I thought I would take a minute today to take a look at the SEC as it is shaping up for next year. We really don't know the full shape of all the teams with recruiting still going on, but with the available talent pool shrinking rapidly and with no really program-changing recruits left out there, I think we can safely start to make some early predictions about how the SEC will shape up next year, starting with the East. I'll save Kentucky for last, after we have looked at all the other teams.
Just a few days ago, the picture in the SEC East looking largely the same for next year as it was this year, with the exception that almost every team appears to be headed for improvement. But Tennessee was still looking like the team to beat despite the loss of senior scoring sensations JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton as well as reserve Jordan Howell. The Vols have a strong 2008 recruiting class headlined by Scotty Hopson coming in, and appeared headed for another top ten ranking.
But something happened on the way to Big Orange nirvana. Duke Crews and Ramar Smith, Tennessee's prize recruits from the 2006 class and soon to be college juniors, were both dismissed from the team. That changes everything, and now both Tennessee's front court and back court have lost substantial depth and experience. In fact, the back court now has J.P. Prince and Josh Tabb as their most experienced players, and a very deep front court just became much less formidable with the loss of Crews.
Tennessee still looks like the team to beat, though, with a solid incoming freshman class and some quality players inside and out. Even though the 2008-09 Tennessee team looked somewhat vulnerable in the area of scoring even with Crews and Smith, now they look a bit more vulnerable in terms of back court experience and rebounding. Tennessee just made a significant move back toward the rest of the SEC East in terms of available talent and experience.
But with all that said, Tennessee has a very solid core of returning players. Wayne Chism and Brian Williams and Tyler Smith make a very formidable and talented front court, and although depth at the big positions has been adversely affected with the loss of Crews. Ramar Smith was also a very good rebounder for a guard, and rebounding was a big weakness of the Vols last year. Big man Philip Jurick (also recruited by UK under coach Smith) should help out in that area. But although Tennessee still looks like the leader even after recent events, their separation from the rest of the top competitors in the East has become significantly smaller.
Florida, on the other hand, continues to add pieces to their puzzle that will almost certainly have them competitive for the East next year. The only player talking about leaving is Maurice Speights, and my money is on seeing Speights back in Gainesville next year. Donovan has four Rivals 4-star incoming freshmen to supplement his relatively small and ineffective front line from last year. That should make the Gators a much better team, and when you consider co-FOY Nick Calathes will surely be improved from last year, the Gators' prospects look very bright. The Gators will still be very young, but their talent level will be among the highest in the SEC.
Florida is probably a year away from being a possible national top ten team again. They have reloaded with a lot of talent, and if Calathes stays around past next year, the Gators will be poised to make another deep run into March. But you never know what Donovan can accomplish with this much young talent.
Vanderbilt loses a total of 5 players to graduation, including SEC POY Shan Foster as well as major contributors Alex Gordon, Alan Metcalfe and Ross Neltner. Returning will be Andrew Ogilvy, one of the best big men in the conference, along with skilled players Germaine Beal, Keegan Bell and Andre Walker. In addition, the Commodores add three Rivals 4-star players, two on the wings and one in the post, and has a verbal commitment from former Kentucky recruit Brad Tinsley, a 4-star point guard out of Oregon.
Vanderbilt will be young and very thin in the post. Ogilvy is a beast, but as we saw with Patrick Patterson last year, you have to be able to take him out of the game occasionally and still be competitive. Vanderbilt does not appear to have that luxury next year, and although they have talent, they look too young and thin up front to compete for the SEC championship.
Dennis Felton's amazing run through the SEC tournament probably saved his job, or at least serious discussion of a change at the top in Athens. Georgia loses not only the great Sundiata Gaines, but also Dave Bliss, who was the force for the Bulldogs in the paint. However, Georgia brings back a talented group of athletes, including Albert Jackson, a 6'10" post player who really came on strong at the end of the year, and Terrance Woodbury, a talented wing. Add to that a strong recruiting class that includes Howard Thomkins, a Rivals 4-star who was very impressive in the Kentucky Derby Festival Classic, and Georgia figures to be a solid team next year. I don't expect the Dawgs to seriously contend for the SEC East, but I think they are solid enough to play in the post season, and have a reasonable chance of going to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row.
Felton's team is probably one year and a solid point guard away from being a threat in the East, but they have plenty of beef on the front line, some decent overall depth and some talented, athletic players coming in.
Western Kentucky's deep run in March got Darrin Horn on the big-school radar, and the Gamecocks snapped him up after the retirement of Dave Odom. South Carolina loses the services of starting forward Dwayne Day, but returns the rest of his team including all-SEC performer Devan Downey. Odom signed Darius Murrow earlier in the year, but he sought and was granted his release after Odom left, so it looks like the Gamecocks will enter the 2008-09 season with the same team as last year.
Darrin Horn learned college basketball under former Rick Pitino assistant Ralph Willard, and we expect to see a variant Pitino's fast-paced style at South Carolina next year, much as Horn employed at Western during his tenure there. The Gamecocks are build for a high-possession offense, but their lack of rebounding and post play will likely make them an also-ran in the SEC race next year, and I don't see a post season in their immediate future until Horn begins recruiting better talent to Columbia.
Next, we will look at the SEC West, and then have a more detailed look at the Kentucky Wildcats, and how they are likely to fit into the SEC picture next year.