College basketball practice officially begins on Friday, and Nooga.com continues its examination of Southeastern Conference basketball. After an analysis earlier this week of five key questions Tennessee must find answers to in the preseason, next comes the rest of the league. This is the second of two parts.
Mississippi State—Does new coach Rick Ray have the personnel to avoid a last-place finish?
After the “retirement” of veteran coach Rick Stansbury last spring, the program imploded. Junior power forward Arnett Moultrie declared for the NBA draft, as did Sidney, who, no surprise, wasn’t chosen. The team’s best player, freshman Rodney Hood, transferred to Duke. Freshman point guard Deville Smith also checked out, and November signee Josh Gray, another point guard, asked for his release and signed with Texas Tech.
Ray was left with only two players, guard Jalen Steele and forward Wendell Lewis, who logged significant playing time last season. Ray scrambled to sign a recruiting class, then lost perhaps the most important player from that class when freshman point guard Jacoby Davis tore an ACL in summer workouts.
Ray later had to dismiss two players he was counting on, forwards Shaun Smith and Kristers Zeidaks. What’s left is a team lacking in experience, depth, size and firepower.
Missouri—Can Frank Haith keep the momentum going with a boatload of Division I transfers?
After last season’s surprising 30-5 record and second-place finish in the Big 12, the Tigers change leagues and face the new challenge with just one returning starter.
The transfers will fit in quickly. Alex Oriakhi, the 6-9, 255-pound power forward formerly of Connecticut, could have gone to Kentucky but chose to reunite at Mizzou with childhood friend and AAU teammate Phil Pressey. Keion Bell, a 6-4 senior guard (Pepperdine), and 6-5 Earnest Ross (Auburn), who was the SEC’s most improved scorer in 2010-11 when he tacked more than 10 points onto his 2009-10 average, will add some scoring punch. Jabari Brown, a 6-5 sophomore from Oregon, becomes eligible in December.
The Tigers also get back senior forward Laurence Bowers, who tore his ACL last October and was lost for the season. He averaged 11.6 points and 6.1 boards two seasons ago.
Ole Miss—Can the Rebels find some outside shooting to go with their experience frontcourt?
Coach Andy Kennedy took a chance on well-traveled Marshall Henderson, the 2011-12 junior college player of the year who helped lead South Plains (Tex.) College to the national championship. Henderson began his career at Utah, where he started as a freshman, was the Utes’ second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) and set a school freshman record for 3s (65 in 194 attempts). He was also suspended for fighting in a game against BYU and later left the program because he didn’t think then-coach Jim Boylen’s rules “fit with my individualism.”
He later transferred to Texas Tech but didn’t play there after a coaching change. Henderson is definitely his own dude, but Kennedy isn’t worried about that.
“He’s got a swag about him,” Kennedy said. “But Marshall is 6-2 and 170 pounds. If you’re not pretty confident in your ability to make plays, at that size you’re not gonna survive in the SEC. Marshall’s not afraid to take big shots, whether it’s in open gym in July or Thompson-Boling Arena against Tennessee in February. He approaches it the same way and goes out and lets it fly.”
South Carolina—Can new coach Frank Martin build the same kind of program he had at Kansas State?
Freshman will have to contribute in Martin’s first season after two potential frontcourt building blocks, 6-9 Anthony Gill and 6-8 Damontre Harris, elected to transfer. Gill, South Carolina’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, went to Virginia. Harris, who led the Gamecocks in rebounding and blocked shots a year ago, chose Florida.
A third big man, 6-10, 250-pound Carlton Geathers, fractured his right kneecap while playing in a summer league game in late July. The injury is expected to keep him out of action for six months.
The Gamecocks need immediate assistance from a pair of Lithuanian big men that signed in the spring. Laimonas Chatkevicius, a 7-0, 250-pound freshman, originally signed with Kansas State, but when Martin took the South Carolina job, Chatkevicius asked out of his scholarship. A year ago at Kent Prep in Connecticut, he averaged 14 points, eight boards and shot 60 percent from the field.
Martin used another of his Kansas State recruiting connections to land 6-8 freshman Mindaugas Kacinas, who last season averaged 26 points, 15 boards and three assists at Word of Life School in Wichita, Kansas. He shot 55 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range.
Texas A&M—Can a large recruiting class and a change of style get the Aggies back on track?
Coach Billy Kennedy wants to play faster than he was able to a year ago after inheriting players recruited to former coach Mark Turgeon’s system. He knows a quicker pace will be required in the Aggies’ new conference.
“I think the biggest difference is just the athleticism in the SEC,” Kennedy said. “It’s more up and down basketball. The Big 12 tends to be a grind, especially after you go through the first round of games and you play people for the second time. In the SEC there’s more transition baskets, it’s a quicker-pace league.”
Texas A&M signed two four-star guards, including point J-Mychal Reese, and also brought in junior college All-American point Fabyon Harris to help facilitate a faster tempo.
Vanderbilt—Can the Commodores reload after losing three players to the NBA draft?
The Commodores will be a different team, but coach Kevin Stallings has good guards, and that’s a solid starting point. Sophomore point Kedren Johnson is ready to assume a starting role, and junior Kyle Fuller, another point guard, could play alongside him. Dai-Jon Parker, a 6-3 sophomore, is one of the better athletes in the SEC.
The Commodores are hoping a trio of inexperienced big men can step forward. Josh Henderson, a 6-11 sophomore, was showing signs of becoming a solid contributor last season before suffering a stress fracture in his left foot. Two sophomores, Shelby Moats and James Siakam, will take on larger roles. And 6-8 freshman Sheldon Jeter will have to play.