville, accepted the head job there, and then bolted back to the Nebraska school, leaving Arkansas holding the bag.

But heading into the 2007-2008 season, there is still one thing that remained consistent during the offseason of inconsistency – the Tennessee Volunteers.

Coming off a 24-win season, Bruce Pearl's team returns four starters, including one of the country's best shooters, National Player of the Year candidate Chris Lofton. He is joined by JuJuan Smith, who was among the top five SEC scorers last season. The team's top six scorers from a year ago return.

As if that cast was not enough, Pearl brought in outside help. Forward J.P. Prince, an Arizona transfer, becomes eligible in December. Forward Tyler Smith, an Iowa transfer, was third-team All-Big Ten and could be a starter.

Kentucky should provide the greatest challenge. The Cats return outstanding guards, including Joe Crawford (14.0 ppg) and Ramel Bradley (13.4 ppg). But they lost graduated center Randolph Morris, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, and forward Bobby Perry, so the backcourt will have to carry the load early.

At Georgia, Dennis Felton has his most talented Bulldog team. The Dawgs are led by seniors Sundiata Gaines and Takais Brown. But the team's success could depend on how well junior guard/forward Mike Mercer rebounds from right knee surgery.

In Nashville, veteran coach Kevin Stallings took Vanderbilt to within three seconds of the Elite Eight, losing to Georgetown on a game-winning bank shot just before the buzzer. An encore will be tough. Gone is SEC Player of the Year Derrick Byars and shooting guard Dan Cage. The 'Dores will rely on four seniors, led by point guard Alex Gordon and All-SEC candidate Shan Foster, who could become Vandy's all-time leading scorer. A.J. Ogilvy, the Australian national team center, could have immediate impact.

The season could be a challenge in Columbia. South Carolina lost its top three scorers and returns only one senior. Success could depend on contribution from Cincinnati transfer Devan Downey, who was on the All-Big East Rookie Team, and Georgia Tech transfer Zam Frederick. The leading returning scorer is sophomore forward Dominique Archie.

Oh, yeah … what about the defending national champions?

Things could be bleak, especially early. All five starters and the sixth man are gone and the leading returning scorer is Walter Hodge (5.7 ppg). As many as five freshmen will see significant time.

But never discount the great recruiter and motivator Billy Donovan. He must have known something that caused him to turn down Lexington and Orlando to stay in Gainesville.
In the West, nothing appears certain.

Alabama, the early preseason choice, took a severe hit with All-American candidate point guard Ronald Steele designated as a medical redshirt due to surgery on both knees. Bama still returns three starters, led by forwards Richard Hendrix and Alonzo Gee, and a strong recruiting class. But when Steele missed games last season, the Tide was average … or worse.

Arkansas should become the favorite with all five starters returning, including SEC Defensive Player of the Year, center Steven Hill, and SEC Freshman of the Year, Patrick Beverly. Point guard Gary Ervin will guide the high-powered offense. But you never know what will happen when coaching staffs change.

Mississippi State returns guard Jamont Gordon and forward Charles Rhodes, one of the best one-two punches in the conference. They are joined by Louisville transfer Brian Johnson and Mississippi prep Player of the Year Ravern Johnson, a 6-7 sharpshooter.

Auburn has persevered two seasons with the shortest and least experienced squad in the conference. Those days may be over for head coach Jeff Lebo. The Tigers return three seniors, including Frank Tolbert and Quan Prowell, one of the SEC's most talented players. Four junior lettermen, including point guard Quantez Robertson, return. Five Auburn players averaged double-digit scoring last season when the team won 17 games.

LSU returns four starters but will feel the loss of Glen Davis, who averaged a double-double last year. Tasmin Mitchell could have an all-star season. Garrett Temple, Dameon Mason and Terry Martin should provide leadership and experience. Key will be the play of 6-11 McDonald's All-American Anthony Randolph.

Three starters return to Oxford, led by former Auburn center Dwayne Curtis, who led the Rebels last season with 12.2 ppg. Much is expected from Florida transfer David Huertas. But Ole Miss will suffer from the loss of its entire senior backcourt – Todd Abernathy, Bam Doyne and Clarence Sanders. It will be hard to come close to the 21 wins from a year ago.


Eastern Division

1.     Tennessee – Led by Chris Lofton, talented returning players, and two all-star caliber transfers, the Volunteers are a legitimate national title contender.

2.     Kentucky – The Cats have great guards and a good recruiting class … and a depleted frontcourt. But don't forget: They are Kentucky.


3.     Georgia – If Mike Mercer can return from knee surgery, the Bulldogs could be an NCAA Tournament team.

4.     Vanderbilt – Shan Foster leads a strong senior group. The 'Dores should be tough again.


5.     Florida – Top six players gone. No returning scorer with even a six-point average. Still, how can you pick a two-time defending national champion in last place?

6.     South Carolina – The Gamecocks should be competitive, but contending isn't realistic.


Western Division

1.     Arkansas – The returning cast is versatile, talented, experienced and deep. This could be an elite team.

2.     Auburn – Second place becomes a toss-up after the Hogs. Three seniors. Four juniors. Five returning double-figure scorers. Why not Auburn?


3.     Alabama – Bama returns a strong frontcourt. But with Ronald Steele missing last season, the Tide was very beatable.

4.     Mississippi State – Jamont Gordon and Charles Rhodes, joined by Brian Johnson, will be tough.


5.     LSU – The Tigers return some talent, but will miss Glen Davis. Come on, Anthony Randolph!

6.     Mississippi – Rebels lost a lot. This could be a rebuilding year.


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