It seems like only yesterday Kentucky players were cutting down the nets in the New Orleans Superdome after winning the Southeastern Conference’s third national championship in a seven-year span. But that was more than seven months ago, and now it’s time for college basketball to crank up again.
How will the SEC fare?
It will be another few months before that question can be answered definitively, but until then, the Blue Ribbon Report will offer a few signposts, indicators of how the league may fare come March, when NCAA tournament invitations are handed out.
We’ll start with key November games. Some believe they don’t mean much, given the fact there is so much of the regular season still to be played. We respectfully disagree. There’s such a thing as setting a tone - positive or negative - for the rest of the season, and by playing upper-tier competition, many SEC teams are going to know where they stand right away. Some of them may not like where they stand, but their weaknesses will be revealed quickly, and there will be plenty of time left to improve.
Conversely, strengths will be revealed and a team’s identity will become evident. Those are the building blocks for what is to come.
Besides all that, the NCAA selection committee insists that a team’s entire body of work - from the season opener to the final game in its conference tournament - is under consideration when determining its worthiness for the Big Dance.
Introductions aside, let’s move on to those signposts we mentioned earlier:
• Nov. 9, Florida vs. Georgetown in Jacksonville, Fla.
Or, more specifically, on an aircraft carrier at Naval Station Mayport.
The key to the Gators’ season might be how well they replace departed point guard Erving Walker. Walker wasn’t a vocal guy, and he was known to crank up an ill-advised shot every now and again, but he wound up as Florida’s all-time assist leader. Can junior Scottie Wilbekin run the team efficiently?
Georgetown suffered heavy personnel losses, but coach John Thompson III has two returning starters in Markel Starks and Nate Lubick and a host of talented young players, including Otto Porter, who were able to earn significant minutes last season.
“Without a doubt, this is a younger team,’’ Thompson said. “But if this is possible, we’re young but experienced. Our sophomores and juniors have played significant minutes in big-time games and big-time atmospheres. At times, we had four freshmen on the court at the same time. We got a lot out of our younger players last year. We’re going to count on them even more this year.’’
The aircraft carrier as playing venue is trending in college basketball, and Florida coach Billy Donovan is glad his team could take part.
“I like the game,” Donovan said. “For our guys, to be able to be on an aircraft carrier, like that, around men and women, the same age as our guys, who serve our country, who protect our country, and for our guys to realize how fortunate they are, to be on scholarship—free education—and playing basketball.”
• Nov. 13, Kentucky vs. Duke in the State Farm Champions Classic
No one can accuse Kentucky coach John Calipari of ducking anyone after having had to rebuild his national championship team with a collection of young, albeit talented, newcomers. The Wildcats open with Maryland in the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn, N.Y. and four days later head to Atlanta to take on the Blue Devils.
Duke figures to come into this game a bit grouchy. Sure it was more than seven months ago, but the sting of being ousted in the first round of the NCAA tournament by 15th-seeded Lehigh lingers. This is a slightly different team after having lost guard Austin Rivers and center Miles Plumlee to the NBA Draft, but the Blue Devils of coach Mike Krzyzewski are experienced—two seniors and a fifth-year senior are in the starting lineup—and can score.
Look for two of those seniors to break out. A year ago, coach K tried to switch shooting guard Seth Curry to the point. The experiment wasn’t successful because it took away what Curry does best.
“At the end of the day, Seth is a scorer,” Duke associate head coach Chris Collins told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. “As a senior, he should be one of the top scorers in our league.”
When senior power forward Ryan Kelly broke his foot before the ACC tournament, is was a harbinger of doom. Without him, the Blue Devils went 1-2 in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
“He is a stabilizer,” Collins said. “He can handle the ball for his size and his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter helps our spacing as a team and makes us difficult to defend.”
Kelly and fellow senior Mason Plumlee will be a stern test for Kentucky’s young big men. But after the Wildcats’ final exhibition game, Calipari seemed pleased with his talented tandem of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein.
Nov. 15, Alabama vs. Oregon State in the 2K Sports Classic
Alabama is still young, and it’s especially inexperienced in the post, but the Crimson Tide has a great group of perimeter players led by Trevor Releford and a welcome new front-line addition in freshman forward Devonta Pollard, who gave a glimpse of his talent in Alabama’s only exhibition game with 15 points and seven rebounds.
When he hasn’t been campaigning for his brother-in-law, President Barack Obama, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson has been building a program. Robinson has a large team, including 6-8 junior Devon Collier (13.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg in 2011-12) that will test Alabama’s frontcourt and a solid point guard in Ahmad Starks who will battle Releford.
Nov. 15-16, 18, Tennessee in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off
The Vols will get all the run they can handle in this tournament, and they get just one regular-season game, against Kennesaw State, to prepare.
They open against a gritty mid-major, UNC Asheville, and a win will pit them against either another gritty mid-major, Akron (which won at Mississippi State last season), or Oklahoma State. Preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite NC State is also in the field.
Tennessee is still playing without preseason All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, who is recovering from offseason knee surgery, and will hope another All-SEC big man, sophomore Jarnell Stokes, doesn’t get in foul trouble.
In Maymon’s absence, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous, who at 6-5 and 205 pounds is an undersized four man in the mold of former Vol Dane Bradshaw. But unlike Bradshaw, Chievous has a perimeter shot, which he mixes with a bruising dribble-drive game and a willingness to battle for offensive rebounds.
Nov. 19, Texas A&M vs. Saint Louis in the CBE Classic
After a 14-18 downturn last season, the Aggies of second-year coach Billy Kennedy will be looking to rebound with a roster full of talented newcomers that will be playing the faster-paced style Kennedy prefers.
The sooner newcomers such as freshman point guard J-Mychal Reese, freshman shooting guard Alex Caruso and junior college transfer Fabyon Harris get in the flow, the better this team will be.
Saint Louis, a preseason Top 25 pick by Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, will be a stern test and a good barometer of how far Texas A&M has come since last season’s injury-plagued setback.
Nov. 22, Missouri vs. Stanford in the Battle 4 Atlantis
Like Texas A&M, the Tigers have joined the SEC from the Big 12 with a retooled team that will rely heavily on newcomers, including Division I transfers Earnest Ross (Auburn) and Alex Oriakhi, the big man who helped Connecticut win the 2011 national championship.
Stanford returns three starters from a team that won the NIT in 2012. The Cardinal has a pair of good guards in Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright that will give Mizzou’s Phil Pressey - the media’s choice as SEC preseason player of the year - all he can handle, and 6-9 junior Dwight Powell will be able to joust with Oriakhi on even terms.
A win over Stanford sends the Tigers into a game against either UNI or Louisville. Duke, Memphis, Minnesota and VCU are also in the field. It won’t take long for Mizzou to figure out how it stacks up.
Nov. 24, Arkansas vs. Wisconsin or Creighton in the Las Vegas Invitational
The Razorbacks will have to get past Arizona State in the first round to set up a possible matchup against either Creighton or Wisconsin, both of which were ranked in Blue Ribbon’s Top 25.
The Badgers have been injury plagued in the preseason, losing guard Jason Gasser to a torn ACL and forward Mike Bruesewitz, who suffered a freak practice injury.
Coach Mike Anderson’s second team at Arkansas will benefit from the healthy return of forward Marshawn Powell, but the Hogs will also be breaking in a new point guard after parting company with last year’s starter, Julysses Nobles.
Nov. 29, Kentucky at Notre Dame in the SEC/Big East Challenge
The Wildcats’ month ends with this road game against a good Notre Dame team. We’ll get to see how quickly Calipari has gotten his younger players to buy into his emphasis on defense and rebounding.