As we continue our very early preview of SEC basketball for 2008-09, today we will be looking at the wild and wooly SEC West. The SEC East has won or shared the regular season SEC crown in 11 of the last 20 seasons (not counting the officially vacated UK title back in 1988) and the West has won or shared the regular season title 8 times, while the East has a 14-6 lead in SEC tourney championships in the same time period with Kentucky leading the way with 10 all by itself (not counting 1988). This coming year sees the West competitive, but as has been the case so often over the last 2 decades, the West lags the East overall.
In ten seasons at Mississippi State, Rick Stansbury has gradually taken this school from a perennial doormat to a team that is winning 20+ games more years than not. Out of his last 10 seasons, MSU has won 20 games or more in 7 of them, and has made a post-season tournament appearance in eight of his ten seasons at MSU. Stansbury will likely lose one of the best big point guards in recent SEC memory in Jamont Gordon, but since Gordon has not signed with an agent, we really won't know until later this year.
The Bulldogs are certain to lose leading scorer and second leading rebounder Charles Rhodes to graduation, as well as reserve Billy Begley. They have also lost 3-point shooter and Psycho-T sibling Ben Hansbrough to transfer, and 5-star recruiting flagship Scotty Hopson to Tennessee after his much-publicized failure to sign with MSU. But Stansbury does have a solid recruiting class, including two Rivals 4-star players and another tall (6'5") point guard. With super-soph Jarvis Varnado and another group of sold young players returning, MSU will be in a position to contend for the West. If Gordon returns to school, they will be a definite favorite. Despite this, they still look a cut below their Eastern counterparts.
Alabama, as I have said many times, is perhaps the most underachieving team in the entire SEC. Whenever Alabama looks loaded, as they have most every year for the entire Mark Gottfreid entire tenure, you can almost always count on them to leave you scratching your head. Despite this, Gottfreid has taken Alabama to the post season every year but two, including last year. Not bad for a school that sells out a 90,000+ seat stadium for a football practice, when you think about it.
The Crimson Tide appear to be about 50/50 to lose star forward Richard Hendrix to the NBA draft. But since most projections do not show him going in the first round, I am inclined to believe he will be back next year, along with the oft-injured but now apparently healthy Ronald Steele. Alonzo Gee has also declared for the draft, but has not hired an agent. He will not be drafted in the first round, though, so I expect him back as well. Alabama will lose late-season superstar and talented wing guard Mikhail Riley, as well as reserves John Dill and Kyle Sellers. Add to all that yet another outstanding recruiting class headlined by 5-star forward Jamychal Green, #21 ranked overall in 2008 by rivals plus a couple of 4-star wings, and Alabama aught to be the class of the league next year. Alabama has as much talent as any team in the SEC, and you would normally figure them as heavy favorites to win the West and big-time contenders for the overall SEC championship.
But if history is any guide, they will finish second in the West and limp into the tournament. Mark Gottfried, the former Murray State head man, has proven he can recruit, but has yet to prove he can coach.
In two years at Mississippi, Andy Kennedy has changed the culture at Ole Miss from one of cellar-dweller to a working-class winner. Kennedy is 2-2 in post-season appearances since taking over the reigns in Oxford, and appears poised to compete with the big boys next year.
The Rebels will be losing Dwayne Curtis, second leading scorer and leading rebounder to graduation, as well as Jeremy Parnell and Kenny Williams which represents most of the beef on Ole Miss' team. But with a solid returning core of sophomores and juniors moving into the breach, and their super-freshman point guard Chris Warren returning, the Rebels will be a contender in the West next year, although they appear a year away from seriously challenging the top teams. Kennedy has Rivals 4-star power forward Terrance Henry coming in to shore up the post, as well as a couple of long wing players. The Rebels will have a totally different look next year, being built more for speed than power.
In this writer's opinion, John Pelphrey underachieved a bit with last year's Arkansas squad, but he did so with other people's recruits. Every coach has to get the kind of players he needs to fully implement his system, and although last year's Arkansas team was very talented and loaded with seniors, it often seemed like they weren't playing the game that Pelphrey was trying to teach them.
Arkansas will be undergoing a radical change for 2008-09 Gone are seniors Charles Thomas, Darian Townes, Gary Ervin, Steven Hill, Sonny Weems and Vincent Hunter, which represents the entire starting front line and most of the large backups for Arkansas, as well as the vast majority of Arkansas' scoring. Also gone is freshman guard Nate Rakestraw, who asked for his release from the Razorbacks earlier this spring. Rising sophomore Michael Washington will man the post, and John Pelphrey will have no seniors graduating at all next year. Super-soph Patrick Beverly will return for his junior campaign, and Michael Sanchez, formerly recruited by Kentucky who red-shirted this past year at Arkansask should be ready to make an impact.
Pelphrey has signed 5 new players and has a verbal commitment from another. Two of them are Rivals 4-star recruits in Courtney Fortson and Jason Henry. But none of them appear to be likely to burst upon the SEC scene, so I will expect this to be just a bit of a retooling year for the Hogs. They will still be a tough out, but they will be fortunate to play in the post season.
New coach, new attitude and new players. New athletic director. LSU is new. Gone is 11-year head coach John Brady, a victim of the high expectations at LSU only two years removed from taking them to a Final Four. Replacing him is Trent Johnson, who LSU managed to lure away from Standford. Taking over the reigns of AD is controversial former Duke athletic director, Joe Alleva. Alleva was deeply involved and substantially on the wrong side of the the Duke lacrosse scandal of a few years back, and never really recovered from that.
Gone also is super-frosh Anthony Randolph, the 5-star stud recruited by Brady last year. Randolph will be drafted very high in the NBA draft, perhaps even in the lottery, as his upside appears unlimited. Randolph has already signed with an agent, so there is no coming back. There is also no coming back for senior Dameon Mason, but he and Randolph are the only two players Johnson will be without next year. Recruiting wise, LSU brings in a class once headlined by Rivals 5-star center J'Mison Morgan, but Morgan has now asked for his release and is looking elsewhere. In the final analysis, LSU will be a veteran team with 5 seniors next year, but the combination of a new coach and lack of big-time incoming talent will make it tough for them to get into the top of the SEC west. I foresee no post season for LSU next year.
Jeff Lebo had a year he would like to forget last year with injuries to his prime-time players like Korvotney Barber and Boubacar Sylla. But with his quality big people coming back next year, Auburn is likely to be a much different team -- built for power instead of speed.
Jeff Lebo will lose two big-time producers to graduation in Frank Tolbert and Quan Prowell. They also lose senior reserve Adam Luquire, and overall, it doesn't look like they have enough offensive production to compete for the West this year. Incoming freshmen include some good-size players in the post and on the wing, but none of these recruits is above a Rivals 3-star, and in this day and age, you need more talent than that to win in the SEC consistently. Lebo has some nice returning players, and of course the addition of Sylla and Barber will make them tough at home, but Auburn seems to be falling behind in the race for players and has precious little scoring on the team that is returning. Barring an unexpected player development, expect Auburn to be improved from last year, but not too much. I think Auburn will be at home next year when the post season begins.