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Conference Catchups: Three-team race in the SEC?

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Jordan Clarkson, Missouri

Much was expected of the Tulsa transfer and thus far Clarkson has delivered, as he leads the SEC in scoring (19.9 ppg) and ranks second in the conference in assists (4.3 apg). And from an efficiency standpoint Clarkson ranks third in the amongst players with a possession percentage of at least 24% when it comes to offensive rating, according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. Clarkson’s one of the big reasons why the Tigers are 10-1 heading into their game at N.C. State on Saturday.

All-SEC First Team:

  • Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
  • Jordan McRae, Tennessee
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri
  • Casey Prather, Florida
  • Julius Randle, Kentucky

Midseason Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan, Florida

Despite a roster in flux due to injuries and disciplinary issues the Gators are 9-2 and ranked 13th nationally. That says quite a bit about the coaching job that Donovan’s done to this point in the season, and Florida looks to be rounding into form just ahead of the start of SEC play. And the addition of McDonald’s All American forward Chris Walker will help Florida when it comes to their front court depth.

Favorite: Florida Gators

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Kentucky was the prohibitive favorite entering the season, and given the amount of talent at John Calipari’s disposal it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Wildcats ended up being that team come March. But the pick here is Florida, a team that’s getting all of its parts in order and is the lone SEC team that ranks in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Point guards Kasey Hill and Scottie Wilbekin are healthy, as is forward Will Yeguete, and in Casey Prather the Gators have one of the most improved players in the country. The addition of Chris Walker will only help matters, and they have enough talent to take things slowly with the freshman.

And three more contenders: 

  • It wouldn’t be wise to rule out Kentucky, with their stable of talented freshmen being supplemented by sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Two keys for the Wildcats moving forward: the emergence of a team leader (or leaders), and the aggression of Alex Poythress. Poythress clearly has skill, but he has to bring the intensity on a consistent basis in order to help this team.
  • The perimeter tandem of Clarkson and Jabari Brown has led the way for Missouri, and for that reason the Tigers should be considered when discussing the top teams in the SEC. They can use another bench contributor or two, especially in the paint, but this is a group that will be a factor.
  • LSU may be the dark horse, with Johnny O’Bryant III leading four players scoring in double figures. Freshman Jordan Mickey has been very productive for the Bayou Bengals, and classmate Jarell Martin has the skill needed to have a greater impact when conference play begins.

Most Surprising Team: Arkansas

Mike Anderson’s Razorbacks have been more balanced and efficient offensively this season, with four players averaging at least 10.4 points per game and two others averaging at least 7.6 ppg. Alandise Harris and Bobby Portis have been good additions inside, and leading scorer Michael Qualls has raised his scoring average by almost ten points per game (14.1 ppg after averaging 4.6 ppg in 2012-13).

Most Disappointing Team: Kentucky

This one’s tough, because young teams need time to mesh and understand roles both on the court and in the locker room. But when you entertain preseason chatter about the possibility of going 40-0, the bar gets raised. The Wildcats have played a difficult schedule to date, so a couple losses were to be expected. The most disappointing thing at this stage in the season is that leaders have yet to emerge. That has to happen if Kentucky is to reach its full potential this season.

Most Important Player (in league play): Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

Kentucky’s lack of a definitive leader at this point means that the starting point guard, Harrison, will be their most important player in conference play. Harrison does rank fifth in the SEC in assists (3.5 apg), but that’s only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to being a team leader. If he can grab the reins and ensure that everyone’s headed in the same (and proper) direction, Kentucky can win the national title.

Who will slide?: Tennessee

The Volunteers’ best attribute thus far has their ability to hit the offensive glass, as they rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (43.0%). That has masked their shooting issues, as Tennessee is shooting just 31.4% from beyond the arc on the season. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes can be a load inside, but how will they fare against the more athletic front courts of the SEC? That, along with perimeter shooting, could be a concern come January.

Who is the sleeper?: LSU

Johnny Jones has a team more than capable of getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009, and given the status of the SEC why can’t they make a run? LSU has plenty of talent, and their guards (especially Anthony Hickey) can get after teams on the defensive end of the floor. They’ve been tested in non-conference play as well, with their two losses coming to UMass and Memphis. If there’s any team outside of the Florida/Kentucky/Missouri triumvirate capable of surprising people it’s LSU.

New Power Rankings

1. Florida
2. Kentucky
3. Missouri
4. LSU
5. Tennessee
6. Arkansas
7. Ole Miss
8. Alabama
9. Vanderbilt
10. Texas A&M
11. Mississippi State
12. South Carolina
13. Georgia
14. Auburn

Looking Forward: Which programs are on the rise as we head into 2016-17?

FILE - In this Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, file photo, Wisconsin's Vitto Brown, left, and Bronson Koening laugh during the final seconds of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won, 79-68. Though he moved on to the NBA long ago, March Madness is also Steph Curry's world now. (AP Photo/Andy Manis, File)
AP Photo/Andy Manis, File
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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some programs on the rise heading into next season.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams’ second season in Blacksburg proved to be more successful than many expected, as the Hokies won ten ACC games (20 overall) and played in the Postseason NIT. What can they do for an encore? In all honesty the pieces needed for the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007 are in place, with six of their top seven scorers from a season ago due to return led by forward Zach LeDay and guard Seth Allen. Expecting the Hokies to contend for the ACC title may be a bit much, but it’s fair to expect them to work their way into the Top 25 and the NCAA tournament in 2016-17.

Creighton: The Bluejays, picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll, nearly played its way onto the NCAA tournament bubble thanks to a much-improved big man in Geoffrey Groselle, transfer Maurice Watson Jr. and Cole Huff, and guard Isaiah Zierden. Groselle’s gone, but given the combination of returnees and the addition of former Kansas State guard Marcus Foster the Bluejays could be in line for another leap forward. The key for Greg McDermott’s team will be the return of Watson, who’s going through the NBA Draft evaluation process.

Wisconsin: At one point last season the Badgers were 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play, with it appearing highly unlikely that Greg Gard would have his interim tag removed. But Gard’s team turned things around, winning 22 games and reaching the Sweet 16. Provided Nigel Hayes, who’s currently going through the NBA Draft evaluation process, returns to school the Badgers will be on the short list of Big Ten title contenders. Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ lead four other starters who will be back, and Andy Van Vliet (who the NCAA sidelined for last season) will help in the front court as well.

USC: The Trojans’ progression was a year ahead of schedule, as after producing consecutive 12-win seasons they earned an NCAA tournament berth in Andy Enfield’s third season at the helm. USC does have some questions in the form of guard Julian Jacobs and forward Nikola Jovanovic both going through the NBA Draft process, but if both return the Trojans will be a contender in the Pac-12. Jordan McLaughlin, Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu are among the returnees for a team that could return five of its six double-digit scorers — Katin Reinhardt being the lone departure — from last season.

UCLA guard Bryce Alford, center, attempts to move the ball past Kentucky guard Charles Matthews, right, as Jamal Murray, left, helps defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
UCLA guard Bryce Alford (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

UCLA: Staying in Los Angeles, this is a big year coming up for Steve Alford. The Bruins were a major disappointment last season, but the combination of some key returnees and a recruiting class led by Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf should propel UCLA back into the Pac-12 and national conversations. Ball should be handed the keys to the show from the start given his abilities at the point, which should result in plentiful scoring opportunities for the likes of Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh. How good this team can be will depend on two things: how well the pieces mesh, and an improved commitment on the defensive end.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 last season, but the way in which they got there wasn’t what we’ve grown accustomed to with regards to Mark Few’s program as they needed the WCC automatic bid to ensure a spot in the field. Even with the departures of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga has the tools needed to be better in 2016-17, as a backcourt that made strides as the season progressed will be a year older with Josh Perkins and Silas Melson leading the way. Also, Przemek Karnowski will be back on the court after missing last season with a back injury.

Florida State: Leonard Hamilton received some good news, as both Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes decided to return after briefly flirting with the NBA Draft. They’ll be asked to lead the way for a team that adds a solid recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American Jonathan Isaac, and putting points on the board won’t be much of an issue. If they can get back to defending at the level we’ve come to expect from Hamilton-coached teams, Florida State can make their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012.

Rhode Island: Dan Hurley’s Rams began the 2015-16 season viewed as a team that could contend in the Atlantic 10. Then the injury bug hit, with E.C. Matthews being lost to a torn ACL and multiple key contributors (including Hassan Martin) missing time throughout the course of the year. URI’s healthy again, and with Four McGlynn being the lone major contributor out of eligibility 2016-17 should see the Rams rebound and make a run at the Atlantic 10 title.

Michigan’s Spike Albrecht to finish his career at rival Big Ten program

Michigan guard Spike Albrecht (2) makes a layup between Northern Michigan forward Brett Branstrom, top left, and center Vejas Grazulis (52) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Michigan won 70-44. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Spike Albrecht’s career isn’t over, as the former Michigan point guard and graduate transfer has committed to play his final season for Big Ten rival Purdue.

“I’ll be playing my 5th year for Purdue University,” Albrecht tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Boiler Up.”

Albrecht’s career has been fascinating to follow. A very lightly recruited high schooler, Albrecht picked Michigan over Appalachian State, playing very limited minutes behind National Player of the Year Trey Burke before popping off for 17 points in the first half of the national title game that season (and launching the greatest heat check in the history of heat checks). He would play a bigger role as a sophomore before averaging 7.5 points and 3.9 assists in 32 minutes as a junior in 2014-15.

But as a senior, Albrecht cut his season short after just a couple of games due to a degenerative issue in his hips. He had surgery on both hips prior to last season and initially announced that his career was over. That changed, but Michigan’s scholarship situation didn’t: They had already recruited someone to take his scholarship after his graduation, so Albrecht was forced to transfer.

Purdue is a good fit for him. He’ll provide veteran leadership on a team with just one other senior on the roster — redshirt junior Basil Smotherman — and he’ll help anchor the point guard spot currently held by junior P.J. Thompson.

Villanova’s Jenkins to return for senior season

Villanova forward Kris Jenkins (2) reacts to play against North Carolina during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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After briefly taking part in the NBA Draft evaluation process, Villanova forward Kris Jenkins announced Monday night that he’s decided to withdraw and return to school for his senior year. Jenkins, whose three-pointer as time expired gave the Wildcats the win over North Carolina in the national title game, announced the news via Twitter.

2015-16 was a breakout season for Jenkins, who moved into the starting lineup and averaged 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. The 6-foot-6 forward shot 45.9 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc, and with starters Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduating he’ll have even more opportunities to produce next season.

Jenkins’ decision to return leaves wing Josh Hart as the lone Wildcats going through the early entry process at this time. Hart was a first team All-Big East selection as a junior, and his return would be the final piece to the puzzle for a team that many expect to be a national title contender in 2016-17.

Jenkins and Hart wouldn’t be the only returnees who had a part in the national title run, with guards Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, wing Mikal Bridges and forward Darryl Reynolds back as well. To that group Villanova adds Fordham transfer Eric Paschall and a recruiting class anchored by Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter with Donte DiVincenzo and Tim Delaney available after being hampered by injuries last season.

Delaney missed all of last year after undergoing surgical procedures on his hips, and DiVincenzo played a total of 74 minutes over the first nine games before having to sit due to a broken foot.

Florida State guard Rathan-Mayes to return for junior season

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) drives past Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger, left, for a score in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Tallahassee, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark Wallheiser)
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With their top three scorers from last season all deciding to declare for the NBA Draft, Florida State was facing the possibility of having to rebuild their backcourt ahead of the 2016-17 season. However two of those three have decided to return to Tallahassee, with rising junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes announcing on Monday that he will be back in school.

Rathan-Mayes joins rising sophomore Dwayne Bacon in returning to play another season for head coach Leonard Hamilton, with Malik Beasley hiring representation and remaining in the draft.

Rathan-Mayes had more scoring help last season and as a result was able to concentrate more on the distribution aspects of the point guard position, as he averaged 11.8 points and 4.4 assists per contest. With the return of Rathan-Mayes and Bacon, Florida State will have two of its top three scorers from last season back on campus.

The Seminoles did lose some veteran players, most notably guard Devon Bookert and center Boris Bojanovsky, but the returnees and a recruiting class led by McDonald’s All-American forward Jonathan Isaac means that they won’t lack for options next season.

Auburn lands third transfer within the last week

Auburn guard T.J. Dunans (4) and coach Bruce Pearl celebrate a 75-74 win over UAB in an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.  (Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP)
Julie Bennett/AL.com via AP
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After receiving commitments from former Purdue/Houston guard Ronnie Johnson and former Presbyterian forward DeSean Murray, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl continued to load up on the transfer market Monday. Forward LaRon Smith, who was named MEAC Defensive Player of the Year at Bethune-Cookman last season, announced that he will use his final season of eligibility at the SEC program.

Like Smith, Johnson will also be eligible to compete immediately for the Tigers while Murray will have to sit out next season before having two years of eligibility remaining.

The 6-foot-8 Smith played two seasons at Georgia State before transferring to Bethune-Cookman, where he averaged 7.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per contest in 2015-16. Smith played just over 25 minutes per game for the Wildcats, shooting 58.5 percent from the field.

Smith reached double figures in scoring in four of the Wildcats’ final seven games, including a 20-point, 11-rebound, three-block outing in an overtime win over North Carolina A&T. He joins a front court in need of depth following the departures of the likes of Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris, with Horace Spencer, Trayvon Reed and incoming freshman Anfernee McLemore also competing for minutes in 2016-17.