Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Schedule Preview - February/March

Concluding the 13-14 schedule preview. I meant to have this done before the season began. My apologies for the delay.

Tennessee - Saturday, February 1st - The Vols have received a lot of love coming into the season. In fact, Tennessee just missed the cut for the latest AP and Coaches polls. Many media outlets have named them as a legitimate contender with Florida and Kentucky in the SEC.

Alabama fans do not like comparisons of any kind being made between the two programs, but Tennessee and Alabama basketball have been very similar entities in recent years. They are both coached by defensive-minded coaches who prefer a physical brand of basketball. Both programs have had their troubles scoring the ball. And both programs have been haunted by non-conference struggles that have come back to bite them in March after successful conference runs. While the debate over Cuonzo Martin hasn't become quite as heated as the one concerning Anthony Grant, if this Tennessee team falls short of the NCAA tournament again, the Tennessee fanbase may start tossing names around. And, honestly, there really is no excuse (barring injuries) if this Tennessee team doesn't make it. They have one of the best front lines in the game and legitimate All-SEC talent at several spots on the floor.

For Tennessee, I believe it begins inside with two stud players in Jarnell Stokes (6'8, 260 lbs) and Jeronne Maymon (also 6'8, 260 lbs). Maymon missed all of last season with a knee injury, but he averaged 12 and 8 the year prior, and all accounts is he is 100%. Stokes has been criticized for a lack of a motor and limited post moves, particularly against length, but when Stokes plays at a high level, he's damn near impossible to keep off the glass. He averaged 12 and just under 10 rebounds a game last season. With Maymon back, that is going to be a vicious 1-2 punch in the low post for Cuonzo Martin.

However, after those two guys, Tennessee doesn't have a lot of depth in the frontcourt. Maymon and Stokes must avoid injury and foul trouble to be successful. Otherwise, Martin is going to have to count on guys like freshman A.J. Davis (6'9, 208 lbs), Derek Reese (6'8, 215, averaged 3.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg in 2012-13)or incoming JC recruit, Rawane Ndiaye (6'10, 280 lbs).

On the perimeter, Tennessee has a legitimate player of the year candidate in Jordan McRae. In fact, I thought McRae was deserving of the award last season. At 6'6, 185 lbs, McRae is a nightmare match-up because of his length and ability to play multiple spots in the backcourt. Last season he averaged 15.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.0 apg, and, at times, was the only real offensive option Tennessee had. Other options in the backcourt are Josh Richardson, a criminally under-appreciated 6'6 guard. Richardson averaged 7.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 1.1 spg last season, but his play down the stretch last season could be a sign he will take another step this season. Armani Moore had moments as a freshman, but he's going to have to improve his game to increase his minutes. That's because Cuonzo Martin signed a 5-star recruit in Robert Hubbs. A 6'6, 195 G/F type, Hubbs was a huge recruiting coup for Tennessee as he was an in-state guy, but was being pursued by every top program in the country. He averaged 25.0 ppg, 7 rpg and 2.0 apg as a senior in high school. The word is he's going to be very good very quickly. And when you consider he will probably start with McRae on the perimeter, Tennessee's scoring averages should improve significantly.

The biggest question mark for this team however will be at the point guard spot. Trae Golden was the starting point guard at Tennessee for two seasons, but he transferred out of the program in May. It was reported that it was due to academic issues that were severe enough that Golden would be dismissed from the university. Whatever the issues, Golden left, and transferred to Georgia Tech where he is eligible to play this season. Tennessee is hoping a transfer of their own can fill the void left my Golden. Antonio Barton transferred in to Knoxville from Memphis. Barton, who has one year of eligibility left, was overshadowed at Memphis by Joe Jackson, but he will be a deciding factor in Tennessee's season. He must come in right away and fall in line with the existing team or this could once again be a Tennessee team that's one or two pieces short of fulfilling its potential. Should Barton struggle, Martin will have to rely on freshman Darius Thompson (6'4, 181 lbs, averaged 16.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 6.4 apg and 2.3 spg as a high school senior), who is Tennessee's PG of the future, but is considered a player who needs at least a year of learning the ropes before he will be fully ready. The best case scenario for Martin is Antonio Barton excels with Thompson backing him up.

@Arkansas - Wednesday, February 5th - The first in a five game stretch in which Alabama will play four road games. Fayetteville has always been a tough place to play, even during this recent down period for the program. Mike Anderson was considered a home run hire when he got the job two seasons ago. After all, he helped Nolan Richardson build the program into the power that it was in the 80s/90s. Unfortunately, the rebuilding project has gone a little slower than expected. That could change this season as Anderson finally has a roster made up primarily of players he recruited. If there's a program that could come out of left field in this conference and really surprise, it's this one.

While the team has a handful of returning players who have experience in the Anderson system, it's the arrival of three newcomers who may decide the season. Alandise Harris, a transfer from Houston, sat out last season but is expected to be a key guy this season. Harris (6'6, 230 lbs) averaged 13.3 ppg and 6.4 rpg. He's an undersized but nasty (in a good way) post player who should thrive in the Anderson system. The two other newcomers are freshmen, Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. Portis is a 6'9 freshman who is the first McDonald's All-American to sign with Arkansas in 10 years. He's capable of playing both inside and outside and could be a star in this league with some seasoning. Kingsley is also 6'9, but his value primarily lies at the defensive end with his ability to block shots.

Arkansas also has plenty of bodies this season, another staple of the Nola Richardson/Mike Anderson "40 minutes of Hell" system. If Anderson needs to, he can probably go 12-deep with this roster. The best of the lot may be Coty Clarke. He nabbed a starting spot after playing his first two years of college ball at Lawson State (AL) C.C. He averaged 7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg last season. The newcomers are probably going to force him to the bench, but he should still be a key reserve for this team. And the bodies just keep on coming. Michael Qualls (6'5, 4.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is a player some have tabbed as a potential breakout player this season. Ky Madden also has breakout potential, but he currently find himself in the dog house serving a suspension. A group of seniors, Mardracus Wade (6'2, 6.5 ppg), Rickey Scott (6'3, 4.3 ppg), Kikko Haydar (3.3 ppg) and Fred Gulley (6'2, 1.5 ppg) are not going to wow you, but they're exactly the type of blue collar player that is perfect for Anderson's system.

Some other guys to watch are Jacorey Williams, a 6'8 stretch four type who averaged 3.4 ppg last season. Also keep an eye on Anthlon Bell, a 6'3 guard. He's a streaky shooter, but capable of opening a game up from the perimeter.

@Florida - Saturday, February 8th - The second match-up with the Gators. Good for the RPI/SOS, not so good for the overall record.

Ole Miss - Tuesday, February 11th - The first of two match-ups with the Rebels. The history of this series has typically been in favor of the home team, but the Rebels broke some trends last season, winning the SEC Tournament and reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Marshall Henderson received much of the press, for his antics as much as his play, but, in my opinion, the backbone of the team was Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Their defense, rebounding and leadership down the stretch played a big part in their March success. Those two guys are gone, and Henderson's continued discipline issues don't suggest he's ready for a leadership role. Who takes on that role will determine this season for Ole Miss.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not selling Marshall Henderson's value short. Henderson did inject some life into a Rebels program that was seriously lacking juice of any kind. Henderson led the Rebels and the conference in scoring at 20.1 ppg. He didn't meet a shot he didn't like last season, but did shoot 35% from 3PT. Henderson was also very good at getting to the line where he hit 88% of his attempts. And while his shot selection was beyond bad in some games, he either made a lot of bad shots or had his misses cleaned up by the aforementioned Buckner and Holloway.

Does Kennedy have anyone who can step into the shoes of Holloway and Buckner? The primary candidate will be Aaron Jones, a 6'9 junior who was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Kentucky game. Jones averaged 3.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 1.6 bpg. Others to watch are Demarco Cox (1.6 ppg, 1.1 rpg, only played in seven games last season), Anthony Perez (6'9, 1.7 ppg, 1.5 rpg) or a freshman duo, Dwight Coleby (6'9, 235 lbs, heavily recruited by the likes of Louisville and Memphis) and Sebastian Saiz (6'8, 240 lbs, played for Spain's U19 team in the FIBA championships)

The Ole Miss backcourt isn't all about Henderson either. One guy who may stand out this year is LaDarius White. He had some flashes of brilliance last year, but never quite put it together, perhaps due to the number of shots Henderson put up. He's certainly capable of improving on his 6.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg and 1.2 apg from last season. Jarvis Summer is a very under appreciated player on this team. He quietly averaged 9.1 ppg and 3.8 apg last season, finishing second in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio. Derrick Millinghaus came on down the stretch, averaging 5.3 ppg and 1.8 apg. He also hit the game-winning shot against Missouri in the SEC Tournament.

Other guys who could fill a role for this Rebels team is Martavious Newby (6'3, 210 lbs guard, probably another year away from being a regular contributor), Terry Brutus (a 6'6, 240 lb bruiser who could play a factor as Kennedy looks to replace Holloway and Buckner).

@South Carolina - Saturday, February 15th - As expected, last season was a tough one for first year head coach, Frank Martin. Undersized and lacking the talent necessary to be successful in the SEC, Carolina finished near the bottom of the standings. This year may not be the turning point for Carolina under Martin, but, thanks to Martin's first recruiting class, year two should be much better.

The headliner of that class is Sindarius Thornwell, a 6'5, four-star guard from South Carolina. He was rated a top 50 player coming out of high school and he should get a chance early and often. In all, Martin brought in eight newcomers in a complete overhaul of the roster. All of those newcomers will have a chance to play.

One newcomer who should provide an immediate impact is Villanova transfer, Tyrone Johnson. Johnson was rated the no. 12 point guard in the class of 2011, but his career at Nova never quite got rolling due to some injuries his first year. He enters this season as the favorite at PG. Martin initially thought he would have to wait until December for Johnson to become eligible, but the NCAA ruled him immediately eligible. That means that once Bruce Ellington finishes playing football, assuming he returns to the basketball team, he will no longer have to be the primary ball-handler. That should free Ellington to do what he does best, score. Brenton Williams, a 5'11 senior sharpshooter (11.0 ppg, 39% 3PT) will also benefit.

Other returning players who should be a factor are Michael Carrera (6'5, 215 lb, 9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Laimona Chatkevicius (6'11, 250 lb, 4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Mindaugas Kacinas (6'7,4.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg). All of the new players will probably result in continued peaks and valleys, but Martin has taken the first steps to returning South Carolina to relevance. It's just a matter of time.

@Texas A&M - Thursday, February 20th - A&M's first year in the SEC didn't go quite as well as it did for their football counterparts. It got off to a good start with a big win at Kentucky, but from that point forward, the Aggies were maddeningly inconsistent. They finished 7-11 in conference and did not participate in a postseason tournament. They also lost their top two players, Elston Turner and Ray Turner. This season has gotten off to a rough start with two guys, expected to be important contributors, sidelined. Kourtney Roberson (6'9, 6.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg) was held out due to an issue with his heart, but has returned and has played well through A&M's first two games. He appears to be the early favorite to be a go-to guy for this team. J-Mychal Reese (6'1, 6.2 ppg, 1.9 apg) has been suspended indefinitely. When he returns he will bolster what is a solid backcourt for A&M.

The absence of Reese puts more pressure on Fabyon Harris (12.0 ppg, 1.3 apg), Alex Caruso (5.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.8 spg) and Jordan Green (2.8 ppg) to produce. Newcomers will also be counted on to step up. Antwan Space (6'8, 224 lbs) is a Florida State transfer expected to make a big impact. He's only played 10 games in his college career, but he was a top 100 recruit out of high school. Shawn Smith, a 6'4 freshman that redshirted last year, averaged 32 ppg as a high school senior. Jamal Jones, a 6'8 JC transfer, originally signed with Ole Miss, but was dismissed for a rules violation. He averaged 18.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg last season at Lee (TX) College. 

Missouri - Saturday, February 22nd - The second game with Missouri. One reason for encouragement (or fear) is that the conference schedule for Alabama is much tougher. An above .500 record in conference this season for Alabama should put them in better position at the end of the season.

@Ole Miss - Wednesday, February 26th - The second game with Ole Miss. Trips to Oxford have typically been a nightmare for Alabama. Last season was no different as Ole Miss shredded Alabama in a game that had huge NCAA tournament implications. This one could have similar importance.

Auburn - Saturday, March 1st - Yet another second game. This time it's Auburn. Alabama has taken care of its business, more or less, against Auburn under Grant. Hopefully that trend continues.

@Kentucky - Tuesday, March 4th - Last season was a tough one for UK's rabid fanbase. Coming off a national championship, the program welcomed in another top-ranked class and high preseason ranking. However, the team struggled, and the bottom fell out after star player, Nerlens Noel was injured in a game at Florida. The Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament and were then bounced in the 1st round of the NIT by Robert Morris.

Despite the underwhelming season, Calipari brought in his usual recruiting haul. In fact, this one has been called by some recruiting analysts the best recruiting class in college basketball history. That's a bold statement if, like me, you saw the Fab Five play at Michigan. One thing appears certain though: Calipari has no plans to allow this team to underachieve like last year. That's good for Kentucky, bad news for their opponents. That Alabama has to visit this team in March when they may be at their strongest doesn't leave one feeling warm and fuzzy.

Where do you start with these guys? Julius Randle is the one receiving the most pub. Randle is a 6'9, 245 lb forward who averaged an impressive stat line of 32.5 ppg, 22.5 rpg and 6.0 spg as a high school senior. He's already projected as a top 3 pick in the NBA Draft in June. James Young (6'7, 210 lbs) has already been showing out early. He averaged 26.4 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 5.3 apg and 5.4 spg as a high school senior. The Harrison twins - Andrew and Aaron - are another elite addition to the Kentucky mix. Andrew (6'5, 215 lbs, 15.8 ppg, 7.0 apg, 7.0 rpg) restores the recent tradition of elite point guards for Calipari. Aaron (6'5, 205 lbs, 23.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.0 bpg) was ranked the #1 SG coming out of high school. Dakari Johnson (6'11, 250 lbs) would be the number one recruit for most schools, but at Kentucky he could fade into the background this season. All he did is average 17.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 4.3 bopg as a high school senior. The same goes for Marcus Lee (6'10, 202 lbs, 17.7 ppg, 19.5 rpg, 6.7 bpg), Dominique Hawkins (6'1, 185 lbs, 20.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.9 apg) and Derek Willis (6'9, 195 lbs, 17.4 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 3.5 bpg). These guys make a solid foundation for future UK teams, which is not something we've seen during Calipari's tenure. If he's able to start stockpiling talent that will be around 2-3 years instead of 1, this UK program becomes even more formidable. 

In addition to that ridiculous incoming class, Calipari also has the luxury of some high quality returning players. Alex Poythress (6'7, 239 lbs, 11.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) never quite lived up to his potential last year, but the incoming class no doubt will push him to improve.  And if he does, he could steal some headlines from the freshmen. The guy is a beast when he shows up. Willie Cauley-Stein (8.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.1 bpg) may not be a 1st round draft pick when all is said and done, but at 7'0, 244 lbs, he provides size and shot-blocking ability that any team in the country would gladly accept. Jarrod Polson (6'2, 189 lbs, 3.1 ppg) and Jon Hood (6'7, 212 lbs, 1.5 ppg) won't receive the minutes they did last season, but they allow Calipari to go deep into his bench with confidence, should he have to.

Arkansas - Saturday, March 8th - Alabama wraps up the regular season with the always tough Razorbacks in the second meeting of the season. It will be senior day for Trevor Releford and one would hope that, no matter how this season unfolds, that the Alabama faithful will turn out in force to celebrate the career of a guy who has been fantastic from start to finish.

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