We have already looked at the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for UK basketball in the 2008-09 season. What I'd like to do now is tie all that together into a coherent picture of how I see the SEC next year.
The main three threats to win the Eastern division next year, as I see it, are Tennessee and Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt in that order. You may want to look at the previous overall analysis of the East I did a couple of weeks back.
Tennessee returns a good portion of their highly successful 2007-08 team, but their losses are critical ones. Chris Lofton brought heart, brains and pure shooting. JaJuan Smith brought tremendous athleticism and scoring ability. Losing these two players alone would be enough to set the Volunteers back a bit. But the dismissal of veteran big man Duke Crews and combo guard Ramar Smith, both 5-star players out of high school makes it tougher.
Tennessee will be larger and somewhat slower next year due to the fact that less athletic players Jurick and Williams will be spending most of the time in the post, and will lose much of its devastating perimeter game. Overall, I see the Vols being considered a slight favorite over Kentucky because of uncertainty surrounding the UK point guard situation, but I'm going to call them even for this moment.
Kentucky adds a lot of athleticism and length, but loses most of its scoring. The two big questions right now are Jasper's decision and Liggins' qualification. Liggins did not achieve a qualifying score in his last attempt, and now has two more tries, one at the SAT and one at the ACT in June. If one of those does not achieve qualifying levels and Jasper does not return, Kentucky will have major problems at the point. But if either Jasper returns or Liggins qualifies, Kentucky should have a good shot at the East.
The thing to like about the Kentucky team that we have yet to see is their potential for being a truly special defensive team. Lead by last year's defensive stopper Ramon Harris, Gillispie has recruited the kind of long, athletic players that should be capable of inflicting agonizing scoring droughts on opposing teams, and taking the heart from their offense. What this team appears to lack is sufficient scoring threats, but there has been some remarks by Ramel Bradley that Kevin Galloway is capable of scoring. Whatever the case, with Patterson and Meeks back at full speed, some size in the middle and a point guard to run the show, this Wildcat team is a major threat to reclaim the Wildcat's rightful place on top of the Eastern Division. First or second in the East, depending on the resolution of the point guard problem.
Florida has the talent to win the East, but we don't know if they have the heart or mix of personnel. Last year, the Gators were soft in the middle with Maurice Speights the only real post threat. This year, the Gators shore up their front line with 4-stars Kenny Kadji, Allan Chaney and Eloy Vargas.
The big question for the Gators remains Speights. He has declared for the NBA draft, and he is absolutely critical to the Gators' hopes next year. If Speights returns, the Gators contend for the East. If he does not, they are likely to wind up third behind Kentucky and Tennessee. With some mock drafts showing Speights going in the mid to late first round, I consider it only about a 40% chance that he returns at this point. Florida looks like a solid third in the East next year to me, but Vince Gagliano at Orange and Blue Hue has more on their chances.
Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss in that order are the three teams that I think will compete for the West. Arkansas cannot be ruled out, as John Pelprhey has some nice young talent returning, but I think their youth is such that an SEC West championship will be a bridge too far for them. Again, you can refer to my previous West analysis to see details.
Alabama just looks ridiculous on paper. Richard Hendrix is, "testing the NBA waters," but his odds of going in the first round are not that great. I would place his odds of a return at 50%. Ronald Steele is also in the draft without an agent, but the smart money is on him returning. These two guys alone aught to give Alabama the best team in the West, but there is way more than that to the Crimson Tide's 2008-09 team. As up and down as 'Bama was last year, their only significant loss was Mykal Riley. As usual with the Tide, they bring in an absolutely awesome recruiting class lead by Rivals 5-star Jamychal Green.
The think about Alabama is that they just don't seem to get that much out of the great talent they produce. Still, they should be more than a match for any team not from Mississippi, and they will be at least even with either of those two. Strong first place pick.
Mississippi State will contend for top honors in the West. If you will notice, in my earlier evaluation of the West, I had Mississippi picked to win the league. I have changed my mind on that. Judging from the tenor of Jamont Gordon's remarks, I expect him to stay in the draft. If he does, the two Mississippi teams will likely fight it out for second place in the West. MSU loses Charles Rhodes to graduation in addition to the likely defection of Gordon, but has a nice stable of players and some excellent recruits coming.
Rick Stansbury has done a very good job of coaching this team, and I look for the Bulldogs to once again compete for the West. The loss of Ben Hansbrough does not help their outside shooting, but the addition of Demarquis Bost and Romero Osby will more than make up for his loss. My pick as a strong second in the West.
Ole Miss may seem an unlikely contender for the West, but Andy Kennedy can coach, and continues to bring in and develop solid talent for this once-struggling ball club. Ole Miss loses Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams, the Beef Brothers that the Rebs have used to great effect the last couple of years. But Ole Miss still has some young players with serious size, and have brought in a nice but unspectacular recruiting class.
But all-SEC waterbug Chris Warren will be back, and he gives them a dimension in quickness that virtually no other team in the SEC can match. He showed excellent leadership ability as a freshman, and now as a sophomore, he will be very tough. Look for the Rebels to slug it out with MSU for the second and third spots next year in the West.
The SEC overall
Overall, I look for the following overall finish in the SEC next year:
Kentucky -- I think Kentucky will surprise the pundits and win the SEC next year. Call me crazy, call me partisan, but don't call me scared to take a stand. History is on my side.
- Tennessee -- Vols still talented, could be #1 just as easily.
- Alabama -- Should win it all, but won't.
- MSU -- Solid team, could contend for #2 if Gordon comes back.
- Florida -- I think Speights leaves.
- Ole Miss -- Andy Kennedy and Chris Warren are the reasons.
I see 6 teams from the SEC headed to the NCAA tourney next year, as above. To the NIT, I see:
- Vanderbilt -- May make the NCAA. Loss of seniors will kill them next year.
- Arkansas -- Young, young talent. Young coach. Will be great at times, and lousy at times, but watch out in 2009.
- Georgia -- A year away from contending in the East.
That's it, ladies and gentlemen. Five parts and many hours at the keyboard later, I have examined next year as thoroughly as possible at this point. The SEC will be improved next year, but only incrementally. I look to 2009 for the SEC to return to the top of college basketball, and remain there for a few years.
But for now, the long interregnum between this year and next year has come, also known as "summertime." We will be picking this back up as we get closer to the fall.