SEC East Conference Preview

SEC East Conference Preview
Oct 30, 2005, 09:08 pm
Projected order of finish

1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Vanderbilt
4. South Carolina
5. Georgia
6. Tennessee

The common theme in many of this year's SEC previews has been "down year". There is certainly truth in this, as the conference is going to suffer after losing the majority of its star power this offseason to graduation and the draft. However, it must be said that this is definitely a temporary situation in the SEC East. The new kids on the block, Dennis Felton and Bruce Pearl, are rising stars and are currently recruiting at very high levels. Give Tennessee and Georgia a couple of seasons to re-establish themselves, and it is going to be very tough to find a division doormat here. Tubby and Billy D aren't going anywhere, while Kevin Stallings and Dave Odom don't need to recruit well to stay competitive. Ultra-competitive, defense-oriented, smashmouth hoops is sure to follow. It sounds a bit like SEC football, doesn't it?

As for this season, traditional roles will be maintained. Kentucky and Florida both suffered the loss of multiple standout veteran performers, but have the young talent to remain the divisonal favorites. They will be pushed by Vanderbilt and South Carolina, both coming off of encouraging NIT performances and returing the majority of their rosters. Georgia and Tennessee will both struggle, but positive changes have already been made by Dennis Felton and Bruce Pearl. They might be the easy night on the schedule for now, but that could change very quickly.


2005 Record: (28-6, 14-2)
Postseason: NCAA, lost to Michigan State in the Elite Eight
Head Coach: Tubby Smith

Key Losses:

SF Kelenna Azubuike (14.7 ppg)
PF Chuck Hayes (10.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg)

6’4 SG Adam Williams, IMG (FL) Academy
6’8 PF Rekalin Sims, jr, Salt Lake (UT) CC
7’2 C Jared Carter, fr, Georgetown, KY

PG – 6’1 Rajon Rondo, so
SG – 6’0 Patrick Sparks, sr
SF – 6’4 Joe Crawford, so
PF – 6’8 Rekalin Sims, jr
C – 6’10 Randolph Morris, so (?)

G – 6’1 Ramel Bradley, so
SG – 6’2 Ravi Moss, sr
SF – 6’6 Bobby Perry, jr
PF – 6’7 Sheray Thomas, jr
C – 7’3 Shagari Alleyne, jr
C – 7’2 Jared Carter, fr

Kentucky was a decent overtime session away from making the final four last season, yet some Wildcat fans called that a disappointment. That is what Tubby Smith has to deal with on a yearly basis, as fans grow impatient for another “Wildcat-worthy” postseason run. This season, Smith also has to deal with the graduation of senior leader Chuck Hayes, Kelenna Azubuike’s puzzling decision to turn pro, and the ongoing eligibility issues of Randolph Morris. As important as those issues may be, the fact remains that Tubby Smith has as just as good a chance for a return to the final four this season as he ever did. Kentucky is young and did lose some valuable production, but that youth largely has the experience it needs to take over. Nothing but great things are being said about Rajon Rondo this season, and it looks as though Randolph Morris will be back at some point. Players like Ramel Bradley, Joe Crawford, Rekalin Sims, and Shagari Alleyne are all ready to play bigger roles. In a down season for the SEC, Kentucky is once again the clear-cut favorite.

There really isn’t much to say about Rajon Rondo (8.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg) that hasn’t already been said by members of the media this off-season. His freshman impact might have been a bit overstated by many, but one couldn’t help but get excited about moments like his outing against Cincinnati in the second round of the tourney. His summer performance in the U-21 World Championships was superb, and he even beat out fellow sophomore pg Darius Washington for a roster spot. All practice reports claim that he is slowly learning how to shoot the ball, and has become the legitimate offensive option that he wasn’t a season ago. He enters the season as perhaps the best defensive point guard in the nation. Smith will continue to play senior Patrick Sparks (11.0 ppg, 3.6 apg) next to Rondo in a two point guard lineup. Sparks lacks the explosiveness to get into the lane and sometimes struggles to impact the game in areas other than his outside shooting, but has shown the ability to be a go-to scorer in the clutch at times.

The rest of the backcourt is a bit unproven, but a couple of talented sophomores are looking to earn big roles. The touted Joe Crawford (3.2 ppg) didn’t get the immediate playing time he thought he deserved, and made a fool of himself by declaring his intention to transfer to Michigan State. Once he was informed of the fact that he would lose a year and a half of eligibility, he decided that Kentucky might not be such an awful place after all, and Smith generously let him back on the team. Rededicated as a player and fighting for a starting spot, Crawford should use his powerful body and nice outside jumper to carve out a much larger role for himself this year. Ramel Bradley (4.6) wasn’t as well known as Crawford heading into last season, but it was Bradley that proved himself worthy of minutes at a powerhouse like Kentucky. Rounding out a deep backcourt will be senior Ravi Moss (3.8 ppg) and freshman shooting specialist Adam Williams.

Randolph Morris’ (8.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg) return could be the key to Kentucky’s season. While it is possible to say that Morris didn’t have as big of a role on last year’s team as one might expect with all the attention his situation is getting, Smith is going to depend on Morris to replace the post production and rebounding that was lost when Chuck Hayes graduated. Morris may miss a significant portion of the season, but when he is back he will provide adequate back to the basket scoring and a body that is nearly impossible to move in the low block. Without him, the Wildcats are extremely short on bulk and firepower in the paint.

Nonetheless, Smith has some intriguing pieces to work in around Morris. When Morris is at his natural center position, look for highly touted junior college transfer Rekalin Sims to start at the power forward slot. Sims is athletic, mobile, and an accomplished scorer at the JC level. Also around are juniors Bobby Perry (3.3 ppg) and Sheray Thomas. Perry has been a victim of the numbers crunch, but has shown potential as a combo forward. Thomas, your basic low-post bruiser, missed a large chunk of last season with an injury.

If Smith wants to go big, junior center Shagari Alleyne (2.8 ppg, 44 blocks) could team with Morris in the paint. Alleyne is such a large human being that he remains very much a situational player, but his work on Andrew Bogut last March showed the value he can provide. At the very least, Alleyne probably starts until Morris returns and then sees plenty of action whenever an opposing big man starts causing the defense trouble in the paint. Smith has two other 7-footers on the roster. Freshman Jared Carter was considered a likely redshirt until he started tearing it up in practice. Junior Lukasz Obrzut has been a disappointment thus far in his career, and could be the odd man out.

Kentucky fans could have been preparing for a truly special season, if not for the ill-fated professional aspirations of Azubuike and Morris. Morris should return, though if an official announcement is delayed long enough, it could impact Kentucky’s season. There are some players that have been waiting a while to play, and a lot of new talent to integrate. If Rajon Rondo truly is the star that everybody who has seen him play recently claims he has become, expect this team to end up being just as dominant as your typical Kentucky Wildcat squad of recent years.

Recruiting Update: Tubby Smith always manages to find the right mix of blue chip and blue collar recruits. Wildcat nation had its collective heart broken when Brandan Wright picked North Carolina over Kentucky, but this won’t hurt the program over the long term. Smith pulled off a huge coup by landing underrated California point man Derrick Jasper, who will likely replace Rondo next fall. The Brandan Wright back up plan didn’t turn out bad either, as finesse big man Perry Stevenson was highly recruited as well. Wing Jodie Meeks, plucked away from the clutches of numerous SEC programs, makes three top 100 recruits for Smith in 2006. Also on board is California guard Michael Porter.


2005 Record: (24-8, 12-4)
Postseason: NCAA, lost to Villanova in 2nd round
Head Coach: Billy Donovan

Key Losses:

G Anthony Roberson (17.5 ppg)
SF Matt Walsh (14.6 ppg)
PF David Lee (13.6 ppg, 9.0 rpg)

6’0 PG Walter Hodge, Puerto Rico via Florida Air Academy
6’5 SG David Huertas, Puerto Rico via Arlington County (FL) Day
6’10 C Jimmie Sutton, Deerfield Beach, FL

PG – 6’0 Taurean Green, so
SG – 6’2 Lee Humphrey, jr
SF – 6’8 Corey Brewer, so
PF – 6’8 Al Horford, so
C – 6’9 Adrian Moss, sr

PG – 6’0 Walter Hodge, fr
SG – 6’5 David Heurtas, fr
PF – 6’11 Joakim Noah, so
C – 6’8 Chris Richard, jr
C – 6’10 Jimmie Sutton, fr

Things could be so much different for Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators right now. If Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh had returned for their senior seasons, we would be looking at a top 10 national ranking and the clear-cut SEC favorites. Instead, both are fighting for their professional careers in NBA training camps. The Gators will instead go to battle with one of the youngest rosters in the conference. While this isn’t a preseason top 25 team, there is significant, if unproven, talent. It all begins with super sophomore duo Corey Brewer and Al Horford. These two played supporting roles as freshman, but showed signs of emerging by the end of the year. There are a lot of question marks surrounding them, however, as Donovan will struggle to implement his usual up-tempo system with such an inexperienced, shallow backcourt. There isn’t an established team in the SEC East beyond Kentucky, but depth and experience are serious question marks heading into the year.

Where Donovan ran things through a senior and two juniors last year, it might be up to sophomore PF Al Horford (5.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) to open things up for the Gators through the post this season. Horford has an NBA-caliber combination of size, strength, toughness and athleticism, and has been getting rave reviews all summer. Now that David Lee has graduated, the paint belongs to Horford, and he should develop into one of the top all-around players in the conference.

Donovan will have several talented players to surround Horford with, though the theme of inexperience remains. Junior Chris Richard (3.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is physically imposing, but inconsistent. He rarely plays smart, and hasn’t played up to his potential very often thus far as a Gator, often due to nagging injuries. Sophomore Joakim Noah (3.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is another high caliber athlete that needs to focus himself on the court. He has the length, athleticism, and shot blocking ability to be a star, and will become as good as he wants to be down the road. Senior Adrian Moss (2.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg) is a role player and defensive specialist, but recently injured his knee and might miss the first month of the season.

The other half of Florida’s sophomore duo, wing Corey Brewer (7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg), drew rave reviews for his freshman performance. Brewer played the role of defensive stopper as a freshman, using his wiry, 6’8 frame, outstanding athletic ability and long arms to frustrate opponents’ top perimeter scorers. He is a bit further behind offensively, but needs to step up in that area as a sophomore. Shooting specialist Lee Humphrey (4.8 ppg) is the likely starter on the opposite wing, and expected to be the vocal leader in the locker room. Humphrey is deadly from long range, but 75 % of his field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. The Gators really need a more complete presence from the shooting guard spot.

Sophomore Taurean Green (3.9 ppg, 2.2 apg) takes the reigns at point guard, after an up-and-down freshman season. He is physically capable of playing and defending the position and was valuable last season in that his presence allowed Roberson to move off the ball, but Donovan probably would like to see a bit more dependable shooting and scoring presence from his starting point guard. Backup duties were expected to fall to freshman speedster Walter Hodge, who is athletically superior, but undersized with a wing’s mentality. However, early practices have featured Humphrey at this spot. This group is woefully short on bodies, as freshman shooter David Heurtas is the only other scholarship player available. There is a chance that Donovan could gain top 100 freshman Derwin Kitchen for the spring semester, if he can manage to pass a standardized Florida test this semester.

Florida doesn’t have a single returning double figure scorer, although both Al Horford and Corey Brewer will likely fill that role quite well this season. Of more concern is the lack of experience and depth in the backcourt, where Donovan needs more than what he has to institute his up-tempo, pressing style. The return of Kitchen, a combo guard with some nice offensive potential, could be exactly what this team needs. However, that can’t be counted on at this point. Florida is likely the second best team in the SEC East at this point, and Donovan has a very impressive collection of young talent. The frontcourt is particularly imposing, with enough athletic ability and bulk to beat up on anybody. Nonetheless, one can’t help but think about what this team could have been if Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh were suiting up this fall.

Recruiting Update: Having been burned on several high-profile recruits since his program exploded into national prominence, Billy Donovan seems to have altered his recruiting strategy. Instead of going after the national talents that are likely to jump ship as soon as possible, he has begun recruiting from the in-state talent base. All four of his 2005 recruits played in Florida, and his future recruiting classes have a definite home-grown emphasis. For 2006, Donovan has landed another promising Florida native in big man Mareese Speights, as well as highly regarded combo forward Jonathan Mitchell and wing Brandon Powell. Donovan has his backcourt under wraps for the future, as highly regarded Floridian guards Gary Clark and Nick Cathales are already committed for 2007. The Gators will receive a visit from big timer Lance Thomas in recent weeks, but it remains to be seen whether Donovan has a legitimate shot at landing the combo forward.


2005 Record: (20-14, 8-8)
Postseason: NIT, lost to Memphis in quarterfinals
Head Coach: Kevin Stallings

Key Losses:

SG Jason Holwerda (6.4 ppg)
SF Corey Smith (12.0 ppg)
C Dawid Przybyszewski (6.4 ppg)

6’4 SG George Drake, Calera, AL
6’7 SG Derrick Byars, jr, transfer from Virginia
6’10 PF Kyle Madsen, Dublin, OH

PG – 5’11 Mario Moore, so
SG – 6’7 Derrick Byars, jr
SF – 6’6 Shan Foster, so
PF – 6’9 Julian Terrell, sr
C – 6’11 Ted Skuchas, jr

PG – 5’11 Alex Gordon, so
SF – 6’5 Dan Cage, jr
F – 6’7 DeMarre Carroll, so
C – 6’9 Davis Nwankwo, (rs) fr

Vanderbilt isn’t a household name in the word of college basketball, but despite the inherent disadvantages that come with coaching at a private and academically challenging university, Kevin Stallings has slowly built himself a competitive program down in SEC country. While the Commodores couldn’t match the previous season’s NCAA tournament berth, they had an excuse. In the first year of the post-Matt Freije era, a young squad went .500 in conference and won a couple of NIT games. Most of the holdovers from the Sweet 16 team of two years ago are now gone, and Stallings will now largely rely on a talented group of underclassmen that learned on the job last season. Senior point guard Mario Moore will again attempt to lead the team, though wings Shan Foster and Derrick Byars are sure to play very large roles. This was a young team that played like a young team a season ago. If the Commodores had taken care of business against the bottom tier of the conference, an NCAA berth would have been a real possibility. Expect to see more consistency out of this team, a group that has a surprising amount of talent, balance, and depth. Vanderbilt should return to the NCAA tournament this year.

Senior Mario Moore (13.5 ppg, 3.7 apg) led the team in scoring a season ago, and enters the year as Stallings’ on-court leader and floor general. Moore is as explosive as they come, capable of getting to the basket and going on incredible outside shooting streaks. Unfortunately, Moore exemplified this team’s inconsistency as much as any of the youngsters. During a devastating four-game losing streak last January, Moore shot 25% from the floor, 12% from beyond the arc, and failed to score more than 11 points in a single game. In the final ten games, Moore reached 30 points twice, but couldn’t reach double figures on four occasions. The consensus here is that Moore is a great volume scorer, but Stallings will need another player to emerge for the Commodores to be truly successful.

Fortunately for Stallings, his two starting wings both look capable of doing just that. Sophomore Shan Foster (9.2 ppg) and junior Derrick Byars could be true difference makers this season. Foster shot 45% from 3-point range as a freshman, and was named to the official preseason All-SEC team this week. If he decides to take advantage of his formidable athleticism and slash to the basket a bit more, stardom awaits. The Commodore program also expects big things from Byars, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia. Byars has great size and athleticism, and is capable of playing four positions on the court. He probably is a better all-around scorer than Foster at the moment, and could be the guy that Stallings relies upon for a consistent offensive presence.

There is depth in the backcourt as well. Sophomore point guard Alex Gordon (6.0 ppg) is being groomed to take over for Moore next season. Gordon appears to play a lot like Moore, and exploded for 30 points in 25 minutes against Tennessee last February. Junior Dan Cage (4.0 ppg) is a contributor as an outside shooter and defender. Commmodore fans expect big things down the road from freshman George Drake.

Stallings won’t be asking for huge offensive contributions from his frontcourt this year, but the big men will have to find a way to keep players like Randolph Morris or Al Horford from running roughshod. Power forward Julian Terrell (6.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) provides the beef, and really started to come on at the end of the year. He might be the only true banger type that Stallings will be able to count on. Sophomore DeMarre Carroll (4.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) is an athletic combo forward, capable of stepping out onto the perimeter, but is more comfortable using his explosiveness and tenacity around the basket. He could start as an undersized power forward, or end up as the first man off the bench if Stallings wants to go with a more traditional lineup.

In that case, junior Ted Skuchas (2.1 ppg) will get the starts at Center. Skuchas has a nice hook shot in the paint, but may see more time in the high post. Skuchas was expected to develop into a very effective finesse big man, but that has yet to happen. Providing depth here will be promising redshirt freshman Davis Nwankwo, who will make an impact as a shotblocker and rebounder provided he can stay healthy. Freshman Kyle Madsen could compete for a few minutes, though sophomore Alan Metcalfe could be the odd man out.

Commodore fans have a reason to be excited heading into the new season. Last year's team never fully adjusted to the loss of Freije, but still managed to win two NIT games with a very inexperienced lineup. This season, the major contributors have been on the job for at least a season, and are ready to lead this team back to the NCAA tournament.

Recruiting: Stallings has improved the talent level of this program, though he hasn’t been able to hit the home run just yet. He just missed out on the Arizona-bound JP Prince, and was also in the Brandan Wright sweepstakes until the very end. Vanderbilt has managed to beat national powerhouses for players like Shan Foster and Davis Nwankwo. Stallings started off his 2006 recruiting by adding LSU transfer Ross Neltner. Combo forward JeJuan Brown and guard Jermaine Beal look like decent players as well.

South Carolina

2005 Record: (20-13, 7-9)
Postseason: NIT, champions
Head Coach: Dave Odom

Key Losses:

SG Josh Gonner (8.7 ppg)
SF Carlos Powell (16.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg)

6’5 SF Bryce Sheldon, jr, Fullerton (CA) College
6’7 F Dominique Archie, Augusta, GA
6’8 PF Kelving Palacios, jr, Eastern Oklahoma State JC
6’9 C Ousmane Konate, jr, Redlands (OK) CC

PG – 6’0 Tre Kelley, jr
SG – 6’2 Rocky Trice, sr
SF – 6’7 Tarence Kinsey, sr
PF – 6’9 Brandon Wallace, jr
C – 6’8 Antonie Tisby, sr

PG – 5’11 Stephen McDowell, so
SF – 6’7 Dwayne Day, so
F – 6’8 Renaldo Balkman, jr
PF – 6’8 Kelving Palacios, jr
C – 6’10 Ousmane Konate, jr

Dave Odom seems to have settled into a pattern at South Carolina. His teams feature trademark toughness, athleticism, and defensive prowess, but the program hasn’t shown the signs of developing into one that consistently reaches the NCAA tourney. The Gamecocks were inconsistent again last season, finishing below .500 in conference before making a run all the way to the NIT title. South Carolina took down big names like Georgetown, Maryland, and Saint Joe’s along the way, but the now graduated senior Carlos Powell was the focal point. Without his go-to scorer, Odom will look to a balanced lineup full of athletic specimens. Last season’s junior college newcomers Rocky Trice and Antoine Tisby could be in for big seasons, and Odom will look to senior wing Tarence Kinsey to replace Powell’s scoring presence. The SEC East is wide open after Kentucky, and this is a team capable of making an NCAA tournament run. It remains to be seen whether Odom will be able to find a consistent enough outside shooting and overall scoring presence to make this happen.

The South Carolina backcourt won’t end up on many highlight reels this season but Odom will again attempt to pressure the ball relentlessly, and has the personnel to be successful at it. Junior point guard Tre Kelley (8.9 ppg, 3.8 apg) has made strides as a floor general and as a defender. He is still a work in progress as a shooter (just 59% free throw shooter), but will be on the floor at nearly all times in 2006. Day’s backup figures to be sophomore Stephen McDowell. Senior Rocky Trice (5.9 ppg) started down the stretch in his first season after a very successful junior college stint. He isn’t a shooter, but is a natural slasher and may be the focal point of Odom’s defense this season.

Senior wing Tarence Kinsey (8.9 ppg) has seen his role gradually increase over the past three seasons, and could step into an even larger one this winter. Kinsey has great size for the wing, has developed into a fairly consistent outside threat, and actually hit the shot that allowed South Carolina to defeat Saint Joe’s in the NIT title game. His continued development as a shooter is crucial for a team that has little else in that department. Also around are sophomore Dwayne Day (3.1 ppg in 11 games) and junior college transfer Bryce Sheldon.

South Carolina’s post rotation feels very similar to the backcourt's. The returning production doesn’t jump out at you, but several pieces look intriguing. The junior combo forward duo of Renaldo Balkman (5.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Brandon Wallace (5.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg) returns. While neither was able to have a breakout season, the length, athleticism, and versatility they provide could be invaluable this year. Balkman, despite being the more skilled of the two, regressed a bit after attempting to take his game out to the perimeter. Wallace improved his efficiency and developed into one of the league’s top shot blockers down the stretch. Freshman Dominique Archie will probably spend most of this season as an observer, though his skill-set may remind many of the two juniors.

Senior Antoine Tisby (6.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) is the starter at center. After some early season issues in his first year out of junior college, Tisby really came on at the end of the year. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a double figure scoring average. Two junior college transfers will provide size and depth up front. The hulking Ousmane Konate was once a top 50 recruit signed on to play at Missouri, and will be a major factor if he can stay healthy. Kelving Palacios, a native of Venezuela, can score in the paint as well.

It hasn’t been easy to predict the success of the South Carolina program in recent years. Dave Odom will always have his kids playing great defense, but he hasn’t recruited at a high level since taking over. He gets the most out of his junior college transfers, but relying so heavily on two-year players doesn’t do good things for continuity. Like usual, this is a team that projects to be quite the hassle on the defensive end. There will be no easy wins against South Carolina. Can Odom find a mix of players capable of succeeding on the offensive end? It could be the difference between a return to the NCAA tournament and another bottom tier SEC finish.

Recruiting Update: Odom may be heading away from the junior college route, as he has already signed five players from the prep ranks of 2006. He desperately wanted in-state small forward Mike Jones, but the top 50 prospect decided to head north to Syracuse. Odom settled for Lithuanian Evaldas Baniulis instead. The best of this group might be IMG Academy’s Chadwick Gray, who fits the mold of the bouncy combo forward that has been so prominent in the program lately. Big man Mitchell Carter is a project worth keeping an eye on, while combo guard Brandis Raley could figure into the backcourt mix right away.


2005 Record: (8-20, 2-14)
Postseason: None
Head Coach: Dennis Felton

Key Losses:

PF Corey Gibbs (4.3 ppg)

6’4 PG Mike Mercer, Snellville, GA
6’2 SG Billy Humphrey, Dacula, GA
6’6 SF Terrance Woodbury, Virginia Beach, VA
6’10 PF Kendrick Johnson, Morton, TX
7’0 C Rashaad Singleton, Campbellton, FL

PG – 6’4 Mike Mercer, fr
SG – 6’1 Sundiata Gaines, so
SF – 6’2 Levi Stukes, so
PF – 6’9 Steve Newman, jr
C – 6’10 Dave Bliss, so

SG – 6’4 Channing Toney, so
SG – 6’2 Billy Humphrey, fr
SF – 6’6 Terrance Woodbury, fr
PF – 6’8 Younes Idrissi, so
C – 7’0 Rashaad Singleton, fr

The bottom dropped out of the Georgia program last season, but the complete collapse was to be expected. Jim Harrick’s inability to keep his recruits eligible left Dennis Felton with no underclassmen to develop, so last year’s overmatched freshmen got to learn on the job. A big splash was made when the local blue chip backcourt duo of Louis Williams and Mike Mercer pledged to become Bulldogs in January of 2004. While Williams ended up jumping straight to the professional ranks, Mercer is just as important of a recruit and the commitments were a sign that the Bulldogs are on their way back. This season might not lead to a significant increase in conference wins, but the Bulldogs will be better on the whole. Felton has nearly an entire roster of scholarship players to work with, and a backcourt that is starting to resemble legitimate major conference team’s group of guards. The frontcourt remains shaky at best, especially since freshman Kendrick Johnson was sidelined with a long-term ankle problem. Wins could be hard to come by in the SEC season, but Felton has proven himself as a capable coach in the past. Eventually, he should return this program to respectability.

Felton returns everybody from a guard rotation that really struggled a season ago. However, everything changes with the addition of in-state star Mike Mercer. At 6’4, he has size, athleticism, and a true point guard’s mentality. He is the starter from day one, and a likely professional down the road. Perhaps most importantly, Felton no longer has to burden one of his natural wings with the ball-handling duties. Sophomore Sundiata Gaines (12.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.4 spg), an excellent all-around player, could benefit the most. He was one of the nation’s leaders in steals as a freshman, and should improve his shooting percentage dramatically this year.

The other starter spot in the backcourt will be fought over by junior Levi Stukes (15.5 ppg) and sophomore Channing Toney (9.8 ppg). Stukes started off the season on fire and remained the go-to option all year, but the task of carrying the team clearly wore him down. Toney is a creative all-around scorer. If Stukes and Toney can’t improve mediocre shooting percentages, freshman Billy Humphrey will get the call early and often. The undersized Humphrey played AAU ball with Mercer and Williams, and was known as one of the top pure shooters in the prep ranks. Other than Mercer, Felton’s guard rotation is quite undersized. Thus, 6’6 freshman small forward Terrance Woodbury will have a chance to make an impact.

Felton has been at his biggest disadvantage in the paint, as he simply hasn’t had enough pieces to work with over his first two seasons. The situation gets slightly better this fall, but the battle around the basket is still likely an uphill one. Sophomore Dave Bliss (7.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg) was given the Herculean task of starting as a freshman, but it could have ended up been much worse. Bliss is a willing banger, and produced consistently all season long. Also back is junior Steve Newman (7.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg), who is often equally overmatched, but also fights valiantly.

Felton was looking forward to the services of imposing freshman Kendrick Johnson this fall, but it was recently discovered that Johnson has some serious issues with his ankles. He will require surgery, and is out for the year. That means Felton might have to look to 7-foot freshman Rashaad Singleton much earlier than he would have liked to. Singleton has come a long way over the last few years, but is still very raw. The hope is that he will be able to contribute as a shotblocker. The other big man available is sophomore Younes Idrissi (3.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg), a native of Morocco that contributed some last year.

This certainly isn’t going to be an easy season for Dennis Felton, but the days of ugly basketball could be over. There is some talent in the backcourt, and Felton has recruited the type of hard-nosed players that will commit to playing his defense-oriented style. The Bulldogs might be two years away from even hoping for a postseason appearance, but at least things are headed in the right direction. After being handed a program that essentially had to be started over from scratch, one can’t fault the job that Dennis Felton is doing.

Recruiting Update: There are no scholarship seniors on the team, so Dennis Felton can afford to be picky about giving away free rides for 2006. His one commitment is a much-needed one, in 6’10 center Albert Jackson. He recently transferred to Oak Hill, and will be expected to contribute immediately. The Bulldogs are currently setting their sights on the loaded Georgia class of 2007. Felton already has potential McDonald’s All-American big man Jeremy Price on board, and is aggressively recruiting top tier talents like Gani Lawal, James Hickson, Senario Hillman, and Chris Allen. The talent base in Georgia seems to get better by the year, and Felton appears to be positioning himself very well when it comes to grabbing in-state prospects.


2005 Record: (14-17, 6-10)
Postseason: None
Head Coach: Bruce Pearl

Key Losses:

SG Scooter McFagdon (14.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
PF Brandon Crump (11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg)

6’8 PF Ryan Childress, Cincinnati, OH
6’10 C Damion Harris, Greenville, SC

PG – 6’2 CJ Watson, sr
SG – 6’2 Chris Lofton, so
SF – 6’5 Stanley Asumnu, sr
PF – 6’7 Andre Patterson, sr
C – 6’10 Major Wingate, jr

G – 6’1 JaJuan Smith, so
SG – 6’4 Dane Bradshaw, jr
SG – 6’3 Jordan Howell, so
PF – 6’8 Ryan Childress, fr

A new era of Tennessee basketball is about to begin, thanks to fiery new coach Bruce Pearl. After the program seemed to grow complacent and soft under the deposed Buzz Peterson, the Tennessee administration went in the furthest possible direction with the hiring of Pearl. Before the first practice, he had already run off several players, made headlines with some aggressive recruiting tactics, and pledged numerous times to reinvent Volunteer basketball. Preseason practices have been intense, marathon affairs, as Pearl is instituting a run-and-gun, non-stop defensive pressure type of system. While early recruiting results and his past success at UW-Milwaukee seem to indicate good things down the road, it remains to be seen whether Pearl can mold this year's group of holdovers into a winner. Will Peterson’s players accept Pearl’s challenge, or will they wilt under his firm, sometimes downright aggressive manner of teaching? Senior point guard CJ Watson is back to lead the team, and will get help from sharpshooter Chris Lofton in the backcourt. Getting anything out of the frontcourt will be an entirely different story. Bruce Pearl is making an impression, but he might not have the pieces in place to make a successful run in 2006.

The backcourt is in good hands for now, as senior point guard CJ Watson (11.9 ppg, 5.0 apg) is a three year contributor. Watson has been a quiet leader throughout his career, but hasn’t developed much since his freshman year. Pearl wants him to become much more aggressive with his shot this season. Sophomore wing Chris Lofton (13.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) stepped onto the court last fall and was immediately one of the top handful of shooters in the country. He will continue to develop his all-around game, but should become the team’s unquestioned go-to scorer in 2006.

There is a bit of backcourt depth, though finding a backup for Watson could be an issue. Though Watson will certainly play more than 35 minutes per outing, undersized wings like junior Dane Bradshaw, sophomore Jordan Howell, and Lofton will have to fill in when he is taking a break. Bradshaw (3.0 ppg) arrived on campus with the billing of a shooter, but that hasn’t materialized on the court just yet. The starter at small forward could be the disappointing senior Stanley Asumnu (2.4 ppg), who has yet to be a major contributor. He has the athleticism to be a star, but no offensive game to speak of. Early practice reports say he has improved his jumper.

Pearl’s biggest challenge is to get adequate production out of his frontcourt. This group was going to be undermanned before the roster turnover, but things got ugly when Pearl pulled the scholarship of a recruit, top freshman Tyler Smith decided not to show up, and Jemere Hendrix got the boot after an off-court incident. Biggest returning producer Andre Patterson (7.4 ppg, 6.2 ppg) is also currently suspended, but Pearl may have no choice but to let him back onto the team. When he does return, Patterson will provide explosive quickness in the paint, and a real presence on the glass. Starting center Major Wingate (5.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg) has the body, but hasn’t shown the mentality up to the point. This could be a situation where Pearl pushes Wingate to excellence, or drives him out of the program. Freshmen Ryan Childress and Damion Harris are both around, though Harris is likely far from being ready to contribute. Childress was one of Pearl’s recruits at UW-Milwaukee.

Bruce Pearl has already reinvigorated the Volunteer fanbase, and now must begin the long task of achieving results on the court. While the roster certainly has more talent than Dennis Felton was left with at Georgia, Tennessee fans also must be prepared for the fact that much of it comes from soon to be gone seniors. No matter how well Pearl recruits in years one and two, this is a long-term rebuilding project. As long as Pearl can successfully imprint his tough and aggressive personality on the young players in the program, any success when it comes to wins and losses would be an extra bonus.

Recruiting Update: Pearl is making his mark as a talent grabber as well. He has three top 100 prospects committed for 2006, and has battled some very established programs right down to the wire for a couple of others. Undersized PF Duke Crew is the prize, as he plays a blue collar style with athleticism that is anything but. Add in big man Wayne Chism, and Pearl’s frontcourt clearly isn’t going to be undermanned for long. With the graduation of PG CJ Watson looming, Pearl nabbed Marques Johnson, a combo guard out of Indiana. Junior college wing Anthony Passley is already on board and practicing with the team. It seems that Pearl wants to add another wing, with Andre McFarland, Josh Tabb, and Will Harris being possibilities.

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