SEC ShootAround: Baby Gators all grown up?

Updated: September 5, 2008

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The 2007-08 season was a frustrating one for Billy Donovan and the young Gators.

Growing pains mean new gains for Gators?

Even for a two-time defending national champion and a program that carved its place among some of college basketball's immortals, there is no such thing as entitlement.

It's sobering enough when you finally realize that. But even more excruciating is learning that lesson the hard way.

Florida's Walter Hodge remembers all too well.

"Just because you come to Florida doesn't mean it's going to happen for you or that you're going to make the [NCAA] tournament," said Hodge, who will be the only senior on the Gators' team this season. "You have to work hard and do the little things to be successful.

"We were young last year. But I think when everybody saw that we didn't make the tournament, it was like, 'Wow, the only way you're going to get there is hard work. Just because we're at Florida doesn't mean anything if you don't work like teams always have here under Coach [Billy Donovan].'

"Too many people got caught up with all the, 'We're going to make the tournament regardless. We're Florida.' It's not about that. It's about team, about chemistry. I think we picked that up at the end, but that was too late."

To say that Donovan never wants to go through another season like the last one is stating the obvious. He had just guided the Gators to back-to-back national titles, and briefly took the Orlando Magic head coaching job before changing his mind and returning to Florida. He lost all five starters -- three of them going in the first eight picks of the NBA draft -- from the championship teams.

He knew the Gators would be painfully young and inexperienced.

He knew there would be some serious growing pains.

What he didn't know was that the new team would be so stubborn about buying into his philosophy and his way of doing things, the Florida way.

"It's on us now," said junior forward Dan Werner. "Coach wants to get the program back to where it was. He can only do so much. We'll see how much everybody learned from last season."

The Gators recorded their 10th straight 20-win season, but they had their streak of nine straight NCAA tournament appearances snapped after losing six of their last eight SEC games, including a humiliating 80-69 loss to Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament. Supposedly playing for their NCAA tournament lives, the Gators were a complete no-show and fell behind 30-5 to start the game.

Afterward, a frustrated Donovan commented that he didn't know how excited he was about seeing some of those freshmen become sophomores. He's since said that some of those comments might have been misrepresented.

But his point had been made.

In preparation for an NIT run that saw the young Gators reach Madison Square Garden and the semifinals, he locked them out of their newly renovated practice facility and wouldn't allow them to wear any official Florida practice gear.

Over the next few weeks, the Gators probably did more to become a team than they'd done all season.

And heading into this season, even with the early departure of center Marreese Speights to the NBA, there's a sense that everybody finally gets it … even the five new freshmen that will be added to the roster.

"I think everybody knows that if we want to be a better team, we have to play defense," Hodge said. "Everybody is excited to come back and do better than the first year. The new freshmen are listening this time."

The scariest part for the Gators will be the interior, where only Werner and sophomore Alex Tyus return. The development of freshman post players -- 6-10, 215-pound Eloy Vargas, 6-10, 240-pound Kenny Kadji and 6-8, 220-pound Allan Chaney -- will be critical.

On the perimeter, sophomore guards Nick Calathes, Jai Lucas and Chandler Parsons should all be better. Calathes, the SEC's co-Freshman of the Year, was spectacular at times last season in leading the Gators in scoring (15.3 points) and setting a school record with 221 assists.

"With the departure of Marreese, the biggest question is: Do we have enough up front to continue to grow?" Donovan said.

A year later, Hodge is betting they do.

Chris Low covers college sports for

Five Things To Watch in '08-09

Freshmen of influence
More than ever, freshmen are playing a major role in college basketball now that the top prospects can't go straight to the NBA out of high school.

Last season, five of the top 14 scorers in the SEC were freshmen, with Florida guard Nick Calathes and Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors.

Who will be the impact true freshmen this season in the SEC?

Look for 6-5 swingman Scotty Hopson to start right away for Tennessee and be a terror in Bruce Pearl's up-and-down system. Alabama needs somebody to step in for Richard Hendrix, and 6-8 forward JaMychal Green has all the tools. Kentucky's DeAndre Liggins is 6-6, athletic and a true point guard. Three other freshman guards to keep an eye on are Dee Bost at Mississippi State, Courtney Fortson at Arkansas and Brad Tinsley at Vanderbilt.

Florida is looking for muscle inside with Speights gone to the NBA. Kenny Kadji and Eloy Vargas, a pair of 6-10 post players, won't have to wait long to get on the floor for the Gators. And at Georgia, 6-9 forward Howard Thompkins is one of those inside/outside guys who can do a little bit of everything.

Downtown Vols?
If Bruce Pearl is going to keep it going this season in Knoxville, one of the biggest questions that has to be answered by Tennessee is: Who's going to make 3-pointers?

Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith opened everything up last season with their ability to shoot from long range and make key jumpers. Now that they're gone, look for teams to really pack it in against the Vols (especially with the 3-point line being pushed back one foot to 20 feet, 9 inches) and dare them to shoot from the perimeter.

Cameron Tatum, who redshirted last season, has shown signs of being a good shooter, but he's got to prove it in the SEC. At this point, junior post player Wayne Chism might be the Vols' most established perimeter shooter. They will need to find a few more.

Hot seats
The state of Alabama will be worth watching this season, as both Alabama coach Mark Gottfried and Auburn coach Jeff Lebo need to make a serious move … or they might be on the move.

Gottfried's had some bad luck with Ronald Steele's injury, which essentially affected two seasons, but the coach probably won't survive to see a 12th season in Tuscaloosa unless the Crimson Tide end their two-year NCAA tournament drought.

The tough part for Gottfried is that he's had some nice success at his alma mater and reached the Elite Eight in 2004. But he's also been there long enough that he might be ready to look for other coaching horizons depending on how things go this season.

The situation may be even more dire for Lebo, who has what many consider to be the toughest head coaching job in the SEC. He's entering his fifth season and has yet to lead the Tigers to postseason play. For that matter, Auburn has finished with a losing SEC record all four of his years on the Plains.

It's difficult to blame Lebo for all the hard luck the Tigers suffered last season, especially with star player Korvotney Barber going down with a season-ending injury (a broken hand) 10 games into the season. The Tigers played with six or seven scholarship players for much of the season. Of course, one of the things that has plagued Lebo at Auburn is the sheer amount of players that have come and gone through the program for varied reasons.

Simply the best
Now that Shan Foster, Chris Lofton, Richard Hendrix, Jamont Gordon and Sonny Weems have all departed, who's the best returning player in the SEC?

South Carolina guard Devan Downey is the most exciting and would get a lot of votes as the player no opposing coach wants to see with the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

LSU's Marcus Thornton proved last season that he can score with anybody, and Kentucky's Patterson was tearing it up inside until a stress fracture in his foot ended his season.

Ole Miss point guard Chris Warren figures to be that much better after a terrific freshman season, while Florida's Calathes and Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy also had impressive first seasons in the SEC.

But the best all-around player just might be Tennessee's Tyler Smith, who's been working feverishly this offseason on his jumper. If he becomes more of a consistent threat from the perimeter, look out.

Pretenders or contenders
Which was the real Georgia team last season?

The one that slumbered through the regular season? Or the one that caught fire in the postseason and won the SEC tournament championship?

Dennis Felton and his Bulldogs have some momentum coming out of the 2007-08 season. Let's see what they do with it. He's brought in a talented class of freshmen to go along with some key returnees.

Georgia is especially deep inside, and Felton thinks guards Zac Swansey and Dustin Ware are the kind of set-up guys the Bulldogs have been lacking the last few seasons.

There will be less pressure on Felton this season now that he has his contract extension. Look for his Bulldogs to possibly contend for the East crown.

If I were the SEC commish …

I'd lock up Atlanta as the SEC tournament's home, but not at the Georgia Dome. I would make Phillips Arena the SEC's home, just like New York's Madison Square Garden has become the home for the Big East tournament. The SEC basketball tournament shouldn't be in the Georgia Dome anymore, and this has nothing to do with the tornado last season. Coaches talked about this at the SEC meetings. This isn't football. The atmosphere, especially in the early rounds, hasn't been as intense in such an expansive arena. The SEC tournament is moving to Tampa-St. Petersburg and then Nashville. The SEC shouldn't worry about the ACC getting Atlanta for its tournament. The ACC will likely never permanently leave North Carolina, but the SEC should own Atlanta.

2007-08 SEC Standings

SEC East Overall record SEC East record
Tennessee* 29-4 14-2
Kentucky* 18-12 12-4
Vanderbilt* 26-7 10-6
Florida^ 21-11 8-8
South Carolina 14-18 5-11
Georgia* 17-16 4-12
SEC West Overall record SEC West record
Mississippi State* 22-10 12-4
Arkansas* 22-11 9-7
Mississippi^ 21-10 7-9
LSU 13-18 6-10
Alabama 17-16 5-11
Auburn 14-16 4-12
*NCAA tournament
^NIT berth

For all the SEC news and notes, check out the conference page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Marcus Thornton, LSU, Sr. 19.6
Devan Downey, South Carolina, Jr. 18.4
A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt, Soph. 17.0
Patrick Patterson, Kentucky, Soph. 16.4
Chris Warren, Mississippi, Soph. 15.8

Top Returning Rebounders

Player RPG
Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State, Jr. 7.8
Patrick Patterson, Kentucky, Soph. 7.7
Alonzo Gee, Alabama, Sr. 6.8
A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt, Soph. 6.7
Tyler Smith, Tennessee, Jr. 6.7

Top Returning Assist Leaders

Player APG
Nick Calathes, Florida, Soph. 6.1
Devan Downey, South Carolina, Jr. 5.4
Jermaine Beal, Vanderbilt, Jr. 4.7
Chris Warren, Mississippi, Soph. 4.5
Eniel Polynice, Mississippi, Jr. 4.1

Final Shots

• Despite Florida's back-to-back titles of late, the Gators aren't in the top 10 in's Prestige Rankings. So where do two titles put Florida in the ranks since 1984-85? Prestige Rankings

• Could it be that the SEC won't have a team in the top 15 next season? Andy Katz thinks so. Tennessee is the highest-rated SEC team at No. 17. Andy Katz's Top 25

• Bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicts the SEC will get six teams in the NCAA tournament, but where will they be seeded? Bracketology

• Missed the other conference breakdowns? Click here to check out the ShootAround archive.


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2008-09 Team Capsules

By Chris Low

The bad news for Alabama is that bruising forward Richard Hendrix decided to leave early for the NBA draft. The good news is that point guard Ronald Steele is back after taking last year off to recover from three knee surgeries, including arthroscopic surgery on both knees. If Steele can return to his All-America form, he's the kind of point guard that can take over games. Senior guard Alonzo Gee is back after averaging 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds last season, and at 6-6, is one of the more explosive athletes in the league. Junior forward Demetrius Jemison is also back after starting last season. Alabama coach Mark Gottfried signed a highly rated class, led by 6-9 forward JaMychal Green. The Tide will need him to make an immediate impact inside if they're going to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.

Hogs fans might want to ditch their old rosters and lineup cards. John Pelphrey's second team at Arkansas won't look anything like his first team, which went 23-12, made it to the NCAA tournament and reached the second round (by beating Indiana in the first round) for the first time since 1999. But the Razorbacks have to replace 86 percent of their scoring and 77 percent of their rebounding. Six seniors are gone, and making matters worse for the Hogs, junior guard Patrick Beverley won't be able to play this season because of an off-the-court transgression Arkansas officials have declined to discuss. That leaves junior guard Stefan Welsh as the leading returning scorer. He averaged 5.3 points last season. It hasn't been all bad news this offseason for the Hogs. Pelphrey learned last week that prized point guard signee Courtney Fortson had been cleared to play this season. He heads up a six-member freshman class ranked 11th nationally by ESPNU.

The Tigers were decimated by injuries last season and lost leading scorer and rebounder Korvotney Barber in the 10th game to a broken left hand. The 6-7, 225-pound forward is back for his senior season and leads what should be a deeper club for Jeff Lebo, who enters his fifth season a bit under the gun. He has yet to lead the Tigers to a postseason appearance. This will be his best chance yet to get there. Senior starters Quantez Robertson and Rasheem Barrett also return on the perimeter along with junior guard Dewayne Reed, one of the Tigers' top assist men. Lebo brought in five newcomers, including three junior college transfers. Forward Josh Dollard won't be back after being dismissed from the team in late July for violating Auburn athletic department policy. Dollard took a leave of absence last season for personal reasons but led the team in scoring and rebounding during the 2006-07 season.

The Gators were the youngest team in the league last season, and that youth was glaring as they folded down the stretch and saw their streak of nine straight NCAA tournament appearances snapped. The perimeter won't be the problem this season, as the quartet of Nick Calathes, Walter Hodge, Jai Lucas and Chandler Parsons matches up with most anybody in the league. Calathes was the co-SEC Freshman of the Year and set a school record with 221 assists. Hodge's leadership will be key, as he's the only senior on the team. Parsons has bulked up from 190 to 215 pounds and should be better able to hold his own against stronger players. Who steps up in the interior is anybody's guess. Marreese Speights turned pro and was the 16th pick in the NBA draft, leaving a huge void in the middle. Freshmen Eloy Vargas and Kenny Kadji, both 6-10, will have to play right away, and Florida coach Billy Donovan is also counting on more offensive production from junior forward Dan Werner, who's a better shooter than he showed last season.

The revolving door has been spinning the last few years at Georgia with players coming and going. Another left the program this offseason when Billy Humphrey was booted from the team after another alcohol-related incident. But for the first time since Dennis Felton arrived in Athens, there seems to be some real momentum. He has a new contract after the Bulldogs streaked to the SEC tournament championship, and he feels like he has all the pieces to make another run next season. The Bulldogs have a ton of size inside, starting with 6-10, 250-pound junior Albert Jackson, who was a force down the stretch last season. Chris Barnes, who was injured last season, and Jeremy Price are also experienced post players who go 250-plus. Howard Thompkins, a 6-9, 230-pound freshman, is the highest-rated signee for the Bulldogs since Louis Williams, who opted for the NBA draft. The only senior is 6-7 swingman Terrance Woodbury, who finally found his shooting stroke in the stretch run last season. Freshman Dustin Ware and sophomore Zac Swansey will share the point guard duties.

After starting the season 6-7, Kentucky appeared to be in real danger of having its 16-year NCAA tournament streak broken. But freshman forward Patrick Patterson put the Wildcats on his back in SEC play, and they played their way into the tournament. Patterson missed the final five games after sustaining a stress fracture in his left ankle. The 6-8 Patterson is healthy again and returns as one of the most imposing big men in the league. Patterson averaged a staggering 38.9 minutes in SEC games last season, which undoubtedly contributed to the wear and tear on his body. Junior forward Perry Stevenson came on at the end of last season, and needs to continue on that path. Junior guard Jodie Meeks, the Wildcats' best shooter, is also back after playing sparingly in the last 13 games and undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia. The two newcomers at guard will likely hold the key for Kentucky this season. Freshman DeAndre Liggins is a big-time point guard with size (6-6), while junior college transfer Kevin Galloway is also an accomplished passer. The 6-6 Galloway started his career at Southern California.

A year removed from going to the Final Four, LSU plummeted to a 6-10 record and fourth place in the SEC Western Division standings last season -- costing veteran coach John Brady his job. He was ousted during the middle of the season, and assistant Butch Pierre finished the season. Now, it's Trent Johnson's turn to see if he can revive the Tigers after coming over from Stanford. Johnson won't have forward Anthony Randolph, who bolted for the NBA after just one year at LSU. But Johnson will welcome back Tasmin Mitchell, who played in just three games last season after fracturing his shin and undergoing surgery. The 6-7, 230-pound Mitchell was one of the better all-around players in the league before he was injured. The Tigers will have some depth up front. Chris Johnson was one of the league's better shot-blockers before he broke his hand last season, and 6-10 sophomore Garrett Green may be poised for a breakout season. Marcus Thornton led the SEC in scoring last season in league games (21.6 ppg), and Garrett Temple is one of the better defenders in the league. If Johnson finds a point guard, LSU may be one of the teams to beat in the West. Freshman Chris Bass will get a shot. Bass is the younger brother of former LSU forward Brandon Bass.

Ole MissMississippi
The Rebels return six of their top nine players but lose their three bruisers inside. But what Ole Miss loses in muscle may be replaced with athleticism and quickness. In some ways, this team may be able to play closer to the way Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy wants to play -- wide-open and up and down the floor. The strength of the Rebels will be their guards. Point guard Chris Warren returns after a fabulous freshman season. Eniel Polynice is 6-5 junior guard who causes all sorts of matchup problems. He's one of the most explosive athletes in the league and a great finisher around the basket. David Huertas, another 6-5 swingman, is a big-time scorer when he gets it going, and 6-2 guard Trevor Gaskins was third among SEC freshmen with 46 3-pointers last season. If the Rebels' young big men step up, they could be the favorites to win the West. Kennedy is also counting on more production inside this season from 6-9 sophomore Malcolm White, who didn't play much last season. Terrico White has a chance to be one of the most exciting freshmen in the league. The 6-5 guard led the city of Memphis in scoring last year and possesses a 42-inch vertical leap.

Mississippi StateMississippi State
Since the 1998-99 season, Mississippi State is third in the league in wins behind only Florida and Kentucky. Rick Stansbury's program has been a model of consistency the last decade. The Bulldogs were back in the NCAA tournament last season after winning the Western Division, but the nucleus of that club is gone. This season's team will be built around shot-blocking specialist Jarvis Varnado, who led the country with 157 blocks (4.6 bpg) and tied Shaquille O'Neal's SEC record. Stansbury will need Varnado to do a little more this season than just block shots. Guard Barry Stewart is the other returning starter. He was streaky last season, but he is one of those guys who can fill it up from outside when he's on. Dee Bost of Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy is the freshman the Bulldogs are counting on to play point guard. He led his high school team in Concord, N.C., to state championships in both football and basketball. The other guy who needs to come on this season is 6-8, 265-pound forward Elgin Bailey, who didn't play much a year ago as a freshman. Stansbury wants to pair Bailey inside with the 6-9 Varnado.

South CarolinaSouth Carolina
Darrin Horn is the new guy on the scene at South Carolina after an impressive run at Western Kentucky, and he inherits a team that returns for the most part intact. The Gamecocks, who finished 14-18 last season, return seven of their top eight scorers. Guard Devan Downey is the catalyst, and one of the top scorers in the league. The transfer from Cincinnati averaged 18.4 points last season to rank third in the SEC. Two other returning perimeter players -- Zam Fredrick and Dominique Archie -- also averaged in double figures. The Gamecocks recently went 4-0 on a European trip, which should help their transition into what Horn wants to do. One thing Horn has made a point of is beefing up the Gamecocks' strength program, and several of the players have talked openly about the need to be tougher. They lost a bunch of close games last season, and that's typically where toughness rears its head the most. The Gamecocks don't have much size, but Horn thinks 6-7, 220-pound sophomore Mike Holmes can be more of a factor after starting in 12 games last season.

The Vols lost a lot of firepower in Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith, who shot teams into submission countless times over the last two seasons. But coach Bruce Pearl brought in a deep and highly touted freshman class filled with rangy and explosive athletes that should allow him to press significantly more than Tennessee did last season. Scotty Hopson and Emmanuel Negedu are a pair of freshman wings that fit perfectly into what Pearl wants to do in his frenetic run-and-press system. One of the big question marks will be outside shooting, which is where Pearl hopes redshirt freshman Cameron Tatum can come through after sitting out last season. Junior forward Tyler Smith would also like to see some legitimate perimeter threats emerge to keep defenses from sagging inside on him. Look for Smith to branch out his game some this season. Another key is 6-10 sophomore Brian Williams and his continued improvement. This will be a younger, different team from last season, and it will try to generate more offense out of its defense. But the Vols remain the favorite to win their second straight SEC title.

Kevin Stallings has been so consistent at Vanderbilt that it's easy to take the Commodores' success for granted. They've been to two Sweet 16s in the past five years and won 26 games last season. Most of all, Stallings has taken the recruiting to another level, which is why it's not a stretch to think that Vanderbilt will be just fine next season despite losing SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster. Joining 6-11 sophomore A.J. Ogilvy in the middle will be 6-11 redshirt freshman Festus Ezeli, who has a 7-5 wingspan and possesses the capability to change the way teams try to attack the Commodores inside. That's important because Vanderbilt could never sustain the kind of defensive consistency that Stallings was looking for last season. Junior Jermaine Beal returns at point guard and will need to take his game to another level. One of Stallings' key recruiting pickups was 6-3 guard Brad Tinsley, who got out of his letter-of-intent with Pepperdine and picked Vanderbilt over Oregon and Wake Forest. This might not be Stallings' deepest team, but it shapes up as potentially one of his most talented.

SEC's best

By Fran Fraschilla

1. Florida: If former Gator Marreese Speights played for coach Billy Donovan the way he played in NBA pre-draft workouts, Florida would have been an NCAA tournament team last season. As it is, sophomore sensation Nick Calathes will be surrounded by an excellent young group of players, including two big men who may have NBA potential some day, Eloy Vargas and Kenny Kadji.

2. Tennessee: Bruce Pearl's program is at the point where new players are just plugged into this high-voltage system of play. So freshman Scotty Hopson will replace All-American Chris Lofton, while Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince will pick up where they left off last season.

3. LSU: New coach Trent Johnson inherits a nice nucleus, including Tasmin Mitchell, who missed all of last season with an injury, and Garrett Temple, a four-year starter. If junior center Chris Johnson continues to improve, he may be the SEC's most underrated NBA prospect.

4. Kentucky: Billy Gillispie lost nearly 34 points a game due to the graduation of Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, but Patrick Patterson proved to be one of the country's best freshmen last season. Freshman DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller have to contribute a lot early, and a point guard must be found.

5. Mississippi: Who's done a better job of getting the most out of his talent in the SEC than Andy Kennedy? The good news is that the cupboard is starting to fill up with an entire backcourt, led by sophomore Chris Warren returning. Remember the name Terrico White, another outstanding guard from Memphis.

6. South Carolina: Junior Devan Downey is virtually unguardable in the open court and should flourish in new coach Darrin Horn's system, as will scorer Zam Fredrick. If the Gamecocks' young big men come along, this could be the league's most improved team.

7. Alabama: The fate of the Crimson Tide rest on two things: Ronald Steele's health and the impact of freshman stud JaMychal Green. Mercurial swingman Alonzo Gee returns to help Mark Gottfried's team get back on track after two injury-plagued seasons.

8. Vanderbilt: The Commodores lost the SEC Player of the Year, Shan Foster, as well as three other contributors. However, Aussie sophomore A.J. Ogilvy -- a potential player of the year candidate -- returns, along with Kevin Stallings' best recruiting class since coming to Nashville.

9. Georgia: The Bulldogs' miraculous finish in the SEC tournament was one of the stories of the year in the conference. However, losing three starters, including one of the league's best players, Sundiata Gaines, will make this a mystery team. Freshman Howard "Trey" Thompkins will have to be real good, real early.

10. Mississippi State: Losing a trio like Jamont Gordon, Charles Rhodes and Ben Hansbrough will be very difficult for coach Rick Stansbury to overcome. Jarvis Varnado returns as one of the country's premier shot blockers, and junior Barry Stewart must quickly become the Bulldogs' go-to scorer.

11. Arkansas: Crushed by graduation, coach John Pelphrey recently suspended leading returning scorer Patrick Beverley for the season. A solid, not great, first recruiting class must get its feet wet early.

12. Auburn: Coach Jeff Lebo is respected by his peers, but his program has been stuck in the mud since he arrived in the Plains. A juco-heavy recruiting class can help make a move in the very mediocre SEC West for the upcoming season.