Great divisional debate rages on in SEC
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The SEC East could have five of the league's six NCAA tournament-bound teams in March but still have only two of the league's byes in the SEC tournament.
The reason for the imbalance is the SEC continues to hold firm that it must have two divisions in men's basketball and a conference tournament that rewards the top two teams in each division regardless of overall record.
When the 2011-12 season begins, the SEC will be the last of the power six conferences to separate its teams into divisions. The Big 12 will go to one division as a 10-team league, and the 12-team Big Ten and 12-team Pac-12 will each opt to stay as one division instead of following the mandatory football model of two divisions to have a championship game.
"We brought this issue to the coaches and the ADs at the spring meetings, and there wasn't an interest in making a change," SEC commissioner Mike Slive said Thursday at the SEC media day. "It has worked very well and creates a lot of competition and interest, and being the only one doing something, there's nothing wrong with that."
There is no consensus on the issue. The discussion among SEC East teams centers on the difficulty of playing 10 games within the division, while the mood on the SEC West is split among wanting to win a division championship and bemoaning fewer power-rating games.
"I've always been a one-division guy," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Florida's Billy Donovan said that playing in the stronger division probably helped the Gators get an NCAA tournament bid last season. Remember, teams are judged independently in earning at-large bids, and if their opponents have higher power ratings, that improves their chances of receiving a bid. Donovan said that's why SEC West coaches didn't want to change the SEC tournament format. He said they wanted the chance to play SEC East teams in the conference tournament (in a crossover format in the first round that pits East versus West teams).
Donovan said he would listen to a proposal that would call for one division and 22 league games with a true round-robin if the charge is for every team to play a stronger schedule.
"I'm not saying I'm in favor of it; that's an awful lot of league games, and 22 would be difficult to do. But the real easy way to raise the level of our RPI is to play more league games," Donovan said.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said that once the Rebels lost to Vanderbilt and Florida in consecutive games last season, their NCAA tournament hopes were in jeopardy. They beat four straight SEC West teams -- Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Arkansas -- but, he said, "We didn't get an RPI boost." Kennedy also pointed to the case of Mississippi State, which narrowly missed out on the NCAA tourney despite a 23-11 record and a run to the SEC title game. "If Mississippi State has the same résumé it had, but it's not East or West but one division, then I don't think they have a stigma attached to them, and I think they overcome it," Kennedy said.
But a number of coaches (such as Arkansas' John Pelphrey and Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury) are opposed to a switch, others (Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings) are indifferent and still others, such as LSU's Trent Johnson, are convinced that the perceived divisional imbalance is just cyclical.
Two seasons ago, the Tigers won the SEC West and the overall league title.
"In my short term, the West was stronger when I first got here, and now it's the East," Johnson said. "I don't think it matters."
LSU looks for step in right direction
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Trent Johnson arrived in Baton Rouge, La., as a surprise hire from Stanford in 2008, taking over the Tigers and promptly stomping through the SEC with a 13-3 record and finishing with 27 wins overall.
He inherited a loaded roster that included Marcus Thornton, Tasmin Mitchell, Bo Spencer, Chris Johnson, Garrett Temple and Terry Martin.
And then the rebuilding began. All but Mitchell and Spencer were gone last season, and the Tigers finished 2-14 in the SEC and 11-20 overall. They suddenly have dropped out of sight.
Johnson isn't a flashy coach or self-promoter, but he has substance. Although he has intensity that could be matched by anyone else in the country, he keeps his thoughts and views to himself -- mostly.
When it comes to whether the Tigers are ready to be forgotten or become irrelevant, Johnson doesn't hold back.
"I like the direction of this basketball team, we've got a solid group that's going to be together for the next two years," Johnson said. "We're not going to have someone that can go for 25 to 30 points like Marcus Thornton, but we've got young talent that have skills that are exciting for me to watch this team grow."
Johnson said injuries derailed the progress last season, and losses on late-game possessions didn't help, either.
"We had five league games that could have gone either way," Johnson said. "But let's not kid ourselves from a coaching standpoint and a player standpoint. What we went through last year, we lost some confidence and there was an element of competitiveness that we have to talk about. I constantly tell our players it's going to be a fight to get back to where we need to be, and the God's honest truth is that anybody else who says otherwise would be kidding themselves."
The Tigers have seven newcomers and are a bit of a faceless group that will search for its identity early and often this season. The good news for the Tigers is that Auburn, which is struggling to find healthy bodies to put on the court, is in the same division and likely will finish last. LSU should be improved, but the lack of experience could prove costly as the SEC season progresses.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A torn ACL stunted Chris Warren's growth as an elite guard two seasons ago. Then the emergence of Terrico White made him share the stage. Now, Warren has no choice but to star and shoulder the burden of being Ole Miss' go-to guy and lead the Rebels to a possible NCAA tournament berth.
"It was too much to ask him to lead when he came in as a freshman," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "Then as a sophomore, just as he was coming into his own, he tore his ACL, and then, as a junior, the question was could he co-exist with Terrico and how would he handle playing with Eniel Polynice?
"The last two years no one was vocal enough to say it was 'my team.' But this is truly the first year where we walk on the floor and into that locker room, and we're looking to Chris. He's the point. He relishes this role. He's more comfortable in it than ever."
White declared early for the NBA draft after last season, and Polynice transferred to Seton Hall. The Rebels reached the NIT's final four last season, but once again, their NCAA tournament bubble popped. With nine newcomers on the roster this season, there is a sense that getting closer to the Big Dance could be an issue. But Warren will have help, notably from Indiana transfer Nick Williams. Having forward Reginald Buckner back for balance also will ease the burden somewhat.
"I just want to do what's best for our team," Warren said.
Warren didn't seem to fret about losing White or Polynice. He was quick to say that he would have plenty of help, such as freshman guard Dundrecous Nelson, who he said will have a "big impact because he's strong and athletic. He'll be an impact player for us."
Although Warren will be the featured player, he can't get the Rebels to the NCAA tournament alone. Warren averaged 17.2 points and 3.6 assists per game last season. He is a talent, but he might not be equal to Devan Downey of South Carolina last season, who could single-handedly lead the Gamecocks to a win. Coincidentally, Kennedy coached Downey at Cincinnati before he transferred home to South Carolina. If Warren can be like Downey and dominate the ball and the basket, the Rebels may have a shot.
"I'd be terribly disappointed for him" if Warren goes through his career without making the NCAA tournament, Kennedy said. "I'm really hoping he can have the kind of year that he's capable of, and our team rewards him for that [by helping him reach the NCAA tournament]."
Dawgs will lean on Thompkins
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The black-rimmed glasses were a nice touch. So was the sharp suit. But Georgia's Trey Thompkins didn't need to win over anyone with his presentation on Thursday's SEC media day.
Thompkins already has received attention. And he should. He was tabbed the SEC's preseason player of the year for a reason: He's the best big man in the conference and is on his way toward being a candidate for an NBA draft lottery selection if he chooses to leave after his junior season in Athens.
But what might be the most telling aspect of why Thompkins should be successful is how he viewed his decision to put off declaring for the NBA draft this past spring.
"I wanted to come back to school because I felt like I owed it to the university," Thompkins said. "I didn't want to leave with a bad taste in my mouth, and I didn't want to leave them with a bad taste in their mouth."
He said that after enduring a coaching change, consecutive losing records in conference play and consecutive sixth-place finishes in the SEC East.
"Trey has legit NBA size and has the ability to defend away from the basket," second-year Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "Trey is a complete player who scores inside and outside, and what I love about him is he doesn't care about that. He cares about winning and works like someone who wants to get better. He doesn't rest on his laurels. In five years, he should be taking you and I to dinner."
He'll be picking up the tab for Fox much sooner than that if he continues on his current trajectory.
Thompkins' numbers as a sophomore speak loudly -- 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, 27 double-figure games (not to mention a 21-point, 29-minute performance against Illinois despite getting his wisdom teeth extracted two days before). But it's the way Thompkins has carried himself from the first day Fox met him that proves he can be special for the Bulldogs.
Georgia abruptly fired Dennis Felton during Thompkins' freshman season. Felton had scored a major coup in landing Thompkins out of Lithonia, Ga., by way of Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and the Wesleyan School in Norcross, Ga. Fox was a surprise hire, coming to the Southeast from Nevada. Fox, who had apprenticed under Trent Johnson in Reno, also had coached players like Kirk Snyder, Nick Fazekas and most recently Luke Babbitt. Thompkins knew Babbitt from the summer league circuit.
"I didn't know [Fox]; all I knew was what Luke had told me, so I wanted to see how he would react to me asking about [Luke]," Thompkins said.
"He was the only guy who was strong enough to ask me a question," Fox said of that first team meeting. "I said, 'Does anyone have a question?' He said, 'Yeah, I got one. I want to know how Luke Babbitt felt when you left Nevada?' I thought it was a great question."
Thompkins said he had wanted to mess with Fox from the start. The icebreaker allowed Fox the open door to return the ribbing.
"Now we have a relationship where it's easy to work hard for him," Thompkins said. "How long did it take to play for him? It took a minute. He took us to Samford Stadium and made us run our football stadium -- the whole team. We were a team full of issues, and he nipped that in the bud. That's when we knew he wasn't a joke."
To read the rest of Andy Katz's story, click here.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl
They said it
Alabama: "I think we can play with anybody in the league. I think we've got a team that will line up with anybody in our league. Last year, we weren't ready to finish those games. We weren't mature enough in the games or in the daily practice to say we deserved to win. We learned hard, valuable lessons, and hopefully they've grown up after those experiences."
-- coach Anthony Grant
Arkansas: "Rotnei Clarke has become a better basketball player, but he still needs to get fouled more to get to the free throw line. He's playing the pick-and-roll better, and he's distributing. He's getting into a situation where if he misses a wide-open 3-point shot, it's like someone else blowing a wide-open layup."
-- coach John Pelphrey
Auburn: "We're young. We don't have a lot of experience, returning scoring or rebounding. We've got one player over 6-9. Our starting point guard is a walk-on. We're going to have to figure out how to play to be successful and survive."
-- first-year coach Tony Barbee
Florida: "Our four freshmen have to find that balance. They don't necessarily know. Why should Patric Young have the same amount of experience as Vernon Macklin, who is in his fifth year of practicing? Patric had four practices, so I told him, 'Why would you expect to be at the same level?' We're getting the work ethic from the freshmen, and they are providing a lot of energy. We're getting great leadership out of Chandler [Parsons], Vernon [Macklin] and Alex Tyus."
-- coach Billy Donovan
Georgia: "One thing about this team is that we're still inexperienced in some of those settings [such as playing Notre Dame in the first round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando]. We don't know how we'll handle the schedule. It will be interesting to see how we respond. We haven't been in those situations a lot."
-- coach Mark Fox
Kentucky: "The difference with this year as compared to last is that we had that early trip to Canada [in August], and that gave us a head start. We know what to expect. You can't compare [the two freshman classes]. There is as much talent, but they do it in different ways."
-- forward Darius Miller
LSU: "I don't have a Kirk Snyder or a Nick Fazekas or a Brook Lopez or a Tasmin Mitchell or a Marcus Thornton. But we've got young guys who had very good high school careers, and it remains to be seen how they develop. We're going to have to get it done by committee, and I like that. I like having a young team with solid players. We'll see who wants to step up and shoot it in late-clock situations."
-- coach Trent Johnson
Ole Miss: "One of the reasons I'm for expansion, not 96, because I don't want to water it down, but is for the experience of being in the NCAA tournament. It should be more inclusive, and I would be terribly disappointed for Chris Warren if he doesn't have a chance to experience the tournament."
-- coach Andy Kennedy
Mississippi State: "Once we get everybody back [forward Renardo Sidney has to sit nine games, and point guard Dee Bost has to sit 14] and if we remain healthy, I like our team, and we'll compete for another championship."
-- coach Rick Stansbury
South Carolina: "I wouldn't trade [senior forward] Sam Muldrow for anybody. He's a tremendous shot-blocker and a great team defender. He started to develop strength and confidence in the offseason in the gym. He's one of those guys who may not get 18, but he's going to be in double figures."
-- coach Darrin Horn
Tennessee: "I've grown as a player the last two years and watched others like Tyler [Smith] and Wayne [Chism]. I'm ready to have a breakout year and be a leader. I was playing my role and doing all I could to score."
-- guard Scotty Hopson
Vanderbilt: "[Former point guard] Jermaine [Beal] was productive, but Brad Tinsley is ready to be that guy for us."
-- coach Kevin Stallings
Ole Miss guard Chris Warren
SEC preview content
More SEC coverage:
For a Blue Ribbon breakdown of every SEC team, click here.
• Eamonn Brennan's five things to watch for the conference
• LaRue Cook's five key questions for the conference (Insider)
• Former Ohio State player Mark Titus previews the SEC from a unique point of view the end of the bench
• Chad Ford breaks down the SEC's top NBA prospects
• Podcast: Andy Katz previews the SEC. Listen
• Profile of the new head coach in the league: Tony Barbee (Auburn)
• For more SEC coverage in the Nation blog, click here.
Fraschilla's SEC preview
Brennan's SEC wind sprint
Best of SEC media day
Best declaration of intent: "I feel this could be the year for me to make the next step. I've come a long way since my freshman year. I'm more comfortable under Coach Grant. The West is wide-open for anybody to win. We've got a good chance to win it and make the NCAA tournament."
-- Alabama junior forward JaMychal Green on the Tide taking the next step this season
Highest praise: "If you want someone to compare him to, it's Ty Lawson coming at you. He's really fast. He's that kind of player. He can go for 30, but he won't. He makes people better. He finds guys. He can be solid and play tremendous for us."
-- South Carolina coach Darrin Horn on 5-9 guard and Devan Downey's replacement, Bruce Ellington
Most pressing question: Kentucky coach John Calipari said it's going to be hard to have Enes Kanter sit and watch while he waits for his amateur status to be cleared. The consensus among every coach in the SEC is that if Kanter plays, the Wildcats will be a force inside.
Best brewing feud: Any chatter that there should be a comparison between Dee Bost's suspension (nine games for declaring for the NBA draft) and Kanter's eligibility didn't sit well with Calipari. The rivalry between Kentucky and Mississippi State was already highly competitive after last season's SEC tournament title game, but now there could be even more intensity.
Gossip in the grain: Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl was in and out quickly in Birmingham, and after he left, there was plenty of wondering as to whether he'll be the coach for the Vols in the long term. No one seemed to have the answer and speculation ran rampant, but the consensus was that there was surprise that the severity of the charges against Pearl (lying about a violation he knowingly committed) didn't force him out.