2013-14 SEC Preview: Can anyone catch Kentucky?

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Kentucky is the most talented team in the SEC. Stipulated for the foreseeable future, counselor. It’s appropriate that a blue-blood program from the heart of horse country is stocked with powerful blue chip athletes who have obvious physical advantages. They can, should and probably will win the SEC. But there’s always a chance that Seabiscuit will emerge from the pack and energize the race. The Wildcats will get everyone’s best effort in every game, and the league is studded with contenders and wily veterans who can make things interesting. Kentucky’s stumble into and immediately out of the NIT last season has put the gleam of hope in the eye of every challenger the league has to offer.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky will put an NBA-caliber team on the floor every night: We can pick Kentucky No. 1 in the nation every year, that’s no joke. Some of us resisted that notion this season, because we’ve seen that work spectacularly (2012’s national title) and fail miserably (2013’s NIT washout). Michael Jordan said it best: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” We can see the talent, so if the other two sides of the triangle fall into place, well, quite frankly, nobody else has a chance.

2. Jeronne Maymon is back in Knoxville: I used the thoroughbred as a metaphor for Kentucky’s makeup, but Tennessee’s strength is different. Former Vols coach Bruce Pearl called Maymon a “junkyard dog” when he landed the Marquette transfer, and the burly forward pairs well with current coach Cuonzo Martin’s gritty style of play. Maymon redshirted last year with a persistent knee injury, but he’s back this season and ready to pair with Jarnell Stokes to form our No. 6 frontcourt in the nation.

3. The Marshall Henderson Show gets a tenative renewal: Marshall Henderson is a shooter. He can shoot you into a huge win with his gutsy deep stroke, or he can shoot himself in the foot with his own middle finger. Henderson will be sitting out three games this season, including his team’s first two SEC contests, and his notoriety is now a double-edged sword. Everyone knows Ole Miss has a star, including the refs and the NCAA’s shell-shocked PR department.

source: AP
AP photo

4. Haithers gonna Haith: When Frank Haith nabbed the Missouri job in 2011, two questions dogged his heels. First, was he better than his 56% winning percentage at Miami would seem to indicate? So far, the answer is yes to that one, as Haith has won 53 games in two seasons in Columbia. Second, would infractions from his time with the Hurricanes dog him in his new gig? That question was answered recently, when the NCAA suspended Haith for his first five games of this season. With another quality team in place, led by transfer Jordan Clarkson and junior Jabari Brown, Haith should be ready to put it all behind him and win 20-plus games again.

5. LSU is back: Standing 6-foot-9 and weighing in at 260 lbs., Johnny O’Bryant III may not be the second coming of Shaq, but he’s bringing back some of the excitement of the Dale Brown era in Baton Rouge. Second year Tigers coach Johnny Jones has three more of his top scorers returning to back up O’Bryant, and his recruiting touch has the Tigers sitting pretty for the future as well.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Julius Randle (Kentucky)

Well, duh. This guy could likely start in the NBA right now. He’s the combination of size, strength and speed that comes along extremely rarely, even in DI basketball. If his basketball IQ is on track, he will find plenty of room underneath alongside his massively talented teammates. He’s the very definition of “one to watch”.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • G Jordan McRae (Tennessee): When the media voted for preseason POY, Randle got the lion’s share of the votes, but McRae grabbed five votes to come in second on the ballot. The lanky 6-foot-6 wing had some monster games last season, scoring 34 on LSU and 35 at Georgia. With a solid team around him, he could steal some more of the spotlight.
  • F Johnny O’Bryant III (LSU): It’s been a while since Tiger fans had a big man to write home about. O’Bryant is on the cusp of a breakout season, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him average a double-double for the season and get LSU back to the NCAA tournament, where they last ventured in 2009.
  • G Trevor Releford (Alabama): Releford jacked up his scoring (14.9 ppg) and defense (2.1 spg) last season,  and he’s always been a pretty good distributor. He’s on the Cousy Award watch list this season, and he’ll be driving the bus in Tuscaloosa.
  • F Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): Stokes averaged nearly a double-double last season while holding down the post. Imagine what he’ll do with Maymon healthy and ready to step in next to him?

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss)
  • F Patric Young (Florida)
  • G Andrew Harrison (Kentucky)
  • G Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
  • C Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)

BREAKOUT STAR: Jordan Clarkson (Missouri)

Clarkson wasn’t exactly hidden under a bushel at Tulsa, where he averaged 14.2 points per game over two seasons, but he’ll definitely be on the biggest stage now that he’s eligible to finish out his career at Mizzou. He stands 6-foot-5 and definitely has a scorer’s mentality, but Clarkson revealed that he’s been working out at point and off-guard this summer, so his versatility and nose for the ball will have him in the mix from day one in Columbia.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tony Barbee (Auburn)

Auburn hasn’t been to the Big Dance in a decade, and make no mistake, they hired Calipari disciple Barbee away from a successful stint at UTEP to rectify that situation. Instead they’ve had a rash of transfers and three losing seasons in a row. Last season was the worst, as the Tigers limped to a 9-23 overall record. Nothing short of a 20-win season and a postseason appearance can save Barbee’s job.

source:
AP photo

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Has anyone seen my Marshall Henderson-to-English dictionary lying around?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Finding out what this year’s iteration of the Big Blue NBA Express can do.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 12: Kentucky vs. Michigan State (in Chicago)
  • December 10: Kansas at Florida
  • December 14: Kentucky at North Carolina
  • December 14: Tennessee at Wichita State
  • December 28: Louisville at Kentucky

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: I’m running out of new ways to say it: these guys are the ish. Their bench could beat 95% of DI teams.
2. Florida: Billy Donovan has another well-built roster in Gainesville, with size and toughness up front.
3. Tennessee: With experience, a towering frontcourt and a gritty defense, Cuonzo Martin has the Vols loaded for bear.
4. LSU: We’ll hear a lot about Johnny O’Bryant, but he’s not going to have to get it done by himself. Anthony Hickey (11.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) will have plenty of options to score or dish to an open teammate on this roster.
5. Missouri: Plenty of question marks with Flip and Laurence Bowers gone, but Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson should pick up the slack.
6. Alabama: Led by Trevor Releford, the Tide can roll this season, but can they make the tourney?
7. Mississippi: Could go higher or lower based on what side of the bed Marshall Henderson wakes up on any given day.
8. Arkansas: With Mike Anderson at the helm, running a legacy version of 40 minutes of hell, this team could easily make a leap this season.
9. Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings just doesn’t have the talent of years past.
10. Texas A&M: Does Johnny Football have a decent handle? I’m sure the Aggies would give him a try.
11. Georgia: They love Mark Fox in Athens, but he’s going to need to ramp up the recruiting to do business in the SEC consistently.
12. South Carolina: Frank Martin will have success wherever he goes, but this roster just isn’t there yet.
13. Auburn: See above, re: hot seat.
14. Mississippi State: Rick Ray has some talent on the roster, with Jalen Steele, Trivante Bloodman and Craig Sword sounding like characters in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Give him another couple of years before you judge what this program can do.

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?