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SEC Reset: Get caught up on all of the league’s offseason wheelings and dealings

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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. The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2017-18 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the SEC over the next six months.

OFFSEASON STORYLINES 

1. This is the youngest Kentucky team that John Calipari has ever had: Eight of the top nine scorers from Kentucky’s 2-16-17 team are gone, either off to the professional ranks or via graduation, meaning that there are really only two sources of experience on this team: Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged fewer than five points in 18 minutes as a freshman last season, and Hamidou Diallo, who is a redshirt freshman that enrolled at the school in the middle of last year and very nearly made the choice to enter the NBA Draft.

Put another way, Kentucky lost 80.8 points per game off of last year’s team, and there were all of 26 teams in college basketball that averaged more points than that last season. The last time he dealt with something like this was in 2013, when his most senior returnee was Kyle Wiltjer. That incoming recruiting class, however, was not what this class is. He has five five-star prospects enrolling — Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green — along with a pair of four-star recruits as well as Diallo, who is technically still a freshman.

It’s not a secret that the best teams have a combination of one-and-done stars alongside talented veterans. Can Cal buck that trend?

2. So where does Kentucky actually get offense from this year?: The most concerning thing about Kentucky isn’t necessarily their age, it’s the fact that they don’t have a difference-maker offensively. The best players on their team next season are all great athletes with physical tools and a chance to be terrific defenders, but where are they going to get points from? Can a team with this much youth consistently win games in the 50s and 60s? Who is going to make a perimeter shot?

3. How does Florida bounce back after their Final Four run?: A year after getting back to the Final Four for the first time in the post-Billy Donovan era, the Gators look like they have another top ten team this season. Mike White lost a handful of key pieces off last year’s team, but with KeVaughn Allen back in the fold, Chris Chiozza at the point and a handful of quality transfers and freshmen entering the fray, it’s not crazy to think that Florida and not Kentucky is best built for a run at the SEC title.

Mike White (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

4. Alabama is the latest SEC also-ran to land a monster recruiting class. Can they turn that into wins?: It’s not a secret that the SEC has programs that have been able to land impressive recruiting classes in the past. We’ve seen LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State all land five-star prospects and impressive classes in recent years, but that influx of talent has yet to manifest itself in wins on the floor. The Crimson Tide are the latest in that group, as Avery Johnson brought in a pair of five-star recruits in Collin Sexton and John Petty; Sexton is a top ten prospect. They may be in a better position than anyone team before them, as the Tide bring back essentially everyone from a team that won 10 SEC games and had everything except offensive firepower.

Will that recruiting finally pay off?

5. What happens with Jontay Porter?: That’s the big question with Missouri at this point. Michael Jr.’s younger brother has sprouted into a 6-foot-10 monster, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2018 that should be able to have an immediate impact on the program whenever he does arrive on campus. The question is whether or not he wants to fast-forward the timeline, enrolling in school this fall and playing with his brother during his only season on campus. That addition would be mammoth for Cuonzo Martin, because he still has a talent deficient roster that desperately needs bodies.

6. Texas A&M has long had the pieces, but do they finally come together?: The Aggies look like a team destined to make noise this year. Robert Williams, a potential lottery pick, returned to school, as did Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder. They’ve added Duane Wilson as well as a pair of point guards. This is the year for them to make a run, which is more or less what we’ve been saying about Billy Kennedy’s program for the last three years. At what point does it finally all come together?

Collin Sexton, Jon Lopez/Nike

IMPORTANT ADDITIONS

  • Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: What else is there to say about Michael Porter Jr. at this point? He might be the best prospect not currently in the NBA. He’s a 6-foot-9 wing with absurd athleticism and the ability to step out and knock down a three. The big question is if his presence alone is going to be enough to get Missouri back into the NCAA tournament conversation.
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama: There is so much to like about Sexton. As a player, he’s as good of a scorer as you’ll find coming in as a freshman. He’s a sneaky bet to lead the SEC in scoring and, along with John Petty, should be able to provide Avery Johnson with the scoring pop he lacked last season. As a person, Sexton is a maniac during games. He talks to himself, he talks to opponents, he plays with his heart on his sleeve. It’s quite entertaining. Hopefully Alabama fans will show out to see this kid. He may not be there long.
  • Kentucky’s team: The whole thing is going to be new. The most experienced player on the roster is Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points in 18 minutes last season. Starting over with a bunch of teenagers has always been the MO for the Wildcats, but having a total lack of veterans is something new and, frankly, something that is somewhat concerning.
  • J.J. and Jay Jay, Texas A&M: The Aggies had a team last season that looked like it would be able to make some noise in the SEC, and for the most part, that roster has remained intact for this year. The big difference, however, is that they might finally have a point guard after struggling to find someone to fill that role last year. J.J. Caldwell, a redshirt freshman, and Jay Jay Chandler, a true freshman, will battle it out for minutes. Their success might determine A&M’s ceiling.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Will Wade, LSU: Johnny Jones didn’t do any favors for his successor, as the roster was gutted before Will Wade walked in the door from VCU. The good news for Wade? He landed a four-star point guard prospect in Tremont Waters, but that’s not going to change the fact that he has quite a bit of work to do before the Tigers are back in the mix in the SEC.
  • Cuonzo Martin, Missouri: On the surface, it looked like the situation that Martin was taking over in Columbia was going to be an ugly one. Kim Anderson left the cupboard bare. And then Martin went out and hired Michael Porter Sr., earning him commitments from both of his five-star sons, while adding a couple more talented prospects. The big name is Michael Jr. He might end up being the best player in college basketball next season, and that’s a nice luxury to have in the midst of a rebuild.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Michael Porter Jr., Missouri (Player of the Year)
Collin Sexton, Alabama
KeVaughn Allen, Florida
Yante Maten, Georgia
Robert Williams, Texas A&M

Michael Porter, Jr. (Photo by Jon Lopez)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

  1. Kentucky: John Calipari is going to have his work cut out for him, and it’s rarely going to be pretty basketball that his team plays this season, but winning games in the 50s and 60s is still winning games. It will be interesting to see how Coach Cal handles coaching a team where the elder statesmen are a sophomore that averaged 4.6 points and a redshirt freshman.
  2. Florida: The Gators are a year removed from a trip to the Final Four, and while they will enter this season without Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson, there are still enough pieces in play for them to have a shot at winning the SEC. The key is going to be John Egbunu’s health. How does he recover from last year’s torn ACL?
  3. Alabama: Last year, Alabama played a slow, stifling defensive style and couldn’t score. This year, they added a pair of five-star freshmen, one of whom — Collin Sexton — will be in the mix as the SEC’s leading scorer. I think they’re a top 20 team nationally.
  4. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the talent to be a top 25 team this season. That much is clear. The question is whether the two J.J.’s will be good enough at the point guard spot that Billy Kennedy can get this group back to the NCAA tournament.
  5. Missouri: Michael Porter Jr. That’s really all you need to know at this point. He’s probably going to be the best player in the conference this season — there are NBA front office people that would take him No. 1 in this draft if they could. The question is going to be whether or not Cuonzo Martin can find a way to make it work with him and if his supporting cast will be good enough.
  6. Arkansas: The Hogs lost Moses Kingsley after last season, but there is some young talent on this roster. The question is whether or not Mike Anderson is actually going to be able to have sustained success with that talent.
  7. Georgia: Mark Fox is a criminally underrated basketball coach that will have arguably the best player in the SEC on his roster in Yante Maten. I’m not quite sure how he gets it done, but I think he keeps the Bulldogs relevant in the conference.
  8. Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy always seems to find a way to get the Rebels somewhere around 20 wins and a .500 or better record in the SEC. He loses Sebastian Saiz, but with Deandre Burnett back, Ole Miss should be able to make some noise.
  9. Vanderbilt: Bryce Drew somehow got Vanderbilt into the NCAA tournament last season and will return a number of key pieces from that team.
  10. Mississippi State: Is this the year that Ben Howland’s talent stockpile finally pays off in the form of wins? Quinndary Weatherspoon is a first-team all-SEC talent that leads a roster loaded with former four-star recruits.
  11. Auburn: Like Mississippi State, the Tigers have some talent on their roster. Mustapha Heron is back, and Danjel Purifoy should take a step forward. The midseason addition of Austin Wiley will likely payoff more this season. I can see Auburn making the NCAA tournament and I can see them finishing the year at .500.
  12. South Carolina: Not only did South Carolina graduate Sindarius Thornwell, they lost P.J. Dozier to the NBA. We’ll see if Hassani Gravett and Delaware transfer Kory Holden can fill those holes.
  13. Tennessee: The Vols are in a tough spot. They lost a couple of key pieces off of last year’s team while the rest of the bottom of the league looks like it is going to take a step forward. That said, if the pieces fall right, I can see Rick Barnes finishing the year in the top half of the league; 6-13 in this league is a toss-up. Keep an eye on the duo of Grant Williams and John Fulkerson.
  14. LSU: Yes, the Tigers brought in Will Wade, and yes, they landed a commitment from Tremont Waters, but this is still a team with quite a bit of work to do before they are relevant again.

Joel Berry II’s touching encounter with a grieving fan

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When you are the starting point guard at North Carolina and a preseason All-American coming off of a season where your team won the national title while you won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award, getting recognized in Chapel Hill comes with the territory.

Joel Berry II should expect it when he goes out to eat.

What Berry wasn’t expecting, however, was that simply being recognized could profoundly affect the life of one of his fans.

Berry shared the story with UNC’s in-house media arm, GoHeels.com. He was at breakfast with his girlfriend when he noticed two women eyeballing him. As it turns out, those two women were the mothers of two boys that had been best friends. One of the boys had moved to Oregon and, in February, died in an car accident. His name was Rob McKiver, and Berry was his favorite player on his favorite team.

MORE: Joel Berry II, fake tattoos and a family’s loving gesture

From GoHeels.com:

That’s why Carol Freedman and Myra McVicker sat in their booth that May morning with tears trickling down their cheeks. Freedman ultimately sent Berry a heartfelt email. She relayed the story of the McVicker family and then explained why the two women had been so closely watching Berry. “Your presence that Saturday, that morning when we could have met anywhere, at any other day or time, reaffirms our belief that those loved ones who leave this Earth are still with us if we look and listen,” she wrote. “In death, Rob let his mother know that his love for her is stronger than ever.”

The email deeply touched Berry, who wrote back that same day.

“This is by far the greatest email I have ever received,” Berry wrote. “I got goosebumps reading this letter and had to share it with my mom and dad. When telling my mom, she cried with joy knowing her son had impacted someone in that way. Each morning, I always tell myself, ‘Something good is going to happen today,’ and as I read that email, I said to myself, ‘This is more than something good. This is a life changer and I will always remember this.'”

I wrote about Berry and his family after UNC won the national title. I found him to be a likeable young man and someone who is very easy to root for, unless, of course, you live in Durham.

I guess I’m not the only one that feels that way.

Tommy Hawkins, first black all-american at Notre Dame, dead at 80 years old

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tommy Hawkins, the first black basketball player to earn All-America honors at Notre Dame and who played for the Los Angeles Lakers during a 10-year NBA career, died Wednesday. He was 80.

Hawkins died in his sleep at home in Malibu, son Kevin told The Associated Press. He had been in good health and had lay down to rest, his oldest son said.

Hawkins graduated from Notre Dame in 1959 after playing three years on the basketball team. He had 1,318 career rebounds for the longest-standing record in Fighting Irish history. He was named to the school’s All-Century team in 2004 and inducted into its Ring of Honor in 2015. He led the Irish to a 44-13 record over his last two seasons, including an Elite Eight berth in the 1958 NCAA Tournament.

“He loved Notre Dame with every fiber of his being,” said Kevin Hawkins, who followed in his father’s footsteps and played basketball for the Irish before graduating in 1981. “He said Notre Dame did so much for him and grew him up to become the man that he would become.”

Hawkins became close with Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh, who served from 1952-87. Hesburgh was supportive when Hawkins was dating a white woman from nearby Saint Mary’s College and they were turned away from a South Bend restaurant that wouldn’t allow the interracial couple to dine, Kevin Hawkins said.

“That act led Father Hesburgh to ban Notre Dame (students) from eating there until my father got a public apology,” Kevin Hawkins said by phone from his home in South Bend. “Notre Dame walked the talk when you talk about civil rights. That meant the world to him.”

Kevin Hawkins said his father’s basketball teammate and future NFL Hall of Famer Paul Hornung led Hawkins back to the restaurant to secure the apology.

Kevin Hawkins said he spoke to his father almost daily and they had recently discussed last weekend’s civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Hawkins was selected by the Minneapolis Lakers with the third pick in the first round of the 1959 NBA draft. He played one season in Minnesota before moving with the team to Los Angeles. He went on to play six seasons for the Lakers, averaging 9.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in 454 games.

The 6-foot-5 forward also played for the Cincinnati Royals from 1962-66. Hawkins recorded 6,672 points and 4,607 rebounds in his pro career.

“He was and will always be part of the Lakers family,” team CEO and majority owner Jeanie Buss said. “His baritone voice and easy demeanor made him a favorite of the fans and media, as well as everyone who had the honor of calling him a friend.”

Hawkins’ influence continued beyond his playing days. As a player representative, he had a key role in establishing the first collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union and the NBA.

Born Thomas Jerome Hawkins on Dec. 22, 1936, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he moved to Chicago with his mother and aunt as a child. He starred at the city’s Parker High, now Robeson High, before being recruited by Notre Dame.

Kevin Hawkins recalled his father as a man with interests that ranged from poetry to jazz to sports. He self-published a book of poetry and Hawkins was in the midst of writing a memoir on his basketball career when he died.

“My father was a person who didn’t want to be defined as a jock or an ex-player,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He was an eclectic man. He had stories about everything from Notre Dame to the NBA to broadcasting.”

Hawkins enjoyed friendships with Alabama football coach Bear Bryant; UCLA basketball coach John Wooden; Southern California football coach John McKay; and artist LeRoy Neiman.

“You think about a man who grew up in the projects of Chicago that had done all these things in his life,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He called himself a cosmic functionary. That was his big deal. It made us all cringe, but he just loved it. He was a man of the world and a man of the people.”

Hawkins’ gregarious personality was on full display as master of ceremonies for the John R. Wooden Award presentation for over 30 years before he passed on his MC duties in 2011. He was co-national chairman of the award that honors the nation’s top male and female college basketball players.

Hawkins was hired in 1987 by then-Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley to be vice president of communications and he worked for the team until 2004.

“In life we are fortunate to know many people and Tommy was one person I always looked forward to seeing and being with,” said O’Malley, who sold the team in 1998. “He did an extraordinary job for the Dodgers as vice president, and his friendship will be missed by his family and many admirers.”

The Dodgers had a moment of silence for Hawkins before their game against the White Sox on Wednesday night.

Before joining the Dodgers, Hawkins worked in radio and television in Southern California, including stints with KNBC-TV and KABC radio.

He is survived by his second wife, Layla, and their daughter Neda; his first wife, Dori, and their children Kevin, Karel, Traci and David; seven grandchildren; and a great grandchild.

The family will likely hold a public memorial at a future date, Kevin Hawkins said.

Brad Underwood pokes fun at his version of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’

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On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.

While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.

Underwood was at least able to poke fun at his vocals following his performance.

“I’d rather coach naked than sing in front of 40,000,” Underwood said afterward. “There’s a reason my wife won’t let me sing in church.”

Underwood took over Illinois in mid-March following a one-year stint at Oklahoma State. He had previously led Stephen F. Austin to three NCAA Tournament appearances in as many seasons.

 

AAC plan men’s basketball tourney at new Texas arena in ’20

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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The American Athletic Conference will hold its men’s basketball tournament in a new arena in North Texas in 2020.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco announced Wednesday that Dickies Arena in Fort Worth has been selected to host the tournament for three years, starting in March 2020. That is only four months after the facility is scheduled to open.

On the same day of a groundbreaking ceremony for the 14,000-seat arena last April, the NCAA announced that first- and second-round games of the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be held there. The NCAA women’s gymnastics championships are scheduled there from 2020-22.

The closest AAC school to the new arena is SMU, with its campus in Dallas about 40 miles away.

Orlando will host the 2018 AAC tournament, which moves to Memphis in 2019.

After hearing, UNC now awaits NCAA ruling in academic case

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North Carolina has wrapped up a two-day hearing with an NCAA infractions committee panel that will decide whether the school faces penalties tied to its multi-year academic scandal.

Now the case goes into yet another holding pattern.

School officials spent much of Wednesday in a closed-door meeting with committee members in Nashville, Tennessee. They returned Thursday morning for a second session lasting about 4½ hours with the panel that will determine whether UNC faces penalties such as fines, probation or vacated wins and championships.

NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn confirmed the hearing was complete but both sides were mum afterward.

Osburn didn’t comment further because the panel must deliberate before issuing a ruling, which typically comes weeks to months after a hearing. UNC athletics spokesman Steve Kirschner said the school wouldn’t have any comments about the hearing either.

Getting through the hearing process was a major step toward resolution in a delay-filled case tied to irregular courses, though there’s still the potential for the case to linger beyond a ruling if UNC decides to appeal or pursue legal action. The school faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control.

The focus is independent study-style courses in the formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. The courses were misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two for typically high grades.

In a 2014 investigation, former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes making up roughly half the enrollments.

The NCAA has said UNC used those courses to help keep athletes eligible.

The case grew as an offshoot of a 2010 probe of the football program that resulted in sanctions in March 2012. The NCAA reopened an investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in a May 2015, revised them in April 2016 and then again in December.

Most notably, the NCAA originally treated some of the academic issues as improper benefits by saying athletes received access to the courses and other assistance generally unavailable to non-athletes. The NCAA removed that charge in the second Notice of Allegations (NOA), then revamped and re-inserted it into the third NOA.

UNC has challenged the NCAA’s jurisdiction, saying its accreditation agency — which sanctioned the school with a year of probation — was the proper authority and that the NCAA was overreaching in what should be an academic matter .

The NCAA enforcement staff countered in a July filing: “The issues at the heart of this case are clearly the NCAA’s business.”

UNC has argued non-athletes had access to the courses and athletes didn’t receive special treatment. It has also challenged Wainstein’s estimate of athlete enrollments, saying Wainstein counted athletes who were no longer team members and putting the figure at less than 30 percent.

UNC chancellor Carol Folt, athletic director Bubba Cunningham, men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell attended both hearing days. Football coach Larry Fedora, who wasn’t at UNC at the time in question, attended Wednesday’s session.

None of the coaches are charged with a violation. But football and men’s basketball are referenced in the broad-based improper benefits charge tied to athlete access to the irregular courses, while women’s basketball is tied to a charge focused on a former professor and academic counselor Jan Boxill providing improper assistance on assignments.

Boxill and Deborah Crowder, who is also charged individually in the case, attended Wednesday with their attorneys but didn’t return Thursday. Crowder is a former AFAM office administrator who enrolled students, distributed assignments and graded many of the papers in irregular courses.

The infractions panel is chaired by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey and includes former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.