Lovell’s Notebook: Anticipation building for SEC basketball’s breakthrough season

In Features by Blake Lovell

After receiving a lot of positive feedback on the lengthy SEC notebook column from late May, I decided it was time to release another one.

This time around, there are thoughts on overseas trips, under-the-radar players on each team, the changing perception of SEC basketball, and a lot more.

Settle in and prepare for another journey into the world of SEC hoops.

Have basketball, will travel

Coaches love foreign trips. And it’s easy to understand why when you think of all the potential benefits.

Players find chemistry both on and off the court. Coaches find a good starting point for their in-season rotations. Freshmen have a chance to face their first non-teammate competition since arriving on campus.

When all goes according to plan, the benefits are endless.

Just ask Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew, who will lead the Commodores into the U.S. Virgin Islands on August 12 to play four games.

“I took this trip a couple years ago, and it was a great growing period,” Drew said on the SEC coaches teleconference this summer. “Basketball aside, you just grow closer as a team.”

Or Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, who has taken a foreign trip with his team every four years since he started coaching in 1978:

“You get to share that experience together, and you get closer off the floor,” Pearl said on one of our June episodes of Marching to Madness. “I’ve always had better years, sometimes great years, in seasons after we’ve gone on a foreign trip.”

These trips are never about wins and losses. It’s all about growing as a team and seeing how players respond to certain situations on the court.

That’s especially important for teams that add freshmen and transfers to the mix that are still adjusting to new teammates and styles of play.

That could especially be the case for a team like Alabama, who adds a loaded freshman group headlined by Collin Sexton, as well as Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens.

“We feel that we’re gonna have a lot of versatility and flexiblity,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said this summer. “And we want that to carry over into our games in Canada.

“Just being able to look at different lineups and different rotations, we’ll be able to have three games worth of information on video that we can evaluate going into the fall.”

So, while there’s no guarantee that any of the SEC teams taking foreign trips this summer will instantly become Top 25-type teams when the season begins in November, these trips should still prove invaluable given all the positive benefits for coaches and players.

Here’s the SEC’s full foreign trip lineup:

Meet J.J. Caldwell

There are a lot of things that we know about the Texas A&M Aggies heading into the 2017-18 season.

We know Robert Williams can be a top five pick in next year’s NBA draft. We know Tyler Davis is an all-SEC talent in the paint. We know Admon Gilder can be one of the top scorers in the conference. We know that D.J Hogg has all-SEC talent.

But what we don’t know about the Aggies may be the most important aspect: point guard play.

Texas A&M’s season didn’t exactly play out as expected last year. After being projected to finish in the top three in the SEC, the Aggies went 16-15 and settled for 10th place, largely due to their inability to take care of the ball.

Billy Kennedy’s squad finished last in the league in turnover margin (-2.5) and 277th nationally in committing 14.2 turnovers per game. The height of those issues came in early January when Texas A&M turned it over 25 times in back-to-back games against Kentucky and South Carolina.

However, those problems should be alleviated this year with the addition of J.J. Caldwell, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA prior to the start of last season.

The 5-11 Houston product ranked 89th in the ESPN Top 100 in the 2016 recruiting class and may be exactly what Kennedy and company are looking for at the most important spot on the court. Caldwell has great court vision, and his outstanding passing skills will immediately allow Texas A&M to get the ball where it needs to go on offense.

So, while Kennedy understands that he’s still a freshman, there are certainly high expectations for what he could bring to the table this season:

“We’re just gonna have to be patient with him,” Kennedy told us on a recent episode of Marching to Madness. “The good thing is he was able to practice with us last year.”

“He’s a great passer, and he gets really easy baskets. We didn’t get any easy baskets off out of our guard play.”

The lack of a true point guard last season forced Kennedy to move Gilder from shooting guard to point many times throughout the season. With Caldwell on the floor, Gilder and others will be able to thrive in their natural positions.

With playmakers at every other position on the court, getting that same dynamic from Caldwell will go a long way towards making the Aggies an SEC title contender.

“He was our best guard in practice all year in terms of playmaking ability,” Kennedy said. “He’s gonna create offense that we didn’t have last year at the point position.”

Players flying under the radar this offseason

Given the talent depth in the SEC now, it’s easy for some players to fly under the radar heading into the season.

Here’s a look at a player on each team that may be doing that this offseason, but once they step on the court in November, should prove to be an important piece of the puzzle for their program:

Riley Norris (Alabama)

Despite a slight decrease in 3-point shooting percentage from his sophomore season (37.5% to 33.3%), Norris is still one of the best shooters on Alabama’s roster. His leadership and ability to knock down open jumpshots will make him a valuable asset for the Crimson Tide’s flourishing offensive unit.

Dustin Thomas (Arkansas)

Thomas started 27 games last year, including the last 10 games of the season. And while his numbers weren’t earth-shattering (5.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg), his role will certainly increase as the Razorbacks figure out how to replace Moses Kingsley in the frontcourt.

Horace Spencer (Auburn)

It’s easy to look at Bruce Pearl’s talented roster on the Plains and focus solely on the wildly talented sophomore class. However, Spencer’s return from season-ending shoulder surgery will give Auburn another shot-blocking presence in the paint.

Keith Stone (Florida)

Like fellow forward Kevarrius Hayes, Stone will be counted upon to give quality minutes in the frontcourt while John Egbunu continues his battle back from an ACL tear. Hayes might receive more attention initially, but Stone should develop into a reliable option for the Gators.

Turtle Jackson (Georgia)

In case you hadn’t heard, J.J. Frazier is no longer at Georgia. And while that’ll make 13 other coaches around the league very happy, it isn’t exactly exciting news for Mark Fox. However, if Jackson and Tyree Crump can prove to be a consistent duo at point guard, the loss of Frazier may sting a little less.

Wenyen Gabriel (Kentucky)

What makes Kentucky a potential top five team isn’t just the talented freshman class. Instead, it’s the return of players like Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones. As for Gabriel, he’s completely transformed his body and will give the Wildcats yet another long, athletic weapon on the floor this season.

Jeremy Combs (LSU)

The North Texas transfer will give Will Wade an inside scoring threat, as well a solid rebounder and defender. Although Combs only played in 14 games last year due to injury, his upside is obvious in a completely revamped playing style and system in Baton Rouge.

Abdul Ado (Mississippi State)

In a frontcourt seeking consistency, Ado could be the missing piece for Howland and the Bulldogs. The 6-11 center has already drawn high praise in offseason workouts and could propel Mississippi State up the SEC ladder.

Kassius Robertson (Missouri)

Reliable shooting was a problem for the Tigers last season, and in addition to the stellar group of freshmen, Missouri adds a dangerous 3-point shooting threat in Robertson. The Canisius transfer hit nearly 100 3-pointers last year in shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc.

Breein Tyree (Ole Miss)

The Rebels could make the case for having the deepest backcourt in the SEC, and the 6-2 sophomore should take an even bigger leap forward than he did a season ago. Tyree started 23 games last year at point guard and hit double-figures in scoring in seven of the team’s last nine games.

Hassani Gravett (South Carolina)

Gravett’s minutes were up and down during the ’16-17 campaign, but there is plenty of opportunity in the South Carolina backcourt after the exits of P.J. Dozier, Duane Notice, and Justin McKie. Frank Martin told me this summer that he thinks Gravett will benefit a great deal from playing key minutes during the Gamecocks’ Final Four run.

Jordan Bone (Tennessee)

Bone’s overall development will go a long way towards determining the type of season the Vols have this year. Rick Barnes has options in the backcourt, and Bone will be one of them after two 20-plus point outings and 19.6 minute per game average during his freshman year.

Tonny Trocha-Morelos (Texas A&M)

Depth is what the Aggies will need to challenge for an SEC crown, and that’s exactly what the 6-10 senior gives them after playing nearly 27 minutes per game last season. So, while all the attention may be on the big men in front of him, don’t forget about the highly-reliable Trocha-Morelos.

Clevon Brown (Vanderbilt)

Like Gabriel, Brown’s biggest improvement comes via the weight room. He’s added size and strength to his frame after showing flashes of potential during his freshman season in Nashville, and he could be relied upon to fill the void left by do-it-all big man Luke Kornet.

Five intriguing questions

1. Will Jontay Porter reclassify?

This is the question that every Missouri fan wants an answer to, and it should come soon enough. If Porter does make it official and join the 2017 freshman class (which seems to be the most likely scenario at this point), the Tigers will have five players on the roster listed at 6-10 or taller.

2. Could an impact transfer be on his way to the other Columbia?

Southern Utah transfer Randy Onwuasor will reportedly visit South Carolina on August 4th. While he wouldn’t make anyone forget about Sindarius Thornwell’s contributions, Onwuasor would certainly play a major role after averaging 23.6 points per game last season.

3. Will Austin Wiley’s summer dominance carry over into the season?

Few SEC players have garnered more attention this offseason than the Auburn big man. His strength and physicality have improved a great deal, and despite suffering a stress fracture in his leg that’ll keep him sidelined during the Tigers’ Italy trip, there’s no longer any doubt about how dominant he could be in his first full season.

4. Are we forgetting how good Alabama’s recruiting class is beyond Collin Sexton?

Sure, Sexton is going to be an absolute game-changer that gives Alabama’s offense a significant boost. But let’s not forget about the rest of this Top 10 class, which includes a high-level offensive and defensive talent in John Petty and a promising power forward in Alex Reese. Shooting guard Herb Jones and big man Galin Smith also have the potential to thrive in Alabama’s system.

5. Is Dominik Olejniczak the answer inside for Ole Miss?

Replacing Sebastian Saiz is going to be a challenge for Andy Kennedy and company, but the 7-foot Drake transfer certainly has the size to disrupt opposing offenses. The Rebels have one of the deepest backcourts in the SEC, and this team’s ceiling will be determined by Olejniczak’s impact in the middle.

Raising the bar

I’ve talked plenty this summer about the state of coaching in SEC basketball.

With the additions of Will Wade at LSU and Cuonzo Martin at Missouri this offseason, the league’s coaching roster is dynamic as it has ever been.

And the numbers in certain areas speak for themselves.

Let’s start with wins. Of the SEC’s 14 coaches, 10 have averaged 20 or more wins in their last three seasons on the sidelines (current/former jobs):

  • John Calipari – 32 (Kentucky)
  • Bryce Drew – 26 (two at Valpo, one at Vanderbilt)
  • Mike White – 25 (two at Florida, one at LA Tech)
  • Will Wade – 24 (two at VCU, one at Chattanooga)
  • Frank Martin – 23 (South Carolina)
  • Mike Anderson – 23 (Arkansas)
  • Billy Kennedy – 22 (Texas A&M)
  • Andy Kennedy – 21 (Ole Miss)
  • Cuonzo Martin – 21 (Cal)
  • Mark Fox – 20 (Georgia)

Here are the ones that haven’t:

  • Ben Howland – 18 (MSU averaged 12 wins per season in three years prior)
  • Rick Barnes – 17 (led Texas to 16 NCAAT appearances in 17 seasons)
  • Bruce Pearl – 15 (Auburn averaged 12 wins per season in four years prior, led team to second highest win total since 2003 this past season)
  • Avery Johnson (N/A, only third season as a college coach)

Most important thing to remember about that Howland/Barnes/Pearl trio? Pearl reached the Elite Eight at Tennessee, Barnes made a Final Four at Texas, and Howland made three Final Fours and had a national title game appearance at UCLA.

So, it’s not like those three don’t know how to coach. They do.

But rebuilding jobs take time, even when you’re a coach that’s experienced major success throughout your career.

The good news is that those three programs are now on the upswing. But make no mistake about it, we have reached a point in SEC basketball where there is little room for error. The influx of coaching talent has made it impossible to slack off even the slightest bit.

And in no area is that more clear than in recruiting.

According to ESPN’s rankings for the 2017 class, 25 Top 100 players have committed to SEC schools. I’m not a math wizard, but I’m pretty sure that’s a quarter of the top 100 high school players in the country coming to one specific conference.

For even an better idea of the current roster of talent in the conference, let’s take it a step further. In the 2016 ESPN Top 100, the SEC landed 18 players, with 12 of those players returning this season:

  • Wenyen Gabriel (Kentucky)
  • Mustapha Heron (Auburn)
  • Sacha Killeya-Jones (Kentucky)
  • Austin Wiley (Auburn)
  • Schnider Herard (Mississippi State)
  • Braxton Key (Alabama)
  • Robert Williams (Texas A&M)
  • JJ Caldwell (Texas A&M)
  • Tyree Crump (Georgia)
  • Abdul Ado (Mississippi State)
  • Eli Wright (Mississippi State)
  • Jared Harper (Auburn)

In 2015, the SEC landed a whopping 20 Top 100 recruits, with 10 returning this season:

  • D.J. Hogg (Texas A&M)
  • Tyler Davis (Texas A&M)
  • Brandon Sampson (LSU)
  • KeVaughn Allen (Florida)
  • Horace Spencer (Auburn)
  • Danjel Purifoy (Auburn)
  • Admon Gilder (Texas A&M)
  • Kevarrius Hayes (Florida)
  • Keith Stone (Florida)
  • Donta Hall (Alabama)

When you combine the 25 Top 100 recruits for 2017 class with the 22 combined ones from the 2015 and 2016 classes, that’s a lot of talent on display this upcoming season.

“This is the best talent the league has had since I’ve been here,” Billy Kennedy told us on the aforementioned podcast. “There’s not a bad team, and everybody has guys that can impact and help them win.”

And what happens when you have a league without a truly bad team?

“You can get to the top of our league, and you might be able to pick a couple of teams and place them at the top,” Pearl echoed. “But you get past two or three teams, and the difference between the fourth team and the 14th place team is not much.”

Once again, it just shows how the SEC’s coaching roster has evolved to the point to where this type of talent depth is possible.

And the mixture of proven veterans and rising stars on the sidelines will only make things even more competitive from here.

Changing the perception

The 2017 NCAA Tournament did a good job convincing some people that SEC basketball is here to stay.

Landing three teams in the Elite Eight was largely unexpected, but for those that watched the conference all season long, it wasn’t unthinkable.

Of course, not everyone was sold. There are still media members that believe the SEC is a step below all the other power conferences, and those pundits are unlikely to change their minds leading up to the start of the season in November.

However, there is evidence that others are finally coming around on SEC hoops.

In ESPN’s summer BPI (Basketball Power Index), 10 SEC teams landed in the Top 50. Seven teams – Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss – ranked in the Top 35.

In Jerry Palm’s early bracketology over at CBSSports.com, he has seven SEC teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament:

  • No. 1 Kentucky
  • No. 3 Florida
  • No. 7 Alabama
  • No. 8 Texas A&M
  • No. 9 Missouri
  • No. 10 Arkansas
  • No. 12 Vanderbilt

But national coverage is only a small piece of the puzzle. What’s more important is local media coverage, and we’re already seeing plenty of publications catch SEC basketball fever in July.

Yes, in July. You know, when the entire SEC world typically revolves around football.

However, as shown by the tweet below, there is a buzz surrounding SEC hoops right now that hasn’t been there in some time:

Even in a conference where football remains king, basketball fans still want a consistent flow of information both during the season and in the offseason. That’s why it’s great to see more and more coverage at both the local and national levels.

I built this website last year with the sole purpose of adding another layer to that coverage.

What started as basic news and game coverage has now evolved into doing massive columns like this one while also recording daily SEC basketball podcasts.

Most people thought I was crazy for even attempting an SEC basketball podcast. You can imagine what they thought when they found out I was attempting to do an SEC basketball podcast daily (who would ever listen to that?).

But guess what? People actually listen. And it’s more than just my mom and little Barrie, my 20-week-old puppy.

So, forget all the lies you’ve been told about SEC hoops being an inferior product.

The breakthrough is real, and it’s spectacular.

And in three months, it’ll be impossible for the college basketball world to ignore it.

Want more SEC basketball discussion? Follow me on Twitter (@theblakelovell) and subscribe to the Southeast Hoops podcast for daily SEC basketball talk.

Blake Lovell is the founder of Southeast Hoops. He’s also hosts the Marching to Madness (national college basketball) and Southeast Hoops (SEC basketball) podcasts, which include interviews with coaches around the country.. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Athlon Sports, Rivals, FanRag Sports, and many more.