SEC hoops to get tougher

Tennessee's Bruce Pearl may not admit this, but winning basketball games in the Southeastern Conference is about to get harder. A LOT harder.

There are two basic reasons for this: One, better coaches. Two, better players.

LSU head man Trent Johnson already proved in 2008-09 that he represents a tremendous upgrade over predecessor John Brady. Likewise, South Carolina's Darrin Horn raised the bar last season after succeeding Dave Odom. New Kentucky coach John Calipari is a significant improvement over Billy Gillispie. First-year Alabama coach Anthony Grant is a step up from Mark Gottfried and new Georgia coach Mark Fox can't do much worse than the man he succeeded, Dennis Felton.

I wrote last winter that I couldn't remember the last time the SEC's talent level was so low. Apparently, pro scouts agreed. Not one SEC player was taken in the first round of the recent NBA Draft.

It wasn't until Pick 41, when Milwaukee chose Kentucky shooting guard Jodie Meeks, that the SEC was mentioned on draft day. LSU shooting guard Marcus Thornton was tabbed with Pick 43 and Florida point guard Nick Calathes was selected with Pick 45. That concluded the SEC's participation in the 2009 NBA Draft.

For the sake of comparison, flash back to 2007. That's when three SEC players – all Florida Gators – were among the NBA Draft's first nine selections. Al Horford was Pick 3, Corey Brewer Pick 7 and Joakim Noah Pick 9.

Five more SEC players were taken in Round 2 that year – LSU post Glen Davis (Pick 35), Alabama forward Jermareo Davidson (Pick 36), Florida sixth man Chris Richard (Pick 41), Vanderbilt shooting guard Derrick Byars (Pick 42) and Florida point guard Taurean Green (Pick 52).

So, just two years after the SEC produced three first-round picks and eight total draftees, the league produced zero first-rounders and three total draftees. Clearly, 2008-09 was a down year for the league ... a VERY down year.

Given how poor the SEC's talent level was last winter, there's nowhere to go but up this winter. From all indications the talent level will go WAY up in the year ahead. Here's why:

Calipari is bringing in a Big Blue signing class similar to Michigan's "Fab Five" of 1992. John Wall is's No. 1 point guard and No. 2 overall prospect. DeMarcus Cousins is the No. 2 center and No. 6 overall prospect. Daniel Orton is the No. 4 center and the No. 17 overall prospect. Eric Bledsoe is the No. 6 point guard and the No. 37 prospect. Jon Hood is the No. 10 small forward and No. 45 prospect.

In addition, most of the SEC's premier players of 2008-09 will be back for 2009-10. The returnees include 22 of the league's top 30 scorers and 25 of the top 30 rebounders.

The high-profile holdovers include Devan Downey (19.8 points per game) of South Carolina, Tyler Smith (17.4 points) and Wayne Chism (13.7) of Tennessee, Patrick Patterson (17.9) of Kentucky, Tasmin Mitchell (16.3) of LSU, Michael Washington (15.5) and Courtney Fortson (14.8) of Arkansas, A.J. Ogilvy (15.4) of Vanderbilt, Terrico White (13.7) of Ole Miss, DeWayne Reed (13.2) of Auburn, Senario Hillman (12.9) of Alabama and Jarvis Varnado (12.9) of Mississippi State.

Simply put: Better coaches plus better players equals fiercer competition. So, while the SEC may not be as potent as the Big East, this much is clear: Winning basketball games in the Southeastern Conference is about to get harder. A LOT harder.

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