The Arkansas Razorbacks. Picked to place THIRD in the Western Divison of the SEC.
Arkansas was the pre-season favorite to win the Western Division last year, and the team did manage a 10-6 record in conference games and 20-11 overall. But the Mississippi Rebels were more consistent and became the third surprise team in as many years to capture honors in the west (Auburn in 1999, LSU in 2000, Mississippi in 2001). The Razorbacks won two games in the SEC tournament before losing to Kentucky. They went to the NCAA tournament where they were eliminated by Georgetown in the first round in a very close game. 6'8" sophomore forward Joe Johnson was slowed by injuries much of last year, which held the Razorbacks back somewhat. Even so he averaged 14.2 ppg and 6.4 rebounds and was second on the team in assists (77). Johnson entered the NBA draft in June and was taken in the first round, the only major loss from last year's team. Also departed is 6'4" senior Brandon Davis (2.9 ppg). With ten players returning and four newcomers, Arkansas has the manpower to play Coach Nolan Richardson's "40 minutes of hell" (swarming defense and helter-skelter offense), and have another successful season.
Senior T.J. Cleveland, 6'1", arrived as a walk-on, but has done more playmaking than any other guard (83 assists in 2000-2001). He averaged 7.5 ppg and made 36.1% of his three-point efforts. Starting with him will 6'2" senior Jannero Pargo, who came in from junior college last year and was second in scoring (12.3 ppg), while making an excellent 41.7% of his three pointers and handing out 72 assists. The Razorbacks are blessed with plenty of depth in backcourt, and two other seniors, 6'4" Teddy Gipson and 6'1" Brandon Dean are expected to see plenty of action. Gipson played 590 minutes and averaged 8.1 ppg last year, and Dean scored 8.2 ppg while playing 583 minutes. Dean is the better outside shooter, hitting 36.2% of his three-pointers, whereas Gipson made only 30.2% of his long-range efforts. Charles Tatum, 5'10" junior, averfaged 6.2 ppg (32.3% from three-point territory), but had only nine assists. Freshman J.J. Sullinger is 6'5", averaged 17 ppg in his senior year at Worthington HS, Columbus OH, and is considered to be a somewhat larger version of Gipson and Dean. It is certain that three of these players will often be in the game at the same time.
Leading the wing forwards is 6'7", 220 lbs sophomore Blake Eddins, who averaged 3.9 ppg and connected on 38.7% of his three-point tries last season. Buried deeply on the bench when the season began, Eddins later started some games. Freshman Berry Jordan, 6'7", 215 lbs, is a high jumper who averaged 14.0 ppg and 12.5 rebounds at Arlington Country Day School, Jacksonville FL, and was a highly-sought prospect. He may also play the power forward position. Another newcomer is Demario Eddins (no kin to Blake Eddins), 6'7" freshman from the Winchendon Academy Prep School in Massachusetts, where he averaged 17.0 points and 9 rebounds. Both Jordan and Demario Eddins will see a lot of playing time before they complete their eligibility at Arkansas.
Carl Baker, 6'8" junior, is the likely starter at power forward. He averaged 5.2 points and a team-best 4.0 rebounds last year, and can hit the occasional three-pointer. Freshman Michael Jones, 6'9", backs up Baker along with 6'8" junior Dionisio Gomez, who is from Panama. Gomez (3.7 ppg, 3.2 rebounds) badly needs to improve his free-throw shooting from 50%, and not take any three-pointers (he was zero for seven from that range last year).
Actually, Nolan Richardson's fast-breaking, opportunistic offense hardly uses a traditional center, but the two players who will do most of the close-in work are Alonzo Lane and Larry Satchell. Lane is a 6'7", 250 lbs junior who averaged 6.9 ppg and 3.2 rebounds, while playing 585 minutes. Satchell is 6'9" and weighs 220 lbs, so he is not so much the banging type, but easily led the team in blocked shots (45); he averaged 3.7 ppg and 3.5 rebounds while playing a season total of 430 minutes. Lane makes over 50% of his shots and Satchell just over 40%; neither of them ever shoots from outside.
There are plenty of experienced bodies and many of the players are of about equal ability. There is a lot of speed and the personnel is of the sort that Nolan Richardson likes, which means that there can be a lot of interchanging of positions. This fits in with Richardson's offensive and defensive strategies. Pargo, Blake Eddins, Dean, and Cleveland provide some punch from the outside.
There is no longer a star, or "go-to guy", of Joe Johnson's magnitude. Nor is yhere an overpowering big man, but Richardson has seldom had one in the past. There is a perception that Richardson has lost some of his coaching energy and enthusiasm, which is likely to be a problem given the style of play that he employs.
Although I am picking Arkansas for third, they could easily do better if Pargo continues to produce and a couple of the others score in double figures (likeliest candidates are Dean and Baker).