The first month of the season was largely forgettable for the Southeastern Conference by almost any barometer. Where to start?
How about a 3-9 record in what will probably be the final SEC/Big East Challenge? Or losses to Dayton (twice), Rhode Island, Youngstown State, Elon, Davidson and Marist? Or Tennessee, a preseason top 25 team in the opinion of some, averaging 37 points (you read that correctly) in consecutive losses to Georgetown and Virginia. Or, perhaps worst of all in terms of the league’s national perception, Kentucky’s 4-3 start that included a home-court loss to Baylor, breaking its 55-game winning streak at Rupp Arena?
How to explain? Without a doubt, some of the sputtering start can be blamed on the NBA Draft, which saw a league record number of SEC players (eight) taken in the first round. Some teams, perhaps especially Kentucky, were bound to be set back. You don’t lose one of the most decorated players in history (Anthony Davis), a warrior who turned out to be the second pick in the draft (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and a capable point guard (Marquis Teague) without suffering some sort of setback. And we didn’t even mention Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb.
What Kentucky coach John Calipari wouldn’t give right now for just Lamb, who would be starting at point guard even though he’s a shooter by trade.
Lest anyone think Calipari enjoys starting from scratch every season, consider a comment he made to this writer a couple of years ago. Asked whether he intentionally sought out the challenge of essentially rebuilding each season with a collection of five-star recruits, he shook his head.
“I’d rather everybody stayed four years and we were UCLA,” Cal said, referring the Bruins’ stretch of dominance (nine national championships in 10 years) in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The draft setback didn’t just affect Kentucky. Vanderbilt, which is having its own scoring woes this season, lost three players to the NBA, two in the first round. And by the way, have you noticed that former Commodores Festus Ezeli (Golden State Warriors) and Jeffrey Taylor (Charlotte Bobcats) are already starting?
Some of the SEC’s early-season struggles can be blamed on injuries. Tennessee has been without preseason all-conference forward Jeronne Maymon, who suffered a setback in his rehabilitation from offseason knee surgery and has yet to play. Without Maymon—who’s capable going off for 30 points and 20 boards on a given night, can handle the ball against full-court pressure and is an excellent passer—to take the defensive heat off sophomore Jarnell Stokes, he’s been drowning in a sea of double teams and barely able to receive a post entry pass, let alone score.
Against Georgetown and Virginia, Stokes took a combined eight shots and scored five and four points, respectively.
We could go on, but it’s better to turn our attention to what’s gone right in the SEC thus far. There was some good news. How about:
• Florida. The Gators lost out on their chance to beat Georgetown in the aircraft carrier game in Jacksonville when bad weather postponed the action. The two teams tried to make the game up but couldn’t agree on a date, but Florida has been laying waste to its opponents, including Wisconsin (74-56), Marquette (82-49), and, most recently, Florida State on the road (72-47).
What’s impressive about the Gators’ 7-0 start is that they, too, were diminished by the NBA Draft, losing freshman guard Bradley Beal. But in Florida’s last two games, freshman Michael Frazier, who came to Gainesville with the reputation of being a game-breaking shooter, has lived up to his billing. He scored 17 points against Marquette on 5-of-8 3-point shooting and 12 against FSU when he made 2 of 3 from behind the arc. In those two games, Frazier shot .710 from the field and .636 from 3.
Even Beal didn’t shoot that well until the latter third of last season.
The Gators have plenty of depth, and if junior post man Patric Young stays motivated and the opposition can’t figure out a way to deal with Eric Murphy, one of the college game’s premier face-up four men, Florida is capable of finally winning its way back to the Final Four after being denied in the Elite Eight the last two seasons.
• The SEC’s two newcomers have performed. Missouri (7-1) lost to Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but is otherwise unscathed and has solid wins over Stanford and VCU.
The schedule hasn’t been too demanding yet, but key players are performing the way they’re supposed to. Forward Laurence Bowers, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, has been huge in the first month, averaging 16.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. Point guard Phil Pressey, the SEC’s preseason player of the year, has been doing his thing, leading the league in assists (6.1 apg). And UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi is fifth in the league in rebounding (8.1 rpg).
Texas A&M (6-1) hasn’t played an overly difficult schedule, but it does have wins against a decent Washington State team and on the road at Houston, and, better yet, some key players are delivering. Elston Turner is seventh in the SEC in scoring (17.1 ppg) and newcomers Fabyon Harris and J’Mychal Reese have added depth and firepower in the backcourt.
• Likewise LSU hasn’t exactly taken on all comers in coach Johnny Jones’ first season, but the Tigers bagged one of the SEC’s three wins in the SEC/Big East Challenge (72-67 over Seton Hall) and should be 6-0 heading into their roughest patch of the preseason, consecutive road games at Boise State, UC Irvine and Marquette.
It’s a misnomer that junior college transfers are a quick fix, but junior Shavon Coleman, the SEC’s player of the week, has fit in quickly for the Tigers. He leads the team in scoring (17.4 ppg) and blocked shots, is second in rebounding (7.6 rpg) and is shooting .565 from the field and .500 from 3. His only blemish so far is .481 free-throw shooting.
Can SEC basketball regroup? There’s still a long way to go this season. And if anyone thinks Kentucky—which this week dropped out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in Calipari’s tenure—won’t yet be heard from, they haven’t been paying attention to his career the last 10 years. His teams always find a way to play their best basketball in March.