Mike & Jay's SEC Hoops: East

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

JW:  From top to bottom, the SEC East looks to be much better than the West.  You have the defending national champs, the defending NIT champs, a #2 seed in last year's tournament, a traditional powerhouse, and a couple of teams trying to prove they're for real.  It'll be interesting to see how the season plays out in this division, and I don't think we'll see any clear leaders until late, unlike in the West.  That means, of course, that I don't think Florida's a lock for anything, unlike what a lot of predictions are saying.  The biggest questions in my mind are whether Tennessee can repeat its improbable regular season from last year, and if Vanderbilt can play up to its expectations, albeit a year late.  Either way, we'll know a lot more in late December, right before SEC play cranks up (which is my way of saying take my predictions now with a grain of salt).  

MO:  The East features a wide variety of teams – the reigning national champions in Florida, a (sigh) entertaining and energetic Tennessee, and a Vanderbilt team that could very well do anything from finish near the cellar to win the whole thing.  Kentucky's coming off an odd season where they started slow but finished strong, and Georgia and South Carolina could end up having good season as well despite finishing in the bottom of the East last season.  While one team is eventually going to rise to the top, I have a feeling it won't be until the very end of the season that we'll get to know just who it may be.  With that, let's wrap the preview up with the beasts from the East!

Florida

MO: What's better than being the defending national champions? Having a nearly identical team to the one that just won the title. The Gators are returning everyone from last year's title run save for a graduating Adrian Moss, who only counted for 3.1 points a game in '05-'06. Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah are being heralded as this year's can't-miss triplets, and Billy Donovan has a lot of hype to live up to as the Gators are a consensus #1 to start the season. Their preseason features a whole bunch of nobodies save for to prime games – the #3 ranked Kansas Jayhawks and the #4 Ohio State Greg Odens, er, Buckeyes. I wouldn't be surprised if they split those two, or even lost both – remember, even last year they lost twice to South Carolina, so we know that they're capable of losing games they're not necessarily supposed to. I don't think they're a lock for the top spot in the East, but they'll easily be in the top two, and even with the "Defending Champs" target squarely on their chest, they should be able to make a deep run in the Big Dance once again.

JW:  Florida, while a quality team through most of last season, certainly benefited from coming together at the right time (as most NCAA champions do).  Of course, they'll be loaded again this year, but they'll need a lot of luck to repeat last season's success.  I expect Florida to hit a couple of bumps early on (probably against Kansas and OSU, but maybe even with another non-conference opponent), and a lot of people will claim the sky is falling.  However, by the end of SEC play, I think we'll see the Gators looking to make another solid run into the postseason.  I'm withholding judgment until I see exactly how they perform in the first half of the season, but it's hard to deny that Florida has some top-tier talent and definitely deserves its number one ranking.  How long that ranking will last, of course, is another story.  Florida's obviously the team to beat in the SEC, and I see them dominating the SEC East, with the chances pretty high of winning the division.

Georgia

JW: The Bulldogs are still trying to climb back up to the top rung of the SEC East ladder, and while they showed flashes of potential last year, they still had a lot of work to do.  With four starters back, plus a JuCo transfer (Takais Brown) and a new, talented freshman (Albert Jackson), the Bulldogs have potential to put up some solid offensive numbers.  Georgia opens up their season with games against Southern University this Friday and Western Kentucky next Tuesday.   A key early-season game for the Bulldogs will be against Wake Forest.  If they can put up a respectable showing in Winston-Salem (not even necessarily win), the SEC East might be in for some trouble.  Georgia has a relatively tough pre-conference schedule, with the aforementioned Wake Forest game, Georgia Tech, and Wisconsin on the horizon.  If Georgia can use these games as a catalyst to propel them into SEC play, a relatively weak non-conference record (with losses to strong teams) could put them in a good position.  I don't think this team has quite turned the corner yet, but they'll have some impressive wins this season.  

MO: Is this really the fourth year since How-many-points-in-a-three-pointer-gate? Georgia's spent most of those years in the bottom of the SEC East, something the Bulldogs simply hadn't been accustomed to. They're returning a lot of their starters from last year, but returning starters from a bad season isn't always a good thing. That said, they've got a lot of good teams ahead of them in the East, and even if they can pull off a few upsets in the non-conference schedule, I don't see them reaching the upper half of the division quite yet. They'll lose a couple of games they shouldn't before getting to their SEC opponents, and I can't say that they'll do much better against them. After what can only be called a long football season, it looks like it's going to be a long season on the hardwood as well.

Kentucky

MO: Last year, we got treated to a recent trend, as well as a first. Not only did they lose to Vanderbilt at Rupp for the first time in the team's history, but they also lost in the second round of the Big Dance for the second time in three years. While they lost to 1-seed Connecticut (not nearly as much a surprise as when they lost to UAB in '04), it was the end of a somewhat disappointing season for the Wildcat bandwagon, er, faithful. Finishing third in the SEC East and garnering just and eight-seed in the Dance, you could tell that this wasn't your typical Wildcat team. The bad news? They're lost most of their frontcourt from last year, and could be in for a long season. They're returning Bobby Perry and Randolph "SuperFax" Morris in the frontcourt, but their backcourt could cause a lot of problems throughout the season. They are, of course, nationally ranked because they have the word "Kentucky" on the front of their jersey, but I don't think they'll hold that for too long. Look for early losses against UNC, Indiana, and Louisville to set the tone for a long season, and I wouldn't be shocked if fans at Rupp are as disappointed this season as fans at Commonwealth Stadium will this Saturday (Look! Foreshadowing for Friday's Mike and Jay's Football Picks!). We'll see UK as a #4 seed when all is said and done – not in the NCAA tourney, but in the SEC East.

JW:  I'm with Mike, here - the Top 25 ranking is only justified by their name and coach.  Any other team that finished like the Wildcats did last year, and lost the type of players UK did wouldn't imagine being ranked in the top 25 to start the season.  Luckily, thanks to their pre-conference season, that ranking won't last.  I don't see Kentucky as being more than a middle-tier SEC East team, and it would take a lot of luck to contend for the division.  Sure, they could get hot at the right time, particularly if the freshmen can get accustomed to the system, and make a run in the SEC Tournament, but the regular season should be a disappointment under Kentucky's normal standards.  Look for a mediocre pre-conference season before an equally mediocre SEC season, with a few notable wins, but nothing Tubby can really hang his hat on.

South Carolina

JW: The constant thorn in Vanderbilt's side is looking to turn two straight NIT championships into an NCAA bid, but they'll have to do it without the man everyone loves to hate, Ronaldo Balkman.  The Gamecocks have what appears to be an easy pre-conference schedule, with the GLARING exception of a January 7th game against Kansas in Columbia - the last game before they open SEC play at Georgia.  USC could very well be undefeated coming into this game, and with it being nationally-televised on CBS, you know the fans will be coming out of the woodwork.  The only notable possibility for a hiccup before this game would be down in Waco on December 9th, against Baylor.  If the Gamecocks want to be taken seriously as an SEC contender and not just an NIT-every-year team, they should win this game fairly easily.  If not, expect more of the same from the Gamecocks. 

MO: After losing Balkman in the first round – hahaha, that can't be right. You mean the Knicks took Ronaldo Blackman in the first round before Rajon Rondo and a slew of other quality guards? BUAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! I'd say they should build off their NIT success, but they couldn't seem to do it last either, so I'm not expecting to much them this year either. A victory over South Carolina State by a whopping three points to open the season does nothing to inspire my confidence. I think they'll share the same fate as Georgia – they'll lose some that they shouldn't and underachieve in the SEC season, battling to stay out of the cellar.

Tennessee

MO: After winning the SEC East last year, Tennessee looked poised to make a run in the postseason. Only, they didn't – they lost to South Carolina in their first and only game in the SEC Tournament, then were upset by Wichita St. in the second round of the NCAAs (and this after narrowly avoiding a HUGE upset at the hands of Winthrop, leading a last-second shot to advance). Nevertheless, they'll be remembered for the season, and not how it ended. That, to me, could be their downfall. In addition, they're losing Major Wingate and CJ Watson, two key players in their magical season. Bruce Pearl was the shot in the arm that the team needed to overachieve this season, and it'll be interesting to see if he can do it again this year. They're ranked near the bottom of the opening Top 25 polls, and could come out strong against their weaker non-conference opponents. They'll face some adversity in games against Memphis, Texas, and Ohio State, but should end up with at least one win out of those games. Overall, Pearl's sophomore campaign should have some success, but not nearly the level they saw last season. They'll finish near the middle of the East and can hope to avenge their postseason woes from a season ago, this time as a far lower seed.

JW:  Tennessee is going to be a victim of its own success last year.  I'm not saying last season was a fluke, but expectations are high in Knoxville, and I just don't think Pearl can repeat what he pulled off a year ago.  The pre-conference game to watch is Texas, as Tennessee is generally ranked right around them in most national polls.  If they can pull of the win there, they'll probably roll into their SEC schedule with one loss.  However, either way, I just don't think UT has the guns to make the run they did last year.  That's not to say they'll be bad - but I don't see them contending for the SEC East.  Look for an NCAA tournament appearance again, but not a #2 seed like last time.  Of course, by the time they hit the tournament, people might have lowered expectations for the Vols, so they won't have a target on their back and might be able to do some damage in the tournament instead of bowing out in the second round.  

Vanderbilt

JW: After a very disappointing season last year, we're all hoping the Commodores have found the chemistry to put something special together.  With solid wing players Shan Foster and Derrick Byars back, and what looks to be a very talented point guard in Jermaine Beal, the Commodores should have a good amount of scoring threats.  But what good is a scoring threat if you can't rebound?  That was the biggest problem last year, and everyone (including myself) fears that it'll rear its ugly head again this year, particularly without an established big man down low.  Coach Stallings looks to be shifting to a more uptempo, run-and-gun offense which should be very fun to watch and will put a lot of points on the board.  The question is whether or not the team can adapt to this new system and be able to keep other teams from taking full advantage of turnovers and Vanderbilt's relative lack of depth.  Early pre-conference games against Georgetown and Wake Forest will say a lot about this team, although I don't see wins in either of these games as a must for Vandy to have a good season.  There are a lot of "what ifs" for this team, and as the standard Vanderbilt fan, I'm optimistic for big things out of our new players, and an improvement in our weaknesses from last year.  When the SEC schedule starts, I expect the 'Dores to have 3-4 losses, but showing signs of coming together as a team.  I have to say that I'm with most other fans when I say anything less than an NCAA tournament appearance this year would be a disappointment.  Luckily, I'm not expecting to be disappointed.

MO: It's always folly to try and predict a Vanderbilt basketball season, and that may prove to be especially true this time around. The Dores have certainly underachieved since reaching the Sweet Sixteen a few years back. While rebounding was a problem, consistency was the key ingredient from what was haled as one of the most athletic teams in years. After losing a couple key pieces from last season, traditional wisdom says the team would be weaker, but I'm not too sure about that. If Skuchas can have a senior season resurgence similar to what we saw from Terrell last season, Vanderbilt could have a great season. The important factor, as Jay has mentioned, is rebounding. Too many offensive boards for the opposition helped Vanderbilt give a few games away. Luckily for the Dores, I don't see that happening this season. Grabbing rebounds has been the focus of the off-season, which will spur what Coach Kevin Stallings has called a new fast-paced offense. Vanderbilt will surprise a number of teams on the long path to the NCAA Tournament, returning after what we all feel was a absence that was far too long.


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