Mike & Jay's SEC Hoops: West

Mike O'Neill and Jay Williams provide us with their picks for 2006-07 SEC men's hoops season. Today they look at the West Division.

MO: It's upon us once again. As the football season dwindles down, the eyes of Vanderbilt faithful swivel from the gridiron to the friendly and raucous confines of Memorial Gym. Much to the enjoyment of our tens of loyal readers, Jay and I will inundating the front page with all sorts of previews this week. Today we'll feature the SEC West, including an LSU team fresh off a trip to the Final Four. Tomorrow will find the SEC East showcase, including Florida, the reigning national champs, and our beloved Commodores. We'll have predictions of final SEC standings as well as final (regular season) record predictions, which we wholeheartedly expect to be blow to smithereens by next Sunday. Enough talk; let's go West!

JW:  And you thought I didn't know anything about SEC football...just wait 'til you see my SEC basketball analysis!  I'll admit right off the bat that before attending Vanderbilt, i had no interest in basketball whatsoever.  Of course, now, almost three years removed from Vandy, I'm a huge fan of both the men's and women's teams.  I'm still learning the ins and outs of the conference, but I think I have a pretty decent idea of what's going on around the best conference in basketball.  I look forward to seeing Mike out-predict me in yet another sport (women's bowling is next), but I have to say that regardless of how my picks go, I'm definitely looking forward to this season!  Now, let's see how the SEC West is shaping up....

Alabama

JW: The Crimson Tide starts the season with a solid national ranking, which isn't too surprising considering the team returns four of its starters.  Ronald Steele is, as always, a force to be reckoned with, and 'Bama looks to have a solid post presence with Jemareo Davidson.  Of course, last year the Tide started the season ranked number 15 in the nation and fell pretty early on in the season, even before SEC play started.  Their record last year was 18-13, with a second-round NCAA tournament loss to UCLA.  It's always tough to tell how Alabama will do each season, and their ho-hum 81-72 win over Div-II Montevallo last week doesn't really say much either way.  The season tips off against Jackson State on Friday, followed by a relatively easy lineup of non-conference games before they face Notre Dame in South Bend.  It's entirely possible for Bama to run the table pre-conference, and if they do, there's a good chance they'll actually live up to their pre-season hype, even though few of their non-conference opponents are that intimidating.  If they drop a couple to, say, Notre Dame, Xavier, Villanova, or Oklahoma, you can expect another somewhat disappointing team down in Tuscaloosa that might win a few big games but never quite achieve that elite status everyone seems to think they have every year.  A big early test for the Tide will be how they perform in the Paradise Jam on from November 17th to the 20th.  If they do anything less than pull off the championship, they should be worried about the coming season.  I, for one, will believe the hype when I see it.  I think Bama is good - just not Top 15 good. 

MO: Yeah, Bama has disappointed over the past few years, mostly caused by not taking lighter opponents seriously. They were hit hard by the injury bug last year, though, which cause a lot of their problems. I can see them coming out strong this season, and even though they're fairly young (only 3 juniors on one senior are on the team), they should be able to maintain it. To me, this is the year that Alabama finally breaks out. They'll beat the teams they're supposed to and will pull off some of the big games you mentioned. The great part is as a young team, they'll just be hitting their stride by the time the SEC season rolls around, making them even more dangerous. Alabama is my pick to be atop the West by year's end, and if they can stay healthy, to make a deep run in the tournament as well.

Arkansas

MO: Arkansas finished last season with a 10-6 SEC record (22-9 overall), losing to SEC champion Florida in the second round of the conference tournament. They got an invite to the Big Dance as an 8-seed, but were ousted in the first round by perennial upstart Bucknell. While the Hogs might be excited about their 8-1 football team, they've got a few worries on the court. With the loss of Ronnie Brewer, Eric  Ferguson, and Jonathon  Modica, Arkansas is missing its entire starting backcourt from a season ago. Though the team has no seniors thanks to Brewer's early departure, there's still a good bit of experience, with 6 juniors in the lineup. Junior forwards Charles Thomas and Darian Townes look to be the leaders of the team, while they should have a strong inside presence in seven-foot center Steven Hill. That said, this team has to change from a guard-centered team to a frontcourt-style type of team in a hurry, and I'm not sure if they can do that. They're well-coached and should win the games they're supposed to – the only problem? They're not supposed to win many games this year. I'll say they'll be towards the middle or possibly even near the bottom of the SEC West.

JW:  It's going to be hard to repeat the successes of last year, considering how many crucial players the Hogs have lost.  The Razorbacks' pre-SEC schedule doesn't have too many foreboding games, with the exception of a two-game stretch in the state of Texas against Bobby Knight's Texas Tech team and barely top-25 Texas.  These two games could tell a lot about this Arkansas team, and how they've handled the loss of some key wing players.  I think Arkansas has a solid point guard in Gary Ervin, and if he can get the ball to the big guys down low, the loss of the outside guys might not be as big a problem.  I'm a little more optimistic about the Hogs' chances here, considering the quality of talent they have at PG.  They won't be at the top of the SEC West, by any means, but they'll definitely surprise a few people.  Look for a pretty good pre-conference run, with no more than three losses.  Any more losses than that, and the SEC West has nothing to worry about.  If the Hogs can find a way to keep their pre-conference losses to one or zero, they could be in for a surprising SEC season.

Auburn

JW: One thing's for sure about Auburn this year - their schedule is pretty brutal.  Before SEC play, the Tigers will face Pittsburgh, Texas A&M, and possibly Wisconsin.  With the exception of the Wisconsin game, which would happen on South Padre Island, all of these games will be played at home.  In fact, with the exception of the South Padre Invitational, every pre-conference game takes place in Auburn until the final one with Southern Miss.  This, however, won't help the Tigers come out of the pre-conference schedule with a pristine record.  Auburn, in all honesty, just isn't that good, and although they return four starters from last year, they don't have much hope of putting together a solid season this time around.  They start the regular season with Troy on Friday, and then play Winston-Salem State the following week.  They won't have many problems until the South Padre Invitational, but I expect things to get a little rough after that.  If Auburn comes out of the pre-SEC play with 3 losses or less, it should be considered a success.  Unfortunately for Tiger fans, I see at least one loss to a "lesser" team in the cards, and Auburn will start SEC play against Vanderbilt with 4 or 5 losses.  Look for Auburn to stay near the bottom of the SEC West throughout the season, with little hope for any postseason play.

MO: I think it's safe to say that there's not one Auburn thinking about basketball. Not only are they having a great season in football, but – it's AUBURN BASKETBALL, two words that, when combined, strike fear in few hearts. The team is balanced this season, but with no seniors, so there's room for growth, and we might see some surprising wins. I don't think the chances of that happening are all that great, though. Unlike most SEC teams, they will indeed end up losing to some teams they shouldn't, and will find themselves comfortably where they usually are – near the cellar of the West.

LSU

MO: The good times rolled at LSU throughout last season. Not only did they have the best conference record, but they translated a 4-seed in the Big Dance into a punched ticket to the Final Four. Behind Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Tyrus Thomas, LSU put together one of the more successful seasons that LSU has had in some time. While Davis' return bodes well for the Tigers, the departure of Thomas and Darrel Mitchell leave some vacancies that will be hard to fill. They'll be a young team, with six sophomores and only two seniors, but having a presence like Davis can make up for youth. While I'm not sure if LSU can make it back to the Final Four this season, they'll be back in the Dance and should contend for a top spot in the SEC West.

JW:  Despite the departure of Thomas and Mitchell, I really think LSU has what it takes to seriously contend for the SEC West and make another run in the NCAAs.  Whether that will happen or not will depend on their performance early on.  LSU has done a good job of scheduling a pre-conference schedule that's not too easy, but not too difficult either.  They'll face teams such as Wichita State, Connecticut, Texas, and Texas A&M, and can get some quality wins under their belt without being challenged too much.  That's not to say, of course, that they'll sweep these types of games.  But even one loss coming out of non-conference play will show that the Tigers are a legitimate threat to repeat their successes of last year.  With Big Baby losing forty pounds (supposedly) in the off-season, you can bet that he'll be just as effective, if not more, this year.  The question remains as to how effective his supporting cast will be this year.  I have a feeling we'll know by December 10th.  

Mississippi State

JW: Last year can be considered a "rebuilding year" for the Bulldogs, as they tried to get some experience for their younger players and gel together as a team.  State is hoping this will be the year to break out and make some noise again in the SEC West.  This, of course, is a tough proposition, as they are staring up at LSU and Alabama, with Arkansas not looking to shabby either.  MSU's pre-conference schedule isn't too difficult, although some might be misled by such big names as Miami and Clemson.  But, all it takes is a reminder that we're talking about basketball here, and not football, and both those teams are definitely in a "rebuilding" period this season, so State might have caught them at the right time.  One interesting game will be when the Bulldogs travel to Fairfax to take on George Mason, everyone's favorite Final Four surprise.  The away games (Miami, George Mason, Clemson) will say a lot about the Bulldogs and how they'll be this season.  If they can get some leadership on this young team (only two seniors!) and cut down on the silly mistakes from last year (turnovers were a major problem), Mississippi State could surprise some people.  I don't see them making too much noise this year, but expect steps in the right direction after last year's 15-15 season.

MO: The Bulldogs could be a surprising team. They're still young (as most SEC West teams seem to be this year; I'm not being a broken record about youth on purpose), but they've got that experience you mentioned from last year. The key to their season lies in versatility – they have a lot of players that can play different roles, making them a team that can give a lot of teams match-up problems. They can take advantage of a week SEC West (with Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss competing for the bottom spot), and really make some noise. Overall, I think the Bulldogs will do well this season, and should have an outside shot at making the Big Dance when all is said and done.

Ole Miss 

MO: The start of basketball season brings promise, or at least a glimmer of hope, of success in the months to come. Nowhere is that less true than in Oxford. After finishing 4-12 in conference last year and getting dumped in the first round of the SEC Tournament by Kentucky, they fired their head coach and brought in Andy Kennedy, former interim coach from Cincinatti. Ole Miss recently eeked out a win against Delta St. in exhibition, holding off a furious second half rally. Thankfully, the Rebels are returning a lot of players from last year. Londrick Nolan is the only significant loss, and was good for around 10 points per game. That said, you can't be too thrilled about returning a lot of players from a bad team. If Kennedy can spark this team, they might be able to make some noise late in the season, but I can't say I'm expecting too much, and they may win the hotly contested battle for worst team in the West.

JW: I'm not so sure that returning a lot of players from last year is necessarily a good thing when the team went 4-12 in the SEC last year.  I know, basketball is different in that players staying together as a team can produce vastly different results as they mature, but I'm not sold on this Ole Miss team.  I think they traded up in head coach, but Andy Kennedy has a lot of work to do to get Ole Miss to the status of providing a legitimate challenge to other decent SEC teams.  This will be considered a "rebuilding year" for the Rebels, and I imagine their fans will be patient enough to give Coach Kennedy a year or two to prove his hire was worth it.  I'm not quick to list any game as a definite loss, but it's hard to say otherwise when the Rebels visit Memphis and Connecticut.  If either of these games come down to the wire, I'd be surprised.  I also wouldn't be surprised to see another loss or two before conference play begins.  I don't doubt that Ole Miss will be a better team than last year - I just think they still have another season to go before they can put a quality team on the court and score some big upsets.  Look for this year to have one or two big SEC upsets, but nothing spectacular for the Rebels.  As long as Ole Miss basketball fans are able to wait, I believe their patience will eventually pay off.


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