By Pat Taggart, Associate College Basketball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - OUTLOOK: Last season was one to forget for the SEC, as only three of the 12 league members earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Things are expected to be much different in 2009-10, however, as the SEC is ready to regain its position as one of college basketball's elite conferences. John Calipari has taken over the reigns at Kentucky and has the talent necessary to contend for the league crown. He figures to be pushed in the East Division by the likes of South Carolina and Tennessee, a pair of teams with star-caliber returnees. Vanderbilt will not be an easy out, as the Commodores have their tremendous big man back along with some talented newcomers. Florida appears to be headed for a down year, but Billy Donovan is one of the best coaches in the business and figures to get the most out of a young, but talented group. Finally, Georgia rounds out the pack in the East, and many more losses than wins are expected. Moving over to the West, the two schools from the state of Mississippi appear to be the class. Rick Stansbury has been at Mississippi State for over a decade, and his Bulldogs have every key contributor back from last season's team that went 23-13 overall and 9-7 in conference. As for the Ole Miss Rebels, who posted a 7-9 record in SEC action last season despite endless injuries, they appear to be healthy and poised for a run. Alabama's new head coach Anthony Grant is a proven winner with plenty of returning talent, while Arkansas lost no one of consequence from 2008-09. Auburn and LSU round out the West pack, and while both teams figure to put up a fight regardless of the competition, a rise to the top of the division standings seems unlikely.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kentucky
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: EAST: 1. Kentucky, 2. South Carolina, 3. Tennessee, 4. Vanderbilt, 5. Florida , 6. Georgia. WEST: 1. Mississippi State, 2. Ole Miss, 3. Alabama, 4. Arkansas , 5. Auburn, 6. LSU
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KENTUCKY - Jodie Meeks was one of the best scorers in the nation last season (23.7 ppg), and the fact that the Wildcats are expected to be better in 2009-10 despite his departure is surprising. But that is indeed the case, as Calipari jumped ship from Memphis where he built a powerhouse. Patrick Patterson decided not to bring his game to the NBA, and the fact that the 6-9 standout is back for his junior campaign makes Kentucky a legitimate national title contender. Patterson posted 17.9 ppg and 9.3 rpg a year ago, and he is a threat to score 20 points and grab 10 boards every time he takes the court. Perry Stevenson is back up front, and his 7.8 ppg and 5.9 rpg figure to improve. Stevenson is an athletic shot blocker who can intimidate opponents who drive to the hoop. In the backcourt, Ramon Harris is tall at 6-7 and can rebound and defend effectively. So who will handle the scoring duties this season? Well, the hope is that super freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins will be as good as advertised. Wall is a 6-4 guard, and Cousins is a 6-11 forward. The fact that Kentucky will have Patterson, Cousins and Peterson up front is downright scary.
SOUTH CAROLINA - Most casual college basketball fans still don't know much, if anything, about Devan Downey, but the South Carolina star will not be overshadowed this season. He is coming off a brilliant junior campaign that saw him score 19.8 ppg and dish out 4.5 apg despite his diminutive frame. Downey has the ability to take over a game, and he has some significant surrounding talent to help the cause. Dominique Archie is coming off a junior season that saw the 6-7 forward post 10.9 ppg and 6.4 rpg. As for fellow 6-7 forward Mike Holmes, he brings 10.8 ppg and 7.7 rpg to the mix. Brandis Raley- Ross scored seven points per game off the bench last season, and the shooter has the ability to move into double figures in 2009-10. Darrin Horn was 21-10 in his first season at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks tied for the regular season Eastern Division crown. A repeat is certainly possible.
TENNESSEE - Bruce Pearl is 98-37 in four years at Tennessee, and he figures to add many more wins than losses in 2009-10. The main reason is that versatile forward Tyler Smith is back to lead the Vols, and the senior is coming off a season in which he averaged 17.4 ppg and 5.8 rpg. While Smith is the star of the group, he has a wealth of talent around him, as the Vols didn't lose a significant contributor from last season's squad. Wayne Chism is a big-time forward who posted 13.7 ppg and 8.0 rpg, flashing signs of dominance at times. Chism can score on the interior and shoot from the perimeter, making him awfully tough to cover. J.P. Prince is a swingman who netted nearly 10.0 ppg last season, and Scott Hopson checked in with 9.2 ppg from the UT backcourt. Bobby Maze rounds out the group of returning starters with 8.2 rpg and 3.2 apg, numbers that figure to increase. It wouldn't be surprising at all to see the Vols finish ahead of both Kentucky and South Carolina in the East.
VANDERBILT - Many teams in college basketball don't have a true center, but Vanderbilt certainly does in the person of A.J. Ogilvy. Now a junior, the 6-11 Australian is coming off an impressive campaign that saw him post 15.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg. The big man will be the focus of the offense, but there are other talented scorers in the fold. Jermaine Beal is a 6-3 guard who tallied 12.5 ppg as a junior to go along with 3.2 apg. Fellow 6-3 guard Brad Tinsley returns 11.0 ppg, and the sharpshooter figures to be even better as a sophomore. Jeffery Taylor was also impressive last season as a freshman, as the swingman posted 12.2 ppg and 6.2 rpg. While Vandy was 11th out of 12 SEC teams in scoring offense last year, the club was second in scoring defense and third in rebounding margin. Coach Kevin Stallings has been at Vandy for a decade, and he knows what it takes to win.
FLORIDA - Dan Werner is the lone senior on the Florida roster, but that doesn't mean that the club is void of experienced contributors. Werner is a solid forward who brings 8.9 ppg to the mix. Chandler Parsons, a 6-9 forward, adds 9.2 ppg and 5.7 rpg, and he may be ready to elevate his game as a junior. As for Alex Tyus, he is coming off a freshman season that saw him post 12.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg, making him the Gators' leading returning scorer and rebounder. Vernon Macklin joins the frontcourt as a transfer from Georgetown, and it never hurts to add a 6-10 performer with Big East-caliber talent. The task of running the team from the point guard position will be handed to Erving Walker, a sophomore who averaged 10.1 ppg and 2.4 apg as a rookie. Walker is just 5-8 in stature, but he sees the floor well and possesses tremendous quickness. Clearly, the Gators have yet to retool effectively after the back-to-back national title squad vacated campus.
GEORGIA - The Bulldogs have a new leader in Mark Fox, who takes over a team that went just 3-13 versus SEC competition last season. Georgia finished last in the conference in scoring and turned the ball over 17.4 times per game. With those facts in mind, there is a wealth of room for improvement, but it remains to be seen if there is enough talent on the roster to execute an immediate turnaround. One player who can certainly be counted on is Trey Thompkins, as he scored 12.6 ppg to go along with 7.4 rpg as a freshman. the 6-9 sophomore knows how to use his nearly 250-pound frame, and figures to earn All-SEC consideration. Dustin Ware ran the point as a freshman last season, and he is back to do so again. Ware dished out 3.4 apg in 2008-09 and proved to be at least an adequate scorer. If he can pitch in a bit more at the offensive end, Georgia will be respectable. But as far as contending, the Bulldogs are at least a year away.
MISSISSIPPI STATE - Jarvis Varnado is a beast on the low block despite the fact that he checks in at only 6-9 and 210 pounds. The senior has blocked 394 shots in his collegiate career, placing him 19 shy of Shaquille O'Neal's SEC record and 142 short of the all-time NCAA mark. Varnado is more than just a shot-blocker though, as he contributed 12.9 ppg a year ago. The Bulldogs utilized a four-guard attack last season, so there wasn't another big player on the court to take some pressure off Varnado, and the fact that he still put up big numbers is highly impressive. Not a single key contributor is gone from last season's team, and Rick Stansbury is poised for an SEC title run. Dee Bost will run the floor once again, and he has a chance to improve on his 10.9 ppg and 4.3 apg. Ravern Johnson is a 6-7 swingman who scored 12.1 ppg on the strength of his driving ability and three-point marksmanship. Keep an eye on Renardo Sidney, as the freshman is considered one of the league's truly elite recruits for 2009-10.
OLE MISS - All Andy Kennedy can ask for this season is an injury-free campaign, something his Ole Miss squad did not enjoy last year. The Rebels lost star guard Chris Warren to a torn ACL, and the point guard is the key to the team's success this time around. He scored 19.6 ppg and dished out 4.0 apg prior to getting hurt, and Warren is a blur with the ball in his hands. Fellow guard Eniel Polynice missed last season completely, but the fact that the junior posted 10.7 ppg two years ago suggests that he has plenty of talent. As for forward Murphy Holloway, he has the ability to both score and rebound effectively on the interior. Ole Miss finished 10th in the league in both scoring offense and scoring defense a year ago. Expect both of those numbers to improve for Kennedy's group. There had been some off-the-court legal trouble in 2008-09 for the Rebels as well, so it is fair to say that everyone associated with the program is happy to get this new season underway.
ALABAMA - Coach Anthony Grant was 76-25 in three years at VCU, so he brings a winning track record to Alabama. The good news for the coach is that there is plenty of talent to work with, notably the trio of Mikhail Torrance, Senario Hillman and JaMychal Green. Torrance scored 10.0 ppg as a junior, but the 6-5 player needs to prove that he is capable of running the team from the point. If he can't, expect Torrance to play the two-guard position, possibly moving Anthony Brock to the point. Hillman is a freakishly athletic guard who scored 12.9 ppg a year ago. If Hillman can learn to play the game half as well as he dunks, Alabama will be a force. Green rounds out the trio with 10.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg, numbers that figure to get a boast from his standout freshman season. Alabama finished eighth in the 12-team conference in both scoring offense and defense a season ago. Just by the presence of the three players mentioned, those rankings should improve.
ARKANSAS - There is a chance that Michael Washington of Arkansas could prove to be the best NBA player to emerge from the current crop of SEC talent, not including the incoming freshmen at Kentucky. Washington is a 6-9, 239-pound senior forward who led Arkansas with 15.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg a year ago. The man entrusted with handling the ball for the Hogs is Courtney Fortson, who posted 14.8 ppg and 5.9 apg as a freshman. Now, in his second season, the 5-11 guard will be expected to play with more poise and maturity. Clearly, his skill set is unquestioned. Stefan Welsh can play the point, shooting guard or even small forward for the Razorbacks, and he quietly provided 11.5 ppg last season. Not only can he score and handle the ball, Welsh is a tremendous defensive player and can be used as a stopper late in close games. The freshmen class has great promise, and 6-7 forward Marshawn Powell is considered the best of the bunch.
AUBURN - Without much attention at all, Jeff Lebo led his Auburn squad to a 24-12 overall record last season, including a 10-6 SEC mark. Lebo lost some key contributors from that squad, but there is significant returning talent to speak of. Start with guard DeWayne Reed, who posted 13.2 ppg and 3.7 apg a year ago while running the point. He is joined in the backcourt by Tay Waller, who provided 12.1 ppg on accurate three-point shooting in 2008-09. While those two players are the only returning starters, contributors such as Lucas Hargrove and Frankie Sullivan may be ready to fill the void. Sullivan was a scoring machine at the high school level, and after a freshman season that saw him net 7.6 ppg for the Tigers, he may be ready to move into the go-to player role.
LSU - In his first season as head coach at LSU, Trent Johnson led his club to a 27-8 overall record, including a 13-3 mark in the SEC that was good for the regular season title. Star guard Marcus Thornton and his 21.1 ppg are gone, however, so Johnson's team is expected to take a step backwards. For the sake of optimism, however, some talent does remain in Baton Rouge. Forward Tasmin Mitchell proved to be a strong second scorer for LSU a year ago, and he now steps into the lead scoring role. Mitchell posted 16.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg as a junior, and he has the size and skill set to approach 20.0 ppg. Bo Spencer netted 11.4 ppg last season, but recent wrist surgery may mean a slow start. The rest of the roster is raw, and it will be hard to win even half as many conference games in 2009-10.