2011-2012 SEC Preview: Kentucky’s king, but the league is good

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AWARDS

Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, Fr., Kentucky

I don’t like doing this. I don’t like buying into the hype of the freshmen. I don’t like giving them awards like this prior to spending a second on a collegiate court. Because sometimes, that hype becomes too much for the youngsters to handle. We all saw what happened with Harrison Barnes last season. He couldn’t get into a rhythm and couldn’t find his confidence until midway through the year. I don’t want to see that happen to Davis, but it is also impossible to ignore the buzz surrounding this kid. Davis is an athletic and rangy 6’10” power forward, but he’s got the mobility and the perimeter skills of a back court player. You see, Davis was a 6’3″ guard as a junior in high school before hitting a massive growth spurt. Amazingly enough, he still has the coordination and the mobility of someone much smaller. The most difficult thing for Davis this season may actually be realizing his true potential — does he know what he is capable of? Does he understand just how good he can be?

And a close second goes to…: John Jenkins, Jr., Vanderbilt

There may not be a better pure-shooter in the country than Jenkins. Blessed with impeccable form, Jenkins is deadly if you allow him to get his feet set and get a clean look at the rim. After primarily being a spot-up shooter as a freshman, Jenkins really expanded his repertoire as a sophomore. He’s excellent coming off of screens and has really developed his ability to attack and read a close out. His mid-range game has continued to develop, as has his ability to get all the way to the rim. The biggest issue for Jenkins is that he’s not a great shot-creator. He gets into trouble when he is forced to go 1-on-1, at times showing some poor shot selection. If he improved his explosiveness over the summer, Jenkins is going to be incredibly dangerous this year.

Breakout Star: Dundrecous Nelson, So., Ole Miss

For the past four years, Ole Miss has been Chris Warren and everyone else. With Warren and back court mate Zach Graham both graduating in the spring, Andy Kennedy’s team will be left with a major void in the back court. Nelson will be one of the guys to take over that role. A 6’1″ sophomore, Nelson averaged 7.2 ppg in just over 15 minutes as a freshman. But perhaps more promising is the fact that he played his best basketball late in the year. Nelson had double figures in each of the Rebel’s last four games, including a 30 point performance against Auburn.

All-Conference First-Team:

POY: Anthony Davis, Fr., Kentucky
G: Dee Bost, Sr., Mississippi State
G: John Jenkins, Jr., Vanderbilt
F: Tony Mitchell, Sr., Alabama
F: Terrence Jones, So., Kentucky
C: Festus Ezeli, Sr., Vanderbilt

All-Conference Second-Team:

G: Erving Walker, Sr., Florida
G: Doron Lamb, So., Kentucky
F: Jeff Taylor, Sr., Vanderbilt
F: Renardo Sidney, Jr., Mississippi State
C: JaMychael Green, Sr., Alabama

Newcomer of the Year: Arnett Moultrie, Jr., Mississippi State

Quite obviously, if freshman Anthony Davis is winning our Preseason Player of the Year award, he’s going to be winning the Newcomer of the Year award as well. But in an effort to expand who we write about, I’m going with Mississippi State junior Arnett Moultrie. The name should sound familiar too you — Moultrie sat out last season after transferring into the Mississippi State program from UTEP. At 6’11”, Moultrie has the size and the skill to be an impact player in the SEC and should provide a solid compliment to Renardo Sidney along the Bulldog front line. More importantly, however, is that Moultrie gives Stansbury some insurance in case Sidney goes all, well, Renardo Sidney; Moultrie averaged 9.8 ppg and 6.7 rpg as a sophomore and led the team by averaging 16 ppg and 11 rpg on their trip to Europe without Sidney.

All-Freshmen Team:

G: Marquis Teague, Kentucky
G: Trevor Lacey, Alabama
F: Rodney Hood, Mississippi State
F: Michael Gilchrist, Kentucky
C: Anthony Davis, Kentucky

Five summer storylines

– Will they play or not?: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the most important recruit Mark Fox has landed at Georgia yet, but until mid-September it was unclear whether or not he would have him in uniform. A Georgia native and a top 15 player nationally, Caldwell-Pope was forced to repay $280.90 that came from an unnamed account and was used to fund a cell-phone for his mother. Bruce Ellington, the standout freshman point guard for South Carolina, made a decision that may have huge effects on the basketball team when he decided to play footballfor the Gamecocks this season. More interesting, however, was the string of profanity-laced tweets that former Mississippi State freshman DJ Gardner fired off after finding out that he was going to be redshirted for the season. That got him kicked off the team.

Perhaps the most confusing off-season story line involved Murphy Holloway. Holloway spent his first two seasons at Ole Miss, but after the 2009-2010 season, the South Carolina native was forced to transfer closer to home because he had to take care of his daughter. After being forced to walk-on and redshirt a season with the Gamecocks, Holloway made the decision to transfer back to Ole Miss. He was cleared to play this year.

– Florida’s criminal masterminds: Alex Murphy, Cody Larson and student manager Josh Adel were arrested over the summer after they were caught trying to break into the car. If that wasn’t dumb enough, Murphy and Adel decided to try and plot their cover-up while in the back seat of the cop car as they were being recorded. Both Murphy and Larson have since been cleared to return to the team. Geniuses, those two.

– Defecting Arkansas: One of the things that every head coach goes through when they take over a new job is the wave of transfers leaving the program. It was no different for Mike Anderson when he took over the Arkansas head coaching job. But the former Missouri head coach seemed to finally get fed up with the stream of players heading out the door after both Jeff Peterson and Glenn Bryant left the school. Anderson originally didn’t want to grant his leading returning scorer Rotnei Clarke a release to transfer, but since enough noise was made in the press, the Razorback;s had their hands tied.

But was there more to this story? One local columnist believes Clarke and his entourage — dubbed “Team Clarke” — was a program for the Arkansas team. He also said that Anderson’s most impressive feat to date — managing to keep John Pelphrey’s recruiting class intact — was because the school refused to grant the player’s their release.

– Renardo Sidney: It started back in March, when the oft-maligned Mississippi State center made the decision to return to school instead of enter the NBA Draft — was Renardo Sidney finally “getting it”? He started losing weight once he went to Houston to work out with John Lucas, and he continued to get into shape even after being left home from the team’s trip to Europe. And now Rick Stansbury is saying that Sidney is doing as well as he ever has in Starkville. The most interesting story line heading into this season will be just how long the good behavior lasts.

– Swiperboy: First, Swiperboy aka Tennessee’s Renaldo Wooldridge retired. Then heunretired. Then he had his mixtape featured on CBS. Ok, then.

Five storylines heading into the season

– What does Florida do at the four?: There is no question that the Gators have a talented roster, particularly in their back court. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are the veterans, Brad Beal is the talented youngster and Mike Rosario is the transfer from Rutgers. All four will be capable of averaging 15 ppg and going for 25 on a given night. The question, however, is how Billy Donovan handles having a back court with four players that could start at just about any school in the country? Does he use a four-guard lineup, a la Villanova in 2006? Will the combination of Alex Murphy, Will Yeguete and Cody Larson be enough at the four? How does he distribute shots? Will Florida end up being a cautionary tale about having too much talent?

– Can Vanderbilt learn how to win?: Its a debate that has been going on all summer long, but its one that deserves a serious amount of questioning — if you bring back your entire roster, but that roster has noticeable flaws, is that a positive thing? Vandy may actually have the best 1-2-3 punch in the SEC this season in John Jenkins, Jeff Taylor and Festus Ezeli. They have depth, they have talented youngsters, and they have size. But they return a team that couldn’t win in the clutch. Vanderbilt was 1-5 in games decided by three points, lost another game by four and fell in overtime to South Carolina after blowing a double-digit second half lead. That’s seven of their 11 losses. They were also upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. Will this group learn how to win?

– How long does Jelan Kendrick last at Ole Miss?: There’s no denying Jelan Kendrick’s ability as a basketball player. He’s the most talented player that Andy Kennedy has ever had in his program at Ole Miss, a game-changer that can turn the Rebels into a team that can finish in the upper half of the SEC. But Kendrick is also a head case. He won’t be eligible to play until December after getting kicked off the team at Memphis. How much of a head-case is Kendrick? He got the boot in before Memphis played a game without academic, legal or eligibility issues. That’s impressive.

– Kentucky’s toughness: Its not difficult to see that the Wildcats are the most talented team in this conference; there’s a large faction of the college basketball-watching public outside the Bluegrass State that believes UK is the most talented team in the country. But talent alone doesn’t win titles. There’s a reason that the team that started Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins made it farther in the NCAA Tournament than the one that started DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall. You need glue guys. You need role players. You need members of the team willing to mix-it-up in the paint and to stake their reputation on their ability to play defense, not on their ability to score the basketball. Does this group of Wildcats have that? Who on this roster can handle Jared Sullinger or Alex Oriakhi on the block? Will Michael Kidd-Gilchrist be satisfied with being this season’s version of Liggins?

– How long will it take for Tennessee to bounce back?: Look, I love Cuonzo Martin as a head coach, but he’s in a tough situation. He lost six seniors, his two leading scorers to early entry and his top two recruits heading into this season. Throw that on top of the fact that he’s coaching at a school with very little basketball reputation while being handcuffed by sanctions his predecessor caused. Can he get this team playing the level of basketball they were before Bruce Pearl started lying to the NCAA?

Power Rankings

1. Kentucky: Ironically enough, last year’s Kentucky team — one that had decidedly less talent that the 2009-2010 version — was John Calipari’s first Final Four team to actually count in the NCAA record books. Part of the reason that team was so successful was that guys like DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson became hard-nosed, defensive-minded role-players that did the dirty work. Harrellson banged around inside with some of the nation’s best bigs, holding his own on the glass and scoring enough that he got himself picked in the second round. Liggins went from being a head-case and a distraction to the team’s best defender and a dead-eye three-point threat before also playing his way into the NBA. That’s what Kentucky, who finished third in the SEC last year before winning the SEC Tournament, will miss the most from last season.

As you have come to expect, John Calipari once again reeled in an unholy recruiting class. It starts with Anthony Davis, who has the kind of talent and hype coming in this season that we haven’t seen since Kevin Durant and Greg Oden back in 2006-2007. He’s an athletic, 6’10” power forward with a ridiculous wingspan and the perimeter skills of the 6’3″ guard he was as a junior in high school. Alongside Davis will be Terrence Jones, a 6’9″ combo-forward that showed flashes of greatness as a freshmen. He faded late in the year as he appeared to lose some confidence and become a bit of a ball-hog, but there is no doubt that he has the talent to be a lottery pick whenever he finally enters the NBA. Another freshman, Kyle Wiltjer, will likely be the first big man off the bench, while senior Eloy Vargas will provide some minutes as well.

In the back court, Cal once again has brought in a top-of-the-line freshman point guard. This year its Marquis Teague, who has already proven to be a nightmare to try and keep out of the paint. He’ll be joined by Doron Lamb, a sophomore that has been called the best player on the team by Calipari this offseason. Lamb is a terrific shooter that is going to be relied on to keep the defense spread. Darius Miller will be this group’s senior leader and asked to play the role that Liggins did a year ago. Miller may actually end up coming off the bench, as versatile small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will likely get the start at the three. Gilchrist as drawn comparisons to Scottie Pippen with his all-around game and his ability to defend and be a play maker. There is no question that Kentucky has the most talent in this conference and may only be outclassed by UNC nationally. My question is whether there is too much talent. Will there be enough shots to go around? Will Jones be able to co-exist with Davis if Davis ends up being Durant or Michael Beasley? Who does the dirty work? Who sets screens and who battles with the 275 lb centers in the paint? Where does the physicality and toughness come from? If Kentucky has an achilles heel, that’s it.

2. Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt is going to be a trendy pick this season to compete with Florida and Kentucky atop the SEC East standings. On paper, it makes sense. The Commodores lose one player from last season’s rotation, as Andre Walker opted to transfer to Xavier. Other than that, everyone is back from a team that won 23 games and earned a five-seed in the NCAA Tournament. That, combined with three potential first-round picks in John Jenkins, Fetsus Ezeli and Jeff Taylor, will make Vandy a preseason top 10 team nationally. But the question isn’t if there is talent on this team, its whether they will learn how to win games. Last year, Kevin Stallings’ team when 1-5 in games decided by three points or less, lose another game by four and dropped an overtime decision to South Carolina after blowing a double-digit second half lead. That’s seven of the team’s 11 losses right there. And, for the second straight season, the ‘Dores got upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by a much lower seed.

From a talent standpoint, there are few teams in the country that will be able to field a roster as strong as Vandy’s. It starts in the back court, where Jenkins has become one of the most lethal scorers in the country. Arguably one of the top five shooters in the country, Jenkins is deadly coming off of screens, but he has also added the ability to put the ball on the floor and succeed in the mid-range. After averaging 19.5 ppg as a sophomore, Jenkins could very well be a 22 ppg scorer this season if he continues to develop his repertoire. Joining him in the back court is Brad Tinsley, a 6’3″ senior point guard that is probably better than he gets credit for. He averaged double figures and posted 4.6 apg while shooting 36.9% from three. Both Tinsley and Jenkins average over 32 mpg, so there won’t be much of a need for a back court bench. Sophomore Kyle Fuller played the role last year, but with highly-touted freshmen Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson coming in, Fuller may lose his minutes.

The front court will once again be solid as well. Taylor will probably be Vandy’s No. 2 option offensively. A terrific athlete, Taylor has slowly developed the rest of his game to the point that he’s now a capable three point shooter, although he needs to improve off the dribble. Taylor, who plays the small forward spot, is also a terrific defender and a good rebounder. The paint will be patrolled by Festus Ezeli, a 6’11” Nigerian native that has slowly turned himself into an NBA prospect (UPDATE: And been suspended for the first six games). He can score on the block when he needs to, but is also a very good shot blocker and the team’s best rebounder. Expect senior LAnce Goulbourne and sophomore Rod Odom to battle for the right to start at the four-spot, while Steve Tchiengang and a couple of redshirt freshmen will provide front line depth. Vandy was talented enough last year to compete with Florida and Kentucky. This season, will they learn how to win? That’s the question with this team, as they have enough talent to legitimately be discussed as the best team not named Kentucky, UNC, UConn and Ohio State nationally.

3. Florida: Early on last season, the Gators struggled to live up to their potential. After getting smoked by Ohio State at home in the first week of the season, Florida struggled against some inferior competition, including getting upset by both Central Florida and Jacksonville, the latter of which came at home. But as the calendar turned, so did Florida’s fortunes. They went into Cincinnati and knocked off Xavier on New Year’s Eve, sparking a terrific run through the SEC. Florida won the SEC title out right — and by three games, despite playing in the SEC East — and made it to the finals of the SEC Tournament and all the way to the Elite 8.

The strength of last season’s Florida team was their front court. Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons gave Billy Donovan terrific size and versatility on his front line. All three of those players graduated, however, leaving the Gators with quite a bit of youth amongst their bigs. The big name is Patric Young, a 6’9″, 250 lb sophomore that spent the summer playing with the U19 Team USA in Latvia. Young is a freak athlete, possessing the kind of size and athleticism in high school that had some using the name “Dwight Howard” as a comparison when he was in high school. That may be a bit much, but if he ever adds touch around the bucket, he’s already the kind of physical specimen that can change the game defensively and as a shot blocker. Young will be joined up front by a group of talented but unproven players. Erik Murphy is a 6’10” junior with range of his jumper. Will Yeguete is an athletic 6’7″ sophomore. Redshirt freshman Cody Larson has been reinstated to the team after getting in trouble with Murphy over the summer, but he earned praise as the toughest front court player in practice last season. Can that translate to the games?

The strength of the Gators will be in the back court, where Donovan may actually have too many pieces. It starts with Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. Walker is a shoot-first point guard that showed flashes of being a better true point guard late in his junior year. That said, he was Florida’s go-to guy in the clutch. Boynton is a terrific defender and a capable scorer, but he’s far too inconsistent — and much too reliant — on his jumper. He did average 14.2 ppg, but he shot 242 threes despite shooting just 33.1% from deep. Also thrown into the mix this season will be Mike Rosario and Brad Beal. Rosario is a junior that sat out last season after transferring from Rutgers. He can score, there is no question about that, but he’s a guy that needs the ball in his hands. Brad Beal is a big-time shooter that is often described as an assassin. He really understands how to get himself open and he should be a nice compliment to Boynton, Walker and Rosario, as those three need the ball in their hands; Beal is at his best getting open off the ball. Florida has a chance to be very good, but that will depend on two things: A) how well the shooters in the back court are able to share the ball, and B) what Donovan opts to do at the four spot, using four guards or developing a kid like Murphy or Larson for the role.

4. Alabama: The Crimson Tide looked absolutely dreadful during non-conference play last season. They flubbed their way to an 8-6 start — losing to powerhouses like St. Peter’s, Iowa, Providence and Seton Hall — and looked headed for another lost season. But something happened at the start of SEC play. The Tide’s defense got stingier, their offense less putrid and Anthony Grant’s club started winning games. An overtime win at Tennessee put the Tide at 7-1 in league play — which included a win over Kentucky — and forced people to start asking the question: is it possible for Alabama to make the NCAA Tournament? And if Alabama could have won a road game down the stretch, they very well could have been dancing. But the Tide lost three of their last four roadies — an issue they had all year long; ‘Bama was undefeated at home and 25-12 overall — and were forced to settle on the NIT, where they were able to make a run to the title game.

The strength of the Tide next season is going to be up front, where JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell both return. Green is the horse on the block. He does the majority of his damage within 5-7 feet of the rim, scoring on post-ups, dump-downs and offensive rebounds. At 6’8″, Green is not an overwhelming athlete, but he does take up some space inside and is a capable rebounder and shot blocker. Joining him on the front line will be Tony Mitchell, who is one of the most exciting players in the SEC to watch. Mitchell stands 6’6″, but he is a terrific athletethat plays with endless energy. He’s more of a small forward than he is a power forward at this stage of his career, so it would be nice to see him shoot better than 31.6% from deep. But he’s not on the court to be a shooter. He’s out there to make plays defensively and to attack the glass. Depth up front will be provided by a few younger players. Freshmen Nick Jacobs is 6’8″ and sophomore Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye will provide depth.

In the back court, Alabama does return Trevor Releford, who had a terrific freshman campaign as the team’s starting point guard. Releford has a lot of promise, as he stood tall against a number of superb point guards in the SEC and played his best basketball late in the season. Cutting down turnovers and improving his perimeter stroke would are the two things Releford needed to work on this summer. Anthony Grant is going to earn his salary coaching this back court, as Releford will be the seasoned veteran. Seldom-used Ben Eblen and Charles Hankerson both return — they combined for just over 20 mpg last season — but the starters on the wing may end up being a pair of freshmen. At 6’5, Levi Randolph has the complete package offensively, able to knock down threes and get to the rim equally well. Trevor Lacey is not an overwhelming athlete, but he does come into college with a reputation for being a winner, for having a high-basketball IQ and for being able to shoot the basketball. The biggest issue Alabama had last season was with their perimeter shooting, and Randolph and Lacey should both address that need. The threesome of Releford, Green and Mitchell should be enough to have the Tide in the top four of the SEC, but if the rest of the pieces come together, there’s a chance this group can finish as high as second.

5. Mississippi State: Things haven’t exactly gone smoothly for Rick Stansbury’s Bulldog team over the past year or so. There was Dee Bost and his eligibility problems, out of shape Renardo Sidney and his myriad of suspensions, the twitter dramas of Ravern Johnson and DJ Gardner and, of course, the brawl heard ’round the world. By the time the smoke finally cleared, the Bulldogs were 17-14 overall and 9-7 in the SEC, which isn’t awful but is well below where a team with Mississippi State’s talent should have finished. The good news? MSU ended the season on a positive note, winning three in a row — two coming on the road — and got some of Sidney’s best performances late in the season.

MSU loses three starters from last year’s team, but the good news is that do return their two most talented players in Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost. Everyone knows Sidney’s story. He’s a kid with as much potential as any player in the country, but between a lack of commitment to conditioning and an inability to get along with his teammates, Sidney’s season felt like a disappointment. And he averaged 14.2 ppg and 7.6 rpg. He spent the summer in Houston working out with John Lucas and has reportedly changed his attitude and lost some weight. If he truly buys into the system, there’s not telling how good he can be. Bost had his own suspension issues, but they were self-inflicted — he was academically ineligible to start the year and also was suspended by the NCAA for an issue with declaring for the NBA Draft. But Bost can play. He averaged a league-best 5.9 apg while scoring 15.2 ppg. Bost is also a terrific defender. It would be nice to see him cut down on his turnovers and his poor shot-selection, but some of that is the result of Mississippi State lacking a ton of offense firepower; they need Bost to be aggressive to have a chance to win.

The rest of the Bulldog’s line-up is promising, but unproven. Sophomore guard Jalen Steele was having a promising freshman campaign when he tore a ligament in his knee. Senior Brian Bryant played well when he had a chance as well. The x-factor on the perimeter will likely end up being freshman Rodney Hood, a high-scoring, lefty small forward. He’ll be counted on to fill the void left by the graduation of Ravern Johnson and Riley Benock. Up front, junior Wendell Lewis will be counted on to improve this season. A couple of newcomers — including Latvian import Kristers Zeidaks and a couple of freshmen — should provide depth. But Arnett Moultrie will be the guy that State fans want to pay attention to. Moultrie started as a sophomore at UTEP and was a very capable post presence. He should more than fill the void left by Kodi Augustus. There are so many questions about this team — Can Hood be an impact freshman? Will Sidney be in shape? How good is Moultrie? — but an NCAA Tournament bid isn’t out of the question.

6. Ole Miss: Chris Warren was one of the best players in the SEC the past four seasons, but he was never able to lead his Ole Miss team to the NCAA Tournament. Not only was Warren one of the league’s best scorers and most dangerous shooters, he was the heart and soul of this Ole Miss team. He was their leader and the guy who they relied on to make a big shot. With both Warren and Zach Graham graduating, Andy Kennedy’s team is going to have a completely different look next season.

The Rebels are going to be a team built around their front court next season. Big men Terrence Henry and Reginald Buckner will both be back for their senior campaigns. Henry is more of an offensive weapon with the ability to step out onto the perimeter and knock down a jump shot. Buckner, on the other hand, is more of an interior presence. He is the best rebounder on this team and one of the best shot-blockers in the SEC. Ole Miss will also get a boost from Murphy Holloway, who was cleared to play this season after redshirting as a transfer at South Carolina last year (see above). Holloway averaged 10.1 ppg and 7.6 rpg as a sophomore in 2009-2010. Steadman Short, DeMarco Cox and a pair of freshmen — Jamal Jones and Aaron Jones — will round out the front court rotation.

The back court is going to be completely remade, but that doesn’t mean that it will struggle. Sophomore Dundrecous Nelson had a very promising freshman year. Playing just 15 mpg, Nelson averaged 7.2 ppg — the fourth leading scorer on the team — and eventually took over the starting spot from Nick Williams, a transfer from Indiana. Williams will likely get another shot to start this season, but there will be talent chomping at the bit behind him. The name most people will recognize is Jelan Kendrick, a former McDonald’s all-american that flamed out at Memphis in a matter of weeks. He won’t be eligible to play until December, but if he can stay out of trouble, Kendrick is a game-changing talent. In addition to Kendrick, Kennedy added a large and fairly well-regarded class of back court players. Dale Hughes started as a freshman at Florida A&M and is eligible to play this season. Maurice Aniefiok, LaDarius White, and Jarvis Summers are all freshmen that will see time. Ole Miss is an interesting team. If Nelson becomes a star and Kendrick lives up to some of the hype, that front line will compete with any in the league. That’s a lot of ifs, but in a best case scenario, I can see this team making the tournament.

7. Georgia: The folks in Athens, GA, are not used to seeing quality basketball beings played. Last season, the Bulldogs made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection for the first time since 2002 — they earned the auto-bid in 2008 after going 4-12 in league play. 2002 was also the last time that Georgia won as many as 21 games in a season and only the 11th time in the program’s 105 year history that they won 20 games. This is not a place with overwhelming basketball tradition, so while 2010-2011 is in no way an unsuccessful season, the way it ended will undoubtedly leave a bitter taste in the mouth of Bulldog fans. They were consistently inconsistent throughout the season — after capping off an eight game winning streak by knocking off Kentucky to open SEC play, the Bulldogs couldn’t string together more than two consecutive wins the rest of the year.

Another reason that the year was frustrating is that both Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, the two best players on the team, decided to enter the draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Mark Fox isn’t left with an empty cupboard, but losing two talents like that will not be an easy thing to replace. The strength of the Bulldogs this season will be in the back court. Both Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware will be back for their final season with Georgia. Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State, had a terrific first season. An excellent defender, Robinson took over the primary playmaking duties from Dustin Ware, who became more of a spot-up shooter (although he did finish second on the team in assists). It will be interesting to see how Fox fits the rest of the pieces together on the perimeter. Freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seems like the obvious fit at the three due to his size (6’5″), but his skillset is more suited to playing the two-guard spot. Connor Nolte should provide some perimeter depth, while Sherrard Brantley and Vincent Williams will give Fox a pair of veteran back court back-ups.

There will be even more question marks in the front court, as Georgia’s front court is dreadfully young. Sophomore Marcus Thornton was Mr. Basketball in Georgia when he graduated high school, but he had a tough time cracking the rotation as a freshman. He will likely be a major piece this season. Another sophomore, Donte Williams, saw very limited minutes as a freshman. After that, its all newcomers. Tim Dixon is the most well-regarded of Fox’s four newcomers. He’s a slender, 6’10” center. John Cannon and Nemanja Djurisic have some upside, but JuCo transfer John Florveus may end up having the most immediate impact because he’s a bit older than the rest of the bigs. Its tough to envision a scenario where Georgia competes near the top of the SEC.

8. Tennessee: Oh, what could have been. Tennessee had one of the best starts to a season in recent memory. After winning the Preseason NIT by knocking off Belmont, Missouri State, VCU and Villanova, Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and blasted the Panthers. At that point in the year, the Vols were ranked seventh in the country. But then it all fell apart. As the team had to deal with non-stop questions about the future of Bruce Pearl, Tennessee could no longer find any kind of consistency. They won just 12 of their last 27 games, losing to the likes of Charlotte, Oakland and Charleston, before eventually finishing 8-8 in league play and 5th in the SEC East. Amazingly enough, that got Tennessee an invite to the NCAA Tournament, where the Vols quit against Michigan, eventually losing by 30 in the first round.

The poor finish to the season led into an even worse offseason. Bruce Pearl was fired, with Cuonzo Martin getting brought in to replace him. Martin’s first season will be a difficult one, however. For starters, the Vols graduated six seniors from last year’s team, including three starters and three key reserves. They also losing their two leading scorers to the NBA, as Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris both made the decision to enter the NBA Draft. Throw in the fact that both Chris Jones (JuCo) and Kevin Ware (ineligible at Louisville), Pearl’s top two recruits, ended up elsewhere, and Martin will be forced to almost start from scratch this season.

There will be some pieces to work with, however. Seniors Cam Tatum, a shooting guard, and Renaldo Wooldridge, a combo-forward, have to find a way to become more consistent leaders for this team. Junior sharpshooter Skylar McBee and sophomores Trae Golden and Jordan McRae will also be back. Golden will likely slide into the role of the starting point guard, while McBee and McRae come off the bench. Up front, junior Kenny Hall and JuCo transfer Dwight Miller will be the guys asked to hold down the paint while Jeronne Maymon splits time with Wooldridge. Throw in the six freshmen — headline by Wes Washpun and Josh Richardson — Martin has coming in, and there is talent on this roster. Its just that a lot of that talent is unproved. Can Martin get these guys to buy into his system and play together? The SEC East won’t be as tough this season, but I still think a finish in the top half of the league and a trip to the NCAA’s are unlikely.

9. Arkansas: Just when John Pelphrey seemed to finally be getting the Arkansas program turned around, he went and committed a recruiting violation by taking a picture with Arkansas natives Archie Goodwin and Trey Smith. Now, I have no idea how much influence that had on the decision to fire him, but it certainly didn’t help Pelphrey’s case. Neither did the fact that Mike Anderson — who was a long time assistant with the Razorbacks under Nolan Richardson — was interested in returning to Fayetteville. Anderson will inherit a team in full on rebuilding mode. After finishing 7-9 in the SEC last season, Arkansas only returns two of their top seven players from last season due to graduation and transfers (Rotnei Clarke, Glenn Bryant, Jeff Peterson).

The good news is that Mike Anderson will have Marshawn Powell back in the fold, and not the Marshawn Powell from last season. As a sophomore Powell struggled. It took him time to recover from an off-season foot injury that limited his explosiveness and caused him to put on 15-20 pounds. Powell also struggled with his attitude, getting fed up with Pelphrey and his teammates. His struggles make it very easy to forget that, as a freshman, Powell averaged 14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 1.3 bpg, scoring less than only Scotty Thurman and Joe Johnson as a freshman. Seniors Marvell Waithe and Michael Sanchez will provide some experience and leadership up front, but the x-factor on the front line will be freshman Hunter Mickelson and Devonte Abron. Mickelson, a 6’10” Arkansas native, is the more talent of the two and may have an outside chance of starting before the season is over.

The back court will likely be anchored by junior point guard Julysses Nobles, who led the team in both assists and turnovers last season. Also returning are sophomores Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott, who both saw some minutes as freshmen and will be counted on for bigger minutes this season in Anderson’s fast-paced system. The most important thing that Mike Anderson did at Arkansas once he got the job was keeping his recruiting class intact — well, almost intact, as Aaron Ross was academically ineligible. That means that both BJ Young and Ky Madden will be at Anderson’s disposal. Young is more of a point guard and a higher-rated recruit while Madden is bigger and more of an off-guard, but having two talents like that is a huge boost considering the 40 Minutes of Hell system that Anderson plays. Arkansas is a bit of an enigma. There is talent in the program, but a lot of it is young. They are probably a year or two away from truly competing, but don’t be surprised if they knock off one of two big names this season.

10. South Carolina: The Gamecocks had a disappointing finish to the season. After winning three of their first four games in SEC play — including an overtime win against Vanderbilt and a win at SEC champ Florida — South Carolina collapsed. A five game losing streak was followed by another four game losing streak, and by the time the final whistle had been blown, the Gamecocks were buried at the bottom of the SEC East. Part of that collapse was the result of Bruce Ellington’s calf injury. Ellington thrived on his quickness and ability to get by defenders to keep them from crowding his jump shot, but without that extra burst, Ellington became a more one-dimensional offensive threat.

Ellington’s health may end up being an even bigger issue this season. A standout football player in high school, Ellington made the decision to play both sports in college this year. Its unclear exactly how Ellington will make the transition from football to basketball, but it has to worry Horn that the most important player on his roster is willing to risk the start of his sophomore season to play a different sport. And rest assured, Ellington is the most important player on this team. When he is at 100%, he’s one of the best point guards in the SEC. Ramon Galloway decided to transfer, but there are a number of other quality back court players. Lakeem Jackson is a left-handed slasher that will likely start at the three. Sophomore Brian Richardson started early in the season, but was benched later in the year as he lost his confidence from beyond the arc. If he can’t find that stroke, expect freshman Damien Leonard to take some of his minutes. Sophomore Eric Smith will likely see a bump in minutes until Ellington returns.

The front court is going to be an issue for South Carolina. Its going to be difficult to find a replacement Sam Muldrow, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, especially considering Murphy Holloway went back to Ole Miss. Sophomore Damontre Harris may get the first crack, as he started 19 games as a freshman and was productive in his limited minutes, especially on the glass and the defensive end of the floor. Malik Cooke, a senior transfer from Nevada, became a leader and moved into the starting lineup midway through last season. He’s an undersized forward with three-point range that averaged 9.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg last season. Sophomore RJ Slawson and freshmen Anthony Gill and Carlton Geathers will provide depth. Perhaps the best news for South Carolina is that Georgia and Tennessee will both be down this season, meaning that there is a shot the Gamecocks won’t finish at the bottom of the SEC East.

11. Auburn: Auburn’s basketball team had quite a different season from their national-title winning football team. The Tigers were one of, if not the worst high-major basketball program in the country last season. They started off the year with an atrocious non-conference performance, losing to such powerhouse programs as Campbell, Samford, Jacksonville and Presbyterian. They started off SEC play with six consecutive losses before finishing league play at 4-12. To make matter worse, not only did Auburn lose Frankie Sullivan midway through the season due to a bad knee, Andre Malone transferred after the fall semester while Earnest Ross, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, transferred once the season ended. In other words, not only was Auburn atrocious last season, but their two best players from a year ago won’t be back this season.

But there is a reason to be optimistic for Tiger fans. For starters, 6’8″ forward Kenny Gabriel is back for his senior season. Gabriel really came on strong late in the season, playing well in the games that Auburn did actually win in the SEC. Gabriel going to have to play well, however, as the rest of the Auburn front court may end up being a question mark for this team. Rob Chubb and Adrian Forbes both started some games last season, although neither really proved to be much more than a big-body. The same is true for sophomore Allen Payne, although he’ll end up playing a bit more on the perimeter. Can freshmen Willy Kouassi or Bernard Morena provide meaningful minutes?

The Tiger’s perimeter attack has more promise. Hopefully, Frankie Sullivan will be healthy this season. He had surgery on his knee last summer, after averaging 12.7 ppg for the Tigers in 2009-2010. He tried to rush back last season, but shut things down after just six games because the pain was too much. Joining Sullivan will be the addition of two transfers. Varez Ward will likely be the starter at the point. He’s a sophomore that transferred in from Texas and is known as a tough defender and a true point guard, but he hasn’t played basketball in two years after suffering a season-ending injury in November of 2009 and sitting out last season as a transfer. Noel Johnson, who is joining the team from Clemson, is a 6’6″ wing that was a top 100 recruit coming out of high school. Throw in the addition of freshman Cedrick McAfee and the return of four sophomores that player a role on last year’s team, and Auburn has quite a few different pieces in the back court. I don’t think the tigers will be competing for the SEC title anytime soon, but don’t be surprised if they pull off a couple of upsets this season.

12. LSU: Its hard to believe that LSU has won two SEC regular season titles and reached the Final Four in the past six seasons, but its true. LSU made the Final Four after winning the SEC in 2006 and followed that up with another SEC title in 2009. But the past two seasons have been quite forgettable for the Bayou Bengals, as they have gone a combined 22-41, including an atrocious 5-27 mark in SEC play. Things were bad enough this season that there were some folks that were concerned about head coach Trent Johnson bolting town for the opening at Utah, a school that he was an assistant coach at earlier in his career. Johnson decided to stay, however, and there is actually reason for him to be optimistic about the current state of his program.

The strength for this LSU team is going to be in their front court. They lost Garrett Green, a junior that transferred out of the program to San Diego State, but both Storm Warren and Malcolm White, the Tiger’s starters up front, are both back. Warren had a bit of a disappointing season in 2010-2011 as he battled an achilles injury for much of the year. But when he was a sophomore, he averaged 11.8 ppg and 7.2 rpg. White, a transfer from Ole Miss, is a solid role-player inside. That’s significant because there’s a very good chance he loses his starting position this season. Johnson brings in Johnny O’Bryant, a McDonald’s all-american big man and a dominant low-post presence. They also add Justin Hamilton, a seven-footer that started for two seasons at Iowa State. Throw in Eddie Ludwig, who got a handful of starts last season, and Johnson’s front court has some potential.

The back court is a bit of a different story. The good news is that Johnson will get back his freshmen back court of Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner. Stringer is the smaller of the two, a 5’9″ combo-guard that was the second-leading scorer last season. Stringer isn’t a true point guard, however, and it shows. He shot far too many threes for a 29.5% shooter and finishing the year with just three more assists than turnover. Turner averaged 12.3 ppg to lead the team despite battling a foot injury during the season. But with Matt Derenbecker and Aaron Dotson both opting to transfer out of the program, Chris Bass is the only other returner in the back court. Bass may actually start this season if Johnson opts to put Turner at the three. Two freshmen — point guard Anthony Hickey and shooting guard John Isaac — should also get some minutes. LSU is not yet ready to compete for SEC titles, but there is a pretty solid foundation for the future of the program.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.