Robert Morris - Saturday, January 4th - Do you remember Robert Morris? It was just seven months ago Robert Morris notched one of the biggest victories in the history of their program by knocking off Kentucky in the first round of the NIT. That win brought a lot of attention to the program, but the fact is Robert Morris has been an improving program for years. In the last five years, the program has averaged 23 wins a season. And the Colonials are expected to be in contention once again in the Northeast Conference. However, head coach Andrew Toole lost three critical players in Velton Jones, Russell Johnson and Coron Williams. Those three guys combined for 3,748 points, 1,305 rebounds and 870 assists.
The key to another successful season begins with the two returning starters, Lucky Jones and Mike McFadden. Jones, a 6'6 swingman, averaged 11.6 ppg and 6.0 rpg last season. McFadden, a 6'8 forward, averaged 8.5 ppg and 3.5 rpg last season. Other players to watch are Karvel Anderson (the leading returning scorer at 12.5 ppg) and Anthony Myers-Pate (5.9 ppg). Robert Morris also brought in a fantastic recruiting class made up primarily of JC players. Charles Oliver (19.3 ppg at Lakeland C.C.), Desjuan Newton (17.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg at Central Arizona College) and Jeremiah Worthern (15.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg) will all have a chance to play major minutes right away.
Vanderbilt - Tuesday, January 7th - The SEC schedule begins in earnest with a program that has been one of the conference's best in the last decade. Alabama has had their share of struggles against the Commodores, having lost 6 of the last 10 games (Anthony Grant's record against Vandy currently stands at 1-3).
It was a tough offseason for Vanderbilt. After a down year (16-17/8-10), optimism was high in Nahsville that the Commodores, with five starters returning, would rebound and, if not compete for the SEC title, at least put themselves in a position to return to the NCAA tournament. That was still the opinion even after Sheldon Jeter, a rising sophomore, decided to transfer. And then July happened. On the same day Vanderbilt announced that two starters, Kedren Johnson and Kevin Bright, were leaving the program. Johnson was suspended by the university for a violation of some sort (it was not disclosed, but one would assume it was academic) while Bright made the decision to sign with a pro team in his home country of Germany in order to be near his ailing mother. All of a sudden, this Vanderbilt team was facing some real questions heading into August. Like Alabama, they head into the season with only nine scholarship players.
It's not all bad though. Stallings will still have some good players to work with. The best of the bunch may be 6'4 PG, Eric McClellan. A transfer from Tulsa, McClellan averaged 8.5 ppg and 2.2 apg in his freshman season at Tulsa before transferring. And, no surprise, he was a good 3-pt shooter (38%). He should be a good one in Stallings' offense. Vandy loves their guards, and in addition to McClellan, the Dores also return some experience in Kyle Fuller (SR, 6'1, averaged 8.7 ppg and 1.9 rpg last season) and Dai-Jon Parker (6'3, JR, 7.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 39% 3PT).
Players to watch in the frontcourt are Rod Odom (6'9, SR, 10.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 35% 3PT) and Josh Henderson (6'11, JR, 5.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg). Henderson in particular could be an important piece for this team if he can become a consistent low post scorer. Two other guys who should play some minutes are Shelby Moats (6'8, 225 lb, 3.0 ppg) and James Siakam (6'7, JR). The gem of the recruiting class for Stallings could prove to be a game changer for the Commodores. Damian Jones, a 6'10, 235 lb 4-star player that was recruited by the likes of Duke, Syracuse, Florida, LSU and Oklahoma State before landing at Vandy. Jones, who attended high school in LSU's backyard, averaged 15.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 apg and 4.0 bpg, earning Louisiana 5A Player of the Year honors in the process.
@Georgia - Saturday, January 11th - Georgia was 15-17/9-9 last season, and that was with the SEC Player of the Year, Kentavius Caldwell-Pope. KCP has moved on to the NBA so the big question for Georgia this year is can they possibly improve on last year after losing their best player? For it to happen, it may have to come from a number of guys that, until now, have been role players at best.
Georgia has no shortage of big men. Marcus Thornton, a 6'8, 235 lb junior is a former Georgia Mr. Basketball. Thornton has not been able to get his career up and running at Georgia due to injuries. He led the team in rebounds through seven games last year before he was lost for the season due to a knee injury. For a team lacking proven size, Georgia needs Thornton healthy. Other frontcourt options include Donte Williams (6'9, 225 lb, 5.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Nemanja Djurisic (6'8, 230 lb, 7.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg), a probable starter that will have to produce on a nightly basis, at least early. Brandon Morris (6'7, 4.1 ppg) could be primed for a big jump this season after producing in spots last year. A surprise newcomer could be JC transfer, Cameron Forte. Forte averaged 22.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg at Howard (Texas) College. Two more frontcourt options are juniors, John Cannon (2.6 ppg) and Tim Dixon (1.8 ppg).
In the backcourt, things are a little clearer. Two sophomores, Charles Mann (6'5, 6.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg) and Kenny Gaines (6'3, 3.7 ppg) are expected to be the starters. Nipping at their heels will be a group of freshmen. J.J. Frazier is a 5'10 guard who was rated the best guard in Georgia as a senior. Juwan Parker is a 6'4, 200 lb guard from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He averaged 21.8 ppg as a senior. And finally, Kenny Paul Geno is a G/F that averaged 23.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg as a senior in Mississippi where he earned 1st team all-state honors.
Mississippi State - Wednesday, January 15th - When you consider that, at one point, Mississippi State was reduced to just six scholarship players after a rash of injuries and suspensions, you have to give Rick Ray some credit for the job he did. The team finished 10-22/4-14, but Ray coached his team hard from beginning to end regardless. It was admirable, especially when you watch the contrast on display in the South Carolina/MSU SEC tournament game. Ray was still coaching his team hard on the sidelines, while Frank Martin by comparison was clearly waiting for the next season. The result was a nice postseason win for a State team that didn't have much to celebrate all season.
Unfortunately for Ray, this season hasn't exactly gotten off to a crisp start. Already, he has said goodbye to two returning players, Wendell Lewis (who missed all but two games last season due to a knee injury) and Jalen Steele (averaged 10.1 ppg before also being lost to a knee injury). The circumstances surrounding both dismissals was vague, particularly Steele, whom the university claimed in a statement was leaving the team due to accrued injuries. However, that statement was rebuked by Steele who claimed via Twitter that he was forced to leave the team. Regardless of the reasons behind the dismissals, State now finds itself down to 10 scholarship players and must hope they can avoid the plague of injuries they suffered through last season.
State had a group of guys who went through a baptism by fire last season. The hope is that experience will result in more positive results in 13-14. Craig Sword could be the go-to guy. A 6'3 sophomore from Montgomery, Alabama, Sword averaged 10.5 ppg, 2.3 apg and 1.7 spg as a freshman last season. Unfortunately, he also committed nearly 4 turnovers a game and only shot 19% from 3 and 55% from FT. Another key guy for State will be Gavin Ware (6'9, 270 lb, 8.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) who reportedly dropped some weight in the offseason to improve his endurance. One more key guy could be Colin Borchert (9.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), a 6'8, 230 lb forward who is more of a perimeter player. Two other returning players who should be factors are Fred Thomas (6'5, 9.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Roquez Johnson (6'7, 8.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg).
The injuries last year left State thin at the PG position, and it showed as State made turnovers into an art form. If they can avoid injuries this season, they should be 3-deep at the position. Trivante Bloodman may get first crack at it. Bloodman was one of the few who actually played in all 32 games last season for State. He averaged 6.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 2.3 apg, but was marred by a negative assist-to-turnover ratio and did not shoot the ball well (35% from the field, 27% from 3). Jacoby Davis is a redshirt freshman who sustained a knee injury before the season started. Prior to that injury, he was being projected as the starter. The other candidate is 5'11 freshman, I.J. Ready. He led his Little Rock, Arkansas high school to back-to-back 6A high school championships and has a reputation as being a great distributor. If State can lock down the PG position, they should have enough talent at the other spots on the floor to be competitive most nights.
@Missouri - Saturday, January 18th - Like last year, Missouri could be one of the more enigmatic teams in college basketball. The team has talent, but it also had talent a year ago and faltered, never quite living up to its talented roster. The long-term stability of the program under Frank Haith also remains in question. Many Missouri fans don't seem to have brought in yet. After the inconsistency of last season, that reticence seems to have grown.
The loss of a player like Phil Pressey to the NBA draft would normally be a blow to a team the following season, but Haith may actually have an upgrade in the form of Tulsa transfer, Jordan Clarkson. A big (6'5) PG that can score, distribute and defend (16.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.5 apg, 37% 3P at Tulsa), Clarkson will be the centerpiece for this Missouri team. The prediction is that he's going to transition seamlessly after having spent a year sitting out. His backcourt mate will be Jabari Brown (13.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 37% 3PT), a solid shooter who should have an increased role this season. Another key player will be Auburn transfer, Earnest Ross (10.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 37% 3PT). Like Brown, Ross will be expected to increase his numbers.
Two freshman guards to keep an eye on are Wes Clark, a 6'0 4-star recruit that averaged 12.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 6.5 apg in leading his high school team to a state title in Michigan. He's considered one of the best defenders in his class and should see plenty of time this season as a result. The other guard is Shane Rector. He originally committed to Rutgers before Mike Rice was terminated. Rector is a New York City kid that averaged 17.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg.
Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi were a terror inside for opposing teams last season, but now they're gone. Who replaces them may be the most pressing question for Haith. The most likely candidates are Tony Criswell (6'9, 5.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Stefan Jankovic (6'11, 242 lbs, 3.0 ppg) and Ryan Rosburg (6'10, 252 lbs, 1.0 ppg). Missouri also hit the recruiting trail looking for big men. The best of them may be Keanu Post (6'11, 268 lbs), a JC transfer and 2nd team JC All-American, who averaged 12.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 1.9 bpg.
Florida - Tuesday, January 21st - Alabama has not defeated Florida since 2008 (a surprising 80-69 victory in the SEC Tournament). In fact, going back to the 2001-02 season, Alabama is a dismal 3-14 against the Gators. Anthony Grant himself is 0-6 so far in his tenure. There have been some close games, but Bama has yet to get over the Florida hump under Grant. And sure enough, the schedule has two games against Florida this season. Can Anthony Grant and this Bama team break the Gator hex?
Florida once again enters the season as a favorite in the SEC with Kentucky despite some issues that have been affecting this Gator team since the summer. Issues that, if not resolved quickly, could linger throughout the season and hurt this Gator team. Suspensions, injuries and academic eligibility have all cast a shadow over the program. Donovan has been clearly frustrated, not shying away from his concerns regarding his team in preseason interviews. However, the team is stacked with talent, and if Donovan can work out the kinks, this is a Final Four caliber roster.
The most proven returner not currently injured or suspended is Patric Young, a 6'9, 240 lb beast of a man who enters his senior season hoping to finally put it all together. There have been flashes for Young, but it's also been hard not to be disappointed in his overall numbers. With his frame, Young should be a double-double guy, but he only averaged 6.3 rpg last season. He's been primarily a defensive player (1.6 bpg, 0.9 spg), but the team is going to need greater offensive production from him this season.
Another important player this season could turn out to be true freshman PG, Kasey Hill, particularly if Scottie Wilbekin does not return soon from suspension (Wilbekin is practicing with the team, but not expected to play in games early). Hill is 6'1, 181 lbs. He was a McDonald's All-American and rated one of the best point guards in the country (13.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg). He's definitely going to be a star, but will it be sooner or later? One thing seems certain: with Wilbekin not expected to play anytime soon, Hill could be forced into action against one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country (@Wisconsin, Florida State, @Uconn, Kansas and Memphis).
For Wilbekin, his status will be of the utmost importance. Not only would he be the returning PG, which would take some pressure off Hill, but he's also one of the best perimeter defenders in college basketball. His numbers last year were solid (9.1 ppg, 5.0 apg, 35% 3PT), but it's his ability to shut down the other team's best guard that makes him so vital to this Florida team. Hopefully for his sake, he can put this suspension past him and finish his career on a high note.
The Gators have plenty of other good players. Will Yequete, provided he can recover from offseason knee surgery, is the heart and soul of this team. One of the best defenders and rebounders on the team when he's healthy, Yeguete also showed some improved offensive ability last season in averaging 10.5 ppg. Casey Prather is another senior hoping for a breakthrough season. At 6'6, 212 lbs, Prather has been an athletic option off the bench since he arrived. He's a slasher who can get to and defend the rim, but has been limited in other areas (he only shot 28% from 3PT and 58% from FT last season). Michael Frazier II (6'4, 200 lbs) had a very productive freshman season in 12-13. He led the team in 3PT shooting at 46% (also an 83% FT shooter), and finished with averages of 5.6 ppg and 3.1 rpg. He was primed for a big season this year, but Donovan mentioned in interviews at SEC Media Days that Frazier had come down with a virus and was being tested for mono. If those tests are positive, Frazier could miss significant time this season. If that happens, Devon Walker (6'6, 195 lbs) will get plenty of opportunities to improve his freshman numbers (0.8 ppg, 0.7 rpg). Walker actually considered a transfer in May, but was talked out of it by the coaching staff.
Florida has three transfers they hope will blend into the team this season. Dorian Finney-Smith, a former McDonalds All-American who transferred from Virginia Tech, is expected to be an impact transfer. At 6'8, 212 lbs, Finney-Smith can play several spots on the floor. In his one season at Tech, he averaged 6.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 1.9 apg. He was also a 36% 3PT shooter, which means he may be able to play an inside/outside role similar to the one Erik Murphy played last season. Damontre Harris (6'10, 228 lbs) should be familiar to SEC basketball fans, having previously played at South Carolina. Harris gives Florida a shot-blocking presence (2.3 bpg at South Carolina), but also a reliable post scorer (6.8 ppg) and rebounder (5.5. rpg). Finally, there is Rutgers transfer, Eli Carter, a 6'2, 200 lb guard who left Rutgers in the wake of the Mike Rice incident. Carter averaged 14.9 ppg and 2.1 apg at Rutgers (he actually scored 31 against the Gators his freshman year in a Rutgers upset win over Florida). He offers Florida yet another perimeter threat. Unfortunately, his immediate status is unclear after he broke his leg in February.
The final piece to this puzzle for Florida could be 6'10, 195 lb Chris Walker. He's yet another McDonald's All-American who was expected to be an immediate contributor and possible one-and-done type of player. Unfortunately, he ha yet to be cleared academically. There is hope he can be cleared in time to enroll in December, but for now his status remains very much in limbo.
LSU - Saturday, January 25th -When the dust clears on the 2013-14 season, LSU may well be the most improved team in the conference. Not only do they return four starters from last season and five of their top six scorers, but they also bring in a recruiting class that was considered by many the 2nd best in the league.
The returning players is where success must start for LSU. Andre Stringer (10.4 ppg, 2.1 apg, 40% 3PT) and Anthony Hickey (11.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.9 spg) were undersized but effective guards last season. Hickey in particular could be the top PG in the conference if he continues his improvement. In the frontcourt, LSU returns an imposing figure in 6'9, 256 lb Johnny O'Bryant (13.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg) who will be a nightmare for opponents. Other returners are under-appreciated Shavon Coleman (6'5, 190 lb, 10.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Malik Morgan (5.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg).
With a solid foundation in place, LSU will also have some young guys who should help bolster the roster. Jarrell Martin is the biggest name. A five-star recruit and McDonald's All-American, Martin averaged 26 ppg and 15 rpg as a high school senior. He was a consensus top 15 recruit by the major recruiting services. He should start right away next to O'Bryant, which will give LSU one of the best frontcourts in the SEC. Martin wasn't the only high profile recruit Johnny Jones signed. Jordan Mickey (6'8, 220 lb) is a four-star recruit that will give LSU another big body and shot blocker off the bench. Jones obviously likes his big men because he signed several. Darcy Malone (7'0, 229 lb) is an Australian that will give the team an inside/outside threat. Another big man is John Odo (6'9, 236 lb), a JC transfer from Hill (Texas) JC who should get plenty of minutes. All Odo did as a JC player was lead the NJCAA in rebounds (14.3) while also averaging 12.5 ppg and 4.7 bpg! He's been with the team since January so he should be acclimated by now. Brian Bridgewater may come into the season under the radar, but he's still a 6'6, 230 lb bruiser who addes even more size and strength to the roster. Needless to say, there aren't many teams in the country with the depth in the paint that LSU will have.
One final addition was Tim Quarterman, a 6'6 guard who can play up to four spots on the floor if necessary. He was rated the #2 recruit in Georgia and will LSU some much-needed length in the backcourt.
@Auburn - Wednesday, January 29th - If you remember (I won't blame you if you refuse to), Bama's game at Auburn last season didn't go so well. Our guys lost 49-37. It was the worst Alabama basketball game I've ever witnessed in 20+ years of being a fan (yes, even worse than the 54 and 41 point blowouts in 98 and 99).
Aside from that game, Auburn fans haven't had much to cheer about during Barbee's tenure. A great deal of the troubles have stemmed from Barbee's inability to go an offseason without offcourt issues that result in suspensions and dismissals. And this year is no different. 7 of the top 10 scorers from last year are gone to graduation, transfer or dismissal. As a result, Auburn has been picked to finish last in conference yet again. It's a finish that Barbee must avoid, or else change could be forthcoming.
Three players Barbee will lean on will be seniors, Allen Payne (6'6, 7.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.5 spg), Chris Denson (6'2, 11.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.6 apg) and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7'0, 3.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.9 bpg). Barbee will also count on Virginia transfer, K.T. Harrell to provide some experience, leadership and shooting to a team in need of all three. Harrell (6'4, 216 lb) averaged 4.7 ppg in his lone season at Virginia. He sat out last year and was described as the best player in practices by insiders. Sophomore Jordan Granger (only played 6 mpg last season) may also be expected to contribute.
Auburn welcomes in nine new players to the roster. The most important among them will be the PG candidates, Malcolm Canada (6'3, 224 lb) and Tahj Shamsid-Deen (only 5'10, but very fast and plays with a lot of passion, another thing Auburn could use). The other newcomers expected to contribute are Bena Griciunas (a 7'0 big man with 3PT range, played at Findlay Prep in Nevada), Matthew Atewe (6'9, 230 lbs) and Ronald Delph (7'0, 235 lb). While all three provide Auburn with needed size, how ready they are to contribute is unknown.