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November 7, 2008

Rivals.com Southeastern Conference preview

SEC picks
East
West
1. LSU*
3. Alabama#
5. Auburn
* - projected NCAA tournament team
# - projected NIT team

The SEC welcomes two new coaches for whom expectations couldn't be more disparate.

Trent Johnson comes to LSU after taking Stanford to the Sweet 16. He inherits a wildly talented if not especially disciplined team that could win the SEC West and be a surprise on the national scene. It was picked second in the West in the SEC preseason media poll and received 11 first-place votes.

Darrin Horn arrives at South Carolina after guiding Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16. The Gamecocks have a couple of nice building blocks in all-conference guard Devan Downey and forward Dominique Archie and return seven of their top eight scorers. Still, they were picked fifth in the East in the SEC media poll.

That's the nature of the beast in the SEC East. South Carolina must contend with Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, each of which has been to at least the Sweet 16, if not beyond, since the last time the Gamecocks even made the NCAA tournament in 2004.

"I know that I am focusing on the positives," Horn said at SEC Media Days in October. "One of the biggest we have is the SEC. I think that you have to recruit well and you have to do it for consecutive years to be able to perform. We're excited about the challenge and the opportunity to do that. We've seen what Florida and Tennessee have done in recent years, and our mind-set is that if they can do it, why can't we?

"We have a lot of positives in place. We have a great facility, a passionate fan base. People are crazy about Gamecock athletics."

Still, that 2004 NCAA bid was the only one South Carolina has had in the past 10 years. The SEC East is no molehill. It's Everest.

"I've had to live with the East twice every time, so I know what those numbers are," said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose Vols were the runaway favorite to win the league in the preseason vote. "Kentucky and Florida are in the East. And Tennessee has had a good run the last few years. It's the toughest division in college basketball."

Team on the rise Ole Miss. Andy Kennedy is entering his third season as coach, and his first two have seen the Rebels walking tall. In 2006-07, they were picked to finish last in the SEC West. They hadn't finished higher than third in the division in five seasons. Kennedy promptly led them to a tie for first. The Rebels again were picked to finish sixth in the SEC West last season. Instead, they burst from the gate 13-0 and finished third. Now Ole Miss returns all three of its starting guards and two more guards who averaged 5.9 points. It also has a recruiting class with four-star power forward Terrance Henry and two three-star prospects. And recruiting already has picked up for the 2009 class. Kennedy has secured a commitment from four-star power forward Reginald Buckner out of Memphis; he's the No. 30 overall prospect in the class.

Rivals.com Preseason All-SEC
Tyler Smith is our preseason SEC player of the year.

First Team
G Nick Calathes, Florida, Soph., 6-6/194
G Devan Downey, South Carolina, Jr., 5-9/175
C A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt, Soph., 6-11/250
F Patrick Patterson, Kentucky, Soph., 6-9/235
F F Tyler Smith, Tennessee, Jr., 6-7/215
Second Team
G Chris Warren, Ole Miss, Soph., 5-10/160
G Marcus Thornton, LSU, Sr., 6-4/205
G Alonzo Gee, Alabama, Sr., 6-6/219
C Chris Johnson, LSU, Sr., 6-11/210
F Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State, Jr., 6-9/210
All-Freshman Team
G Dee Bost, Mississippi State, 6-2/170
G Scotty Hopson, Tennessee, 6-7/185
G Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt, 6-11/255
F JaMychal Green, Alabama, 6-9/220
F Kenny Kadji, Florida, 6-10/245
Team on the decline
Arkansas. The Hogs lost their top five scorers from a team that went 23-12 overall and 9-7 in the league. It was a team that had been picked to finish atop the West but finished three games behind Mississippi State. Now, second-year coach John Pelphrey will be severely tested. In addition to losing several key players whose eligibility was up, Patrick Beverley, the Hogs' leading scorer a year ago, was ruled ineligible for the season. Instead of sitting out, the junior-to-be opted to sign a pro contract in Europe. "Losing Patrick is a devastating blow," Pelphrey said. "He's a guy that's been here for two years, and the thing that he added for us was that leadership. Whenever we had an off night, we could count on Patrick to make sure we went back to work the next day. That's probably what we've got to figure out, who is going to take over that role." And a lot of other roles, too.

Coach on the rise
LSU's Trent Johnson. His first head-coaching job was at Nevada, and he eventually took the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament. He won 25 games and advanced to the Sweet 16 in his final season. That performance helped him land the Stanford job, where he guided the Cardinal to three NCAA appearances in four seasons. Last season, Stanford won 28 games and advanced to the Sweet 16, and Johnson snagged the plum job as the Tigers' head man. Now, he inherits a team that returns five players who started at least 14 games and former All-SEC pick Tasmin Mitchell, who redshirted after suffering a stress fracture in his left shin just three games into last season. The West is wide open, and LSU is positioned to win it.

Coach on the hot seat
Auburn's Jeff Lebo. Lebo is 19-45 in the league in his four seasons, including 4-12 three times. Five of the top seven scorers from last year's team that went 14-16 overall and 4-12 in the league return, including Korvotney Barber, who was limited to 10 games last season after suffering a broken left hand. The Tigers have perhaps their best chance to show dramatic improvement. There is no dominant team in the West, and Auburn has some talent. If it doesn't translate into a winning season, it's hard to believe Lebo survives.

Best offensive player
Tennessee's Tyler Smith. There are plenty of returning players in the SEC who averaged more points per game than Smith, and LSU's Marcus Thornton and South Carolina's Devan Downey were strongly considered here. Smith often deferred to guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith unless the game was on the line. That's usually when Bruce Pearl cleared things out for Smith to work one-on-one. Smith can blow by bigger forwards on the perimeter, and he can overpower smaller forwards on the block. If he improves his shooting range he'll be virtually unstoppable.

Best 3-point shooter
Ole Miss' Chris Warren. He is the leading returning player in the SEC in both 3-pointers made per game (2.94) and 3-point percentage (38.9 percent). He can penetrate at will, but if you play off him like you should, he can rise up and bury the 3-pointer. It's a lethal combination, and one that could propel him even higher in his second season after a pretty spectacular freshman season (15.8 ppg, 4.5 apg).

Best defensive player
Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado. He led the nation in blocks last season, and he's the leading returning rebounder (7.8) in the SEC. He's 6-9, long-armed and times his jump well. He had 10 blocks on three occasions. In fact, all three times were against teams that made the NCAA tournament Miami, Georgia and Kentucky. "You don't want to go to the rim against Mississippi State unless you're sure he's on the help side," Tennessee's Tyler Smith said.

Best player you don't know yet
Vanderbilt's Jermaine Beal. He was one of only three players in the nation last season with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 or better. In the first five SEC games, Beal had 30 assists and only three turnovers in 29.4 minutes per game. The reason he'll break out this season is because he must for Vanderbilt to be as successful as it can be. Coach Kevin Stallings needs Beal to pick up some of the scoring slack left behind by the departure of SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster (20.3 ppg). Beal averaged 7.6 points and 4.6 assists last season, but shot only 38.4 percent, including 31.3 percent from 3-point range. He's capable of raising both shooting percentages and averaging 10 to 12 points while maintaining his excellent decision-making.

Deepest bench
Ole Miss. The Rebels return five guards who averaged at least 5.9 points last season. That includes the starting trio of Chris Warren (15.8 ppg), David Huertas (10.7 ppg) and Eniel Polynice (10.7 ppg). The two starters in the frontcourt sophomore Malcolm White and freshman Terrance Henry are new. Henry was a four-star prospect by Rivals.com. Ole Miss also brings in two three-star prospects who will see significant minutes in guard Terrico White and forward Murphy Holloway. Eight players averaged at least 13.9 minutes last season, and it's conceivable that number could reach nine this season.

Impact newcomer
Tennessee's Scotty Hopson. Hopson was the only player among the Rivals.com's top 20 prospects to sign with an SEC school. He will have every opportunity to put up big numbers. The Vols lose guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, so Hopson will start from Day One. He's a terrific athlete, a big-time leaper with a quick first step who can hit the pull-up shot at midrange. Hopson had 14 points in Tennessee's first exhibition game to tie for the team lead with Tyler Smith.

Freshman sleeper
Ole Miss' Terrico White. The Rebels' coaching staff loves what it has seen out of White, a 6-5 shooting guard. White is a Memphis product, so he has played against tough competition. He can score at the rim and can create his own shot. Even with the stocked backcourt at Ole Miss, White will get his fair share of minutes.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.



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