2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview: The SEC

Stephen Dunn/Hartford Courant/MCT

Don’t look now, but SEC basketball is on a big-time rise. But seriously, don’t look now. This season will yet again be “Kentucky, Florida, and maybe someone else.” Check back next year, though, and you just might find a top-three conference in college basketball.

Just think about what’s on the horizon in the SEC: Bruce Pearl is surely going to resurrect Auburn. LSU landed Ben Simmons, the no. 1 recruit in the class of 2015. Texas A&M has the no. 2 recruiting class in the country next year. Missouri just hired Kim Anderson, a former Tigers player who coached Central Missouri to a Division II national title last season. Andy Kennedy has gotten his soul back after selling it to the devil for Marshall Henderson. We’re almost due for the Kevin Stallings Cycle to make another turn and bring Vanderbilt back again.1 Frank Martin just signed two top-100 recruits. Either he’s building a winner at South Carolina or he’s going to eventually murder all of his players out of frustration. (I’m tuning in either way!) And, of course, the SEC will always have Kentucky and Florida.

Speaking of Florida, it’s a shame how last season ended for the Gators. I feel for all of those seniors who got within one game of the title after racking up so many wins in their careers. It was especially hard to watch Scottie Wilbekin go from being one of the best two-way point guards in college basketball to getting eaten alive by Ryan Boatright. The worst part, though, is that because Florida didn’t manage to win the championship, history won’t remember the 2014 Gators as the great team they were. No player from that team seems likely to have a great NBA career, so when casual fans look back and see the lack of individual talent AND a lack of a title, Florida won’t get the respect it deserves.

And to be honest, Florida probably wasn’t one of the best teams ever, but it did have one of the best seasons ever. Going 18-0 in the same conference as the national runner-up? Only two non-tournament losses, which came by a combined seven points in true road games less than a month into the season? And both were against Final Four teams when the Gators weren’t at full strength? That’s amazing.

Florida deserved to win the national title last season. There’s no doubt about it. The only problem, though, is that Shabazz Napier deserved it too.

The Top Three Teams

harrison-twins-kentucky-wildcatsAndy Lyons/Getty Images

1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Arkansas

You know the deal with Kentucky, even if you don’t know the details. Nine McDonald’s All Americans. Ten guys 6-foot-6 or taller. A great recruiting class mixed with former great recruits who chose to stick around for one more year. Some experts have already suggested this could be the best team John Calipari has ever had, which is mind-boggling when you consider that the 2012 Wildcats were maybe the best college basketball team of the past two decades. Hell, they might have been the best team ever.2 Calipari has such a wealth of talent that he plans to use a “platoon” rotation this season by substituting two units of five players throughout games, sort of like line changes in hockey.

Calipari may prove me wrong, but I don’t think the platoon system will last through April. I mean, I get it: Kentucky has so many players with great size and athleticism, and they all need minutes. Cycling them in and out in five-man squads will allow each group to play balls-to-the-wall defense in short bursts because the players know they’ll get to rest soon. I’m sure Calipari will find some creative ways to use his roster flexibility — shuffling the starting lineup, deploying the occasional mass substitution, maybe even bringing in someone new after nearly every dead ball. But systematic line changes at predetermined times?

Let’s say Kentucky is facing Ole Miss, and Calipari puts one of the Harrisons on Jarvis Summers to start the game. Summers rattles off seven quick points, but when the line change comes, Dominique Hawkins shuts Summers down. Then Hawkins comes out and Summers abuses Harrison again. Is Calipari going to stick with his platoons at that point? Is he really going to remove a player who’s making a positive impact just because the schedule says so? And what about when a Kentucky player has a hot hand? What about foul trouble? What about crunch time? What happens when Cal’s schedule says to leave in Alex Poythress for an important possession, but Poythress’s schedule says he’s due for one of those games in which he just goes through the motions?

Here’s what I think is really going on with the platoon talk: marketing. That’s all it is. Calipari is a genius salesman. Skeptics think he bent the rules at Kentucky to create this monstrous recruiting machine, and maybe he has. I think it’s just as likely, though, that he’s used a brilliant marketing strategy with the strength of BIG BLUE NATION behind him.

Have you ever noticed how Cal manages to keep Kentucky in the headlines? He’ll mention how it’s his goal to go 40-0 and then act surprised when people take his undefeated talk seriously. He’ll go on ESPN every other week and explain how hard it is to have far and away the most talented team in the nation. It’s so hard, you guys. He’ll have Drake around his program and then brush it off as if having one of the biggest celebrities in popular music run layup lines with the team is something that goes on everywhere. Oh, him? That’s just Aubrey to me. We go way back. I didn’t even realize it was a big deal until you mentioned it. And there’s this tweet from the 2012 NBA draft, which is the most Calipari move in the history of Calipari.

Kentucky fans think everyone is obsessed with Cal because they’re haters and/or jealous. Non-Kentucky fans would argue that it’s hard to ignore Cal when he puts his face everywhere and lays that “aww shucks” attitude on thick. Both sides argue on the Internet and whip each other into a frenzy, and at the end of the day the college basketball conversation is always centered on Kentucky, which is all Calipari cares about. People accuse Cal of being a bad coach and say that he just recruits the best players and rolls the balls out. Even if that were true (it’s not), recruiting and marketing is still part of a head coach’s job. There’s so much more to coaching college basketball than X’s and O’s, and nobody has mastered the side duties better than Calipari has. If he didn’t know the first thing about basketball strategy, he’d still be a phenomenal coach. Whether you want to admit it or not, you’ll tell your grandkids what it was like to watch John Calipari turn college basketball on its head. I just don’t think you’ll tell them about Kentucky’s platoon system of 2015 when you do.

Speaking of great coaches, Billy Donovan should have another strong Florida team this season, even though the Gators seem a bit overrated at no. 7 in the preseason polls. Incumbent point guard Kasey Hill looked lost way too often last season, and all we know for sure about Chris Walker (who sat out the first half of last season and never made an impact once he became eligible) is that he’s tall, he’s athletic, and he has lips tattooed on his neck. That said, if those guys can justify the hype they brought when enrolling at Florida, the Gators should be a national title contender. Michael Frazier II is the best shooter in the country. If Dorian Finney-Smith can be more consistent  which he should be now that he won’t come off the bench  he’ll be a national star. If I didn’t think preseason rankings were a waste of time, I’d probably put Florida in the no. 12 to no. 15 range, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think the Gators have the potential to do some serious damage.

Meanwhile, Arkansas looks like the SEC’s obvious third wheel. The Hogs bring back six of their top seven scorers (including the top three) from last year’s team, which would’ve been a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament if it played all of its games at home.3 Point guard play is a concern, but the experience of wings Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls, along with the inside dominance of Bobby Portis, should be enough to make Arkansas a Sweet 16 threat.

Best College Player: Jarvis Summers (Ole Miss)

summers-jarvis-ole-missWesley Hitt/Getty Images

I like to think Summers spent his entire offseason blasting Kelly Clarkson music. Every time he lifted weights, the same song pumped through the speakers while Summers crushed the maxes he had set a week earlier. He’d run the stairs of the lecture hall with headphones on and shadowbox for a couple of minutes every time he reached the top. Whenever he got in his car, he’d roll up the windows, press play, and shout the same chorus into his steering wheel. And if you had dropped by his apartment to surprise him, chances are he’d be in a poorly lit room covered with so much Marshall Henderson hatred on the walls that it would put Ray Finkle’s bedroom to shame. You’d open the door and find Summers yelling over the music he’s blasting through the entire complex:


Summers has to be the happiest man in college basketball right now. Just think about this: Summers averaged 17.3 points, 3.8 assists, and 2.4 boards per game last season while shooting 48.6 percent from the field, and he did it with three guys in his jock every time he had the ball.

Sure, Summers only had one guy defending him. But Henderson running at Summers and begging for the ball should count as a second defender, and the defender Henderson brings with him is the third. The point is, Summers was Ole Miss’s best player last season, Henderson didn’t want to admit it, and Summers was stifled as a result. And he still put up great numbers!

Now that Henderson has graduated and started his career as a psychologist, Summers is the team’s undisputed leader. You could argue that Henderson’s shooting demanded the attention of defenses, which freed Summers to be as productive as he was. I’d argue that Henderson’s presence was one part that and about 10 billion parts “team cancer.” Henderson averaged 16 shots per game when he wasn’t even the best player on the team? How did Kennedy allow this? How did Ole Miss lose eight of 11 games toward the end of the season without Kennedy pulling Henderson to the side and saying, “Marshall, um, maybe stop RUINING EVERYTHING???”

I know that Kentucky fans think Aaron Harrison is the best player in the SEC, but I’m picking Summers for player of the year because he has the chance to carry the Rebels to heights few people seem to think they can reach.

Best Pro Prospect: Kentucky (Kentucky)

kentucky-wildcats-cheerleadersAndy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky’s roster has somewhere between three and ALL OF THEM first-round draft picks. So instead of singling out one player, I thought it would be fun to go through highlight mixtapes for all of Kentucky’s pro prospects and try to determine which player is the best.

First up is Karl-Anthony Towns:

Yeah, we can just stop right there. The answer is Karl Towns.

Most Underrated Player: Bobby Portis (Arkansas)

portis-bobby-arkansasWesley Hitt/Getty Images

I know it might seem strange to call Portis underrated. He’s a McDonald’s All American who had a stellar freshman year and was named to the preseason all-conference first team. Plus, he’s a projected first-round pick. But Portis still hasn’t received the recognition he deserves. The SEC welcomed an absurd amount of talented freshmen last season  11 of the nation’s top 30 recruits went to SEC schools — and as a result, all of the attention Portis was supposed to get was spread throughout the conference. Making matters worse, even though Portis was Arkansas’s best player, he seemed to get the spotlight taken from him in every marquee game.

Against Gonzaga at last year’s Maui Invitational, Portis put up 18 points and seven boards. But Kevin Pangos scored 34 and Gonzaga won. In the Hogs’ overtime loss to Florida at home, Portis went for a solid 14 points and seven rebounds. But Finney-Smith put up 22 and 15, Madden scored 23, and Coty Clarke went for 16 and 14. In the Hogs’ two overtime wins against Kentucky, Portis averaged 10 points and eight rebounds. But Julius Randle was a beast in both games and Qualls stole the show with a game-winning dunk in the first game. Almost every time Portis was on national television, he played well but wasn’t quite good enough to have a breakout moment that left America saying, “Who is this guy?!?!”

That will change this season. Every college basketball fan will know about Bobby Portis by the time March rolls around. The SEC has plenty of talented big men, but nobody outside of Kentucky and LSU can match up with Portis. He’s 6-11 and 242 pounds, he runs the floor hard, he has great footwork, he’s a very good defender, he has a soft touch around the rim, and he can knock down 15-footers. And get this: Portis is apparently still growing; he was listed at 6-9 and 225 pounds coming out of high school last year.

B-O-B-B-Y P-O-R-T-I-S. Learn it. Beat it into your brain. Tell your friends.

Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: K.T. Harrell (Auburn)

harrell-KT-AuburnMichael Chang/Getty Images

Harrell is the more traditional choice for the SEC’s most underrated player. He didn’t make the preseason first or second all-conference teams, and if this video of him and Pearl crashing a random class at Auburn is an indication, even Auburn students aren’t quite sure who he is. (To be fair to them, would you have followed Auburn basketball during the Tony Barbee era?) Virginia fans remember Harrell as the guy who averaged eight points and shot 42 percent from the 3-point line as a freshman for the Hoos, only to transfer 11 games into his sophomore season when an offensive slump limited his playing time.4 The Alabama native decided to head closer to home, and Auburn fans will be glad he did once they realize the Tigers have a real star on the roster.

Harrell averaged 18.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game as a junior, and the scary thing is that he really didn’t have a great year. He frequently tried to do way too much, which explains why he averaged almost three turnovers per game and shot just 36 percent from 3-point range. It was like halfway through the season he said to himself, We suck, our coach sucks, nobody comes to our games, and I’ve already transferred once. Screw it — I’m getting mine while I can.

This season should be much better for Harrell. Chris Denson, the Tigers’ best player last year, has moved on, so there’s no doubt Harrell is the man this season. He won’t have to compete for shots and he won’t have to feel pressure to match another star’s statistics — he’ll be able to relax and do what he does best. That brings us to Pearl, who is the ultimate player’s coach. Pearl doesn’t just give his players freedom to try things other coaches would forbid; he encourages it. His teams always seem confident and loose, and this often makes them better than they look on paper.5 If history is any indication, Pearl will rejuvenate Harrell, Harrell will be a stud, and Auburn will win five more games than any sane person would have predicted.

Most Frustrating Player: Alex Poythress (Kentucky)

poythress-alex-kentuckyStacy Revere/Getty Images

I’m almost scared to criticize Poythress because it feels like any day now I’m going to wake up to the following headline: “POYTHRESS QUITS KENTUCKY: ‘I NEVER LIKED BASKETBALL ANYWAY!’” When was the last time somebody regressed from one season to another as much as Poythress did between his freshman and sophomore years? The closest parallel I can come up with would be Sean Kline’s sophomore and junior seasons at Indiana, but his drop-off can be blamed on his knees exploding.6 Poythress averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds a game as a freshman, yet only 5.9 and 4.5 as a sophomore? How?

You could argue that Kentucky’s roster changes from 2013 to 2014 left Poythress in an ancillary role. With Randle playing like the Tasmanian Devil and pulling down every rebound last season, the Wildcats didn’t really need much more aggression in the paint. But Poythress’s decline seemed to be less about the new faces in the Wildcat lineup and more about the space between his ears. Remember the Duke game from Poythress’s freshman year? Kentucky fans probably bring it up every time they think of him. In Poythress’s second career game, he scored 20 points and grabbed eight boards despite being on the court with three other big men who have gone on to NBA careers. In each of his next three games, Poythress put up 20-plus points and five-plus rebounds. He had his ups and downs throughout the rest of that season, but what freshman doesn’t? What mattered was that his ups were really, really high (20 and 12 vs. LSU in late January), and he was expected to make the leap to genuine stardom as a sophomore.

Instead, Poythress’s season high in points last year was 16. The last game he scored in double figures was on February 4. The last game he rebounded in double figures was November 12. He never had a game with double-digit shot attempts, despite having seven such games his freshman year. Don’t get me wrong  Poythress wasn’t bad (other than his 3-point shooting). He was just ineffective. You didn’t notice him, and that’s what makes him so frustrating, because Poythress is so talented that you should notice him every game. He’s got lottery-caliber ability, but it seems impossible to know when he’s going to use it.

With Kentucky rolling out perhaps its deepest and most talented roster ever, I worry that Poythress will be passive again this season. Because of his versatility and experience, he might be the most important player on Kentucky’s team. Unfortunately, it’s just as likely that he’ll fade into oblivion.

Most Intriguing New Coach: Bruce Pearl (Auburn)

pearl-bruce-tennesseeKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Did anyone else notice that two days after Pearl got hired back into college basketball, Aaron Craft missed a buzzer-beater in the final game of his career? It’s like the forces of the universe have dictated that only one of them can be in the sport at any given time. Note to Auburn fans: Even if it goes against everything you believe in, root for Craft to have a lengthy professional career, because as soon as that ends and he comes back to start coaching, Pearl’s empire at Auburn will crumble.

No matter what you think of the guy, Pearl will always be good for college basketball for the same reason that Dick Vitale, Tom Izzo, Ron Hunter, and so many others are great for the sport: His enthusiasm is infectious. There’s no denying that Pearl loves college basketball, and when you see him paint his chest at Tennessee or bear-hug Erin Andrews in a halftime interview, or crash classes at Auburn, you can’t help but love the sport, too. He knows how to turn his charm up to 11, get in front of a camera, and convince you that he’s one of the most likable personalities in the game.

The dark undercurrent here, of course, is that Pearl should probably be the most unlikable coach in college basketball. Just imagine for a second that Calipari had Pearl’s past. Refresh your memory on Pearl’s ethics history and think about how you’d react if it were Calipari instead:

  • While an assistant at Iowa, Pearl called a recruit that he had lost to Illinois nine times in the span of 48 hours. When he finally got through, Pearl recorded the conversation and baited the recruit into admitting that he was paid with cash and a car to attend Illinois. Pearl then submitted the recording to the NCAA.
  • Pearl used the recruit’s friend as a snitch and allegedly promised a scholarship to the friend if he complied with Pearl’s plan to bring down the recruit and Illinois.
  • The NCAA investigated Illinois based on Pearl’s claims and found nothing to back them up, mostly because the recruit said he was lying just to get Pearl off the phone. However, the NCAA found other violations committed by Illinois that led to a postseason ban and a loss of scholarships.
  • Nineteen years after a case of sour grapes led to Pearl blowing a whistle without concrete proof, he illegally hosted a recruit and the recruit’s family at his house while the head coach at Tennessee. He told everyone that what he was doing was illegal and asked that they not tell anyone about it. When the NCAA investigated Pearl, he lied to the NCAA and asked the recruit’s father to do the same.

If a report was released tomorrow that proved that Calipari did all of those things, he’d be the most hated man in college basketball history. He’d make Christian Laettner look like Hank Gathers. Every Indiana and Louisville fan on Twitter would have to be hospitalized with prolonged erections. All of the Kentucky Sports Radio guys would be thrown in straitjackets. Ashley Judd would reenact the entire plot of Bug. Drake would … well Drake would just start cheering for Duke. But you get the idea. If Calipari did what Pearl did, there would be mass hysteria.

And yet, Pearl is beloved. Public relations is a hell of a thing.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M)

kennedy-billy-texas-a&mRob Foldy/Getty Images

Barring NCAA sanctions, a Mike Rice situation, or Kennedy pulling a switchblade from his sock to attack Bruce Weber during a Kansas State game, there’s no way Kennedy will get fired anytime soon. He has Texas A&M’s support as he deals with his Parkinson’s (he just signed a two-year extension), and even without the school’s stamp of approval, Kennedy bought himself a few more years with the phenomenal 2015 recruiting class Rick Stansbury he is putting together. But, as a reminder, the coaches on my hot seat aren’t necessarily the ones who I expect to be fired; they’re just the coaches who I’m putting pressure on to win.

To be fair to Kennedy, he’s been playing from behind ever since he arrived at College Station. He inherited a team led by Khris Middleton and Elston Turner that was expected to share the Big 12 title with Kansas in 2012, but that season was derailed when Kennedy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s before A&M had even played a game. Kennedy returned after three weeks away in late October and November. That might not seem like a very long absence, but those weeks leading up to a team’s first games are probably the most important coaching days of the season. That’s because it’s one last opportunity to assess the team and make drastic changes, which is something that’s really tough to do once games start and the intensity in practices is turned down.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Big 12 was loaded, with Kansas, Missouri, and Baylor all ranked in the top 10 for most of the year. Middleton left after that season, Turner left a year after that, and no significant recruits were brought in (probably because rival coaches convinced recruits there was no telling how long Kennedy, with his condition, would be around). So here we are now with Kennedy sitting barely over .500 after three seasons at Texas A&M.

The harsh reality is that Kennedy, even with all the goodwill he has built up, needs to start winning games. The Aggies aren’t a basketball powerhouse, but the program was on the rise after Billy Gillispie brought it back from the dead and Mark Turgeon added a couple of gut-wrenching NCAA tournament losses to go along with Gillispie’s two heartbreakers.7 Gillispie and Turgeon strung together seven consecutive 20-win seasons before the Aggies hired Kennedy, who has yet to crack the 20-win barrier. Again, there are plenty of reasonable excuses, but results eventually matter, and Kennedy’s teams need to get better.

With five of the top six scorers back from last season, highly coveted freshman point guard Alex Robinson, and a favorable schedule (Texas A&M only plays Kentucky, Arkansas, Georgia, and Ole Miss once), Kennedy has what he needs to finish in the top half of the SEC. Let’s see what happens.

Something to Keep an Eye On: Zach Hodskins

If you don’t already know Hodskins’s story, here’s the gist: He is a freshman preferred walk-on for Florida who has one hand. Yes, one hand. He was born with his left arm cut just below his elbow.

I know. You’re wondering if this is some feel-good stunt that Donovan has orchestrated  a bit of Calipari-style marketing magic. Donovan does have a commitment from a player named “Keith Stone” next year, so it’s not crazy to wonder if he’s working some kind of marketing angle. Is Hodskins part of it? Is Donovan going to exploit Hodskins’s story to get himself some positive headlines?

Well, no. Because here’s the thing about Hodskins: He’s really freaking good. Actually, let me clarify: Hodskins is just good enough to make me question how to handle his story, but not good enough to completely ignore his story. By that I mean Hodskins is good enough to make his play on the court be his story. He has received a good amount of media coverage ever since Donovan offered him a spot, and rightfully so. But at what point should we stop tagging “… for a player with one arm” at the end of every compliment? Just watch this mixtape.

Does that look like someone who is just happy to be out there or someone who demands to be taken seriously on a basketball court? As much as Hodskins probably appreciates the attention he’s received, I’m guessing he’d like it more if he were receiving that attention for what he does have instead of what he doesn’t. And just so we’re clear, what he has a knock-down jump shot and a chance to crack the rotation of one of America’s best programs in the next four years. Hodskins’s bio on Florida’s website doesn’t mention his condition at all, and it shouldn’t.

That said, Hodskins is still a walk-on who probably won’t ever be a major contributor in the SEC, so although his skills are real, the national interest will probably always fixate on his story. Just trying out for his high school JV team and getting cut would’ve been an inspiration. But making the varsity, starting, and averaging double-digit points for two seasons? And then getting an offer to play for one of the best coaches in America? And doing it all while probably having to hear thousands of shitty puns and “make him go left!” remarks throughout his life?

Hodskins has accomplished more than most high school basketball players ever come close to. That alone is something to be proud of. But accomplishing it the way he has done is nothing short of remarkable.

Five Pressing Questions:

1. Will Mississippi State have more wins in football or basketball this year?

2. Bruce Pearl gets hired at an SEC school, Cuonzo Martin craps on Tennessee on his way out, and now Donnie Tyndall is being investigated for NCAA violations. All of this happened in a span of eight months, which brings me to the question: Why does God hate Tennessee basketball?

3. Has Rick Ray received his Nobel Prize for directing an F-bomb at Marshall Henderson yet?

4. Do the names Malcolm Canada and Jack Purchase sound more like (a) Auburn basketball players, (b) the titular characters of Keanu Reeves and/or Tom Cruise movies, or (c) the Canadian equivalent of Captain America and his sidekick?

5. How many LSU and Georgia fans are going to berate me for glossing over their NCAA tournament–caliber teams in this preview?

Filed Under: College Basketball, SEC, john calipari, Alex Poythress, Florida Gators, Kentucky Wildcats, Billy Donovan, Tennessee Volunteers, Bruce Pearl, Auburn, Ole Miss, Jarvis Summers, Karl Towns, Bobby Portis, K.T. Harrell, Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M Aggies, Zach Hodskins, 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

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