I have been negligent in my continuing extremely early look at SEC basketball this season as other priorities have intruded, but today, we will resume the series with a look at Arkansas from the SEC West and Florida from the SEC East.
Patrick Beverley and Sonny Weems. Charles Thomas, a beast on the boards, and big men Darian Townes and Steven Hill both return as seniors. Freshman forward Michael Washington showed signs last year of becoming a dynamic player, and he also returns for the Hogs.
The Razorbacks have a solid but unspectacular recruiting class headlined by Scout 4-star forward Michael Sanchez (formerly a UK recruit), and high school classmate 3-star shooting guard Nate Rakestraw. But besides all that, Arkansas is past the turmoil of Stan Heath's tenure, bringing in former UK "Unforgettable" John Pelphrey, an intense young coach perfect for the program.
THE BADThe Arkansas athletic department is still in considerable turmoil and under pressure from the media and the fans. This will likely have a negative influence on the basketball team. In addition, there have been questions about the academic standing of some of Arkansas' players. Pelphrey is untested at this level of play, and although he will likely employ a fast-paced game strategy similar to the one pursued by Rick Pitino, his mentor, it is hard to say how the Razorbacks, experienced under a different coach, will respond.
The Athletic Administration is a mess right now, and Houston Nutt, the football coach, has been a serious distraction for the school in the off season. AD Frank Broyles will be leaving in December, and questions linger around the firing of Heath, who was apparently making progress with the Hogs.
CONTENDER, OR PRETENDER?
Given the experience and talent on this team, I think they would have to be considered a favorite to win the SEC West. A lot can go wrong, especially since the Razorbacks will be breaking in a new point guard as well as a new coach, and the academic questions and athletic department turmoil may drag them down. But right now, they look to me like a CONTENDER.
THE GOODThe biggest good thing for the Gators is the return of Billy Donovan, who's abortive attempt to leave for the Orlando Magic dominated most of the early summer news coming out of Gainesville. Also good for the Gators is their outstanding recruiting class led by 5-star Burger Boy Nick Calathes, an outstanding combo guard who can pass, shoot, and make sharp decisions. Fellow McDonalds AA Jai Lucas, heavily recruited by Kentucky, would seem to be primed to step in for serious minutes at the point vacated by Taurean Green. Big men Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons, both highly skilled 4-star recruits, and Adam Allen, a 3-star shooting guard, round out the stellar group of freshmen.
The leading returnees for the Gators will be Walter Hodge, Marreese Speights and Dan Werner, only one of which (Hodge) averaged as many as 10 minutes per game last year.
THE BADThe Florida Gators lost their entire starting lineup and all their major substitutes except Hodge. The Gators also lost sophomore-to-be Brandon Powell, next behind Dan Werner in minutes last year, to off-season drug charges.
Billy Donovan's off-season has badly damaged his personal reputation and standing. He will recover, but not for a while. It is unknown if his off-season debacle will effect his coaching or his recruiting, but it could.
The huge contract he finally signed with Florida recently caused some uproar among the sports media, and combined with his Magic imbroglio, makes him look self-serving and greedy, even if he deserved the money. His image rehab will take a while, and could become a distraction if he lets it.
CONTENDER, OR PRETENDER?
Florida is too young to contend this year in the East, without a single upperclassmen among its major returning contributors. They are talented and will win -- Billy Donovan will see to that -- but I place their odds of getting into the NCAA's as only about 60-40. PRETENDER, but much better next year.
We will take a look at two more pre-pre-season SEC teams in a few days.