My affection for John Wall is well-documented, and I'm glad the NCAA cleared him last week if only because I'm eager to watch the freshman point guard play college basketball. Can't wait. But I must tell you I was struck by the insanity of the system as I sat in the press box at Boone Pickens Stadium late Saturday and watched Oklahoma State play football without star receiver Dez Bryant.
The bottom line is this: Wall will miss one regular-season game for essentially having expenses covered by an agent while Bryant is banished forever for lying about visiting Deion Sanders. It's incredible. And so the lesson for all student-athletes, I guess, is that it's OK to associate with leaches who latch on in hopes that maybe one day they can make a lot of money off of you, but it's not OK to be misleading (out of fear that you might've broken some rule that doesn't exist) about a relationship with a former Pro Bowl cornerback.
Let's preview the SEC.
(Schools listed in predicted order of finish)
SEC Eastern Division
John Calipari was able to revamp the roster and re-energize the fans shortly after leaving Memphis for Kentucky, and now it's time to watch him debut with an SEC title. Sure, there will be an adjustment period considering he's implementing a new system and likely to start three freshmen next to Patrick Patterson and (presumably) Darius Miller. But the level of talent in the program is unmatched by anybody except maybe Kansas and Texas, and that's why the Wildcats are an obvious choice to make the Final Four. The most talented of the talented bunch of players is John Wall, the freshman projected as the No. 1 pick of the 2010 NBA Draft. He's like former Memphis point guard Derrick Rose in that he's fast and explosive, but Wall is a more vocal leader with a more aggressive style. If you like him, he's just as good as you think. If you're skeptical, you won't be for long, I promise.
| Defending regular-season champion: |
Tennessee, S. Carolina (East); LSU (West)
| Defending tournament champion: |
| Top returning scorer: |
Devan Downey ( South Carolina), 19.8 ppg
| Top returning rebounder: |
Michael Washington ( Arkansas), 9.8 rpg
|3. South Carolina||NCAA|
|1. Mississippi State||NCAA|
|G - John Wall, Kentucky|
|G - Devan Downey, South Carolina|
|F - Tyler Smith, Tennessee|
|F - Patrick Patterson, Kentucky|
|F - Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State|
|G - Terrico White, Mississippi|
|G - Kenny Boynton, Florida|
|F - Tasmin Mitchell, LSU|
|F - DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky|
|F - A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt|
|Player of the year|
|John Wall, Kentucky|
|Newcomer of the year|
|John Wall, Kentucky|
|Scotty Hopson, Tennessee|
|Coach on the hot seat|
|John Pelphrey, Arkansas|
season previews & primers
The Vols climbed all the way up to No. 8 in the AP poll early last season, beat Siena and Marquette and looked like a team capable of a Final Four. But it was clear by the middle of January that something was missing, and the Vols limped through the final two months of the regular season before losing to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. So the fact that UT returns five starters shouldn't necessarily excite anybody, because they're the same five starters who lacked focus and energy last season. Still, a roster featuring Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince, Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze cannot be picked any lower than second in the Eastern Division; the talent necessary for greatness is in place. But it's crucial that the players display the kind of effort it takes to be successful in Bruce Pearl's system this time around, lest they spend a second consecutive season frustrating their fans while underachieving on the national level.
The Gamecocks' bubble ultimately burst late last season, but Darrin Horn's first season at South Carolina was still regarded as a success thanks to 21 victories (including two over Kentucky) and a trip to the NIT. Gone from that team is Zam Fredrick; his 15.5 points per game will be missed. But the other four starters return, including Devan Downey (19.8 ppg and 4.5 apg) and Dominique Archie (10.9 ppg and 6.4 rpg). The former could be an All-American, the latter an All-SEC performer. If those things happen, book it: The Gamecocks will be in the NCAA tournament for the first time since Dave Odom took them in 2004.
Rebuilding after those back-to-back national championships has been difficult for Billy Donovan, who lost pretty much his entire 2006-07 team to the NBA Draft, then lost Marreese Speights (to the NBA), Jai Lucas (to Texas) and Nick Calathes (to Greece) earlier than expected. The result is yet another Florida team that seems one player away from returning to the NCAA tournament. Can the Gators still get there? Of course. It would be silly to dismiss Donovan so easily. But with UK and UT more talented, Florida enters this season in a fight with South Carolina and Vanderbilt for third in the division, and the Gators could finish as low as fifth unless freshman Kenny Boynton is tremendous and former McDonald's All-American Vernon Macklin is way better than he ever was at Georgetown.
Hold the e-mails, Vanderbilt fans. I know the Commodores could be better than this, understand I'm likely to look stupid for picking them fifth in the East. I don't need you to remind me. It's just that I truly believe there is no right way to pick between South Carolina, Florida and Vandy for third, fourth and fifth in the division; a reasonable person could put them in any order. I used this order (i.e., South Carolina, Florida, Vanderbilt), but I could've easily reversed it. And I'm going to wish I had if Jeffery Taylor progresses like many suspect, A.J. Ogilvy is his usual steady self and freshman John Jenkins is as sharp a shooter as his reputation suggests.
Mark Fox averaged 24.6 victories in five years at Nevada, but it will be tough to get half of that this season considering what he inherited at Georgia. Honestly, the roster Fox left at Nevada is better than the roster he has at Georgia; that's not good in a league with Calipari, Pearl and Donovan. But Fox knew what he was getting into when he moved to Athens, understood this was a massive rebuilding job. If his fans are patient, Fox will turn it around. But it's going to take time, and this season will be rough despite the presence of Trey Thompkins, who averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds last season.
SEC Western Division
There is still no reason to believe Renardo Sidney will ever play college basketball, and that's too bad for Mississippi State. But the truth is the Bulldogs will be good even without him thanks to the return of Jarvis Varnado, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker who flirted with the NBA Draft before deciding to withdraw and return to campus. Varnado averaged 12.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 4.7 blocks last season. He's one of five returning starters from a team that won the SEC tournament. Barry Stewart (12.4 ppg), Ravern Johnson (12.1 ppg) and Dee Bost (10.9 ppg) give the Bulldogs second, third and fourth double-digit scorers. Together, they're good enough to take Rick Stansbury to his first Sweet 16.
2. Ole Miss
The absence of Chris Warren (knee injury) allowed Terrico White to develop into a star last season while playing point guard. But now Warren is back, White is moving over and Andy Kennedy is in position to take the Rebels to the NCAA tournament for the first time since they made it under Rod Barnes in 2002. It's easy to forget Warren averaged 15.8 points per game two years ago as a freshman, but the SEC will be reminded soon enough. Kennedy said Warren is just as explosive as ever and showing no negative signs from the ACL surgery. Assuming that's true, the Rebels will be fun to watch, difficult to guard and real challengers to Mississippi State in the West.
Alabama was smart to jump on Anthony Grant when it did and lure him from VCU. He has long been considered a rising star in the sport, and there's about a 99.99 percent chance he's going to be successful in the SEC just like his predecessor at VCU, Jeff Capel, has been successful at Oklahoma. Aiding that mission is JaMychal Green, a 6-9 forward who averaged 10.3 points and 7.6 rebounds last season. He'll help the Crimson Tide overcome the loss of Alonzo Gee (15.0 ppg) and possibly compete for what could be a sixth NCAA tournament bid for the SEC.
It has been a rough offseason for the Hogs, what with the rape allegations. But a core of Michael Washington (15.5 ppg and 9.8 rpg), Courtney Fortson (14.8 ppg and 5.9 apg) and Rotnei Clarke (12.2 ppg) is solid enough to where it's possible that John Pelphrey could get this program turned around in his third season at the school, especially if the team plays like it did when it beat Oklahoma and Texas last season. Of course, those impressive wins were followed by an inexplicable 2-14 record in the SEC. So who knows? But either way, Pelphrey must avoid another dismal league record, because a bad product on the court to go with the bad product off the court will have his fans openly wondering whether it's time to move in a new direction.
Trent Johnson was fabulous in his first season at LSU. He took over a talented group of losers and made them winners to the tune of a 27-8 record and SEC regular-season title. But SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton and two other starters (Garrett Temple and Chris Johnson) are gone from that team, meaning 35.9 points per game are missing. That's the kind of thing that makes first-to-worst drops possible. Senior Tasmin Mitchell (16.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg) is the main reason to believe that won't happen; Bo Spencer looking good after wrist surgery is another. But the loss of Thornton is huge, and that's not the type of loss a program like LSU can endure without slipping.
The Tigers won eight of their final nine SEC games in the regular season, a stretch that included wins over Tennessee, Mississippi State (twice) and LSU. It was nearly enough to get Auburn into the NCAA tournament, but Jeff Lebo ultimately settled for a trip to the NIT, where the Tigers beat UT-Martin and Tulsa before losing to Baylor. Given what happened, it would be nice to report how things are headed in the right direction, but it would also be untrue. Auburn figures to slip to the bottom of the West given that two of the top four scorers (Korvotney Barber and Rasheem Barrett) are gone and no elite-level SEC recruits enrolled. Point guard DeWayne Reed is a bright spot, yet probably not enough to keep the Tigers competitive.
|2009-10 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 5||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Monday, Oct. 26||Coaches on the Hot Seat|
|Wednesday, Oct. 7||Preseason All-America Team||Wednesday, Oct. 28||Ranking the best of the non-BCS|
|Friday, Oct. 9||Impact Freshmen||Friday, Oct. 30||No. 6: Pac-10|
|Monday, Oct. 12||Programs on the Rise||Monday, Nov. 2||No. 5: SEC|
|Wednesday, Oct. 14||Programs on the Decline||Tuesday, Nov. 3||No. 4: Big East|
|Friday, Oct. 16||Midnight Madness | From Kansas||Wednesday, Nov. 4||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 19||Player rankings: Points/Combos||Thursday, Nov. 5||No. 2: Big Ten|
|Wednesday, Oct. 21||Player rankings: Wings||Friday, Nov. 6||No. 1: Big 12|
|Friday, Oct. 23||Player rankings: Big Men||Monday, Nov. 9||Brackets: Parrish | Palm|