For the past two years, Florida has been the dominant story not only in SEC, but national basketball circles, thanks to its amazing run to back-to-back NCAA titles. But that's about to change.
Sure, the Gators will be scrutinized the first few weeks of the regular season, and maybe longer, but there are a bunch of SEC teams that figure to push Florida out of the headlines once the conference schedule gets into full swing in January, if not before.
Scout.com went to its experts at each of the 12 SEC schools to put together preseason scouting reports for all the league teams while also polling our writers to determine their picks to win the division and overall league titles.
In an amazing show of solidarity, the writers were unanimous in their picks of Tennessee and Arkansas to win the East and West division titles with Tennessee overpowering Arkansas by an 11-1 vote to win the overall league title.
All the teams are previewed below in order of their predicted division finish.
By Randy Moore
Rocky Top News
With eight of the top nine players back from a team that went 24-11 in 2006-07, the Tennessee Vols already had the meat and potatoes for a big year in 2007-08. The NCAA's decision to grant Iowa transfer Tyler Smith immediate eligibility was just gravy.
Many basketball analysts are projecting the Big Orange as a Top 10 team for the season ahead, and that expectation certainly has merit. With only Dane Bradshaw missing from last season's playing rotation, the 2007-08 Vols return 91.8 percent of their points, 86.1 percent of their rebounds, 67.2 percent of their assists, 83.3 percent of their blocked shots and 78.9 percent of their steals from last year.
Bradshaw was the King of the Intangibles and will be missed. Still, he scored just 596 points in four years at Tennessee. His successor, Tyler Smith, scored nearly that many (461) as a freshman at Iowa last winter.
Smith, who averaged 14.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game for the 2006-07 Hawkeyes, could give the Vols the firepower and athleticism to make a serious run at the Final Four. The 6-7, 220-pounder can score inside or out and provides a long-armed, quick-footed defensive presence that is a perfect fit for Bruce Pearl's trademark full-court press.
Ramar Smith is back for his second year as the starting point guard after making dramatic strides as a freshman year ago. Two seniors – All-America Chris Lofton and defensive dynamo JaJuan Smith – again man the wing positions. Lofton led the SEC in scoring last season and might be the finest three-point shooter in the college game. The perimeter reserves will be sophomore Josh Tabb, senior Jordan Howell and freshman Cameron Tatum.
Because of the frantic pace it plays, Tennessee's front line relies on mobility more so than mass. After sharing the post duties last winter, sophomores Wayne Chism (6-9, 240) and Duke Crews (6-7, 230) will be joined by incoming freshman Brian Williams (6-9, 270) this winter.
Junior Ryan Childress (6-9, 240) has the tenacity to help on the block, along with surprising touch from three-point range. He will be a key reserve at the post and power forward positions. Steven Pearl, son of the coach, is a 6-5 redshirt freshman who will earn some playing time on savvy alone.
In addition to Tyler Smith, Tennessee has another talented transfer joining the mix this season. Memphis native J.P. Prince (6-8, 210) will be eligible in January after spending 1½ undistinguished seasons at Arizona. Prince can play every position except the post, so his versatility provides Pearl with a lot of flexibility.
Bottom line: If the Vols can handle the hype, they have a chance to make 2007-08 something special.
By Stephen John
Kentucky Sports Report
Kentucky has entered into a new era. Despite being the only coach in Wildcat history to win a national championship in his very first season, beleaguered head coach Tubby Smith left the Bluegrass kingdom in a cloud of dust just days after completing his second consecutive season with double digit losses and another SEC middle of the pack finish. Shortly thereafter, new head coach Billy Clyde Gillispie arrived in Lexington to fanfare fit for royalty. The King is dead. Long live the King.
Gillispie is a coach with a reputation for a relentless work ethic and a track record for winning games and pulling in the top recruits – all qualities perceived to have been lacking in Kentucky basketball in recent years. And when the fans met their new coach, it was love at first sight. But only time will tell how long the romance lasts, or what will happen when the relationship meets its first bump in the road.
The former Texas A&M coach will inherit a team that finished 22-12 (9-7 SEC) last year. In most cases, a first-year coach taking over a team with 22 wins would be doing hand stands and cart wheels. But this is Kentucky, and in the Bluegrass State, 22 wins means little unless there are SEC Championships and deep NCAA Tournament runs that go along with them.
The bad news for Gillispie is that the Wildcats' only productive big man, Randolph Morris, headed to the NBA, foregoing his senior season. Worse, the most productive returning big man, Perry Stevenson (2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per game), is a 6-9 string bean who averaged just over five minutes per game in the last 11 games of the season. All is not lost, however. In one of his first acts as head coach, Gillispie put the finishing touches on a McDonald's All-America power forward, landing 6-9 Patrick Patterson, who chose the Wildcats over Duke and Florida.
Though Patterson will provide immediate help in the paint, the Wildcats will be looking to unproven veterans and untried freshmen to support Patterson on the blocks. Sophomore Jared Carter (7-2) was hurt much of his first season and off season surgery makes his potential contributions questionable. Stevenson reported to new strength and conditioing coach Todd Forcier at an anemic 188 pounds. Freshman forward, A. J. Stewart (6-8) and Mike Williams (6-11) are raw and in need of development.
The good news is that the Cats have a plethora of big, athletic and talented guards. Seniors Joe Crawford (leading returning scorer, 14.0 points) and Ramel Bradley (13.4 points) anchor the backcourt and sophomore sensation Jodie Meeks (8.7 points) is a superstar in the making. Derrick Jasper (6-6) ran the point much of the year as a freshman and can play three positions for Kentucky. Highly-regarded freshman Alex Legion can shoot the lights out and will find his share of minutes behind that firepower.
Gillispie has alluded that he will experiment with three or maybe even four-guard lineups and the Cats may have enough speed and athleticism to pull that off. While it remains to be seen how these small quick lineups will work against some of the beefy front lines in the league, the Cats should be Tennessee's primary challenger for the SEC East title.
By David Stirt
Plenty has been written about what the Gators won't have when they start the 2007-08 season. So rather than repeat the laundry list of lost talent, let's use some space to detail just what Florida does have as it begins its quest to win a second straight SEC regular-season title, fourth straight SEC Tournament title and third straight NCAA Championship.
The most important returnee for the Gators won't score any points or grab any rebounds. But coach Billy Donovan will employ his exceptional coaching skills to mold a young set of talent into a highly-competitive squad. After all, wasn't it just two years ago that four sophomores and a junior carried the Gators to their first national title after losing the supposedly irreplaceable triumvirate of David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson?
This year's set of sophomores features 6-11 Mareese Speights, who figures to explode onto the national scene after showing repeated signs of brilliance in limited playing time last season. Just how good is Speights? According to no less an authority than No. 3 NBA draft pick Al Horford, Speights was the most dominating offensive force in the post during last year's Gator practice sessions and only the presence of outstanding sixth man Chris Richard, along with Horford and Joakim Noah, kept Speights from playing 10-15 per game as a freshman. Even so, Speights averaged 4.1 points and 2.6 rebounds during an average of six minutes of playing time per game.
Another key returnee who will complement Speights' inside play is junior guard Walter Hodge, the elder statesman on a UF squad that will include five freshmen and three sophomores among the nine scholarship players. As the seventh man in Donovan's rotation last season, Hodge provided strong play at both guard positions, regaining the explosive scoring ability he displayed in high school after struggling through his freshman season two years ago. Hodge's ability to hit three-pointers (50 percent shooting), yet also handle the point, will allow Donovan the flexibility to use freshman Nick Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball, at both guard spots, rather than having to depend on the youngster to immediately step into the leadership role vacated by the loss of junior Taurean Green to the NBA.
And while Calathes is only one part of a freshman class considered to be one of the nation's best, it is the other returning sophomores who will be critical to Florida's chances for a ninth straight NCAA tournament bid. Dan Werner (6-9) and Jonathan Mitchell (6-7) must step into prominent roles to complement Speights and Hodges in order to keep too many freshmen from having to play key roles too early in their rookie season. Donovan knows that a lineup loaded with freshmen isn't a healthy situation in the rugged SEC, no matter how talented those freshmen may be. Calathes, high school teammate Chandler Parsons, Florida Mr. Basketball runnerup Adam Allen, Parade All-America guard Jai Lucas and Cincinnati leaper Alex Tyus may be ready to contribute in greater or lesser degrees as the season unfolds, but the four returnees will have to carry the bulk of the playing time for the Gators to minimize the rough patches of inconsistency that a lineup filled with freshmen can cause.
In addition to going after a ninth straight NCAA tournament bid, the Gators will be trying for a ninth straight 20-plus win season. With a schedule loaded with lightweights in November and December, the Gators should reach the 20-win plateau without too much of a struggle. But it's the SEC schedule that will determine Florida's ability to return for a try at a third straight national title.
Nobody in their right mind would pick the Gators to go all the way again. But with a roster packed with exceptional young talent, the Gators will be the X factor in the SEC East division. Whether that X stands for 10 (or more) league wins will be determined by how quickly the youngsters grow up, and adapt to Donovan's system, during those 15 games before SEC play gets underway in January.
By Dean Legge
Dennis Felton's Georgia squad just missed getting into the NCAA Tournament last season. The late-season injury to Mike Mercer didn't help matters. Georgia lost three of its final four SEC contests, which cost them their bid.
The pressure to win big hasn't been on Felton because he has successfully turned the program around. But he hasn't gotten the Dawgs to the NCAA Tournament yet. In truth, he's only had two teams that had a shot at it – his first and last teams – so he does get a break there. But with four-year starter Sundiata Gaines and powerful Takais Brown returning for their final season in Athens, this might be the year Georgia cashes in.
Gaines is one of the top returning guards in the conference. He's been the team leader for some time, and it's hard to imagine how this team would survive without him. The Dawgs had to survive without Mercer, who was averaging 14 points a game when he got hurt, last season, and it was difficult. Mercer's return to the lineup, totally recovered or not, gives the Dawgs athleticism they don't have elsewhere on the roster. Replacing Levi Stukes' shooting ability won't be easy, but Billy Humphrey will likely be the one to try to take that on. If Humphrey can be steady from the three-point arc, Georgia will be fine.
Brown is the type of athlete Georgia missed during the difficult middle stretch of the Felton years. Brown can fight with the best of the big men in the SEC and is skilled enough to take over a game. His frontcourt mate, however, still seems to be in question. Dave Bliss returns for his final season in Athens, but has been slowed by nagging injuries. He can only play a few minutes at a time – still, he's been a fighter for years. Terrence Woodberry will get some looks inside, too, as will 7-0 center Rashaad Singleton. The Dawgs would do well to have Singleton step up and become a presence in the middle, something that hasn't happened in his career. Talented youngster Jeremy Price could factor in the Dawgs' interior, but the true freshman is an unknown commodity.
Five freshmen, including Price, could make an impact this winter. Chris Barnes picked the Dawgs over Kentucky and could be a difference maker. Price has the size to play now. Forward Jeremy Jacob has prep school experience, and guard Troy Brewer has good size.
For the first time in a long time the Dawgs have depth, which has been a real hurdle over the last couple of seasons. If Georgia can get 10 wins before entering conference play they stand a good shot at making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Jim Harrick era. Losing more than two of four games against Wake Forest, Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech could spell doom for the Dawgs.
By Sam Sabulis
When Georgetown's Jeff Green banked home a buzzer beater to send Vanderbilt home from last year's Sweet 16, insiders and outsiders alike thought they were watching the end of a magical Commodore run. SEC Player-of-the-Year Derrick Byars was moving on to the NBA, and with him went his team-high 17 points and four assists per game.
Coach Kevin Stallings and staff brought in a formidable recruiting class, highlighted by 6-11 Australian Andrew Ogilvy. Add the new kids to a talented core led by All-SEC candidate Shan Foster, and the Commodore faithful have reason to believe in a return trip to the Big Dance.
Foster, a 6-6 swingman, enters his senior season as Vanderbilt's leading returning scorer. Always one of the SEC's most dangerous perimeter shooters, Foster has the opportunity to increase last year's average of 15.6 points per game by rounding out his offensive game. Vanderbilt's shooters, Foster included, found more open looks last season because of the playmaking of Derrick Byars. This year, Foster must take on a similar role if the Commodores are to remain near the top of the conference in scoring.
The Vanderbilt attack starts with a pair of competent point guards. Both senior Alex Gordon and sophomore Jermaine Beal will likely begin the year as starters, giving the ‘Dores a backcourt capable of limiting turnovers in transition and creating for teammates. Along with Foster, Gordon will stretch opposing defenses with his three-point shooting, while Beal is more of a penetrating guard.
Hyper-athletic sophomore George Drake gives Vanderbilt a sparkplug off the bench. He and 6-8 freshman Andre Walker will battle for minutes at shooting guard. Freshmen Keegan Bell, a pure point guard with a sure shooting touch, and Charles Hinkle, another dangerous three-point shooter, provide backcourt depth.
The frontcourt has been an area of concern for the Commodores in recent years, but the strong play of senior Ross Neltner and the addition of Ogilvy have assuaged the fears of the Vanderbilt faithful. Neltner gave the ‘Dores a tough presence on the glass that they sorely lacked, and he also proved to be a competent scorer, even hitting some clutch three-pointers last season.
Ogilvy has drawn comparisons to fellow countryman Andrew Bogut. He showed his skills last summer on the FIBA circuit and excelled in international competition. Vandy hopes the freshman can translate his strong performances into SEC success.
Bolstering the frontcourt are senior Alan Metcalfe, who has shown flashes in his career and looks to put it all together for his final campaign, and Darshawn McClellan, a bulky freshman who will play substantial minutes at power forward.
Ultimately, Vanderbilt's season rides on the capable shoulders of its star, Shan Foster. If he can make the same steps Byars did last season, rounding out his game and taking on more of a leadership role, the Commodores have enough firepower around him to make another run at the NCAA Tournament.
6. SOUTH CAROLINA
By Duane Everett
With South Carolina trying to rebound from a dismal 14-16 season that included a 4-12 SEC record, this year's team will look to a regime of newcomers to turn things around.
South Carolina will feature sophomore point guard Devan Downey, a Cincinnati transfer, who will replace Tre' Kelly with the hope of creating an up tempo transition attack. Downey averaged 12.3 points and 4.1 assists per game at Cincinnati before transferring to USC last season. Downey's ability to push the basketball and get into the paint should generate scoring opportunities for him and his teammates.
Another new face for the Gamecocks will be junior shooting guard Zam Fredrick, a transfer from Georgia Tech who averaged 10.6 points as a sophomore. Fredrick comes from a strong winning tradition in South Carolina, where he played in four state championship games in his high school years while playing for his father Zam Fredrick, Sr., an NCAA scoring champion his senior year when he played for South Carolina.
With Brandon Wallace graduating to the Boston Celtics, South Carolina needed a long post player to fill the middle and provide solid board play. The addition of Sam Muldrow, a 6-10 freshman forward-center, has added a solid fundamental post game suited for an up tempo Gamecock offense.
Sophomore guard Brandis Raley-Ross (6-2) and senior guard Dwayne Day (6-5) return along with sophomore forward Chad Gray (6-7). Freshman Austin Steed (6-8) could earn playing time and 6-10 Mitchell Carter should provide relief at the post position. Rounding out the roster will be Navy transfer Branden Conrad, a 6-2 guard, and 6-3 freshman Trevor Deloach.
South Carolina should employ an up tempo offense in an attempt to exploit the speed and athleticism of the newcomers while keeping constant pressure on opposing defenses.
By Dudley E. Dawson
Only time will tell if the University of Arkansas truly hit a home run with its hiring of new head basketball coach John Pelphrey, the former Kentucky star with ties to ultra-successful coaches Rick Pitino, Eddie Sutton and Billy Donovan.
But one thing is certain, Pelphrey definitely hit one over the fence during his introductory press conference in which he clearly won over the fans.
"I have been a great, great admirer of the University of Arkansas for a long time, both as a player and as a coach," Pelphrey said. "It is an honor and a privilege for me to be a part of the University of Arkansas, and I am going to take great, great pride in being the Razorback coach.
"You have to understand, my whole life my blood has bled blue and I still love my alma mater," Pelphrey said. "But today, my blood bleeds Arkansas Razorback red. This is a dream job for me."
He took the podium at the press conference, put on his new Razorback hat with pride, called the Hogs, dropped some knowledge of Razorback lore and then spoke some words that many had been waiting to hear.
"Your style of play is back."
In other words, the up-tempo, pressing style that Nolan Richardson used to win a national title during his 17-year tenure before being replaced by the slower tempo of Stan Heath, who was let go last season despite his team making the NCAA Tournament.
"I want our teams to constantly attack offensively and defensively," Pelphrey said. "We want to be as disruptive as we possibly can. We don't want to let our opponents do what they do every day in practice."
As far as defense, it's not necessarily "40 minutes of Hell" but "40 minutes of Pel," a notion he brought home with a witty comment.
"It's a 'mother-in-law' defense," Pelphrey said. "Constant pressure and harassment. But I do love my mother-in-law."
Arkansas should not only be a favorite to win the SEC West title, but the overall league title as well with all five starters coming back from a 21-14 squad that got to the final of the SEC Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament.
There is a loaded and experienced front court returning with 7-0 senior center Steven Hill, 6-8 senior power forward Charles Thomas, 6-10 senior forward Darian Townes and 6-10 sophomore forward Michael Washington to go along with 6-8 freshman Michael Sanchez.
The Razorbacks also have two potential All-SEC selections in 6-1 sophomore shooting guard Patrick Beverly and 6-6 senior small forward Sonny Weems, while 6-0 senior Gary Ervin and 6-2 sophomore Stefan Welsh are likely to share point guard duties.
"My concerns at the point guard spot are real," Pelphrey said. "There's not a lot of depth at the guard spot. Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverley are very good on the wings, but the depth is not great. We do have strength and numbers up front."
Pelphrey got a head start working with his team because the Razorbacks were afforded 10 days of practice before their trip to Cancun for two exhibition games in early September
Arkansas downed Quintano Roo 60-57 in game one and then blasted Belize Select 108-37 in their trip finale.
"The trip was a blessing," Pelphrey said. "Looking back, I think we were able to accomplish what we wanted. I think they got a feel for the way we want to play and how to go hard."
2. MISSISSIPPI STATE
By David Murray
Rick Stansbury took a chance—or two—lining up an ambitious 2007-08 schedule. By booking several high-profile home dates and two West Coast road trips, he counted on having Charles Rhodes and Jamont Gordon in the lineup one more year. When both withdrew from early NBA entry, Stansbury won that gamble.
Mississippi State kept the key pieces to a club capable of even better things than last year's 21-14 record, SEC West co-championship, and NIT semifinal appearance. These Bulldogs are ready to win their way back to the NCAA Tournament after a two year absence.
Stansbury did have four veterans leave looking for larger roles elsewhere, but the core is still senior frontcourt standout Rhodes (13.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game) and junior guard-forward Gordon (16.0 and 7.1). It's a versatile pair.
Rhodes scores from both the low or high post, muscling or moving, and has made himself a decent defender at last. Gordon plays the whole court as essentially a point forward banging bodies and the boards. The assist/turnover rate needs attention but Gordon's aggression creates open looks for teammates, and his outside touch has improved annually.
Rhodes and Gordon put the Bulldogs in solid position to defend the West title they shared last year, but bigger prizes depend on three sophomores stepping up to starting stature. A year's development means Barry Stewart (9.8 points) should improve on his 68 treys from last season. Ben Hansbrough (7.3, 47 treys) has the shot and smarts to be a fine combo-guard as he accepts expanded play-making responsibility. Center Jarvis Varnado blocks shots with abandon and is learning to score in other ways than just putting back missed shots.
Graduation and defections erased guard depth, so redshirt Phil Turner and newcomer Ravern Johnson won't wait long for action when Gordon must take a break. The frontcourt has more big bodies to work with, including transfer Brian Johnson. Practicing with the varsity last winter, the former Louisville center showed he was a strong rebounder, defender and post-passer, an ideal complement Rhodes and Varnado. That means 265-pound freshman Elgin Bailey can be paced, not rushed. But prep school product Kodi Augustus is too talented not to contribute at forward, possibly freeing Gordon to spend more time in the backcourt.
Certainly Stansbury, who will become State's winningest coach by December, sees pieces in places to return to championship and postseason form. "I like where our team is right now, I like our chemistry. I think we have a chance this year."
By Kirk McNair
To say Alabama had a disappointing 2006-07 season is an understatement.
Favored by many to win the Southeastern Conference Western Division, and perhaps even challenge Florida for the league championship, the Crimson Tide was beset with bad luck on all fronts and stumbled to a 20-12 season. Alabama was one-and-out in the post-season for losers tournament, the NIT.
And this year isn¹t starting out much better. By far the most serious problem for Bama last year was the knee injury that troubled Ron Steele, the preseason All-America point guard. Less than a month before practice was to begin this year, Steele announced he has decided to sit out this season and try to return for the 2008-09 campaign. Steele had undergone two surgeries on one knee and one on the other since the end of last season.
With Steele out, Mark Gottfried begins his 13th season as Bama's coach looking for a point guard. It could be 6-4 sophomore Mikhail Torrence, who gained valuable experience last season, or true freshman Rico Pickett (6-4).
Although he is not a true point guard, gutsy 5-11 junior Brandon Hollinger has filled in at the point in the past.
Hollinger is really a wing, where the Tide has excellent players in 6-6 junior Alonzo Gee, a returning starter who averaged 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, and Mykal Riley, a 6-6 senior who also averaged 12.6 points per outing last year. Long-range shooter Justin Tubbs, a 6-2 sophomore, will get plenty of playing time on the wing. In preseason exhibition games, 6-2 freshman Senario Hillman was outstanding.
In addition to Steele, Alabama lost one other starter from last season.
The play of center Jermareo Davidson, now with Charlotte of the NBA, was adversely (and understandably) affected by the shooting death of his brother and fatal traffic accident of his girlfriend during the 2007 season.
Richard Hendrix has been outstanding in his first two seasons at Bama and the 6-8, 265-pound junior should be the leader for Bama inside. He averaged a team-leading 14.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game last year. He¹s expected to be joined inside by 6-7 sophomore Demetrius Jemison, but 6-9 sophomore Yamene Coleman and 6-9 freshman Justin Knox will challenge.
Alabama is expected to stick with its offensive style of trying to pound inside or shoot the three-pointer, but the defense is expected to include more full court play.
By Mark Murphy
Inside the Auburn Tigers
After spending his first three seasons rebuilding the Auburn basketball program, coach Jeff Lebo looks like he finally has a team capable of making a push for postseason play.
With all five starters back from a squad that finished 17-15 last year and was very competitive against a variety of highly-ranked teams, expectations are higher for Auburn basketball.
"Last year we got a little taste of success and the guys liked it, and they want more of it," Lebo says. "That has been good.
"Last year I felt we made the step and beat some very good teams in this league and some Top 25 teams so they had a chance to see what it is like. They had the chance to see the arena filled up a couple of times and the excitement that we can generate here with our people.
"They want to have that more consistently, and they have had the taste of it," Lebo adds. "Now, the next test will be can we give them more? Can our team be challenged more? Can our coaches be challenged more and can we have more consistency to it."
The offseason has been a busy one for Lebo's program. The biggest news was the university's decision to build a new $92.5 million on-campus, basketball only arena to replace Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, which was built in the 1960s. Construction on that project is expected to begin next summer. In addition, there will be a new basketball training facility built next to the arena.
Also during the summer, the Tigers got a very early start on the 2007-2008 season with a three-game exhibition tour to Cancun, Mexico where the Tigers cruised to three easy victories.
Tolbert, a physical player with three seasons of starting experience who is known as "Frank the Tank," averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds as a junior while Prowell, a 6-8, 215 junior, averaged 12 points and 5.3 rebounds after transferring to Auburn from Furman.
The junior group, Lebo's first recruiting class, is the heart of the team with guards Quan