Monday , Oct , 31 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Southeastern Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Southeastern Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The SEC will undoubtedly have a different look this season, as many
of the league’s most recognizable faces are gone. The 2004-05 SEC Player of
the Year, Brandon Bass of LSU, was drafted. Others, such as Anthony Roberson
and Matt Walsh of Florida along with Kennedy Winston of Alabama and Kelenna
Azubuike of Kentucky, entered the draft early and were not chosen. Sure, some
talent remains, but there is plenty of opportunity for fresh faces to make an
immediate impact. We can say with relative certainly that Kentucky, Florida
and Alabama will be strong once again. We can also say with confidence that
Georgia will again finish at or near the bottom of the standings. Aside from
those educated guesses, the league is fairly wide open. South Carolina,
Tennessee and Vanderbilt are all average teams that will jockey for position
in the East Division, and the same can be said of Mississippi State, Ole Miss
and Auburn out West. As for the top portion of the West, Arkansas and LSU can
both push Alabama for supremacy. The West Division schools seem to have the
better rookie classes overall this season, as Alabama, LSU and Mississippi
State may all be helped immediately by freshmen. The SEC is not one of the top
two conferences heading into this season, but finishing as a national elite
would not be shocking.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: EAST DIVISION: 1. Kentucky; 2. Florida; 3. South
Carolina; 4. Vanderbilt; 5. Tennessee; 6. Georgia; WEST DIVISION 1. Alabama;
2. Arkansas; 3. LSU; 4. Mississippi State; 5. Ole Miss; 6. Auburn



KENTUCKY: Chuck Hayes and Azubuike are gone, and replacing their production
will be a challenge. Fortunately, the team has center Randolph Morris back in
the fold. After declaring for the draft and being skipped over, Morris
regained his eligibility and is now a sophomore. As a rookie, he scored 8.8
ppg and pulled down 4.3 rpg, solid numbers that certainly must improve without
Hayes in the frontcourt. The strength of this 2005-06 Kentucky squad should be
its frontcourt, which features the outstanding duo of Patrick Sparks and Rajon
Rondo. Sparks, a senior, is the team’s leading returning scorer with 11.0 ppg,
and he dished out 3.6 apg as well. On a down note, he did shoot below 40
percent from the floor and must be a more efficient shooter this season. As
for Rondo, he tallied 8.1 ppg as a freshman last year and will now be asked to
pick up some of the slack created by Azubuike’s departure. Joe Crawford is the
team’s wild card, as he has all the talent in the world but is a questionable
character. Coach Smith won’t tolerate any threat to team chemistry, but
Crawford could be a big-time scorer if he stays focused.

FLORIDA: Life after Roberson, Walsh and David Lee begins for head coach Billy
Donovan, and while those three outstanding performers will be missed, there is
plenty of talent in place to ensure Florida’s continued success. Sure, no
returnee averaged in double figures a year ago, but that is due largely to the
fact that Roberson and Walsh took most of the shots. Corey Brewer and Taurean
Green, a pair of sophomores, are the most obvious candidates to pick up the
slack. Brewer, a 6-8 swingman, netted 7.5 ppg a year ago while shooting better
than 50 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from behind the arc. Al
Horford and Adrian Moss, who are 6-8 and 6-9, respectively, will be asked to
mind the interior. Florida led the SEC in scoring last season, but
accomplishing that feat with the departed trio seems impossible. Fortunately,
the defense should be significantly better with the projected lineup, and the
Gators will again contend for the SEC East title.

SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks won the NIT last year, and that accomplishment
should serve as a sense of confidence for all of the returnees. Considering
there is not a single double-digit scorer back in place for South Carolina,
head coach Dave Odom obviously needs one or two guys to emerge as significant
scoring threats. Tre’ Kelley and Tarence Kinsey both return 8.9 ppg to the
lineup, although both guards struggled through some inconsistent shooting
stretches in 2005-06. Kelley dished out 3.6 apg, and it will be a goal of his
to help the front-line players develop into scoring threats. Renaldo Balkman
is a veteran who tallied a disappointing 5.4 ppg last year in large part
because of his poor free throw shooting. The incoming recruiting class is
rather weak, as the Gamecocks have three juco transfers in the mix instead of
incoming freshmen.

VANDERBILT: If Vanderbilt is going to be successful this season, Mario Moore
has to be the catalyst. The 5-11 senior makes up for a lack of ideal size with
a great deal of skill and smarts, and he is coming off a junior campaign in
which he averaged 13.5 ppg and 3.7 apg. Moore even grabbed 3.0 rpg, impressive
considering his size. Expect Moore to get some scoring help this year from
Shan Foster, a 6-6 swingman who netted 9.2 ppg as a rookie. Foster shot 44.5
percent from behind the arc and will not sneak up on teams this season. Julian
Terrell is the most intriguing frontcourt player for the club, as the 6-9
senior brings tremendous athleticism to the court. Still, he did not live up
to expectations in 2004-05 and must bring much more tenacity and consistency
to the floor this year. Expect an average season by the Commodores.

TENNESSEE: A pair of 6-2 guards will be the key to Tennessee’s success this
season, as C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton both averaged double figures in
scoring last year. Watson is a steady point guard who netted 11.9 ppg while
dishing out 5.0 apg, and a similar effort this season is likely. As for
Lofton, he posted 13.2 ppg as a rookie on the strength of 46.5 percent
efficiency from three-point range, and there is reason to believe that he can
improve on that scoring output. While the backcourt is a sure thing, the
frontcourt has many unanswered questions. Andre Patterson is a senior forward
who contributed 7.4 ppg and 6.2 rpg a year ago, but he has been suspended
indefinitely for disciplinary reasons. Clearly, that leaves one starting spot
up for grabs. As for the two other projected starters, Stanley Asumnu and
Major Wingate, they have proven nothing to this point so it’s unclear as to
just how good this team can be.

GEORGIA: Dennis Felton inherited an absolute mess two years ago, and he is
slowly beginning to pick up the pieces at Georgia. He has all of his key
contributors back from a year ago, but the squad lost 12 of its final 13 games
in 2004-05 so the players need to develop a confidence. Levi Stukes is one of
the league’s most talented players, as he is coming off a sophomore campaign
in which he netted 15.2 ppg. Still, the volatile Stukes shot only 37.1 percent
from the field and needs to be more selective at the offensive end. Sundiata
Gaines (12.0 ppg) and Channing Toney (9.8 ppg) were productive as freshmen a
year ago, but both shot below 40 percent as well. Gaines has a chance to be
special, but potential will get this Georgia team nothing. Steve Newman and
Dave Bliss will patrol the front line, and while neither is flashy, both can
score and rebound a bit. It would not be surprising to see Georgia climb out
of the basement, but we are taking a wait and see approach.


ALABAMA: Yes, explosive scorers Earnest Shelton and Kennedy Winston are gone,
but head coach Mark Gottfried is far from empty-handed as this new season
begins. Ronald Steele is considered by many to be the SEC’s top point guard,
and he can score in addition to his tremendous passing ability. With Winston
and Shelton gone, expect Steele to look for his own shot a bit more often. The
frontcourt is in good hands with the duo of Chuck Davis and Jermareo Davidson.
Davis is one of the league’s most underrated players, as he posted 13.9 ppg
and 6.8 rpg while shooting 56.6 percent from the floor last season. Davis also
led the league in blocks a year ago and shot 78.6 percent from the foul line,
proof that he is a tremendous all-around performer. As for Davidson, he
contributed 7.8 ppg and 7.9 rpg as a sophomore and will likely be a double-
digit scorer this year. Keep an eye on freshman Alonzo Gee, as he could be the
opening game starter alongside Steele.

ARKANSAS: Put simply, there isn’t a better player in the SEC than Ronnie
Brewer, and the fact that the 6-7 wing player is just a junior suggests that
the best is yet to come. Last season, Brewer racked up 16.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg and
3.4 apg, proof that he can do it all. If teams decide to double Brewer, which
seems highly likely at this point, there are a few other players for Arkansas
that can be consistently productive at the offensive end. One is Jonathon
Modica, a guard who scored 9.6 ppg in 2004-05 on 52 percent shooting from the
field, including 42.9 percent from behind the arc. Another standout is Darian
Townes, who netted 10.2 ppg as a rookie from his forward position. Stan Heath
clearly has the Arkansas program headed in the right direction, and having
Brewer in the fold makes his job that much easier.

LSU: Bass, the 2004-05 SEC Player of the Year left for the NBA, and Antonio
Hudson is gone as well. Those players combined for 30.4 ppg a year, so
replacing that production is the most obvious challenge facing the Tigers.
Fortunately, Glen Davis is back following a tremendous rookie season in which
he posted 13.5 ppg and 8.8 rpg. Davis is every bit of 310 pounds, and the 6-9
center is without question the most imposing force in the SEC. Hopefully,
freshman Tasmin Mitchell is as good as advertised, because he is capable of
taking some pressure off Davis up front. The backcourt returns two starters in
Darrel Mitchell and Tack Minor. Mitchell netted 13.1 ppg a year ago, and Minor
chipped in with 10.8 ppg and 4.6 apg. It is important to keep in mind that
both players are 5-11, so big guards could cause a problem with regard to
defensive assignments.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: First the good news: Mississippi State has brought in some
top-flight recruits, ensuring that the future will be bright in Starkville.
Unfortunately, this year’s team figures to struggle. With the six top scorers
from a year ago gone, including the likes of Lawrence Roberts and Winsome
Frazier, fans have no idea what to expect from this extremely inexperienced
group of Bulldogs. Seven newcomers are in the fold, not exactly the formula
for success in one of the nation’s better conferences. No returnee averaged
more than 4.8 ppg a year ago, and that is downright scary. If freshmen Vernon
Goodridge, Reginald Delk and Jamont Gordon can produce immediately, the
Bulldogs could be respectable.

OLE MISS: The Rebels are big and athletic, and on paper they should be better
than they were the last few years. Still, Ole Miss does not have a single
double-digit scorer among the returnees, so it is hard to get overly excited.
Londrick Nolen paces the club with 9.8 ppg, and the wing player will certainly
be the main option at the offensive end. He will get some help from Todd
Abernethy, as the junior guard posted 8.3 ppg a year ago. Among the newcomers
is Xavier Webb, a 6-9 forward named Mr. Basketball in Tennessee, and Clarence
Sanders, who was considered one of the top junior college shooting guards.
Like Mississippi State, the Rebels will depend rather heavily on fresh faces
to make an immediate impact.

AUBURN: The transfer of last year’s leading scorer Toney Douglas to Florida
State stings, as replacing his 16.9 ppg will be difficult. The Tigers lost
their top four scorers overall, and no returnee netted more than 6.9 ppg a
year ago. The hope is that the talented rookie frontcourt duo of Korvotney
Barber and Joey Cameron can put up big numbers right away. Barber, a
McDonald’s All-American, is a tenacious shot blocker and athletic presence,
while Cameron has a soft touch. With only one senior on the roster, Auburn’s
better days are clearly ahead. The losses figure to greatly outnumber the wins
in 2005-06, but there is reason for optimism.