Bama Hoops Hype

DiSECting the SEC (Part 1) – Tiger(s), Vols, and Bulldogs

Joe Habshey - Bama Hoops Hype

After scoring 3 teams in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, it’s safe to say college basketball is booming again in the Southeastern Conference. While Kentucky’s large shadow still looms over the rest of the field, there are many reasons for each team to be excited about hoops next season. This marks the first of three offseason installments in Bama Hoops Hype’s new series: “DiSECting the SEC.” We will take an in-depth look at each team around the country and measure their levels of success (or failures) to determine the conference’s strongest teams and to uncover who is most likely to be in line for next season’s Big Dance.

*In reverse order of ’16-17 SEC Standings. [] =Overall Record () =SEC Record

Missouri Tigers [8-24] (2-16)

The 2016-17 season was a rough one for the Tigers, to say the least. After a disastrous season that included a 13-game losing streak, Head Coach Kim Anderson resigned and was replaced by ex-Cal Head Coach Cuonzo Martin. Martin – who resigned after falling early in the NIT – is thought to have already accepted this position before hanging things up with the Golden Bears. Through three seasons in Berkley, Martin posted records of 18-15, 23-11, and 21-13 in years one through three respectively. During his second season at the helm he took the Bears to the NCAA Tournament as a 4th seed where they were upset in the first round by 13th seed Hawaii.

Martin comes into Colombia, MO, with plenty of experience being in the SEC. Prior to his three years at Cal he had a three-year stint at Tennessee as Head Coach of the Volunteers. From 2011-14 he coached three seasons for Rocky Top, going 19-15, 20-13, and 24-13. In his last season, he led the Vols to the Sweet Sixteen, but the pressure and uncertainty from the fanbase pushed him out of the doors.

As the newly indicted Head Coach of Missouri, Martin’s first move was to hire Michael Porter Sr. – father of top overall recruit Michael Porter Jr. – as an assistant coach. After Washington’s head coach was removed from his position, Michael Porter Jr. was successful in withdrawing his application from the Huskies and since has followed his father to Mizzou, where he hopes to draw more unsigned players to play with him. At 6-10 – combined with good footspeed and guard-like ball-handling skills – Porter Jr. is set to explode for Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers next season.

Alongside Porter Jr., Mizzou should return it’s top three scorers from this season, including the likes of Texas transfer Jordan Barnett who averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in ’16-’17. Though Missouri’s recruiting class is ranked just 46th in the nation according to the 247 Composite, many expect this to grow if the Tigers can use Porter Jr. as a recruiting tool for those in the class that are still undecided. Assistant Coach Porter Sr.’s son isn’t the only guy coming to town, however, as 3-star point guard CJ Roberts is also currently signed to join the team, and has since stated he still intends to play for Missouri. Roberts averaged 21 points through 12 games in his Senior year of high school and could provide the team an extra punch from the bench when called on.

While Missouri fans would likely rather watch paint dry than watch the ’16-’17 season over again, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, they’re almost out of the tunnel completely and could even compete for the SEC next season if they are able to nab at least one more playmaker to pair with the pieces they already have. However, I wouldn’t start buying Porter Jr. 76ers jerseys just yet; at least wait for him to put on a black and gold one first.

LSU Tigers [10-21] (2-16)

Much like their Tiger brethren in Colombia, MO, the purple-and-gold ‘Fighting’ Tigers struggled to put up much of a fight all season long under Head Coach Johnny Jones in ’16-’17. LSU – like Mizzou – also decided to move on from their head coach at the season’s end. Jones posted a disappointing 90-72 overall record in Baton Rouge throughout 5 seasons and managed a Tournament bid only once – a loss to NC State in 2015. After signing the class of 2015’s #1 overall recruit – and eventual #1 overall NBA Draft pick – Ben Simmons, the expectations were through the roof; the highest since Shaquille O’Neal’s tenure in the early 90’s.

The hype, however, proved too much for Coach Jones despite ‘point-forward’ Ben Simmons’ heroics. Though Simmons averaged 19 points, 11.8 rebounds, and nearly 5 assists per game, the team finished the season with a putrid 19-14 record that ended without any post-season play. Because of this, it comes as no surprise that LSU would choose to move on after a 10-21 record just a year later.

LSU Athletic Director, Joe Alleva, quickly went out and found a replacement for Jones in VCU’s Will Wade. At just 34, Wade is poised to be one of the youngest head coaches in the SEC, but his resume is no joke. In his two seasons at VCU, he led the Rams to records of 25-11 and 26-9 and two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. His body of work does not stop there as he is also familiar with SEC and Louisiana recruiting grounds from his days as head coach at UT-Chattanooga.

Will Wade will be taking over a team who should return nearly everyone from this past season. Assuming Antonio Blakeney doesn’t try and go pro (not currently listed on Draft Express’ Mock Drafts), the 6-4 guard will continue to be the motor behind the Tigers’ offense. In ’16-’17, Blakeney averaged a team-high 17 points, and 4.8 rebounds a game, while shooting 45.8% from the field and almost 36% from 3. Wade will also have an above average two-way player in power forward Duop Reath, who put up an average of 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per night this year.

While ranked just 57th in the country, LSU’s 2017 recruiting class looks strong on paper. At 6-6, 4-star small forward Galen Alexander could be a legitimate scoring threat from the wing while Brandon Rachal – 6-6 4-star combo guard – will make for the perfect skill player to pair up with Blakeney in the backcourt.

While LSU doesn’t have a top-tier recruit, they have a plethora of depth and talent set to return next year. A good balance between experience and fresh talent may benefit LSU more than anything else. If new Head Coach Will Wade can put back together the pieces, the Fighting Tigers may just get their fight back.

Mississippi State Bulldogs [16-16] (6-12)

10 NCAA Tournament appearances, 3 Final Fours, 23 NBA players – including two potential Hall-of-Famers (Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love). No, this isn’t a Christmas wish-list or a piece of Coach K’s resume. This impressive body of work belongs to Mississippi State Head Coach Ben Howland. Known mostly for his time with UCLA, Howland has done everything in his career except win a title (has even lost one to Florida). Despite that, very few head coaches around the country have had the same amount of success that Howland has had in his coaching career. In fact, rookie Head Coaches around the country may in fact have these numbers on their Christmas wish-list.

After posting an overall winning percentage of 68.5% in 10 seasons with the Bruins, Howland brought an extensive plethora of experience and mindfulness to Starkville. Despite posting 14-17 and 16-16 records in his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, State’s still considered to be on the rise.

In 2017-18, Mississippi State will return the top 4 scorers from their ’16-’17 team – the youngest in the SEC and the nation. Dynamic Duo of guards Quindary Weatherspoon (16.5 points per game, 8 games of 20+ points) and Lamar Peters (10.7 ppg, 36% from 3) will continue to fuel Howland’s offense next season. In addition, ‘Hail State’ will be bringing in the nation’s #26 recruiting class.

The 27th overall player in the country – point guard Nick Weatherspoon – and 3-star power forward KeyShawn Feazell look to add another explosive dynamic to their quick-paced offense. Weatherspoon averaged nearly 24 points (on 53% shooting!), 5 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals for Velma Jackson High School in his senior year. Feazell notched 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks a game for Lawerence High School.

Mississippi State’s recruiting ranking is likely to drop, however, after 4-star power forward signee Garrison Brooks requested a release from the University on March 31. Brooks was considered a tremendous add out of Auburn, Alabama, and Cowbell Nation hoped he could step in and patch up the inconsistencies they saw from their bigs a season ago.

Despite the loss of Brooks, there is still time to land another recruit or transfer for Ben Howland. The road ahead is tough, but the end could be near. Coach Howland likes his team to run and gun, and the two-man recruiting class will fit perfectly into his system. With a little extra depth, this is a team that can and will try to run you out of the court. Expect to see Ben Howland notch his 11th NCAA Tournament appearance sometime in the not-so-distant future.

Auburn Tigers [18-14] (7-11)

Despite taking Tennessee to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments, Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl has struggled to right the ship in Auburn. Through three seasons, Pearl has posted an overall record of 44-54 despite having the 15th ranked recruiting class in 2015 and the 10th ranked class in 2016.

While the 2017 recruiting class is not ranked as high – 34th – it still could be every bit as good as the previous two. The class consists of two composite 4-star players, though many services have both listed as 5-star talents. Chuma Okeke, a 6-7 forward from Atlanta, Georgia, brings a combination of size and scoring prowess to the Plains, as he has shown the ability to hit from deep and to post-up on occasion. Okeke averaged a cool 24 points and 15 rebounds in his senior season.

The other player in the Tigers’ 2017 class is a 6-1 point guard from Hinesville, Georgia: Davion Mitchell. Mitchell posted averages of 23 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and 2.5 steals in his senior year.

While adding two potential starters is a huge positive for Coach Pearl and the Tigers in ’17-’18, a rumor surfaced earlier this week stating that their leading scorer from a year ago – 5-star freshman Mustapha Heron – may be mulling over a transfer. Earlier this season, Bruce Pearl mentioned Heron when discussing players that would be playing in the NBA one day. While hardly believable, losing Heron would be a dramatic loss for Auburn. The 6-5 guard averaged a team-high 15 points and 6 rebounds on an outstanding 44% from the field and 43% from 3. If Heron stays, he will have at least two new talented teammates around him. If he does in fact leave, Bruce Pearl may be in for the toughest season yet.  Regardless, seniors TJ Dunans (8 ppg) and Ronnie Johnson (7.8 ppg) are set to graduate and will also not be back in uniform next season.

Bruce Pearl has attained the talent he needs at Auburn to help them become more than a bottom-feeder in the SEC. The question is now whether he can manage the talent and help them grow. While he’s not shown that ability yet, there is a silver lining: in his 2nd year the Tigers were a putrid 11-20, but in his 3rd year they managed an 18-14 record despite playing poor against the rest of the SEC. If Mustapha Heron hangs around for another season, and Bruce Pearl finds the rhythm he had back in his days at Tennessee, the Tigers could soon find themselves out of the Plains come March. Whether that means making a run in the Conference Finals, the NIT, or more will be squarely on the shoulders of Auburn’s typically outspoken head coach.

Tennessee Volunteers [16-16] (8-10)

Prior to coming to Tennessee, Head Coach Rick Barnes had only ever had one team not finish above .500: his ’91-’92 Providence team that finished with a 14-17 record. In both of his seasons at Rocky Top his teams have failed to eclipse that .500 mark, posting a 15-19 record in his first year and a 16-16 record this season. However, it’s not time for good ol’ Rocky Top to stop being played in the Thompson–Boling Arena just yet (although the rest of the SEC would appreciate it if you could play it just a little less).

While Coach Barnes has been to 22 NCAA Tournaments in his coaching career, he wants another shot at the ever-elusive National Title. In 2017-18, he hopes he can get Tennessee in that direction, but it’s going to be a tough road for the 62-year-old. Next season they will be without their leading scorer – Robert Hubbs III (13 ppg) – from this season. However, freshman forward Grant Williams will return for Barnes and the Vols. Williams showed a bright flash of potential this season when he averaged 12 points, 6 boards, and almost 2 blocks per game. His 61 blocked shots “shattered” the previous freshman record of 39 according to UT Sports.

The biggest issue for Coach Barnes, and the toughest to overcome, is that Tennessee is not prone to attain big-name recruits a la Kevin Durant at Texas. The Vols’ 2017 recruiting class sits at just #53 nationally and consists of three players, but the focus is on Yves Pons from France.

Yves, a 6-6 small forward hybrid, has a slender, physical build with the tools to be a good off-ball cutter and defensive stopper as shown by his play in the U-17 World Championships. According to Draft Express, his shooting and ball-handling are highly questionable. A fair comparison for Pons would be Oklahoma City guard/forward hybrid Andre Roberson – a tremendous cutter, defender, and athlete but lacks outside shooting touch and superior ball-handling ability.

The other two recruits in this class for the Vols are a pair of 3-star bigs – Zach Kent and Derrick Walker. Both are expected to be able to contribute immediately, but likely won’t solve what will be the biggest issue Tennessee will face next season: scoring and ball-handling. The top two assist-leaders of ’16-’17 – Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner – averaged just 5.6 assists combined.

Without scoring-leader, Robert Hubbs III, Tennessee will be fighting an uphill battle to find the production needed despite Grant Williams’ inspiring play as a freshman. Though many will count Tennessee out as a contender in the SEC, Vols’ fans need not worry. The battle of coaching abilities will often be won by Rick Barnes, and as Jimmy V showed us, anything can happen when a team rallies around a coach.

 

Jake Weaver is a contributor to Bama Hoops Hype. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter for sports news and commentary @JAWeaver0 

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