By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
Southeastern Conference basketball took its lumps during the first two months of the season from a variety of sources both expected (Indiana, Michigan, Syracuse, Louisville) and some unexpected.
This downturn can be traced to a number of reasons but is best just written off as a cyclical occurrence that affects all power conferences at one time or another, the result of recruiting trends, early NBA defections, and, sometimes, just plain bad luck.
How else to explain the fate of Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, who underwent routine meniscus repair surgery on both knees in the spring, only to suffer a veiled “setback” (coach Cuonzo Martin’s description) and be forced to redshirt? That decision, long expected, was finally made official on Sunday.
The loss of Maymon has affected the Vols, predicted by some to be an NCAA tournament team. Tennessee hasn’t played its way out of the NCAAs yet with an 8-4 nonconference record that includes no so-called “bad” losses, but with Maymon is struggling to score. Not many teams can afford to lose a guy who is capable of getting 32 points and 20 rebounds in one game, as Maymon did against Memphis last season. But more than Maymon’s point production is his utility. Martin calls him the Vols’ best leader, he’s capable of bringing the ball up court against defensive pressure, he’s a good high-post passer, and then there’s his rebounding. He also racked up a 19-board game last season and averaged almost nine.
The Tennessee player most affected by the loss of Maymon has been sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes, who without his fellow burly post man to relieve double- and even triple-teaming has struggled at times. Before the season, some pundits thought Stokes was capable of becoming a first-team All-SEC player. He hasn’t played anywhere close to that so far.
Even without Maymon, Tennessee, which plays withering defense, will soldier on and could be heard from as the season winds down.
And then there are Florida, Kentucky and Missouri, three teams with significant upsides:
FLORIDA: The Gators were hit with a key injury of their own when the SEC’s best stretch four-man, Erik Murphy, suffered a fractured rib, the result of two separate blows, one in a game against Air Force and the other in practice.
Murphy has been cleared to play by UF doctors, but he’s in a significant amount of pain, and coach Billy Donovan, who broke a couple of ribs during his playing days at Providence, knows how uncomfortable that can be. Murphy’s tolerance for pain will determine how quickly he’s back on the floor, but for now he’ll miss the Gators’ SEC opener against Georgia.
When Murphy is right, the Gators still have one of the most potent offenses in the country. TV analysts were hailing Florida as a possible Final Four team before losses at Arizona and to Kansas State in a game played in Kansas City, Mo. That talk died down after the K-State game, but the Gators haven’t gone anywhere.
Several things have to happen for Florida, stopped just short of the Final Four the last two seasons, to take that next step. Murphy needs to heal quickly. Patric Young has to be engaged and competitive in the post. Kenny Boynton needs to forget the first two months of the season, during which his jumper was occasionally AWOL, and remember his most recent game, when he drained 8 of 10 3s against Yale. Freshman Michael Frazier, shooting .405 from 3-point range, needs to continue to be an alternative scoring threat.
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats’ four losses have caused considerable consternation in the Bluegrass State, but not for people who understood what coach John Calipari has to work with. There’s talent on the roster, to be sure, but as far back as the summer, Cal’s staff compared this team to his second Kentucky team, the one that struggled to win on the road in the SEC, but played its way into the Final Four.
There’s no underestimating the value of experience, even for a team with a roster loaded with five-star players. At various times this season, each of the Wildcats’ heralded freshmen have justified their billing. The trick is doing it consistently. By the sheer force of his will, Calipari eventually helps his players find that consistency.
His system works. Statistics can be misleading sometimes, but the fact the Wildcats are shooting .492 from the field and holding opponents to .375 bodes well. That point guard Ryan Harrow, after a slow start brought on in part by illness, has begun playing to the level Calipari had hoped when he accepted him as a transfer from NC State is equally important.
MISSOURI: A close look at the Tigers reveals a lot to like. It starts with point guard Phil Pressey, the current SEC player of the week and the league’s preseason player of the year who has already etched his name into the league record book with his 19 assists at UCLA last month.
But coach Frank Haith’s team has a lot of weapons, options to win games. Two essential building blocks are in place. The Tigers defend (.375 field goal defense is No. 22 in Division) and rebound (46.7 average leads the nation; 13.0 rebound margin is No. 2, and is there another team in the nation with six players who have grabbed 10 or more boards?)
Beyond that, Missouri has the capability, like Florida, of getting easy baskets. So many games we’ve seen this year have devolved into low-scoring, half-court, grind-it-out struggles, and it’s no surprise that teams that have players who can jump up and make 3s or score in the post are faring well (Duke, Michigan, Indiana). Mizzou has one player who can do both—Laurence Bowers, whose return after missing all of last season with a knee injury has kept the Tigers playing at the same high level as a year ago despite heavy personnel loss.
In his last eight games, Bowers is averaging 18.5 points and making 57 percent of his shots, including 53 percent from 3-point range.
There’s more. Unlike any other SEC team, the Tigers benefitted from a key mid-season transfer. Jabari Brown, who played just two games as a freshman at Oregon before bolting for Columbia, was known as a shooter/scorer, but there was no significant sample size by which to judge him. Now there is.
In five games before Brown became eligible, Missouri averaged 70 points. In four games since, the Tigers are averaging 86 points. Brown’s 11.8 points per game have bolstered the offensive output, and though his field-goal percentage is just .341, he’s shooting a solid .346 from 3 and .833 from the free-throw line.
OLE MISS: We’ll throw one more team in the potential postseason mix, a dark horse that wasn’t challenged by an overly demanding pre-conference schedule but one that bears watching.
Unlike last season, Rebel coach Andy Kennedy has a legitimate 3-point threat in junior college transfer Marshall Henderson, the SEC’s leading scorer who came in with the reputation of being a volume shooter and hasn’t disappointed. Henderson leads the SEC with 138 3-point attempts and also with his average of four made 3-pointers per game.
Henderson has already notched nine games with double-figure 3-point attempts, and in his first 10 games he averaged 11.8. But in his last three games, after some counseling from Kennedy about being a big more prudent with his shot selection, Henderson has averaged just 6.6 shots from behind the arc. Not coincidentally his percentage is rising. He’s fifth in the league (.377).
The Rebels have other weapons, notably the rugged front-line combo of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Bucker. Holloway averages a double-double and leads the SEC in rebounding. Bucker is second in the league in blocked shots.
Ole Miss gets a chance to set a positive tone for the next two months on Wednesday night, when it plays at Tennessee.