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Conference Countdown: No. 5 SEC

Pre-season Awards

Player of the Year: Trey Thompkins, Georgia

There are three reasons I think Thompkins wins this award. First and foremost, the kid can flat out play, and may very well turn into one of the best big men in the country this year. He has range on his jumper, he can score in the post, he rebounds the ball well. There is not much he cannot do on a basketball court. The second reason is that the SEC is not overloaded with talented big guys. Enes Kanter and Patric Young are freshmen. Who knows what Renardo Sidney is going to be this year, especially on the defensive end. Can Storm Warren guard Thompkins? Brian Williams? JaMychal Green? The third reason is that Georgia does not have much else on their team. Travis Leslie can score, but he gets hustle points more than buckets off of plays that are run for him. Combine Thompkins ability with the fact that he will get a lot of touches against inferior competition, and the chance is there for Trey to become a nationally recognized name by season’s end.

And a close second goes to: Chris Warren, Ole Miss

Warren has always been a fantastic scorer for the Rebels. In each of his three seasons with Ole Miss, he has averaged at least 15 ppg, and finished up his junior campaign as a 17 ppg scorer despite coming off of a serious knee injury the year before. Last year, Andy Kennedy had guys like Terrico White and Murphy Holloway, but this year Warren is going to be options A, B, and C. Don’t be surprised if he ends up averaging 20 ppg. And while this Ole Miss team loses four of the five starters from last year’s club and adds five freshmen, there is potential here. In other words, the Rebels aren’t going to finish at the bottom the league.

Breakout Star: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt

Last season, Jenkins proved to be one of the best shooters not just in the conference, but in the country, hitting 48.3% of his long balls. As a freshman on a good Vanderbilt team last year, he also had to defer to Jermaine Beal and AJ Ogilvy. With those two off their pursuing professional careers, Jenkins is going to be the Commodore’s No. 1 offensive option. Jeff Taylor, as good as he is, is not a player that you can build an offense around at this point in his career. If Jenkins can develop more of an all-around offensive game beyond his catch-and-shoot ability -- and I think he can, he was a top 15 national recruit and showed a decent offensive repertoire off of close-out situations (pump-fakes, pull-ups, etc.) -- I wouldn’t be surprised if he became a potential first-team all-conference performer.

All-Conference First Team:

  • POY - Trey Thompkins, Georgia, Jr.
  • G - Chris Warren, Ole Miss, Sr.
  • G - Brandon Knight, Kentucky, Fr.
  • G - Scotty Hopson, Tennessee, Jr.
  • F - Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt, Jr.
  • F - JaMychal Green, Alabama, Jr./Enes Kanter, Kentucky, Fr.

All-Conference Second Team:

  • G - Travis Leslie, Georgia, Jr.
  • G - John Jenkins, Vanderbilt, So.
  • F - Chandler Parsons, Florida, Sr.
  • F - Marshon Powell, Arkansas, So.
  • F - Tobias Harris, Tennessee, Fr.

Freshman of the Year: Brandon Knight, Kentucky

As much as I want to put Enes Kanter here (and, to tell you the truth, I think -- should he get eligible -- he competes for SEC player of the year), there are just too many question marks regarding his eligibility to assume he will play the whole season, or even enough of the season to warrant such an award. And, let’s be honest, it is not like Knight can’t play. He is a truly gifted scorer, someone that can go for 30 points when his team needs it. He is more of a combo-scoring guard than a true point, the kind of player that will take a high volume of jump shots. And, given the make up of this Kentucky roster -- youth, lacking interior size and depth -- that may not necessarily be a bad thing to begin the year. If he can develop a bit more of a creator’s mentality, there is no reason Knight can’t be the next in line of the great Calipari point guards.

All-Freshman Team:

  • G - Trever Releford, Alabama
  • G - Doron Lamb, Kentucky
  • F - Tobias Harris, Tennessee
  • F - Terrence Jones, Kentucky
  • C - Enes Kanter, Kentucky/Patric Young, Florida

What Happened?:

  • Controversy Deluxe: Is it just me, or did it seem like everything that happened this off-season involved a team from Lexington? It started with Terrence Jones, the second recruit that John Calipari was able to pry away from Lorenzo Romar, and his soap opera. If you remember, Jones committed to Washington, then spoke to Calipari on the phone just hours after his commitment. He then waited until the signing deadline to back out on his pledge to Washington and instead head to Kentucky.

    The other player that backed out on Washington was Enes Kanter, a 6'11" monster from Turkey that put 34 points and 14 boards on a USA team that included Terrence Jones. Well, Kanter -- who some believe will be the best big man in the country this season -- may never see a minute in Kentucky blue as he is dealing with amateurism issues from his time in Turkey. Kentucky fans, is it too soon to bring up Pete Thamel’s articles?

    That was far from the end of the scandal the Kentucky program faced this year. How about the accusations of academic impropriety against Eric Bledsoe back in May? Or what about the Chicago Sun-Times’ assertions that Anthony Davis, a top five player in the class of 2011, had his commitment for sale, and that Kentucky was the highest bidder? And who can forget the back lash that Coach Cal received for his comments on draft night? Never a dull moment...

  • Bruce Pearl, Tennessee, and the invention of lying: First, Bruce Pearl cheated. Then he lied. Then news broke he did it before. Then we found out Tennessee lied too. Yeesh.
  • But wait, there’s more: Kentucky wasn’t the only team that dealt with their share of controversy this summer. Justin Knox, who graduated from Alabama in just three years, was not allowed to transfer to UAB. It worked out for Knox in the end, as he is headed to North Carolina instead.

    Knox isn’t the only player that had to deal with the ridiculous transfer policies in college basketball. Ole Miss’ Murphy Holloway decided he wanted to transfer out of Ole Miss in order to be closer to his children, but the Rebels would not grant him a release to attend South Carolina or Clemson. He ended up at South Carolina, but will have to sit out a season and pay his own tuition.

  • More Ole Miss problems: Remember the issues that Andy Kennedy had back in Cincinnati last year? Well, he solved them, settling out of court when the cab driver he allegedly punched apologized to him.

    Then there was Eniel Polynice. Polynice graduated from Ole Miss (he redshirted a year when he blew out his knee), declaring for the NBA Draft. When he found out that he wasn’t picked, and learned that Andy Kennedy wasn’t too disappointed that he declared, Polynice opted to transfer, ending up at Seton Hall.

  • Mississippi State’s trials and tribulations: Dee Bost initially declared for the NBA Draft, and then didn’t remove his name before the May 8th deadline. It was until June that he decided he wanted to return to school, which, obviously, was too late. The NCAA is reviewing his decision, although its unlikely Bost will be cleared to return. Then there was Kodi Augustus, who made an appearance on the Real World.
  • I’m glad I’m not Tony Barbee: The first year coach at Auburn lost four of his five starters. The only returner, Frankie Sullivan, is out with a possible season-ending knee injury. So is Ty Armstrong, a potential starter. And his two best recruits -- Luke Cothron, who was top 50, and Shawn Kemp, Jr. -- failed to qualify academically. Yeah, Auburn is screwed. And Tony Barbee may be as well. He’s not under contract yet.
  • Or Trent Johnson: LSU lost their best player, Bo Spencer, who was kicked off the team last spring for academic issues. He has since transferred to Nebraska.

    Bo Spencer wasn’t only player with academic issues. South Carolina’s Austin Steed was asked to leave the program, and Georgia Cady Lalanne did not qualify.

What’s Next?:

  • Mississippi State’s newest big man: Last season’s biggest controversy centered aroud Renardo Sidney, a talented big man that most believed had been the recipient of illegal benefits while in high school. Sidney received his punishment, which essentially ended up being a three semester suspension. Sidney will be allowed to play in the tenth game of the season, and if he can live up to his hype, he could be the piece that Mississippi State needs to make the NCAA Tournament.
  • The SEC West ...: is absolutely awful. There is a legitimate argument to be made that not one western division team is better than the worst eastern division team. I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, but I don’t think that there will be any SEC West teams in the tournament this year.
  • A New SEC Tournament?: Well, its not happening this season, but with the SEC West’s struggles, the idea has been floated to seed to SEC Tournament 1-12. Currently, the format equates the first place finisher in the eastern and western divisions, the second place finisher, etc.
  • Scottie Wilbekin starting a trend?: Wilbekin skipped his last year of high school to enroll at Florida early. Trendsetter? Vandy’s James Siakam did the same thing.

Power Rankings

  1. Florida: The Gators have a chance to be very, very good this year. They basically bring back the same club from last season. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are both talented back court players, although they can use a healthy dose of shot selection. The 5'8" Walker is more of a playmaker, and while Boynton is more the natural scorer, he needs to find more consistency with that jumper; 29% from three won’t cut it this year. There isn’t a ton of depth in the back court here -- freshman Scottie Wilbekin enrolled early, but he wasn’t a terribly highly regarded recruit, Casey Prather is more of a small forward than a guard -- as Ray Shipman and Nimrod Tishman are both gone. Up front, Chandler Parsons -- who may very well have grown another inch -- is back. Parsons is as underrated as anyone in this league. At 6'10", he can shoot, he can create off the dribble, he rebounds the ball, and he has a knack for hitting game-winners. Vernon Macklin and Erik Murphy both return, and although Dan Werner and Alex Tyus are both gone, the Gators bring in plenty along the front line. Will Yeguete and Cody Larson both should be able to contribute, but the x-factor could very well be Patric Young. Young is a big, strong, athletic post player that can rebound and block shots, exactly what Florida was missing last year. There is talent here, and depending on how guys like Parsons and Boynton develop and how good Young ends up being, Florida could very well end up winning the SEC.
  2. Kentucky: John Calipari simply reloaded with this team. Once again heavy on freshmen, this club will be hard-pressed to have as much success as last year’s team, however. For starters, they may not even have Enes Kanter, the 6'10" Turkish center that went for 34 and 14 against the best high schoolers in the country, for part or all of the season due to amateurism issues. Whenever Kanter gets eligible, he will be joining Terrence Jones up front. Jones is a versatile 6'10" forward in the mold of a Lamar Odom. The biggest problem for them is that the only other big man on the roster is Josh Harrellson. The back court will be less of an issue. Brandon Knight is this year’s star point guard, and while he’s a different kind of player than John Wall, he should be a more-than-adequate replacement. Doron Lamb, Stacey Poole -- two more talented freshmen back court players -- and Jon Hood will see time alongside Knight. DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller will split time at small forward. Both are going to be counted on for big years, but Liggins in particular has received quite a bit of praise for his improvement this summer. This freshman class isn’t as good as last year’s, and there isn’t a Patrick Patterson holdover on this team, but there is enough to contend for the SEC title, and possibly make a run at the Final Four in they do, in fact, get Kanter back.
  3. Tennessee: The Vols lost quite a bit of talent to graduation. Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, Bobby Maze, and JP Prince have all moved on. But there are plenty of reasons to believe that Tennessee can compete for an SEC title. The first is Scotty Hopson, an athletic, 6'7" wing that was a top ten recruit in 2008. Hopson has loads of potential, and with the amount of talent leaving Knoxville, Hopson will be counted on to step up. Another reason is Tobias Harris, a skilled combo-forward that should fit in very well with Bruce Pearl’s system. Harris has the skill to play either forward spot at either end of the floor at a high level, and Pearl loves versatile players like that. Beyond those two, there is still a high level of talent on this roster. Cam Tatum, Renaldo Wooldridge, and Skylar McBee will be joined on the perimeter by top 50 swing man Jordan McRae. John Fields, Kenny Hall, and Brian Williams will help Harris man the paint. The biggest question mark is at the point, where the inconsistent Melvin Goins will be joined by Trae Golden. As we have become accustomed to with Pearl, his roster is deep and athletic. Depending on how good Hopson and Harris end up being, Tennessee could very well win the conference, although I think a second- or third-place finish in the East is much more likely.
  4. Vanderbilt: Losing Jermaine Beal and AJ Ogilvy, its difficult to imagine that the Commodores can make a push to the top of a very good SEC East. That said, there are still some very good basketball players on this roster. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that John Jenkins could turn into one of the best scorers in the SEC by the time his career is over. Forward Jeffery Taylor is an athletic specimen and a potential first round draft pick. Brad Tinsley, Andre Walker, and Lance Goulbourne are all capable, versatile role players. Fetsus Ezeli, Steve Tchiengang, and a couple of freshmen will provide the muscle inside. For my money, there will be two x-factors on this club. The first is at the point, where Beal was the man for the last few years. Who replaces him? His importance for Vandy shouldn’t be understated. Then there is Rod Odom, a talented 6'8" forward. How good is Odom? If he becomes a capable offensive option to put alongside Taylor and Jenkins, the Commodores may very well end up being a tournament team.
  5. Georgia: Its too bad the Bulldogs play in the loaded SEC East, because this squad legitimately could make a run at the SEC West crown. Big man Trey Thompkins will be, at worst, one of the best front court players in the SEC, and very likely a first round pick come June. A big man with post moves and range is going to be tough to defend at any level. Travis Leslie is as athletic as they come, and its reasonable to expect an improvement on the 15 points and 7 boards he averaged last season. If he develops a jump shot, he too could be a first-rounder. Dustin Ware is a capable point guard, and Jeremy Price, along with freshmen Marcus Thornton and Donte Williams, will be solid players in the front court. Somewhere, a jump shooter is going to have to develop to keep the floor spread and replace Ricky McPhee if Mark Fox wants to take this team to the NCAA Tournament.
  6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have a real chance at being a tournament team this year, as the 2010-2011 roster listed on their is talented. The problem? There are major question marks regarding three valuable pieces. Point guard Dee Bost will not be eligible until the start of SEC play (although its an easy argument that Rick Stansbury caught a huge break with Bost even being allowed to play this season). Renardo Sidney has already sat out an entire season, and still has nine games to sit out this season, which is not a good thing for someone that has struggled with weight problems in the past. John Riek was, at one time, considered the best recruit in the country, but after numerous knee surgeries he is a shell of his former self. Having said all that, Bost is one of the most talented point guards in the SEC, and if he can improve decision-making he is an all-conference caliber player. Word out of Starkville is that Sidney has, in fact, dedicated himself to getting in shape, and if so he will be a serious weapon for the Bulldogs. There some help as well. Ravern Johnson is a lanky, 6'7" wing with a deadly jump shot. Kodi Augustus is a live-bodied power forward that can be a weapon when his head is in the game. Rick Stansbury is going to have to develop a bench, which is easier said than done, but playing nine games without Sidney and the entirety of the non-conference schedule without Bost will force some of Stansbury’s inexperienced guys to play a larger role. And when you consider the massive road trip this team takes in December -- Virginia Tech in the Bahamas on the 18th, the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu the 22nd-25th, and St. Mary’s in Vegas the 29th -- this team should be tested come SEC play. The NCAA Tournament is a very real possibility.
  7. Alabama: Anthony Grant took over the Alabama program before the 2009-2010 season, and this fall he will be bringing in his first recruiting class. Its a solid one, headlined by four-star recruits Trever Releford, a point guard, and 6'8" forward Justin Carter. While the Crimson Tide will lose the very talented Mikhail Torrance, they do bring back some players. Junior power forward JaMychal Green was a big-time recruit two years ago. He’s had ups-and-downs throughout his first two years, but averaging 14 and 7 in the SEC is pretty impressive. The rest of the Tide’s front line will be inexperienced, as Carter, Carl Engstrom (a 7'1" Swedish freshman), and senior Carl Hines round out the rotation. In the back court, the point guard position is going to be young, but there is experience on the wings. Releford could very well end up being the starter, with sophomore Ben Eblen and JuCo transfer Kendall Durant competing for minutes. On the perimeter, the Tide has some talent. For starters, there is Senario Hillman, a super-athletic but enigmatic senior that has driven Tide fans crazy as he has never quite lived up to his hype. Tony Mitchell had a solid freshman campaign, and if he can iron out some of the inconsistencies, he has a shot to be an all-SEC talent one day. Andrew Steele is a big-bodied defender, and Charvez Davis and Charles Hankerson, Jr., will also see some minutes. This isn’t necessarily an NCAA Tournament team, even in the weak SEC West, but Grant’s club will win some games.
  8. Ole Miss: The Rebels only return seven players from last year’s team. They lose two-thirds of their starting back court, as Terrico White left for the NBA and Eniel Polynice left due to issues with the coaching staff. Murphy Holloway, the Rebels best front court player, transferred to South Carolina to be closer to his family and DeAundre Cranston graduated, meaning that only one starter is back for Andy Kennedy. The good news is that the one returner just so happens to be Chris Warren. Warren is small, but he is one of the best pound-for-pound scorers in the country and has been for two and a half seasons (he blew out his knee as a sophomore). Beyond that, however, Ole Miss is full of question marks. Zach Graham and Trevor Gaskins are both solid performers on the perimeter that could very well see a bump in production with the availability of back court minutes this season. The same could be said for Terrence Henry and Reginald Buckner in the front court. With the addition of a fairly solid five man recruiting class, it seems that positional battles for playing time will be fairly intense for Ole Miss this season. The scary part here? Despite all this uncertainty, Ole Miss is one of the two favorites to win the SEC West.
  9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are going to be in some trouble this year. They lost four of their top five from last season, including the diminutive Devan Downey, and play in the wrong division of the SEC. Despite that turnover, I still like what the Gamecocks bring back. Sophomore guards Ramon Galloway, who is out for another couple of weeks with a foot injury, and Lakeem Jackson both showed flashes of promise as freshman, and with the increased number of minutes and shots they will get this season, both should be primed for big seasons. Sam Muldrow is a solid rebounder and very good shot blocker. Steve Spinella and Johndre Jefferson will both need to develop into capable role players, and with a six man recruiting class, Darrin Horn is going to devote a lot minutes to freshman, but there are some pieces here. A trip to the NCAA Tournament may be a bit of a stretch, but I think this team will, at the least, throw a couple of scares into the big boys in the SEC East.
  10. Arkansas: The Razorbacks lose quite a bit of talent from last year’s crew. Courtney Fortson, Michael Washington, and Stefan Walsh are all gone. But with them goes their troubles -- Fortson and Walsh always seemed to be suspended. There are two reasons for Arkansas fans to have hope this season -- Rotnei Clarke and Marshon Powell. Clarke may just be the best shooter in the country. He’s a kid that has to be face-guarded at all times, as he has range out to about 28 feet and needs just a split-second to get his shot off. Then there is sophomore Marshon Powell, a 6'7" forward that put up some impressive games as a freshman. He was a bit inconsistent, but that is expected of a freshman counted on as heavily as Powell was. Beyond that, there are a lot of question marks. Pelphrey brings in three freshmen, headlined by top 100 recruit Rickey Scott, but no one is really a program changer. There are five more rotational guys returning as well, but not a ton of size and certainly not much offensive punch. Enjoy watching Powell play. Appreciate Clarke’s picture perfect jumper. But don’t expect too many wins.
  11. Auburn: Tony Barbee takes over an Auburn program that doesn’t have much going for it. Five of the Tigers top six graduate from a team that went 15-17 last season. The only guy that returns is Frankie Sullivan, a double-digit scorer that dropped 27 on Florida in the SEC Tournament that also underwent off-season knee surgery. His timetable for return is unknown. Ty Armstrong, another returnee and possible starter, also has a season-ending knee injury. Andre Malone and Earnest Ross, two sophomore guards that combined to average 5.5 ppg and 3.3 rpg, are the only players that were in the rotation last season that will be ready to go this year. Barbee did have some talent coming in -- Luke Cothron is a top 50 recruit, and Shawn Kemp, Jr. (yes, that Shawn Kemp), is borderline top 100 -- but neither of them were able to qualify academically. Adrian Forbes, Josh Langford, and Allen Payne are freshmen that will actually join the fray. The Tigers are going to have a rough go of it this season.
  12. LSU: Trent Johnson is going to have another long season in Baton Rouge. Tasmin Mitchell graduates, and Bo Spencer is kicked off the team. The Tigers do return Storm Warren, a junior power forward that has the potential to put up big numbers. But what else returns? Garrett Green? Dennis Harris? Aaron Dotson? Eddie Ludwig? They bring in four three-star recruits and one four-star (Matt Derenbecker) but no program changers. That 2006 Final Four run seems like a long time ago.

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